The latter days of King David

J. Wesley Ferguson, Antrim, N. Ireland [SEE PROFILE BELOW]

‘Now therefore the sword shall never depart from thine house . . . I will raise up evil against thee out of thine own house’, 2 Sam. 12. 10-11

David’s early promise and virtue
We need to see the story of the later years of David’s life against his earlier record. His early life held promise of a distinguished career. As a lad he showed courage and strength of character as he faced wild animals in defence of his father’s flocks. Few men of his age had killed a lion and a bear single-handed. He attributed his success in this to the help he had received from God.

His loyalty to God became evident as he faced Goliath in the Valley of Elah. It was because the giant ‘defied the armies of the living God’ that David resolved to meet the challenge the Philistine had thrown out. This singlemindedness of David’s devotion to God was the main reason why he was cited by God in later generations as the standard by which kings of Judah could be judged to have been good or bad kings. His military successes during the reign of Saul led to the women’s praise of his slaughter of tens of thousands. Their reference to Saul’s tally of mere thousands caused the jealousy which made Saul’s presence too dangerous for David.

Despite the pressure created by Saul’s violent fits of jealousy David always reacted as befitted one who accepted that Saul was ‘the Lord’s anointed’. His office demanded that David show him due respect. When Saul pursued him and was at his mercy one day in a cave, 1 Sam. 24. 4, David would not take advantage of the situation to do him harm, because he was the Lord’s anointed.

But David’s respect for others and for their property was not directed solely at Saul or other powerful people. When he and his men were in the Carmel area, virtual outlaws, they protected the flocks and shepherds of the local people. Let others behave as outlaws usually do; David was at least a true shepherd, who respected other shepherds. He had this vital qualification for kingship, like his greater Son, who grieved to see Israel in His day without a proper king, ‘as sheep not having a shepherd’, Mark 6. 34.

The incident which marked a change

David’s victories when he became king had laid a foundation on which Solomon’s wealth and power would later be built. He accumulated materials which constituted the basis for the vast resources available for Solomon’s building programme.

Then, one year, ‘at the time when kings go forth to battle’, 2 Sam. 11. 1, David stayed in Jerusalem, while Joab and the other warriors went forth to battle.

One evening David committed an indiscretion which led to lust, and adultery, and devious deception, and murder. That the man whose death he arranged was Uriah the Hittite increases the seriousness of the dreadful crime. Uriah showed himself absolutely loyal, following an impeccable military code when he refused to go home to his wife while his men were at the front. He is numbered among David’s mighty men, 23. 39, a distinction which even the mighty Joab never achieved. Indeed, when David commissioned Joab to organize the death of Uriah he showed that he understood the contrast between Uriah’s integrity and Joab’s ferocity and lack of principle.

So David took Bathsheba, Uriah’s wife, to be one of his wives. But he was confronted by Nathan the prophet. In his parable Nathan led David to threaten a man who could rob a poor man of his pet lamb to feed a guest. The offence was compounded by the fact that the offender had many sheep and lambs, while the poor man had only one pet lamb. Then Nathan applied the parable with telling force: ‘Thou art the man’, 12. 7.

David’s contrition was complete and shattering; Psalm 51 tells what the historian in 2 Samuel omits, the remorse of a good man who had sinned so disastrously, so grievously, and David was forgiven.It was after this that David had a son whom he named Nathan, 1 Chron. 3. 5. His repentance was complete and deep, yet he had sown a crop which must be reaped.

It is worthy of our consideration that many ungodly people in the midtwentieth century, who knew almost nothing about David, or his psalms, or his devotion to God, or his godly qualities, were well acquainted with his link with Bathsheba. Hollywood made sure that it was vividly portrayed for their salacious enjoyment.

The disintegration of David’s family

Nathan’s prophetic pronouncement of David’s guilt was centered on the quotation at the head of this present study. The sword was in his household! His wives were to suffer for his offence! Public humiliation for David, ‘the man after God’s own heart’!

Bathsheba’s child by David died. We are not told if it lived long enough to be given a name, but Bathsheba did bear David a son called Nathan before she bore Solomon.

The disintegration within his family arose in part from the fact that he had many wives; therefore there were many sub-family groups within his family. One of his sons, Amnon, committed incestuous rape on his half-sister, who was a full sister of Absalom. Absalom responded by what would nowadays be called ‘an honour killing’, by murdering Amnon. Honour killings are so called by those who think in terms of personal pride and wounded honour. These things are quite different from the biblical concepts of sin, evil and just recompense, all of which are viewed in the light of God’s character rather than our pride.

At any rate, the sword had begun to take its toll in David’s family. Yet, David hankered after Absalom in his enforced exile. It was David’s nephew, Joab, who began to intrigue for Absalom’s return. The method used to persuade David was manipulative. The restoration of Absalom was partial: he was allowed to live in the land but ‘saw not the king’s face’; that is, the king did not receive him back into his favour. Then, once again, Joab negotiated for a full acceptance of Absalom, ‘and the king kissed Absalom’, 14. 24, 33.

Absalom prepares to seize power

Absalom was back and felt that he must be seen to be back, so he travelled in a chariot and had men to run before him, rather like a limousine with outriders!

Then he appeared at the city gate. We must remember that this is where men in authority were approached by the citizens. Now, Absalom had no official standing, but he went out of his way to give judgement without seeming to do so. So he ‘stole the hearts of the men of Israel’, 15. 6.

In a blasphemous pretence of piety he asked David’s leave to go to Hebron to fulfill a vow and worship the Lord. We remember that before David united the kingdom he had ruled for seven years in Hebron, until the rest of Israel accepted his rule and he was able to transfer his capital to Jerusalem. Once established in Hebron, Absalom sent out spies throughout Israel, preparing for a gathering of rebel forces. There was a ready response. Word of the rising was sent to David and he decided to flee.

David flees

There was need for haste. Many of David’s faithful servants went with him, along with members of his immediate family. It is interesting that he depended for troops largely on mercenaries, Cherethites, Pelethites and Gittites. Ittai the Gittite is singled out in 2 Samuel chapter 15 as a man who accompanied him out of deep loyalty. So, amid much sorrow and lamentation, they went over the brook Kidron.

Zadok and Abiathar, the priests, offered to follow David and to take the ark of the covenant along with them. David refused their offer, for he looked to God to bring him back if such was His will. Also, they would be of more service to David in Jerusalem than in flight. We can also see that David realized that the ark was the sign of God’s commitment to Israel rather then to any individual, even if he was king. Our understanding of God’s interest in His people is often tested when we have to choose between His honour and our dignity, or supposed dignity.

So, David went up the Mount of Olives weeping, his head covered and his feet bare. His faithful followers went with him in similar mourning. We get some indications here of what was going on in David’s mind about the part God would play in this crisis. He prayed that the Lord would ‘turn the counsel of Ahithophel into foolishness’, for this man had gone over to Absalom, 15. 31, 34.

His trust in the Lord, however, did not cause him to cease to act shrewdly; he also arranged for Hushai, who wanted to go into exile with him, to return to Jerusalem to ‘defeat the counsel of Ahithophel’. Trust in God does not necessarily involve naive lack of watchfulness. The narrative is beautifully economical, ‘So Hushai David’s friend came into the city, and Absalom came into Jerusalem’, 15. 37. In 2 Samuel chapter 17 we find that this was Absalom’s undoing and led to Ahithophel’s death.

David’s flight also revealed the character of others, Ziba, the servant of Mephibosheth, used the situation to turn David against Mephibosheth by a vicious slander. Crises often show up self-seeking individuals in their true colours when they use the unsettled situation to further their own petty ambitions.

Shimei, of the house of Saul, also came out in his true colours when he went along cursing David as he went. He felt that David was now powerless to exact vengeance on him. When Abishai, Joab’s brother, sought permission to go over and kill Shimei David restrained him, for David was willing for the moment to accept this behaviour of Shimei as an item of divine discipline directed at himself.

In response to a message from Hushai in Jerusalem that Absalom was on his way in pursuit, David accelerated his pace to cross the Jordan. By this time David must have been tired and under deep pressure. His route from the east bank of the Jordan took him up the brook Jabbok as he headed for Mahanaim in Gilead. This was the area where Jacob, so long before, had one night faced his past, confessed his true identity, and accepted that he could overcome in a sense by accepting that one can cling to God but not force His hand. At this low point in his experience we may perhaps see David experiencing the reality of Psalm 23 verse 4, ‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me’. Human aid was not sufficient for him in his deep sorrow of rejection, but he could still realize God’s presence close at hand. The fulfillment of the prophecy about the sword in his house did not preclude a realization of God’s present help in his extremity.

A taste of exile, comforters and conflict

So the rejected king came to Mahanaim, like Jacob before him. There he had friends who met him and met the need, perhaps as in Psalm 23 verse 5, ‘Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies’. As Jacob at this place saw that his little company was amply complemented by the divine host, so also David found that the Lord had prepared a warm welcome for him, and an adequate force to meet the rebels.

Battle was joined, under the command of Joab. Absalom’s forces were routed. David’s instructions that Absalom himself should be spared were blatantly disobeyed by Joab, David was reaping the bitter harvest of his earlier folly. Absalom died as he hung in a tree, suspended by his hair, in which he gloried. He was buried the same day, as it was laid down, in Deuteronomy chapter 21 verse 23, ‘that thy land be not defiled’. This battle was the climax of the series of deeply wounding experiences of David in this later period of his life.

But we are not left without any other light on the period of the rebellion. David wrote psalms which give us an insight into the private dealings which he had with his God during the rebellion and his flight. We must now turn to those psalms to extract evidence of the spiritual greatness of the man, even during such traumatic events.

The heart of David before his God during the rebellion

Psalms 3-6 are connected with the events of the rebellion. They enable us to see beyond the outward humiliation and suffering of David to his private exercises with his God.

Psalm 3 shows David, fully aware of how powerful the forces mustered against him were, yet confident in God. God was his shield, his glory and the lifter up of his head. So David could lie down and sleep unafraid. He called on the Lord to arise and help, for salvation belongs to Him. Then, in a flash of deep significance, David prays for God’s blessing on His people, the very people who, for the most part, had forsaken him and followed Absalom.

Psalm 4 shows David recalling before God his past experience of divine help. God was his righteousness and the upholder of his right. God had set him free when he was hard pressed. We remember that, in 1 Samuel chapter 24, when David spared Saul when he had him at his mercy, Saul was constrained to cry out, ‘Thou art more righteous than I’, v. 17. So, here again, he can say, ‘I will both lay me down in peace and sleep: for thou, Lord, only makest me dwell in safety’, v. 8.

In Psalm 5 he writes of how careful he is in his approach to God, how expectant he is of a genuine response from God. He can confidently contrast his enemies, who lack integrity and reverence toward God.

Psalm 6 is described as a penitential psalm. Can we see in it David’s thoughts on the eve of the battle against Absalom? His mind can go back to the words of Nathan in 2 Samuel chapter 12 verse 9, ‘Thou hast despised the commandment of the Lord’. Then, ‘The sword shall not depart from thine house’. David realizes that there is no hope in himself; he falls back on the lovingkindness of God. Then he recalls the false character of those who have risen against him, and he is king. His confidence is restored, ‘The Lord will receive my prayer’, he says.

These are the outpourings of a heart that knows its own shortcomings but has learned to put trust in God and has learned the utter trustworthiness of God. This is a dimension which we must not miss when we read the records of this phase of King David’s life. The fires of suffering have revealed the genuineness of the man ‘after God’s own heart’.

David continued to have a true devotion to God, but what a mountain of suffering and distress he had to bear as he reaped what he had sown. He was forgiven, and knew that he was forgiven, but yet he must reap the harvest for, ‘Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap’, Gal. 6. 7. And it had all started on one day when he was idle and off his guard!

AUTHOR PROFILE: Wesley Ferguson is in the assembly in Antrim in N. Ireland. He ministers the word throughout the Province and the UK and is the author of numerous magazine articles, and recently authored ‘Genesis’ in the Ritchie series ‘What the Bible Teaches'.