Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Haunted by Hesed (2 Sam. 9:1-7)

If I were to ask you to tell me a story of “friends,” what story would you tell? Shakespeare told the story of Hamlet and Horatio. Never was there a truer friend than was Hamlet to Horatio and Horatio to Hamlet. “My good friend, Horatio,” Hamlet called him. “Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince/ and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!” Horatio said that; he was talking about Hamlet. Hamlet and Horatio were friends. And when his friend, Hamlet, lay dying in his arms, victim of the villainous treachery of his step-father’s vile plot to poison his step-son and rival, Horatio contemplates suicide as a sympathetic act of “friendship” for his friend, Hamlet. But Hamlet stops him and says: “If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart/ Absent thee from felicity a while/ And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain/ To tell my story.” And so, says Shakespeare, the only reason you know the tragic tale of Prince Hamlet is because his friend, Horatio, lived that day to tell his story.

“Tell me a story of ‘friends,’” says Shakespeare, “and I’ll tell you the story of Hamlet and Horatio.”

When the Bible tells a story about friends, it tells the story of David and Jonathan. David, the shepherd boy, had won a favored place in the court of King Saul with his much heralded victory over the Philistine giant Goliath and for his bravery and courage in the Philistine wars. Soon after he was brought to Saul’s court, a deep, abiding friendship began to develop between Saul’s son, Jonathan, and the “stripling” David. The Bible says “the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.” Like boys will do, Jonathan and David made a pact with each other to become “blood brothers,” we used to call it. “Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul.”

But when David’s military prowess began to outstrip even Saul’s (“Saul killed his thousands, David his ten thousands”), Saul began to be fearful that David’s popularity was becoming a threat; and so the King’s admiration for this precocious lieutenant gave way to jealousy and then to rage and finally to murderous obsession. On more than one occasion Jonathan interposed himself between his mad father’s jealous rage and David, constantly speaking to Saul in David’s behalf, commending him to the King as a loyal and faithful servant. But Saul would have none of it. And when crazy old Saul called Jonathan and his servants together and told them to hunt David down and kill him, Jonathan, risking his father’s ire, warned David and hid him out until he could escape Saul’s wrath, saving him from certain death. And even though David succeeded Saul as king and ruthlessly obliterated every potential rival to his throne from the house of Saul, he was nonetheless haunted by the memory of his friend, Jonathan, and the grace he had shown him long ago.

So powerful was that memory, so haunting that grace, that the opening scene in the official court history of David’s monarchy begins with a picture of the King poignantly crying from his throne: “Is there anyone left of the house of Saul to whom I might show kindness for Jonathan’s sake?” That word translated “kindness” is hesed in the Hebrew. It’s the biggest little word in the Hebrew Bible. It’s been translated “loving kindness,” “covenant faithfulness,” “steadfast love,” “kindness,” as in this text. But the best way to render it, I think, is grace. “Is there anybody left in Saul’s house to whom I might show grace for Jonathan’s sake?”

He’s haunted by hesed, gripped by the grace of a friend in whose debt he stands. Three times in this text the word hesed is used. David knew that he hadn’t made it to his present position without the love, trust, loyalty, support, belief, and faith of his friend Jonathan. And so haunted by hesed, driven to gratitude by the memory of grace, he lavishes “kindness” upon his late friend’s crippled son, Mephibosheth, for Jonathan’s sake.

Is there anyone who doesn’t know how David feels? Haunted by hesed,graced in a thousand selfless ways by persons whom we know not what to call save “friend,” who believed in us and trusted us and stood by us when they need not have done so, but did so because they were our friends!

I’m haunted.

I lost a dear, dear friend recently. Dr. George L. Balentine, “Dr. George” as he was lovingly called, was not just my friend, he was my teacher. It was he who taught me to love the Scripture, the Word of God. He taught me that, as a Christian, you really can’t talk much about what Jesus would do until you know what Jesus actually said, and there is only one place where you can discover that – the Scripture. He opened up the Word of God to me and taught me to listen for that Voice that echoes through its pages.

He was my first Greek teacher. I took every Greek course he offered, and some he didn’t! When I had taken every course the college offered, he and I cobbled out our own – he had me translate over the summer of 1973 Allen Wikgren’s Hellenistic Greek Texts. I still have the syllabus. I read Philo, Josephus, Xenophon, The Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirach, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Didache, Plutarch, and the Greek Magical Papyri. I met each week with him in his office and we’d open the text and I’d read it in Greek and translate it for him. I fell in love with Greek – classical Greek, hellenistic Greek, modern Greek. I read everything in Greek I could find! When I went to Southern Seminary in the 70’s I had had so much Greek that there was no Greek there I could take, so I taught it! But he made it clear to me that he wasn’t interested in Greek for Greek’s sake. He wanted to hear the Voice echoed through the biblical author’s writings without its being garbled in translation. He wanted to talk to Paul, not with someone who was talking with Paul. So he mastered Greek so that he could eliminate the middle man.

I still remember his standing in his NT Greek classes and holding up the Greek NT and saying: “Gentlemen, this is the New Testament. If you don’t read this, you don’t read the New Testament!” Though he was a patient and caring teacher, he was demanding as well. He told us that he had reduced the Greek grammar that must be memorized to an irreducible minimum but that the verb and noun endings simply must be mastered. And he said: “Now Gentlemen, if you don’t learn your Greek endings, not even the grace of God will save you on test day!” Under his influence, I threw away my English translations and read only the Greek New Testament.

He had been in and out of my life for nearly 40 years. He was my teacher in college; he married Cheryl and me 39 years ago; he preached my installation when I was installed as pastor of the First Baptist Church of Raleigh. During that sermon, he noted that he had been my first New Testament professor in college; that he had performed the wedding for my wife and me; and that he had recommended me to the Search Committee at First Church Raleigh. Then he quipped, “Everything he knows; everything he is; everything he has he owes to me!” Everybody laughed. I didn’t. In ways not even George fully knew, he was right. His name is on my college diploma, my marriage license, and my life.

George developed an inoperable brain tumor and died within about three years of the diagnosis. At the time, I happened to be living only a few hours away. Cheryl and I sometimes wonder if God, in his providence, did not place us near George and Sue at that particular time in their life and ours so that when they needed us, we could be there for them. We spent as much time as we could with them during his final days. I watched him slip away from me, and it was more painful than you can imagine. But George had always been there for me. Now it was my turn to be there for him.

When he died, this loving pastor, erudite professor, warm and caring husband and father, I lost the best and most consistent friend I ever had. On the night before he died, he and his childhood sweetheart and devoted wife, who followed him to the grave one month to the day after he died, lay in beds side by side at an area hospice. They pushed their beds together so that they could hold hands one last time during that last, long cold night. He told her that he wasn’t afraid to die, that he really believed all that stuff he’d preached and taught all those years.

And as he drifted off into the sleep of the saints, he whispered to those who stood guard over God’s sheep, “I hear a Voice…calling my name.”

When I was in college, I graded for George one semester when he was overwhelmed with his work as Dean. In gratitude, he gave me a copy of the definitive Greek-English Lexicon, much, much too expensive a book for a struggling college student to afford. And in the front of the book, he inscribed these words, in Greek, of course: “…a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” Those words haunt me to this day!

Ever been “haunted by the grace of God?” Is there someone who was/is to you the very presence of Christ…someone whose name is indelibly inscribed in your heart and on your life? Someone who haunts you with hesed?

In the Church, we have our own name for Thanksgiving; it’s called “Eucharist,” Greek for “thank you.” Why not use this Thanksgiving to “do a David” and say “thank you” to someone whose hesed haunts you, whose integrity inspires you, and whose grace grips you in its grasp and won’t let you go. Hurry…while you still can!

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Dr. Stacy,

Thank you for this blog post. Now I know the background behind why you taught me New Testament Greek the way you did at Gardner-Webb University.
I have a personal "thank you" letter but I could not get your "email" link to work. Please email me at so that I can send it to you. Thanks. Glenn D. Kerstetter