Kings and priests and spears, oh my
The world’s idea of a king is sitting under a tree with a spear in his hand. At the cross, we see God’s idea of a king hanging on a tree with a spear in his side.
1 Samuel 22:6-23
6 Now Saul heard that David was discovered, and the men who were with him. Saul was sitting at Gibeah under the tamarisk tree on the height with his spear in his hand, and all his servants were standing about him. 7 And Saul said to his servants who stood about him, “Hear now, people of Benjamin; will the son of Jesse give every one of you fields and vineyards, will he make you all commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds, 8 that all of you have conspired against me? No one discloses to me when my son makes a covenant with the son of Jesse. None of you is sorry for me or discloses to me that my son has stirred up my servant against me, to lie in wait, as at this day.” 9 Then answered Doeg the Edomite, who stood by the servants of Saul, “I saw the son of Jesse coming to Nob, to Ahimelech the son of Ahitub, 10 and he inquired of the LORD for him and gave him provisions and gave him the sword of Goliath the Philistine.”
11 Then the king sent to summon Ahimelech the priest, the son of Ahitub, and all his father’s house, the priests who were at Nob, and all of them came to the king. 12 And Saul said, “Hear now, son of Ahitub.” And he answered, “Here I am, my lord.” 13 And Saul said to him, “Why have you conspired against me, you and the son of Jesse, in that you have given him bread and a sword and have inquired of God for him, so that he has risen against me, to lie in wait, as at this day?” 14 Then Ahimelech answered the king, “And who among all your servants is so faithful as David, who is the king’s son-in-law, and captain over your bodyguard, and honored in your house? 15 Is today the first time that I have inquired of God for him? No! Let not the king impute anything to his servant or to all the house of my father, for your servant has known nothing of all this, much or little.” 16 And the king said, “You shall surely die, Ahimelech, you and all your father’s house.” 17 And the king said to the guard who stood about him, “Turn and kill the priests of the LORD, because their hand also is with David, and they knew that he fled and did not disclose it to me.” But the servants of the king would not put out their hand to strike the priests of the LORD. 18 Then the king said to Doeg, “You turn and strike the priests.” And Doeg the Edomite turned and struck down the priests, and he killed on that day eighty-five persons who wore the linen ephod. 19 And Nob, the city of the priests, he put to the sword; both man and woman, child and infant, ox, donkey and sheep, he put to the sword.
20 But one of the sons of Ahimelech the son of Ahitub, named Abiathar, escaped and fled after David. 21 And Abiathar told David that Saul had killed the priests of the LORD. 22 And David said to Abiathar, “I knew on that day, when Doeg the Edomite was there, that he would surely tell Saul. I have occasioned the death of all the persons of your father’s house. 23 Stay with me; do not be afraid, for he who seeks my life seeks your life. With me you shall be in safekeeping.”
During this strange time in the history of Israel, God’s favor has shifted from Saul to David, but the power has yet to shift. With two kingdoms in conflict, the world’s idea of a king is contrasted against God’s idea of a king.
It’s natural to wonder why God leaves this bloodthirsty man on the throne. Why would God let Saul slaughter these priests and hunt the man after God’s own heart?
The answer lies in the counterintuitive way power works in God’s kingdom.
When this scene opens, Saul is holding court under a tree with a spear in his hand like a scepter. This is a king who defends his throne with violence. A king who kills to keep his power.
David would later write about this, “Here is the man who grew strong by destroying others. But I am like an olive tree flourishing in the house of God.” The symbol of Saul’s power is the spear, but the symbol of David’s power is the tree.
As his words reveal, Saul has reached maximum paranoia. He accuses his officers of conspiring against him and suggests that his own son is plotting his assassination. All it takes is for one bad actor, an Edomite named Doeg, to tip Saul over the edge with a half-truth, and the violent king is ready for more blood.
Now the blood of priests would be spilled. On this day, and again a thousand years later, the kingdom of Israel would be the greatest threat to its own priesthood.
The rest of the passage bears out Saul’s vengeance in sickening detail. Ahimelech, an innocent priest caught up in the conflict between two kings, makes a valid defense, but it doesn’t matter. Saul is not interested in justice.
Saul doesn’t fight his own battles, he sends others. And when no self-respecting Israelite could be forced to kill Levites, the Edomite is willing to shed priestly blood. He not only murders eighty-five priests, but destroys the entire village, including women, children and livestock. This was truly a dark day for the priesthood in Israel.
Here is the man who grew strong by destroying life.
We get the contrast in the way David greets Abiathar, the lone survivor of Saul’s attack. David is a king who shelters and protects. From this day on, the kingdom of David would be a safe place for priests, and the priesthood would flourish under his reign.
David is also a king who takes responsibility. When he says, “You will be safe with me,” David hints that he knows God’s hand is on him for the salvation of people who draw near to him.
Here is the man who grew strong by saving life.
In this passage, the world’s idea of a king is sitting under a tree, holding court with a spear in his hand. The king of Israel is putting priests to death. But a thousand years later, the priests of Israel would hold court and put their king to death.
At the cross, we see God’s idea of a king hanging on a tree with a spear in his side. This is his inauguration: Jesus is the man who grew strong by dying.
Like Abiathar, sinners draw near to Jesus seeking refuge in a sympathetic king. Jesus took responsibility not only for one tragedy or even the lives of a small community, but for the sins of the entire world. And rather than committing violence, he submitted to violence and spilled his own priestly blood, that those who should have been destroyed may find our shelter in him.