Of all of the figures of the Old Testament, David is the richest and most complex. His story begins in 1 Samuel 16 and extends through the remaining 15 chapters of 1 Samuel, though all 24 chapters of 2 Samuel, and even into 1 Kings where David’s death is recorded in 1 Kings 2:10. Through almost 1,200 verses, we get a deep and intimate portrait of this pivotal king of Israel.
On one hand, there are signs that certain portions of his story have the air of political propaganda: the image of the handsome young shepherd boy fighting the Philistine Goliath with just a sling is calculated to play well in its Ancient Near Eastern setting. Kings were referred to as “shepherds of their people” and were expected to be successful warriors. Emphasizing David’s youth and apparent naivety implies that it would take a (literal) miracle for him to win, and thus his victory is a demonstration of God’s favor, recalling other divinely sanctioned victories against overwhelming odds like Gideon’s (Judges 7). But contrary to this portrait (and every Sunday School illustration you have ever seen), David is described to Saul the chapter before the Goliath episode as already being a full-grown and accomplished figure: “One of the young men answered, ‘I have seen [David,] a son of Jesse the Bethlehemite who is skillful in playing [the lyre], a man of valor, a warrior, prudent in speech, and a man of good presence and the Lord is with him’” (2 Sam 16:18). Saul—already on the lookout for “any strong or valiant warrior” (2 Sam 14:52)—not only brings David into his household to play the lyre but also promotes him by the end of chapter 16 to be his own armor-bearer, a position of importance and trust. Thus, it’s odd that Saul barely recognizes him in chapter 17.
The fact that there would be this kind of idealization of David comes as no surprise at all. After all, he was the founder of a dynasty, the man who freed Israel from Philistine control, united the divided north and south, captured Jerusalem from the Jebusites, and established it as the centralized capitol of his kingdom. Rather, what does come as a surprise is that we hear of so many things that David did wrong! From his days as a bandit captain to his sinful taking of Bathsheba to the revolt of his son Absalom, we hear of all kinds of things that could have been covered up and expunged from the historical record altogether—but weren’t. The picture we get is far more interesting because of the ways that it wasn’t sanitized by court historians. We are shown a fully human David, warts and all.
The David we meet in the books of Samuel and Kings is a shrewd, rakish fellow who lives by his wits, his sword—and also his faith. He is a complicated person: a canny opportunist, a lover of many (married!) women, a wise king, and a loving father who we see grieving the death of an infant son and the betrayal and subsequent death of another. He is a devoted follower of the God of Israel and—despite his many moral lapses—is nevertheless a man after God’s own heart. He is the only character in the Old Testament with such a complete emotional spectrum. After all, we don’t see Moses feeling a lot, and the only feelings we get from Job are bad ones! Add to this portrait the several references to David as a musician and it’s no surprise that not only is a large early collection of psalms named after him, but that they are interpreted through and connected with episodes in his life.
The David featured in 1 Chronicles adds a whole extra layer to our picture of the man. The two books of Chronicles are a post-Exilic rewrite of the history of Israel from a liturgical perspective. That is, it’s most interested in what’s going on with the Temple, who has been appointed to do what, and how all of the various priests and Levites are organized. In the book of 1 Kings, it’s pretty clear that Solomon was the ruler responsible for building the Temple in Jerusalem and setting up worship. In Chronicles, Solomon is simply carrying through on all of the detailed plans that his father David had orchestrated. David is the worship planner par excellence especially when it comes to establishing the rota the levitical singers and, by implication, what they ought to be singing. Chronicles is an interesting addition to David’s legacy. That’s not because it gives us any new, accurate, historical information about David (after all, it was written some six hundred years after his death!); instead, it shows us the reverence with which David was seen amongst the liturgical musicians, the pre-eminence given to him and his memory. This will only grow throughout the Second Temple period including into the time of Jesus and the early church. The Jewish liturgically-obsessed sect that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls attributes to David some 4,050 fifty songs which included 3,600 psalms as well as songs to be sung at temple worship every day of the year, and even 4 therapeutic songs of exorcism to be sung over the demon-possessed (hearkening back to his original role at Saul’s court in 2 Samuel 14).[11Q5, col. XXVII (Martinez, The Dead Sea Scrolls Translated, 309).]
This is David the man. But there’s more to the biblical picture of David than this—and that’s what we have to turn to next. We must reckon not just with David the man, but also with David the ideal.