“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes” (Mark Twain). A modern leader is compared to an ancient one; this war is likened to that war. There’s a rhythm beating in the background of history. Patterns and designs dance before our eyes, forming a mosaic of meaning in the world’s unfolding history.
Sometimes, we experience a kind of communal déjà vu in which we exclaim, “Wait a minute! Haven’t we been in this exact same situation before?”
Reading the Bible can elicit a similar experience. In yesterday’s reflection, we spoke of old Moses, out shepherding his sheep, minding his own business, when suddenly, without warning, God kicked down the front door of his ho-hum life and said, “Listen up, old man. Have I got a mission for you.”
Today, we’ll hear the rhyme of that old, old story, but it’ll be spun in a different direction. We will meet another shepherd, out with his sheep, whose life is forever altered when God shows up. We will meet another man to whom God says, “Hey, do I have just the job for you.” And this man, like Moses, will eventually wind up as head of the Israelites.
But history will not repeat itself; this young man, David, will be no carbon copy of Moses. This anointed David will be a foretaste of the Anointed Son of David to come.
We’ll talk about that, but first we need to get dirty. Let’s do a little digging around the base of David’s family tree.
Drunken Incest and a Boy Named Moab
I suppose if you sniff around enough in anyone’s family history, you’re going to find something that stinks. David was no different. His father was Jesse, his grandfather Obed, and his great-grandparents were Boaz and Ruth. You can read about their not-too-steamy romance in the book of Ruth.
Now Ruth was not an Israelite; she hailed from Moab. “Okay, so what,” you ask? Well, the “so what” is where the stink kicks in. Moab was named after its founder, a man with an infamous genesis. He was conceived in a cave, after two daughters and their father, Lot, hightailed it out of Sodom right before God torpedoed the place. One night, in this cave, the oldest daughter slipped into bed with her drunk father, did the deed, and conceived a baby. She named him “Moab,” which means—and I’m not making this up—“from Dad.”
The long and short of this is that if you dig down deep into the roots of David’s family tree, things stink. You’ll catch a whiff of Sodom’s fire and brimstone and the reek of a cave that became like a mini-Sodom where drunken incest was memorialized in a baby named “from Dad.”
I bring up this sordid history because it matters. When it came time to choose a replacement for Saul, the Lord had his pick of Israelites. He could have chosen someone from a squeaky-clean family—or, at least a family without actual Bible stories documenting their incestuous past. But, no, that wouldn’t do. God wanted a man with a pedigree that preached of broken humanity. God wanted Moab’s descendant. David alone was the man after God’s own heart (1 Sam. 13:14).
When Samuel traveled to Bethlehem on a covert mission to anoint the next king of Israel, Jesse paraded his oldest seven sons before the prophet.
“No, no, no,” God said to each of the men.
“Got any more?” Samuel asked.
Then, almost as an afterthought, Jesse said, “Oh, yes, there is one more, now that you mention it. My eighth and youngest boy, David. He’s out with the sheep.”
“Fetch him,” Samuel said.
And the rest, as they say, is history—history that rhymes. Like Moses the shepherd, David the shepherd’s life is forever altered from that day onward. He is anointed to deliver Israel. He slays Goliath. The Lord chose him to be the leader of his people, conqueror of kings, subjugator of nations. David defined kinship in Israel.
How Could David's Son Be Jesse's Root?
Skip forward a few centuries. Jesse’s and David’s bones have long since turned to dust. But the prophet Isaiah is about to breathe new life into their memory. Standing tall in his Jerusalem pulpit, Isaiah scans the far-distant horizon and says, “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit” (11:1). And a few verses later, “In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious” (11:10).
Today, December 19, the church sings the third of the “O Antiphons.” It is based on this foretelling of Isaiah. On this day, we sing to Christ:
“O Root of Jesse, standing as an ensign before the peoples, before whom all kings are mute, to whom the nations will do homage: Come quickly to deliver us” (LSB, 357).
Notice something very odd about Isaiah’s prophesy. It’s not that the Messiah will be from David’s line. We knew that already. Indeed, David himself knew that; God had told him way back in 2 Samuel 7. A “shoot from the stump of Jesse” will spring forth. A new heir will arise to take the throne and rule forever and ever. He will be the “branch from his roots [that] shall bear fruit” (Isa. 11:1).
What’s odd—indeed, what is marvelously mysterious—is that the Messiah is the root of Jesse. How is that possible? How could David's Son be Jesse's Root? That would be like me saying that I am the source of my grandfather, that I predate him, that I am the root of the man who was born 53 years before I was.
How could the Son of David be the Root of David’s father?
In one way only: by being Jesse’s own Creator.
This divine root of Jesse and human shoot of David, this Theanthropos (“GodMan”), as the church fathers called him, “stands as an ensign for the peoples.” In Hebrew, an ensign is a nes, a military standard, around which troops gather.
We see that already in his youth, people from all walks of life and all nations gathered around this ensign, from Jewish shepherds to Gentile magi. The people of Israel follow him and a Gentile woman from Tyre pleads for his mercy. Jewish leaders jeer around his cross while Roman soldiers gamble beneath it.
“The peoples,” Jew and Gentile, flock to him. They can’t stay away from the Son of David. Love him or hate him, he magnetically draws them near. None can steer clear of God. And he will drive none of them away.
He inherited the lineage of Moab, this Son of David. His family tree boasts all the infamy that humanity can muster: incest, murder, prostitution, lies, you name it. Matthew will begin his Gospel with the Son of David’s pedigree that preached of broken humanity’s need for a Savior.
But the Root of Jesse did not come to inspect our moral resumes before welcoming us into the kingdom. He just came to welcome us. “Come one, come all! Moabites, Israelites, Greeks, Romans, Americans, Africans, Australians. Do homage before him. Kneel at his manger, kneel at his cross, kneel at his altar.” He is the man after God’s own heart—a heart that thrills to welcome sinners home.
O Root of Jesse, O Son of David, come quickly to deliver us.
*In tomorrow’s article, we will look at “O Key of David.”