Commentary on 2 Samuel 23:1-7
The narrator of 2 Samuel 23:1-7 tells us that these verses contain “the last words of David.”
What is interesting, according to Professor Ralph Klein, is that this passage is the first of many “last words of David” in the Old Testament. Klein counts ten “last words” of David; the second and third of which can be found 1 Kings (2:2-4 and 5-9) and the fourth through the ninth in 1 Chronicles (22:7-16,17-19; 28: 2-10, 20-21; 29:1-5, 10-19; 23:27). Even more intriguing is the fact that David is unique in this regard — there are no recorded last words for any of David’s royal successors!
So why is David accorded so many chances at having the final word?
In the legends, if not actual history, of ancient Israel, David’s stature only seems to increase as time passes. This is not so different than giants of history a little closer to home. It’s hard to imagine that more can be said about George Washington, but more than 40 biographies on Washington alone have been published since the early 1990s. The count is comparable for other greats such as Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. And these books sell well — they often top bestseller lists.
What is it about these men that fascinate us? Why do we return again and again to the smallest details of their lives (not always distinguishing history from legend)? Maybe we hope that combing through the minutia just one more time can elicit some insightful bit of wisdom or a kernel of previously undiscovered truth. That’s likely what David’s biographers within the biblical text were after in their emphasis on and inclusion of his last words. Last words, especially in pre-modern times, were significant. There was a sense that it in that brief moment between life and death, heroes would impart something profound, something to hold onto and to live by.
With ten different “last words” of David, we also realize that the there is more going on than simple confusion as to what the last words actually were. As biblical generations passed, and Israel’s power as a nation waxed and waned, David came to be viewed as Israel’s greatest king, unsurpassed in the eyes of both God and humans. He was the shining memory of Israel’s past as well as the vision of what Israel’s future could be. His many last words attest to his biographers’ attempts to keep his greatness alive in the present and project it into the future.
So what do the last words in 2 Samuel tell us about King David? They point to his elevated status as one who was “set on high” or whom “God raised up (the Dead Sea Scrolls point to this understanding). They describe David as God’s “anointed” and even as God’s favorite. David goes on to claim in this poem that he is the one through whom God spoke, who ruled justly “like the sun on a morning without clouds” and whose own house (family) had been similarly righteous before God.
He goes as far as to say, “Will God not cause to blossom my success and everything I desire?” This passage concludes with a jab at David’s enemies, showing a stark contrast between him and “the good-for-nothings [who] are like thorns to be thrown away.” This whole passage provides an exceptionally clear image of a good ruler; there is no gray, no ambivalence, and no uncertainty in this depiction of the great king.
But, as anyone who knows the story of David as it unfolds in 1 & 2 Samuel knows, this picture of David isn’t entirely accurate, or doesn’t paint the whole picture. From this set of last words, one would never guess that David had an affair with the married Bathsheba and had her husband killed to cover up his actions, or that he ignored the rape of his daughter Tamar, which resulted in a war with his son Absalom that nearly ended his reign, to note just a few of David’s lapses in judgment.
So how do we reconcile David’s life as recorded by the author of the Books of Samuel with this set of last words? Maybe what we are dealing with here is something that we can all understand — a declaration of what we want our rulers to be, those in the past as well as the present. We want those who govern us to be a little better than we ourselves are, to have a special connection to the divine, and ultimately to rule justly. We want to know that they are clearly on the side of good and not evil.
During this election season, many political ads are not so unlike this passage in tone in their depiction of ideal candidates talking with farmers under clear skies and ripening fields, reading stories to children in classrooms, sitting at the bedside of wounded soldiers, and talking to workers in factories. The ads go on to contrast the “good” politician with the “evil” one contrasting the records and goals of two dueling politicians.
So, if we already know that nothing is as clear is it seems, that no politician is perfect and can solve all of our problems, then why are the airways filled with these ads? Why do they influence us, even when we know that that the claims are being exaggerated? Because we want more, we want better, we want clarity and justice from those making decisions for and about us. We want to be able to trust them.
Maybe these last words of David are a reminder of our longing — a longing that connects us to antiquity — for a world that we know can be better than it is. But these last words can be more than an expression of how we wish things could be; they can challenge us to be the change we wish to see.
November 25, 2012