By John Lord.
Considering how much has been written about David in all the nations of Christendom, and how familiar Christian people are with his life and writings, it would seem presumptuous to attempt a lecture on this remarkable man, especially since it is impossible to add anything essentially new to the subject. The utmost that I can do is to select, condense, and rearrange from the enormous quantity of matter which learned and eloquent writers have already furnished.
The warrior-king who conquered the enemies of Israel in a dark and desponding period; the sagacious statesman who gave unity to its various tribes, and formed them into a powerful monarchy; the matchless poet who bequeathed to all ages a lofty and beautiful psalmody; the saint, who with all his backslidings and inconsistencies was a man after God's own heart,--is well worthy of our study. David was the most illustrious of all the kings of whom the Jewish nation was proud, and was a striking type of a good man occasionally enslaved by sin, yet breaking its bonds and rising above subsequent temptations to a higher plane of goodness. A man so elevated, with almost every virtue which makes a man beloved, and yet with defects which will forever stain his memory, cannot easily be portrayed. What character in history presents such wide contradictions? What career was ever more varied? What recorded experiences are more interesting and instructive?--a life of heroism, of adventures, of triumphs, of humiliations, of outward and inward conflicts. Who ever loved and hated with more intensity than David?--tender yet fierce, brave yet weak, magnanimous yet unrelenting, exultant yet sad, committing crimes yet triumphantly rising after disgraceful falls by the force of a piety so ardent that even his backslidings now appear but as spots upon a sun. His varied experiences call out our sympathy and admiration more than the life of any secular hero whom poetry and history have immortalized. He was an Achilles and a Ulysses, a Marcus Aurelius and a Theodosius, an Alfred and a Saint Louis combined; equally great in war and in peace, in action and in meditation; creating an empire, yet transmitting to posterity a collection of poems identified forever with the spiritual life of individuals and nations. Interesting to us as are the events of David's memorable career, and the sentiments and sorrows which extort our sympathy, yet it is the relation of a sinful soul with its Maker, by which he infuses his inner life into all other souls, and furnishes materials of thought for all generations.
David was the youngest and seventh son of Jesse, a prominent man of the tribe of Judah, whose great-grandmother was Ruth, the interesting wife of Boaz the Jew. He was born in Bethlehem, near Jerusalem,--a town rendered afterward so illustrious as the birthplace of our Lord, who was himself of the house and lineage of David. He first appears in history at the sacrificial feast which his townspeople periodically held, presided over by his father, when the prophet Samuel unexpectedly appeared at the festival to select from the sons of Jesse a successor to Saul. He was not tall and commanding like the Benjamite hero, but was ruddy of countenance, with auburn hair, beautiful eyes, and graceful figure, equally remarkable for strength and agility. He had the charge of his father's sheep,--not the most honorable employment in the eyes of his brothers, who, according to Ewald, treated him with little consideration; but even as a shepherd boy he had already proved his strength and courage by an encounter with a bear and a lion.
Until David was thirty years of age his life was identified with the fading glories of the reign of Saul, who laid the foundation of the military power of his successors,--a man who lacked only the one quality imperative on the vicegerent of a supreme but invisible Power, that of unquestioning obedience to the divine directions as interpreted by the voice of prophets. Had Saul been loyal in his heart, as David was, to the God of Israel, the sceptre might not have departed from his house,--for he showed some of the highest qualities of a general and a ruler, until his jealousy was excited by the brilliant exploits of the son of Jesse. On these exploits and subsequent adventures, which invest David's early career with the fascinations of a knight of chivalry, I need not dwell. All are familiar with his encounter with Goliath, and with his slaughter of the Philistines after he had slain the giant, which called out the admiration of the haughty daughter of the king, the love of the heir-apparent to the throne, and the applause of the whole nation. I need not speak of his musical melodies, which drove the fatal demon of melancholy from the royal palace; of his jealous expulsion by the King, his hairbreadth escapes, his trials and difficulties as a wanderer and exile, as a fugitive retreating to solitudes and caves of the earth, parched with heat and thirst, exhausted with hunger and fatigue, surrounded with increasing dangers,--yet all the while forgiving and magnanimous, sparing the life of his deadly enemy, unstained by a single vice or weakness, and soothing his stricken soul with bursts of pious song unequalled for pathos and loftiness in the whole realm of lyric poetry. He is never so interesting as amid caverns and blasted desolations and serrated rocks and dried-up rivulets, when his life is in constant danger. But he knows that he is the anointed of the Lord, and has faith that in due time he will be called to the throne.
It was not until the bloody battle with the Philistines, which terminated the lives of both Saul and Jonathan, that David's reign began in about his thirtieth year,--first at Hebron, where he reigned seven and one half years over his own tribe of Judah,--but not without the deepest lamentations for the disaster which had caused his own elevation. To the grief of David for the death of Saul and Jonathan we owe one of the finest odes in Hebrew poetry. At this crisis in national affairs, David had sought shelter with Achish, King of Gath, in whose territory he, with the famous band of six hundred warriors whom he had collected in his wanderings, dwelt in safety and peace. This apparent alliance with the deadly enemy of the Israelites had displeased the people. Notwithstanding all his victories and exploits, his anointment at the hand of Samuel, his noble lyrics, his marriage with the daughter of Saul, and the death of both Saul and Jonathan, there had been at first no popular movement in David's behalf. The taking of decisive action, however, was one of his striking peculiarities from youth to old age, and he promptly decided, after consulting the Urim and Thummim, to go at once to Hebron, the ancient sacred city of the tribe of Judah, and there await the course of events. His faithful band of six hundred devoted men formed the nucleus of an army; and a reaction in his favor having set in, he was chosen king. But he was king only of the tribe to which he belonged. Northern and central Palestine were in the hands of the Philistines,--ten of the tribes still adhering to the house of Saul, under the leadership of Abner, the cousin of Saul, who proclaimed Ishbosheth king. This prince, the youngest of Saul's four sons, chose for his capital Mahanaim, on the east of the Jordan. Authorities differ as to the precise date of David's accession.
Ishbosheth was, however, a weak prince, and little more than a puppet in the hands of Abner, the most famous general of the day, who, organizing what forces remained after the fatal battle of Gilboa, was quite a match for David. For five years civil war raged between the rivals for the ascendency, but success gradually secured for David the promised throne of united Israel. Abner, seeing how hopeless was the contest, and wishing to prevent further slaughter, made overtures to David and the elders of Judah and Benjamin. The generous monarch received him graciously, and promised his friendship; but, out of jealousy,--or perhaps in revenge for the death of his brother Asahel, whom Abner had slain in battle,--Joab, the captain of the King's chosen band, treacherously murdered him. David's grief at the foul deed was profound and sincere, but he could not afford to punish the general on whom he chiefly relied. "Know ye," said David to his intimate friends, "that a great prince in Israel has fallen to-day; but I am too weak to avenge him, for I am not yet anointed king over the tribes." He secretly disliked Joab from this time, and waited for God himself to repay the evil-doer according to his wickedness. The fate of the unhappy and abandoned Ishbosheth could not now long be delayed. He also was murdered by two of his body-guard, who hoped to be rewarded by David for their treachery; but instead of gaining a reward, they were summarily ordered to execution. The sole surviving member of Saul's family was now Mephibosheth, the only son of Jonathan,--a boy of twelve, impotent, and lame. This prince, to the honor of David, was protected and kindly cared for. David's magnanimity appears in that he made special search, asking "Is there any that is left of the house of Saul, that I may show him the kindness of God for Jonathan's sake?" The memory of the triumphant conqueror was still tender and loyal to the covenant of friendship he had made in youth, with the son of the man who for long years had pursued him with the hate of a lifetime.
David was at this time thirty-eight years of age, in the prime of his manhood, and his dearest wish was now accomplished; for on the burial of Ishbosheth "came all the tribes of Israel to David unto Hebron," formally reminded him of his early anointing to succeed Saul, and tendered their allegiance. He was solemnly consecrated king, more than eight thousand priests joining in the ceremony; and, thus far without a stain on his character, he began his reign over united Israel. The kingdom over which he was called to reign was the most powerful in Palestine. Assyria, Egypt, China, and India were already empires; but Greece was in its infancy, and Homer and Buddha were unborn.
The first great act of David after his second anointment was to transfer his capital from Hebron to Jerusalem, then a strong fortress in the hands of the Jebusites. It was nearer the centre of his new kingdom than Hebron, and yet still within the limits of the tribe of Judah, He took it by assault, in which Joab so greatly distinguished himself that he was made captain-general of the King's forces. From that time "David went on growing great, and the Lord God of Hosts was with him." After fortifying his strong position, he built a palace worthy of his capital, with the aid of Phoenician workmen whom Hiram, King of Tyre, wisely furnished him. The Philistines looked with jealousy on this impregnable stronghold, and declared war; but after two invasions they were so badly beaten that Gath, the old capital of Achish, passed into the hands of the King of Israel, and the power of these formidable enemies was broken forever.
The next important event in the reign of David was the transfer of the sacred ark from Kirjath-jearim, where it had remained from the time of Samuel, to Jerusalem. It was a proud day when the royal hero, enthroned in his new palace on that rocky summit from which he could survey both Judah and Samaria, received the symbol of divine holiness amid all the demonstrations which popular enthusiasm could express. "And as the long and imposing procession, headed by nobles, priests, and generals, passed through the gates of the city, with shouts of praise and songs and sacred dances and sacrificial rites and symbolic ceremonies and bands of exciting music, the exultant soul of David burst out in the most rapturous of his songs: 'Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and be ye lift up ye everlasting doors; and the King of Glory shall come in!'"--thus reiterating the fundamental truth which Moses taught, that the King of Glory is the Lord Jehovah, to be forever worshipped both as a personal God and the real Captain of the hosts of Israel.
"One heart alone," says Stanley, "amid the festivities which attended this joyful and magnificent occasion, seemed to be unmoved. Whether she failed to enter into its spirit, or was disgusted with the mystic dances in which her husband shared, the stately daughter of Saul assailed David on his return to his palace--not clad in his royal robes, but in the linen ephod of the priests--with these bitter and disdainful words: 'How glorious was the King of Israel to-day, as he uncovered himself in the eyes of his handmaidens!'--an insult which forever afterward rankled in his soul, and undermined his love." Thus was the most glorious day which David ever saw, clouded by a domestic quarrel; and the proud princess retired, until her death, to the neglected apartments of a dishonored home. How one word of bitter scorn or harsh reproach will sometimes sunder the closest ties between man and woman, and cause an alienation which never can be healed, and which may perchance end in a domestic ruin!
David had now passed from the obscurity of a chief of a wandering and exiled band of followers to the dignity of an Oriental monarch, and turned his attention to the organization of his kingdom and the development of its resources. His army was raised to two hundred and eighty thousand regular soldiers. His intimate friends and best-tried supporters were made generals, governors, and ministers. Joab was commander-in-chief; and Benaiah, son of the high-priest, was captain of his body-guard,--composed chiefly of foreigners, after the custom of princes in most ages. His most trusted counsellors were the prophets Gad and Nathan. Zadok and Abiathar were the high-priests, who also superintended the music, to which David gave special attention. Singing men and women celebrated his victories. The royal household was regulated by different grades of officers. But David departed from the stern simplicity of Saul, and surrounded himself with pomps and guards. None were admitted to his presence without announcement or without obeisance, while he himself was seated on a throne, with a golden sceptre in his hands and a jewelled crown upon his brow, clothed in robes of purple and gold. He made alliances with powerful chieftains and kings, and imitated their fashion of instituting a harem for his wives and concubines,--becoming in every sense an Oriental monarch, except that his power was limited by the constitution which had been given by Moses. He reigned, it would seem, in justice and equity, and in obedience to the commands of Jehovah, whose servant he felt himself to be. Nor did he violate any known laws of morality, unless it were the practice of polygamy, in accordance with the custom of all Eastern potentates, permitted to them if not to their ordinary subjects. We infer from all incidental notices of the habits of the Israelites at this period that they were a remarkably virtuous people, with primitive tastes and love of domestic life, among whom female chastity was esteemed the highest virtue; and it is a matter of surprise that the loose habits of the King in regard to women provoked so little comment among his subjects, and called out so few rebukes from his advisers.
But he did not surrender himself to the inglorious luxury in which Oriental monarchs lived. He retained his warlike habits, and in great national crises he headed his own troops in battle. It would seem that he was not much molested by external enemies for twenty years after making Jerusalem his capital, but reigned in peace, devoting himself to the welfare of his subjects, and collecting materials for the future building of the Temple,--its actual erection being denied to him as a man of blood. Everything favored the national prosperity of the Israelites. There was no great power in western Asia to prevent them founding a permanent monarchy; Assyria had been humbled; and Egypt, under the last kings of the twentieth dynasty, had lost its ancient prestige; the Philistines were driven to a narrow portion of their old dominion, and the king of Tyre sought friendly alliance with David.
In the course of time, however, war broke out with Moab, followed by other wars, which required all the resources of the Jewish kingdom, and taxed to the utmost the energies of its bravest generals. Moab, lying east of the Dead Sea, had at one time given refuge to David when pursued by Saul, and he was even allied by blood to some of its people,--being descended from Ruth, a Moabitish woman. The sacred writings shed but little light on this war, or on its causes; but it was carried on with unusual severity, only a third part of the people being spared alive, and they reduced to slavery. A more important contest took place with the kingdom of Ammon on the north, on the confines of Syria, caused by the insults heaped on the ambassadors of David, whom he sent on a friendly message to Hanun the King. The campaign was conducted by Joab, who gained brilliant victories, without however crushing the Ammonites, who again rallied with a vast array of mercenaries gathered in their support. David himself took the field with the whole force of his kingdom, and achieved a series of splendid successes by which he extended his empire to the Euphrates, including Damascus, besides securing invaluable spoils from the cities of Syria,--among them chariots and horses, for which Syria was celebrated. Among these spoils also were a thousand shields overlaid with gold, and great quantities of brass afterward used by Solomon in the construction of the Temple. Yet even these conquests, which now made David the most powerful monarch of western Asia, did not secure peace. The Edomites, south of the Dead Sea, alarmed in view of the increasing greatness of Israel, rose against David, but were routed by Abishai, who penetrated to Petra and became master of the country, the inhabitants of which were put to the sword with unrelenting vengeance. This war of the Edomites took place simultaneously with that of the Ammonites, who, deprived of their allies, retreated with desperation to their strong capital,--Rabbah Ammon, twenty-eight hundred feet above the sea, and twenty miles east of the Jordan,--where they made a memorable but unsuccessful resistance.
It was during the siege of this stronghold, which lasted a year, that David, no longer young, oppressed with cares, and unable personally to bear the fatigues of war, forgot his duties as a king and as a man. For fifty years he had borne an unsullied name; for more than thirty years he had been a model of reproachless chivalry. If polygamy and ferocity in war are not drawbacks to our admiration, certain it is that no recorded crime or folly that called out divine censure can be laid to his charge. But in an hour of temptation, or from strange infatuation, he added murder to adultery,--covering up a great crime by one of still greater enormity, evincing meanness and treachery as well as ungoverned passion, and creating a scandal which was considered disgraceful even in an Oriental palace. "We read," says South in one of his most brilliant paragraphs, "of nothing like adultery in a persecuted David in the wilderness, when he fled hither and thither like a chased doe upon the mountains; but when the delicacies of his palace softened and ungirt his spirit, then it was that this great hero fell by a glance, and buried his glories in nocturnal shame, giving to his name a lasting stain, and to his conscience a fearful wound." Nor did he come to himself until a child was born, and the prophet Nathan had ingeniously pointed out to him his flagrant sin. He manifested no wrath against his accuser, as some despots would have done, but sank to the ground in the greatest anguish and grief.
Then it was that David's repentance was more marvellous than his transgression, offering the most memorable instance of contrition recorded in history,--surpassing in moral sublimity, a thousand times over, the grief of Theodosius under the rebuke of Ambrose, or the sorrow of the haughty Plantagenet for the murder of Becket. His repentance was so profound, so sincere, so remarkable, that it is embalmed forever in the heart of a sinful world. Its wondrous depth and intensity almost make us forget the crime itself, which nevertheless pursued him into the immensity of eternal night, and was visited upon the third and fourth generation in treason, rebellion, and wars. "Be sure your sin will find you out," is a natural law as well as a divine decree. It was not only because David added Bathsheba to the catalogue of his wives; it was not only because he coveted, like Ahab, that which was not his own,--but because he violated the most sacred of all laws, and treacherously stained his hands in the blood of an innocent, confiding, and loyal subject, that his soul was filled with shame and anguish. It was this blood-guiltiness which was the burden of his confession and his agonized grief, as an offence not merely against society and all moral laws, but also against his Maker, in whose pure eyes he had committed his crimes of lust, deceit, and murder. "Against Thee, Thee only, have I sinned, and have done this evil in Thy sight!" What a volume of theological truth blazes from this single expression, so difficult for reason to fathom, that it was against God that the royal penitent felt that he had sinned, even more than against Uriah himself, whose life and property, in a certain sense, belonged to an Oriental king.
"Nor do we charge ourselves," says Edward Irving, "with the defence of those backslidings which David more keenly scrutinized and more bitterly lamented than any of his censors, because they were necessary, in a measure, that he might be the full-orbed man to utter every form of spiritual feeling. And if the penitential psalms discover the deepest hell of agony, and if they bow the head which utters them, then let us keep those records of the psalmist's grief and despondency as the most precious of his utterances, and sure to be needed by every man who essayeth to lead a spiritual life; for it is not until a man, however pure, honest, and honorable he may have thought himself, and have been thought by others, discovereth himself to be utterly fallen, defiled, and sinful before God,--not until he can, for expression of utter worthlessness, seek those psalms in which David describes his self-abasement, that he will realize the first beginning of spiritual life in his own soul."
Should we seek for the cause of David's fall, for that easy descent in the path of rectitude,--may we not find it in that fatal custom of Eastern kings to have more wives than was divinely instituted in the Garden of Eden,--an indulgence which weakened the moral sense and unchained the passions? Polygamy, under any circumstances, is the folly and weakness of kings, as well as the misfortune and curse of nations. It divided and distracted the household of David, and gave rise to incessant intrigues and conspiracies in his palace, which embittered his latter days and even undermined his throne.
We read of no further backslidings which seemed to call forth the divine displeasure, unless it were the census, or numbering of the people, even against the expostulations of Joab. Why this census, in which we can see no harm, should have been followed by so dire a calamity as a pestilence in which seventy thousand persons perished in four days, we cannot see by the light of reason, unless it indicated the purpose of establishing an absolute monarchy for personal aggrandizement, or the extension of unnecessary conquests, and hence an infringement of the theocratic character of the Hebrew commonwealth. The conquests of David had thus far been so brilliant, and his kingdom was so prosperous, that had he been a pagan monarch he might have meditated the establishment of a military monarchy, or have laid the foundation of an empire, like Cyrus in after-times. From a less beginning than the Jewish commonwealth at the time of David, the Greeks and Romans advanced to sovereignty over both neighboring and distant States. The numbering of the Israelitish nation seemed to indicate a desire for extended empire against the plain indications of the divine will. But whatever was the nature of that sin, it seems to have been one of no ordinary magnitude; and in view of its consequences, David's heart was profoundly touched. "O God!" he cried, in a generous burst of penitence, "I have sinned. But these sheep, what have they done? Let thine hand be upon me, I pray thee, and upon my father's house!"
If David committed no more sins which we are forced to condemn, and which were not irreconcilable with his piety, he was subject to great trials and misfortunes. The wickedness of his children, especially of his eldest son Amnon, must have nearly broken his heart. Amnon's offence was not only a terrible scandal, but cost the life of the heir to the throne. It would be hard to conceive how David's latter days could have been more embittered than by the crime of his eldest son,--a crime he could neither pardon nor punish, and which disgraced his family in the eyes of the nation. As to Absalom, it must have been exceedingly painful and humiliating to the aged and pious king to be a witness of the pride, insolence, extravagance, and folly of his favorite son, who had nothing to commend him to the people but his good looks; and still harder to bear was his rebellion, and his reckless attempt to steal his father's sceptre. What a pathetic sight to see the old warrior driven from his capital, and forced to flee for his life beyond the Jordan! How humiliating to witness also the alienation of his subjects, and their willingness to accept a brainless youth as his successor, after all the glorious victories he had won, and the services he had rendered to the nation! David's history reveals the sorrows and burdens of all kings and rulers. Outward grandeur and power, after all, are a poor compensation for the incessant cares, vexations, and humiliations which even the most favored monarchs are compelled to accept,--troubles, disappointments, and burdens which oppress both soul and body, and induce fears, suspicions, jealousies, and animosities. Who would envy a Tiberius or a Louis XIV. if he were obliged to carry their load, knowing well what that burden was?
Then again the kingdom of David was afflicted with a grievous famine, which lasted three years, decimating the people, and giving a check to the national prosperity; and the Philistines, too, whom he thought he had finally subdued, renewed their ancient warfare. But these calamities were not all that the old king had to endure. A new rebellion more dangerous even than that of Absalom broke out under Sheba, a Benjamite, who sounded the trumpet of defiance from the mountains of Ephraim, and who rallied under his standard ten of the tribes. To Amasa, it seems, was intrusted the honor and the task of defending David and the tribe of Judah, to which he belonged,--the king being alienated from Joab for the slaying of Absalom, although it had ended that undutiful son's rebellion. The bloodthirsty Joab, as implacable as Achilles, who had rendered such signal services to his sovereign, was consumed with jealousy at this new appointment, and going up to the new general-in-chief as if to salute him, treacherously stabbed him with his sword,--but continued, however, to support David. He succeeded in suppressing the rebellion by intrigue, and on the promise that the city should be spared, the head of the rebel was thrown over the wall of the fortress to which he had retired. Even this rebellion did not end the trials of David, since Adonijah, the heir presumptive after the death of Absalom, conspired to steal the royal sceptre, which David had sworn to Bathsheba he would bequeath to her son Solomon. Joab even favored the succession of Adonijah; but the astute monarch, amid the infirmities of age, still possessed a large measure of the intellect and decision of his heroic days, and secured, by a rapid movement, the transfer of his kingdom to Solomon, who was crowned in the lifetime of his father.
In all these foul treacheries and crimes within his own household may be seen the distinct fulfilment of the punishment foretold by Nathan the prophet, as prepared for David's own "great transgression." God's providence is unerring, and men indeed prepare for themselves the retribution which, in spite of sincere repentance, is the inevitable consequence of their own violations of law,--physical, moral, and spiritual. God gave David the new heart he longed for; but the evil seeds sown bore nevertheless evil fruit for him and his children.
Aside from these troubles, we know but little of the latter days of David. After the death of Absalom, it would seem that he reigned ten years, on the whole tranquilly, turning his attention to the development of the resources of his kingdom, and collecting treasure for the Temple, which he was not to build. He was able to set aside, as we read in the twenty-second chapter of the Chronicles, a hundred thousand talents of gold and a million talents of silver,--an almost incredible sum.
If a talent of silver is, as estimated, about £390, or $1950, it would seem that the silver accumulated by David would have amounted to nearly two billion dollars, and the gold to a like sum,--altogether four billions, which is plainly impossible. Probably there is a mistake in the figures. We read in the twenty-ninth chapter of Chronicles that David gave to Solomon, out of his own private property, three thousand talents of gold and seven thousand talents of silver,--together, nearly $74,000,000. His nobles added what would be equal to $120,000,000 in gold and silver alone, besides brass and iron,--altogether about $194,000,000, which is not incredible when we bear in mind that a single family in New York has accumulated a larger sum in two generations. But even this sum,--nearly two hundred million dollars,--would have more than built all the temples of Athens, or St. Peter's Church at Rome. Whether the author of the Chronicles has exaggerated the amount of the national contribution for the building of the Temple or not, we yet are impressed with the vast wealth which was accumulated in the lifetime of David; and hence we infer that the wealth of his kingdom was enormous. And it was perhaps the excessive taxation of the people to raise this money, outside of the spoils of successful wars, that alienated them in the latter days of David, and induced them to rally under the standards of usurpers. Certain it is that he became unpopular in the feebleness of old age, and was forced to abdicate his throne.
David's premature old age presented a sad contrast to the vigor of his early days. He was not a very old man when he died,--younger than many monarchs and statesmen who in our times have retained their vigor, their popularity, and their power. But the intense labors and sorrows of forty years may have proved too great a strain on his nervous energies, and made him as timid as he once was bold. The man who had slain Goliath ran away from Absalom. He was completely under the domination of an intriguing wife. He showed a singular weakness in reference to the crimes of his favorite son, so as to merit the bitter reproaches of his captain-general. "Thou hast shamed this day," said Joab, "the faces of all thy servants; for I perceive had Absalom lived, and all of us had died this day, then it had pleased thee well." In David's case, his last days do not seem to have been his best days, although he retained his piety and had conquered all his enemies. His glorious sun set in clouds after a reign of thirty-three years over united Israel, and the nation hailed the accession of a boy whose character was undeveloped.
The final years of this great monarch present an impressive lesson of the vanity even of a successful life, whatever services a man may have rendered to his country and to civilization. Few kings have ever accomplished more than David; but his glory was succeeded, if not by shame, at least by clouds and darkness. And this eclipse is all the more mournful when we remember not only his services but his exalted virtues. He was the most successful and the most admired of all the monarchs who reigned at Jerusalem. He was one of the greatest and best men who ever lived in any nation or at any period. "When, before or since, has there lived an outlaw who did not despoil his country?" Where has there reigned a king whose head was less giddy on a throne, or who retained more humility in the midst of riches and glories, unless it were Marcus Aurelius or Alfred the Great? David had an inborn aptitude for government, and a power like Julius Caesar of fascinating every one who came in contact with him. His self-denial and devotion to the interests of the nation were marvellous. We do not read that he took any time for pleasure or recreation; the heavy load of responsibility and care never for a moment was thrown from his shoulders. His penetration of character was so remarkable that all stood in fear of him; yet fear gave place to admiration. Never had a monarch more devoted servants and followers than David in his palmy days; he was the nation's idol and pride for thirty years. In every successive vicissitude he was great; and were it not for his cruelty in war and severity to his enemies, and his one great lapse into criminal self-indulgence, his reign would have been faultless. Contrast David with the other conquerors of the world; compare him with classical and mediaeval heroes,--how far do they fall beneath him in deeds of magnanimity and self-sacrifice! What monarch has transmitted to posterity such inestimable treasures of thought and language?
It is consoling to feel that David, whether exultant in riches and honors, or bowed down to the earth with grief and wrath, both in the years of adversity and in his prosperous manhood, in strength and in weakness, with unfailing constancy and loyalty turned his thoughts to God as the source of all hope and consolation. "As the hart panteth after the water-brooks, so panteth my soul after Thee, O God!" He has no doubts, no scepticism, no forgetfulness. His piety has the seal of an all-pervading sense of the constant presence and aid of a personal God whom it is his supremest glory to acknowledge,--his staff, his rock, his fortress, his shield, his deliverer, his friend; the One with whom he sought to commune, both day and night, on the field of battle and in the guarded recesses of his palace. In the very depths of humiliation he never sinks into despair. His piety is both tender and exultant. In the ecstasy of his raptures he calls even upon inanimate nature to utter God's praises,--upon the sun and moon, the mountains and valleys, fire and hail, storms and winds, yea, upon the stars of night. "Bless ye the Lord, O my soul! for his mercy endureth forever." And this is why he was a man after God's own heart. Let cynics and critics, and unbelievers like Bayle, delight to pick flaws in David's life. Who denies his faults? He was loved because his soul was permeated with exalted loyalty, because he hungered and thirsted after righteousness, because he could not find words to express sufficiently his sense of sin and his longing for forgiveness, his consciousness of littleness and unworthiness when contrasted with the majesty of Jehovah. Let not our eyes be fixed upon his defects, but upon the general tenor of his life. It is true he is in war merciless and cruel; he hurls anathemas on his enemies. His wrath is as supernal as his love; he is inspired with the fiercest resentments; he exhibits the mighty anger of Homer's heroes; he never could forgive Joab for the slaughter of Abner and Absalom. But the abiding sentiments of his heart are gentleness and magnanimity. How affectionately his soul clung to Jonathan! What a power of self-denial, when he was faint and thirsty, in refusing the water which his brave companions brought him at the risk of their lives! How generously he spared the life of Saul! How patiently he bore the rebukes of Nathan! How nobly he treated the aged Barzillai! His impulses were all generous. He was affectionate to weakness. He had no egotistic ends. He forgot his own sorrows in the sufferings of his people. He had no pride in all the pomp of power, although he never forgot that he was the Lord's anointed.
When we pass from David's personal character to the services he rendered, how exalted his record! He laid the foundation of the prosperity of his nation. Where would have been the glories of Solomon but for the genius and deeds of David? But more than any material greatness are the imperishable lyrics he bequeathed to all ages and nations, in which are unfolded the varied experiences of a good man in his warfare with the world, the flesh, and the devil,--those priceless utterances which portray every passion that can move the human soul. He has left bare to the contemplation of all ages all that a lofty soul can suffer or enjoy, all that can be learned from folly and sin, all that can stimulate religious life, all that can console in sorrow and affliction. These experiences and aspirations he has embodied in lyric poetry, on the whole the most exquisite in the Hebrew language, creating a new world of religious thought and feeling, and furnishing the foundation for Christian psalmody, to be sung from age to age throughout the world. His kingdom passed away, but his Psalms remain,--a realm which no civilization can afford to lose. As Moses lives in his jurisprudence, Solomon in his proverbs, Isaiah in his prophecies, and Paul in his epistles, so David lives in those poems that are still the most expressive of all the forms in which the public worship of God is still continued. Such poetry could not have been written, had not the author experienced in his own life every variety of suffering and joy.
The literary excellence of the Psalms cannot be measured by the standard of Greek and Roman lyrics. It is not seen in any of our present forms of metrical composition. It is the mighty soaring of an exalted soul which makes the Psalms so dear to us, and not their artificial structure. They were made to reveal the ways of God to man and the life of the human soul, not to immortalize heroes or dignify a human love. We may not be able to appreciate in English form their original metrical skill; but it is impossible that a people so musical as the Hebrews were kindled into passionate admiration of them, had they not possessed great rhythmic beauty. We may not comprehend the force of the melodic forms, but we can appreciate the tenderness, the pathos, the sublimity, and the intensity of the sentiments expressed. "In pathetic dirges, in songs of jubilee, in outbursts of praise, in prophetic announcements, in the agonies of contrition, in bursts of adoration, in the beatitudes of holy bliss, in the enchanting calmness of Christian life," no one has ever surpassed David, so that he was called "the sweet singer of Israel." There is nothing pathetic in national difficulties, or endearing in family relations, or profound in inward experience, or triumphant over the fall of wickedness, or beatific in divine worship, which he does not intensify. He raises mortals to the skies, though he brings no angels down. Never does he introduce dogmas, yet his songs are permeated with fundamental truths, and are a perpetual rebuke to pharisaism, rationalism, epicureanism, and every form of infidel speculation that with "the fool hath said in his heart, There is no God." As the Psalter was held to be the most inspiring poetry in the palmy days of the Hebrew commonwealth, so it proved the most impressive part of the ritual of the mediaeval Church, and is still the most valued of all the lyrics which Protestantism has appropriated in the worship of God. And how potent, how lasting, how valued is a good song! The psalmody of the Church will last longer than its sermons; and when a song stimulates the loftiest sentiments of which men are capable, how priceless it is, how permanently it is embalmed in the heart of the world! "Thus have his songs become the treasured property of mankind, resounding in the anthems of different creeds, and carrying into every land that same voice which on Mount Zion was raised in sorrowful longings or ecstatic praise."
What a mighty power the songs of the son of Jesse still wield over the affections of mankind! We lose sight at times of Moses, of Solomon, and of Isaiah; but we never lose sight of David.Such is the tribute which all nations bring,
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