Commentary on 2 Samuel 23:1-7
Whether these “last words” of David were spoken by the king himself or composed by a later supporter of the monarchy (as most scholars believe), their purpose is clear:
they promise divine legitimacy for David’s rule for the line that descends from him and for the monarchy as an institution. They have clear political purposes. But speech about God has a funny way of outrunning even our intentions. And this short poem ends up saying both more and less than its author might have meant to say.
Verse 1 identifies the speaker as David. It then identifies David through an increasingly grand sequence of appellations. In the first line, he is merely “David.” In the second line, he is distinguished by his family ties as “son of Jesse.” In the third line, the poetry begins to take flight: David is “the man whom God exalted / the anointed one of the God of Jacob / the favorite of the Strong One of Israel” (verse 1c-e). Before the oracle even begins, the poem has given its verdict on David. He is the favorite — the “darling,” or “beloved” — of the Strong One of Israel.1
Verses 2-3a add another title to David, for those who read between the lines. He is a prophet. The metaphor at the heart of the poem is introduced with an indication of its divine origin: “The God of Israel has spoken,” David says in verse 3a, “the Rock of Israel has said to me…”
David is the beloved of the God of Israel, and God speaks to David. God also speaks through David. “The spirit of the Lord speaks through me, / his word is upon my tongue,” the speaker identified as David says in verse 2. God speaks to David, as God’s beloved, and through David, as God’s prophet.
This identification of David as a prophet has powerful political implications. If “prophet” was not a formal political office, it became a clearly defined role, especially as the monarchy wore on. Prophets had the authority to challenge kings, as Nathan challenged David after his taking of Bathsheba and his murder of Uriah (2 Samuel 11:27b — 12:15a). But if David is both king and prophet, if he holds these two roles together in his own person, then it becomes much more difficult to offer legitimate opposition to his rule. Thus the poem in 2 Samuel 23 offers not only a hymn to David’s virtue, but also — even before the oracle begins — a consolidation of his power.
The oracle of the priest-king takes the form of an extended metaphor. The just ruler is “like the sun rising on a cloudless morning” (verse 4b). The sun gives life and light to those who bask in its warmth. It calls forth growth and fruitfulness. But the power of the sun can also be a terror. It bakes “the godless” until they are like brittle thorns that can only be thrown away. Such thorns should not be touched with the hands, but should be handled with an “iron bar” or with “the shaft of a spear.” The same sun that gives life to the grasslands scorches the godless thorns. It drains life from them until they burst into a consuming fire (verses 6-7). Such is the power of the just ruler.
The poem wraps this metaphor around a meditation on the house of David. After a description of the power of the sun for life, and before a description of its power to consume, the poem speaks of David’s house. David’s house is at the center of the metaphor, identified with the sun. The New Revised Standard version translates this identification as a question: “Is not my house like this with God?” Other translations have read the line as an intensified form of David’s claim: “Surely my house is like this with God.”2
Neither translation captures the full complexity of this verse by itself. The best interpretations hold the question and the affirmation together, without resolution. For if the verse is a question, it is a rhetorical question, an indirect way of making the stronger affirmation. The introduction of David in verse 1 has already answered the question. David’s house is like this with God. When we read the verse as a question, it answers itself. But if the verse is translated as a sure, certain claim, the entirety of the books of Samuel calls it into question.
Is David’s house really like this? David’s house, built on the bodies of Saul and Jonathan? David’s house, where Amnon raped Tamar (with no small assistance from David himself)? David’s house, where Absalom killed Amnon and raised an army against his father? David’s house, where the royal line will proceed through the child of Bathsheba, a woman whom David “took” both before and after killing her husband? David’s house, under which the people have suffered civil war already and under which they will come to suffer conquest? David may be the beloved of God, but is his house really like the sun? However it was intended, the identification of David’s house with the righteous sun in verse 5 includes both an affirmation and a question.
As both affirmation and question, the verse holds together God’s love for David and God’s judgment on his rule. David may be anointed by God, even beloved of God, but his rule can still be called into question. Exactly the divine favor that legitimates David also serves to judge him.
If the poem aims to establish the house of David, it ends up falling short of that goal. There are still questions that must be asked. In raising those questions the poem points beyond the house of David to the reign of God. Its full significance outruns its immediate intentions.
Preachers might explain this dynamic by comparison to the founding documents of the United States. The Declaration of Independence argues for the right to establish a new nation — over against the rule of law — by appeal to a series of “self-evident” truths. Among these is the truth that “all men are created equal.” The limits of the founding generation’s intentions in this clause can be seen in the Constitution’s definition of an enslaved person as three-fifths of a human being. The Declaration legitimates the nation established by the Constitution, but also judges it. It waits for a prophet like Martin Luther King to come along, seize upon the check it writes without full knowledge, and present that check with a fresh demand for payment. David’s oracle about the just ruler offers similar resources to prophets who will come later. Like the founders of the United States, David is saying more than he knows.
It can be tempting for preachers to cast ourselves as prophets who call up all those old, bold claims and turn them into demands for righteousness. That work is necessary, and preachers must take it up. But we should also remember ourselves as people like David.
When we try to proclaim the Gospel, when we dare to say that the spirit of the LORD speaks through us, we will find ourselves saying more than we know. We will find ourselves speaking words whose full significance runs beyond all that we can imagine. We will speak words that judge us even as they declare anew God’s redeeming love for us, and for all the world.
Thanks be to God.3
1On translation of this verse see P. Kyle McCarter, Jr. II Samuel: A New Translation with Introduction, Notes and Commentary, The Anchor Bible (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1984), 480.
3Thanks to Donna Giver Johnston for research assistance and valuable conversations in preparation for this essay.
November 22, 2009