Lesson 23: “The Lord Be Between Thee and Me Forever”
The current lesson contrasts the loyalty of Jonathan and David, contrasted with the hatred and betrayal between Saul and David. Earlier lessons, like this pair from the 1957 seminary text by Heber Cyrus Snell, Ancient Israel: Its Story and Meaning, make those same points as part of a fuller, political/historical summary of David’s reign.
The Kingdom Under David
Had not Saul and Samuel – and that strange group called the “sons of the prophets” – recognized the Philistine threat to their national existence and exerted their utmost powers against it, Israel might well have been swallowed up in oblivion, just as the rival nations around her, including the Philistines, actually have been. Had a greater leader than Saul not arisen to renew the fight for independence and build a stable kingdom, this might still have been her fate. In the light of Israel’s contribution to the world such an eventuality would have been the greatest loss. Neither Judaism, Islam, nor Christianity would have played a part in history.
Such at any rate might be our conclusion from one perfectly valid “line of reasoning.” It could be argued, of course, that other personalities and events might have brought the same values into the world, and this possibility could not be denied. The great “Determiner of Destiny” is obviously not tied to one course of action. but so to reason gets us nowhere. The fact remains that Saul and Samuel and David – and many others in Israel – did live, and because they wrought great things our civilization has been immensely helped. The little nation to which these persons belonged, and largely because of them, entered long ago into the stream of history and became, it may be, its principle current.
A Philosophy of History
If the student asks, How can these things be? the answer is, according to our philosophy of history, that God actually did take this particular course of action. He did “raise up” Abraham to be the father of a sturdy people; he disciplined these people through their experiences and taught them by prophets and wise men whom he sent, so that they became his revelation, in a special sense, to the world. This is what is meant by their being a chosen people. The choice was not arbitrary; it was justified by what they were and what they grew to be. They are at the center of history – and have given meaning to it – simply because they have most distinctively revealed God. For history after all is this – if you give it meaning at all – it is what the divine Being, through men, has been doing in the world to carry forward his plan.
When we stop to think of it, this is the essential viewpoint of the writers of the great books of Judges, Samuel, and Kings That they sometimes misinterpreted Deity, as he worked out his purposes in the world, goes without saying. This is because they were but men. He who does not see the human element in these books is blind; but back of all interpretation are the events themselves, and they reveal to the discerning eye the presence of the Determiner of Destiny working out patiently but surely his Divine Plan.
The Rise of David to Power
Around all great personages of history legends gather, and David is no exception. Yet the “David-Saul cycle” of narratives, to which we are mainly indebted for the story of David’s rise to power, is accepted as reflecting generally the course of his earlier life. The stories center on David rather than Saul and were written by some admirer, possibly Abiathar the priest, during David’s lifetime or shortly afterward, and so are rightly judged to contain valuable historical materials.
There are variant traditions as to how David became attached to Saul’s court. Probably the most authentic is related to the mental trouble from which the king was suffering. The story recounts how the servants of Saul advised him to find a man skilled in playing the lyre, suggesting that when the “evil spirit” troubled him, the music would make him well. One of the servants knew such a man, and David, son of Jesse the Bethlehemite, was brought to Saul.
So whenever the evil spirit from God came upon Saul, David would take the lyre and play with his hand, and Saul would be relieved and feel restored and the evil spirit would depart from him. (I Sam. 16:23).
The young Bethlehemite – who is reported in the story as “a man of unusual power, a warrior” – immediately won the king’s affection and became his personal attendant. As such, it has been suggested, he fought the giant Goliath in the Vale of Elah, and was shortly put in command of the fighting forces. For a while he was in high favor at court and with the people.
At this time, no doubt, was formed one of the famous friendships of history –
The soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as himself. Saul took him at that time and would not allow him to return to his father’s house; and Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own life. Jonathan also stripped off the cloak which he had on and gave it to David and his equipment, even to his sword, his bow, and his girdle (I Sam. 18:1, 4).
Thereafter the young men were much together, until Saul’s jealousy separated them. Even then, against his own apparent interests and at great risk, the noble son of Saul openly avowed his friendship for the son of Jesse.
As for Saul and David, their relations grew steadily worse. The tradition – undoubtedly favoring the young man – repeatedly implies that Saul became jealous of him because of his prowess as a warrior and his great popularity. The king’s unfortunate malady grew upon him until it became an obsession to kill David. Twice the latter barely escaped Saul’s spear. The plot became thicker, involving two of the king’s daughters, one of whom, Michal, became David’s wife. The story now is one of flight and pursuit in which many people played a part, not least of all Jonathan, who on more than one occasion saved his friend from Saul’s rage.
Helped by Jonathan in his escape from the presence of the king, David, in desperation fled to Ramah, where Samuel was, and then to Nob, to Ahimilech the priest. Representing himself here as being on the king’s business he was given holy bread from the sanctuary and the sword of Goliath. Fleeing from Nob he found temporary safety in the cave of Adullam, in the Shepelah southwest of Bethlehem, and shortly he was joined by his outlawed father and brothers.
There were also drawn together to him everyone that was in distress, and everyone who was in debt, and everyone who was embittered, and he became their leader. There were thus with him about four hundred men (I Sam. 22:2).
Among those who came, binging with him the sacred ephod, was Abiathar the priest, who alone had escaped from Nob when Saul took vengeance on the priests there for having aided David. The ephod, most important means of divination Israel possessed after the loss of the Ark to the Philistines, proved of great service to David and his outlawed band.
It is not known how long David and his men made the rough country about Adullam their headquarters. His followers steadily grew until he had six hundred fighting men. Even so, his position became increasingly dangerous because he was trapped between Saul, who could command a much larger force, and the formidable Philistines. But David had political as well as military genius. He made friends of the Judahites, posing as their protector from nomad raiders, and so his support and prestige grew. Several times Saul led expeditions against him which carried the gravest threat, but the “desert fox” always managed to elude his pursuers and come off with flying colors.
A most instructive sidelight on these outlaw days is the story of Nabal, a prosperous (if foolish) owner of lands and herds in the desert of Maon, one of those who had benefited by David’s protection. Thinking perhaps that one good turn deserved another, David sent his young men one day to ask Nabal very respectfully for provisions. They got a flat refusal and some abuse of David besides. When the outlaw chieftain heard their report his blood was up and he commanded his men to gird on their swords. Meantime one of Nabal’s servants, more prudent than his master, had told the whole matter to Abigail, Nabal’s wife. Hastily and without telling her husband, Abigail had a generous present of food prepared and was soon on her way to meet the oncoming brigands. When she met them, so gracious was her appeal for mercy – an appeal much aided by her oriental beauty – that David said:
Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, who sent you this day to meet me, and blessed be your discernment, and blessed be you yourself, who have restrained me this day from bloodshed and from finding redress for myself by my own hand. For in very deed as the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, who has restrained me from doing you harm, except you had made haste and come to meet me, surely there would not have been left to nabal by morning light so much as one male person (I Sam. 25:32-34).
A fitting sequel to the story is that Nabal, fool that he was, died in his own house, possibly from the effects of a drinking carouse, and David shortly acquired in marriage the charming Abigail – incidentally, too, some rich possessions.
In spite of such good fortune David came to feel that his life was gravely menaced. “I shall be captured some day by the hand of Saul,” he told himself (I Sam. 27:1). There seemed to be but one alternative, to ally himself with the Philistines. In their nearest city, Gath, David was well known and probably had friends, among them King Achish. Thither he fled, and the king welcomed him and assigned to him Ziklag, a city on the Philistine border facing the Amalekites.
David’s exact status with the Philistines is problematical. The king of Gath came fully to trust him, even making David and his men his own body guard. But the other “lords of the Philistines” did not, as is obvious from their decision not to let him take part in the final battle with Saul (I Sam. 29:1-10). Perhaps they were right. The Biblical writers present David as a kind of Robin Hood, befriending and protecting the Judahite clans while pretending to fight them, and only occasionally raiding real enemies (I Sam. 27:6-12). An instance of the latter kind is his famous revenge raid on the Amalekites (I Sam. 30:1-31).
It was at Ziklag, following the raid on the Amalekites, that the messenger of Saul’s death found David. The man, an Amalekite, claimed to have “run Saul through” at the latter’s command, when the king’s defeat became inevitable. Instead of welcoming the news of his enemy’s death David slew the man who brought it. He later wrote the famous dirge over Saul and Jonathan, found in II Sam. 1:17-27, and sent from Hebron a message of approval to the men of Jabesh-Gilead, who had risked their lives in the meantime to rescue the bodies of Saul and his sons from the walls of Bethshan.
These do not look like the actions of a man who was seeking Saul’s kingdom but some have so interpreted them. In any case, when the sacred ephod was asked by David,
Shall I go up to one of the cities of Judah?
it gave the unqualified response:
And when David said,
“Whither shall I go up?”
The first part of the glory of David is ended; the second part, more spectacular but less glorious, is now to be told.
END OF PHILISTINE DOMINATION
The early “Stories of David’s Court and Family Life,” running through the book of II Samuel, are the sole literary source for the second part of the career of this colorful Hebrew, David. They are first-class historical sources, written perhaps as early as Solomon’s reign, some of them possibly in the closing years of David himself. Whoever wrote them was sympathetic with his subject – as any true biographer must be – and for his age unusually critical. It will not be possible in this book to follow them in any detail but they will necessarily furnish the thread of our story.
The situation in the Israelite kingdom, following the defeat and death of Saul, is not clear but some features of it are known. Ishbaal, son of Saul, had succeeded his father as king but was sadly lacking in ability to go on with his work. He had in Abner, however, one of Saul’s strong men, a promising military leader. Ishbaal’s chief city, now that the Philistines were in possession of Hebrew territory west of the Jordan, was Mahanaim in the East-Jordan country. The kingdom of Israel, which had begun auspiciously with Saul, had been cut to the shadow of its former self. It must have seemed, even to the “sons of the prophets,” that Yahweh had forgotten his people. But a new star of hope had arisen in the south. The future, not only of Judah but of all Israel, lay with David.
Whether David and Ishbaal ruled their small realms by permission of the Philistines is not known. It seems clear that they both had some kind of access to the occupied territory north of Jerusalem, and that for a few years their subjects may have lived on comparatively friendly terms with one another if not also with the Philistines. This powerful people certainly had at least nominal control of the Israelite lands west of Jordan and south of the plain of Esdraelon to the lower borders of Judah. And this would imply that both David and Ishbaal ruled as vassal kings.
According to the Samuel narrative, the peaceful relations of the two Israelite kingdoms were first disturbed by a bloody clash between some of Abner’s men and some Judahites commanded by Joab, David’s commander in chief (II Sam. 2:8-32). The battle – begun in sport (?) – had bitter consequences for Abner and his figurehead king, both of whom were shortly murdered. As for David, these incidents played into his hand; they were the first of a series of events which made him master of all Israel.
Not all of David’s admirers and friends had become his followers in the days of his persecution by Saul. Most of them had likely remained at home tilling their small acres or tending their herds. It is not strange then to learn that when matters in the little kingdom of Saul became critical, following the death of Abner and Ishbaal,
all the elders of Israel came to the king at Hebron, and King David made a covenant with them in Hebron before the Lord, and they anointed David king over Israel (II Sam. 5:3).
In Hebron, it is said, David ruled as king seven and a half years, beginning when he was thirty years old. It fits the course of events best to think of his election as king of “Israel” (Saul’s kingdom) taking place in the third year of his reign over Judah. This reconstruction requires that David, at thirty-three, be the nominal ruler, at Hebron, of the central and southern divisions of Israelites and that he continue to make this his capital for the next five years.
In this brief period the decisive actions against the Philistine masters of the country must have been fought. The war was a savage one. David as vassal king at Hebron could be tolerated, or even supported, but not David as king of all Israel. So it is likely that the Philistines began the war. Their first attack was made by way of the Valley of Rephaim southwest of Jerusalem. David did not wait for it to reach him at Hebron, the city not possessing good natural defenses, but fell upon his enemies fro his old haunts at Adullam. The Philistines were beaten but not decisively. It took another battle in the same territory – and the possession of Jerusalem, captured from the Canaanites later – to accomplish their final defeat.
An incident probably connected with the first great battle (II Sam. 23:13-17) puts David and his mighty men in a striking light. The Philistines were in possession of Bethlehem were an ancient well, familiar to David’s boyhood days, offered freely in better times cold water for the thirsty wayfarer –
Moreover David longed earnestly and said, “Oh that someone would give me a drink of water from the well of Bethlehem that is at the gate!”
Hearing the king’s wish, three of his heroes fought their way through the Philistine lines, drew water from the well, and brought it safely back. But their courage was matched by the king’s chivalry –
He would not drink of it, but poured it out to the Lord. And David said, “Far be it from me, O Lord, that I should do this! It is the blood of men who went at the risk of their lives.” Therefore he would not drink it. (II Sam. 23:15, 16b, 17).
Without doubt many heroic deeds were done by “the Three” and “the Thirty” champions in the Israelite army.
The Philistines had been beaten in the open field in the south, but as long as Jerusalem, the strongest fortress in Palestine, was their ally, it was impossible for David to complete their conquest and thus restore Hebrew freedom. Besides, Jerusalem in the hands of Canaanite enemies effectively cut into two parts David’s lands north and south. Almost as important as this consideration was David’s need of a capital. Hebron was too far south and too unprotected. What was required was a location between the rival divisions of Israel north and south, yet one which belonged to neither. Jerusalem was the ideal spot suiting all the requirements.
But how was Jerusalem, so strongly protected by impassible approaches and heavy walls, to be taken by an army without siege artillery? Well might its inhabitants, the Jebusites, boast that the lame and the blind alone could hold the city. But there was one weak spot in its defense and David discovered it. This was the tunnel which conducted water from the Virgin’s Spring outside the walls to a point inside the city. While the defenders lining the walls looked scornfully at the efforts of the besieging army to take the city, the intrepid Joab and a few picked followers found their way along this tunnel, climbed up the shaft through which the water was drawn to the surface, and fell with fury upon the surprised defenders. The city soon capitulated.
With the capture of Jerusalem the last barrier to complete victory over the Philistines was removed. The biblical sources have nothing to say about the final struggle, which must have ended by their being ejected from the plain of Esdraelon. There is some archaeological evidence to this effect. It is probable that in the final defeat of the Philistines David had some help from the tribes east of Jordan. with the domination of this powerful enemy completely broken and the freedom of Israel won, the expanded kingdom under David began a new existence.
1. What has been Israel’s leading contribution to the world?
2. In what way has God been able to work through men? Would the results be likely to be perfect?
3. In what ways did priests function in the life of Israel in David’s time? What was an ephod?
4. What opportunities for eluding an enemy would the country southwest of Jerusalem afford? Consult a historical geography of the Bible, such as the one listed.
5. Try to imagine David’s feelings as he joined the Philistines and write briefly on the topic, “David as Vassal of King Achish.”
6. Find some map showing the contemporary kingdoms of Ishbaal and David. how large was each kingdom?
7. What reasons had the elders in Ishbaal’s kingdom for wanting David to become their king? What city was David’s first capital as king of both realms?
8. Discuss the statement, “And the Lord gave victory to David wherever he went” (II Sam. 8:6).
9. Study the location and environs of ancient Jerusalem. Why would David want it as his capital?
THE KINGDOM UNDER DAVID (Continued)
Beginning with its occupation by David the fortress of Jerusalem became the solid anchor of the nation’s hopes. It became for a thousand years, moreover, the religious capital of the Western world. From the people who looked to it as the earthly dwelling place of Yahweh came men and ideas that have played a tremendous part in the march of history. In spite of he troubled career – in part, no doubt, because of it – Jerusalem, the Holy City, has continued to stand as a beacon light through the dark centuries since her fall.
In view of Jerusalem’s exceptional role in history, is it too much to say that her founder was wrought upon by the divine spirit in choosing her from among the cities of Palestine and making her the capital of his kingdom? To affirm this is not to imply that everything that David said or did was approved of God. To say so would be as unwarranted as to claim that every word or deed of a prophet is divinely inspired. the human element must always be taken into account. many of David’s doings were primitive and in no way in advance of his time. But god takes men of capacity and stimulates them to great deeds and so works out his purposes. Humanity then graciously forgets their faults and assigns them heroic roles.
The occupation of Jerusalem was an important factor in the profound changes which were going on in Hebrew social and political life in David’s time. Israel had been a rural people during the conquest and settlement of Canaan, with a minimum of experience of city life. now, for the first time, the nation possessed a real city which became the residence of the king and the nation’s capital. Saul had had little better than a rustic throne under a great oak, with loosely federated tribesmen as his subjects. David moved into the best protected site in all Palestine and began the process of making it a royal city and the national religious center. While the peasantry continued to be the real strength of the kingdom, Israel’s life took on an urbanization which went far toward breaking down the old tribal organization and making a greater and more united people.
That there were dangers as well as advantages in all this development history clearly reveals. The king himself is the classic example. From being an unspoiled shepherd boy, he rose to the dizzy height of “grand monarch,” with all the wealth and power and glory this implies, but he lost in the end the respect had love of a loyal nation. Even kings may not break the moral law and escape the consequences.
But it is the new impetus given to the Hebrew state by David’s acts, rather than the story of its chief city, which concerns us now. With the kingdom’s foundation safely anchored to a strong capital, David took measures further to strengthen it within and to enlarge its borders.
MAKING THE KINGDOM STRONG WITHIN
Those who build empires well usually sense the value of religion. One of the king’s first acts after making Jerusalem his capital city was to bring to it the Ark of God, which for a long time had had no certain resting place. since the Ark was the principal religious symbol of Israel its presence made Jerusalem the national religious center. A story in II Sam. 24:10-25II Sam. 20:23-26) Ira the Jairite is named as a “priest unto David.” Perhaps the king had his private sanctuary and priests. while Zadok and Abiathar were custodians of the Ark and the ephod and supervised the sacrifices of the old high place in Jerusalem.
STRENGTHENING THE BORDERS
The new Hebrew kingdom might have proved unstable, in spite of all the internal gains made, had David not paid due attention to its borders. With a ring of rival nations around her, any one of which could give plenty of trouble, Israel was far from safe. Besides, some of the Israelite tribes – the east and north – had little contact with the central and southern groups. It was to make the kingdom more inclusive and more secure that David undertook the conquest of some of the neighboring nations.
Four wars in all were carried on but the order in which they were fought is not clear. Edom and Moab, bordering the Dead Sea, were apparently quickly reduced and those who were left of the inhabitants made slaves. As to the other two wars, against the Ammonites and the Syrians, the facts are not always easy to make out. but there is a fuller account of these struggles, one purpose of which is to throw light on David’s acts.
The war with the Ammonites centered at Rabbah, their principal city. When the siege was about to begin Syrian allies appeared and the Israelites were in danger of being crushed between the two armies. The day was saved by Joab and his men, who turned fiercely upon the newcomers and put them to flight. For some reason the advantage was not followed up, but the following year Joab led an army against the city. There was heavy fighting, but when the “water city” – evidently the source of water supply – was taken, the city soon yielded. David himself participated in later actions. The other Ammonite cities were despoiled and the inhabitants made slaves.
The Syrian war was an interlude, coming probably between the early and the later attack on Rabbah. David was strategist enough to see that the Syrians must be defeated before Rabbah could be captured. By swift moves he was able to “divide and conquer” the various forces upon which Hadadezer, the Syrian commander, was depending for an effective army. Damascus and its dependent territory were occupied and made to pay tribute.
After the conquest of Syria, his greatest military achievement, David had little difficulty in making treaties with the kings of Hamath and Phoenicia on the north. The latter country had never been interested in Asiatic conquests, being too busy making money by a thriving trade in the Mediterranean. It was in her interest also to have a strong nation protect her caravan routes to the east. So Israel and Phoenicia became allies, their friendship proverbial.
With the conclusion of these wars and treaties the kingdom of Israel reached its greatest geographical extent. Everywhere, except on the Philistine plain, the neighboring peoples were either friendly or had been made subject to David. Even the Philistines were no longer a menace, so overwhelming had been their defeat by the armies of Israel.
DAVID AS “GRAND MONARCH”
It was a miniature empire over which the Israel king now held sway. It was the first great unification of the tribes of Israel – and the last. It was full of promise for Hebrew culture and the religion of Yahweh, but as time passed it took on most of the fashions of the Oriental despotisms of the day – polygamy, lavish expenditure, display, conspiracy. David, “the shepherd king,” whose court at first hardly surpassed in splendor Saul’s camp at Gibeah, had become a “grand monarch.”
On one side only, but a very important side, was his power limited. Unlike that of most oriental potentates, David’s rule over all Israel was on the basis of a covenant made with him at Hebron by the tribal chieftains (II Sam. 5:3). The exact terms of the covenant are not known but they certain included – like the famous Magna Charta of late centuries – important checks on the royal power. The requirements made of the people would include service in time of war and support of the government in time of peace. Like most ancient covenants this one was three-sided, including the people, the king, and the Deity. Yahweh’s participation would give to the covenant the necessary binding power and dignity.
The covenant idea in Israel lay at the basis of her distinctive history, as has already been observed. It went far toward making her the most democratic of the ancient nations. The revolt under Moses against the Egyptians, even the murmurings and rebellions of the tribes in the desert, the selection of leaders like the “Judges” and Saul, the interference of the people in saving Jonathan from the consequences of Saul’s rash vow, and the double election of David to the kingship at Hebron – these are all expressions of the democratic idea inherent in the Hebrew covenant and related institutions. Democracy did not begin with the Greeks, as has been too often supposed. Throughout her history, even to the present – as anti-Semitism possibly indicates – Israel has been the bold champions of the democratic way of life. The discerning mind should find in this fact one evidence of God’s leading of this great people. So it is not illogical to think of the ancient covenant as an expression of a special divine revelation.
It is most unfortunate that great leaders do not always recognize and follow God’s guiding hand. It was so with David when once he had tasted wealth and power. From a position where he was universally admired and loved he began a descent which ended in a disappointed and lonely old age, to say nothing of the evil effects of his acts upon the kingdom. Had Providence cut him off in his better days his name would have shone with an untarnished luster for later ages. But even as things went he became for future Israel the ideal king.
DOMESTIC AND NATIONAL TRAGEDY
A strand of narratives, running through II Sam. 9-20, is remarkable for the picture it gives of David’s domestic life. The events narrated are of less importance than the light they throw on conditions at court and within the kingdom. They exhibit the king, sometimes at his best as in his treatment of certain members of the house of Saul, sometimes at his worst as in “the matter of Uriah the Hittite,” and in permitting Saul’s sons to be hanged. The stories of this cycle are examples of excellent Hebrew prose, with a human interest which holds the reader to the end.
According to II Sam. 12:7-12, the double sin of David against Uriah the Hittite was the beginning of the series of troubles which followed him to the day of his death. “The sword shall never depart from your house,” declared the angry prophet after fiercely denouncing the guilty king. Not even deep repentance avails to wash out some sins – justice must first be satisfied. If Nathan the prophet reflected at all the feeling of the people David never again stood so high among them.
The double tragedy in the case of Uriah would have excited little complaint at any other oriental court. It was taken for granted – outside of Israel – that the king had absolute power over the fortunes and lives of his subjects. But it was not so in Israel. Here Hebrew law came first, and in relation to it the king was no better than the common man. Thundering down the centuries from Sinai had come the great commands (Ex. 20:13,14):
You must not commit adultery
you must not commit murder,
and even kings had to hear and obey – or suffer. A thoughtful reading of the whole story (II Sam. 11:2-12:25) strongly suggests that God was indeed revealing himself in the world through Israel. Otherwise how do you account for her astounding sense of justice, her lofty morality?
As if to mock the repentance of the king the sins of lust and murder again troubled his house, this time involving a daughter, Tamar, and two sons, Amnon and Absalom. The story is told, in naive detail, in II Sam. 13:1-39. Tamar is the elite example of Jewish maidenly reserve. Amnon, her seducer, is a weakling and a rascal who pretty well deserved his tragic fate. Absalom, avenger of his sister’s honor, is at the very best estimate a rash young man promising plenty of trouble for the royal household. The modern reader who remembers that II Samuel is an ancient book will take no offense at the honesty of these stories. They portray sin realistically but always as sin, not as conduct deserving a halo, after the fashion of certain modern fiction.
Absalom’s slaying of Amnon, his flight to Geshur, a city in the north, and his return to Jerusalem where he contrived to secure his father’s favor II Sam. 13:1-14:33), are the preface to the longer story of his rebellion (II Sam. 15:1-19:19). The entire narrative is stirring and the reader is doubly rewarded by the local coloring in it. One observes, for example, the seclusion of the harem, the operation of the law of blood revenge, the devices of the wise woman of Tekoah and of Joab to trick the king the politics” of Absalom as he wins the people to his side, the ebb and flow of courtiers, and the ways in which an oriental monarch conducts his government and himself.
“Now in all Israel,” so the account proceeds, “there was no man so much to be praised for his beauty as Absalom; from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head there was no blemish in him” (II Sam. 14:25). Such a man always possesses a certain advantage over his plainer looking fellows and he ought to use it for good, but Absalom was ambitious and unscrupulous. During the five years of his disfavor at court he had been formulating plans to seize the kingdom.
David had no sooner given this spoiled young son the kiss of reconciliation than Absalom began surreptitiously to bid for his throne. II Sam. 15:1-6 presents a perfect example of conscienceless political maneuvering. After four years of it, during which “Absalom stole the hearts of the men of Israel,” he was ready for the next move.
The unsuspecting David did not guess that his son’s request to go to Hebron was not to make a religious vow, as Absalom represented, but to set up headquarters for his conspiracy. Events moved rapidly and people flocked to his standard in the southern city.
And when a messenger came to David, saying, “The heart of the men of Israel has gone after Absalom,”
David said to all his servants who were with him at Jerusalem,
Up and away; for otherwise there will be for us no escape from Absalom. Make haste to be off, lest he quickly overtake us and set evil in motion against us and put the city to the sword (II Sam. 15:13-14).
The flight of the king was in the nick of time. Leaving the priests, Zadok and Abiathar, and the diplomatic Hushai behind to help his cause in any way they could, David and his followers hastened across the Kidron. Absalom, meantime, entered Jerusalem without opposition and held a council of war. Ahithophel, who had deserted the king and joined him at Hebron, advised immediate pursuit of the royal fugitive, but the clever Hushai counseled waiting until Absalom had a larger army. Said Hushai:
You know your father and his men that they are tried warriors and thoroughly aroused, like a bear in the open robbed of her cubs. Furthermore, your father is an expert campaigner and will not spend the night with the people. Even now he has hidden himself in one of the caves or in some other place. In case he falls upon the people at the first, whoever hears the report will say, “There has been a slaughter among the people who follow Absalom.” Then even the valiant man whose heart is like the heart of a lion, will utterly lose courage; for all Israel knows that your father is a skilled warrior, and those who are with him are valiant men. (II Sam. 17:8-10).
Fortunately for David this counsel prevailed. The faithful priests, Zadok and Abiathar, managed to get word to him of what was going on; Ahithopel, because his counsel was rejected, went out and hanged himself; and the king’s forces crossed the Jordan and came to the loyal city of Mahanaim, the old capital of Saul’s kingdom.
By the time Absalom and his army had crossed the river in pursuit, the king’s forces were under trusted commanders and ready for the battle. As each division marched out of Mahanaim to engage the enemy David charged the commander,
Deal gently for my sake with the young man, with Absalom (II Sam. 18:5)!
All day the battle raged on the plain and in the woods, the army of the traitorous son being finally beaten. The ill-fated youth himself, fleeing on his mule, was caught by the hanging boughs of a great oak and left suspended in the air. Word was quickly sent to Joab who, in utter disregard of the king’s charge, plunged three darts into Absalom’s heart.
Two messengers, Ahimaaz and “the Cushite,” were quickly dispatched to the king waiting at the gate of the city. As each came up David asked anxiously, ‘is the young man Absalom safe?’ Only the Cushite reported in full the dread news.
Then the king was deeply moved and went up to the chamber over the gate and wept. Thus he said, as we wept,
“My son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! O that I, even I, had died instead of you, Absalom, my son, my son!” (II Sam. 18:33-19:1)
It took a round rebuke from old Joab himself to bring the king to a realization that he was carrying his grief too far and that, unless he played the man and asserted his power, he would not have by nightfall so much as one follower left. The news of the victory soon traveled to Jerusalem, and David was welcomed back to the city and his throne.
David’s attitude toward Absalom, as well at the latter’s extreme aggressiveness, suggests that old age was beginning to enfeeble the king’s spirit. In his more vigorous days it is inconceivable that so bold a conspiracy would have developed unnoticed. The fact that it almost succeeded, in spite of such strong leaders as Hushai, Abishai, and Joab, is a witness that powerful forces were at work undermining the unity of the kingdom and that David was not capable of suppressing them. That this indeed was the case events were soon to make clear.
A number of things – events, lists of heroes, songs, tales – follow in II Samuel the record of Absalom’s conspiracy. Some of them, as has been seen, fit best into the earlier history of the kingdom. Others, such as the songs and the king’s purported last words, come from a later time. The continuing thread of the history seems to carry one from the king’s restoration to power (II Sam. 19:8-20:3) almost directly to the report of his old age and the last scenes of turmoil in his kingdom. (I Kings 1:1-2:11).
Among the chief causes which contributed to the instability of the kingdom was the harem. The idea prevailed in the East that this was a necessary feature of court life. Most of the marriages were ties of diplomacy with surrounding nations and so were thought to increase the king’s influence and dignity. But the harem could be also a menace, as wives rivaled one another to secure royal favors for themselves and their children. Jealousy, ambition, lust, and suspicion too often led straight to tragedy. Of this fact the stories of Amnon and Absalom have already reminded us.
As David became “old and stricken in years” the inevitable occurred, rivalry among sons – abetted by their mothers and friends – for the throne. The chief contenders were Adonijah, son of Haggith, and Solomon, the son of Bathsheba. The former began his movement confidently, probably with David’s acquiescence, by holding a great public festival to which persons of prominence were invited, including Joab and Abiathar, his principal supporters. The affair was going very well until the rival movement for Solomon started. Bathsheba and Nathan the prophet, working behind the scenes, were its chief promoters. Cleverly they had secured David’s approval of Solomon.
And when they came before the king, the king said to them, “Take with you the servants of your lord and cause Solomon my son to ride upon my own mule, and bring him down to Gihon; and let Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet anoint him there king over Israel; then blow the trumpet and say, ‘Long live King Solomon!’” (I Kings 1:33, 34).
The procession, heavily supported by the king’s personal guard under Benaiah, moved to Gihon where a great crowd joined in the celebration, “so that the earth was rent by their noise.” Hearing it, Adonijah’s banqueters became “afraid, and rose up, and went every man his way.” And so it came about that Solomon was installed as king while his father was still alive.
David’s last charge to his son and successor (I Kings. 2:1-9) probably contains many late elements. It does not fit well, for example, with what we know of David – who was generous even to his personal enemies – to leave directions for the deaths of Shimei and Joab. The first he had forgiven and the second, brutal thought he was, had proved his life-time loyalty to the king. Solomon, on the other hand, had plenty of reason for wanting to see these men dead.
With his son securely on the throne and his life sands fast running out, the old king awaited his end. The Deuteronomic writers speak of his death in the terms of their characteristic formula:
So David slept with his fathers and was buried in the city of David (I Kings 2:10).
DAVID AND THE KINGDOM
There are two ways, in general, of evaluating the career of any man, his impact upon his own time and his significance for alter generations. By both these criteria David is entitled to be called great.
Certainly he was a man of his time, susceptible to its primitive ideas and practices. Instances of this fact are plentiful. The hanging of Saul’s sons “before the Lord” in order to appease the Gibeonites, the incident of the census and its consequences, David’s constant dependence for divine guidance on the ephod, and the double crime against Uriah the Hittite may be cited. But he often rose above the level of his times. He could be generous to a foe was rarely vindictive, and sometimes showed a surprising sense of Justice. Courageous, loyal, skillful in battle, he achieved the deliverance of his people from the Philistine yoke and their security and freedom.
In other ways also his work as the savior of his people was remarkable. When its very existence was threatened he brought the kingdom to a position of security and power within and without. he built up a great capital city and a new social order with a nobility, military leaders, government officials, and a merchant class. On the better side these achievements meant nothing less than the founding of Israel’s cultural life, and they make it understandable how Solomon might have had opportunity to follow intellectual pursuits and become – if he really did become – a “lover of wisdom.”
David’s contribution to history is notable. he was devoted to the religion of Yahweh and made it central in the kingdom. In spite of his faults the nation loved and followed him. his positive personal qualities were so remarkable indeed that his immoralities were forgotten and he came to be thought of as an ideal. His success in unifying his people and organizing a stable kingdom, which assured a future for Hebrew culture with its vast possibilities for human development, was an achievement which has made the son of Jesse one of the world’s immortals. In the eyes of later seers, the perfect king, the Messiah to come, was to bear the proud title, “Son of David.”
The ancient historians, looking at events through the eyes of faith, referred often to David as a “servant of the Lord.” In the light of his contribution to his own day and to ours this is not an unearned title. Theology sometimes perceives a truth which history, in the usual sense, passes by. The true historian, however, like the theologian, finds meaning in events and in human character. Is it too much to say that David’s great career had meaning because God raised him up to do the work which he accomplished? If his life and work had this kind of motivation and directive, then at this point theology and history find themselves in perfect agreement. The historian who does not see order and direction in the world of nature and of men is blind; if he sees them and takes account of the Divine Purpose unfolding in human events, he becomes, not a mere chronicler, but a true philosopher and historian.
1. Do you think God chose David to carry through a difficult human task? if so, would this be an instance of “God in history”?
2. What were the principal functions of an ancient, oriental state?
3. Mention the chief religious symbols and officials to be found in Israel in David’s time.
4. Sum up David’s wars of conquest. Observe, on a good map, how these wars enlarged his kingdom.
5. Give several examples, with scriptural references, of democratic practices among the ancient Israelites.
6. Read, in II Sam. 15;1-19:10, th complete story of Absalom’s revolt.
7. Note, in the stories of David’s court and family life, various indications of growing disunity in his kingdom. To what extent was the king responsible?
8. Retell, as vividly as you can, the story of the rivalry of Adonijah and Solomon.
9. Write a sketch of David to be read in class. Let it be based largely on your study of the Biblical sources.