Perhaps the most striking characteristic of the life of David is its romantic variety of circumstances. What a many-coloured career that was which began amidst the pastoral solitudes of Bethlehem, and ended in the chamber where the dying ears heard the blare of the trumpets that announced the accession of Bathsheba's son! He passes through the most sharply contrasted conditions, and from each gathers some fresh fitness for his great work of giving voice and form to all the phases of devout feeling. The early shepherd life deeply influenced his character, and has left its traces on many a line of his psalms.
"Love had he found in huts where poor men lie;
His daily teachers had been woods and rills;
The silence that is in the starry sky,
The sleep that is among the lonely hills."
And then, in strange contrast with the meditative quiet and lowly duties of these first years, came the crowded vicissitudes of the tempestuous course through which he reached his throne—court minstrel, companion and friend of a king, idol of the people, champion of the armies of God—and in his sudden elevation keeping the gracious sweetness of his lowlier, and perhaps happier days. The scene changes with startling suddenness to the desert. He is "hunted like a partridge upon the mountains," a fugitive and half a freebooter, taking service at foreign courts, and lurking on the frontiers with a band of outlaws recruited from the "dangerous classes" of Israel. Like Dante and many more, he has to learn the weariness of the exile's lot—how hard his fare, how homeless his heart, how cold the courtesies of aliens, how unslumbering the suspicions which watch the refugee who fights on the side of his "natural enemies." One more swift transition and he is on the throne, for long years victorious, prosperous, and beloved.
"Nor did he change; but kept in lofty place
The wisdom which adversity had bred,"
till suddenly he is plunged into the mire, and falsifies all his past, and ruins for ever, by the sin of his mature age, his peace of heart and the prosperity of his kingdom. Thenceforward trouble is never far away; and his later years are shaded with the saddening consciousness of his great fault, as well as by hatred and rebellion and murder in his family, and discontent and alienation in his kingdom.
None of the great men of Scripture pass through a course of so many changes; none of them touched human life at so many points; none of them were so tempered and polished by swift alternation of heat and cold, by such heavy blows and the friction of such rapid revolutions. Like his great Son and Lord, though in a lower sense, he, too, must be "in all points tempted like as we are," that his words may be fitted for the solace and strength of the whole world. Poets "learn in suffering what they teach in song." These quick transitions of fortune, and this wide experience, are the many-coloured threads from which the rich web of his psalms is woven.
And while the life is singularly varied, the character is also singularly full and versatile. In this respect, too, he is most unlike the other leading figures of Old Testament history. Contrast him for example, with the stern majesty of Moses, austere and simple as the tables of stone; or with the unvarying tone in the gaunt strength of Elijah. These and the other mighty men in Israel are like the ruder instruments of music—the trumpet of Sinai, with its one prolonged note. David is like his own harp of many chords, through which the breath of God murmured, drawing forth wailing and rejoicing, the clear ring of triumphant trust, the low plaint of penitence, the blended harmonies of all devout emotions.
The man had his faults—grave enough. Let it be remembered that no one has judged them more rigorously than himself. The critics who have delighted to point at them have been anticipated by the penitent; and their indictment has been little more than the quotation of his own confession. His tremulously susceptible nature, especially assailable by the delights of sense, led him astray. There are traces in his life of occasional craft and untruthfulness which even the exigencies of exile and war do not wholly palliate. Flashes of fierce vengeance at times break from the clear sky of his generous nature. His strong affection became, in at least one case, weak and foolish fondness for an unworthy son.
But when all this is admitted, there remains a wonderfully rich, lovable character. He is the very ideal of a minstrel hero, such as the legends of the East especially love to paint. The shepherd's staff or sling, the sword, the sceptre, and the lyre are equally familiar to his hands. That union of the soldier and the poet gives the life a peculiar charm, and is very strikingly brought out in that chapter of the book of Samuel (2 Samuel 23) which begins, "These be the last words of David," and after giving the swan-song of him whom it calls "the sweet psalmist of Israel," passes immediately to the other side of the dual character, with, "These be the names of the mighty men whom David had."
Thus, on the one side, we see the true poetic temperament, with all its capacities for keenest delight and sharpest agony, with its tremulous mobility, its openness to every impression, its gaze of child-like wonder, and eager welcome to whatsoever things are lovely, its simplicity and self-forgetfulness, its yearnings "after worlds half realized," its hunger for love, its pity, and its tears. He was made to be the inspired poet of the religious affections.
And, on the other side, we see the greatest qualities of a military leader of the antique type, in which personal daring and a strong arm count for more than strategic skill. He dashes at Goliath with an enthusiasm of youthful courage and faith. While still in the earliest bloom of his manhood, at the head of his wild band of outlaws, he shows himself sagacious, full of resource, prudent in counsel, and swift as lightning in act; frank and generous, bold and gentle, cheery in defeat, calm in peril, patient in privations and ready to share them with his men, modest and self-restrained in victory, chivalrous to his foes, ever watchful, ever hopeful—a born leader and king of men.
The basis of all was a profound, joyous trust in his Shepherd God, an ardour of personal love to Him, such as had never before been expressed, if it had ever found place, in Israel. That trust "opened his mouth to show forth" God's praise, and strengthened his "fingers to fight." He has told us himself what was his habitual temper, and how it was sustained: "I have set the Lord always before me. Because He is at my right hand, I shall not be moved. Therefore my heart is glad, and my glory rejoiceth." (Psalm 16:8-9.)
Thus endowed, he moved among men with that irresistible fascination which only the greatest exercise. From the day when he stole like a sunbeam into the darkened chamber where Saul wrestled with the evil spirit, he bows all hearts that come under his spell. The women of Israel chant his name with song and timbrel, the daughter of Saul confesses her love unasked, the noble soul of Jonathan cleaves to him, the rude outlaws in his little army peril their lives to gratify his longing for a draught from the well where he had watered his father's flocks; the priests let him take the consecrated bread, and trust him with Goliath's sword, from behind the altar; his lofty courtesy wins the heart of Abigail; the very king of the Philistines tells him that he is "good in his sight as an angel of God;" the unhappy Saul's last word to him is a blessing; six hundred men of Gath forsake home and country to follow his fortunes when he returns from exile; and even in the dark close of his reign, though sin and self-indulgence, and neglect of his kingly duties, had weakened his subjects' loyalty, his flight before Absalom is brightened by instances of passionate devotion which no common character could have evoked; and even then his people are ready to die for him, and in their affectionate pride call him "the light of Israel." It was a prophetic instinct which made Jesse call his youngest boy by a name apparently before unused—David, "Beloved."
The Spirit of God, acting through these great natural gifts, and using this diversified experience of life, originated in him a new form of inspiration. The Law was the revelation of the mind, and, in some measure, of the heart, of God to man. The Psalm is the echo of the law, the return current set in motion by the outflow of the Divine will, the response of the heart of man to the manifested God. There had, indeed, been traces of hymns before David. There were the burst of triumph which the daughters of Israel sang, with timbrel and dance, over Pharaoh and his host; the prayer of Moses the man of God (Psalm 90.), so archaic in its tone, bearing in every line the impress of the weary wilderness and the law of death; the song of the dying lawgiver (Deuteronomy 32.); the passionate pæan of Deborah; and some few briefer frag ments. But, practically, the Psalm began with David; and though many hands struck the harp after him, even down at least to the return from exile, he remains emphatically "the sweet psalmist of Israel."
The psalms which are attributed to him have, on the whole, a marked similarity of manner. Their characteristics have been well summed up as "creative originality, predominantly elegiac tone, graceful form and movement, antique but lucid style;" to which may be added the intensity of their devotion, the passion of Divine love that glows in them all. They correspond, too, with the circumstances of his life as given in the historical books. The early shepherd days, the manifold sorrows, the hunted wanderings, the royal authority, the wars, the triumphs, the sin, the remorse, which are woven together so strikingly in the latter, all reappear in the psalms. The illusions, indeed, are for the most part general rather than special, as is natural. His words are thereby the better fitted for ready application to the trials of other lives. But it has been perhaps too hastily assumed that the allusions are so general as to make it impossible to connect them with any precise events, or to make the psalms and the history mutually illustrative. Much, no doubt, must be conjectured rather than affirmed, and much must be left undetermined; but when all deductions on that score have been made, it still appears possible to carry the process sufficiently far to gain fresh insight into the force and definiteness of many of David's words, and to use them with tolerable confidence as throwing light upon the narrative of his career. The attempt is made in some degree in this volume.
It will be necessary to prefix a few further remarks on the Davidic psalms in general. Can we tell which are David's? The Psalter, as is generally known, is divided into five books or parts, probably from some idea that it corresponded with the Pentateuch. These five books are marked by a doxology at the close of each, except the last. The first portion consists of Psalm 1-41; the second of Psalm 42-72; the third of Psalm 73-89; the fourth of Psalm 90-96; and the fifth of Psalm 107-150. The psalms attributed to David are unequally distributed through these five books. There are seventy-three in all, and they run thus:—In the first book there are thirty-seven; so that if we regard psalms 1 and 2 as a kind of double introduction, a frontispiece and vignette title-page to the whole collection, the first book proper only two which are not regarded as David's. The second book has a much smaller proportion, only eighteen out of thirty-one. The third book has but one, the fourth two; while the fifth has fifteen, eight of which (138-145) occur almost at the close. The intention is obvious—to throw the Davidic psalms as much as possible together in the first two books. And the inference is not unnatural that these may have formed an earlier collection, to which were afterwards added the remaining three, with a considerable body of alleged psalms of David, which had subsequently come to light, placed side by side at the end, so as to round off the whole.
Be that as it may, one thing is clear from the arrangement of the Psalter, namely, that the superscriptions which give the authors' names are at least as old as the collection itself; for they have guided the order of the collection in the grouping not only of Davidic psalms, but also of those attributed to the sons of Korah (42-49) and to Asaph (73-83)
The question of the reliableness of these superscriptions is hotly debated. The balance of modern opinion is decidedly against their genuineness. As in greater matters, so here "the higher criticism" comes to the consideration of their claims with a prejudice against them, and on very arbitrary grounds determines for itself, quite irrespective of these ancient voices, the date and authorship of the psalms. The extreme form of this tendency is to be found in the masterly work of Ewald, who has devoted all his vast power of criticism (and eked it out with all his equally great power of confident assertion) to the book, and has come to the conclusion that we have but eleven of David's psalms,—which is surely a result that may lead to questionings as to the method which has attained it.
These editorial notes are proved to be of extreme antiquity by such considerations as these: The Septuagint translators found them, and did not understand them; the synagogue preserves no traditions to explain them; the Book of Chronicles throws no light upon them; they are very rare in the two last books of the Psalter (Delitzsch, ii. 393). In some cases they are obviously erroneous, but in the greater number there is nothing inconsistent with their correctness in the psalms to which they are appended; while very frequently they throw a flood of light upon these, and all but prove their trustworthiness by their appropriateness. They are not authoritative, but they merit respectful consideration, and, as Dr. Perowne puts it in his valuable work on the Psalms, stand on a par with the subscriptions to the Epistles in the New Testament. Regarding them thus, and yet examining the psalms to which they are prefixed, there seem to be about forty-five which we may attribute with some confidence to David, and with these we shall be concerned in this book.