King David’s life is a both a warning and an inspiration

Father John A. Kiley

King Saul and King David, mentioned in this coming Sunday’s first reading, were both great men of Jewish history. King Saul was actually the first king of Israel, living ten centuries before Christ and replacing the sporadic rule by the series of judges that God had previously raised up for special military needs. His exploits are found in the Bible’s historical books, I and II Samuel. Saul was chosen king by the powerful prophet Samuel and affirmed by public acclamation. Saul was similar to those assorted judges who preceded him governing largely through military means. His chief contribution to Jewish history was to defend Israel against its primary foreign enemy, the Philistines, who never re-gained the upper hand after Saul’s successes over them. King David was the unlikely shepherd boy chosen also by the prophet Samuel to succeed King Saul who had fallen out of favor with God. During much of their public life, the two kings had a classic love/hate relationship. David spent much of his early life doing random goods deeds about the Jewish countryside but then rose to prominence by conquering the central city of Jerusalem and safely erecting the precious Ark of the Covenant in that city. Israel finally became a (more or less) unified country under David who then passed his mighty kingdom on to his son Solomon.
The Scriptural passage proclaimed at Mass this Sunday depicts King David, whose star was rising, having a great advantage of King Saul, whose reign was coming to an end. David managed to sneak into Saul’s camp at night and stand right over the sleeping older king with a spear in hand. He could have easily ended all monarchical disputes by thrusting that spear into Saul’s dozing head. But David refrained from this easy execution of his chief rival. Saul after all was God’s anointed. It was God’s Will that Saul should rule Israel until God’s appointed time for death. It was not David’s place to interfere with the plan of God. Divine obedience overcame political practicality. Sacred tradition outweighed human convenience. God’s Will, not human expediency, must be the law of the land.
Wisely does the Church’s liturgical program this Sunday join the restraint displayed by David toward his political enemy Saul with some of the best known sayings of Jesus found in Christ’s classic sermon to the crowds. Jesus first cites the “Golden Rule” common to every religious body on the planet: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Certainly King David would expect deference from other sovereigns and so he accords fitting respect toward Saul. Then Jesus famously articulates those precious words that run completely counter to human nature: “Love your enemies and do good to them…” Love of enemies has become a classic Christian attitude, here observed well in advance of the Christian era by the restraint King David exercises toward the hostile Saul.
Next St. Luke gently modifies Christ’s words from those found in St. Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. St. Matthew writes: “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” St. Luke characteristically alters that a bit: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” For St. Luke, perfection is equated with mercy, that deeply benign attitude toward even the undeserving, as indeed David manifested toward his sleeping enemy. Finally today, St. Luke quotes Jesus’ words that make all moral activity a level playing field: “The measure you measure with will be measured back to you.” In the end, it’s tit for tat. David appreciated the respect afforded him as king so Saul too would be accorded that same respect as king. On the last day, the magnanimous soul will likewise be handled with care. Also on that last day, the mean-spirited person will be treated with similar harshness. Each believer decides his or her own scale of judgment.
Standing over the sleeping Saul, King David is the embodiment of decency. He not only gives credit where credit is due honoring God’s selection of Saul as king but he also refuses to take advantage of an easy opportunity to advance his own cause. He does to Saul what he would want done to him. He does good toward his enemy. He is merciful as the Father is merciful. He treats Saul as he, David, would like to be treated. David’s gallant activity anticipates Christ’s gracious words.
Indeed King David had egregious liabilities. He is famously the murderer of Uriah and the adulterous partner of Bathsheba. Yet this man also had his strengths as Scripture testifies. His life is both a warning and an inspiration.