One of the beautiful things about the Word of God is that it reveals new things every time you read it. Take, for example, the books of 1st and 2nd Samuel. I have read these books in their entirety more than once in the past. It is easy to breeze through them, since they are, on the surface, simply historical accounts. However, during my most recent reading through the books of Samuel, a totally new idea struck me: the periods in the life of David were like an illustration of different periods of the history of the church. The more I thought about the idea, the more connections I realized.
We can begin with the familiar story of David and Goliath in 1 Samuel 17. The whole host of Israel feared to stand before the giant, but the shepherd boy approached him with neither sword nor shield. From the point of view of the Philistines, David must have looked crazy. However, “then said David to the Philistine, Thou comest to me with a sword and with a spear, and with a shield: but I come to thee in the name of the LORD of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom thou has defied.” (v. 45.) His faith that the Lord would deliver him emboldened David to fight against the enemies of God. He knew well “…that the LORD saveth not with sword and spear: for the battle is the LORD’s…” (v. 47.) Through his faith and God’s grace, the son of Jesse prevailed.
Now let us turn our minds to the early church. In the first centuries after Christ’s resurrection, the known world was ruled by the Roman Empire. In this period, Rome was an almost constant adversary to the Christians. Paganism, with all the associated abominations, filled the Empire. To the first Christians, it must have seemed that the hand of Satan was everywhere. Despite all this, did the Christians hide in their tents like Saul and his army? Of course not! They boldly engaged the devil’s strongholds, and the only sword in their hands was the Word of God. Paul mentions believers in the emperor’s household (Philippians 4:22), and the generations after the apostles were just as courageous in fighting the good fight of faith.
The account of the martyrdom of Polycarp in the mid-2nd century has always been an inspiration to me, and it also serves as a good example of the early church’s fearless struggle. Polycarp had been personally instructed by the Apostle John, and he had been appointed overseer of the church in Smyrna. When he was in his 80s, he was dragged before a Roman proconsul to answer for the crime of being a Christian. Surrounded by an arena of Romans looking for blood, the Roman official tried to compel Polycarp to deny Christ. Polycarp responded by offering to explain the Gospel to the proconsul. The agitated official threatened the old man with wild animals and with fire; Polycarp was unfazed. This undaunted witness of Jesus Christ went to the stake warning that a greater fire awaits the unbelievers. Even in death, the adversary had no power over him.
Moving back to David’s experiences, King Saul became jealous of the young man’s victories. Fearing for his throne, Saul sought to kill David, and David consequently fled from Saul. Even though he was on the run, David attracted a following. In 1 Samuel 24, David and his men were hiding in a cave in Engedi from the forces of Saul. Unwittingly, Saul entered the same cave; his life was completely within David’s power. However, the most David was willing to do was cut off the skirt of Saul’s robe, and afterward even this act made him sorrowful. “And he said unto his men, the LORD forbid that I should do this thing unto my master, the LORD’s anointed, to stretch forth mine hand against him, seeing he is the anointed of the LORD” (v. 6). This is the man who had been seeking to kill David any chance he received. However, the humble son of Jesse must have recalled that the Lord does not save with sword or spear. After the hunted revealed that he had mercy on the hunter, Saul admitted, “…Thou art more righteous than I: for thou hast rewarded me good whereas I have rewarded thee evil (v. 17).
Alas, Saul still had not learned his lesson. In Chapter 26, the king was once again combing the wilderness for David. And once again, God gave David an opportunity to smite Saul, and David refused to do it. In the first verse of Chapter 27, David started to think that Saul would eventually kill him. Still, there is no sign that David regretted his actions. Instead of retaliating, he opted instead to flee to the land of the Philistines.
These passages are rich with parallels to the persecuted church. Following the commands of Jesus, His faithful church has always loved her enemies. Over the centuries, the face of the enemy has changed. The Roman Empire persecuted the early church; the Catholic Church persecuted kingdom movements like the Waldensians throughout the Middle Ages; both the Catholics and the Protestant Reformers persecuted the Anabaptists in the 16th century; and so forth through history. In all these cases, the persecuted Christians, like David, followed Romans 12:19: “Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.” Despite what the devil threw at them, they would not return evil for evil. Their goal was to advance the Kingdom of God, even to their persecutors, if that was God’s will. At most, the hunted Christians would flee to another area as Jesus directed (Matthew 10:23), also echoing David. Their love made them powerful witnesses of the Gospel, and they won souls to Christ even amidst their sufferings.
At the close of 1st Samuel, the Lord rendered His judgment on Saul, who died in battle with the Philistines. As we move into 2nd Samuel, we begin to see the ascent of David into earthly power. After he became ruler of Judah and then all of Israel, the humble servant who had always walked with God started to change. This did not happen all at once, but gradually. In 2 Samuel 9, David showed mercy to Mephibosheth, son of Jonathan, demonstrating that he had no ill will towards the house of Saul. In the next chapter, however, David’s response was very different when his ambassadors were humiliated by the king of the children of Ammon. Now, David did not wait for the Lord’s vengeance, and he used the armies of Israel to smite the children of Ammon and their Syrian helpers. David became such a man of war that the Lord did not allow him to build the temple (1 Chronicles 22:8).
Once David started to drift from wholly following the Lord, worse and worse sins were committed. The king stayed behind in Jerusalem while he sent his army out to battle (2 Samuel 11:1). In the midst of shirking his leadership responsibilities, he lusted after another man’s wife and committed adultery with her. This was the man who the Bible describes as a man after God’s own heart. Yet, his rise to worldly power began a downward spiral of transgressions that culminated in the murder of a righteous man.
I am sad to say that this phase in David’s life also mirrors a period in church history. In the early 4th century, Roman Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity after centuries of widespread persecution. In just a short time, the institutional church became intertwined with the state. Just like David, the attainment of worldly power brought corruption. There was a total departure by the institutional church from the early church’s position against joining the military or holding political office. This same institutional church fell further and further from the Gospel to the point of a pope in the Middle Ages promising total remission of sins to anyone who died fighting in the Crusades. However, like the words of the prophet Nathan that stood against David’s sin, there was always a remnant of the faithful church preserved by God.
The descent of professing Christianity into apostasy can be directly traced to the power and influence granted to it by Constantine. As earthly power increased, the church’s reliance on the power of the Holy Spirit inevitably declined. When Nathan rebuked David for his sin with Bath-sheba, he revealed David’s greatest transgression: “…by this deed thou hast given great occasion for the enemies of the LORD to blaspheme…” (2 Samuel 12:14.) When professing Christians allow involvement in this world’s kingdoms to pull them away from wholly following Christ, even the world sees the contradiction. I once saw a bumper sticker that saddened me because of its truthfulness. It consisted of a quote attributed to Gandhi: “I like your Christ. I don’t like your Christians. They are so unlike your Christ.” This is not a problem that stayed behind in the Middle Ages. The enemies of Christ are being given occasion to blaspheme.
David was punished with the death of his son with Bath-sheba as well as continual strife with his family. The king repented of his sins, yet he faltered again in his later years. “And Satan stood up against Israel, and provoked David to number Israel.” (2 Chronicles 21:1.) David was even warned against this action by one of his men, but he insisted. Instead of depending on the Lord for protection from his enemies, the son of Jesse now trusted in his own military forces. He had placed his faith in the wrong place, and he realized it after the census. “It is better to trust in the LORD than to put confidence in man.” (Psalm 118:8.) All of Israel was forced to pay the price for David’s pride.
Historically, as churches expand in numbers and increase in affluence, they become more and more reliant on these things instead of relying only on Christ. In the Dark Ages, the fruit of this trend was massive, ornate cathedrals built by the professing church as the poor starved in the streets. In the modern age, the cathedrals have largely been replaced in America with a new invention: the mega-church. Church organizations will spend millions of dollars on state-of-the-art facilities featuring amenities such as gyms, swimming pools, internet cafes, and even tanning booths! The goal is to attract people to the congregation because it is so much fun. Large membership rolls, some greater than ten thousand, are viewed as signs of ministries blessed by God. Yet, around the world the poor are still starving in the streets, many never having heard the Gospel.
What did Jesus say about crowds flooding into the church? “Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.” (Matthew 7:14.) The faithful church of Jesus Christ never has been and never will be large in number or rich in material goods. The way of the cross is foolishness to the lost, “but unto us which are saved it is the power of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:18.) Watering down the cross will assuredly allow a congregation to fill the seats, but those seats probably will not be filled with disciples of Christ.
David always turned back to following the Lord after he transgressed. Likewise, when an institutional church departs from following Christ, a remnant will come out from it and turn back to Christ’s example—even if it results in persecution. This is the only way for the church to be after God’s own heart. After the census, God offered David, through the prophet Gad, a choice of three chastisements. It will be well for us always to remember David’s response. “…I am in a great strait: let us fall now into the hand of the LORD; for his mercies are great: and let me not fall into the hand of man.” (2 Samuel 24:14.)