A super-ultra-mega-perfect-franken-storm is inching toward the east coast like an alien mothership, so this might be our last chance to talk about the BOOK…
Hello, and welcome to BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody, I’m Josh Way. Today we’ll wrap up our look at the Hebrew scrolls called “Samuel.” The first scroll introduced us to Israel’s prophets and kings, and the deep tension between those two offices. 2 Samuel focuses more on David’s rule and legacy, and as such it is more fundamentally about the king side of the equation. In light of that, it’s important that we say a few things about kings and the bible.
When we read about kings and kingdoms in the bible, we are at a peculiar disadvantage. Our European heritage stands between us and the ancient near-eastern world of the bible, and has undeniably colored our interpretation of these texts. Words like “king,” “shepherd,” and “wilderness” conjure up images of golden crowns, plush robes, tapestries, and rolling green hills and meadows. We easily forget that the world of the bible was quite a different place, and “kingship” itself was quite a different institution. The “wilderness” of the bible is more properly a barren desert, and a king is not so much a “king” as a governor or ruler. And in Israel, the king does not have unlimited power – he is hierarchically subservient to the Temple and the high priests, and he is regularly kept in check by prophets. His main duty is to be the chief law-keeper. In fact, according to Deuteronomy 17, the first duty of Israel’s king was to write out long-hand a copy of the Torah, and then to study it every day so the covenant might live in his heart and mind. So while the kings of old from the great pagan cultures (like Mesopotamia and Babylon) were judged according to their great wealth and achievements, the kings of the bible were to be judged according to their loyalty to the covenant law.
With that rubric in mind, we turn to 2 Samuel and the reign of David. It took thirty-one long chapters of intrigue and conflict in 1 Samuel to clear a path for David to become the nation’s first great king. The first item of business for the anointed king, however, is not to assume power or make a decree. In 1 Samuel chapter one, David mourns Saul and his son Jonathan – his own close friend. And he does so as only he could, with a beautiful poem. Starting in verse 19:
19 Your glory, O Israel, Lies slain on your heights; How have the mighty fallen!
20 Tell it not in Gath, Do not proclaim it in the streets of Ashkelon, Lest the daughters of the Philistine rejoice, Lest the daughters of the uncircumcised exult.
21 O hills of Gilboa — Let there be no dew or rain on you, Or bountiful fields, For there the shield of warriors lay rejected, The shield of Saul, Polished with oil no more.
22 From the blood of slain, from the fat of warriors – The bow of Jonathan Never turned back; The sword of Saul Never withdrew empty.
23 Saul and Jonathan, Beloved and cherished, Never parted In life or in death! They were swifter than eagles, They were stronger than lions!
24 Daughters of Israel, Weep over Saul, Who clothed you in crimson and finery, Who decked your robes with jewels of gold.
25 How have the mighty fallen In the thick of battle — Jonathan, slain on your heights!
26 I grieve for you, My brother Jonathan, You were most dear to me. Your love was wonderful to me More than the love of women.
27 How have the mighty fallen, The weapons of war perished!
You would hardly guess that Saul had so mercilessly pursued David to kill him and preserve his own illegitimate claim to the throne. David’s sensitivity to his rival is part of his kingly character, as the prophet Samuel had called him, “a man after God’s own heart.” In the literary presentation, the author offers this as evidence that David came to power in innocence and legitimacy.
And so David, at last, takes the throne – but NOT the throne of all Israel. David is made king over Judah – the catch-all name for the collected southern tribes. But in the north – collectively and confusingly called “Israel” – a son of Saul named Ish-bosheth assumes his father’s throne. And so, David’s struggle continues, the houses of David and Saul go to war, and Israel is once again divided. After seven years of conflict, David’s top general Joab murders Ish-bosheth’s top general Abner, turning the tide and leading to Judah’s victory. David celebrates his triumph in his trademark manner, in 2 Samuel 3:32…
 And the king lifted up his voice and wept at the grave of Abner, and all the people wept.  And the king lamented for Abner, saying,
“Should Abner die as a fool dies?
 Your hands were not bound;
your feet were not fettered;
as one falls before the wicked
you have fallen.”
And all the people wept again over him.
David is re-anointed (for the third time, I think), and swiftly establishes his reign over all Israel. His first act is to capture a city called Jerusalem, where he builds himself a palace and sets up the tabernacle. Of course Jerusalem would remain the capital of Israel for its entire national life, and today remains geographically and symbolically central to those of Jewish heritage. Then – after winning a palpable victory over the Philistines and driving them out of the land – David has what is perhaps his most significant encounter with God in 2 Samuel 7.
David decides, having established a permanent home for himself in Jerusalem, that he should build a permanent “house” for God – a Temple. He is ready to order its construction when word comes through the prophet Nathan that God has different plans. Beginning in verse 5 of 2 Samuel 7:
5 “Go and say to My servant David: Thus said the LORD: Are you the one to build a house for Me to dwell in? 6 From the day that I brought the people of Israel out of Egypt to this day I have not dwelt in a house, but have moved about in Tent and Tabernacle. 7 As I moved about wherever the Israelites went, did I ever reproach any of the tribal leaders whom I appointed to care for My people Israel: Why have you not built Me a house of cedar?
8 “Further, say thus to My servant David: Thus said the LORD of Hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the flock, to be ruler of My people Israel, 9 and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut down all your enemies before you. Moreover, I will give you great renown like that of the greatest men on earth. 10 I will establish a home for My people Israel and will plant them firm, so that they shall dwell secure and shall tremble no more. Evil men shall not oppress them any more as in the past, 11 ever since I appointed chieftains over My people Israel. I will give you safety from all your enemies. “The LORD declares to you that He, the LORD, will establish a house for you.
12 When your days are done and you lie with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, one of your own issue, and I will establish his kingship.
13 He shall build a house for My name, and I will establish his royal throne forever.
14 I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to Me. When he does wrong, I will chastise him with the rod of men and the affliction of mortals; 15 but I will never withdraw My favor from him as I withdrew it from Saul, whom I removed to make room for you.
16 Your house and your kingship shall ever be secure before you; your throne shall be established forever.”
David will not build a house for God, but God will build a house – in this sense a “dynasty” – for David. Two significant things are happening here: 1) David’s household is being established and legitimized through a prophet of the LORD, and 2) the old covenant is being renewed and updated for Israel’s current circumstance. The covenant, first established with Abraham and then re-established with Jacob and Moses and Joshua, is the one about the OFFSPRING being blessed in the LAND. In previous iterations of the covenant, the OFFSPRING and the LAND have been contentious, elusive, in-danger. Now, God says “you’ve got the right FAMILY in the right PLACE,” and the blessing can commence. This is excellent news, but it does not come without a caveat.
Verse 14, the basis of much messianic speculation among Jews AND Christians, introduces a note of warning: “I will be a father to him, and he will be a son to me, and when he does wrong, I will punish him with the rod of men, but I will never withdraw my favor.” Anyone who knows Israel’s history beyond this point knows that the “rod of men” has a particularly nasty sting to it. In fact, this tiny warning seems to overwhelm and endanger the entire promise – calling the whole thing into question. But we’ll deal with all of this in great detail in future podcasts.
And so, the crisis of Israel’s national period is – for the moment – resolved. The answer to the problem of civil war and muddled identity, is centralized government and religion. A good king ruling from the palace, and good priests serving in the tabernacle. As long as this system is staffed with worthy people, Israel will be blessed and God’s original purposes through Israel, going back to Genesis 12 (to “bless the nations”) will move forward. Unfortunately, the human element in Israel’s systems of government and religion continues to reveal its… humanness.
The immediate fallout of the Davidic Covenant is all kinds of success and warm feelings. Enemies are defeated and driven out, David grows in influence and renown, and he even seeks out the remnant of Saul’s family – a disabled young man named Mephibosheth – to show him kindness and love. But then, in chapter 11, Israel’s greatest king – and chief law-keeper – stumbles for the first time. And it’s a big stumble.
From the roof of his palace David spies a beautiful woman bathing and becomes fascinated with her. He arranges to meet the married woman, named Bathsheba, and impregnates her. Instead of admitting his trespass and seeking atonement through the priests, David attempts to cover up the deed. He sends for her husband Uriah, who is a grunt in one of David’s wars against Israel’s neighbor-enemies, hoping he will lie with his wife and no one will be the wiser. It doesn’t happen, so David arranges to have Uriah sent to the front lines, where he is killed. The king, in effect, murders his secret lover’s husband – a completely innocent man.
In 2 Samuel 12 Nathan the prophet confronts David in one of the juiciest prophet/king exchanges. Here it is:
1 But the LORD was displeased with what David had done, and the LORD sent Nathan to David. He came to him and said, “There were two men in the same city, one rich and one poor. 2 The rich man had very large flocks and herds, 3 but the poor man had only one little ewe lamb that he had bought. He tended it and it grew up together with him and his children: it used to share his morsel of bread, drink from his cup, and nestle in his bosom; it was like a daughter to him.
4 One day, a traveler came to the rich man, but he was loath to take anything from his own flocks or herds to prepare a meal for the guest who had come to him; so he took the poor man’s lamb and prepared it for the man who had come to him.”
5 David flew into a rage against the man, and said to Nathan, “As the LORD lives, the man who did this deserves to die! 6 He shall pay for the lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and showed no pity.”
7 And Nathan said to David, “That man is you! Thus said the LORD, the God of Israel: ‘It was I who anointed you king over Israel and it was I who rescued you from the hand of Saul. 8 I gave you your master’s house and possession of your master’s wives; and I gave you the House of Israel and Judah; and if that were not enough, I would give you twice as much more.9 Why then have you flouted the command of the LORD and done what displeases Him?”
It’s not simply that David broke the law. That’s bad enough, but the law itself provides means by which to own up and clean up after a misdeed. David’s offense is much worse: he acted in secret, in self-interest, and was willing to kill an innocent person rather than admit his sin. This behavior is more in line with a rejected king like Saul than a “man after God’s own heart.” Nathan declares that God will no longer spare Israel from its enemies, and David’s first child with Bathsheba becomes sick and dies. They have a second child, a son named Solomon.
The rest of the book is characterized by strife: strife at the national level, as Israel battles its enemies on every side, and strife at the family level as David’s household implodes. His son Amnon becomes infatuated with his half-sister Tamar, and he lures her into his chamber and rapes her. Her brother Absalom learns of the violation and murders Amnon. This type of perverted family trouble has become uncomfortably familiar in the bible, and is always the author’s way of indicating that Israel has continued to wander farther and farther from the covenant. Sexual politics and fratricide are inversions and mockeries of the basic human relationships which prove untenable for people looking after their own interests. We’re back outside the garden again.
Absalom must flee from Jerusalem, and in his time away becomes embittered and power-hungry. He returns later to challenge his father’s throne. Absalom’s threat is real enough that David must flee, a sad echo of his time as a fugitive from Saul years earlier. This time, the bad guy is his own son! Ultimately, David’s faithful officers defeat and kill Absalom, once more making the king very sad.
David reclaims his throne, and the final few chapters of 2 Samuel detail the turbulent times in which Israel finds itself. In addition to the ongoing wars, there are rebellions, and famines. As awful as it all is, we are mindful of the covenant promise in chapter 7 and the warning to the king who fails to be Israel’s chief lawkeeper. In the middle of all the bad news at the end of the Samuel scroll, we get two more poems from David: a prayer of thankfulness at the end of his life, and his “last words.”
We’ll close out this week’s podcast with those final words of David, found in 2 Samuel 23:
1 These are the last words of David: The utterance of David son of Jesse, the utterance of the man set on high, The anointed of the God of Jacob, the favorite of the songs of Israel:
2 The spirit of the LORD has spoken through me, His message is on my tongue;
3 The God of Israel has spoken, The Rock of Israel said concerning me: “He who rules men justly, He who rules in awe of God 4 Is like the light of morning at sunrise, a morning without clouds — Through sunshine and rain Bringing vegetation out of the earth.”
5 Is not my House established before God? For He has granted me an eternal pact, Drawn up in full and secured. Will He not cause all my success and my every desire to blossom?
6 But the wicked shall all Be raked aside like thorns; For no one will take them in his hand.
7 Whoever touches them Must arm himself with iron and the shaft of a spear; And they are consumed with fire.
A wiser, aging David, looking back on his life, burned by the “rod of men” as a direct result of his own ill deeds, still believes in the covenant. He still believes in the house that God established in Jerusalem, which will stand forever in an “eternal pact.” This is royal theology, often over against prophetic theology, two sides of the same coin – nationalized Israel. From here the literature will follow the descendants of David and the prophets who challenge them and their power. And ultimately, Israel will face its most unexpected and cataclysmic crisis, a historical rift which will produce some of the most remarkable literature ever known to mankind. And we’ll make some podcasts about it.
Until then, this has been BOOK, and I have been Josh Way. If you enjoyed this podcast, I urge you to share, blog, like, and tweet it to your online friends and family. If you have any comments, questions or constructive feedback, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also leave a voicemail at 801-760-3013, and maybe I’ll answer it on the podcast. Read the BOOK blog and find more content at BOOK.JOSHWAY.COM. That’s it for me, Bible pals. I’ll catch you next time.