In the last few chapters of of I Samuel, and the first few of II Samuel, the transition of rulership from the house of Saul to the house of David takes place on God’s timing, in such a way as to underscore God’s choice and action, and avoid the appearance of treachery and self-promotion on the part of David. The last few actions of Saul, such as his consultation with the witch at Endor (I Sam. 28), reinforce the picture we have gained of his character and orientation: that he regrets more the loss of God’s gifts, than he does the loss of God. The text seems to say, on the plain face of it, that Samuel’s spirit was conjured up and reprimanded Saul. But a long, historic tradition of interpretation says that it may have been a deceiving, demonic spirit that appeared, although such concepts had not been clearly introduced yet in scripture. Whatever the meaning of that encounter, it only reinforces the biblical injunction against sorcery, magic and divination.
Saul’s death is no less squalid and tragic an affair. Suicide is nowhere celebrated nor tolerated in scripture. The differences in the two accounts of Saul’s death (although they were written by the same hand in what was originally one book), between the simple narrative of Saul falling upon his sword (I Samuel 31) and that of the young man who claimed to have finished Saul off (II Samuel 1) can be explained in two ways: a) that the young man finished Saul off after he fell on his sword and was still dying; or b) that the young man made up the story hoping to ingratiate himself to David. In either case, he did not get the response he had hoped for.
Though war continued between the remnant of Saul’s house, with David and Joab fighting against Ishbosheth and Abner, David distinguished himself in several ways from other conquering kings of the time. He did not pursue a policy of extermination and genocide against all people and relations of his opponent, but held open the door for reconciliation and reintegration, with the likes of Abner, Ishbosheth’s right hand military leader.
David’s public grief over Abner and Ishbosheth, though likely genuine, serve useful political service in the eventual reconciliation of all the tribes of Israel, especially with Saul’s tribe of Benjamin (which had nearly been exterminated several generations before). David’s story, both political and religious, will get murkier, in that it will get hard for the reader sometimes to separate his politically advantageous, self-promoting steps from his promotion of Israel’s covenant faith. It wasn’t any easier for David, and subsequent events will show how power corrupts and tempts, how he too, like Saul his predecessor, risks losing the blessings of God, and even his relationship with God. But whereas Saul was a case study in regret and resistance against God, David’s story is one of repentance and forgiveness.
Joab emerges as a key figure in David’s reign. He promotes David’s cause, but with few of David’s scruples. At times David seems to fear him, or regret him, but never can he be long without Joab’s services, especially not once Joab is privy to some of David’s moral missteps, like with Uriah and Baathsheba.
Other key events in this passage are: 1) the unification of Israel under David’s throne (II Sam. 5); the conquest of Jerusalem; a decisive defeat of the Philistines; the bringing of the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem (ch. 6), which presages the building of the Temple there; and the promise of an everlasting dynasty in David’s lineage (ch. 7). This promise will prove problematic in that, by the end of the Old Testament story, there will be no king over Israel; the only resolution lies in the hope of Messianic fulfillment. For Christians, the resolution is in Jesus, the Son of David. Chapter 8 gives a summary of David’s victories and his rule over neighboring states, like Philistia, Moab and even parts of modern-day Syria. It also reveals the cruelty of war, and in that sense, Jesus is not the Son of David, according to Mark 12: 35-37. He will fulfill, far better than David, the great commandment, to love God with all one’s heart, mind, soul and strength, and one’s neighbor as one self, thus being “Solomon,” the “man of peace,” who will build God’s house, unlike David, whose hand shed much blood in God’s sight (I Chronicles 22:8).”
PSALM 25 is an acrostic wisdom psalm, i.e., one in which each line begins with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet in alphabetical order. Key to the stance of wisdom are: trust (v.2); humility (v. 9), which is a greater solicitude for God’s honor than our own (v.11); the fear of the Lord (vv. 12 and 14); obedience (v.10); and repentance (v. 7). Yet the Psalm also ends with elements common to a lament, in verses 16-22. Nothing contrary to wisdom in that; grief over the injustice and precariousness of life is key to biblical wisdom, as long as it leads to putting one’s hope in God, rather than simply losing all hope.