King David is one of the most extraordinary figures in the biblical story, making his presence felt in both Testaments. Archbishop Mark Coleridge discusses a figure whose influence extends across generations.
Episode 3 – David – is available here:
- Episode 3: David - Transcript
Episode 3: David - TranscriptAuthor: Archdiocese of Brisbane
So welcome back to this third of our podcasts on characters of the Bible. Sometimes people think the Bible is just a boring old moralism, by which I mean a set of moral do’s and don’ts or just abstract messages. But nothing could be further from the truth, because the Bible is, first of all, it’s a story. And it is a story of God in human history.
But that means it’s also an intensely human story. In many ways, the Bible is just blood, sweat and tears congealed into a book. So, we are exploring that human story, which is also the story of God. The God who takes flesh in our life and in the lives of individuals. And that’s why we are seeking to come to know more of these extraordinary characters who feel the biblical story.
Now, the ancient world may not have had our sense of the individual. That’s a very modern thing. But the Bible is full of extraordinarily vivid characters. Now, admittedly, they do become in time theological symbols or archetypes. So, they’re not just individuals, but neither are they just theological ciphers. Now, in this podcast, I want to introduce you to one of the most extraordinary figures in the Scripture. Who also makes his presence felt in the New Testament. And that is King David.
Now, who was this figure who casts such a shadow over the entire biblical story in both testaments? We first meet him in the biblical story as the youngest son of someone called Jesse. Now the story is told that the prophet Samuel, who was really a cross over between a judge and a prophet. He’s a transitional figure, Samuel. But Samuel has decided that Saul, who was the first king, was not the man chosen by God.
The kingdom had been taken from him. Was the judgment of Samuel. So, Samuel has to go in search of someone to succeed Saul. Saul, who had failed in his God given task, needed to be succeeded by someone who would succeed. So, Samuel goes we are told to the house of Jesse. And Jesse has seven sons. Each one as impressive as the one before.
So, Samuel looks at the six boys who are there. And for all that they are extraordinarily impressive and look to be king material. He decides that none of them is the one chosen by God. And asks the question of Jesse, do you have another son? And Jesse says, well, yes, there’s the youngest one, but he’s out in the fields looking after the sheep. Why would you be bothered with him?
Samuel then says, well, go and get the boy. And David enters the scene and we’re told he had a ruddy complexion and fine eyes. So here he is, the young boy, the least likely candidate for the throne. And Samuel takes one look at him and says, he’s the one. And he pours the oil from the horn of oil on David’s head and from that moment onwards, David is the anointed of God. In other words, the Messiah. He is the one to succeed to the throne.
Now, all of this was written in retrospect, it was written after David had in fact succeeded Saul on the throne. Because there was controversy, as we shall see, in the succession. So, in order to make it clear that David was chosen from a very early age to be the successor of Saul, the true king, this story is eventually told of the anointing by Samuel of the boy David.
So, what was the boy David, in this early stage of his life? Well, he’s a shepherd because he was out in the fields. And this will become resonant in the New Testament with the story of Jesus’ birth, where the shepherds, again, will be out in the field. So, he’s a shepherd boy. The youngest one always gets the dirty job. So, he’s out in the fields with the sheep.
Then we are told he’s a musician and he’s an extremely good harpist and singer, it seems. And this will become important in his relationship with King Saul before Saul is finally as it were, sacked as king. Because that doesn’t happen immediately. So, he’s a very talented musician, which is one of the reasons why he’s remembered sometimes as the one who wrote the Psalms, which were hymns for the liturgy in the temple.
David didn’t write the Psalms, but he had them written. It’s like saying King Henry, the eighth built Hampton Court Palace. Well, he didn’t build it with his hands. He had it built. So, David, talented musician he might have been, but he certainly didn’t write the Psalms. So, he’s a musician as well as a shepherd. But in time and fairly quickly, in fact, at a young age, he shows himself to be an extraordinary military hero. Because we have the story of his clash with Goliath. Which has entered the language, David and Goliath.
And against all the odds, David slays the Philistine giant and shows himself from an early age to be a military hero. And this will become crucial to his building of a profile through the years and eventually his succession to the throne, of a united kingdom as it will become. In time, he becomes King Saul’s squire. And plays music to soothe the king in his dark of moods, we’re told.
He also befriends the son of the king, who we can presume would have succeeded Saul by dynastic principle, Jonathan. So, he becomes a friend of Jonathan, the Prince. And eventually, as David’s profile builds and as he ages, Saul becomes increasingly envious of David. Who has become a very popular figure, not least because of his military prowess.
So, Saul begins to see David as a threat. Now, David will try and make it very clear to Saul that he is no threat at all. However, when you read between the lines of the David stories in the Bible, you begin to see that he is in fact a very ambitious man. And Saul may have had some good reason to think that David was casting lustful eyes upon the throne., knowing that he was a popular figure in the way that King Saul was not.
So lethal does this relationship between Saul and his former squire become. That David eventually, to save his skin, decides to flee, he becomes a fugitive. And really he becomes a kind of a bandit and he gathers around him quite a large force of it seems about 400 soldiers who were disaffected with Saul and who preferred to back David, who looked a winner, where Saul looked a loser.
So, David gathers around him at this early stage a band of some hundreds of extraordinarily loyal and experienced soldiers, fighters. And these will remain with him as a kind of Royal Guard for the rest of his life virtually. They are, in many ways, a key part of his power base. At this period of his life, David decides to go into mercenary service with the great enemies, the Philistines.
Now, this seems extraordinary that David, who will eventually become the King of Israel, is, in fact fighting as a mercenary with the great enemy, the Philistines. But that’s what he did. However, he does not take part in the great battle between the Philistines and Israel that will lead to the death of Saul and of Jonathan. Both of them are killed in a battle with the Philistines in the north of the country. And their bodies are hung on the walls of the town of Beit She’an.
There’s no indication that David fought in that particular battle. And this would have been important because eventually when he does become king, it would have been intensely embarrassing to think that he had fought with the Philistines and been part of the engagement that led to the death of the king and the crowned prince Saul and Jonathan.
So, at this point, the anointing by Samuel reaches its point of climax because David is chosen as king to succeed Saul. In that sense, you might say, his ambition is achieved. Now, the Philistines remained a mortal threat. Keep in mind that the Philistines who get a bad press through history I mean, if I called you a Philistine, you wouldn’t be flattered.
But the Philistines, they came from the Mediterranean world, they were the sea peoples, and they were in many ways, culturally and technologically far more sophisticated than the tribes of Israel, the 12 tribes. So, they were a serious threat and they kind of surrounded the tribes of Israel. So, the one thing that Israel needed to survive and certainly to counter the Philistine threat was a new kind of leadership and a new kind of unity.
And the realists who led the tribe saw in David the kind of military figure who could provide the leadership required, given the threat that they faced. And who could unite the 12 tribes. Which were even at this early stage, we’re now at about 1000 B.C., they were divided into a sort of a northern federation and a southern federation. Ten tribes of the north and two tribes of the south.
And they were quite different in certain ways, culturally and religiously. So, the leaders of the tribes at this point facing the Philistine threat, they come to David and they say, we want you to be king over all of us. Now, David, ambitious as he was, sees his opportunity and says yes, I accept your invitation. And in about 1000 B.C., he becomes king of the united kingdom. The 12 tribes unite in a single kingdom, under a single king, therefore, and seeking a new kind of political and military unity.
David was also a very shrewd tactician. And this emerges in his choice of capital. Because he knows he needs to choose a new capital, not from the north, not from the south, but somehow in neutral territory. A new capital that can unite the 12 tribes, the two kingdoms, as it were, into one. So, he casts around and looks for the right kind of place, and he sees this mountain fortress called Jerusalem. And he decides that that’s the place for his capital. Because it is in neutral territories, it’s between north and south. It’s a mountain fortress that is easily defended and so on. So, he attacks Jerusalem, which was in the hand of a group of people called the Jebusites. And takes Jerusalem and makes it his capital. And that is his fateful decision and action on David’s part as any in his long life, because he will reign for 40 years in Jerusalem.
And when you think of Jerusalem, even in our time, it is extraordinary that it was his decision to take the mountain fortress, make it his capital that has led to so much in the meantime. David wants to make it not only a political and military centre, he also wants to make it a religious centre. Because they didn’t distinguish between church and state, political and religious. It was all it was all tied in together.
And we have Psalm 121 that says Jerusalem is built as a city. Usually, the translation then says strongly compact. Jerusalem is built as a city, strongly compact. One way of understanding what strongly compact means is Jerusalem is built as a city where palace and temple are one. And this relationship between throne and Altar was crucial for not only for David, but it’s been a theme right down through history.
The relationship between throne and Altar and the kind of separation of church and state, for instance, the throne and altar that we take for granted in the Western world, that was a very hard won achievement. And in many ways, it’s very untypical of human history and human cultures. So, he wants to build a temple, but his prophet, the court prophet Nathan, says you’re not to build a house for God because God’s going to build you a house.
So, he doesn’t build a temple that’ll be left to his son, Solomon, eventually. But what David does want to do is to bring the Ark of the Covenant, which was the great religious symbol for all the tribes of Israel. He brings that to Jerusalem, which is the next best thing to building a temple in which to put the Ark of the Covenant, which is what eventually happened.
So, Jerusalem increasingly becomes, although it begins as a very small city or a town or a fortress, really. It grows. Even the growth of Jerusalem was very difficult because of its shape. It’s hilly and it falls away very quickly. But the only place they could build a temple eventually was in the flatland to the north. So, Jerusalem is the capital.
Saul has one last son who is handicapped, whose name is Eshbaal. Sometimes he’s name is given, as Ish-bosheth. But Eshbaal is the last of Saul’s sons who eventually dies. And there is some suggestion that David might have had a hand in that. Again, it’s very hard, given the way the Bible plays with irony and ambiguity.
It’s very hard to know if the death of Eshbaal was in fact in any way related to David’s desire to get rid of the House of Saul once and for all. Which was not at all unknown in the ancient world, in this part of this time. The next huge task he sets himself is to get rid of the Philistine threat. So, he gathers an army and David was his reputation was always based upon military success. So, he gathers his 400 or whatever it was loyal soldiers around him and an army from the 12 tribes. And he decides to deal with the Philistines once and for all. And in fact, he does defeat the Philistines and removes that threat. And that is a crucial sealing of his reputation.
Now, David was also, as many good leaders are he was lucky. Because at this time, something very unusual happened. Normally in the ancient Near East, at this time, either Egypt or Mesopotamia, one of the empires of Mesopotamia. Was strong and the other was weak. So that either Egypt was the dominant imperial force or one of the Mesopotamian empires was the dominant imperial force.
But at this time, and through David’s reign, what was unusual is that both Egypt to the south and Mesopotamia to the east, both were weak at the same time. So, David, opportunist as he was, saw his moment and what he does, he carves out a mini empire. It’s nothing like the Egyptian empire or the Mesopotamian empires at their height.
So, he carves out a mini empire in a moment when the two great imperial presences are weak. So, this again means that he is looked at as the supremely successful king. Because once the military threat of the Philistines is removed and once he has begun to carve out this mini empire with empire because it comes wealth. And the people become rich, and each Israelite, we are told, can sit under his own fig tree and have his own patch of land. And this was wealth.
So again, you can see why at this stage they begin to regard him as the ideal king, whatever about his patented imperfections. And, you know, his performance in the past. However, at this moment, you find that David, the trajectory of his whole career begins to take it down with turn. And you see the beginning of the end, just at the height of his success.
And the reasons for it are largely found in the family history, which is given to us in the second book of Samuel, Chapters 9 to 20. Like many great rulers and leaders, David could command an empire, certainly an army. But he couldn’t control his own family. And this was the cause of his downfall in the end, because a long reign that began in such triumph and such glittering success will end in the deepest disappointment and sorrow.
Another factor, and I will come back to the family history in just a moment, because it is crucial. But another factor that begins to undermine David’s popularity was his decision to have a census. Now, you might say well, that makes excellent sense. But the reason the king would have a census in the ancient world was really threefold.
First of all, it was for taxation, the second reason was for military service, a call up. And the third thing was forced labour in service of the royal projects. So, this was deeply unpopular. That he takes a census of the people. Particularly given that there was a sense that the people don’t belong to the king, they belong to God.
This was something very distinctive in ancient Israel. They belong to you, the King, they belong to God. So that was that was something that seriously undermined his popularity. But more importantly, it was these problems within his own family that lead to the deep sadness and disappointment of the final years of David. Now, like any ruler of the ancient Near East, David would have had a haram. Monogamy was simply unknown at that level of society at this time.
Now, we are told that for the first time ever in his career, he decides at one point not to join the army on the battlefield. This was an extraordinary decision, given that David’s whole reputation was based upon military success. The army goes into battle, but David stays in Jerusalem.
And it’s at this point that his eye falls upon Bathsheba, who was also in Jerusalem because her husband, Uriah, was fighting in the battle. So, here was Uriah out on the battlefield and the king back in Jerusalem, his eye falls upon the wife of Uriah, Bathsheba. From that day comes an adulterous relationship. And this, in a sense, is the beginning of the end for David. An adulterous relationship he arranges in the most brutal and devious way to have Uriah killed in the battle.
It’s a long story and a fascinating story that is told in in the Bible about this. So, he arranges the murder, the assassination of Uriah, and he claims Bathsheba as his own wife. She is pregnant because of the adulterous relationship. And she sends a message to David, what are you going to do about this? I am pregnant.
And that’s when David decides to kill Uriah. Now eventually, Nathan, the Prophet again confronts the king and says, you have sinned. And David acknowledges that he has sinned. Is deeply repentant, the child born of that adulterous liaison eventually dies. But then David marries Bathsheba, and they have another child. And the child that they have is the child we know as Solomon, who will eventually succeed his father. However, Solomon should not have succeeded his father. He was the youngest son, and it was always the oldest son who succeeded. Now, the oldest son was Absalom, his son much loved by David. But eventually Absalom becomes impatient, and he eventually mounts rebellion against David trying to claim the throne, it’s my time, it’s my turn.
David having again a very long life. Now in the strife that followed the rebellion surrounding Absalom, Absalom himself is killed despite David’s instructions that the boy is not to be killed. The old general Joab says, I don’t care what the king has said, I’m going to kill him because he’s a mortal threat to his father, the King.
So, Absalom dies, and David is distraught. Similarly, too the next son who should have succeeded to the throne, Adonijah. He also becomes impatient and mounts a different kind of rebellion. But he too is assassinated in order to protect the aging king. And once again, with the death of Adonijah, David is distraught. Now, through all of this, there were people, very influential people who supported the claim of Solomon to the throne, the youngest.
Now, keep in mind that story of David being anointed as the youngest son. There are many stories about youngest sons succeeding older brothers in the Bible, and almost all of them are about justifying the succession of Solomon to the throne after his father, David, because he was the youngest. Now, one of Solomon’s big supporters was Bathsheba.
And she was a formidable woman. So, she obviously wanted her son on the throne. Because she knew that if he didn’t succeed, then she was likely to cop it too. But so too Nathan, the prophet had read the play in such a way that he was saying Solomon’s the one to follow David. And Zadok, who was the priest of David, so the prophet and the priest both backed Bathsheba in backing Solomon, Slomo as the one to succeed to the throne.
And that’s what happened. Solomon succeeds eventually when his father David, dies. Extraordinary that a man whose life had been so marked by violence as it were, dies peacefully in his bed after a 40-year reign. So, Solomon will succeed to the throne and will prove to be a very, very different kind of king from his father David.
But he, too, like his father, will reign for about 40 years. So now, look. David Is he an ideal king? Hardly. If you’re asking about a religious or moral ideal, he was far from a religious or moral ideal. He is an intensely human being. Scarred and marred in all kinds of ways, as each of us is. He was ambitious, he was devious, he was certainly violent.
His whole life was marked by violence from go to woe. However, what he did was unite Israel, remove the military threats that had been so constant and lethal, and he enriched the people. And in doing those three things, David did something which no other ruler had or leader had done before him or would after him.
So, in that sense, he may not have been ideal religiously or morally, but he was unique in his accomplishment, not just personally, but for the sake of the people. Is he a hero? Well, I suppose he’s one of the few candidates for heroism that the Bible offers. But the Bible has a very particular understanding of heroism. Anyone who looks to be a candidate for hero is systematically undermined by the Bible, one of the Bible’s prime weapons, irony, and David is no different.
He is shown, warts and all. And there’s a kind of an ironic cast to the depiction of David in the whole of the Scripture. So that the Bible presents not a conventional heroics. If anything, what the Bible presents is an anti-heroics. Is the term that Ernest Becker uses in his book The Denial of Death.
So, David, rather than being a hero in some ways is an anti-hero. Even if he is described as a king after God’s own heart. And when the Bible says that it doesn’t mean after God’s heart in some sentimental sense, it means a king according to God’s plan and decision making. An eternal dynasty was promised to David. And that promise was something that ancient Israel held to resolutely. But in order to do that, they had to defer the coming of an ideal Davidic king to the end of time. It was pushed out of history to the end of history. Because there had been so many disappointments. And in many ways, the Davidic dynasty disappears into the black hole of history.
But the promise or the hope born of the promise remained intact because ancient Israel said and Christianity took up the cry. At the end of time there will come an ideal Davidic king. And Christianity looks at the figure the very enigmatic figure of Jesus of Nazareth who dies on a cross. As the one who finally in the end time fulfils the promise as the son of David.