A few weeks ago I preached a series of sermons on I Samuel. It was the first time I have really preached on OT narrative (although I’d wanted to for a long time) and I thoroughly enjoyed it. One of the key things I spent time on was unpacking how Saul tragically and unequivocally disobeyed God’s word and was unrepentant in the wake of this. I contrasted this with David in I Samuel as he struggles to live as the Chosen One in exile and in uncertainty, sometimes making good choices, sometimes bad choices, sometimes confusing choices. But always David seems to orbit his life around God’s word in a genuine if imperfect way. He takes the brave, defiant trust in God displayed against Goliath and lives this out in the difficult, unsettled life he is called to lead after God anoints him the leader of his people.
Of course, I never had a rosy-eyed view of David. The callous Bathsheba incident, the clueless, disinterested father of II Samuel, the misguided devotion to Absalom (however commendable to see David exhibiting some paternal emotion) and so forth demonstrate a less than perfect king with some truly deplorable weaknesses. But the Bible never shows us perfect people, but people who encounter God and are transformed in the core of their being through his word and by his Spirit.
The depressing thing about David is his deathbed. I Kings 1 shows an ailing king without a sense of what is going on around him. He appears to be at the mercy of his advisors and sons as to the succession. But so much worse than this is his sudden rallying just prior to his death and his instructions to Solomon in the following chapter. Two ‘acts of mercy’ (the Joab incident never appears to be mercy but calculated self-interest) are overturned. David hasn’t carried out vengeance because he hasn’t worked out how to get away with it. He’s been waiting for a successor who will be wiser than he and will know how to carry out his vengeance for him without getting into trouble. This is the David of the Nabal/Abigail incident: you have to make it worth his while to engage with you; if you treat him rudely he won’t overlook it, he’ll wreak bloody vengeance with all his resources. Abigail of course, cuts this short with her words: “When the LORD has done for my master every good thing he promised concerning him and has appointed him leader over Israel, my master will not have on his conscience the staggering burden of needless bloodshed or of having avenged himself.” She and David both recognise the providential nature of her words and David repents and turns away from vengeance.
David of course, inhabits the world of ‘eye-for-eye and tooth-for-tooth’ where vengeance is limited by God’s Law but still allowed. At his deathbed, it isn’t so much that David seeks vengeance that is so reprehensible. It is that he has appeared to show mercy, but has not in fact offered mercy. He has simply delayed vengeance.
And he has made the first acts of his son’s reign the carrying out of these measures. This is not a good legacy. It is not what you would expect from someone who had heard from God that though he (David) was a man of blood, his son would not be and so his son would build God a temple. David thrusts a bloody sword into his son’s hands even as he seats him on a colt and declares him king.
We can be broadly sympathetic with David: all three situations are ones in which he had a serious case against the individuals involved. But it appears that he is using the kingship precisely the way that Saul used the kingship: as a personal possession to settle his own scores. Possibly my 21st century sensibilities intrude here and I think the king of Israel can and should make a distinction between who he is as an individual and as a king.
David’s deathbed is a disappointment. There is always something disconcerting about someone dying uncharacteristically. One wonders whether their true character is revealed at the last and whether they have been overestimated in life. But perhaps it is not too surprising in David’s case. He always needed counsellors: those who stood beside him and whispered wisdom into his tempestuous mind. He could withstand foolishness (as the suggestions to kill Saul in the cave and elsewhere show in I Samuel), but the wisest moments of his life are often those moments when someone brings to bear the word of God into his situation. The absence of such a counsellor at his deathbed, pointing him to a better mind may account for his disappointing decision. In any case, David demonstrates what the Puritans maintained: it is a hard thing to die well.