David: Reflecting on Kingship

David Firth

In looking at the major poems in the books of Samuel we have noted how each occurs at a significant point within the book as a whole. Hannah’s Song (1 Samuel 2:1 – 10) comes out of the life experience that is typical of the complaint psalms, but is ultimately offered in exuberant praise to God as the one who answers prayer, even when it has previously seemed as if God is also the problem. Yet this song of praise was also the first indicator that God was going to raise up the king of his choosing since the song ends with reference to this king (1 Samuel 2:10). Kingship is thus vital to God’s purposes. The second major poem was David’s lament over Saul and Jonathan (2 Samuel 1:17 – 27). This lament comes as the pivot in the story of kingship’s establishment. Saul has come, and for all that he did achieve some things, is ultimately judged to have failed because he did not accept that God had the final say. David’s lament does not say this directly, because it is a genuine lament over the loss of those who were important, especially Jonathan as a close friend (2 Samuel 1:26). But it marks a transition point by posing the question of how it is that a king is to succeed.


To a large extent that question has been announced in 1 Samuel 12, where Samuel’s speech might be thought of as a constitutional document for Israel. What Samuel makes clear there is that although the king has civil authority, when it comes to sacral matters he is under the authority of God’s prophet, always presuming that the prophet authentically speaks God’s word. But the problem with a constitution is that we do not know exactly how it going to work out in practice. We know what it is meant to achieve, but exactly how its goals will be attained normally requires further rules to be laid down. Saul’s story is then rather like a piece of case law, an example of how not to allow the prophet’s authority to rule. Thus, Saul failed to wait for Samuel as he had been told (1 Samuel 13:8 – 15), failed to carry out God’s command against Amalek (1 Samuel 15), and continued to cling to the throne even though he knew it really belonged to David (1 Samuel 24:20) before finally seeking information through necromancy (1 Samuel 28:3 – 25). Case law which shows us what not to do is all well and good, but we also need some positive guidance.


We might expect as we turn from Saul’s reign to David’s that we might see how a king should behave. But apart from the summary chapters of the whole of David’s reign (2 Samuel 5 – 8) we would probably be rather disappointed. For we find David murdering one of his most loyal servants after committing adultery with his wife. After this, he is unable to deal with outrageous crimes being perpetrated by his sons, including one raping his half-sister and then David doing nothing but become angry (2 Samuel 13:1 – 22), and then sitting indecisively when another son took justice into his own hands and murdered his half-brother for the rape of his sister (2 Samuel 13:23 – 39). Following this, he was ousted by the rebellion of his son Absalom, even though Absalom’s actions in accumulating support were blindingly obvious (2 Samuel 15:1 – 6). If we are looking for positive examples of how a king should operate, we would probably not imagine that David ranked terribly high.


Yet, in spite of all this, David was still the king to whom God had promised an enduring dynasty (2 Samuel 7:1 – 17). Since the story of David’s reign is not told in a strictly chronological order, it is not impossible that the promise was made after many of these events, though we cannot be sure. But the canonical structure asks us to read David’s actions in light of the promise and to ponder how he could be God’s chosen king. The answer to this is that David contrasts with Saul on one crucial point. Whenever he was confronted with a word from a prophet, Saul rebelled and sought to go his own way. David, by contrast, accepted the guidance of Gad in his time in the wilderness (1 Samuel 22:5) and confessed his sins to Nathan following his adultery with Bathsheba and murder of Uriah (2 Samuel 12:13). He also responded to Gad following his sin in the census (2 Samuel 24:10 – 25). In that instance, he initially confessed his sin directly to God without any confrontation from a prophet (2 Samuel 24:10), but thereafter accepted Gad’s directives. In all of this, David demonstrated something Saul never appreciated. As king, he could only reign when he allowed God to reign over him. Indeed, even when he was fleeing from Absalom he expressed this when he directed the priests to take the Ark back to Jerusalem because he knew he could only return if he found favour with God (2 Samuel 15:25 – 26). David is a fundamentally flawed character, but his fundamental virtue is that he knew he could not claim power as a right. At his best, David discovered that real power exists only by surrendering it to God.


It is against this background that we need to read the two poems which come at the end of the books of Samuel. Together, 2 Samuel 22:1 – 51 and 23:1 – 7 provide David’s final reflection on what it is to be king. The great poem of 2 Samuel 22 appears elsewhere in the Bible as Psalm 18, but it is important that although it is the same piece, it is placed in a different setting in each book, and this needs to shape our interpretation of it. In Samuel, it comes at the heart of the Samuel Conclusion (2 Samuel 21 – 24) in which it is balanced by the second, more reflective poem in 23:1 – 7. 2 Samuel 22 is said to have been spoken by David when the Lord had delivered him from the hand of all his enemies and from Saul. The language of deliverance from his enemies is similar to what we find in 2 Samuel 7:1 when David wanted to build the temple, but the reference here to Saul probably means that we are to understand this psalm as coming from earlier in David’s career, perhaps at about the time he first came to the throne. Here, David celebrates the fact that the Lord is his only security (2 Samuel 22:2 – 4). In his journey to the throne David had gone through many difficulties and trials and his life had frequently been under threat. But this poem declares that God has kept him through all these times, rescuing him from enemies who were too strong for him (2 Samuel 22:17 – 20). If we ask the question how it was that David could succeed, then the answer given so confidently here is that it could only be in the strength of the Lord, the one who shows his steadfast love to his anointed king (2 Samuel 22:51).


All of this is well and good, but we have plenty of evidence of David not acting in this way in the latter part of his reign. That is why it is important that 2 Samuel 22 is balanced by 2 Samuel 23:1 – 7. These are no longer the hopeful words of a young king who is confident in what God is about to do through him. Rather, these are David’s last words, perhaps to be understood as his final public utterance. They are the words of an old man who looks back, though one who looks back as a prophet (2 Samuel 23:2 – 3a). It is the oracle here that sets the context for kingship, an oracle which is also David’s reflection. It is the king who rules justly who gains God’s favour, and to rule justly can only mean to rule in the fear of the Lord. In this poem, David speaks as one who has learnt from bitter and painful experience. The words he has spoken so confidently are true, but he also knows that there is a struggle that is experienced by all. Yet in the end, David’s house can endure because David’s house knows the fundamental truth declared here. A king is only valid if he seeks to serve God – all other ambitions are the path of destruction. Real power is thus found in the surrender of power, in accepting that the one who truly reigns is God.


David’s two songs thus reflect back on his lament over Saul and Jonathan and take us back to Hannah’s Song. God intended to reign through his king, but his king needed to know that no human could claim power himself. That belonged only to God. But David’s songs here also point forward, because they come from one who has failed more spectacularly than most. Great kings, and indeed great leaders in general, are not necessarily those who are immediately and obviously successful. They are submitted to God, but they also discover that failure is not God’s last word. With repentance, there is a future, a new opportunity to submit to God, in which there is the possibility of taking God’s people forward.

The Revd Dr David Firth is Old Testament Tutor at Cliff College

metconnexion, Spring 2008, pp.14-15.