A contract is an exchange of promises: “I promise to do x if you promise to do y.” Each party must undertake an obligation—called “consideration”—for the contract to be binding. A simple unilateral promise with no consideration (“I will give you my car on Monday”) is not usually binding. These law-rules about obligations in our daily lives provide a contrast to the covenant that the Lord makes with David and to the way that David treats Mephibosheth, Jonathan’s son.
David wants to build a house or temple for the Lord, some real-estate-with-improvements that might serve as consideration for a reliable contract with God, but the Lord (through Nathan) rejects the idea that even the properly anointed king could do anything for him. Rather, He will be the one to build an unmerited and ultimately eternal “house” for David.
The Lord makes what a lawyer would call an unenforceable naked promise: “I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.” Thus, Solomon and, eventually, Jesus.
Rather than invoking God’s promises, and holding him to them, how often do we come forward with something in hand, a little consideration to bind him, thinking that we will strike a contract with God? I know that I do, forgetful that nothing binds the Lord God except himself; that his promises, “naked” or no, are perfectly reliable; and that the only “consideration” God ever desired or accepted was the substitution of his son Jesus on the Cross.
God makes his covenant, but it is ultimately one of grace, not contract-law.
We see this grace play out on a retail scale in David’s treatment of the lame Mephibosheth, Jonathan’s son. David had promised Saul and Jonathan that he would not destroy their descendants (such destruction being a common practice after regime-change in the ancient world), but neither man was around to remind David of the promise.
For his protection, the lame son had been taken away, to live with Machir, son of Ammiel. Not only would no one have blinked had David killed Mephibosheth, but also Jonathan’s son had nothing to offer the king: no consideration, no bargaining power, nothing. And the boy realizes it: “What is your servant, that you should show regard for a dead dog such as I?” Yet David has the “dead dog” brought in and keeps him in his house, eating at the king’s table.
We are all “dead dogs.” Perhaps more accurately, we resemble the thieves in Reservoir Dogs, Quentin Tarantino’s 1992 film about a jewelry heist gone very bad: we are tools of others, we all have pseudonyms we hide behind, what seems in our greed to be simple and enriching goes awry, and there is no one to trust. At least, there’s no one to trust in the movie.
As beneficiaries of grace, however, we know better. We know we have a Promisor whose unmerited promises we can invoke today and throughout all eternity.
Jack Sharman is an attorney in Birmingham, Alabama, and a member of the Cathedral Church of the Advent.