[K:NWTS 1/2 (Sep 1986) 18-26]
David's treatment of Mephibosheth following his return from exile strikes us as harsh and unfair. And so the majority of commentators have regarded this incident. If we indulge a bit of righteous indignation and holy anger at David's injustice, we find ourselves in the company of many before us who have regarded Mephibosheth as the victim of a raw deal. Yet there have been a few who have suggested that Ziba's accusation in chapter 16 was accurate–that Mephibosheth was guilty of conspiracy and treason! These same persons have characterized the devious Ziba as a virtual saint. John Lightfoot, the great 17th century Hebrew scholar and member of the Westminster Assembly, suggested that the David of II Samuel 19:29 is the benefactor of Mephibosheth. According to Lightfoot, David makes Ziba the steward or manager of Mephibosheth's lands rather than the owner of half of them.
But Lightfoot has failed to notice Ziba in the crowd–the crowd of those proclaiming the return of the king. Ziba comes with Shimei–Shimei who had cursed and thrown stones at the son of Jesse as he fled from his son, Absalom. Ziba comes with the throngs–throngs from the tribes of Judah and Benjamin. Ziba comes with the ferry boats–ferry boats poised to carry David back over Jordan. Ziba comes at a most opportune time!
The David who stands before a bedraggled Mephibosheth is the David who has been shamed by Joab. The story is found in verses 1-8 of chapter 19. Shamed for fixating his grief on a renegade son; shamed for turning the thrill of victory (Absalom's defeat) into an empty, hollow, bittersweet campaign. The David who stands before a bedraggled Mephibosheth is the David who has been shamed with the candid charge, "Thou lovest thine enemies, and hatest thy friends" (II Sam. 19:6 KJV). The David who stands before a bedraggled Mephibosheth is a David shamed and threatened–threatened with desertion by the commander of his army if he does not sit in the gate (II Sam. 19:7,8). Sit in the gate to speak to his people. How long had it been? How long had it been since David had humbled himself to sit in the gate; to sit in the gate and listen to the cries of his people–to listen to injustices poured out and tragedies recounted and laments for losses. How long since the shepherd-king had sat in the seat of tenderness–the seat of tender compassion with an ear bent to the plight of his people?
Too long! Too long he had not come to the place of judgment; too long he had vacated the seat of attentive listener. David had grown remote, distant, aloof. And Absalom? Absalom knew. Absalom knew how to exploit his father's weakness. How insidiously Absalom sat in the gate (11 Sam. 15:l-6)! How treacherously Absalom listened to the pleas of the aggrieved!
David became the figurehead of an insensitive regime–a regime out of touch with the people. Absalom became the shepherd. But this shepherd was a wolf. And the wolf drove the legitimate shepherd and his little flock from its pasture (II Sam. 15:l0-37)–up the Mt. of Olives (II Sam. 15:30), across the brook Kidron, down to the Jordan, over to the east bank. The shepherd-king compelled to flee his citadel, his Zion, his uru salim ("city of peace")!
Had part of Israel followed Absalom because they knew the truth? David, in growing powerful, had grown insensitive. He had surrounded himself with advisors like Joab. Joab–opportunist, manipulator, assassin–yet a man fiercely loyal to the monarchy; a man whose life was dedicated to the institution which David had erected on Mt. Zion. Joab whose loyalty was motivated by his lust for power. Joab who slew, Judas-like, Abner and Amasa (II Sam. 3:27; II Sam. 20:9-10) because he would brook no rival as Secretary of State or Army Chief of Staff.
It is a David controlled by matters of state who now comes to the Jordan. Joab is at his side making certain appearances are kept up. Joab is not only Secretary of State, he doubles as Press Secretary! Shimei comes with abject hypocrisy (II Sam. 19:18-20). David spares him (II Sam. 19:23). Ziba comes with his sons and servants (II Sam. 19:17)–an impressive retinue! But this is a day for impressions; after all, had Ziba not supplied the fugitive David with bread, fruit and wine (II Sam. 16:1)? An appearance at the moment of David's return is markedly opportune (II Sam. 19:17). And so Ziba intended it. To see himself, his sons, his servants: surely David would recall the loaves, the fruits, the raisins, not to mention the donkeys.
Into this scene of pomp and pageantry comes the unkempt figure of a cripple. Unwashed, unshaven, unsightly, Mephibosheth meets David on his return to Jerusalem in order to plead his case (II Sam. 19:24-28). Did he meet David at the gate (II Sam. 19:25)? Did Mephibosheth come to the place of justice seeking justice? His approach to David is confident. After all, this is his benefactor; this is the one who has fed him from the royal table for years. This is the bosom friend of his father Jonathan; this is the one who cried, "Is there yet any of the house of Saul to whom I may show kindness" (II Sam. 9:1 KJV)? This is the one before whom Mephibosheth had prostrated himself in painful humiliation (II Sam. 9:6), only to hear the words, "Fear not" (II Sam. 9:7). This is the covenant-keeper who had pledged hesed (kindness) to him for Jonathan's sake. This is the one who had bestowed merciful kindness, undeserved kindness. Though Mephibosheth was but a dead dog, nevertheless David, the shepherd-king, bestowed undeserved kindness (hesed).
"Will not the shepherd-king of Israel do right?" thinks Mephibosheth. "Will he not see the marks of humiliation upon me? Will he not see my unwashed clothes, my unshaven face? Will he not count me loyal–a true servant of the king–when he sees my feet, my painful feet, untreated these months of exile? Will his heart not go out to me as one slandered and unjustly deprived of his inheritance?"
But David is concerned only with his own prestige. "Why didn't you come with me Mephibosheth" (II Sam. 19:25)? Ask a cripple, lame on both feet, dependent on a treacherous servant–"Why didn't you come with me?" As well ask a dead man why he doesn't breathe! David is concerned only with his decree. This king in Zion now hides behind the cloak of the Medes and the Persians. "I have said thou and Ziba divide the land. Speak to me no more of these matters" (II Sam. 19:29).
What's your hurry David? Why so curt and brusque? Why do you brush aside this plea? Why do you hasten on with matters of state and government policy? Do you see Ziba, David? Has the thief caught your eye?–with his retinue of 35 able-bodied men! What is Mephibosheth?–this solitary cripple; this lame beggar? What does he bring to herald your return?–dirty clothes, unkempt beard, twisted feet! Certainly no political clout; the house of Saul is dead save this cripple. "Speak to me no more!"
And Mephibosheth is content; content with having protested his innocence; content with the display of his loyalty to the king; content with the marks of humiliation and sorrow upon him. Mephibosheth is content. "As good as dead, yet by your merciful kindness (hesed), I now live. Let Ziba have all. For all I need is the king in his peace. Shalom upon the house of David! Shalom upon the house of Israel! Shalom upon the Israel of God!" It is enough for this cripple that the rightful king returns in peace to possess his kingdom. That is sufficient!
The shame in this incident does not belong to Mephibosheth. The cripple in this story is not the son of Jonathan. The royal lineage in this scene is not displayed by the seed of Jesse. Mephibosheth, now disposed of his inheritance, is the possessor of mercy (hesed) and peace (shalom). For Mephibosheth understands humility; Mephibosheth understands insufficiency; Mephibosheth understands unworthiness. "What is thy servant [but] a dead dog" (II Sam. 9:8 KJV)? In truth, Mephibosheth is a suffering servant!
This scene presents a David controlled by circumstances, not a man in control of circumstances. David has grown distant, no longer in touch with his constituency. He has become the pawn in the power plays of others more powerful than himself–Joab and Ziba. He is now of waning importance, a symbol, a figurehead. This scene presents David in his weakness. The dynamics of human weakness are all here: inability to do the right thing, the just thing; treatment of loyal ones as disloyal and disloyal ones as loyal; inability to act decisively; embarrassment at genuine humility and sacrifice. These dynamics are still with us. You will find them in the corporate board room and the white collar market place; you will find them in the union hall and the blue collar market place; you will find them in the corridors of Congress and the halls of justice; and shamefully you will even find them in the church. In the pew and behind the pulpit; in denominational headquarters and in regional councils: you will find the injustices, the insensitivity, the manipulators. It is all still very much a part of the kingdom on earth.
It is weakness–weakness to play to the crowd, eyeing privilege, status, authority. David was worried about his position, not his principles. And it is weakness to be manipulated by the presence of others as well as by the force of circumstances. Joab may have been right about the simpering monarch (II Sam. 19:1-8), but David had long before surrendered his royal resolve to his opportunistic commander-in-chief. The aftermath is plain in the case of Mephibosheth. He who is manipulated by others learns the game of manipulating others. No sooner does David bend to Joab with an eye to Ziba and his crowd than he strips Mephibosheth of one half his rightful inheritance. When one plays games with the crowd, one leans precariously toward playing the crowd's game. What a subtle weakness this is–this manipulative game. Quite often, those who use it most are unconscious of its power and influence in their lives–so habitual has it become. The Christian community must guard against stroking and controlling personalities by whatever conditioning and for whatever ends. The world will see the hypocrisy sooner or later and we will be judged for the shameful phonies that we have become!
And what can be said about the weakness of retreating from injustice. When wrong is before us clearly and dramatically as it was before David, what can be said when wrong is pursued and right eschewed. David is embarrassed by Mephibosheth's self-effacement. He cannot look on the cripple who bears injustice meekly, humbly and with benevolence. "You have condemned the just and he doth not resist you" (Jam. 5:6 KJV). This cripple returns good for evil; benediction for malediction. Mephibosheth will not play the game David plays. David deals out injustice; Mephibosheth turns his cheek and submits, blessing the king with his lips. It is the second time in his career that David has encountered one more righteous than he. Remember Uriah–loyal Uriah who would not go down to the bed of Bathsheba, but slept in the servants' quarters because he was devoted to his sovereign and his soldier-comrades (II Sam. 11:6-13).
We are called to experience the strength which comes from humility. We are called to taste the power which comes in serving. Not dominating others, not tyranny, not display of authority, but meekness, lowliness, servanthood. We are called to unthreatened and unintimidated servanthood.
Is it enough for us not to be first? Are we content to think more highly of others than ourselves? And why? Because we have already felt what it means to regard ourselves of lesser importance. Lesser importance than our God who created us; lesser importance than our Lord who redeemed us. Is it enough for us not to be first because we have experienced the feeling that we are dogs–"dead dogs": vile, loathsome, filthy, wretched. We have experienced the feeling of unworthiness because we have felt the holiness of God–the awful, terrible, wonderful holiness of God. We have experienced the feeling of unworthiness because we have felt the sweet, marvelous ecstasy of merciful kindness–of grace. Grace which has broken us; grace which has restored us. Grace which has wounded us; grace which has bound up our wounds. Grace which has melted us, grace which has moved us, grace which has touched us.
Where is pride in the presence of grace? Where is haughtiness and arrogance; where is a domineering and manipulative spirit? The grace of Christ Jesus our Lord is too sweet, too tender, too moving to coexist with putting ourselves first. Jesus did not put himself first, but made himself of no reputation and took the form of a servant. He humbled himself; how can we walk as if we are the hot shots and big shots of the earth? John the Baptist would not put himself first. When the Lamb of God comes to him, John says, "He must increase, I must decrease." The Lamb of God cannot come to a heart which must be first. There is no room! No room for the Lamb and self. Self must go so the Lamb can stay.
No, the proud have never felt the presence of the Lamb because the Lamb resists the proud. But the Lamb gives grace to the humble. Yes, to the humble, the despised, the rejected, the outcast, the cripples: to these the Lamb gives grace.
The humble say, "Lord Jesus, you know what I am. Lord Jesus, you know what a dog I am. Lord Jesus, I want that to die." And Jesus says, "I will nail that to the cross I bear; I will take it to death in my death. I will set you free; free to be humble; free to be unworthy; free to be insufficient; free to be weak. Because," says Jesus, "I am strong; I am worthy; I am all-sufficient; I am Lord over all."
Jesus says, "You mistreated ones; you victims of injustice; you Mephibosheths–I freely give you merciful kindness (hesed). I give you shalom–the shalom of the kingdom of heaven." For you see, to the Mephibosheths, to the lame, Jesus says, "Rise, take up your bed and walk." You see, to the Mephibosheths, to the cripples, Jesus says, "Fear not . . . come unto me and I will feed you with living bread and living water." You see, to the Mephibosheths, to the righteous sufferers, to the victims of gross injustice, Jesus says, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted; to preach deliverance to the captives . . . to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord" (Lk. 4:18,19 KJV).
And the Mephibosheths say, "It is enough! We are servants of the King of Kings. We are bond slaves of the Prince of Peace. We are guests in his house–no better than dead dogs. Yet he showed us mercy; he bestowed grace upon us. He fed us from his very own banquet table. It is enough. Having the King is enough!"
James T. Dennison, Jr.
Westminster Theological Seminary
Suggestions for further reading:
J.P. Fokkelman, Narrative Art and Poetry in the Books of Samuel (1981).