Friday, July 3

Second Samuel 1: The reader, already familiar with the circumstances of Saul’s death, knows the Amalekite in this scene is lying. David, too, has his suspicions; if this Amalekite had time and opportunity to abscond with Saul’s crown and bracelet, why did he not remove the king’s body from the battlefield and save it from desecration?

Instead, according to the man’s own account, he presumed to lay a violent hand on the Lord’s anointed, a thing—the reader knows (1 Samuel 24:1-7; 26:4-11)—David has twice refrained from doing. Indeed, a man who would murder Saul would likely feel free to kill any king, including David himself. As far as David is concerned, then, such a one has forfeited his own life.

The reader should appreciate the deeper significance of this scene, which represents the first trial of Israel’s new king.

This story continues, in fact, a sustained thematic contrast between David and Saul, inasmuch as it stands in opposition to a parallel story in 1 Samuel 16. In that earlier account Saul was commanded to slay the Amalekites, specifically their king, Agag. It was partly for his failure to obey that order that the Lord rejected Saul and sought out a new king for His People. Now this new king is subjected to a similar trial, also involving an Amalekite.

The problem with this Amalekite is his serious misunderstanding of David’s character. Expecting the new king’s response to be positive—even enthusiastic—he lies through his teeth, in graphic detail, to brag how he put the tragic Saul to death.

In this respect the reader recognizes a further contrast, this time between David and the Amalekite himself. The latter’s is a darkened mind. He is the carnal man, the self-serving moral imbecile, who unwittingly involves himself in matters beyond his grasp.

David has met this kind of individual before. Perhaps he was reminded of Doeg the Edomite, the treacherous friend of Saul; the scoundrel who slew the priests of Nob.

This Amalekite, comprehending nothing of David or David’s God, fancies that all men are guided by the same mendacity and self-service that govern his own life. Hence, he expects David to jump at the chance to exploit the death of Saul, just as he exploited the death of Saul.

He represents, therefore, the proverbial “fool,” chronically unable to comprehend the path of righteousness and wisdom. He and David live in very different moral worlds. In laying a violent hand on Saul, this Amalekite committed the very offense David found morally repugnant.

In the eyes of the biblical author, therefore, the new king does the world a favor; he rises to the moral challenge of removing this man’s shadow from the face of the earth, redeeming, thereby, Saul’s earlier failure to punish the fool.

The contrast of David and the Amalekite can be read—following the Wisdom tradition—to form an illustration of Psalm 1. In this account, accordingly, David is the blessed man who strays not in the counsel of the ungodly nor sits in the seat of the scornful.

The Amalekite, in contrast, is not so. No, he is not so. He is as the chaff dispersed by the wind, and, at the end of this story, the way of the ungodly will perish.

David, refusing to advance his own ambition by killing Saul, patiently waits for the Lord to give him the kingdom He had promised. Convinced that “the Lord knows the way of the righteous,” he believes, with the Psalmist, that the tree planted by the living water “will bring forth its fruit in due season.” David does nothing to hasten the hour. His leaf, then, does not wither, and he prospers in whatever he does. His delight, day and night, is the Law of the Lord.

Saturday, July 4

Second Samuel 2: This chapter breaks into three parts: David’s accession to authority over the tribe of Judah in the south, Ishbosheth’s succession to the throne of Saul in the north, and the rivalry between these two thrones during the period after the Battle of Mount Gilboah.

In the first section (verses 1-7), David abandons Philistine service and leaves Ziklag. Then, following oracular counsel (presumably given through the ministry of Abiathar, the priest who has accompanied him since First Kings 22), he and his band settle in and around the southern city of Hebron. When the leaders of the tribe of Judah choose him as their king, this city becomes his capital. There is no evidence that the Philistines look askance at this; both they and David, after all, appear to be allied against the house of Saul.

One of David’s first actions is to dispatch a message to the citizens of Jabesh Gilead, praising their care for the body of Saul. This action of David is a good political move, as well, ingratiating him with an Israelite city on the other side of the Jordan. In his message, David is careful to mention that he has become king in Judah.

In the second section (verses 8-11), we learn that Abner did not perish at the Battle of Mount Gilboah. Now, loyal to the memory and legacy of Saul, he establishes the latter’s remaining son on the northern throne. The author of the Book of Samuel calls him “Ishbosheth,” literally “man of shame,” which seems to be the derisive nickname by which he is known in the south. His real name, according to Chronicles, is “Ishbaal,” “man of the Lord.” Because of the continuing Philistine menace, his capital is set east of the Jordan, at Mahanaim. As events will show, this northern throne depends absolutely on the support of Abner.

In the third section (2:12—3:1), the author uses a memorable episode to illustrate his theme: “there was a long war between the house of Saul and the house of David” (3:1). Ishbosheth, in the north, slowly expands his realm, which means that he must have had some unrecorded victories against the Philistines. When his forces move south, they encounter those of David near the city of Gibeah, in the territory of Benjamin, not far north from the still-Canaanite city of Jerusalem.

The leaders of the two forces want to avoid a pitched battle, but they are not adverse to selecting some of their better warriors to engage in individual combat with the other side: “Abner said to Joab, ‘Let the young men now arise and compete before us.’ And Joab said, ‘Let them arise.’” Twelve is the number of warriors chosen from each side, perhaps symbolizing the number of Israelite tribes.

Very quickly, however, things get out of hand, as new combatants enter the fray, and before long “there was a very fierce battle that day, and Abner and the men of Israel were beaten before the servants of David.”

Since Abner is likely the best warrior on the field, he becomes a special mark for the bold. And also for the foolish young men who want to make a name for themselves—such as Asahel, David’s nephew. Abner, unable to outrun Asahel, reluctantly slays the youngster, dealing him a backward thrust with the blunt end of his spear. Joab, Asahel’s brother, never forgives Abner, and a few years later he will take revenge.

Sunday, July 5

Second Samuel 3: There are four components to the present chapter: first, a list of David’s sons born through the years 1000-992; second, an account of Abner’s change of allegiance to David; third, the story of Joab’s murder of Abner; and fourth, the narrative of David’s lament over Abner.

In the list of David’s sons born during the sojourn in Hebron (verses 2-5), the reader identifies the chief figures who will darken the later story of David: Ammon, who will rape his sister; Absalom, who will rebel against David himself; and Adonijah, who will attempt to steal the throne in the closing days of David’s life.

The story of Abner’s defection to the throne of David (verses 6-21) describes how the northern and southern kingdoms become united. As a royal relative and the recognized commander of Israel’s army, Abner’s responsibilities are considerably increased after the death of Saul and Jonathan at the Battle of Mount Gilboa. Indeed, the political stability of the northern tribes greatly depends on his personal authority during these troubled years, nor could the house of Saul have stayed in power, up till now, were it not for the backing of Abner.

Following the Battle of Mount Gilboa, the Israelites are divided between north and south, a division rendering it easy for the Philistines effectively to control most of the northern area west of the Jordan. This hapless situation, threatening to become permanent, poses for Abner a true moral dilemma.

He is an instinctively loyal man, principled, and innocent of personal ambition. The sundry loyalties of even such a man, nonetheless, may sometimes stand in conflict, and Abner is compelled in due course to choose between his expected adherence to the house of Saul and his more abiding concern for Israel’s very survival.

Long accustomed to viewing David through the eyes of Saul, Abner experiences much of the same conflict of loyalties that earlier plagued the conscience of Jonathan, and his painful resolution to that conflict, like Jonathan’s, leads directly to the tragedy that ends his life.

The story of Abner’s murder by the hand of Joab (verses 22-30) is tied directly to the previous chapter, where Joab’s brother, Asahel, perished at the hand of Abner. The contrast between Joab and Abner could not be starker. Joab is a simple and savage character, whose actions often gain no credit for the throne of David. Here he murders Abner in cold blood, insouciant to the reputation of David, who offered Abner political refuge. Later, he will murder the defenseless Absalom.

In the final account in this chapter (verses 31-39), we find the exasperated David lamenting the murder of Abner but politically unable to execute justice on the murderer. He does, however, go to some length to separate himself from the deed.

Monday, July 6

Second Samuel 4: These two military leaders in the north, observing David’s positive response to Abner’s arrival, apparently sense that it’s all over for the house of Saul. Aware—with everybody else, it would seem—that David’s future rule over all Israel is inevitable, they determine to make their move against Ishbosheth and, thus, to secure the good favor of David. Ishbosheth is murdered in his sleep.

They are thoroughly surprised at David’s response. David is disgusted with all the blood recently poured out by actions of Israelite-on-Israelite. First came the deaths of Saul, Jonathan, and two other of Saul’s sons. Then, Asahel picked a fight with Abner and was killed, in spite of Abner’s sincere wish against it. In the chapter immediately preceding this one, Joab treacherously took the life of Abner. Now, here come these two nobodies from the north, proud of themselves for murdering Ishbosheth in his sleep. It is too much for David. The author of the Psalms finds it all revolting.

On two occasions, as we have seen, David refrained from taking the life of Saul, and, on the second of these occasions, Saul himself was asleep (1 Samuel 24 & 6). In the mind of honorable David, the murder of a sleeping man is dishonorable beyond contemplation. In the present chapter, then, we are not surprised at his reaction to the murder of Ishbosheth (verses 9-12). Such an atrocity is repugnant to the classical chivalric spirit of the warrior David.

David’s reaction here is of a piece with his response to the murder of Abner in the previous chapter. David, throughout the difficult days during which he was a fugitive in the Judean desert, had placed his trust in the justice of God and had refrained from taking matters into his own hands. The present act of treachery, the murder of Ishbosheth, was exactly what could be expected, David believed, if men placed political and military expediency above moral principle.

Prior to telling this story of the death of Ishbosheth, however, the author pauses to insert a single verse on Mephibosheth, the son of Jonathan. This quiet insertion, without comment, prepares for the lengthier treatment of this important character in chapter 9. With the death of Ishbosheth, this poor cripple becomes the last heir of Saul’s house. This insertion, then, introduces a point of great historical irony.

Tuesday, July 7

Second Samuel 5: The present chapter narrates several events illustrating what David does to consolidate his political and military power. These events are narrated so close together that they appear to happen all at once. Given the Philistine threat from the southwest, this impression may be correct. Things must be done quickly because of that military threat.

This is a very important chapter of political transition. Abner’s adherence to David, followed quickly by the death of Ishbosheth, prepares the way for David’s assumption of authority over all of Israel. Their king and chief military figures all gone, the elders of the northern tribes sue for peace, in order to put the entire realm and region under David’s authority. They explicitly recognize that David is the Lord’s chosen and anointed one; recent events have proved it.

From his capital at Hebron, David has reigned over Judah since the Battle of Gilboa in 1000 B.C. The present scene brings us to about 992, some seven and a half years later, when David assumes complete authority over Israel and moves his capital to Jerusalem, a recently captured city. This significant place—because it belongs to no particular tribe of Israelites—is less likely to be subject to tribal rule and tribal rivalries. David’s reign at Jerusalem is to last until 961 (verse 5).

David, having great plans for Jerusalem, establishes diplomatic and commercial relations with the Phoenicians, the people to Israel’s immediate north (verses 11-12). It is the Phoenicians that will provide the sundry materials for the construction of a new city on that site, including the Temple that David’s son will eventually construct. For now, however, David settles for the building of a palace for his growing family.

More sons are born to David at Jerusalem, one of them Solomon, who here (verse 14) makes his first appearance in Holy Scripture.

A chief reason prompting the northern tribes to place themselves under David’s rule, surely, is the need for a common defense against the Philistines, who so soundly defeated Saul’s army at Mount Gilboa. Consequently, dealing with those Philistines, now that he has a larger army, becomes David’s first order of business (verses 17-25). Doubtless these new developments in Israel bring great distress to the Philistines; for the past seven and a half years, after all, they were the beneficiaries of the strife between Israel’s northern and southern tribes. After this encounter among the mulberry trees, they know their political world is not the same.

Wednesday, July 8

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 infantry. 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.

Thursday, July 9

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.

Friday, July 10

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 (Philistines)—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.