I don't own a coffee table, but I do own a coffee table book. The book is about the history of American railroads. On page 61, the author is discussing the fact that (unlike many other railroads in the west), the Central Pacific Railroad had no trouble with Native American opposition as it built track east from the mountains through the Nevada desert. The reason? The author quotes James Strobridge, the CP's construction superintendent:
… there were no Indian troubles, one reason being that General P.E. Connor was sent out with a thousand soldiers a few years before and he cleaned up the country, destroying men, women, and children indiscriminately. 1
I hope you find that story of our national history disturbing. And I hope you find some of the story of David to be disturbing as well. One of the stories is about the period when King Saul was trying to capture David. In this story, David sounds altogether too much like General Conner.
27:1 David thought to himself, "One of these days I'm going to be swept away by the hand of Saul! There is nothing better for me than to escape to the land of the Philistines. Then Saul will despair of searching for me through all the territory of Israel and I will escape from his hand."
27:2 So David left and crossed over to King Achish … accompanied by his six hundred men. … 27:4 When Saul learned that David had fled to Gath, he did not mount a new search for him.
27:5 David said to Achish, "If I have found favor with you, let me be given a place in one of the country towns so that I can live there. Why should your servant settle in the royal city with you?" 27:6 So Achish gave him Ziklag on that day. …
27:8 Then David and his men went up and raided the Geshurites, the Girzites, and the Amalekites. … 27:9 When David would attack a district, he would leave neither man nor woman alive. He would take sheep, cattle, donkeys, camels, and clothing and would then go back to Achish. 27:10 When Achish would ask, "Where did you raid today?" David would say, "The Negev of Judah" or "The Negev of Jeharmeel" or "The Negev of the Kenites." 27:11 Neither man nor woman would David leave alive so as to bring them back to Gath. He was thinking, "This way they can't tell on us, saying, 'This is what David did.'" Such was his practice the entire time that he lived in the country of the Philistines. 2
How could such a ruthless and deceptive warlord be considered a hero and an exemplar for God's people? Why would we remember David?
In order to understand the man David, we need to start from the beginning of his story. We first meet him as a young man when the prophet Samuel (a troubling enough figure himself) arrived at the home of David's father, Jesse.
16:10 Jesse presented seven of his sons to Samuel. But Samuel said to Jesse, "The Lord has not chosen any of these." 16:11 Then Samuel said to Jesse, "Is that all of the young men?" Jesse replied, "There is still the youngest one, but he's taking care of the flock." Samuel said to Jesse, "Send and get him, for we cannot turn our attention to other things until he comes here."
16:12 So Jesse had him brought in. Now he was ruddy, with attractive eyes and a handsome appearance. The Lord said, "Go and anoint him. This is the one!" 16:13 So Samuel took the horn full of olive oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers. The Spirit of the Lord rushed upon David from that day onward. … 3
Isn't that the image of David we like to keep in mind? The ruddy young man with the sparkling eyes. The youngest son filled with the Spirit of God.
Being young and handsome is a gift. Being the kind of person toward whom other people turn is a gift. Being in touch with God's Spirit is a very special gift. And besides all that, David had the gift of music.
16:17s So Saul said to his servants, "Find me a man who plays well and bring him to me." 16:18 One of his attendants replied, "I have seen a son of Jesse in Bethlehem who knows how to play the lyre. He is a brave warrior and is articulate and handsome, for the Lord is with him."
16:19 So Saul sent messengers to Jesse and said, "Send me your son David …". 16:21 David came to Saul and stood before him. Saul liked him a great deal, and he became his armor bearer. 16:22 Then Saul sent word to Jesse saying, "Let David be my servant, for I really like him." 3
Yes, everybody liked Jesse's youngest. Handsome and musical, articulate and brave, young and eager.
To be liked by everyone is a gift and a curse. To be brave is a gift and a curse. To be eager is a gift and a curse. David lived out his gifts and curses as fully as anyone. But is this enough reason to remember David?
Even at the beginning of the story, when the young David was about to fight Goliath, his oldest brother Eliab said an unexpected word about David's character. You know the story; the Philistine army was humiliating the Israelites under Saul and David was asking the soldiers, "What would the king give someone who humiliated Goliath and the Philistines?"
17:28 When David’s oldest brother Eliab heard him speaking to the men, he became angry with David and said, "Why have you come down here? To whom did you entrust those few sheep in the desert? I am familiar with your pride and deceit! …" 4
Was that outburst just sibling rivalry? Or did Eliab know something hidden in his brother's heart? Perhaps it was both.
A few years later, King Saul turned against David. Was there jealousy on Saul's part? Of course. You remember the popular saying, "Saul has conquered his thousands and David his ten thousands." Any king would see a threat to his public standing. Was there mental illness? Of course there was. Saul was troubled by an evil spirit from God, in the expression of the times. Like King George the Third of England, Saul's illness affected his good judgement.
During the battles between Saul and David, David famously refused to harm the reigning king. One of those times, the king actually walked into the cave where David and his men were hiding.
24:4 … David got up and quietly cut off an edge of Saul’s robe. 24:5 Afterward David’s conscience bothered him … 24:9 David said to Saul, "Why do you pay attention when men say, 'David is seeking to do you harm'? … 24:11 Look, my father, and see the edge of your robe in my hand! When I cut off the edge of your robe, I didn’t kill you. So realize and understand that I am not planning evil or rebellion. …" 5
David is famous for his restraint and his pang of conscience because restraint and conscience are both so unusual in a guerrilla captain – and because David made a big speech about it.
But consider also the character of David as shown in his actions in Philistia with which I started this message. Saul was chasing him with the whole army, so David set himself up on the border of Israel as a vassal of the Philistine king. This is something like an American admiral moving offshore and declaring himself to be "al Qaida of Cuba".
Nothing is simple in the life of David, however. First he convinced Israel's enemy King Achish to set him up as military governor in Ziklag. Then he turned double agent against Achish. This is when – in order not to be found out – David took to the murder of non-combatants.
Eliab said, "I am familiar with your pride and deceit."
Nothing is simple in the life of David. David was ambitious at a level that makes my heart sink. He was a double dealer and a merciless practitioner of the worst excesses of total war. But he was also, and always, a poet, a musician, and, incongruous as it may seem, a religious man. When he fled from Saul and hid in a cave, David wrote a song to God. When he was captured by the Philistines in Gath, before he had charmed his way back into power, he wrote a song to God. David said,
When I am afraid, I trust in You,
in God, whose word I praise,
in God I trust;
I am not afraid,
what can mortals do to me? 6
David sang, "in God I trust" and the evidence suggests that he actually meant it. Is that reason for us to remember David?
David's brother Eliab said, "I am familiar with your pride and deceit." Nowhere in the story of David is pride and deceit more evident than in the story of David and Bathsheba which we read today. Knowing what Eliab knew about David, and knowing that by the time of this story David was absolute ruler in Israel, you only need one verse to know the gist of the story.
From the roof he saw a woman bathing. Now this woman was very attractive. 7
Everyone who has read books, gone to the movies, or watched TV knows the outcome of this story. Bathsheba "sent word to David saying, 'I'm pregnant.'" That's the gist of it, but unfortunately not the end of it. For now that David's pride has led him to sin, his deceit tries to cover it up. He recalls Uriah, Bathsheba's husband, from the battlefront and tries to cover his own misdeeds with a conjugal visit. But Uriah is too innocent and selfless to follow the plan. So David slips from deceit once again to murder.
But nothing in David's life is ever simple. In his pride he feels entirely justified, but Nathan finds a way to accuse the king – or to make the king accuse himself. And you know the story: Unlike almost any other national leader caught in adultery and murder, David immediately recognizes his own fault and repents. And he writes a song to God, a beautiful song of sorrow and longing.
51:3 For I am aware of my rebellious acts;
I am forever conscious of my sin.
51:4 Against you – you above all – I have sinned;
I have done what is evil in your sight.
So you are just when you confront me;
you are right when you condemn me. …
51:11 Do not reject me!
Do not take your Holy Spirit away from me! 8
Many men have lusted after beautiful women and too many powerful men have used their power to act on their lust. They are sometimes caught and we hear about them on the evening news. A few such men genuinely repent. David was all of that, and worse, and better.
When King Saul and three of his sons died in battle, Israel fell into a long period of political instability. The military leaders installed another of Saul's sons as king over Israel. For worse or better, David assumed the kingship in Judah. And so Hebrew fought Hebrew until Abner called to Joab, general to general,
Do we have to go on fighting forever? Can't you see that in the end there will be nothing but bitterness? We are your fellow countrymen. 9
Years went by and David's sons grew up surrounded by war. But eventually David's skill and popularity won the day and he consolidated the nation under his leadership. David ended the wars with Israel's neighbors, expanded and normalized the national borders, and established a uniform system of justice. There was a very public policy of reintegrating former antagonists and of advancing religion.
When the convenant box at last returned to Jerusalem, King David danced at the front of the parade.
When Abner, the opposition general, was murdered, David walked behind the coffin and cried. He said,
Don't you realize that this day a great leader in Israel has died? 10
For these acts, David is justly honored by history.
These policies were not enough, however, to completely erase the legacy of civil war. One of David's own sons inherited much of David's good looks, popularity, and ambition.
There was no one in Israel as famous for his good looks as Absalom; he had no defect from head to toe. … Absalom had three sons and one daughter named Tamar, a very beautiful woman. …
… Absalom provided a chariot and horses for himself, and an escort of fifty men. He would get up early … and stand by the road at the city gate. Whenever someone came there with a dispute that he wanted the king to settle, … Absalom would say, "Look, the law is on your side, but there is no representative of the king to hear your case." … and so he won their loyalty. 11
Eventually Absalom decided that it was time for a succession in kingship. He sent out messengers to all the cites with word that he had become king. He nearly succeeded. David fled from Jerusalem with his family – and with hundreds of loyal supporters who refused to leave David for a new king, even if the new king was his son. Other people whom they passed were happy that David found himself in trouble, including Shimei, a relative of King Saul.
Shimei started throwing stones at David and his officials, even though David was surrounded by his men and his bodyguards. Shimei cursed him and said, "Get out! Get out! Murderer! Criminal! You took Saul's kingdom, and now the Lord is punishing you for murdering so many of Saul's family. The Lord has given the kingdom to your son Absalom, and you are ruined, you murderer!"
Abishai … said to the king, "Your Majesty, why do you let this dog curse you? Let me go over there and cut off his head!"
"This is none of your business," the king said to Abishai and his brother Joab. "If he curses me because the Lord told him to, who has the right to ask why he does it?" And David said … "My own son is trying to kill me; so why should you be surprised at this Benjaminite? The Lord told him to curse, so leave him alone and let him do it. …" 12
Deposed heads of state fleeing for their lives are not typically so magnanimous, but this was what David said. And he also wrote a song to God about his trouble. He said, "I have so many enemies."
Why do we remember David? David was a human being just like us, except, it seems, always more like us than we are ourselves.
A man whom everybody seemed to love. A merciless mercenary, a duplicitous double agent. A king who wept over the deaths of his enemies. An egregious sinner, and an abject repenter. A man who always knew his own power, and his own failings. A man who sang his heart to God every day of his life.
Why do we remember David? When we tell David's story we are telling our own story as well. We remember David so that we will remember what we are, what we have been, and what we can be. David's power is our power; David's sins are our sins; David's repentence should be our repentence; and the God to whom David sang is our God. Dr. Michael Lukens, writing about a different kind of public memory, said this:
perseverance of memory helps us shape and clarify who we are and how we want to convey to ourselves and to others what are our most important moments, for good or ill, because their meaning has become ours. 13
1 Ogburn, Charlton. Railroads: The Great American Adventure. National Geographic Society, 1977. Page 61.
2 NetBible. 1 Samuel 27 Downloaded 14 July, 2009.
3 NetBible. 1 Samuel 16 Downloaded 14 July, 2009.
4 NetBible. 1 Samuel 17 Downloaded 15 July, 2009.
5 NetBible. 1 Samuel 24 Downloaded 18 July, 2009.
6 The Writings: A new translation of the holy scriptures according to the traditional Hebrew text. Jewish Publication Society of America. 1982. Psalm 56. Page 72.
7 NetBible. 2 Samuel 11 Downloaded 17 July, 2009.
8 NetBible. Psalm 51 Downloaded 17 July, 2009.
9 Good News Bible: Today's English Version. American Bible Society. 1976. 2 Samuel 2: 26. Page 335.
10 Good News Bible: Today's English Version. American Bible Society. 1976. 2 Samuel 3: 38. Pages 350-351.
11 Good News Bible: Today's English Version. American Bible Society. 1976. 2 Samuel 14: 25, 27; 15: 1-3, 6. Pages 350-351.
12 Good News Bible: Today's English Version. American Bible Society. 1976. 2 Samuel 15: 6-11. Page 353.
13 Lukens, Michael. "Shadowed ground, sacred place." St Norbert College Magazine. St. Norbert College, De Pere, Wisconsin. Summer, 2009. Page 18.