Modeling King David’s awareness of God

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | May 20, 2015

The fascinating Second Book of Samuel tells of the rise of the monarchy in Israel, transitioning from the period of the judges, including Samuel, to King Saul and King David, who establishes the line of Christ. Both spiritual and exegetical lessons abound here. Let me briefly combine just one of each.

King David was clearly a devout servant of God; this is evident again and again. But he was not without his faults. Most notably, he so desired Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, that not only did he commit adultery but he had Uriah sent to die in the front line of a battle so that he could marry her. In those days, God had not yet made clear His full plan for marriage, so wealthy and powerful men typically had multiple wives and concubines. Interestingly, of all the sons David had by different women, it was Bathsheba’s son Solomon who was to succeed him (as recounted in the first chapter of the next book, 1 Kings).

A Spiritual Lesson

There is a spiritual message in Solomon’s succession, but I have a different instance in mind. David’s firstborn son was Absalom, for whom David had a special love. But Absalom was greedy for power, and he eventually usurped the throne, with enough support that David had to flee and hide out for a time. While the King was in flight, one Shime-i, a descendant of Saul and so no friend of the house of David, followed the deposed king and his retainers, cursing David and throwing dust and stones at him (recounted in 2 Sam 16).

Predictably, one of David’s powerful retainers, Abishai son of Zeruiah, reproached David, saying: “Why should this dead dog curse my lord the king? Let me go over and take off his head.” David’s reply is memorable for its humility and wisdom:

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, and let him curse; for the Lord has bidden him. It may be that the Lord will look upon my affliction, and that the Lord will repay me with good for this cursing of today.

A little later, when David returned triumphant as recounted in chapter 19, Shime-i was understandably in great fear. Accordingly, he rushed out to meet David, saying: “Let not my lord hold me guilty…for your servant knows that I have sinned.” Once again, Abishai asked, “Shall not Shime-i be put to death for this, because he cursed the Lord’s anointed?”

But David said: “What have I to do with you, you sons of Zeruiah, that you should this day be as an adversary to me? Shall anyone be put to death in Israel this day? For do I not know that I am this day king over Israel?” And the king said to Shime-i, “You shall not die.” And the king gave him his oath.

Clearly, in this our hearts should be very like David’s.

A Lesson Deepened by Exegesis

But this whole episode also raises an interesting exegetical question, a question of Biblical interpretation. Why should David conclude that the Lord had wanted Shime-i to curse him? The answer is closely tied to the Christian notion of resignation to God’s will. You will notice while reading the Old Testament that the ancient authors often chose not to distinguish as we do between God's active and permissive will. (I mentioned this briefly before in Christian Meaning and Divine Providence, but the importance of the point is growing on me.) Certainly the ancient Jew understood, as Christians do, that nothing can happen apart from God’s will, and that everything is governed by God’s Providence. This is why, as we advance in the spiritual life, we learn to practice resignation.

But modern Christians (perhaps even you and me) too often so emphasize the distinction between God’s active and permissive will that we almost forget God’s will is involved in unpleasant events at all. We see the “cause” as the Devil, or as some evil motive of our neighbor, or as the unfortunate vicissitudes of life. In contrast, the ancient Jew was more prone to go to the other extreme. Obviously he grasped that God worked His will in more than one way, but he did not deploy a vocabulary of distinctions. For example, if Pharaoh refused the demands of Moses, the first thing the sacred author noticed about this refusal is that God had hardened Pharaoh’s heart. And indeed, this could not have happened without God’s consent.

We can see this profound respect for God’s unbreakable role in history very much at work in the way David absorbs the meaning of Shime-i’s curses. Even without this insight, we can grasp the spiritual beauty of the passage. But a little later, when David decides to take a census of his people in chapter 24, we cannot understand the passage at all unless we grasp this point of interpretation.

The moral background is this: While God sometimes instructed the Jews to number themselves, they knew that He held it as a significant sin of presumption for a ruler to do this on his own. Now, here is the passage:

Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go, number Israel and Judah.”… But Joab said to the king: “May the Lord your God add to the people a hundred times as many as they are, while the eyes of my lord the king still see it; but why does my lord the king delight in this thing?” But the king’s word prevailed against Joab…. So Joab and the commanders of the army went out from the presence of the king to number the people of Israel.

The census was completed (800,000 valiant men who drew the sword in Israel, and 500,000 in Judah). Then comes verse 10:

But 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.”

As it turned out, God sent the prophet Gad to David to make him choose one of three possible punishments for his sin (see 24:11-14).

But why? How could David have thought he had sinned, and how could God have punished him for the sin, if indeed it was the Lord Himself who “incited David against them, saying, ‘Go, number Israel and Judah.’”? Clearly this is because the text here refers to God’s permissive will. In fact, this is borne out by the parallel account in 1 Chronicles 21, where the passage in question says: “Satan stood up against Israel, and incited David to number Israel.” The two accounts seem very different to us, but on an important level they mean exactly the same thing. In both scenarios, and in all other imaginable scenarios, God is present, attentive, and engaged.

David was very sensitive to God’s Providence, to God’s active role in his own life and in history as a whole. He was so sensitive to it that, very rightly, he saw God’s hand in everything. But he also knew when he had resisted God’s will. He understood when he had sinned. On all counts, we have much to learn from David.

[Note: Depending on what Bible you use, the books as cited here may confuse you. In older Bibles, with four books of Kings, 2 Samuel will be 2 Kings. Also in older Bibles (following the Vulgate), 1 Chronicles will often bear what is now the odd-sounding name of 1 Paralipomena or 1 Paralipomenon. This is true, for example, of the Douay-Rheims version of my childhood, and also of the Knox Bible.]

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: feedback - May. 24, 2015 5:44 AM ET USA

    The sinful character of David's census could be in its motivation: to claim ownership of a people who were God's own. That would be the motivation of the census by occupying Roman forces in Luke ch.2.