FAMOUS LAST WORDS
A sermon on 2 Samuel 23:1-7
First Baptist Church of Lynchburg
November 25, 2018
By Paul Dakin
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
I am not sure why it is, but there is something about a person’s last words that seem to stimulate our interest. This is particularly true if it is someone we regard as successful or important as the world measures those things. Maybe it is because we seek to find some secret for living from this person who has lived a full and eventful life. Perhaps, in a brief moment of clarity, when a person has one foot in the physical world and one foot in eternity, we think that they can impart some bit of hard-won wisdom from a life well-lived—some insight that they can bequeath as a final gift to the living. Sometimes that is the very thing that happens. Sometimes it may be something else…
Sir Isaac Newton is one of the towering figures in the history of science and especially physics. His discoveries and theories helped to shape the world’s understanding of the physical world for centuries. It is said that these were his final words before he passed away: “I don’t know what I may seem to the world. But as to myself, I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore and diverting myself now and then in finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than the ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”
You all know Sir Winston Churchill as the outstanding statesman and leader who guided Great Britain through the darkest hours of World War 2. During the latter part of his life, Churchill struggled with increasingly ill health even as he tried to maintain an active schedule. On January 15, 1965, as he was resting, he is said to have told those around him, “I’m so bored with it all.” Right after he had spoken those words, he had a massive stroke. He slipped into a coma and died nine days later. Despite all of his considerable military, political and literary accomplishments, Churchill came to the end of his life and said, “I’m so bored with it all…”
In 1790, Founding Father Benjamin Franklin lay dying of pleurisy at his home in Philadelphia at the age of 84. His daughter was looking after him and told him to change position in his bed so that he could breathe more easily. Ever the pragmatic wise man, Franklin is said to have responded to her, “A dying man can do nothing easy” just before he entered into eternity.
One more…Painter, sculptor, architect, inventor, philosopher—Leonardo da Vinci was truly a Renaissance man in every sense of the word. Even today, his works are recognized and revered for their artistry and brilliance. He was a man who was very much ahead of his time. In 1519 at the age of 67, Leonardo suffered a stroke that incapacitated him. Just before he passed away, this celebrated virtuoso artist, whose accomplishments include two of the world’s most famous paintings, “The Mona Lisa” and “The Last Supper,” said to those around him, “I have offended God and mankind because my work did not reach the quality it should have.” All I can say is “Wow”…just “Wow”…
In today’s reading from 2 Samuel, we have recorded the last words of one of the most famous and influential people in the Old Testament—if not the entire Bible. The narrator of 2 Samuel tells us that these are the last words of King David.
One would think that, since these were the last words of Israel’s legendary king, the meaning of these words would be crystal clear when it came time to translate them into English. What I discovered is that is not the case at all. There is a fair amount of scholarly debate as to what the meaning of what portions of this passage mean.
For example, the opening verse identifies David as “the son of Jesse,” “the man whom God exalted,” “The anointed of the God of Jacob,” and “the favorite of the Strong One of Israel.” It seems that the last phrase can be translated in any number of ways in addition to the one already read. Other translators offer “Israel’s hero” or “Beloved of God.” But about two thirds of translators render it as something like “the sweet singer (or “sweet psalmist”) of Israel.” Israel’s greatest king—Israel’s greatest warrior—is also Israel’s greatest musician and singer. (I must confess that I am particularly fond of that translation…!)
Verse two reads, “The Spirit of the Lord speaks through me…” The translation is accurate as far as it goes. But the picture that David paints is much more vivid than that. The Hebrew here for “Spirit of the Lord” is ruach Yahweh—“the breath of God.” David says that it is the very breath of God that is speaking through him. What a tantalizing thought that the same breath that gives life to all creation is present in the words that he speaks. It lets us know that these are words of authority. These are words of power. They are not that way because of who David is. NO. The words carry authority because they are spoken with the very breath of God…
One final translation note…in the Hebrew text, there are no punctuation marks. It is up to the translators to supply them. Oftentimes, there is not much question as to the intent of the sentence and what punctuation to use. The context lets us know the proper punctuation. However, in this case, the proper punctuation is not at all clear. And the punctuation makes a huge difference.
Verse five in the translation read earlier is a question: “Is not my house like this with God?” David has been describing that those who rule should be like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, sparkling off the rain that has fallen on the grass overnight.
Instead of making verse five a question, though, other translators make it a statement. With this change in punctuation, the words become something more like an admission: “My house is not like this.”
I think this is significant. Although David is considered to be Israel’s greatest ruler, these words show that he was not blind to his own failings and shortcomings. The prophet Samuel described David as “a man after God’s own heart.” But David himself failed to live up to the high standards of leadership and devotion to God that he speaks of in this passage. And he is honest enough to admit it.
Anyone who knows the story of David knows that David’s reign was a mixed bag at best. From this set of his last words, one would never guess that David had had an affair with a married woman named Bathsheba, that he had devised a plan to cover it up, and when that failed, that he had Bathsheba’s husband murdered. Nor would you guess that he ignored the rape of his daughter Tamar by her half-brother Amnon. The consequences of his lack of action in that situation resulted in a civil war led by another of his sons Absalom that very nearly cost David the throne. And that is just a couple of the more obvious examples of the lapses in judgment that David exhibited from time to time…He genuinely aspired to more, even when he fell far short…
Verses three and four read, “One who rules over people justly, ruling in the fear of God, is like the light of morning, like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on the grassy land.” Wouldn’t it be great if these words could be read at the inauguration of every president? At every swearing-in ceremony at every level of government—federal, state and local? Could not these words serve as a reminder to our elected officials of what we truly desire from them? It seems to me that the sentiments expressed in those words describe how a good leader should be—that when they act justly and fairly, they are a refreshment to the people that they are elected to serve.
They speak to a desire that all of us have. All of us want more from our leaders, don’t we? We want better for ourselves and better for our nation. We want clarity of purpose and actions. We want justice and righteousness from those making decisions for us and about us. We want our leaders to know that they not just ruling on their own. They are not just answerable to their base of supporters. NO—they are ultimately answerable to the One who rules over all. And that knowledge is what should guide their decisions…
This is the wisdom that David wished to impart to those who would follow in his steps…And perhaps he said these last words with a tinge of sadness, knowing that he himself had not been able to live up to them. But perhaps he also hoped that others would hear them, learn from his mistakes, and do better than he had done…
As I thought about these last words of David in preparing this sermon, it occurs to me that David obviously put a lot of thought into them ahead of time. Considering the beauty of the language, the stunning images that he uses, and the noble thoughts that he expresses, it seems to indicate that these last words were not the kind of thing that David just came up with on the spur of the moment. Now David was a gifted poet for sure. There is not much debate about that. After all, seventy three of the 150 poems in the book of Psalms are attributed to him.
No—I believe that this final speech of David’s was something that he worked on ahead of time for a good, long while. I think he crafted it in order to make sure that it said exactly what he wanted to say. I do not think that he wanted to leave it to chance. And he did not want to waste this final opportunity by saying something frivolous. David wanted to say something important and significant to those around him with his last words. I think that he wanted to give his descendants—those who would rule once he was gone—some important insights. These are things that he had learned as king that he wanted to pass on before he went to meet the God that had faithfully guided him all his life.
Which leads me to this question—what about you? Have you ever considered what you would want your final words to be when it is time for you to “shuffle off this mortal coil?” What would you want to say to those around you as you take your last few breaths? Would you want to speak of the lessons that you learned in your life? Would you want to express your thanks and love for the people who have meant something to you? Would you want to give voice to one final offering of praise to God for all his goodness before leaving this earth?
Some folks pronounce a word of blessing to those around them. But sadly, the last words of some people are words that are filled with regret. They talk about the things they had done in their lives that they would do differently if given the chance to do them over. I’ve heard it said that NO ONE EVER says that they wished that they had spent more time in the office when they come down to their final minutes. I am sure that is true. Unfortunately, it seems that some people do not understand the real nature of life until it begins to start ebbing away. And by that time, it is too late to make any changes…
What about you? There is still time to make a change, you know. There is still time to adjust your priorities. There is still time for you to change your way of thinking…and your way of doing things. There is still time to do what God has called you to do. There is still time to mend those broken relationships—relationships with others and with the Lord. There is still time to do the deeds of love and mercy that the Lord calls you to do. There is still time for you to connect with God in a meaningful way…there is still time to nurture a vital, vibrant relationship with him…there is still time to claim a piece of that abundant life that Jesus offers us. There is still time…
When we get to the end of our lives, I pray that all of our consciences will be clear. Let our regrets be few as we review our lives in those last fleeting moments. May we have lived in such a way that gives honor and glory to God—the author of life—and the giver of every good thing.
To God alone be the glory! Amen.
 These quotes are from www.mentalfloss.com/article/58534/64-people-and-their-famous-last-quotes (Accessed November 18, 2018)