by Linda Ryan
Now these be the last words of David. David the son of Jesse said, and the man who was raised up on high, the anointed of the God of Jacob, and the sweet psalmist of Israel, said,
The Spirit of the Lord spake by me,
and his word was in my tongue.
The God of Israel said, the Rock of Israel spake to me,
He that ruleth over men must be just, ruling in the fear of God.
And he shall be as the light of the morning,
when the sun riseth, even a morning without clouds;
as the tender grass springing out of the earth by clear shining after rain.
— 2 Samuel 23:1-4 (KJV)
We are often intrigued by the last words of celebrities and people we know. What were the last words they uttered as they died? Not everybody gets the chance to utter last words, but to those around them at the time, they often have an impact, even if it poses a question.
Take, for instance, the last words of Giles Corey, a man who was tried in the Salem Witch Trials and condemned to death by crushing. His last words? “More weight.” St Lawrence, tortured to death by being roasted on a grill is alleged to have said words to the effect of “Turn me over, I’m done on this side.” I’m sure a lot of people have called on Jesus or God at their last breath, and some, like Steve Jobs, could simply say something like “Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow.” Even Jesus’ last words were remembered although differently by the gospelers. Matthew and Mark give his last words as “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?”, a quotation from Psalm 22. Luke’s gospel records the last words as “Father, into Thy hands I commit my spirit.” John states that he simply cried, “It is finished!”
The other day I heard a piece of music I hadn’t heard in some time but which I have sung with various choirs since I was in high school. The tune, written by Randall Thompson, is haunting but the words, well, the words are some that maybe should be pronounced rather frequently, especially now with things in such a mess in this country and the world.
Looking at David’s history with Uriah and others, his opening statement, “He that ruleth over men must be just” seems, in one light, a bit self-congratulatory. Or maybe he’s being introspective and repentant for the times he messed things up by being unjust. The point is, though, that rulers must have a sense of justice that doesn’t mean just pleasing themselves or their best buddies but also for the folks they don’t particularly like or agree with on a lot of things but who, in that particular case, have the right end of the stick. I think some of our contemporary politicians have forgotten that.
“Ruling in the fear of God” is probably somewhat problematic for some, especially those who stoutly affirm that there is no God and that they don’t believe in God anyway. I think the ones who need to hear that message are the ones who are so certain that they KNOW precisely what it is God wants and they’re going to get it regardless of what happens to other people. It seems God in God’s wisdom put a lot of “care for the widows and orphans” talk into the Bible so why do we get so much talk about God blessing the rich and claiming the blessing to acquire yet more stuff, including money, power and privilege? It isn’t only atheists and believers in gods other than the Christian one who may have a problem with the statement. In fact, they could be following the tenets of God far closer than a lot who proudly announce themselves God’s followers.
“And he shall be as the light of the morning, when the sun riseth, even a morning without clouds” is such a beautiful image. It’s an even better description of someone who deliberately follows the ways of God and who treats his brothers and sisters, even the adopted and unknown ones, with kindness, justice and compassion. In this age of instant communications, it’s often more common to hear about the injustices done in the name of the people, the corporate sins of our commercial sector and even the abuses in our churches than to see bright examples of leadership done for the benefit of the people who don’t have a voice of their own. There are some, though, and they are like campfires on the distant hills, a reminder that some really do have the best interests of the poor, the sick, the oppressed and the disadvantaged at heart. The lights may not light up the sky, but they testify that those lamps are lit and not just sitting there waiting for a match to light them.
“[A]s the tender grass springing out of the earth by clear shining after rain” evokes the renewal of the earth that comes when rain falls and suddenly all sorts of things spring to life and bloom almost joyously. Living in the desert we see it nearly every time we have our infrequent rains. It doesn’t even have to be a gully-washer for it to happen; even a half-hour shower will do. So can be with just one person, one ruler who is just and who looks to do good for the all the people and not just the cronies who finance his campaigns or promise him luxuries in return for favoritisms. Can I imagine what it could be like if there were a whole lot of those? I can stretch my imagination but I know God already has done that, stretched the imagination to include a whole world full of tender shoots of grass springing up after a shower of justice if the desire is there within them.
David may never have spoken those words but the poetry of them certainly reflects the imagery and cadence of the psalms attributed to him. I still wonder, though, were they said as advice or as contrition? As an ideal or as an unrealized potential? Or maybe they were a vision of the kingdom that could be if, in the words of Amos, we “…let justice roll on like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (5:24, NRSV).
I listened to the musical version of this reading again and this time I saw David in the prime of his life, dancing before the Lord, uniting the kingdom, treating the people with fairness and concern. Still, David, like all of us, probably went to the bosom of Abraham with regrets and repentance but trying to leave a map for those who succeeded him to follow to avoid some of the pitfalls into which he fell. David’s sun rose on a young and promising life and new hope was born in Israel. On his deathbed the sun set on that life but his memory lived in his people, even down through a thousand generations. What a legacy. I wonder how many of our rulers will fare as well or for as long? Maybe we should play “The Last Words of David” for them and ask that they think about it?
Sometimes music will touch hearts that words alone simply can’t reach.
The Last Words of David composed by Randall Thompson, performed by the Rutgers University Chorus.