Book Overview - 2 Samuel
by Joseph Exell
THE Second Book of Samuel is virtually the history of David's reign, while the First had comprised a twofold narrative, that, namely, of Samuel's reformation of Israel, followed by the account of the uprise and fall of Saul. And never had king a more pathetic history than Israel's first monarch. Full of hope and vigour, yet modest, brave, and generous, he had entered in a most praiseworthy spirit upon the duties of his high but difficult office. Unhappily, there was a flaw in a character otherwise so noble. Throughout the history of Israel one great principle is never forgotten, and that is the presence of a higher than any human power, ever ruling in the affairs of men, and making right and justice prevail. And Saul could not bring himself into accord with this power, and again and again crossed the boundary which lay between the king's authority and that of God. It might seem a small matter, that at a time of great urgency Saul could not wait fill the expiry of the seven days appointed for Samuel's coming to Gilgal (1 Samuel 13:13); and to lose a kingdom for such hastiness seems to many modern commentators a hard measure. Nor are excuses wanting for his leniency towards the Amalekites, and Saul himself could see in it at first no violation of God's command (1 Samuel 15:20). But in both cases there was present the same spirit which made him murder in cruel haste the high priests at Nob, and put even their women and babes at the breast to death for the supposed violation of his royal authority. Saul could not submit to the Power that is higher than man, nor consent to make his own will bend to that of God; and this wilfulness was rebellion as hateful and contrary to right as open dealings with unclean spirits, or the actual abandonment of Jehovah for idols (1 Samuel 15:23). It is easy to see its hatefulness in such deeds as the murder of the priests and the repeated attempts to slay David. The unerring judgment of God condemned it at its first outbreak, and before it had ended in crime; and this condemnation was in mercy. Had Saul repented and humbled himself in heart, his course would have been one ever brightening into light. But he was stubborn and rebellious, and the gloom deepened round him till all was dark.
Saul was not prepared to do right because it was right; and when Samuel and those who loved the right for its own sake drew away from him, his vanity was wounded, and jealousy took possession of his heart. Undoubtedly he was a man possessed of great mental and bodily gifts, and his achievement in so rapidly raising the militia of Israel and crushing Nahash the Ammonite gave him just reason for exultation. It was a deed in which he gave proof of high courage, strong will, and great military capacity. He must have been himself surprised at the rapidity and completeness of his success. And in that hour of gratified self-love he could be generous and noble minded (1 Samuel 11:13). But it was largely vanity as well as fanaticism which led to the rash vow which nearly cost Jonathan his life; and when he heard the women sing of David having slain his ten thousands, this wrong done to his self-love filled him with a mean spite against one who would have been the truest of his friends, and his strong bulwark against the evils which filled his latter years with distress. And it was this brooding jealousy which disturbed the balance of Saul's mind, and made him subject to fits of mania, marked generally by intense depression, but breaking out occasionally into deeds of fierce violence.
Saul, in the midst of his violent acts, had never ceased to be a religious man, though there was none of that personal love and loyalty to Jehovah which so distinguished David. It was the national religion to which he gave his allegiance; and it was as a statesman and patriot that he respected it, though doubtless he never shook off the influence of Samuel. But there was little genuine piety in his heart, and no trust in God, nor any feeling of union with him. In domestic life he retained his simple manners, and did not give way to that voluptuousness which disgraced David, and filled the last twenty years of his life with shame and sorrow. But as a ruler he had failed. It had seemed at first as if the hope of Israel, that under a king the nation might dwell safely, would be fulfilled in him. For many years he was a vigorous and successful chieftain, and a hero in war. And Israel under him war, rapidly advancing in the arts also of peace. Protected by the military successes of the king, Samuel was able in tranquillity to carry on his schools, and through the sons of the prophets to promote the great work of internal reform. Justice was administered (1 Samuel 7:15), and the rudiments of learning were being generally acquired. When the younger son of a farmer, evidently little thought of at home, and in his brother's estimation fit only to look after a few sheep, could read and write, education must have been a thing not uncommon. For David thus taught was but a mere drudge at home. His elegy over Saul and Jonathan Sells us of domestic refinement; of women clad in scarlet, and with jewels of gold. Saul had done much; but in his last years he brought all to ruin, and at his death he left his country in abject thraldom, and with all its national liberties trampled underfoot.
In his fall Saul involved in equal ruin his son Jonathan, one of the most generous and beautiful characters that ever the world saw. And his death at Gilboa was but the ending of a path wrapped in deepening shadow and leading inevitably to misery and disaster. In 1 Samuel 14. we see Saul in almost as bad a light as when he murdered Ahimelech and his brethren. The youthful Jonathan and his armour bearer had wrought one of those feats of desperate valour which are not uncommon in the history of the Israelites. And their bravery had stricken the raw levies of the Philistines with panic, increased by the action of a body of Hebrews drawn from the districts conquered by the Philistines, and forced to serve in their army. They were posted in the rear to guard the camp, and their defection placed revengeful enemies in the very pathway of flight. Saul meanwhile concludes from the absence of Jonathan and his armour bearer that it was some brave exploit of theirs which was causing this confusion in the Philistine host; but when the priest asks counsel of God, with just the same absence of self-control as had made him refuse to wait for Samuel at Gilgal, Saul bids him withdraw his hand from the ephod and desist. He needs no counsel from above. He will act for himself, and with extraordinary rashness and absence of good sense he commands the people under a solemn curse to abstain from food until all is over. They must fight the battle and pursue fasting. Had he given himself time for reflection, he would have felt that the slight loss of time spent in taking refreshment would be more than compensated by increased vigour of body and power of endurance. The pursuit, too, had come suddenly, and his men were not prepared; and to have partaken of the provisions cast aside by the runaways would have kept up their strength. They must at last stop from sheer exhaustion, and then the whole army would be in a state of ravenous hunger. Worst of all, he was laying a trap for those who had gained the victory. Saul's body guard would hear his orders, and obey with grumbling. Jonathan and all who joined in the pursuit from a distance, rushing from caves and from the hills of Ephraim, would be in danger unwittingly of bringing upon themselves a curse.
The results were most disastrous. When they reached Aijalon the people were so faint with hunger that they began slaying sheep and oxen, and eating them without observing the command of the Law, that they must carefully free the flesh from the blood. And Saul, aghast at this violation of a solemn ceremonial ordinance, bids his body guard disperse themselves among the people, and compel them to bring their oxen to a large stone, and there slay them in the manner prescribed. There was thus long delay before the wants of the troops could be supplied, and when at last they had taken a hurried meal, and Saul was eager to resume the pursuit, they gave him so sulky an answer as to be virtually a refusal. And now the priest, mediating between king and people, purposes to ask counsel of God, and Saul consents. But no answer comes. Saul had refused God's counsel in the morning, and now the oracle is silent.
But Saul sees no fault in himself. Fault he assumes there is, and he will find it out by drawing lots. He bids the people stand on one side, and himself and Jonathan on the other; and again, with a sulky answer, the people assent. Again and again the lot falls, till Jonathan is left, and Saul, nothing doubting that he is guilty, asks for confession; whereupon Jonathan tells him how, unwitting of his command, he had tasted almost by chance a little honey. Never was man more innocent than Jonathan, and God by him that day had wrought a great deliverance for Israel. Yet his guilty father, with dark fanaticism, condemns him to death. The people indeed rescue him, but all his legal rights were gone. In the eye of the Law he was a dead man, and henceforward Jonathan ever acts as if there was a bar between him and the kingdom. He never once speaks as if it were possible for him to inherit Saul's throne, or as if he were ceding to David anything to which he had a claim. His father's curse, his father's condemnation, still rested upon him. The people had saved him by force, but the legal act remained, and the father had destroyed the son.
From first to last Saul was the destroyer of himself, his family, and his kingdom. Samuel foretold his fall, but the warning was given personally to the king to move him to repentance. Repentance would have saved him, and Samuel allowed him ample time; for, during four or five years, he did absolutely nothing to help on his words to their accomplishment. Only after this long delay, spent by Samuel in mourning (1 Samuel 15:35), at God's express command he arose and anointed David; but neither of them, either openly or by secret conspiracy, took any steps to compass Saul's ruin. All that David did he was driven to do. To the last he was loyal to his king. And when in an evil hour he deserted his country, and entered the service of the Philistine king of Garb, it was almost a renunciation of his anointing. He seems himself to have given up all idea of ever becoming king, and, in a fit of desperation, to have thought only of saving his life. To his countrymen this open alliance with their enemies put him entirely in the wrong, and sorely he was punished for it by a seven years' delay. Yet slowly both predictions were moving on to their fulfilment, and if the purpose was Divine, the human agency was that of the self-willed Saul.
There is thus a tragic interest in the First Book of Samuel. Unrepentant, stubborn, wilful even in his deepest depression, the king struggles against his fate, but each effort only entangles him in fresh difficulties, and burdens his conscience with darker crimes. The one pathway of safety which David tried, and not in vain, in his season of terrible sin, Saul will not try. He sees his doom; is driven by it to melancholy, is unhinged in mind; but the prophet's words, "rebellion," "stubbornness," indicate the unyielding elements of his nature, and stubbornly he died in the lost battlefield. Like Prometheus, he defied the Almighty, in deeds if not in words, but the heroism was gone, and in that last sad scone, when, in mental and moral degradation, the despairing monarch sought the witch's cave, stubbornness alone remained. And, meanwhile, the other purpose of God was growing in strength, and, through strange scenes of heroism and feebleness, the shepherd boy becomes the nation's champion, the king's son-in-law, an outlaw and a deserter, before finally he becomes a king.
In the two Books of Samuel, David's uprising and reign, his sins and his terrible punishment, are given us in great detail, not merely because of their intrinsic interest and the clearness with which they teach the great lesson that sin is ever punished not merely this, but even more because he was a most important factor in the development of Israel as the Messianic nation. There is in this respect a parallel between the Book of Genesis and the Books of Samuel. The great business of the one is the selection of the man from whom was to spring the nation predestinated to be the depository of God's revealed truth. In the Books of Samuel we have the choice of the man who, next to Moses, was to form that nation for its high office, and to be the ancestor of Christ. In David the great purpose of Israel's existence was to advance a great step onwards. Eight hundred years had passed since the choice of Abraham, and four hundred since Moses gave laws and political unity to those sprung from him; and it had often seemed as if the folk were too tiny to be of any real service to mankind, and as if it must be crushed out of existence by the more powerful kingdoms that surrounded it. It was a territory so small, was placed in so dangerous a position on the very battleground of Egypt and Assyria, and the constitution of the realm was so little adapted to purposes of war, that it seemed impossible for it to have more than a short-lived endurance. But small as was Israel, God had chosen it to light a torch that should illuminate the whole world, and God's Word, which is the light of men, received through David a most precious addition to its contents.
As a preparation for the selection of David, the work of both Saul and Samuel was necessary. Saul had given Israel a sense of unity and, at least, a taste of the blessings of independence. The wish for a united Israel was as strong an influence in the uprise of David's empire as it has proved in modern times in the endowment of Europe with a united Italy. This right feeling had begun in Samuel's time, brought about probably by the tyranny of the Philistines; and Samuel, who saw in it a tacit reproach to himself, who had done so much, for not having done more, withstood it in vain. Saul's victory over the Ammonite Nahash, won by united Israel, made this feeling so strong, that David's election to the crown came as an inevitable necessity, though long delayed by his relations with the Philistines; and, when elected, he had not to build up the kingdom from the foundations — Saul had done that, but to retrieve the evil results of one terrible disaster. But the moral and mental development wrought by Samuel was a condition even more indispensable to David's kingdom than Saul's restoration of the nation to political life. David's empire was a matter of vast importance to Israel as the Messianic nation, and Saul prepared the way for it. But it was a matter, after all, of only secondary importance, and Samuel's reforms had kindled again into brightness the nation's inner life. He purified Israel's morals, fanned its decaying faith into heroic confidence in Jehovah, and enriched it with a high civilization. The learning which had always had a home in the sanctuary, and which was for a time trampled out when Shiloh was destroyed, found a new dwelling in the Naioth at Ramah. Reading, writing, music, history, not merely existed there, but were taught to an ever-increasing number of the choicest spirits of Israel. Ramah was the centre of an active propaganda, and the sons of the prophets went back to their homes as missionaries, bound to teach and to elevate and to indoctrinate with Samuel's views all the inhabitants of their villages or towns. And these views had a strong practical bearing both upon the political and the spiritual life of the nation. The eighth psalm, composed by David to be sung to a melody learnt by him when in the service of Achish, King of Gath, is testimony enough to the refinement both of thought and of language that followed upon Samuel's reforms. For David, the youngest of a large family of sons of a yeoman at Bethlehem, could have gained only in Samuel's schools that acquaintance with literary arts, and that knowledge of the history of his country, which undoubtedly he had acquired somewhere. To suppose that he could have obtained them elsewhere is to suppose, what probably became true in course of time, that Samuel's scholars had already set themselves to teach in all parts of the counter. Among a race of farmers learning would not advance with such extreme rapidity; but the Israelites were no common people, and their progress was sure and steady. It is probable that Gad, David's friend throughout his life, joined him at the very beginning of his wanderings as an outcast, from a personal affection which began when they were school friends together at Ramah. For Gad, who is expressly said to have been a prophet (1 Samuel 22:5), is by the name certified to have been one of Samuel's scholars. He chose a very hard life when he went to be chaplain to a band of men composed of such dangerous elements as David's freebooters; but he loved David, was confident in his power of governing them, and deep in his heart was the conviction that Samuel's prophecy would surely be fulfilled.
And this captain of a band of wild outlaws was destined in course of time to remodel the temple service, to teach men to "prophesy," i.e. to testify to Divine truth, on harp and cymbal and psaltery (1 Chronicles 25:1), and to give to the national worship its most spiritual element. Not only did David write psalms himself, but his temple service gave them a use, made them the common property of all, and caused others also to give expression to their devotion in the same way, as occasion called their feelings forth. The psalms were not mere lyric compositions, the result of poetic genius and fervour; no doubt many psalms at first were simply so; but they soon became the voice of the nation's worship, the expression of its faith and love and trust in its God. In this there was a distinct advance, and a most pure and ennobling and spiritual element was added, not merely to the ritual of the temple, but to the worship of God in the homes of the people. The sacrifice was full of teaching, but its details were coarse, and to us would be revolting. In the psalms sung to bright melodies in the temple, we have a form of worship so perfect, that it has lasted from David's day unto our own time; and the similar use of hymns in our services has enriched our Church with a body of spiritual poetry almost as precious as David's psalms. And like hymns in our own days, the psalms would be learnt by the people, and sung in their homes; and the worship of Israel would consist not merely of stately services in the temple, but of the voice of prayer and praise chanted throughout the land to the tunes of Asaph and his brethren, and in David's words.
In this respect we reap the benefit of David's varied experiences. Had he been a man of unblemished morality, his psalms would have struck no deeper note than those of Korah, or Asaph, or Jeduthun. In Jeremiah alone we should have had a psalmist whose words were the outpouring of a troubled heart. As it is, the passion fraught nature of David hurried him into sins so terrible as to cover his character with disgrace, and bring upon him twenty years of severe punishment, ever following blow upon blow, and darkening even his death bed with the fate of his eldest son, of the nephew who had been the pillar of his safety in every danger, and of the priest who, having alone escaped from the slaughter of his family at Nob, had been David's faithful companion all the days of his life. No regal splendour, no greatness of glory, could compensate for the lurid gloom of that death bed. But God overruled all this misery for lasting good; for David has been for all ages the psalmist of sorrow and of repentance. Myriads of sinners have found in the fifty-first psalm the best expression of feelings that were rending their hearts. Nor does this psalm stand alone. When we read utterances such as those in Psalm 31:9, 10; 38:4; 40:12, etc., the words would seem overstrained did we not know the greatness of David's sin, the depth of his penitence, and the stern righteousness which punished him not once only, but with ever-recurring severity.
The words quoted by St. Paul from 1 Samuel 13:14, that David was a man after God's heart, often trouble the minds of believers, because they take them as the Divine verdict upon his whole character. Really they are spoken of him such as he was when Samuel anointed him, and when his youthful piety was still unstained. Yet to the very last he manifests such, tenderness, such spirituality, and so devout and personal a trust in God as still to justify, though with large exceptions, this high estimate of him. And almost all his psalms belong to the days when trouble and anguish had stirred depths in his soul which otherwise would have remained stagnant. There are but few which belong to the days of his pure innocence. His poems then would have celebrated the beauties of nature, the Creator's goodness, the brave exploits of his countrymen, and the like. It was after his terrible fall that the contrite and humbled David poured forth from the inmost recesses of a struggling breast the words of earnest penitence, of deep humiliation, and withal of intense trust in the God who was punishing him so sternly, and of unwavering faith in the Divine goodness, which was manifesting itself to him as justice that could by no means clear the guilty.
The Second Book of Samuel is thus the basis and the justification of the Book of Psalms. The intensity of feeling manifested there is proved to be no mere poetry, but the cry of real distress. And because of the reality of his repentance David was forgiven; but his forgiveness did not save him from punishment. Never was history more sad than David's from the day when Nathan said, "Thou art the man!" unto that last death bed scene, when, troubled by the cry of rebellion, he was forced to condemn old friends in order to prevent civil war and save the throne of his chosen son. And as David's sin was the violation of domestic chastity, so all his sorrows sprang from the same source, and not only were his own sons the workers of his misery, but it was in and by his children that he was punished.
Yet amidst it all, David was a man after God's heart in this respect at least, that there was neither rebellion nor stubbornness in his character. His sins were greater than those of Saul, but they were not persisted in. David humbled himself before God, and bore his chastisement not only meekly, but with a clinging love to the hand that was scourging him. Let but God deliver him from blood guiltiness, and amid the ruin of his earthly happiness he would sing aloud of Jehovah's righteousness (Psalm 51:14).
But besides the interest inseparable from the study of a character such as David's, the Second Book of Samuel gives us the history, of the founding of Israel's empire. War is a dreadful thing, and involves a terrible amount of material loss and injury; but it is at once God's penalty upon national debasement, and his remedy against national meanness and selfishness. Nations rise to moral greatness through war, and when they have been sinking through social corruption and private immorality, it is generally war which reveals to them the gangrene in their midst, and either forces them by repeated disaster to humble themselves for it, or displaces them in order that a worthier people may fill their room.
So Israel had displaced the Canaanite tribes in Palestine. And with all their faults, the repeated acts of heroism of which we have the record in the Book of Judges prove them to have been a race of sterling worth. No commonplace people could have produced such men as Saul and Jonathan, to say nothing of Samuel, whose wisdom and goodness and ability as the restorer of a crushed nation, and the founder of institutions which enriched it with intellectual and moral and religious life, raise him to an extraordinary pre-eminence. Yet the extraordinary men of a nation always hold some relation to its ordinary level, and Samuel did not stand alone. He was followed by David and the numerous worthies of his court. But Israel could not have maintained its heroism and nobleness by the mere
memory of the feats recorded in the Book of Judges. Even then the nation was sinking downwards. Jephthah and Samaon were men of lower worth than Barak and Gideon. The ruinous defeat at Aphek, followed by the capture of the ark and the destruction of the national sanctuary at Shiloh, convinced Israel of its degradation, and made it ready to yield to Samuel's exhortations. Then followed a period of struggle, and then came the empire of David and the splendour of Solomon's could. It was a short-lived glory. Christ's kingdom was not to have much of earthly magnificence about it. But the Messianic people before his advent had a tremendous work to do, and needed some noble memories to strengthen them as well as grand hopes bidding them ever move onwards. And David's grandeur and the splendour of Solomon, who to this day holds a unique position in the imagination of Oriental nations, gave them what they needed. Throughout a checkered history they continued to be a firm, strong, and heroic people, and with powers of endurance which have enabled them to remain a miracle and a wonder to the present day.
David's wars and conquests had thus a great importance for Israel, and therefore for mankind. But his empire was also a symbol of the Christian Church, and David is the representative of sin-stained fallen man finding forgiveness through repentance. And there is thus a reason for the restriction to him of the promise that the Messiah should be his Son. It is never renewed to any of his successors. Solomon was the glory of the East for his wisdom; Hezekiah and Josiah emulated David's piety, and were unstained by his sins; but no prophet hails them as the inheritors of David's promise. The seed of Judah's kings were to serve as "eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon" (Isaiah 39:7). It was from Nathan, a son uncrowned, and scarcely mentioned in the history, lost quickly to view among the crowd of ordinary citizens, that he was to spring who is the Church's King, but who nationally was but a sucker from the cut-down stem of Jesse (Isaiah 11:1). We have given the reason above. David is the type of fallen man, sternly chastised for his iniquity, but finding forgiveness, rest, peace, strength, in "the God of his salvation" (Psalm 51:14).
We have thus in the Second Book of Samuel a history essential to Holy Scripture, and of profound and even painful interest. For never had human soul a more checkered record of sin and sorrow, of discord in its relations with itself, of intense contrition and earnest pleading for forgiveness, and of genuine faith, than that which is set before us here. But without the Psalms, which disclose to us the inner working of David's heart, we should lose much of its significance. For here, chiefly, we have David's sin and his lifelong punishment; while there we have the struggle of his soul wending its way through darkness and sorrow upwards to forgiveness, to light, and to joyful communion with God.
The book is composed of three separate parts, of which the first ends with the list of David's chief officers (ch. 1-8). This narrative probably included a good deal of the latter part of the First Book of Samuel, the division of the history into two portions being unauthoritative. It gives the history of David in its noblest aspect, and if we include in it the victory ever the giant, it might be called in Homeric phrase the ̓Αριστεία τοῦ Δαυίδ, the prowess and brave achievements of a hero. It traces him step by step till from the sheepcote he becomes the sovereign of all Israel, whereupon immediately he brings the ark to Jerusalem, and is appointed (ch. 8.) the Messianic king, whose office it is to build the temple, to ordain a spiritual worship for Jehovah, and, as Messiah's representative, to take the heathen for his inheritance. It was probably a contemporary document, as was also the next, which forms ch. 9-20. In it we have the record of David's sin and its terrible consequences. Beginning abruptly with his kindness to Mephibosheth, but of which we see the reason when we come to the details of the flight from Jerusalem and sorrowful return, it next gives us fuller details of David's conquests, but only to lead up to the history of David's sin, committed when his heart was turned away from God by the glory of earthly victories. All that follows is the painful record of God's just severity. This narrative also ends with a catalogue of David's chief officers, but there is now a touching difference. At the end of ch. 8. we read that David's sons were his cohanim, his confidential ministers. His family was then happy and united, and his children were the chief stay of his throne. At the end of ch. 20 it is a stranger, Ira the Jairite, who is cohen, David's private counsellor. His sons have all lost their father's respect, and the numerous children who had once been his pride are now a terror to him and a cause of unhappiness. Perhaps in this mention of Ira as David's cohen we may find an explanation of the fact that all David's elder children were passed by, and the succession to the throne given to Solomon, who at this time was but eleven or twelve years old. For if no one was any longer fit to be entrusted with the office of cohen, still less was he fit to be king. But we also see the fitting punishment of the king's polygamy. David had set a bad example in multiplying unto himself wives, and he reaped from it an evil harvest. His son and successor was even more sensual, and his many wives wrought also his ruin.
The remaining four chapters have no internal connection with one another, nor are they placed in chronological order. For 2Sa. 22., which is virtually identical with Psalm 18., was written shortly after Toi's embassy; the "last words" in ch. 23, belong to the very close of David's reign; while the execution of Saul's descendants, the battles with the Philistines, and the numbering of the people record events which happened in the earlier years of the kingdom. The "last words" give us the assurance that David's closing years were tranquil, and spent in an unbroken walk with God. The storms of his life were over, and so also was his enjoyment of the pleasures of victorious war and of royal state and magnificence. But his sin had been forgiven him. There was peace in his own heart and undiminished trust in God. Time would never quite heal his sorrow at the death of son after son, caused alike by his own sin and theirs. If Saul had wrought the ruin of his kingdom, David had wrought the ruin of his family and home. But the one was stubborn in his perverseness, the other was humbled and penitent, and his sin was taken away. And now, calm and thankful, he was approaching the haven of eternal rest in Jehovah, and the enjoyment of that "everlasting covenant, ordered in all things and sure, which was all his salvation and all his desire" (2 Samuel 23:5). It was the peaceful end of a troubled life; and it makes us confident that he had been accepted, and that the words of his penitential psalms came from his heart. And we; when we recite them, may feel sure that we are using the words of one who, if he had sinned much, had also been forgiven much, because he had a large love for God, warm genuine piety, and deep and earnest penitence.
the Third Sunday after Epiphany