David: the King

This is the fifth in a series on David and David’s Son.

The Hebrew word for “king,” melek, might as well be translated “warlord.” Kings were fighters above all else, often ruling a single city and leading a relatively small band of warriors who might run in from their fields to grab a weapon. Few kings had palaces, none royal carriages.

The pomp and ceremony that draw us to The Crown have very little to do with Israel’s monarchy. For Israel, it was a practical question of leadership.

That’s certainly true of Israel’s first kings, Saul and David. Up until their time, the whole idea of monarchy had been carefully avoided in Israel. Israel was different from everybody else; Israel had God as their king. According to the book of Judges this worked well at times. When troubles came and God’s people called out for help, an attentive God sent a “judge” to their rescue. (Judges might occasionally deal with legal questions, but they were mainly fighters.) The problem, from God’s perspective, was that Israel frequently wandered away from God. The book of Judges describes Israel’s gradual deterioration under this system, to the point where they were carrying out hideous immoralities, and warring tribe against tribe. Their heedlessness was described as, “everybody did what was right in their own eyes.”

By Saul’s day, the “God-as-king” approach had led to deep dissatisfaction. Other nations were invading, and Israel was getting whipped. Desperate, they asked Samuel, their “judge,” to name a king, “such as all the other nations have.” (1 Samuel 8:5)

Samuel was very unhappy with the request. He had appointed his own sons as “judges,” and he had a vested interest in keeping the system alive. When he complained to God, however, he was told to give the people what they asked for, even as he warned them about the consequences.

The king, Samuel says in 1 Samuel 8:10-18, will draft your sons into the army, or force them to work in his fields or his workshops. He will take your daughters into his kitchen. Furthermore, he will appropriate your best lands, servants, and cattle, and tax you 10% of your sheep and goats. For all practical purposes, you will be his slaves. You will cry out to God for help—as the Israelites did when they were slaves in Egypt—but this time God will not answer. You asked for a king, and God warned you about the consequences. You will have to live with them.

Samuel continued this diatribe some time later, in a retirement speech given after Saul had been named Israel’s first king. Samuel reminded them of the effectiveness of the “God-as-king” system which they had rejected. He emphasized that their choice of a king was evil, but added that if they, the people, followed God’s way all would be well nevertheless. “Yet if you persist in doing evil, both you and your king will be swept away.”

The dire prediction came true. Saul’s kingship ended with his death and the death of his sons in battle. The Philistines routed Israel’s army and occupied its towns. Israel and its king were “swept away.”

Saul’s death meant that David was finally able to come out of hiding—he had been in exile for years–and pursue the throne he had been promised at his anointing. But was there anything worth inheriting? The country was in tatters, occupied by the Philistines and divided between warring tribes. David worked hard at healing those tribal wounds, publicly lamenting Saul’s death, and sending word to the city of Jabesh Gilead that he appreciated their loyalty to Saul in burying his body.

Despite David’s efforts at reconciliation, civil war broke out between his tribe—Judah–and the rest of Israel, who were loyal to Saul’s surviving son, Ish-Bosheth. Death and murder and betrayal followed, with hundreds of Israelites killed by their own kin. This went on for seven bloody years, with David’s forces gradually gaining the upper hand. When Ish-Bosheth was murdered on his bed by two of his own men, the civil war finally ended. All Israel came together to make David their king. His reign would last 33 years.

Out of the ruins that Saul had left, something surprising emerged. David was a great king. He took a divided and occupied country and made it unified and secure. Whereas Saul’s paranoia had made enemies out of friends, David reached out to Saul’s heirs and supporters to make them his allies. One of David’s first moves was the conquest of Jerusalem, which had never been conquered. The Jebusites who lived in its impregnable fortress crowed that even blind and lame soldiers could keep David’s army out. David evidently got in through the underground tunnels that gave the city access to water. Like his conquest of Goliath many years before, it was a clever and skillful ploy.

More skillful, however, was David’s use of the city as a unifying capital. Jerusalem’s advantage was that it didn’t belong to any of the tribes. It was neutral territory. David built a palace there (with help from Tyre, the wealthy coastal city). If you had business with the government, you went to Jerusalem.

A unified nation was of little use if it was also an occupied nation. The Philistines, alarmed at the prospect of losing control, sent in the army, but David defeated them. Throughout his reign, he kept the Philistines at bay.

Perhaps David’s most strategic and unifying act, however, was bringing the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem. The chest had been stored and neglected since Samuel’s early days. David saw its potential as a sign of God’s presence in the new capital. He assembled a large contingent to march it to Jerusalem.

Perhaps David did not grasp how seriously he needed to treat God’s property. He planned to use the ark, but he neglected to consult the ancient books to learn how the ark must be handled. Putting the ark in a brand-new cart sounded like an honoring approach, but the old instructions said that the ark must be carried with long poles by the tribe of Levi. (The ark even had rings for the poles.) Nobody was supposed to touch the ark, on pain of death, but when the oxen tripped and the ark lurched forward, a man named Uzzah reached out to steady it. He was struck dead.

David was first angry at God, and then afraid. He stopped the procession and left the ark in a nearby house. For three months it sat there, while David stewed over what had happened. This was David, the writer of the psalms, who had an extraordinary, transparent relationship with God. But he did not know what to do with a God who was radioactive.

Meanwhile, the household where the ark was housed received extraordinary blessings. The Bible does not specify, but we may suspect wonderful harvests, healed diseases, new pregnancies. David heard about this and realized that this God (in the words of C.S. Lewis) was not safe, but he was good. David called the Levites and started up the procession again, this time according to instructions. It was a wild celebration, with music and dancing all along the route. Every six steps, they sacrificed a bull and a fattened calf, which meant a barbecue for a meat-starved people. David danced more exuberantly than anybody. Evidently, his robe flipped up, and he didn’t care. When his wife Michal, Saul’s daughter, saw him entering the gates of Jerusalem, she was sickened by the display.

David had pitched a tent in Jerusalem where the ark was to reside. He offered more sacrifices, blessed all the people assembled, and distributed food—bread, dates and raisins.

Afterwards, Michal met him at home. “How the king of Israel has distinguished himself today, disrobing in the sight of the slave girls of his servants as any vulgar fellow would!” (2 Samuel 6:20)

David answered, matching her venom: “It was before the Lord, who chose me rather than your father or anyone from his house when he appointed me ruler over the Lord’s people Israel—I will celebrate before the Lord. I will become even more undignified than this, and I will be humiliated in my own eyes. But by these slave girls you spoke of, I will be held in honor.”


Bringing the ark to Jerusalem meant that all Israel gathered there for the great festivals. It was God who had created their nation, who had liberated them from slavery in Egypt, who had given them this beautiful land, and who had anointed their king. God united them in spite of their tribal divisions. They had a great deal to celebrate together in his presence. By making Jerusalem the center of worship, David had at one stroke unified his people under his rule.

He was evidently not using God as a totem; he had deep passion, as his wife Michal discovered. He wanted to do more. “More” seemed to him to be a grand building for the ark—a place to honor him. He put the idea to Nathan, a prophet, and got a positive response. When Nathan asked God, however, he got a very different answer. No. David was not to build the temple, because he had blood on his hands. A son would do it. But David would be remembered as one of the greats of all time, and Israel would flourish in peace. Most significantly, “I will establish the throne of [your son’s] kingdom forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son…. My love will never be taken away from him, as I took it away from Saul… Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever.” (2 Samuel 7:13-16)

As we saw in the last chapter, David took this as entirely good news. For us, it can’t help but be a little puzzling, when we look at the larger picture. Remember, God did not want Israel to ask for a king. The request was evil, he said. He told the Israelites, through Samuel, that if they didn’t stop pursuing evil, “both you and the king will be swept away.” Under Saul this dire prediction came true. Back to God-as-king? No, another king has been named, and what is more, a promise has been made to all his offspring, forever. They would never be rejected. The kingdom under David’s lineage would endure for all time.

We see a pattern: God works with the materials he is given. He did not want Israel to have a king, but he can work with it. He is building his kingdom out of human mistakes. The very institution that he resists as evil, he will now turn into the foundation of his blessing for all people on earth.

Think about the implications this holds for us. Our worst tendencies, our greatest failings, can not only be forgiven, they can become in God’s hands something beautiful and redemptive.


As the Bible tells the story, God’s promises didn’t appear to work out. David himself became a bad king, wracked by sin and unable to rule over even his own family. His son Solomon, the temple builder, was granted great wisdom and yet created such resentment that the kingdom split in two almost immediately after his death. It would never be reunited. What was meant to be one people under God became two. Furthermore, the kings who ruled both northern and southern kingdoms were nearly all bad, neglecting the God who had promised to bless their reigns, and mixing the worship of Yahweh with foreign religions. Corruption and injustice became commonplace. So did warfare. The poor suffered.

Yet—and this is a truly strange phenomenon—the worse the kings became, the more the Messiah hope grew. Messiah comes from the Hebrew masiah, meaning “anointed,” and shorthand for “king.” Messiah is meant to be the king who lives up to all God’s promises, and who makes Israel live up to its role blessing the whole world. Some of the psalms—2 and 110 in particular—celebrate a king who is triumphant over all other kings. The prophets point toward a day when a Messiah-king will change everything.

For example, in Isaiah 9:1-7, famous as a Christmas reading, celebrates a “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

“Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end.

He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom,

Establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness

From that time on and forever.”

No such king ever reigned in Israel. But Israel longed for one, and the prophets predicted one.

A generation after Isaiah, Jeremiah foresaw:

“The days are coming,” declares the Lord,
“when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch,
a King who will reign wisely
and do what is just and right in the land.
In his days Judah will be saved
and Israel will live in safety.
This is the name by which he will be called:
The Lord Our Righteous Savior.”

                                    –Jeremiah 33:15-16

The prophet Ezekiel predicted a shepherd-king:

I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd.  I the Lord will be their God, and my servant David will be prince among them. I the Lord have spoken.”

                                    –Ezekiel 34:23,24

And Micah sees a son who

 “will stand and shepherd his flock
in the strength of the Lord,
in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
And they will live securely, for then his greatness
will reach to the ends of the earth.”

                                    –Micah 5:4

Zechariah 9:9 anticipates the great and joyful day:

“Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion!
Shout, Daughter Jerusalem!
See, your king comes to you,
righteous and victorious,
lowly and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

As these and many other glorious predictions are made, Israel’s kings get worse and worse. It’s not simply that they are corrupt and immoral, they are also ineffective. Israel is militarily threatened by its neighbors, including major powers like Egypt, Assyria and—ultimately—Babylon. Israel becomes a vassal state, then tries to bolt for independence. First the northern kingdom is dismembered by Assyria, and all its surviving people taken into exile. Then the southern kingdom is conquered, Jerusalem destroyed and the temple razed. Survivors—including the last two kings–are taken to Babylon, the so-called Babylonian captivity. Some of the people will return, but the kings never will.

As 2 Kings 24:30 summarizes, “It was because of the Lord’s anger that all this happened to Jerusalem and Judah, and in the end he thrust them from his presence.”

It is this that apparently prompts an agonized poem from the hand of Ethan the Ezrahite, recorded as Psalm 89. It begins with praise for God’s faithfulness, noting that

You said, “I have made a covenant with my chosen one,
I have sworn to David my servant,
‘I will establish your line forever
and make your throne firm through all generations.’”

The psalm continues with a lengthy exposition of God’s promises, concluding that

Once for all, I have sworn by my holiness—
and I will not lie to David—

 that his line will continue forever
and his throne endure before me like the sun;
it will be established forever like the moon,
the faithful witness in the sky.

Then comes the great reversal:

But you have rejected, you have spurned,
you have been very angry with your anointed one.
You have renounced the covenant with your servant
and have defiled his crown in the dust.

 You have broken through all his walls
and reduced his strongholds to ruins.
All who pass by have plundered him;
he has become the scorn of his neighbors.

 You have exalted the right hand of his foes;
you have made all his enemies rejoice.

 Indeed, you have turned back the edge of his sword
and have not supported him in battle.

 You have put an end to his splendor
and cast his throne to the ground.

 You have cut short the days of his youth;
you have covered him with a mantle of shame.

 How long, Lord? Will you hide yourself forever?
How long will your wrath burn like fire?

….Lord, where is your former great love,
which in your faithfulness you swore to David?

This piercing question receives no answer.

A cadre of Israelites eventually are allowed to return to the southern kingdom. They even rebuild the city walls and a small replica of the temple. There is, however, no king. Undoubtedly some of David’s heirs came back to Israel, so in principle a Davidic king might be named. However, to do so would be to sign your own death certificate. Israel is no longer an independent country. Their foreign masters would not take kindly to a king.

The situation remains the same for hundreds of years, until the birth of Jesus.

The gospels show that Israel was still avidly looking for their king, the one who would save everything. When John the Baptist began to preach, crowds of people swarmed into the wilderness hoping that he was the fulfillment of their dreams. When Jesus started to preach and heal, masses appeared believing he might be the Messiah. What else could he mean, proclaiming the Kingdom of God? Kingdoms require a king.

What do we mean by saying that Jesus was a king? He was certainly not a warrior king in the model of David. Jesus was entirely and—one might say—aggressively non-violent.

He showed the self-certainty of a king, however, certain that he was anointed by God to lead his people. Jesus was a king of peace, pursuing peace through peaceful means. He did not lead his people to war, he led them to worship. His reign of justice would be founded on truth, not coercion.

To me, the continuing thread of David shows itself most dramatically in Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. It echoes the joyful procession that David led with the ark of the covenant. For both men, this may have been the single happiest day of their lives. David was accompanied by a huge throng of “chosen men” singing and dancing, whereas Jesus was accompanied by “a very large crowd” shouting “Hosanna to the Son of David” and “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” For David, ecstatic joy was prompted by bringing God, represented by the ark, into the city to reside there. For Jesus, it was even more basic. He himself represented God.

There are always scoffers. David faced it in his own family, when his wife scorned his undignified excitement. Jesus encountered it in the priests and the teachers of the law, who were upset at the children crying out “Hosanna to the Son of David.” He answered them by quoting from one of David’s psalms: “the lips of children and infants… have ordained praise.” That praise, in the psalm, is to God himself. (Psalm 8:2) The son of David is greater than David.

Jesus had paused on the outskirts of Jerusalem, weeping. He was well aware that the beautiful city stood on the brink of destruction. David’s entrance into Jerusalem was the beginning of its flourishing. Jesus’s was the beginning of its judgment, “because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.” (Luke 19:44)

David was a king. Jesus was the king. But as Samuel warned the Israelites when they got their first king, “if you do not obey the Lord, and if you rebel against his commands, his hand will be against you, as it was against your fathers.” (1 Samuel 12:15)


Sometimes I worry that the imagery we use for worship is archaic and irrelevant to my life. We sing about shepherds but don’t encounter any in real life; we sing about Jesus as king while we live in a democracy. Is this an exercise in nostalgia? Or fantasy?

It could be, but I don’t think it must be. In fact, I think these ancient images get at something timeless. In the case of royality, it’s fascinating to consider how many books and movies are devoted to them. From Henry VIII to Queen Victoria to Queen Elizabeth (in recent media history) they remain intriguing and beguiling. Why?

I suspect it has to do with loyalty. The attraction of the crown is wrapped up in the subject’s submission to the throne. It’s a loyalty to something bigger than the person. “The king is dead; long live the king.” The king’s subject gains something in the transaction. He or she is ennobled through the nobility of the monarch, which transcends his personal limitations. That is why the crowds gather to catch a glimpse of him as he rides past. The transcendence of the crown seems to touch the divine; that’s why so often it’s thought that to revolt against the king is to revolt against God.

Yet as everybody knows, kings and queens can be good or bad, noble or evil, admirable or stupid. And in some way they are a reflection of their subjects. A good people can have a bad king, and vice versa, but it’s not so common. Often enough people get the kind of leadership they deserve.

David the king, it seems to me, captures this dynamic of the good king ennobling his people. Or perhaps it could better be said, God uses this dynamic in order to introduce his son to the world. For Saul is a failed king; and David is a good king; and after David come very many bad kings, and then no king at all—and then, lastly, comes Jesus, the great king that everybody is longing for. Humans have this psychological architecture that makes us love and honor royalty, to place our lives in their hands and our hopes in their person. Pretty often this architecture proves traitorous to us. The kings are bad; we suffer and look like fools. That is why democracies threw out the monarchy, or made them very small and a symbol only, as in Great Britain.

David, though, is proof that a king can live up to his promise and validate our adoration; and Jesus suggests that our internal architecture was designed to honor and love something that never appears in the normal train of events, something better than David and bigger than kings—the king of kings.





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