David, 1623, Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680)
(…continued) King Saul reluctantly allowed David to fight Goliath, offering him all the best armor and weaponry. David declined everything, taking only his slingshot and five smooth stones. Goliath was irritated to see David coming at him with not much more than the shirt on his back, telling David he would be soon feeding him to the birds. David replied in one of the greatest verses of faith in the Bible: “You come against me with sword and spear, but I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, who you have defied.” As a teenager, David was already at his best.
You know the rest of the story. One shot with one smooth stone was all it took, as David planted it directly into Goliath’s forehead, knocking him to the ground. David ran forward, picked up Goliath’s sword, and cut off the giant’s head. With their hero dead, the army of the Philistines fled, and the threat was eliminated.
Saul had already become a wicked king in God’s sight. David’s great victory made Saul even worse. Saul resented David’s success and became jealous of his popularity. Instead of being grateful to David, Saul tried to kill him. David had to run for his life.
For the next 20 years David lived in exile and on the run. He formed his own guerrilla army of 400 tough guys– outlaws, adventurers, and rebels. They lived in the wilderness, picking fights here and there with larger armies, sometimes against Israel’s enemies, sometimes even against King Saul’s army. David was the anointed King of Israel, but for two decades he and his men were without a country. No one could get the best of them and they had some support from the people in the country, but they had no official welcome anywhere. It was in this context that David wrote many of the Psalms that prayed for protection from the enemies who were seeking to take his life.
During these long hard years David had a couple opportunities to take a short cut to power. Those years on the run and in hiding made him an expert at sneaking around, and twice he got past the king’s guards and close enough for an easy assassination. But even though Saul had often tried to kill David, David refused to kill who he called ‘the Lord’s anointed.’ Saul also had been anointed to lead, and David would not be the one to kill one whom God had chosen. One time, David even cut off a piece of Saul’s uniform to show how close he had been. The next day from a safe distance away, he called out to Saul and showed him the piece of uniform, dramatically declaring his loyalty. This was David at his noblest, and even Saul admitted that David was the better man. For a brief time after that, Saul stopped hunting David.
Eventually, Saul was killed in battle and David became king, now nearing the age of forty. David quickly established his authority. He was already immensely popular, but there were a couple challenges to his rule with which he had to contend. He then secured Israel’s borders, defeated their enemies, and around the year 1000 B.C., David established the city of Jerusalem as his capitol.
Then, when finally at peace, living in security, and with unchallenged authority, David began to make some of his biggest mistakes. He could discipline and command an entire army and nation, but he allowed his family to get out of control. He could write prayers like the 23rd Psalm of spiritual depth and devotion that remain unsurpassed after 3,000 years; but he could also take another man’s wife, get her pregnant, and then arrange to have the husband murdered in battle to get him out of the way and avoid a scene. And this David, who acted so nobly in sparing King Saul’s life, would take the most violent and vicious revenge on his enemies.
There is no way to excuse the outrageous sins of this Biblical hero. He was in many ways a far bigger sinner than you or I will ever be. But even in this there is a lesson on grace, because even in his greatest sin, David knew how to confess his sins, admit his failure, submit to God’s awful punishment, and then, in the end, he knew what it was to receive God’s gracious forgiveness.
David’s greatest legacy was that he knew how to pray, and is credited with the writing most of the Bible’s Psalms. One of the greatest is the prayer David prayed after the prophet Nathan condemned his adulterous affair with Bathsheba and the arranged murder of her husband. We know it as the 51st Psalm, which contains the words of today’s prayer (below). God heard that prayer and forgave David’s sin.
We can learn not only from the faith of the Old Testaments heroes, a faith that can make our own look small and weak, but we can learn also from their greatest sins, which at times can make our own sins seem small. Even with feeble faith or after shocking sins, we can learn from David that what is most important of all is to keep our eyes on God’s grace and love.
David’s fall should put those who have not fallen on their guard, and save from despair those who have.
I Samuel 17:45 — David said to the Philistine, “You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied.”
II Samuel 12:13 — David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.”
Acts 13:22 — (Paul said), “After removing Saul, he made David their king. God testified concerning him: ‘I have found David son of Jesse, a man after my own heart; he will do everything I want him to do.'”
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right Spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with your free spirit.
–David, King of Israel