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David is hands down the most famous king in the history of Israel. But how exactly did a shepherd from Bethlehem get to be in charge of an entire country? It's your classic rags to crowns story.
David started off as the seventh-born son of Jesse from the tribe of Judah (2:15). The kid was just a shepherd, but God handpicked him to run the country. God says, "I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep, to be ruler over my people Israel" (17:7). God knows people, apparently.
Eventually, David became so popular with the people in Israel that many of them started following him instead of the current king, Saul. When Saul was trying to hunt David down and kill him (it's a long story), even warriors from the king's army and Saul's own family came to help David (12:1).
When God finally gets tired of Saul's royal ways, he "put[s] him to death and turn[s] the kingdom over to David son of Jesse" (10:14). Considering that David isn't a relative of Saul and really has no claim to rule aside from the fact that people say God sent him, this transition of power goes relatively smoothly.
David's coronation is quite a sight to behold:
All Israel gathered together to David at Hebron and said, "See, we are your bone and flesh. For some time now, even while Saul was king, it was you who commanded the army of Israel. The Lord your God said to you: It is you who shall be shepherd of my people Israel, you who shall be ruler over my people Israel." So all the elders of Israel came to the king at Hebron, and David made a covenant with them at Hebron before the Lord. And they anointed David king over Israel, according to the word of the Lord by Samuel. (11:1-3)
Okay, did things really happen like that? No. Actually, according to 2 Samuel, David's ascension to the throne was a little bit messier. Saul's son Ish-Bosheth actually declares himself king (or, more likely, just King in the North) and goes head to head with David for the throne. Ish-Bosheth is eventually killed by some of his own people and David's free to be in charge of the whole country.
And that's one of the big points the author wants to get across about David. Even though it might not be totally accurate, the Chronicler wants us to believe that David was universally beloved by everyone in Israel. People might have had their doubts about Saul, but not one single person failed to swear allegiance to the new and awesome king:
Remember, David was the last king to rule over a United Kingdom of Israel for his entire reign. Things fell apart under Solomon's watch and the nation split into Northern and Southern Kingdoms. The Chronicler is totally longing for the day when all the Jewish people can join together as one and worship and live in exactly the way the author sees fit.
But David's good qualities don't end there. What else does he have going for him? For starters, he's loyal and fair:
His motto is basically, "You scratch my back, and I won't stab you in yours." He's also humble and self-effacing. He says to God:
Who am I, O Lord God, and what is my house, that you have brought me thus far? And even this was a small thing in your sight, O God; you have also spoken of your servant's house for a great while to come. You regard me as someone of high rank, Lord God! And what more can David say to you for honoring your servant? (17:16-18)
David may be laying it on thick here, but the guy clearly recognizes where his bread is buttered. If he stays on God's good side, everything's going to be all right.
David's not only a righteous person, he's also been blessed by God. God chose him to be king, but God doesn't always consider that a binding deal. A king needs to keep up his end of the bargain by staying loyal and faithful to what God wants. The minute a king turns on him, God has no problem cutting him down.
Luckily for David, he never gets on the Big Guy's bad side. Here are just a few examples of all the godly things he does during his reign:
Not too shabby.
David's not only a great person and a holy king, he's also a mighty warrior. One of the ways David made his name in Israel was through victories in battle. In 2 Samuel, that author tells us that the people liked to sing, "Saul has killed his thousands, and David his ten thousands." (2 Samuel 18:7) Oh, biblical burn. So just how much blood has David shed? A lot:
God has supported David in war this entire time. Remember that, because David is God's favorite, he helps him win every battle. God "gave victory to David wherever he went" (18:6). Once David even had a whole conversation with God about whether or not he should attack the Philistines. God pretty much gives him a high five along with some tactical advice.
Can David do anything wrong? He does have one little misjudgment during his reign:
Satan stood up against Israel, and incited David to count the people of Israel. So David said to Joab and the commanders of the army, "Go, number Israel, from Beer-sheba to Dan, and bring me a report, so that I may know their number." But Joab said, "May the Lord increase the number of his people a hundredfold! Are they not, my lord the king, all of them my lord's servants? Why then should my lord require this? Why should he bring guilt on Israel?" But the king's word prevailed against Joab[…] But God was displeased with this thing, and he struck Israel. (21:1-4, 7)
David accepts his punishment like a champ though. God decides to plague the entire nation of Israel. When David sees the suffering this is causing, he begs God to reconsider:
David said to God, "Was it not I who gave the command to count the people? It is I who have sinned and done very wickedly. But these sheep, what have they done? Let your hand, I pray, O Lord my God, be against me and against my father's house; but do not let your people be plagued!" (21:7)
David basically offers himself to save the people: Punish me, not them. Leave it to David to do the right thing even when he's in the wrong. God stops all the smiting and he actually lets David know the exact place where he should start plans for building that Temple.
Blood on His Hands
Okay, so David is super pious and faithful. There's nothing he can't do, right? Wrong. Even though it's clearly his idea to build the Temple in Jerusalem, God tells David to keep his hands off his house:
King David rose to his feet and said: "Hear me, my brothers and my people. I had planned to build a house of rest for the ark of the covenant of the Lord, for the footstool of our God; and I made preparations for building. But God said to me, 'You shall not build a house for my name, for you are a warrior and have shed blood.'" (28:2-3)
Wait, what? Didn't God sanction the killing of these ten thousands and help David kick butt in every single battle? And now he's getting a little irritable about it? What are we supposed to think about that? God seems to be saying that David was a good leader for his time, a time that demanded war and conquest. But for the years of peace and prosperity that will follow, a different kind of leader will be needed.
The author of 1 Chronicles clearly thinks David's a model king, solider, and man. What's not to love (and emulate)?
Okay, but this isn't exactly how David's story goes down in the rest of the Bible. You can get the full scoop on his reign in the books of Samuel and Kings, but in short, David's time ruling over Israel could be considered…complicated.
David was anointed king by Samuel before Saul died, and then he spent a whole lot of time hanging around the court, writing songs, and upstaging Saul. That made things tense, so Saul tried to have him killed him on more than one occasion. When Saul finally died, David had lots of issues with his own kids. He refused to punish his son, Amnon, when the kid raped his own sister. His oldest son, Absalom, rebelled against his dad and tried to take the throne. David also had a crush on one of his friend's wives, a lady named Bathsheba. So he took her to bed, got her pregnant, and then had her husband killed so he could marry her. That David is a bit more of a mixed bag, more human.
Why doesn't the author of Chronicles mention any of this? It's sort of like writing a whole book about Bill Clinton and conveniently forgetting to mention Monica Lewinsky. But the author isn't trying to pull a fast one on us. He knows his readers have already heard these stories. He's not interested in recapping all the gossip in King David's court. He wants to present a hero who's humble, faithful, strong, and all around good. Someone who can be admired. A guy who can inspire and lead his readers to greatness as they rebuild Jerusalem after the Babylonian exile. That's the David they need right now.
So much for David as a character. How about David the historical person? What was he like?
No one really knows. Scholars aren't even 100% sure that a king named David actually lived 3,000 years ago and ruled over Israel. Two ancient records from around the time David lived, the Tel Dan Stele and the Mesha Stele, mention a House of David in Israel. That still isn't much to go on. Since almost all the ancient sites in Israel have been destroyed and rebuilt over and over in the last 3,000 years, it's pretty tough to find anything.
If David existed, it's possible that he wasn't a leader on an international scale like the Chronicler portrays him. He might have been closer to a local folk hero who ruled over various tribal kingdoms that had united under him. Israel was a big deal to the people living in it, but compared to the empires in the region—the Egyptians and the Assyrians—it was small potatoes.
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