Rev. Allen Brill

The Prophet and the King

An avid student of the Bible like George Bush should have learned something from those ancient texts about the traps that can ensnare leaders who grow careless or arrogant. We might even have hoped that a man so public in his declarations of faith would have been acutely aware of the nature and importance of the role played by the prophets in the royal courts of Iron Age Israel.

One of the most famous incidents in those often-stormy relationships between God's appointed spokesmen and God's anointed rulers took place when the prophet Nathan confronted King David. The slayer of Goliath had once been a man after God's own heart, but power had made David corrupt and callous. When he desired Bathsheeba, it was not enough for the king to take this married woman from her husband. Trying to cover his covetous lust, David used his authority to send Bathsheeba's spouse Uriah into battle, hoping that the Hittite would not survive.

When Uriah was killed, it looked as if David's ruthlessness had succeeded, but there still remained one person at court who was not cowed by David's crown. The prophet Nathan had already spoken bluntly to dissuade David from building a temple in Jersualem, but that task was easy compared to calling the king an adulterer and murderer. Nathan began by telling the king about an injustice that had taken place in Israel. A rich man who had everything had stolen his poor neighbor's only precious possession -- a ewe lamb. David, who served as both king and judge over Israel, was outraged. "The man who did this deserves to die!" he cried. Nathan looked into David's eyes and coolly replied, "You are the man."

Nathan's words shocked David into contrition and repentance, but such a response to a prophet's rebuke is more the exception than the rule in the biblical narrative. More typical is the reaction of David's predecessor, Saul, to the prophetic criticism he received from Israel's last "judge," Samuel. Saul persisted in rejecting the prophet's advice and eventually even sought out Samuel to arrest or kill him. The old man was never caught, but ironically it was only after Samuel died of natural causes that Saul truly came to appreciate the value of having someone around who speaks the truth even if it offends the king.

As the external enemies of Israel waxed stronger and Saul's rival David grew in popularity, Saul became desperate for the kind of honest advice he had once received from Samuel. Saul and two of his aides disguised themselves and trekked to the home of the witch of Endor where the king asked the medium to conjure the spirit of Samuel for him. An old man wearing a robe appeared, and the same Saul who had arrogantly rejected the prophet's advice in the past now prostrated himself before this ghost. The spirit of Samuel was unimpressed. "Why do you consult me now that the LORD has turned away from you and become your enemy?" he asked.

George Bush was blessed with a few Nathans and Samuels when he first took office. Most left out of frustration or were fired for speaking the truth to power. Some of them now experience the ruler's wrath when they seek to warn the American electorate about the dangerous places where George Bush would lead us. If the president had only listened before 9/11 to a blunt, outspoken Richard Clarke, how might things be different? If he had only heeded those who warned against the Iraqi adventure, how many lives might have been saved? I doubt that there is anyone left in this administration willing to tell George Bush bluntly about the injustices of the past three years and conclude by looking him in the eye and saying, "You are the man."

Rev. Allen H. Brill is a Lutheran pastor (ELCA) in South Carolina and founder of The Right Christians (, an organization to provide a voice for Christian progressives. Email

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