David as forerunner to Christ? Not exactly news to most people. But David as type of Christ, according to the four-fold sense of Scripture? That gets a little less play.
It’s easy to focus on Jesus as a Davidic messiah, the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, a descendent of David whose kingship, it turns out, transcends the merely earthly. St. Matthew in particular is keen to show his royal lineage, and put “Son of David” on the lips of sinners and supplicants.
I think David is underappreciated, however, and have felt so since I chose him as my confirmation saint long, long ago. That’s right, I roll old school with my saints. St. Moses, St. Abraham, St. David. Not a common way to address them anymore, but they all have a place in the old Roman Martyrology.
St. David is a Christ figure according to the allegorical sense of Scripture. To refresh, take Moses: St. Moses is a type of Christ—indeed a much more famous one than St. David—because the entire Exodus account has as its allegorical sense the Christian’s escape from sin and death. The Israelites are us, the Red Sea is sin and death, the army of Pharaoh is the host of fallen angels pursuing us to our destruction, the night is the world of sense and sorrow, this valley of tears. And since St. Moses is the one leading the people through the sea in the literal sense, his very person corresponds with Jesus, our Redeemer who leads us through the dark night and out of the clutches of the sea. That makes him a type of Christ.
So where’s one to find an Old Testament story where St. David plays a similar roll? I’m glad you asked! It’s II Samuel 15. That’s where St. David, the true king of Israel, patiently bears a curse of death, is rejected by his people, and flees his throne from the rebel who led the people astray. Oh, and he ascends the Mount of Olives (psst: Garden of Gethsemane) amid weeping and lamentation.
The chapters immediately leading up to II Samuel 15 have not been kind to St. David. From his introduction in I Samuel 16 to all the way through II Samuel 10, St. David was the noble, faith-filled, do-no-wrong super-hero who always defended God’s honor and did what was right now matter how difficult the circumstances in his conflict with Not A Saint Saul.
That all comes crashing down in II Samuel 11, when St. David destroys his character and several lives around him—the infamous story of Uriah and Bathsheba. After David finishes racing to see how many Commandments he can break, he is confronted by Nathan the prophet. Nathan’s showdown with David culminates in one of the epic one-liners of the Bible, “Thou art the man!”
It’s important to see here that David’s sins rival those of Saul, and that his story could very well have ended in the same fashion but for one thing: unlike Saul, David repents. Indeed he composes the paradigm prayer of repentance that we use to this day, Psalm 51. Whereas Saul always went away angry, David turns to God for forgiveness.
But like I said in my last foray into II Samuel, forgiveness is not a get-out-of-jail-free card. Consequences still must be faced, and David remains imperfect (as of course he has always been—one of the main points of Psalm 51!). The curse of Nathan—that the sword shall ever be against his house, that someone from within his own house will rise up against him, and that his wives will be taken from him publicly, in the sight of all the world—immediately begins to unfold in II Samuel 13, ironically (or is it providentially?) because of another misdeed by David.
At the literary level, the difference between Christ and St. David is obvious. St. David is bearing the curse for his own sins and he, in many ways, deserves all that befalls him. But this is one of the most powerful redemption tales, because St. David bears these evils with true patience and faith in God’s providence, and even when the trials become unjust he still maintains his silence and opens not his mouth.
When St. David receives word that his son Absalom has declared himself king and has the support of the people, he pauses to consider his options. Not wanting to kill his son, and not wanting the city of Jerusalem to suffer collateral damage, St. David elects to flee. He is not yet so old that he cannot fight, and he holds the capital city. Most likely if he were to call down his
angels army he would win and the story would be over. But St. David knows that he must bear the curse of Nathan to pay for his sins, and so he departs.
For the remainder of II Samuel 15, St. David and his household abandon the city in a funeral procession. At each stage of departure they are met by his few remaining allies. First there is Ittai and the 600 Gittites, the royal guards who have been loyal to St. David all these years. For those who don’t know who Gittites are, they are people from Gath. For those who don’t know where Gath is, it’s a city in Philistia. P.S., Goliath was from Gath.
I’ve always found this scene to be the most moving in the chapter. St. David is the most feared and famous warrior in the world for what he did to the Philistines, and most famously and fearfully to that first Philistine, Goliath of Gath. That 600 men of that very town would follow St. David at all, much less into the uncertain hell of the future, is astonishing. St. David urges Ittai to take his men and get out of Dodge, as they have no ties to this conflict and only sorrow awaits. Ittai…man, just quote the thing:
“As the Lord lives, and as my lord the king lives, wherever my lord the king shall be, whether for death or for life, there also will your servant be.” (II Samuel 15:21)
(David’s great-grandmother said almost exactly the same thing to a woman in the direst of straits many years previously…the more you read, the better this book gets.)
Both literally and allegorically, the Gittites represent the Gentiles in God’s saving plan. Indeed it is throughout the books of Samuel that we start to get the first real glimmers of a universal scope to God’s plan: the Philistines, the enemies of God and Israel, are consistently more God-fearing and pious than the sons of Israel.
So St. David now resumes his exodus from his own city, this time leading a combined host of Jew and Gentile. The High Priest Abiathar, descendent of Eli and loyal to St. David ever since Saul murdered his father and the other priests at Nob in I Samuel 22, brings out the Ark of the Covenant to join St. David on his wanderings through the wilderness. But St. David declines to play the roll of St. Moses here, and casts off the dark cloud of sin that has ruined him these last few chapters.
Old David, which is to say Young David, returns to the stage full of faith. He directs Abiathar to return to the city with the Ark, for he will not use God as a weapon or manipulate God into granting him victory…like the wicked Israelites tried to do against the pious Philistines in I Samuel 4. With the faith and patience of Job saith he, “Carry the ark of God back into the city. If I find favor in the eyes of the Lord, he will bring me back and let me see both it and his habitation; but if he says, ‘I have no pleasure in you,’ behold, here I am, let him do to me what seems good to him.” (II Samuel 15:26) Chills.
Next he learns that the wisdom of the world has turned against him, in the person of Ahithophel. Ahithophel is one of those wonderfully provocative characters in the Old Testament, tragically underused but far more interesting because of it. He represents perfect worldly wisdom, a counsel that never fails, and he sides with Absalom.
St. David knows that he is lost if Absalom heeds the advice of Ahithophel, so he sends his best friend Hushai into the city on an insanely risky mission to be a double agent. Hushai goes for love of his lord and by his friendship—and an appeal to Absalom’s Freudian fears of his father—successfully thwarts the counsel of Ahithophel. But that’s getting ahead of ourselves. For now, it is merely a matter of fear and mourning to know that the wisdom of the world has turned against the King of Israel.
Now, at last, the true King of Israel, to all eyes of the world utterly lost before the rebellious usurper, ascends the Mount of Olives. Surely this will be the moment of God’s intervention! Surely God will provide a ram and untie the youth! Surely the promise made in II Samuel 7, that David’s throne would be an everlasting throne and his kingdom an everlasting kingdom, will be held to the good! Surely God will not forget his people, and the great unveiling of Divine Power will shine down, and St. David will have paid enough!
St. David departs the city of Jerusalem to quiet weeping. The King of Israel has fallen. Long live the king.