David’s reign as king of Israel is recounted in II Samuel and I Chronicles chapters 10-19 (there is a fair amount of duplication between the two books). David’s life before he becomes king is found in I Samuel chapters 16-31, where it is very much intertwined with Saul’s. And David continues to have a presence even after his death, since his son and successor, Solomon, is perhaps Israel’s second greatest king, and David’s dynasty continues until Jerusalem is conquered and the Jews are exiled to Babylon.
Indeed, post-Genesis it’s safe to say that the two dominant characters in the Old Testament’s historical books are Moses and David. And David’s importance continues into the New Testament, since Jesus is from the House of David, as Messianic prophecy foretold. It seems fitting that his life should fall almost exactly half-way between Abraham and Jesus (and Moses falls almost exactly half-way between David and Abraham).
So what are we to make of him?
Many people would be hard-pressed to name anything he did besides slay Goliath, and that is certainly what he is most famous for in the popular culture. But the popular culture is not misleading in this instance, for David was principally a warrior and warrior king, and the great lesson of his life is that a brave man who follows God can win just about any fight.
He was by no means perfect. Indeed, I have to admit that I have a hard time getting past the fact that David committed adultery and then killed the husband — a fellow warrior, no less — to cover it up. Is this squeamishness in part because I did not grow up in an era where it was accepted practice that kings had multiple sexual partners and killed people? (No doubt Michael Corleone would call me naive.) Other actions by David also seem needlessly harsh (see I Samuel 27:9 and, especially, 27:11; and II Samuel 8:2). And his parenting was defective, too detached: One son raped his sister and David failed to act; the rapist was killed by another son, who then led a rebellion against his father. There’s something to be said for helicopter parenting.
But David never turned from God, never. And he almost always sought and followed God’s counsel (for a good example, see the narrative in I Chronicles chapter 14). This is for all of us the One Big Thing, and David certainly got it right. And that must be why he was a man after God’s own heart (I Samuel 13:14; Acts 13:22). For a stark contrast, see II Samuel 6:16, 20-23, and I Chronicles 15:29, where we read how David’s wife Michal “despises” David for his public dancing in celebration of God, and where we also read David’s — and God’s — withering reply. It’s unsurprising that half the Psalms are attributed to David, and they can be looked at for additional insights into David’s character (just as other wisdom books can be looked at for insights in the character of his son, Solomon, who wrote Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon).
A couple of notes on historicity. Saul and David are both walk-on kings: Cinderella boys who don’t inherit a monarchy but instead rise from nonroyal origins — not humble, exactly, but neither was born to rule either. That doesn’t mean this must all be a fairly tale; after all, a dynasty can’t begin with a born king. Is it implausible that both would perform so well as leaders? Again, not necessarily. Some people are born leaders, after all, and David at least spent some time in the royal court before becoming king.
For a long time there was no hard archaeological evidence of David, but now some has come to light. That does not surprise me. Even if you have a hard time with the supernatural, there’s not much David does that fits that description. God is present, but what David does and accomplishes are not superhuman. And the narrative is too detailed, with too many random facts (perhaps my favorite is I Samuel 30:11, 12 — “They gave him water to drink and food to eat — part of a cake of pressed figs and two cakes of raisins”), and with too much that is unflattering to the Jews in general and David in particular, for it all to have been made up. It all sounds plausible, and of course David himself is all too human.
Three Key Narratives
David’s life was crowded with incident, but it seems to me that the three key narratives were his slaying Goliath; his affair with Bathsheba, which led to at least two deaths; and his conflict with Absalom, his son, his son. So I have a little commentary on each below.
First, though, here is a brief summary of David’s life: David, son of Jesse in the tribe of Judah, is a young shepherd when we first meet him, and he becomes a musician in Saul’s court (his music soothes Saul in his increasingly dark moods) and then gains fame by killing Philistine giant Goliath. He becomes Saul’s head general, and early on he also becomes close friends with Saul’s son Jonathan. Alas, Saul turns against David, and David flees and become a sort of renegade chieftain, sometimes even consorting with the Philistines. Then Saul and Jonathan are killed in the same battle against the Philistines, in which David does not participate on either side, and David becomes king, eventually uniting all the tribes of Israel and establishing the capital in Jerusalem. But then we have a sour period: David commits adultery with the beautiful Bathsheba and then arranges to have her husband Uriah killed in battle; and David’s family becomes dysfunctional, with one of his sons raping one of his daughters, and with the rapist then killed by another of David’s sons, Absalom. What’s more, Absalom then leads a rebellion against David, that fails after a battle in which Absalom’s army is defeated and Absalom himself is killed. David, reestablished as Israel’s sole ruler, finally dies peacefully after arranging for his son Solomon to be his successor; Solomon, not David, will build God’s temple in Jerusalem, says God, because David is a warrior and the temple must be built by a king of peace.
Here’s a helpful historical note in my NIV study Bible (at I Chronicles 11:3, 4): “David was king over Judah for seven and a half years before he captured Jerusalem. When David was finally appointed king over all Israel, 20 years had passed since Samuel had anointed him (I Samuel 16:1-13).” The following note is likewise helpful: “David chose Jerusalem as his capital for both political and military reasons. Jerusalem was near the center of the kingdom and, because it rested on a tribal border, was in neutral territory. Thus its location decreased tribal jealousies. Jerusalem also sat on a high ridge, making it difficult to attack.”
It is no wonder that the narrative of David and Goliath is so beloved: It is a simply a great story, of wide applicability across all cultures and times, and everyone loves an underdog. Just listen (from chapter 17 in I Samuel):
42 [Goliath] looked David over and saw that he was little more than a boy, glowing with health and handsome, and he despised him. 43 He said to David, “Am I a dog, that you come at me with sticks?” And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. 44 “Come here,” he said, “and I’ll give your flesh to the birds and the wild animals!”
45 David said to the Philistine, “You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the LORD Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. 46 This day the LORD will deliver you into my hands, and I’ll strike you down and cut off your head. This very day I will give the carcasses of the Philistine army to the birds and the wild animals, and the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel. 47 All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the LORD saves; for the battle is the LORD’s, and he will give all of you into our hands.”
48 As the Philistine moved closer to attack him, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet him.
Isn’t David’s response to Goliath as powerful as the speech by Herb Brooks in Miracle? And can’t you feel the hackles on your neck stand up when you read verse 48?
I have no idea whether this literary parallel is intentional, but it shows the power of the Bible’s narrative across the centuries. Just before he meets Goliath, here’s what David does: “Then he took his staff in his hand, chose five smooth stones from the stream, put them in the pouch of his shepherd’s bag and, with his sling in his hand, approached the Philistine.” I Samuel 17:40. Three thousand years later, in Appalachia rather than Israel, the poet James Dickey describes the actions of a boy about David’s age, following his father’s orders to go off into the wild woods at night and find a lost stranger: “He went and got a flashlight and an old single-shot twenty-two. He picked up a handful of bullets from a box and put them in his pocket. He called his dog, and then he just faded away.” Deliverance 45.
No wonder that the Israelis have chosen for their flag the Star of David.
The David and Bathsheba narrative is enthralling, too (II Samuel chapters 11 and 12), though of course much darker and more lurid. Read the opening lines for some skillful scene-setting: David is not where he’s supposed to be, out leading his army; he’s stayed behind in his comfortable palace in Jerusalem and, what’s worse, is taking long afternoon naps.
It’s very powerful when (12:7) Nathan springs the trap and accuses David, “You are the man!” My NIV study Bible says that David wrote Psalm 51 after his meeting with Nathan.
I even like David’ stoicism at the end. He’s done all he can to persuade God to spare his child, but failed, and he accepts that and comforts his wife. And then, having learned a hard lesson, he goes back to leading his army.
And the Absalom narrative is good, too, although it meanders more, really stretching from chapter 13 into chapter 19. In chapter 13, Absalom’s sister Tamar is raped by their half-brother Amnon, and David does … nothing. Absalom himself counsels his sister to keep quiet about, but hates Amnon and two years later kills him himself. Eventually he leads a rebellion against David. It’s not made clear precisely why, but could part of it be anger about David’s passivity? David must have been getting on in years by this time, but maybe Absalom was impatient to become king himself.
The rebellion fails following a pitched battle in a tangled forest. The news of David’s victory is brought to David by two messengers (with only the Cushite willing to include as well the bad news of Absalom’s death, 18:19-32; I wonder if there is a deeper meaning there). David’s reaction is one of the Bible’s saddest scenes (18:33):
The king was shaken. He went up to the room over the gateway and wept. As he went, he said: “O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you — O Absalom, my son, my son!”
For my money, this passage has the most tear-jerking power of any in the Old Testament. (Peter breaking down when he hears the cock crow wins the prize in the New Testament.)
Additional Notes on I Samuel:
16:2 — Is God counseling deceit?
21:14-15 — King Achish may have the Bible’s funniest, or at least most sardonic, line in this scene (emphasis added):
13 So he [i.e., the captured David, being presented to King Achish] pretended to be insane in their presence; and while he was in their hands he acted like a madman, making marks on the doors of the gate and letting saliva run down his beard.
14 Achish said to his servants, “Look at the man! He is insane! Why bring him to me? 15 Am I so short of madmen that you have to bring this fellow here to carry on like this in front of me? Must this man come into my house?”
King Achish’s sarcasm was intentional; I continue to find funny the continued references to “Abner, son of Ner” (26:5, 14); see also I Chronicles 26:28; II Samuel 2:8, 12; 3:25, 28 (quoting David, regarding his death), and 3:37.
21:1-6 — Jesus cites the incident here in making the point that the letter of the law can be trumped by its spirit (Matthew 12:1-8; Luke 6:1-5).
22:2 — Rather than a dirty dozen, David leads a dirty four hundred.
25:4-8 — It sounds to me like David is running a protection racket, but naturally my NIV study Bible tries to put a good spin on it.
25:23-31 — Abigail is bit long-winded, but she shrewdly seizes the main chance and ends up as one of David’s wives.
Additional Notes on II Samuel:
My NIV study Bible helpfully divides the first part of II Samuel into three sections: “David becomes king of Judah” (chapters 1-4), “David becomes king over Israel” (chapters 5-7), and “David conquers the surrounding nations” (chapters 8-10).
Chapter 1 — Apparently not all the Amalekites were killed by Saul in I Samuel 15; David’s execution of the Amalekite here may seem harsh, but on the other hand we know that God apparently wanted all of them dead anyhow.
1:19, 27 — Here we find the famous line, “How the mighty have fallen!”
3:16 — Michal’s husband’s weeping here is very poignant.
3:30 — Seems to be an odd parenthetical in light of 3:27.
Chapter 4 — You read a chapter like this, and you can’t help but say to yourself, “Good grief, these people are all a bunch of barbarians.” But this sort of behavior at that time in history was par for the course, not only for barbarians but, even centuries later, for the Romans as well. (On the other hand, 21:1-14 seems weird in a more peculiarly Middle Eastern way.) Verse 4:4 is an odd parenthetical, by the way. The presence of such indicates that this is not conceived as literature but as history.
6:19 — First recorded swag bags?
7:2 — The prophet Nathan is first mentioned.
7:13 — When God says that David’s dynasty will have a kingdom that will last forever, the Christian interpretation is of course that this was fulfilled by the coming of Jesus Christ, born into the House of David.
8:16-18 — The list of David’s officials and their duties sounds like history.
David’s treatment of Shimei is, well, interesting. The latter was a member of Saul’s clan, and so when David and his entourage came by, he cursed him and pelted him with stones — pretty gutsy. Of course, some with David wanted to kill Shimei, but David magnanimously said no. I thought this passage made both men look good. II Samuel 16:5-13. After he had defeated Absalom, Shimei comes and asks for forgiveness from David, who again overrules his advisors and doesn’t kill him. II Samuel 19:16-23. Again, both men seem to be behaving honorably (although at this point Shimei might also have been motivated by a desire to save his skin). But then, in I Kings 2:8-9, on his deathbed David advises his heir Solomon about Shimei. Yes, David says, I promised not to put him to death my sword, “‘But now, do not consider him innocent. You are a man of wisdom; you will know what to do to him. Bring his gray head down to the grave in blood.'” Whoa. Solomon, by the way, does not kill Shimei immediately. He puts him under house arrest, and particularly warns him that, if he crosses the Kidron Valley, he will be executed; Shimei eventually leaves Jerusalem for Gath, to retrieve some runaway slaves, and Solomon has him killed. I Kings 2:36-46. I’m not sure what to make of all this, and of course sometimes history is just history, with no particular lesson to teach. One possibility is that, for a variety of reasons — some personal, some political — David decided to cut some Shimei some slack, but times change and, besides, paternally he did not want his son Solomon to run the risks that he had been willing to run himself by letting this cranky guy live.
18:1 — David is back in charge. Joab kills Absalom in 18:9-17. Was he wrong to do so? And what must David’s soldiers have thought of his “be nice to Absalom” order? Joab apparently thinks, not much. 19:5-7. Puffed-up Absalom builds a monument to himself, 18:18.
My NIV study Bible notes that chapters 21-24 “are an appendix to the book [i.e., II Samuel]. The events described are not presented in chronological order. They tell of David’s exploits at various times during his reign.” Again, you would not have this in a novel.
Chapter 22 — David’s song of praise here reads just like one of the Psalms: No surprise, of course, since David was the leading psalmist.
23:6-7 — These are odd last words for David, are they not?: “But evil men are all to be cast aside like thorns, which are not gathered with the hand. / Whoever touches thorns uses a tool of iron or the shaft of a spear; they are burned up where they lie.” But maybe not quite so odd if it is tied with 23:1-5.
Additional Notes on I Chronicles:
According to my NIV study Bible: “First Chronicles parallels 2 Samuel and serves as a commentary on it. Written after the exile from a priestly point of view, 1 Chronicles emphasizes the religious history of Judah and Israel.”
11:15-19 — I don’t get it; what an unedifying story. I also have to say that God seems to me to have been way-harsh with Uzzah, struck down just for steadying the ark as it was transported (12:9-10; see also II Samuel 6:6-7). But of course for just that reason this is not the sort of thing you would make up if it hadn’t happened.
11:41 — Uriah the Hittite, whom David would later have killed to cover up his adultery with Uriah’s wife Bathsheba, is listed among David’s “mighty men.” Likewise in II Samuel 23:39.
Chapters 11 and 12 are wonderful in their description of David’s warriors. They are indeed, as my old Latin teacher would say, “hairy-chested.” I liked the description of their ambidexterity (12:2). But they were not just dumb jocks; intriguingly, we are told that there were some “who understood the times and knew what Israel should do” (12:32).
19:4 — I’m sure it was not funny at the time, but there is something Monty Pythonesque about the Ammonite leader Hanun’s humiliation of David’s men: He “shaved them, cut off their garments in the middle of the buttocks, and sent them away.” (The same incident is found in II Samuel chapter 10.)
20:1 — While this chapter begins the same way as II Samuel chapter 11 — with David staying in Jerusalem instead of being with his army at war — it omits David’s adultery with Bathsheba and murder of Uriah the Hittite (!). As my NIV study Bible explains: “David’s adultery occurred at this time, while he remained in Jerusalem instead of going to battle (2 Samuel 11, 12). This story may have been excluded from 1 Chronicles because the book was written to focus on God’s long-term interest in Israel and on the temple as a symbol of God’s presence among them. The story of David and Bathsheba did not fit this purpose. The story of Absalom’s rebellion, which occurred between this chapter and the next, was probably omitted for the same reason (2 Samuel 15-18)).” Indeed, chapters 22-29 are all on the temple — a sizable percentage of chapters 11-29, covering David’s reign.
20:5 — Goliath’s brother also had a spear as thick as a “weaver’s rod” (see I Samuel 17:7; see also II Samuel 21:19).
Chapter 21 — The census debacle is the other noteworthy misstep by David, but less appalling than adultery and murder.
22:9 — David tells Solomon that God told him (David), “But you will have a son who will be a man of peace and rest, and I will give him rest from all his enemies on every side. His name will be Solomon, and I will grant Israel peace and quiet during his reign.” And the word Solomon, according to my NIV study Bible, “sounds like and may be derived from the Hebrew word for peace” (i.e., “Shalom”).
22:13 — It’s David’s idea to ask for wisdom for Solomon.
24:15 — It seems to me that “Happizzez” is a much underused name.
24:28 — In a genealogy, it’s starkly noted, “Eleazar, who had no sons.” Note that the usual genealogical bareness receives just a little elaboration at 27:32-35 for some reason.
29:15 — How poignant is David’s prayer here, about our fleeting lives and insignificance (and is the “shadow” here the same as Macbeth’s “walking shadow,” Act 5, Scene 5, lines 19-28?): “We are aliens and strangers in your sight, as were all our forefathers. Our days on earth are like a shadow, without hope.”
While originally Chronicles was one book, it seems to me that chapter 29 is the high point of the Old Testament — and so it’s fitting to split the book there and have this chapter conclude I Chronicles.
Random Concluding Notes:
- We can and should draw unambiguous moral lessons from the Bible, but that doesn’t mean that we should overlook the fact that individuals themselves may be morally unambiguous — this is history after all. I thought of this when I was reading my NIV study Bible’s commentary on II Samuel chapter 20, which is very hard on Joab but laudatory toward the “wise woman” in Abel Beth Maacah. I think both figures had mixed motives, as we lawyers say. And poor Sheba: He picked the wrong city to stay in.
- Joab, by the way, is a most intriguing figure: Dirty Joab, he should be nicknamed, or William Tecumseh Joab. He’s the guy who does David’s dirty work for him, when the boss can’t or won’t see what has to be done. He’s the guy who’ll do what has to be done to win, the rules be damned. He might enjoy it a little too much, though — more than Clint Eastwood’s character or Sherman. He reminds me of Abner, whom he killed. My NIV study Bible says he was undefeated in battle.
- Nabal spelled backwards is Laban, and, while separated by a thousand years, they could be twins: Both are prosperous rural sharpies. I wonder if the the mirrored-spelling is found in Hebrew, too. See I Samuel chapter 25 (on his name, see 25:25).