David, Saul, and Hidden Providence

They have ascribed to David ten thousands, and to me they have ascribed thousands, and what more can he have but the kingdom? (1 Sam. 18:8)

By Oliver O’Donovan

The story of how David came from minding his father’s flocks to be king of Israel is a long one, a complicated and twisted one, too, with many episodes, reversals and cross-currents. Even from the short section that was read this morning you will have sensed something of its texture.

We cut in at the immediate aftermath of the defeat of Goliath. The young warrior was rewarded, he won the affection of the king’s son and was promoted to high military command, where he did so well that the king became jealous. Suddenly the narrative leapt to another strand in the story: David was the resident musician in Saul’s palace, when the king in a fit of madness attacked him. Once again he was given a military command, for different reasons this time, and did well. Of course, if we are instructed in the traditions of literary analysis, we will whisper the word “sources”; and sources of some kind, whether oral or written, there obviously are.

Yet we would miss the point if we did not appreciate how our historian has used his sources, allowing them room to breathe, as it were, and to encounter us on their own terms, while weaving a cord out of them that tells the story of David’s rise to power in just the way he believes it should be told. To the historian the rise of David was important. It touched the political authority of the regime under which he lived. So he uses these strands of story to argue out with us why it was necessary and right for David to possess the throne of Saul, and if we listen to him carefully, we shall find ourselves asking why any political authority, including that under which we ourselves live, is necessary and right.

The central strand of story, the thread that gives the cord its continuity and toughness, is a cycle of stories about how David became king by being a successful warrior. It begins with the Goliath story, which expresses a kind of military wisdom about the advantages of resourcefulness and initiative over hardware; it follows the friendship of David and Jonathan, in the great tradition of warrior-friendships, and ascribes Saul’s hostility to jealousy.

Saul had good reason to be jealous, because David was eroding the basis of his popularity. Saul has slain his thousands and David his tens of thousands. When people say that about a king and his general, the king is in trouble, no matter whether the general is planning a challenge or not. Indeed, the most noticeable thing about this cycle of stories is the importance it assigns to popular emotion as the force that shapes political destinies.

Everything turns upon David’s capacity for eliciting love, the love of Jonathan on the one hand and the love of Israel and Judah on the other. This is not a tender or sentimental touch. People love warriors when they are fresh and energetic, and always win. Driven into exile in the wilderness of Judah, David acts as a natural magnet to the disaffected elements of society that need leadership if they are to get anywhere. His clever games staving off Saul on the one hand and the Philistines on the other provide the villages and ranches of the area a little oasis of peace and security, for which they are happy to pay protection money. By an almost irresistible process this leads to David’s becoming king of the region of Judah years before he is accepted as king of the whole nation.

The cycle reaches its climax in a wonderful story which is frankly allegorical. It is about a man named Nabal, which means “fool”. He was a wealthy rancher who thought he could get away without paying David’s protection money. His wife, Abigail, reasonably anticipating that this would mean disaster, intercepts David’s mission of vengeance with a handsome present, and appeases him with the splendid words, When the Lord has done for my master every good thing which he promised, my master will not have on his conscience the staggering burden of needless bloodshed. On receiving news of what his wife has done, Nabal has a fit and dies, whereupon David marries the widow — who wouldn’t? Their marriage symbolizes the union of the king with his kingdom, of course. But the important point is that the kingdom, through Abigail, had to make him its king. It had to appreciate the security he had to offer and to teach him the virtue of kingly restraint, making him something better than a brigand.

It is a “secular” story, this account of how David reached the throne. But that does not mean that God had nothing to do with it. In fact, only God had anything to do with it. David acts with no obvious end in view; he is precipitated onto the throne by a people driven by nothing but its constant yearning for security and its attraction to the spirited hero-warrior — just as it will be attracted later on to his rebel son, Absalom. Political authority — and this is the proposition that our historian wants us to consider first — is susceptible of no rational public account. It belongs to the hidden providence of God, who manipulates popular emotions and heroic achievements to throw up a new leader when and as he will. “What are kingdoms but giant protection rackets?” asked St. Augustine.

At the heart of political authority there lies our need for protection, and if we are anxious enough we will accept any leader who looks big enough to protect us. We say “politics is the pursuit of power”, and there is more truth in that than we realize, for it is the pursuit of someone else’s power by an anxious people that wants it to provide security. But from this reading of the political phenomenon there is a somber implication: politics must be an infinite cycle in which a power-hungry people keeps replacing old power with new. Said Ecclesiastes, A man may go from prison to the throne, though he was born a pauper in the land he was destined to rule. But I have studied life here under the sun, and I have seen his place taken by yet another young man… who in his turn will cease to be a hero to those who come after him. This, too, is emptiness and chasing the wind (Eccl. 4:14-16).

So alongside this thread of story our historian weaves another: a group of stories about spirit-possession. Here the light falls not on David but on Saul. The Spirit of the Lord had departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord tormented him. Behind David’s rise to power there lay an act of divine judgment. Saul was a lawless monarch; the Lord who had given him his throne would take it from him. God’s just decree pronounced by Samuel at the beginning of the story is repeated at the end in that awesome scene of necromancy which precedes the fatal battle where the king will fall. And the irresistible force of this judgment is revealed episodically between whiles, manifesting itself in Saul’s states of frenzy.

David, who plays the lyre, is hired to appease this judgment, to soothe the evil spirit from the Lord with cultural enchantments. But the divine decree will not be appeased; it breaks out in a wild, unreasoning fury directed against every one that God has blessed, against David himself, against the priests at the sanctuary of Nob, and even against his own son and heir apparent, Jonathan. In one wild scene David and Samuel are together when Saul orders the arrest of both, but the madness of the monarch communicates itself to each successive band of soldiers attempting to make the arrest, finally overcoming Saul himself when he comes to make it in person.

Is there something more to political authority than the incessant pursuit of protection? Is there also a disclosure, fleeting and occasional, perhaps, but of inestimable importance to us, of divine judgment? A disclosure that makes it possible to conceive that political order may be connected with the presence in this world of righteousness and truth? Can political order offer us a moral satisfaction? This, too, can only be the case if God is at work. We can hardly claim the right to such satisfaction when events allow it if we cannot concede a place for divine judgment in what would otherwise be an empty game of power. That thought, at any rate, is one that our historian wishes to keep in our minds.

But there is yet another strand to his threefold cord. Arms are better when ruled by judgment, but judgment armed can be a terrible thing. The most bloody and destructive revolutions are driven by the thirst for moral judgment. The potent cultural memory we inherit, which teaches us to recognize our need for judgment and at the same time to fear it, is still the French Revolution. “Humankind cannot bear too much reality,” as Eliot said; and reality is never more unbearable than when it takes the form of judgment. Until we meet judgment finally in the loving face of God, we must be content to have our judgment limited. And this third strand of the story is all about restraint.

It contains a group of stories that tell us why David did not fight Saul directly, and even refused opportunities to kill him. Its recurrent theme is “anointing”. Saul has been anointed, in the first place, and David cries, The Lord forbid that I should put forth my hand against the Lord’s anointed! But there is another anointing, too, which is David’s own. Samuel comes in great secrecy to the house of David’s father, Jesse, and hunts out the youngest and most unlikely of his sons to anoint as king.

That is a evidently a judgment against Saul, but what is the meaning of the secrecy? The anointing of God is not something that anyone may seize or manipulate. One can only wait God’s time to bring it from its hidden beginnings to public effect. The anointing expresses the hiddenness of providence and the publicity of judgment, the mysteriousness of power and the transparency of justice. If David is to rely on the secret of his own anointing, he must patiently respect the public presence of Saul’s. It will be for God to tilt the balance between the two. The Lord will smite him; or his day shall come to die; or he shall go down into battle and perish. The Lord forbid that I should put forth my hand against the Lord’s anointed!

For our historian this third strand is of the greatest importance, for it is what underwrites David’s legitimacy as king. That legitimacy was not founded on some act of popular choice (though there was an act of popular choice), nor on his innocence in the face of Saul’s frenzied persecution, but on the loyalty that he showed to his people’s history and to its long-standing covenant with its God. He was prepared to wait a long time to take his place in the sequence of the Lord’s mighty acts for Israel. He was not prepared to turn against what the Lord had done through Saul.

So his dynasty was not a revolutionary foundation, though it brought about dramatic transformations, but kept faith with Israel’s past. Subsequently, Judah was loyal to David’s descendants, though some of them proved neither effective nor just. The loyalty between king and people was possible because both believed in a loyal God, who would not leave his people without justice or defense. Once for all have I sworn by my holiness: I will not lie to David. His line shall endure for ever, his throne as the sun before me (Psa. 89:35f.)

If we want to wrestle with the thoughts of this historian about political authority, we must hear above all the question he raises about loyalty. For it is a question addressed to us, too, who do not live in a sacral state or under a government designated by prophetic oracle. We, too, have to come to terms with the relation of loyalty to power and justice. No political authority anywhere can exist in an abstract moment of revolutionary new beginning. If there is a single message we may take from the collapse of the French Revolution into terror, it is this: whoever sets out to re-found political authority, ends up by abolishing it, for he separates power and justice from its ground in the history of the community. Justice and power are a terror when they are not a possession of this people; they must either serve the memories that bind a people together, or else they will simply destroy.

The Rev. Oliver O’Donovan is an Anglican priest and professor emeritus of Christian ethics and practical theology at the University of Edinburgh.


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