A Review of A Tale of Three Kings by Gene Edwards

Every now and then it is good to read a few things off the beaten path.  I recently finished reading A Tale of Three Kings by Gene Edwards.  A Tale of Three Kings is one of three books by Edwards recommended to me by Robert Marshall, one of the pastors I work with.  In addition to Robert’s recommendation, he also cautioned me against Edwards’ other works, noting they have a strong tone against the church and various forms of church leadership.  Being a supporter of the church and Biblical church leadership, I leave you with the same caution I received.  A Tale of Three Kings is a fictional look at the story of David and his relationship to Saul and David’s later relationship with Absalom.  Generally, I like fictional accounts based on Biblical narrative.  At their best fictional accounts can help us understand the personal nature of the Biblical account and give us deeper insight into its meaning.  At their worst, fictional accounts can skew and obscure the truth.  I would caution everyone as they read fictional retellings of Biblical stories to make sure they have reviewed the Biblical narrative thoroughly before reading a retelling.  We do not want the retelling to become the way we see the story of Scripture.  Let scripture be a rule unto itself.  With all that said, I was pleasantly surprised by Edwards work in A Tale of Three Kings and I want to take a few moments to recount three points Edwards makes in his book that I found to be helpful and one theological disagreement I had with the book.

The subtitle for Edwards book is A Study in Brokenness.  This subtitle really threw me off when I began to read Edward’s version of the story of David and Saul, but I quickly caught on to the point that Edwards was making.  Edwards recounts David’s anointing as King of Israel by Samuel making this remark about the situation,
Quite a day for the life of that young man, wouldn’t you say?  Then do you find it strange that this most remarkable event led the young man, not to the throne, but to a decade of hellish agony and suffering?  On that day, David was enrolled, not into the lineage of royalty but into the school of brokenness (6-7).

Edwards is referring to the 10 years that David would be hounded by Saul for his life.  It would be David’s experiences during these ten years that would form and shape David for the rest of his rule as King of Israel.  I think the point here is when we stand up and say we want to serve the Lord, and even more so if we are saying we want to serve the Lord as a church leader or pastor, we are enrolling in God’s navy seal team.   He is going to shape us and sanctify us through suffering.  God wants to break us down until we are utterly dependant upon Him and so we can lead others to faith in Him.  When I think of Edwards point here, I am reminded of the theme of suffering in 1 Peter where we are being conformed to Christ’s image through suffering.  Many young Christian leaders face almost insurmountable opposition in their first years of ministry, but it is these years that God will use for His glory if we will persevere with Him in faith.  Edwards says at the end of chapter 3 that “God did not have, but wanted very much to have, men who would live in pain.  God wanted a broken vessel (10).”  As Christians, and especially as Christian leaders, we need to be broken vessels.

In Chapter 17 a young Israeli solider two generations after the reign of Saul seeks out one of David’s mighty men of valor.  What ensues is a great conversation about David’s leadership style.  The old mighty fighting man makes two comments concerning David’s leadership that should be heeded by all Christian leaders.  First he says, “Legalism is nothing but a leader’s way of avoiding suffering … [because] … they are not certain they are true leaders, sent of God.  And they live in mortal fear of rebellion (47).”  Second he said, “[David] feared no rebellion…because he didn’t mind if he was dethroned (48).”  Edwards is pointing out David’s reliance on God even for the leadership position he had been given.  He realized that this was God’s doing and if God chose to dethrone him, He could.  I see so many Christian leaders spending lots of time protecting their office, trying to hang on to their job.  David is teaching us to hold our office loosely.  It is God who raises up and lays low, trust in Him instead of trying to retain your position through rules and coercion.  Rule by suffering for your people instead of making them suffer for you.  Many people will rebel against Christian leadership and we have to be all right with that rebellion; it is God who will justly punish rebellion and reward faithfulness.  In addition, we need to be okay with being removed from our position as David was when he was briefly dethroned by Absalom.  It is God who is moving His story and plan forward, not us.  May we trust His sovereign hand instead of relying on our own ingenuity.

Rebellion is in all of our hearts.  From day one we are in rejection of the authorities in our lives.  Part of the Christian life is learning not to be rebellious and to submit oneself to the authorities in one’s life as Christ submitted to the Father.  Edwards shows the heart of rebellion while recounting the story of Absalom and David.  I was particularly struck in chapter 20 of Edwards’ book by the way he describes the birth of rebellion in Absalom’s heart.  The scene is familiar, a charismatic young leader listening to everyone’s complaints about the kingdom and its leadership.  He listens, he gives advice, and points back in hope towards the ones in charge for change.  But this particular rebellious night, the fever for change boils over.  Edwards records the following,

“These things ought not to be.”  [Absalom] stood, eyes blazing.  “If I were in responsibility, this is what I would do…”  And with these words, the rebellion was ignited.  Ignited in all but one, that is.  In the noblest and purest man [Absalom] in the room, this was not the case.  Rebellion had been in his heart for years (62).

Rebellion has been in our hearts for years as well.  The Gospel stands in strong opposition to our rebellious heart.  In fact, one of the largest themes in the Bible is God putting down the rebellion of man and reconstituting a people for Himself.  Putting faith in Christ is an act of submission and not rebellion.  May we be careful how we pursue change in the church and in the world lest we link ourselves with rebellion.  The Christian life is one of learning how to submit to our God through the love of Christ.  In addition, we can learn from Absalom how not to attack the leadership God has placed in our churches.

Finally, I disagree with one point Edwards makes in his book on the irrevocable gifts and calling of God.  In chapter 15 Edwards says the following,

Why does God do such a thing? The answer is both simple and shocking.  He sometimes gives
unworthy vessels a greater portion of power so that it might eventually be revealed for all to
see the true state of internal nakedness within that man.

So think again when you hear the power merchant.  Remember: God sometimes gives power to men for unseen reasons.  A man can be living in the grossest of sin and the outward gift will still be working perfectly.  The gifts of God, once given, cannot be recalled.  Even in the presence of sin.  Furthermore, some men, living just such lives, are the Lord’s anointed…in the Lord’s eyes.  Saul was living proof of this fact.

The gifts cannot be revoked.  Terrifying isn’t it (40)?

Edwards is referring to Romans 11:29  “for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.”  There are two problems with the way Edwards has used this teaching of scripture.  First, this verse comes in the context of Romans 11, which is about Israel not being wholly rejected by God, not gifts and calling in general.  This verse is soteriological in nature.  Paul is telling us that the root of the tree of Israel, the promise to Abraham, is still in affect and God at the proper time will bring all Israel into salvation (Romans 11:25-26).  God’s call on Israel is irrevocable.  But that does not mean that some will be rejected.  The whole imagery of the tree, with broken off branches (Romans 11:17-24), points to the fact that some of Israel will be lost.  If we do not continue in God’s kindness we will be cut off and face God’s severity, but if we continue in God’s kindness we will be grafted in (Romans 11:22-23).  This is not to say that God can’t graft back in the broken off branches, but the point is the matter of salvation rests with God’s purposes.  Contrary to what Edwards says, Saul was rejected as King of Israel by God.   In 1 Samuel 15:22-23 the Lord rejects Saul as King because of his sin.  Furthermore, in 1 Samuel 16:12-15, God removed His Spirit from Saul and placed it on David.  If this doesn’t sound like a revoking of the gifts and calling upon Saul’s life, I don’t know what is!  Secondly, the Greek word used in Romans 11:29, that NASB has translated ‘irrevocable,’ can also be translated as repentance.  Calvin, in his commentary on Romans 11:29 and the KJV, translate the verse as “the gifts and calling of God are without repentance.”  Again, this is a soteriological statement that God is not ashamed that he selected Israel for His purposes, not a blanket statement on specific gifts and particular callings.  Translating the verse this way is also more closely associated with what God says about Saul in 1 Samuel 15:11.  It is clear that Saul is rejected in his calling as King and the gift of God’s Spirit has been removed and given to David.

Overall I enjoyed A Tale of Three Kings by Gene Edwards.  The book is a good departure from my normal reading.  Through the embellished story of David Edwards gave me deeper insight into the suffering Christian leaders face, the faith Christian leaders should have in God for their calling and position, and the stark reality of the rebellion that is every one of our hearts.  While I had other minor disagreements with Edwards’ book beyond what I have covered, I would recommend this book to the discerning reader as interesting take on three Kings, Saul, David, and Absalom.

Gene Edwards, A Tale of Three Kings: A Study in Brokenness. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1980, 1992. 107 pp.
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