To get the most out of this post, read the precursor to the Davidic Era of Israel, the Saul Era, where I analyze Saul’s characteristics and significance.
Early Davidic Era
The writing was on the wall early on in Israel’s public knowledge of David, and Saul knew it. Samuel anointed David as King in secret with a horn filled with oil, but after David’s takedown of Goliath and his other immense successes against the Philistines, he began to be great in the eyes of the people:
[1Sa 18:7-8 ESV] 7 And the women sang to one another as they celebrated, “Saul has struck down his thousands, and David his ten thousands.” 8 And Saul was very angry, and this saying displeased him. He said, “They have ascribed to David ten thousands, and to me they have ascribed thousands, and what more can he have but the kingdom?”
This story echoes into the surrounding nations, such that even the Philistines hear about it and know who David is. Some Philistines even thought David was the real king because of how highly he was revered and because Saul contended with him.
David comes from humble beginnings, honing his leadership instincts by tending to and protecting the sheep. When Samuel came to the house of Jesse on God’s command, he thought to himself that surely Eliab brother of David was the one God wanted. God rejects that notion and says to Samuel:
[1Sa 16:7 ESV] 7 But the LORD said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.”
This is the same mistake that was made with Saul; a leader chosen only for his outward characteristics and worldly desirability. After looking upon all of Jesse’s sons but one, Samuel tells Jesse that God had not chosen any of them and asks if all his sons are present. Jesse says there’s one more, but he’s out tending the sheep. Either David was very intent on taking care of the sheep or Jesse had ranked his sons such that he didn’t think of David as king material. Samuel anoints him with a horn of oil, and “the Spirit of the Lord rushed upon David from that day forward.”
Notably, Saul was anointed with a “vial” or a “box” of oil, not a horn. Comparing various translations and looking at the etymology of the words for “vial” and “horn,” one of the intentions of highlighting this difference appears to be the volume of oil poured out. More importantly, using “qeren” (horn) instead of “pak” (vial, box) highlights the notion of power in anointing, rather than the anointing being a mere formality. The fact that to acquire a “horn” you must sacrifice an animal draws a parallel to Cain and Abel, a notion amplified by Saul’s behavior after David was anointed:
[1Sa 16:13-14 ESV] 13 Then Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the midst of his brothers. And the Spirit of the LORD rushed upon David from that day forward. And Samuel rose up and went to Ramah. 14 Now the Spirit of the LORD departed from Saul, and a harmful spirit from the LORD tormented him.
David spends a long period of time being persecuted by Saul in various ways. David becomes his musician, since Saul dealt with some kind of spiritual oppression that was alleviated when David played for him. Saul’s jealousy grew as David’s stature rose, leading to bizarre encounters such as this:
[1Sa 18:8-13 ESV] 8 And Saul was very angry, and this saying displeased him. He said, “They have ascribed to David ten thousands, and to me they have ascribed thousands, and what more can he have but the kingdom?” 9 And Saul eyed David from that day on. 10 The next day a harmful spirit from God rushed upon Saul, and he raved within his house while David was playing the lyre, as he did day by day. Saul had his spear in his hand. 11 And Saul hurled the spear, for he thought, “I will pin David to the wall.” But David evaded him twice. 12 Saul was afraid of David because the LORD was with him but had departed from Saul. 13 So Saul removed him from his presence and made him a commander of a thousand. And he went out and came in before the people.
Saul’s efforts continually backfire, as the more he attempts to undermine David, the more popular and the stronger David becomes. Saul sends him against the Philistines and hopes he dies in battle against them, but he becomes wildly successful against them:
[1Sa 18:25, 30 ESV] 25 Then Saul said, “Thus shall you say to David, ‘The king desires no bride-price except a hundred foreskins of the Philistines, that he may be avenged of the king’s enemies.'” Now Saul thought to make David fall by the hand of the Philistines. … 30 Then the commanders of the Philistines came out to battle, and as often as they came out David had more success than all the servants of Saul, so that his name was highly esteemed.
Saul attempts to rally his men against David, but his own son Jonathan, David’s best friend, warns David and helps him avoid assassination. Saul begins to plot behind Jonathan’s back, so David flees into the wilderness with his men and lives in exile from his own people.
David decides he must flee and operate under the imprimatur of Philistines or Saul will one day kill him. David even offers to join a Philistine ruler against Saul’s armies (the other Philistine rulers had heard the stories of David and vetoed this idea, as they wanted no part of a potential betrayal). David operated “across enemy lines” for some time prior to that and managed to avoid alerting his Philistine hosts of his intents as he conducted raids against nearby territories.
David, King of Judah in Hebron
David becomes king of the tribe of Judah in Hebron after Saul’s death and spends 7 years ruling there. This era proves to be one of the most precarious periods of David’s reign. The fate of Israel depends on his ability to unite his own tribe of Judah with the other tribes of Israel. The only route by which this would occur is by acquiring the loyalty of what remained of the house of Saul and the tribe of Benjamin, historically a fiercely independent tribe that was honored and respected for initially uniting the tribes of Israel and beating back the Philistines. The only way David was able to secure the loyalty of Benjamin and therefore the rest of Israel is by his men proving their mettle in battle and proving that they did not want to eradicate the family of Saul when they took power – a common practice among powerful rulers of the day, and not a lingering concern that could be assuaged by mere words.
David performs two public acts which secured the loyalties of Benjamin. The first is David’s response to Abner’s assassination.
Abner the son of Ner, Saul’s main general, a mighty warrior who watched David’s ascendancy, becomes dissatisfied with the leadership of Saul’s successor, Ish-bosheth. Abner was the kingmaker of Benjamin; he was the only reason Ish-bosheth was able to unite the tribes of Israel as well as to continue Benjamin’s rule over “the Ashurites and Jezreel” (2 Sa 2:8-10). Abner’s prominence grew too much for Ish-bosheth’s comfort when Abner went in to one of Saul’s former concubines. Abner’s act was meant to bring himself into contention as a possible King. Absalom did the same thing to David’s concubines to signal his intent to fully replace David when he drove David out of Jerusalem (2 Sa 16:21-22). In the unstable early era of Solomon’s reign, Adonijah attempted to do what Abner had done to Solomon by taking Abishag, a concubine of David (1 Ki 2:22-25) after he had attempted to take the throne by rallying political allies (1 Ki 1:5-8).
Abner responds to Ish-bosheth’s disdain by attempting to become a kingmaker again, this time over Judah:
[2Sa 3:9-10 ESV] 9 “…God do so to Abner and more also, if I do not accomplish for David what the LORD has sworn to him, 10 to transfer the kingdom from the house of Saul and set up the throne of David over Israel and over Judah, from Dan to Beersheba.”
Abner heads to Judah and feasts with David, and promises him that he will do what it takes to turn Israel to him. Joab, returning from battle, hears what has happened and hasn’t forgotten that Abner put the blunt end of a spear through Joab’s brother Asahel’s stomach (2 Sa 2:23) during a skirmish between David’s and Ish-bosheth’s forces. Joab sends messengers to Abner to set him up, and he assassinates Abner. It’s possible Joab was right in his analysis that Abner wanted to make David king so he could immediately usurp him (2 Sa 3:24-25), but the method Joab chose for assassination – striking him in the stomach as Abner had done to Asahel – implies there was something personal about it, whether or not Joab’s analysis was correct.
The optics of that situation are terrible. Abner is respected in Benjamin and all over Israel, and two of his chief warriors conspiring to assassinate Abner could turn Israel completely against David if Benjamin’s leadership had been more politically adept. David responds by cursing Joab, a strange act given that Joab continued to be his chief military leader for most of David’s reign:
[2Sa 3:29 ESV] 29 May it fall upon the head of Joab and upon all his father’s house, and may the house of Joab never be without one who has a discharge or who is leprous or who holds a spindle or who falls by the sword or who lacks bread!”
David also commands his men to tear their clothes, wear sackcloth (an uncomfortable material typically worn during ceremonial mourning), and David follows Israel’s version of a funeral procession (a bier):
[2Sa 3:31 ESV] 31 Then David said to Joab and to all the people who were with him, “Tear your clothes and put on sackcloth and mourn before Abner.” And King David followed the bier.
David publicly weeps at the grave of Abner after his burial:
[2Sa 3:32-34 ESV] 32 They buried Abner at Hebron. And the king lifted up his voice and wept at the grave of Abner, and all the people wept. 33 And the king lamented for Abner, saying, “Should Abner die as a fool dies? 34 Your hands were not bound; your feet were not fettered; as one falls before the wicked you have fallen.” And all the people wept again over him.
Finally, David fasts in honor of Abner, and these acts convince the people that David had no intention of assassinating Abner:
[2Sa 3:35-38 ESV] 35 Then all the people came to persuade David to eat bread while it was yet day. But David swore, saying, “God do so to me and more also, if I taste bread or anything else till the sun goes down!” 36 And all the people took notice of it, and it pleased them, as everything that the king did pleased all the people. 37 So all the people and all Israel understood that day that it had not been the king’s will to put to death Abner the son of Ner. 38 And the king said to his servants, “Do you not know that a prince and a great man has fallen this day in Israel?
David’s second act as King of Judah in Hebron that secured the loyalties of Benjamin and the rest of Israel was his response to Rechab and Baanah, Benjamites from a family outside of Saul’s who exploited the vacuum of power left after Abner’s death to assassinate Ish-bosheth in his bed. They behead him and take his head to David, believing they will receive great rewards for their act. David shocks them by doing the opposite:
[2Sa 4:9-12 ESV] 9 But David answered Rechab and Baanah his brother, the sons of Rimmon the Beerothite, “As the LORD lives, who has redeemed my life out of every adversity, 10 when one told me, ‘Behold, Saul is dead,’ and thought he was bringing good news, I seized him and killed him at Ziklag, which was the reward I gave him for his news. 11 How much more, when wicked men have killed a righteous man in his own house on his bed, shall I not now require his blood at your hand and destroy you from the earth?” 12 And David commanded his young men, and they killed them and cut off their hands and feet and hanged them beside the pool at Hebron. But they took the head of Ish-bosheth and buried it in the tomb of Abner at Hebron.
With one major exception – Bathsheba and Uriah the Hittite – David’s uniqueness was his insistence on maintaining moral authority through God’s dictates rather than by implementing his reign by the force of his own hand. With the vacuum left by Abner’s death and the house of Saul in shambles, David made a clear statement that he would not take the kingdom by force, but wanted Israel to willingly join with him. This act created an entity that would survive in the hands of David’s lineage up to the Babylonian destruction.