Friday, July 15

2 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.

Saturday, July 16

2 Samuel 9: When Mephibosheth arrives at the royal court, it is with great fear. David reassures him, “Do not fear, for I will surely show you chesed for Jonathan your father’s sake, and will restore to you all the land of Saul your grandfather; and you shall eat bread at my table continually.”

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).

The picture of this poor cripple, lame in both feet, hobbling to the throne of David, stands in contrast to the earlier picture of the king dancing before the Ark of the Lord.

Sunday, July 17

2 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, whereas 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 starts with an internal resolution of the king. In each case David has in mind to do someone a favor; this may be the link between chapters 9 and 10.

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. His actions and attitude anticipate those of Rehoboam, the son of Solomon. Both young men, when they assume the thrones of their fathers, are portrayed as fools, as such men are described in Israel’s Wisdom literature. Many a life has been ruined—-and in this case a kingdom lost—because someone preferred the pooled stupidity of his contemporaries to the accumulated wisdom of his elders. In the two cases under consideration here, the young men are deliberately, and very unnecessarily, provocative, thus putting their inherited thrones in danger.

The new king of the Ammonites maliciously 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, the capital of the Kingdom of Jordan).

Monday, July 18

2 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 war. 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.

Tuesday, July 19

2 Samuel 12: The Lord has already promised David that He would 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. 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).

Wednesday, July 20

2 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 who 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 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.

2 Thursday, July 21

2 Samuel 14: When Nathan told the parable of the ewe lamb, we saw how readily David listened to—and became involved in the plot of—a good narrative. The present chapter gives another instance, the yarn spun by the “actress” complicit in Joab’s plot to bring Absalom back from exile.

The narrator does not assign a motive to Joab’s effort in this respect, but the reader suspects it has nothing to do with friendship for the young murderer. More likely, surely, is a well-founded suspicion, on Joab’s part, that Absalom represents a danger of revolution against David. If this is the case, Joab believes, Absalom can be better controlled from within Israel than from abroad.

Unlike Joab, however, David has very mixed feelings about Absalom, and as we shall see, Joab will eventually feel obliged to deal with David’s son in a more decisive way.

This “actress” is described as a “wise woman,” one of several so described in the present book. Listening to her, David becomes emotionally involved in the story. As in the case of Nathan’s parable, David makes an executive decision on the basis of that involvement. Once again, the trap is sprung on him, and the lady makes Joab’s point: “Why then have you schemed such a thing against the people of God? For the king speaks this thing as one who is guilty, in that the king does not bring his banished one home again.” Here “the king speaks this thing as one who is guilty” corresponds exactly to Nathan, “You are the man!”

David immediately espies the hand of Joab in this encounter, a discovery Joab surely wished for. Prudently, the “actress” praises David’s sagacity, though it is obvious to the reader that David has, in fact, been duped! Whatever qualities David displays during this entire Absalom episode, wisdom is not among them. Joab, who shows David a similar deference, is charged to bring Absalom back to Jerusalem.

Nonetheless, David is burdened with ambivalent feelings about his son. Though the young man lives within walking distance of the palace, he is not permitted to see his father; this strained situation lasts two years.

Absalom’s frustration is of no concern to Joab, who is content to have him close in order to keep tabs on him. Further frustrated, Absalom decides to put more pressure on Joab—by burning his fields! Joab finally approaches the king, and Absalom is restored to court and to his father’s favor.

The reference to Absalom’s unusual growth of hair serves to prepare the reader for the circumstances of his death in chapter 18.

Friday, July 22

2 Samuel 15: Absalom, so easily forgiven by a vacillating father, is now determined to replace that father. He lays the groundwork carefully by befriending those already dissatisfied with the current political arrangements. As the son expected, David does nothing about it.

In due course it is too late, for Absalom has garnered considerable support throughout the realm and developed a revolutionary network. If it is true—as the woman from Tekoa testified earlier—that David “knows everything in the land,” the king’s failure to act is truly astonishing.

Eventually, Absalom makes his move against his father. Indeed, he even secures David’s blessing to travel to Hebron (the earlier capital), there to consolidate his power and move directly to assume command of the kingdom.

After he describes the origins of Absalom’s rebellion, the author’s attention turns more directly to David’s flight from Jerusalem. This king, traveling eastward across the Jordan and up the Mount of Olives, rides a donkey. Betrayed to the enemy by one of his inner circle, repudiated by his people and mocked by a scoundrel, David has ever seemed to Christian readers a type and foreshadowing of Jesus. In making this association, they have been inspired by the prophet Zechariah, who wrote of the coming Messiah, “ Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! / Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem! / Behold, your King is coming to you; / He is just and having salvation, / Lowly and riding on a donkey, / A colt, the foal of a donkey” (9:9).

The imagery of Zechariah is taken from the description of David’s flight in the present chapter. The king leaves in disgrace, riding on a donkey, the poor animal of the humble peasant. David is the very image of meekness in the face of defeat. In his heart is no bitterness; he bears all with patience and plans no revenge. He portrays the outlines of a “suffering anointed one.”

Even in the present description of David fleeing from Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, there is a striking contrast with the victorious Absalom, the usurper, who is driving “a chariot and horses with fifty men to run before him.” Absalom represents worldly power and worldly wisdom, contrasted with the humility and meekness of the King.

Incorporating this image of David as a mystic prefiguration of the Messiah yet to come, Zechariah prophesied the messianic entry of Jesus into Zion. In the Gospel story, the Savior arrives by the very path David used to flee from the Holy City. Riding the donkey, Jesus comes down westward from the Mount of Olives, crosses the Kidron Valley, and finally enters Jerusalem. He thus begins the week of His meekly-borne sufferings, including betrayal by a friend and rejection by His people.