Poets, storytellers, and singers wax poetic about the glory of kings. We read verse after beautiful verse about their high seated thrones, golden crowns, glorious battles, and beautiful concubines. Anointed by their deity of choice, these rulers overcome obstacles with bravery, nobility, and the adoration of their people. The legends we tell about them makes these kings the very embodiment of all that we could aspire to. Legends, however, are often neglectful of one truth: these rulers are fallible human beings. They are frail, prone to make mistakes, and fall victim to their own desires.
We find such a story between the pages of the two books of the prophet Samuel in the Torah. These books tell the story of King David ben Jesse, considered the first of the great Israelite kings. With the understanding of the importance of this story is to not only Judaism and Christianity, but also Islam, it can be difficult to separate religious bias toward the holiness of the man from his humanity. Many scholars hold this text up as a historical record of an ancient tribe whose religion and culture have influenced people the world over. For the purposes of this article, the story of King David will be examined as a legend external of its religious context in an effort to examine its major themes and lessons.
Our story begins in the Middle East around 3000 years ago. Israel is a mid-sized but powerful kingdom, constantly at war with other tribes, such as the Philistines, Syrians, Amalekites, Geshurites, Gezrites, and just about every other “-ite” in the region. In those times, constant conflict was the order of the day. In this region the various kingdoms were in a constant struggle for supremacy over the others, which came with land, resources, riches, slaves, women, and bragging rights over whose god was the most powerful. The Israelites and the Philistines were especially bitter enemies, warring between each other more often than with any other group. At this time Saul was the anointed king of Israel. He had fallen out of favour with his God because of his arrogance the prophet Samuel made it known to him that his issue would not succeed him. Another king was waiting to be anointed somewhere in the rocky countryside.
Saul’s search brought him to the house of Jesse, a simple farmer with a many sons and even more sheep. Receiving a message from the Almighty, Samuel chose Jesse’s son David, the smallest among his brothers. In order to prove his value, David was taken out to the battle field where the Israel and Philistia stood against each other in formation. The armies lined up on either side of the dusty field, armed and ready to cut each other to pieces. As was the custom of the day, the Philistines sent out a champion, Goliath, who by contemporary standards was gigantic. Standing before armies of Saul, he dared them to send out a champion to face him instead of committing to battle. Not a man stepped forward until David volunteered. After a tense few moments of javelin and khopesh dodging, David killed Goliath with a sling and stone and won the day for his country and his god.
In the years following the battle, David rose up to the status of a hero for his prowess in battle, something for which the incumbent ruler resented him. In order to avoid an assassination at the hand of his former benefactor, David was forced to hide with those who would follow him in Philistia until Saul and his sons were no longer a threat. When Saul and his sons died in battle, David was crowned king. He won many battles and brought honour to his now royal house. His growing power made him arrogant. King David took more concubines into his bed, and bore many children. One of whom was a married woman named Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite. The laws of their religion would not permit him to have her for himself, nor for him to murder Uriah directly. Instead King David set Uriah up to die in a siege that he knew would be a failure. After confirming that Uriah was felled by an arrow, David took Bathsheba to wife.
His crime did not go unnoticed, and God punished him for it. First he was reprimanded with the death of the first child that he and Bathsheba shared, second he would spend the rest of his life at war, and the third punishment was the unraveling of his personal life. The third punishment was leveled in a drama that played out between his two sons Absalom and Abnon, and his daughter Tamar. Abnon had an unnatural desire for his beautiful half-sister Tamar. The desire burned in him so hotly that he could no longer contain himself and raped her. Tamar was the full-blooded sister of Absalom, and upon hearing of this crime against her virtue, he Absalom became enraged. After much planning, he hatched a plan that ended in the murder of Abnon. King David’s heart would not allow him to enact the Law of Moses, which demanded Absalom’s execution. Instead, King David banished Absalom to Hebron. While in exile, Absalom raised an army and rebelled against his father. In the course of the battle, Absalom was killed. King David was beside himself with grief at the news. Despite his desire for peace, this was not his last battle. King David ruled Israel for two score years, and since he was cursed to have no rest from the sword, the only peace he found was on his bed at the end of his life.
The story of King David’s life can be broken down into two major themes: the relationship between jealousy and success when it success is unexpected, and the importance of good stewardship. Before he was a king, David was not only a common shepherd boy, but he was also the smallest of his brothers. They were all broad shouldered warriors, and he was a gentle poet. On the battlefield, he felled the strongest, most well-armed warrior of his day with a simple stone after being mocked thoroughly by that same warrior. How many times have we overlooked or disrespected someone that we viewed as lower than ourselves? Our society assumes that people with less money or less education are somehow less deserving of respect. People who may not have access to the same resources are treated like a burden to society. When given the opportunity, these same people can surprise us with talents that we did not know they had. Instead of celebrating them, however, we, like King Saul, are given to seeking means by which we can either control them or stomp them out in order to combat any supposed threat to our position and privilege. This kind of pettiness against perceived threats to our personal comfort exists on every level of human interaction, from personal relationships to the political arena.
King Saul sees David rising in prominence under his roof. At first, he attempts to control him by ensuring that his eldest son Jonathan befriends him and that his daughter Michal becomes his wife. If David was bound to King Saul’s house, then perhaps his popularity and prowess can be harnessed for the king’s benefit. The security that should come with those relationships did nothing to dissuade the ruler’s jealousy. Eventually it overcame him and gave way to the urge to destroy the threat David presented to his legacy. This scenario plays out repeatedly anywhere the question of power is raised. It is often said that successful people do not change, the people around them do. There are some who will be supportive of an individual’s ascendancy to excellence, and others who would soak themselves in jealousy to the point that they feel invested in putting a stop to it. Perhaps someone new and talented has been hired to your team at work, or a long-time friend has suddenly found success at something that you wanted for yourself. Jealousy can be overwhelming, and prompt us to say things and act in ways that would be heretofore unconscionable under normal circumstances.
The story confronts us with the idea that anyone can be great, even if we do not expect greatness of them. Sometimes the last people that we think could accomplish anything may surprise us when given the opportunity. David, had he not followed the calling to the duel with Goliath, would have remained an unknown shepherd, strumming away at his harp and singing songs that would be forgotten as soon as death came to claim him. Despite the various attempts by his enemies to control, co-opt, or destroy him, the tide of his ascent to the throne would not be stemmed. He rose to power and his name became immortal between the pages of his people’s history. We need to learn to accept and celebrate the greatness of others, just as we would want others to accept and celebrate the accomplishments we ourselves make. Bitterness against them will not diminish their greatness if they will not allow it, and it will not make us any greater either.
King Saul’s jealousy also caused him to project intentions onto David that did not exist. Despite David’s unwavering loyalty, the king constantly accused him of wanting his throne. He viewed David’s increasing prominence as some diabolical plan to rob him. When people close to us suddenly surpass us, we immediately assume the worst of them. We project a sense of superiority on them, believing that they think they are better than us, the people they used to be. We think that every denial for their time or an unwillingness to share their resources or a perceived emotional distance is directly related to their distaste for people that are now beneath them. When these feelings begin to crop up, we should be asking ourselves if this is truly what that person is like, or if we are projecting negative attributes on to them because of our own insecurities. This is not to say that this can never be the case, but that we should question ourselves if our first impulse is to think this way without sufficient evidence.
This brings us to the next major theme, stewardship of power. The leaders in the story of King David are aggressive, petty, and selfish. The king of Philistia is happy to welcome David and his people to live in his country, not because he felt sorry for their plight, but because he wanted to thumb his nose at his rival King Saul. When he is crowned, King David is quick to take more wives and concubines, even to the point that he has a man killed to satisfy his desire for a married woman. He was so wrapped in his own machinations in the pursuit of glory and pleasure that he neglected the goings on of his own house. This wages of this neglect were the stolen virtue of his daughter and the death of two of his sons. In the early years of his rule, King David was more concerned with power than he was with caring for his charge. Because of this arrogance, his life unraveled and he spent years full of grief and heartache. When we do achieve something great and have the opportunity to become leaders, we tend to forget that this power comes with responsibility (shout out to Spiderman). We expect to be celebrated for the great things that we do, but do we comport ourselves in a way that makes us worth celebrating? We may become well respected for our work in our communities, we may create lasting legacies for which we will be remembered to a certain degree, but what else do we leave behind us in our wake? Have we been abusive to the people closest to us? Have we tried to take things from those who had less than us? Are we capitalising on the social currency we have earned in a way that betrays the integrity that people expect from us? What is the cost of betraying the trust and esteem that others have given us? A selfish use of our power and influence creates resentment in those around us. Family, friends, and close associates can all fall away and leave us surrounded by people without our best interest at heart. When King David chose exile as the punishment for his son, he did not bother to explain that this was the only way to save Absalom’s life. After all, the law demanded his execution. The king made a decision and that was all that mattered. In the end, his son grew to resent him. Absalom was full of anger that his father would punish him for defending his sister’s honour and did not understand why his father made the hard choice that he did. Not thinking that he had to level with his son resulted in not only an open rebellion, but the loss of his favourite son’s love and life. In much the same way the manner in which we treat the people around us can lead to conflict and ultimately the death of a relationship that we once held dear.
The story of King David is densely packed with lessons on the consequences of acting jealously and making selfish decisions. In the individualistic and pleasure-driven world in which we live, it is easy to forget that these choices have consequences. Sometimes the damage done cannot be repaired. It is up to us to look inside of ourselves and silence the jealous voices that make us act out of character. It is up to us to look in the mirror and ask ourselves if we are doing right by the people around us. If we neglect to do these things, then we will also find ourselves condemned to life without peace and hearts full of misery.
Until next time be good to yourselves and each other.
Adam H.C. Myrie
Image credit: http://drrichswier.com/2015/02/16/david-goliath/
King David’s military victories: http://www.biblestudy.org/maps/map-of-military-victories-of-king-david.html