Gleanings from the Bible: 2 Samuel

Following the death of Saul at the end of First Samuel, Second Samuel takes up the reign of David. I used to think that David just took over the throne relatively smoothly but as we read the account we realise that the underlying tensions between the tribes supporting Saul (principally his own tribe, Benjamin) and David’s tribe (Judah), prolonged the process considerably and led to bitter civil war.

It reminds me of what can often happen in parishes that have several church centres. Each one has its own identity and its own powerful identities. The minister may bring unity to the groups and they may cooperate as things go well, but there exists an underlying rivalry rooted in property or status or some long-past fallout. When any stressful situation comes to the parish, usually in the form of change, the cracks between the centres become apparent and old rivalries flourish.

Even with the experience and wisdom of David and his reliance on Yahweh to guide him (2:2ff) we read that “war between the house of Saul and the house of David lasted a long time” (3:1). It took a weakened house of Saul and the realisation that at least David was dealing honourably towards them (3:36) to bring about a unified kingdom. Later, towards the end of Solomon’s reign and with Rehoboam’s distinct stupidity, tribal divisions would surface again, leading to permanent disruption.

Aber’s (Saul’s general) reality check to Joab (David’s general) continues to be relevant to warring nations, churches and families to this day,

“Must the sword devour forever? Don’t you realise that this will end in bitterness? How long before you order your men to stop pursuing their fellow Israelites?”  (2:26)

So it is chapter five before David rules all Israel and he mostly does it well. Most notably, he doesn’t rush into action without asking God first (5:19). God is pleased with him and makes a covenant promise that he will always have a successor on the throne, a promise fulfilled in his descendent, Jesus Christ (Christ or Christos, is of course the Greek for the Hebrew, ‘Messiah’ meaning ‘Anointed One’ or ‘King’).

David is commended because he sought God’s will and approval not because he was perfect. He would listen to wise advice but during his life he shed much blood, could be vengeful, made some poor decisions without consulting God and committed adultery and murder. Not a pretty picture!

A superficial reading of David’s adultery with Bathsheba and arrangement for Uriah to be killed in battle, may give the impression that David got off fairly lightly. After all we wouldn’t allow leaders to continue with that record would we? (Well maybe some would. We’ve seen leaders get away with some appalling deeds unchecked, haven’t we?)

As you read on you realise the dire consequences of David’s actions and the serious judgements God brings on him. Yes, he continues as king, but it all seems to go downhill from there. The child dies, Amnon rapes Tamar, Absalom kills Amnon. And David, perhaps diminished by his own sin, seems unable to mete out firm justice, thus enabling revenge and anarchy within his family. Absalom’s conspiracy seems to demoralise David further. This once decisive man of action cannot deal with Shimei throwing stones and dirt at him as he flees Jerusalem (16:5-14) and defers to the decisions of others (18:4). It is his general, Joab, who becomes the de facto leader in this period, calling David to order for neglecting those who fought for him during the coup.

And yet David returns to the throne. He still seeks God and he recognises his failure.

As we seek to learn from history it may be possible for church leaders who have erred to be restored to ministry at a later time, but cheap repentance won’t do. There is always a cost involved.

Let’s not take away from David his noble acts, his faith in God, and his recognition of his own sin. He is a towering figure in Israel’s history and the uniting of the nation. But let us also learn from his failures and not use them as an excuse for our own.

Gleanings from the Bible: 1 Samuel

 First Samuel has always struck me as a bit of a Boys’ Own Adventure story. From God speaking to the boy, Samuel in the night; the wayward sons of Eli and his untimely death and David and Goliath and the cat and mouse pursuit of Saul after David – a sort of 3000 year old version of a car chase sequence.

Despite Samuel’s objections to Israel appointing a king, you get the impression that it wasn’t altogether a bad thing. Yes, God had raised up deliverers in the time of the Judges (of whom Samuel is really the last) to unite Israel against their enemies. But the threat had grown (mainly from the Philistines) and a king could not only create a standing army but also ensure the spiritual direction of the nation (after all we’ve noted that a recurring observation in Judges was that there was no king and everyone did as they saw fit). Now of course the quality of the nation would depend very much on the quality of the king, and Saul wasn’t a great start. It was just as well that Samuel was still around. He was obviously the real leader, under Yahweh, when it came to spiritual direction.

Perhaps the real problem was the reason they Israel gave in her request for a king – “Then we will be like all the other nations…” (8:20). The laws given to Israel had made it clear that they were not to be like other nations. But Israel’s focus was more on winning battles than seeking the spiritual unity of the nation. It’s a cautionary tale for Christians today, who are set apart as a ‘holy nation’, to not forget where our identity and security truly lies!

The question of evil

Saul failed to set God’s priorities firmly in place. He was successful in the military field but failed as a leader of God’s people to the extent that he lost control of himself as well. 16:14 inserts that interesting and challenging comment, “Now the Spirit of the LORD had departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the LORD tormented him”

What it cannot mean is that God instigates evil. I think what it does indicate is that God is seen as being in control of everything. Nothing can happen unless he allows it. He is the one who gives life and existence. At the same time God does appear to allow evil spirits, suffering and the results of our own bad choices. It may also be convincingly argued that God can and does overrule our choices when it suits him to do so (I note for example that Cyrus was moved by God to allow the Jews to return from Exile. I know that I and others have found ourselves in places and at times, which we have not knowingly chosen, but which have ‘coincidentally’ fitted in remarkably with what turned out to be the will of God and in specific answer to someone’s prayer.)

Someone reading this may now be asking, “Well, if God controls even the evil spirits, why doesn’t he stop all the evil in the world? Why does he allow bad things to happen to good people?” There are many aspects in the answer to that question and I mention them briefly as I understand them.

The first is that God knows the big picture of life. We may only hold a few pieces of the jigsaw puzzle and they don’t always make sense to us. The book of Job is the reference here.

Secondly, there are no good people in the world. We sometimes like to think we are but the biblical message is that all have fallen short of God’s standards. Without the forgiveness offered through the death of Christ on the cross, we all stand condemned.

Thirdly, the Bible assures us that God deals justly even though we may not understand it at the time. Sometimes we get to understand in hindsight but not always (I was once witness to the illness and slow decline of a child with a brain tumour. I didn’t understand why it should happen but I discovered from the child’s mother that she had witnessed the figure of Jesus talking with her daughter – a fact that the daughter confirmed with, “Mum, I told you that Jesus comes and talks to me!” In the midst of suffering Jesus was present. The girl later died without fear or regret. She was longing to be with Jesus.)

Fourthly, our relationship with God through Jesus Christ is more important than physical life.

And finally, God will indeed put everything right. The Bible promises a day when justice will be done and all wrongs righted. In the meantime God is giving us the time and opportunity to turn to Christ, to receive his Spirit and to allow a transformation to take place in our lives as children of God.

Saul followed his own instincts instead of God’s word to him. The evil spirit appears to have been a result of Saul’s own waywardness as well as an active judgement by God on him.

David emerges differently. He trusts God, usually enquires of God before he acts, and believes the promises of God – in particular that he would be king without forcing the issue and taking Saul’s life when he had opportunity. God blesses and preserves David’s life (despite his failures) and he becomes the greatest earthly king in Israel’s history.