The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
Now the days of David drew nigh that he should die; and he charged Solomon his son, saying,David In View of Death
1 Kings 2
THE setting of David's sun was a gradual process, as is shown by the words, "Now the days of David drew nigh that he should die" (1Kings 2:1). A very pathetic utterance is found in the second verse, namely, "I go the way of all the earth." We cannot but stop here, and stand in amazement at the fact that a stronger king than David had arisen to claim his own. Could no exception be made in the case of the illustrious monarch of Israel, the sweetest of singers, the most beautiful of persons, the most valiant of soldiers? From his earliest days he had been a favourite and a hero, and has it come to this, that at the last he must simply take his place in the great world-crowd, and go down to the common grave? God is no respecter of persons. It is consolatory in another aspect, to know that the law is universal, that the rich and the poor alike succumb to the tyrannical sway, and that at the last we shall all be found in a great multitude which no man can number. Whilst we dwell upon special privileges and notable exaltations, upon all the side of life which we consider to be marked by sunshine and good fortune, we are struck, sometimes unhappily, by the startling contrasts which are disclosed: it is, therefore, a healthful exercise of the mind sometimes to look upon the great common aspects of humanity, and to see how all distinctions are merged and all differences forgotten in universal calamities or universal blessings. For a long time David has been standing, as it were, on a pinnacle, quite solitary in his grandeur and altogether unapproachable in majesty and fame; but at this moment he descends from his lofty pedestal and takes rank with the poorest and meanest of his subjects. Let us learn that all earthly distinctions are temporary, and that many exaltations only show their corresponding abasements the more conspicuously. King and subject can have but one way in preparing to meet the great enemy. That way is to be reconciled to God, to receive the divine purpose as it is revealed in Jesus Christ, and then to await the final stroke with equanimity and hopefulness.
Although the king is about to take his journey into a far country from which there is no return, he yet takes an interest in the future of Israel and the immediate responsibilities of his own house. His words to Solomon are the words of a soldier and a patriot:—"Be thou strong therefore, and show thyself a man: and keep the charge of the Lord thy God, to walk in his ways, to keep his statutes, and his commandments, and his judgments, and his testimonies, as it is written in the law of Moses, that thou mayest prosper in all that thou doest, and whithersoever thou turnest thyself" (1Kings 2:2-3). There is no sign of death in this high moral energy. We can hardly imagine the voice of the speaker to have fallen into a whisper: it seems rather to resound with the force and clearness of a trumpet tone. We have before been surprised at the energy which David displayed even in his closing hours; as, for example, when he was told that Adonijah had usurped the throne (see 1Kings 1:28 and following verses). Now there is no wrath in the king's tone, but a sense of duty makes it strong. What can be more pitiful than for a man to suppose that when he is dying all the operations of the world are about to cease? and what can be sublimer than to behold a veteran resigning himself to his last fate, and yet handing on the torch of truth and empire, which he has so long grasped, to another and younger man. David exhorts Solomon to be strong. Every man is to work as though everything depended upon himself. This call to strength runs through the whole of Scriptural exhortation: "Arise, put on thy strength." "Wherefore gird up the loins of your mind." "Be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might." "Strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man." "Strengthened with all might, according to his glorious power." A noble motto this—" Show thyself a man." Is it possible for a man to do otherwise? All human history returns an answer which cannot be mistaken. The man is not in the gender but in the character. By a "man" David means king, hero, prince; a soul thoroughly self-controlled, fearless, above all bribery and corruption, and vitally identified with the enduring interests of the people. The great lack of the Church is a lack of courage. Its theology is sound, its manners are unimpeachable, its propriety is exemplary, but it is overborne by the enemy in a thousand instances, simply because of lack of moral courage. If the Church would speak out and act out its convictions, the age of persecution would soon return; the age of persecution is kept back because there is nothing to persecute.
It must be observed that the charge delivered to Solomon by his father was intensely religious in its spirit. Not only was Solomon introduced to a throne, but the book of the law was placed in his hands, and he was simply to peruse it, understand it, and apply it. Nothing was to be invented by the king himself. "It shall be, when he sitteth upon the throne of his kingdom, that he shall write him a copy of this law in a book out of that which is before the priests the Levites: and it shall be with him, and he shall read therein all the days of his life: that he may learn to fear the Lord his God, to keep all the words of this law and these statutes, to do them" (Deuteronomy 17:18-19). There was, then, nothing for the king to invent. He begins his monarchical life with the whole law clearly written out before him. This is the advantage with which we begin our life,—namely, that we have nothing to write, invent, suggest, or test by way of perilous experiment; we have simply to consult the holy oracles, to make them the man of our counsel, and to do nothing whatever which is not confirmed by their spirit To do this simply means that we are to be Bible students, knowing the word of God thoroughly, perfectly instructed in its terms and in its purpose, and paying no attention to any voice, how charmful soever, that would lure us from daily consultation and continual obedience. Where, then, is originality? We must find the originality in our personal faithfulness. It will be originality enough for God if he can find us acting consistently with the knowledge we already possess, and embodying it in new and sacrificial incarnations. It is a mistake to suppose that originality is merely an intellectual trick, or an exercise in vocal legerdemain; there is always room enough for the true originality in the education of conduct and the taking-up of responsibilities in relation to the ignorant, the poor, and the oppressed.
Now we come to official words. From this point so terrible is the charge which David delivers to Solomon that we must impress ourselves with the fact that the charge is official rather than personal. It must be remembered that David was king, and that as king he had certain public duties to perform, and that in the utterance of his judgments and sentences he is not expressing personal vindictiveness, but is in reality magnifying the law. A remembrance of this fact will relieve the mind from very grievous anxiety as to the spirit of David. The words have too often been read as a threat, and have been made vivid by imparting to them a tone of malice, as though the king would say—Now my hand shall be upon mine enemies, when it is impossible for them to repay me in any way, because I am about to vanish from their sight and touch. The kingliness of law is above the kingliness of mere personality. To trifle with law is to trifle with everything which relates to the security and consolidation of society. Our own judges pronounce sentences quite as severe as those which are found in this valedictory speech. We must therefore imagine David seated upon the throne of judgment and delivering sentences as the messenger of God; this will save his speech from the charge of vindictiveness and cruelty. If we could have heard the tone in which the sentences were delivered, we should have better been able to explain the purport of the words. We may pervert the Scripture by reading it in a false tone. Let us pray that not only may we give the exact word of Scripture, but utter it so far as is possible in the very music of the divine voice. It should be noticed also, in connection with these judgments and sentences, that in every case a reason was assigned. That is a vital point. Take for example the case of Joab. David recalls "what the son of Zeruiah did to the two captains of the hosts of Israel, unto Abner the son of Ner, and unto Amasa the son of Jether, whom he slew, and shed the blood of war in peace, and put the blood of war upon his girdle that was about his loins, and in his shoes that were on his feet" (1Kings 2:5). Here is the ground of judgment. Regarding it seriously, who can doubt that it afforded a sufficient basis for the sentence which David pronounced? Joab was a man who delighted in blood; for he shed it not in battle only but in the day of peace; nor did he regard bloodshed as a dire necessity, but he actually sprinkled blood upon his girdle and on his shoes, and seemed to delight in the marks of a bloodthirsty man. Then again in the case of Absalom, David could not forget that Joab "took three darts in his hand, and thrust them through the heart of Absalom, while he was yet alive in the midst of the oak." So we are not called upon to pity a man who was sentenced to a death he did not deserve; we are rather called upon to observe the inevitable issue of conduct and law. For a long time they may seem to have no relation to one another, but there comes a point when the terrific collision takes place, and at that point it is always law whose supremacy is vindicated. If Joab had gone down to his grave in peace, a great public scandal would have been created. We have again to remind ourselves that something is due to dead men as well as to living persons; the memory of the down-trodden has to be honoured, and sometimes that can only be effected by the open disgrace or public execution of the men who oppressed them. "A wise king scattereth the wicked, and bringeth the wheel over them."
Looking at Joab's conduct to David, to the two captains of the hosts of Israel, and to Abner, and to Amasa, and unto Absalom, we cannot but feel that the proportion between the guilt and the doom is measured by righteousness. That David was not carried away by indiscriminate retaliation is proved by the change of tone which he adopts when he comes to speak of the sons of Barzillai the Gileadite: "Let them be of those that eat at thy table": in this case also a reason is assigned for the judgment:—"for so they came to me when I fled because of Absalom thy brother." Instances of this kind show how clear was the mental vision of the king even in the near approach of death. Nothing was forgotten. Judgment was meted out with discernment. The old days were lived over again in the king's recollection, and in the midst of their tumult he saw how Barzillai the Gileadite "brought beds, and basons, and earthen vessels, and wheat, and barley, and flour, and parched corn, and beans, and lentiles, and parched pulse, and honey, and butter, and sheep, and cheese of kine," and how the old man "went over Jordan with the king, to conduct him over Jordan." It certainly does something towards mitigating the severity of David's judgment upon Joab to show how careful he was to recognise the kindness of those who had served the royal cause, for in that instance not only was the cause royal, it was also divine; the throne of Israel had become as the throne of God. Now David changes his tone once more, and makes reference to "Shimei the son of Gera, a Benjamite of Bahurim, which cursed me with a grievous curse in the day when I went to Mahanaim" (1Kings 2:8).
Everything about that instance also is most clearly remembered. David does not forget that when Shimei came down to meet him at Jordan, he sware unto the Lord, saying that Shimei should not be put to death with the sword. In Israel all pardon ceased with the death of the king, and it was for his successor to say whether this pardon should be renewed, or whether judgment should take effect. David seems to refer to this law when concerning Joab he said to Solomon—"Do therefore according to thy wisdom" (1Kings 2:6). These words would seem to open a door of possible escape. But Joab proved himself unworthy of any protection, and brought his death upon his head with his own hand. So in the case of Shimei, David said to Solomon, "Thou art a wise man, and knowest what thou oughtest to do unto him," so the judgment was not to be an act of violence or mere triumph of might over weakness; it was to be marked by that terrible calmness which adds to judgment its most awful elements of impressiveness. David was now giving judgment according to the age in which he lived: it was not a highly civilised age: the law had only reached a certain point of development: David, therefore, must not be held responsible for the law under which we ourselves live. David's Lord said—"Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you."
"So David slept with his fathers, and was buried in the city of David" (1Kings 2:10). He died as it were in the act of pronouncing judgment, and himself went to be judged by the eternal king. How near is that bar to every one of us; the final word is not spoken by man; he can but give judgment according to his light, or to his immediate understanding of the circumstances which appeal to him; there is one Judge who will rectify all our decisions and readjust everything which we have thrown into disorder. Let the judge remember that he himself is to be judged, and let the king ponder the solemn thought that he is the subject of a higher King. Then comes the inevitable record of figures. The eleventh verse is drearily arithmetical—"And the days that David reigned over Israel were forty years: seven years reigned he in Hebron, and thirty and three years reigned he in Jerusalem." This is a kind of epitaph; but how innumerable are the lines which it encloses, how terrible the energy which it represents by mere points of time; our whole course admits of being stated in two lines,—namely, the day of our birth, and the day of our death, but as to what takes place between these two points, only God can know in all the fulness of its detail and meaning. We know next to nothing of our dearest friends; where they were born, how long they lived, and all the facts of their outer life, we know well; but as to their thoughts, dreams, purposes, intentions: their wordless reasonings, their unuttered prayers, the murders, fornications, adulteries which they committed in the heart, and the tears of the soul which were shed over purposes so malignant,—all these are wrapped up in mystery which it is impossible for the human mind to penetrate. Whilst we dread the thought of the divine judgment, let us also turn it into a means of grace and a centre of hope: forasmuch as God knows our frame, he remembers that we are dust, and he will judge—not according to the coarse criticism of those who see only the exterior, but with the infinite wisdom which measures motive and strength and opportunity and supreme purpose. Let us praise God, therefore, with a loud voice and a most grateful heart, because he is the judge of the whole earth and from his sentence there is no appeal.
The remainder of the chapter is occupied with the sayings and doings of Solomon himself. "Then sat Solomon upon the throne of David his father; and his kingdom was established greatly." Quickly does he begin the execution of judgment, so that by the end of the chapter it would seem as if the enemies of David and the enemies of heaven were being quickly swept off the face of the earth. The first instance is that of Adonijah the son of Haggith, who came to Bathsheba the mother of Solomon, desiring that she would speak to Solomon the king that he would give him Abishag the Shunammite to be his wife. Bathsheba, suspecting nothing, presented the petition to the king, but king Solomon, seeing the whole mean request, instantly determined upon the slaughter of Adonijah. To ask for the late king's concubine was in reality to commit an act of high-treason. Solomon read, therefore, not the merely personal wish, but the hidden purpose of the former usurper, and by the hand of the chief of the body guard he brought Adonijah to his fate. There is something mournfully pathetic about Solomon's treatment of Abiathar the priest. We have just seen that Abiathar was one with whom Adonijah took counsel at the time of his usurpation. Solomon remembered that he was a priest, and that he bare the ark of the Lord God before David, and therefore he restrained himself, and would not at that time slay the priest. A singular sanctity seems at all times to have surrounded priestly men. Had Abiathar been a soldier, Solomon would have slain him instantly. But how can they be wholly bad who have borne the ark of the Lord God and have openly prayed for other men? It is hard to believe that any man who has been privileged to intercede with heaven on behalf of others should himself be rotten at the core. Abiathar had undoubtedly identified himself with the cause of David at one period of his life, and David had reposed confidence in the priest, saying, "Abide thou with me, fear not: for he that seeketh my life seeketh thy life: but with me thou shalt be in safe guard." But Abiathar was thrust out from being priest unto the Lord. Can any picture be more humiliating! There is no fall equal to that. To be driven but of the Christian pulpit, to be banished from the table of the Lord, to be exiled from the sanctuary which has been a home,—is there aught in hell so intolerable? What applies to public officers applies with equal pertinence to those who have enjoyed the security and privileges of Church life. Only man can expel himself from the Christian sanctuary. Official excommunication amounts to nothing; the obliteration of the name from the parchment-roll of the Church is not worthy of a moment's consideration; all such excision may under some circumstances be more a compliment than a condemnation; the question is whether a man has dispossessed himself of membership in the true Church, has put the knife to his own throat as it were, and taken away his spiritual life. See Abiathar driven away from the altar, conscience-stricken, self-accusing, unable to lift up his head to heaven, or to invoke the smile of man or of God; and in that humiliating picture see a faint emblem of those unworthy ones who at last shall "go away into everlasting punishment"
Now comes the case of Joab. In very deed a hard case for Solomon to deal with; for Joab's had been a mixed life, not altogether destitute of elements which might have claimed high consideration from the house of David; but the very fact that there were such points in that life only shows how complete and independent was the judgment which Solomon was about to pronounce. Had there been no points of alleviation, Solomon's course would have been easy in the matter: or had the case been one of mere sentimentalism, Solomon might have dwelt upon those points and forgotten the supreme wickedness of the man: but Joab's very valour and constancy up to a given point in the cause of David can only be used to show that there is a judgment which does not look at sentimental features and characteristics, but that fixes its attention upon the essential character of the evil-doer. Joab took refuge in the tabernacle and "caught hold on the horns of the altar." There he seemed to suppose he had right of asylum, but he forgot that the law provided that even in some cases the altar itself did not save a man from the deserts of his wicked deeds. "If a man come presumptuously upon his neighbour, to slay him with guile; thou shalt take him from mine altar, that he may die." Did not Joab slay many men "with guile"? He took Abner "aside in the gate to speak with him quietly, and smote him there under the fifth rib, that he died." "Amasa took no heed to the sword that was in Joab's hand: so he smote him therewith in the fifth rib, and shed out his bowels to the ground, and struck him not again; and he died." In vain, therefore, that such a man sought to turn the altar into an asylum. When Solomon heard that Joab was fled unto the tabernacle of the Lord, he commanded the chief of the body guard to fall upon him. "So Benaiah the son of Jehoiada went up, and fell upon him, and slew him: and he was buried in his own house in the wilderness" (1Kings 2:34). There are times when mercy seems to be rightly turned into judgment. "Thine eye shall not pity him, but thou shalt put away the guilt of innocent blood from Israel, that it may go well with thee." This was not murder; it was the assertion and vindication of righteousness. "So shalt thou put away the guilt of innocent blood from among you, when thou shalt do that which is right in the sight of the Lord." The Lord undertakes to look after innocent blood, and to see that the men who shed it pay dearly for the gratification of their passion. Manasseh "filled Jerusalem with innocent blood," and "the Lord would not pardon." Thus we see how law follows transgression, and how penalty waits to do the will of God. The blood of the seventy sons of Jerubbaal was "laid upon Abimelech their brother, which slew them; and upon the men of Shechem, which aided him in the killing of his brethren;" and so the blood of the two men "more righteous and better than he," to wit, Abner the son of Ner, captain of the host of Israel, and Amasa the son of Jether, returned upon the head of Joab, and upon the head of his seed for ever: and Shimei came to his rightful fate. He was told to keep within the bounds of Jerusalem under pain of suffering death if he committed trespass. Shimei went beyond the bounds that he might bring his servants back from Gath; then the king arose and said to Shimei, "Thou knowest all the wickedness which thine heart is privy to, that thou didst to David my father: therefore the Lord shall return thy wickedness upon thine own head;" and the executioner went out and fell upon Shimei that he died. "As I live, surely mine oath that he hath despised, and my covenant that he hath broken, even it will I recompense upon his own head." "Take away the wicked from before the king, and his throne shall be established in righteousness."
But who is to fill the place of Abiathar the priest? We remember that Adonijah did not consult with Zadok the priest when organising his usurpation. Zadok was faithful to the royal cause, and it was he whom the king did put in the room of Abiathar (1Kings 2:35). God will find successors to all vacant offices. Joab and Abiathar must not imagine that the State or the Church will go down when their energy and sagacity are removed from its policy and counsel. The Lord's cause can receive no patronage from bad men. Whatever happens, they must be cast out; and God will raise up a seed unto himself, and a generation to serve him, rather than accept the corrupt ministry of men who have trodden his law under foot and done despite to the spirit of his covenant. "I will raise me up a faithful priest, that shall do according to that which is in mine heart and in my mind: and I will build him a sure house; and he shall walk before mine anointed for ever." Thus the priest is a divine creation, and the divine energy never faileth. Of God it is said, "He fainteth not, neither is weary." What a chapter is this for the vacancies which it creates in history; David dies, the mighty Joab is overwhelmed and removed, Adonijah descends to his grave, Abiathar is cast out, and Shimei is destroyed; yet the throne of Israel remains, the altar of God stands intact, and the great purpose of providence passes serenely and majestically through all the tumult of human history. Always look for the permanent quantity in the details of unrest and rebellion with which history abounds. It would be an imperfect and unsettling view which took note of the tumult only, and did not see under all the upheaval and reshaping of things the hand that works night and day for the readjustment of proportions and the distribution of rewards and penalties to men according to the spirit of their conduct. An awful chapter: a chapter full of blood and terrible judgment: a great cry of weakness and of sin, a horrible pageant of darkness relieved with lurid flames; yet amidst all these commotions, and rendings of apparently permanent relations the throne of God stands sure, and the majesty of heaven rules over all.
Almighty God, thou dost always know who will betray thee. Surely this is part of the grief of heaven. Thou readest the heart through and through; thou knowest all its secret motives and hidden springs, and the way thereof is not concealed from thine eyes. There is not a thought in our hearts, there is not a word on our tongue, but, lo, O Lord, thou knowest it altogether. Thou seest the fair morning, and knowest how stormy it will be at eventide; thou beholdest the fresh young spring, and thou canst foresee the harvest is a heap and a day of desperate sorrow. We cannot tell what we shall yet do. Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall. Hold thou me up; and I shall be safe. Have us in thy holy keeping; especially those who would sometimes keep themselves, because of consciousness of unusual strength. When we are strong, then are we weak; when we are weak, then are we strong. Lord, we believe: help thou our unbelief. We grieve thee every day; yet thou dost not cut us down with a stroke; even when we defy thee thou dost restrain thy thunder. Thy mercy endureth for ever. The goodness of the Lord is from generation to generation, abiding; yea, surely, growing. We run to the cross; we trust to thy mercy; we look up to Jesus Christ thy Son our Priest and Saviour. His blood cleanseth from all sin. Help us to believe this—not that we may sin the more, but sin not at all. The Lord help us in all the way of life, to carry its burdens, to interpret its sorrows aright, to shed its tears without scepticism or upbraiding of providence; and when the end comes, may we find it is no end, but the beginning—the opening of brighter worlds. Amen.