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Occasional Letters: Comparing Neighbours

D Newell, Glasgow

Can you remember the next door neighbours of your childhood? I recall the folk who lived on either side of us when I was a small boy: Mr and Mrs Horney on the right, Mr and Mrs Hook on the left. Their names both began with H, but otherwise they were quite different. The former lived in a house like ours, the latter in a bungalow. The former kept hens (we benefitted from the eggs), the latter had a red setter called Brutus. The former were builders, the latter coal merchants. The former had a son, the latter were childless. The former were "ordinary", the latter slightly "posh". From an early age I learned to differentiate between people. Do you realise you are doing that every time you read your Bible? It is as we compare and contrast neighbouring characters, chapters, verses and events that we learn. Just consider a few simple examples.

Let's take adjacent chapters. Have you ever wondered why the catalogue of Israel's annual festivals in Leviticus 23 is followed in chapter 24 by (of all things) a brief repetition of duties relating to the golden lampstand and the table of showbread? When you think about it, it's quite an odd contrast, especially as chapter 25 carries on where 23 left off, with instructions about other large-scale calendar events – the sabbatical year and the year of jubilee. After the impressive celebration and prophetic anticipation associated with the feasts of Jehovah, a sudden reminder of day-in-day-out routine seems initially a bit of a let-down. But there's a purpose in it all. The juxtaposition makes the point that those big yearly national occasions could never replace the necessity of the daily (trimming and refuelling the lamps) and the weekly (furnishing the table with fresh loaves). Of course, the church has no yearly festivals like Israel. But perhaps it's worth bearing in mind that an annual assembly conference, however celebrated the speakers and however large the numbers, is no substitute for, say, our regular duty of shining daily "as lights in the world; Holding forth the word of life" (Phil 2.15-16), or gathering on the first day of the week to remember the Lord Jesus in the breaking of bread. Scripture never encourages us to trivialize the ordinary. Indeed, it is so often in the mundane routine of personal Bible study and the unglamorous assembly teaching meeting that God speaks to our hearts.

What about neighbouring characters? 2 Samuel 19 presents a swift succession of men who came to meet David when he returned triumphant after the quashing of Absalom's rebellion. We might call them the bad, the good, and the elderly. Certainly, they are sharply contrasted, each uttering a key statement which sums up his character. First comes Shimei:

So the king returned, and came to Jordan…And Shimei the son of Gera, a Benjamite…hasted and came down with the men of Judah to meet king David…And Shimei…fell down before the king…And said unto the king, Let not my lord impute iniquity unto me, neither do thou remember that which thy servant did perversely the day that my lord the king went out of Jerusalem, that the king should take it to his heart. For thy servant doth know that I have sinned: therefore, behold, I am come the first this day of all the house of Joseph to go down to meet my lord the king (vv.15-20).

The loutish Shimei, who loudly cursed David in his moment of humiliation, now comes crawling with the admission, "I have sinned". But lip service may be untrustworthy. Both Pharaoh and Saul made similar statements without any supporting evidence of reality, reverting to their old ways once the crisis was over. David, on the other hand, was different. When confronted with terrible personal failure he confessed, "I have sinned against the Lord" (2 Sam 12.13), language which harmonises with the psalm of contrition in which he acknowledged that "Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight" (Ps 51.4). It was not so much Bathsheba or even Uriah who was the injured party but God Himself. In the light of this, Shimei's protestations sound hollow. Nor did David ever trust him, as his dying instructions to Solomon indicate. May our confessions of sin and professions of praise never be counterfeit.

Shimei is followed by another but very different Benjamite. Mephibosheth had neither dressed his feet, nor trimmed his beard, nor washed his clothes, from the day the king departed until the day he came again in peace…when he was come…the king said unto him, Wherefore wentest not thou with me, Mephibosheth? And he answered, My lord, O king, my servant…hath slandered thy servant unto my lord the king; but my lord the king is as an angel of God: do therefore what is good in thine eyes. For all of my father's house were but dead men before my lord the king: yet didst thou set thy servant among them that did eat at thine own table. What right therefore have I yet to cry any more unto the king? And the king said unto him, Why speakest thou any more of thy matters? I have said, Thou and Ziba divide the land. And Mephibosheth said…Yea, let him take all, forasmuch as my lord the king is come again in peace unto his own house (vv.24-30).

Mephibosheth displays a refreshing humility completely out of step with our society's strident insistence upon personal rights. Ever conscious of his unworthiness, he shows both integrity (the inspired narrative tells us he had gone into mourning ever since he heard of David's misfortunes) and straightforward honesty (his account of Ziba's treachery rings true). More, he has such a lively memory of David's unlooked-for mercy to him back in chapter 9 that the priority of his life is unmistakable. What matters to him is neither his land nor his assets ("let him take all") but the safe return of his king. David's abrupt response betrays acute embarrassment: he had, without investigation, swallowed Ziba's defamatory lies hook, line and sinker. But if David comes out of this encounter with little credit, Mephibosheth is a true son of Jonathan: for him, David is everything. We would do well to model ourselves on a man who gloried not so much in his blessings as in the blesser.

The final figure is the aged Barzillai, who had provided the king of sustenance…for he was a very great man. And the king said unto Barzillai, Come thou over with me, and I will feed thee with me in Jerusalem. And Barzillai said unto the king, How long have I to live, that I should go up with the king unto Jerusalem? I am this day fourscore years old: and can I discern between good and evil? can thy servant taste what I eat or what I drink?...But behold thy servant Chimham; let him go over with my lord the king (vv.31-38).

Although "Great men are not always wise" (Job 32.9), this octogenarian demonstrates commendable understanding in being alert to his own limitations. Knowing he could no longer benefit from David's offer, he puts his son forward. When bodily and mental deterioration renders men unable to continue exercising those responsibilities they have faithfully discharged for many years, it takes considerable grace to retire into the background, allowing younger ones to take their place. But it is necessary. Assemblies can be ruined by those who cling to power too long instead of training up others to continue the work. Barzillai is a pattern of responsible maturity. "How long have I to live?", signals an intelligent acceptance of the brevity of life which should speak to us all. It is only right to pass the torch to a younger generation while our hand is still steady and our mind still fully engaged.

As you read the Word watch out for interesting and contrasting neighbours - we can learn a lot from them. To be continued.


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