Saturday, May 7, 2016

Monarch Profile: King David of Israel

In the history of western civilization probably no other monarch looms as large as King David. As a figure, David dominates the political history of the Jews and, with the rise and spread of Christianity, this ancient king from Jewish tradition also came to play a huge part in the political iconography, traditions and culture of the European Gentiles as well. For the Jews, at least since the death of Joshua, King David became the pivotal figure with everything that happened before his reign, after Joshua, leading up to it and everything that happened to the Jews since being a result of the remarkable life and legacy of King David. For the nation of Israel and later for Christians as well it was King David who set the standard by which all subsequent monarchs were judged. He was the ideal king; humble, faithful, brave, pious and wise. King David has his flaws as well but even in his flaws, he was an example. His mistakes made the point that even the greatest of men was flawed and only God is perfect and when King David made mistakes he atoned for them so that these errors themselves, and how he dealt with them, made him even more of an example to emulate. In short, it would be quite impossible to overstate the legacy of King David and how far reaching it has been.

Of course, for someone from ancient times, there are details about David which remain a mystery but, from Biblical accounts, we do know a surprisingly great deal about him and there have been archaeological discoveries which have supported these accounts, showing that such a man did, actually, exist. Estimates vary but it seems he was born around the year 1000 BC, perhaps in Bethlehem, in the land of Judah. There are hints that he may have had some relation to the Ammonite royal family. He is usually described as being a brave boy of humble origins, a shepherd who became adept at the use of a slingshot while guarding over the family livestock. David fought in the wars against the Philistines and first came to prominence when a giant (and there are numerous accounts of giants in the Bible) named Goliath of Gath challenged the Israelis to send out their champion to face him in single combat. While others lacked the courage to face this monster, young David had faith that if God was on your side, no enemy should be feared and, scorning the use of armor, went out alone armed only with his slingshot, killed Goliath with a stone between the eyes and then cut his head off. The Philistines fled in terror and David became an instant celebrity and was taken in by King Saul as part of his inner-circle.

David became best friends with King Saul’s son Jonathan and married King Saul’s daughter Michal but soon his great deeds and popularity made King Saul jealous of him. Saul arranged to have David killed but the young man thwarted or avoided every attempt on his life and fled from the court to lead his own private army, winning further fame and glory much to Saul’s dismay. It was also this period which demonstrates how David is an example in his loyalty to a monarch who not only harsh and unkind to him but actually tried repeatedly to have him killed. David twice had Saul at his mercy and could have easily killed him but refused to do so, despite the urgings of his followers, because to raise his hand against the King, God’s anointed one, would be a sacrilege. He did, however, point this out to Saul, that he could have killed him but chose not to, which caused even King Saul to confess that David was a better man than he, treating Saul with kindness where Saul had treated David with cruelty. Though finally forced to flee to enemy country, David nonetheless remains loyal to his people and King Saul and kills the messenger who tells him of Saul’s death, saying that “a great man has fallen” in the midst of battle. Of course, part of what had been troubling King Saul was the words of the Prophet Samuel telling him that he had lost favor with God and that his crown would pass to David.

That point is also stressed a great deal that, though David was popular as a handsome, young warrior, it was the will of God rather than man that made him King of Israel. David is given a higher compliment than any mortal man in the Bible in I Samuel 13:14 which says of David, “The Lord has sought out a man after His own heart”. Because of that, King David is still remembered to this day as ‘a man after God’s own heart’. In subsequent battles, David defeats the remaining followers of Saul and becomes the undisputed King of Israel, making the conquered Jebusite city of Jerusalem his capital. With his people united behind him, and being an experienced, talented military leader, King David defeats his enemies and establishes a powerful kingdom, bringing the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem though it is left to his son to build the first magnificent temple in which to house it. At the start of his reign, Israel was a divided nation, probably a vassal of the Philistines, yet King David led them to unity, independence and even domination over a number of neighbors. The Kingdom of Israel did not reach its peak under King David but it was he who certainly laid the foundations.

Of course, for all of the praise King David receives, we are left in no doubt that he was still a mortal man with mortal weaknesses. As is, perhaps, not too surprising, this man who led armies into fierce, hand-to-hand combat, looked death in the face countless times and even triumphed over a giant that had cowed an entire army, was not strong enough to resist the temptations of a beautiful woman. That woman was Bathsheba, the wife of a soldier named Uriah. King David and Bathsheba have an affair and Bathsheba becomes pregnant by him. In an effort to cover up his misdeed, King David has Uriah recalled from the front immediately, thinking that he will sleep with his wife and later everyone will assume the baby is his. However, in keeping with the custom of the time, as a soldier on active duty, Uriah does not sleep with his wife and so, desperate to avoid being found out as an adulterer, David has him sent to the front to be exposed to the greatest danger and killed in battle. However, this does not go unnoticed, the Prophet Nathan admonishes King David and he ultimately confesses and repents of his misdeeds. His apology is sincere but there was still a price to be paid for his wrongdoing. When a number of horrors befell his children, a son rebelled against him and Saul loyalists in the north rebelled, it was all taken as divine retribution on King David for what he had done.

This all served as an important lesson, both to show that God would punish the wicked for their misdeeds, that King David was not a perfect man but also that he would admit to his mistakes and make amends as best he could. It was probably a necessary lesson as otherwise King David would likely seem to good to be true. He represented the epitome of Old Testament kingship. All the troubles of Israel since the death of Joshua kept being traced back to their lack of an orderly succession of recognized leaders. With King David, the monarchy was given lasting divine favor and a legacy that would continue for thousands of years. Not only would special favor be shown to the Davidic dynasty among the Israelis but it would cast a shadow across the world by way of the Christian monarchies that would rise up later. That is because it was in the person of King David that we have the origin of the “Divine Right of Kings”.

Because of how beloved King David was, known as the man after God’s own heart, God made a covenant with King David that was unprecedented. Numerous times throughout Biblical accounts, God made covenants with mankind, invariably with provisions that included the person or people doing something for God, such as keeping His commandments, in exchange for which God would grant some divine favor. However, the covenant with King David was the only such agreement God ever made that was unconditional. God promised to King David that he and all his descendants would have a “divine right” to rule over God’s people and that if any of them did wrong, while God would punish them for that, because of how beloved King David was, their divine right would never be taken away from them. Because of this, no other dynasty held such a sacred significance for the Jews as the House of David did. It is why prophecies of the future Messiah would be bound up with associations with the sacred royal line and why even long after the Kingdom of Israel was a distant memory, Christian monarchs in Europe still found it advantageous to trace their genealogy back to King David.

Although exact dates are not known, King David probably died sometime around the year 961 BC. Under other circumstances he would be too large and lofty a figure to truly grasp, someone more suited to myths and fables than actual history. Yet, while there are aspects of his story that certainly could be read that way, few serious historians doubt that King David was quite real. His impact on Israel and later “Judeo-Christian” culture cannot be exaggerated. It was he who made Israel a united, independent nation state. It was he who established a royal line that would hold power for the next 400 years, it was he who made Jerusalem a capital city and center of the Jewish religion. For Christians, it was his line that would produce the Messiah, born in the city of his birth, crucified in the city that he ruled from and who was put to death on the accusation of claiming to be “King of the Jews”. King David also set the standard for what an ideal ruler was supposed to be for many, many generations to come. Everyone is familiar with his story. The story of the young boy who fought off the wolves to protect his sheep, the boy playing his harp to sooth the troubled brow of King Saul, the wiry youth who killed a giant, the faithful friend, the loyal subject, the heroic warrior-king. He is a larger-than-life figure.

And yet, King David also appears all too real and all too human. We see a real person in him rather than some marble image of Olympian perfection. His bravery on the battlefield did not match his character at home, where he surrendered to the temptations of lust and then plotted and schemed to cover up his crime in fear of being discovered. As a warrior-king he was unmatched but as a statesman-king or administrator-king he seemed to have less ability. His reign was often troubled and based on the actions of his children, he was not as good a father as he was a general. He could be indecisive, often refused to see facts that were painful to him and could be self-indulgent at times. All of that makes him human and he was just as aware of that as anyone. He was not perfect but he was ‘a man after God’s own heart’ and someone who many believed to be so pious that his prayers could bring down any favor from Heaven. Christians would later see him as a precursor of Jesus, giving him a feast day in the Eastern and Western Churches and ranking him among the “Nine Worthies” who best embodied the ideals of chivalry. Monarchs from three continents found it helpful to claim descent from him. Today, politics is a world away from where it was when King David was important even as a symbol but there is no denying that for most of the history of western civilization he was a colossal figure, the standard against which all others were judged.

4 comments:

  1. The divinity of kings has always been troubling for me. If a monarch as been elevated to the throne by god's will, then he should hardly have to make the case for divinity. Nor should he require religious institutions to buttress his power. Divinity would be self apparent as in the case of David.

    More critically, if monarchs serve by God's will, it follows that they may be similarly removed by his will. I often contemplate this when I consider the dishonest nature of politicians and what passes for discourse in the democratic system.

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  2. What a wonderful article from the MM. You made my day! :)

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  3. "How great you are, O Sovereign LORD! There is no one like you, and there is no god but You, just as we have understood." - 1 Chronicles 17:20

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  4. i like the jewish kings of the divided monarchy! when you make the profile over them?

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