Something I hadn’t really noticed before – when David was made king after Saul, there were actually several years before he was accepted as king by everyone. For a good few years, a section of the kingdom would have still preferred the line of Saul to carry on instead of recognising David.
But both the character of the pro-Saul party and David’s treatment of them are quite striking. There was a man Abner, who had ‘made himself strong for the house of Saul,’ but when David’s general Joab killed Abner, David made it extremely clear that he thought Joab had behaved disgracefully. ‘Know ye not,’ he said to his servants, ‘that there is a prince and a great man fallen this day in Israel?’
Then a couple of men went and killed Ishbosheth, one of Saul’s remaining sons, and proudly brought his head to David as a trophy, as if expecting that David would be pleased with them. But to David it was an outrage. He called them wicked men, and Ishbosheth the son of Saul he described as a righteous person.
It was completely wrong for anyone in Israel to have rebelled against David, the Lord’s anointed. (Their only justification for supporting Saul would have been that the Lord had anointed him, which was exactly the reason they should have supported David now that Saul was gone.) But David himself regarded at least some of them as righteous men, wrong and all as they were. And rather than harbouring angry or vengeful thoughts against them, David treated them with the utmost courtesy, respect, and integrity, and held them in the highest esteem.
Something here speaks to the current church scene, if it isn’t too fanciful to think so. With the visible church split into warring factions, there are righteous people on all the sides. On the one hand, they need to be recognised as such, even when battles rage fiercely. But on the other hand, the causes of the different parties are not equally right. Some of these righteous people are valiantly fighting for the house of Saul, a cause which was fatally flawed from the start, and doomed to wax weaker and weaker. People can be doing completely the wrong thing, whether energetically propping up the wrong side or compromising pathetically for all the wrong reasons, and for all this, they can still be princes in Israel – and for all this, they are still insurgents whose cause is basically rebellion against the Lord’s anointed.
It’s a dreadful and shameful thing that the visible church is in the torn and broken state it is. All of the people of Israel should have rallied round David from the outset. All the divisions in the church have their reasons, explanations, justifications, … but every division involves disgrace, defeat, loss, and weakening, on both sides. Of course, at every division in the history of the visible church there was a stand for the truth. There’s nothing to regret about standing for the truth: obviously. But it is endlessly to be regretted that the stand for the truth couldn’t be taken without dividing the church. Rallying to David was always the right thing to do, even if it meant division within the people as a whole (and, it might be added, even if it meant one less righteous person to act as salt and light or leaven among the forces supporting Saul), but the division itself was a shameful, painful, sorry thing.
Just to push the analogy one step further, and then I’m done. In spite of the David/Saul division, the people of Israel were all basically the one people. Some of them were better exemplars of what an Israelite should have been than others – to follow Saul was less good than to follow David, and to behave like the bloodthirsty sons of Zeruiah, or the greedy, unscrupulous Ziba, was even less good. But they were all the one people. They all, factions and individuals, carried responsibility for their own decisions and behaviour, but they failed each other when they failed to act as they should.
So it’s all very well for one particular denomination to decide that their criteria for ordaining ministers will from now on bear only the tiniest resemblance to the criteria of scripture, and it’s all very well for some other denomination to decide that their standards of worship can from now on accommodate things that nobody ever used to recognise as complying with scriptural standards of worship, but their decisions affect us all. We are all shamed and weakened by the very fact of divisions existing at all, and we are doubly shamed and weakened when people use the denominational boundaries to fashion little segments of the church according to their own ideas of what the church should look like. Joab the Israelite disgraced all Israel when he stabbed Abner. Denomination X of the visible church shames the whole church visible when it acts to suit itself – to prioritise its own local concerns and pander to its own favoured constituencies – instead of consulting Scripture for the Christian good of Scotland.