The Bible in a Year – 12 April

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12 April. 1 Kings chapters 1-2

Although the last book – 2 Samuel – ended with what were said to be the last words and deeds of King David, this one backtracks slightly to tell us more about the end of David’s life, and in particular the argument among his sons for the succession.  Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum, and when a long reign comes to an end there is often a power struggle.  In this instance, Solomon who was David’s choice from among his sons eventually claims the throne, but not before his brother Adonijah has led a briefly successful rebellion.    Chapter 1, verses 38-39 have become probably the best known quote from this book thanks to Handel’s magnificent musical setting of the words – “Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet anointed Solomon King. And all the people rejoiced, and said: God save the King! Long live the King! May the King live for ever, Amen, Alleluia”.


David shows his peaceful inclination right to the end, leaving instructions for several men who have served him well over the years to be shown favour by his successor.  But Solomon, although he has gone down in history as a wise leader, resorts to violence at the start of his reign and soon finds excuses to get rid of them as well as Adonijah.

The Bible in a Year – 11 April

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11 April. 2 Samuel 22-24

The first two chapters of today’s reading appear to bring David’s life nearly to a close, following his retirement from active military command.  First, in chapter 22, there is what is best described as a psalm, in the same tradition as many others in that book attributed to David.  This one, which we might term “Psalm Zero”, has been a fertile source of imagery for prayer, hymn and song writers down the centuries.  “I will call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised, so shall I be saved from my enemies”; “his chariots of wrath the deep thunder clouds form, and dark is his path on the wings of the storm”; “lighten our darkness, Lord, we pray”; “the Lord liveth, blessed be my rock, and may the God of my salvation be exalted” – these lines and many others owe their inspiration to this song of praise to a God whose presence David had always recognised, in good times and bad.


After that are what are described as David’s last words (23:1-7), again in poetic form and praising God’s inspiration and help.  After that comes a tribute to the three military leaders who had formed his immediate ‘cabinet’ and thirty others who had achieved renown – we could think of them as the “Knights of the Garter”. The list must date back to earlier in David’s reign, though, as it includes Uriah the Hittite whom David had arranged to be killed.


But David’s life is not yet over, and he receives what he takes to be God’s instruction to take a census of fighting men.  Yet he is then told that this displeases God (presumably as it represents putting one’s trust in military force and not God’s help) and is given an unwelcome choice of three punishments, from which he chooses a pestilence in the land.  At the close of chapter 24 he sees the destroying angel on the threshing floor of the Jebusite (i.e. in Jerusalem), where the plaque stops before reaching the capital, and he erects an altar there in thanksgiving.  Tradition has it that this is the same site as where Abraham was about to sacrifice his son Isaac before God intervened by providing a ram; and the same site on which the holiest place of the Jerusalem Temple, and later the Al-Aqsa mosque, would eventually be sited.  It has therefore become a sacred site both to Jews and Muslims; less so to Christians for whom Jerusalem was the centre of a mission outwards to the world rather than a focus for inward pilgrimage.

The Bible in a Year – 10 April

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10 April. 2 Samuel chapters 19-21

There is a lot in these few chapters, in which David’s fortunes wax and wane.  It is no wonder that by the time of the several battles against the Philistine ‘giants’ in chapter 21, which must have reminded him of his own defeat of Goliath when he was much younger, David ‘grows weary’ and is advised no longer to take on active military service. All those who have been energetic in youth must sooner or later recognise that their sporting or  fighting days are over and they must find fulfilment in other ways.


Along the way, we see once again David’s genius for reconciliation, making peace with Shimei who not long ago had opposed him, as well as rewarding loyal supporters.  But in the argument between the men of Judah and those of the other ten tribes about who was most loyal to David, we see the beginnings of the split between the ‘north’ and ‘south’ that would come to dominate the next few centuries.


Between these two incidents comes the brief rebellion of Sheba, another failed coup attempt in which heavy casualties on both sides are avoided by the cunning of one unnamed woman of Abel, who persuades the besieging army commander Joab that having someone inside the city to murder Sheba and prove it by giving up his head, would be better than holding out against the siege.  This is far from the first time in the Bible that a woman has been key to stopping a conflict.

The Bible in a Year – 9 April

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9 April. 2 Samuel chapters 16-18

David is fleeing from Jerusalem with three regiments, knowing that his son Absalom is coming with many more to usurp him.   These chapters show some of the attitudes that made David a great king, notwithstanding his personal sins.


As he flees he is met by two people whose attitudes could not be more opposed.  Ziba (on behalf of his master Mephibosheth) comes out in peace to bring food and wine for the troops.  Shimei, a follower of David’s former adversary Saul, curses and throws stones at him.  But David restrains his men from attacking Shimei. David’s humility recognises that maybe this is actually a word from God, criticising him for his own failures.  Recognising that some criticism is justified is a mark of maturity.


Meanwhile back in Jerusalem, Absalom is given advice on military strategy from two trusted advisers, who give different options on how best to capture David.  He follows Hushai’s advice, which we are told was the Lord’s plan.   When a battle ensues, David’s troops are victorious.  But even when faced with his son’s army, David gives orders to the commanders not to kill Absalom himself.  Joab is the one who finds him, helplessly stuck in a tree (the story of the donkey walking on and leaving him hanging there is one of the Bible’s most comic images!).  Joab ignores his orders and kills Absalom.  Why? The stories of British troops in Iraq who killed the insurgents they were meant to be detaining peacefully remind us that in the heat of battle, emotions and the instinct for vengeance often overcome rules and rationality.


David, when he hears of his son’s death, does not rejoice as he would if it were the ruler of an enemy who had been killed, but rather weeps for his son. He seems to have regarded Absalom’s rebellion as the folly of youth rather than a serious  revolt.

The Bible in a Year – 7 April

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7 April. 2 Samuel chapters 11-13

These chapters contain two incidents of sexual violence, each of which results in an arranged killing.  First, King David takes a neighbour’s wife and makes her pregnant, an act which h the prophet Nathan compares with seizing a poor man’s lamb, and then he arranges for her husband to be killed to prevent any revenge, with other soldiers being unnecessarily put in danger, what the media would now call ‘collateral damage’.  It is usually thought that Psalm 51, a song of heartfelt repentance (best known in Allegri’s setting ‘miserere’), is David’s act of contrition for his own sins, and he also fasts and prays for seven days in vain when his illegitimate son falls ill.  It seems that God did not want this boy taking his place as the king’s firstborn and therefore heir to the throne; instead God had plans for David and Bathsheba’s second child, Solomon, who would become a great king.


Uriah was the innocent party in all this – he did nothing wrong, indeed insisted on sleeping rough like his troops rather than in the comfort of his own city home, and willingly led his men into the heat of battle, dying without the knowledge that the king had already taken his wife.  But if all this had not happened, Solomon would not have been born.  We may not always know what good might come for others out of our own misfortunes in life.


Then (presumably many years later when his children are teenagers) within David’s own family one of his other sons rapes his sister and is later killed by his half-brother in revenge. Unlike David, he does not seem to repent of his sin.  This is an even darker episode in the royal history. Incest is still an unspoken taboo, a sin and crime in virtually all societies, though it undoubtedly occurs, and splits families apart if it becomes known.

The Bible in a Year – 6 April

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6 April. 2 Samuel chapters 7-10

In the first of these chapters we hear the prophecy of Nathan, by which God corrects’ David’s impulse to build a temple (not until the later king Solomon would this happen).  God promised that David and his descendants would remain blessed by God without him having to go to this trouble and expense, for God (as they Israelites often had to be reminded) does not dwell in a particular place, as the followers of other religions believed.  In response we read of a very personal prayer of praise and dedication by David, which comes as a relief after the record of several centuries of warfare in which the leaders of Israel seem to have had more interest in conquering other tribes than actually worshipping God and following his laws.  Whether on a personal or national level, it is usually easier to get on with “business” however defined, than to take time out to actually pray and worship.


Alas, it was not to last!  The next three chapters see David (or at least his army) engaging in yet more battles, although the one against the Arameans and Ammonites was not his fault, as the Ammonites had reacted wrongly to what we are told was a peaceful delegation.  So many arguments, between individuals and communities, are started as a result of mistrust or misunderstanding, and once started cannot easily be stopped.

The Bible in a Year – 5 April

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5 April. 2 Samuel chapters 4-6

The point I made yesterday about David refusing to countenance the killing of a leader is seen here again as he orders the killing of the men who killed Ishbaal (Saul’s son) in revenge for the murder of Abner. But there still seems to be something of a double standard –  punishing people for taking revenge by killing them just seems to perpetuate the cycle of violence.


In chapter 5 things take a brighter turn, as the leaders of all the tribes agree to David being crowned king as successor to Saul.  All his adventures so far have taken place over probably no more than 12 to 15 years, as he is said to be 30 at the time of his coronation.  We are told at the start of his reign that he would reign for forty years (a good Biblical period!).


Initially David’s royal base was at Hebron, but after six years he achieved what had proved impossible in Joshua’s time, the capture of the hill fort at Jerusalem which had remained an enclave of the indigenous Jebusites within the territory of Benjamin for maybe 400 years.  It must have been a wonderful moment for David when he marched into Jerusalem for the first time, not only for the victory in itself, but because he came from Bethlehem only a few miles away, as we are reminded when we sing at Christmas “Once in Royal David’s city”. As a boy he must often have looked up at the gentile city on the hill; maybe he had felt called all along to take it for God’s people.


In the following chapter, the ark – the symbol of God’s presence – is brought into the city with much rejoicing – no wonder David put on the priestly vestment (ephod) and danced for joy!  There is a modern worship song – “When the spirit of the Lord moves within my heart, I will dance as David danced”.  Not too literally one hopes, as his wife Michal criticised him for being indecently dressed before female onlookers (presumably the ephod was the equivalent of kilt). Nonetheless, Jerusalem would remain the capital of Judah for a similar length of time (400 years or so) before the Babylonians eventually captured it, and the spiritual home of the Jews to the present day.

The Bible in a Year – 4 April

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4 April. 2 Samuel chapters 1-3

Following the death of Saul, the kingdom is temporarily divided, with David reigning over the tribe of Judah in Hebron (not yet Jerusalem), while Abner, commander of Saul’s army, leads a successful coup, with all the other tribes showing allegiance to him. That is, until first he suffers military setbacks against David’s better army, and finally a squabble over a woman turns him against his own court and he goes to seek peace.  But he is murdered by the brother of a man he had killed. Oh, and David gets his favourite wife back, despite the tears of her second husband at the prospect of losing her. Michal must have been a good woman.


One of the facets of David’s character that comes through many times in these stories is his reluctance to gloat over the death of his enemies, or to be directly responsible for the death of another leader.  He spared his rival Saul’s life at least twice and wept when he died; and now he mourns publicly for Abner who had been his enemy in battle.  Slaughtering soldiers and taking captive civilians was another matter, but he seems to have regarded killing a king or military leader as a sin, on the basis that they were appointed by God to their positions.


As late as the Middle Ages, it was part of European Christian theology that kings had a “divine right” to rule, and the letters “DG” (by the grace of God) on our coins are the last echo of that idea, in an age when politics is seen as a purely secular matter.  We may no longer believe that presidents, titular monarchs and prime ministers have a divine right to their posts, but it is still right that we should pray for good and upright leaders, and for God’s will to be done in our parliaments.



The Bible in a Year – 3 April

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3 April. 1 Samuel chapters 28-31

The end of the first book of Samuel is set after the death of the eponymous prophet, but we haven’t heard the last of him yet!  King Saul, seeking wise advice, misses Samuel, and in the absence of any other form of guidance from God, resorts to consulting the medium at Endor (in older translations she was called a “witch”) to summon up his spirit, a practice which Saul himself, under Samuel’s guidance, had banned!  So not surprisingly the advice he does get from Samuel’s ghost is basically “I told you so!”, or more specifically, that God’s destiny for Saul that Samuel had already prophesied will come true, and David will succeed him as king.  At the end of the book, Saul does indeed die, committing suicide rather than be killed in battle.  The lesson from this is that God really is our only guide. While it is understandable that people who have lost (or never had) faith in God might look to the spirits instead, they will never know the truth as he does.  There are good reasons why God’s followers in all the major religions have been at least suspicious of mediums and other occultists, for although we believe in the afterlife, the consistent message of scripture is that the dead should be left to God’s mercy and not summoned back to this life.



Meanwhile David, a typical mercenary, would be happy to fight for the Philistines against his own people Israel in order to claim the crown, but the Philistine generals will have none of it. However, in returning to his base David finds that another tribe, Amalekites, have carried off all the people and animals, and he has to go and rescue them.  What adventures! Is this turncoat warrior really fit to be king?  We shall see, in 2 Samuel.



The Bible in a Year – 2 April

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2 April. 1 Samuel chapters 25-27

The first story in these readings negates the common English maxim that “flattery will get you nowhere”.  Abigail is a competent and intelligent woman who, like many others, suffers from being married to a boorish and alcoholic man whose actions cause immense problems for the family.  Things come to a head when he refuses a reasonable request for hospitality from David’s workers. The two men appear to have grazed flocks in overlapping areas (in the days before boundary fences, presumably) and their workers got on well with each other. Nabal’s refusal not only results in complaints from his own workers, but from David himself who (being the warrior he is) sets out with an armed posse to attack Nabal and his farm.  It is only Abigail’s swift diplomatic action in sending out donkeyloads of food and other gifts, and prostrating herself before David as “unfit to wash the feet of his servants” (maybe where John the Baptist got inspiration for his phrase of being “unfit to untie Jesus’ sandals”), that  saved the day and de-escalated the conflict.  This graceful and generous response seems to have so enraged Nabal that he gave himself a heart attack (or possibly stroke) from which he died, and Abigail became one of David’s wives.   It may be costly to be a peacemaker, but they are among the ones Jesus called ‘blessed’ or ‘happy’.


You may recall that in yesterday’s reading David proves to his enemy Saul that he was not out to kill him, by merely cutting off part of Saul’s robe when he had the opportunity to take his life.  In chapter 26 a similar situation arises – Saul is once again persecuting David, who with his men get past the guard (if there was one!) in Saul’s camp and into his tent while he sleeps, but merely takes his sword and water-jar to prove he had been there.  Saul again promises peace to David, but as he so quickly broke his promise last time, David will not believe him, and leaves the country altogether to become a mercenary soldier for another king.  Jesus told us to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” and this is a good example – don’t rise to the bait of other people’s aggression (dove) but don’t be fooled by promises that they cannot keep (serpent).