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Few Old Testament characters are more familiar to us than King David. His “rags-to-riches” rise from the sheep pasture to the throne of Israel and his famous conflict with Goliath are enough to ensure for him a reputation of, well, giant proportions. But how well do we Know the Biblical character behind the Sunday school hero stories? Let us take a closer look at the life of David, as described in 1 and 2 Samuel, and see what it has to teach us about David and David’s God.
David’s rise to power began when he was anointed by Samuel (1 Sam. 16). God had rejected King Saul for his failure to obey Him (1 Sam. 15:11), and He sent Samuel out to find a replacement king from among the￼sons of Jesse. David was chosen, not because of his looks or abilities (although those were certainly not lacking) but because God looked on his heart and was pleased with what He saw (1 Sam. 16:7). That God- centered heart soon demonstrated itself in the conflict with Goliath. Whereas Saul and the soldiers of Israel were intimidated by Goliath’s appearance and reputation, David mentally cut him down to size by recognizing that he had set himself against the armies of the living God (1 Sam. 17:26, 36). In that light, the conflict between David and Goliath was indeed an unequal struggle, but not in the way that most people think.
David’s reputation for military valor quickly spread, and he won the favor of the people and the friendship of Jonathan, Saul’s son. However, Saul simply saw David as a serious threat to himself and his descendants, and sought to eliminate him by a variety of strategies. David was forced to live as a fugitive in the wilderness, his life in constant danger. There he built up a small band of dedicated followers. Though on several occasions he could have killed Saul, he refused to raise his hand against the Lord’s anointed (1 Sam. 24:6).
After the deaths of Saul and Jonathan (1 Sam. 31), and a lengthy civil war between David and forces loyal to Saul’s son Ishbosheth, David became king over all Israel (2 Sam. 5). Having secured his position, he went on to capture the Jebusite stronghold of Jerusalem, which became his own city, a neutral capital for the whole kingdom (2 Sam. 5:6–10). Then he brought the ark of the covenant, the visible symbol of God’s presence with His people, to the forefront of Israelite life in Jerusalem from the sidelines where it had languished throughout Saul’s reign (2 Sam. 6).
God gave David victory over his enemies all around him, thereby establishing rest for his people, a pre- requisite for the construction of the temple (2 Sam. 7:1; see Deut. 12:10–11). David himself wished to build the temple, but it was not to be. God told David through the prophet Nathan that that privilege awaited his son, Solomon. However, although David was not the one to build God’s “house” (the temple), God established a covenant with David to build his “house” (his family). A dynasty would reign after David, and God would never reject David or his sons in the way He had rejected Saul from being king over His people. He would discipline David and his descendants as a father disciplines his sons, establishing his house and his kingdom forever (2 Sam. 7:14–16).
David did not live happily ever after, however. He no sooner had established his kingdom in the Canaanite city of Jerusalem than he began to behave like a Canaanite king. Instead of going out to fight the ongoing wars against God’s enemies himself, he sent others out to do the hard work of besieging Rabbah (2 Sam. 11:1). As a result of that failure, David was in a position to be tempted by the sight of Bathsheba taking a bath. He then summoned her and slept with her, even though she was the wife of Uriah, one of David’s soldiers. When she found that she was pregnant, he tried to cover up his sin, first by summoning Uriah home to sleep with his wife, then, when that ploy failed, by arranging to have Uriah conveniently terminated in the forefront of the battle (2 Sam. 11:14–15).
This abuse of his power did not go unnoticed. The king in Israel was not free to ignore God’s law. The prophet Nathan confronted him over his sin and informed him that its impact would be lasting (2 Sam. 12:9– 10). So it proved to be. First, the child of the illicit union between David and Bathsheba died. Then David’s son Amnon raped his half-sister Tamar and subsequently was struck down and killed by another of David’s sons, Absalom (2 Sam. 13). Absalom himself conspired against David and rebelled against him, forcing him to flee from Jerusalem (2 Sam. 15). Although Absalom ultimately was defeated and killed, his death was a further sorrow to David. Throughout all this, David was powerless to prevent the cycle of violence that his own actions had unleashed.
Yet God’s covenant with David was not voided even by his sin. Unlike Saul, who sinned and was cast off, David could not be cast off even when he sinned profoundly. God had committed himself to David and his descendants, so that although David’s sins had serious ongoing consequences, those were the chastisements of a father who cannot reject his son. Thus, at the end of his life, with his song (2 Sam. 22) and with his last words (2 Sam. 23), David praised the God who, in His grace, does not abandon His covenant with His chosen ones. God had promised and had shown steadfast love to His anointed, to David and his offspring forever (2 Sam. 22:51).
What can we learn from David’s history? It seems we want to turn David into a super-hero, someone who, like Mary Poppins, is “practically perfect.” So our accounts focus mainly on David’s great deeds during the first half of his life, and even his sin with Bathsheba may be seen as an opportunity to praise him for his swift and thorough repentance. This does not do justice to the account in 1 and 2 Samuel, however, which spends almost as much time on David’s sin and its consequences as it does on his rise to power, showing us a David who has few close relationships, fails to discipline his children, and cannot control his generals and other officials.
Neither is David a model of the victorious Christian life, someone who can look in the mirror every morning and say, “Every day and in every way, I am getting better and better.” He does not proceed from weakness to strength. On the contrary, his great sin comes after his greatest exploits for God and dogs him for the rest of his life. However, what we see in David’s life is actually far more comforting and encouraging to redeemed sinners like us than a great hero: We see a deeply flawed individual who can testify that God’s grace is sufficient for him. Through David, God demonstrates His persevering grace despite the life-crippling consequences of sin.
David can give hope to deeply flawed people because he is not just a portrait of man. He also points us to Christ. In his best moments, such as when he put his life on the line in single-handed combat for the sake of his people, David showed the Israelites the kind of king they needed. That is why the later prophets looked forward to the coming of a future King who would shepherd His people like a new David (Ezek. 34:24; 37:24). When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the crowd cried out triumphantly, “Hosanna to the Son of David” (Matt. 21:9), anticipating that He had come to free them from their bondage. He had indeed come to free them from their deepest bondage, but in His case it would take more than a well-aimed rock to win the victory. His conflict with the forces of sin that bound us would take Him to the cross on our behalf.
In his worse moments, David shows us why he is not himself the one who was to come. He could not ultimately save his people because he was a sinner like them. They needed a different kind of king, the kind that Jesus came to be. Far be it from Jesus to be found absent without official leave during the battle. Far be it from Him to allow others to die to cover up His sin (for He had no sin). Instead, He bore the heat of the battle for us. He died in order that He might cover all the sins of all of His people.
In the covenant He made with David, God promised that He would not cast off David or His descendants. That promise comes to us in Christ, David’s Son. It is ultimately because we are in Christ that we may be sure that God never will reject us, if we are His. Even though our sin may have profound consequences that dog us all the days of our lives, it cannot separate us from God’s love. Why not? Because if we are Christians, we have been chosen by God, united to Christ, and all those who come to Him by faith can never be driven away. There is no condemnation for anyone who is in Christ Jesus, because the price of every sin we have committed or ever will commit has been paid once and for all at the Cross. Like David, therefore, at the close of our lives, we may give thanks to God that His steadfast love has been shown to us in enduring ways, in spite of the continuing great depths of our depravity.