MESSIANIC HOPES IN THE OLD TESTAMENT: THE IMPACT OF
NATHAN’S PROPHECY ON DYNASTIC MESSIANISM (2 SAM 7: 1-17)
Charles Okeke, Ph.D.
Sometimes it is claimed that the people of Israel right from the beginning of their history expected the messiah, that is, they had futuristic hopes of the messiah who will inaugurate eschatology. Others do not hold the same view. They rather claimed that the community began to entertain these messianic hopes, that is, hopes that had futuristic orientation, expecting a messiah that would come in the future and inaugurate eschatology, only when the community of Israel became disenchanted with the monarchy. They began to talk about the coming of the one who would inaugurate the eschatological era (Amos 9:11). With the inauguration of Davidic kingdom, the hopes of the community of the people of Israel were pinned not simply on the kingship but on Davidic kingship, that is, on his dynasty. That is the stage of “Davidic dynasty”. This paper sought to discuss the role which David’s dynasty played in the messianic hopes of the Israelite community as presented by the Yahwist, and the Yahwist’s dependence on Nathan’s prophecy. In discussing this, the paper looked at the concept of the king and messiah in Old Testament; Royal Messianism: Davidic dynasty with reference to Nathan’s prophecy in 2 Sam 7:1-17 as well as the exegesis of the text; kingship of David: his political and religious achievements at the period of his reign; finally, Davidic dynasty in rapport with the Yahwist theology of history.
The Concept of the King and Messiah in Old Testament
Etymologically, the Hebrew word Meshiah (anointed) is a designation of the king of Israel and the priest. The word, in Greek, means Christos; whereas in English, it means Christ. The term Messiah in Old Testament is not used as a title in the sense we are using it today. In Old Testament, it is applied to the king. The king was messiah because he was physically anointed. His office was looked upon as a sacred office. He was expected to fulfill the promise of salvation which according to tradition God had made to his people. For this reason, the hopes of the people were proved to be placed not on someone who belongs to the future, but on someone who belongs to the contemporary era.
The prophets themselves looked upon the kingship as a means of divine blessing (Hosea 10:15, 13: 9-11). In these texts, the prophet threatens the people with punishment. He says that God has deprived them of the king. So, as far as the king is concerned, kingship is a means of divine blessing. God takes care of his people through the king. If the prophet was not looking upon the kingship in this term, he would not have described the punishment in terms of depriving the people of kingship.
The king, therefore, was looked upon as holding an office through which God conveys his blessings on his people. That is why the king was expected to realize the promise of salvation which according to tradition God had made to his people.
Davidic Messianism: Nathan’s Prophecy and Exegesis of 2 Sam 2:1-17.
The first literary record of the messianic character of the Davidic dynasty is found in the prophecy of Nathan in 2Sam 7:1-17.
Once the king had settled into his palace and Yahweh had granted him rest1, from all the enemies surrounding him, the king said to the prophet Nathan2, Look I am living in a cedar-wood place, while the ark of God is under awnings; ‘Nathan said to the king, ‘Go and do whatever you have in mind3’ for Yahweh is with you’. But that very night, the word of Yahweh came to Nathan4: ‘Go and tell my servant David, “Yahweh says this: are you to build me a temple5 for me to live in? I have never lived in a house from the day when I brought6 the Israelites out of Egypt until today, but have kept traveling with a tent for shelter. In all my travels with all the Israelites, did I say to any of the judges of Israel7’ whom I had commanded to shepherd my people Israel: why do you not build me a cedar-wood temple?” This is what you must say to my servant David8, “Yahweh Sabaoth says this: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep, to be leader of my people Israel; I have been with you wherever you went; I have9, got rid of all your enemies for you. I am going to make your fame as great as the fame of the greatest on earth, I am going to provide a place for my people Israel10, I shall plant them there, and there they will live and never be disturbed again; nor will they be oppressed by the wicked any more, as they were in former times. Ever11 since the time when I instituted judges to govern my people Israel; and I shall grant you rest from all your enemies. Yahweh furthermore tells you that he will make you a dynasty. And when your days are over and you fall asleep with your12 ancestors, I shall appoint your heir, your own son to succeed you and I shall make his sovereignty secure13. He will build a temple for my name and I shall make his royal throne secure forever. I shall be a father to him and he a son to me, if he14 does wrong, I shall punish him with a rod such as men use, with blows such as mankind gives. But my faithful love will never be withdrawn from him as I15 withdrew it from Saul, whom I removed from before you. Your dynasty and your16 sovereignty will ever stand firm before me and your throne be ever secure.” Nathan related all these words and this whole revelation to David.
Exegesis of the Text
Now the basis for which the community pinned their hopes on the dynasty was on divine oracle. That is, on the promise made by Nathan to David. But this promise is preserved in three forms, namely, 2Sam 7:5-16; 1Chron 17:4-14, and the Royal Psalm 89:20-38.
In 2Sam 7, we see that in the first part, the king was already sitting in his palace and Yahweh had granted him rest from all the enemies surrounding him. Now, the concept of rest or peace from enemies is a Deutronomic idea (Dt 12:10, 25:19, and Josh 22:4, 23:1; 1Kg 5:18). In this context, “rest” is security from enemies and peace from wars. In v.11 we see that the dynasty would continue into the future. In vv12-13, the term “heir” has collective connotation. Many scholars assume that v.13 is a later addition by the redactor. It did not belong to the original prophecy in order to refer to Solomon.
In v.16 it was promised to David that his dynasty will last forever. This implies a long and definite period of time. We notice that the Greek as well as the Hebrew concept of eternity implies longevity, that is, a definite period, not definitive. In the same v.16, David was promised a continued existence of present order which is linked to the erection of a fixed and permanent place for the worship of Yahweh. And that is why there is no eschatology in the oracle, because eschatology in the technical sense implies the end of the present order and inauguration of the last stage in the realization of God’s plan of salvation.
In Ps 89:20-38, for instance, the following elements may be distinguished: the election of David by Yahweh; promise of victory and wide dominion; adoption of David and his successors as sons; covenant of Yahweh with David and his house; promise of an eternal dynasty – not conditioned on the fidelity of the successors of David to Yahweh. This oracle is also echoed in 2Sam 23:1-7, Ps 132:11-18. The oracle does not speak of any individual successor, nor does it look into the eschatological future. It is a simple assurance that the dynast will endure as the chosen human agent of the salvation, which Yahweh wrought in history. Even in Ps 89:30, the oracle talks about his descendant. Note that the salvation to be accomplished by David and his house does not go beyond political salvation to be envisaged by the king (Brown, 197).
However, Nathan’s prophecy has without doubt played an important role in shaping the Old Testament theology. For instance, in the book of Immanuel: Isaiah 6-9, the Davidic monarchy appears as a savior in more grandiose terms than in the royal Psalms. The birth of an heir to the throne (Is 7:10) is a pledge that Yahweh is with the kingdom; and the king is saluted in Is 9:1-6 as the agent of Yahweh’s victories who will inaugurate a kingdom of justice and righteousness. His superhuman qualities are seen in the four titles: Wonder-Counselor, Mighty-God, Eternal-Father, Prince of Peace (Is 9:5). A similar passage is seen in 11:1-9. Here the king receives the spirit which fills him with the six virtues of the ruler: Wisdom and Insight; Counsel and Power; Knowledge and Fear of God (.2), although these texts do not express messianic hope in a strict sense.
In Micah 5:1-5, a contemporary of Isaiah, expression was made of a new David coming from Bethlehem, as restoration of the unity of Israel and Judah, under the new David. So it is clear that the text refers to a king of the Davidic line, who will save his people (Mckenzie, 1965). In exilic and post-exilic prophets such as Jeremiah 23:5ff; Ezekiel 34:23, 37:24ff, there appears the conception of the messiah as a ‘returning David’. This signifies the restoration of the fallen dynasty and kingdom through a king who will exhibit the traits of the ideal king, which David was thought to have been (Mckenzie, 1965).
David Kingship: His Political and Religious Achievements
David, the youngest son of Jesse began his career as an aide at the court of Saul, Israel’s king, and became a close friend of Saul’s son, Jonathan, and the husband of Saul’s daughter, Michal (1Sam 18”27). Born in Bethlehem, he became second of the Israelite king (after Saul), reigning from c.1000 to c. 962 B.C, he established a united kingdom over all Israel, with Jerusalem as its capital. In Jewish tradition he became the ideal king, the founder of an enduring dynasty, around whose figure and reign clustered messianic expectations of the people of Israel. Since he was a symbol of fulfillment in the future, the New Testament writers emphasized that Jesus was of his lineage (Heb 1:5). As the king of Israel, David succeeded where King Saul had failed and attained a unique place in Israel’s history and tradition. 2Sam 9-20 and 1Kg 11-22 provide the primary source for knowledge of his reign and of the succession.
For centuries before David’s rise to kingship, Israelite had been together in loose confederacies. The northern confederacy, with its centre at Shechem, was dominated by the tribe of Ephraim (Mckenzie, 1965). David had to face the problem of winning consent for and establishing the legitimacy of his office, for it was an important novelty in the social structures and tradition of Israel, on the model of Ancient Near Eastern kingship.
David’s position in the tribal units that made up Judah was secure, for he had united them and had risen to authority over Judah through adroit use of the indigenous social and political instruments of its clan structures, therefore, Judah accepted his legitimacy and never disowned his dynasty. He sought to win the consent of all Israel, first, by the decisively successful war against the Philistines, which made the whole land secure and then by establishing the city of Jerusalem as the centre both of Israel’s political power and of its worship.
In making Jerusalem his capital and transferring the Ark of the Covenant there, he was proclaiming unity. The covenant established the idea of unity and David made it a reality. That was the most important achievement in his forty years as king of Israel (1kg 12:16). On the political level, this effort was not enough, for the kingdom was divided after the death of Solomon, but on the religious and cultic level it did eventually succeed, for Jerusalem became the holy city for all Jews, and the messiah “the anointed one” of the house of David, a sign of the relationship between God of Israel and his people.
In 2Sam 8:1-14, we are given a brief résumé of David’s successes in foreign policy. After the victory over Philistine, v. 1, he subjugated the neigbhouring states of Moab v. 2, Ammon 10:1-11, 12:26-31 and Edom vv 13ff in Transjordan and extended his power northwards by subjugating the Aramea states of Zobah vv. 3ff, and Damascus vv 5ff, and accepting tribute from the king of Hamath vv. 9ff. Thus his power extended from the River Euphrates to the frontier of Egypt (1Kg 5:1), and thus comprised a greater empire than ever existed in this area beforehand or afterwards (Rendtorff, 1985). Afterwards, the Canaanites and Philistines who presumably accepted David’s God as well as the Edomites, etc, were brought into alliance in marriage.
On religious tradition of Israel, David played a very decisive role in reforming the religious worship of the Israelite community. His house became a primary symbol of the bond between God and the nation; the king was the mediator between the deity and his people. As sated earlier, at one time in their history, the community of Israel became disenchanted in the monarchy; they began to wait for a messiah, a new mediator of the power of God that would redeem the people and its land. By designating Jesus as the son of David, Christianity dramatized its conviction that this hope had been fulfilled. David lived in the memory of his people in a double way: as the great founder of their political power and as the symbol of a central facet of their religious faith.
From 2Sam 5-8, we see how David achieved this status for himself, his house and his city. When he took Jerusalem, he assumed the rule over its inhabitants and their institutions with the cult centred on Mt. Zion. The previous (Jebusite) ruler had been both king and high priest, and played the role of mediator between the city and its deity. There was no precedent for such a mediative and priestly role of kings in Israelite religion or of walled cities as the seat of government and worship. Apparently, David took over the Jebusite cult on Zion and adapted it to his own and Israelite use (2Sam 5:6-12). So beginning with David and throughout the entire period of monarchy, Israel’s worship on Zion gave a central place to the king, not simply as officiant but substantively, as the figure, who in his office and person embodied the relationship between God and the nation (Gwinn, 1985).
Israel’s God was named Yahweh. David made this name the supreme name for deity in Jerusalem, to indicate his conquest of the city. All former names and titles became attributes or titles of Yahweh, the God of Israel, the conqueror, for instance, ‘El Elyon’ (God Most High). While the Israelite name for God displaced all others, the substance of the worship remained similar: Yahweh had created the world and ruled the nations; he had established kingship as the sign and means of his universal rule; and Zion was the seat of his chosen king, David, his anointed. Yahweh himself was enthroned on Zion, and his king sits at his right hand as his regent (Gwinn, 1985).
Having adopted the ancient cult of Jerusalem as a means of giving sacral significance to his royal status and having renamed it the cult of Yahweh, by whose power he had conquered, David also made an important move to make the new shrine and its worship relate to the pre-monarchic experience of Israel. He brought the ark to Jerusalem and established it as the central object of the cult (2Sam 6). According to tradition, the ark had traveled with Israel in the wilderness and led the way into the land (Ex. 26:33, 40:21; Nb 9:15, 17:22, 18:2; Dt 10:1-5; Josh 7:6) (Gwinn, 1985). The ark was carried into battle to demonstrate that Yahweh fought for Israel. So close was the connection that it could be addressed as Yahweh (1Sam 4:22; Nb 10:35) (De Vaux, 1988). It was carried in the wilderness to show he traveled with his people. It was carried in procession in the pilgrimages that were features of the annual feasts. The ark was a sign and even the embodiment of Yahweh’s presence.
David’s adaptation of the Zion cult, with its understanding of kingship as the substance and means of the presence of God on earth, was to have momentous consequences for the religious history of mankind. Because of it Jerusalem became the holy city and David became the prototype of an awaited messiah. As symbol of the messiah, the return of David, or the coming of David’s ‘son’ stood for the reassertion of the divine rule and presence in history: to judge, to redeem, to renew. David thus became the symbol of a fulfillment in the future final peace (Gwinn, 1985).
Davidic Dynasty: The Yahwist’s Theology of History.
From the point of view of the Yahwist, owing to the promise made by Nathan to David, we shall see the role which David’s dynasty played in giving rest to the community of God, the Israelite.
The role of the Yahwist’s theology of history was apparent in the Davidic messianism. According to the Yahwist, when God called Abraham, he was called precisely so that he would be a mediator of universal blessing. The content of the promise is that God will make him a great nation, bless him, make his name great, and make his name a blessing. His descendants then will be the mediators of a universal blessing (Gen 12:1-3, 18-19, 22:15-18, 2:4, 28:14; Nb 24:9). So, God made him promise of blessings. It is not the occupation of the land but the promise that the people would be the mediator of a blessing to the nations. According to the Yahwist, the rest of the history of Israel is meant to reach this promise. And this promise was brought about in the history of Israel by David.
The Yahwist looked upon David as a channel of divine blessing not only for Israel but also for the nations that were subjected to him. It seems that the Yahwist depended on the promise made by Nathan to David because relying on this prophecy, the Yahwist felt the other nations that were subjected to David were on a par with Israel. That is, if Israel was to derive a divine blessing through the Davidic dynasty the other nations that had been conquered should also enjoy the blessing through Israel. This is what the Yahwist meant when he said that Abraham would become the mediator of a blessing to the nations.
The books of Amos 9:11-12; Ps 72:17 suggest that other nations were on a par with Israel, in fact consecrated to Yahweh as Israel. In Gen 13, we see Lot and Abraham separated. Lot chose all the Jordan plain (Moab and Amon), Abraham chose Canaan. After they had parted company, God promised to give Abraham and his descendants all the land within sight forever (Gen 13:14-15). This promise was realized at the time of David. It was David that conquered the Assyrians for the community of Israel. In the blessing given to Esau and Jacob by their father Isaac (Gen 27:27-29, 38-40), also before their birth (Gen 25:23), there was a promise that the elder shall serve the younger. Esau therefore represents the Edomites (Gen 25:30). And Edomites were defeated at the time of David (2Sam 8:13). In the blessing of Jacob on Judah in Gen 49, it was said that Judah will gain supremacy over the other tribes of Israel. This supremacy was realized for the first time in the time of David. In Nb 24:15ff, we see the prophecy of Balaam. The text refers to David; hence he was the only king that defeated the nations mentioned in the text.
So, based on these facts, the Yahwist narrates that God chose Abraham for the realization of the order which was accomplished by David. Because of this, therefore, once Prophet Nathan conveyed the prophecy, the community began to pin their hopes on David and his successors as one who will realize the promises of blessing, which according to tradition God made to his people. Now there is an ideology in this prophecy. God said to David through the prophet:
When your days are over, and you fall asleep with your ancestors, I shall appoint your heir, your own son to succeed you…I shall be a father to him and he a son to me; if he does wrong, I shall punish him with a rod such as men use, with blows such as mankind gives. But my faithful love will never be withdrawn from him as I withdrew it from Saul (2Sam 7: 12-15).
This ideology implies that even if individual kings, that is, successors of David misbehave, God will punish them, but the promise made to David will continue. God will not withdraw his promise, hence it is everlasting promise. After the fall of the monarchy, when the community of Israel became disenchanted with the monarchy, the people still pinned their hopes on the dynasty for the realization of the promise of salvation. Even in the periods of threat in 735 B.C and 701 B.C, particularly in 735 B.C, during the reign of Ahaz, when the dynasty was under threat from without by Ephraim and Syria, and from within, because the two nations wanted to overthrow Ahaz, the king of Judah, because he failed to join them in anti-coalition against Assyria, Ahaz was childless, he had no heir to succeed him, people still pinned their hopes on the dynasty. At that stage, the prophet Isaiah emerged. He preached the continued existence of the dynasty relying on the prophecy of Nathan. He made it clear that on one hand, the threat of the two nations invading Judah will come to nothing, while on the other hand, dealing with problem from within, he promised the king, Ahaz and his wife a son – Immanuel (Is 7) – God is with us, which means a pledge of salvation. The conception and birth of the child, therefore, are a pledge of salvation.
Nathan’s prophecy depicted David and his successors as channels of God’s blessing to the people of Israel. Through Davidic dynasty the community expected the fulfillment of God’s promises which according to tradition God had made to his people. They, therefore, pinned their hopes on the dynasty. This expectation was very much successful that even when the dynasty lost its political power, Nathan’s prophecy still retained its relevance for future generations. They were confident that Yahweh would fulfill his promises if not in a contemporary figure, such as Zerubbabel, then in a future messianic figure.
Nathan’s prophecy gave hope to Davidic dynasty. This hope was a concrete one hence the dynasty survived up to four hundred years. It was a hope for peace and justice which not only the community of the people of God enjoyed but also other nations subjected to David and his dynasty. They received the blessings through the dynasty (Amos 9:11). The Christian community found the fulfillment of this messianic hope in Jesus Christ, the Son of David (Mt 1:1; Lk 1:32; Heb 1:5). He is the one, Messiah, who has inaugurated the eschatology. He did it once and for all.
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