We have now to turn and see the sudden change of fortune which lifted the exile to a throne. The heavy cloud which had brooded so long over the doomed king broke in lightning crash on the disastrous field of Gilboa. Where is there a sadder and more solemn story of the fate of a soul which makes shipwreck |of faith and of a good conscience,| than that awful page which tells how, godless, wretched, mad with despair and measureless pride, he flung himself on his bloody sword, and died a suicide's death, with sons and armour-bearer and all his men, a ghastly court of corpses, laid round him? He had once been brave, modest, and kind, full of noble purposes and generous affections -- and he ended so. Into what doleful regions of hate and darkness may self-will drag a soul, when once the reins fall loose from a slackened hand! And what a pathetic beam of struggling light gleams through heavy clouds, in the grateful exploit of the men of Jabesh, who remembered how he had once saved them, while yet he could care and dare for his kingdom, and perilled their lives to bear the poor headless corpse to its rude resting-place!
The news is received by the fugitive at Ziklag in striking and characteristic fashion. He first flames out in fierce wrath upon the lying Amalekite, who had hurried with the tidings and sought favour by falsely representing that he had killed the king on the field. A short shrift and a bloody end were his. And then the wrath melts into mourning. Forgetting the mad hatred and wild struggles of that poor soul, and his own wrongs, remembering only the friendship and nobleness of his earlier days, he casts over the mangled corpses of Saul and Jonathan the mantle of his sweet elegy, and bathes them with the healing waters of his unstinted praise and undying love. Not till these two offices of justice and affection had been performed, does he remember himself and the change in his own position which had been effected. He had never thought of Saul as standing between him and the kingdom; the first feeling on his death was not, as it would have been with a less devout and less generous heart, a flush of gladness at the thought of the empty throne, but a sharp pang of pain from the sense of an empty heart. And even when he begins to look forward to his own new course, there is that same remarkable passiveness which we have observed already. His first step is to |inquire of the Lord, saying, Shall I go up to any of the cities of Judah?| (2 Sam. ii.1). He will do nothing in this crisis of his fortunes, when all which had been so long a hope seemed to be rapidly becoming a fact, until his Shepherd shall lead him. Rapid and impetuous as he was by nature, schooled to swift decisions, followed by still swifter action, knowing that a blow struck at once, while all was chaos and despair at home, might set him on the throne, he holds nature and policy and the impatience of his people in check to hear what God will say. So fully did he fulfil the vow of his early psalm, |My strength! upon thee will I wait| (lix.9).
We can fancy the glad march to the ancient Hebron, where the great fathers of the nation lay in their rock-hewn tombs. Even before the death of Saul, David's strength had been rapidly increasing, by a constant stream of fugitives from the confusion and misery into which the kingdom had fallen. Even Benjamin, Saul's own tribe, sent him some of its famous archers -- a sinister omen of the king's waning fortunes; the hardy half-independent men of Manasseh and Gad, from the pastoral uplands on the east of Jordan, |whose faces,| according to the vivid description of the chronicler (1 Chron. xii.8), |were like the faces of lions, and were as swift as roes upon the mountains,| sought his standard; and from his own kinsmen of Judah recruits |day by day came to David to help him, until it was a great host like the host of God.| With such forces, it would have been child's play to have subdued any scattered troops of the former dynasty which might still have been in a condition to keep the field. But he made no attempt of the sort; and even when he came to Hebron he took no measures to advance any claims to the crown. The language of the history seems rather to imply a disbanding of his army, or at least their settling down to domestic life in the villages round Hebron, without a thought of winning the kingdom by arms. And his elevation to the partial monarchy which he at first possessed was the spontaneous act of |the men of Judah,| who come to him and anoint him king over Judah.
The limits of his territory are substantially those of the kingdom over which his descendants ruled after Jeroboam's revolt, thus indicating the existence of a natural |line of cleavage| between north and south. The geographical position of Benjamin finally attached it to the latter monarchy; but for the present, the wish to retain the supremacy which it had had while the king was one of the tribe, made it the nucleus of a feeble and lingering opposition to David, headed by Saul's cousin Abner, and rallying round his incompetent son Ishbosheth.[Q] The chronology of this period is obscure. David reigned in Hebron seven years and a half, and as Ishbosheth's phantom sovereignty only occupied two of these years, and those evidently the last, it would appear almost as if the Philistines had held the country, with the exception of Judah, in such force that no rival cared to claim the dangerous dignity, and that five years passed before the invaders were so far cleared out as to leave leisure for civil war.
[Q] The Canaanitish worship of Baal seems to have lingered in Saul's family. One of his grand-uncles was named Baal (1 Chron. ix.36); his son was really called Eshbaal (Fire of Baal), which was contemptuously converted into Ishbosheth (Man of Shame). So also Mephibosheth was properly Meribbaal (Fighter for Baal).
The summary narrative of these seven years presents the still youthful king in a very lovable light. The same temper which had marked his first acts after Saul's death is strikingly brought out (2 Sam. ii.-iv.) He seems to have left the conduct of the war altogether to Joab, as if he shrank from striking a single blow for his own advancement. When he does interfere, it is on the side of peace, to curb and chastise ferocious vengeance and dastardly assassination. The incidents recorded all go to make up a picture of rare generosity, of patient waiting for God to fulfil His purposes, of longing that the miserable strife between the tribes of God's inheritance should end. He sends grateful messages to Jabesh-Gilead; he will not begin the conflict with the insurgents. The only actual fight recorded is provoked by Abner, and managed with unwonted mildness by Joab. The list of his children born in Hebron is inserted in the very heart of the story of the insurrection, a token of the quiet domestic life of peaceful joys and cares which he lived while the storm was raging without. Eagerly, and without suspicion, he welcomes Abner's advances towards reconciliation. He falls for a moment to the level of his times, and yields to a strong temptation, in making the restoration of his long-lost wife Michal the condition of further negotiations -- a demand which was strictly just, no doubt, but for which little more can be said. The generosity of his nature and the ideal purity of his love, which that incident shadows, shine out again in his indignation at Joab's murder of Abner, though he was too meek to avenge it. There is no more beautiful picture in his life than that of his following the bier where lay the bloody corpse of the man who had been his enemy ever since he had known him, and sealing the reconciliation which Death ever makes in noble souls, by the pathetic dirge he chanted over Abner's grave. We have a glimpse of his people's unbounded confidence in him, given incidentally when we are told that his sorrow pleased them, |as whatsoever the king did pleased all the people.| We have a glimpse of the feebleness of his new monarchy as against the fierce soldier who had done so much to make it, in his acknowledgment that he was yet weak, being but recently anointed king, and that these vehement sons of Zeruiah were too strong for him; and we have a remarkable trace of connection with the psalms, in the closing words with which he invokes on Joab the vengeance which he as yet felt himself unable to execute: |The Lord shall reward the doer of evil according to his wickedness.|
The only other incident recorded of his reign in Hebron is his execution of summary justice upon the murderers of the poor puppet-king Ishbosheth, upon whose death, following so closely that of Abner, the whole resistance to David's power collapses. There had never been any real popular opposition. His enemies are emphatically named as |the house of Saul,| and we find Abner himself admitting that |the elders of Israel| wanted David as king (2 Sam. iii.17), so that when he was gone, it is two Benjamites who give the coup-de-grace to Ishbosheth, and end the whole shadowy rival power. Immediately the rulers of all the tribes come up to Hebron, with the tender of the crown. They offer it on the triple grounds of kinship, of his military service even in Saul's reign, and of the Divine promise of the throne. A solemn pact was made, and David was anointed in Hebron, a king by Divine right, but also a constitutional monarch chosen by popular election, and limited in his powers.
The first result of his new strength is the capture of the old hill-fortress of the Jebusites, the city of Melchizedek, which had frowned down upon Israel unsubdued till now, and whose inhabitants trusted so absolutely in its natural strength that their answer to the demand for surrender was the jeer, |Thou wilt not come hither, but the blind and lame will drive thee away.| This time David does not leave the war to others. For the first time for seven years we read, |The king and his men went to Jerusalem.| Established there as his capital, he reigns for some ten years with unbroken prosperity over a loyal and loving people, with this for the summary of the whole period, |David went on and grew great, and the Lord God of Hosts was with him| (2 Sam. v.10). These years are marked by three principal events -- the bringing up of the ark to the city of David, the promise by Nathan of the perpetual dominion of his house, and the unbroken flow of victories over the surrounding nations. These are the salient points of the narrative in the Book of Samuel (2 Sam. v.-viii.), and are all abundantly illustrated by the psalms. We shall have next then to consider |The Songs of the King.|
How did the fugitive bear his sudden change of fortune? What were his thoughts when at last the dignity which he had ever expected and never sought was his? The answer is ready to our hand in that grand psalm (Ps. xviii.) which he |spake in the day that the Lord delivered him from all his enemies, and from the hand of Saul.| The language of this superscription seems to connect the psalm with the period of internal and external repose which preceded and prompted David's |purpose to build an house for the Lord| (2 Sam. vii.) The same thankfulness which glows so brightly in the psalm stimulated that desire, and the emphatic reference to the mercy promised by God to |his seed for evermore,| which closes the hymn, points perhaps to the definite promise of the perpetuity of the kingdom to his descendants, which was God's answer to the same desire. But whether the psalm belongs to the years of the partial sovereignty at Hebron, or to those of the complete dominion at Jerusalem, it cannot be later than the second of these two dates; and whatever may have been the time of its composition, the feelings which it expresses are those of the first freshness of thankful praise when he was firmly settled in the kingdom. Some critics would throw it onwards to the very close of his life. But this has little in its favour beyond the fact that the author of the Book of Samuel has placed his version of the psalm among the records of David's last days. There is, however, nothing to show that that position is due to chronological considerations. The victories over heathen nations which are supposed to be referred to in the psalm, and are relied on by the advocates of later date, really point to the earlier, which was the time of his most brilliant conquests. And the marked assertions of his own purity, as well as the triumphant tone of the whole, neither of which characteristics corresponds to the sad and shaded years after his great fall, point in the same direction. On the whole, then, we may fairly take this psalm as belonging to the bright beginning of the monarchy, and as showing us how well the king remembered the vows which the exile had mingled with his tears.
It is one long outpouring of rapturous thankfulness and triumphant adoration, which streams from a full heart in buoyant waves of song. Nowhere else, even in the psalms -- and if not there, certainly nowhere else -- is there such a continuous tide of unmingled praise, such magnificence of imagery, such passion of love to the delivering God, such joyous energy of conquering trust. It throbs throughout with the life blood of devotion. The strong flame, white with its very ardour, quivers with its own intensity as it steadily rises heavenward. All the terrors, and pains, and dangers of the weary years -- the black fuel for the ruddy glow -- melt into warmth too great for smoke, too equable to blaze. The plaintive notes that had so often wailed from his harp, sad as if the night wind had been wandering among its chords, have all led up to this rushing burst of full-toned gladness. The very blessedness of heaven is anticipated, when sorrows gone by are understood and seen in their connection with the joy to which they have led, and are felt to be the theme for deepest thankfulness. Thank God that, for the consolation of the whole world, we have this hymn of praise from the same lips which said, |My life is spent with grief, and my years with sighing.| |We have seen the end of the Lord, that the Lord is very pitiful and of tender mercy.| The tremulous minors of trustful sorrow shall swell into rapturous praise; and he who, compassed with foes, cries upon God, will, here or yonder, sing this song |unto the Lord, in the day that the Lord delivers him from the hand of all his enemies.|