The Prophet Nathan Rebukes King David, Eugène Siberdt, 19th Century.
Solemnity of Christ the King
2 Sam. 5:1–3
We end the liturgical year with the beginning of the Davidic monarchy. We have seen elements of this story before (kingship and the failures of Saul). We will nonetheless begin with a brief overview of the political realities and then look at how David responded to them.
After leading the Israelites out of Egypt and through the desert for 40 years, Moses ceded leadership to Joshua to enter the promised land. After Joshua died about 1250 BC, the Israelites formed a loose confederation among themselves, but joined under a leader in times of need. This leader, called a judge, was more a general than a jurist. A judge was called by God and was not restricted to hereditary clan leaders. Thus Deborah, a woman, could be a judge. This worked well until other groups in the area began to develop a more centralized organization. The Philistines were especially threatening for the Israelites since they used their trading network to import superior weapons. By 1100 BC, this had become a crisis and another way of organizing themselves was needed. A king was the obvious solution, but the Israelites were quite aware of the dangers of kingship as well as its benefits. Although it would allow for a more coherent response to danger, there would be a price to pay. The prophet Samuel, quite literally the king maker for the early monarchy, will tell the people:
“These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots.“
(1 Sam. 8:11–13)
Nevertheless, the people wanted a king and Samuel anointed Saul. He was a formidable warrior and military commander. He improved the state’s fighting ability but did not set up the structures of government. He organized an army but no court. He acted like a chieftain not a king both administratively and spiritually.
We see this most clearly when he conquered the Amaleks. He was told by God to put the people under a ban. That means to kill everyone and to destroy their property. Thus, they could take no prisoners for ransom nor booty to distribute among the soldiers. Yet:
He and his troops spared Agag and the best of the fat sheep and oxen, and the lambs. They refused to carry out the doom on anything that was worthwhile, dooming only what was worthless and of no account.
(1 Sam. 15:8–9)
When confronted by Samuel, Saul originally lies to him and tells him we were going to use the animals to offer sacrifice to God. After prodding, he admits it was “In my fear of the people, I did what they said.” (1 Sam.15:24)
As he did not have a structure to reward his army, he needed the property of the conquered to pay them. His failure was as much political as religious.
Now let us look at David. The man and myth are so tightly connected that it is hard to distinguish between the two. The outline of the basic story is simple enough and it is this which the Bible uses to instruct us.
David was the youngest son of a moderately prosperous family chosen by Samuel to be Saul’s successor. He originally found employment in Saul’s camp as a musician. However, after the confrontation with the Philistine Goliath, David begins his swift military assent. This enriched the country but enraged Saul as the people sang “Saul has killed his thousands but David his ten thousands.” (1 Sam. 18:7). David is forced to flee and becomes, essentially, a bandit. It is important to remember that the Jews were more of a people than a nation and there was little a sense of unity. If there was to be a nation, there would need to be a king who could bring the people together. It would be forging a union, not winning battles that was ultimately critical.
This David was slowly accomplishing. Before we arrive at today’s meeting, let us remember that David had been ruler of Judah – the southern tribes – for 7 and a half years. The Bible simply says that he asked the Lord where he should go, the Lord responded Hebron and when he arrived: “the men of Judah came there and anointed David king of the Judahites.” (2 Sam. 2:4).
Saul has now died and the northern tribes “Israel” were officially ruled by Saul’s ineffectual son, Ish-bosheth. The real power was Saul’s cousin Abner who recognized that the situation was untenable and said to the elders:
“For a long time you have been seeking David as your king. Now take action, for the LORD has said of David, ‘By my servant David I will save my people Israel from the grasp of the Philistines and from the grasp of all their enemies.”
(2 Sam. 3:17a–18)
Today we see these elders coming to Hebron, David’s stronghold, to submit to him. Unlike the southern tribes this was more formal.
They first establish that he is legitimate because he is kin; “We are your bone and flesh” (2 Sam. 5:1):
You shall set that man over you as your king whom the LORD, your God, chooses. He whom you set over you as king must be your kinsman; a foreigner, who is no kin of yours, you may not set over you.
They acknowledge his military prowess and all Israel and Judah loved him, since he led them on their expeditions. (1 Sam. 18:16). Note here this is both the northern (Israel) and southern (Judah) tribes. They also see that this has been divinely ordained and favored:
That is, take away the kingdom from the house of Saul and establish the throne of David over Israel and over Judah from Dan to Beersheba.
(2 Sam. 3:9–10)
He is ordained to be a king over both the north and the south. He will be judged by how he unifies the people.
David does not make a war pact with them – that he will guide their armies – but a convent – that he would share their lives. This means that he will respect the customs of all the tribes.
He shows his ability with the next action. The anointing takes place in Hebron not Jerusalem. Jerusalem was a pagan city between the northern and southern tribes. It did not have any traditions or customs he was pledged to maintain. He conquered it and made it his capital. Here he could develop a court, administrative structure, with complete freedom. It is no accident that he rules there for 33 years. (2 Sam. 5:5)
This is not to say that David was without his faults. The author of Samuel wishes us to recognize that Davis’s skills were tools used by the LORD to fulfill His will. We see this in King David’s two major sins.
The first and most notorious is adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband Uriah. When he is confronted with the evil by Nathan, the successor prophet to Samuel, David says:
“I have sinned against the LORD.” Nathan answered David: “The LORD on his part has forgiven your sin: you shall not die.
(2 Sam. 12:13)
Unlike Saul, he does not lie but faces up to his sin. His success is not from his own virtue but from the LORD’S forgiveness.
The other example, less famous but very interesting, is David’s census. David’s success was due to the power of God not the power of his armies. By seeking a census, he challenged the LORD’S supremacy. He recognized his error and asked forgiveness. He was offered three options for penance:
“Do you want a three years’ famine to come upon your land, or to flee from your enemy three months while he pursues you, or to have a three days’ pestilence in your land? ”
(2 Sam. 24:13)
David choses the pestilence and as it continues, he says to the LORD:
“It is I who have sinned; it is I, the shepherd, who have done wrong. But these are sheep; what have they done? Punish me and my kindred.”
(2 Sam. 24:17)
This is another key aspect of David he is willing to put his people first.
Direct political applications from the Bible to another time usually end in tyranny but the basic principles are always applicable. We need leaders who recognize the call to bring people together, display political skills, but who know themselves to be sinners who have begged for and received the mercy of God.