The Poet Warrior

The story of redemption is not just a story about forgiveness being bestowed upon us in some heavenly transaction. It includes that, of course, but we must never forget how this salvation unfolds in the greatest story that any man ever told. And that story includes the slaying of dragons, the fall of ancient civilizations, and the killing of giants. It also includes the last of the great giant killers, the man after God’s own heart, David, king over Israel.

This man is one of the most complex figures presented to us in Scripture. We see him presented to us as a shepherd, musician, maker of musical instruments, hero, warrior, lover, turncoat, poet, desperado, king, nation builder, adulterer, murderer, penitent, father, liturgical reformer, and man of God. A careful examination of the life of David shows us that piety is perhaps not what we thought it was, and grievous sin is never as far away as we think.

David was the great-grandson of Boaz and Ruth, and was the youngest of eight brothers (1 Sam. 17:12). He was trained to work as a shepherd, and in his early years he learned the necessity of courage and resourcefulness (1 Sam. 17:34-35), taking on both a lion and bear himself. It is possible that his gifts made him unfavored by his brothers (1 Sam. 17:28), but apparently not to the same degree that Joseph had trouble with his brothers. While David was modest about his lineage (1 Sam. 18:18), he became a most notable ancestor, with his ultimate descendent being known as the Son of David (Rom. 1:3; Rev. 22:16). He was of the house of Jesse, an insignificant son in a significant house in Israel.

The prophet Samuel was used by God to reject Saul in the kingship for his disobedience in the matter of the Amalekites. Because God had not forgotten how Amalek treated Israel when they came up out of the land of Egypt, he commanded Saul through Samuel to go to war against them, and to spare nothing. All were to be killed, men and women, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and donkey. But Saul committed the great sin of “mostly obeying.” He defeated Amalek in battle, but spared the king, and spared much of the livestock. When Samuel came and saw the disobedience, there was a great confrontation, and Samuel told Saul that God had rejected him from being king.

When this happened, the Spirit (who had rested upon Saul for governance) departed from Saul, leaving him to his own resources. From this moment on, Saul, who believed Samuel’s words, knew that he would lose the kingdom. He was ruling in Israel as a condemned man, and he knew it. Put another way, his suspicions about David were wicked, but they were not ungrounded.

God then told Samuel to come to the house of Jesse at Bethlehem and anoint one of his sons to be the next king. This was an act of overt treason, and Samel asked the Lord how it could be done. If Saul heard of it, then Samuel would certainly be killed. God told Samuel to take a heifer with him, and say that he was coming to Bethlehem in order to conduct a sacrifice. The elders of Bethlehem met Samuel when he arrived and asked if he came in peace. All this shows that the political tensions in Israel were high. Samuel’s movements were watched, and it was known that he had prophesied that the king would lose his crown. It is also clear that the house of Jesse was estranged from the king, and were in a mind to revolt. They knew what Samuel was there for.

The house of Jesse was a noble house, and his sons looked like kings. Samuel first thought Eliab was the one. God told Samuel that man looks on the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart. But Abinadab was also passed by as God said no. And Shammah was also passed by. All seven came before Samuel, and God said no to each. It was finally revealed to Samuel that the youngest—who had been out tending sheep—was to be the next king. So Samuel anointed David as king there at Bethlehem (1 Sam. 16:1-13), in the midst of his brothers. However chagrined his brothers were about being passed over, it is still worth noting that the entire family of Jesse was implicated in the treason.

The word of the Lord was fulfilled concerning Saul, and the Spirit of the Lord that was upon him (enabling him to serve as king) departed from him. There is never any neutrality anywhere, and there is no such thing as a spiritual vacuum, and so an evil spirit from the Lord began to trouble Saul. This happened at the same time that the Spirit of Lord came upon David, from that day forward. The Spirit rested upon David and was absent from Saul. Nevertheless, Saul was still the Lord’s anointed in an important sense. After this point, the brothers of David and David himself were willing to go to battle for the house of Saul.

The evil spirit from God was a great affliction to Saul, and his courtiers suggested finding a musician who was gifted on the harp, and when the evil spirit from God was upon Saul, the music would help. Saul approved the idea, and one of the courtiers said that he had seen a son of Jesse who fit the description. He was cunning in his musical ability, a fine warrior, a prudent counselor, an attractive person, and most importantly, the Lord was with him. And so it came about that David was chosen to serve in the court of Saul both as a court musician and armor bearer (1 Sam. 16:14-23). The lives of Saul and David were thus brought together—Saul, a formerly great but now hollow king, and David, a rising warrior.

It is not surprising that David eventually came under the hostility of Saul. But first, the famous incident with Goliath changed the relations between Saul and David entirely (1 Sam. 17). Israel had gone out to war against the Philistines, and David left the court of Saul to return to his sheep at Bethlehem. The armies of Israel and Philistia were in a stand-off for forty days. The Scriptures say there was fighting, but it seems to have been limited to skirmishes. Every day, a champion of the Philistines, a man named Goliath from the city of Gath, would come out and taunt the Israelites, challenging any one of them to single combat. His challenges struck fear into the hearts of all the Israelites, and no one would take him up on it. At this point, Jesse sent David to the army with some provisions and to see how his brothers were faring. As it happened, David was there when Goliath came out again to issue his challenge. “Give me a man, that we may fight together.”

David began to inquire, quite publicly, about what would be done for the man who took up the challenge. He discovered that the king would enrich such a man, give him his daughter in marriage, and free his father’s house from the burden of taxation. We see here two things about David—he was ambitious, and he was zealous for the name of God. He was rebuked for his talk by his older brother, but he kept it up. Word came to Saul, as David intended, and he was summoned to see the king. When Saul questioned him, David answered well, showing that he had killed both lion and bear while serving as a shepherd. And now he was offering to step into the place of kingly shepherd to protect God’s flock from this beast of Philistia. Saul was a head taller than all the other Israelites; he was a “giant” in Israel, and he should have gone. But the Spirit of the Lord had left him, and was resting upon David. And David had it in for Goliath, seeing that he had “defied the armies of the living God.”

David rejected Saul’s armor because he had not tested it—this was a decision of an experienced fighter, not a decision of a gawky youth rattling around in armor much too big for him. But the offer of the armor was revealing—David was given the chance to wear the armor of the king of Israel, which he rejected. David took his staff and sling, selected five smooth stones from the brook, and went out to meet the giant. The sling was not the kind which small boys today use to shoot pebbles at sparrows. The sling was a formidable weapon, one which entire units of ancient armies would use. Two straps joined at a pouch in the middle, which carried a stone about the size of a modern softball. The stone would be spun around and then released at high velocity. Goliath was six cubits and span tall, which using the Hebrew cubit meant that he was a little over nine feet tall. Goliath saw David coming out and despised him as a mere pretty boy. “Am I a dog, that thou comest to me with staves?”

But David answered the taunt perfectly:

“Thou comest to me with a sword, and with a spear, and with a shield: but I come to thee in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom thou has defied.”

The pleasantries over, David ran toward the giant, taking a stone from his pouch as he did so, and threw the first stone so hard that it sank into the giant’s forehead. The giant fell, and and David cut off his head. When the Philistines saw their champion was dead, they fled, and the armies of Israel and Judah pursued them a won a great victory.

Officially, this was a tremendous blessing for David—he acquired the hand of the king’s daughter in marriage, and secured a tax exempt status for his father’s house. But during the triumphal return from the slaying of the giant and the routing of Philistine army, the women of Israel created a crisis through their singing. Saul has slain his thousands and David his tens of thousands. “And Saul eyed David from that day and forward” (1 Sam. 18:9). Although David was already anointed, this was the day when he became greater than two giants. The first of course was Goliath, but the second was Saul. David was the greater, and Saul identified where his successor would come from.

David had to endure many affronts and insults from the king after this. He was cheated out of his promised bride, given Michal as a bride who had a dowry of death, was reduced in military honor, and was attacked savagely by the king. There was almost certainly a group at court that was hostile to David, and who spread lies about him (1 Sam. 24:9). Another abortive attempt was made on David’s life by Saul. He then escaped formal arrest by following a stratagem suggested to him by Michal, and headed for the hills.

Saul is truly a tragic figure, and it is worth noting that two of his children were plainly aligned with David. Although she had her troubles, Michal was loyal to David, and saved his life. And Jonathan, son of Saul, is one of the noblest characters in all of Scripture. In a deep irony, Samuel, a faithful prophet, had sons who took bribes, and Saul the unfaithful king, had a son beyond all praise.

At this point David became an outlaw. A rag tag collection of outcasts gathered to him at the Cave of Adullam, a group which gradually grew into a volunteer frontier army, one which protected the goods of outlying Israelite settlements, and resisted foreign intruders. They were an outlaw band that performed some of the services that the true king ought to have been performing. An example of this service was the protection provided for the house of Nabal, the blockhead husband of the beautiful and intelligent Abigail. When David requested that Nabal pay a voluntary “tax” for services rendered, he refused with a churlish answer. Abigail heard of it, and intervened, thus saving the house, and protecting David from godless bloodshed. When Nabal was sober again, and heard what had happened, his close call caused his heart to become like stone, and ten days later he died. When David heard this, he summoned Abigail to become his wife, which she gladly did.

During this time of his life, on two separate occasions David spared the life of Saul, thus showing Saul that David was truly innocent of the charges against him. Saul knew that David was righteous, and that he himself was unrighteous. He knew that God was with David, and not with him. He knew that he was pursuing David on trumped up charges. At the same time, he did not have the character to repent, and so was trapped by the circumstances which he himself had created. He did not grant David a free pardon, and he continued a formal policy which he knew to be based upon a lie. And this is what happens to those who give themselves to such lies; the lies grow to be greater and stronger than they are, and they come at the last to a despairing end. Finally, because of Saul’s stubbornness and pride, David went over to the Philistines and was given the frontier town of Ziklag. But the warlords of Philistia was nervous about taking David into battle with them against Israel, and so David was spared the disastrous battle of Gilboa, in which both Saul and Jonathan died.

Now David was thirty years old when Saul died, and by his fellow tribesmen he was made king of Judah in Hebron. The cultural and national distinctives between Israel to the north and Judah to the south were already marked, and the tension was already present. The final division would not occur until the reign of David’s grandson, but temporary divisions were already apparent.

David reigned in Hebron for seven and a half years, the first two of which were taken up with civil war with the followers of Saul, men who established Ishbosheth, a son of Saul, on the throne of the northern tribes. After the deaths of Abner and Ishbosheth, David was anointed king over all twelve tribes, and moved his capital to Jerusalem (2 Sam. 3-4). The deaths of Abner and Ishbosheth were accomplished by various forms of treachery, which David did not command, and from which he decisively distanced himself. There were evil men on David’s side, and there were noble men aligned with the house of Saul. Nevertheless, the politics were such that these acts of wickedness opened the way for David to become king of all Israel.

David then reigned for another thirty-three years in Jerusalem. On either side of Israel, the great powers of the Nile and the Euphrates had both ebbed at the same time, and Israel quickly filled the power vacuum. During this great time of consolidation, David subjugated many of the surrounding peoples. Political glory, musical and ecclesiastical reform, and military glory all adorn the reign of David. But the same glory was defiled by the matter of “Uriah the Hittite” (2 Sam. 11). We learn from Ecclesiastes that when a righteous man sins, it is a highly visible defilement. A blot on a clean shirt is far more readily seen than a clean spot on a filthy shirt. Because of David’s sin in this affair, the kingdom never really recovered, even though the time of its greatest glory was still ahead.

At the height of his power, when he was under the great blessing of God, David remained home from war on one occasion when he ought to have been with the troops in the field. One evening he arose from his bed, went out on the roof of the king’s house, and saw a woman bathing — and she was very beautiful. He inquired after her, and discovered that she was the wife of one of David’s great warriors, a man named Uriah the Hittite. We do not know if Bathsheba was seeking to be provocative in her behavior, or if her enticement of the king was accidental on her part. But we do know that she came to him when summoned, and that she slept with him. This was not widely known, but messengers had been sent for her, and there was full opportunity for court gossip, and for the enemies of God and David’s righteous reforms to blaspheme. This blasphemy was noted by Nathan in his fierce rebuke of David, and was the reason why the child conceived in this wretched union had to die.

Bathsheba returned to her home, and when she discovered she was pregnant by David, she sent word to him. When David found out about his child, he summoned Uriah from the field, ostensibly to get a report from him. After he had done so, he sent him home to his wife so that Uriah would come to believe that the child was his own. But Uriah, a convert to the true faith from among the pagan Hittites, spent the night at the door of the king’s house. When David, no doubt exasperated, asked Uriah why he had not gone home, Uriah replied with some of the noblest words in all Scripture. “Shall I go home to make love to my wife,” he asked, “when the ark of the covenant is in the field?” Israel and Judah are living in tents, he replied, as well as his commander Joab. How could he do this. “As thou livest, and as thy soul liveth, I will not do this thing.” David was not put off by this, and amazingly did not repent. He told Uriah to remain for one more day, and then he would be sent back to the battle. He invited Uriah to a banquet, and made sure that Uriah got drunk, in the hope that this would break down his resolve. But Uriah went out after the festivities, and spent the night away from his wife as before. We see here one of the great contrasts of Scipture. Far better to be Uriah drunk than David sober.

At this David resolved to take the life of Uriah. Uriah had earlier sworn by the life that was in David, and did not know that his oath would result in him losing his own life. David wrote to Joab, and had the letter delivered by Uriah himself, telling Joab to put Uriah in the hottest part of battle, and abandon him there, so that he would he would die. And so it happened. Uriah, one of the great men of Scripture, was betrayed by his wife, by his king, by his commander, but not by his God. He died faithfully, fighting for the advance of the kingdom of God, even though that kingdom behind him contained a great evil. When word came to David that Uriah was dead, he sent and took Bathsheba for his wife.

The prophets of God are frequently angular and unreasonable men. They do not accommodate themselves to the rationalizations offered by men in sin. You do not imagine that they would be pleasant company for men in the midst of sin. But however unreasonable they might appear, they command respect. Nathan the prophet was one such man. Commanded to rebuke David for this sin, Nathan unhesitatingly went. One man had already died to keep this sin covered up, and Nathan had no reason to believe that he would not shortly follow Uriah. But he went, and told David a story about two men, one wealthy and one poor. The poor man had one lamb which he cherished, and the rich man had many flocks and herds. But a traveler came to visit the rich man, and so he stole the poor man’s lamb in order to offer hospitality. David’s anger was kindled, and he told Nathan that the man who did such a thing would surely die. And Nathan said to David, “Thou are the man.”

Nathan spelled it out for David in excruciating detail. Saul had sinned against God, and so God had taken the kingdom away from him and given it to David. God had taken Saul’s wives and had delivered them into the bed of David. If that had been too little, God would have given him even more than this. Despite all this kindness, David had killed Uriah through the agency of the Ammonites, taking the one wife of a faithful soldier. But David had despised the Lord and commandment of the Lord, Nathan promised that the sword would not depart from the house of David. God promised to raise up evil against David out of his own house, which happened in the revolt of Absalom, and to give David’s wives to him in broad daylight. And this happened when Absalom slept with David’s concubines on the roof of the palace. The humiliation would be complete.

David was the model of a penitent sinner. He did not have Nathan executed for rebuking him, and confessed to him that he had sinned against the Lord. Nathan told him that God had put away his sin, but that the child would surely die. David interceded for the child, but on the seventh day, the child died, and David resumed the work of governance. In the psalms we see that David understood that he had forfeited the empowerment of the Holy Spirit of God for government in just the same way that Saul had done. In Saul’s case, the Spirit was taken away and an evil spirit from the Lord afflicted him. David had every right to expect the same, and his prayer went up before the Lord—”Take not thy Holy Spirit from me.” God was gracious in this, and although He brought great affliction to the house of David, the dynasty did not pass away from David’s lineage. And now, with the Lord Jesus Christ seated on the throne of David, we see that it never will—that dynasty is everlasting, despite the sin of man.

The latter days of David were characterized by civil turmoil and great paternal grief. A man like David, with the sexual privileges that come with many wives, begets far more children than he can be a father to, and as king he paid a profound price for it. His house was filled with the kind of intrigue, treachery, sexual sin, and ambition that should be banished from any godly home. That palace is unhappy when it is filled with hungry princes. And any man who seeks to have a heart after God like David did must remember to imitate, not only his greatness, but to shun his great failure.

One word should be said about David as liturgical reformer. After the Philistines had captured the ark of the covenant, and Eli died, the center of worship at Shiloh was abandoned. Samuel would offer sacrifice in different places. A center of worship, one of the great high places, had been established on Mount Gibeon. When the ark was restored to Israel, and David brought it back to his capital, Jerusalem, he did not send it to the high place on Gibeon. Rather, he established a tabernacle for musical sacrifice on Mount Zion. After the initial dedicatory sacrifices there, the ark of the covenant was the focus of singing and instrumental worship, about which the law said explicitly nothing. In the next generation, when Solomon built the temple, the sacrifices were moved from Gibeon to Mount Moriah, where the Temple was, and the sacrifices of musical praise were moved to the Temple also from Mount Zion. And yet, this great thing that David had established on Zion was so important that the Temple was practically renamed in terms of it. Many Christians even assume that the Temple was built on Zion, when actually it should be viewed as Zion.

In the same way, the modern Church, with the inclusion of the Gentiles, should be seen as an expansion of this tabernacle of David, this tent of everlasting musical praise. While Solomon is important is how he incorporates David’s innovation with the requirements of the law, David should really be seen as the first great apostle to the Gentiles.

The reason why we worship Jesus Christ, the son of David, the reason why Jesus Christ reigns on the throne of David, is that God promised David an everlasting kingdom. When David undertook to build the Temple, when he was going to build God a house, and God prevented him, God did so by saying that He was going to build David a house. This is one of the staggering promises of Scripture, and it was given to David before he fell into his grievous sin. Nevertheless, this gracious promise anticipated the problem of such sin. God was going to build the house of David regardless. God told David He would make him a house. And when David went to sleep with his fathers, God would establish his kingdom, and would do so forever. Of particular importance is that though this line of David was a sinful line, like all the sons of men, God’s promise here was unilateral. If these descendents commit iniquity, they will be chastised and chastened. But, God said, “my mercy shall not depart away from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away before thee.” The true saints persevere because the true God perseveres.

We know more about the psychology of David than we do with any other Old Testament figure because of the texture and richness of the Psalms. We are enabled to look at a life of faith from both the outside and from the inside—an exercise filled with profit. We see his life outlined in Samuel, a life in which the incident with Bathsheba and Uriah is the hinge upon which a great tragedy turns. We can see his life in Chronicles in which his triumphs and accomplishments are front and center. We can see his internal life in the Psalms, as he pours out his heart to God when surrounded by his enemies. We can see his greatness as a prophet in the Psalms, as all his words take on a higher significance when understood as the prayers of the great Son of David, the Lord Jesus Christ. In this sense, all the psalms are messianic.

We have a great deal to learn from David. Although we might be tempted to see him as little better than a barbarian king, we should actually be studying him with a far greater humility of mind. From him, we learn how to fight, how to trust, how to cry, how to pray, how to repent, how to sing, how to write poetry, how to marry, how to reform the church, how to curse, how to submit to God’s rebukes and providences, and how to worship. What a man! What a man of God!

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