“6 As they were coming home, when David returned from killing the Philistine, the women came out of all the towns of Israel, singing and dancing, to meet King Saul, with tambourines, with songs of joy, and with musical instruments.[a] 7 And the women sang to one another as they made merry,
“Saul has killed his thousands,
and David his ten thousands.”
8 Saul was very angry, for this saying displeased him. He said, “They have ascribed to David ten thousands, and to me they have ascribed thousands; what more can he have but the kingdom?” 9 So Saul eyed David from that day on.”
-1 Samuel 18:6-9
“HE KILLED HOW MANY?”
Essential David: The Warrior
1 Samuel 18: 6-9
The Reverend Phillip Blackburn
November 1, 2015
Have you ever used one of those magic erasers? Man, those things are impressive. Every time the kids spill something at home, or the dogs make a mess, or some such other event happens, Tasha says, “go get one of the magic erasers,” as I, of course, come trotting over with a wet paper towel. The magic eraser is way better than a wet paper towel because it really does make things just magically go away. I thought about showing you the power of the magic eraser but I felt the sermon would devolve into something akin the shamwow commercial, and also, I don’t like to handle the magic eraser unnecessarily, as I presume it will give me cancer. But still it’s an amazing thing, because sometimes you just need to make things disappear; accidents need to seem like they never happened. Marker on the wall, no problem, magic eraser! Wine on the table? No problem, magic eraser. King David kind of being a killing machine. No problem, magic eraser.
See how well it works? Not only does the magic eraser work on muddy floors, it also works on the Bible itself. When you think of King David, good old King David, do you think of that little diddy that the Hebrew women penned about him? Probably you do not. “Saul killed his thousands, and David his tens of thousands.” Tens of thousands. That’s a lot of dead people. I mean, most of us know David killed people; after all, killing somebody is what he is most famous for. Giant old Goliath came lumbering out onto the battlefield one day and saw David and laughed. Then he was dead. Bam. Basically that seems to have happened to most of the people David ran into back in the day. Hey, look, it’s David. Then…Dead! Amalekites…Dead. Jebusites….Dead. The list is long. Good thing we have that magic eraser. Scrub, scrub, scrub until we get back to David; oh yeah, he was great.
The truth is that when you go wading into the Old Testament, or really the Bible in general, you better have your magic eraser on hand if you want it to say what you really want to believe. The Bible is this strange mixture of history, poetry, prophecy, myth and mystery that, when combined, becomes the Word of God. And David and his story embody all that is complex and challenging about Scripture. David was God’s anointed, the greatest king in the history of the Jewish people, the ancestor of Jesus. He killed Goliath, he honored Saul even as Saul sought to kill him, he established Jerusalem, he led the Jewish people into an era of unparalleled prosperity. Of course he also was famous for killing lots of people, had one of his best soldiers murdered so he could have his wife, and got into a long and protracted war with his own son. So you see what I’m saying, when we look at David, the temptation is to take the first list about David to heart and let the magic eraser do the rest. But when we do that, we risk something, we risk missing out on something God may be intending to share with us.
So I believe we have established that David was a warrior. If we wish to be kind, we can say he was cunning, less kind, and we can call him ruthless. You can choose. But either way he was successful. What I want to talk about is the little song that I have already referenced about David. You remember it: “Saul killed his thousands, and David killed his tens of thousands.” That song appears 3 times in 1 Samuel and what happens with it is fascinating. Let me tell you about that song. So it was first sung in 1 Samuel 18 as Saul was returning victorious from his, er, David’s, victory of Goliath. The people rejoiced as Saul came triumphantly home but they also knew the real score. Word traveled fast and so the King was rightly praised but so was the shepherd boy whose courage had felled Goliath. David was first identified by his people as a warrior, but he was identified as something else in this song. A rival. No one else seemed aware of what was happening; after all, kings were a new thing for the Hebrews, and David seemed blissfully unaware. But Saul knew the score: anybody whose name appeared alongside his own was dangerous. And from that moment on, Saul knew he’d have to keep his eye on David. David’s success on the battlefield drove a wedge between David and Saul.
Such a wedge that, as you may remember, David had to run away from Saul on several occasions. And then, when first he sought anonymity in the court of a foreign king, and then later when he prepared to join the Philistines, yes you heard that right, the Philistines in battle, it was trotted out again. And both times that song, which we can imagine brought David so much delight in his youth, yet which had started his separation from his king, also served to separate him from his would be benefactors. In the first case, in the court of King Achish of Gath, he had to feign madness so he wouldn’t be held as a prisoner. Then, when he had wooed Achish later, and become part of his retinue, the song was sung by other Philistine captains to keep David out of battle, and he was sent home away from the battlefield with his tail between his legs. His accomplishments in battle, his reputation, the fanfare which surrounded him meant nothing, and actually served to work against him, as his success made him a threat to almost every traditional power in the region.
So did you see what happened there? For all his power, for all the presence of God that was always with him, David never was welcome in the power structures of his world. He was, and in some ways always would be, an outsider. David was God’s anointed leader and we, as readers, are to see his military success as a manifestation of God’s claim on his life. Thus we can also see that when God really moves in this world, when God really gets busy, the existing worldly power structure is often unfriendly at best or hostile at worst to God’s action. I mean, there is no greater evidence of this than Good Friday. Even in the very old days, however, we can see how the world marginalizes the business of God. David, cloaked in the glory of God, was a man without a home, unsafe in the court of Saul and unwelcome in the court of Achish. His power a threat.
David was commended and praised for his success on the battlefield. He killed a bunch of people. Does that mean that we, as followers of the same God, should claim our right to kill a bunch of people in service of God? Of course not, yet that disastrous reading has been put forth by others in the past, and regrettably, even today. David killed a bunch of people and, in his day, was praised for it. Should we praise him for killing a bunch of people? No. We shouldn’t. But we shouldn’t erase it either. David was shunned by the powers of the day because of God’s presence with him. Should we remember and learn from this? Absolutely. We should put the eraser down and embrace a simple and nearly universal truth of Biblical teaching and one that is clearly evident in David’s early life. The closer we cleave to God’s work in this world, the more at odds we will be with the powers of this world. That’s the message for us.
It is unwise for us, ever, to take our erasers to Scripture, even though we all do it. It is unwise for us to do anything other than approach all of Scripture with awe, wonder and humility. David, as you will see further in the coming weeks, was no saint. But he has a story to tell us, and God is present in that story; present in the good, the bad, and the ugly. So let’s read it with our eyes and hearts open, and see what happens. We might even get ourselves into some trouble and wouldn’t that be fun. Amen.