Kings vs. God

Pentecost 7

First reading: 2 Sam. 6:1-5, 12b-19; Ps. 24
Alternate: Amos 7:7-15; Ps. 85:8-13 • Eph. 1:3-14 • Mark 6:14-29

When Shakespeare’s King Henry ruefully admitted, “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown,” he could well have been speaking of the troubled kings of today’s readings. There were surely many sleepless nights on the ivory beds of the palace at Samaria and inside the Machaerus fortress, Herod’s desert castle on the shores of the Dead Sea.

King Jeroboam’s Israel was caught up in the machinations of larger, rising kingdoms to the North. He was frantically working to assemble the alliances he needed to keep the fragile peace. His kingdom had prospered, but the wealth was not spread evenly, and growing inequality had led to societal fractiousness. Herod Antipas’s wealth and power were but a shadow of his father’s grandeur. Distrusted by the Romans, attacked by Jewish rigorists for his most recent irregular marriage, he bore the weight of ruling a people generally deemed the Empire’s most ungovernable.

And God’s prophets had, as always, impeccably horrid timing. Amos called for justice for the poor and warned of coming judgment. God was holding up a plumb line, and the walls of Bethel were marked for destruction. John the Baptist refused to back down in his criticism of the king’s incest. To a Herodian, with a history of soap operatic family dynamics, this particular rebuke must have stung doubly hard.

The kings respond with bluster, cruelty, and blasphemy. The meddling prophets must be silenced. The kings call upon all their powers for the job, and yet their cowardice and folly are evident. Jeroboam will not face the Judean prophet himself, and so sends his high priest to administer the dressing down. Go back to your sycamore trees. Your message from God has no place in the king’s sanctuary; “it is the temple of the king,” the priest repeats — a phrase that speaks volumes about the Northern Kingdom’s religious life. Herod is still more ridiculous and heartless. At the end of his night of errors, the prophet’s head lays before him on a silver platter — surely no aid to sound sleep.

The folly of kings, as so often in the Scriptures, is set against God’s glorious consistency, the unyielding, inexorable torrent of the Divine will. He alone, our Epistle confesses, “accomplishes all things according to the purposes of his will.” Though the prophets, too, play a part in his great “plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.”

The prophets cannot be silenced. Amos issued his warning, and sure enough the master builder leveled the crooked walls of Bethel. Just as autumn follows summer, he “rose against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.” And John’s tongue still speaks, as St. John Chrysostom, that later prophet, remarked: “Even to the very ends of the earth, you will hear this voice and see that righteous man even now crying out, resounding loudly, and reproving the evil of the tyrant. He will never be silenced nor the reproof at all weakened by the passing of time.”

Look It Up
Read Ps. 146. What would a hymn paraphrase for the presidential campaign season sound like?

Think About It
Where is “the temple of the kingdom” in the 21st-century global village?

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