I have preached many a sermon and presented hundreds of lectures on the life of King David. But I am unfailingly amazed at the misconceptions in the Q&A period afterward. Following a lecture at a Christian university, a student prefaced his question with, "I know King David was a great Christian leader, but. ... "
"Wait," I said. "Before you ask your question, let's deal with that. David was not a great Christian leader. He was not a Christian at all. It's difficult to be a Christian a millennium before Christ."
The boy was substituting the word "Christian" for the word "biblical," which seems a minor matter but isn't. It leads to judging historical and biblical figures by our modern standards, which tempts us to be too hard on them and too pleased with ourselves.
I was in Israel editing my latest book, David the Great, at an outdoor picnic table when an Israeli woman asked what the book was about. "King David," I answered, expecting a positive response. Instead, she stepped back in obvious disgust, demanding to know why I would write about "that bloody man."
Her analysis of David as a "bloody man" was not so very wrong. What was wrong was that she was judging David from her own perspective as a 21st-century Israeli. David was a Bronze Age warlord, a man of violence who lived in an unimaginably violent era. He beheaded the first man he killed and later circumcised the dead bodies of hundreds of Philistines to pay a bizarre bride price. David was a bloody man, but this woman was condemning him retroactively through the values filter of her era.
To dismiss leaders of the past, biblical or historical, because they do not share all our values is too easy. We must undertake the rigorous task of sorting through their lives in the light of their context. One preacher recently suggested that contemporary Christians should cut the reins that keep us "hitched" to the Old Testament wagon.
I don't know everything that brother meant, but on the surface, it is biblically dangerous and intellectually indefensible. For one thing, if the plants lose sight of their Jewish roots, the fruit can become anti-Semitism.
By the way, the Old Testament itself is not afraid of reality. Rahab's sordid past was hardly crucial to the story of King David. Why not just call her an innkeeper? Or leave her out? The Old Testament included such stories because truth is important.
History shouldn't be sanitized. Neither should Scripture. David was not perfect. Neither was he a monster. When we try to sanitize the Bible, it becomes a frail romantic myth. Neither can we let the ugly stuff invalidate the rest. We cannot toss out the Old Testament because it's riddled with sin and violence. Without the Old Testament including such mixed vessels as David and Abraham and Jacob and Judah, there is no way to fully understand the story of redemption. Without David, how can we understand the significance of Bethlehem or why the New Testament masses called Jesus the Son of David or why, as Jesus died on the cross, He quoted a psalm of David?
We need the Bible—all of it. We also need all of history. We need the complications, contradictions and inconsistencies. Like the Bible, history is full of inconvenient thorns that prick us but do not alter the greater truth. The awkward fact of Sally Hemings doesn't invalidate the genius of Thomas Jefferson. Neither does Bathsheba make King David other than what he was—a man after God's heart. Shall we erase David from the Bible because of his sins? Certainly not. Neither should we make him into some perfect paragon of virtue.
We needn't fudge the truth of history. John Wesley had a bad marriage. Martin Luther wrote terrible things about the Jewish people. Dwight L. Moody was obese, and Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. History ought to be less littered with confusing moral debris. It would make things so much easier. The problem is, history is made by real people who lived when they lived, thought as they thought and sinned as they sinned.
I suspect Michelangelo's statue is a glorified version. On the other hand, perhaps that famous statue should be torn down. Should we memorialize such a deeply flawed man as David? Samuel the prophet and St. Paul called King David a man after God's own heart (see 1 Sam. 13:14, Acts 13:22). What shall we say to these things?
First, we need some statues of flawed heroes. If we blot out the names of all the sinners in the Bible and remove our monuments to history's flawed heroes, we may become a graceless, self-destructive people, convinced that we ourselves should be blotted from memory.
More importantly, the story of David is about who God is. That God forgave and blessed David gives us hope. We dare not use the failings of biblical heroes to excuse our sins. Yet if we can see the redemptive hand of God upon them, it inspires hope that God could forgive and use even the likes of us.
Dr. Mark Rutland is president of both Global Servants and the National Institute of Christian Leadership. A renowned communicator and New York Times best-selling author, he has more than 30 years of experience in organizational leadership, having served as a senior pastor and a university president.
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