Some days he would simply sit, moody and depressed, for long periods of time, and matters of state were allowed to slide. It was 1724, in Russia, Peter the Great within a year of his death. Unless Peter's motor would drive affairs, very little was done. Unfortunately, now his motor seemed to idle in neutral. A diplomat wrote back to his home government, reporting that currently in Russia nothing was considered important until it came to the edge of a precipice.
We meet a similar scene about 970 bc, recorded in the first four verses of our passage. Here is an old, cold king who seems not to be long for this world. We cannot even be sure if the heat therapy administered by the stunning Abishag was effective. Not a promising beginning.
Before jumping into an exposition of the chapter let us review a literary map of the narrative and add a few footnotes about the manner of the story.
Proposed Structure of 1 Kings 1
Some (additional) observations: (1) The prevalence of speeches (Bathsheba, vv. 15-21; Nathan, vv. 11-14, 22-27; David, vv. 28-31, 32-35; Jonathan, vv. 41-48); the writer tells much of his story through the mouths of lead characters; (2) how the writer engages in repetition, e.g. via David's speech (vv. 33-35), his own report (vv. 38-40), and Jonathan's speech (vv. 43-48); and (3) the dominant idea of 'sitting on the throne and ruling' mentioned nine times (vv. 13, 17, 20, 24, 27, 30, 35, 46, 48). Other repeated vocabulary occurs, but this last is the central theme: Who's got the kingdom? And the central contention of the text is: Yahweh maintains his kingdom in all its precarious moments. Now for some expository reflections.
Not all kings are decrepit like David in verses 1-4. Note the contrast between verses 1 and 5. Adonijah is everything David is not. Here is a vigorous would-be king! He has ambition (v. 5a), style (5b), image (6b), position (6c, apparently next in line by order of birth), and support (7, 9—both military and religious, among others).
At one level the writer simply describes Adonijah and his activity. It seems a very objective, here-are-the-facts description. I hold, however, that he takes a negative view of Adonijah—especially if he means us to view him in light of preceding texts or traditions. The writer's description of Adonijah's fine looks recalls the glossy word picture of Absalom in 2 Samuel 14:25-27, as well as the depictions of Saul (1 Sam. 9:2; 10:23-24) and Eliab (1 Sam. 16:6-7). All these royal or potentially royal persons were physically impressive and either disastrous or rejected. Adonijah, our writer implies, belongs to that class. Moreover, Adonijah's freedom from discipline (v. 6a) reflects both on David and himself and places him in the category of Amnon (2 Sam. 13:21), who was high in glands but low on brains and restraint. This comparison with Amnon is more explicit if one follows LXX at 2 Samuel 13:21, as does reb: 'but he [David] would not hurt Amnon because he was his eldest son and he loved him.'
Several applications arise from the text. The first is an observation: the kingdom of God frequently passes through precarious moments in this world. It may be the passing of Joseph and the rise of bondage (Gen. 50-Exod. 1), the death of Moses and the transition to Joshua (Deut. 34-Josh. 1), the burial of Joshua and the apostasy to Baal worship (Josh. 24-Judg. 2)—others are not lacking. The situation in our text is one of them. Here in David's nearing death is a transition point in the kingdom of God, one of those critical situations where a wrong move, a false step, a stupid turn, could spell disaster. It seems that the contemporary church might benefit from this text. How frequently we are deluged with the various crises the church faces, with the perils she must meet in days of unprecedented moral decadence, ethical relativism, global upheaval, or whatever. I do not wish to downplay the crisis element in 1 Kings 1 or at any time among the people of God, but the church has repeatedly passed through such times when she has had to walk on the edge of disaster. Apparently, there is a hand that steadies her.
The text also suggests that the kingdom of God can suffer from unqualified leadership. When Peter the Great (allow me to re-resurrect him) wanted to launch a Russian navy at Archangel on the White Sea, he promoted three of his comrades to high office, appointing them as admiral, vice admiral, and rear admiral, respectively. The first two had never been on a boat, but the last, Patrick Gordon, a Scotsman in Peter's service, had had nautical experience. He had been a passenger on ships crossing the English Channel!
Our writer (for reasons given previously) sees Adonijah as unqualified for kingdom leadership. There is far more to it than saying, "I will be king' (v. 5). Lust for power and position are not the marks for leadership among God's people.
I think there is an applicational spillover here for the church. In 1 Timothy 3, Paul lays down qualifications for church leaders, elders, deacons, and deaconesses (or deacons' wives). Isn't it telling that those qualifications almost totally stress godliness rather than giftedness, character rather than skills? Nor should we delude ourselves by thinking Adonijah is dead in the church. He lives under a different name perhaps. Do we not find him in 3 John 9-10 in Diotrephes, 'who loves to be first' (niv), using his royal tyranny to domineer and boss the congregation? Adonijah still struts in the church. He may be the elder who can't distinguish between authority and authoritarianism; he may be corporate—the one 'family' that runs the church; or he may be the dominant dame, the woman who either visibly or cryptically calls the shots.
Adonijah's party is in full swing at En-rogel (v. 9), a spring several hundred yards south of the City of David. Not everyone, however, is at Adonijah's party or on his bandwagon.
Nathan the prophet decides something must be done to alert the uninformed king about the state of affairs. So he goes to Bathsheba and briefs her on his plan. The narrative falls into three chunks: (1) Nathan to Bathsheba, vv 11-14; (2) Bathsheba to David, vv. 15-21; and (3) Nathan to David, vv. 22-27.
Bathsheba is to inform the king of Adonijah's coup-in-progress, and Nathan will come in and, in line with the at-least-two-witnesses requirement (Num. 35:30; Deut. 17:6; 19:15), confirm her story (v. 14).
Apparently, David had gone on oath to Bathsheba, assuring her that Solomon would succeed him as king (v. 17). But David had taken no public action in this regard, and, while David shivered and vegetated, Adonijah decided to make a move and present Israel with a fait accompli. Adonijah also surely knew that Solomon was privately the favored successor; otherwise, one cannot explain his excluding Solomon from his invitation list (vv. 10, 19, 26). Nathan and Bathsheba were probably right to infer from this fact that once Adonijah reigned Solomon would be eliminated (vv. 12, 21). So now (at the end of v. 27) the king knows what he didn't know and knows the danger in which his own faithful servants, and especially Bathsheba and Solomon, stand.
How crucial Nathan's role (vv. 11ff.) is in this story! He even had to inform Bathsheba. Looking back on the whole affair, everything rests on Nathan. He not only intervened but had a plan by which to stir David to action. Nathan was the man who stood in the gap—his vigilance goaded David off his couch and protected Bathsheba and Solomon from almost certain death. One non-royal servant makes the difference and preserves the kingdom.
Trouble was brewing in Richmond. It was 1863 and some of the women in the Confederate capital were incensed over the rise in food prices. They decided to protest. Minerva Meredith, a butcher's assistant, six feet tall and brandishing a navy revolver and a Bowie knife, led the rampage. Some three hundred women plus children screaming, 'Bread! Bread!,' rioted, smashing plate-glass windows and carting off—not surprisingly—far more than food from the shops. They ignored tine mayor's warning, as well as a company of militia that threatened to fire on them. Then a few of them noticed a tall thin man in gray walk up and climb on to a loaded cart and begin to address the mob in no uncertain terms. They quieted when they saw him empty his pockets and throw money in their direction. 'You say you are hungry and have no money. Here is all I have. It is not much, but take it.' Then, with open watch in hand and an eye on the company of militia, he assured the furious females that he wanted no one injured. Nevertheless the lawlessness must stop. He held his watch. They had five minutes to disperse—then they would be fired on. The women knew he was not given to idle threats and within five minutes all targets had vanished. So Jeff Davis, president of the Confederacy, dispersed a mob. The difference one man made.
That is the situation in 1 Kings 1: Everything, humanly speaking, hinges on Nathan. I do not think we should use this text as a piece of Christian cheer-leading or religious rah-rah. I don't think the text is grabbing me by the lapels telling me to 'become a Nathan.' But surely it implies that one's service in Christ's kingdom has a real dignity about it and that one can never tell how crucial one servant's labor may prove to be. Surely a Lord who remembers cups of water handed to his people (Mark 9:41) does not think lightly of our faithfulness, major or minor.
What a change comes over David! When Bathsheba had first come in (v. 16), David, as though out of gas (petrol), gets out two Hebrew syllables, literally translated, 'What to you?' But at verse 28 he is full of gusto: calling for Bathsheba (v. 28), reaffirming his previous oath to her (vv. 29-30); calling for Zadok, Nathan, and Benaiah (v. 32); giving detailed orders for anointing and installing Solomon as king (vv. 33-35)—all of which were executed with vigor and dispatch (vv. 38-40). David was not doddering but decisive: 'he will reign in my place, and I have ordered him to be leader over Israel and over Judah' (v. 35, emphasis in Hebrew). That takes care of the major issue (see discussion of literary features/themes at beginning of this chapter). God was the one who would establish David's dynasty (2 Sam. 7:12-16), and yet that assurance seems to call for a component of human responsibility. God had promised David a kingdom and dynasty, and David dare not be apathetic toward what happened to it.
This section suggests two matters for reflection. First, it was the fate (I speak loosely) of the kingdom that stirred David to action. What stirs us, as kingdom servants, to life? What catches our zeal? Our portfolio? The auto shop that still hasn't correctly diagnosed and repaired my ailing vehicle? Inability to find just the right drapes? Your high school football team blew its chance to make the district playoffs? Do the first three petitions of the Lord's Prayer move, grip, and stir us? What stirs us reveals us. And must we not confess that frequently only our comfort zone has the ability to ignite any real zeal in us?
Secondly, notice how much of the narrative—not only in this section but in the whole story so far—describes nothing but human activity. Adonijah's quest for the throne is met by Nathan's vigilance and countered by the orders of a resurrected David. But there is little if any reference to divine intervention. As Ronald Wallace has put it:
Yet God had made no spectacularly miraculous intervention in human affairs. He had not struck Adonijah down with any sudden illness nor had he sent a bolt of lightning from heaven to spoil his celebration. At the right time, and in the right situation he had simply inspired minds with thoughts that moved them on, and given the exact words that were required to turn events in the right direction.
Why is God's hand so invisible, his ways so hidden? Why does he seem to allow things to take their course rather than put things right? Why does he seemingly commit to fragile human hands such critical matters? Why do we constantly long for one of the days of the Son of Man and never see it (cf. Luke 17:22)?
Adonijah and his cronies all hear the racket up in the city but haven't a clue about its meaning until Jonathan, Abiathar's son, arrives. Jonathan must have been on site for most of Solomon's coronation; he even has intelligence about conversations and statements. But his first words contain the long and the short of it: 'Our lord King David has made Solomon king' (v. 43). End of party (v. 49). Everyone scurries or slinks home to begin looking like ideal citizens in Solomon's kingdom. Adonijah himself submits and is allowed to live in spite of his attempt to seize the kingdom for himself (vv. 50-53).
Now not everything is peaches and cream at this point, but to date Adonijah has made the proper response. That is all that is required. So long as he continues this submission he is safe (v. 52). Yet we know there can be such a thing as an outward, external submission that stands miles apart from a glad, internal one, a formal submission given because of conditions or circumstances—something like the sixty-seven standing ovations Ceausescu of Romania once received during a five-hour speech. In the latter case no one would imagine such tedium could call forth totally genuine enthusiasm.
Do not believing parents face this concern with their children? From birth we teach them the Scriptures, the doctrines and precepts of the faith, including the kingship of Jesus, and they usually assent to all this. Even into their teen years there is this general acceptance of what has been taught. And that is not disappointing! It's not like we want them to go become Baal worshipers to prove how authentic they are. But there is a subtle concern: Will what has been taught not merely be acknowledged but embraced? Will the catechetical become the experiential? Will there be more than outward assent? Will they sit in willing bonds at Jesus' feet?