In the bitterest of historical ironies, the only monarch in Israel’s history to be called the Great was Herod, a consummate psychopath. Herod killed so many of his own family that the emperor Augustus joked that it was better to be Herod's pig than his son.
Herod’s “greatness,” such as it was, derived from architecture. He was a great builder of structures, including the famed temple in Jerusalem, but he was also a horrendous destroyer of lives. Nevertheless, he is, to this day, called Herod the Great.
The only king of Israel who merited the honor of being called the Great was not the maniacal Herod, to be sure, but a complex and controversial man who predated Herod by a thousand years, David of Bethlehem.
Even those dismissive of the Bible cannot deny that David is among the most famous names in world literature. Were David nothing but a myth, his story would still be the stuff of the greatest of legends. Giant slayer, warrior chieftain, outlaw, mercenary, lover, poet, musician, and sometime prophet, David is great by any measure.
Sculpted, painted, debated, denounced, and denied, David is the greatest of all Israel’s rulers. Among the kings of his own or any other age, hardly a man like David exists. One cannot fully understand the history of Israel, nor have a true sense of the Bible as a whole story, without David.
Still, some might be hesitant to utter the phrase “David the Great,” and understandably so. For every Goliath in the story of David, there is a Bathsheba. For every soul to whom he showed compassion, there were a hundred lives he was personally responsible for slaughtering. He had multiple wives and concubines.
During one lengthy period, David was an outlaw who ran what can only be called a protection racket. Later, he was a mercenary raider who sold his skills to his people’s adversaries. He was dreaded by his enemies not only for killing them in great numbers, but, as they saw it, also for sometimes mutilating the bodies of the fallen for a bizarre bridal dowry. His own father-in-law hated him. At least one of his wives despised and betrayed him. One of his sons led a revolution against him and would have executed him had not more loyal souls intervened. David caused a devastating plague and, like a mafia don, ordered the execution of his enemies while on his deathbed.
Yet he was also a Spirit-sensitive poet whose words have comforted millions worldwide in two major religions for three thousand years. He was a musician whose music could soothe a demon-haunted soul. He was a political leader strong enough to forge a single nation out of disparate tribes that had been ripped apart by civil war.
Not least of all, David was a man of passionate loyalty, great faith, and national vision. The name of this ancient Jewish king is known where the Bible is not even read or believed.
We must remember, though, that David was not a twenty-first-century Christian. If we try to dress him in a suit and tie and apply our standards of morality to his life, it simply won’t work.
While David was no saint, neither was he a monster. He was a complex man, perhaps one of the most complicated and conflicted leaders of all time. He was a multifaceted genius whose abilities in seemingly mutually exclusive genres are unparalleled. He could make war and write soul-piercing poetry with equal facility. We may be shocked by his sins, but we are also inspired by his victories and moved by his intimacy with the God of Abraham.
Some years ago, I sat writing at a picnic table in Tiberius, Israel. With my manuscript stacked neatly on the table, I was writing at such a furious pace that at first I did not notice the middle-aged woman watching me. When I looked up, she asked if I was an American. When I said yes, she asked what I was writing about.
“King David,” I answered.
“Yes, you know, from the Bible.”
“Why?” she asked, with disdain. “Why in the world would you write about that bloody man?”
Obviously, she cherished no notion of him as David the Great. I knew it was useless to explain my lifelong fascination with an ancient king who had ruled long ago in The Land long ago. How great a man is he whose controversy outlives him by millennia? How great is a man who inspires equal parts of vitriol, admiration, and curiosity after three thousand years?
In my newest book, that’s the man I wanted to write about; not a Sunday school saint, but the real man, David the Great, “that bloody man,” who was also a man after God’s own heart.
David the Great: Deconstructing the Man After God's Own Heart
by Dr. Mark Rutland