More than a week ago, I met LC at Al-Azhar to chat, over mugs of teh, about how the gospel was doing in Myanmar. He talked about the thousands of churches in Myanmar and hundreds of bible schools in Yangon alone, and the regretable paucity of good bible teaching. Many Christians were applying God’s historical promises to Israel to their particular political struggles for independence (for some) and democracy (for others).
This weekend, we were at Empress Restaurant (#01-03 Asian Civilisations Museum, 1 Empress Place, Singapore 179555) for a weekend dim sum brunch with one of their docents. (The food was fairly decent, but as a Malay friend pointed out, the dishes were tweaked to accommodate a more Western palate (except the chicken feet – what can you do with that?!). I rather enjoyed the subtle twists of taste and texture.)
Upstairs in the Asian Civilisations Museum, the Cities and Kings exhibition intended to tell the story of Myanmar in 60 artifacts that had been carefully shipped over, most of them depicting some Hindu imagery and Buddha in various poses. They’d come from the ancient Pyu period (early first millennium A.D.), from the golden age of Myanmar – the Bagan period (11th – 13th century), from the city of Bago during the period of the Mon kings (14th – 15th century), from the Shan state that enjoyed some independence after the collapse of Bagan (16th – 18th century), and from the last royal city before it was “dismantled” by the British – Mandalay (19th century).
Bagan. 11th century. Buddha seated in dharma chakra mudra making a “teaching” gesture. This statue is rumoured to have wish-fulfilling qualities and so the museum had a little stand made in front of it should anyone want to leave flower offerings. There was a flickering screen nearby showing how they carefully packed the statue (as it was farewelled by Burmese worshippers), crated it, and shipped it to Singapore. Personally, it would give me far greater confidence if my wish-granter could move by his/her own accord at least.
Shan state. 18th century. This seated Buddha makes an “earth-touching” gesture. Evidence of old lacquer is still obvious. Statues were lacquered so that gold-leaf from devotees would adhere to the surface of the statue – a form of merit-making (kutho).
The various styles and materials used to depict Buddha bore testimony to the political and military upheavals that happened over the course of a thousand years. But of course, Buddhist scriptures aren’t concerned about the rise and fall of dynasty or even the thousands of cycles of birth and rebirth, according to Buddha’s teachings, that must have taken place in the meantime. Their focus is on the here-and-now, with an eye to one’s fate as a reincarnated being (cockroach or man?).
George Orwell’s evil corpulent U Po Kyin comes to mind then. He who, in the opening chapter of Burmese Days, was planning to trump all his evil scheming ways with merit-making – building stupas and pagodas with his ill-gotten wealth. But the Buddhist scheme, at least as commonly understood in Myanmar, has no way of dealing with the blatant injustice of this.
Later, while working on an overview of 2 Samuel, I thought how different the God of the Bible is. (Of course, Buddha never claimed to be a god.) He is a God who is supremely just and cares about justice, and he is a God totally in charge of history and is guiding it according to his definite plan, yet he is also a God who cares for his people.
David’s last words as king and as an oracle:
“The Spirit of the Lord speaks by me;
his word is on my tongue.
3 The God of Israel has spoken;
the Rock of Israel has said to me:
When one rules justly over men,
ruling in the fear of God,
4 he dawns on them like the morning light,
like the sun shining forth on a cloudless morning,
like rain that makes grass to sprout from the earth.
5 “For does not my house stand so with God?
For he has made with me an everlasting covenant,
ordered in all things and secure.
For will he not cause to prosper
all my help and my desire?
6 But worthless men are all like thorns that are thrown away,
for they cannot be taken with the hand;
7 but the man who touches them
arms himself with iron and the shaft of a spear,
and they are utterly consumed with fire.” (2 Samuel 23:2-7)
David was never that just king. After the death of Saul, still in his own timing, God first made David first king over Judah, then king over all Israel. He was the one who gave David victory. Unlike other gods, God was adamant that David could not do anything for him (like, err, build him a house when…God himself created the whole world). Rather, he would be the one to give David great promises not just for himself but for his descendants, and later, the whole world:
Thus says the Lord of hosts, I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep, that you should be prince over my people Israel. 9 And I have been with you wherever you went and have cut off all your enemies from before you. And I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. 10 And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may dwell in their own place and be disturbed no more. And violent men shall afflict them no more, as formerly, 11 from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel. And I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover, the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. 12 When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. 13 He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom for ever. 14 I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. When he commits iniquity, I will discipline him with the rod of men, with the stripes of the sons of men, 15 but my steadfast love will not depart from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. 16 And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure for ever before me. Your throne shall be established for ever.’ (2 Samuel 7:8-16)
2 Samuel 8-10 was the height of his reign: he gets victory over God’s enemies, protects his people, shows good judgement and amazing generosity to Mephibosheth of the house of Saul. And this, you think to yourself, is a king I would gladly live under.
Then very quickly, David fails to fear God and commits adultery with Bathsheba and murders Uriah (2 Samuel 11), and God judges him justly (2 Samuel 12), and the things spiral downwards with one of his sons raping one of his daughters, his inability to judge justly, his son attempting to usurp his God-given position and succeeding because of popular support from the masses, the subsequent death of his son…(2 Samuel 13-18).
By the time we get to 2 Samuel 19, Joab has won the battle for David, but David is a sad shadow of his former self. Neither Judah nor Israel is particularly keen for him to be back as king, and the only people who are at all enthused to see him are Shimei (who cursed him previously and has now come to grovel – David quite unjustly pardons him) and loyal Mephibosheth (whom David unjustly treats quite shabbily). The lack of any mention of God here is deafening. I’d be quite reluctant to live under such a king myself.
So the Israelites then, would have looked forward to another king like David (but much better) who would be perfectly just and fear God absolutely. And they would be able to do so confidently in faith, because God had made a secure promise in 2 Samuel 7.
And as ST was reflecting, how much more can we rejoice in King Jesus! How blessed we are that we live after the partial fulfilment of that promise of a just and faithful king who will, after he comes again, rule forever. And on the flipside, how much culpable we would be if we did not bow the knee to such a king.
The Assembly Ground
2 Handy Road, The Cathay
coffee: Nylon Coffee‘s Four Chairs – excellent, like Bourbons dipped in milk
milk: not exactly velvety but yielded to the liquid easily
free wifi: yes
power sockets: didn’t see any