In the Bible the name David is borne only by the second king of Israel, the great-grandson of Boaz and Ruth (Ruth 4:18 sqq.). He was the youngest of the eight sons of Isai, or Jesse (1 Samuel 16:8; cf. 1 Chronicles 2:13), a small proprietor, of the tribe of Juda, dwelling at Bethlehem, where David was born. Our knowledge of David’s life and character is derived exclusively from the pages of Sacred Scripture, viz., 1 Samuel 16; 1 Kings 2; 1 Chronicles 2, 3, 10-29; Ruth 4:18-22, and the titles of many Psalms. According to the usual chronology, David was born in 1085 and reigned from 1055 to 1015 B.C. Recent writers have been induced by the Assyrian inscriptions to date his reign from 30 to 50 years later. Within the limits imposed it is impossible to give more than a bare outline of the events of his life and a brief estimate of his character and his significance in the history of the chosen people, as king, psalmist, prophet, and type of the Messias.
The history of David falls naturally into three periods: (1) before his elevation to the throne; (2) his reign, at Hebron over Juda, and at Jerusalem over all Israel, until his sin; (3) his sin and last years. He first appears in sacred history as a shepherd lad, tending his father’s flocks in the fields near Bethlehem, “ruddy and beautiful to behold and of a comely face”. Samuel, the Prophet and last of the judges, had been sent to anoint him in place of Saul, whom God had rejected for disobedience. The relations of David do not seem to have recognized the significance of this unction, which marked him as the successor to the throne after the death of Saul.
During a period of illness, when the evil spirit troubled Saul, David was brought to court to soothe the king by playing on the harp. He earned the gratitude of Saul and was made an armour-bearer, but his stay at court was brief. Not long afterwards, whilst his three elder brothers were in the field, fighting under Saul against the Philistines, David was sent to the camp with some provisions and presents; there he heard the words in which the giant, Goliath of Geth, defied all Israel to single combat, and he volunteered with God’s help to slay the Philistine. His victory over Goliath brought about the rout of the enemy. Saul’s questions to Abner at this time seem to imply that he had never seen David before, though, as we have seen, David had already been at court. Various conjectures have been made to explain this difficulty. As the passage which suggests a contradiction in the Hebrew text is omitted by Septuagint codices, some authors have accepted the Greek text in preference to the Hebrew. Others suppose that the order of the narratives has become confused in our present Hebrew text. A simpler and more likely solution maintains that on the second occasion Saul asked Abner only about the family of David and about his earlier life. Previously he had given the matter no attention.
David’s victory over Goliath won for him the tender friendship of Jonathan, the son of Saul. He obtained a permanent position at court, but his great popularity and the imprudent songs of the women excited the jealousy of the king, who on two occasions attempted to kill him. As captain of a thousand men, he encountered new dangers to win the hand of Merob, Saul’s eldest daughter, but, in spite of the king’s promise, she was given to Hadriel. Michol, Saul’s other daughter, loved David, and, in the hope that the latter might be killed by the Philistines, her father promised to give her in marriage, provided David should slay one hundred Philistines. David succeeded and married Michol. This success, however, made Saul fear the more and finally induced him to order that David should be killed. Through the intervention of Jonathan he was spared for a time, but Saul’s hatred finally obliged him to flee from the court.
First he went to Ramatha and thence, with Samuel, to Naioth. Saul’s further attempts to murder him were frustrated by God’s direct interposition. An interview with Jonathan convinced him that reconciliation with Saul was impossible, and for the rest of the reign he was an exile and an outlaw. At Nobe, whither he proceeded, David and his companions were harboured by the priest Achimelech, who was afterwards accused of conspiracy and put to death with his fellow-priests. From Nobe David went to the court of Achis, king of Geth, where he escaped death by feigning madness. On his return he became the head of a band of about four hundred men, some of them his relations, others distressed debtors and malcontents, who gathered at the cave, or stronghold, of Odollam (Adullam). Not long after their number was reckoned at six hundred. David delivered the city of Ceila from the Philistines, but was again obliged to flee from Saul. His next abode was the wilderness of Ziph, made memorable by the visit of Jonathan and by the treachery of the Ziphites, who sent word to the king. David was saved from capture by the recall of Saul to repel an attack of the Philistines. In the deserts of Engaddi he was again in great danger, but when Saul was at his mercy, he generously spared his life. The adventure with Nabal, David’s marriage with Abigail, and a second refusal to slay Saul were followed by David’s decision to offer his serves to Achis of Geth and thus put an end to Saul’s persecution. As a vassal of the Philistine king, he was set over the city of Siceleg, whence he made raids on the neighbouring tribes, wasting their lands and sparing neither man nor woman. By pretending that these expeditions were against his own people of Israel, he secured the favour of Achis. When, however, the Philistines prepared at Aphec to wage war against Saul, the other princes were unwilling to trust David, and he returned to Siceleg. During his absence it had been attacked by the Amalecites. David pursued them, destroyed their forces, and recovered all their booty. Meanwhile the fatal battle on Mount Gelboe (Gilboa) had taken place, in which Saul and Jonathan were slain. The touching elegy, preserved for us in 2 Samuel 1 is David’s outburst of grief at their death.
By God’s command, David, who was now thirty years old, went up to Hebron to claim the kingly power. The men of Juda accepted him as king, and he was again anointed, solemnly and publicly. Through the influence of Abner, the rest of Israel remained faithful to Isboseth, the son of Saul. Abner attacked the forces of David, but was defeated at Gabaon. Civil war continued for some time, but David’s power was ever on the increase. At Hebron six sons were born to him: Amnon, Cheleab, Absalom, Adonias, Saphathia, and Jethraam. As the result of a quarrel with Isboseth, Abner made overtures to bring all Israel under the rule of David; he was, however, treacherously murdered by Joab without the king’s consent. Isboseth was murdered by two Benjamites, and David was accepted by all Israel and anointed king. His reign at Hebron over Juda alone had lasted seven years and a half.
By his successful wars David succeeded in making Israel an independent state and causing his own name to be respected by all the surrounding nations. A notable exploit at the beginning of his reign was the conquest of the Jebusite city of Jerusalem, which he made the capital of his kingdom, “the city of David”, the political centre of the nation. He built a palace, took more wives and concubines, and begat other sons and daughters. Having cast off the yoke of the Philistines, he resolved to make Jerusalem the religious centre of his people by transporting the Ark of the Covenant from Cariathiarim. It was brought to Jerusalem and placed in the new tent constructed by the king. Later on, when he proposed to build a temple for it, he was told by the prophet Nathan, that God had reserved this task for his successor. In reward for his piety, the promise was made that God would build him up a house and establish his kingdom forever.
No detailed account has been preserved of the various wars undertaken by David; only some isolated facts are given. The war with the Ammonites is recorded more fully because, whilst his army was in the field during this campaign, David fell into the sins of adultery and murder, bringing thereby great calamities on himself and his people. He was then at the height of his power, a ruler respected by all the nations from the Euphrates to the Nile. After his sin with Bethsabee and the indirect assassination of Urias, her husband, David made her his wife. A year elapsed before his repentance for the sin, but his contrition was so sincere that God pardoned him, though at the same time announcing the severe penalties that were to follow. The spirit in which David accepted these penalties has made him for all time the model of penitents. The incest of Amnon and the fratricide of Absalom brought shame and sorrow to David. For three years Absalom remained in exile. When he was recalled, David kept him in disfavour for two years more and then restored him to his former dignity, without any sign of repentance. Vexed by his father’s treatment, Absalom devoted himself for the next four years to seducing the people and finally had himself proclaimed king at Hebron. David was taken by surprise and was forced to flee from Jerusalem. The circumstances of his flight are narrated in Scripture with great simplicity and pathos. Absalom’s disregard of the counsel of Achitophel and his consequent delay in the pursuit of the king made it possible for the latter to gather his forces and win a victory at Manahaim, where Absalom was killed. David returned in triumph to Jerusalem. A further rebellion under Seba at the Jordan was quickly suppressed.
At this point in the narrative of 2 Samuel we read that “there was a famine in the days of David for three years successively”, in punishment for Saul’s sin against the Gabaonites. At their request seven of Saul’s race were delivered up to be crucified. It is not possible to fix the exact date of the famine. On other occasions David showed great compassion for the descendants of Saul, especially for Miphiboseth, the son of his friend Jonathan. After a brief mention of four expeditions against the Philistines, the sacred writer records a sin of pride on David’s part in his resolution to take a census of the people. As a penance for this sin, he was allowed to choose either a famine, an unsuccessful war, or pestilence. David chose the third and in three days 70,000 died. When the angel was about to strike Jerusalem, God was moved to pity and stayed the pestilence. David was commanded to offer sacrifice at the threshing-floor of Areuna, the site of the future temple.
The last days of David were disturbed by the ambition of Adonias, whose plans for the succession were frustrated by Nathan, the prophet, and Bethsabee, the mother of Solomon. The son who was born after David’s repentance was chosen in preference to his older brothers. To make sure that Solomon would succeed to the throne, David had him publicly anointed. The last recorded words of the aged king are an exhortation to Solomon to be faithful to God, to reward loyal servants, and to punish the wicked. David died at the age of seventy, having reigned in Jerusalem thirty-three years. He was buried on Mount Sion. St. Peter spoke of his tomb as still in existence on the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Ghost descended on the Apostles (Acts 2:29). David is honoured by the Church as a saint. He is mentioned in the Roman Martyrology on 29 December.
The historical character of the narratives of David’s life has been attacked chiefly by writers who have disregarded the purpose of the narrator in I Par. He passes over those events that are not connected with the history of the Ark. In the Books of Kings all the chief events, good and bad, are narrated. The Bible records David’s sins and weaknesses without excuse or palliation, but it also records his repentance, his acts of virtue, his generosity towards Saul, his great faith, and his piety. Critics who have harshly criticized his character have not considered the difficult circumstances in which he lived or the manners of his age. It is uncritical and unscientific to exaggerate his faults or to imagine that the whole history is a series of myths. The life of David was an important epoch in the history of Israel. He was the real founder of the monarchy, the head of the dynasty. Chosen by God “as a man according to His own heart”, David was tried in the school of suffering during the days of exile and developed into a military leader of renown. To him was due the complete organization of the army. He gave Israel a capital, a court, a great centre of religious worship. The little band at Odollam became the nucleus of an efficient force. When he became King of all Israel there were 339,600 men under his command. At the census 1,300,000 were enumerated capable of bearing arms. A standing army, consisting of twelve corps, each 24,000 men, took turns in serving for a month at a time as the garrison of Jerusalem. The administration of his palace and his kingdom demanded a large retinue of servants and officials. Their various offices are set down in 1 Chronicles 27. The king himself exercised the office of judge, though Levites were later appointed for this purpose, as well as other minor officials.
When the Ark had been brought to Jerusalem, David undertook the organization of religious worship. The sacred functions were entrusted to 24,000 Levites; 6,000 of these were scribes and judges, 4000 were porters, and 4000 singers. He arranged the various parts of the ritual, allotting to each section its tasks. The priests were divided into twenty-four families; the musicians into twenty-four choirs. To Solomon had been reserved the privilege of building God’s house, but David made ample preparations for the work by amassing treasures and materials, as well as by transmitting to his son a plan for the building and all its details. We are told in I Par. how he exhorted his son Solomon to carry out this great work and made known to the assembled princes the extent of his preparations.
The prominent part played by song and music in the worship of the temple, as arranged by David, is readily explained by his poetic and musical abilities. His skill in music is recorded in 1 Samuel 16:18 and Amos 6:5. Poems of his composition are found in 2 Samuel 1, 3, 22, 23. His connection with the Book of Psalms, many of which are expressly attributed to various incidents of his career, was so taken for granted in later days that many ascribed the whole Psalter to him. The authorship of these hymns and the question how far they can be considered as supplying illustrative material for David’s life will be treated in the article PSALMS.
David was not merely king and ruler, he was also a prophet. “The spirit of the Lord hath spoken by me and his word by my tongue” (2 Samuel 23:2) is a direct statement of prophetic inspiration in the poem there recorded. St. Peter tells us that he was a prophet (Acts 2:30). His prophecies are embodied in the Psalms he composed that are literally Messianic and in “David’s last words” (2 Samuel 23). The literal character of these Messianic Psalms is indicated in the New Testament. They refer to the suffering, the persecution, and the triumphant deliverance of Christ, or to the prerogatives conferred on Him by the Father. In addition to these his direct prophecies, David himself has always been regarded as a type of the Messias. In this the Church has but followed the teaching of the Old Testament Prophets. The Messias was to be the great theocratic king; David, the ancestor of the Messias, was a king according to God’s own heart. His qualities and his very name are attributed to the Messias. Incidents in the life of David are regarded by the Fathers as foreshadowing the life of Christ; Bethlehem is the birthplace of both; the shepherd life of David points out Christ, the Good Shepherd; the five stones chosen to slay Goliath are typical of the five wounds. The betrayal by his trusted counsellor, Achitophel, and the passage over the Cedron remind us of Christ’s Sacred Passion. Many of the Davidic Psalms, as we learn from the New Testament, are clearly typical of the future Messias.
Corbett, J. (1908). King David. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.