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What Was King David Like?
by Cate Russell-Cole
6/19/2015 / Bible Studies
In a world of social media, we get to know high profile people in considerable detail. I am sure you can Google your favourite actor's favourite colour, place of residence, what jokes they liked, find a few family photos and things of that nature, at the very least. Even though this information is often distorted by the media, it does give you an idea of what their personality is like. Interviews build on that information, and the degree to which you can relate to that person is significantly increased.
Just reading David's story, or hearing about him in books and sermons, can make him feel less like a person and more like a legend; a larger than life character who is very difficult to understand and grasp. The passage of time is not obvious when you read through the books named after Samuel. You don't get the sense of someone who is like any of us: growing, developing and changing as he ages and life events have an impact on him.
However, using common sense, relying on your own experience of the world and pulling together Biblical clues, we can get a sense of what David was like.
1 Samuel has some clues: "Behold, I have seen a son of Jesse the Bethlehemite who is a skilful musician, a mighty man of valour, a warrior, one prudent in speech, and a handsome man; and the LORD is with him." [1 Samuel 16:18]
David was also very popular. In later events in his life, you can see where he would have had to employ the skills of a consummate diplomat, and he did that successfully. He was not stuffy or aloof at any stage, in the manner which we see modern royalty act and he found favour with the people from an early age. "So David went out wherever Saul sent him,andprospered; and Saul set him over the men of war. And it was pleasing in the sight of all the people and also in the sight of Sauls servants." [1 Samuel 18:5] All throughout his story we see his willingness to listen to others without any air of superiority or excessive formality. [2 Samuel 15:19-23 and18:1-4]
He goes on to lead strong bands of men from an early age, which cannot be accomplished by anyone who is not a strong, fair leader with the ability to motivate, encourage and lead well. You don't push warriors around. in 1 Samuel 27 he stops his men from killing Saul, their enemy. He had to be respected, able to think fast and a more than competent negotiator, to stop warriors who were living in hiding from killing their main enemy.
Had he been too heavy handed and self-centred, David's followers would have abandoned him. Instead they followed him into enemy territory and took huge risks to serve him. In 1 Samuel 23, he liberates Keilah from the Philistines as they needed help, even though that should have been Saul's job.
David's heart was often bound to people. When Saul began to hunt him down, David got his parents to safety in a neighbouring country. He wasn't simply worried about his own skin. [1 Samuel 22:3-4] The story of his friendship with Jonathan, Saul's heir is famous and he is faithful to the vow he makes to Jonathan in how he treats Mephibosheth. [2 Samuel 9]
Does he sound like someone you'd like to get to know? From reading 1 and 2 Samuel, other traits you will pick up include fairness, humility, generosity, empathy, kindness and justice. Only with BathSheba and the Census did he ever misuse his position of power. "For David had done what was pleasing in the Lord's sight and had obeyed the Lord's commands throughout his life, except in the affair concerning Uriah the Hittite." [1 Kings 15:5]
Please understand that while I am listing his positive character traits here, like us all, he has his sinful side which included a nasty temper, which went hand in hand with his passionate nature. David was guilty of lust, murder, being an ineffective parent with his earlier children, pluspride and disobedience (read about the Census disaster in 2 Samuel 24 and cross reference that to Deuteronomy 8:6-20 to see where he went wrong.) However, his redeeming trait was a willingness to be corrected and his grief over his sin. His heart was one hundred percent devoted to God, and that is what allowed him to achieve as much as he did.
The David in the Psalms
In researching David's life, I found the Psalms were commonly referred to as being almost bipolar in nature. There are huge swings between the joys and griefs of his life and this has led some commentators to question David's mental health. Was the King bipolar?
Most probably not. I have qualifications in the mental health field and I also teach memoir writing and creativity. I spend a lot of time with writers and creative people and David fits in with the crowd as being normal.
Before the advent of social media where the crazy, small detail of every day life was shared, most of what you heard from writers, (whether they were song writers, poets or memoirists,) was pretty typical of what David produced: they wrote about the highs and lows of life. Many of us still do. Why? Because the every day mundane is totally boring, not worth noting and you know what? We're busy. So was David.
David spent forty years on the thrones of Judah and Isra'el. He was head of a large family, King over a growing, massive geographical area (think about the transport and communication problems), was devoted to his faith (the practices within Judaism are time consuming) and in addition, he was also cramming in everything else that the average person does in that day. There would not have been much time to write, let alone, cover every detail of every facet of his life.
I am blessed that he managed to get the most important Psalms recorded. David's experience with the Lord in many ways reflects mine and I feel less alone with David's work around to comfort and encourage me. That is why I am so fond of him.
Other aspects of the Psalms which I found fascinating, were that he wrote some as acrostics. These are Psalms where each new stanza starts with the next letter in the Hebrew alphabet. As a writer I can tell you first hand, that is a lot of work! These are Psalms 9 10, 25, 34, 37 and 119. David comes across as a highly intelligent man with an interest in nature and history. That also comes through in his work.
I have also noticed that as David aged, his writing style changed. "Adonai is my shepherd," gives way to Psalms with historical content and the songs of ascent, which were written for pilgrims to sing, as they visited the planned temple which Solomon would build in Jerusalem. My work has changed over the years too, so again, I can relate to David.
The Psalms also act as a personal diary of David's life. As he poured his heart out to his God, we can see how he felt. Many times when I have struggled bewteen the image of a powerful king and a devoted servant of the Lord, the Holy Spirit has prompted me to go back and read the Psalms as they are where David's heart is truly shown. I see some boasting among his humility and honesty; I see great faith, I see struggles and I see raw grief. In that beautiful gift he has left us, I see a vibrant, motivated, intelligent man of integrity (though it definitely wavers at times as he goes off track); I really like him.
David the Ruler
Was King David a Megalomaniac?
Archaeologists have found tablets in the area where Moab was, which pretty much describe King David as a hated enemy. Even some Biblical scholars consider him to be a megalomaniac who slew nations, took territory and stopped at nothing to make Isra'el a powerful force to be reckoned with. Yes, he did those things, but in many instances those actions were in obedience to the instructions left by Moses in Deuteronomy 7. Also if you look at the diagnostic criteria for megalomania, and compare David to known leaders with that problem, Davids actions and behaviour doesnt even begin to resemble the condition.
Enemy nations were a threat to God's chosen people, Isra'el for two reasons:
1. There was always a danger of being taken as slaves again.
2. The influence of surrounding pagan nations, who pulled Isra'el away from the one true God and worshipped their gods using ritual prostitution, child sacrifice, self-mutilation and other atrocities. That influence had to be stopped for everyones safety. Religious tolerance would be grossly inappropriate.
So David dealt with them to stop the danger to the nation.
In this day and age, it is only acceptable, under the United Nations, to go to war if the country you are fighting has already assaulted you. King Davids behaviour now would be considered excessively aggressive, intolerant and reprehensible. He wouldn't be allowed to get away with it, which is fair. However, this was three thousand years ago. He was under the Law, not the grace which was later won by his great-grandson, Jesus Christ. It was a totally different world, which I would hate to step back into. It would be alien to me and very hard to cope with.
Today, he would be considered a tyrant, but by the Biblical standards of the time he did the right thing. He made the nation of Isra'el safe from foreign rule and foreign gods and he fulfilled his obligations as a king, to the letter. "So David reigned over all Israel; and David administered justice and righteousness for all his people." [2 Samuel 8:15]
From Acts 13: "He raised up David to be their king, concerning whom He also testified and said, 'I HAVE FOUND DAVID the son of Jesse, A MAN AFTER MY HEART, who will do all My will.' 1 Kings 11:34 "'But I will not take the entire kingdom from Solomon at this time. For the sake of my servant David, the one whom I chose and who obeyed my commands and decrees..." That is the final word of the Lord of all. Biblically, David's name is cleared of wrong doing.
In terms of mental health, if you compare King David to known megalomaniacs such as Joseph Stalin, Colonel Muammar Gadalfi, Idi Amin Dada and Adolf Hitler, his behaviour is actually a stark contrast to them. The accounts of David in the Bible show a humble man, with compassion for people, a solid adherence to Biblical laws, fair actions and a healthy respect for human life and suffering. These are not the traits of a megalomaniac.
Technically, megalomania is Narcissistic Personality Disorder and is characterised by extreme excesses in the areas of violence, controlling behaviours, flouting wealth, extolling accomplishments to an irrational level and being an unstoppable negative force in every way possible.
David made the kingdom of Israel safe, then the wars stopped. He did not try to build an extensive empire by conquering other nations such as Assyria, Babylon, the Philistines, or Egypt, which a megalomaniac would seek to do. He did not bestow multiple titles upon himself, indulge in building monuments to himself, he only had one palace, neither did he torture, arrest, curse or demean his fellow citizens, even when they directly rebelled against him. No one was threatened into silence or compliant behaviour and David even hated bribes. When he was in trouble, he sought the Lord for deliverance. [Ref: Shimei 2 Samuel 16:5-13]
If you would like to read more to further understand Davids actions as a ruler and the intricacies of power in the ancient world, you are welcome to read these articles.
- How Gentle Kings Become Killers
- Does Absolute Power Absolutely Corrupt?
- Was King David a Megalomaniac?
- Law and Disorder in the Life of King David
Psychological Resources of Megalomania / Narcissistic Personality Disorder
- DSM-IV and DSM-5 Criteria for the Personality Disorders http://www.psi.uba.ar/academica/carrerasdegrado/psicologia/sitios_catedras/practicas_profesionales/820_clinica_tr_personalidad_psicosis/material/dsm.pdf
- Narcissistic Personality Disorder In-Depth | Psych Central http://psychcentral.com/lib/narcissistic-personality-disorder-in-depth//
- Narcissistic Personality Disorder Symptoms | Psych Central http://psychcentral.com/disorders/narcissistic-personality-disorder-symptoms/
- Mental Health.com Narcissistic Personality Disorder http://www.mentalhealth.com/home/dx/narcissisticpersonality.html
For more information on King David, please have a meander through the King David Project Facebook page, our web site and our blog, Masada Rain. The blog houses many useful resources on studying, David plus bits and pieces of information which dont neatly fit into article form. Please ignore dates and use the search feature to find what you want. The web site has resources on Davids family tree, life and the Psalms. All content is creative commons and non-profit. Sharing of the projects work would be deeply appreciated.
Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/fromdespairtodeliverance
Masada Rain Blog: https://masadarain.wordpress.com
The project web site: http://cateartios.wix.com/kingdavidproject
This article by Cate Russell-Cole is under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Written in Australian English.
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