King David Wasn't Who You Think He Was
In almost all adult Bible studies, the main task is unlearning what you were taught in Sunday School via the beloved flannel-graph. Not that what you learned was wrong (though often it is), but it’s mainly overly simplistic and childish and typically misses the point of the story.
One example is the way we read the OT and the opinions we have of the characters. Too often the church esteems the patriarchs as saints, because it seems the right thing to do, when in reality we are supposed to laugh at them, to point our fingers and jeer at their pathetic fallenness. And then, of course, to weep over their stupidity, seeing in them a part of ourselves.
An example of that is the way we read the story of David and Saul, particularly the conflict at the transfer of kingship. David spares Saul's life twice (1 Sam 24 and 26), and if we are reading closely, we see these not as acts of mercy but of cowardice. David couldn’t pull the trigger. God took the kingship away from Saul and gave it to David a long time ago, and yet David, pursued almost to death by a maniac, can't take up the mantle as King and put Saul down.
To make that claim we have to be sure that 1) David is really the new “anointed” King, 2) God wants David to kill Saul, 3) David’s reticence to kill is equal to failure, and 4) there is actual fallout after David’s failure. Let me prove those points to you.
1. David is really King
Saul was anointed king of Israel in 1 Sam 10:1 and then the Spirit of the Lord enters him in 1 Sam 10:10. But in 1 Sam 13, Saul disobeys God by offering the sacrifice without Samuel. Immediately Samuel condemns Saul and his kingdom, telling him another will take his place (1 Sam 13:14).
God has Samuel anoint David as King in 1 Sam 16:13 and the very next verse says the Spirit of God left Saul and an evil spirit came into him instead (1 Sam 16:14). So yes, David is now King, even though Saul is still “king”.
2. David should really kill Saul
As King, it is David’s job to protect the people, and it’s something he’s very good at. He has killed lions and bears in protecting his flock (1 Sam 17:36), a couple hundred Philistine officers and their cohorts (1 Sam 18:25), and, ironically, he even killed Goliath in Saul’s stead. David, the harp-playing shepherd, fights and kills a giant whom Saul—who was head-and-shoulders above every Israelite (1 Sam 9:2)—wouldn’t touch. David is good at killing the enemy, and he is very courageous, but apparently he has a problem killing Saul (more on that later). He can’t see Saul as an enemy. That’s what we must see to feel the irony.
First, Saul tries to kill David several times. He tries to spear David twice (1 Sam 18:11 and 1 Sam 19:10), in between which he schemes to send David on a suicide mission (1 Sam 18:25), and he almost spears Jonathan, his own son, on account of David (1 Sam 20:33). Apparently every time David is mentioned, Saul snaps and starts hurling spears and plotting schemes. The Bible says an evil spirit overtook Saul, for what else would cause him to do this, to try to kill the man whom he loved so much? (cf. 1 Sam 16:21).
Why was Saul angry? What caused his anger? Fear. (1 Sam 18:12). He dreaded David because David was more successful than himself. Saul hated David because David was who he was supposed to be, who he knew he could never be if David were alive, since God had abandoned himself but was with David (1 Sam 12:14; 1 Sam 12:18).
Actually, that’s precisely the reason for Saul’s fear. “When Saul saw and knew that the Lord was with David, and that Michal, Saul’s daughter, loved him, then Saul was even more afraid of David. Thus Saul was David’s enemy continually” (1 Sam 18:28-29).
You can’t get any clearer. God’s choice of David and His presence with Him was the cause of strife. That puts David squarely in the right and Saul in the wrong. Saul is jealous and wants to destroy David to try to get back what he’s permanently lost (namely, the kingdom of Israel and communion with God).
A couple verses later we get this: “Now Saul told Jonathan his son and all his servants to put David to death” (1 Sam 19:1), and again, “Saul sent messengers to David’s house to watch him, in order to put him to death in the morning” (1 Sam 19:11).
What does the King of Israel do when he is threatened? He takes up his slingshot (or, preferably a sharp sword) and defends himself and his kingdom. So why doesn’t David here? Why does he run and hesitate?
3. David fails
Saul becomes more and more belligerent, progressing from random acts of anger into scheming and acting in broad daylight. David flees to Samuel at Ramah and when Saul follows, God reduces all his men to babbling idiots. Saul himself marches over to give them what-for but God strikes him with lunacy too as he babbles and strips himself naked in the presence of all the people. This is no king.
Jonathan and David devise a plan to try to piece things together (as if the situation isn’t totally out of control already!) but he is forced to flee. Saul gets word and goes out and kills everyone who helped David. He even has a whole town of priests killed (1 Sam 22:18-19). Priests.
Finally, after fleeing all this time, God gives David a chance—two of them, actually. And the text—I love this—cues us in to the Truth through the words of David’s men. The first time they say This is it! This is the day God promised you! (1 Sam 24:4), and the second time Abishai steps up and says, “Today God has delivered your enemy into your hand…please, let me strike him” (1 Sam 26:8). You can hear the desperation.
Saul wasn’t the only one driven by fear. David and his men have been running from Saul for a long time and Abishai, who can see the situation objectively, knows David is scared of killing Saul, so he offers himself to do the job. David thinks that killing Saul will incur guilt because Saul is God’s anointed (1 Sam 26:9).
At the first attempt, Saul walks into the cave they are hiding in (some Providence, huh?) but David just sneaks over and cuts off a piece of his cloak, hoping that he can win Saul’s favor by showing his mercy. And that sounds like a pious thing to do, except it’s disobedient and terribly stupid. Again, the text shows us what to think about this, “It came about afterward”—that’s a grand way of making a transition in storytelling—it shows the great irony of the next phrase—“that David’s conscience bothered him because he had cut off the edge of Saul’s robe” (1 Sam 24:5). Bless his heart.
The text is trying to show how ridiculous this is, how ridiculous David is being. Here are hundreds of men fleeing for their lives from one mad-man who has been dethroned by God through Samuel, and David feels bad about cutting his robe. Unbelievable.
David’s reason? Saul is the Lord’s “anointed” (1 Sam 24:7). David is the quintessential mystic. (He has a lot in common with Southern Baptist preachers who consider themselves to be prophets and who dance around actual causes and effects in the world because of “leaving room for God to work.” David fundamentally is misunderstanding how God works—the nature of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility.)
Look at the second event. David’s reasoning for sparing Saul this time is “God will do it.” “Surely the Lord will strike him, or his day will come that he dies, or he will go down into battle and perish” (1 Sam 26:10). He’s reaching. He’s using God as a cop-out, waiting for God to strike with lightning when in reality God has made it clear what he is to do, and He’s even helping him do it if David would just open his eyes (e.g., God caused a deep sleep to fall on Saul and his camp [1 Sam 26:13]). No better time to get victory.
The key point is that David is too scared to do what is necessary (kill Saul) and so he pawns his fears off onto God, as if he can shift the responsibility to Him. This is mysticism at its finest. He’s hoping for a divine act to spare him the work, the discomfort, and the internal guilt of doing what is necessary.
4. The Fallout
From that point on, David becomes less and less king and more and more slave. He goes AWOL and joins the enemy of God (the Philistines) and becomes the slave of the king there. While there he kills people brutally (1 Sam 27:9), even attacking land adjacent to his own country, Israel. The king of the Philistines marvels at David, saying, “He has surely made himself odious among his people Israel; therefore he will become my servant forever” (1 Sam 27:12). He knew David could never go back home after all this.
Meanwhile, God won’t talk to Saul, so Saul conjures up Samuel via a medium. Very godly and kingly of him. Samuel says, “The Lord has departed from you and has become your adversary” (1 Sam 28:16) and since David can’t kill Saul, Samuel prophecies that the Philistines will the very next day (1 Sam 28:19). So in the end, God is doing His will, with or without David.
The Philistines go up to attack Israel, and David, still among them, pitches a fit because he can’t go (1 Sam 29:8), even referring to Israel as the “enemies” of “my lord” (the Philistine king). Again, unbelievable. David, God’s choice for King, is now throwing a pity-party because he can’t fight and kill God’s people. David has totally lost it. He’s lost his bearings on reality and now associates Israel with the enemy, all because he didn’t take action and put the real enemy (Saul) down. His worldview is upside down because he has neglected the Truth.
The book ends with the deaths of Saul and Jonathan and his other two sons, and “all his men,” probably hyperbole referring to the brave men he accrued as his personal body-guards (1 Sam 14:52).
So while God eventually kills Saul and David eventually becomes king, I’m overwhelmed by how much David’s passivity cost. He lost his best friend, Jonathan, a whole town of priests, and he almost lost his soul fighting for God’s enemies. Israel almost lost her king and her sovereignty as David almost lost his rightful identity. And the entire book of 2 Samuel continues that story of fallout. The book begins with David killing a man who lies about killing Saul (2 Sam 1:15-16), all because—you guessed it—Saul was “the Lord’s anointed.”
Then we have a civil war caused by Saul’s son, whom David can’t seem to kill either, and then personal attacks caused by that war. But despite it all, God remains faithful, working out His plan, despite David’s failures (2 Sam 3:1). It seems David’s tagline should be “I am weak today, though anointed king…may the Lord repay the evildoer according to his evil” (2 Sam 3:39). He is weak, a pathetic example of God’s anointed. And He relies on God who alone can pick up his slack and act justly and rightly in the world.
Two men kill Saul’s other son (Ish-bosheth), the one who started the civil war, so David has full control of the Kingdom, as it should be. He should have rejoiced, right? The civil war is over! Nope. Instead, he kills the men who killed Ish-bosheth (or, sorry, he has them killed by other men). David can’t enact justice if he wanted to.
So David is finally made the sole King over Israel, over a decade after all this began, and he has this epiphany: “David realized that the Lord had established him as king over Israel, and that He had exalted his kingdom for the sake of His people Israel” (2 Sam 5:12). DUH. The next verse: “Meanwhile”—I love that…what a juxtaposition—“David took more concubines” (2 Sam 5:13). Six chapter later, Bathsheba.
So while David is king of Israel, he’s a failure. An absolute wreck of a man. And the fallout continues all throughout David’s family. In fact, the rest of the book of 2 Samuel is about the trauma and blood and evil caused by his sons. We can only imagine what kind of parent he made, how he failed to train up his sons in righteousness and wisdom.
The point? What is the point? David disobeyed God because of ignorance, because of a mystical sense of killing God’s “anointed,” as if that anointing were a divine get-out-of-jail-free card. He pawns off his fear and cowardice on God, and that ends up being the only time in his life when he can’t pull the trigger. Because David didn’t kill Saul, he ends up delaying his kingship, running from Saul in the desert, costing a decade of time and hundreds of lives. His passivity almost reverses his identity by turning him into the enemy of God when he joins sides with the Philistines.
Nave's Topical Bible (which is useful but outdated) lists David's act in sparing Saul’s life as courageous: "In entering into the tent of Saul, and carrying away Saul's spear.” I can’t even begin to disagree. Courage would have been to kill Saul then and there, for the good of the people of God. To take up the sword and become the King he was born to be.
As I noted earlier, David is classic in that he has confused the “Will of God” with his own responsibility. That confusion is shown perfectly in 1 Sam 26:10. Later, we finally see Why he never pulled the trigger. It’s not about God or God’s will; it’s about himself (1 Sam 26:24). David equates his passivity with righteousness and faithfulness (1 Sam 26:23), which tells us all we need to know about David. He’s convinced himself a false reality is Real. He is acting on false definitions of righteousness and faithfulness, obeying a law-code which isn’t Real.
Mysticism is us putting God in a box and then tiptoeing around it, redefining reality as we see fit. It’s shirking responsibility by appealing to a higher power. It’s justified passivity, on the basis of God and His mystical will. But while God works in mysterious ways, He is very clear. His will is not hard to mess up; it’s easy to see and (sometimes) easy to do. The problem is our own selves and our pathetic self-deceit where we maneuver around the hard stuff by explaining to ourselves God’s thoughts, convincing ourselves of a false reality.
The encouraging message in this is that God takes this man and makes an unconditional promise with him, the greatest promise in the Old Testament, about an eternal kingship that will spread across the entire earth. You and I both know neither David nor any of his sons could fulfill that covenant (since it is based on the Mosaic Covenant which was conditional) but Someone did. And that eternal kingship is coming no matter how passive, weak and misguided men are. God will do it, no matter what. But we have to make sure we are working alongside him as well, doing every day what He has revealed to us to do. Otherwise, the fallout may be more painful than we can bear.
On a more pastoral note, we can look at David’s failures and find ourselves at a deep degree. We too struggle with knowing how much to assert ourselves, how much to “let go and let God,” how much to accept fully as our responsibility and how that must look. These are difficult questions I hope to treat in the future, but for now, take heart in David’s story. Whatever you’re struggling with, you can’t be messing things up quite this badly—and even if you are, God has made an unconditional covenant with you too, so no matter how badly you mess things up, He will set it all to rights again.