Advent offering 14 December

A beautiful, reflective image for today’s advent offering – a painting of Israel’s King David by Yorkshire artist Frederick Leighton. Rather than depicting the king robed in splendour or engaged in  some high-powered affair of state, Leighton presents us with a man who, on this cool evening, has cast aside his crown (weary, perhaps, of his royal responsibilities) and who sits on the roof top, contemplating the grey clouds that are jostling their way into his horizon. Certainly, we need only read II Samuel to know that David’s life had more than its fair share of clouds (many of which he invited in himself). And yet here, perhaps, he is also looking beyond them, to the glorious sun-soaked golden clouds that stretch out in the distance and to those two doves, hovering in the twilight sky, who, perhaps, represent for Leighton’s David that glorious, untrammelled sense of liberty and peace of mind, which, as King of Israel, he can only dream of.

Frederick Leighton David (1865)
Frederick Leighton, David (1865)

O that I had wings like a dove!
    I would fly away and be at rest;
truly, I would flee far away;
    I would lodge in the wilderness
 I would hurry to find a shelter for myself
    from the raging wind and tempest.”
(Psalm 55:6-8)

Aspiring David to take on popularity-giant John Key

In the wake of NZ’s general election, the defeated Labour party are reorganizing and in the process of electing a new leader. To the excitement of biblical enthusiasts, the contest for leader is between a number of “David’s” (there were originally three David’s, but now there are two: David Cunliffe & David Shearer). Just prior to the election we paused to consider the political merits and demerits of one of Israel’s most memorable leader, King Solomon. It seems rather appropriate then, to turn our attention briefly to his father, David, especially given this distinctly ‘Davidic’-themed competition.

The young biblical David’s path to kingship was certainly memorable, starting with his infamous encounter with Goliath and reaching its most dizzying heights with the divine promise of an eternal Davidic dynasty that would rule over all Israel. To be sure, before he became king, David was a bit of a hot-headed youth, prone to childish, dangerous japes (e.g. I Samuel 24) and quick to take offence (e.g. I Samuel 25.1-13). He was, however, also rather brave and quick-witted, showing himself as being as adept at getting out of a tight corner when the need arose (e.g. I Samuel 21) as he was at succeeding on the battlefield (e.g. I Samuel 18.20-30). Moreover, once he was crowned king, David appeared to be an adept ruler over his new kingdom, basking as he was in the ever-present glow of divine favour.

It didn’t take that long, however, before things started to go seriously downhill for the house of David. Like his son Solomon, David’s failures as king are attributed more to his personal character weaknesses than to any explicitly acknowledged political limitations on his part. Just as Solomon is said to be led into apostasy by his predilection for foreign wives, so too does David’s royal kudos ultimately start to disintegrate when he indulges his penchant for the ‘wrong’ woman (II Samuel 11-12).

Moreover, it is interesting to note that David’s impressive ability to think on his feet and get himself out of hot water during the years prior to his ascension to the throne seems to have abandoned him once the royal crown was placed on his head. A quick look at his ‘rap sheet’ and we can see at a glance that things seemed to go from bad to worse as David staggered from one disastrously bad decision to another: adultery, conspiracy to murder, failure to keep his own house in order, and finally, that catastrophic census. While his kingship did survive these crises, both his family and his kingdom were subsequently pummelled, punished, and rent apart by the fruits of his wrongdoings. As Joseph Heller has David say in his ‘biographical’ novel based on the king’s life, God Knows, ‘Who would have thought I had dissatisfied so many?’

So, what, if any, advice can this David give to his two hopeful namesakes, vying for their own leadership role? Is he a good model for them to emulate? Well, I’d say not – adultery, murder, and family scandal didn’t go down too well in biblical Israel and they certainly don’t seem to enhance the political careers of those in government today. Perhaps if David Cunliffe and David Shearer are to look to this biblical figure for any inspiration, they would be better learning some lessons from the young David, before the royal crown dulled his judgment: don’t be afraid to stand up to the big guy (I Samuel 17), always appreciate the value of backing down and admitting you were wrong (I Samuel 25.23-44), and always, always remember the loyalty of your friends (I Samuel 18-20, II Samuel 1.17-27).