Not long ago, my wife Jeanne decided to audit a graduate theology course on campus taught by a good friend who is an emeritus professor of theology. The course was “The Prophetic Faith,” described as a study of “the prophetic writings of Ancient Israel, examining both their original message and their relevance for contemporary readers.” After looking over the syllabus, I thought it would be fun to sit in on this class as well. I’m glad I did, at least for a few sessions–it immersed me in texts that, in many cases, I had not encountered for decades.
As I started reading the assigned pages for the first class, I was reminded of the role that prophets played during the relatively brief period during which Israel had kings. Prophets not only anointed kings, they also often were the only persons who spoke truth to power, the moral compass who told the king when he was in danger of violating, or already had violated, the moral demands of God’s law. The most famous king of Israel, of course, was David. David was anointed king by the prophet Samuel after Saul, the first king of Israel, ran afoul of God’s commandments one too many times.
By the time David secured his throne after more than a decade of warfare, Samuel had died and a new prophet, Nathan, stepped into Samuel’s role. A well-known story from Second Samuel illustrates how one of the prophet’s most important roles was to speak truth to power—especially when that truth was something the king did not want anyone to know.
The sordid tale of David and Bathsheba is one of the most familiar stories from the Jewish scriptures. David is at the height of his power and, as many who find themselves in such a position, is of the opinion that this entitles him to anything that he wants. Including the beautiful wife of one of his top generals. When Bathsheba becomes pregnant due to their affair, David’s attempts to cover it up quickly escalate, culminating in the death of her husband, Uriah, when David has him placed on the front lines of battle where he is sure to be killed. After a suitable period of mourning, David marries Bathsheba (she joins his group of several wives) and all seems quiet on the home front.
Then one day Nathan tells David a story, a time-worn tale of the rich exploiting the poor. A rich man, who had everything—including more sheep than he could count—had a unexpected visitor for whom he wanted to host a memorable dinner. Down the road lived a poor man with only one little sheep who was more of a pet than anything else. Any animal lover will resonate with this passage: “The ewe lamb grew up together with him and with his children. It ate of his own food and drank from his own cup and lay in his bosom; and it was like a daughter to him.” The rich man, wanting to serve mutton at the banquet for his guest, instead of selecting an appropriate sheep from his substantial flock, took the poor man’s only lamb and served it to his guest for dinner. The bastard.
Not surprisingly, David’s sense of justice and fairness is scandalized by Nathan’s story. “WTF!!!” David yelled. “As the LORD lives, the man who has done this shall surely die! And he shall restore fourfold for the lamb, because he did this thing and because he had no pity.” And in four of the most effective words ever spoken to power, Nathan springs his trap: You are the man! Because, of course, David is the rich man in the story, Uriah is the poor man, and Bathsheba is the poor man’s only ewe lamb.
The kingdom is not taken from David, but David pays a price for the rest of his life. The child Bathsheba is bearing dies, and over time three of David’s sons from different mothers seek to take the throne from David and die in their unsuccessful attempts. There is no peace in David’s house for the rest of his life, although his second child with Bathsheba—Solomon—follows him as king upon David’s death. But most important is David’s reaction when he finds out the true meaning of Nathan’s story. David is crushed, realizes that he has violated and ignored any number of moral principles, and he repents—accepting God’s judgment as communicated through Nathan and as borne out over the following years.
There are any number of contemporary applications of Nathan’s story, including how the one percent regularly succeed at the expense of the ninety-nine percent, as well as proposed budgets that favor the rich among us at the expense of the poor. The story Nathan tells David came to mind the other day when, during the partial government shutdown, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross wondered why out-of-work federal employees might need governmental assistance and food pantries just to eat. But today I am thinking of another obvious application. As I have watched the constant shit show surrounding the Trump presidency over his first two years in office, I have occasionally (when I was not screaming at the television) wondered “What does this guy need? What could possibly set this on the right, or at least a less dysfunctional, path?”
As I read one of my favorite stories from the Jewish scriptures for the first time in many years, it was crystal clear to me what Trump needs. He needs an Old Testament prophet in his life. He needs a Nathan. He needs someone who will, when necessary, tell him the unvarnished truth. Tell him when he’s not thinking clearly. Take his phone away so he can’t tweet anymore. Tell him when he’s being a jerk. Tell him that being elected President does not entitle him to do or say anything he wants. Tell him that a person is not a loser just because that person disagrees with him.
This, of course, is old news Any number of people have cycled through the White House who could have played this role–some even have tried to play the role–only to be ignored, then belittled, then shown the door. The President has shown himself on a daily basis to be immune to or incapable of even the most rudimentary moral checks and balances. This does not, however, mean that the moral of Nathan’s story does not apply to our contemporary world. As we begin to consider a better alternative in the White House than its current occupant, we should regularly ask: Does this candidate for the most powerful office in the world show any interest in listening to and being influenced by truth? Does she or he have the capacity to receive the truth and adjust going forward?
In ancient Israel, the prophet served, among other things, as a reminder to the king that there is a lot more going on than just our day-to-day human reality. No one is the center of the universe, not even the most powerful person. All of us are answerable to standards and principles that we neither invented nor are immune to. There are things greater than any individual. David knew this; hence, he repented in the wake of Nathan’s story. Our current President does not know this. There seems to be no other touchstone of authority in his life than himself. And this is not only sad, it is dangerous. As things continue to devolve over the coming weeks and months, as they inexorably will, Trump will continue to look for any number of persons to blame as he circles down the drain. Perhaps, hopefully, circumstances and reality will make the truth clear even to him: You are the man.