"But you promised!” Most parents have heard this lament from their children more than once. A promise is a declaration that something will (or will not) happen. A promise indicates what may be expected. A promise demands and elicits trust.
The Scripture texts for the Fourth Sunday of Advent concern God’s promise to David and its fulfillment in Jesus the Son of David. They feature two great Advent figures—King David and Mary the mother of Jesus, two persons who can be called “people of the promise.” The theme of promise runs through the Bible from God’s promises to Noah and Abraham in Genesis to the promise of the New Jerusalem in Revelation. In the development of this motif, God’s promise to David that his “house” will endure forever is one of the high points.
The promise to David appears most prominently and dramatically in 2 Samuel 7, in the prophecy of Nathan to David. David had won many victories and defeated his enemies within and outside his people. He had conquered Jerusalem and established it as his capital city. Recognizing how much he owed to Yahweh as the God of Israel, David decided to build a “house” (a temple) there.
Although he at first agreed with David’s plan, the prophet Nathan was empowered by God to speak a different word to David. Instead of David building a “house” for Yahweh, it is Yahweh who would build a “house” for David. The house that God had in mind was not a temple but a dynasty, a royal family for Israel led by descendants of David. Whereas David planned to do something for God, it is God who decides to do something for David. This divine promise is pure “grace,” in its root sense of gift or unmerited favor.
The most obvious referent of God’s promise to David was his son, Solomon. And we can easily imagine that Solomon and his successors pointed to the promise to David now in 2 Samuel 7 as the divinely guaranteed warrant for their rule. We get a sense of that from the excerpts from Psalm 89 that serve as the responsorial psalm. There the psalmist recalls all of God’s promises, and describes God’s promise to David and his descendants in terms of a covenant. In this covenant God made a promise to David, “Forever I will confirm your posterity and establish your throne for all generations.” God further promised to maintain his covenant fidelity (“kindness”) and make the covenant with David stand firm.
From the books of Kings it is hard to see how this promise was fulfilled in ancient Israel’s history. According to the biblical narratives, most of the kings of Israel and Judah only remotely resembled King David, with the exception of Hezekiah and Josiah. And with the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B.C., kingship as a political institution in Israel came to an end.
Nevertheless, God’s promise to David was not revoked or forgotten. In some Jewish circles the hope for a future king like David was kept alive. For example, according to the Psalms of Solomon 17, a first-century B.C. Jewish work, God was going to raise up a new king like David, one who would combine military prowess, concern for justice and proper reverence toward the God of Israel. From texts like these one can almost hear a child’s lament to a parent, “But you promised!”
Early Christians, like the Evangelist Luke, believed that God’s promise to David was in fact fulfilled in Jesus, the Son of David. At the heart of the narrative of the announcement of Jesus’ birth to Mary is a reminder of God’s promise to David, “The Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of this kingdom there will be no end.” The unlikely recipient of this promise is Mary of Nazareth, a young Jewish woman without a husband. She has to overcome her initial turmoil and confusion. She asks, “How can this be?” Given the sign of Elizabeth’s pregnancy with John the Baptist, Mary accepts her mission with trust, “May it be done to me according to your word.” Her willing response makes her a person of the promise to David.
The concluding doxology appended to Paul’s Letter to the Romans captures the early Christian conviction that in Christ the promises of God were being fulfilled. The covenant of grace established by God with David about 1,000 years before was reaching new definition and new clarity in the person of Jesus. The readings for the Fourth Sunday of Advent remind us that God’s promise is best fulfilled not in buildings or even great kings like Solomon but rather in those, like Mary, who in the midst of turmoil and confusion trust in God’s promise.