ONE of the characters in the background of the Christmas story is King David, the second King of Israel, and founder of Judah’s royal house. But why is this Old Testament figure part of the story of Christmas, and what does he teach us about Jesus?
IN THE greeting of the angel, the name of King David is invoked in connection with the birth of Jesus. Jesus is to be seen as the heir of David. The very first verse of Matthew’s Gospel names Jesus as “the son of David”, and Herod is later depicted as suspicious and in fear of a royal rival. In Luke’s Gospel, Gabriel specifically says of Jesus: “The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David” (Luke 1.32), while Zechariah, in the Benedictus, refers to God’s acts in fulfilment of the promises he made to David. One of the enigmas surrounding Jesus is the way in which he linked to Old Testament prophecy. The scriptures had long described the promised Messiah as a “Son of David”, a king to rival the first David, who was seen as the epitome of godly kingship. It wasn’t easy, though, for the earliest Christians to demonstrate a royal background for Jesus from humble Nazareth, and two family trees — one in Matthew and one in Luke — were produced as evidence.
DAVID’s story, as told in the Bible, dominates the two books of Samuel, the opening of the First Book of Kings, and the First Book of Chronicles. They tell a clear enough story: David is the son of Jesse of Bethlehem, growing up to be little more than a shepherd boy, until the mighty judge and prophet Samuel identifies him as God’s chosen successor to the failed first King of Israel, Saul. David begins a long journey to power. He befriends Saul’s son, Jonathan, but falls foul of the father, and is exiled to lead the life of a bandit for many years. On the death of Saul and Jonathan at the battle of Gilboa, David is left to lead the defence of the nation of Israel against the Philistines, and he conquers in God’s name. It is David who captures the city of Jerusalem from the Jebusites and founds a royal dynasty which has God’s seal of approval.
The historical evidence for David outside the pages of scripture is a little more difficult to pin down, as very little remains by way of archaeological evidence for David or for David’s kingdom. There are three ancient inscriptions that appear to refer to “the House of David”, but the existence of a strong and united kingdom that ruled over Israel and Judah is still evidenced only in the Bible, and not in the findings of any archaeology to date.
IN COMPLETE contrast to this, legend has seen David as the perfect godly king, even though in the Bible several stories reveal his fallibility. His warrior career and record outshone all that might have besmirched his name, however, and, in the eyes of the medieval chroniclers, he was the perfect example of chivalry, particularly in his defeat of the giant Philistine warrior Goliath, while he was still a boy. David joined the list of the Nine Worthies, the nine greatest warrior heroes of chivalry for the medievals: Hector of Troy, Alexander the Great, and Julius Caesar; Joshua, David, and Judas Maccabeus; Arthur, Charlemagne, and Godfrey of Bouillon, the first Crusader king of Jerusalem.
Not only that, but his reputation as a musician added further lustre to David’s name. The fact that so many of the psalms in the Bible are attributed to David meant that he gained a great reputation as a musician. He is often depicted playing his harp: something remembered to this day when, appearing as the king of spades in the French deck of cards, David carries his harp for all eternity.
The picture of David accompanying today’s reflection is based on a portrait by Pedro Berruguete, a Spanish artist who painted many “portraits” of David in the late 15th century. Berruguete enjoyed depicting David as an oriental monarch complete with turban and rich jewels. His portraits were received with delight in the courts of Europe, reminding kings of their duty to aspire to be like David.
DAVID is therefore presented as the role model for Jesus, the righteous king who is the object of God’s favour and promise. Important as these promises are, however, the Bible speaks of God’s eternal horizons as being far greater than human comprehension: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?” God asks in the book of Job (Job 38.4). “In the Lord’s sight a thousand years are like one day” wrote the apostle Peter (2 Peter 3.8).
In this context, the plan by which God chooses the nation of the Jews to be God’s people, and which promises them a ruler like David, who will rule for eternity, is just one element of the wider sweep of salvation history, in which God works out the redemption of all creation. Christians therefore see God working throughout history to bring forth the goal of a redeemed and holy humanity: all creation waits for the revealing of the sons of God, as the Letter to the Romans puts it (Romans 8.19).
Earthly kingship becomes just a pale reflection of the Kingship of God, and of the Lord Jesus who, as the Son of David, inherits the mantle of all God’s plans for salvation. Let us pause to reflect on the eternal workings of God’s providence and plans for humanity, and God’s faithfulness to his promises.
God of our ancestors, down through the centuries, you choose a people of your own desire to prepare the way of salvation for the whole of creation. As we remember David, who was your chosen instrument in establishing the people of Israel, help us to see the way in which Jesus is established as the Lord of Creation. Amen.
The Rt Revd Gregory K. Cameron is the Bishop of St Asaph.
An Advent Book of Days: Meeting the characters of Christmas is published by Canterbury Press at £9.99 (CT Bookshop £8.99).