What a Bronze Age warrior-king can teach us about friends and enemies
If you walk out on the street this minute, hail any passerby, and utter the words, "David and …" my guess is most will respond, "Goliath." Even those who rarely or never crack a Bible will likely pair these two names. Just now, this minute, I punched those two words into Google: David and …
The top search result: Goliath.
The boy’s still got it.
The tale of the ruddy shepherd lad felling that trash-talking giant with a single stone is more than famous – it’s iconic, archetypical, part of our collective memory. It’s like something we knew before we were born, deep calling to deep. David’s holy pluck, 3,000 years later, still inspires us – in courtrooms and boardrooms, in schoolyards and sports fields, in the face of bad news, in the grip of hard times. It still gives us courage to stand down bullies, to defy odds.
Malcolm Gladwell writes in the introduction to his book David and Goliath:
[this] is a book about what happens when ordinary people confront giants. By "giants," I mean powerful opponents of all kinds – from armies and mighty warriors to disability, misfortune and oppression.
Beyond that legendary tale most people’s memories of David dull. Perhaps we retain fragments of his story – his friendship with Jonathan, his struggles with Saul, his adultery with Bathsheba, his grief over Absalom. He wrote Psalm 23 and a bunch of others. He sang, he wooed, he killed, he danced. Jesus descends from his line.
But how does it all fit together? And what does it all have to do with us?
I’ve spent the last 15 years soaking up his story. I’ve written about him, preached on him, taught seminary courses exploring his life and times, built entire leadership conferences around him. I’ve read dozens of books and articles, scholarly, devotional, biographical and fictional, about him.
I’ve come away with the conviction few lives in any age have more to say to us, both as warning and as promise, than his. Here, I want to explore just two things David teaches us – living with friends and living with enemies.
David’s friendship with Jonathan is almost as well known as his battle with Goliath, at least in its broad outline. "Jonathan" functions in some Christian circles as a kind of code word for "the person who totally gets me." Recently, one of my female students, describing her closest friend, simply and with no trace of irony said, "She’s my Jonathan."
They only had a short time to nurture their friendship, David and Jonathan – maybe a little over a year. Then brutal circumstances tore them apart. But in that time they forged a bond that ran deep, was openly – almost embarrassingly – emotional, and helped David navigate and then escape mortal peril. The friendship also gave him skills for finding strength in God no matter how hopeless things appeared.
A quick sketch of the story. David begins his time in King Saul’s court as the king’s personal musician and armour bearer, and his fortunes quickly rise from there. He befriends Saul’s son Jonathan. He marries Saul’s daughter Michal. He rises to the highest ranks in Saul’s army. It’s quite a resumé – the king’s personal worship leader, the king’s son-in-law, the king’s top war captain, the crown prince’s BFF. He is in like Flynn.
Everything leads us to expect David, as God has promised, will soon be king himself
But no. It starts to unravel almost from the start. Saul’s affections for David quickly sour. David is just too good at his job, and the accolades people lavish on him gall Saul terribly. A song about David becomes hit parade stuff. "Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands."
That’s enough to get under the skin of any king or CEO or senior pastor. Imagine if the most-sung song at your church had the refrain, "Our senior pastor has preached many good sermons, but our youth pastor preaches masterpieces." That might add, oh, a note of tension in their relationship.
But there’s more going on with David and Saul, and herein lies one of the story’s deepest ironies. David is first brought to Saul’s court as a harpist whose playing alleviates Saul’s spiritual affliction. But Saul’s spiritual affliction is, kind of, David’s fault:
So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon David" (1 Samuel 16:13).
The very next verse:
Now the Spirit of the Lord had departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord tormented him (1 Samuel 16:14).
Leaving aside the enigma of "an evil spirit from the Lord" (which no one has adequately explained), the irony here is that David’s presence and giftedness – his anointedness – somehow brings on, then assuages, and then aggravates afresh Saul’s torment. David at some level is the cause of Saul’s torment and the cure for it, and then once again the cause of it. David is both balm and bane to Saul.
Saul spirals downward and it’s not long before he tries, many times, to kill David – first by military ruses and other snares, then by direct personal attack, and later by a massive, protracted and ultimately futile manhunt through the Judean wilderness.
And then there’s Jonathan. Through it all he’s steadfast. His loyalty to David never falters. Indeed, it grows. It deepens with every dark new twist in Saul’s murderous plot. The king’s son aids and abets the king’s enemy. Jonathan, as well as his sister Michal, have to choose sides in their father’s war against David, and both without a moment’s hesitation choose David.
With Michal this is natural enough. Many a wife chooses loyalty to her husband over loyalty to her own kin. But with Jonathan it’s unnatural. He has the most to lose by David’s survival and the most to gain by his removal. Jonathan is, after all, heir to the throne – unless David is.
And Jonathan has what it takes to be a superb king – military prowess (in one case he and his armour bearer alone take out a whole phalanx of Philistine warriors) and the fervent loyalty of Israel’s army (in another, Saul’s own troops defy their king to protect Jonathan).
Jonathan is loved. He’s respected. He’s brilliant.
And he has only one obstacle to his eventual ascension to the throne – David.
And yet here’s what he does at their first meeting:
Jonathan became one in spirit with David, and he loved him as himself.… And Jonathan made a covenant with David because he loved him as himself. Jonathan took off the robe he was wearing and gave it to David, along with his tunic, and even his sword, his bow and his belt (1 Samuel 18:1, 3–4).
In other words, right at the start Jonathan gives to David all his royal insignia. It’s as if he pre-abdicates the throne.
Later, at nearly their last meeting, when Saul is about to drive David away, this happens:
"…show me unfailing kindness like the Lord’s kindness as long as I live, so that I may not be killed, and do not ever cut off your kindness from my family – not even when the Lord has cut off every one of David’s enemies from the face of the earth."
So Jonathan made a covenant with the house of David, saying, "May the Lord call David’s enemies to account." And Jonathan had David reaffirm his oath out of love for him, because he loved him as he loved himself (1 Samuel 20:14–17).
David is at his most vulnerable here. He has no power at this moment Jonathan holds his fate in his hands. He could easily betray David, have him eliminated as a rival with just one false word. But he doesn’t. Instead, he pleads with David for his life. He treats David as though he is already king.
From the start, and all the way through, Jonathan risks his own life and future for David’s. He gives up his birthright to ensure David’s destiny. He becomes less so David can become greater.
Which gets to the heart of their friendship, and maybe all friendships: Jonathan discerns what God is doing in David’s life, and spares no expense to make it happen. I can’t think of a better description of true friendship – seeing what God is up to in your friend’s life, and doing whatever it takes to help fulfil that.
My wife has a friend like that. Neither spares any expense to help further what they believe God is doing with and in and through the other. Time, money, energy – all is put at the disposal of the other’s needs.
Sometimes this means one’s needs eclipse the other’s. But mostly it means a dance of mutual self-giving. I get to watch both of them become more fully themselves, to see, as each serves the other, both of them step more confidently into their God-given identity and calling.
Either would give up her birthright for the sake of the other’s destiny. It’s a beautiful thing. It’s a friendship in the spirit of David and Jonathan.
But David, it seems, had few friends. Maybe, actually, only Jonathan. He had priests, prophets, courtiers, henchmen, mercenaries, tributaries, advisers, lackeys, toadies, hangers-on. He had a harem of wives and another of concubines.
He had people who told him what he wanted to hear, and at least one person – the prophet Nathan – who told him what he didn’t want to hear, but needed to.
He had buddies, perhaps. But few friends.
What he did collect in abundance throughout his lifetime were enemies. Of course, his nemesis Saul. But that relationship serves as a kind of terrible motif in David’s life. The one close to him who betrays him.
There is, for instance, the slow mutual erosion of trust between him and Joab, his nephew and chief army captain. There is the sudden and catastrophic treason of his closest and wisest advisor Ahitophel. And there is, most tragic of all, the betrayal and assault of his own son Absalom, who stages a palace coup and seeks David’s very life.
Several of David’s most poignant psalms – Psalm 55, especially verses 12–14 – map the emotional terrain of these kinds of losses and betrayals.
But the two stories about enemies I want to explore here involve marginal characters, men who hate David mostly, if not solely, for political reasons. These are men with whom he has had no prior relationship. There is no friendship to betray, no closeness to lose. They despise David because of what he represents.
I’m thinking of Nabal and Shimei. Why pick these two? Because the way David deals with each tells us something that might help us here and now, when so many of our animosities are politically or ideologically or doctrinally motivated.
First, there’s Nabal. David never actually meets the man. The conflict between them and its resolution are all mediated through others. David’s sends a delegation of men to Nabal to collect on a debt he feels is owed him. Nabal scoffs at the idea, and sends the men away empty handed.
David, hearing the report from his men, sets out with 400 of his best fighters to exact bloody vengeance. Nabal’s wife Abigail, hearing the report from her servants, meets David along the way and with abundant gifts and wise words assuages his anger.
Shortly after, Nabal dies and this too is reported to David. David and Nabal, as far as we know, never actually meet (see 1 Samuel 25).
Which means this story is a classic tale of despising someone for what they stand for, believe in, have done or failed to do. Nabal’s hatred for David isn’t personal. He just hates what he represents. And vice versa. David hates Nabal for failing to honour a contract of sorts. It’s a business deal gone awry.
The story itself isn’t overly edifying. But there are two stories on either side that help us see the whole matter in a different light.
Just before David’s conflict with Nabal, he has a chance to kill Saul in a cave. It’s a perfect opportunity to kill the man who wants to kill him. But David refuses.
His men are furious with him and he rebukes them. "The Lord forbid that I should do such a thing to my master, the Lord’s anointed, or lay my hand on him; for he is the anointed of the Lord" (1 Samuel 24:6).
Then, just after David’s conflict with Nabal, he has another opportunity to kill Saul, this time in camp while Saul and everyone around him sleeps. Abishai offers to skewer Saul through the heart. David rebukes him: "…the Lord forbid that I should lay a hand on the Lord’s anointed" (1 Samuel 26:11).
These two stories of David refusing to kill Saul frame the story of his wanting to kill Nabal. But watch how Abigail turns David back from his bloody intent:
When the Lord has fulfilled for my lord every good thing he promised concerning him and has appointed him ruler over Israel, my lord will not have on his conscience the staggering burden of needless bloodshed or of having avenged himself (1 Samuel 24:30–31).
David believes no one should ever lift their hand against the Lord’s anointed (no matter how sick and bent that anointed one might be), and lives by this conviction twice. What David needs Abigail to help him see is this: the Lord’s anointed should never lift his hand against anyone, even a Nabal, a fool. Leave the matter in God’s hands. Don’t take it into your own. Which leads to the second story, about Shimei. It seems, years after Nabal, David draws upon Abigail’s wisdom:
As King David approached Bahurim, a man from the same clan as Saul’s family came out from there. His name was Shimei son of Gera, and he cursed as he came out. He pelted David and all the king’s officials with stones.… As he cursed, Shimei said, "Get out, get out, you murderer, you scoundrel! The Lord has repaid you for all the blood you shed in the household of Saul, in whose place you have reigned. The Lord has given the kingdom into the hands of your son Absalom. You have come to ruin because you are a murderer!"
Then Abishai son of Zeruiah said to the king, "Why should this dead dog curse my lord the king? Let me go over and cut off his head."
But the king said, "What does this have to do with you, you sons of Zeruiah? If he is cursing because the Lord said to him, ‘Curse David,’ who can ask, ‘Why do you do this?’"
David then said to Abishai and all his officials, "My son, my own flesh and blood, is trying to kill me. How much more, then, this Benjamite! Leave him alone; let him curse, for the Lord has told him to. It may be that the Lord will look upon my misery and restore to me His covenant blessing instead of His curse today" (2 Samuel 16:5–12).
Shimei raises his hand against David, the Lord’s anointed. But David, as the Lord’s anointed, refuses to lift his hand against him. This is wisdom for our age.
For I am the Lord’s anointed. All God’s people now are, by virtue of Christ’s pouring out His Spirit (see especially 1 John 2:20, 27). And that means this: we should refuse to lift our hand against the Lord’s anointed (so please, never join a plot against your pastor), but we should also refuse to lift our hand as the Lord’s anointed against anyone. Even against fools like Nabal. Even against haters like Shimei.
If we took this to heart, I wonder how many of our political and ideological and doctrinal battles might fizzle from lack of fuel. And I wonder how many of our current enemies might become, if not close friends, at least those through whom the Lord might be speaking to us.
Mark Buchanan is associate professor of pastoral theology at Ambrose University in Calgary. He is author of several books including Your Church Is Too Safe: Why Following Christ Turns the World Upside-Down (Zondervan, 2012). Spiritual Rhythm: Being With Jesus Every Season of Your Soul (Zondervan, 2010) and the forthcoming David: A Novel.