Although the lives and times of Saul and David concern the years 1050 and 970 before the birth of Jesus, the scriptures of Samuel’s two books portray and display human characteristics no different from our own times.
The human race is endowed with a restless spirit which, as history shows, results in repetitive cycles of strife and hardship interspersed with periods of relative stability. My outlined perspective of Saul and David incorporates views from American Pastor Stephen Morefield’s book titled Fierce Grace: 30 days with King David published in 2018.
Circumstances which prevailed during David’s time had their origins earlier. Although under Samuel as Judge, Israel enjoyed peace for many years (1Sa: 7: 13-16), in his old age, the elders of Israel requested that he appoint a king to lead Israel as Samuel’s sons were dishonest (1Sa: 8: 1-6). Reluctant to accede to their request, Samuel prayed to God whose response was very critical. “It is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their King,” said the Lord (1Sa: 8: 6-8). God instructed Samuel to warn that there would be consequences if they appointed a king: “Let them know what the king who will reign over them will do” (1Sa: 8: 9). Samuel did as he was instructed: “When you cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, the Lord will not answer you,” warned Samuel (1SA: 8:18). But the people rejected God’s warning and insisted on having a king so as to be like other nations, so they claimed. Reluctantly the Lord told Samuel to heed their wishes and give them a king (1Sa 8: 19-22).
Here we see the basic fault of Israel – seeking to replicate the fashions of the ungodly instead of holding fast to God’s guidance. Israel desired to be “of the world” instead of appreciating that although “in the world,” if it adhered to God’s will, it would enjoy his protection.
So Israel reaped havoc. Saul’s reign of 42 years was one of war, instability and intrigue. Within months his army was reduced to just 600 men by the Philistines (1Sa: 13: 11-15). As Samuel tells us: “All the days of Saul, there was bitter war with the Philistines” (1Sa:14:52). When Saul failed to destroy the Amalekites, as God instructed, and, instead, plundered the best of the Amalekite livestock, the Lord said to Samuel: “I am grieved that I have made Saul king because he has turned against me and not carried out my instructions” (1Sa 15:11). But when Samuel informed Saul of God’s disappointment, Saul rejected it. The two never met or spoke again. A kind of Cold War ensued in which Samuel feared for his life (1Sa: 15:34).
That was when God sent Samuel to Bethlehem saying that he had chosen one of the sons of Jesse to be anointed as the new King. The oppression of Saul’s reign, of which God had warned, was evident in the fear with which the elders of Bethlehem received Samuel (1Sa: 16: 1-4). Under God’s guidance, Samuel’s selection of David came as a surprise because he was the youngest of Jesse’s eight sons – an example of how man’s reasoning differs from God’s. Nonetheless, Samuel anointed David in the presence of his brothers. As scripture says, “From that day the spirit of the Lord came upon David in power” (1Sa:16:13).
Troubled by the evil spirit that now resided in him, Saul was advised to employ a harp player to ease his torment. Jesse’s son David was recommended and so came into Saul’s service and, initially, was well- liked by Saul. But that cordial relationship did not last. Following David’s slaying of the giant Philistine, Goliath, Saul became jealous and resented the favour which his subjects bestowed on David (1Sa: 16: 15-23; 17: 26-45; 18: 6-10).
So resentful was Saul of David’s status that twice he attempted to kill him. In frustration, Saul sent David away to lead military campaigns. But enjoying the Lord’s favour, David’s successes simply exacerbated Saul’s mindset. (1Sa: 18:16). In an attempt to curb his influence, Saul twice offered his daughters to David in marriage. But David rejected the offers saying that he had no desire to become Saul’s son-in-law. Outraged, Saul than plotted to have David fall into the hands of the Philistines (1Sa: 18:18-25). But that failed when David again defeated the Philistines. However, in an attempt to soothe relations between himself and Saul, David expressed readiness to marry Saul’s daughter Michal.
However, Saul’s resentment of David became more pronounced than ever with David’s on-going success against the Philistines. Saul then instructed his attendants and his son Jonathan (who was loyal to David) to kill David. But Jonathan remonstrated with Saul warning that his Father would suffer if such evil was perpetrated (1 Sa: 19: 1-5). For a while matters stabilised until Saul once again succumbed to evil and demanded that David be brought to him so that he could be killed (1Sa:20:31). Before fleeing the palace as a fugitive, David made a pact with Jonathan out of love for each other (1Sa: 20: 42). As he said to Jonathan “there is only a step between me and death” (20: 3)
Chapters 20 to 22 of Samuel’s first book tell of David’s on-going flight to evade Saul’s efforts to capture him. Saul was so consumed by hatred of David that those who assisted him, like the priest Ahimelech, became the target of Saul’s wrath. To their credit, Saul’s officials refused to kill Ahimelech pointing out that he was a priest of the Lord. But Saul was so under the influence of evil that he hired Doeg, an Edomite, to kill Ahimelech and 85 others along with women, children and livestock (22: 16-20).
In what has transpired thus far, we see that every desire that finds its fulfilment outside of God, comes at a price. So why did God allow this course of events? The answer is, as it always is under such circumstances: to discipline his people for trying to do life without him and to pay the price of wanting a king when he advised against it. At the same time, however, the grace of the Lord enabled David to navigate the ills of Saul’s kingship. From that experience we should take heart that when circumstances become difficult and dangerous, God is testing our commitment to him. As verse 8 of Psalm 62 states: “Trust in him at all times….pour out your heart to him for God is our refuge.”
In chapter 23 of Samuel’s first book, we see David being hunted like an animal by Saul, constantly having to evade and flee Saul’s marauding army. Each failed search simply increased Saul’s frustration. Yet despite David’s fugitive status and the fact that his life was in constant danger, an event occurred that shows that he was not vengeful.
Having sought refuge in a cave with his men, David was surprised to see Saul enter the cave to relieve himself. Unseen by Saul, David crept up to the crouching figure and cut off a corner of Saul’s robe. Returning to his men at the back of the cave, David became conscience-stricken. Although his men urged him to kill Saul, David’s response was gentle and Christ-like. “The Lord forbid that I should do such a thing to my master, the Lord’s anointed.” Going out of the cave, David hailed Saul with the words “My lord, the king,” and prostrated himself before Saul saying: “I cut off the corner of your robe but did not kill you….I have not wronged you but you are hunting me down to take my life” (1Sa: 24: 11-12).
Understandably, Saul was gobsmacked by this encounter. He wept aloud, praised David for his righteousness and conceded that he had treated him badly. “May the Lord reward you well for the way you treated me today,” he said (24: 16-20). Vengeance, we see, is God’s prerogative to take, as and when he sees fit. A reconciliation of sorts followed with David giving Saul an oath of loyalty and Saul leading his army back home. But the truce was short lived.
After an interlude during which David took two more wives – Abigail and Ahinoam – Saul’s conflict with God drove him, once again, to pursue David. And once again, we see God’s hand over David. The Lord put Saul and his soldiers into a deep sleep which enabled David to enter Saul’s camp undetected and go right into the tent where Saul was sleeping. David could easily have killed Saul. Instead, he reproached his men with the words: “Who can lay a hand on the Lord’s anointed one and be guiltless? As surely as the Lord lives, the Lord will strike him down; either his time will come and he will die, or he will go into battle and perish” (26: 9-10).
As we saw with the confrontation between Saul and David outside the cave, so a similar exchange took place. David asked Saul why he was pursuing him and said that if men had put Saul up to do so, they were cursed before the Lord. Saul, in response, pleaded guilty of having sinned and vowed not to try and harm David again. They parted company in peace (26: 18-25). But intuitively David did not trust Saul and decided to escape to the land of the Philistines and to ask for refugee status. King Achish agreed but on two conditions: that David raided and plundered Achish’s enemies and joined the Philistine army to attack Israel. (27).
At that point in his life, David found himself testing the adage that my enemy’s enemy is my friend. It’s a man-made solution which, as Proverbs (14:12) tells us, does not work out: “There is a way that seems right to man, but its end is the way to death.” Thus, David found himself compromised. If he refused Achish, he would be killed. But if he made war on Israel, he would be a traitor.
Yet in this vexed situation, God continued to work in David’s life. The commanders of the Philistine army refused to have David under their command and demanded that he return to the land of the Philistines which is what he did (29). In the meanwhile, Saul’s army proved no match for the Philistines. Seeing his army routed, Saul took his own life. His body was later mutilated by the Philistines. Thus God vented his wrath and vengeance on Saul. Had Saul honoured his commitment to peace with David, his fate may well have been different. On three occasions Saul had promised to do so, but reneged each time. In the end he paid the price for his deceit.
Saul was a failed leader – an unrepentant hypocrite, coward and a deceiver, just like so many leaders today. Israel’s plight under Saul showed that it needed more than a man to hope in. All men are fallible. Under Saul, the land God had promised to his people since the time of Moses was desecrated by the Philistines. Righteousness was mocked and denounced by the pagans – just as it is today. Falsehood and false gods were esteemed.
The second book of Samuel commences with David going into mourning after receiving the news of Saul’s death. Despite Saul’s malevolence, David bore him no malice and continued to refer to Saul as “the Lord’s anointed” (2Sa:1: 11-14). In this we see a reflection of Jesus’s exhortation that, as Christians, we must not bear malice towards those who persecute us. Instead, we should recognise that such persons have succumbed to the same evil forces to which we are exposed without the grace of God.
God then instructed David to proceed to Hebron where, at the age of 30, he was crowned king over the house of Judah and ruled for the next 40 years. But Abner, the commander of Saul’s shattered army, refused to recognise David. A feud erupted between the house of David and that of Saul, led by IshBosheth. But the Lord was with David and the rebellion collapsed after two years. Epic victories followed against the Philistines, Moabites and Amonites with David’s sovereignty extending to the Euphrates River in the east. As scripture states, “the Lord gave David victory wherever he went” (2Sa:8:14). Obedience to God brought Israel peace and stability. As David stated in praise of God: “You have established your people Israel as your own forever and you, O Lord, have become their God” (2Sa:7: 24).
But, as the cycles of life demonstrate, the prosperity and security that Israel enjoyed under David led to complacency and to sin. No longer needed to lead his armies, boredom and temptation seduced David. His adultery with Bathsheba and his consignment of her husband, Uriah, to death in frontline fighting angered God. As the prophet Nathan informed David, God intended to exact punishment from David (2Sa: 12: 11). But God was swift to forgive David for his repentance. “The Lord has taken away your sin. You are not going to die,” Nathan told David. Instead, the child that Bathsheba had conceived through David would perish (2Sa: 13-14).
What this episode shows is that God remained loyal to his covenant with Israel. He did not waver despite David’s sinfulness. He accepted David’s contrition and rewarded him with a new son from Bathsheba called Solomon, who, as we know, became famous for his wisdom.
Patience and mercy, two Godly virtues, are often lacking in our lives. God’s walk with Israel through disobedience, disgrace and defeat through the centuries, depicts his character. Israel did not deserve that any more than we do for our sinful ways.
David’s treatment of Mephibosheth reciprocated the compassion and mercy God had showered on David’s life and is a salutary lesson in the dignity and respect that can accrue when power is infused with humility.
In ancient times, when a dynasty was overthrown – in this case Saul’s household –it was common practice to kill off any surviving male heirs so as to consolidate the new ruler’s position and eliminate any future challenges. Saul’s son, Jonathan, who had died along with his father in battle against the Philistines, had a son named Mephibosheth who had a severe deformity: he was crippled in both feet.
Leviticus chapter 21, verses 17 to 23, lists physical defects and deformities which prohibited a person so afflicted [quote] “to come near to present the offerings made to the Lord by fire…..he must not go near the curtain or approach the altar and so desecrate my sanctuary.” As we know from the New Testament, many of Jesus’ miracles involved healing deformities and disabilities such was his compassion for the physically stricken. In ancient times, however, such people were consigned to the margins of society and regarded as expendable burdens.
David’s treatment of Mephibosheth, therefore, is significant. He could have had him killed or exiled. Understandably, Mephibosheth was terrified when he was summoned to appear before King David. But David’s first words of greeting were “Don’t be afraid.” Mephibosheth’s surprise and opinion of himself was reflected by his response: “What is your servant that you should notice a dead dog like me?” He must have been astonished and relieved when David informed him that he would inherit everything that belonged to his grandfather, Saul, and that Mephibosheth would “always eat at my table” – like one of David’s sons (2Sa: 9: 6-13).
How do we relate to this? The answer is that we are the Lord’s Mephibosheths. In Hebrew the name means ‘mouth of shame.’ We are crippled- inside. Sin is inherent in our DNA. Just as Mephibosheth was spared and cared for by the grace of David, so only by the grace of God do we sup at his table.
David’s last years
The cycles of history repeated themselves in David’s last years. Just as he had had to flee from, Saul, so David found himself having to escape from his son, Absalom, who conspired to supplant David as king. Once more David became a fugitive. In the turmoil that followed David’s abandonment of Jerusalem, Mephibosheth, to his discredit, remained in Jerusalem under the impression that [quote] “today the house of Israel will give me back my grandfather’s kingdom.” David was disgusted and promptly awarded everything that belonged to Mephibosheth to Ziba, his loyal steward who served Mephibosheth (2Sa: 16: 1-4).
This turn of events reflects the very real rollercoaster that is our sinful human existence. Mephibosheth was gifted by David’s grace. Yet he saw nothing remiss in attempting to take advantage when his benefactor’s fortunes were down. Mephibosheth’s opportunism reflects the self-centredness and greed that thrives in human nature and which can only be defied and denied if we are subservient to God.
Just as David mourned the death of Saul, so he mourned the overthrow and death of Absalom. Whereas the messengers of that news had thought David would be pleased that Absalom’s rebellion had been crushed, David was heart-broken –“If only I had died instead of you,” he cried (2Sa:18: 33). David then faced the task of winning back the hearts and minds of his subjects who had transferred their loyalties to Absalom (2Sa:19: 13-14). When he encountered Mephibosheth, David again showed mercy. He could have punished him but instead, despite Mephibosheth’s lies about Ziba, David ordered that the fields he had granted to Ziba be divided between the steward, Ziba, and Mephibosheth. David could have thrown Mephibosheth out, which is what he deserved for being a turncoat. But instead he displayed magnanimity and waived Mephibosheth’s attempts to patronise him. It’s the same kind of generous spirit Jesus displayed towards his apostles on occasions when their faith in him faltered or failed. And, of course, the same spirit of forgiveness that Jesus had towards his executioners on Good Friday.
Hardly had the sedition of Absalom ended, when a new rebellion arose under Sheba, the Benjamite, who declared that he and his men had no faith in David (2Sa:20: 1-2) Fortunately that sedition was short lived . But strife and dissension plagued the last years of David’s reign as king. Yet he never questioned his lot in life or cursed God. When the anger of the Lord burned against Israel following David’s failed government of his kingdom, he implored God as follows: “I have sinned greatly in what I have done. Now, O Lord, I beg you take away the guilt of your servant” (2Sa: 24: 10). He was distressed at the suffering of his subjects, following the Lord’s unleashing of a plague which killed 70,000 Israelites and said to the angel: “I am the one who has sinned and done wrong. These are but sheep. What have they done? Let your hand fall upon me and my family” (2Sa: 24:17).
David offered himself as the scapegoat of Israel. But God ignored David’s offer because he had a far more worthy offering to atone for the sins, not only of Israel, but for all of mankind, namely, Jesus. In many ways, Jesus was, as Stephen Morefield contends, “the Greater David.” He conquered temptation and sin completely, whereas King David’s achievements depended on the grace of God which, on occasions, he forfeited through sin.
From a broader perspective, the annals of Saul and David’s lives characterise the range of human behaviour: faults, failings, highs, lows, deceit, lust, devotion, foolishness, opportunism, victory, defeat and death. Occupying two books of the Old Testament and nearly a century in terms of history, it is an account which focuses deeply on how God works. His patience, compassion and mercy are infinite but depend on repentance and subservience. Saul failed in that regard. Consequently he met an ignominious end. David also succumbed to sin but repented and showed subservience to God and met an honourable end.
Psalm 12*, which was written by David, shows that the challenges of the world during his time, have become even more severe in our own time. The relevance of Psalm 12 to our time reflects the timelessness of the scriptures.
Help, Lord, for the godly are no more;
the faithful have vanished among men.
Everyone lies to his neighbour; their
flattering lips speak with deception.
May the Lord cut off all flattering lips
and every boastful tongue that says
“We will triumph with our tongues;
we own our lips – who is our master?
Because of the oppression of the weak
and the groaning of the needy, I will now
arise, says the Lord. I will protect them
from those who malign them.
O Lord, you will keep us safe and protect
us from such people forever.
The wicked freely strut about when what
is vile is honoured among men.
(* 12.6 – omitted)
------------------------------------------Duncan Du Bois © October 2018