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In this article I want to explore why God gave his eternal, everlasting covenant to David and his descendants rather than Eli, Samuel and Saul who committed seemingly less serious sins. How do these decisions from God cohere with His justice? I would also like to ask why they, unlike David, had the covenant taken away from them.
We learn at the beginning of the Book of Samuel that God’s covenant was taken away from Eli the High Priest and Judge because he failed to discipline his sons who were abusing sacrifices and having sex with the female attendants at the Temple. Eli refrained from punishing them with death as was expected then out of a selfish desire to preserve his dynasty and its rule.
We read that Samuel “grew up in the presence of the LORD” (1 Samuel 2:21), “continued to grow both in stature and in favour with the Lord and also with man” (1 Samuel 2:26) and that “the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground” (1 Samuel 3:19). Samuel as Prophet and Judge, however, made the same mistake as Eli of not punishing his sons who were wicked and corrupt judges who took bribes. At this point, the Elders of Israel gathered and demanded a King because Samuel was in his later years and because his sons could not rule due to their corrupt natures.
God then anointed Saul as Israel’s first King. He is initially blessed with the gift of prophecy and is able, with God’s help, to unite all of the tribes of Israel under his rule and to win a major victory over the Ammonites. However, his sins are failing to wait for Samuel to arrive (1 Samuel 13) and offering the sacrifices himself instead and failing to utterly destroy Amalek, sparing King Agag and the best of the livestock. These sins must be taken in turn.
Saul’s sin of failing to wait for Samuel’s return cannot be seen as major as I don’t think it was intentional. He was commanded to wait seven days for Samuel’s return. He waited for seven days but Samuel failed to turn up and so Saul offered sacrifices instead. It seems to me that Samuel, and not Saul, is at fault here. He failed to turn up when he said he would and had failed to tell Saul what to do in the event of him not arriving on time. It is also worth noting, as Dr David Janzen has, that King David offers sacrifices to God later on in the Book of Samuel and so Saul’s action of offering sacrifices to God cannot be sinful.
Saul’s sin of not utterly destroying Amalek is more serious as here Saul specifically and deliberately disobeys a very clear commandment from God to utterly destroy Amalek and all people and creatures in it. Saul states, when questioned by Samuel, that he spared the best of the livestock to offer as burnt offerings to God but we cannot know if this was his real motive. We only have his word for it. Even so, that does not make up for him intentionally disobeying God’s commandment and Saul gives no excuse for sparing King Agag of Amalek.
I think it is now clear that the divine and eternal covenant was taken away from Eli, Samuel and Saul because of their sin(s). However, the question now becomes: why did God give Eli, Samuel and Saul an eternal covenant if he knew, due to his omniscience and foreknowledge, that he would have to take it away due to their sin(s)? I think it is also clear that Saul was worse, in terms of his sin, than both Eli and Samuel. The second question we must continue to ask is why do these men have the eternal covenant taken away from them and their houses but David, a more sinful person, have it granted to him and his house forever?
Now let us turn to David’s record. David is described as a man after God’s own heart (1 Samuel 13:14; Acts 13:22) and as having “found favour in the sight of God” (Acts 7:46). David clearly had a strong and close relationship with God as we learn of him directly “inquiring of the LORD” seven times in the Book of Samuel in 1 Samuel 23:2, 4; 30:8; 2 Samuel 2:1; 5:19, 23; 21:1. 1 Kings 15:5 even says, “For David had done what was right in the eyes of the Lord and had not failed to keep any of the Lord’s commands all the days of his life—except in the case of Uriah the Hittite” (I shall examine this verse in due course). However, I think that David commits many more sins than Eli, Samuel and Saul, many of which are more serious and that many of David’s sins are much more serious than those of Eli, Samuel and Saul.
His first sin is to move the Ark of the Covenant without asking God. Clearly David’s motivation is wrong here as he uncharacteristically fails to “inquire of the LORD” when making this decision as you would expect him to. He was clearly trying to manipulate, house in and restrain God’s power by moving the Ark as both Lyle Eslinger and Dr David Janzen have both noted. Here David shows that he is politically motivated and does not fully trust in God – why else would he need to move the Ark if he trusted God to sustain, protect and preserve his kingdom? If he truly trusted in God’s power and independent sovereignty then the location of the Ark would not at all matter. This sin is less serious than Saul’s second sin, for instance, in that David has not broken a commandment – he has instead just failed to consult God.
However, that is not the case with his sin of committing adultery with Bathsheba and of then murdering her husband, Uriah the Hittite. Both of these offences were capital offences in their own right, deserving of the death penalty under Jewish Law. However, God lets David off the death penalty he deserved for each of these crimes and allows him to continue as King of Israel. David does, to be fair to him, immediately repent when he is confronted with his sin by Nathan the Prophet and asks for God’s forgiveness, unlike Saul who makes excuses in the case of his sin in of not completely destroying Amalek.
Then David fails to discipline his son Amnon for raping his half-sister, Tamar. King David then fails to discipline Amnon, repeating the mistake of both Eli and Samuel. This then leads Absalom, her brother, to take matters into his own hands, retaliating by murdering Amnon. David then also fails to discipline Absalom. This leads Absalom to rise up against David and cause an insurrection, causing David to flee.
David’s final sin is numbering the people (carrying out a census of soldiers in Israel and Judah) without asking for God’s permission (repeating his mistake over the moving of the Ark). This again shows a lack of trust in God to fight and win David’s battles, regardless of how outnumbered Israel may be. This episode is shown to be a serious sin in Chronicles: “Then Satan stood against Israel and incited David to number Israel […] God was displeased with this thing, and he struck Israel” (1 Chronicles 21:1,7). A pestilence was then sent by God to punish Israel and 70,000 men were died as a result.
Now to the claim of 1 Kings 15:5 that “For David had done what was right in the eyes of the Lord and had not failed to keep any of the Lord’s commands all the days of his life—except in the case of Uriah the Hittite”. It should, by now, be clear that this assertion cannot be taken literally. As David also sins by moving the Ark without asking for God’s permission, by failing to discipline his sons (the same mistake as both Eli and Samuel before him) and by numbering the people without asking God. All three of these actions are clearly sinful and wrong and they clearly displease God. The first and third sins in the earlier sentence clearly show a lack of trust in God as I explained earlier. These actions are clearly wrong – God even punishes Israel for David’s sin of carrying out a census by bringing a famine upon the nation.
Why is it then that God gives David his eternal covenant and, unlike with Eli, Samuel and Saul, does not remove it after David commits his serious sins? It cannot be because divine election is not based on deeds or works because Eli, Samuel and Saul had the covenant taken away from them because of, and just after, their misdeeds. How is one, therefore, to maintain the justice, fairness and righteousness of God when it comes to his divine election of David?
I do not have an ultimate, complete or final answer to this question and I have wrestled with it ever since I was first confronted with it in October of last year. This humanly inconvenient fact confirms for me the truth of Isaiah 55:5-8 and Romans 11:34:
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts”
“Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgements and how inscrutable his ways!
‘For who has known the mind of the Lord,
or who has been his counsellor?'”
7 Ways of easing the Problem
Through discussions with numerous people, I have, however, managed to develop a number of important facts which can, I think, ease this problem.
1. God had to choose someone to give his eternal covenant to
It is very important to remember that all human beings are flawed, fallen, sinful and imperfect (Psalm 14:1-3; Psalm 53:1-3; Romans 3:10-12) and that God had to choose/elect someone (one of these sinful humans). In a way, this early process of election is like a means to an end to produce a dynasty/house from which Jesus the Messiah and Son of God will eventually descend in the New Testament as prophesied in the Old Testament (2 Samuel 7:12-13; Isaiah 9:7).
2. David’s election demonstrates and foreshadows God’s radical and extraordinary grace
David is deeply flawed and God obviously knew of all of his sins before he was even born but God still loved him regardless and still chose him to rule Israel. This is a very powerful way of showing us that, though we are fallen, God can and will still use us to do His will. David’s election also foreshadows the grace Jesus goes on to offer us in the New Testament: salvation by grace alone through faith in Jesus Christ alone, as separate from deeds and the Law. This idea means no one is better off in terms of how moral or righteous they might have tried to have been, we all have to start our Christian journeys, accepting that nothing we ever do can please God and that even our finest efforts are just filthy rags to Him and that only His grace, and that alone can save us.
3. David is especially humble, more so than Eli, Samuel and Saul
David was unexpectedly chosen, to the surprise of his parents due to his low status as a shepherd boy just as the virgin Mary, due to her humility, was chosen to serve God in the Gospels. God uses David’s humility and complete lack of military experience to show God’s independent sovereignty and that it is ultimately God who wins Israel’s battles or allows them to be defeated. This is famously shown in the story of David and Goliath where David chooses not to even wear armour and to only arm himself with a sling and some stones, showing how strong his faith in God is. David’s sins may be great and numerous when compared with those of Saul and especially when compared with those of Eli and Samuel, but David’s humility, meekness and repentance is shown to be just as great, if not greater.
4. David immediately repents when confronted with his sin
As I mentioned earlier, David, unlike Saul immediately repents when he is confronted with his sin as is the case with his adultery and murder and with his carrying out of the census. David also immediately repents when he wrongly carries out a census. These instances shows his humility and that he recognises his own weaknesses, rather than self-righteously trying to make excuses as Saul did.
5. Eli was a High Priest so a higher moral standard was expected from him
It is worth remembering that Eli was a High Priest as well as a Judge and so a higher moral standard was expected from him while this is not the case with David, as a friend recently pointed out to me.
6. There are clear and severe temporal consequences of David’s sin for both him personally and his rule within his kingdom
These are arguably punishment enough. The rest of his reign is dominated by conflict, uncertainty, violence and instability. David’s child is very sick and then dies as a punishment of his sins of adultery and murder. Furthermore, his son Amnon rapes his half-sister Tamar and Tamar’s brother Absalom then murders Amnon. Absalom then leads an uprising against David, forcing him to flee into the desert. Finally, David is punished carrying out his census without God’s permission with famine in his kingdom. These are pretty severe temporal, Earthly consequences for David personally and for his kingdom and people. It is up to you, the reader, to decide whether or not these temporal, Earthly consequences of David’s sin are more serious than those given to Eli, Samuel and Saul. However, this then raises another question which is why should David’s innocent child and the innocent people of David’s kingdom suffer because if David’s own sins? How does this cohere with God’s justice and love? One could, however, argue that the sufferings caused are ultimately and indirectly due to Israel’s decision to have a King, a decision. They were clearly warned of the multiple and far-reaching consequences of such a decision but decided to demand a King regardless. Although this does not account for the infant’s suffering and ultimate death. Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe argue, in When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties, that 2 Samuel 12:23 indicates that the child went to Heaven. They also note this child was probably spared a life of shame due to their illegitimacy.
7. David was on the throne for longer
It is finally worth noting that David was on the throne longer than Eli, Samuel and Saul and so had a longer period of time in which to be tempted and in which to commit sins. It is not true to say that David committed more sins than Eli, Samuel and Saul in the period of time as David ruled for a significantly longer period.
I apologise for the length of this article but I think this is an issue of great importance which all Christian theologians really need to grapple with. I hope that what I have written has been of some use and, I’d love to hear feedback and other responses to this question in the comments section below.
By Ben Somervell