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DAVID’S EARLY LIFE. 22A few paragraphs on the Life of David are reproduced from the author’s book “David, King of Israel.”
1 Samuel xvi. 14–23.
Before we enter at large into the incident of which these verses form the record it is desirable to settle, as far as we can, the order of events in the early life of David.
After being anointed by Samuel, David would probably return to his work among the sheep. It is quite possible that some years elapsed before anything else occurred to vary the monotony of his first occupation. The only interruption likely to have occurred to his shepherd life would be, intercourse with Samuel. It is rather striking that nothing is said, nothing is even hinted, as to the private relations that prevailed in youth between him and the venerable prophet who had anointed him with the holy oil. But it cannot be supposed that Samuel would just return to Ramah without any further communication with the youth that was to play so important a part in the future history of the country. If Saul, with all his promising qualities at the beginning, had greatly disappointed him, he could only be the more anxious on that account about the disposition and development of David. The fact that after David became the object of the murderous 266 jealousy of Saul, it was to Samuel he came when he fled from the court to tell what had taken place, and to ask advice (ch. xix. 18, 19), seems to indicate that the two men were on intimate terms, and therefore that they had been much together before. Whether David derived his views of government from Samuel, or whether they were impressed on him directly by the Spirit of God, it is certain that they were the very same as those which Samuel cherished so intensely, and which he sought so earnestly to impress on Saul. God’s imperial sovereignty, and the earthly king’s entire subordination to him; the standing of the people as God’s people, God’s heritage, and the duty of the king to treat them as such, and do all that he could for their good; the infinite and inexhaustible privilege involved in this relation, making all coquetting with false gods shameful, dishonouring to God, and disastrous to the people,—were ruling principles with Samuel and David alike. If David was never formally a pupil of Samuel’s, informally he must have been so to a large extent. Samuel lived in David; and the complacency which the old prophet must have had in his youthful friend, and his pleasure in observing the depth of his loyalty to God, and his eager interest in the highest welfare of the people, must have greatly mitigated his distress at the rejection of Saul, and revived his hope of better days for Israel.
As David grew in years, but before he ceased to be a boy, he might acquire that local reputation as “a mighty valiant man and a man of war” which his friend referred to when he first mentioned him to Saul. In him as in Jonathan faith gendered a habit of dash and daring which could not be suppressed in the days of eager boyhood. The daring insolence of the Philistines, 267 whose country lay but a few miles to the west of Bethlehem, might afford him opportunities for deeds of boyish valour. Jerusalem, the stronghold of the Jebusites, was but two hours distant from Bethlehem, and on the part of its people, too, collisions with Israelites were doubtless liable to occur. It may have been now, or possibly a little later, that the contest occurred with the lion and the bear. The country round Bethlehem was not a peaceful paradise, and the career of a shepherd was not the easy life of lovesick swains which poets dream.
It was at this period of David’s life that Saul’s peculiar malady took that form which suggested the use of music to soothe his nervous irritation. His courtiers recommended that he should seek out a cunning player on the harp, whose soothing strains would calm him in the paroxysms of his ailment. Obviously, it was desirable that one who was to be so close to a king so full of the military spirit as Saul should have a touch of that spirit himself. David had become known to one of the courtiers, who at once mentioned him as in all respects suitable for the berth. Saul accordingly sent messengers to Jesse, bidding him send to him David his son, who was with the sheep. And David came to Saul. But his first visit seems to have been quite short. Saul’s attacks were probably occasional, and at first long intervals may have occurred between them. When he recovered from the attack at which David had been sent for, the cunning harper was needed no longer, and would naturally return home. He may have been but a very short time with Saul, too short for much acquaintance being formed. But it is the way of the historians of Scripture, when a topic has once been introduced, to pursue it to its issues without note of 268 the events that came between. The writer having indicated how David was first brought into contact with Saul, as his musician, pursues the subject of their relation, without mentioning that the fight with Goliath occurred between. Some critics have maintained that in this book we have two accounts of David’s introduction to Saul, accounts which contradict one another. In the first of them he became known to him first as a musician sent for in the height of his attack. In the other it is as the conqueror of Goliath he appears before Saul. It is the fact that neither Saul nor any of his people knew on this occasion who he was that is so strange. According to our view the order of events was this: David’s first visit to Saul to play before him on his harp was a very short one. Some time after the conflict with Goliath occurred. David’s appearance had probably changed considerably, so that Saul did not recognize him. It was now that Saul attached David to himself, kept him permanently, and would not let him return to his father’s house (ch. xviii. 2). And while David acted as musician, playing to him on his harp in the paroxysms of his ailment (ch. xviii. 10), he went out at his command on military expeditions, and acquired great renown as a warrior (ch. xviii. 5). Thus, to turn back to the sixteenth chapter, the last two verses of that chapter record the permanent office before Saul which David came to fill after the slaughter of the Philistine. In fact, we find in that chapter, as often elsewhere, a brief outline of the whole course of events, some of which are filled up in minute detail in the chapter following.
Having thus settled the chronology, or rather the order of events in David’s early history, it may be well now to examine more fully that period of his life, in so far as we have any materials for doing so.
269 According to the chronology of the Authorized Version, the birth of David must have occurred about the year before Christ 1080. It was about a hundred years later than the date commonly assigned to the Trojan war, and therefore a considerable time before the dawn of authentic history, at least among the Greeks or the Romans. The age of David succeeded what might be called the heroic age of Hebrew history; in one sense, indeed, it was a continuation of that period. Samson, the latest, and in some sense the greatest of the Jewish heroes, had perished not very long before; and the scene of his birth and of some of his most famous exploits lay within a very few miles of Bethlehem. In David’s boyhood old men would still be living who had seen and talked with the Hebrew Hercules, and from whose lips high-spirited boys would hear, with sparkling eye and heaving bosom, the story of his exploits and the tragedy of his death. The whole neighbourhood would swarm with songs and legends illustrative of the deeds of those mighty men of valour, that ever since the sojourn in Egypt had been conferring renown on the Hebrew name. The mind of boyhood delights in such narratives; they rouse the soul, expand the imagination, and create sympathy with all that is brave and noble. We cannot doubt that such things had a great effect on the susceptible temperament of the youthful David, and contributed some elements of that manly and invincible spirit which remained so prominent in his character.
But a much more important factor in determining his character and shaping his life was the religious awakening in which Samuel had so prominent a share. Not a word is said anywhere of the manner in which David’s heart was first turned to God; but this must have 270 been in his earliest years. We think of David as we think of Samuel, or Jeremiah, or Josiah, or John the Baptist, as sanctified to the Lord from his very childhood. God chose him at the very outset in a more vital sense than He afterwards chose him to be king. In the exercise of that mysterious sovereignty which we are unable to fathom, God made his youthful heart a plot of good soil, into which when the seed fell it bore fruit an hundredfold. In strong contrast to Saul, whose early sympathies were against the ways and will of God, those of David were warmly for them. Samuel would find him an eager and willing listener when he spoke to him of God and His ways. How strange are the differences of young persons, in this respect, when they come first under the instructions of a minister or other servant of God! Some so earnest, so attentive, so impressed; so ready to drink in all that is said; treasuring it, hiding it in their hearts, rejoicing in it like those that find great spoil. Others so hard to bring into line, so glad of an excuse for absence, so difficult to interest, so fitful and unconcerned. No doubt much depends on the skill of the teacher in working upon anything in their minds that gives even a faint response to the truth. And in no case is the aversion of the heart beyond the power of the Holy Spirit to influence and to change. But for all that, we cannot but acknowledge the mysterious sovereignty which through causes we cannot trace makes one man so to differ from another; which made Abel so different from Cain, Isaac from Ishmael, Moses from Balaam, and David from Saul.
Was David at any time a member of any of the schools of the prophets? We cannot say with certainty, but when we ponder what we read about them it 271 seems very likely that he was. These schools seem to have enjoyed in an eminent degree the gracious power of the Holy Spirit. The hearts of the inmates seem to have burned with the glow of devotion; the emotions of holy joy with which they were animated could not be restrained, but poured out from them, like streams from a gushing fountain, in holy songs and ascriptions to God; and such was the overpowering influence of this spirit that for a time it infected even cold-hearted men like Saul, and bore them along, as an enthusiastic crowd gathers up stragglers and sweeps them onward in its current. It seems highly probable that it was in connection with these institutions, on which so signal a blessing rested, that the devotional spirit became so powerful in David afterwards poured out so freely in his Psalms. For surely he could not be in the company of men who were so full of the Spirit without sharing their experience and pouring forth the feelings that stirred his soul.
We all believe in some degree in the law of heredity, and find it interesting to trace the features of forefathers, physical and spiritual, in the persons of their descendants. The piety, the humanity, and the affectionateness of Boaz and Ruth form a beautiful picture in the early Hebrew history, and seem to come before us anew in the character of David. Boaz was remarkable for the fatherly interest he took in his dependants, for his generous kindness to the poor, and for a spirit of gentle piety that breathed even through his secular life. Was it not the same spirit that dictated the benediction, “Blessed is he that considereth the poor; the Lord will deliver him in time of trouble”? Was it not the same interest in the welfare of dependants that David showed when “he dealt among the people, even the whole multitude 272 of Israel, as well to the women as to the men, to every one a cake of bread, and a good piece of flesh, and a flagon of wine?” Ruth again was remarkable for the extraordinary depth and tenderness of her affection; her words to Naomi have never been surpassed as an expression of simple, tender feeling: “Entreat me not to leave thee, nor to return from following after thee; for whither thou goest I will go, and where thou lodgest I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.” Does not this extraordinary tenderness seem to have fallen undiminished to the man who had such an affection for Jonathan, who showed such emotion on the illness of his infant child, and poured out such a flood of anguish on the death of Absalom? The history of Boaz and Ruth would surely take hold very early of his mind. The very house in which he lived, the fields where he tended his sheep, every object around him, might have associations with their memory; aged people might tell him stories of their benevolence, and pious people give him traditions of their godliness, and thus an element would be contributed to a character in which the tenderness of a woman and the piety of a saint were combined with the courage and energy of a man.
The birthplace of David, Bethlehem, is more remarkable for its moral associations than its natural features. Well has it been said by Edward Robinson of the place where both David and Jesus were born, “What a mighty influence for good has gone forth from this little spot upon the human race both for time and for eternity!” It was situated some six miles to the south of Jerusalem, and about twice that distance to the north of Hebron. The present town is built upon the north and north-east slope of a long grey ridge, with a deep valley in front 273 and another behind, uniting at no great distance, and running down toward the Dead Sea. The country around is hilly, but hardly beautiful; the limestone rock gives a bare appearance to the hills, which is not redeemed by boldness of form or picturesqueness of outline. The fields, though stony and rough, produce good crops of grain; olive groves, fig-orchards, and vineyards abound both in the valleys and on the gentler slopes; the higher and wilder tracts were probably devoted to the pasturing of flocks. The whole tract in which Hebron, Bethlehem, and Jerusalem are situated is elevated nearly four thousand feet above the level of Jordan and the Dead Sea on the one side, and between two and three thousand feet above the Mediterranean on the other. Among these hills and valleys David spent his youth, watching the flocks of his father.
We have seen that the life of a shepherd in those scenes was not without its times of danger, making great demands on the shepherd’s courage and affection. In the main, however, it was a quiet life, affording copious opportunities for meditation and for quiet study. It was the great privilege of David to see much of God in His works and to commune with Him therein. The Psalms are full of allusions to the varied aspects of nature—the mountains, the rocks, the rivers, the valleys, the forests, the lightning, the thunder, the whirlwind.
It is not easy to say how much of the written Word existed in David’s time, but at the most it could be but a fragment of what we now possess. But if the mines of revelation were few, all the more eager was his search for their hidden treasures. And David had the advantage of using what we may call a pictorial Bible. When he read of the destruction of Sodom he could 274 see the dark wall of Moab frowning over the lake near to which the guilty cities were consumed by the fire of heaven. When he paused to think of the solemn transactions at Machpelah, he could see in the distance the very spot where so much sacred dust was gathered. Close by his daily haunts one pillar marked the place where God spake to Jacob, and another the spot where poor Rachel died. In the dark range of Moab yon lofty peak was the spot whence Moses had his view and Balaam his vision. It was from that eminence the prophet from Pethor saw a star come out of Jacob and a sceptre rise out of Israel that should smite the corners of Moab and destroy all the children of Seth. The sympathy with God fostered by these studies and meditations was of the closest kind; an unusually clear and impressive knowledge seems to have been acquired of the purpose of God concerning Israel; drinking in himself the lessons of revelation, he was becoming qualified to become the instrument of the Holy Spirit for those marvellous contributions to its canon which he was afterwards honoured to make.
And among these hills and valleys, too, David would acquire his proficiency in the two very different arts which were soon to make him famous—the use of the sling and the use of the harp. It seems to have been his ambition, whatever he did, to do it in the best possible way. His skill in the use of the sling was so perfect that he could project a stone even at a small object with unerring certainty. His harp was probably a very simple instrument, small enough to be carried about with him, but in handling it he acquired the same perfect skill as in handling his sling. In his hands it became a wonderfully expressive instrument. And hence, when Saul required a skilful musician to 275 soothe him, the known gifts of the young shepherd of Bethlehem pointed him out as the man.
Of the influence of music in remedying disorders of the nerves there is no want of evidence. “Bochart has collected many passages from profane writers which speak of the medicinal effects of music on the mind and body, especially as appeasing anger and soothing and pacifying a troubled spirit” (Speaker’s Commentary). A whole book was written on the subject by Caspar Læscherus, Professor of Divinity at Wittenberg (A.D. 1688). Kitto and other writers have added more recent instances. It is said of Charles IX. of France that after the massacre of St. Bartholomew his sleep was disturbed by nightly horrors, and he could only be composed to rest by a symphony of singing boys. Philip V. of Spain, being seized with deep dejection of mind that unfitted him for all public duties, a celebrated musician was invited to surprise the king by giving a concert in the neighbouring apartment to his majesty’s, with the effect that the king roused himself from his lethargy and resumed his duties. We may readily believe that in soothing power the harp was not inferior to any of the other instruments.
Still, with all its success, it was but a poor method of soothing a troubled spirit compared to the methods that David was afterwards to employ. It dealt chiefly with man’s physical nature, it soothed the nervous system, and removed the hindrance which their disorder caused to the action of the powers of the mind. It did not strike at the root of all trouble—alienation from God; it did not attempt to create and apply the only permanent remedy for trouble—trust in a loving Father’s care. It was a mere foreshadow, on a comparatively low and earthly ground, of the way in which David, as 276 the Psalmist, was afterwards to provide the true “oil of joy for the mourner,” and to become a guide to the downcast soul from the fearful pit and the miry clay up to the third heaven of joy and peace. The sounds of his harp could only operate by an influence felt alike by saint and sinner in soothing an agitated frame; but with the words of his Psalms, the Divine Spirit, by whose inspiration they were poured out, was in all coming ages to unite Himself, and to use them for showing the sin-burdened soul the true cause of its misery, and for leading it by a holy path, sorrowing yet rejoicing, to the home of its reconciled Father.
It is a painful thing to see any one in overwhelming trouble; it is doubly painful to see kings and others in high places miserable amid all their splendours, helpless amid all their resources. Alas, O spirit of man, what awful trials thou art subject to! Well mayest thou sometimes envy the very animals around thee, which, if they have no such capacities of enjoyment as thou hast, have on the other hand no such capacities of misery. The higher our powers and position, the more awful the anguish when anything goes wrong. Yet hast thou not, O man, a capacity to know that thy misery cannot be remedied till the cause of it is removed? Prodigal son, there is but one way to escape a miserable life. Arise, go to thy Father. See how He is in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing to men their trespasses. Accept His offers and be at peace. Receive His Spirit and your disorder shall be healed. I own that not even then can we assure you of freedom from grievous sorrows. The best of men in this world have often most grievous sufferings. But they are strengthened to bear them while they last; they are assured that all things work together for good to them 277 that love God, to them that are the called according to His purpose; and they know that when “the earthly house of their tabernacle is dissolved, they have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.”
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