David consolidates power, assumes the throne of Israel, and captures Jerusalem as the new capital.
David returns to Ziklag from chasing the Amalekites, an important action because it totally exonerates him from having any hand in the death of Saul. In fact, it isn’t until three days later that he even hears about the death of Saul, and of his son Jonathan. His actions concerning the Amalekite who brings him the message are very important in securing the path towards his future. The messenger is expecting a reward, not only for bringing the news of Saul’s death, but for helping the king escape being captured, and probably tortured, by acceding to his wishess and finishing him off after his botched suicide attempt.
David, however, sees it very differently. Instead of looking at this as an act of mercy, he sees it as regicide. And this is not a pattern of behavior he wants to encourage. It probably didn’t help that the guy was an Amalekite, part of the tribe that David and his crew had just finished chasing and fighting. David wants to establish two things. One) He wants everyone to see that raising your hand against the king, no matter what your motivation is, will have drastic consequences. Two) By punishing the man, instead of rewarding him, he makes it absolutely clear he had nothing to do with the death of Saul. If he would have rewarded him, there would always be talk that he planned the whole thing.
So David, ever the “Renaissance Man,” composes a dirge that he orders the Judites, a group of temple singers, to learn for a public display of mourning. While his sadness may be real, it is also a politically savvy move in that it demonstrates for everyone that he is sad at the loss and that he had no hand in it. Remember, he’s been living with the Philistines, and he needs to buff up his reputation if he is ever to be king of Israel.
We are now in a time of transition, and David has to be, and is being, very careful about what he is doing. He still has his eyes set on being the king of Israel, but he knows that what is going to happen in the days to come will be very important in deciding that future. He prays to the Lord about what his next move should be, and he gently moves into Judah and stays there for a period of 7½ years. This is important, because it establishes that David is not “grabbing power,” but rather allowing the situation to evolve to show everyone that when he becomes king, it will be the will of God, not just his ambition.
Now begins the curious “dance” that will establish David as the king of Israel and
Judah. His commander, Joab, meets the commander of Ishbosheth’s army, Abner (remember he’d been the commander under Saul), and they have a rather strange “contest” in which all of the participants die. Ostensibly this contest was meant to take place of the battle that was looming, but that idea dies along with the participants.
The battle begins, and Abner’s side loses. He has to run for his life. Joab and his
brothers give chase, and the youngest brother, being the fastest one, hounds Abner. Abner tries several times to get the young man, Asahel, to give up the chase. But the young man sees glory in his future and refuses. As a last resort, Abner kills him with the butt end of his spear. This is significant, because it shows that Abner only meant to incapacitate the young man instead of killing him. So the death of Asahel can be excused on several reasons. One) Abner tried to talk him out of the chase. Two) Abner didn’t intend to kill him; at the worst, his death was an accident. If he had meant to kill him, he would have used the pointed end of the spear. Three) At any rate, the death was in the middle of a prolonged battle. It was an act of war, not murder. Joab, as we will see later, does not see it that way.
The war continues. Note that the story refers to the army of Ishbosheth as the “House of Saul.” Ishbosheth is only a figurehead, as we will see. Abner is the true power in Israel, and conflict is inevitable. Abner takes one of Saul’s concubines for himself. This is an act of usurpation that Ishbosheth immediately comes down on him for. Ishbosheth knows that if Abner starts with the concubines, the crown will be the next thing he reaches for.
Abner takes umbrage at being rebuked and uses this conflict as an excuse to begin talks with David about a transition of power in Israel. Note that the impetus for these talks comes from Abner, not from David. This direction of power once again will establish that David does not start the conspiracy that is to ensue.
David and Abner begin negotiations. As a show of good faith, David demands the return of his wife, Michal, daughter of Saul, before any further steps can be taken. This serves two purposes. One) David has a righteous claim on her as he never divorced her. Two) Her presence in his house again will help legitimize his transition into the kingship. He can maintain that Saul had intended him to be in the line of succession all along by allowing him to marry his daughter.
Joab, however, sees thing differently. First of all, he knows Abner is not going to be satisfied with just being given a farm and retiring. There can only be one purpose for Abner’s negotiation. He wants to be the chief of the armies of the combined kingdoms. That is, understandably, a job that Joab sees as rightfully his. He fought with David though the lean years; now he is not going to take second place to the guy he fought against. And he knows that sooner or later Abner is going to see him as a threat and take care of him. Secondly, there is the blood feud between them over the death of his younger brother Asahel.
So Joab takes matters into his own hands. This is very important, because once again it exonerates David from the actions that are to come. Joab kills Abner without telling David that he was going to do so. David then goes into another public display of grief that, while it may be real, also further absolves him of any guilt in the matter. The only lingering part of guilt that remains is in his not taking any action against Joab for the murder other than forcing them to mourn with him. It might not have been pleasant for Joab to do so, but it sure beat getting killed in retaliation.
Now that David has a clear shot at becoming king of Israel, Ishbosheth feels that he needs to get out of town. So he flees and attempts to hide from David but falls prey to men who think they will curry favor with David by delivering his head. But David stays true to form. While he benefits from the assassination, he once again punishes those who would dare to raise their hand against the king. He is trying very diligently to establish that while he might benefit from the act, he will not reward those who would strike down the regent. A life insurance policy that he hopes will extend into his own rule – but that has different application when the perpetrator is a bit closer to home.
David now begins to establish himself as the king of Israel. The first thing he does is to attack Jerusalem to take the capital for himself. We don’t get many details about the battle, other than that the Jebusites resisted him. But the city fell to him, and David established it as his capital. Once he is established as the next king, all the tribes of Israel and the neighboring kings begin to send tribute to him. David takes on more wives and concubines and has more children, firmly establishing himself as a kingly presence in Israel.
The Philistines don’t like what they hear, so they decide to send an army to take down the new king before he can consolidate his power. David, once again after consulting the Lord, goes out and defeats the Philistines at Baal-perazim.
The Philistines try again at Rephaim. But instead of confronting them in a pitched
battle, the Lord changes his tactics for him. He is told to go into the trees and when he “hears the sound of marching” in the trees (undoubtedly a strong wind blowing) to charge out and hit the Philistines. David follows God’s directions and wins the battle, driving the Philistines back to Gezer.
We then have a curious story about David, God, the Ark of the Covenant, and David’s desire to build a temple for the Ark. As the Ark is being transported, an accident happens, and it starts to fall from the cart. A man named Uzzah tries to prevent it from falling and puts his hand on the Ark. It was forbidden for anyone to touch the ark except for the priests who are intended to guard it. Uzzah’s action – undoubtedly the source of the saying “no good deed goes unpunished” – is struck down by the Lord for the offence of putting his hand on the Ark. This action, harsh though it may be, reinforces how special the Ark is to God and to Israel.
So David finds a nice place for the Ark to be secured and goes to sacrifice in honor of the event. In doing so, he becomes overwhelmed with the spirit and begins to dance extravagantly, some say nakedly, in celebration. Michal sees this and becomes very upset. Remember she was born into royalty and “knows how one should act.” David’s dance reaffirms his common upbringing and further feeds her anger at being taken away from a husband that she loved. She and David quarrel over it, and David winds up putting her in a kind of a prison. A luxurious prison no doubt, but she will be locked away for the rest of her life, never to know the joy of having a child of her own.
David feels he should honor God by building a proper place for the Ark of the Covenant to reside. The Ark is a very important artifact for Israel, as we saw in I Samuel. So it is only logical that David would want to build a proper place for it to reside. It is not precisely made clear why the Lord does not want David to build the house for the Ark. Some speculate that his hands were too “bloody” to build the temple. Others will say that postponing the construction provides the means to establish the expectation that David’s heirs will do so. In postponing the construction, God is assuring David that there is no rush to build a temple. His Ark has lived on the road for many years; a few more won’t hurt. David’s job is to establish the kingdom; God will take care of the heritage part.
Nathan the prophet brought all of this to the king. Think for a moment about the job this prophet had. He has a very strong-willed king who may be on the verge of building a “monument to himself.” This, I believe, is the real reason God did not want David to build the temple. David is on a high right now. His star is rising so far he can barely breathe anymore. Look at the response that David has to Nathan’s words. It is an elegy that on one hand is quite humbling. David gives all of the credit to God for all of his success, but deep inside of him still lays the heart of a man, and a little voice that is screaming “Look at what I’ve done.”
God can see the rumblings in David’s heart and knows that nothing good comes from such feelings. Pride is one of the seven deadly sins for a reason, and in the story yet to come, we’ll see the outcome of pride.
Now David is on a roll. He attacks the Philistines, and the Moabites (with whom he had family ties – remember his grandmother Ruth was a Moabite and how he parked his family with them when he was running from Saul?). Then he whips Hadadezer and the Arameans. He also beats up on the Edomites and establishes control of those lands. That’s the story.
But historians and Biblical scholars say there may be a bit of hyperbole. The victories he is describing would take an amazing army, one that many doubt David had at his disposal.
This may be the case, as stories do tend to grow. There is an old expression that goes, “Do you know the difference between a war story and a fairy tale? One begins ‘Once upon a time….’ The other begins ‘There I was….’” And these stories of David’s conquests may be along those lines. There may well be some exaggeration of his conquests. Yet it could be that the storyteller is recounting something else for folks. There could be a subtle inference here that acknowledges that David and his army could not have done all these things – on their own.
Remember the “David and Goliath” story? There is no way a little shepherd boy could go out and, with three stones, defeat a giant warrior. But he did, and the reason he did was that God was with him. It was impossible, yet it happened. The same thing could be going on here. This is impossible – except that God made the impossible possible. This is still a story not so much about David, Saul, and anyone else, but a story of how God can work though human beings, combining his strength with their effort to accomplish things they could not even imagine doing on their own.
Week Two class will be on Wednesday 14 March.