One of the best-known players on the stage of the Old Testament is king David. David faces off against a giant named Goliath and wins despite the odds. David runs from Saul, wins the hearts of women and men, and becomes the true king of Israel. But David’s Achilles heel—his desires for rewards for doing God’s will—nearly brings his kingdom to its knees. We know the stories well, but it’s not always easy to understand how or why the fit into God’s story in the course of the Bible.
In order to grasp a bit better what David is to the story, we need to rewind a bit. The conclusion of the book of Judges leaves us wondering if God’s people will ever turn to him in whole-hearted obedience. In fact, it seems like the longer time goes, the worse they get. The book of Samuel picks up in that turbulent time by introducing us to the last of the great judges: Samuel himself.
Samuel’s success comes early in his life—he’s clearly a man of God, he leads the tribes in obedience to God, and, for a time, peace seems to settle into the land. But as he ages and his sons prove unfit to lead in his stead, the people come to Samuel with a request: Give us a king.
What might seem innocuous to modern readers who are already used to the ideas of castles and crowns and monarchies, the author of the text highlights just how stunning the request was to Samuel. He feels like Israel doesn’t want him anymore, but the people weren’t really rejecting Samuel. They were rejecting God himself.
Throughout the book of Judges, God allowed Israel’s enemies to come in and subjugate them any time they wandered from faithfulness. Like a father disciplining his child, God wanted Israel to see their error and correct course. When they did—when they returned to him in repentance—God would send a military deliverer to rescue them. They’d have peace for a while, and then the process would repeat.
But when Israel asks Samuel for a king, however, they really want a full-time deliverer. They want a professional whose job it is specifically to keep Israel’s enemies at bay. It may seem harmless, but what they’re asking for is simply to cut out the “repent and return” part of the cycle. If they have a full-time military leader “like the nations,” then what need would there be to ask God to help them?
At this point in the quest, you’d be forgiven for thinking that God would simply be done with his people. They’d been nothing but failures, and here they are nearly explicitly wanting God out of the picture. But he takes what they meant for selfish purposes and offers them yet again the chance to regain what Adam lost. This time, with a literal throne.
The first king is an abject failure. Saul’s job was indeed to protect Israel, but to do so as a steward and not really as an unmitigated monarch. Saul was to be God’s tool for shepherding the people who, collectively, had wandered far too many times. But Saul himself fears his fellow Israelites and their enemies far more than he trusts the God who gave him the crown. His fear is his failure and ultimately God removes him from kingship, replacing him with David—someone who would fill the role of king better than Saul.
God selects David because he’s someone who will execute his role faithfully. God calls the young warrior to protect his people and lead them in pursuit of God’s agenda—not their own. And David does so with flying colors. As a man of war, he consistently seeks out God’s direction in each battle. He acts within the vocation he’s given in keeping with God’s requests. Instead of weighing the entire nation’s faithfulness, God works through the king. And as the king goes, so go the people.
But David, like his ancestors, is not without flaws. The first words out of his mouth in the text are asking what he’ll get if he defeats Goliath. Throughout his life, David has a penchant for picking up trophies, and they’re often women. First he wins Saul’s daughter by defeating a giant. Later, he takes that giant’s sword as his own. Later, he thinks he wins Abigail defeating an angry slob named Nabal—despite God doing all the work. Then, when he finally gets out from under Saul’s thumb, he steals back his first wife in a fit of jealousy. As his fame and influence grows, David adds wives and concubines.
We all know where the story lands the king. One day, when his armies are at war, David’s so convinced of the victory that we find him walking a balcony, seemingly already picking out his trophy. That’s when he sins against Bathsheba, her husband, and God himself. Even the greatest king to sit on Israel’s throne—one God himself had chosen and set up to represent him to the people—had fallen short.
David was the closest we get in the story to God successfully setting up a new Adam. All the pieces were there—representation, rulership, multiplication of God’s people—but still something was wrong in the human heart of Israel’s king. Regardless, God keeps his promise to David and sets up king after king over Israel and then, after the nation splits into two, Judah. Each king has a chance to succeed where his ancestors failed. And each one fails.
Along her failed rulers, Israel falls into even worse rebellion against her God. The era of the prophets cries out like a siren full of God’s warnings that his people and their leaders are full of pride, consumed with their own interests, and hardened against God. In the voices of the prophets, we can hear the sadness and frustration of God. After everything he’s done through the course of the Old Testament to show his unfailing love and compassion, his people consistently rebel. Each follows in the footsteps of Adam in high-handed rebellion against God.
In the midst of that failure, though, the story gives us a glimmer of hope. Over and over, God promises that he will one day find a new Adam. He will have someone who sits on David’s throne but does so in perfect obedience to God. And, perhaps most importantly, he will fix the heart problem ingrained in every human being. But in order to do so, God has to stop reaching into the pool of humanity available to him to find Adam’s heir. Instead, he has to find the original model itself.