Many act from mixed motives which they are barely able to identify or articulate and those who judge them are often wrong to attribute one motive at the expense of others. King David’s life is a prime example.
There are usually two poles to the genre of biography. One is the nauseatingly sychophantic text which extols the virtues of dubious characters; the other is the hatchet job, where under the guise of objective prose, a public figure is held up for gratuitous ridicule. Most people prefer to read something in-between, where there is respect for the subject coupled with a willingness to criticise. It is somewhere in this milieu that the Biblical writers operate when they speak of their characters and none more so than about David.
Shortly before he died, David offered this retrospective:
One who rules over people justly, ruling in the fear of God,
is like the light of morning, like the sun rising on a cloudless morning,
gleaming from the rain on a grassy land.
Is not my house like this with God?
(2 Samuel 23: 3-4)
Many influential public figures, when they approach the end, tend to become obsessed with their place in history; for David to say this required chutzpah because his reign was morally ambiguous.
There is much to admire in David; his story is such an epic read it is impossible not to be captivated by him and the saying that great men have great faults might almost have begun with Jesse’s son. Having been snatched from obscurity, he saved the monarchy from the malign Saul. Although he is chiefly remembered for his part in the most famous duel in history, it was in his handling of the combustible relationship with Saul that David showed the measure of his stature. As Saul grew paranoid about David’s burgeoning popularity, he deployed hundreds of troops on a seek and destroy mission. Throughout this personal terror, David remained a faithful friend of Saul’s son Jonathan and attracted to himself those who were in need and on the edge in Israelite society, thus acting as a forerunner of Jesus in his appeal to the outcast.
When David becomes king after Saul’s death in battle, he unites the nation’s warring tribes, defeats his enemies, expands the borders and ushers in prosperity. He even finds time to show kindness to Saul’s family and to forgive those who wrong him.
But this is only part of the story. The political adviser, Dick Morris once described two sides to Bill Clinton: Saturday night Bill and Sunday morning President, the dark and the light. David’s Saturday night side is unseemly. His brothers thought he was on the make and would happily succeed at the expense of family loyalty. There is lingering doubt over whether he killed Goliath. The writer of 2 Samuel, perhaps in a carefully placed throw-away remark (2 Samuel 21:19) informs us that Elhanan killed the giant. They can’t both have decapitated Goliath. Is he going by another name here or was David guilty of the kind of deceit that vain autocrats indulge in when they pin lots of medals on their chest to show off at ceremonies? Furthermore, his pious claim not to touch the head of God’s anointed and kill King Saul may just as easily have been motivated by the personal concern not to make regicide fashionable.
And then there was David’s Watergate, though in truth it was far worse than that. To commit adultery with the wife of one of his soldiers while he was putting his life on the line for David and then give orders for this man to be exposed in battle so that the enemy could leave a bereaved woman for David to go on comforting was utterly abhorrent. Have you ever wondered why Jerusalem has so many gates (Zion Gate, Dung Gate, Damascus Gate)? It’s probably because they ran out of symbols for David’s behaviour. We are shown David’s remorse when he is cornered by the prophet Nathan, but was he sorry he did it or sorry he was exposed? The ancient writers are undaunted to say that David’s sin was responsible for an ensuing civil war, emerging from the decadence and intrigue of the household he created.
David was a complex character. The work of God is often accomplished through morally ambiguous and personally ambitious people. Many act from mixed motives which they are barely able to identify or articulate and those who judge them are often wrong to attribute one motive at the expense of others. At almost every single turn in David’s life, we can put one or other slant on his choices and perhaps this should make us pause before we judge the decisions of others merely in ways that suit our prejudices or allegiances.
In the New Testament, Jesus is referred to as the Son of David. We think of that as a lofty title and in many ways it is. It is also a statement of how God’s grace abounds where there is sin. David was a rich and often popular political leader who slept with lots of women he shouldn’t have. Jesus, Son of David? Imagine calling him Jesus, Son of Berlusconi? It’s absurd and yet Son of David has something of the same ring to it. Perhaps we should think about that more often, for it speaks compellingly of how God has to work his purposes out in a flawed and compromised world.
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