King David, the man after God’s own heart

Tomorrow, the 29th of December, is the feast day of S. Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury. But it’s also the liturgical memorial of an Old Testament Saint, the greatest and best king of Israel, to whom all his successors were compared wistfully in the books of the Kings in the Bible, for none of them could quite match up to David. Here is his entry in the Roman martyrology, one of the calendars of the Church:

“Commemoration of Saint David, king and prophet, who being the son of Iesse of Bethlehem found favour before God and was anointed with the holy oil by the prophet Samuel, that he may rule the people of Israel; he transferred the ark of the testament of the Lord into the city of Jerusalem and the Lord Himself soon afterwards made a promise to him that his seed would remain forever, and that of that seed would be one day be born Jesus Christ in the flesh.”

Roman martyrology, December the 29th

I thought it might be a good idea to run through the second book of Kings (aka. the second book of Samuel) which contains most of the life and career of this musician-shepherd-warrior. This second book of the Kings (also called the second book of Samuel) starts with the aftermath of the fall of King Saul, who had been grievously wounded on the battlefield at Gelboe, and whose body and those of his sons had been dishonoured by the Philistines at Bethsan. The bodies were recovered and buried honourably in Galaad. And now we continue with the story, as David slowly draws the tribes to himself, overcoming a fierce loyalty of the northern tribes and the tribe of Benjamin to the family of King Saul. David had already ingratiated himself to the people of Iuda at the end of the last book (I Samuel), by sharing with the them the spoils of his successful war against the Amalecites, who had raided much of the south country. 

“When David reached Siceleg, he sent presents to the elders of the neighbouring cities in Juda, bidding them accept his offering taken out of the spoil of the Lord’s enemies.”

I Kings, 30: 26

And they were anyway of his clan, and family, so there was family affinity. It wasn’t so easy with the northern tribes of primarily Ephraim and Manasses east and Manasses west. For instance, David tries to congratulate Manasses east on risking their lives to secure the bodies of Saul and his sons for burial; no reply to this act of what I consider good diplomacy is recorded, however. 

“And when David heard how the men of Jabes-Galaad had given Saul burial, he sent messengers to say, ‘The Lord’s blessing on you, for the faithfulness you have shewn to Saul, your master, in thus burying him; may the Lord make return to you for your loyalty and kindliness! I too will prove myself grateful for it. Strong be those arms of yours, keep your courage high; now that you no longer have Saul to rule over you, the tribe of Juda has anointed me to be its king.'”

II Kings, 2: 4-7

Meanwhile David mourned and lamented publicly the death of the king who had tried so hard to kill him:

“This is the lament David made over Saul and his son Jonathan, and would have this lament of his, ‘The Bow, taught to the sons of Juda; the words of it are to be found in the Book of the Upright. ‘Remember, Israel, the dead, wounded on thy heights, the flower of Israel, cut down on thy mountains; how fell they, warriors such as these? Keep the secret in Geth, never a word in the streets of Ascalon; shall the women-folk rejoice, shall they triumph, daughters of the Philistine, the uncircumcised? Mountains of Gelboe, never dew, never rain fall upon you, never from your lands be offering made of first-fruits; there the warrior’s shield lies dishonoured, the shield of Saul, bright with oil no more…‘”

II Kings, 1: 17-21

After a long period, during which David ruled only over Juda, at Hebron in the south, the kingship of the northern tribe was almost handed to him on a platter soon afterwards, by Saul’s cousin and military general Abner, who had fallen into disagreement with Saul’s son Isboseth. 

“But Saul had left a concubine, Respha the daughter of Aia; and of her Isboseth said to Abner, ‘What, wouldst thou mate with my father’s concubine?’ And he, greatly angered by Isboseth’s words, cried out, ‘I have made all Juda shun me like a carrion-dog, by befriending the line of thy father Saul, his kindred and his court, instead of giving thee up to David; and am I to be called to account this day over a woman? God punish Abner as he deserves and more than he deserves, if I do not fulfil the promise which the Lord made to David; the kingship shall be taken away from Saul’s line, and David shall reign over Israel and Juda alike, from Dan to Bersabee!‘”

II Kings, 3:7-10

But, unfortunately, Abner happened to kill the Asael, the brother of David’s military general, Joab, and was drawn into a trap and killed. David diplomatically distanced himself from that act of treachery, held a public funeral for Abner at Hebron and had Joab mourn publicly on that occasion, too.

“And Joab left the royal presence to send messengers after Abner, summoning him back, without David’s knowledge, from the Pool of Sira. No sooner had Abner come back to Hebron than Joab took him aside, there in the gates, under pretence of speaking with him, and smote him in the groin, avenging by that death the death of his brother Asael. It was all over when David heard of it, and he cried, ‘Never shall I or my kingdom be held answerable for Abner’s death! On Joab’s head let the guilt fall, and on all his line; let the line of Joab never want a man that has a running at the reins, or is a leper, or works at the distaff like a woman, or falls in battle, or begs his bread.’ Thus Joab and his brother Abisai murdered Abner, who had slain their brother Asael in the fighting at Gabaon. As for David, he bade Joab and his men tear their garments and put on sackcloth, and go mourning at Abner’s funeral; he himself followed the bier, and wept aloud over Abner’s tomb at Hebron, where they buried him; all the people, too, were in tears.”

II Kings, 3: 26-32

The rivalry between the families of David and Saul continued for years, but when Saul’s son Isboseth was treacherously murdered, the northern tribes joined with Juda at Hebron and acclaimed David as king of a united Israel, beginning the golden age of the Israelite kingdom. 

“After this, all the tribes of Israel rallied to David at Hebron; ‘We are kith and kin of thine,’ they said. It is not so long since Israel marched under thy orders, when Saul was still reigning; and the Lord has promised thee that thou shouldst be its shepherd and its captain.’ And so the elders of Israel went to his court at Hebron; and there, at Hebron, in the Lord’s presence, David made a covenant with them, and they anointed him king of Israel. He was thirty years old when his reign began, and it lasted forty years;”

II Kings, 5: 1-4

Thus began a triumphant few years for the Israelites as David extended his power in every direction, creating a kingdom that would only again cover that same territory under the reign of Herod the Great (although then under the protection of the Roman Empire), just before and during the time of the infancy of Christ. The next great move of King David was to acquire his capital city and citadel (chapter five). He moved against the Jebusites, whose capital Jebus would become the Jerusalem we know and love. David then became the prosperous middle-Eastern type of king that we could imagine, with his army of crack troops moving out in raids and invasions to extend his power (although often enough, these troops led by the king himself), while he remained in Jerusalem. After this, David proceeded to move the Ark of the Covenant from its resting place at Abinadab’s house in Gabaa to a special tabernacle construction he had prepared for it at Jerusalem. 

When the ark had been brought into the city, they put it down at the appointed place, in the midst of a tabernacle which David had there spread out for it; and David brought burnt-sacrifices and welcome-offerings into the Lord’s presence there. Then, when his offering was done, he blessed the people in the name of the Lord of hosts, and gave to every Israelite, man or woman, a roll of bread and a piece of roast beef and a flour cake fried in oil; and with that, the people dispersed to their homes.”

II Kings, 6: 17-19

This was an important move on David’s part, for he made his new capital Jerusalem not only the centre of the secular power, but the centre of the national religious cult. Much later on, the kings would declare that sacrifice could only be offered at Jerusalem, as suggested by the Law of Moses (Deuteronomy, 12: 4-11), and smaller shrines and temples would lose their significance, shifting the religious centre further towards Jerusalem. David must have wanted to give this religious centre more permanence, for he wanted to build a wooden temple as a shrine for the Ark, but he warned by the prophet Nathan that it was far too soon for this.

“‘This message, then, thou wilt give to My servant David from the Lord of hosts: Out in the pasture-lands, where thou wast tending the sheep, I summoned thee away to bear rule over My people Israel; go where thou wouldst, I was ever at thy side, exterminating thy enemies to make room for thee, granting thee such renown as only comes to the greatest on earth. Henceforth My people are to have a settled home, taking root in it and remaining in undisturbed possession of it, no longer harassed by godless neighbours, as they have been ever since I first gave Israel judges to rule them. No longer shall thy enemies trouble thee; and this too the Lord promises, that He will grant thy line continuance. So, when thy days are ended, and thou art laid to rest beside thy fathers, I will grant thee for successor a son of thy own body, established firmly on his throne. He it is that shall build a house to do My Name honour. I will prolong for ever his royal dynasty; he shall find in mMe a Father, and I in him a son. If he plays Me false, be sure I will punish him; ever for man the rod, ever for Adam’s sons the plagues of mortality; but I will not cancel My merciful promise to him, as I cancelled My promise to Saul, the king that was banished from My favour.'”

II Kings, 7: 8-15

Meanwhile, David had finally subdued the Philistines in the south-west, who had plagued Saul, and, after some exertion, the Ammonites in the east and the Syrians in the north-east as well. All this is the substance of chapters eight and ten. He honoured the son of Jonathan, Saul’s son, for his old friendship with Jonathan, making him part of the royal household.

“Then the king sent to fetch Siba, that had been serving-man to Saul. ‘All that belonged to Saul,’ he told him, ‘all the household that once was his, I have given to thy master’s heir. Do thou, then, and thy sons, and the servants under thee, till the lands for him, and bring in its revenues to maintain him. He, Miphiboseth, thy master’s heir, shall evermore sit down to eat at my table.’ This Siba had fifteen sons, and twenty servants under him, and he told David, ‘My lord king, I am at thy service to do thy bidding.’ So Miphiboseth ate at the king’s table, as if he had been one of the king’s own sons.”

II Kings, 9: 9-11

David’s upward career suffered two setbacks, which the chronicle connect with two great sins. The second was his daring to conduct a census of the people, possibly with a mind to setting them to work for the royal house (chapter 25). But the first was not only the act of adultery which he committed with Bethsabee, the wife of Urias the Hethite, but his careful contrivance to have Urias killed before the adultery became public knowledge and brought shame to the king.

“And Nathan said to David, ‘Thou art the man.’ ‘Here is a message for thee,’ said he, ‘from the Lord God of Israel: I anointed thee king of Israel, I saved thy life when Saul threatened it; I gave thee thy master’s goods to enjoy, thy master’s wives to cherish in thy bosom; all Israel and Juda are in thy power, and if that were not enough, more should be thine for the asking. And thou, wouldst thou defy the Lord’s commandment, and do the wrong He hates, putting Urias the Hethite to the sword, so as to take his wife for thy own? The men of Ammon struck the blow, but thou art his murderer. For the wrong thou hast done in robbing Urias the Hethite of his wife, to make her thine, murder shall be the heirloom of thy own race. This is the Lord’s message to thee: I mean to stir up rebellion against thee in thy own household; before thy very eyes take thy own wives from thee and give them to another, that shall bed them in the full light of yonder sun. Thou didst go to work secretly; when this threat of mine is fulfilled, all Israel and yonder sun shall witness it.”

II Kings, 12: 7-12

The son Bethsabee had borne died in infancy, but strikingly she later gave him his heir, Solomon, who became an ancestor of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is often remarked that some of the most notorious of human errors are found in the very human heritage of Christ. The next few chapters tell the sorry story of David’s son Absalom’s sedition and attempt to usurp the kingship from his father (chapters thirteen through eighteen). All I could remember before I completed this rereading of the story was the ignominy of Absalom’s death: he was riding a donkey (probably a pretence of kingship) and got his head stuck in the branches of a tree, so the donkey marched on and left him hanging. David’s general Joab promptly dispatched him, to the deep sorrow of the king. But David recovered his throne and the loyalty of all those who had gone over to Absalom. But in all of this, and as David grew older and lost his strength and agility, the book tells of how his hand-picked fighting men in several companies were vital to his maintaining his power. So we hear of Ioab, who had captained the army of Juda, but now took over the same role for the army of Israel united; we hear of Banaias son of Joiada, who captained the company of the Cerethites and Phelethites. Other champions of the Israelite army are named, chiefly the Warriors Three, who accomplished great deeds among thirty other super-soldiers of the king.

“Once, when it was harvest-time, these three, the foremost of the Thirty, were at the king’s side in the cave of Odollam; the Philistines had encamped in the Valley of the Giants, and David kept close in his stronghold. The Philistines had a garrison at this time in Bethlehem: and now David, overcome with longing, said aloud, ‘Oh for a cup of water from the well by Bethlehem gate!’ Whereupon the three champions broke through the Philistine lines, drew water from the well by the gate of Bethlehem, and brought it to David. Instead of drinking it, he poured it out as a libation to the Lord; ‘The Lord be merciful to me,’ said he, ‘never that! That were to drink men’s blood; they brought it at the peril of their lives; it is not for my drinking.’ Such were the feats of the three first champions.”

II Kings, 23: 13-17

The book ends with David’s acquiring the land and building an altar where would eventually stand both the first Temple (Solomon’s Temple) and, when that was destroyed in 587 BC, the second Temple, which would stand until it was destroyed by the Romans in AD 70. Truly, David could be glad for all the support he had received throughout his life, primarily from God. And chapter 22 of the book is a great hymn of thanksgiving to God, further immortalised as Psalm 17(18) in the Book of Psalms. And with part of this psalm, I leave this commentary on the career of the greatest king of Israel, David son of Jesse the Bethlehemite.

“Shall I not love Thee, Lord, my only Defender? The Lord is my Rock-fastness, my Stronghold, my Rescuer; to God, my Hiding-place, I flee for safety; He is my shield, my Weapon of deliverance, my Refuge. Praised be the Lord! When I invoke His Name, I am secure from my enemies. All about me surged the waves of death, deep flowed the perilous tide, to daunt me; the grave had caught me in its toils, deadly snares had trapped my feet. One cry to the Lord, in my affliction, one word of summons to my God, and He, from His sanctuary, listened to my voice; the complaint I made before Him found a hearing…

Psalm 17(18): 2-7
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