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And the Lord preserved David whithersoever he went. And David reigned over all Israel; and David executed judgment and justice unto all his people.

II Samuel 8:14, 15

David was a great and fierce warrior; but he also was a gentle man, a poet and a musician. David was a man who could be bold and unflinching in battle; but he could also be kind and tender as a shepherd. David was a stern judge demanding swift justice in the presence of sin; but he could also be kind and forgiving when the occasion allowed for it. David was a man whose emotions ran the full scope of human feeling, but underneath there was always a directing factor, a basic principle which guided him and determined his reactions; it was his faith, the deep confidence in and respect which he held for Israel’s great and almighty God. 

The record of David’s warfare which we have in Scripture is rather brief, a quick survey of all that he did; but it is sufficient to give to us a true indication of the approach which David used over against all of the heathen. It is also sufficient to be very disconcerting to all those who would try to measure the ethics of David according to modern philosophical standards. And this is especially true when the actions of David are taken in light of the many Davidic Psalms which express the feelings which David held toward his enemies. There is through all of the life of David a tone of absolute antithesis which modern attitudes simply cannot comprehend. 

In the accounts of the campaigns of David, we find several instances of what would appear to us as being extreme and unnecessary cruelty. We have one such instance in the account of David’s campaign against Moab. Here we are told that David “smote Moab, and measured them with a line, casting them down to the ground; even with two lines measured he to put to death, and with one full line to keep alone. And so the Moabites became David’s servants, and brought gifts.” What happened here, evidently, was that David captured the whole of the Moabitish army quite intact. David, however, took this army and made all of the men lie flat on the ground in three rows. Two of these rows of men he killed and the third he allowed to remain alive. Thus he took away the strength of the Moabites without destroying the nation completely. 

Again in the next campaign, this one against Hadadezer the Syrian, the result was that “David took from him a thousand chariots, and seven hundred horsemen, and twenty thousand footmen: and David houghed all the chariot horses, but reserved of them for an hundred chariots.” The very thought of these hundreds of horses hobbling helplessly about with the tendons of their legs cut would seem to us to reflect a cruelty such as we can hardly imagine. Surely it would seem to us to have been much more humane to have put them immediately to death: but this was not done. 

Finally we have one more account of a similar atrocity at the end of David’s campaign against Ammon, particularly when he finished his siege of the city of Rabbah. There we read, “And he brought out the people that were in it, and cut them with saws, and with harrows of iron, and with axes. Even so dealt David with all the cities of the children of Ammon.” 

All of this goes together quite well with a number of statements in the Psalms that seem to speak the same language. An example of this we find in Psalm 18:36ff, “Thou hast enlarged my steps under me, that my feet did not slip. I have pursued mine enemies, and overtaken them: neither did I turn again till they were consumed. I have wounded them that they were not able to rise: they are fallen under my feet. For thou hast girded me with strength unto the battle: thou hast subdued under me those that rose up against me. Thou hast also given me the necks of mine enemies; that I might destroy them that hate me. They cried, but there was none to save them: even unto the LORD, but he answered them not. Then did I beat them small as the dust before the wind: I did cast them out as the dirt in the streets. Thou hast delivered me from the strivings of the people; and thou hast made me the head of the heathen: a people whom I have not known shall serve me . . . .” It would almost seem from this all that there was a certain sadistic streak in David which rejoiced in the sufferings of others, particularly of his enemies. In fact this is usually conceded and is only excused inasmuch as this was characteristic of the day and David could not have been expected to escape it completely. 

Yet this is evidently not the whole story. There are other actions of David that indicate that this was not the kind of person he was. An example of this we have with Toi king of Hamath. About him we read, “Then Toi sent Joram his son unto king David, to salute him, and to bless him, because he had fought against Hadadezer, and smitten him: for Hadadezer had wars with Toi. And Joram brought with him vessels of silver, and vessels of gold, and vessels of brass: which also king David did dedicate unto the LORD, with the silver and gold that he dedicated of all nations which he subdued.” The point here is that David was more than willing to receive in peace those who came to him in peace. He had no desire to destroy unnecessarily. 

The same was even more evidently true in David’s original actions over against the people of Ammon. It all began at the time that the king of Ammon died and his son Hanun inherited his throne. Prior to that time, David had been treated kindly by Hanun’s father, and accordingly David sent his condolences to Hanun by means of some messengers. As it was, however, there were a number of princes in Ammon who were anxious to prove themselves over against David, believing evidently that they could overcome him when so many others had failed. Thus they advised the young king, “Thinkest thou that David doth honour thy father, that he hath sent comforters unto thee? hath not David rather sent his servants unto thee, to search the city, and to spy it out, and to overthrow it?” It was foolish advice, but the young king, jealous as he was of his newly obtained power and inexperienced in such dealings with other nations, was ready to believe them. Accordingly, instead of receiving the emissaries of David with appreciation, he very purposely gave to them the most pointed rebuff that he could imagine. What Hanun did was to have the men shaved so that one half of their beards, the universal sign of manhood in that day, was gone and half remained. And then in addition, he had their garments cut off half way at the buttocks, and sent them on their way. Coming in shame to Jericho, the men stopped there and sent a messenger on to David recounting how they had been received. It was an open affront that could not be ignored, and there followed one of the most vicious and extended wars of David’s rule ending, as we have noted, in the final defeat and punishment of the nation of Ammon. But the point is that David had not wanted it that way; his first move and his first intention had been to live at peace with Ammon. 

By far the most telling of all in the history of David was to be found in his actions over against the family of king Saul. All normal reasoning would have dictated that he would have either moved swiftly to destroy the family completely from the land, or at least he should have ignored them and allowed them to disappear into oblivion. But not David. While Saul himself was yet king, David had refused to make one move against him because he was the anointed of the Lord; and, when Ishbosheth had tried to carry on the reign of his father, David had refused to move directly against him. But God had been with David and had directed all things in such a way that David should receive the final rule. But still David was not satisfied. Throughout the years he remembered the friendship which he had always had with Jonathan as long as he had lived; and he remembered also the parting request of Jonathan to him when he had said, “The LORD be with thee; as he hath been with my father. And thou shalt not only while yet I live shew me the kindness of the LORD, that I die not: but also thou shalt not cut off thy kindness from my house for ever: no, not when the LORD hath cut off the enemies of David every one from the face of the earth.” To David this was simply something that could not be forgotten, regardless of p olitical expediency. Accordingly, as soon as the opportunity availed itself, he began to search for members of Jonathan’s family with whom this covenant might be realized. After considerable effort he did find one of Jonathan’s descendants also, a young man who had become lame at the time of his father’s death and was hiding in fear in the home of a man named Machir. Immediately David sent to. him and not only assured him that he had nothing to fear but he gave all that remained of the estate of Saul and invited him to live with him in the palace and to eat at the king’s table. It was truly a strange sight, the only remaining descendant of Saul, who had treated him so badly, received to a position of greatest honor in the very home of David; but such was the nature of the king. 

The question that remains, of course, through all of these extremes in David’s actions is, what was the motivation which through this all impelled David? And to this question there is but one answer, David as king of Israel saw himself as the representative of the truth and justice of God upon this earth. In fact, in a very real, prophetic sense he saw himself to be the forebearer of the ultimate representative of God upon this earth, the promised seed who was yet to come. It was an almost unconscious projection of himself into the role of this coming ruler and redeemer under whom Israel would some day live forever. David saw his responsibility as that of one who was to prepare the way for him, as one who had to make the kingdom and the people ready, so that when this redeemer and Lord would come he would be recognized and acknowledged. This was very really his one and only duty in the position which God had given to him. It is in this light that we must understand all of the actions of king David and all of his prophetic utterances. They were forms of Messianic projections as David saw himself filling the position which was given him merely as a means of preparation for the promised seed that God had promised to give to their nation. 

It was in light of this consideration and anticipation that David acted toward all of the other nations. The land of Canaan proper had to be prepared and sanctified as much as was possible to be a fit kingdom of God. Accordingly all heathen peoples and all heathen practices had to be driven out of it. Of this there was no question. In turn his attitude toward those nations surrounding Canaan proper was different. With them he was quite willing to live at peace as long as they did not oppose the kingdom of Israel and its throne in outright hatred; but when such hatred was evidenced, he felt compelled to make it clear that such opposition to the kingdom of Israel was an opposition to God, and those who engaged in such did so to their own destruction. David in his life as king was simply bringing into realization a type, a picture and a figure of the justice and judgment of God which judges all things by only one standard, the moral relationship which men hold over against Him and His rule. In this light we must judge David, his actions, his songs and his prophecies. They were a figurative representation of the Gospel, even a reflection of that justice which will be brought to fulfillment finally and forever in that final judgment in which Christ will measure the lives of all men. To those who are His in love, there will be mercy and redemption leading to perfect and eternal peace; but to those who have hated and opposed Him, there will be punishment, suffering and eternal perdition. It is the same judgment set forth in principle by David as he was moved by the Spirit of God.