Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Cruelty and the Law

June 19, 2018

I’ve been surprised by the controversy over separating children from their parents at the border. Not surprised by the cruelty. Surprised that evangelical leaders have spoken against it.

I thought there was nothing that evangelicals couldn’t stomach. I thought, if hush payoffs to porn stars don’t lead Christians to temper their tub-thumping enthusiasm for Trump, nothing will. But I failed to account for the appeal of children.

It remains to be seen whether the criticisms Republicans and evangelicals have levied against the policy of tearing children from their mothers’ arms will lead to any larger reevaluation. Trump supporters are very strong on the importance of obeying the law. (This doesn’t apply to sagebrush rebels who drive federal agents off public lands at gunpoint, but never mind, none of us is entirely consistent.) Jeff Sessions led the evangelical charge with his comments that Romans 13 instructs us that God has empowered government to enforce the law. In his worldview, the Law is all. It justifies anything.

As any moderately well-instructed Bible interpreter knows, Romans 13 tells us that God has ordained government for the purpose of order, and therefore its laws deserve our obedience. Except, of course, when they don’t. When the law tells us to go against our faith, we are supposed to disobey it.

David Brooks writes in Monday’s New York Times that conservatives have consistently warned that big government leads to situations like this, where the Law becomes inflexible, inhuman, and bureaucratically obsessed with observance. What Trump and Sessions are doing isn’t conservatism. It’s certainly not Christian. I’ll leave it to you to name it.









For Teachers and Other Curious People

May 18, 2018

My friend Darrel Falk (biology prof at Pt. Loma Nazarene University) has created a series of short videos offering evidence for evolutionary creation. They are even-tempered and informative, and would be good for high school or college students struggling with questions about evolution and creation. Each one is only six or seven minutes long.

Here are  the links:  Part 1.  Part 2.  Part 3.   To access more just Google YouTube and Falk, Coming to Peace with Science.

David: Father

May 5, 2018

This is the sixth in a series on the life of David and David’s Son. 

The crisis began not with a spectacular crime—with adultery, or embezzlement, or child abuse–but with a failing everybody can relate to. David didn’t want to go to work.

In those days a king’s primary responsibility was leading the army. David was not only a skilled fighter, he had always been an eager one. From the days when he jumped at the chance to take on Goliath, he had been fearless and ready to fight. But not now. Springtime was the usual time for armies to take the field, but on this occasion David stayed home. He sent Joab, his top general, into battle with the Ammonites, and remained in Jerusalem.

Perhaps he was depressed. He had accomplished everything he set out to do. He had outlasted Saul, he had defeated the Philistines, he had united the tribes, he had built a palace in Jerusalem. The adrenaline rush was over. David had no more mountains to climb. God had turned down his bid to build a temple. Perhaps his future looked like a dull gray haze, more of the same, forever.

Then, on a sleepless night, walking on the roof, he saw a beautiful woman, Bathsheba. She was the wife of one of his bravest fighters, Uriah, who just happened to be on the battlefield, where David should be. David sent for Bathsheba, they spent the night. It’s doubtful whether Bathsheba had any choice when the king summoned her to his bedroom. Later she sent a message: “I am pregnant.”

That did pose a problem, though not a very big one. In the ancient world, women were disposable, and kings were the ultimate disposers. David had plenty of women. During the seven years he spent in Hebron during the civil war, he had six sons by six different wives. When he settled in Jerusalem he added more wives and concubines, so many and so inconsequential they are not even considered worth naming. (2 Samuel 4:13) It’s very unlikely that anybody would have questioned David’s adultery with Bathsheba. The servants knew all about it, of course, and others probably did too. Nobody said a word. Men do this kind of thing, and you don’t question royalty.

Even the pregnancy could be bluffed through. If you read your European royal history you know that there are lots of affairs and lots of illicit babies, but somehow they all get stuffed in cracks. Nobody seems to notice. Royal life goes on. I presume David could have let Uriah figure out what to do with a wife who gave birth to a child that didn’t look like him. He wouldn’t, if he were wise, mention it to the king.

David evidently couldn’t quite imagine facing down Uriah that way, however. Maybe his own self-image as a righteous man wouldn’t let him take that route. He preferred to try to hide what he had done. He set out to deceive Uriah by inviting him home for a visit from the front. That way, Uriah would sleep with his wife and, when the baby came, could never be sure it wasn’t his.

It turned out that Uriah was too loyal to go home to his wife; he felt that soldiers shouldn’t do that when a war was on. David, perplexed by a man with more honor than he, was thrust into a much worse coverup. He arranged with Joab to send Uriah forward into an exposed position on the battlefield, and then suddenly withdraw behind him. The plan worked. Uriah was killed. The correspondence between David and Joab is extremely cold blooded. “David told the messenger [who brought word of Uriah’s death], ‘Say this to Joab: “Don’t let this upset you; the sword devours one as well as another. Press the attack against the city and destroy it.” Say this to encourage Joab.’” (2 Samuel 11:25)

Who is this cold fish? Is this the same man who wrote psalms proclaiming his personal integrity before God? Is this the same passionate man who refused to kill Saul, who proclaimed his love for Jonathan?

He waited for Bathsheba’s mourning period to be over, and then brought her to the palace to bear his son. Still nobody said a word to him, though surely many talked about it behind the scenes. “But the thing David had done displeased the Lord.”

When nobody would talk to David, God did, sending Nathan the prophet.


Nathan was a brave man. Without a shred of human support he strode into David’s court. Nathan told a story about a poor man with a beloved pet lamb, and a rich man who took that lamb to feed it to a guest, though he had plenty of lambs of his own. The story caught David’s attention. He burned with anger, telling Nathan that such a man deserved to die, “because he did such a thing and had no pity.”

Nathan cried out, “You are the man!” He spoke God’s message to David: after all God had given him, he “despised the word of the Lord by doing what is evil in his eyes.” Since he had killed Uriah, “the sword will never depart from your house.” Furthermore, someone close to David, within his own household, would steal his wives and sleep with them in public. “You did it in secret, but I will do this thing in broad daylight before all Israel.” (2 Samuel 12:12)

It is terrible and humiliating to be caught in the act. It is even worse to be confronted in public, without prior warning. Take all 100 members of the U.S. Senate, consider any President you care to, add any governor or corporate CEO, and ask yourself how they would respond. I can assure you, they would fight back like a tiger. Nobody gets to that powerful position by humbly accepting blame.

As king, David could have Nathan killed, or at least thrown out on his ear. He did not. He said for all to hear, “I have sinned against the Lord.”

It may have been the greatest moment of David’s life. Nathan immediately responded, “The Lord has taken away your sin. You are not going to die.”

Die! I wonder whether the proper legal consequences had even crossed David’s mind. People in power inevitably think themselves above all that.

Nathan did not suggest that forgiveness would obliterate all consequences. David would not die, but the baby born out of his unfaithfulness would.

When the baby fell ill, David acted as though his own life was at stake. “He pleaded with God for the child. He fasted and went into his house and spent the nights lying on the ground. The elders of his household stood beside him to get him up from the ground but he refused, and he would not eat any food with them.” (2 Samuel 12:16-17) The death of any child is a heartbreak as deep as a well, but something more is involved here. David has realized the depth of what he has done. Probably he thinks, I wish it were me who would die. It should be me. An innocent child is suffering and dying for David’s sins.

At the end of a week, the child dies. To everyone’s surprise, David takes the news calmly. He gets up and goes about his business. He comforts his wife Bathsheba, she becomes pregnant again, and gives birth to Solomon. David goes back to his job, joining the army and successfully attacking the Ammonites. The story is not really over, though. In fact, it has barely begun.


Monarchies have problems with sons. It is all too common for princes to develop bad character, probably because the children of prominent men grow up spoiled. This was a problem in Israel even before the monarchy. Levi had bad sons. Samuel had bad sons. Saul, amazingly, had at least one very good son, Jonathan. David’s sons, unfortunately, reverted to the norm.

King’s sons are naturally rivals. Only one of them can inherit the crown, and it is far from unknown for the leading candidate to kill off his siblings before they get a chance to kill him. This rivalry is exaggerated in a polygamous household. The mothers are also rivals with each other, vying for the king’s attention. Each mother wants her son to prosper.

David’s oldest son Amnon fell in love with his half-sister, Tamar. The Bible describes it as a classic infatuation, with Amnon making himself sick with frustration. Eventually, with the connivance of his cousin and with David’s naïve assistance, Amnon lured Tamar into his bedroom and raped her. Afterwards he experienced a classic emotional reversal, becoming repulsed by her. He threw Tamar out of his quarters while she was weeping and in distress. She went to live with her brother Absalom, David’s third son.

David was furious, but he did nothing. It’s the first sign that he is paralyzed by his own guilt. David understands what lust can do: it led him to adultery with Bathsheba and then to murder. How can he condemn his son for doing less?

Absalom had no such ambivalence. He stewed on his hatred for his brother. Eventually he lured Amnon to an out-of-town party, and there, when Amnon was tipsy, he murdered him. Afterward he skipped town to go live with his mother’s family in Geshur, a tiny kingdom east of the Sea of Galilee. Absalom was in exile there for three years, during which David mourned for him every day.

Did David mourn because he saw his own failings being played out in his son? Did he perversely identify with Absalom? Emotions are hard to read but Joab characteristically took a pragmatic approach. He saw that David wanted his son back. He got a woman to tell David a story—shades of Nathan—about her two sons. One had killed the other; she feared that in retribution her only remaining son would also be killed. When David said he would take care of it, she applied the case to him. Hadn’t he banished his own son?

David recognized Joab’s hand in the woman’s manipulation, but he was—as Joab knew—eager to be manipulated. He told Joab to bring Absalom home. His only punishment would be that David would not see him. This posed as a punishment for Absalom. In reality, David was punishing himself. He was the one who longed to see his son. He remained tormented by his own failings, and so refused to treat himself to a reunion.

After two years, Absalom grew impatient. He called Joab to see him, but Joab did not come. He called a second time, with no answer. Characteristically, he set Joab’s field on fire. That got Joab to come. “Why have I come from Geshur?” Absalom asked. “It would be better for me if I were still there. I want to see the king’s face, and if I am guilty of anything, let him put me to death.” Absalom had yet to show the slightest hint of repentance. In his mind, Amnon got what he deserved.

When Joab told this to David, he invited Absalom to the palace and embraced him. All was forgiven.

I have asked myself how I would feel toward my son if he murdered his older brother. I find that I can’t begin to imagine it. It’s an unthinkable horror. Compound that with a deep, grinding guilt for your own act of murder, and you get paralysis. That is how it affected David. He didn’t know what he should do to Absalom, so he did nothing.


Absalom was a conniver, obsessed with his own good looks and the weight of his hair (2 Samuel 14:26), proud to move around in a chariot with fifty men running ahead of him (15:1). Now accepted back in the king’s court, he became a politician, talking in a friendly way to everybody, and denigrating his father’s administration. In the nature of things people complain about their government and imagine how much better it could be. Perhaps David was depressed and out of sight while Absalom made himself visible. Absalom “stole the hearts of the men of Israel.” (2 Samuel 15:6)

After four years of this, Absalom went off to Hebron, where David had first reigned. There he sprang his conspiracy to kill his father and take over the government.

When David heard about it, he acted decisively—depressingly so. A messenger brought word that “the hearts of the men of Israel are with Absalom.” (2 Samuel 15:13)  David, who had been a hero in Israel since he was a young man, who had always been confident in battle, immediately wanted to flee Jerusalem. He felt sure that if Absalom caught them, they would all be killed. He had no faith in his ability to win a battle against a son who had never led an army.

It seems likely to me that David was still lost in regret. He had failed as a parent. The son he had mooned over all those years now sought to kill him. You can’t fail any more dramatically. He could trace it all the way back to his murder of Uriah. He should have died then. Perhaps he wanted to die now.

But not quite. David still had enough energy to run away.

Second Samuel’s detailed description of David leaving Jerusalem is among the saddest scenes in the Bible. I’ve never heard a sermon on it, and it’s certainly not taught in Sunday school. Nevertheless, it is utterly compelling in its grief and passive regret.

It begins with David pausing on the outskirts of Jerusalem to review his troops. We learn here that during his sojourn in Gath, when David fought as a mercenary for the Philistines, he gained the loyalty of 600 Philistine soldiers. They had abandoned their homeland to follow him. David now tries to send them home. “You came only yesterday. And today shall I make you wander about with us, when I do not know where I am going?”

The men from Gath refused to go home, so David let them follow him, accompanied by their families.

“The whole countryside wept aloud as all the people passed by…. David continued up the Mount of Olives, weeping as he went; his head was covered and he was barefoot. All the people with him covered their heads too and were weeping as they went up.” (2 Samuel 15:23,30)

A man named Shimei, from Saul’s clan, turned up. “He pelted David and all the king’s officials with stones, though all the troops and the special guard were on David’s right and left. As he cursed, Shimei said, ‘Got out, get out, you man of blood, you scoundrel! The Lord has repaid you for all the blood you shed in the household of Saul, in whose place you have reigned. The Lord has handed the kingdom over to your son Absalom. You have come to ruin because you are a man of blood!’”

One of David’s generals, Abishai, wanted to put an end to it. But David stopped him from killing Shimei. “My son, who is of my own flesh, is trying to take my life. How much more, then, this Benjamite! Leave him alone; let him curse, for the Lord has told him to. It may be that the Lord will see my distress and repay me with good for the cursing I am receiving today.”

“So David and his men continued along the road while Shimei was going along the hillside opposite him, cursing as he went and throwing stones at him and showering him with dirt. The king and all the people with him arrived at their destination exhausted.” (2 Samuel 16:5-14)

Only one scene in the Bible approximates this one: Jesus carrying his cross out of Jerusalem to Golgotha. He too was barefoot, and surrounded by weeping people. He too was mocked and cursed, making no attempt to defend himself. The son of David followed David’s footsteps, a king rejected by his subjects. Jesus was the Man of Sorrows, following in David’s line.

In both cases, the king of Israel suffers, is rejected, and faces death at the hand of his own children.

The difference, of course, was that David was punished for what he had done. He carried his own sins. Jesus made that slow march of tears carrying the sins of the world. He was punished for what we have done.


David was not abandoned. People came out of the woodwork to help him, including several non-Israelite neighbors who brought food and bedding and pots. (2 Samuel 17:27-29) David had loyalists left behind in Jerusalem, too, who worked to undermine Absalom. David’s army remained steadfast. He organized them into three units—the first sign that he was emerging from his emotional paralysis—and was ready to lead, but his fighters insisted he stay behind the lines. “Even if half of us die, they won’t care; but you are worth ten thousand of us.” (2 Samuel 18:3)

So David stood at the city gate while the army marched out. He should have been encouraging them to fight bravely, but he couldn’t help himself: he told his commanders to treat Absalom gently. The whole army heard it. He was emerging from his depression, and acting like a king, but his heart was still preoccupied with his beloved, murderous son.

The battle was joined in a forest, and soon spread over the entire countryside, with great casualties. Famously, Absalom was undone by his hair. Riding under the branches of an oak, he got his locked tangled in its branches and ended up hanging in the air while his mule kept going. When Joab was told that Absalom was dangling he did not hesitate. Joab took three javelins and plunged them into Absalom’s heart. That was the end of Absalom; his army melted away when they realized their leader was dead.

The good news reached David, but he didn’t seem to care about victory; all he wanted to know was the fate of his son. No one wanted to tell him. Finally, when he learned that Absalom was dead, “The king was shaken. He went up to the room over the gateway and wept. As he went, he said: ‘O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you—O Absalom, my son, my son!’” (2 Samuel 18:33)

“If only I had died instead of you!” David may be thinking of the battle just concluded, wishing that his army had been overrun and he had been killed, leaving Absalom alive to become king.

Or perhaps his memory is casting back to his sin with Uriah. If he had died for his sins then, as he deserved, none of this tragedy would ever have begun.

In reality, his death would not have cleaned up the mess he had made. That is the fantasy many suicides entertain: If I were gone everybody would be better off. But Israel without David as its chief would have been pathetic and vulnerable, as it was under Saul. His sons would have fought just as murderously. David is saying he would gladly give up his own life to prevent these horrible outcomes. But his death would merely change one set of horrible outcomes for another. No one can sacrifice his life to redeem the world. It doesn’t work that way.

David’s public display of emotion disgraces his army. There ought to have been great celebration in David’s camp at the astonishing military turnaround. Instead, “the victory that day was turned into mourning, because on that day the troops heard it said, ‘The king is grieving for his son.’ The men stole into the city that day as men steal in who are ashamed when they flee from battle. The king covered his face and cried aloud, ‘O my son Absalom! O Absalom, my son, my son!’” (2 Samuel 19:2-4)

Joab read David the riot act, telling him he was humiliating the men who had saved his life. “You love those who hate you and hate those who love you. You have made it clear today that the commanders and their men mean nothing to you. I see that you would be pleased if Absalom were alive today and all of us were dead. Now go out and encourage your men. I swear by the Lord that if you don’t go out, not a man will be left with you by nightfall.” (2 Samuel 19:6-7)

David heard Joab and remembered his duty. He got up and sat in the gateway to review the army. Soon David went back to Jerusalem, setting the administration back in order. He lived the rest of his long life without further rebellion.


What can we make of this long, detailed account of David as father? Three sons ultimately died, while the nation and its king suffered incalculable sadness and disruption. It is a story without a happy ending and without a clear rationale for its telling.

I have heard people interpret these stories seeking wisdom about parenting—concluding that parents should not have favorites, and that parents should discipline their children. True as those lessons are, they don’t get at the deeper meaning of these events, which surely center on David’s failings as a man and the way in which regret clouded his vision. He failed as a parent because he failed as a man and as a king.

A letdown after great effort and great success is very human. If David was depressed and didn’t want to go to work, he is not the first or the last to feel that way. Then he faced a moment of testing. He saw a beautiful woman and tried to self-medicate with sex. From there a cascade of decisions led him to murder, and from murder to moral paralysis, and from paralysis to self-pity and almost to the destruction of his kingdom.

In this study of David I’ve tried to draw out qualities that link David to David’s son Jesus. In this case, however, there do not seem to be any. Jesus was sinless, and furthermore he had no children. David’s problems of sin and regret and paralysis, his failings as a father were not Jesus’s.

Only one aspect of fatherhood does link the two men: their procession out of Jerusalem, weeping, barefoot, taunted, cursed. Both David and Jesus could accurately be called “Man of Sorrows.” That procession is an emblem of the sorrow of our world.

In both cases, the problem of sorrows is rooted in the problem of sin. Sin causes David’s self-destruction and deterioration—his own sin. Sin also causes Jesus’s—the world’s sin. Jesus as well as David might well have said, in grief: “If only I could die instead of you.”

Jesus did.

David: the King

April 26, 2018

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.




David: The Poet

April 23, 2018

This is the fourth in a series on the life of David.

When I think of David, I see a man of action—lean, desert-hardened, powerful and quick. He was a warrior. He killed men in close combat. He spent years in wilderness exile. This is the David portrayed in 1 and 2 Samuel.

But he was also a musician—that is how he first came to Saul’s court—and a poet. It’s not easy to put that together with the image of a warrior. The Pentagon is not a place for poetry seminars. I don’t see the colonels pouring over William Carlos Williams during their lunch hours. That’s who David was, however—a serious poet.

Exactly half of the 150 psalms in the Bible are attributed to David—73 explicitly, and two more attributed to David in the New Testament. Thirteen of these attributions relate the psalms to incidents in David’s life.

We don’t know exactly what is meant by the inscription “of David.” It’s usually taken as a mark of David’s authorship, but it could also mean “in the style of David.” Either way, David is the poet indelibly linked to the psalms.

I love the psalms. They are ever-new. I learn from them. I enjoy them more every year.  David’s psalms surge with energy and intensity. Amazingly, a man dead for 3,000 years is giving us access to his soul. Poetry is not, as some people apparently think, a dreamy medium for spontaneous expressions of feeling. It is a careful, studied and skillful use of words and rhythm and juxtaposition. Good poets work hard. David was more than a good poet, he was a great poet.

If poetry were simply a hobby, on the level with stamp collecting, it would make no difference at all for David’s monarchy. A case can be made, however, that David’s psalms were the most influential and long-lasting of all his accomplishments.  They shaped the heart and soul of Israel’s worship. It was Israel’s passionate relationship to God, not its war-making abilities, that made Israel great.

So David, in writing poetry, was building a nation.

They say that Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s radio Fireside Talks helped Americans regain confidence in the Depression. They say Winston Churchill’s speeches enabled the British to withstand Nazi bombs. David’s poems did more. They shaped Israel’s relationship with God. As a nation infused with God’s calling, Israel’s very nature and identity were involved, and not just for a temporary crisis. This was for all time.

David was a warrior and a king, but most importantly of all, he was a poet. Words matter.


Sometimes it is unclear whether a passage in the Bible should be read as poetry or prose. Since Hebrew poetry does not rhyme, there are no crystal-clear indications. For example, God’s words to Adam, Eve and the serpent in Genesis 3 are often rendered as poetry, though they make perfectly good sense as prose. Bible translators have to decide whether to set up the fragmented lines that indicate poetry. If the passage sounds “poetic”—if it uses unusual words or metaphors, if it is aphoristic—then it is shown as poetry.

The earliest passage in the Bible that is indisputably poetry is Exodus 15:1-18, the Song of Moses and Miriam. The first words give it away: “I will sing.” You sing in poetry. This is a song of triumph, led by Moses and his sister Miriam, celebrating the defeat of the Egyptians. It’s a rollicking praise song to God, who has rescued his people.

Moses is also named as the author of a song in Deuteronomy 32. It is a poem that tells the history of a wonderful God who chose Israel as his people, and a faithless people who constantly go astray.

These themes from Moses—praise and triumph, a gracious God and a faithless people–get repeated many times in the Bible, particularly in the poetry of the prophets. Each prophet has a distinctive message, speaking to a distinctive situation, but most of what the prophets write has to do with justice—the justice Israel owes the poor, and (even more) the justice Israel owes God. Your neighbor deserves more! the prophets say. Your God deserves much more!

The prophets preach sermons in the second and third person. The psalms offer something quite different from that. They offer David’s personal relationship with God, told in the first person.

His psalms speak in the unmistakable voice of an individual praying to God in intimate relationship. His prayers are passionate and personal. The psalmist is frustrated by enemies. He pleads for mercy. He basks in God’s love. There is darkness and light, cheer and gloom, guilt and forgiveness, praise and pleas for help. This is why psalms have captured the hearts of believers for thousands of years: each one of us can adopt them as our personal plea. These are our prayers.

Praying the psalms, a person affirms that life is difficult. Yes, there is joy and exultation in God and all he has done. But there is also much complaining, questioning, worrying. All of it is lifted up to God.

Praying the psalms, each person becomes like Jacob, wrestling with God and demanding that God bless him. This viewpoint is so basic a part of our faith today that we might take it for granted. But if you think of religion through the ages, and in many different traditions, you will realize that it can be dominated by law and doctrine. It puts many demands on people; it makes them feel small. All they hear are facts that they must account for. Such religion may offer no space for the individual person. If you talk to people who have left their faith in rebellion or despair, very often their fundamental complaint boils down to this: there was no room for me.

In the psalms, there is always plenty of room for me.

This is David’s legacy. The individual may (and must) speak to God with complete honesty.


I went through all David’s psalms and noted down the parts that are expressed in the first person singular. I wanted to think about the themes that David brought to the poetic expression of his relationship with God.

The first thing I noticed was how much material there is. It’s not just a few lines in a few poems; David is credited with scores of poems that scale the emotions of life in company with God. What I quote here barely touches the whole.

Enemies. The great biblical scholar Derek Kidner noted two fundamental realities that appear in nearly all the psalms: the presence of God, and the presence of enemies. Time and again, David presents these enemies to God, asking for protection and vindication.

Lord, how many are my foes!
How many rise up against me!
Many are saying of me,
“God will not deliver him.”

                         –Psalm 3:1,2

 See how numerous are my enemies
and how fiercely they hate me!

                                    –Psalm 25:19

How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?

 Look on me and answer, Lord my God.
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,
and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”
and my foes will rejoice when I fall.

But I trust in your unfailing love;
my heart rejoices in your salvation.
 I will sing the Lord’s praise,
for he has been good to me.

                                    –Psalm 13:1-6

Rescue me, Lord, from evildoers;
protect me from the violent,

who devise evil plans in their hearts
and stir up war every day.

                                    –Psalm 140:1-2

Listen to my cry,
for I am in desperate need;
rescue me from those who pursue me,
for they are too strong for me.

                                    — Psalm 142:1

Security. David is sometimes frantic with worry, but time and again he returns to the comfort and security of resting in God. He expresses this with great, convincing eloquence: 

I lie down and sleep;
I wake again, because the Lord sustains me.
I will not fear though tens of thousands
assail me on every side.

                                    –Psalm 3:5-6

In peace I will lie down and sleep,
for you alone, Lord,
make me dwell in safety.

                                    –Psalm 4:8

Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.

                                    —Psalm 23:4

One thing I ask from the Lord,
this only do I seek:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to gaze on the beauty of the Lord
and to seek him in his temple.
For in the day of trouble
he will keep me safe in his dwelling;
he will hide me in the shelter of his sacred tent
and set me high upon a rock.

                                    — Psalm 27:4-5

Asking for help. This is so basic that we may overlook it: David asks God for help. His faith engages a God who sees his troubles, who can hear his plea, and who cares.

Turn to me and be gracious to me,
for I am lonely and afflicted.

 Relieve the troubles of my heart
and free me from my anguish.
Look on my affliction and my distress
and take away all my sins.

                                    –Psalm 25:16-18

Be merciful to me, Lord, for I am in distress;
my eyes grow weak with sorrow,
my soul and body with grief.
My life is consumed by anguish
and my years by groaning;
my strength fails because of my affliction,
and my bones grow weak.
Because of all my enemies,
I am the utter contempt of my neighbors
and an object of dread to my closest friends—
those who see me on the street flee from me.
I am forgotten as though I were dead;
I have become like broken pottery.

                                    –Psalm 31:9-12

Lord, you have seen this; do not be silent.
Do not be far from me, Lord.
Awake, and rise to my defense!
Contend for me, my God and Lord.
Vindicate me in your righteousness, Lord my God;
do not let them gloat over me.
Do not let them think, “Aha, just what we wanted!”
or say, “We have swallowed him up.”

                                    –Psalm 35:22-25

Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.

                                    –Psalm 51:10-12

But as for me, I am poor and needy;
come quickly to me, O God.
You are my help and my deliverer;
Lord, do not delay.

                                    –Psalm 70:5

But you, Sovereign Lord,
help me for your name’s sake;
out of the goodness of your love, deliver me.
For I am poor and needy,
and my heart is wounded within me.

                                    –Psalm 109:21-22

Asking mercy. David needs help, but he also needs mercy. He knows that he is not always in the right. God’s forgiveness is a persistent subject for prayer.

Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger
or discipline me in your wrath.
Have mercy on me, Lord, for I am faint;
heal me, Lord, for my bones are in agony.
My soul is in deep anguish.
How long, Lord, how long?

                                    –Psalm 6:1-3

When I kept silent,
my bones wasted away
through my groaning all day long.

For day and night
your hand was heavy on me;
my strength was sapped
as in the heat of summer.

Then I acknowledged my sin to you
and did not cover up my iniquity.
I said, “I will confess
my transgressions to the Lord.”
And you forgave
the guilt of my sin.

                                                      –Psalm 32:3-5

My guilt has overwhelmed me
like a burden too heavy to bear.

                                    — Psalm 38:4

I said, “Have mercy on me, Lord;
heal me, for I have sinned against you.”

                                    — Psalm 41:4

Lord, the Lord Almighty,
may those who hope in you
not be disgraced because of me.

                                    –Psalm 69:6

Innocence and confidence. Even though he knows his failings, David is quick to assert his fundamental faithfulness. He has confidence in his relationship with God.

Know that the Lord has set apart his faithful servant for himself;
the Lord hears when I call to him.

                                                –Psalm 4:3

Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices;
my body also will rest secure,
because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead,
nor will you let your faithful one see decay.
You make known to me the path of life;
you will fill me with joy in your presence,
with eternal pleasures at your right hand.

                                    — Psalm 16:9-11

Though you probe my heart,
though you examine me at night and test me,
you will find that I have planned no evil;
my mouth has not transgressed.

                                    — Psalm 17:3

You, God, are my God,
earnestly I seek you;
I thirst for you,
my whole being longs for you,
in a dry and parched land
where there is no water.

I have seen you in the sanctuary
and beheld your power and your glory.
Because your love is better than life,
my lips will glorify you.
I will praise you as long as I live,
and in your name I will lift up my hands.
I will be fully satisfied as with the richest of foods;
with singing lips my mouth will praise you.

On my bed I remember you;
I think of you through the watches of the night.
Because you are my help,
I sing in the shadow of your wings.
I cling to you;
your right hand upholds me.

                                                      — Psalm 63:1-8

You have searched me, Lord,
and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue
you, Lord, know it completely.

Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.

                                    — Psalm 139:1-4, 23-24

Speaking of trouble. David not only prays for help and mercy, he examines his life in the presence of God. All is not easy, and all is not well.

But I am a worm and not a man,
scorned by everyone, despised by the people.
All who see me mock me;
they hurl insults, shaking their heads.
“He trusts in the Lord,” they say,
“let the Lord rescue him.
Let him deliver him,
since he delights in him.”

                                    — Psalm 22:6-8

I said, “I will watch my ways
and keep my tongue from sin;
I will put a muzzle on my mouth
while in the presence of the wicked.”
So I remained utterly silent,
not even saying anything good.
But my anguish increased;

my heart grew hot within me.

                                    — Psalm 39:1-3

If an enemy were insulting me,
I could endure it;
if a foe were rising against me,
I could hide.
But it is you, a man like myself,
my companion, my close friend,
with whom I once enjoyed sweet fellowship
at the house of God,
as we walked about
among the worshipers.

                                    — Psalm 55:12-14

Love and praise. In spite of trouble and sin, David’s love for God wells up like a spring. His relationship is not fundamentally transactional, it’s personal and grateful. David lives by grace.

I love you, Lord, my strength.

                                    — Psalm 18:1

Lord, I love the house where you live,
the place where your glory dwells.

                                    — Psalm 26:8

You turned my wailing into dancing;
you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy.

                                    — Psalm 30:11

My heart, O God, is steadfast,
my heart is steadfast;
I will sing and make music.
Awake, my soul!
Awake, harp and lyre!
I will awaken the dawn.

I will praise you, Lord, among the nations;
I will sing of you among the peoples.
For great is your love, reaching to the heavens;
your faithfulness reaches to the skies.

                                                      — Psalm 57:7-10

From the ends of the earth I call to you,
I call as my heart grows faint;
lead me to the rock that is higher than I.
For you have been my refuge,
a strong tower against the foe.

I long to dwell in your tent forever
and take refuge in the shelter of your wings.

                                                      — Psalm 61:2-4

Teach me your way, Lord,
that I may rely on your faithfulness;
give me an undivided heart,
that I may fear your name.
I will praise you, Lord my God, with all my heart;
I will glorify your name forever.
For great is your love toward me;
you have delivered me from the depths,
from the realm of the dead.

                                    — Psalm 86:11-13

Praise the Lord, my soul;
all my inmost being, praise his holy name.
Praise the Lord, my soul,
and forget not all his benefits—
who forgives all your sins
and heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the pit
and crowns you with love and compassion,
who satisfies your desires with good things
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

                                    — Psalm 103:1-5

My heart, O God, is steadfast;
I will sing and make music with all my soul.
Awake, harp and lyre!
I will awaken the dawn.

                                    — Psalm 108:1-2


We learn a lot about David from reading his psalms. We learn about his skill set: he was artistically alive, gifted in crafting poetry. More significantly, he had a deep, personal, emotive and transparent relationship with God. David didn’t see God as far off. He didn’t think of him in terms of principles and values. He perceived God as a living person, as close as his breath. He trusted the goodness of God. Even when he complained or questioned God—which he often did—he did so in faith. He believed in God’s fairness and his love. He believed in God’s power to make things right, and when it didn’t happen, he wanted to know why.

It wouldn’t be true to say there is no “personal prayer” like this in the rest of the Old Testament. But it’s relatively rare. Most of the emotion is God’s emotion. God gets angry; God is indignant; God loves; God shows tenderness. The focus of most Old Testament poetry is God’s plan for the world and for his people. Very little focuses on human joy and sorrow. David’s poetry is different: distinctly human-focused, even while it is God-centered.

David’s prayer in 1 Chronicles 1716-27 gives a good example of how remarkable David’s relationship with God was. Unlike most of the psalms, it’s completely rooted in a historical event, and can’t really be adapted to our personal prayers. (That’s why it’s not in the psalmbook, I assume.)

The situation is David’s plan to build a palace for God. He has built a palace for himself, but God still lives in a tent. The prophet Nathan encourages this generous ambition until God speaks to him directly, telling him otherwise. David is not the one to build a temple. One of his sons will do it, and through him God will establish a lasting dynasty. “His throne will be established forever.” (1 Chronicles 17:14)

The message offers some wonderful promises to David about the future. Still, its heart is a check on the ambitions of a king. David has a plan to honor God through a building, but God turns him down. Not everybody would take this well.

David, however, appears unaware that he might resent the slight. He responds with wonder, with humble awe, that he has been honored by God’s promise to his offspring. “Who am I, O Lord God, and what is my family, that you have brought me this far?” (1 Chronicles 17:16) What seems to amaze him is the promise that his family and God’s name will be associated for all time.

You might ask yourself whether you would respond in the same way. How much do you care about your future grandchildren’s walk with God? What would it do for you if you knew that your family would have a lasting reputation for godliness? Would you jump up and down in delight? Do you long to establish a heritage of Christian leadership through your family? I asked my adult Sunday school class that question, and got the distinct impression that they had never given it any thought.

David treats it as though it is the most wonderful thing he could imagine.

Two of David’s comments deserve particular notice. “For you know your servant, O Lord.” (verse 18) David is well aware of his failures and his sins. The coming years will make him even more aware. Knowing what God knows, he is astonished at God’s treatment. David had many flaws, but never the failing of arrogance before God. He knew God’s grace as a very personal matter.

David also says, “For the sake of your servant and according to your will, you have done this great thing and made known all these great promises.” (verse 19) He is citing the divine combination: caring for David as an individual while relentlessly pursuing God’s purpose in the world. David’s intensely personal prayers—with their open feeling, their transparency—nearly always reflect this combination, connecting his personal needs to God’s grand plans to redeem the nations through his people and their anointed king.

Years later David offered another prayer when the Israelites gave generously to the temple building fund. Having been denied permission to build the temple himself, David was doing everything possible to prepare for his son Solomon to follow through. David provided his own riches—gold, silver, bronze, iron, wood and stone—for a glorious building. Then he asked for the Israelite leaders’ contribution, and they gave with great liberality.

David is once again overwhelmed. “Who am I, and who are my people, that we should be able to give as generously as this? Everything comes from you, and we have given you only what comes from your hand.” (1 Chronicles 29:14) It’s nothing like a prayer of self-congratulation. Rather, David recognizes that God is the true king. “Yours, O Lord, is the kingdom; you are exalted as head over all.” (verse 11) In contrast, “we are aliens and strangers in your sight…. Our days on earth are like a shadow, without hope.” (verse 15)

David’s focus is not the magnificence of the building, or the amount of money raised. His focus is on a generous heart. “O Lord, God of our fathers Abraham, Isaac and Israel, keep this desire in the hearts of your people forever, and keep their hearts loyal to you.” (1 Chronicles 29:18) The temple, after all, is the place of worship. It is there that David’s psalms will be sung. That is what David’s people give to with such openhandedness. This prompts David’s prayer of praise.

Humility, transparency, gratefulness, passion, love, hope—these are the personal attributes that come through David’s poetry and prayer. In them we see quite clearly why David was said to be “a man after God’s own heart.” (Acts 13:22)

Think what David is not “about.”

–He is not about accumulating money or power.

–He is not about winning admirers.

–He is not about building great monuments.

David’s passion is to protect and strengthen his people so they can live up to their calling as God’s people. His passion is for God, whom he loves, and for God’s plans in the world. What we know about these qualities in David, we know from David’s poetry.


Jesus, the son of David, was not a poet. To the best of our knowledge, he never wrote anything. Nevertheless, he believed that words matter, and he used them powerfully to lead his people toward the redemption of the world. In this, he was like David.

Jesus’s primary message was “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” This was not particularly addressed to the priests in the temple hierarchy, or to the rulers in the government, or to the Roman occupiers, or to the traitorous tax collectors. Jesus addressed everybody, including leprosy victims, women with gynecological problems, blind beggars, people crippled by orthopedic issues, farmers, fishermen. He addressed them as individuals, whoever they were and whatever they did. To the everlasting disappointment of those with political, sociological or economic analyses of human problems, he began with a call to ordinary individuals rather than institutions or organizations. He called to the same people who prayed David’s prayers.

Jesus’ call certainly applied to political, sociological or economic problems. He called individuals to repent in order to join in the great happening of the kingdom of God. God’s people should come together and work together, challenging and changing governments and institutions. It begins with the individual, however, and the call is addressed to the individual consciousness. This is David’s world view: life with God as a personal relationship that carries us into a plan much bigger than we have dreamed.

The sermon on the mount and Jesus’ parables are brilliant compositions that explain this world view to ordinary people. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Jesus said. “Blessed are those who mourn.” He might be describing the humility and the grief that mark so many of David’s psalms. In the sermon Jesus addresses social problems: violence, adultery, broken marriages, dishonest courts, social discord. Each one begins with an appeal to the individual to live in the consciousness of God and to do better than obey the law. We are urged not merely to punish murder, but to eliminate angry talk; not merely to avoid adultery, but to confront lust; not merely to follow the law in divorce proceedings, but to stop divorcing; not merely to avoid breaking contracts, but to stick to your word in all circumstances. The charge isn’t to change the laws, or reform the courts, or offer marriage seminars. It’s to walk with God and live blamelessly before him. Which is precisely what David aimed to do, and what his psalms continually consider.

Like a great poem, Jesus’ words in the sermon cannot be summarized or condensed or even fully comprehended. They expose us not just to a way of life, but to Jesus himself. We understand David’s life with God by reading the psalms, and in a similar way we feel Jesus’s person as we read the sermon on the mount.

The parables are also brilliant compositions–short, memorable word pictures to describe the kingdom of God and how it works. The parables help individuals seeking to follow God’s way. They describe large forces at work—the forces of God’s Spirit, but also the forces of evil. They are navigational and conceptual tools for the believer seeking to live in the presence of God. What David saw dimly—God’s great promises to redeem the nations through Israel—Jesus laid out in sharp focus.

In all his words, Jesus’ focus is on the person before God. He says very little about the Samaritans, the Gentiles, or the Romans—indeed about any political or social issue. His opposition to the Pharisees seems to be their short-circuiting of an individual’s response to God through their emphasis on rules and institutions. Jesus sees human beings who need mercy and healing. He calls individuals to join him in his ministry.


The gospel writers left us with a few short fragments of prayer from Jesus. The only long prayer, comparable to one of David’s prayers, is John 17.

That prayer is stylistically quite different from any of David’s prayers, but its mode of thought is very similar. Perhaps this would be true of any Jewish prayer, since David’s prayers had pervaded their worship. Jesus talks to God the Father in a simple, direct way, as though to a friend or an ally. “Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you.” (John 17:25) Jesus speaks openly about his situation (he is about to die), and he asks God to act on his behalf without any doubt that God can do what he needs done. Not only does Jesus speak to God from within a very intimate and personal relationship, he asks God to draw his disciples into the same kind of relationship.

Jesus’s brief prayers on the day of his death could easily have come straight out of David’s mouth.

In Gethsemane, he prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” (Matthew 26:39)

Three short prayers are recorded from the cross.

“Father forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)

“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46, Mark 15:34)

“Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” (Luke 23:46)

These all show the same personal encounter with a living God, the same powerful emotion as one of David’s prayers. As a matter of fact, the last two prayers are David’s prayers. “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” is the first verse of Psalm 22, and “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit,” is the fifth verse of Psalm 31.

I’ve come to believe that these are far from random quotations. Both of the psalms deal with David under attack from his enemies. They juxtapose trust in God with the horrors of betrayal and slander and death. I think Jesus, who prayed the psalms all his life, was praying these prayers on the cross. Out loud he spoke only one verse of each, but he surely knew the whole prayer by heart.

Psalm 22 is particularly of interest, because “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” is often cited as Jesus’ cry of inconceivable despair. Could God really abandon him? Apparently he believed so, for he took this prayer of David in his mouth.

When Jesus prayed this prayer, he was remembering that he walked in David’s footsteps. Silently, to himself, he was walking in David’s faith. For Psalm 22, after detailing violence that sounds like a lynching, suddenly turns. Without explanation, praise breaks out. Rescue has come, and the benefits have spread to the poor. Rescue has come, and it has drawn the whole world into praise.

Jesus prayed as David prayed, and in that prayer he lived the life of faith that David had explored.


From David the poet we learn the importance of artful words. David was a great poet in the service of prayer and worship. He shaped the nation of Israel through his words; he set the heart of worship so that Jesus himself borrowed from his prayers at his time of ultimate torment. Our tendency is to think that politics and programs and organization best serve the kingdom of God. David’s life offers evidence that careful and beautiful writing can do far more.

We must learn to pray like David: with passion and transparency, to a personal God who has power to rescue. In that way we will follow in the steps of Jesus, Son of David.


Pulitzer Proud

April 20, 2018

I’m so proud that my local newspaper, the Press Democrat, won the Pulitzer Prize for news reporting. It’s a great newspaper, and a huge asset to our community. Take a look at  this photo, which was on the front page of the paper announcing the win. It captures joy and surprise so wonderfully! These reporters worked incredibly hard covering the fires, and as this is not the golden age of newspaper journalism, their joy has special significance to me.pulitzer

David: The Un-Saul

April 9, 2018

This is the third in a series on the life of David.

In telling the story of David, the Bible devotes a great deal of space to the period when he was “anointed, not crowned.” Presumably, there is a reason for this emphasis. Presumably, this is a crucial period of David’s life, even though he held no official position and, for much of the time, lived as a fugitive, chased from one place to another. It was a miserable time, a hungry time, a friendless and powerless time.

Throughout this period, David’s life revolved around King Saul, who learned to hate and fear him. They were like twin stars, orbiting each other, held in place by the other’s gravity. Saul gave David his first chance. David’s success at that chance—killing Goliath—led Saul into his own personal nightmare. In this bad dream David sought to serve Saul, but Saul sought to kill David—to eliminate his nightmare.

It would be nice if Saul could be neatly summarized as, say, an evil genius like James Bond’s Dr. No, or a tyrant like Mussolini, or a corrupt and greedy leader like (you name him). Saul, however, is none of these. He is hard to sum up, full of contradictions.

Saul’s early career is eerily like David’s. Both men were nobodies, inexperienced at war or leadership, when Samuel found them and quietly anointed them. Both men gained political support due to their military prowess. Saul, however, became weaker and more desperately grasping the longer he lived; while David gained in stature throughout Saul’s reign. Reading the text, we encounter one man going down while the other rises.

We first encounter Saul as he is sent off to find the family donkeys. Saul was extremely good looking, the text says (1 Samuel 9:2), and a head taller than anybody else. He seems to be a likable bumbler, unable to track the donkeys and unaware of who the great leader Samuel is or where he lives. He only approaches Samuel because he hopes he can help him locate his donkeys.

Unbeknownst to Saul, God has told Samuel that Israel’s future king is about to be revealed. When Saul appears on his donkey quest, God instructs Samuel, “This is the one.” It’s a close parallel to David’s anointing, when David is he surprise pick from among his older brothers.

Samuel takes charge of Saul. He brushes aside the donkeys—don’t worry, they have been found—and tells Saul that he and his family line are now the focal point of Israel’s longing. When Saul stammers out a modest demurral, Samuel pays no attention. He takes him to a feast as the guest of honor, and then privately anoints him. As a seal of guarantee, he tells Saul whom he will meet on the road, and what they will say. Saul’s final encounter, Samuel says, will be with a procession of prophets, making wild music as they march along. “The Spirit of the Lord will come powerfully upon you, and you will prophecy with them, and you will be changed into a different person.” (1 Samuel 10:6)

It happened just as Samuel had predicted. Saul, we are told, met the prophets and was a changed man, though nobody else knew it. Samuel called the leaders of Israel to a meeting, where he reminded them of their demand for a king. Without introducing Saul, he led a discernment process that began by narrowing the field by tribe, then by clan, then by individual. How this process worked we are not told, but it was probably using some kind of lottery. Saul’s tribe (Benjamin) was chosen, then his clan, then Saul himself. But when they looked around them, Saul was missing. He had hidden himself among the baggage, and had to be dragged into view. When Samuel presented him as Israel’s new monarch, some of the people shouted, “Long live the King!” But others were skeptical, resisting his leadership.

At this point, what did Saul have in his favor? He was tall and good-looking, and Samuel had declared him the one God had chosen. But he had done nothing—not even found the donkeys.

That changed promptly, however, when word came of an Ammonite gang besieging an Israelite city and demanding, as peace terms, that every male have an eye gouged out. People in Saul’s home town were grief-stricken and helpless at the news, but when Saul came in from plowing, “The Spirit of God came powerfully upon him, and he burned with anger.” (11:6) He mustered a large army (300,000 men) and scattered the Ammonites.

After that, it was obvious to all that Samuel’s (and God’s) choice was right. There were calls to punish the men who had resisted his leadership, but Saul was gracious. “No one will be put to death today, for this day the Lord has rescued Israel.” (11:12) In a great celebration, the whole nation crowned Saul as their king.


It was a promising beginning. Fear spoiled it. Saul, having been boosted so high by God’s choice and his Spirit, became obsessed with the fear of losing what he had been given. He forgot that everything came by God’s generosity. Trying to hold on at all costs, he squeezed too tight.

Fear first took over in a battle situation. A large Philistine army invaded, and Saul’s overwhelmed army began deserting. Saul was waiting for Samuel to arrive and conduct a religious service as a prelude to battle. When Samuel didn’t come Saul panicked, making the sacrifices himself. He pushed himself into a role that was reserved for priests, and for his pains was soundly condemned by Samuel. “Your kingdom will not endure,” Samuel said, “…because you have not kept the Lord’s command.” (13:14).

It’s clear that Saul didn’t want to take on the priest’s role. But in fear, he did.

Israel was in desperate condition. The “army” was a volunteer guerrilla force that lacked weapons. The occupying Philistines controlled all blacksmiths, which meant an effective embargo on iron spears or swords. Many Israelites were living in hiding; some actually fled the country because of Philistine aggression. In addition, 1 Samuel 14:21 reveals that some Israelite soldiers had gone over to the Philistine side.

It was no small thing when Saul’s son Jonathan attacked a Philistine outpost and created a panic in the Philistine army. Saul recognized what was happening, rallied the army to attack, and followed up with a massive victory—one that drew men out of hiding to join the attack, and even got the traitor Israelites to opportunistically switch sides.

In the midst of this great triumph, Saul managed to spoil it, however. This is the second major episode of his failure. In his enthusiasm for battle he had sworn that no soldier in his army would eat until the battle was won. To put the kindest construction on it, Saul demonstrated his inexperience in combat, for troops are easily exhausted and need food whenever they can get it. The troops kept the vow, but were famished and exhausted by the end of the day; they gave up pursuing the Philistines because of it, and slaughtered animals for a barbecue without following kosher requirements. Saul set them on a more correct path by organizing a kosher butchery, and then pondered the question whether the army could and should continue the pursuit. When he asked God for guidance, however, he got none. This was evidently Saul’s first experience of the silence of God. He knew something was wrong. Someone had sinned, and Saul swore that however it was—even his own son—would die.

He discovered that his son Jonathan was responsible. He had grabbed a lick of wild honey during the battle. At the time, Jonathan had no idea that his father had forbidden any food. He had been too busy fighting to get the news.

Yet Saul was ready to execute his son. He took another oath on it. The army, however, stopped him—by force, it seems. Saul was made to give in, and also give up on pursuing the Philistines while he had them on the run.

What stands out in the incident is Saul’s awareness of others’ faults—the men eating non-kosher meat, his son Jonathan violating an oath he wasn’t even aware of—but with no consciousness of his own. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to him that it was his hasty vow that led to the others’ violations.

Did fear play a role? I think so. An inexperienced leader, he feared failure and tried to overcompensate, first by making a foolhardy oath, and then by brashly rushing into its enforcement. Saul was a brave and effective general. If he had been content to let his Spirit-given abilities play out, he would have done well. His fear of failure, however, led him to make foolish and hasty miscalculations—to try too hard, to do too much.

His greatest miscalculation, however, came in a third incident—one we find very hard to understand. God sent instructions through Samuel that Saul was to pursue holy war against the Amalekites, a neighboring tribe, and utterly destroy them. Everyone was to die: men, women and children, and even the Amalekites’ sheep, goats, camels and cattle.

Why? Unlike war against the Philistines, this is not presented as a defensive war. Rather, an ancient incident is blamed—the Amalekites’ hijacking of Israel when they were on the long journey from Egypt to Israel.

That hijacking, sinister as it was, happened long before the current generation of Amalekites was born. God’s command is not punishment, but something more like ethnic cleansing. Something about the Amalekites’ very nature is wrong, and must be eliminated.

I’ll say frankly that I have no idea why God would want this. All kinds of excuses and explanations for God’s decision have been offered, and you are welcome to explore them in the many commentaries that have been written on this passage. Personally, I haven’t found any of them convincing.

On the other hand, I don’t believe in the least that this passage proves, as some would suggest, that the Old Testament God is a bloodthirsty tribal god. There are far too many counter indications throughout the Scriptures that he is a God of love and mercy. I am left unable to explain this execution of a people. I don’t want to downplay it or attempt to excuse it. I can only hope and expect that someday I will understand it, perhaps in the life to come.

Saul doesn’t appear to have shared my reservations about God’s command. He carried out the worst of it—the murder of innocent children—without apparent qualms. However, he failed to obey God’s order in two specifics: he didn’t execute the king of the Amalekites, and he didn’t slaughter the best of the animals.

When Samuel confronted him, Saul pleaded that he had saved the animals for sacrifice. After Samuel kept on the pressure Saul admitted that he had sinned and confessed his true motives: “I was afraid of the men, and so I gave in to them.” (1 Samuel 15:24)

In ancient warfare armies got paid by taking booty from their conquests. Saul’s men would have expected this as their reward for putting their lives at risk. Whether or not Saul even tried to explain the situation to them, we don’t know. He probably just assumed that they would resent being asked to give up their captured goods. That is what fear often does to us: we jump to conclusions.


It’s worth recalling that in all three of these incidents, Saul was militarily successful. It was not his failure that did him in, it was his failure to handle success.

When David comes into the picture, we see more of the same. Israel once again seems desperate, and out of the blue a young warrior appears and saves the day. David appears perfectly loyal. He makes no attempt to undermine Saul or to raise his own profile.

What sends Saul into a tizzy is a song. The women serenade the conquering army with a bewitching chant:

Saul has slain his thousands,

And David his tens of thousands.

Saul was furious, and the next day he tried to put a spear through David. Twice David eluded him. Oddly, David is not said to be afraid of Saul; it is the other way around. “Saul was afraid of David, because the Lord was with David but had departed from Saul.” (1 Samuel 18:12) Saul had everything to gain from David, a great and loyal commander, and nothing to fear, but instead he plotted against him.

At first these plots are covert—he sets up David to be killed by the Philistines—but eventually they become overt. He sends men to murder David in his bed. David escapes. Alone and hungry, he begs food from the priest at Nob. The priest kindly helps him. That will end tragically, in the slaughter of all Nob’s priestly family at the hands of Saul. Saul strikes out blindly against anything associated with David.

In a measure of how desperate David is, he seeks refuge with the enemy, the Philistines at Gath. Remember, not very long before he had killed the Philistines’ champion—whose home town was Gath. David would never go to Gath for help, if he had any choice. Yet this act of despair doesn’t work, either. The Philistines immediately suspect him, and he only escapes by pretending to be insane, drooling and babbling.

Hiding in a cave, David is joined by his family members—whose lives are now also at risk from Saul—and a collection of debtors and malcontents. Eventually they number about 400 men, a sort of Robin Hood’s band.

With David exiled in the wilderness, Saul could ignore him. Instead he throws his army into David’s pursuit.

When David hears that the Philistines are attacking Keilah, he wants to mount a rescue mission. His men see this as too risky, but David pursues the question and is told by God to go ahead. He and his men attack the Philistines and rescue Keilah.

Saul immediately thinks that David can be trapped in the walled city. He sends troops, and when David hears that they are coming, he asks God whether the citizens of Keilah, who have just been rescued, will betray him. Yes, they will, God says.

So David and his men again disappear into the wilderness. He and his men are friendless and homeless. What can they eat? Where are they safe? The story of Abigail (1 Samuel 25) is usually told to emphasize Abigail’s sagacity in contrast to her foolish, boorish husband. But the story also reveals David’s hair-trigger temper. Yes, Nabal insults his men when they come asking for hospitality. But David could have brushed off the abuse. Instead, he sets off on a mission to slaughter, not just Nabal, but every male in his household. Abigail’s humble appeal saves David from a bloody retribution that would have stained his soul for life.

Why did David respond so violently to Nabal’s stupid insult? David had no allies, and not enough food. He was desperate. He had no margins. People in that condition fly off the handle.

Saul sends his army to hunt for him. It’s during two of his search-and-destroy missions that we get the most dramatic contrasts between David and Saul.

In the first, Saul goes into a cave to relieve himself. Unknown to him, David and his men are hiding out deeper in the cave. While Saul is squatting, David’s men urge him to attack. David creeps forward and, in the silent darkness, cuts off a piece of Saul’s robe. He refuses to do more. In fact, David feels guilty for even cutting Saul’s robe. “The Lord forbid that I should do such a thing to my master, the Lord’s anointed, or lift my hand against him; for he is the anointed of the Lord.” (1 Samuel 24:6)

David can’t resist following Saul out of the cave, however. He calls out to him, “My Lord the king!” and bows down, face to the ground. Then he shows Saul the piece of the robe, and tries to convince Saul that he intends no harm; in fact, he has refused to hurt him even when he was completely in his power. “May the Lord be our judge and decide between us. May he consider my cause and uphold it; may he vindicate me by delivering me from your hand.” (24:15)

To Saul’s credit, he weeps loudly and calls David “my son.” “You are more righteous than I,” he says. “You have treated me well, but I have treated you badly.” (24:17) “May the Lord reward you well for the way you treated me today. I know that you will surely be king and that the kingdom of Israel will be established in your hands.” (vv. 19, 20) Despite the warm and penitent words, David doesn’t trust Saul. He returns to “the stronghold”—the wilderness fort where he and his men have established camp.

The second incident is almost, but not quite, a duplicate. Once again Saul is hunting for David. Once again, the local people have betrayed David and told Saul where to find him. This time David goes to Saul’s camp and, with one of his men, sneaks inside the perimeter. They go right up to where Saul is sleeping. Abishai, David’s companion, wants to spear Saul where he lies, but David says no. “Who can lay a hand on the Lord’s anointed and be guiltless?”

Instead, David takes Saul’s spear and his water jug, and creeps out of the sleeping camp. From a nearby hill he calls down to Abner, Saul’s army chief. “Where are the king’s spear and water jug that were near his head?” (1 Samuel 26:16)

“Saul recognized David’s voice and said, ‘Is that your voice, David my son?’”

David pleads eloquently for Saul to stop pursuing him. “What have I done, and what wrong am I guilty of? … Now do not let my blood fall to the ground far from the presence of the Lord.” (26:18,20)

Saul replies, “I have sinned. Come back, David my son. Because you considered my life precious today, I will not try to harm you again. Surely I have acted like a fool and have erred greatly.” (v. 21)

David responds that he will trust in God’s protection, for God “rewards every man for his righteousness and faithfulness.” But he declines Saul’s offer to accompany him home.


Saul, as revealed in these two incidents, is well aware of his own guilt. He confesses it in a heartfelt, perhaps sentimental way in front of his army. Evidently, however, his fear outweighs his conscience. He keeps reverting to the desire to destroy David.

Despite Saul’s penitent words, David stays in his wilderness fortress. He doesn’t trust Saul. He has come to understand that Saul is in the grip of irrational fears.

Not once but twice, God puts David in a position to kill Saul. Why doesn’t David take advantage of Saul’s vulnerability? He not only doesn’t take it, he speaks reverently of “the Lord’s anointed.”

It sounds crazy. He, David, is “the Lord’s anointed.” He must know that God has rejected Saul. Why not act as the Lord’s instrument? Why not kill Saul and be done with this torment?

Undoubtedly, David’s men and his family wondered the same thing. It’s not clear how David would have answered them. What is very clear is his deep reverence for the sovereignty of God. He believes that God’s choice of Saul must be respected, and that his own anointing does not constitute a permission slip to bring about his own coronation. He will wait. He will trust God to vindicate him.

Fear did not master him. He is the opposite of Saul in this respect. He trusted in God. He was unwilling to assail or assault any person whom God had chosen.


After their second close encounter, David and Saul parted, never to see each other again. David, concluding that “one of these days I will be destroyed by the hand of Saul” (1 Samuel 27:1), returned to his enemies the Philistines. This time he and his 600 men were accepted as mercenaries. Achish the king of Gath saw David as an outlaw who had permanently broken ties with Israel. David played a double game, raiding other tribes for the Philistines but making sure they never found out that he never raided Israel. His scheme nearly backfired when he was called into the main Philistine army as they went to war against Israel, but fortunately for David, other generals in the army distrusted him and sent him away. He was saved from having to fight his own people.

Saul, on the other hand, left his imagined enemy—David—and confronted his true enemy, the Philistine army. When they invaded once again, Saul “was afraid; terror filled his heart.” (1 Samuel 28:5) He sought God’s guidance, but “The Lord did not answer him by dreams or Urim or prophets.” (28:6)

Saul told his men to find him a medium, who could communicate with the dead. The funny thing about this request is that Saul himself had banned such consultation, making it punishable by death. Nevertheless, Saul found a medium, persuaded her to do her work, and asked for Samuel. If he could not reach God, he thought the next-best thing was the man who talked to God.

When Samuel appeared—or seemed to appear, for only the woman “saw” him or “heard” him—Saul prostrated himself. He laid out to Samuel the terrible dilemma he was in—that the Philistines were attacking and God had turned away. Samuel—or “Samuel”—was not sympathetic. He told Saul it was exactly as he had predicted, that his string had run out, that he and his army would lose the battle and he and his sons would die.

“Immediately Saul fell full length on the ground, filled with fear.” (28:20) For most of his monarchy, Saul had been ruled by fear. It was so until the end. When the battle came, his sons were killed, he was wounded, and, fearful of Philistine torture, he killed himself.


For the longest time, David is friendless and vulnerable and must wander in the wilderness. He has no palace; he lives in a cave, or in a wilderness hideout under all weather. What stands out in this long narrative is David’s refusal to advance his cause by force, and his persistent refusal to do harm to “the Lord’s anointed,” even as “the Lord’s anointed” tries to kill him. Notably, David never refers to himself as “the Lord’s anointed,” but he often refers to Saul that way—even when he knows that Saul has been rejected, and that he has been chosen to replace Saul. He does nothing against Saul, even when he has a golden opportunity.

Who can imagine doing likewise? If somebody is trying to kill me, I am likely to fight back. David would not. He believed that God would work his will without David needing to move it along. He was willing to wait and to trust God. Evidently he saw mysterious and sacred qualities in the (discredited) leader whom God had once chosen.

And David’s son? Jesus’ life is certainly an echo of David’s. For Jesus was born into Israel, where the “anointed”—the temple, the priests, the altar—had been chosen by God as his means of salvation. Jesus knew that he represented a new covenant that would rise up and eclipse the old system. Furthermore, he knew that the old system—or its representatives—wanted to kill him.

He would not touch them. He spoke to them sharply, and truthfully. He warned that the temple would be torn down. (Matthew 24:1) But he never laid a hand on the representatives of the old order, or threatened violence. On the contrary, he was respectful. He told Peter to pay the temple tax. (Matthew 17:27) When he saw a poor widow giving sacrificially to the temple offering, he didn’t condemn it as oppression, but admired it as generosity. (Luke 21:1) A man with leprosy whom Jesus healed was told to go to the priest to give thanks. (Matthew 8:4)

For it was temple, priest and altar that had, for many generations, by God’s own anointing, represented God to the people. Jesus might have deprecated them to his disciples, might have organized a boycott, might have announced that they were out of date and that God had moved on. He didn’t.

(Notably, Jesus showed no such solicitude for the web of legal requirements that had grown up around the law. When asked why his disciples didn’t keep the ceremonial requirements of Sabbath, he referred to David, who had eaten the (unlawful) tabernacle bread when hungry and in fear for his life. “I tell you that something greater than the temple is here.” (Matthew 12:6))

Like David, Jesus wandered from place to place. He had “nowhere to lay his head.” He depended on charity for food. Like David, he had been anointed king, but no king ever held fewer prerogatives.

Nor did Jesus do anything to seize power. That’s the burden of his temptations. Satan offers him opportunity to demonstrate that he is God’s Son, the anointed. He can make bread from stones, leap from the temple unharmed, assume the power and splendor of the kingdoms of the world. He doesn’t choose to do it. It’s not God’s timing. (Luke 4:1-13) He will later make bread out of nothing, walk on water, and assume “all authority in heaven and on earth.” But all on God’s calendar.

Part of the horror of Holy Week is that his tormentors, those who track him down to kill him, include God’s anointed ones—priests. To defend their standing (and to defend the Temple, they would say) they will arrest him and rig a trial. They will see him tortured to death. They live in fear that he will replace them.

When they send soldiers to arrest him, he tells his disciples to put up their weapons. He will not fight them. It’s an exact echo of David’s words to his men when they had Saul in their grip. “Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said. “Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matthew 26:53) Jesus could have annihilated his enemies. He had them in his power.

Like the citizens of Keilah, rescued by David but ready to surrender him to Saul’s army, so the people of Jerusalem, who rejoiced in Jesus’ entry, were willing to give him up when he was on trial. (They either kept their peace or chanted, “Crucify him!”)

They were all ruled by their fears. They saw how much they had to lose and they were frantic to keep it. Jesus was also afraid, but he was not ruled by his fear. He trusted in God. He trusted all the way down—even to death. God had anointed him. God would see him triumphant.


Let’s admit that it’s very odd behavior. Who is willing to be executed without making any attempt to defend himself? Who doesn’t seek to explain himself when on trial for his life?

And yet, it echoes the pattern followed by David, the great king, when he was pursued through the wilderness by the very man he sought to serve. And it is not so different from what Paul recommends to all of us: “As far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. … Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:18-21)

1 Peter says much the same thing: “Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.  …When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.” (1 Peter 2:21-23)

David: The Warrior

March 27, 2018

This is the second in a series on the life of David.

David and Goliath is a great story, worthy of being told and retold. Its appeal depends on the underdog mindset. Here’s the kid who won’t take no for an answer, who doesn’t realize he’s outmatched by the giant. We identify with the kid. Most of us lack perfect confidence, and at work or school or in sports we feel like we face giants. David inspires us because he is the little guy who triumphs.

Even though David had been anointed by Samuel, he remained a nobody—a boy herding sheep, while his brothers went off to fight in the army. David doesn’t see himself as just a sheepherder, however. He has a warrior’s self-image. When he is sent as a messenger boy, carrying provisions to his brothers on the battle line, he can’t keep his nose out of the fighting.

Actually, there isn’t any fighting. The army is in a stalemate, occupying the ridge on one side of a valley, while the Philistines occupy the other. Neither one is prepared to charge up the other’s hill—it’s always easiest to fight while looking down on your opponent–so they have dug in to watch and wait.

The Philistines, though, are engaged in psychological warfare. They have a giant, a huge man named Goliath, who comes out every morning to the valley between the camps and challenges the Israelites to send somebody down to fight him. This represents an ancient form of warfare, where each side sends a representative and they fight it out. Perhaps it came from a traditional belief that warfare was really a test of the gods of each nation, who controlled the results in a supernatural way. If so, the Philistines have stacked the odds in their god’s favor by sending out a giant. He terrifies the Israelites. When he comes out, soldiers run in panic. He is just too big, too strong.

David, though, doesn’t seem to understand the situation. He ought to be terrified, but he is so sure of himself he is already calculating his payoff. He immediately wants to know what reward will go to the man who kills Goliath.

His brother Eliab reams him out for this clueless impertinence, but David just keeps asking about the rewards he can expect.

Saul hears of it and sends for David, who has the chutzpah to reassure the king that he shouldn’t lose heart; he, David, plans to fight the giant.

Saul explains to this ignorant child that he can’t take on a veteran warrior. David responds that he has fought lions and bears, and he will defeat Goliath because “he has defied the armies of the living God.” (1 Samuel 17:36) God, David says, will deliver him.

Saul thinks, “Why not?” He has no other plan in mind to defeat the Philistines. He puts his armor on David, but David walks around in it and decides he can’t use it; he isn’t used to its weight. Instead, wearing street clothes, he picks up several stones and goes out with his sling to face the giant.

Goliath taunts him. “Come here,” he says to the puny boy, “and I’ll give your flesh to the birds of the air and the beasts of the field.”

As Malcolm Gladwell suggests in his book David and Goliath, the key words may be “Come here.” Goliath is so weighed down with armor he can barely move. He can’t pursue David. He can only fight if David comes within range.

David has no intention of coming near Goliath. He has a deadly weapon that is effective from a distance. Goliath may seem invincible, but in reality he is a sitting duck. What seem to be his greatest advantages—his size, his heavy armor—actually work against him. Perhaps David knows that Goliath is all but dead.

As he prepares to use his sling, David pauses to make a speech, in which he gives no credit whatsoever to his superior weaponry or his skill. Rather he praises his God:

“You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the LORD Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day the LORD will deliver you into my hands, and I’ll strike you down and cut off your head. This very day I will give the carcasses of the Philistine army to the birds and the wild animals, and the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel. All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the LORD saves; for the battle is the LORD’s, and he will give all of you into our hands.” (1 Samuel 17:45-47)

In essence David says that weaponry doesn’t matter; what matters is God. He then proceeds to demonstrate that skill helps too, centering a rock into Goliath’s forehead. Goliath falls face forward, David grabs Goliath’s sword, then cuts off Goliath’s head. At the sight of David’s victory the whole Israelite army rushes into battle. Shocked by their hero’s death, the Philistines turn and run. The battle is a complete rout, and the Philistine threat is (for the moment) removed.

King Saul asks Abner, the head of the army, to find out who the young champion is. Saul should recognize David, who has been playing his harp for Saul to calm his nerves. But evidently Saul has not bothered to take a good look at David. He has sent David out to die without even troubling to learn his name. Saul is a careless man. Abner brings in the young warrior, with David still holding Goliath’s severed head, and his clothes grisly with Goliath’s blood. Visually, it’s one of the most stunning scenes in the Bible, comparable to Elijah facing the prophets of Baal, or Jesus facing Pilate.

“Whose son are you, young man?” Saul asks mildly.


David was a fighting man. It was the key to his leadership, the one skill that everything else depended on. His reputation as a soldier began with his defeat of Goliath, the Philistine champion, and it grew as he demonstrated his abilities to lead the army. Military prowess made David.

Some people claim that a person’s character is already visible, at least embryonically, from a very young age. It’s certainly true that David shows, in his victory over Goliath, qualities that will characterize him as a warrior. First, he is eager to fight. When the entire army is cowed by the giant, his only question is what reward he can expect for killing him. He never hesitates. He runs toward Goliath, not away.

Second, he is personally confident but not self-centered. Warriors can be braggarts, but David centers his confidence in God, whom he gives all credit for victory. When God’s name is at stake—and it always is, when Israel is threatened—God will surely prevail, David believes.

Third, David is a skilled warrior. He kills Goliath on the first shot.

The nation fell in love with David. Women met the returning army with singing and dancing, using lyrics that would soon spread far and wide:

“Saul has slain his thousands,
And David his tens of thousands.”

Saul hated it, but soon his own family joined the chorus. Jonathan, his brilliant warrior-son “loved [David] as himself.” Saul’s daughter Michal fell in love with David and wanted to marry him.

Sensing a potential rival, and fearful of David’s popularity, Saul made a dreadful mistake. To get rid of David, he began sending him out with the army, to lead the most dangerous campaigns. From Saul’s perspective it was a way to get David out of town. More importantly, it put David in mortal danger. The tactic backfired because David—just a boy, remember—proved to be a fantastic commander.

In our era, with Americans bogged down in a series of inconclusive wars, we don’t have many war heroes. We easily forget that successful generals have often quickly vaulted into prominent political roles. Dwight Eisenhower went from top American general in World War II to two-term president. George Washington commanded America’s revolutionary army and then was elected America’s first president. Ulysses Grant’s prosecution of the Civil War made him so fantastically popular he was a shoo-in as a two-term president, even though he had no political experience. (And it showed.)

You don’t gain fame by losing. David won. Saul’s officers were pleased by David gaining high rank (1 Samuel 18:5)—a remarkable fact considering that he was younger than they were, and that he must have leaped over some in rank. The women danced and sang in praise of David, as already noted. (verse 6) “All Israel and Judah loved David, because he led them in their campaigns.” (verse 16)

Israel had been on the verge of utter decimation, their army unmanned before a giant. Out of nowhere appears a young shepherd who defeats the giant, and then goes on to lead the army in one victory after another. Suddenly there is hope, all tied up with this young shepherd.

No wonder Saul is afraid. Not one to learn quickly, he plunges ahead. Saul indulging in an elaborate plan to get David to take more risks. He offers his daughter Michal to David in marriage. David declines, probably because he knows Saul will expect a huge bride-price. Saul sends word that he doesn’t want money. He wants 100 Philistine foreskins.

This part of David’s life is not taught in Sunday school. For that matter, I don’t believe I have ever heard it mentioned in a sermon. David goes out with his men and kills not 100 but 200 Philistines. He personally presents their foreskins to the king, in order to win his daughter’s hand in marriage. It’s a grisly and distasteful scene, by modern standards. Cutting off foreskins is somewhat like cutting off scalps. There is a practical reason for the practice. Warriors have been known to exaggerate their body count. You can’t fake scalps or foreskins. It is also a desecration of their bodies, and a taunting insult.

As a result of his failed ruse, Saul grows even more afraid of David. (2 Samuel 18:29) This reaction says a lot about Saul. His kingdom has been saved by a young warrior, and his reaction is not celebration, but fear. Saul thinks small. He thinks of himself, first and always.

From this point on, Saul uses no subterfuge. Rather than hoping that the Philistines will kill David, he tries to kill him himself. David continues to succeed on the battle field, and to gain fame. He also carries on playing his harp for Saul. Saul takes up his spear and tries to pin David to the wall.

That night Saul sends his guard to David’s house to assassinate him, but David escapes through a window. From then on, David lived in hiding. He never again commanded troops in Saul’s army. He hid out in the wilderness, and ended up leading a band of misfits fighting for the Philistines, though never against Israel.

The terrible irony for Saul is that his real enemy, the Philistine army, ends up once again dominating Israel. God had sent Saul a great commander, but he chased him away. Leading the army himself, Saul is unable to turn the tide. His sons are killed in a great climactic battle, and Saul himself is grievously wounded. Rather than let himself be captured, Saul takes his own life. Israelites abandon their towns and the Philistines occupy them. The nation really is on the brink of obliteration.


David spent several years in exile—we don’t know exactly how long—running away from danger, trying to elude Saul. Eventually he and his men became mercenaries for the Philistines, raiding and plundering.

After Saul’s death and David’s coronation, David began another period leading Israel’s army. The book of 2 Samuel begins with David’s mourning for Saul after his death, and proceeds with David being anointed king by the men of his own tribe, Judah. After a long civil war between David’s tribe and Saul’s tribe, in which no mention is made of David’s fighting, David is proclaimed king over all Israel. In recognizing him, the tribal leaders specifically cite his military record under Saul. (2 Samuel 4:2) They also mention his anointing—that God had indicated his choice of David to become ruler.

David then leads the army to capture Jerusalem, a fortress thought to be impregnable. This crucial victory provides Israel with a capital city. It’s a neutral site that has never belonged to any of the Israelite tribes, so it can unite the nation.

Alarmed that the defeated Israelites have revived, the Philistines send in the army. David leads the Israelite army to twice defeat them. (5:17-25) Eventually, due to his military successes, the Philistines gave up trying to oppress Israel.

If you read all the historical materials related to David, you will see clearly that David’s fame was closely linked to his role as a warrior. 2 Samuel 8 lists his victories not only against the Philistines but also the Moabites, the Arameans, and the Edomites. Chapter 10 chronicles his defeat of the Ammonites. 2 Kings 21:15-23 briefly describes four different victories against the Philistines, the persistent foe.

In a great song of praise recorded in 2 Samuel 22 (and also given as Psalm 18) David says of God:

“He trains my hands for battle; my arms can bend a bow of bronze…. I pursued my enemies and crushed them; I did not turn back till they were destroyed. I crushed them completely, and they could not rise; they fell beneath my feet. You armed me with strength for battle; you made my adversaries bow at my feet. You made my enemies turn their backs in flight, and I destroyed my foes. They cried for help, but there was no one to save them—to the Lord, but he did not answer. I beat them as fine as the dust of the earth; I pounded and trampled them like mud in the streets.” (verses 35-43)

David’s mighty fighting men are listed and described in 2 Samuel 23:8-39. 1 Chronicles 10:10-47, which also lists them, says that “they, together with all Israel, gave [David’s] kingship strong support to extend it over the whole land, as the Lord had promised.” Chapter 12 lists groups of fighters that joined David when he was in exile and after he was crowned as king. Chapters 18, 19 and 20 chronicle various wars that David and his men fought and won.

The point is, a great deal of what the Bible tells us about David involves fighting. It was an absolutely necessary component of leadership. If your nation is on the brink, you have to fight and win.


Jesus, Son of David, was not a warrior like David. The contrast is extreme. One cannot imagine Jesus carrying around the dismembered head of his enemy, or slapping down 200 foreskins from his mutilated foes. Jesus stood against physical violence. Several times his disciples wanted to fight, but he always told them no.

Once his disciples were rebuffed in a Samaritan village. Incensed by the Samaritans’ inhospitality, James and John asked Jesus if they should call down fire on the village. Perhaps they meant, “Should we curse them? Should we ask God to destroy them?” In a modern context, they would be summoning helicopter gunships to lay down napalm.

Jesus’ response was simply to rebuke his disciples—not the Samaritans. (Luke 9:51-55)

For most of his life, Jesus stayed away from trouble. He traveled lightly, depending on local hospitality, and he trained his disciples to turn the other cheek when they were assaulted. The Romans occupied his country, and many Israelites considered them to be the enemy, but Jesus actually doesn’t show much interest in opposing Romans. The few he encounters, he treats as individuals—recognizing the faith of a centurion, for example. (Matthew 8:5-13) The Roman collaborators, the tax collectors, he joins for dinner.

The potential for violence grew as Jesus approached Jerusalem. At least some of Jesus’ disciples were armed, and when Judas and his men approached Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, the disciples asked, “Lord, should we strike them with our swords?” One of them did just that, awkwardly missing and cutting off a man’s ear. Jesus told him to stop, and actually healed the ear. “Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.” (Matthew 26:52)

The climax came when Jesus stood on trial, and the Roman governor, Pilate, tried to make sense of the charge that Jesus was a king.

“Jesus said, ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight….’

“’You are a king, then!’ said Pilate.

“Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.’” (John 18:36-37)

The statement, “My kingdom is not of this world” has often been interpreted to mean, “My kingdom is spiritual and otherworldly.” That cannot be the proper understanding. The Jesus who tramped over Israel laying hands on cripples and feeding crowds was not otherworldly. As Tom Wright has said, Jesus’ kingdom doesn’t come from this world, but it is for this world. Kingdom people don’t fight because heaven offers a better way to further God’s kingdom and care for this world.
Kingdom power comes through truth. The evidence of that was not visible to Pilate, who immediately asked, “What is truth?” But history has proven Jesus correct. Jesus came to earth to testify to the truth. He is still loved and obeyed. He still has an army. Pilate is nothing. He has no lasting power.

This is what the apostle Paul meant when he wrote, “The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds.” (2 Corinthians 10:4)

“Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” (Ephesians 6:12-17)

Paul, instructed by Jesus, took up better weapons than David knew.


It is important to understand that the Son of David is like David: he fights. Jesus is a warrior, but he uses better weapons than David’s. He fights against what invades God’s good creation and threatens to destroy it.

David’s weapons are inferior because, as Jesus said, “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.” David was a great warrior with sling and arrow and sword, and he saved Israel for a time, but the calamity of deadly force never left Israel. Eventually, the Assyrians and the Babylonians and the Romans came along. Israel died by the sword.

One can object, of course, that Jesus’ kingdom hasn’t won all its battles either. An element of mystery and faith comes into play when we try to grasp Jesus’ power. Jesus said he had overcome the world, and we have to take his word for it—or not.

There can be no doubt at all, however, that violence is not effective in the long run. It always leads to more.

We are, therefore, not to follow David’s way, fighting our enemies with violence. We are, however, to imitate David as warriors—people eager to fight.

Like Jesus, who never dodged a fight. Who took on the sick and the demon-possessed and those decked by sin, and healed them. Who witnessed to the truth wherever he went, and with whomever he met. Jesus was a bold warrior who won. Wherever he went, people marveled because they saw him liberating others from whatever held them captive.

Like Jesus, who showed absolute confidence yet never tooted his horn. He relied on his heavenly Father and he pointed his followers that way. He trusted God, even when facing a rigged trial and execution. “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!”

Like Jesus, a skilled warrior whose witness captivated men and women from all walks of life; who never failed in his attempts to heal; who commanded his band of disciples with magnificent direction and led them to victory.

Jesus used entirely different weapons, but he was the son of David.


David: Anointed

March 16, 2018

In January and February I taught a 7-week class on the life of David. As I prepared each week I found myself deeply engrossed. I got a whole new perspective that I’d like to share. This is the first in a series of occasional blog posts–pretty long ones–that take up facets of David’s life and consider how they prefigure the Son of David, Jesus.

David was anointed. Before the Bible tells us anything about his character or his personality, before we see him in action and grasp his capacity for leadership, we hear that Samuel, at God’s instruction, anointed him. It’s a tale that’s often recounted in sermons and Sunday school lessons, because it offers high drama and a great punch line. What is usually missed is what happened after the anointing—or, more precisely, what didn’t happen.

Here is the story: God tells Samuel, the judge and leader of Israel, to stop grieving over Saul, the king whom God has rejected. God sends Samuel to Bethlehem, to Jesse and his eight sons. Samuel is afraid to go, and the elders who meet him in the city are frightened when he arrives. Their fear of arousing Saul’s jealousy is strong, and why not? Samuel is engaged in an act of treason. He is about to choose a new king while the old one is still strong and full of life. Nowhere and never is that a good way to maintain your health.

Samuel pretends he’s just there for a religious service, but Jesse brings his sons, one by one, in front of Samuel. One by one, they are rejected. These are not the ones God wants. David isn’t even present. He’s the youngest, out herding sheep. To his family, he’s insignificant. At Samuel’s insistence they bring him in, and God tells Samuel to anoint him.

What do we know about David at this point? What does Samuel know? Not much. David is young. He’s healthy and good looking. His father doesn’t think much of him. It’s not a great resume for becoming king.

Anointing is done with oil. It has to do with dedicating something to a particular purpose, much in the way that we might dedicate a room as a quiet place for reading, or dedicate a phone line for international calls. In the Pentateuch anointing always has to do with worship. The priests are anointed, and so are their clothes, and the altar in the tabernacle, and the bowls used in the tabernacle, as well as the other utensils, and the tabernacle itself. It is a symbolic way to announce, “These are special. These are set aside for something supremely important.”

Beginning in 1 Samuel, anointing applies to the king. After being anointed, David becomes supremely important, not an ordinary person. He is dedicated to extraordinary work.

The deep background is God’s disappointment with Israel’s leadership. Samuel had anointed King Saul, and Saul disappointed. Before Saul, there were leadership disappointments with Eli and his sons as well, and with Samuel’s sons. Leadership mattered because the nation was in deep trouble. Israel lived in a rough neighborhood, much as it does today. The Philistines, a more technologically advanced people, had invaded. Israel might be overrun by the Philistine army and obliterated—erased as a distinctive people. This is not paranoia. We know with hindsight that it happened to every single kingdom in the region. Ever meet a Gittite? An Ammonite?

The text is at pains to point out that Samuel had no input in choosing David. God overturned his initial idea that Eliab, the oldest son, was the right choice; and then, as one son after another was paraded before him, God rejected each one. We are told that “the Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7) That is the great punchline in all the sermons and Sunday school lessons. We see the outside—the good looks, the charisma, the skills. God sees what is inside, and that is what he cares about. For anybody who ever lacked confidence, who lacked irresistible charm and effortless ability, this is great news. What matters is what is in your heart! A million inspirational self-help messages have been made from this.

This isn’t quite right. The Scriptural message isn’t actually meant to encourage people to try harder and believe more. The message is that God’s ways are inscrutable. We can’t see inside people, but he can. His judgments are beyond our skill set. This is God’s initiative. He does it through Samuel but without his help. God sees all and decides all.

I am very often reminded of this when I volunteer at the Redwood Gospel Mission’s drug and alcohol rehabilitation program. I am assigned to meet one-on-one with men who have entered the 10-month residential program. I love the job, partly because of pure fascination—these men have lived lives that are very different from mine. Also, as I get to know these men, I find I almost always enjoy them. We meet weekly over the course of months, and we get to know each other quite well.

However, I can’t tell you who will be able to stay clean and sober. Sometimes I get a pretty good idea who won’t. If they aren’t fully engaged with the program, if they have big doubts, they probably won’t succeed in it. However, those who seem to have no doubts also often fail. Kicking an addiction is extremely difficult. I can’t see inside them to know who has the character and will to change. I just do my part to help, and wait to see what time will reveal.

God knows exactly who has the stuff to begin a new life. He sees into each person’s heart. He saw into David’s and observed something the other brothers lacked—qualities to make a great king. Thus David was anointed—set apart to lead Israel.


At this point, the story of David’s anointing turns strange. The brothers and the father were present with Samuel at the anointing, but no announcement was made to the general public. No one made any attempt to publicize God’s choice. You might chalk this up to caution, since Saul would take violent exception to being replaced. Surely, though, if David is going to be king, sooner or later an announcement must be made. It never happens. For years to come David will serve as Saul’s personal musician, his army captain, his bete noire, his son-in-law, his son’s best friend. Rumors may suggest that David is God’s choice to be king, but never does David or anybody else blow a trumpet to announce what God has done.

The anointing appears powerless. It effects no change, not even within the family. When the Philistine giant Goliath is taunting Israel’s army, and David inquires what reward will go to someone who defeats him, his brother Eliab (the first one rejected) is fiercely critical: “He burned with anger at [David] and asked, “Why have you come down here? And with whom did you leave those few sheep in the wilderness? I know how conceited you are and how wicked your heart is; you came down only to watch the battle.” (1 Samuel 17:28) Eliab shows no hint of respect for the brother he saw anointed by Samuel. He still sees him as the little sheepherder, with stuck-up ideas about himself.

In the years to come Saul makes David’s life misery. He is threatened, attacked, and forced to run for his life. He lives in the wilderness with a collection of misfits and renegades. David sends his parents into exile out of fear that they, too, will suffer on his behalf. (1 Samuel 22:3)

David makes no attempt whatsoever to change this state of affairs. Twice when Saul falls into his hands he refuses to take action. He could have killed Saul, but he won’t do it. He never refers to himself as the Lord’s anointed. He refers that way to Saul, repeatedly.

Thus we have one of the strangest interludes in the Bible, when God’s chosen king of Israel is on the run from God’s rejected king, and the chosen king does nothing to assert his dignity or his right. He merely tries to stay alive.

David introduces a way of life unique in the Old Testament, and with precious few parallels anywhere: “anointed, but not crowned.”

How long did this powerless interlude go? We can only guess how old David was when he was anointed. Sixteen? Twenty-one? Young enough to be dismissed as insignificant. We know that David was thirty when he was finally crowned king of Judah, and 37 when he was crowned over all Israel. Perhaps he lived “anointed but not crowned” for eight to ten years. Much of David’s reputation was built in this time, when he had nothing, lived on the run, gathered a rag-tag following, and waited.

In the United States, there’s a period between the election and the inauguration called the transition. These months are filled with preparation: possible appointees are interviewed, strategies are rehearsed. For David, the “transition” went on for years, not months, but David made no preparations to take charge.


In the New Testament you encounter a parallel: Jesus. It’s not an exact parallel. It’s an echo.

Jesus’ “anointing” came at his baptism. There God declared him “my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” Instead of oil poured on the head, Jesus received the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. The words do not seem to have been understood by the crowds, nor was the dove seen by many. As with David’s anointing, this was a dramatic event observed by only a few.

It came entirely at God’s initiative. John baptized with water, but God spoke and sent his Spirit. This came despite the fact that Jesus had effectively done nothing to qualify. In all four gospels, John’s baptism came at the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, before he began preaching and healing. “People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

For readers of the Old Testament, the words God uses to identify Jesus at his baptism are loaded with significance. God tells Moses, “Say to Pharaoh, ‘This is what the Lord says: Israel is my firstborn son.’” (Exodus 4:22) In the dramatic Psalm 2, God declares the king, the “anointed one,” as “my son.” (2:7) Simply put, these three things go together: the king, God’s son, the representative of the people of God.

When God calls Jesus “my beloved son” he is identifying him as the Messiah, the king who represents all God’s people.

And yet, as with David’s anointing, there is no follow through. There are no trumpets and no public declaration. There are no plans for the coronation. Jesus is unimpressive to his own family, who come to rein him in because they think he is out of his mind—a scene reminiscent of David’s dressing down by his brother.

Like David, Jesus has impressive enemies. The Pharisees and other religious leaders plot to kill him. Jesus keeps out of harm’s way (until the very end) but he doesn’t rally his own supporters to undermine his enemies. He’s critical of the Pharisees but makes no attempt to replace them in their leadership roles. Nor does he rally opposition to Herod or Pilate or any representative of the Roman empire.

When his home town tries to assassinate him, Jesus just slips away. That’s his strategy for overcoming his enemies: he avoids them.

The only time Jesus acts aggressively is when he charges into the temple with a whip. N.T. Wright is surely correct in asserting that this is a protest, not an insurrection. Jesus upsets business for a single day. What do you think happened to those sales booths the next day? I’m sure they were back at it. Jesus is making a point, but he’s not trying to take over the running of the temple.

Jesus is the true king, but he doesn’t act like it. He doesn’t fight. He doesn’t rule. His only regular activities, really, are proclaiming the truth—preaching—and healing the sick and disabled.

The demons recognized Jesus as the Son of God, and beggars called him the son of David. Yet the crowds that swarmed after Jesus and hung on his words were slow to see him as “the anointed.” When asked about the people’s thoughts, the disciples reported that people considered Jesus a reincarnation of John the Baptist, or one of the prophets. It was a breakthrough moment when Peter said, “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.”

His anointing remained a doubtful matter up to the moment of Jesus’ death. “Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, ‘…Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!’  In the same way the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked him. He saved others,’ they said, ‘but he can’t save himself! He’s the king of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, “I am the Son of God.”’” (Matthew 27:39-43)

Jesus has never been crowned on earth. He has been crowned in heaven. Thus we say, in the apostles’ creed, “He ascended into heaven, where he sits at the right hand of the father.”

Paul wrote, in regard to Jesus’ willing self-sacrifice on the cross,

“Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:9-11)

“God exalted him to the highest place” is in the past tense, but “every knee should bow” is prospective. It has not yet occurred. That is why we continue to pray, “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” It is God’s will (and should be ours) that everyone on earth acknowledge the anointed, and bow before him as king. That is how it is in heaven. But on earth, “the anointed” accepts being treated like a criminal, just as David was. He does not use kingly power to correct the situation. He does not destroy his enemies or announce his coronation.


David spent miserable years “anointed but not crowned”—a fugitive, without a home, alienated from his own country. What a life for the man anointed to be king! Even so, there is undeniable excitement in his life. It is a thrilling period, full of danger and hope. (The contrast with David’s utter wretchedness during his son Absalom’s rebellion is striking.)

Jesus life as “anointed but not crowned” was also trying. He had no home of his own, his own family and his own home town failed to respect him, he was constantly opposed by the most honored people in society. Jesus cried out in frustration, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” (Luke 13:34)

Despite the constant tension of Jesus’ life, it is a thrilling, engrossing story. We would not trade it for anything. Only it needs a resurrection.

We, too—like David, like Jesus–spend our lives “anointed but not crowned.” This is what people mean when they talk about the kingdom of God as “already not yet.” As Peter put it to the first generation of believers, “you are a chosen people.” Yet who can claim that Christians are masters of the universe? We struggle. We often feel homeless and out of place. We experience the pain of being mocked and opposed—and even more commonly we feel ignored and discounted. But we are God’s chosen!

Christians who are “not crowned” can become paranoid, exaggerating our persecution. (Of course, some Christians are persecuted. But in my observing, many more feel persecuted.) The normal response is to become aggressive—to take out after our enemies. We may call it standing our ground, but it easily fills up with verbal put-downs and hostile behavior. It turns from defending the truth to attack mode.

In his “anointed but not crowned” period David refused to take on his own vindication. He didn’t boast that he was God’s choice. (He never even mentioned it.) He respected the king, even while knowing that God had rejected him. He tried to stay out of conflict. When he had the king in his sights, he refused to pull the trigger. He trusted God to crown him, in his own time and his own way.

Similarly Jesus. He knew (and said) the leadership of Israel was rotten. They conspired against him, but he didn’t respond in kind. He did not campaign for Messiah; on the contrary, he usually told people to keep quiet about what he had done for them. Even when tried on phony evidence, tortured, mocked and executed, his mind was not on the unfairness, but on forgiveness. He trusted God to deliver his crown. He never took it in his own hands.

We will be crowned. That is the absolute, unhesitating promise of scripture.

“Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” (2 Timothy 4:8)

“Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.” (James 1:12)

“And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.” (1 Peter 5:4)

“Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer.… Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown.” (Revelation 2:10)

We live as Jesus lived: anointed, not crowned. Our coronation is up to God, not us. He raised Jesus from the dead and crowned him with eternal life. As Jesus told John, “Do not be afraid…. I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive forever.” (Revelation 1:17-18) When the Living One comes, bringing heaven to earth, then we will be crowned with life.

How Did We Get Here?

March 12, 2018

Michael Gerson, best known as George W. Bush’s speechwriter, has a terrific piece in the Atlantic trying to account for evangelical Christians’ embrace of Donald Trump. “It is the strangest story: how so many evangelicals lost their interest in decency, and how a religious tradition called by grace became defined by resentment.” This is the best single account I have read.