David: Good & Bad

Today we have our last reading about the times of David. Next week we celebrate Mary, the mother of Jesus and then briefly look at Solomon who succeeded David, the last of the three kings to rule over all Israel.

Of the three kings, Saul, David and Solomon, David is the best known and loved. He is the endearing shepherd boy chosen by God through the prophet Samuel when Saul’s reign started to break up. He overcomes the Philistine giant by slinging a stone to knock him out. David is a successful warrior bringing a measure of peace and stability to the tribes of Israel. He establishes Jerusalem as his capital. He listens to God’s voice through the prophets, shows compassion and empathy. He is ready to confess when he knows he has done wrong. He is a gifted musician and his name is associated with many of the psalms most notably Psalm 23, the best known and loved of them all.

Critically, what we see in David is a man of God. A person who has a relationship with the living God which dictates the course of his life. Does all this make him perfect? Far from it. What we have in David is a fallible human character who is capable of the most blatant of sins. Last week we saw him use his power and influence firstly to seduce Bathsheba and then to have her husband Uriah killed. But even this was not the end of his relationship with God. Flawed as he was, God could still use him because he was responsive to God, he was willing to admit his faults.

It’s not difficult to find fault with leaders and others in the public eye today. We see examples of the misuse of power, abusive behaviour, unstable family lives and corners cut. Public opinion can be very unforgiving. Once their crimes become known, the guilty party is called to account on social media and hounded from office. Yet, God stuck by David despite everything and was still able to use him. God can do that. If he waited for someone without fault to lead in church or state, he would be waiting a long time, apart from one exception of course, King David’s greater son, the Lord Jesus Christ.

By the time we reach today’s Old Testament reading, time has passed since the unfortunate incidents surrounding Bathsheba. Sadly, the love child David had with Bathsheba does not survive. Quickly a second child arrives called Solomon who becomes David’s favoured one to succeed him. Then there is David’s eldest surviving son, Absalom, the child of a foreign mother called Maacah.

Absalom by all accounts was a stunning looking and popular guy (2 Samuel 14.25-27) who had a real gift of charming people and getting them onto his side. The accounts also make clear that David had not really made a good job of bringing up Absalom and he could easily get above himself. Then there was Amon, a son by another of David’s foreign women. He rather fancies Tamar, the sister of Absalom and his stepsister. Although he knows he should not really have his stepsister as his wife, at the suggestion of Jonadab, he pretends to be ill and gets his father, David, to send Tamar to him to wait on him. This proves to be a ruse to get Tamar in close quarters so that he can rape her. When Absalom hears of this, he is furious and has Amon killed. David is distraught and Absalom flees.

Seeing his chances of being king slip away, Absalom uses his charm to gather a good number of disaffected Israelites around him to challenge David. It is said ‘The hearts of the Israelites have gone after Absalom.’ (2 Samuel 15.13) It all gets too much for David. Absalom is back in Jerusalem, so he decides to flee the city of which he is so proud.  He leaves the ark of God behind in charge of the priests believing that God will in good time allow him to return to his capital city.

Eventually, the inevitable happens, a battle ensues between David’s men and the troops loyal to his own son. Part of the story of the battle is contained in our reading. David gives orders to his commanders to go easy on his son. It is as though he wants to both save his throne and his son. The battle is fought in the forest of Ephraim, a densely wooded area making it difficult for any man to see his enemy and making ambushes easy. The toll is heavy, 20,000 dead although we can accept this number as an estimate.

The climax comes when Absalom riding a mule, a beast traditionally reserved for kings, comes upon one of David’s servants. Unfortunately, like a scene from a Carry-On film, Absalom is caught fast in the branches of an oak tree while the mule carries on. The servant runs off to tell Joab, one of the king’s retainers who had been given orders to deal gently with Absalom. Joab wonders why Absalom had not been killed. The servant makes known his scruples about not killing the son of the king, but Joab makes short work of the hapless Absalom with his armour bearers.

Finally, a Cushite messenger sent by Joab brings the news to David, breaking it ever so gently: ‘Good tidings for my Lord the king! For the Lord has vindicated you this day, delivering you from the power of all who rose up against you.’ (2 Samuel 18.31) David now realises Absalom is dead and utters words with deep heart felt emotion: ‘O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would that I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!’ (2 Samuel 18.33)

David can now return to Jerusalem, but his reign will see more opposition before he finally takes to his bed as an old man. Even then, the succession is not quite secure as another of his sons makes a bid for the throne by trying to have a special servant girl of David as his wife. It is only through the offices of Nathan the prophet and Bathsheba, that the by now frail David sees that threat off and Solomon finally accedes to the throne.

As we leave David’s reign, what are the lessons we can take from it?

  1. We see that God sticks by David and still uses him to secure and bless his people even though there are many flaws in his character. In the letter of James, we come across the words: ‘come close to God and he will come close to you.’ (James 4.8) David does just that and God does not give up on him. We do well to follow his example.
  2. Sex and family life appear to be the area of greatest weakness for David and this in turn leads to other sins and the ultimate dilemma of having to fight his own son for the throne. As a great man and leader, he is far from alone in this. The bible often reminds us that it is in our families and intimate relationships that we are called upon to act in the image of God. Marriage itself should reflect the relationship between Christ and his church. (Ephesians 5.25) In a world where commitment and fidelity are often compromised, we do well to take that to heart.
  3. In today’s reading, we see David failing to face reality. ‘Go easy on my son’ he orders when his son was the cause of the battle. He literally could not have his cake and eat it. It is an observable fact that the longer most leaders are in a position of great power, the more detached from the real world they become. Let us pray that those who lead us will retain a firm grip on reality and trust that we will do so in any place of leadership we have however modest.

Let us finish with words of David from Psalm 103:

‘As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him. For he knows how we are made and he remembers that we are dust.’ (Psalm 103.13-14)

Trinity 10  08.08.2021

Rev'd Jonathan Smith

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