Those who believe God is active globally know they encounter certain challenges explaining it. Some have a strong sense that the outcome of the Second World War was divinely guided and even point to specific details like the unprecedented calmness of the Channel when the evacuation from Dunkirk eventually happened. Yet at the same time the Holocaust machine was gearing up and no-one bombed the train lines to Auschwitz. The question, why did God allow it? is a powerful one which cannot be ducked. Yet we cannot answer it to everyone’s satisfaction either.
In trying to discern the mind of God we tend to apply our own standards of fairness and consistency. It is as if God were a signatory to some kind of international charter on human rights which obliges him to act to prevent genocide and displacement (the very things, tellingly, which the international community has been so powerless at preventing itself). We believe that God feels anger and grief when human beings abuse one another and that there will be a reckoning. Yet his activity in the middle of unrestrained evil remains a mystery. Some people can testify to God’s deliverance from evil while others silently submit to it – just as Jesus did himself.
Christians tend to be idealists – imagining the world as it should be rather than accepting it as it as. They tend to think that when God acts in this world the outcomes should be uniformly good and fair and they feel affronted when they are not. Think of the massacre of innocent children by Herod in Bethlehem after the birth of Jesus. We are drawn to the grief experienced by those parents and it seems to clash harshly with the songs of the angels over the infant Jesus. Yet perhaps this is evidence of how when God is at work in the world (here in the human birth of his Son) he cannot avoid messy outcomes because he has to deal with free human agents, some of whom prefer evil to good. When God blesses people there is sometimes collateral damage, like the economic damage to the owners of the pigs which hurtled off the cliffs when Jesus cast demons out of a man and into them.
The first Book of Kings chapter 1 deals with the end of King David’s life. Who was going to succeed him as king? He was only the second king of Israel. The first, Saul, had died in battle along with his son, and there was no law or custom stating it should pass to the first born son. This uncertainty was compounded by the sheer dysfunctionalism of David’s family, where numerous children had been born to numerous women. Sibling rivalry can be hard enough in small contained units. In this case it was a recipe for civil war. Adonijah was the first to break cover, conferring with several of David’s civil servants and encouraging them to offer their support. Abiathar was the consecrating rent-a-priest and in no time something approaching a coup d’etat had been staged. Tellingly, Adonijah had left his half-brother Solomon out of the loop, showing where he saw the biggest threat to his ambition coming from.
When political order is replaced by chaos, people have to act quickly before their opponents gain the ascendancy. There are no ground rules establishing legitimacy, only cunning and ruthlessness. Consider Romania in 1989. Ceausescu was president – even if he lacked any kind of democratic legitimacy – and other national leaders related to him as Romania’s leader. A popular and rapid uprising then led to Ceausescu’s capture. He was tried summarily and in secret and shot through the head to ensure that no-one could rally to his defence. Was this right? Legally and morally: no. Did anyone care? Not really. Everyone knew Romania was sinking into the dangerous swamp of anarchy and someone had to gain legitimacy, however, brutally. This may sound cynical, but that was exactly the mood at the time.
Sensing that they were losing control, Nathan the prophet and Bathsheba the mother of Solomon hatched a plot to confront David one after the other with the reminder that David had promised the throne would go to Solomon, urging him to make good the promise while there was still life in him. They showed remarkable cunning here. There was no indication David had promised that Solomon would succeed him and presumably no palace minutes to that effect either. Every leader is vulnerable to the spoken threat: ‘you promised me…’ and often find themselves racking their brains to remember the conversation the other person claims actually happened. David was a dying man and he was susceptible to this kind of allegation.
Furthermore, Bathsheba claimed that her life and the life of her son Solomon would be in danger if Adonijah succeeded David. Bathsheba was surely here calling in old debts from David’s infamous act of adultery with her and his subsequent manslaughter of her husband Uriah. This guilt would have laid heavily on him and she knew how to manipulate it. This is not to defame the character of Bathsheba because she was a formidable survivor. She had no defence against the king when she was brought as a young married woman to the chamber where David effectively raped her. We hear little from her for the rest of her life, while David turned to ever younger women to satisfy himself. But she had the title of Queen Mother in her sights and she was not to be denied. Once the order was given from David’s death bed, Solomon was anointed as king and Adonijah’s entourage, sensing the tide was turning, dispersed quickly to avoid arrest.
And throughout it all, God was at work.
Solomon was his anointed and the construction of the temple and the wisdom he was famed for were guarantors of his posterity, which included Jesus. Matthew’s Gospel, establishing the genealogy of Jesus puts it pointedly: David was the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah’s wife. The whole story was dubious, messy, unsatisfactory and hurtful. And throughout it all God was working his purpose out to redeem the world and one day recreate it. It feels amazing to be saying this about God, but it looks as if there really are times when the means justify the ends.