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.