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In the honor roll of faith in the epistle to the Hebrews stands the name of David. He “conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised” (Heb. 11:33a, NIV). Is David then our model as a heroic king of Israel? Not if we read the context in Hebrews. At the beginning and the end of his list, the author tells us why he singled out Moses, Rahab, Samson, David, and the rest of these Old Testament men and women. It was for their faith. They are not presented as paragons of virtue but as witnesses who believed. They trusted God’s promises, and their lives showed it. They understood that God was pointing forward to one who was to come. They tell us to look for the promise, that is, to fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of their faith and ours (Heb. 12:1–2).

When Sunday school lesson writers thought they should give children Bible characters as examples to follow, they had to suppress many stories, including some from the life of David. But when David took his sling and went to meet Goliath (1 Sam. 17), he was admirable. We do not hear him matching Goliath’s taunts with his own. He did not warn the giant that those cumbersome weapons were no match for his airborne missile. David boasted not in his sling or his skill, but in his God. His simple modesty shows the humility of faith.

His faith also shone through later, soon after he brought the whole kingdom under his rule. The Philistines, taking their cue from the change of leadership, invaded from the south and occupied Bethlehem, David’s hometown (2 Sam. 23). David gathered his troops out in the desert of Judea. There, one hot afternoon, he wished he could have a drink of water from the well of Bethlehem where the Philistine garrison was.

Three volunteers from his old guard had just come to camp. They heard the king’s murmured wish. “Let’s go!” they said. They broke through the Philistine lines, reached Bethlehem, and drew water from the well. But when the three warriors presented him with the water, David poured the water on the ground as an offering to God. He did not say, “Thanks, men,” or even (in a modern setting), “Where’s the ice?” Rather, David said: “I can’t drink this water. You risked your lives to gratify my wish. You have brought me your very blood.”

By pouring the water out, David showed humility, love, and respect for his men. All that was fruit of his faith. David knew that the water was a sign from the Lord, a blessing he did not deserve. It was too good for him and could only be offered in thanksgiving to God. In that humility of faith, David challenged his men to share his trust. They were not merely serving their king: they were serving the Great King, the God of Israel.

David’s broken heart found the depths of new humility—not just deference to others, not like our civility that can gentrify culture wars, but the broken heart of the sinner.

The men who brought the water were among David’s mightiest warriors, who are memorialized in 2 Samuel 23. Who now remembers Naharai, General Joab’s armorbearer, or the Ithrites, Ira or Gareb? But the last name burns on the page: Uriah the Hittite. Uriah, faithful to the death. Uriah, still fighting David’s battles when David was secure in his kingdom and relaxing on his palace roof. Uriah, Bathsheba’s faithful husband, summoned from the front to the king when David learned that Bathsheba bore the fruit of his adultery. Uriah, who would not go home to embrace his beautiful wife, because he was on duty and his comrades were in battle.

David’s attempted cover-up failed. He sent Uriah back to Joab bearing his own death warrant. The murder of Uriah and of companions-in-arms was the price David paid to take Bathsheba as his wife.

Having carried out the king’s orders for a useless sally against the gate of Rabbah, the Ammonite capital, Joab reported the loss of life to David. He added, “ ‘Your servant Uriah the Hittite is dead also’ ” (2 Sam. 11:21). David answered Joab with horrifying hypocrisy: “Don’t let this upset you; the sword devours one as well as another. Carry on.” He composed no lament for Uriah, no celebration of the Lord’s endowment of Uriah for mighty deeds. Instead, David spoke not out of faith, but out of unbelief—“In a chance universe, you win some, you lose some.”

Months of silence hardened David’s heart. At last, Nathan the prophet caught the king out by appealing to his remaining sense of justice: “ ‘You are the man!’ ” (2 Sam. 12:7). David was not now humble, but humbled. His sensitivity had been trampled down by unfaith, pride, and lust. His hard heart could not be softened. It had to be broken.

Convicted at last of his crimes, David knew his sin was not just against Uriah, Bathsheba, Joab, his warriors, and his people. His sin was against God. He had turned to the disobedience of unbelief. He cried out then, not complaining about the injustice of his enemies, but confessing his own wickedness and shame (Ps. 51). He pleaded for washing from the pollution of his sin. He could not escape his guilt. Indeed, his betrayal showed the truth of God’s indictment against him. His sin was no accident. It was as deep as his being. He had been born a sinner, conceived in iniquity. He deserved to be cast from God’s presence and deprived of His Spirit. No sacrifices from the altar could cleanse him. All he could offer was his broken heart. Only the power of the Holy One could make his black heart as white as snow and restore his salvation.

From the abyss of his contrition, David begged for unimaginable grace. He asked for God’s unfailing covenant love: “Save me from bloodguilt, O God, the God who saves me, and my tongue will sing of your righteousness” (Ps. 51:14, NIV).

David, too, was taken to the Cross. The triumph and praise of Psalm 22 does not celebrate David but the Lord.

David the murderer deserved death. How could he promise to praise God’s justice in forgiving him? Forgiveness through His mercy perhaps, but how could it be of God’s justice?

The answer lay in the devotion of God’s saving love. God had bound Himself to His people as their Redeemer.

If David, king and murderer, was not to die for his crime, God Himself must yet pronounce sentence. Animal sacrifices symbolized this: The sentence is pronounced against another. Animals symbolized it, but they could not provide it. God’s own devotion had to open the way. The Lord must provide the victim. Abraham could not offer Isaac. The Lord must provide the substitute; not a ram caught in the bushes, but the Son.

How profoundly David grasped this mystery we do not know. But we know what he claimed. He claimed the mercy that brings salvation through justice. We cannot misunderstand, for David’s shamed confession leaves no shred of righteousness for him to plead. There must be another righteousness, another victim, not the nameless infant son of David who was conceived in sin and died in judgment, but another Son of David, whose agony David foresaw (Ps. 22). David was not forsaken, but David’s Son and Lord was.

David’s broken heart found the depths of new humility—not just deference to others, not like our civility that can gentrify culture wars, but the broken heart of the sinner. He knew himself to be not only low but lost, not only modest but guilty, not only honoring of others but adoring of the Lord of love.

David, too, was taken to the Cross. The triumph and praise of Psalm 22 does not celebrate David but the Lord. “They will come and declare His righteousness to a people who will be born, that He has done this” (Ps. 22:31). When the apostle Paul heard that the church was being divided by some who prided themselves in him, his question brought down their vaunting: “Was Paul crucified for you?” (1 Cor. 1:13).

There is one who is the hero of God’s saving love—the meek and lowly Jesus. Because of what He did and how He did it, Jesus is our example in humility. The Lord of glory washed His disciples’ feet. His humility is divinely royal. Jesus was among us as one who served. Service in His name is therefore never slavish or contemptible. His atonement has paid the price of our sin and claimed us in love. In Him we are children of God the Father, beloved in the Son. We need no pride to assert our worth, for we are proud of Him. Neither do we seek to manipulate others by flattery or humility. Instead, we know David’s contentment of faith: “My heart is not proud, O LORD, my eyes are not haughty; I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me. But I have stilled and quieted my soul; like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me. O Israel, put your hope in the LORD both now and forevermore” (Ps. 131, NIV).

A Wandering Jew: Moses the Deliverer

“Let it Be”: Mary the Virgin

Keep Reading The Inconspicuous Virtue: Profiles in Humility

From the February 2001 Issue
Feb 2001 Issue