King David has gone down in biblical history as God’s anointed, the model leader who would be the standard by which every future Israelite king would be judged. David’s mission would be fulfilled and perfected in the person of Jesus, who was himself a descendant of David.
David was a man who walked closely with the Lord, and whose spiritual life and devotion is reflected in the psalms we still use today. He clearly had a genuine heart for God: God himself says so in 1 Samuel 16:7, when he chooses him as king. 1 Kings 11:4 says that David was ‘fully devoted to the Lord’, unlike his son Solomon. In the history books of the Old Testament, David is one of only three kings (the other two being Hezekiah and Josiah) who receive unqualified approval for their efforts to protect Israelite worship from pagan practices.
And yet the biblical record is also clear that David was not perfect. On several occasions he is guilty of serious sin, and the Bible openly discusses and criticises these incidents. From today’s perspective, any one of these would have been enough to disqualify him from a public role forever – and yet God maintains him as king. Do we need to take note?
The story of Bathsheba and Uriah the Hittite was undoubtedly the low point in David’s reign, but it wasn’t his only moment of moral failure. There is the odd incident of the census of fighting men in 2 Samuel 24, by which David brings down God’s anger on Judah, with the resulting death of 70,000 people (or perhaps 70 ‘units’, referring to units of around 10 men). For possible background on this strange episode, read Exodus 30:11-16, which demands a ‘ransom’ for every person counted in a census. David does not pay this. The thinking may be that in Ancient Near Eastern cultures head-counting was considered taboo or permissible only for those things that belonged to you: by counting the Israelites and not paying the ransom, David is implicitly claiming ownership of Israel in God’s place.
Then there is his unwillingness or inability to deal with sexual sin and murder in his own household (2 Samuel 13). Whether through weakness or simply because he felt unable to judge them due to his own failings in this regard, he holds neither of his sons Amnon nor Absalom to account for their crimes. 2 Samuel 12:10 implies that the ongoing violence in his household is ‘because you despised me and took the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your own.’ The undealt-with resentments develop into a full-scale rebellion in which thousands of people were killed (2 Samuel 15-18 and particularly 18:7).
This ambivalence seems to have extended to Joab, David’s nephew and commander of his army. On at least two occasions Joab murders people against David’s express wishes, but is not disciplined at the time (2 Samuel 2-3; 18). Only on his death bed does David finally instruct Solomon to ‘deal with him’ for the blood he shed unnecessarily (1 Kings 2:5- 6). Other incidents in David’s life are far less clear-cut than these, though there are possible allusions to other sins and errors of judgment in the books of Samuel and Chronicles.
It’s a little hard to know what to make of all this. To say that God uses flawed people is just another way of saying that he uses people. There aren’t any un-flawed people for him to use. David’s sins also have to be read in the context of his time, rather than with our own standards in mind. Ancient Near Eastern kings could and did do whatever they wanted, making his own failings look tame by comparison, and the brutalities of his reign reflect the fierce opposition to consolidating the kingdom into a united monarchy.
All the same, it is not easy to hold together the two seemingly contradictory sides of a person’s character – even if scripture tells us this is part of the human condition (Romans 7). Other figures in the Bible were seriously flawed but were still used by God: Samson (lust and murder), Jacob (deception and theft) and Peter (betrayal), to name just three. But it’s hard to find one who held such a pivotal role in Israel’s history – God’s anointed leader – but who is associated with such serious crimes.
A challenge to forgive?
We’re not short of flawed leaders ourselves. If there is anything the last few years have taught us, it’s that those in public life have plenty of skeletons in their closets. A number of these took place within an organisational culture that tacitly permitted or enabled them. Cash for Questions. Cash for Access. The Expenses scandal. Operation Yewtree. Then there are the countless personal stories we see in the news every day. Our reactions to these can tell us more about ourselves than about those most directly involved. Too often the press and public response is one of barely-disguised glee. We like our idols, but we like them better fallen.
Perhaps there are a few lessons we can learn from David’s life, both for ourselves and for the way we treat key figures in public life – be they religious, political or cultural leaders.
Firstly, whatever his crimes, David was ready to admit his faults when they were pointed out to him and to try to make atonement for them (Psalm 51, 2 Samuel 12, 16 and 24). When he did repent, God accepted it. Today, genuine repentance comes a far second to the option of denying wrongdoing altogether, or redefining morality to suit ourselves.A carefully stage-managed apology or profession that ‘I’ve done nothing wrong’ is far more common than genuine contrition.
Secondly and related to this willingness to repent, one of the reasons for God’s patience with David may be that his crimes never included idolatry, unlike most of Israel’s kings. He was ‘fully devoted to the Lord’. He was guilty of serious sin, but David let God be God and he always came back to God when he strayed.
Lastly, the patience and forgiveness God shows David is profoundly challenging to us. God makes a covenant with David and sticks to it (2 Samuel 7). When our own leaders fail, we are far more prepared to wash our hands of them or hold it against them forever. A single serious sin can be enough to end an otherwise promising career. Many politicians have never come back from sexual, financial or criminal errors of judgment; fewer still religious ministers. As one colleague put it, ‘God forgives but Christians don’t.’ Without trivialising their sin, can we find ways to rehabilitate fallen leaders rather than writing them off?
David had to live with the consequences of his actions, which were severe. But God is continually faithful to his promise to David. He never withdraws his spirit from him, as he does with Saul (1 Samuel 16:14).
The story of David suggests that we may hold our own leaders – and ourselves – to standards that God does not.