Power over other people is a dangerous thing. The Old Testament presents the issue of power standing at the heart of the story of ancient Israel.
How we think of power relates to how we think of God. God has a lot to do with power. How do we understand God’s power? As Christians we start with Jesus Christ. We find Jesus’ understanding of power in Mark 10: “Jesus …said to [the disciples], ‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (vv.42-44). In looking at the Old Testament, we need to keep Jesus’ words about power in mind.
We come now, in our story, to a crucial time in the history of ancient Israel – the time of King David. Second Samuel 12 tells, in effect, of the consequences of David misusing his power. It tells of how David acted like a “great one”, how David acted like a tyrant – and did great damage to God’s healing work in the world.
Long before David’s time, God had delivered the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt. God gave the people the law to help order their lives as people living according to God’s ways. And God gave the people the promise land. This community of God’s people existed as an alternative to the brute power of ancient Egypt and the other empires. For several generations they managed without a king. However, things remained unsettled. All too often, the people did that which was right in their own eyes (Judges 21:25), often to the detriment of others. To add to the chaos, a major threat from the outside arose when enemies called the Philistines began to attack Israel.
In response to this chaos, to this sense of threat, the people beg for a king. Their revered judge, Samuel, argues against kingship. To turn to a king, he says, is to turn back toward slavery in Egypt. If you have a king, the main thing he will do is to take, take, take. He might give you leadership of sorts, but he will take your sons and daughters, he will take your best produce, he will take your freedom and “you shall be slaves” (1 Sam 8: 17).
However, Samuel’s words go unheeded. The people want to be like the other nations. The people want someone who will “go out before us and fight our battles” (1 Sam. 8: 20). God agrees with Samuel and tells Samuel to warn the people of what they will be getting into should they insist on having a king. However, God does allow the people to have a king.
The first king is Saul. Samuel seeks Saul out by Samuel and God blesses him. However, Saul fails. Saul departs from God’s wishes. His power slips away, and he becomes more or less crazy. He clings to control, commits major blunders, experiences great pain, and causes great pain for others.
In the meantime, young David gains favor. Saul realizes that David is his great rival, and that God’s favor has left Saul and now rests on David. Saul resists this and does his best to eliminate David. David avoids Saul’s attempts to do him in. David bides his time. He does not need to grasp after power. He realizes that God is with him, that God has called him and will give him the kingship all in good time. Eventually, Saul’s craziness does him in. He kills himself. David is anointed as the new king and solidifies his position with some major victories over the Philistines.
An important example of David’s faithful attitude is his relationship with Abigail, the beautiful and intelligent wife of a rich man named Nabal. Nabal is pretty much a jerk who insults David and refuses to provide hospitality. Abigail intercedes with David and wisely prevents him from taking revenge and doing evil. Shortly thereafter, Nabal dies. Then, the text says, in a morally legitimate way David “sent for and wooed Abigail, to make her his wife” (1 Sam 25:39). David did not need to take and grasp. He could wait, and trust in God’s timing. Things are going well for David. Perhaps Samuel’s fears about corrupt kingship are unwarranted.
David leads the armies to victory. He establishes a family. He gains favor with the people. He trusts in God and gives God credit for his success. Israel is on the way to prosperity, moving toward peace and well-being.
Then, however comes the turning point. Samuel’s fears are realized. Conflicts with Israel’s enemies continue. Second Samuel eleven tells us: “In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab with his officers and all Israel with him; they ravaged the Ammonites and besieged Rabbah. But David remained in Jerusalem” (vv. 1-3). But David remained in Jerusalem. We aren’t told why. We are only told that he sends his top general, Joab, out to lead the fight.
We had been told earlier that Israel sought a king who would “go out before us and fight our battles.” Here we are told it is the time of the year “when kings go out to battle.” But David remained in Jerusalem. David is now relying on others to do his work.
What follows happens very quickly. David remains at home while his soldiers go to fight his battles. He rests in the sun and spots a beautiful woman, Bathsheba. No matter that she is married to one of his key officers. No matter that he is also married. He must have her, and he takes her. David takes. Samuel’s warning is fulfilled. The consequences are deep and long lasting.
Samuel warned that the king would take and take. David enjoys this moment of basking in his overwhelming power and in his sense that he truly is in control of his own fate. David takes. He takes another man’s wife. Up until now, David hasn’t been a taker. God has given to him. David’s wife Abigail, the people, they also have all been all happy to give to him. But now he takes.
Bathsheba informs David that she is pregnant. Her husband, Uriah, has been away, fighting David’s war. David is the only possible father. So David hurriedly summons Uriah back home, hoping he will lie with his wife and provide David with a cover. But Uriah remains with his fellow soldiers, out of loyalty to them and their hardships. He does not visit Bathsheba. David’s only way out is to see to it that Uriah is killed in battle. Then David could legally marry Bathsheba. David gives the orders and Uriah does die.
David tells Joab, the person directly responsible for Uriah’s death, “Do not let this thing be evil in your eyes, for the sword devours now one and now another” (2 Sam. 11:25). Don’t let it be evil in your eyes….But, someone else sees things differently: “This thing that David had done was evil in the eyes of God” (2 Sam. 11:27). Evil in the eyes of God.
God sends Nathan the prophet to tell David a parable. Nathan tells of the poor man who had nothing but a little lamb that he dearly loves. It was like a daughter to him. But a rich man takes the poor man’s lamb away. The rich man did not want “to take one of his own flock” to feed to a guest. “David’s anger was greatly kindled against the [rich] man. He said to Nathan, ‘As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity” (2 Sam 12:5-6).
Nathan minces no words in his response to David: It is “you, King David, you are the man! Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: I made you king, I gave you everything, house, wives, leadership of Israel. If that had been too little, I would have added as much more. Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in his sight?”
Nathan tells David that he broke three main commandments—thou shalt not covet, thou shalt not commit adultery, and thou shalt not kill. David coveted another man’s wife. David committed adultery with her. Then David killed her husband. God passes judgment on David: “Now, therefore, the sword shall never depart from your house, for you have despised me.” (2 Sam 12:7-12)
David, to his great credit, responds to God. He repents. “I have sinned against the Lord,” he cries. God’s judgment relaxes a little. David stays alive. He remains king and his son Solomon succeeds him to the throne. But things are never the same. David is never the same, and Israel is never the same. From now on, Israel will be plagued by violence and injustice. The violence begins immediately. David’s own sons fight against each other and rebel against him.
David’s fall is a tragic moment. He was so gifted. He was given so much. Ancient Israel’s best chance of serving as a light to the nations goes up in flames. The next few centuries are a sad litany of one corrupt king following another (with precious few exceptions). Rather than serving as just one unfortunate case, David’s act of taking becomes the norm. Samuel was right – even the best king ends up taking and taking….
Power does corrupt. David’s story is all too familiar. David’s story is way too familiar in the Old Testament. Power-over others so often leads to corruption. God’s ways are neglected. When we look at this story in the context of the entire Bible, though, perhaps we can gain some perspective to move us past cynicism.
David himself inspires fascination. He was a genuine human being. He had powerful strengths, and he had deep flaws. To some degree, he is truly a hero. But the final picture, I think, is that David’s way was a detour. Even if David himself hadn’t fallen, some king would have. The institution of kingship, that is, kingship like the surrounding nations, kingship focused around the power of the sword, kingship focused around collected weapons of war, this kind of kingship would always ultimately result in brokenness, cynicism, and despair. The kind of world God wants, the kind of creativity, wholeness, liveliness characteristic of the kingdom of God simply cannot be established on the basis of a brute kind of power.
This is seen in a later passage that refers to David – Isaiah nine. These verses refer to the house of David, but to a successor to David who actually goes a different way altogether. The first David was the greatest of Israel’s warriors. But under the leadership of this new David, according to Isaiah 9, “all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire” (v. 5). The new David will lead God’s people in the ways of peace, not in the ways of brute power.
Isaiah nine points toward an alternative to power politics. This vision found expression during a time when Judah remained firmly under the leadership of the monarchy. So, for Isaiah, perhaps this vision was meant to point toward a reform of the existing structure. King Hezekiah, Isaiah’s contemporary and according to the Books of Kings one of Israel’s two good post-David kings (the other being Josiah) provided some promise that this might be possible. However, the story of Israel’s monarchy ends in Jerusalem’s rubble early in the sixth century BCE.
The vision for an alternative to power politics, the sustenance of the community of the promise without a human king, that was part of the founding of the Hebrew peoplehood in the time of Moses, remains alive as we see in Second Isaiah and Jeremiah. The vision remains a part of Israel’s consciousness ready to be fanned into full flame with Jesus’ proclamation of the upside-down kingdom of God. And Jesus, in this proclamation, retains some kind of linkage with David. Jesus is portrayed as a “new David,” seen most directly in the application of the Davidic term, “Messiah” (or, king) to Jesus.
This new David, Jesus of Nazareth, is a prince, not of warfare as the first David, but the Prince of Peace. Rather than taking being at the root of his kingly activity, Jesus focuses on giving. He gave mercy; he gave respect; he gave dignity. This was true of the woman caught in adultery. Jesus respected her, forgave her, and sent her away free to live a meaningful life. This treatment stands in contrast with David’s luring a woman into adultery, murdering her husband, and catching her up in a life that proved to be anything but free, treating her with anything but respect.
Rather than an attitude that some people, special people, needn’t bother with following God’s moral standards, Jesus emphasized that absolutely no one stands above God’s law. And for Jesus, God’s law is written on the believer’s heart, and considers love of the neighbor, even the enemy, as our highest calling. David, when crunch time hit, acted as if he need not bother with the commandments. He was unable to love even Uriah, one of his faithful subjects.
The first David was a man with bloody hands. Certainly, as kings go, David showed integrity, vulnerability, a willingness to repent and to accept the consequences of his actions. But the effect of his actions, nonetheless, was continued violence, strife within his family, and a legacy of scheming, using people, and ambition.
From the first David, we learn once again of the futility of the way of dominance, of grasping, of self-indulgence. As with David, so always, this way leads not to true power but to fear, impotence, isolation. The first David, though, also points ahead to the second David with his vulnerability, his repentance, his awareness in the end that indeed, no one is above God and no one can succeed when ignoring God’s ways.