Friday, July 1

Second Samuel 17: Since Absalom’s revolt took shape at Hebron in chapter 15, the narrative has moved rapidly. The scene changed immediately to Jerusalem, where David, informed of the rebellion, took stock of his scant military resources in the city. This inventory prompted the king’s decision to flee. From that point on, David became the narrator’s point of attention. Absalom was mentioned only within the dialogues of the characters until David fled (15:14,3134). After David’s flight, Absalom’s arrival in the city was barely noted—“And Absalom came into Jerusalem” (15:37)—because the narrator wanted to maintain the theme of David’s flight.

In 16:13 the narrator turned his attention to what was happening (“Meanwhile”) in Jerusalem while David fled. First, there was Absalom’s public assumption of his father’s harem. This bold step, taken on the counsel of Ahitophel, symbolically testified to Absalom’s seizure of the throne. It was certainly a point-of-no-return in the course of the revolution. It also had the effect, moreover, of giving David and his party an extended time to get further away from Jerusalem.

As we move into chapter 17, Ahitophel, now conscious that this delay is not helping the revolution, offers to pursue David while he may still be within striking range of a surprise attack (verses 1-4).

At this point Hushai speaks up. This is the truly decisive moment in the whole story. David’s determination to keep Hushai at Jerusalem—to serve as a spy while posing as the king’s adversary—leads directly to the story’s most important factual development: Absalom’s decision to strengthen his position in the capital before pursuing David. This decision, taken on the counsel of Hushai and directly against the advice of Ahitophel, permits David and his company to escape. Humanly speaking, this counsel of Hushai is what determines the providential outcome favorable to David, because “the Lord had purposed to defeat the good advice of Ahitophel, to the intent that the Lord might bring disaster on Absalom” (verse 14).

The next episode, involving two pro-David spies employed by Hushai (verses 15-21), further demonstrates the Lord’s “intent” against Absalom. At their warning, David crosses the Jordan during the night (verse 22).

Leaving David, the narrator turns his attention once again to Jerusalem. Here, it does not take long for the worldly-wise Ahitophel to size up the situation and realize that he has backed a loser. He removes himself from the coming disaster by taking his own life.

Meanwhile, Absalom, apparently informed about the two spies, senses the need to hurry. He marches his army across the Jordan in pursuit of David, whom he could have overtaken the previous day if only he had followed the advice of Ahitophel.

Saturday, July 2

Second Samuel 18: After his flight to the other side of the Jordan, it appears that David’s little army receives increasing support from new volunteers, as word of the rebellion spreads. By the time Absalom crosses the Jordan, a huge opposition has gathered to support David, a force large enough to be broken into three contingents.

We know of Absalom’s love of military display (15:1), but in the course of his career he has shown no sign of military ability. Consequently, he marches his forces straight into the trap set for him. The few tactical details mentioned in the story suggest that Absalom is hit from both flanks, as he advances on what he believes to be David’s entire army. The double flanking tactic used against him is all the more effective because it is deployed in a wooded area, which provides concealment for David’s forces. The result is a complete rout of the revolutionary army.

David, prior to the battle, is so confident of victory that he gives instructions about how Absalom is to be treated, once he is captured. Even now, he is concerned about the safety of his rebellious son.

The Bible’s dramatic description of Absalom’s fate would be sufficiently memorable by itself, but it has been rendered even more unforgettable through its representation in the works of such artists as Francesco di Stefano, William Brassey, Georges Rochegrosse, and Gustave Dore. Absalom’s luxuriant hair, already established in the story as a symbol of the young man’s unbounded self-absorption, now becomes the instrument of his humiliating defeat. His very “elevation” is his downfall.

Suspended by his hair from the overhanging limb of a terebinth tree, helpless Absalom is discovered by soldiers under Joab’s command, and Joab, in contravention of David’s order, executes the rebel, putting three spears into his chest. The reader senses in Joab’s literal “overkill” his response to a great frustration. He has strenuously worked to keep Absalom in the royal favor, and to what avail? Absalom, who burned Joab’s fields, certainly showed no gratitude. And now the young man has thrown the whole country into civil war. As far as Joab is concerned, enough is enough. He has no intention of honoring David’s plea for gentle treatment for his rebellious son.

The fast-paced narrative of Absalom’s death is followed by a very slow account of how the news of it comes to David. The pace of the story reflects the reluctance everyone in his army feels about sharing the news with the king. (The reader already knows, after all, how David reacts to bad news and how dangerous it was to be the bearer of such news!) When he does learn of it, David’s lament for the death of Absalom is even more poignant than his dirge about the deaths of Saul and Jonathan.

Sunday, July 3

Second Samuel 19: Six parts comprise this chapter: David’s conversation with Joab, his return trip to Jerusalem, his mercy to Shimei, his encounter with Mephibosheth, his meeting with Barzillai, and a quarrel between the citizens of Judah and the other Israelites.

In the first part (18:33—19:8), Joab objects to David’s continued public mourning over the death of Absalom. Not only is this lamentation excessive and unseemly, in Joab’s view, bit it also demoralizes David’s supporters, who recently risked their own lives and fortunes by coming to the king’s assistance during the rebellion. Joab, the no-nonsense general who actually took Absalom’s life, accuses David of loving his enemies more than his friends.

Joab’s words yank David’s attention back to the present moment. David must put a stop to the mourning; this is a new day, and there are things to be done in order to restore order and settle the fortunes of the realm. Within just two verses (5 & 6), Joab uses the word “today” five times.

If one thing has been made clear about David in the immediately preceding chapters, it is his vulnerability. Joab, in speaking to the king so strongly and frankly here, is confident that David is aware of this vulnerability. Humanly speaking, David owes the maintenance of his throne to Joab. He is unable to gainsay the stern counsel of his chief general.

Joab’s private exhortation to the king leads to the second part of the chapter, David’s return to the capital to secure the realm and restore order. Along the way, he has time to think about Joab, the man who dared to ignore his order that no harm should come to Absalom. He resolves to replace Joab as chief general.

Exhausted from the events of the past several days, David is in no mood to seek revenge on Shimei—at least not “today” (four times within verses 20-22). This resolve does not include the future, however, and Solomon will be released from any obligation to show continued mercy to Shimei (cf. First Kings 2:8-9,36-46).

Nor does David feel confident, just now, of settling the old business between Ziba and Mephibosheth. Unable to adjudicate their conflicting claims, he determines on a compromise.

David is in the mood, however, to reward his friends, especially Barzillai, whose assistance was invaluable during the recent conflict. The story in verses 31-39 served, in ancient times, to explain the prominence of Barzillai’s family at the royal court.

The final part of the chapter (verses 40-43) describes a rivalry of loyalty to David. This episode indicates a continued dissension between north and south, a dissension that will break out presently in the rebellion of Sheba.

Monday, July 4

Second Samuel 20: Absalom’s revolt is barely suppressed before another is started by a Benjaminite named Sheba. This rebellion provides the context for several dialogues, through which the drama of the chapter is advanced:

First, there are the commands given to Amasa, the new military leader, and to Abishai, the brother of Joab. There appears to be some breakdown in communication. Amasa, summoned to meet with David, charges off to pursue Sheba at once. David, who seems to panic, not certain where Amasa has gone, dispatches Abishai to go after Sheba. Meanwhile, the reader has no idea where Joab is. Probably the others in the story did not know either.

Second, when David’s two forces are joined at Gibeon, the displaced Joab greets Amasa and treacherously murders him, very much as he earlier had Abner. De facto, David signed the death warrants of both Abner and Amasa by favoring them over Joab.

Amasa’s men, now deprived of their leader, are persuaded to join the other group, led by Joab and Abishai, in pursuit of Sheba.

Third, there is the conversation—or negotiation, perhaps—between Joab and the “wise woman” of Abel Beth Maachah, who speak to one another over the wall of the city. Joab, who is quite prepared to besiege the city for as long as it takes, is questioned by this woman with respect to his intent. When he assures her that he would much prefer not to destroy the city, the lady offers to toss Sheba’s head over the wall. With this guarantee from Joab, she then persuades the town elders to comply. Once he has Sheba’s head in hand, Joab honors his part of the commitment and retires his army back south to Judah.

The description of this final conversation puts the reader in mind of Joab’s earlier “wise woman” from Tekoa. These anonymous women are described in exactly the same way—“wise woman”—and both serve to avert the threat of further vengeance. As the first woman helped Joab resolve the problem between David and Absalom, the second assists him to resolve the problem of the siege. Both, that is to say, are women of wise counsel. Both women want to avoid unnecessary bloodshed. The first exhorted David, “do not permit the avenger of blood to destroy anymore, lest they destroy my son” (14:11), and the second tells Joab, “You seek to destroy a city and a mother in Israel” (20:19).

The chapter closes with the adjustment of David’s staff after the two recent revolutions. Nothing is said, for now, about David’s personal feelings with respect to the treacherous Joab, who has a good deal of blood on his hands and has given the king every reason to distrust him.

A subjective quest for emotional fulfillment subverts Christian worship, by focusing on how worship makes a person feel, and by encouraging worship schemes that arise from individual self-expression rather than the lived history of the people of God down through the ages. “Man fully alive” is at the heart of that most baneful of cultural deviations, the circus known as “the contemporary worship service.”

Tuesday, July 5

Second Samuel 21: There are two stories in the present chapter: David and the Gibeonites and the Philistine Giants.

Reacting to a persistent shortfall in the annual harvest, David makes an oracular inquiry respecting its cause. He learns that Israel is receiving divine punishment for Saul’s earlier massacre of the Gibeonites. This is the first and only time the reader learns of this crime of Saul. Israel has not yet addressed the crime—a violation of an ancient pact with the Canaanite city of Gibeah (cf. Joshua 9:15)—and now the nation’s second king must do so.

The reader observes in this story a certain flatness and simplicity. We perceive in David’s decision none of that inner conflict and psychological complexity the book as a whole would prompt. The king, as portrayed here, is completely unemotional and matter-of-fact, as though the decision to slaughter these descendants of Saul involves no inner turmoil. With respect to David, the episode is recorded more as a chronicle than as a dramatic story. Quite coldly, the king hands seven of Saul’s descendants over to the Gibeonites to be the brutally executed for the crime of their forebear.

This killing of Saul’s descendants is an execution. If the Gibeonites understood it as a substitutionary sacrifice—as seems to be the case—it is quite out of character with the sacrifices prescribed in the Mosaic ritual.

For all that, the Christian reader is perplexed by an episode so gory; its ethical quality falls far short, not only of the standards of the Gospel, but also of the usual moral expectations of the Hebrew Scriptures. That is to say, this is not an edifying story, nor does this archaic account add luster to the Christian reader’s appreciation of David.

The neutral, unemotional quality of the account changes, nonetheless, when the narrator tells of Rizpah’s solicitous care for the cadavers of Saul’s offspring. This loving solicitude earns her the respect of David. Indeed, Rizpah is the only person in the story who elicits sympathy and respect.

David, in response to the actions of Rizpah, gathers the bones of Saul and Jonathan, along with the bones of these seven victims, and buries them in the family plot in the territory of Benjamin.

The descriptions of the Philistine giants and their armor are reminiscent of the story of Goliath. These oversized Europeans made a significant impression on the Israelite warriors who faced them in conflict. Since the present chapter ascribes the slaying of Goliath the Gittite to Elhanan, one of David’s warriors, it seems to contradict the story in First Samuel 17. Notwithstanding several explanations advanced over the years, this ascription remains one of the unresolved dilemmas in biblical studies.

Wednesday, July 6

Second Samuel 22: The psalm recorded in this text is substantially identical with Psalm 18 (Greek 17) in the canonical Book of Psalms. This psalm’s inclusion in the Book of Samuel is consistent with a common practice of placing such compositions at or near the end of lengthy narrative material. Other examples include Genesis 49 and Deuteronomy 32.

In the present work, the place of David’s psalm near the end of Samuel corresponds to the place of Hannah’s canticle near the beginning of the book. This correspondence fits a more general pattern in the construction of the book. Thus, First Samuel starts with two prayers of Hannah, and Second Samuel closes with two prayers of David (24:10, 25). Chapter 1 of First Samuel describes the regular pilgrimages that Elkanah’s family made to the ancient shrine at Shiloh, while the last chapter of Second Samuel finishes with David’s purchase of the site of the future temple at Jerusalem. At the beginning of the book, the Ark of the Covenant is in Shiloh, but the Ark has been moved to the new site as the book ends. Sacrifices are offered in each place, whether by the priest Eli or by David.

Moreover, the corresponding prayers of Hannah and David are similar. Hannah’s petition, inspired by her great distress, takes the form of a vow; if the Lord should give her a son, she promises, she will dedicate him to the Lord. And at the end of the book, David’s prayer, made in response to the plague that afflicts the people through his own sin, takes the form of a resolve to dedicate a new temple to the Lord. David’s resolve, implicit in 2 Samuel 24, is elaborated in 1 Chronicles 21 and Psalm 131(132). Thus, the Book of Samuel begins and ends with prayers in the context of sacrifice.

There are further parallels between the canticle of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2 and the psalm of David in 2 Samuel 22. Indeed, these poems form an “inclusion” to the book. Thus, in David’s psalm God is praised for having kept the promises contained in Hannah’s canticle. For example, while Hannah says of the Lord that “He will guard the feet of His saints, but the wicked shall be silent in darkness” (1 Samuel 2:9), David will say of Him, “He makes my feet like the feet of deer” (2 Samuel 22:34) and “You enlarged my path under me; so my feet did not slip. I have pursued my enemies and destroyed them” (22:37–38). Once again, too, there is the shared image of the shrine or temple. Whereas Hannah’s canticle is chanted at the house of the Lord in Shiloh, David’s canticle says of the Lord, “He heard my voice from His temple” (22:7). This parallel is all the more striking inasmuch as the new temple has not yet been constructed.

Thursday, July 7

Second Samuel 23: This chapter opens with another poem of David introduced by a note in which the king is called, “the sweet psalmist of Israel.” In fact, the inscriptions in the Psalter ascribe more psalms to David than to any other person. This pattern of ascription is reflected in the New Testament (cf. Romans 4:6; 11:9; Hebrews 4:7).

Since David is described here as “the sweet psalmist,” It is ironical that this brief poem—a mere five lines—does not appear to be related, by either structure or theme, to Israel’s traditional psalms. In this respect it is quite different from the psalm in the previous chapter of Samuel.

The description of this poem as “the last words of David” means “David’s final composition”—not his literally last words. His truly last words are his charge to Solomon in First Kings 2.

Whereas the psalm in the previous chapter celebrated the faithful Lord’s deliverance of his anointed one, the present poem celebrates the faithfulness of the anointed one himself, a fidelity that brings divine blessing to the whole people. That is to say, it portrays an image of the ideal king, whose reign reflects the kingship of God.

David is declared to be at once the anointed one and the recipient of “the Spirit of the Lord”—a conjunction of images taken up later in the Book of Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, / ?Because the Lord has anointed me” (Isaiah 61:1; Luke 4:18).

The psalm is a poem about the Davidic covenant, a central and dominant idea in the Book of Samuel. As Israel’s ruler, the king is likened to the sun (verse 4), of which Holy Scripture declares that God made “the greater light to rule the day” (Genesis 1:16). The king resembles the sun, not only in general, but more specifically the sun at sunrise; it is he that separates daylight from darkness. Here the sun imagery moves immediately to the theme of fertility, in which “the tender grass rises from the earth,?/ By clear shining after rain” (cf. Psalm 72 [71]:1-7).

Just as this sun and rain of the Davidic monarchy bring about the growth of the grass, so its infidelity is likened to the thorns that sprang up after the Fall (verse 6; cf. Genesis 3:18). Like Adam, who must fight against the weeds, the king is obliged to destroy the noxious plants of the kingdom (verse 7). Once again, we should remark that David is describing the ideal king more than himself!

The second part of this chapter (verses 8-39) is a list of warriors who distinguished themselves at various times during David’s long reign.

Friday, July 8

Second Samuel 24: The story of the plague is placed near the end of the Book of Samuel, because it leads directly to the actual spot where the temple is to be constructed.

The account begins with David’s plan to take a census of the people. Given the two accounts of census taking in the Book of Numbers, David probably thinks precedence is on his side in this matter. As was the case in Numbers, David probably wants this census in order to take stock of his military strength. This impulse would also account for Joab’s role in the story.

Why did Joab, not exactly a paragon of moral probity in Holy Scripture, object to the census? We are not told; but a plausible conjecture observes that a census is politically risky. If David orders this census for purposes of military conscription, it may be that Joab is afraid of political backlash within Israel’s population. That is to say, if David is acting in a high-handed way, it may be the case that Israel will see him acting in a high-handed way . . . and resent it! As we saw in the matter of Absalom’s death, Joab is sometimes more perceptive than David in reading the pulse of the Israelites.

Like Pharaoh in the Book of Exodus, David is visited with “plague,” maggefah (verses 21,25). Is the author suggesting that David, in ordering this census, is acting in a highhanded fashion like Pharaoh? Joab seems to think so. In any case, David’s conscience afflicts him as soon as the census is completed. He knows he has done wrong. He prays, and the Lord answers the prayer by sending him a prophetic word.

The Prophet Gad, in reprimanding David, offers him a choice among three punishments: seven years of famine, three months of foreign invasion, or three days of plague.

At the conclusion of the plague, David causes sacrifice to be offered at the very place where the plague ceases—the threshing floor of Araunah. The king’s negotiations to purchase the field from Araunah put the reader in mind of Abraham’s real estate arrangement with the Hittites for the cave of Machpelah in Genesis 23, but the similarities between the two texts appear to bear no theological or thematic significance.

This final chapter, narrating David’s sacrifice on the threshing floor, ties the Book of Samuel back to its beginning, where sacrifice was offered at Shiloh, but the purchase of this property, on which Solomon will build the temple, also points the Book of Samuel toward the future, when the sacrifices of Israel will be offered in that very place.