Samuel: A spiritual and political tale of two kings. Part two: David
I have already identified the two books of Samuel as a tale of two kings, and I have amply demonstrated the constant waffling between good and evil which characterized King Saul. Even in the First Book of Samuel, it was obvious that David was constant in his respect for and service to Saul, despite Saul’s jealous attempts to kill David. It is now time to consider other evidence of David’s moral constancy.
There is no need to forget the great sin of his reign, his deliberate betrayal of Uriah the Hittite to the enemy in battle, so that David himself could take Uriah’s widow Bathsheba as his wife. (We may also recall that David had more wives than were good for him, though God apparently chose not to punish polygamy as a sign of power in this early period of Israel’s spiritual development.) But we should look also at David’s response to God’s chastisement for his great sin, after the prophet Nathan reproached David for having “despised the word of the LORD”, and told him what he would suffer much, including the death of his first-born child of Bathsheba.
For this, the Second Book of Samuel provides a truly remarkable spiritual and psychological portrait:
David therefore besought God for the child; and David fasted, and went in and lay all night upon the ground…. On the seventh day the child died. And the servants of David feared to tell him that the child was dead…. But when David saw that his servants were whispering together, David perceived that the child was dead…. Then David arose from the earth, and washed, and anointed himself, and changed his clothes; and he went into the house of the LORD, and worshiped; he then went to his own house; and when he asked, they set food before him, and he ate. Then his servants said to him, “What is this thing that you have done? You fasted and wept for the child while it was alive; but when the child died, you arose and ate food.” He said, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept; for I said, ‘Who knows whether the LORD will be gracious to me, that the child may live?’ But now he is dead; why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me. [2 Sam 16:23]
Later, when David’s son Absalom began to conspire against his father, David continually dealt leniently with him, even forgiving him for his treachery (2 Sam 14:33). But Absalom usurped the throne anyway, forcing David to flee. During this flight, David urged his newest supporters to abandon him, for they would not yet be recognized as opponents of Absalom, and so God might “show mercy and faithfulness to you” (2 Sam 15:13-23).
Moreover, when one Shimei cursed David, throwing clots of earth at him and his men as they fled, one of David’s servants asked, “Why should this dead dog curse my lord the king? Let me go over and take off his head.” But David replied: “What have I to do with you, you sons of Zeruiah? If he is cursing because the LORD has said to him, ‘Curse David’, who then shall say, ‘Why have you done so?’”…. “Behold, my own son seeks my life; how much more now may this Benjaminite! Let him alone!” (2 Sam 16:5-14)
Eventually Absalom was defeated. David had ordered his generals to “deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom” (2 Sam 18:5); still, Absalom was killed. When David was told, he mourned, even though Absalom’s death meant David would soon be recalled as King. Then, during his triumphal return, Shimei met him and, falling to the ground before him, pleaded: “Your servant knows that I have sinned; therefore, behold, I have come this day, the first of all the house of Joseph to come down to meet my lord the king.” But once again the sons of Zeruiah asked for permission to execute him for cursing the LORD’s anointed. But David said, “Shall any one be put to death in Israel this day? For do I not know that I am this day king over Israel?” and, turning to Shimei, “You shall not die” (2 Sam 19:16-23).
David’s grace-filled response to punishment
We have already seen the constancy with which David accepted God’s punishments. Obviously he was far from perfect, but he was also quick to recognize his sins and strive to avoid them in the future. For example, near the end of his life he took a census of Israel to assess his strength. Almost immediately, though, he realized his motives were sinful: “David’s heart struck him after he had numbered the people. And David said to the LORD, ‘I have sinned greatly in what I have done. But now, O LORD, I pray you, take away the iniquity of your servant, for I have done very foolishly’.” (2 Sam 24:10-11)
Using the Prophet Gad, God told David that, as punishment, he could choose one of three options: Three years of famine; three months fleeing before his enemies; or three days of pestilence. For his part, David replied with one of the most famous verses in all of Scripture:
I am in great distress; let us fall into the hand of the LORD, for his mercy is great; but let me not fall into the hand of man. [2 Sam 24:14]
Despite this greatness, we will learn in the First Book of Kings how, shortly before his death, David charged his son Solomon to put to death several men whom David had treated mercifully while he was alive, so that justice would at last be done. Here we must undoubtedly consider the full dimensions of political justice along with the relatively incomplete understanding the Jews had of God’s justice and mercy at this time, in comparison with what has subsequently been revealed. Yet it is also true that David, like the rest of us, was a mixture of virtue, sins repented—and sins unrecognized.
We should not be deceived by David’s imperfection. It will be primarily for the far greater infidelities of Solomon—despite all his legendary wisdom—that the Davidic line and the Jewish people will suffer massive reverses throughout the whole period of the monarchy and beyond. Indeed, despite great moments, we will find that nothing in the Old Testament offers a solution to this consistent pattern of human failure. We have many books still to consider, but we already know what we will find: In the end, the wholeness of David, of his entire line, of the Jewish nation, and of all the rest of us can only be restored in Christ.
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