The Exalted Servant
David doesn’t stay the underdog forever. Saul eventually sinks into madness and ruin, and he’s killed in a grisly battle with the Philistines (1 Sam 30-31). Even then, David is grieved by the death of his enemy, evidenced by the beautiful poem he writes to honor the memory of Saul and his son Jonathan, David’s beloved friend (2 Sam 1). From here on, the narrative focuses on God’s exaltation of David. His own tribe wants him alone as their king (2 Sam 2), and through no effort of his own, the house of Saul entirely collapses (2 Sam 3-4). Eventually, all of the other Israelite tribes come and ask him to be king as well (2 Sam 5). Once again, David is simply thrust into a position of influence, by doing nothing but waiting for God to work things out. This is the same David who ends up establishing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and prepares it for the construction of the temple (2 Sam 6).
You can begin to see why later generations of Israel looked back on this portrait of David with such fondness. Israel never had another king quite like him, with the same combination of incredible talent and extreme humility. He epitomizes the same kind of radical faith that Abraham demonstrated when he looked up at the stars and trusted that God could form an entire nation from him and Sarah (remember Gen 15). It’s to this “faith-full” David that God makes his next covenant promise in 2 Samuel 7, one of the most important stories in the Old Testament. God says that one day he will raise up from David’s line a “descendant” (literally in Hebrew, “seed”) that will build a temple and rule over an eternal kingdom. This king will be so closely aligned with God’s will, he will be like God’s son, and God will be this king’s father (2 Sam 7:12-14).
Now, at this point, Christian readers of the Old Testament are getting really excited! But then you read the next part of the story, which may throw you. God says:
I will be a father to [this future king] and he will be a son to Me; when he commits sin, I will correct him with the rod of men and the blows of the sons of men, but My lovingkindness shall not depart from him, as I took it away from Saul, whom I removed from before you. – 2 Samuel 7:14-15
“Wait a minute,” we say. “When he sins…? I thought this was a reference to the coming of Jesus, but that part doesn’t sound like Jesus.” And you’re right, it doesn’t. That’s because this isn’t a direct messianic prophecy in the sense of prediction and fulfillment. This divine promise is setting you up to read about all of the descendants of David’s line who are going to fail miserably and never live up to the humble faith of their ancestor David. However, after the line of David completes their royal failure and runs the nation of Israel into the ground (welcome to the books of 1 and 2 Kings!), this divine promise still stands. It’s this enduring hope of a future king who will not be like David’s descendants and will not be like David when he took advantage of Bathsheba; this is the seedbed of the biblical prophets’ visions of a future messianic king.
This hope is expressed all over the prophetic books (see Isa 9, 11; Jer 23; Ezek 34; Micah 5, Zech 9). One day, another king is going to come who won’t repeat the failures of Saul. He will be like David, or, as Jeremiah and Ezekiel put it, this new king will simply be “David” (Jer 30:9; Ezek 34:23). These two prophets lived to see the descendants of David get hauled off into captivity in exile, just as God said would happen. But when they looked for the future fulfillment of God’s promise, they didn’t look for a new Saul, or even a new Solomon. Rather, they hoped for a new David, another humble king who would submit to God’s will. A king with radical trust in God his Father, who would allow his Father to exalt him in the proper time. A king who came from Bethlehem like David and who had no outward features to mark him out as God’s anointed one. A servant king like David who wouldn’t shove his way into power. Israel’s true king, who will be persecuted by his fellow Israelites…