The Story of Israel
Although the dates are uncertain, David was probably on the throne in Jerusalem around 1000 BC. Skeptics of the Bible have long doubted the existence of David and his kingdom, saying he was only a national fable, someone like King Arthur in England. No evidence pointing directly to David’s kingdom has been found by archaeologists in Jerusalem.
However, an inscription which mentions the house (or dynasty) of David was discovered in 1994 during excavations in the ancient tribe of Dan in northern Israel. It is the first reference to David found outside the Bible, and thus one of the most important archaeological finds to support the historical accuracy of scripture. The House of David Inscription appears to be a fragment of a victory monument erected by the king of Damascus during the 9th century BC, some 150 years after King David’s reign. (Israel museum, Jerusalem)
Read 2 Samuel 1-4
In 1 Sam 31, Saul commits suicide by falling on his sword. An Amalekite reports his death to David, claiming falsely to have killed him, perhaps hoping for a reward. However, David mourns the death of his enemy because he was God’s first anointed. He does not rejoice at his enemy’s death. He has the messenger killed as an example to others. David writes a song of mourning dedicated to Saul and Jonathan.
David’s first center of authority is in Hebron, the ancient home of Abraham. This town is located at the highest point in the country, important both for its religious and military significance. Hebron lies 19 miles south of Jerusalem. David reigned from here for 7 years.
He had a rival, however, in Ishbosheth, Saul’s surviving son, whom Abner, the commander of Saul’s army, supported. In 1 Chronicles 8:33, he is called Eshbaal, a name derived from the Canaanite god Baal, meaning “man of Baal.” This name has been found on ancient pottery, showing that it was popular during this period. The writer of 2 Samuel changed this pagan name to Ishbosheth, which means “man of shame,” possibly a nickname given by his enemies. The civil war between David and Ishbosheth lasted about two years.
A rivalry develops between Abner and Joab, David’s nephew, because Abner reluctantly kills Joab’s brother. Eventually Abner changes sides and joins David, because Ishbosheth denied him a concubine. In return, David marries Saul’s daughter Michel, who was promised to him earlier but married to someone else. David’s claim to the throne becomes stronger. Joab, however, suspects that Abner is a traitor and a spy, and kills him treacherously. David swears that the death of Abner falls entirely on Joab.
Two men assassinate Ishbosheth, but again David does not reward them but has them killed because of their unlawful murder of royalty. Although this death made David the undisputed king over Israel, he did not approve of the crime.
Read 2 Samuel 5-7
After seven years in Hebron, David conquers the city of Jerusalem, held by the Jebusites. Joab finds a secret passage through a water shaft that provided the city with access to water during a siege. For this feat, David made Joab his commander-in-chief (1 Chronicles 11:6). In 1867 an archaeologist named Charles Warren discovered what many believe to be this water shaft in Jerusalem.
The part of the city today known as Old Jerusalem, surrounded by walls built during the Crusades in the middle ages, is much larger than the city in David’s time. In the 10th century BC, Jerusalem included just the area south of the Temple mount. Below is an artist’s reconstruction of what the city might have looked like shortly after Solomon built the temple (seen at the crest of the hill, top right corner), and a photo outlining this area in the city today, covering a few neighborhoods. In the modern photo, the Muslim Dome of the Rock (the gold dome) sits where the Temple stood which Solomon built.
In this old part of Jerusalem, archaeologists have excavated a stepped stone structure which may be the “Millo,” or supporting terraces mentioned in 2 Sam. 5:9 (also 1 Kings 9:15, 1 Chron 11:8, 2 Chron 32:5). Historical dating suggests this structure existed before David conquered the city. Later it may have supported a royal palace where many kings lived and where King Joash was killed about 797 BC (2 Kings 12:20, 2 Chron 24:25). All of this is uncertain but an interesting possibility.
2 Sam 5:11 mentions the king of Tyre sending cedar to build David’s palace. Actually this event took place toward the end of David’s reign.
Ancient cities differed in several ways from our modern idea of a city. Most people continued to live in the countryside in small, unprotected villages; only royalty, court officials and prosperous merchants had homes within the walls of the city. The people crowded into the city only during times of war. Archaeologists have discovered some city walls which were 30 feet thick and 50 feet high.
The city gate was strategically important, serving as the entrance into the city but also its weakest area to defend. Ancient gates consisted of an inner and outer gateway with four to six chambers on either side of the passage between the gates in which defenders were stationed to fight off invaders. During peacetime the city gate served several purposes: merchants set up stalls to sell their wares (2 Kings 7:1), judges held court and conducted trials (Deut. 21:18-21), and the king would hear petitions from the people (2 Sam. 15).
Below is a photo and diagram of the six-chambered gate of Gezer, possibly the one which Solomon had built (1 Kings 9:15).
With great ceremony David arranges to bring the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem. However, he carelessly disregards God’s commands on how the ark should be transported. Only priests were allowed to carry the ark on long poles, and no one could ever touch it. Instead, they carried the ark on a cart, the means to transport ordinary items like farm produce, but no way to move a sacred object. The ark represented God’s holy presence among his people and deserved the utmost respect.
On the way to Jerusalem, the ark almost falls off the cart, and Uzzah reaches out to steady it. God strikes him down, which perhaps seems harsh to us today, but this punishment indicates that human beings cannot take God’s commandments for granted. Sometimes today we become too comfortable around God, thinking of him as our best friend, almost a “buddy.” We must never forget that God is holy and we are unholy. We are allowed in His presence only because of His grace and the sacrifice of Jesus.
One student wrote this insightful comment: “The New International Version says they were ‘celebrating with all their might.’ Other translations say ‘played,’ ‘danced,’ etc, but I am curious as to what they were celebrating. If they were celebrating God, the author might have used the word ‘worshipped,’ but maybe the author is letting us know that, in fact, they were celebrating what they believed to be their own accomplishments, that they had defeated the Philistines by their own hand, even though God had said that He would be the one to deliver them (2 Samuel 5:19). They may have been so caught up in the celebrating that they forgot whom they were celebrating. It is a very applicable warning to us today, reminding us not to worship God’s blessings (money, people, health, etc.) or just His forgiving, merciful and gracious side, but we are to worship God in His entirety, remembering that He is also jealous, holy and righteous as well.”
Eventually David moved the ark properly with the help of the priests. In celebration David danced, and Michel his wife (Saul’s daughter) was embarrassed by his public display. After that time, David had no sexual relations with Michel, and she died childless.
Ch. 7 records the very important promise that God made to David. David wanted to build a “house” for God, meaning a permanent temple to replace the tabernacle. However, God said that David was not the one to build this temple, since he was a warrior and had shed too much blood (1 Chronicles 22:8, 28:3). Instead, God promises to build a “house” for David, meaning a royal dynasty. His sons would remain on the throne for many years after David’s death.
Eventually, this promise led to the coming of the messiah. Jesus is described as the son of David, reigning over an everlasting kingdom (Luke 1:32-33). Both Matthew and Luke record the genealogy of David down to Joseph, but since Jesus was not Joseph’s biological son, we should understand the title “son of David” as symbolic. Jesus fulfilled the many prophecies that a king like David would come to his people one day.
Read 2 Samuel 11-12
Notice how the narrative sets up expectations (“At the time of year when kings go forth to battle”), then an unexpected twist as David stays behind in Jerusalem. This is surprising since from earlier verses we know that kings were measured by their ability to wage war (1 Sam 8:19); Saul was jealous of David’s military reputation. The narrative generates interest by arousing our curiosity — why does he stay in the city?
From his high palace, David sees a a beautiful woman, Bathsheba, bathing on an adjacent roof. He summons her to the palace and sleeps with her. When she becomes pregnant, David tries to cover up by allowing her husband army leave, hoping he will sleep with her and think that this is his child. However, Uriah the Hittite does not go to his wife but stays on guard at the palace gates. David then treacherously plans to have Uriah killed on the battlefield.
David tells Joab (in a literal translation): “Do not let this death be evil in your eyes” (11:25), but a few verses later the text says, “This thing was evil in the Lord’s eyes” (27). God sends the prophet Nathan to David, who tells him a parable of a man who stole someone’s sheep. David reacts zealously and says that the man deserves to die, to which Nathan responds boldly, “You are the man.” David now admits his sin and asks for forgiveness which God grants, but still David must face the consequences of his actions, and his first born child dies.
The story of David is not about a saint. He had many faults, numerous sins throughout his life. As John Walton writes, “God has not given us the Bible with the intention that we put the heroes of the faith up on pedestals of awe and reverence. In contrast, we find that the characters portrayed in the text are shown to share many of the human weaknesses with which all of us struggle. … We cannot view them as superhuman. … Instead, their stories are in the Bible because God worked through their successes as well as their failures. … They are part of God’s story.” God had plans for David, who was “at times an instrument and at times an obstacle” (Old Testament Today, 2004, 200, 205).
Notice that the Bible seems to place the blame on David, not Bathsheba. In those days, if a king ordered you into his bedchamber, a defenseless woman didn’t have much of a choice. She seems as much a victim in this story as Uriah.
Read Psalm 51, which David wrote at this time expressing his sorrow for his sin. He recognizes that his sin was actually against God. This is a beautiful psalm of repentance.
David was described as “a man after God’s own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14), not because he was perfect, but because after sinning, he returned to God and repented.
The theme of repentance continues to be important throughout the Bible. In the NT, John the Baptist, Jesus, and Paul preach the need for people to repent. The parable of the Prodigal Son who returned to his father, sorry for what he had done, is an excellent example of repentance and God’s willingness to forgive.
However, sometimes people take God’s grace too lightly. They excuse their sinful behavior, saying “Well, nobody’s perfect. God will just have to forgive me.” But grace is not like a “get out of jail free” card in Monopoly. The Bible teaches that God forgives those who acknowledge their sin and repent, meaning they make a sincere effort to change their ways. As Jesus said, “But unless you repent, you too will all perish” (Luke 13:3).
Read 2 Samuel 13-15, 18
Because of David’s sin, Nathan had prophesied that “the sword will never depart from your house” (12:10). These next chapters describe the subsequent discontent within David’s family, leading to his son Absalom taking the throne in open rebellion. Absalom wins the people’s hearts, refusing to let them bow to him, and promising justice for everyone. Absalom goes to Hebron, the former capital, to declare himself king over Israel. Fearing the uprising, David and his followers flee Jerusalem. David leaves a spy, Hushai, behind to learn of Absalom’s plans, and to give him bad advice. Hushai convinces Absalom not to pursue David at this time which probably saved David’s life.
Absalom takes his father’s throne in Jerusalem and sleeps openly with his concubines, publicly declaring his kingship (16:21-22). Eventually during a battle Absalom’s long hair becomes entangled in a tree, and David’s commander Joab kills him. Although his son tried to overthrow him, David mourns Absalom’s death deeply.
The OT never explains why God allowed men such as Abraham, Jacob, David, and Solomon to have multiple wives, but He never seems to condemn it in scripture. As for wives and concubines of the king, most were probably considered royal property of the state, given by other rulers for political alliances (1 Kings 3:1). It’s likely that the king never slept with most of them, perhaps never even saw them face to face. The king’s harem was an indication of his power, not his sex drive.
Despite this lack of explanation, the Bible clearly teaches that having multiple spouses was not God’s original intention. In Matt. 19:4-5, Jesus affirms the divine plan for marriage from the beginning in Genesis 2: “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’?”
Read Psalm 22
David wrote this psalm of lament during a time of severe trouble from his enemies. On the cross, Jesus quoted the opening words, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?”
This psalm reminds us that the Bible never promises us an easy, problem-free life. Other people in the Bible suffered and wondered, “Where is God?” In Luke 7, John the Baptist was in prison, awaiting death. He became discouraged and sent his friends to ask Jesus, “Are you the one?” In other words, John thought, “I’m about to die. Did I back the wrong man as the Messiah?” Jesus told him to have faith and see the signs of the kingdom at work in his ministry, even when they seemed far away from John’s current situation.
Sometimes we may not see God working in our lives, but it is then that we must believe all the more. Faith means believing in things unseen (Heb. 11:1). John did not see great blessings in his life resulting from his preaching about Jesus. Notice that Jesus doesn’t rebuke John for doubting but encourages him not to stumble.
Faith will always include an element of doubt. If the existence of God could be scientifically proven, there would be no room for doubt or faith. We don’t ever doubt that the sun will rise in the morning or that the sky is blue; these are simple facts. But things that we cannot prove take faith, thus there will always be room for some doubt.
It’s easy to praise God when we feel very blessed and things are going well. However, some believers don’t always feel the presence of God surrounding them like a warm glow. At times the world appears cold, dark, and lonely. Suffering makes God seem very far away.
Like the psalmist we may think, “I say to God, why have you forgotten me? Why must I go about mourning?” (Ps. 42) It’s reassuring that God included stories in the Bible of people like John, David, or Job who felt abandoned by God. It lets us know that we are not alone when we feel this way, and God did not condemn them for their doubts. Also see Psalm 13, 77, and 88. These psalms ask “Where are you, God?” and God saw fit to record these doubts in holy scripture.
Mother Teresa, who spent her life serving the poor in Calcutta, India, surprised her admirers when some of her spiritual doubts were revealed in letters after her death. She spoke of the struggle of experiencing God in her life: “As for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great, that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear; the tongue moves [in prayer] but does not speak.” In letters to her confessor, she bemoans the “dryness,” “darkness,” “loneliness” and “torture” of her life. She compares the experience to hell and at one point says it has driven her to doubt the existence of heaven and even of God; yet she continued to serve Him (from Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light 2007).
The Christian writer C. S. Lewis got married late in life, only to lose his wife to cancer four years later. In his short book A Grief Observed, he wrote about the pain he felt: “Meanwhile, where is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms. When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing Him, so happy that you are tempted to feel His claims upon you as an interruption, if you remember yourself and turn to Him with gratitude and praise, you will be welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away. The longer you wait, the more emphatic the silence will become.” Lewis expressed his doubts and despair honestly, but he didn’t lose faith in God.
So don’t be ashamed if you have genuine questions about God and his presence in your life during times of struggle. That too is a part of faith. Just don’t allow them to trip you up.
Read 2 Samuel 24
This chapter raises some difficult questions. God becomes angry at Israel for their sins (not identified here but probably idolatry) and uses the pride of David to punish them. David commands that a census be taken to see how many people he ruled. In 1 Chronicles 21 the parallel text says that Satan tempted David. Apparently his advisers recognized the foolishness of this action as Joab tries to talk him out of it. Once the census has been taken, God tells David that the people will be punished, but he gets to choose the punishment. At first reading it may seem that God punishes the people for David’s sin, but the first verse explains that God was angry with Israel for their many sins. In any case, it remains a difficult challenge to believers to see God’s wrath displayed in such a way. We can only be grateful that this wrath has been taken away for those who are in Christ (Romans 8:1).
More on the wrath of God:
Often students in this class will ask, “Why is the God of love, the father of Jesus, so angry in the Old Testament? When did he change?” There are two major questions here that we need to see more clearly.
First, God did not change from the OT to the NT, or as someone once mistakenly put it, “when God became a Christian.” The NT describes God punishing sin harshly as well. He struck Ananias and Sapphira dead for lying to the apostles (Acts 5). In Romans, Paul writes, “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people” (1:18) which he continues to discuss throughout the letter. The book of Revelation describes frightening visions of God pouring out his wrath on the wicked. Jesus himself speaks about the eternal punishment of hell more than any other person in the Bible. God’s wrath is not something exclusive to the OT.
On the other hand, the NT is not the only place describing God as loving and merciful. Many passages talk of God’s forgiving his people repeatedly, even after they rebelled against him time and again. God revealed himself to Moses on Mount Sinai as “Yahweh, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness” (Ex. 34).
So both testaments describe the same God in similar ways.
Second, we should understand divine wrath not as mere anger, as if God were having a temper tantrum and lashed out in punishment without thinking. This is the way humans act but not God. Those passages which seem to imply this are using anthropomorphic language, meaning they describe God using human terms which we should recognize as not literal. Some passages mention God as having eyes, hands, feet, arms, but we know these are figures of speech, since God does not have a body like we do. Similarly, we should understand that God does not experience in the same way human emotions like anger, hatred, or jealously, but instead these words are used to approximate meanings, describing God in ways we can relate to.
We should think of “wrath” not as anger but as an expression of God’s justice. The holy and righteous God is also perfectly just, meaning that sin must be punished. We get upset when a criminal in a trial gets off on a technicality and escapes punishment, saying “That’s not just.” In the same way, if God didn’t punish sin, he wouldn’t be just. God represents a much higher form of justice, more perfect than any human court. We may not always understand the ways of God, but we should believe that what he does is just, not merely an act of momentary anger.