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David, King Of Israel
More than a thousand years before the beginning of the Christian era, in a little farmstead in Palestine, there was rejoicing at the birth of a son. Not the first-born, whose coming was a fit occasion for gifts and feasting, not the second, the third, nor even the seventh. David was the eighth son of Jesse the Bethlehemite. Jesse would seem to have been a landholder, as his fathers had been before him, a man of substance, with fields and flocks and herds. We first meet David, a ruddy, fair-haired lad, tough of sinew and keen of eye and aim, keeping the sheep among the mountains.
David calming the wrath of Saul.
The steps toward the throne were not smoothed for the boy's feet, though his upward path was in a comparatively straight line. First, quite naturally, it came about that he was sent for by King Saul, who was afflicted with periods of melancholia which were charmed away only by the sweetness of melody. David's harp, on which he played skilfully, was the instrument of relief to Saul, and Saul looking on the young man loved him, desired to attach him to his person, and speedily made him his armor-bearer. Jonathan, Saul's son, grew so deeply attached to David, that their souls were knit together in that strong friendship which strikes its fibres into the soil underlying passion, and godlike in its endurance. The friendship of the two young men passed into a proverb, a proverb which is the crystallization of history. As David and Jonathan, is friendship's strongest simile.
Of the episodes of this portion of David's life, the conflict with Goliath is familiar to every reader. The youth, armed with a pebble and a sling, slays the boastful champion, storming about in helmet and greaves and brazen target, and the victorious hosts of Israel pursue the defeated and flying Philistines hour after hour, till the sun goes down. Saul, apparently forgetful of his former favorite and armor-bearer, inquires whose son the stripling is, led proudly into his presence by Abner, the captain of the host.
"I am the son of thy servant, Jesse, the Bethlehemite," is the modest answer.
Again, this time aroused by jealousy, Saul's moody fit returns and his insanity is once more dispelled by David's harp. David becomes the king's son-in-law, and Michal, the king's daughter, loves her husband so dearly that she sets her woman's wits at work to save him when her father's hot displeasure, in the summary fashion known to Eastern kings, sends messengers to seek his life. Poor Michal, whose love was never half returned!
The next chapter in David's history is a curious one. Anointed king over Israel, he wanders an outlaw captain, hiding in crannies of the mountains, gathering to himself a band of young and daring spirits, reckless of peril, and willing to accept service under a leader who fears nothing, and whose incursions into the adjacent countries dispose people to hold him in wholesome terror. Again and again, in this precarious Robin Hood life of his, David has the opportunity to revenge himself upon Saul, but with splendid generosity puts the temptation aside.
"The Lord judge between me and thee," he exclaims; "the Lord avenge me of thee, but mine hand shall not be upon thee."
An interesting side-light is thrown upon this portion of David's career, by the incident of his meeting with Abigail, a woman fair and discreet, married to a sordid churl named Nabal. David and his band had protected Nabal's fields from other rovers, and had been, so to speak, a wall of fire between the churl's estate and the hand of depredation. But at the time of the sheep-shearing the surly ingrate refuses food and drink to the band of David, though the favor is most courteously asked. When the rough answer is brought back, one sees the quick temper of the soldier, in the flashing repartee, and the hand flying to the sword. Little had been left to Nabal of barn or byre, if sweet-voiced and stately Abigail, wiser than her lord, had not herself brought a present in her hand, and with a gentle tongue soothed the angry warrior.
In days to come, Abigail was to be wife to David, after the custom of the period, which attached a numerous harem to the entourage of a chieftain or a king.
In judging of David, of his relations with women, and of his dealings with his enemies, it is not fair to measure him by the standards of our own time. His was a day of the high hand, and of lax morality. The kings of neighboring countries knew no gentleness, no law but of self-interest and of self-pleasing in their marriages, and in their quarrels. Many of the alliances made by David were distinctly in the line of political arrangements, bargains by which he strengthened his boundary lines, and attracted to his own purposes the resources or the kindly interest of other nations.
Reading of David's dashing forays, when he and his valiant two hundred fought the Amalekites, chased the Philistines, took prisoners and spoil, yet with rare wisdom ordained that, in the division of the spoils, those who tarried at home by the stuff, the guard of wives and children, should share equally with those who took upon them the pleasanter, if more perilous, tasks of the battle, we are transported into the morning of the world. These were days when the trumpets blew and the flags fluttered, days of riotous health and the joy of life.
After the death of Saul and of Jonathan his son, David succeeded to the throne. This story is very dramatic. The conquering Philistines affixed the bodies of the dead heroes to their temple walls, and hung their armor as a trophy in the house of Ashtaroth. But the valiant men of Jabesh-Gilead came by night, took down the bodies and burned them, then buried the bones, and wept over them for seven days. David himself ordered to execution the messenger who brought him Saul's crown and bracelet, confessing that his own hand had given the king the coup de grace. His lamentation over Saul and Jonathan rises to the height of the sublime. Never laureate sang in strains more solemn and tender.
But from this moment on the tenor of David's life was boisterous and broken. He was constantly at war, now war that was defensive only, again war that was fiercely aggressive. He had to face internal dissensions. As his sons grew up, children of different mothers and of different trainings, there came to the heart of the father, always most passionately loving, such bitterness as none but great souls know.
Between David's house and that of Saul there was long and fierce dispute, and never any real peace. Treachery, assassination, jealousy, marked the course of these two houses, though David, to his lasting honor, be it said, showed only kindness and rendered only protection to the kindred of Saul. He could not control the cupidity or fierceness of his retainers, but he gave the crippled Mephibosheth the household and the income befitting a prince.
David was thirty years old when he began his reign. His first capital was Hebron, where he was publicly anointed, after the custom of the period. His reign lasted forty years, seven years and six months of which he spent in Hebron. Observing the natural advantages of Jerusalem as a stronghold, he took it after a sharp contest, and set up the throne there, remaining there for thirty-three years.
In nothing did David display great abilities in a more marked manner than in the choice of his generals and counsellors. Joab, Abishai, and Zeruiah, Hushai and Ahithophel were all men of great administrative or executive powers. They were not invariably faithful to David's interests, but in the main they served him well, and to his "mighty men of valor" he owed the debt for success that all great captains owe to those who surround their persons, further their plans, and aid their enterprises.
In the Second Book of Chronicles the honor-roll of David's heroes is starred with undying lustre. Thirty captains are mentioned, among them three mightiest, and the record of these valiant men is like the record written of Thor and his followers in the legendry of the stormy Norsemen. There was one who slew an Egyptian, a giant five cubits high, with a spear like a weaver's beam, and the champion went down to the combat armed with a staff only, disarmed the Egyptian, and slew him with his own spear. Another slew "a lion in a pit in a snowy day." One sees the picture, the yellow-maned, fierce-eyed lion, the white drift of the blinding flakes, the hole of the pit, deep-walled and narrow, a fit lair for the wild beast. The incident of the well of Bethlehem belongs here. The king was spent and athirst, and he longed for a drink from the old well by the gate. But when three mighty men cut their way sword in hand through the enemy's host, and brought the precious water, the king would not drink it, but poured it out before the Lord in libation. "God forbid," he exclaimed, "that I should drink the blood of these men, that have put their lives in jeopardy!"
If David had always been as noble! But men have the defects of their qualities. These mighty men of earth have often, on one side or another, a special liability to temptation. In the seduction of Bathsheba and the cowardly murder of Uriah, her husband, David committed a sin for which he was punished not only in the denunciation of Nathan the prophet and the loss of Bathsheba's first child, but by the stings of a deep remorse, which expresses itself in a psalm which is a miserere. Yet Bathsheba became the mother of Solomon, and Solomon was the heir chosen by the Lord to preserve the kingly line of David, and to maintain the kingdom in great glory and splendor.
In the quaint language of the sacred scribes, we find David's frequent battles graphically described. Rapid and pitiless as Attila or Napoleon, he "smote" the Amalekites, and the Ammonites, and the neighboring warlike peoples, and compelled them to pay tribute. He was not more rapacious than France has recently shown herself to Siam, or than England to India, and he was emphatically the "battle-axe of God." It was enlightenment against savagery, the true religion against the idolatries and witchcrafts of a false worship. In every way David displayed statesmanship, not carrying on war for the mere pleasure of it, but strengthening his national lines, and laying deep the foundations on which his successor was to carry forward a kingdom of peace.
It was not until Hiram, king of Tyre, sent cedar from Lebanon, on floats down the Mediterranean, that David built him a house. The hardy soldier had often slept with the sky for his roof, and the grass for his bed, but as he grew rich and strong he needed a palace. With the pleasure and security of the palace, the ceiled house, came the wish of the devout soul to erect a temple to God. Never was sacrifice greater nor pain more intense than that which the great king experienced when told that not for him was to be this crowning joy, this felicity which would have made his cup overflow. His hands had shed too much blood. He had been a man of war from his youth. The temple on Mount Zion, a glittering mass of gold and gems, shining like a heap of snowflakes on the pilgrims going up to the annual passover, was to be the great trophy not of David's, but of Solomon's time. David acquiesced in the divine ordering, though with a sore heart. But he occupied himself with the accumulation of rich materials, so that when Solomon came to the throne he might find much and valuable preparation made.
The troubles of David's reign, gathering around him thickly, as the almond blossoms of age grew white upon his head, were chiefly brought upon him through dissensions in his family. Did so loving a father spoil his sons in their early youth, or were they, as is probable, influenced by the spites, the malignities, and the weaknesses of the beautiful foreign princesses who were their mothers? In the rebellion of Absalom, the king tasted the deepest draught of sorrow ever pressed to mortal lips, and the whole tragic tale is as vivid in its depiction, and as intensely real in its appeal to-day, as when fresh from the pen of the writer.
The conduct of Absalom, whose beauty and vanity were equalled by his ambition and his ingratitude, has made him forever infamous. He omitted no act that could convict him of shameless infidelity to all that was worthy a prince, and with an armed host he set his battle in array against his father. One charge, reiterated again and again, showed the depth of that father's heart--a heart like that of the Father in Heaven for its yearning over ingrates and rebels:
"Beware that none touch the young man Absalom!"
Joab, of all men in the realm, least afraid of David and most relentless when any one stood in his way, himself became Absalom's executioner, when, David's people being victors, Absalom hung caught by his hair in the boughs of an oak, unable to escape. Then it was a question who should tell the king these tidings, which dashed the hearts of the conquerors with a sudden pang. Finally a swift runner reached the watch-tower, whence the old king looked forth, awaiting news of the day.
"Is the young man Absalom safe?" he asked
And Cushi answered, "The enemies of my lord the king, and all that rise against thee to do thee hurt, be as that young man is."
"And the king was much moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept; and as he went, thus he said 'O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would God I had died for thee, O Absalom my son, my son!'"
Long, long ago, these battles and sieges, these truces and victories, were over forever on this earth. Egypt and Assyria, contemporary with Israel in greatness, have perished from the memories of men, save as a few marbles remain to tell their tale. The vitality of David is imperishable, but not because he was a shrewd statesman, a doughty warrior, or a captain of conquering armies. David the shepherd, David the king, are of the past. David the musician, David the psalmist, is as alive to-day as he ever was, the music of his harp still vibrating in temples and cathedrals and in human souls. Those matchless hymns antedating our modern era by so many shifting centuries, are lisped by children at their mother's knee, form part of every religious ritual of which the one God is the centre, and voice the love and prayer and praise of every heart that seeks the Creator. With the intense adoration and trust of the Hebrew, we too exclaim, "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want," and "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in time of trouble."
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