When did Bethlehem become the “city of David”?
That title had always been given to Jerusalem. Forty times in the Old Testament, Jerusalem is referred to as the city of David, and no other city in the Bible is ever called by that name. Until Luke’s gospel.
“Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. … But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord'” (Luke 2:4, 10-11).
What is Luke up to in using this designation for a new city?
Jerusalem was a Jebusite city that David captured and made his capital when he consolidated power after being proclaimed king over the northern tribes (see 2 Samuel 5).
Solomon further consolidated power at Jerusalem through his construction projects, particularly the Temple (see 2 Chronicles 3).
Worship and sacrifice were no longer permissible in the “high places,” the tribal shrines in places like Shechem and Bethel.
The reason given was because of the idolatry that easily made its way into these places. The reign of Solomon, however, made it clear that idolatry could and did take root even in Jerusalem.
The real reason for the centralization was concentration of power and wealth. Not only were sacrifices brought to the worship sites, providing food for the Levites serving at them, but also the tribal tithes, which were essentially the Israelite form of taxation.
Mandating that the Temple was the only place to bring sacrifices enriched the power structures already in place in Jerusalem.
And while this might have worked out fine for Solomon and subsequent kings, it did not work out so well for the common person living in the far reaches of the kingdom.
In addition, there was the forced labor that required each man to leave his own fields or herds for one out of every three months to work on the king’s projects in Jerusalem (see 1 Kings 5).
This was more than the tribes outside of Judah could take. After Solomon’s death, they rebelled and anointed their own king.
Moving forward to Jesus’ day, Jerusalem still represented the consolidation of power.
The Temple, rebuilt after the Babylonian exile, had been essentially torn down and greatly enlarged by Herod in the first century B.C.
This was an effort to establish himself as the true king of the Jews, even though he was not of the line of David.
It was in Jerusalem where the high priest led the Sanhedrin, an assembly of Jewish leaders providing guidance to the nation of Israel.
In the minds of the common person, Jerusalem was the seat of religious and political power.
In the same way, Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect residing at Caesarea, knew that on important Jewish holy days he needed to be in Jerusalem.
Jesus challenged these powers residing in Jerusalem, and they each played a hand in crucifying him.
So, Luke is making a political statement by naming Bethlehem the city of David.
Jesus challenged Herod’s claim to be king, and asserted that Herod’s temple, with its wealth and corruption, was not the center of religious life.
He cleansed the temple of its moneychangers that took advantage of peasant pilgrims and enriched the temple cult (see Matthew 21).
He confronted the high priest and the Sanhedrin who claimed to represent the interests of the people before a righteous God.
By calling Bethlehem the city of David, Luke highlights Jesus’ opposition to the powers that be in Jerusalem.
He reminds his readers that David didn’t come from a place of great power, but from a little town known as least of all the cities of Judah (see Micah 5:2; Matthew 2:6).
The true “Anointed One” would come from there also, and he would stand up for the little guys like the shepherds outside of Bethlehem.
The Messiah would stand up against the wealth, power and corruption of Jerusalem and would rule with justice and equity, not favoring the “haves” but blessing the “have-nots.”
In the words of his mother Mary, through this child from Bethlehem the Lord “has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away” (Luke 1:46-53).
Larry Eubanks is the pastor of First Baptist Church of Frederick, Maryland. A version of this article first appeared on his website and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @EubanksLarry.
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Pastor of First Baptist Church of Frederick, Maryland.