This commentary for pastors introduces readers to the tumultuous reign of King David, highlighting his foundational significance in God’s plan to redeem the world through Christ.
About the Author
John Woodhouse (DPhil, Victoria University of Manchester) served as principal of Moore Theological College in Sydney, Australia, from 2002 to 2013. Previously, he worked in pastoral ministry in a suburb of Sydney. He has published articles in various academic journals and is the author of two volumes in Crossway’s Preaching the Word commentary series.
R. Kent Hughes (DMin, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is senior pastor emeritus of College Church in Wheaton, Illinois, and former professor of practical theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Hughes is also a founder of the Charles Simeon Trust, which conducts expository preaching conferences throughout North America and worldwide. He serves as the series editor for the Preaching the Word commentary series and is the author or coauthor of many books. He and his wife, Barbara, live in Wyncote, Pennsylvania, and have four children and an ever-increasing number of grandchildren.
Read an Excerpt
A Dead King, a Victorious King, and a Time of Waiting
2 SAMUEL 1:1
After the death of Saul, when David had returned from striking down the Amalekites, David remained two days in Ziklag.
THE BOOKS WE KNOW AS 1 Samuel and 2 Samuel tell the story of the first two kings of God's Old Testament people, the nation Israel. Saul's reign occupied the last couple of decades of the second millennium BC. The tragic story is told in 1 Samuel. It is a story of monumental failure, ending with Saul's violent death by his own hand (1 Samuel 31). Then David reigned for the first forty years of the first millennium BC. He was to be remembered as Israel's greatest king. The brilliant but complicated story of his extraordinary reign is the subject of 2 Samuel.
The whole story is about leadership — Israel's longing for leadership they could trust, how and why Saul failed them, how and why David did so much better but also failed.
The opening words of 2 Samuel mention three events that, as we will see, turn out to have very great consequences for the whole world:
(1) The death of Saul (v. 1a).
(2) The victory of David (v. 1b).
(3) Two days that changed everything (v. 1c).
The fact that few today are even aware of these events underlines the importance of hearing the message of the book that begins in this way. The story of King David has more to teach us than almost any other human life in the history of the world. There is a reason that Jesus Christ was known as the son of David.
The Death of Saul (v. 1a)
"After the death of Saul" (v. 1a) would make a fitting title for the book of 2 Samuel. There is evidence that the two books of 1 and 2 Samuel may once have been considered one. Certainly they tell one continuous story. However, it is clear that the story has two distinct parts, and Part Two is about what happened "after the death of Saul" (v. 1a). The break between 1 Samuel 31 and 2 Samuel 1 is appropriate and significant.
Saul's death (and the manner of his death) was the culmination of his tragic life. It marked the end of what might be described as a failed "experiment" in Israel. Saul had been appointed king by the prophet Samuel, in obedience to God (see 1 Samuel 8:22; 9:16; 10:24; 11:14, 15). However, this had been the Lord's response to the insistent demand of the people for a king because they wanted to be "like all the nations" (1 Samuel 8:20; cf. 1 Samuel 8:5). They wanted the security that the leaders of other nations seemed to provide. They were in effect rejecting God as the one who could deliver them. In response to this faithless demand God did two things.
First, he gave them what they had asked for. Ironically Saul's very name meant, "Asked For." Therefore Saul was "the king whom you have chosen, for whom you have asked" (1 Samuel 12:13); "your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves" (1 Samuel 8:18).
Second, God set the terms by which Saul would reign. The Lord had no intention of abandoning the people he had made his own (1 Samuel 12:22). He would not allow them to become "like all the nations" (see Exodus 19:4–6, 1 Samuel 8:20). They could have the king they "ask[ed] for" (and perhaps they would learn their lesson, see 1 Samuel 8:9–18), but the king would be chosen by God and reign on conditions set by him: he and his people must "fear the LORD and serve him and obey his voice and not rebel against the commandment of the LORD" (1 Samuel 12:14). In other words, God would allow his people to have the king that they asked for, only so long as both king and people lived in obedience to God.
Saul was also therefore, in this sense, "him whom the Lord has chosen" (1 Samuel 10:24). He was, in this context, "the LORD's anointed" (see 1 Samuel 2:10; 10:1; 12:3, 5; 15:17; 24:6, 10; 26:9, 11, 16, 23).
And so Saul became the God-appointed king of his people Israel, with all the solemn responsibilities this entailed (see 1 Samuel 10:25; 15:1).
The death of Saul was therefore terrible. Death is always terrible, but this was the death of one who had been the Lord's anointed king. At the same time it was the end of one in whom the people had once placed such high expectations, such hopes.
Saul died because he failed to fulfill the conditions God had placed on his kingship. Saul "did not obey the voice of the LORD" (1 Samuel 28:18; cf. 15:1). 1 Samuel 13 and 15 tell the story. It was a catastrophe (see 1 Samuel 13:11a, 13; 15:11, 19, 22, 23, 26). Only a king who was fully and perfectly obedient to God could reign over the people whose true king was God himself (1 Samuel 8:7; 12:12). Saul's death was God's judgment on his disobedience (1 Samuel 28:16–19).
At the same time Saul's ugly death was dreadful proof of the people's foolishness in desiring a king "like all the nations" (1 Samuel 8:5). In human terms, Saul had once appeared to hold great promise as a leader (1 Samuel 10:23, 24). He had the qualities Israel was looking for in a leader. What hopes had once rested on Saul! The people wanted a king to "go out before us and fight our battles" (1 Samuel 8:20). The Lord himself had said, "He shall save my people from the hands of the Philistines" (1 Samuel 9:16). And in fact he accomplished quite a lot (see 1 Samuel 11:1–11; 14:47, 48). In the end, however, the Philistines defeated Saul and drove him to suicide (1 Samuel 31). He died a failure. It is not difficult to imagine an Israelite in those days lamenting, "We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel."
The book of 2 Samuel opens with the implied question, what will happen "after the death of Saul" (v. 1)? If Saul could not secure Israel's life, what hope was there?
The Death of Saul and the Death of Jesus
A thousand years later there was another death that appeared to have similarities to the death of Saul. Like Saul this man had been known as "the Christ" (in Hebrew mashiakh [Messiah], meaning "anointed one"). Certainly some who had believed in this man did say, when he died, "We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel" (Luke 24:21). Jesus' shameful, humiliating death (so like Saul's in this respect; see especially 1 Samuel 31:8–10) dashed the hopes of those who had believed in him, just as the death of Saul had shattered his followers (see 1 Samuel 31:7).
Certainly some saw Jesus' terrible death (like Saul's) as God's judgment on him (see Deuteronomy 21:23), and they were not entirely wrong (see Galatians 3:13). They drew the apparently reasonable conclusion that his death (like Saul's) marked his disqualification from being the Messiah he had claimed to be (see, for example, Mark 15:29–32). In the days immediately following his crucifixion, the death of Jesus raised the same question as the one posed by the death of Saul: What will happen after the death of Jesus?
The Victory of David (v. 1b)
Let's return to the question raised by Saul's death, 1,000 years earlier. It will be answered by the whole story that the book of 2 Samuel has to tell. However, in the opening words of the book the answer is signaled. Alongside the death of Saul, the first sentence of 2 Samuel sets a very different event in the life of another man, to whom our attention is now drawn: "David had returned from striking down the Amalekites" (v. 1b).
Anyone who has read 1 Samuel (and every reader of 2 Samuel should have done that first) knows that the earlier book has told the story of Saul and his failure. But alongside that tragic account there has been the beginning of another story, the story of David. David was introduced in 1 Samuel 16, immediately after Saul's calamitous act of disobedience in 1 Samuel 15, and his story could hardly have been more different from that of Saul.
After Saul had decisively failed to be the fully obedient king he was required to be, David had been chosen by God to be king over Israel. However, the Lord's choice of David was different from his choice of Saul. This time it had not been a response to the rebellious demand of the people, but, as Samuel put it, "According to his own heart the LORD has sought for himself a man." That is, this time God was not giving the people what they had asked for, but out of God's own good will ("his own heart" 1 Samuel 13:14) God was choosing a man for his own purpose ("for himself"). This was the essential difference between Saul and David, and the reason that David was a "better" man than Saul to be Israel's king (1 Samuel 15:28). Saul was the kind of king the people wanted so they could be like the nations around them. David was chosen out of a very different purpose — God's own heart.
Although David did not become king immediately, his story from 1 Samuel 16 on displays his superiority to Saul. He was more successful in fighting Israel's enemies (see 1 Samuel 17; then 18:5, 7, 14, 15, 30). This was because "the LORD was with him" (1 Samuel 18:14b) in a way he was evidently not with Saul (see 1 Samuel 16:13, 14). He repeatedly displayed faithfulness and righteousness of character and conduct (1 Samuel 26:23), while Saul was utterly unreliable and downright wicked (1 Samuel 24:17). This, too, must be seen as a consequence of the Lord's favor resting on David (rather than the basis for this fact).
The last five chapters of 1 Samuel interweave the two contrasting stories of Saul and David in a way that suggests that the events described in each narrative were happening at about the same time. As the terrified Saul approached his final confrontation with the Philistines (see 1 Samuel 28:15), and at last took his own life on Mount Gilboa (1 Samuel 31:4), David (for rather complicated reasons, see 1 Samuel 27, 29) was three days journey away, to the south, smashing Amalekites (1 Samuel 30:1, 17–20).
The death of the king and the terrible defeat suffered by Israel at the hands of the Philistines up north was devastating. We are told that the Philistines proclaimed the "good news" of their decisive triumph throughout their land (1 Samuel 31:9). An observer could be excused for failing even to notice what was happening with David, far away to the south. In any case it would have been difficult to think that whatever was happening down there near Ziklag could have any bearing on the dismal future now faced by the vanquished people of Israel.
By setting the death of Saul alongside the victory of David over the Amalekites in 1:1 the writer has signaled three things.
First, the death of Saul (monumentally tragic as it was) and the resounding defeat suffered by Israel at that time was not the end of the story. At the same time there was a victory. The victory may have been hardly noticed at the time, but it was the hope of Israel's future.
Second, the victorious one was David, the one about whom 1 Samuel has already said so much. Any hope in Saul was now gone. The hope of Israel now rested in David. Not all Israelites yet realized or accepted this, and there were understandable reasons for that. However 2 Samuel opens by drawing our attention from Saul and his final failure to David and his distant victory over Israel's enemies.
Third, nothing could better represent David's greater credentials for reigning over Israel than the fact that the enemies he had defeated were, of all people, the Amalekites. The Amalekites had played an ominous role in the life of Saul. On the one hand we have been briefly told that during his reign Saul "struck the Amalekites and delivered Israel" (1 Samuel 14:48). However, on the other hand it was precisely Saul's failure to obey a command of God with regard to the Amalekites that was central to his failure as king (1 Samuel 15; see especially vv. 2, 3, 5–9, 18, 19, 32, 33). Indeed Saul was told, the night before he died, "Because you did not obey the voice of the LORD and did not carry out his fierce wrath against Amalek, therefore the LORD has done this thing to you this day" (1 Samuel 28:18). But at the very time Saul died because of his failure to deal with the Amalekites, David had been "striking down the Amalekites." The verb is vivid and might remind us of the same Hebrew word used rather often of David's military successes, particularly against the Philistines (1 Samuel 17:26, 35, 36, 46, 49, 50, 57; 18:6, 7, 27; 19:5, 8; 21:9, 11; 23:2, 5; 27:9; 29:5; 30:17). It is the same word that was used of the Philistines' violence against Saul's sons on Mount Gilboa (1 Samuel 31:2). However, it is also the word that was used to describe what Saul should have done to the Amalekites (1 Samuel 15:3) and what he incompletely did do (1 Samuel 15:7).
Therefore, if the book of 2 Samuel is going to answer the question, what will happen "after the death of Saul?" (1:1) the first hint is that: (1) the death of Saul was not all that was happening on that dreadful day: there was a victory being won, even if it was unnoticed by most; (2) the victory was being won by David, the one who had been chosen by God to be a better king than Saul; and (3) the victory was in fact reversing Saul's momentous failure.
David's Victory and Jesus' Victory
A thousand years later, when Jesus died a death surprisingly like the death of Saul, the truth was that on that day: (1) a victory was won, even if it was unnoticed by most (Colossians 2:15); (2) the victory was won by the one chosen by God to be king over all, "great David's greater son"; and (3) his victory was in fact reversing humanity's momentous failure (see, for example, Romans 5:19).
The great difference between the questions, what will happen after the death of Saul? and what will happen after the death of Jesus? is that the answer to the latter does not require us to look away from Jesus and his death to another king. In this case it was the one who had died who won the victory, and he did so in the very act of dying.
Two Days That Changed Everything (v. 1c)
The third element in 1:1 is a reference to the period of time after David had won his victory, but before the news of Saul's death had reached him: "David remained two days in Ziklag" (v. 1c).
Ziklag had been the starting and end point for the Amalekite conflict referred to in the previous phrase (see 1 Samuel 30:1, 26). Through a rather strange sequence of events Ziklag had been given to David by the Philistine king Achish (1 Samuel 27:6). We need not rehearse here all that had happened at Ziklag (although the reference is certainly meant as a reminder of the story in 1 Samuel 30). We are simply told that David remained there for two days before the next major event occurred.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "2 Samuel"
Copyright © 2015 John Woodhouse.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
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Table of Contents
A Word to Those Who Preach the Word,
Introduction: Kingdom Matters (2 Samuel and Matthew 6:9, 10),
Part One THE KING IS DEAD (1),
1 A Dead King, a Victorious King, and a Time of Waiting (1:1),
2 Who Says Crime Doesn't Pay? (1:2–10),
3 Crime Doesn't Pay (1:11–16),
4 What the Victorious King Said about the Dead King (1:17–27),
Part Two THE COMING OF THE KINGDOM (2:1-5:3),
5 Who Will Have This King? (2:1–11),
6 Human Politics and the Kingdom (2:12–32),
7 Ambitious Opportunism and the Kingdom (3:1–21),
8 Personal Vengeance and the Kingdom (3:22–39),
9 Wicked Violence and the Kingdom (4),
10 Coming to the King (5:1–3),
Part Three THE KINGDOM OF DAVID (5:4-10:19),
11 "On Zion, My Holy Hill" (5:4–16),
12 "The Nations Rage and the Peoples Plot in Vain" (5:17–25),
13 "Rejoice with Trembling" (6:1–11),
14 The Joy of Humility and the Misery of Pride (6:12–23),
15 The Most Important Words in the World (7:1–7),
16 The Promise (7:8–16),
17 The King's Prayer (7:17–29),
18 "I Will Make the Nations Your Heritage" (8:1–6),
19 A Kingdom of Justice and Righteousness (8:7–18),
20 The Kindness of the King (9),
21 Those Who Despise the Kindness of the King (10),
Part Four THE FAILURE OF DAVID (11-20),
22 The Disaster (11:1–5),
23 The Deceitful Heart (11:6–13),
24 The Murderer (11:14–27),
25 Shattered by the Word of God (12:1–15),
26 Restoration (12:16–31),
27 Like Father, Like Son (13:1–22),
28 Vengeance and the Kingdom (13:23–39),
29 Foolish Schemes (14),
30 Politics and Power (15:1–12),
31 The Darkest Day (15:13–31),
32 People Who Met David (15:19-16:14),
33 The Friend and the Traitor (16:15–23),
34 The Plan That Really Matters (17),
35 When Love and Justice Do Not Meet (18),
36 The Return of the King (19),
37 An Unstable Kingdom (20),
Epilogue THE KINGDOM OF DAVID AND THE KINGDOM OF GOD (21-24),
38 A Problem in David's Kingdom: God's Wrath, Part 1 (21:1–14),
39 The Strength of David's Kingdom: His Mighty Men, Part 1 (21:15–22),
40 The Hope of David's Kingdom: The Lord's Promise, Part 1 (22),
41 The Hope of David's Kingdom: The Lord's Promise, Part 2 (23:1–7),
42 The Strength of David's Kingdom: His Mighty Men, Part 2 (23:8–39),
43 A Problem in David's Kingdom: God's Wrath, Part 2 (24),
Index of Sermon Illustrations,
What People are Saying About This
“Dr. Woodhouse’s customary rigor with the text, combined with acute observation and wide-ranging Biblical and theological reflection, makes this commentary a must-have for any preacher of the book. The commentary does far more than explain the text, it feeds the soul. I could not recommend it more highly.”
—William Taylor, Rector, St. Helen Bishopsgate, London; author, Understanding the Times and Partnership
“John Woodhouse’s commentaries on 1 and 2 Samuel are not written to gather dust on the shelf. They are the rare commentaries worthy of being read cover to cover and are destined to be thoroughly underlined and oft quoted. Again and again Woodhouse helps readers see through the shadows of King David into the rule and reign of his greater Son, King Jesus.”
—Nancy Guthrie, Bible Teacher; author, Seeing Jesus in the Old Testament Bible study series
“Dr. Woodhouse is one of my favorite interpreters of Scripture. He has an uncanny ability to so carefully read a text, that you will see things you never noticed, only then to wonder why you had not seen them before. He does justice to a text in its own historical and literary contexts, while showing how it resonates with the whole story of the Bible. Finally, he is a master of conceiving preaching trajectories from the Old Testament for the edification of the church. These features, and more, characterize this outstanding volume on 2 Samuel. With its guidance, pastors will read, learn, and preach the message of 2 Samuel with greater depth of insight to the glory of the greater Davidic King.”
—Constantine R. Campbell, Associate Professor of New Testament, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School
“This book is the ideal commentary for a preacher. It summarizes wide and deep scholarship clearly and concisely, offers perceptive and persuasive judgments on matters of translation and interpretation, and contains thoughtful suggestions for hearing these narratives as a part of Christian Scripture fulfilled in great David’s greater Son. It is a marvelous resource.”
—Christopher Ash, Director of the PT Cornhill Training Course, The Proclamation Trust; author, The Priority of Preaching
“Dr. Woodhouse’s masterly exposition of 2 Samuel takes us through the life and story of King David in a gripping way, setting David within the whole story of God’s salvation, which culminates in the news about Jesus Christ, ‘the Son of David’ and ultimate King. Woodhouse writes with clarity and warmth that will not only excite preachers of God’s Word, but also challenge and encourage others who love the Scriptures. Highly recommended.”
—Peter T. O'Brien, Retired Vice-Principal and Emeritus Faculty Member, Moore Theological College, Australia
“John Woodhouse’s commentaries on 1 and 2 Samuel set a new benchmark for faithful, detailed engagement with the text of Scripture that warms the heart as it informs the mind. John explains each passage, not only in the context of the book but also in the grand sweep of Biblical theology, culminating in the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
—Phillip D. Jensen, Dean, St. Andrew's Cathedral, Sydney, Australia
“This is not simply the best and sufficient commentary on 2 Samuel that explores every sentence in the light of the whole of Scripture, but is also a model of brilliant exposition for any preacher to adopt.”
—Archie Poulos, Head of the Ministry Department and Director of the Centre for Ministry Development, Moore Theological College