". . . and having done all . . . stand firm." Eph. 6:13


How and Why to Read 2 Samuel in 2023

August 6, 2023

Government leaders in Washington constantly disappoint. Whether it’s Congress, or the president, or even the Supreme Court, more Americans disapprove than approve of the people running our branches of government. Different theories have blamed parties, or the media, or Marxism, or capitalism, or racism, or even the constitutional system itself for these woes. But government leaders falling short of expectations is nothing unique to Washington, D.C., elected governments, or the 21st Century. Long ago, the man after God’s own heart, Israel’s great King David, oversaw a surprisingly tumultuous reign for what was the golden age of the Kingdom of Israel.

2 Samuel narrates David’s reign. There is civil war, assassination, political maneuvering, violent crime, foreign wars, tragic death, diplomatic incidents, suicide, a coup d’etat, rebellion, famine, and plague. Some of these grievous circumstances resulted from David’s own sin. Much resulted from the sin of others. This is the record of Israel’s greatest king, which God so ordered so that even the best human ruler would leave us dissatisfied, wanting something better: God himself, who would take on flesh as David’s Son.

Overview of 2 Samuel

2 Samuel 1:1 picks up where 1 Samuel left off (they originally formed one work), with David resting victorious in Ziklag and Saul lying dead on Mount Gilboa. The first 10 chapters describe David’s reign. The next 10 chapters describe David’s sin. And the final four chapters contain miscellaneous records, in a sort of epilogue or appendix.

2 Samuel 1:2-5:5 describes David’s ascent to the throne of Israel in stages, which slowly but surely confirms the Lord anointing him king through Samuel. Foreshadowing the divided kingdom, David reigned first over Judah only (2:4) while the other tribes followed Saul’s son Ish-bosheth (2:8-9), as guided by Saul’s uncle and general Abner. In the ensuing civil war, David’s side grew gradually stronger (3:1). Eventually, Abner defects to David (3:12) — but is immediately murdered by David’s own general Joab (3:27) — then Ish-bosheth is murdered (4:6). After six-and-a-half years, David is crowned king of all Israel (5:3). Yet David plays no role in killing his rivals. Far from condoning their deaths, he composes laments for Abner (4:33-34) and Saul (1:17-27), and he executes the murderers of Saul (1:15-16) and Ish-bosheth (4:12).

2 Samuel 5:6-10:19 describes David’s victories, as well as various other events of his reign. David first established himself in Jerusalem (5:6-16) — the most important city in biblical history, which Israel had repeatedly failed to inhabit (Joshua 15:63, Judges 1:21) despite twice capturing it (Joshua 12:10, Judges 1:8). Immediately, he had to repulse two Philistine invasions (5:17-21), which he did by following the Lord’s guidance to victory — in contrast to Saul, who followed a medium to destruction. Later in his reign, David subdued the Philistines (8:1), the Moabites (8:2), the Aramean king of Zobah (8:3-8), the Edomites (8:13-14), the Ammonites (10:1-14), and the Syrians (10:15-19). Thus, God fulfilled his promise to Abraham, “to your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates” (Genesis 15:18).

Amid these conquests, David demonstrated as much piety before God as he did valor in battle. At the first opportunity (2 Samuel 6:2), David moved to secure the neglected ark of the covenant — again in contrast to Saul, who let it languish for 40 years. Its first journey (6:3-10) misfired tragically because Israel neglected the law for transporting it (Exodus 25:14), but God blessed its second journey (6:12-15). David then sought out and showed kindness to Mephibosheth (9:1-13), because of the covenant of friendship with Jonathan he swore before God (1 Samuel 18:3, 20:42). David even honored God with the spoils of his victories. He dedicated the precious metals he captured (2 Samuel 8:11-12) and hamstrung most of the chariot horses (8:4) as God had commanded Joshua (Joshua 11:6) — Israel’s armies must rely not on horses and chariots, but on God (Psalm 20:7, Isaiah 31:1).

The crown jewel of the account of David’s reign is the everlasting covenant the Lord makes with him in 2 Samuel 7. As David contemplates building a house for the Lord, the Lord sends word that he will build David a house. “When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever” (7:12-13). As we learn throughout the New Testament (Luke 1:32, Acts 2:29-32, Romans 1:3, 2 Timothy 2:8, Hebrews 1:8, Revelation 11:15), this prophecy is ultimately fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

In 2 Samuel 11-13, the subject of the narrative dramatically changes to David’s sin with Bathsheba. Idleness opened the door to temptation, and the man after God’s own heart quickly fell into adultery, deception, and murder, making others complicit along the way. Much later (1 Kings 15:5), this episode is recorded as the sole blemish on David’s righteous character. Scripture records, “The thing that David had done displeased the Lord” (11:27), and God rebuked and punished David, even as he forgave his sin. He sent the prophet Nathan to convict David of his sin with a parable about a rich man who stole his poor neighbor’s only sheep (12:1-4). David reacted angrily, “the man who has done this deserves to die, and he shall restore the lamb fourfold” (12:5-6), citing the Mosaic statute (Exodus 22:1).

But that fourfold retribution would work itself out in David’s own family. First to die is David and Bathsheba’s child (12:15-23) — although the Lord then showed mercy by blessing their union with Solomon (12:24). Next, David’s daughter Tamar was raped and then rejected by her half-brother Amnon (13:14, 16), which effectively ended her prospects in that culture, and she “lived, a desolate woman, in her brother Absalom’s house” (13:20). Absalom then had Amnon murdered (13:29), then he himself fled into exile (13:34). Thus God chastened David fourfold for his sin with Uriah’s wife.

In 2 Samuel 14-20, David continued to experience sore, humbling trials, many of which were ripples from the seismic tremors in his own family. Absalom returned (14:23) but was disgraced (14:28), so he plotted a coup (15:1-12). David flees to the far northeast of Israel (17:24), bearing the uncalled-for curses of a Benjaminite (16:5-14). David’s well-placed, subtle friend Hushai offered timely counsel to delay Absalom’s pursuit and give David time to escape and regroup (17:7-14). Finally, David’s servants defeated Absalom’s army (18:7), and Joab slew Absalom in cold blood (18:14) against David’s express order (18:5).

But David did not return immediately to Jerusalem — not until he prompted Judah to invite him back as their king (19:14). His triumphant (but not entirely glorious) return is laden with characters David must reward or pardon (19:15-40), and it ended with the other tribes deserting Judah (20:1) and launching another rebellion. As David hastened to quell the uprising, Joab murdered another commander, Amasa (20:10) but went on to obtain a nearly bloodless peace. These chapters of palace intrigue scarcely mention God at all, but he is certainly at work behind the scenes.

2 Samuel 21-24 are not necessarily in chronological order. In the center of this epilogue are two poems, bookended by two accounts of David’s mighty men, with two instances of judgment and repentance outside of that.

In 2 Samuel 21:1-14, God sent a famine for Saul’s sinful massacre of the Gibeonites, thus violating the covenant Joshua had sworn to them (Joshua 9:15). They demanded bloody retribution against Saul’s descendants, and God did not heal the land until after David had given the bones of these victims (and Saul’s) a proper burial.

In 2 Samuel 24, David took a sinful census of Israel’s fighting forces — which numbered 1.3 million, about the size of the current U.S. military. God offered David a choice among three forms of judgment, and David chose pestilence, saying, “let us fall into the hand of the Lord, for his mercy is great” (24:14). Indeed, three days later, the Lord halted the judgment as it was about to destroy Jerusalem, and David built an altar at the place where he halted (24:25). Ancient readers would have recognized a significance to this location which isn’t obvious to us; the site where the Lord’s mercy halted his judgment became the location of the temple (1 Chronicles 22:1).

In 2 Samuel 21:15-22, David’s mighty men wipe out the rest of the Philistine giants. The passage echoes the David and Goliath account, but David is no longer the hero. In fact, he is old and frail.

2 Samuel 23:8-39 lists out all the mighty men by name and offers a sample of the kinds of exploits they produce. One point of the narrative is not so much that these were all super-warriors, but that through them “the Lord worked a great victory” (23:12). The text lists 37 names in a group known as “the thirty,” but not all served at the same time. In fact, 2 Samuel previously narrated the deaths of two, Asahel (2:23) and Uriah (11:17). Benaiah the son of Jehoiada will become the most important figure of this group in 1 Kings.

2 Samuel 22 recites David’s song “on the day when the Lord delivered him from the hand of all his enemies” (22:1). Its evocative poetry is full of lively images as it celebrates God’s deliverance and uniqueness. It contains many parallels with the songs of Moses found in Exodus 15 and Deuteronomy 32. It also echoes God’s promise in 2 Samuel 7 about David’s offspring reigning forever, “Great salvation he brings to his king, and shows steadfast love to his anointed, to David and his offspring forever” (22:51).

In 2 Samuel 23:1-7, we read David’s last words — another oracle and poem. It also looks forward to the fulfillment of God’s everlasting covenant with David, and it strongly praises the benefits of godly authority.

Gospel Glimpses

2 Samuel is full of expectant glimpses forward through history to a future savior in David’s line. These are stated most fully in God’s covenant with David (7:4-29), where God promises, “I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever” (7:12-13). The Messianic title “Son of David” is applied to Jesus dozens of times in the gospels, and even the Pharisees recognize that the Christ is David’s Son (Matthew 22:42).

As good as David was, his promised descendant would have to surpass him. David sinned, even grievously so. He failed as a leader, and his kingdom suffered famine, pestilence, civil war, and even a coup. On top of all that, he grew old and infirm, and then he died. All of these aspects of David’s life points us to one truth: we need a sinless king who will never die. Even David recognized this when he wrote, “you will not … let your holy one see corruption” (Psalm 16:10), as both Peter (Acts 2:25-31) and Paul (Acts 13:35-37) interpreted the psalm.

The Davidic covenant also provides a glimpse of the final rest God’s people will enjoy. “I will appoint a place for my people Israel,” said the Lord, “and will plant them, so that they may dwell in their own place and be disturbed no more. And violent men shall afflict them no more, as formerly, from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel. And I will give you rest from all your enemies” (7:10-11).

All of this is possible because of God’s redeeming love and mercy. David swore by the Lord, “who has redeemed my life out of every adversity” (4:9), as his deliverance psalm sets forth in memorable imagery. We also see God’s mercy through his forgiveness of David’s sin. “The Lord also has put away your sin,” Nathan tells him, after he confesses his guilt regarding Uriah’s wife (12:13).

David also typifies his future offspring Jesus. He acted as a mediator between God and the people, making offerings and delivering God’s blessing (6:17-19). He defeated all his enemies (8:1-14). He was faithful to his covenant (9:1). He silently endured unjust abuse (16:5-14). He showed mercy to his enemies (19:23). If the dim foreshadowing was glorious, how much more the fulfillment!


2 Samuel is often descriptive, not prescriptive; it tells us what happened honestly, but it doesn’t intend for us to imitate the sinful deeds with which the book is filled. It’s important to keep that interpretive principle in mind when reading this book or other ones. In a book like this, it’s dangerous to jump straight to application. A better process has three steps: observe, interpret, and then apply. We should observe what the text says, interpret what point the author is trying to convey (often with the aid of other parts of Scripture), and then apply that point to our lives.

Yet there are some themes to apply throughout this book. David’s example can teach us how to confess sin, how to lament, and how to avoid retaliating against our enemies.

David also models how to lie quietly under the Lord’s affliction — as Jesus would do after him. As Shimei the Benjaminite curses him, an underling begs permission to kill him. But David replies in the negative, “If he is cursing because the Lord has said to him, ‘Curse David,’ who then shall say, ‘Why have you done so?’” (16:10). David’s theology had a category for occasions when the Lord afflicts us, and when it would be rebellion against God — aka sin — to seek a way out of the trial on our own. Our theology should have this category, too.

David adds this encouraging note of faith, “It may be that the Lord will look on the wrong done to me, and that the Lord will repay me with good for his cursing today” (16:12). In other words, God will reward those who suffer faithfully. Do we believe that? Do we act like it?

Ultimately, though, 2 Samuel teaches us not to place our hope in this world, or in any of this world’s political leaders. They are all sinners. If even David, the man after God’s own heart, could disappoint, then any leader will disappoint us. Only Jesus is worthy of our ultimate hope. 2 Samuel invites us to look forward expectantly to his return and eternal reign.

Joshua Arnold is a staff writer at The Washington Stand.