Opening The Old Testament
The Second-to-Last Words of David: Reflections on 2 Samuel 23:1-7
2 Samuel 23:1-7
November 25, 2012
"These are later words of David." So I would translate 2 Samuel 23:1, since these are hardly the "last" words of Israel's second king. Those "last" words, according to the long story of the king, as it appears in 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 Kings, do not appear until 1 Kings 2:2-9. It would be very nice if these words of 2 Samuel 23 were his last words, since they sound like the words of a thoughtful and pious monarch who sees himself as the chosen one of YHWH. And perhaps at certain times in David's life he saw himself just like that. But alas! His last recorded words in 1 Kings 2 are a demand that his son Solomon murder an old and helpless enemy! David on his deathbed is far more Mafioso don than he is man of God.
So what are we to make of these words in 2 Samuel 23? David is presented by the author as a prophet, since he uses the term "oracle" (n'um) twice in the first verse. This word is regularly employed by prophetic authors in the Hebrew Bible when they claim to be uttering the precise words of God. The opening line may better be translated: "An oracle of David, Jesse's son, an oracle of the highly exalted warrior, anointed of the God of Jacob, favored by the Strong One of Israel."
The writer is intent on making David out to be a prophet of God, but even more the "anointed one" of that God. The word used is the Hebrew "Messiah." This does not imply that David is seen as some sort of divine being; after all, Cyrus the Persian king is also called "messiah" by the unknown prophet of the exile, II-Isaiah (45:1). But David is certainly presented here as someone highly favored and distinctively chosen by the God of Israel.
And David as prophet and Messiah then speaks: "The spirit of YHWH speaks in (through) me; God's words are on my tongue. The God of Israel has spoken; the Rock of Israel has said to me, 'One ruling over humanity with righteousness, one ruling with the fear of God, is like the light of morning, the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming with rain on a grassy land'" (23:3-4). The poet offers us a David who utters the very words of YHWH, and those words are laced with two of the crucial theological notions of the Hebrew Bible. Those words are "righteousness" and "fear of God."
The first word, righteousness, lies at the very heart of what it means to be a follower of YHWH. As Amos so memorably puts it: "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a perennial stream" (Amos 5:24). That prophet contrasts his people's desire for showy worship with God's desire instead for a community characterized by equality, fairness, concern for the other, especially those on the margin. And what is true for every Israelite follower of YHWH is doubly true for the king. Psalm 72, a coronation psalm, begins, "Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to a king's son." And these divine gifts are then put into the service of a just society: "May he (the king) defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor" (Ps. 72:4). That is the description of what a YHWH king is to be like. And so the poet of 2 Samuel 23 depicts David as a king just like that.
The second word/phrase is "fear of God." We are often quick to say that this Hebrew word does not really mean "terror," or "to be fearful" in ways we often use the word. But surely the word does include some of that in its meaning. "Fear" can mean "worship" or "awe," but included in both those translations is some sense of being afraid, afraid of disappointing, afraid of transgressing, or afraid merely of standing in the presence of such a God. A king focused on righteousness, living with and caring for a God of awe, is what any king of Israel should be like. Such a king is as "morning light on a cloudless dawn," spreading out on glistening, dew-dappled fields. I was just last week in the Lake District of England and witnessed precisely this memorable image of the poet. A true king is just like that.
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.