Thursday, February 21, 2019

Does Jesus Fulfill God's Promise About David's "House?"

Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.
According to 2 Samuel 7:16, David will always have a descendant on the throne of Israel. This promise appears to be unconditional. Indeed, many interpreters look at passages like the one made directly to David as being fulfilled in Jesus. Well, yes and no.

One big problem with the view that God's promise to David is unbreakable is the fact that, between Zerubbabel (not really a king) and Jesus, there was a really long dry spell of no Davidic kings. Half a millennium!

Interpreters can cite references that look back to God's promise to David and seem to anticipate Jesus (Isaiah 9:7; 11:2). We can take note of Matthew's detail of Jesus' ancestry as Matthew traces it through David and the kings of Judah (Matthew 1:1, 6-12). We can recognize that Jesus is identified as the son of David in the gospels (Luke 1:32-33 and many references of Jesus as "son of David" by people he encountered in the gospels).

We run into some trouble when we read passages like Jeremiah 33:19-26.
19 The word of the LORD came to Jeremiah: 20 Thus says the LORD: If any of you could break my covenant with the day and my covenant with the night, so that day and night would not come at their appointed time, 21 only then could my covenant with my servant David be broken, so that he would not have a son to reign on his throne, and my covenant with my ministers the Levites. 22 Just as the host of heaven cannot be numbered and the sands of the sea cannot be measured, so I will increase the offspring of my servant David, and the Levites who minister to me.
23 The word of the LORD came to Jeremiah: 24 Have you not observed how these people say, “The two families that the Lord chose have been rejected by him,” and how they hold my people in such contempt that they no longer regard them as a nation? 25 Thus says the LORD: Only if I had not established my covenant with day and night and the ordinances of heaven and earth, 26 would I reject the offspring of Jacob and of my servant David and not choose any of his descendants as rulers over the offspring of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. For I will restore their fortunes, and will have mercy upon them.
According to these two oracles, God's promise to David that he will always have a descendant on the throne of Israel is as unbreakable as God's covenant with day and night. But this passage refers to God's promise to David's family in the same breath as God's promise to Levi's family. In other words, the perpetuation of the throne of David and the perpetuation of the levitical priesthood are equally certain. But we know that the levitical priesthood was put to rest by Jesus (being a priest according to the order of Melchizedek, Hebrews 5:5-6; 7:11-12, 17). Jeremiah's oracles in this place look like another unfulfilled prophecy since there is no way to explain how the promise was fulfilled for the Levites!

The problem, the way I see it, is that we are not understanding God's covenantal promises correctly. Even when they appear to be unconditional, they really are conditional. God's promises can be resisted. Consider this passage, also in the book of Jeremiah, that warns that God's promise to David is in jeopardy of failing because of the people's sinfulness.

Jeremiah 11:4-5
For if you will indeed obey this word, then through the gates of this house shall enter kings who sit on the throne of David, riding in chariots and on horses, they and their servants, and their people. But if you will not heed these words, I swear by myself, says the LORD, that this house shall become a desolation.
Even David understood God's promise to be conditional.

1 Kings 2:1-4
When David’s time to die drew near, he charged his son Solomon, saying: “I am about to go the way of all the earth. Be strong, be courageous, and keep the charge of the LORD your God, walking in his ways and keeping his statutes, his commandments, his ordinances, and his testimonies, as it is written in the law of Moses, so that you may prosper in all that you do and wherever you turn. Then the LORD will establish his word that he spoke concerning me: ‘If your heirs take heed to their way, to walk before me in faithfulness with all their heart and with all their soul, there shall not fail you a successor on the throne of Israel.’
In the case of the citizens of Jerusalem in the days of Jeremiah, the idea was that, while God's promise to David seemed unbreakable, the people could push back with their ungodly ways and deny fulfillment of God's promise. In fact, they had to push back really hard; but when the Babylonians came to town, it was over.

The New Testament church was constantly on the lookout for ways that Jesus fulfilled God's promises. Those connections identified Jesus as the Messiah of God. Nevertheless, many of those connections link back to promises that were unfulfilled in their original intentions. (I do not mean to imply that the church misused Scripture. Their reading was valid for their day). In the case of the perpetuation of the levitical priesthood, it just flat never happened.


A fascinating oracle that relates to this discussion appears in Isaiah 24. In that oracle, the prophet identifies another seemingly unbreakable promise, the rainbow promise (Genesis 9:16) to be conditional.

Isaiah 24:5, 18
The earth lies polluted
    under its inhabitants;
for they have transgressed laws,
    violated the statutes,
    broken the everlasting covenant.
Whoever flees at the sound of the terror
    shall fall into the pit;
and whoever climbs out of the pit
    shall be caught in the snare.
For the windows of heaven are opened,
    and the foundations of the earth tremble.

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