Faithfulness to God is a theme that persists throughout the Hebrew Bible. Many, if not all, of the other themes we see through the histories, law, and prophetic writings, themes of justice and love and mercy, they are consistently framed in terms of faithfulness to God and God’s law.
Throughout the histories and prophetic writings Israel is often in a cycle of drawing nearer to God, falling away from God, and then atoning for their sins as they draw near once again. Faithfulness was not easy in a world with so many distractions. But these stories show how important it is to God that those who call themselves God’s people abide by God’s laws about living in faithful community together.
The first ever king of Israel, King Saul, fell out of God’s favor for his rather inconsistent and half-hearted faithfulness, so God sought a new king from among the eight sons of a man named Jesse. Did God choose the firstborn? The mightiest? The most accomplished in battle?
No, God chose the youngest of all, a shepherd-slash-musician whose only battle experience (prior to the whole Goliath incident) involved running bread and cheese back and forth to the troops.
As a character, David is painted in stark contrast to Saul. Where Saul is first described as being of great stature and would go on to have a military career that leaned a little too heavily on unauthorized plunder for God’s taste, David is introduced as a child, as this little pink-cheeked kid, playing his harp for the sheep, and later for his friend who was suffering from a mental illness. David’s early combat experience, if you could even call it that, consists of occasionally flinging a rock at any predators who threatened his flock.
In the early years of David’s narrative, his gentleness is emphasized. Some have observed that, in his youth, David has a kind of caregiving, almost mothering energy. He cares for his family flocks, he provides a kind of music therapy for Saul during his bouts of depression or psychosis, he brings food to his brothers at the front and shows concern for their safety.
As David’s story progresses later on, he eventually comes into his own as a warrior, and much of the rest of his story is set against the kind of backdrop of steady military conquest that characterizes much of ancient storytelling. To modern ears, it is a harsh genre, but as I kept wading through it, I couldn’t help but be struck by how different David was, especially in his youth, from all the other warriors that populate this particular era in scripture.
David grows into a mighty warrior, to be sure, but even so his sensitivity and artistry stand out from nearly every other figure we see in the Bible. David is not only a musician, and a poet, but also a dancer. He is the only man in the Bible ever to be named as dancing. Several psalms do talk in the first person about dancing, but the authorship of the Psalms is traditionally attributed to David.
There are a lot of Christian traditions that link the Holy Spirit to dancing, which give us another little inkling that certain times in David’s life were particularly Spirit-filled. As Saul’s only quasi-faithful leadership continued to disappoint God, God began to prepare a leader whose gentleness was at the core of his faithfulness.
In the text, Saul’s unfaithfulness is contrasted with David’s gentleness, linking the virtues of faithfulness and gentleness together. To be faithful is to be gentle, and to be gentle is to be faithful. Both virtues are fruit of a Spirit-filled life and practice. This gentle faithfulness is what made David so charismatic.
But of course, not everyone was pleased with David’s growing popularity.
King Saul, not surprisingly, was beginning to feel threatened by David’s growing status. So Saul and his men organize a series of escalating attempts on David’s life. Each time, David somehow escapes, often aided and abetted by Saul’s daughter, Michal, or Saul’s son, Jonathan, both of whom are said to have loved David deeply, though, tragically for Michal, only Jonathan’s love would be requited. Though David does eventually enter into a half-hearted marriage with Michal, they never have any children, and would soon part ways.
But David and Jonathan remain close, entering into a covenant relationship together (18:1-4). They have these clandestine meetings, where David would go out in the fields and wait there alone for three days, waiting for Jonathan to come meet him at their rendezvous point. This was the only place go where they could go to be together and, as the text phrases it, kiss and weep freely (20:41-42), away from the watchful eye of Saul and Saul’s men. It is written that David and Jonathan bound their souls together (18), that Jonathan loved David as he did his own soul, and that David’s love for Jonathan surpassed his love of any woman (2 Sam 1:26).
Yet Jonathan’s father, Saul, persists in his attempts on David’s life.
Finally, after years of fleeing these attacks, David catches Saul alone and off-guard, but he remains out of sight. David finally has the chance he’s been waiting for to put an end to this chase once and for all. Yet, when the opportune moment arrives, David cannot bring himself to kill his rival.
What he does instead is take a very sharp knife and stealthily cut off just a corner of Saul’s cloak, without being seen. But even that action strikes guilt into the heart of David. David realizes that even this small act of aggression against God’s still-anointed king was a grievous act of unfaithfulness.
David immediately confesses and makes a vow to Saul then and there that he, David, would never again raise a hand against Saul. And after this, Saul finally relents, and likewise promises peace with David.
This act of mercy on David’s part, of gentleness, of laying aside his power and ego to make amends, this has the power to build a lasting peace between the two families that could strengthen the nation. Here David, and even Saul, demonstrated their faithfulness to God and to their people by prioritizing peace over their anger and ambition.
I think of gentleness as the laying aside of one’s power for the sake of another’s safety. Like a child holding a butterfly and being so, so careful not to touch those fragile wings.
Faithfulness, too, strikes me as surrendering one’s personal desires or ambitions in favor of loyalty to a larger social unit of some kind, be it one’s God or one’s community. Faithfulness and gentleness are related in a way, both requiring a willing surrender of one’s power, one’s own desires.
It was these attributes that God sought in a leader. After coping with Saul’s unfaithful foibles for years, God sought a leader who demonstrated his faithfulness by his gentleness. It is these attributes of faithfulness and gentleness that the Spirit inspires within us as we engage and lead in our own families and communities. It is these fruits that the Spirit promises us.
Thanks be to God. Amen.