This week’s lectionary readings tell the story of two very different kings who both made poor decisions based on overconfidence, which resulted in fatal consequences for others. The difference is that one king came to terms with his overconfidence and publicly abased himself. The other didn’t repent. In both cases, the Spirit of God continued to move and bless the people, even amid the failings of rulers.
The first overconfident king was David. He made plans to move the ark of the covenant from Baalah/Kirath Jearim to his new capital, the City of David. But then he made his mistake. He ordered that the ark to be loaded on a new cart pulled by oxen instead of carried by poles on the Levites’ shoulders. Rashi, a medieval Jewish commenter, said this decision displayed David’s overconfidence and lack of humility in his early monarchy.
Rashi pointed out that every Israelite child knew that the service of the holy things belonged to the Levites, who would bear them upon their shoulders (Numbers 7:9). The ark was to be carried by the humans that God had appointed to the task! Rashi said David was falsely overconfident about his knowledge of the Torah and what to do with the holy articles, claiming that the laws had been like songs to him in the house of his pilgrimage (Psalm 119:54). If that had been true, David should have known the ark was to be borne by specially appointed Levites who would watch for uneven patches in the road and adjust accordingly, rather than carried on a cart like produce to a market or dung to a field.
When the cart faltered because the oxen stumbled, Uzzah grabbed the ark to prevent it from falling and was killed for ignoring God’s commands about treatment of the holy objects. David knew immediately what he had done wrong and stowed the ark in the home of Obed-Edom, a Korathite Levite (1 Chronicles 26:4) who should have been appointed to carry the ark in the first place.
Putting an ark on a cart may seem like a small matter (though certainly not to Uzzah!). In God’s ongoing relationship with the people, however, disobedience concerning people and things that God has a special focus on tends to have disastrous consequences (Leviticus 11, 1 Samuel 13:13, Numbers 14, Acts 5). As a king responsible for the beloved community, David needed to learn early in his reign to take God’s instructions seriously. Through Uzzah’s death, he did. David made two changes. The first was that he had Levites carry the ark when he brought it the rest of the way to the City of David (1 Chronicles 15:12-13).
The second change he made was to accompany the ark with humility, not with overconfidence and pride. He took off most of his royal garments and danced passionately around the ark to celebrate God coming to live with him (2 Samuel 6:2, 9). When his wife, Michal, saw the performance, she chided him. But David responded that he would become even more undignified and be humbled in his own eyes (2 Samuel 6:22). David recognized that he had been hasty and foolish, which had cost a man his life, and he repented. True repentance is not simply being sorry but endeavoring to correct the wrong done.
During these two events, the Spirit of God was on the move even while both kings were making poor decisions based on their overconfidence and pride.
The second king in the lectionary text is Herod. In Mark’s Gospel, Herod Antipater (hereafter, Antipas) was presented as a conflicted and not overly ruthless king (more properly Tetrarch). Antipas did have John the Baptizer arrested. But he protected him—even from Herodias, his wife—because he feared John and knew him to be a righteous man. In fact, Antipas liked to listen to John speak (Mark 6:17-20). But just as David was initially too involved in celebrating the movement of the ark to make good decisions, so, too, Herod Antipas was too delighted in the celebration that he threw to remember to be wise.
When his daughter danced (probably not lasciviously, contra Oscar Wilde et al., since the same word in Mark 6:22 for “dance” is used in Matthew 11:17 and Luke 7:32 for dances children do in the street), Antipas was so pleased that he promised her whatever she wanted as a reward, up to half his kingdom. He was confident that it would be an easy request to grant. But this was the opening that Herodias was looking for. She was finally able to use their daughter’s request for John the Baptizer’s head to work around her husband’s protection of the man who had accused them both of marital impropriety. Herod was caught in a trap of his own pride. Because of his oath, and not wanting to be embarrassed in front of his guests (Mark 6:26), he carried out the request to kill John against his own wishes.
We aren’t told that Antipas repented as David had done earlier. He has a mixed portrayal in the rest of Scripture. In Luke 13:31-33, Jesus called Antipas a “vixen” pejoratively, and the king mocked Jesus for refusing to defend himself (Luke 23:8-11). But ultimately Antipas didn’t find Jesus guilty or worthy of crucifixion (Luke 23:14-15). In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus warns his followers to beware the leaven of Herod (8:15). By these accounts, Herod doesn’t seem to have had major changes of heart.
We must note that during these two events, the Spirit of God was on the move even while both kings were making poor decisions based on their overconfidence and pride. The ark, God’s throne on earth, blessed Obed-Edom while David sulked. And while Herod Antipater was having John killed, Jesus was feeding 5,000 people and proclaiming the good news that the kingdom of heaven is advancing.
In our own lives, when we witness rulers making poor decisions that cause others to suffer and die, we must remember that the kingdom of heaven is still advancing. We must pray and advocate for the repentance of our leaders from foolish overconfidence and that they (and we) embrace the ways of God’s kingdom: respect for God’s holiness and love of all our neighbors.