More than anything else, the Bible is a story. It contains other kinds of literature, of course— sermons and poems, letters and proverbs—but mostly it’s a story. There’s one grand, complex, unified story that runs like a backbone from Genesis to Revelation: the story of creation, the fall, redemption, and recreation. N. T. Wright calls it “the true story of the whole world.”
Embedded in that one grand story are hundreds of smaller stories comprising the warp and weft of the great biblical tapestry—stories about floods and famines, mountains and deserts, war and treachery, tenderness and courage, sex and violence.
But most of all, the Bible’s stories are about God and people. Some of them are about monumental characters who loom larger than life: Abraham, Moses, Joshua, Elijah, Peter, and Paul. Some of them are about obscure characters like Shiphrah and Puah, the midwives who rescued the Hebrew baby boys from Pharoah, or Gehazi, Elisha’s wily servant. All these people and all these places are woven into the story about God’s covenant grace.
It's strange in a way. You would think that God’s revelation to us might better be communicated by laws and precepts, specific directions on prayer and church polity, and precisely formulated doctrines. But God leaves most of that to us. The literary genre of choice for the Holy Spirit is the story, just as it has always been for parents or poets or preachers, because that’s what life is all about.
Stories are the main way we make sense of our lives. As Eugene Peterson says, “Story isn’t imposed on our lives; it invites us into its life” (Leap Over a Wall, 1998). It’s no wonder stories are the main way we also learn about God.
The story of David is the longest single narrative in the whole Bible. It stretches all the way from 1 Samuel 16, when David is anointed by Samuel, through 1 Kings 2, where he hands the kingdom over to his son Solomon—42 long chapters. We know more about David than about almost any other single person in the whole Bible.
David cuts a dashing figure across Samuel and Kings, but he also casts a long shadow over the entire Bible—not just the Old Testament, but the New as well, where he is mentioned 54 times. Right off the bat, the gospels tell us that Jesus is the Son of David, and that’s often what people call him when seeking his help: “Son of David, have mercy on me.” The figure of David dominates the Scriptures like no other person but Christ himself.
David is important in Scripture for some good theological reasons. His kingship and his reign in Jerusalem became the biblical model for the kingdom of God. In biblical prophecy, the Messiah must be a descendant of David who will fulfill the promise to David, recorded in 2 Samuel 7, that David’s son would sit on David’s throne forever. The Messiah would restore the golden age of David’s reign. So David and his reign are key biblical and theological concepts.
But that’s not the main reason I read and re-read these stories. What draws me back again and again is the man’s sheer attractiveness. I like this guy. I find myself rooting for him and identifying with him, suffering with him and weeping with him. He loved life and lived it to the fullest. He never held back.
Even more startling, God liked him—not just loved him, as God loves us all, but liked him. Before David is even introduced into the story, God reveals to Samuel that God has rejected Saul and sets Samuel on a search for a “man after [God’s] own heart” (1 Sam. 13:14). David is attractive not only to us, but to God. What a stunning thought! For all his flaws and sins (and they were monumental), there’s a certain magnificence to David’s humanity.
It's easy to see why. He was a natural leader, and not just because, as the little ditty went, “Saul slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands” (1 Sam. 18:7). He knew how to lead men, how to support them and care about them. In his earlier years, fleeing from Saul’s murderous wrath, David was the leader of a sort of guerrilla band fighting skirmishes with Saul, living off the land, and hiding out in the wilderness. His men were mostly outlaws and ruffians, yet David turned them from a disorganized gang into a disciplined army. David had the both the skill and charisma of leadership.
One of my favorite David stories takes place after he’s led his men on a great victory over the Amalekites. David had force-marched his men to exhaustion. At the Brook Besor, some said they just couldn’t go on, so David put them in charge of the baggage and went on to a great victory with the rest of the men.
Returning to the brook, they were all reunited, and David divided the spoils of war. Some of the men who had risked their lives in battle complained that the lazy good-for-nothings who chickened out should get nothing. But David intervened, telling the men that everything they had was a gift from God, and they would share it with all who were saved by God (1 Sam. 30). A breathtaking example of leadership!
Of course, David the outlaw leader grew into David the king, the commander in chief, and the statesman. He transformed Israel from a loose confederation of tribes into a nation whose territory extended all the way from the Gulf of Aqaba in the south to Syria in the north.
And not only that. For all his natural leadership and political savvy, David was also a poet and a singer. As huge as his public exploits were, he had an equal largeness of soul. Very simply, he loved God. As we hear in the achingly beautiful words of Psalm 23, “The Lᴏʀᴅ is my shepherd, I shall not want” (NRSV).
The wonderful thing about David’s spirituality is its earthiness. Don’t forget how he threw royal dignity to the winds and danced half-naked before the Lord as the Israelites brought the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem (2 Sam. 6). Unlike our often pale and limp spirituality, we need to learn from David’s vigor, his energy, his wholeheartedness, his broken-hearted grief, and above all, his passionate love for God. He laughed heartily and wept bitterly. It seems he did everything with great passion.
That’s not the whole of David’s life, of course. Just as he was capable of heroic leadership, daring exploits, and deep spirituality, he was also capable of enormous anger, staggering violence, and grasping lust. He could deliver 400 foreskins of dead Philistines to win Saul’s daughter as a wife. He could leer at one of his captain’s wives, bed her, arrange the death of her husband, and treat it all with a kind of moral amnesia until God catches up with him.
The story of David is about a man skilled at pulling the levers of political, military, and personal power, with all their built-in ambiguities and tensions. It’s a story about a screwed-up family, ragged marriages, and sibling rivalries. Even so, like God, we can’t help but like him.
When I was a kid, my parents gave my brother and me a whole set of books called the Sugar Creek Gang, a sort of Christianized Hardy Boys and the kind of books we were supposed to read on Sunday afternoons. They were all predictable Christian morality tales with cardboard cut-outs of boys my age who didn’t think or act like anyone I knew. Moral dilemmas were always drawn in black and white, and the hero always did the right thing—after, of course, having a “word of prayer.”
But at the supper table we read the stories of David from the Bible. To me, David was real, unlike the Sugar Creek boys. He was brave and cunning, cruel and tender. He prayed passionately and sinned monumentally. He was more like me. Here was someone I could relate to.
David’s is the story of a life like ours, made up of good and bad. Our job in listening to these stories is not to make them into cookie-cutter morality tales that will then make us into better people. We aren’t supposed to shape these stories. We’re supposed to let them shape us.
Through them, we gradually see ourselves at our best and our worst, as the flawed and fallible human partners of a holy and loving God who remains tied to us in his covenant embrace. As John Calvin put it, “Let us therefore remember that David is like a mirror, in which God sets before us the continual course of his grace” (Commentary on Psalms, Vol. 8).
The key to understanding David's place in the biblical story is that God made an enormous promise to King David. After he was established as king in Jerusalem, God promised through Nathan the prophet that David’s throne and his kingdom would last not just a long time, but forever.
That’s a staggering promise. The kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed is modeled and built on David’s kingdom. God’s Son will sit on David’s throne, and he be called “Son of David.” What’s going on here?
Think of it this way: David is the most complete, full-blooded, God-intoxicated human being we have in the Bible. Here is a portrait of a real human being who operated as a king in the real world of iron-age Palestine. But he is also deeply enmeshed in an authentic, no-holds-barred, life-and-death relationship with God.
There’s an old Yiddish word that wonderfully captures this man: David was a real mensch. It’s one of those untranslatable words, which is why people use it. A mensch is an authentic, likeable, down-to-earth human being—someone you can’t help but admire.
You see, David is the best we human beings can do. He’s one of the most fully alive human beings that ever lived, a man after God’s own heart. Israel wanted a king, and in David they got a real king, a successful king, a king they could all love.
But his life falls apart spiritually, physically, and emotionally, just as our lives do. His family tears itself apart. He almost loses his kingdom to a rebellious son, Absalom. And within a few generations, David’s great kingdom begins to crumble. Beginning with this raging river of a man, David’s dynasty slows and meanders until it’s a stinking swamp of human ineptitude and sin. The best of us, like David, cannot build a kingdom that will last.
And that makes it all the more surprising that David is featured at the heart of the Christmas story. The angel says to Mary, “You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”
What happens in the Bethlehem stable is that God in his grace takes the best we can do and makes something of it. In old Bethlehem, where Samuel first laid eyes on that ruddy shepherd boy and poured the oil over his head, a baby was born. He is the Son of David, and he is the Son of God. As the angel says to Mary, “He will save his people from their sins.” David’s Son comes to save us all from our David-like sins.
God took the raw material of David’s brilliant and sinful humanity—our humanity—and fused it in Mary’s womb with his own divine Son to create a new humanity. As John writes near the end of Revelation: “[Christ is] the Root and Offspring of David, and the bright Morning Star” (Rev. 22:16). In Christ, the Holy Spirit is remaking us into a shining new humanity: righteous and robust, pure and passionate, kingly and kind, just and gentle.
Seeing Jesus as the Son of David reminds us that salvation is much more than having our sins forgiven so we can go to heaven. Salvation means that in Jesus Christ, God is forming a new humanity. Baptized into Jesus Christ, God says to us what he said to his Son as he was baptized by John in the Jordan River: “You are my beloved child, and in you I am well pleased.” We become men and women after God’s own heart.
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