One of the most famous English monarchs to ever sit on the throne must be Elizabeth I. Elizabeth reigned from 1558 to 1603, but how she finally came to the throne is anything but simple and smooth. Her father, Henry VIII was married to Catherine of Aragon and had one daughter with her – Mary. But of course, Henry desperately wanted a male heir and he believed that Catherine could not produce one. So he decided to get rid of Catherine, but the Pope wouldn’t allow it. And so the King who had once been proclaimed the “Defender of the Faith” by the Pope, due to his opposition to the Protestant Reformation on the European continent, took control of the English churches and created the Church of England, with the English monarch as the head. This allowed Henry to divorce Catherine.
In all, Henry went through six wives in his lifetime. Their fate can be summarized with the following pneumonic phrase – divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived. His six wives produced for him a total of three legitimate heirs, but only one son, the sickly Edward. Before his death, Henry established a throne succession plan whereby Edward would assume the throne upon his death and if Edward failed to produce an heir, then Henry’s oldest daughter Mary would then inherit the crown. Finally, if both Edward and Mary were to pass without legitimate heirs, Elizabeth would become Queen.
After Henry’s death, his son Edward, the sickly boy, reigned for only six years and then died at the age of 15 without an heir. Edward was a fanatical Protestant and had tried to create a plan that would prevent Mary from inheriting the throne, but his plan ultimately failed, as his cousin, Lady Jane Grey, was unable to prevent Mary from taking control (Lady Jane Grey joined two of Henry’s wives with the distinction of having her head removed from her shoulders). Mary then assumed the throne, but she only reigned for five years, and she too failed to produce an heir. She did, however restore the Catholic faith to England and had at least 280 Protestant dissenters burned at the stake in the process. You can toast that the next time you have a Bloody Mary! Throughout Bloody Mary’s reign, Elizabeth wisely kept a low profile when she wasn’t locked up in the Tower of London or under house arrest. Finally, at the end of her life, Mary acknowledged that her half-sister was to inherit the English throne. And so began one of the longest and most successful reigns of an English monarch. The story of Elizabeth’s succession is nasty. And history is full of many stories like this.
Biblical history is no different. It emerges out of real life and so, it too is full of nasty stories. Solomon’s rise to the throne is just as bloody as Elizabeth’s. We find the throne succession narratives at the end of 2 Samuel and the beginning of 1 Kings. 1 Kings chapters 1-2 are especially grimy – full of double-dealing and political maneuvering. If we fail to notice the details of the text, we might assume that Solomon’s succession is inevitable – but a closer reading reveals that it is anything but inevitable. We forget that Solomon is at least ten sons back in the line of succession. The only thing Solomon has going for him is that his mother (another messy story) has become David’s favorite wife. Without the quick wit and aggressive action of Nathan the prophet, Solomon and his mother Bathsheba might experience the same fate as Lady Jane Grey.
What sets this whole process in motion is the fact that David has multiple sons and daughters by multiple wives over his lifetime. If you want to make an argument against polygamy, read the stories from the time of Abraham through the Judean monarchy and you’ll soon discover that one wife for life is the way to go! But back to David’s story. Because David has produced so many potential heirs through a variety of mothers, a jockeying for position ensues as David’s life winds down. We see this clearly in 2 Samuel in the stories of Absalom and Amnon. And by the time we get to the very end of David’s life, as the weak and impotent King lies on the bosom of his beautiful Shunammite nurse, Abishag - Adonijah, the eldest remaining of David’s sons begins to make his move. And he has a little help from his friends – powerful friends. Joab, David’s ruthless military commander, and Abiathar, a priest and one of David’s trusted friends, have sided with Adonijah. They proclaim a feast and invite all of those in their camp to celebrate Adonijah’s inevitable succession to the throne.
But others are also making plans. The initial conversations are not recorded for us, but presumably because she was David’s favorite, Bathsheba is promised that her son Solomon will be King. But as Adonijah begins to press his claim, Nathan realizes that he and Bathsheba need to act fast! They assemble their own powerful allies, including Zadok the priest, Benaiah, one of David’s mighty men, and Rei and Shimei, two of David’s closest confidants. Most importantly, David’s inner circle of warriors supports Solomon.
Nathan and Bathsheba hatch a plot to ensure that Solomon, and not Adonijah, becomes king. If their plan succeeds, the power in Israel will be theirs. If it fails, Solomon and Bathsheba will almost certainly be killed. So Bathsheba goes before David and reminds him of his previous promise. Then, Nathan comes in and confirms Bathsheba’s position and reiterates the fact that Adonijah is aiming for the throne behind the king’s back. Their plan succeeds and David publicly endorses Solomon as his successor. Most of Adonijah’s supporters realize they’ve been outflanked and so quickly move to Solomon’s side. And Adonijah himself realizes that his life is now in danger and so he begs his brother for mercy. Solomon tentatively grants him a reprieve from any physical harm, but he warns him that he’s keeping an eye on him.
But all is not yet well. Even David sees that Solomon’s throne is not yet secure. David gives his son some spiritual advice in 1 Kings 2:1-4, but if you read further, David’s words of wisdom become much more political, if not ruthless in nature. David tells Solomon that Joab is a threat to his throne, so the prudent thing to do is to take him out. Not only that, but Saul still has some distant relatives that may be gunning for the throne, so Solomon must deal wisely with them. Shimei (not to be confused with David’s confidant) is a threat from Saul’s tribe and must be killed. It’s good to be king, but it’s far from easy. A king must be shrewd and decisive if they wish to remain on the throne.
After David’s death, Adonijah unwisely continues to scheme behind Solomon’s back. He goes to Bathsheba and requests that David’s nurse, Abishag, be given to him as a wife. This isn’t an innocent request. Just as Absalom’s sexual union on the rooftop of the palace with David’s concubines demonstrated his power and authority to the tribes of Israel, so Adonijah’s request for David’s Shunammite nurse was a politically calculated move towards stealing the throne. Solomon immediately sniffs this plot out and has his brother Adonijah killed. In addition to this, Solomon follows his father’s advice and has Joab killed and forces Abiathar the priest into exile. Eventually, Solomon finds a legitimate excuse to have Shimei, Saul’s distant cousin executed. We then read in 1 Kings 2:46, “…the kingdom was established in the hand of Solomon.” So much for a smooth and simple succession.
The throne succession narratives at the end of 2 Samuel and at the beginning of 1 Kings are not unlike the kinds of stories we read in history. Much of what occurred is pretty icky and very political. These stories are full of power plays, murder, intrigue, double-dealing, and back-stabbing. And most of this behavior occurred amongst David’s own family. These aren’t the nice and neat “flannel graph” stories that we learned from the sweet little grannies who taught us in Sunday school. But this shouldn’t surprise us. Biblical history is still history. These are true stories of real people living in the real world. The Bible is full of the stories of flawed people living in a broken society.
And you know, my life mirrors some of this too. I’ve never murdered anyone, but there’s a lot in my past that I’m embarrassed about. My life is filled with mistakes. I wish I could go back and erase some of my history. I’ve done some pretty dumb things through the years. I’ve not always treated other people the way I want to be treated. And I’ve not always loved God with my whole heart. I bet your life is a lot like this too. In fact, I know it is, because if you’re reading this, then you’re a human. And we’re all flawed and we live our lives in a world full of other flawed people. Our histories are not always as neat and tidy as we’d like them to be.
But you know what else – God didn’t quit working because the material he was working with was flawed. He continued to work through broken human beings, because the last I checked, that’s all he has to work with. David was a horrible father and much of the messiness in the throne succession narratives are down to David being a lousy dad. But, nevertheless, David was also a man after God’s own heart and he was the greatest king in Israel’s history! God worked in and through David and Solomon despite their flaws. And God is at work in the midst of our broken lives too! God meets us in the mess of our lives – he works through the broken pieces of our stories – but he’s not content to simply leave us there. So, he sent his one and only Son to become one of us, to live amongst us, and to finally be the King that all the kings had been called to be, but failed to be. In fact, Jesus was and is everything that all the rest of us have failed to be too.
So, it’s worth reflecting on the kind of kingdom that Jesus came to establish. In John 18, the Roman Governor, Pilate, asks Jesus a crucial question. “Are you the King of the Jews?” Pilate wants to know if Jesus really is a threat to Rome and their control of Palestine. Jesus responds affirmatively, but with a clear caveat. He says, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” (John 18:36). Jesus’ kingdom is very much for this world, but it’s not of this world. It operates by a different set of rules and its values contrast with those of the ordinary kingdoms of this present age.
I believe this is one of the reasons that Jesus’ contemporaries had such a hard time accepting him as the Messiah. Jesus didn’t fit the mold of what they were looking for in a coming king. They still envisioned the kind of kingdom that David and Solomon ruled over. Instead of driving out the Romans, like many of Jesus’ fellow Jews would have hoped and prayed for, Jesus surrendered to them and was crucified by them. In his most famous sermon, The Sermon on the Mount, he said things like, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth… Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God…If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to them the other also…If anyone forces you to go one mile (in other words, if a Roman soldier forces you to carry his pack for one mile), go also the second mile…Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” These were not the words of a messianic figure in most 1st century Jews’ minds. And these words are still hard for many of us to swallow.
The Kingdom of God that Jesus brought and is still bringing is not like the kingdoms of this world. But it’s very much for people like us who are citizens of this present world. God meets us in the busyness, the messiness, and most importantly, even the very ordinariness of our lives and brings us to a point where eventually his will is done in our hearts and our lives as it is in heaven. We start out as ordinary people with all the weaknesses and flaws that you find in anyone’s story. But through Jesus and through the Spirit’s work in our lives, we are in a state of becoming. We are becoming poor in spirit (we realize we are spiritually bankrupt). We are becoming meek. We are learning to hunger and thirst for righteousness. We are becoming pure in heart. We are gradually learning to show mercy, instead of justice (or injustice). We are becoming peacemakers. In short, we are becoming more and more like Jesus himself. “Eventually, he who began a good work among us, will bring it to completion and our love will have overflowed more and more with knowledge and full insight so that we will have produced a harvest of righteousness, being pure and blameless on the day that Jesus returns!” That's my tight paraphrase of what the apostle Paul says is our destiny (Philippians chapter 1).
We all start out living lives in the old creation, but that’s our history, that's not our future. Our future is life in the new creation. We’re in the process of realizing that life, even now. The writer of our story specializes in happy endings. But in reality, they aren’t endings, they’re new beginnings. The kingdoms of the Bible and the kingdoms of the history books will one day become the Kingdom of God. We hear a description of what that day will be like in Revelation 11:15-17. “Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven saying, ‘The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever.’ Then the twenty-four elders who sit on their thrones before God fell on their faces and worshiped God, singing, ‘We give you thanks, Lord God Almighty, who are and who were, for you have taken your great power and begun to reign.’” May God hasten the day. Come, Lord Jesus! – Shay