Fallen King and Fiery Prophet
For those accustomed to wild and waste places, a two-week hike through the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness in Southwestern Montana is no small feat. For those who don’t make sleeping under the stars for weeks and surviving on peanut butter and wild game a regular habit, such an undertaking might prove fatal. Earlier this summer, a friend of mine made the tedious trek through the Beartooth with a couple of other guys. We break into their story now that they are above the tree line. Steep, rocky slopes hem them in on both sides, giving it a Lord of the Rings feel. You can see their bulging packs, laden with everything they need to survive the wilderness for a fortnight. As they gain elevation, the snow becomes more frequent, their footfalls more frugal. Ahead we see the trail disappear under another bed of snow. Though the guys are using kick-stepping to give them more stability, they are still sliding down the snow-laden slopes at times. The two more experienced hikers are about half-way across another snowfield. Their less experienced friend is still slowly picking his way. Down where the snow ends looks to be another 1,500-foot cliff. This is a scary climb for all of them.
Another figure steps into the scene just before the next snowfield, this time a well-experienced mountaineer. He’s just come from where they’re headed. With a graying beard and an ice axe in hand, he warns them. He knows the path they’ll soon be crossing and he highlights the hazards ahead: more snowfields, more cliffs, more danger. Even with an ice axe (which none of the three hikers are sporting), this will be a treacherous, two-mile tread. The mountaineer has confronted the experienced hikers with a choice: they can either continue their climb or they can turn around.
They make their choice, not for themselves, but for the sake of the friend who has joined them. Though going on is within their capacity, it will be taking the life of someone less experienced into their hands. They seek more stable footing, not for themselves, but for the sake of a weaker brother.
Another, but not entirely dissimilar, story has been burning in my mind for many months. Things that one time seemed important in the eyes of any leader can quickly become secondary or tertiary. Priorities are shifted and shuffled. Years change a man. And the Young Boy who once stood up to a Giant with a stone and a sling, falls to the beauty of another man’s wife. He sins with an unsmitten heart. The transgression appears to be overlooked and covered over. That is, until the bony finger of a Fiery Prophet is pointed in the face of a Fallen Leader.
That image and the words he spoke stand frozen as a statue in my mind: “Thou art the man” — the words hang suspended in a throne room laden with tension and truth. Fallen King and Fiery Prophet face each other looking eyeball to eyeball. The moment is one of gravity. It’s a pivotal point. Not only does the soul of the King hang in the balance, but the fate of a family and the course of a country are at stake. The Prophet has been faithful. The turning point of history hinges in that picture of the King and the Prophet standing toe to toe.
A similar scene unfolded some decades before when a sobbing Samuel shook the shoulders of a backslidden Saul, cornering him about the commands he refused to heed. Saul stood with a decision to make.
Maybe that picture played in David’s memory as he looked into the blazing eyes of Nathan. Maybe that’s why he chose humility instead of haughtiness, brokenness instead of a boastfulness, admittance instead of arrogance. David’s failure ran much deeper than Saul’s sin. Their sins were not their defining features. What marked both kings were the choices they made when a prophet was faithful to warn them.
I pray daily for the Davids in my life. I do not always pray that they would be saved from failure — failure is inevitable; I sometimes fail to hope that they would be void of confusion; I don’t daily pray that their feet would always stay following the steps of the saints gone before. My simple two-fold prayer is that somewhere down the road, when failure comes, when feet stray from the intended paths, when hearts falter and a trajectory is sidetracked, when priorities need reevaluated — somewhere in those twisted roads there will be a Nathan, a mountaineer, someone with enough of the Spirit in their lives to point them to the fork where they missed the way, to remind them of the fire that once burned in their souls.
And I pray that in that moment of crisis and decision, their hearts will turn as David’s did and seek the simple road they once knew well.
Images of the Beartooth Wilderness by Josiah Wheeler.