In the first three lessons of this quarter, we looked at how 1 Chronicles 15-17 presents kingship and the temple in ancient Israel. Now we turn to a story that seems to stand in contrast with David and Solomon. Then, we look in 1 Chronicles 17 at a fascinating prayer from David that we may compare with Luke 1.
Mary is told that she will give birth to a son who will be given “the throne of his ancestor David” (Luke 1:32, see also 3:31). Her beautiful response (1:46-55) makes the most sense when we read it in the context of the expectations of many in her community. They hoped for a new king like David, whom they held up as their ideal so much that the terms they used — “Son of God,” “Messiah,” “Christ” — all evoked David and his kingship.
However, the actual content of Mary’s confession points away from David and Solomon in many ways. While David (but not Solomon) did show a flash of humility at times, basically his life (and even more, Solomon’s) were lives of “great ones” who sought power and fame. David established a dynasty that empowered the kings who followed even more nakedly to pursue wealth and self-advancement.
In contrast, Mary praises God for bringing from her an entirely new kind of king. This new king will present a God who has “scattered the proud in the thoughts of their heart, . . . brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly” (Luke 1:51-52).
And, we should note, Mary’s son, Jesus, did become known as “king,” “Christ” and “Messiah” (all synonymous terms). Thus, he fulfilled hopes for a true descendant of David’s. As Mary anticipates, though, Jesus rewrote the meaning of those terms: a king known by consistent humility; a Christ known by empowering others rather than exercising power over others; a Messiah who loved and brought salvation to his enemies rather than waging war on them.
Mary’s song, the “Magnificat,” points to a transformation of politics in the biblical story. As we saw in Chronicles, the old politics were centered on a human king, mighty and wealthy. The king wins battles with the people’s enemies and builds huge, expensive temples that centralize the community’s power in the king’s hands. The promise, then, to God’s people is centered on the establishment and sustenance through violence of a territorial kingdom. That kingdom fell, and the temple was destroyed.
In Mary’s day, many hoped for a new king who would recreate a territorial, violence-based kingdom (which would include driving the Roman Empire out). Her words proclaiming a fulfillment to the hopes, though, point to a different kind of kingdom — the kingdom Jesus embodies, a kingdom of love.
The prayer of David presented in 1 Chron. 17:16-27 enables us to compare and contrast these two kings. How are Mary’s words similar to David’s? And how different?
Like Mary, David expresses a sense of his own unworthiness and his gratitude to God for God’s work in his life. We may see a contrast, though, in how those who are on God’s side are described and those who are seen as God’s opponents.
There is ambiguity in David’s use of the term “house.” Most directly, he has in mind his dynasty, the kings who will follow him. The term “house” is also used of the temple that Solomon will build as the centerpiece in the community’s religious life. (Note, though, that according to 1 Kings 7, the temple is built after Solomon’s palace).
In any case, for Mary, those on God’s side are the “lowly” and the “hungry.” Those who are brought down are the “proud,” the “powerful from their thrones” and the “rich.”
Ted Grimsrud is senior professor of peace theology at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va.