King David. Sigh. What can I say? The guy gives me heartburn.
I loved David when I was a kid. He was the boy who beat Goliath by being brave and believing God. Veggie Tales taught my daughter that “little guys can do big things, too.” The felt board stories in Sunday school taught me that David was “a man after God’s own heart.” He beat the bad guys. He established Jerusalem. He was a poor kid who grew up to be king. I mean, come on! That is a Disney prince story right there. I loved him just like every other kid who heard about David in church.
You may have noticed that I stopped posting here right in the middle of the book of Ruth back in August of 2017. Well, it happened because I was reading Samuel and Kings and Chronicles for the first time during the weeks I struggled to write about Ruth. It was a season when I was flying through Scripture with ecstatic abandon. Leviticus lit me up and Judges drove me into deep reflection and study. Ruth was such a beautiful story. It was utterly exhilarating. It was…a religious experience. After finishing Ruth, I moved into 1 Samuel with excitement. I adored Samuel and got frustrated with Saul, and then I finally reached the introduction of David. I had been waiting for this. I knew nothing about the David story except that he was the hero of Israel in the Old Testament. He was a king, he killed Goliath, and he committed adultery. That was all I knew, and I couldn’t wait to read the whole thing. There he was, a handsome, obedient, and loyal shepherd boy who was rejected by his brothers and not even counted by his father among the sons. Finally, I was going to learn about David. This was gonna be great! But it wasn’t great.
David stopped me cold.
The story of David I was reading in the Bible painted the picture of a man who bore very little resemblance to the one I heard about from pulpits and felt-board stories and devotionals. Everyone loves David.
But I couldn’t.
Generally, it’s a good rule in life to say that if literally everyone else is fine and you’re not? The problem is you. I went with that. I kinda froze in my Bible work. As I’ve said from the beginning, I’m new to all of this. I am in my second year as an all-in believer, and I am just about to enter my third year of studying Scripture. I have a fire lit in me for the Lord, but it’s a new flame. I had just plowed through Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles for the first time, and I felt sick…about David.
On one page, I’m feeling terrible for him. Here he is, the innocent victim of a paranoid king on a demon-induced rage bender. David has been separated from his adoring young wife, his family, his possessions, and his place of honor. He is homeless, running for his life from a crazy person, and crying out to God for deliverance. I’m on his team. I’m really invested in this faithful man with a heart for God, and I cannot wait to find out what comes next.
On literally the next page, he lies to a priest and gets 85 men killed for some bread and a sword. On the next, he has two new wives and has abandoned the first so thoroughly that her dad married her off to another man. The next time his women are mentioned, there are three wives and three concubines listed. David has certainly been busy. Next, we see him adopting piracy as his profession, raiding and pillaging for a Philistine king. He lies to the man who is feeding and keeping him, and he’s picking up more women at every stop.
My disappointment was acute. I was actually shocked by the turn of events and frequently read passages twice to make sure I’d read them correctly. Everyone loves this guy. Everyone adores this guy. Everyone wants to be like this guy. He was the man after God’s own heart, chosen and anointed, beloved by every Christian and Jew who ever read his story. Right? Surely, I must be reading it incorrectly. Surely, it will get better if I just keep reading.
No. No, it most decidedly did not.
I was getting angry in the margins again in a way I hadn’t experienced since reading Genesis all those months ago. The stories I’d always been told about David turned out to be just a tiny fraction of his place in the Bible. The stories that make him a hero faded out of prominence because, like all humans, David was anything but a hero, sometimes. God uses imperfect, unlikely people to do His work. It seems to be “His way.” I love that! How great is our God that he can use somebody like Nebuchadnezzar or Balaam or Rahab or Saul of Tarsus or, apparently, David to accomplish something massive for His glory? It tells us that even though we are weak and sinful and mortal and small…God can use us. That is such a message of hope and joy.
But this story was bleak and it kept getting worse. I wrestled through the rest of Samuel. I wrestled through Kings. By the time I got to Chronicles, I was tired of wrestling. Sadly, like David’s beleaguered and abandoned wife, I despised David in my heart, and that really, really bothered me.
God loved this man. This man loved God. David’s own words make up huge portions of the Psalms. David is constantly praised and revered by the prophets and apostles. He is positively adored by Christian pastors and teachers. For the Jewish people, David is almost as important as Abraham. I knew without doubt that my attitude was wrong. I was missing something, and so I started looking for extra-biblical sources to help me get my heart straight on this story.
As I worked through podcasts and commentary, I discovered the source of my upset. I made it through Judges without this kind of angst, and some of those people were seriously worse than David. It wasn’t David. It was the “church” that had me in knots. It was the way my fellow Christians loved David when–it seemed to me–they could not possibly have read the same story I just read. I got angry looking through study guide after study guide, sermon after sermon. Everyone studiously avoided the ugly parts of David’s story (like they weren’t even there), or they blamed someone other than David for David’s shortcomings (usually a woman).
In video resources on David, the pastors and teachers would universally adopt a gooey look of admiration when speaking about him. A lot of them would dramatically turn their faces up and burst into spontaneous prayer asking God to make them more like David. He’s a hero. After God’s own heart. Lord, make me like David.
I don’t come here to lie, so I’ll just tell you straight: It all smacked of idolatry, and it all made me absolutely livid.
I had worked through more than half of the Bible at that point, and I wasn’t about to quit. I wasn’t going to be defeated by an emotional response to bad exposition from pulpits and YouTube and iTunes. So I read it again. I read it in different translations. I looked through articles and books and blogs to find even a hint at someone else having the same struggle. I found one article that took note of the same things I was dealing with in David’s story, but it was extremely biased with a political agenda the author didn’t even have the grace to try and disguise. It was utterly useless for helping me resolve anything.
I wasn’t progressing, and I was no longer writing, so I admitted a temporary defeat. I shelved the David story and moved on to other studies. Nearly a year passed.
2018 came. A group of absolutely delightful young women in my neighborhood posted a Bible study about David. Time had removed my exhaustion with the books of Samuel and Chronicles. I wasn’t angry anymore. I’d been in the Gospels and James and Paul, and I felt reinvigorated for another run at my beloved Old Testament. I felt ready to tackle my David problem again. So I joined the study group.
This second trip through Samuel and David’s Psalms has been a mixed bag of frustration and hope. The glorious and consuming rabbit hole of Bible study grabbed me by the heart, so it was exhilarating…and hard. Hating David all over again, doubting myself, asking questions that nobody seemed to have an answer for, and pleading with God to show me what I was supposed to see in His Word. This is what wrestling with Scripture looks like. It looks like doubt and frustration and anxiety and self-recrimination for feeling all of the above…and it looks like study. It’s notebooks and highlighters and pens and post-its and commentary books and late nights reading until the sun comes up.
Bible reading ain’t Bible study, y’all. Bible study is an exhausting discipline that requires time and endurance and a little bit of trust. With the help of my study group, my online Bible nerd group, and the patient indulgence of a few friends, I finally broke out on the other side of David. I feel like I’ve got a grip on what the ugly bits in David’s story can teach us and what they might have meant to the original audience. I think God’s allowed me to see a little bit of what He wants us to get out of this text.
Here’s the thing: David was a hero, both for Israel and for God. He was an awesome warrior. He was generally obedient to God and the Law, and he repented when he fell short. He deeply desired to be God’s faithful servant. He was also a man who sinned against God and a lot of people. He was a terrible father. He was a terrible husband. He was corrupted by power. The kicker is that God warned Israel about all of that before David ever came on the scene.
A friend named Matthew gave me this example, and it was the most helpful thing anyone gave me in my search for reconciliation with David. He said (and I’m liberally paraphrasing):
It’s like Lord of the Rings. David is Frodo, the young, pure-hearted hobbit. He is the best of what his people have to offer. He is faithful, loyal, brave, and talented. He is good. God gives him the Ring, and David obediently takes off for Mordor. The weight of being the ring bearer crushed him. The evil of the ring itself corrupted him. And despite being the best example of a man that Israel had ever produced, David still couldn’t make it to Mount Doom without falling down. The responsibility and the power just broke him.
That is the story of David. If you can set down your lifetime of traditions about David and just go through the text with me, you will see SO MUCH MORE than you ever realized his story had to show you. It is a huge, sweeping saga that covers so much ground. It is breathtaking, and it is complicated, and it is both joyful and deeply tragic. There is more to David than Goliath and Bathsheba. So, so much more.
Can you stick with me on this? It was a very worthwhile journey for me, and though there are several parts of this story that even scholars can’t seem to agree on, I think I’ve got a decent grasp of the major themes, now. Several things that were really cloudy got much clearer, and I want to share those with you. I’m going to close this first one out now, but I will supply a plain listing below of the “issues” I wrestled. I will come back in future posts to walk through the text one piece at a time.
I will, no doubt, get some of it wrong. As ever, I invite correction and discussion as long as it’s honest, kind, and given in the spirit of Christian unity we were commanded by Christ to keep.
The exposition (sermons and traditional teaching) on David from the pulpit and Sunday school classroom is, in my limited experience, inadequate, incomplete, or incorrect. The following describes the major issues I had with David’s story after my first reading last year, and I will do my best to go through it all in future posts and share with you where I’ve landed on all of it.
1.) David’s life and work are a brilliant illustration that corrupt humanity needs a messiah and that corrupt humanity is incapable of providing that messiah for itself. David is a heroic warrior king who defeated Israel’s enemies, renewed Israel’s relationship with God, and lifted Israel to prominence for the glory of God’s name. But David is not Jesus. He is not to be worshipped, and he is not to be followed. For the original audience, David’s story is a reminder that God raised up a king after the time of the Judges to deliver His covenant people from their enemies. God was still with them, still blessing them, and still fulfilling his promises to them. David was a template for the promised Messiah, and he was proof that God had not forsaken his people after the judges.
For Christians, we see in David’s example the template for Messiah and the failure of corrupt humanity to fill that role. It’s that last bit that gets lost on us most of the time. The “man after God’s own heart” verse has been widely abused in order to avoid talking about the hard stuff in Samuel, and that abuse is the product of cognitive dissonance and intellectual laziness. It needs to stop. David’s good example for us is one of faith, repentance, and seeking God’s favor in all things. In these ways, he rose far above generations of his countrymen, but context is key. Putting David into his rightful and proper place is the first lesson I had to shove through, and it was a huge part of the struggle for me.
2.) David’s first and true wife under the Law, Michal, takes up more widespread real estate in the story than any other woman mentioned in David’s life. Michal’s story is important, and the real tragedy is that you’ve probably never heard of her. If you have heard of her, it’s probably limited to “she hated David for worshipping God.” Except…that isn’t the story unless you ignore all the context (which the vast majority of exegesis on the applicable verses does). Michal’s long relationship with David is so illustrative and has such an important set of lessons in it. Traditional exposition on Michal is just appallingly inadequate. She is there from boyhood to manhood with David, and we see their relationship deteriorate as David’s morality in power and with women deteriorates in general. God had several things to say about Michal and about David’s marriage to her. It is a study unto itself, and I hope you’ll go through it with me.
3.) Like Michal, Absalom is judged by modern exposition as though he and his actions were separate from David. They were not. Absalom’s story is an illustration of consequences for David’s sins and failures (and it has absolutely nothing to do with Bathsheba). Absalom’s sin and betrayal and violence take up a lot of space in the story of David. It goes so far beyond the political ambitions of an ungrateful son, but most teaching seems to wave it away with no further comment. The implications and the lessons about fatherhood, the denied rights of women/the weak, and the natural consequences of corrupting justice are so obvious. The silence from our pulpits blows my mind. This is a rich field, you guys. It’ll preach…so we should preach it.
4.) Adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of Uriah are actually not that interesting and unique if we take the Old Testament as a whole picture. It’s ugly. It’s bad. But let’s be real here, Judges 19 wins hands down for depravity. The Bathsheba sin is, perhaps, the most relatable story from among David’s sins for modern people (commit adultery and then cover it up with murder to save your own skin), and I think that’s why so much airtime is given to it in church. It’s a Law and Order: SVU episode, really, and I think that’s why such an inordinate emphasis is placed on it while we ignore the rest of David’s failures (which mirror our failures, too, you guys). It was important. He suffered serious consequences for it, and his lamenting and repentance are laid bare in the Psalms. Bathsheba wasn’t his only sin, and she wasn’t the sin that has the most impact for application today. The Bathsheba story is low-hanging fruit, and that’s why we use it. The fruit hanging higher up on the tree requires a little more work to harvest, but what we can learn from it is worth the effort.
5.) David’s old age is a really sad picture. I have several problems with the way we tend to just skim over the last bits and sum it up as, “David learned his lessons and died serving the Lord.” There’s more to it than that, and the picture of a man who started out as chosen and spent his whole life with God by his side and on his heart, is not about showing us a man to emulate. You are not David. I am not David. We’re not supposed to strive to be like David! We’re supposed to strive to be like Jesus. The story of David’s dotage is about illustrating for humanity how grossly corrupted we are and how necessary a Messiah is. David’s end of life is not a picture of religious piety and purity. It’s a sad image of the reality of sinful man. No matter how good we are. No matter how strong we are. No matter how much we love God. We are made of flesh, and the flesh is corrupted, mortal, and weak. Even if you’re David, son of Jesse…son of God. Even if you are a man after God’s own heart. You can’t make it there without Jesus.
I’ve been able to find my love for David, but it’s a sad, sympathetic kind of empathy. I see my own weakness in him, and I see God’s message of hope for sinners like me and like David. He can use us. He can include us in his perfect plan. But we can’t do it on our own. None of us is good. None of us is a hero. God is good. God is the hero.
That’s the story. I hope you’ll get into it with me.