The two most famous kings of Israel were father and son. Each ruled for 40 years—one a warrior, the other a man of peace. Each was both favored and reprimanded by God—one capable of transformative positive change, the other willingly led to his own destruction.
David’s relationships with various of his sons were at turns tumultuous and permissive, despairing and trusting.
David in Retreat
By the time of Absalom’s insurrection against his father, he had already killed his older brother and David’s heir apparent, Amnon, and after a time had been accepted back into David’s circle. Now his ambition to become king extended to David himself. With more and more people in support of his rebellion, he entered Jerusalem, and the king fled with a small entourage over the Mount of Olives into the Judean wilderness (2 Samuel 15:12–14, 23b, 30). Along the way David instructed Zadok the priest and his sons to return to the city with the ark of the covenant, requesting that he inform him of developments in Jerusalem.
As David continued his journey, someone told him that his counselor, Ahithophel (Bathsheba’s grandfather), had joined Absalom’s conspiracy.
“Absalom displayed consummate social and political acumen in his interactions with Israel’s citizens.”
The king determined to send one of his men, Hushai, to offer his services to Absalom and to defeat Ahithophel’s counsel by stealth and pass intelligence along to Zadok (verses 32–36).
David’s journey from Jerusalem was not without further incident. Along the way he was both informed and insulted: He learned from one of the servants of Saul’s grandson Mephibosheth that the young man had joined Absalom in hope of having the kingdom of Israel restored to the house of Saul. David rewarded the servant accordingly (16:1–4). Yet it was small comfort to learn of such ingratitude. Had not David done his best to honor Saul and his household despite the enmity? Now to compound the pain, another man from Saul’s household appeared. Shimei came throwing stones and shouting insults, accusing David of bloodlust in his relations with Saul and his family. David’s nephew Abishai offered to execute the man on the spot, but the king’s response was to allow the cursing; perhaps God had sent the man to humble the king (verses 5–13).
Absalom in Defeat
Now came the time for Hushai to frustrate the counsel of Ahithophel, whose advice Absalom had sought regarding his next moves. Ahithophel suggested pursuing David, taking advantage of his weakened position, killing him, and bringing back his followers to join Absalom’s new order. Asking Hushai for his evaluation of the plan, Absalom heard an opposing view. David’s agent told him to call on all Israel to unite against David and his men. This would be a way to ensure success against David’s infamous warriors (17:1–13). Absalom liked the idea, but the effect on Ahithophel was dire. He went to his house sufficiently humiliated that he killed himself: “For the Lord had purposed to defeat the good advice of Ahithophel, to the intent that the Lord might bring disaster on Absalom.” Meanwhile Hushai informed David via Zadok and Abiathar of what to expect so that he could cross over the Jordan (verses 14–23).
In pursuit of David, Absalom also crossed the Jordan, eventually doing battle in the forests of Ephraim. Here his long hair became caught in a tree. Joab and his men saw to it that Absalom died and was buried that day. The king had instructed his men to spare Absalom’s life, however, so now they would have to explain the very different outcome. David’s mourning over his son was considerable, to the point of being disproportionate in the eyes of some. They felt that their success in defeating Absalom’s rebellion was not appreciated (18:5–19:8).
“Joab came into the house to the king, and said, ‘Today you have disgraced all your servants who today have saved your life, . . . in that you love your enemies and hate your friends.’”
Some among the northern tribes had an issue of their own. They wanted to be treated with deference for their support and became hostile to Judah (19:40–43). Joab soon took on the task of defeating another group of northern Israelite enemies under Sheba, a man from Saul’s tribe of Benjamin. With the south still in support of the king, Joab brought about peace after Sheba was executed by his own people (20:1–22).
In a footnote to the overall account, we learn that David returned to Jerusalem and, significantly, put away his 10 concubines, providing for them but signaling a change that lasted the rest of his life (verse 3).
A Pattern of Conclusions
The final chapters of 2 Samuel are a kind of coda to David’s reign. They are seemingly not chronological but rather form a pattern: a national problem resolved by David (chapter 21), a list (21), a poem (22), a poem (23), a list (23), a national problem resolved by David (24).
The first crisis concerns a three-year famine. David asked God for an explanation of its cause and was told that it related to Saul’s killing of certain Hivites, who had been living at Gibeon in Benjamite territory by prior agreement (see Joshua 9:15). Saul’s breaking of the pact with the non-Israelites was the reason for the famine in the land. To resolve the problem, David approached the Gibeonites and asked what he might do in recompense. Their response was not to ask for money, nor for Israel’s prosecution of anyone, since they had no claim. By approaching the subject this way, they may have been waiting for David to volunteer to hand over some of Saul’s household. They then simply requested that seven descendants of the former king be delivered to them for execution. David agreed, sparing Saul’s grandson Mephibosheth, the son of Jonathan (whose descendants he had promised to protect).
The mother of two of the executed sat and watched over the bodies during the summer months; evidently the Gibeonites would not allow their burial. When David learned of her action, he wanted to bring closure to the situation and now recovered the remains of Saul and Jonathan, along with the seven recently deceased, and buried them in their family territory. With this the famine came to an end (2 Samuel 21:1–14).
As David aged, he could no longer fight on the battlefield. An attack by the Philistines during his later years put him under threat from the giants of Gath, the home of Goliath whom David had slain in his youth. Because of his increasing weakness, David’s men advised him to remain in Jerusalem and preserve his life and rule: “You shall go out no more with us to battle, lest you quench the lamp of Israel.” This is the context in which we are told of victories against other Philistine giants, at least one of whom is identified as a brother of Goliath (verses 15–22; 1 Chronicles 20:5).
Within the pattern of the final chapters, in two poetic pieces (chapter 22 and 23:1–7) we read of David’s thankfulness to God for His involvement in his life, and what are said to be his last words. Perhaps the latter was his last poetic utterance, since he would speak again just before his death (recorded early in the succeeding book, 1 Kings). If we sense a psalm-like quality to chapter 22, it is because it is repeated with variations as Psalm 18. This repetition raises the question of when and by whom various sections of the book of Psalms were written. The second poem is not in the form of a psalm but is certainly archaic and therefore in keeping with David’s composing it.
Next follows another list, this time of David’s warriors and some of their feats (23:8–39).
The final element in the pattern outlines the king’s involvement in another national crisis, this time over a problematic census of Israel and Judah (chapter 24). The account of the census begs certain questions. The second book of Samuel records that out of anger with Israel God prompted David to take the census. Why this was so is unclear, though the narrative suggests that David saw the census as a way to determine his own strength in terms of the number of “valiant men who drew the sword” (verse 9). In any event, it brought on a crisis that David had to resolve, but only by admitting his error. Knowing that he should not have numbered the people with a view to depending on self and not God in war, he was guilt-stricken.
“The purity of David’s faith assumed a quality of elegance which has often gone unnoticed in modern times.”
God now gave him a choice among three kinds of punishment for this act. None of the choices was without serious consequences for the nation: a famine for seven years, three months on the run from enemies, or three days of a nationwide plague. Choosing the shortest length of time and believing that falling into God’s hands was preferable to suffering under men, David opted for the plague. After the death of 70,000 across the land, and with Jerusalem in the crosshairs, God stopped the curse and spared the city.
The book of 2 Samuel closes in an unusual way. At the place where the retribution was stayed, David negotiated the purchase of a rock threshing floor from Araunah the Jebusite. The piece of land would become part of the area where Solomon’s temple would be built. Thus David’s final act in this book provides the introduction to the next, 1 Kings.
David’s Last Days
When David was nearing death, he was helped by a young woman named Abishag. She took care of his needs during his decline, but the record makes clear that he had no sexual relationship with her (1 Kings 1:1–4).
At this time his son Adonijah declared himself king in a ceremony to which he invited many of Israel’s leaders. He did not include others such as his brother Solomon, Bathsheba, Zadok, Nathan the prophet, nor the warrior Benaiah. Nathan advised Bathsheba to go to David to make sure that he had not authorized Adonijah in this. Reporting the development to the king, Bathsheba and Nathan confirmed that David had not changed his mind about Solomon becoming his successor. Then, at his command, Nathan and Zadok anointed Solomon as king over Israel and Judah to great jubilation among the people (verses 5–40). This interrupted the feasting at Adonijah’s celebration; hearing what had transpired, the would-be king became afraid for his life. Now begging for mercy, he was brought before Solomon, who decided to allow time for Adonijah to demonstrate loyalty.
As the time approached for David to die, he called for Solomon and gave instructions about how he should deal with certain men. With respect to his nephew and military leader Joab, who had killed Abner and Amasa (the commanders of Israel), the king said, “He shed the blood of war in peacetime. . . . Do not let his gray hair go down to the grave in peace” (2:5–6). Similarly the king said that Shimei, having cursed David and then expressed his sorrow, should now pay the price of his disloyalty with death (verses 8–9). But Solomon was to reward the sons of Barzillai, who had supported David in Absalom’s rebellion, with friendship (verse 7).
“This extraordinary portrait of a human life working itself out in the gradual passage of time, which began with an agile, daring, and charismatic young David, now shows him in the extreme infirmity of old age, shivering in bed beneath his covers.”
The death of David is recorded in a brief and simple obituary: “So David rested with his fathers, and was buried in the City of David. The period that David reigned over Israel was forty years; seven years he reigned in Hebron, and in Jerusalem he reigned thirty-three years” (verses 10–11).
In the days following the king’s death, Adonijah thought he might rise above Solomon by taking Abishag as wife. Without divulging his reasons, he asked Bathsheba to request her son’s agreement. But Solomon understood that Adonijah was still dissatisfied with his loss of the throne, and he moved to have him executed by Benaiah. Similarly Solomon removed Abiathar from the priesthood and called for the execution of Joab. Both men had supported Adonijah’s assumption of the kingship. Joab, who fled into the tabernacle and pleaded for mercy, refused to leave the sanctuary. He was then struck down at Solomon’s command, in line with David’s dying instructions. Now Zadok replaced Abiathar, and Benaiah became commander of the army (verses 13–35).
Dealing with Shimei took a different course. He was limited to living in Jerusalem with the understanding that if he left, he would be killed. Unfortunately, three years later he departed in pursuit of two runaway slaves and was subsequently executed: “The king said moreover to Shimei, ‘You know, as your heart acknowledges, all the wickedness that you did to my father David; therefore the Lord will return your wickedness on your own head’” (verse 44).
Early in his reign Solomon sought political alliances by marriage. He took the daughter of the pharaoh of Egypt as wife, living with her in the City of David until his own house was built.
Before the temple was completed, he went to sacrifice to God at Gibeon, and during the night had a vision in which God asked him to request a special gift. He responded, “Give to Your servant an understanding heart to judge Your people, that I may discern between good and evil. For who is able to judge this great people of Yours?” (3:9). Because he had not asked selfishly but rather for the good of his subjects, God granted him “a wise and understanding heart, so that there has not been anyone like you before you, nor shall any like you arise after you” (verse 12).
That wisdom was soon put to the test when two female prostitutes came disputing the ownership of a baby boy. Both had given birth within days of each other, but one infant had died due to the mother’s lying on him. The bereaved mother stole the living child, replacing him with her dead son. But the first mother recognized that this was not her son, and so they argued over the child before the king. Solomon commanded that the living child be divided and half given to each woman. This caused the real mother to protest and ask that the child not be killed but be given to the other woman. The mother of the dead child, on the other hand, agreed to the division. Then Solomon knew who was who and gave the child to the right mother: “And all Israel heard of the judgment which the king had rendered; and they feared the king, for they saw that the wisdom of God was in him to administer justice” (verses 16–28).
A Peaceful, Wise Ruler
In the 1 Kings narrative, a description of Solomon’s administration follows. The king ruled through a system of priests, government ministers, secretaries and a record keeper, thus overseeing his household, the army and the labor force (4:1–6). In addition he appointed 12 territorial governors over Israel, who provided the royal household with food in a monthly rotation. His kingdom stretched “from the River [Euphrates] to the land of the Philistines, as far as the border of Egypt” (verse 21) and brought peace and great prosperity to Israel and Judah during his 40-year reign.
International trade relationships and tariffs enriched Solomon’s kingdom: “The weight of gold that came to Solomon yearly was six hundred and sixty-six talents of gold, besides that from the traveling merchants, from the income of traders, from all the kings of Arabia, and from the governors of the country” (10:14–15). Solomon traded in horses and chariots, building fortress cities with extensive stables (4:26; 9:17–19; 10:26, 28–29). Home for his ships was the Red Sea port of Ezion Geber (9:26). From there his merchant marine, augmented by experienced Sidonian sailors, traveled long distances bringing back “gold, silver, ivory, apes, and monkeys” (10:22) every three years.
The king became famous across the Middle East for his wisdom and attracted the attention of various leaders: “Men of all nations, from all the kings of the earth who had heard of his wisdom, came to hear the wisdom of Solomon” (4:34). These visitors included the queen of Sheba. She had heard of Solomon’s fame and connection with his God, Yahweh. She therefore “came to test him with hard questions” (10:1). It did not take long to convince her that his reputation was deserved: “And when the queen of Sheba had seen all the wisdom of Solomon, the house that he had built, the food on his table, the seating of his servants, the service of his waiters and their apparel, his cupbearers, and his entryway by which he went up to the house of the Lord, there was no more spirit in her” (verses 4–5). Her conclusion was to the glory of God: “Blessed be the Lord your God, who delighted in you, setting you on the throne of Israel! Because the Lord has loved Israel forever, therefore He made you king, to do justice and righteousness” (verse 9).
The biblical books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Solomon are credited to him and demonstrate his interest in collecting and delivering wise sayings, in songs and general knowledge: “He spoke three thousand proverbs, and his songs were one thousand and five” (1 Kings 4:32).
Building the Temple
What David had been forbidden to accomplish in building a temple for God, Solomon was now able to achieve. With tremendous wealth at his disposal, in the fourth year of his reign, 480 years after the exodus from Egypt (6:1), he undertook the task with the help of Hiram, king of Tyre. His Sidonian workmen were highly skilled in cutting and shaping cedar and cypress timber (5:1–12). Solomon had his own 30,000-strong workforce, drawn from his Israelite and non-Israelite subjects, to help with this task. A third of them were sent for a month at a time to Lebanon to work with timber and quarry stone. In addition, he had 70,000 porters and 80,000 who quarried stone for the temple’s foundations (verses 13–17). The interior was paneled with cedar, much of it also covered with gold. Bronze pillars, olivewood doors, elaborate wooden carvings, and bronze and gold castings added to the overall magnificence (6:14–35; 7:15). After seven years, the construction was completed.
Solomon’s building program was extensive and did not stop at the temple. It included a house for himself, another for his Egyptian wife, a room with an ivory and gold throne from which he pronounced judgment, and a treasury known as the House of the Forest of Lebanon (7:1–8; 10:18).
At the temple’s dedication ceremony, Solomon took the opportunity to praise and thank God for all His blessings, praying that He would continue to favor Israel. In this speech he displayed a humility that pleased God, but it would not last.
Despite the blessings of wisdom, wealth and peace, Solomon succumbed to his own fascination with women from other nations, intermarrying and following their gods. “He had seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines; and his wives turned away his heart. For it was so, when Solomon was old, that his wives turned his heart after other gods; and his heart was not loyal to the Lord his God, as was the heart of his father David” (11:3–4).
The promise of a continuing Davidic dynasty over all of Israel through Solomon’s descendants (2 Samuel 7:12–16; 1 Kings 6:11–13; 1 Chronicles 22:10) was about to be rescinded. After his death, the kingdom would be divided between the northern tribes and Judah. Solomon’s son would rule over Judah only, and his servant, Jeroboam, would become king over 10-tribed Israel in the north (1 Kings 11:9–13).
Despite all that he accomplished, Solomon’s death is recorded with little fanfare: “And the period that Solomon reigned in Jerusalem over all Israel was forty years. Then Solomon rested with his fathers, and was buried in the City of David his father. And Rehoboam his son reigned in his place” (verses 42–43).
We’ll begin The Law, the Prophets and the Writings, Part 20, with the division of the kingdom that Saul, David and Solomon had ruled.