For Christians, 1 and 2 Samuel are “history.” For Jews, they are among the writings of the “Former Prophets.” But the books can also be read as wisdom literature, especially when we recognize that biblical wisdom is royal wisdom. What follows is a sampling of the many lessons about good and bad rule that arise from this biblical “Mirror for Magistrates.”
Lesson #1: Tyrants take. Though the Lord is displeased with Israel’s request for a king, he tells Samuel to give the people what they ask for. He also tells Samuel to warn the people about the “custom” that will be adopted by the king. Samuel’s message is, “You want a king like the nations? You will get a king like the nations.”
The key word of Samuel’s warning speech is “take,” repeated six times. Tyrants take land and produce; they take sons to use as soldiers and daughters as bakers and servants. Tyrants demand 10 percent in taxes, an idolatrous tax because equivalent to God’s tithe. It’s a virtual return to Egypt, for their king will treat them as oppressively as Pharaoh did.
Lesson #2: Tyrants fail. Saul and David both act like kings of the nations. Saul takes lands to reward his favorites, and David takes Bath-sheba and covers himself by sending her husband, Uriah, to his death. Tyrannical taking is rewarding policy, but only for a time. Saul’s end is too pathetic to be tragic. As he dies on Mount Gilboa, he can’t even get his armor bearer to put him out of his misery. After taking Bath-sheba, David’s kingdom descends into chaos, each son outdoing the others as a catalyst for anarchy. Tyrants are grass, flourishing in the morning but withering in the afternoon sun.
Lesson #3: Beware of nepotism. The first time we meet David’s commander Joab, he instigates a violent clash that ends with Abner, the commander of Saul’s armies, killing Joab’s brother. Joab avenges his brother by killing Abner. Joab later defies David and kills Absalom while the latter hangs helplessly from a tree. When David replaces Joab with Amasa, Joab murders Amasa and takes back control of David’s army.
Why does David tolerate a man who makes blood his belt? It’s partly because Joab knows David’s secrets. He receives David’s orders to have Uriah killed, and he’s shrewd enough to put the pieces of the affair together. But David’s attachment to Joab goes deeper. Joab is a “son of Zeruiah,” David’s sister. David excuses Joab’s brutality because he’s kin.
Lesson #4: Gestures matter. Politics is symbol as well as force, and David is skilled at guiding public perception. Many believe that David is trying to overthrow Saul, but after Saul’s death David composes and chants a lament in which he describes Saul as “beloved and pleasant,” “swifter than eagles,” and “stronger than lions.” After Joab murders Abner, David leads the funeral procession. These gestures are sincere, but also politic: David arrests rumors by publicly honoring his opponents.
Absalom turns David’s skills against him. He begins his conspiracy by acquiring a chariot and horses and hiring fifty men to form an entourage. When the people of Jerusalem see Absalom go by in his yellow stretch Hummer, surrounded by smartly-dressed Secret Service agents, they know he’s important. He wins over the people by treating them as equals, even superiors. When someone bows, “he would put out his hand and take hold of him and kiss him.” Absalom acts like a rock star, but wants people to think he’s a regular guy. It works. He draws the hearts of Israel away from David.
Lesson #5: Kings give. During the latter part of Saul’s reign, David lives in exile in the Philistine town of Ziklag. While he is absent, Amalekite raiders attack his camp, plunder his goods, and kidnap his wives. He then pursues, defeats, and plunders them.
Instead of keeping the plunder for himself or for the men who fought with him, David shares it with the men who kept the baggage and then distributes the rest to cities throughout Israel. This is just, since the Amalekites got rich plundering these same cities. But David’s gifts also demonstrate his love for Israel and elicit loyalty and love from his people. Whatever he later becomes, at the beginning of his reign, David is not a king like the kings of the nations. He is not a king who takes, but one who gives.
Here we can begin to see the outlines of the greater Wisdom of a future king, one who gives all he has for his people, and we discern that this Son of David is the real mirror of kings.