Sinner and saint. Poet and warrior. Lustful and repentant. King and shepherd boy. Humble and willful. Humorous and tearful Faithful and rebellious. Hunter and preserver. Builder and destroyer. Wise, eloquent, organized — foolish, babbling, disoriented. Joyful morose. Biblical author, friend of God, future king of Israel forever!
David is all these and much more. Few men have held such an outstanding place in the historical record. If there is another who is more quoted than the sweet psalmist of Israel, perhaps it is the like-hearted man Jesus, who is the God who cherished David. How can a man of so many contradictions be a "man after [God's] own heart"? (Acts 13:22.) Because "men judge by outward appearance, but I look at a man's thoughts and intentions" (I Sam. 16:7, The Living Bible, used throughout article). Whence came this ancestor of our Lord who became the most outstanding king of Judah-Israel, and who is promised that kingship forever in the resurrection? A man whose great-grandmother was Ruth, a woman of Moab. A man who was almost overlooked by Samuel because he was the inconsequential, not-yet-grown eighth son of Jessie. When Saul became king, David was a mere youth herding sheep in the field. But since God even keeps track of sparrows, David rose from the hopeless eighth-son position in a relatively obscure family in Israel to become king — forever! Outside of Bethlehem, in the hills of Judea, David entertained himself as best he could while he watched his father's flock. Little did he realize then that he was learning vital lessons not only to be used in later life, but lessons which men throughout all succeeding history could draw from. Plucking on an instrument which was probably the crude forerunner of the guitar, he committed to memory the first notes of anthems to be played in God's Temple — a Temple not yet dreamed of, much less built. Small deeds of boyhood heroism executed in the protection of his father's flock presaged major battles fought to build a kingdom. Clever ruses he employed to outwit beasts of prey and bandits alike served him well throughout forty years or more of palace intrigue, in dealings with wily enemies within and without, assassins nurtured in the bosom of his own family! A sense of compassion and tenderness grew in him as he noticed how completely dependent his father's sheep were on his guidance and care. A desire to commit to memory the lessons learned led him to put together small poems — later to be expanded into one of the most cherished portions of the Word of God, the Psalms!
Complete Trust in God
A deep love of God's natural creation built into him a strong sense of organization and design, a desire to be creative as was his Creator. From these beginnings came the design of the Temple of God, left to David's son Solomon to build, and so, unfortunately called "Solomon's Temple." But it was David who designed the Temple and established standards of measurements and weights. David organized the courses of Levitical priests who would serve in the Temple, and made the plans for hundreds of singers to give their praise to God with his words and his music. He even, believe it or not, was responsible for the basic financing and selection of materials to build this most expensive structure ever erected by mankind! With time on his hands while tending the flocks, and with solitude and peace in the Judean hills, David read and reread the first five books of what we call the Bible (the only ones that were "Scripture" at the time, along with Joshua and a portion of the book of Judges, and possibly Job). He took endless hours to meditate, examine and absorb the laws of God. "O how love I thy law! It is my meditation all the day," he wrote. As much as the flock of sheep trusted in him, he realized that, of and by himself, he was as helpless as his flock in the world of his day. Perhaps the most vital lesson he learned from this was complete trust in God, whatever might befall; trust as a child with his parent, as a sheep with the shepherd. The kind of trust Jesus later gave as a qualification for the Kingdom of God: "I tell you as seriously as I know how that anyone who refuses to come to God as a little child will never be allowed into his Kingdom" (Mark 10:15). The kind of trust that finally came to fruition in that most beautiful psalm we all remember, the twenty-third! Tears and laughter, bravery and fear, humility and pride, anger and compassion, gentleness and ferocity. David was a fighter and a poet, one who could pluck a harp as adeptly as he could wield a sword, a very human person who made small and great mistakes, who accomplished small and great monuments of word and deed, a boy and man, acquainted with sin personally and very personally understanding repentance as the most powerful contact man has with God. David is a comfort to all of us, a character covering the broadest spectrum of human shame and human accomplishment.
A Little History
David: murderer, plotter, adulterer. David: repenter, saint, author of Scripture, king forever. And most important of all: "A man after God's own heart"! Let's get to know this man better. Let's wear his shoes, get inside his head, inside his heart, learn the lessons he learned, and somehow perhaps become a person after God's own heart in so doing! Let's go slowly and savor the entire experience. Hopefully we will dig just deep enough to prime further study and understanding. 'Hopefully we will improve our concept of humanity, our contact with God, our comprehension of the world around us, within us, and the world tomorrow — God's Kingdom to come. Hopefully we will gain a great friend and come to love David as God does — and in so doing come to love God Himself and our fellowman as David did, and as Jesus commands in His "new" commandment! Hopefully we will develop "the heart of God"! Let's start with the world into which David was born, understand the time in which he lived: the political turmoil, the primitive conditions, the brotherly bickering among the twelve tribes of God's nation Israel, the misunderstanding of how God directs and deals with human beings and how He dealt with that misunderstanding. Israel had escaped Egypt in the famous Exodus four centuries before David. Israel (all twelve tribes) had escaped the thralldom of Egypt to become a nation under Moses, but because of a rebellious attitude on the part of the Israelites, they wandered for forty years in the wilderness of Sinai. Moses died and Joshua took over. The "conquest" of the promised land proceeded slowly and imperfectly. The separate tribes lost cohesion as a nation, fell to bickering among themselves, accepted the local inhabitants and their gods and lost their identity as a nation.
"Give Us a King"
Hundreds of years passed. One tribe after another was offered an opportunity to cement together the nation, but each Judge (as the book of Judges tells) only brought a temporary surcease in his local area from the domination of strong political enemies left free in the land after the original "conquest." When David was born, Israel was still not a reality. Warring tribes struggled to maintain their identity. Surrounding small nations maintained their stranglehold on different tribes of the twelve (thirteen, counting Levi) that made up "Israel." More powerful centers to the south (Egypt) and to the north (Syria) dominated what was in between. Life for the unorganized tribes of Israel was touch and go. Unity was unheard of. Judah was the most powerful tribe of the twelve. The only cohesive factor among them was Samuel, who saved the light of the truth from going out in Israel as a child serving in the Tabernacle. His influence, as the last of a long line of Judges in Israel, was the most binding of all. Yet, the people of Israel complained. They looked around them at the more successful nations who had unity, kings, a form of national government; and they complained to Samuel. Samuel was distraught. He felt he had failed somehow. He felt rejected by his fellow Israelites. "'Give us a king like all the other nations have,' they pleaded. Samuel was terribly upset and went to the Lord for advice. 'Do as they say,' the Lord replied, 'for I am the one they are rejecting, not you — they don't want me to be their king any longer. Ever since I brought them from Egypt they have continually forsaken me and followed other gods. And now they are giving you the same treatment. Do as they ask, but warn them about what it will be like to have a king!'" (I Sam. 8:5-9.) Samuel told the people: "'If you insist on having a king, he will conscript your sons and make them run before his chariots; some will be made to lead his troops into battle, while others will be slave laborers; they will be forced to plow in the royal fields, and harvest his crops without pay; and make his weapons and chariot equipment. He will take your daughters from you and force them to cook and bake and make perfumes for him. He will take away the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his friends. He will take a tenth of your harvest and distribute it to his favorites. He will demand your slaves and the finest of your youth and will use your animals for his personal gain. He will demand a tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. You will shed bitter tears because of this king you are demanding, but the Lord will not help you.' "But the people refused to listen to Samuel's warning. "'Even so, we still want a king,' they said, 'for we want to be like the nations around us. He will govern us and lead us to battle.' "So Samuel told the Lord what the people had said, and the Lord replied again, 'Then do as they say and give them a king'" (verses 11-22). The people had spoken. Their choice was a king, "like the other nations have." God, and Samuel, acquiesced. The king was chosen according to the people's desire. His name was Saul — which being interpreted means "choice." The tribe was Benjamin. The family was Kish. Rich, influential, having a long history of excellence in Israel. Saul was most handsome. Saul was "head and shoulders" taller than anyone else in the land. A perfect leader, just like the kings of other nations around! The fact that he was egotistical, self-serving, a bit doltish and given to mental fits didn't sway the desire of Israel — they wanted a king. Saul's beginning was not bad. He showed at least an outward humility. Though he was from a rich and influential family, he said to Samuel: "Pardon me, sir. I'm from the tribe of Benjamin, the smallest in Israel, and my family is the least important of all the families of the tribe! You must have the wrong man!" (I Sam. 9:21.)
The People's Choice
Modest. But perhaps more so, shy. Because when Saul's coronation time came he hid himself from the festivities, and it took the Lord Himself to find him! (I Sam. 10:22.) He was coronated. All the people shouted, "Long live the king." Israel dispersed. Saul went home. A crisis occurred. The Ammonites attacked an Israeli city and threatened to put out the right eyes of all the inhabitants as part of the terms of surrender. Israel was not yet a nation. Separated tribes were encircled on every side by the Ammonites, Moabites, Philistines, Phoenicians, Syrians, and Egyptians. Saul, not too impressed with his duties as king, was found plowing his own fields when the news of the anticipated atrocity arrived. To his credit, his response was immediate and correct. He organized the people, went to the aid of Jabesh (the threatened Israeli city), and crushed the Ammonite attack. When some would also have added his critics to the list of dead, Saul's reply was wise: "'No one will be executed today; for today the Lord has rescued Israel!' "Then Samuel said to the people, 'Come, let us all go to Gilgal and reconfirm Saul as our king.' "So they went to Gilgal and in a solemn ceremony before the Lord they crowned him king. Then they offered peace offerings to the Lord, and Saul and all Israel were very happy" (I Sam. 11:13-15). At this moment of triumph, Samuel again warned the people about their choice of a king: "'All right, here is the king you have chosen. Look him over. You have asked for him, and the Lord has answered your request. Now if you will fear and worship the Lord and listen to his commandments and not rebel against the Lord, and if both you and your king follow the Lord your God, then all will be well. But if you rebel against the Lord's commandments and refuse to listen to him, then his hand will be as heavy upon you as it was upon your ancestors'" (I Sam. 12:13-15).
The King Is a Fool
Saul reigned one year, with one triumph against the Ammonites at Jabesh. Coronated twice, more accepted because of his actions as king, he now began to take hold and fulfill the warnings of Samuel. In the second year of his reign he conscripted three thousand special troops (the people paid). Stationing them at strategic points, he sent the rest of the volunteer army home. Jonathan, Saul's son, took a contingent of the special troops and attacked the Philistines at Geba, completely destroying the enemy garrison. Everyone was thrilled — except the Philistines! They mounted an offensive in response that required a larger war than Saul had counted on. The situation could be summed up in one word: terrifying! The Philistines had enlisted an army of three thousand chariots, six thousand horsemen, and innumerable foot soldiers. (Israel was divided geographically — a maritime plain on which chariots excelled; foothills where the odds were more even; and rugged mountains where the Israelis of Saul's and David's day maintained their tenuous hold.) Saul called Israel to battle. (This is what the people had wanted!) They came. They saw. They fled! Saul had summoned Samuel to dedicate the troops. Samuel promised he'd be there in seven days. Samuel didn't show up. Saul panicked. Deciding he had better do something, Saul performed the sacrifices himself to preserve what troops remained. Just as he finished, Samuel arrived. "'You fool!' Samuel exclaimed. 'You have disobeyed the commandment of the Lord your God. [Saul must not have read the Bible of his day as did David.] He was planning to make you and your descendants kings of Israel forever, but now your dynasty must end; for the Lord wants a man who will obey him. And he has discovered the man he wants and has already appointed him as king over his people; for you have not obeyed the Lord's commandment"' (I Sam. 13:13-14). Morbid, woebegone, fearful, disheartened — Saul counted the soldiers that remained: six hundred! Saul did not pray, did not repent, did not turn to God in his time of trouble. He counted his soldiers and regrouped. The whole scene was ridiculous. Twenty-five thousand (at the smallest count) Philistines with chariots (the forerunners of tanks) and horsemen against six hundred Israelis, and among those six hundred-two swords (Saul's and his son Jonathan's)! The Philistines had held in thrall the Israelis on their border for generations. There were no blacksmiths in Israel. No means of sharpening even the farming tools they purchased from the Philistines, except, at great expense, they were sharpened by the Philistines! And it was the Philistines they were supposed to fight! Hopeless! Saul was sick! The Philistines held the lowlands unhindered. They held even the mountain passes. Israel was bottled up in the barren hills like a rabbit in a hole, dependent on Philistines to even harvest their meager crops. Rejected by God, if not by the people, after his first year as king, Saul brooded.
Saul's Sane Son
Prince Jonathan, who had greater faith in God, was more of a man than his father. With his one sword and with one faithful companion armed with a dull ax (or perhaps a sickle, ox goad, club or stick, and maybe a rock or two), Jonathan attacked a Philistine garrison at a strategic pass. "'Let's go across to those heathen,' Jonathan had said to his bodyguard. 'Perhaps the Lord will do a miracle for us. For it makes no difference to him how many enemy troops there are!'" (I Sam. 14:6). Jonathan, with one ill-armed companion, attacked an entire mountain-pass garrison of Philistines. Among the Philistines were conscripted Hebrews, bearing arms against their brethren. When Jonathan and his unnamed companion had killed more than twenty Philistines, the enemy began to falter. God added His miracle by producing an earthquake and causing the Philistines to fight each other, and the Hebrews among the Philistines turned on their masters. Two men triggered the rout of an entire Philistine army! Saul, observing this from afar; rushed with his six hundred men to join the chase. Victory! "I will be avenged," Saul said. And he proclaimed a fast that day for all, despite the fact that his troops were exhausted. But Jonathan had not heard his father's decree; he ate some honey he found in a tree. Saul called all the army together, and when it was found that Jonathan had eaten honey, he stubbornly stuck firm by his edict of death for any who would eat that day, despite the fact that Jonathan was his son and the hero of the day! Unwisely, in haste, rashly, presumptuously, Saul signed his own son's death warrant. But his troops would not hear of it! "'Jonathan, who saved Israel today, shall die? Far from it! We vow by the life of God that not one hair on his head will be touched, for he has been used of God to do a mighty miracle today.' So the people rescued Jonathan [from the people's choice, Saul]" (I Sam. 14:45). The people didn't agree with Saul's decision. Yet he was king still, and Jonathan's victory had lifted the morale of his troops. "And now, since he was securely in the saddle as king of Israel [thanks to Jonathan], Saul sent the Israeli army out in every direction against Moab, Ammon, Edom, the kings of Zobah, and the Philistines. And wherever he turned, he was successful. He did great deeds and conquered the Amalekites and saved Israel from all those who had been their conquerors" (verses 47-48).
Need for a New King
Yet despite Saul's successes, his character flaws showed. He had already been rejected by God to found a dynasty to be the kings of Israel forever. And he was yet to commit a final blunder on a commission from God which would deny him the throne itself. Next issue we'll see what that mistake was, and how David — a man after God's own heart — came to be chosen as his successor.