Most men do one thing well and call it enough. King David did many things well and was usually ready and eager to do more.
Source: Illustration by Michael Woodruff
David's convictions became apparent to his family and friends early in his life. While visiting an Israelite military camp, David was horrified to see the Philistines' champion, Goliath, arrogantly challenge the Israelites: "I defy the armies of Israel this day; give me a man, that we may fight together" (1 Samuel:17:10).
No Israelite dared face the giant. This situation infuriated David. "What shall be done for the man who kills this Philistine and takes away the reproach from Israel?" he demanded. "For who is this uncircumcised Philistine, that he should defy the armies of the living God?" (1 Samuel:17:26).
The events that immediately followed became a legend.
How did this young man, whose background included herding sheep, writing poetry and playing and singing songs under starry skies, become a fearless, valiant warrior?
Let's consider how David matured into the most renowned of Israel's kings.
David's accomplishments were many. He captured Jerusalem, making it the national capital, and reunited the nation. In a 40-year span he controlled an empire that stretched from Egypt to Mesopotamia. A man of many talents, he was a shepherd, poet, musician, warrior and statesman and an administrator who set a standard for the later kings of Israel and Judah.
As the youngest of eight sons of Jesse, his job was to tend sheep. Shepherding meant lonely vigils as well as opportunities to come to know God in an intimate relationship that developed throughout David's life.
The story of David's ascent to the crown began rather unceremoniously. It all started when God sent Samuel to anoint a replacement for King Saul. Saul had disqualified himself to rule; God decided on another man: young David.
Outward appearance secondary
God directed Samuel to go to the abode of Jesse, where he would anoint a king from among Jesse's sons. Samuel did as he was told, then began to take stock of each son. "So it was, when they came, that he looked at Eliab and said, 'Surely the LORD's anointed is before Him'" (1 Samuel:16:6). Samuel reasoned the way so many of us do: He was certain that Jesse's oldest son, Eliab, with his confident bearing, height and impressive good looks, was the one God would choose.
"But the LORD said to Samuel, 'Do not look at his appearance or at his physical stature, because I have refused him. For the LORD does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart'" (1 Samuel:16:7, emphasis added throughout).
To God the heart-a person's innermost motivation and attitude-is of prime importance: "But on this one will I look: On him who is poor and of a contrite spirit, and who trembles at My word" (Isaiah:66:2). Eliab's regal appearance didn't qualify him to become Israel's next king. David's heart did.
One by one Jesse's sons came before Samuel to determine who was to be king. It didn't occur to Jesse to send for young David. Samuel was puzzled as it became evident God had chosen none of the sons brought to him. "Are all the young men here?" he asked (1 Samuel:16:11).
Informed that the youngest was out tending sheep, Samuel requested: "Send and bring him. For we will not sit down till he comes here."
"And the LORD said, 'Arise, anoint him; for this is the one!' Then Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the midst of his brothers; and the Spirit of the LORD came upon David from that day forward" (verses 12-13).
From these humble beginnings came Israel's greatest king. David's early training had taught him to herd sheep; now God would teach him to lead a nation.
After his anointing as king, David returned to his flocks, and it was from there that he visited his brothers on the Philistine battlefield and witnessed Goliath's challenge.
When David asked what would happen to the man who slew this insufferable braggart, someone reported David's words to King Saul, and the king sent for him.
David wasn't intimidated by Israel's king or the enemy giant. He recounted how he had killed a lion and a bear that had threatened his family's sheep, "and this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, seeing he has defied the armies of the living God ... The LORD, who delivered me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, He will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine" (1 Samuel:17:36).
Fighting in God's name
Carrying only his staff, David marched forward to meet the giant, stopping only to select five smooth stones from a brook. When Goliath saw how small young David was, he mocked him: "Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks? ... Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and the beasts of the field!" (verses 43-44).
David's response was fearless: "You come to me with a sword, with a spear, and with a javelin. But I come to you in the name of the LORD of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day the LORD will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you and take your head from you. And this day I will give the carcasses of the camp of the Philistines to the birds of the air and the wild beasts of the earth, that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel" (verses 45-46). The following events quickly found their way into legend.
David rushed toward the giant. "Then David put his hand in his bag and took out a stone; and he slung it and struck the Philistine in his forehead, so that the stone sank into his forehead, and he fell on his face to the earth. So David prevailed over the Philistine with a sling and a stone, and struck the Philistine and killed him" (verses 49-50).
Saul and the army of Israel were shocked to witness the impossible. An unknown shepherd boy had killed the giant. The stunned Philistines fled; the battle turned into a rout.
A jealous king
After David killed Goliath, King Saul required David to live with him in his palace as a military commander (1 Samuel:18:2, 5). He proved a loyal and wise leader.
However, after a campaign in which Israel had again soundly defeated the Philistines, the people of Israel welcomed back Saul, David and the army. When Saul heard the women singing that "Saul has slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands" (1 Samuel:18:7), he grew envious.
David served under Saul's jealous rages. The king tried several times to kill David, but to no avail.
David found himself forced to become a fugitive, an outlaw. However, God used Saul's persecution of David to forge leadership qualities in him. From the anxieties and turmoil he suffered, David developed faith, resourcefulness and determination.
David first fled to Nob, where he stocked provisions and obtained Goliath's sword from the priest, Ahimelech. From Nob David fled to Gath, in Philistine territory. There he would be safe from Saul. At Adullam he gathered around him other disaffected members of Israelite society, the nucleus of a formidable fighting force.
When David returned to Judah, Saul heard about Ahimelech's aid to David. Saul ordered 85 priests from Nob killed for Ahimelech's presumptuousness in assisting David. Only one of Ahimelech's sons escaped, and he joined up with David.
David heard that the Philistines were harassing Keilah, a town of Judah. With God's help he defeated them. Yet the ingrates of Keilah contrived to turn David and his 600 men over to Saul. So David fled into the Wilderness of Ziph.
The opportunistic men of Ziph plotted to betray David to Saul. David fled again, this time to the Wilderness of Maon, just ahead of Saul and his men. When Saul was momentarily diverted by news that the Philistines had raided the land, David descended to the strongholds of En-Gedi, near the Dead Sea.
David twice spares Saul's life
This is where David's sterling character shines through.
In his first embarrassing encounter, Saul, leading 3,000 soldiers, hotly pursued David and his little band. When Saul entered a cave to "cover his feet," or "relieve himself" (as some Bible versions word it)-the very cave in which David was hiding-David's men urged him to slay his pursuer: "This is the day of which the LORD said to you, 'Behold, I will deliver your enemy into your hand, that you may do to him as it seems good to you'" (1 Samuel:24:4). Instead, David restrained his men and crept close enough to cut off a corner of Saul's robe.
An unwitting Saul left the cave and rejoined his soldiers outside. David then revealed himself at the mouth of the cave. Showing the corner cut from Saul's robe, David pleaded with Saul to stop pursuing him: "Therefore let the LORD be judge, and judge between you and me, and see and plead my case, and deliver me out of your hand" (verse 15).
Saul was momentarily conscience-stricken. He admitted his depravity in his attempts to murder David and that David had indeed served faithfully and righteously. Saul asked David to swear to him that when he became king he would not destroy Saul's descendants. David agreed and kept his promises.
Saul's change of heart did not last. He again tried to hunt down and kill David. While Saul was encamped with 3,000 soldiers, David asked Abishai, brother of Joab, to accompany him on a daring nighttime maneuver that took them to the heart of Saul's camp.
Together the two crept into the camp and saw Saul lying in a deep sleep. Abishai begged David to let him take Saul's spear and run him through to the ground, but David refused: "Do not destroy him; for who can stretch out his hand against the LORD'S anointed, and be guiltless? ... As the LORD lives, the LORD shall strike him, or his day shall come to die, or he shall go out to battle and perish ... But please, take now the spear and the jug of water that are by his head, and let us go" (1 Samuel:26:9-11).
When David and Abishai had traveled a safe distance from the camp, David called back to Saul, revealing how easily the king could have been killed.
Again, Saul was ashamed of his murderous designs toward David. His parting words were prophetic: "May you be blessed, my son David! You shall both do great things and also still prevail" (verse 25).
David becomes king
David's own words about Saul that night were also prophetic. Saul did perish in battle, as did his son, Prince Jonathan (1 Samuel:31:2, 6). The day was infamous in Israel's history. David's anguish (2 Samuel:1:17-27) over the deaths of Saul and Jonathan is a model of righteous grief. The words of his lament-"How the mighty have fallen!"-have echoed down through the ages.
David returned to Judah, where, in a public ceremony, he was anointed king over Judah (2 Samuel:2:4). He reigned in Judah for seven and one-half years (verse 11). Israel's northern tribes did not yet receive him, for Abner-commander of Saul's army-had Saul's son Ishbosheth installed as king.
The rivalry between supporters of the two monarchs soon heated up, played out by Abner and Joab, David's general officer. In a battle between their two armies, Abner killed one of Joab's brothers. Then Joab retaliated by killing Abner. David mourned the valiant Abner's death just as he had mourned for Saul and Jonathan. Shortly thereafter, Ishbosheth was murdered. David mourned his death and had the murderers executed. This showed David's concern for fairness: He would not let unjust deeds go unpunished.
The way was clear for David to assume sole power over Judah and Israel, and he was anointed king over the reunited nation. Shortly thereafter David captured Jerusalem and made it his capital (2 Samuel:5:6-10). He reigned over all Israel for 33 years following seven in Judah-a total of 40 years.
The kingdom thrived under David's rule. Things went well for him militarily, administratively and spiritually. With God's help, David experienced one military victory after another.
David's material power was staggering. His kingdom included the Mediterranean on the west, the Sinai desert in the south, much of Transjordan on the east and the Euphrates on the north (2 Samuel:24:5-7). God was with David; he enjoyed much success in his roles as ruler and warrior.
The troubled court of David
Like all people, however, David was far from perfect. He was prone to stumble, sometimes quite dramatically. God recorded David's mistakes so we can learn from his example (Romans:15:4; 1 Corinthians:10:11).
His sordid behavior with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11) was a turning point in David's life. God's subsequent punishment of David for adultery and murder brought dire consequences. David had greatly prospered, but after this watershed incident his troubles markedly increased. Yet David's repentance, recorded in Psalm 51, has stood as an inspiring example throughout the generations.
The next major episodes in David's life included his two sons, Amnon and Absalom. Amnon raped his half sister, Tamar. In retaliation, Absalom killed Amnon and fled. Absalom was eventually brought back to David by Joab. Although David allowed Absalom to return, they were not reconciled for two years.
Afterward Absalom began an active campaign of subversion against his father (2 Samuel 15). Flattering and promising the citizens everything they had ever wanted, Absalom eventually won them over. His father, David, once again had to flee for his life.
The stage was set for a final confrontation between Absalom's forces and David's army. Absalom's soldiers, under Amasa, were no match for David's seasoned warriors. The slaughter was unbridled, and Absalom fled for his life. As he absconded, his hair got caught in the boughs of a tree. The mule he was riding left him dangling from the tree. While he struggled to free himself, his pursuers caught and killed him.
After Absalom's death came a power vacuum. It took some time for David again to be accepted by the people of Judah, and even longer before Israel accepted him. It wasn't until Joab killed Amasa (2 Samuel 20) that Judah and Israel were again joined under David's leadership.
A man after God's own heart
Considering such problems, some might wonder why God thought so highly of David. Part of the answer is that, in spite of his lapses, David usually wholeheartedly sought God's will. He didn't withdraw from the responsibilities of life. The biblical record shows that, the more conditions around David deteriorated, the more he grew in character.
David remained faithful to God throughout his life. His loyalty to His Creator was beyond question. Read about his reliance on God in the psalms of David. He was "the sweet psalmist of Israel" (2 Samuel:23:1).
Luke writes in the book of Acts the assessment of the apostle Paul, that David was a man after God's own heart. God, wrote Paul, "raised up for them David as king, to whom also He gave testimony and said, 'I have found David the son of Jesse, a man after My own heart, who will do all My will'" (Acts:13:22). What a tribute to the former shepherd boy who became king! GN