Friday, June 22
Second Samuel 6: With the intent to transform Jerusalem into Israel’s true—not simply geographical—center, David determines to bring there the Ark of the Covenant. An unexpected incident during this transfer produces one of the most famous scenes in Holy Scripture.
David, as he begins to consolidate his reign, is full of plans. The Ark, the ancient symbol of God’s presence among the Israelites, is a part of those plans. Nothing in the Sacred Text indicates that David reflected adequately on the moral ambiguity involved in this endeavor. Very early in the Book of Samuel was another story of Israelites using the Ark to advance their own agenda. There was a battle with the Philistines, of which we are told:
So the people sent to Shiloh, that they might bring from there the ark of the covenant of the Lord of hosts, who dwells between the cherubim. And the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God. . . . So the Philistines fought, and Israel was defeated, and every man fled to his tent. There was a very great slaughter, and there fell of Israel thirty thousand foot soldiers. Also the ark of God was captured; and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, died (First Samuel 4:4, 10-11).
In that episode, near the beginning of the Book of Samuel, the Lord endeavored to teach Israel that He could not be used. Did David understand that?
In the present story, the Lord makes His point once again, when Uzza—quite innocently, it seems—puts forth his hand to steady the Ark on the ox cart. He is struck dead on the spot.
Since he dies in the act, the lesson is not for Uzza. The lesson is for David, and he knows it. David is upset:
And David became angry because of the Lord’s outbreak against Uzzah. . . David was afraid of the Lord that day; and he said, “How can the ark of the Lord come to me?” So David would not move the ark of the Lord with him into the City of David (verses 8-10)
Just as David is unable to bring the Ark into his own capital on his own terms, he will also not be permitted to build a temple in that capital on his own terms. God has chosen David, to be sure, but God intends to keep David on a shortened leash. Subsequent events will prove God right on the point: David is not, in every respect, worthy of trust. His ambitions will get the better of him in due course, and his sins will introduce tragedy into his history.
Still, he is God’s anointed one, as the next chapter will make clear.
Saturday, June 23
Second Samuel 7: The story in this chapter makes a clear break in the narrative sequence. We are told that the things in the present chapter “came to pass when the king was dwelling in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies all around,” but those enemies are not subdued until the following chapter. The present account of David’s desire to build a temple follows thematically on the material about the Ark of the Covenant in chapter 6; this general theme—not a consideration of chronology—is the reason the material appears here where it does.
As the account opens, David’s palace, the construction of which he commissioned to Phoenician architects and builders, has been completed. David’s mind turns to the Ark, which was brought to Jerusalem in the previous chapter. David observes the irony—and the impropriety—that his own house has been built, whereas the Ark is still sheltered in a wooden and fabric structure, the “tabernacle” constructed for that purpose (and, one suspects, modeled on the Mosaic tabernacle of ancient times).
Conceiving a plan to construct a proper “house” for the Ark, David seeks prophetic counsel on the matter. He calls the court prophet, Nathan, who now appears in Holy Scripture for the first time. Nathan, prior to consulting God in prayer, rashly encourages the king in his plan. That night the Lord takes the initiative, giving Nathan an opposite message for David.
The crucial word in the message is “house,” a term understood in more than one way. David’s house, as the story begins, is the royal palace. David wants to construct for the Lord an equivalent house; that is to say, a temple. “No,” says the Lord, “you will not build Me a house. I will build you a house.” Here the word refers, not to a building, but to the royal dynasty, “the house of David,” the succession of his sons on the throne recently established in Jerusalem. That is to say, David’s true house is not the palace. It is the Davidic throne, to which the Lord promises permanence through a special covenant He established with the king.
In short, David is instructed that he can do nothing for God. On the contrary, God will do something for David. As for the temple, God—not David—will determine the time, the setting, and the conditions of its construction. It must happen at God’s initiative, not man’s. Once again, David is taught a lesson about presumption.
Once the Lord has established David’s house—through his son’s accession to the throne—then this son will build a house for God.
The Lord reveals to Nathan—and through Nathan to David—that the heirs and beneficiaries of this new covenant will not always be faithful and loyal. Indeed, the throne will be occupied, often enough, by scoundrels and sinners. When this happens, the Lord will punish those unfaithful men, but in no way will He permit their sins and infidelities to bring ruin on the dynasty itself. Here Nathan introduces the messianic promise that will become—over the centuries—the subject of much theological speculation, as the line of David is subjected to a series of disasters.
In response to Nathan’s promise and prophecy, David retires to the tabernacle, where the Ark of the Covenant is sheltered, to ponder and to pray. Nothing further happens for now. The covenant initiated in grace is celebrated in prayer. David prays, and then he leaves the rest to God, who will fulfill His purpose when He sees fit.
Sunday, June 24
Second Samuel 8: This chapter, which is chiefly a summary of David’s military exploits as king, includes material earlier than the things narrated in chapter 7.
As one reads the present chapter, some attention to a map demonstrates the practical outcome of David’s victories; namely, he has created a small empire, of which Jerusalem is the geo-political center. (David was able to do this, because of the relative weakness of the two powers on the ends of the Fertile Crescent, Egypt and Babylon/Assyria.)
To the west and southwest of Israel, the conquest of the Philistines is complete; from now on, they will cease to bother Israel. Indeed, David hires their best warriors—the Cerethites (Cretans) and Pelethites—for his own bodyguards (verse 18). (This is the reversal of the earlier situation, when David and his men served as the bodyguards of a Philistine king.)
To the south, David defeats the Amalekites and the Edomites, incorporating both groups into a satellite status within his small empire. To guarantee that they faithfully pay their annual tribute, and to discourage any impulse they may feel toward rebellion, David places garrisons of armed Israelites throughout their territories.
The conquest of the Edomites is particularly significant, inasmuch as Israel acquires a southern port on the Gulf of Aqaba. Later, Solomon will exploit the advantage of that acquisition, which provides maritime access to Arabia, the west coast of Africa, and other places as far away as India.
To Israel’s east, on the other side of the Jordan, David subdues the Ammonites and Moabites, whose annual tribute will finance David’s government, building projects, and other ventures.
To the northeast, David’s forces continue their conquest, adding Syria and Zobah to his little empire.
Directly to the north lies the maritime power of Phoenicia, which is happy to be on David’s good side. During their whole history the Phoenicians are never a threat to Israel; they look only for commercial partners, not enemies to subdue. It is arguable that no other political alliance of David is as significant as his treaty with Phoenicia.
Moreover, the rise of David has been extremely beneficial to Phoenicia, because David subdued the Philistines. Among the activities of the Philistines was piracy in the eastern Mediterranean (In Egyptian literature, they are known as “the sea peoples’), a piracy that severely hampered Phoenician trade routes. David’s defeat on the Philistines put an end to that piracy, much to the benefit of Phoenician mercantile ventures.
Monday, June 24
Second Samuel 9: The tone changes abruptly from the bare chronicle style of the previous chapter: “And David said . . .” The narrative of this new chapter is carried forward completely by dialogue.
The story of Mephibosheth illustrates the kindness of David, but it also indicates his political skill. Mephibosheth, as the son of Jonathan, is the direct heir of Saul. Consequently, around him could gather rebellious elements in the kingdom that might like a return to the old regime. In addition to a desire to take care of the son of Jonathan, David also has in mind to keep that son close to him; Mephibosheth is not consulted on the point. He is simply informed that, for now on, he will be living at court. Ziba, formerly a servant of Saul, will care for his hereditary property.
As for Mephibosheth himself, he was already introduced in 4:4, where we learn that his physical affliction was the result of a fall he suffered as a small child. In the present chapter, he is clearly much older and has a son of his own. Until now, he has been living secretly and in exile, east of the Jordan. Summoned to appear at David’s court, he is probably afraid for his life, knowing that the king may regard him—a descendent of Saul—as a potential rival. David sees in this cripple, however, a son of Jonathan more than a grandson of Saul.
Mephibosheth’s residence at the court is without incident until the political complications arising from Absalom’s rebellion. Counseled by Ziba at that time, Mephibosheth remains behind when David and most of the court must flee the city. Ziba, who is arguably the most duplicitous character in the Bible, represents Mephibosheth’s action as connivance in the rebellion. David, deceived by Ziba, summons the young man to account, when he returns from exile. Mephibosheth convincingly pleads his innocence and is spared, but David, who was recently helped by Ziba during his brief exile, is reluctant to punish the slanderer.
Mephibosheth, true son of Jonathan, is no fool. He proves himself as loyal to David as his father did earlier. David, in his treatment of Mephibosheth, adheres strictly to the terms of his covenant of friendship with Jonathan (1 Samuel 20:12-17; 2 Samuel 21:7).
Through Mephibosheth’s son, Mica, the descendents of Jonathan will become a reputable family in Israel (cf. 1 Chronicles 8:35; 9:41-44).
Tuesday, June 25
Second Samuel 10: It is not clear whether the military events narrated in this chapter are identical with—or later than—the campaigns narrated in chapter 8. The present writer is disposed to think them identical. That is to say, chapter 8 served as a summary of David’s military activities; the present chapter tells of these same activities in detail.
Like chapters 7 and 9, this one begins with something David says. The story begins with an internal resolution of the king.
As in the previous chapter, David thinks to do a kindness to the son of a friend to whom he feels a debt. In the present case, the kindness is not so well received, and trouble ensues.
Nahash the Ammonite, prior to the monarchy, was not always a friend to Israel. Indeed, his siege to the city of Jabesh, the reader recalls, was one of the factors that brought Saul to the throne in 1020. Although we are not told what sorts of favors Nahash later did for David, the latter feels grateful to his memory. So, learning of Nahash’s death, he sends a delegation of friendship to Hanun, the late king’s son and heir.
This ill-advised young man, however, seems bent on trouble. He deliberately disgraces the emissaries of David by disfiguring their beards and mutilating their clothing in an embarrassing way. This is more than a breach of civil etiquette; it is a deliberate insult to an act of kindness. It amounts to a declaration of war.
When the delegation crosses the Jordan back to Israel, David makes them wait at Jericho, until their beards grow back. The king needs a little time to reflect on what steps must be taken against the upstart, offending Hanun.
Hanun knows, of course, that he has just handed Israel a casus belli, so he proceeds to secure a military alliance with his neighbors to the north.
Against him, David sends a force under Joab. This is the first time we see David stay at home during a battle. Older now, he stays in the capital and leaves the fighting to younger men. (The author is preparing us for the story of Uriah and Bathsheba.)
The ensuing battle is described: Joab, finding his forces pinched from two sides—the Ammonites from the south and their mercenaries from the north—splits his force. He leads a body of elite soldiers to attack on the north and sends another group, under his brother, Abishai, to counter the Ammonites to the south. Joab shows himself to be a shrewd and successful commander. The Ammonites take refuge in their capital, Rabbath (modern Amman).
Wednesday, June 27
Second Samuel 11: Unwilling to maintain a siege of Rabbath through the winter, the Israelites under Joab’s command return to battle in the spring. David stays in Jerusalem.
The king, taking a stroll on the roof, or perhaps a high balustrade, of his palace, looks out into the city. Not far away he spots a woman taking a bath. Inquiring about her, David learns that she is Bathsheba, the wife of one of his own commanders, Uriah, a man of Hittite descent. Knowing that her husband is away at war, David invites Bathsheba for a quiet evening with him at the palace.
Because the king uses several emissaries in this tryst, it is not possible to keep the adultery secret. The whole court surely knows about it.
As it happens, Bathsheba is soon aware of being pregnant from her evening with David. “I am pregnant” are her only recorded words in this chapter. What began as an evening of fun is now developing into a crisis. Wars don’t last forever, and Uriah will be back home soon enough. Bathsheba knows that only David can do something about it.
David summons Uriah back from the siege of Rabbath, ostensibly to give him a report on the progress of the wary. After the interview, David recommends to Uriah that he return to his home and his wife for the night, before returning to the front. In this way, the king thinks, Bathsheba’s pregnancy can be safely accounted for.
David does not understand Uriah. A professional soldier and leader of men, Uriah does not dream of spending the night in the arms of his wife while his own men are sleeping uncomfortably on the field of battle. (This personal trait puts Uriah in the same category of certain military leaders in American history, such as Anthony Wayne and Robert E. Lee.) After the interview with David, Uriah lies down and falls asleep at the entrance of the palace. After this happens a second night, David realizes that his plan—to ascribe Bathsheba’s pregnancy to Uriah—has failed. Cruelly, he gives Uriah a message for Joab, a message that is the messenger’s own death warrant.
Joab understands and complies. Uriah is allowed to perish in battle, and, after the prescribed period of her mourning, Bathsheba becomes a permanent resident at the palace. Everything has been covered over, as well as David can manage. No one at the palace, surely, will raise a question on the matter.
Thursday, June 28
Second Samuel 12: The Lord has already promised David that He will remain faithful to His covenant, no matter how sinful the heirs of David might become. Now the divine fidelity shows itself, in the case of David himself, adulterer and murderer.
Arguably the most important person in the life of David is the Prophet Nathan. His very name means, “gift,” and Nathan is certainly God’s generous gift to the king. Except for Nathan, David might remain unrepentant till the end of his life, a sinner as bad as Saul. Nathan is assigned to do for David what the Apostles were appointed to do for all mankind—to preach repentance and the remission of sins (Luke 24:47).
Like Jesus, Nathan preaches repentance by means of parable. He tells David the story of the ewe lamb, a narrative surely to be numbered among the Bible’s finest examples of what T. S. Eliot called “the moral imagination.” By means of storytelling Nathan successfully engages the king’s own sense of decency and justice. He skillfully stimulates David’s return to “the permanent things.”
Nathan’s method, of course, is to cloak the king’s sinful actions within the folds of his own homespun. As Nathan’s account progresses, David becomes morally aroused, with no suspicion that he is himself the villain of the narrative. Finally he pronounces the anticipated moral judgment, or, as the Scripture says, “David’s anger was greatly aroused against the man, and he said to Nathan, ‘As the Lord lives, the man who has done this shall surely die!’” It is at this point, finally, that the prophet’s impeaching finger is thrust at the royal face: “You are the man!” (12:5, 7).
It is instructive to observe that Nathan, in preaching repentance from sin, does not “preach down” to the sinner. He does not assume the “higher moral ground.” On the contrary, the prophet’s story compels David himself to seize that ground. Nathan does not directly accuse the king until after he causes the king to accuse himself. Nathan’s method is to transform the sinner’s imagination within a drama, until at last David is disclosed in the character of the drama’s villain.
Moreover, even as David is explicitly condemned, he is implicitly affirmed. That is to say, in order to impugn the very worst in David, Nathan addresses himself to the very best in David—his innate, more deeply abiding sense of right and wrong. As a result of this preaching, the king’s condemnation of his sins springs forth from his own conscience. David becomes his own accuser: “I have sinned against the Lord” (12:13). Thus, Nathan’s preaching functions very much like the crowing of the nocturnal rooster that dramatically awakened the sleeping conscience of Simon Peter (Matthew 26:75).
Friday, June 29
Second Samuel 13: David, it seems, is not the ideal father, and this chapter presents us with first evidence that all was not going well on the home front. Incestuous rape and murder are not favorable signs. Indeed, the tragedies in the present chapter put the reader in mind of David’s own actions with respect to Bathsheba and Uriah, a sexual offense followed by a murder.
Ammon himself was the crown prince of the realm, David’s heir apparent, and the devout reader will discern the hand of God in his removal from the scene. A man that rapes his half-sister is no fit heir to the throne. Unlike his father, Ammon does not repent; indeed, he does not even perform the minimum obligations toward Tamar required in the Mosaic Law (Deuteronomy 22:28-29).
Arguably worse in the context, however, is David’s response, when he refuses to deal with the terrible situation. David becomes angry, but that is all (verse 21). This failure to deal discipline with his son puts the reader in mind of Eli at Shiloh, who also was indulgent toward his sinning offspring. David’s own moral failures have evidently deprived him of the moral authority to chastise his own children, and this failure eventually leads to rebellion and civil war.
Having waited two years in vain for David to deal with the situation (verse 23), the frustrated Absalom, Tamar’s full-brother, decides at last to take charge of the matter himself. He is able to do this because he senses a vacuum of authority in the realm, a vacuum that will tempt him, we know, even further in the near future. David’s kingdom will soon come unraveled.
In its story of David’s double sin, the Bible describes certain theological aspects of all sin, by portraying David’s offense through a series of striking parallels with the earlier account of Adam’s Fall in the Garden.
First, regarding the circumstances and immediate consequences of David’s infidelity, there are several points of correspondence with the offense of Adam. Thus, both Adam and David are tempted by women, Eve (Genesis 3:6) and Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11:2–4). Likewise, in both cases the two men are abruptly confronted with the gravity of their sin: “Have you eaten from the tree . . . ?” (Genesis 3:11) and “You are the man!” (2 Samuel 12:7). Next, judgment is pronounced on the house of each offender in the shape of death (Genesis 3:19; 2 Samuel 12:14). Indeed, Adam and David is each preceded to the grave by a son born of that same woman (Genesis 4:8; 2 Samuel 12:18). That is to say, in both instances sin leads immediately to death (cf. Romans 5:12). On the other hand, in each example, a new son is born as a sign of promise and renewed hope (Genesis 4:25; 2 Samuel 12:24). Thus, in the circumstances of Adam’s and David’s sins, we see a narrative sequence of fall, judgment, curse, and mercy.
Second, with respect to the more extended effects of their transgressions, both Adam and David become the fathers of fratricides, Cain (Genesis 4:8) and Absalom (2 Samuel 13:29). Their fall, that is to say, leads to hatred and murder. Indeed, there is a remarkable similarity between the description of Cain’s murder of Abel and the parabolic portrayal of Absalom’s killing of Amnon. In each instance the murderer rises up and slays his brother in a field (compare Genesis 4:8 and 2 Samuel 14:6). We observe, moreover, that in each case, the murderer himself is initially spared (Genesis 4:15; 2 Samuel 14:11), though a restricting curse still hangs over him (Genesis 4:16; 2 Samuel 14:24). Thus, even though in neither instance is the murder punished by death, guilt remains as an active element in the story, a source of continuing narrative tension.
Third, the biblical text goes to some length to demonstrate the long- term consequences of the sins of Adam and David, which intensify through the fratricides committed by Cain and Absalom. Both of the latter act in hatred, which in turn provokes the fear of vengeance (Genesis 4:14; 2 Samuel 14:7). The consequences of these offenses eventually include full-scale rebellions. In the account of Adam this rebellion is indicated both before and after the Flood (Genesis 6:5; 11:3, 4), while in the case of David the resulting rebellion takes shape in Absalom’s civil war (2 Samuel 15—18).