The complex role of prophets in the halls of power.
The prophet Nathan rebukes King David, by the 19th century Belgian artist Eugène Sieberdt.
Last November, in my posting “Thus Saith the Lord,” I wrote about the story of Micaiah (1 Kings 22). Micaiah was a prophet attached to the court of King Ahab. He was out of royal favor because his prophecies never favored the king’s desires and policies. In fact, he predicted the king’s death in battle. His story, however, gives us an insight into how the Hebrew prophets understood their role.
Prophets were common in the royal courts of the ancient Near East, including ancient Israel. Micaiah is not, in fact, the most prominent court prophet that we encounter in the pages of the Old Testament. That honor belongs to Nathan, prophet to the great King David. His story reveals the complex challenges and temptations that come when religious officials align themselves with the halls of power.
The Prophet Endorsing Power
We meet Nathan at several different points in David’s career. Our first encounter comes in 2 Samuel 7. David has solidified his power. He resides in his new capital, Jerusalem, where he builds himself a palace. Like many royal builders of other eras, he wants to honor the divine power that put him into power. He proposes to build a temple for God.
Nathan, his court prophet, endorses the idea. He tells the king, Go, do what is in your heart. The Lord is with you. (2 Samuel 7:3) It was the kind of divine endorsement of a royal action that court prophets would have routinely been expected to give. It must have seemed a no-brainer. What god would not be flattered by a temple built in his honor.
Nathan, however, has remained spiritually sensitive enough that he can still hear an alternate word from God when it comes to him in a dream. God does not want David to build the temple. That task will fall to his successor.
Nathan delivers that message to David, a message that David was not likely wanting to hear. But David’s disappointment is assuaged by the divine promise Nathan also delivers to David. His family line will rule Israel forever: …your house and your kingdom shall be made sure for ever before me; your throne shall be established for ever (2 Samuel 7:16).
It is an extravagant promise coming out of the mouth of God’s spokesman. David is overwhelmed and immediately breaks into praise for God. It is also the first expression of that line of thought in the Hebrew Bible that emerges eventually into the belief in a Messiah, a belief with enormous consequences for both Judaism and Christianity.
Here we have a court prophet performing a duty that every monarch in the ancient world would have gladly welcomed. But it is a duty that needs to be performed with modesty. For Nathan learns in the process that what he thinks accords with God’s will may not represent God’s will at all.
The Prophet Challenging Power
The next time we encounter Nathan (2 Samuel 12) he performs a duty that no king would have welcomed nor most likely even tolerated. But it was a duty that a court prophet had to perform if he was to be true to his calling as a spokesman for God.
David abuses his powers as king. He uses his position to seduce and commit adultery with Bathsheba. He then arranges the murder of Bathsheba’s husband Uriah to cover up his sin. It is not the first time that a government official has taken advantage of his power to gratify his own sexual lusts.
God summons Nathan, however, to confront David with his sin. He does so by first telling David a story of a rich man stealing a poor man’s only lamb to feed a guest. David is outraged by the injustice. At this point, Nathan directly confronts David: You are the man! (2 Samuel 12:7)
I find it amazing that Nathan had the courage to directly name his abuse of power to the king directly. It was a courageous thing to do. Nathan was fortunate that David had some sense of conscience and did not order Nathan’s execution on the spot. Instead David admits his sin in remorse.
In this case the court prophet had to speak truth to power. It was probably not a common service that court prophets did. Micaiah also did and it won him banishment for court. But it is a necessary task if power is to be kept accountable.
The Prophet Complicit with Power
The last time we encounter Nathan in the historical record we learn of his participation in the plot to place Solomon on the throne after David’s death (1Kings 1-2). As David lies dying, his son Adonijah tries to pre-empt the succession by getting himself crowned king in advance.
Nathan is the one who comes and informs David of what Adonijah is trying to do. David, however, has other plans. He wants Solomon, son of Bathsheba and Adonijah’s half-brother, to succeed him. He summons the queen, Zadok the high priest, Benaiah commander of the king’s troops along with Nathan, to set in motion a kind of counter coup d’état to ensure the succession of Solomon.
It works. Solomon is acclaimed king and Adonijah loses his life. Nathan has played a critical role in this intrigue from the very start.
This story shows how a court prophet could not remain above or separate from the intrigues that go on in any royal court. Life in the court presented its temptations. And in my viewpoint Nathan succumbed in this case.
The Prophet as Morality Tale
The story of Nathan, it seems to me, is more than an interesting incident in the history of the Davidic monarchy. It is a morality tale about the challenges and temptations religious leaders face when they choose to become aligned with political power.
• Such religious leaders can be seduced into providing religious endorsement of what the political power wants to do, regardless of whether that represents the will of the Lord or not. If they are to maintain their spiritual integrity, they must take care to cultivate constantly their spiritual sensitivity to the God they serve.
• Such religious leaders can provide a necessary function in speaking truth to power if they have the courage to do so. It runs a risk, of course, but it is a needed function if we are to keep political power honest.
• And finally the alignment with political power can work its subtle corrupting influences on such leaders that they become entangled in the intrigues that swirl around such power. Religious leaders are not immune from that lesson from history that Lord Acton summarized in his aphorism: Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
If religion is to have any impact on the wider society, its leaders cannot remain divorced from power. That is the great mistake, in my opinion, of all those who interpret the American tradition of separation of church and state as meaning that churches and their leaders should stay strictly out of politics. Christianity is not a faith just for individuals. It has immense consequences for all of our communal life, and religious leaders have a duty to speak of those.
Yet when churches and their leaders venture into the political realm–necessarily though it may be–they also run the risk of being co-opted and corrupted by their engagement. They should walk the halls of power with fear and trembling, knowing the great perils they face. That is the continuing relevance of the story of Nathan, court prophet.