Commentary on 2 Samuel 23:1-7
On this Christ the King Sunday, we hear about the ideal king from the “sweet singer of Israel,” himself, King David. Like Jacob (Genesis 49) and Moses (Deuteronomy 33) before him, David before his death speaks of God and God’s blessing for Israel.
This song along with Hannah’s song (1 Samuel 2) serves as bookends to the story of David. Both songs speak of God’s “anointed” (in Hebrew, meshiach or messiah). Hannah’s song foreshadows the anointing of David. David’s song claims and rejoices in that anointing — this is the song of “the anointed of the God of Jacob, the favorite of the Strong One of Israel” (2 Samuel 23:1).
At this end of the liturgical year, we look back on the story of David, which has occupied many weeks of the alternate Old Testament readings. At the same time, we look forward to the promised Son of David, the ideal king, whose coming we anticipate in the season of Advent.
Given the placement of the song of David at the turning point of the liturgical year, it is helpful for preaching to note three primary claims that the song makes about God and about kingship, claims which are relevant to David himself and to his descendants.
The king is ordained by and answerable to God
The poem is clear: David’s kingship is established by God and is dependent on God’s choosing. We know from earlier in the story that David does not come from a royal lineage. He is the youngest son in a family of many sons, overlooked by his father when Samuel comes to anoint a new king (1 Samuel 16). He is the runt of the litter, one might say, and is from the insignificant town of Bethlehem. And yet, David becomes the most beloved king in Israel, the one who unites the kingdom, establishes Jerusalem as its capital, and restores the ark of the covenant to its rightful place at the center of Israel’s worship life.
David does all this not by his own strength, but because God has “exalted” him, God has “anointed” him (2 Samuel 23:1). As Walter Brueggemann notes, “The royal office is derivative.”1 There was no claim in Israel, as there was in Egypt, that the king himself was divine. According to the biblical witness, God is the true sovereign of Israel. The human king, even King David, rules only by God’s favor.
Because the royal office is derivative, the king is answerable to God. The righteous king rules “in the fear of God” (2 Samuel 23:3), that is, in the knowledge that God is God and the king is not. The king is not above the law. Indeed, the king is subject to the law, which requires that he rule justly (23:3).
Now, of course, David himself does not always live up to the ideal of the just king, as the biblical narrative makes clear (2 Samuel 11-12). But the song attributed to David at the end of his life continues to hold up this ideal for David’s descendants.
The king who rules justly is a great blessing to his people
The song uses a striking image to describe the significance of a good king. He is “like the light of morning, like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on the grassy land” (2 Samuel 23:4 New Revised Standard Version [NRSV]).
The New International Version (NIV) translation is somewhat better than the NRSV at the end of this verse: “He is…like the brightness after rain that brings grass from the earth.”
The light of morning, especially after a good rain — that’s what a God-fearing king is like. In the semi-arid land that is Israel, rain is a very precious resource. A good, soaking rain during the night, and then the sun rising to bring forth grass and grain and fruit from the earth — these are priceless gifts of God. And so is a good, just king, one who rules in the fear of the Lord. Both enable life to flourish.
Psalm 72 uses this same analogy: “May he be like the rain that falls on the mown grass, like showers that water the earth” (Psalm 72:6). The psalm also fills out the picture of the just king. “He delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper. He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the life of the needy. From oppression and violence he redeems their life” (Psalm 72:12-14).
A good king, a good prime minister, a good president — these are gifts of God. And what are the characteristics of a good king or leader? He or she fears God, helps the vulnerable, rules justly. A good king or leader is someone whose policies and decisions cause life to flourish, especially for those threatened by violence and oppression.
May God give us such leaders.
God has made an everlasting covenant with David, and God is faithful
The final claim that the song makes is that God has made an everlasting covenant with David. “Is not my house like this with God? For he has made with me an everlasting covenant, ordered in all things and secure” (2 Samuel 23:5).
This claim is based on God’s promise to David in 2 Samuel 7: “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever” (2 Samuel 7:16).
This theme of the covenant with David reverberates throughout the biblical witness (Psalm 89; Isaiah 11:1; 55:3; Jeremiah 33:19-22, etc.). But the covenant doesn’t rest on David’s worthiness. Indeed, the biblical record shows that he is a deeply flawed individual. The covenant rests on God’s faithfulness. The psalmist puts it this way: “I will sing of your steadfast love, O Lord, forever; with my mouth I will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations. I declare that your steadfast love is established forever; your faithfulness is as firm as the heavens” (Psalm 89:1-2).
David’s throne will be established forever, not because of David’s faithfulness, but because of God’s, the “Rock of Israel” (2 Samuel 23:3).
Of course, when the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem, burned the Temple, and took the last Davidic king into exile, it seemed that the covenant with David was broken (Psalm 89:38-39). It was then that the promise to David in 2 Samuel 7 began to be understood as a promise for a future time, when the Messiah, the anointed Son of David, would come and establish God’s peaceable kingdom. The tragedy of the exile gave rise to eschatological hope, rooted in the faithfulness of God.
David’s song at the end of his life speaks of both earthly hope (the hope for a just ruler) and eschatological hope (the “everlasting covenant”). As we celebrate Christ the King, this text helps us focus on what true kingship/leadership looks like; and at the same time it points us forward to the fulfillment of the Davidic covenant in Jesus, the servant King, born in a manger. “To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (Luke 2:11).
- Walter Brueggemann, First and Second Samuel (Interpretation; Louisville: John Knox, 1990), 346.