And it came to pass after this, that David enquired of the LORD, saying, Shall I go up into any of the cities of Judah? And the LORD said unto him, Go Up. And David said, Whither shall I go up? And he said, Unto Hebron.
So David went up thither . . . .and they dwelt in the cities of Hebron.
And the men of Judah came, and there they anointed David king over the house of Judah. . . .
There was something heart-rending for David about the defeat of the army of Israel at Gilboa. There was the humiliation of seeing his own countrymen routed completely by the armies- of the Philistines and the land which he loved overrun by these uncircumcised men. There was the fact that Jonathan, the closest friend he had ever had, had been killed by these heathen hordes. There was the fact that Saul had died and, though David had suffered so sorely at his hand, there was still in his heart sufficient respect and love for this man, whom he could only look upon as the anointed of the Lord, that he could only grieve deeply and feel the sadness of the day. But hardest of all for David to bear was the fact that in this hour of Israel’s greatest defeat he had been aligned on the side of the enemy. True, the distrust of the Philistine lords, or rather, the providence of God had prevented him from actually taking part in the battle on the side of Israel’s enemy; but the fact was that he was now living in the Philistines’ land as a friend of theirs. Now suddenly David saw more forcibly than ever before how very wrong it had been to leave the land of his fathers to dwell here among the heathen. Had he only remained in the hills of Engedi, he could even now sally forth to punish the Philistines for what they had done to the armies of Israel and to Israel’s king. But now he was helpless. Having aligned himself as a friend of the Philistines it was impossible; to turn upon them would be only treachery of the most despicable sort. Here he was, caught in his own sin, ensnared by his own lack of faith, identified with Israel’s enemy in the hour of its need. David knew with a surety, of course, that he had been anointed to be the next of the kings in Israel; but could it not be that he had in reality forfeited his right by this sin? David did not so much as dare to move without first consulting with God because of the guilt that rested on his soul.
It is the amazing wonder of divine grace, however, that God does not deal with us after our sins nor reward us according to our iniquity, if only we turn unto Him in repentance. And so it was that when David turned to him again, as he should have long before, God was there to answer him. David asked, “Shall I go up into any of the cities of Judah?” and God answered, “Go up.”
But David had lost all confidence in his own discretion, and even this clear word was not enough. Again he returned to God for more explicit directions as asked, “Whither shall I go up?” and again the answer came back, “Unto Hebron.”
Humbled as he was, it was for David a great joy to leave the borders of the Philistines and to pass again into his own land and his own country. Moreover, no longer did he have to travel secretly so as to escape the surveillance of Saul. This was his own tribe and his own people. They knew David and welcomed him as he traveled. It seemed to the men of Judah that at last they were about to receive their rightful recognition. They had always remembered so fondly the last parting promise that Jacob had left with the father of their tribe, “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come; and unto him shall the gathering of the people be.” Gen. 49:10. It had seemed to them a gross injustice and a sad mistake from the moment that Samuel had announced that from the tribe of Benjamin Israel’s first king was to be taken. Had it not been for the fact that Samuel was so evidently a prophet of God, they perhaps would never have given to Saul any recognition at all. It had accordingly not taken them long to take note of the rise of David from that final day of Goliath on. They had been careful, indeed, and not overstepped their bounds when Saul had turned against them. But they had understood. Saul had only been trying to protect his own family and his own tribe. Now, however, Saul was out of the way, and nothing any longer prevented them from receiving David as the representative and favorite son of their tribe. His return was for them a march of triumph.
For David, fond as he was of the history of his nation, it must have seemed significant that God had directed him to go to Hebron. Here was a city and a district that had formed the focal point of the history of Israel from its very beginning. Hebron itself was one of the oldest inhabited cities in the whole area, and to its vicinity Abraham had returned again and again to make his camp. Near here was where Isaac had spent most of his days, and here was the cave of. Machpelah which Abraham had bought for Sarah and in which all of the patriarchs had been buried. It was from here that the spies had taken samples of the richest fruit of Canaan, and it had been given to Caleb as a reward for his faithfulness. One could go on and on pointing out the details; somehow this district always seemed to be the focal point of the history of grace, and now David himself was directed to it by the very hand of God. Hardly could any place be more appropriate and significant to him.
In accord with the desire of David, the coronation itself was not elaborate or ostentatious. He did not want it to appear in any way that he was returning as a conquering hero. His mourning for Saul and Jonathan was sincere, and he wanted the people to know this. He was satisfied, therefore, not to make any demands of choice or loyalty upon the whole of the nation of Israel; it was enough merely to have the men of his own tribe, who were naturally most loyal to him, come to Hebron and crown him king. After all, his appointment was not of his own choice but of God. There was no need for him to worry or be concerned. He was sure that in due time he would be able to show to all of Israel that this was as it should be, and they would receive him as king.
It was not long either before the opportunity appeared which David desired to demonstrate his true feelings concerning the death of Saul and Jonathan. It was here that one of David’s greatest virtues qualifying him to be king was to be found, even as at this same point Saul had fallen most miserably short. David understood people, and he could sympathize with them. He had a feeling for their questions and problems and doubts and was concerned with helping rather than just condemning them. So here, he realized that their most natural supposition was sure to be that he was really overjoyed with the death of Saul and Jonathan because of the opportunity which it gave to him. It was not a happy conclusion for them to be drawing about him; but it was natural, and the wisest thing for him to do was to demonstrate that it was not so rather than just trying to squelch it.
One of the first reports that came to him in his capacity as king was that the men of Jabesh-gilead had taken the bodies of Saul and his son from the walls of Bethshan where the Philistines had hung them and had given to them a proper burial. There was good reason why the men of Jabesh-gilead had done this, for it was in their behalf that Saul had engaged in his first and perhaps most heroic act as king. When he as yet had had no organized army, Saul had called all Israel to join him in driving away the Ammonites who were encamped against Jabesh and threatening to destroy it. The men of the city had never forgotten it, and it seemed but a small price of thankfulness to pay when they had received the opportunity of rescuing the remains of the king from the humiliation of the Philistines. Nevertheless, those who brought the report of their bravery to David did so with uncertainty, for they were not really sure how their report would be received, whether with appreciation, indifference or anger.
For David, however, this was exactly the opportunity which he sought, an opportunity to demonstrate the fact that he had not desired the death of Saul and Jonathan in the least even though it had resulted in his being set upon the throne. Thus his reaction was immediate. He summoned a group of men to serve as his messengers and sent them to Jabesh-gilead with these words, “Blessed be ye of the LORD, that ye have shewed this kindness unto your lord, even unto Saul, and have buried him. And now the LORD shew kindness and truth unto you: and I also will requite you this kindness, because ye have done this thing. Therefore now let your hands be strengthened, and be ye valiant: for your master Saul is dead, and also the house of Judah have anointed me king over them.”
The move of David was a very wise one; but, if he thought that it would be sufficient to gather all of Israel behind him, he was mistaken. It was to be yet seven and one half years before his rule would be recognized throughout Israel.
The fact was that David, in removing as he had into the land of the Philistines to make his life among them, had committed a great sin. There were many reasons why he did it and excuses which could have been given, but the fact of the matter was that he had broken his identity with Israel; and, although God had not withdrawn his grace from David because of it, the people were not all so ready with their forgiveness. After all, how did they know if David had not stirred the Philistines up to make their attack upon Israel? and how did they know that he had not given them instructions just how to make their attack most effective exactly in the hope that Saul would be slain and make room for him upon the throne? There are always those in every situation who are much more ready to condemn someone for whatever trouble may arise than to try to understand and forgive. But it was David’s own doing. He had given them the opportunity to lay blame at his feet, and it would be many years before the scars would disappear if ever they would.
But even more than this, although Saul was now dead, the effects of his wickedness lived on still. There were those who had shared with him the wickedness of his power, and they were not about to surrender the influence which they possessed without a struggle. The friends of Saul were determined to hold on to the power of the throne as long as they could.
Most prominent among these friends of Saul was Abner, Saul’s cousin and the captain of the army. All through the reign of Saul he had held a position of importance; but particularly toward the end, as Jonathan had become less and less active in the affairs of the kingdom, he had been able to solidify his power in the nation. Now, he was not about to abandon it. All he needed was a pawn who could maintain some rightful claim to the throne in opposition to David. Neither was it necessary to go far to find such. In Ishbosheth, a weak younger son of Saul he had just such an instrument. No sooner had David been crowned king in Hebron than he had taken Ishbosheth to Mahanaim and crowned him there as king in the place of his father. It was in a large part a successful maneuver. To many in Israel David was not yet a man to be trusted, and all but the tribe of Judah fell behind Ishbosheth and Abner. It was a division in Israel that would never again be healed except for a short time in the latter reign of David and of Solomon.