Friday, 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.”

Saturday, 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 descendents 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 descendents 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.

Sunday, 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.

Monday, 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.

Tuesday, 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.

Wednesday, July 9

First Kings 1: This first chapter of Kings, which narrates the stormy events that lead to Solomon’s succession to his father, contains several scenes. It first tells of the young woman Abishag the Shunammite (verses 1-4). Although she is chosen, like Esther, by a sort of beauty contest, she never becomes a heroine. She remains a secondary character, rather, whose brief story here serves a two-fold narrative function:

First, it illustrates the advanced age and failing health of King David. This condition explains the sudden interest in the choice of a successor.

Second, the introduction of Abishag sets the stage for the later intrigue in which Adonijah will request that she be given to him as a wife. That request, which will seal the prince’s doom, is found in the next chapter.

In the chapter’s second scene (verses 5-10), the author moves the narrative from David’s bedroom to the suburban village of El Rogel, just south of Jerusalem. Here David’s son, Adonijah, takes advantage of a clan festival to gather the forces he needs to accomplish a coup, even though David is still alive and has not publicly declared his appointed heir. Adonijah’s claim to the throne is plausible; The older brothers, Amnon and Absalom, are both dead, and perhaps Chileab (Second Samuel 3:3), so Adonijah can advance his case on the premise of primogeniture.

The matter is murky, nonetheless, and the prince’s failure to invite Solomon to the gathering at El Rogel suggests that Adonijah knows, or, at least, seriously suspects that David had Solomon in mind as his successor.

What Adonijah does is not only murky; it is also dangerous. Even though he has the support of the rest of his siblings, at least some of the army (led by Joab), the priest Abiathar, and other officials of the court, the success of this coup depends on a certain measure of secrecy. The royal garden at El Rogel (according to Josephus, Antiquities 7.14.4) is sufficiently secluded to avoid too much notice, until the deed is actually done.

Even before the events at El Rogel became common knowledge in Jerusalem, however, Nathan the prophet learns of it, whether by secret communication or prophetic insight. Perhaps Nathan has inquired to learn why he was omitted from the guest list!

Before leaving this second scene, it is instructive to reflect on striking points of resemblance between Adonijah and his older brother Absalom, who had earlier attempted the displace their father from the throne. Both sons are manifestly ambitious and overly eager. The author describes both of them as unusually handsome (verse 5; 2 Samuel 14:25) and mentions the same love of pomp and display in each man (verse 5; 2 Samuel 15:1). Their shared arrogance also prompted an improper interest in David’s wives (1 Kings 2:13-22; 2 Samuel 16:20-22).

In the third scene (verses 11-14) Nathan sizes up the situation and enlists the aid of Bathsheba to thwart Adonijah’s plans. Bathsheba springs into action to secure the succession for her own son, Solomon. Instances of ambitious mothers endeavoring to promote the political fortunes of their sons are absolutely commonplace in documents from ancient history, with examples from Assyria (Sammurammat, mother of Adad-Nerari III), Macedonia (Olympias, mother of Alexander), Rome (Agrippina the Younger, mother of Nero), and so forth.

As the fourth scene (verse 15-37) opens, Bathsheba, following Nathan’s counsel, pays a visit to David. There is a note of poignancy in this account, at the point where Bathsheba, entering the royal chamber, finds David attended his newer and younger wife, Abishag the Shunammite. Since the presence of the Abishag at this moment adds nothing essential to the story, the inclusion of this detail serves to add feeling and living color to the narrative. That is to say, it underlines Bathsheba’s self-abasement on behalf of her son. She must come and prostrate herself before her husband, while the younger woman, now the king’s favorite, witnesses her mortification.

Bathsheba’s mission is successful. Nathan enters the chamber at the conclusion of her presentation, and events begin to take a new turn. David is not nearly so senile as Adonijah’s co-conspirators imagine. He arranges to have Solomon declared king forthwith, and the friends of Adonijah, learning of this, quickly scatter, leaving the would-be usurper to seek asylum in the sanctuary. Solomon, perhaps feeling generous in the flush of victory, pardons him.

As events will show, Bathsheba takes note of this, aware that Solomon’s position is not entirely secure as long as Adonijah lives. The latter, in the following chapter, will foolishly hand Bathsheba the means to get rid of him.

Thursday, July 10

First Kings 2: This chapter begins with David’s exhortation to Solomon, which includes some unsettled “family business” with respect to Joab and Shimei. (The former’s recent complicity in Adonijah’s plot seems to have settled David’s mind on this point.)

David’s death in 961 B.C. is told with the briefest notice.

In the previous chapter, the reader learned that David’s most recent wife, Abishag, is still a virgin. Adonijah, who has evidently taken a shine to the young lady, wants to marry her. Foolishly, he asks Bathsheba to intervene with Solomon on his behalf.

Bathsheba spots her chance; she has no doubt about how Solomon will respond to this request that David’s young “widow” be given in marriage to David’s own son. So she makes the request on his behalf, and that is the end of poor Adonijah.

Bathsheba is now the Queen Mother, the Gebirah. The true place of the Queen Mother in Holy Scripture is amply illustrated by comparing two scenes, in which Bathsheba is pictured as entering the throne room to speak to the king. In the first of these she is described as coming into the presence of her husband, King David: “And Bathsheba bowed and did homage to the king” (1:16). In the second instance, she comes into the presence of Solomon, her son: “And the king rose up to meet her and bowed down to her, and sat down on his throne and had a throne set for the king’s mother; so she sat at his right hand” (2:19). A simple comparison of these texts indicates clearly the deference and honor with which a Davidic king expects his mother to be treated. If the king bows down before her, how much more his subjects?

(It is hardly surprising, therefore, that Bible-believing Christians cultivate the deepest, most affectionate reverence for her of whose Son the angel said: “The Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David” [Luke 1:32]. She has from the beginning been invoked as “the mother of my Lord” [1:43], and in their time of need believers have ever sought her intercession with her Son [John 2:1–11]. Among Christians there can be no doubt that in the kingdom of heaven she reigns as Queen and sovereign Lady in glory in the presence of great David’s greater Son.)

The chapter includes Solomon’s fulfillment of David’s instructions relative to Joab and Shimei. Since the former has recently joined an attempted coup in the realm, he is regarded as a continuing threat to Solomon’s throne. His life is forfeit immediately, notwithstanding his attempt to gain asylum in the sanctuary.

Shimei, who does not represent an immediate threat, is treated more leniently, until he provokes Solomon further. Then, he is executed, as well.

Friday, July 11

First Kings 3: Certain unpleasant executions out of the way, Solomon turns his mind to governing.

First mentioned is his marriage to an Egyptian princess (verses 1-2), which forestalls any problems from that part of the world. The wedding is expensive; to supply the bride’s dowry, her father–something of a cheapskate, it appears—destroys a Philistine city (cf. 9:16).

This unnamed pharaoh reigns toward the end of the XXIst Dynasty. It will be replaced by the much stronger XXIInd Dynasty toward the end of Solomon’s time on the throne.

Next comes the account of Solomon’s prayer and mystic dream at Gibeon (verses 3-15), a city and shrine (cf. First Chronicles 16:39) six miles northwest of Jerusalem. (Josephus speaks of two such dreams of Solomon [Antiquities 8.4.6].) Egyptologists mention similar stories of dream-revelations made to various pharaohs, and Holy Scripture gives other examples (Jacob, Joseph, Daniel, et alii). Especially pertinent are the dreams of the pharaoh in the Joseph story and of Nebuchadnezzar in the Book of Daniel; these, like Solomon’s, are “royal dreams.”

The wisdom sought by Solomon is, literally translated, “a hearing heart to judge.” That is to say, it is a practical wisdom, which makes prudent decisions in governing and deciding both policies and cases. A first example of the latter is the famous episode of the two women and the one living baby in verses 16-28.

Solomon’s wisdom, the answer to his prayer, causes him to stand at the beginning of Israel’s Wisdom Literature. He is credited with the earliest collection of Wisdom sayings that came to fullness in the Book of Proverbs.

Prayer is the first step in the attainment of Wisdom: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him” (James 1:5). In the scene at Gibeon, Solomon may be regarded as the living embodiment of the quest described in the Book of Proverbs:

Yes, if you cry out for discernment, / ?And lift up your voice for understanding, / If you seek her as silver,? / And search for her as for hidden treasures; / Then you will understand the fear of the Lord,? / And find the knowledge of God. / For the Lord gives wisdom;? / From His mouth come knowledge and understanding (Proverbs 2:3-6).