Volume 45 - Issue 3

The King’s Fear of the Lord as a Theme in the Books of Samuel

By David M. Cook


Evangelicals have long sought to understand the core difference between David and Saul. The answer exposes a theme touched on elsewhere in the Bible: the role of the fear of the Lord in leadership. As Samuel crowns Saul king, he points readers back to Deuteronomy 17:18–20. There readers will see the importance of a God-fearing king and find four qualities he will bear: obedience to the Lord, good treatment of others, a long rule, and a long dynasty. The writer of 1–2 Samuel then carefully documents Saul failing at all four and David fulfilling all four. Finally, David’s dying words reinforce the virtues of God-fearing leadership, leaving leaders with a profound appeal to learn the fear of the Lord.

Beneath the memorable stories of Saul and David rests a theme that carries great meaning for leaders.1 Most Evangelical sermons and scholarly works on 1 and 2 Samuel2 present David as the hero and Saul as the villain. Despite this widespread agreement on their outward behaviors, scholars and preachers have yet to reach a consensus on the inward difference between the two kings. What made Saul bad and David good?

To answer, readers must look back to Deuteronomy. As Saul is coronated king, Samuel gives a speech that points readers back to Deuteronomy 17:18–20, in which Moses commands rising kings to learn to fear the Lord. As readers look back to those verses, they find four ways the fear of the Lord would affect a king: his obedience, his treatment of others, his reign, and his dynasty. As readers then move through the Books of Samuel, they watch Saul fail at all four and David fulfill all four. Finally, they read David’s dying words extolling the virtues of one who rules “in the fear of God” (2 Sam 23:3).3 In this way, the books of Samuel present the fear of the Lord as the core difference between Saul and David.

1. The Haunting Question

Readers often close the books of Samuel desiring to avoid the fate Saul suffered and find the favor David enjoyed. Saul died trembling on his own sword after a descent into madness, rage, and witchcraft, leaving his kingdom to his rival instead of his son. David found God’s favor at an early age and died full of days, with an eternal dynasty to rule after him. Seeing the two kings as moral examples is appropriate, for “these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore, let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor 10:11–12). With such a motivating narrative, there is good reason to search the story for key differences between the two characters, for key flaws in Saul or key virtues in David. Two perspectives on this difference stand out.

Paul Borgman, appreciating how the patterns in the books of Samuel tell readers “why David instead of Saul,” concludes the answer is mysterious because “God … can see what humankind cannot.”4 The difference is not evident at first. Readers must wait patiently to see the difference: David delights in God.5 Borgman is right, though David’s delight rests on a deeper theme woven through the books of Samuel. David delights in God because he fears God.

Robert Alter, with his treasured eye for literary nuance, finds their difference in knowledge. Saul is “deprived of the knowledge he desperately seeks,” while David is “peculiarly favored with knowledge.” Like Borgman, Alter sheds light on the difference. Indeed, David’s knowledge contrasts with Saul’s lack of it; but David has more than knowledge. He has “the beginning of knowledge,” found in “the fear of the Lord” (Prov 1:7).6

2. Samuel References the Law's Requirement that Kings Fear the Lord

To uncover the key difference between David and Saul, one must consider the role of Hebrew prophets like Samuel: enforcing the book of Deuteronomy. Peter Gentry states it most plainly early in his work on the Prophets, writing that “Everything in the prophets” is “based upon the book of Deuteronomy, an expansion and renewal of the covenant made at Sinai.”7 Prophetic books like 1 and 2 Samuel were not written to predict the future but to apply a covenant made in the past to the present. This foundation in Deuteronomy helps explain why references to Deuteronomy abound in the Prophets and helps readers see the difference between David and Saul in the Books of Samuel.

If prophets applied Deuteronomy to present situations, one might expect Samuel to point to Deuteronomy’s instructions for rising kings before crowning Israel’s first king. Indeed, he does. Before crowning Saul he gives his longest speech,8 enforcing Deuteronomy 17:18–20 by urging,

And now behold the king whom you have chosen, for whom you have asked; behold, the Lord has set a king over you. If you will fear the Lord and serve him and obey his voice and not rebel against the commandment of the Lord, and if both you and the king who reigns over you will follow the Lord your God, it will be well. (1 Sam 12:13–14, emphasis mine)

These words call to mind Deuteronomy 17:18–20, which gives the same instruction to rising kings.

And when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself in a book a copy of this law, approved by the Levitical priests. And it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the Lord his God by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes, and doing them, that his heart may not be lifted up above his brothers, and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, either to the right hand or to the left, so that he may continue long in his kingdom, he and his children, in Israel. (Deut 17:18–20, emphasis mine)

With this reference, the writer of 1–2 Samuel invites readers to evaluate Israel’s kings by their fear of the Lord. Kings must learn to fear the Lord; readers must watch to see if the king learns to fear the Lord.

The king must learn to fear the Lord by reading from the Law all the days of his life. He must produce a standard copy in the presence of the Levitical priests, an act of reverence that pointed to his submission to the higher king.9 Like the vassal of an ancient Near East suzerain-vassal treaty, the king would keep his copy of the covenant with him and read it regularly.10 The king’s fear must then become evident in two ways: his obedience to all the Lord’s ways and his refusal to lift his heart above his brothers.11 If he does learn to fear the Lord, the king will reign long and his sons will reign long after him.

Readers, then, should watch for (1) how completely Saul and David follow God’s commands, (2) how they treat their fellow Israelites, (3) whether the Lord gives them long reigns, and (4) whether their sons reign long after them. Readers who look for these signs will be rewarded, as 1–2 Samuel carefully catalogues Saul failing and David succeeding in all four of them.

3. The Books of Samuel Catalogue Saul’s Failure to Fear the Lord

The writer of 1 Samuel, after pointing the reader back to the promise of Deuteronomy 17:18–20, takes care to detail Saul’s miscarriage of it. 1 Samuel observes Saul turning “aside from the commandment,” his heart being “lifted above his brothers,” and his fear of man. The writer then chronicles how Saul “and his children” do not “continue long in his kingdom” (Deut 17:20). These pointed details outline a picture of a king who never learned to fear the Lord.

3.1. Saul Turned Aside from God’s Commands

The king who feared the Lord would “not turn aside from the commandment, either to the right hand or to the left” (Deut 17:20). By keeping the Lord’s words completely, the king would show that he fears the Lord. Elsewhere in Deuteronomy, the one who fears the Lord walks in all of his ways (Deut 8:6, 10:12, 13:14). I have listed this sign first above. But not only does Saul turn aside from God’s commandments, he also loses his dynasty and then his kingdom for it, the fourth and third signs I noted above, respectively.

In the first instance of Saul turning aside from God’s commands, Saul did not wait for Samuel to arrive before offering a sacrifice, contrary to instruction. By law, Samuel could have arrived at any point in the day. But Saul grew impatient as the people began scattering. Rather than wait, he offered the sacrifice early. Samuel arrived as soon as the sacrifice was finished, contending, “You have not kept the command of the LORD your God, with which he commanded you. For then the LORD would have established your kingdom over Israel forever” (1 Sam 13:13, emphasis mine). Ironically, Saul “believed he could obtain the Lord’s favor through an act of disobedience.”12 He actually was guilty of “violating the commandment and spoiling the chance for a long-lasting dynasty.”13 Thus the writer of 1 Samuel links two aspects of Deuteronomy 17:18–20: Saul lost his dynasty because he turned aside from God’s commandment.

In the second instance of Saul turning aside from God’s commands, God directly warns Saul to listen to him (1 Sam 15:1) before commanding him to destroy every Amalekite and all their livestock, stressing the importance of that command.14 Despite the warning, Saul does not listen, sparing King Agag and the best of the livestock. Bergen notes details that stress the gravity of Saul’s failure to keep the command completely: Samuel’s angry sleeplessness and God’s use of a term for grief used elsewhere only before the grievous flood of Genesis.15 The Lord states the reason for his grief and his rejection of Saul as king: “he has turned back from following me and has not performed my commandments” (1 Sam 15:11). Thus, the writer of the books of Samuel grievously links two more aspects of Deuteronomy 17:18–20: Saul lost his kingship because he turned aside from God’s commandment a second time. Put differently, “Saul’s rejection of Yahweh’s word resulted in his own rejection as king.”16

The writer of the Books of Samuel thus connects Saul’s failure to keep all of God’s commands with his loss of his kingdom and loss of his dynasty. Saul thus failed at the first, third, and fourth signs noted above.

3.2. Saul Lifted His Heart above His Brothers

The heart of the king who feared the Lord would not “be lifted up above his brothers” (Deut 17:20). I have listed this sign second above. Here “lifted up” refers to exalting or exempting oneself.17 The God-fearing king will not exalt himself above the rest of the nation or exempt himself from God’s laws. Modern readers might say he is not above the law.

By contrast, the writer of the books of Samuel details Saul hunting David for years (1 Sam 18–31), hurling a spear at his own son in anger (1 Sam 20:33), and murdering an entire city of God’s holy priests (1 Sam 22:19). Saul made himself the exception to God’s laws over and above his Israelite brothers. He thus failed at the second sign I listed above.

3.3. Saul Feared Man, Not God

Though Saul did not learn to fear the Lord, he did learn to fear the very Israelites he lifted his heart above. Biblical counseling author Ed Welch gives helpful insight on why: one fears man because one does not fear God. Every person bears God’s image, an image that strikes fear in the hearts of sinners. To overcome this fear of man, one must learn to fear the Lord and love others.18 Indeed, the fear of the Lord “swallows up all other fears.”19 But Saul, a head and shoulders taller than the rest of Israel (1 Sam 9:2), is afraid of those he looks down upon. Building on Burrough’s foundation and Welch’s insights, readers can conclude that Saul feared his Israelite brothers because he did not learn to fear the Lord.

Readers get their first taste of Saul’s fear of man at his coronation. The lot falls to Saul, the kingship along with it. But Saul is missing. Saul’s absence puts Samuel’s authority and the lot itself into question. “Is there a man still to come?” (1 Sam 10:22).20 But is it Saul who should be embarrassed. The Lord speaks the answer: “he has hidden himself among the baggage” (1 Sam 10:22). Perhaps now readers begin to see why Saul had previously “shut out both his servant (9:27) and his uncle (10:16) from any knowledge of his destiny.”21 Saul’s stage-fright could not be hidden any more than he could; he was afraid to be king.

The reason for Saul’s fear had not yet become clear. Any wise king would be intimidated by the divine imperatives set upon a ruler and the divine accountability that follows them. Maybe Saul trembles with a true sense of reverence for the burden placed upon him. No, as 1 Samuel continues to unfold, the root of Saul’s fear comes to light. Rather than a fear of God that moves him to obedience, Saul admits he disobeyed God “because I feared the people” (1 Sam 15:24). Bergen summarizes the root of Saul’s disobedience well:

What had motivated Saul to move away from obedience to God’s command? Fundamentally it was misdirected fear: instead of fearing the Lord as required by the Torah (cf. Lev 19:14; 25:17; Deut 6:13, 24; 10:12, 20), Saul “was afraid of the people” (cf. Mark 11:32; John 7:13). Because of that misguided fear, Saul “listened to the voice of” (“gave in to”) the people instead of listening to the Lord’s voice as required by the Torah (cf. Deut 27:10).22

Eventually Saul took his own life as he trembled with fear of the Philistines. The Philistines had pushed Israel back, killed Saul’s three oldest sons, and overtaken Saul with archers. If this were not enough, Saul already knew his fate from a dramatic revelation the night before.23 There appeared only one choice, as Saul would command his armor-bearer, “Draw your sword, and thrust me through with it, lest these uncircumcised come and thrust me through, and mistreat me” (1 Sam 31:4).

To be sure, some venerable exegetes do not see Saul’s suicide this way. Joyce Baldwin saw his choice as honorable. “Saul heroically fell upon his own sword rather than have the uncircumcised Philistines make sport of him, as they had done with Samson.”24 But this conclusion seems out of line with her other observations, and also with the biblical account of Samson’s death. Saul’s choice must be out of fear and self-interest, for the Philistines could dishonor Israel’s God with the body of a dead king just as easily as they could with a live king. Baldwin affirmed this with strong imagery.

Though Saul did not live to witness the scene, the Philistines did enjoy themselves at his expense; in particular, they made capital out of their victory by congratulating their gods, and by dedicating Saul’s armour to become a trophy in the temple of Ashtaroth, in much the same way as Goliath’s sword had been treasured in Israel’s sanctuary (1 Sam. 21:9). The foreign deity had triumphed, and the decapitated body of Israel’s anointed king was hung, exposed, on the city wall of Bethshan, the easternmost of the line of old Canaanite fortress cities across the country from the Mediterranean to the Jordan, which the Israelites had not conquered (Josh. 17:11).25

I conclude that Saul did not have in mind the honor of Israel’s God, or he would have stayed alive as long as possible to fight for it. Perhaps then God would have honored himself in Saul’s humiliation as he did during Samson’s humiliation (Judg 16:28–30). Saul could only have killed himself out of fear for the taunting and torture at the hands of men sure to meet him.

Interestingly, Saul’s armor-bearer refused to thrust Saul through because “he feared greatly” (1 Sam 31:5). Of this Baldwin fittingly quipped, “David, who had once been Saul’s armour-bearer, would have approved.”26

It follows, then, that if Saul had learned to fear the Lord, he would not have feared his people or his enemies. But Saul’s fear of man grew so great that it took his kingdom from him and killed him.

3.4. Saul Paid for His Disobedience

The promise of Deuteronomy is ultimately that the king who fears the Lord will “continue long in his kingdom, he and his children in Israel” (Deut 17:20). I have listed these signs, a long reign and a long dynasty, third and fourth above, respectively. By contrast, God rejected Saul and anointed David two years into Saul’s reign,27 having already promised to take the kingdom from his sons.

If the details in Saul’s transgression are heartbreaking, the details of his promised downfall are worse. Once the anointing moves from him to David, the Lord’s blessing and the people’s hearts go with it. The Spirit of the Lord departs from Saul and a harmful spirit begins to torment him (1 Sam 16:14). David slays the giant that gigantic Saul would not fight (1 Sam 17). The people start lauding David more highly than Saul (1 Sam 18:7). Saul’s turns into a jealous madman until he kills himself (1 Sam 31:4) with no son reigning after him. Yet the framework of the narrative suggests that another, David, is gaining the Lord’s favor as Saul finally loses it completely; Saul is defeated by David’s former friends (the Philistines) while David defeats the enemy near whom Saul found his rejection from God (the Amalekites).28

Saul’s story paints a tragic picture of a king who never learns to fear the Lord. By forsaking God’s commandments and lifting his heart above his brothers, Saul lost his kingdom and dynasty.

4. The Books of Samuel Catalogue David's Rule in the Fear of the Lord

During and after Saul’s tragic failure to learn the fear of the Lord, the writer of 1–2 Samuel carefully notes David’s fulfillment of Deuteronomy 17:18–20 and ends David’s life with a summary that he ruled “in the fear of God” (2 Sam 23:3). Thus, after pointing readers to Deuteronomy’s exhortation to fear the Lord and cataloguing Saul’s failure to embrace it, the writer then casts David as a God-fearing king who ends his life exhorting others to lead in the fear of God.

4.1. David Cherished God’s Commands

Despite striking blemishes in David’s track record, prophets mark him with integrity and with delight in God’s commands. He reminds readers that sinners can still walk in integrity. This integrity is the first sign I noted above.

David’s integrity is perhaps best summarized in the song recorded at the end of his life. Why did God continue to deliver David from threat after threat?

The Lord dealt with me according to my righteousness;
according to the cleanness of my hands he rewarded me.

For I have kept the ways of the Lord
and have not wickedly departed from my God.

For all his rules were before me,
and from his statutes I did not turn aside.

I was blameless before him,
and I kept myself from guilt.

And the Lord has rewarded me according to my righteousness,
according to my cleanness in his sight. (2 Sam 22:21–25)

The wording, especially an inclusio of verses 21 and 25, points readers back to Deuteronomy’s imperative to “keep the ways of Yahweh” (note verse 22), so much that many see is as a Deuteronomistic insertion.29 Instead, the writer of 1 Samuel intentionally pointed back to Deuteronomy, painting David as the ideal fulfillment of Deuteronomy’s expectation of royal integrity. Other prophets continue this trend later when they measure his descendants against him in 1 Kings, asking whether they “walked in my ways, doing what is right in my sight and keeping my statutes and my rules, as David his father did” (1 Kgs 11:33).30 In Samuel and elsewhere, the prophets cast David as the king who kept God’s commands.

The promise of Deuteronomy 17 states where this integrity will come from: daily reading of the Law. The writer of 1–2 Samuel notes David’s view of this Law in the same song. “This God—his way is perfect,” David sings, “The word of the LORD proves true” (2 Sam 22:31). God’s word “‘stands the test of fire’, like precious metal.”31 David’s perilous life tested it often, finding it pure and reliable. While David’s anthology of songs like Psalm 19 and Psalm 119 may best express his love for God’s word, the books of Samuel make note of it as part of his fear of the Lord. By notable contrast, the books make no mention of Saul’s love for God’s commands. The God-fearing king will regard God’s word highly and walk in all of it; David did just that.

Yet readers and interpreters must weigh such a sterling assessment against David’s great sins. Most notably, David lustfully took a married woman and conspired to kill her husband before pridefully counting God’s people contrary to the Law.

David’s affair with Bathsheba in 2 Samuel 11 “jolt(s) the reader, who has become accustomed to the mild and generally upright David.”32 Such a jolt testifies to the integrity readers expect from David; but readers must wonder how a man who fears the Lord so greatly could do such a thing. They are right to wonder, as the broader story shows the writer’s focus on David’s character over his military feats.33

Though David’s conduct is shockingly immoral, the story eventually shows that even David at his worst is different from Saul. Readers ultimately see David’s openness to prophetic rebuke, in contrast against Saul’s hardness.34 Whereas Saul makes excuses before offering a questionable confession (1 Sam 15:13–25),35 David immediately responds, “I have sinned against the Lord” (2 Sam 12:13). To confess this sin is to admit to a capital offense to one of his own subjects, placing himself at great political liability. Yet David confesses his sin to Nathan the prophet, showing his integrity before the Lord. Though a shocking breach of integrity, the sin and its repercussions are rightly called “the clearest indication that he was different from Saul in the most essential relationship of all, that of submission to the Lord God. For that reason he found forgiveness, whereas Saul never accepted his guilt or the rejection that followed from it.”36

The writer echoes a similar pattern later as David holds a census, inevitably violating Israel’s purification laws, resulting in a plague upon Israel.37 This time without prompting, David’s heart strikes him and he confesses, “I have sinned greatly in what I have done” (2 Sam 24:10). Baldwin saw how David’s words point to his “tender conscience.”38 Again, David’s response to his sin shows the good in his character.

Despite these two great breeches, David is remembered by the Lord as one who walked before him “with integrity of heart and uprightness, doing according to all that I have commanded you, and keeping my statutes and my rules” (1 Kgs 9:4). Thus, readers cannot take the accounts in Samuel as marks against David’s integrity but as reminders not to equate integrity with sinlessness. David, filled with integrity, listens to the Lord even when he has sinned; Saul, who lacked integrity, failed to listen to the Lord and thus multiplied his sin. Indeed, David “learn[ed] to fear the Lord his God by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes, and doing them” (Deut 17:19).

4.2. David Did Not Lift His Heart above His Brothers

The God-fearing king of Deuteronomy 17 would not lift up “his heart … above his brothers” (Deut 17:20). He would not be proud or consider himself above his brothers.39 In suit, Samuel portrays David’s heart as knit to his brothers, even mourning for fallen brethren turned enemies and favoring his rival’s house. I have listed this sign second above.

If readers would expect David to lift his heart above anyone, it would be Saul. Yet upon hearing of Saul’s death, David laments in “the overwhelming agony of bereavement”40 and commands that his lament be taught to the people. Even as he was lifted above Saul, his heart was not.

Similarly, when Joab’s murder of Abner advantages David, David keeps his hands clean and mourns for his fellow Israelite. Unaware of Joab’s actions until Abner is dead, David declares, “I and my kingdom are forever guiltless before the Lord for the blood of Abner the son of Ner” (2 Sam 3:28) and then insists that the people (including Joab himself) mourn for Abner in sackcloth, gives him a proper burial, weeps at his grave, and finally composes him a lament (2 Sam 3:31–34).41 Bergen cites these acts as a fulfillment of Deuteronomy 17:18–19.42 Participating in Abner’s murder would have violated the command, but the writer is careful to distance David from the murder. David could not be confused with one who has the blood of Israelites on his hand, for he did not lift up his heart above his brothers.

Once David ascends to the throne, he asks, “Is there still anyone left of the house of Saul, that I may show him kindness for Jonathan’s sake?” (2 Sam 9:1). Upon learning that a son of Jonathan remained, David lifted that son up by showing great kindness to him. The story intends to stress David’s loyalty to his friend. Rather than lift up his heart over Jonathan, David keeps his covenant with Jonathan.43 This emphasis sits in stark contrast with the usual treatment of rival houses by kings.44 David would not lift up his heart above even rival houses in Israel.

David’s refusal to lift his heart above his brothers may find its peak when his own son revolts against him, takes much of the kingdom from him, and dies dishonoring him. Upon hearing of it, true to his pattern, David weeps. “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!” (2 Sam 18:33). Anderson notes how the form of David’s lament (crying Absolom’s name three times and calling him as son five times) “accentuates the depth of David’s grief and anguish.”45 Whereas Saul erupted against his son at the thought of treachery (1 Sam 20:30–34), David keeps his heart knit to his son’s despite betrayal and rebellion. He could not lift his heart above a truly rebellious son, when Saul had lifted his heart over a loyal son.

Conspicuously, David does use his sword against Uriah46 to hide an affair with Uriah’s wife Bathsheba, paying dearly for it with the life of his own son (2 Sam 11, 12). Readers will certainly see the exception to the pattern: David did lift his heart above Uriah. Yet the final direction of the story serves to contrast David against Saul and highlight David’s fear of the Lord.

The significance of David’s repentance, which “came with immediacy, without denial, and without excuse,”47 is summarized in the above section. While David’s repentance shows his desire to stay on the God-fearing path, the Lord’s discipline showed his desire to keep David there. Upon David’s repentance, he hears the Lord’s judgement from Nathan, “The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die. Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child who is born to you shall die” (2 Sam 12:13–14). Immediately the story moves to the death of David’s son, highlighting the swiftness of God’s judgment.48 The Lord’s severe discipline can only have one motive: to restore David to right fellowship, including right treatment of his fellow Israelites. Indeed, David responds in kind, seeking the Lord on behalf of the child while it is still alive and then worshiping after it dies. As Bergen describes it:

In losing his son, David sought more than ever to gain a deeper relationship with his Heavenly Father. It is significant that David did not break his fast until after he had worshiped God; David’s hunger for a right relationship with God exceeded his desire for culinary delights.49

Bergen also quotes Baldwin, who called the story a “turning point in the life of David.”50 So David’s worst and most uncharacteristic moment finally set him more firmly on the path of God-fearing living and leadership.

Though David’s sword was fierce, he hesitated to use it on his brothers. Instead, he expressed his love for even his enemies at their deaths. Having learned to fear the Lord, he would not lift his heart above his brothers.

4.3. David Ruled Long and Left an Eternal Dynasty

The king who learned to fear the Lord would “continue long in his kingdom, he and his children, in Israel” (Deut 17:20). If he read the Torah daily, the results would lead to a secure future.51 I have listed these signs, a long reign and a long dynasty, third and fourth above, respectively.

Aiding translators on this verse, the UBS Handbook points forward to David’s 424-year dynasty.52 Though hardly important to translators and rare for a series that focuses little on biblical theology, the appropriate reference demonstrates the unmistakable connection between Deuteronomy’s prediction of a long dynasty and David’s long dynasty. This ideal, God-fearing king could be none other than David.

Though four centuries mark an impressive dynasty, the Lord promises David an even longer one.

Moreover, the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you 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. (2 Sam 7:11–13, emphasis mine)

Anderson calls this chapter “the theological highlight of the Books of Samuel.”53 Saul would have received this eternal dynasty, but he did not follow the Lord completely (1 Sam 13:13). In contrast to Saul, the favor of God rests on David so much that he receives a dynasty marked by eternity.54

In his last words, David claims a connection between this dynasty and his God-fearing rule. These last words close out the theme of God-fearing leadership in the books of Samuel, first extolling the virtues of God-fearing leadership and then grounding David’s house in his own God-fearing leadership.

The oracle begins with nine lines of introduction, serving to underscore the importance of these words and their centrality to the book’s message.55 One line says these words are David’s last, four reinforce the importance of their human author,56 and four more add to that the claim that the words come as an oracle from God. Readers have been given every reason to perk their ears to David’s prophecy.

When one rules justly over men,
ruling in the fear of God,

he dawns on them like the morning light,
like the sun shining forth on a cloudless morning,
like rain that makes grass to sprout from the earth. (2 Sam 23:3–4)

After such a grandiose introduction David gives readers a simple prophetic image. As sunshine after rain invigorates the grass to flourish from the earth, so does just, God-fearing leadership invigorate those under it to flourish.57 “A righteous king guided by the fear of the Lord … brings life and blessing to his nation.”58

Though David says these words as king, he does not limit them to kings. Not only kings, but all those in authority can see those they lead flourish if they will learn the fear of the Lord. Bergen also says this quotably: “for well-watered seedlings to fulfill their potential, they must have bright sunlight; similarly, strong, righteous leaders help create an environment in which the people under their care can fulfill their potential.”59

David then moves on to claim that his own God-fearing leadership is the reason his house will stand, the reason he received an everlasting covenant.

For does not my house stand so with God?
For he has made with me an everlasting covenant,
ordered in all things and secure.

For will he not cause to prosper
all my help and my desire? (2 Sam 23:5)

As Baldwin notes, the standing of David’s house depends on both the word of the Lord and upon David’s desire to rule in the fear of God, without contradiction.60 This dual dependence must be at least in part because the word of the Lord already promised a long dynasty to God-fearing kings in Deuteronomy 17:20. Bergen summarizes plainly that these last words of David present “the ideal of a righteous king guided by the fear of the Lord.”61 The theme has been woven and is now tied off at the end. The Lord wants leaders to fear him.

5. Conclusion

By pointing back to the promise of Deuteronomy 17:18–20 in Samuel’s farewell speech and then measuring Saul and David’s lives against it, the writer of the books of Samuel shows readers the difference between a leader who learns to fear the Lord and a leader who does not. This theme through the books of Samuel leaves readers with a vivid contrast of God-fearing leadership and foolish leadership while reinforcing the way in which the fear of the Lord grounds flourishing leadership.

The theme may lead readers to close the book and ask with urgency how they can learn to fear the Lord. They should turn back to Deuteronomy 17:18–20 to complete the picture. One learns to fear the Lord by keeping a copy of his words on hand and reading from them every day. A leader can also watch for outward expressions of his or her fear of the Lord: dedicated obedience to God’s commands and unselfish treatment of others. While the covenant blessings promised to an Israelite king (long reign and long dynasty) are not guaranteed to today’s Christian leaders, the broader biblical message—that the fear of the Lord grounds flourishing leadership—remains.

The value of God-fearing leadership is a message not exclusive to Deuteronomy 17:18–20 and 1–2 Samuel; it is part of a broader biblical theme. When looking for judges, Jethro counseled Moses to look for “men who fear God” (Exod 18:21). Similarly, Jehoshaphat later appointed judges and commanded them to rule “in the fear of the Lord” (2 Chron 19:8–11). Nehemiah, unlike the leaders before him, treated his people fairly “because of the fear of God,” and rebuked the unjust leaders, saying, “Ought you not to walk in the fear of our God?” (Neh 5:9). Solomon, training his sons to rule the kingdom after him, wrote, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Prov 1:7). Jesus’s parable of the persistent widow presented the judge as wicked by noting that he “neither feared God nor respected men” (Luke 18:2). This broader theme is meant to leave readers longing for a coming king, Jesus Christ, whose “delight shall be in the fear of the Lord” (Isa 11:3).

The difference between David and Saul becomes a parable that generations of leaders cannot afford to miss. Bringing to life through story a teaching given throughout the Bible, the books of Samuel leave pastors, fathers, and others leaders with the strongest of exhortations: learn to fear the Lord.

[1] This material is adapted from portions of David M. Cook, “The Fear of the Lord: The Forgotten Foundation of Flourishing Leadership” (DEdMin thesis, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2020).

[2] The books of Samuel were originally written as one unit that was separated into two scrolls when it was translated into Greek. For this reason, they are best treated as a whole and analyzed together. This is explained in Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary (New York: Norton, 2019), 2:164 and in Robert D. Bergen, 1, 2 Samuel, NAC 7 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1996), 17–18.

[3] All Scripture quotations from the ESV.

[4] Paul Borgman, David, Saul, and God: Rediscovering an Ancient Story (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 5.

[5] Borgman, David, Saul, and God, 244.

[6] Alter, The Hebrew Bible, 2:172.

[7] Peter John Gentry, How to Read and Understand the Biblical Prophets (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017), 15, emphasis original.

[8] Bergen 1, 2 Samuel, 140.

[9] Daniel I. Block, Deuteronomy, NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 419–20.

[10] J. A. Thompson, Deuteronomy: An Introduction and Commentary, TOTC 5 (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 226–27.

[11] Peter C. Craigie, The Book of Deuteronomy, NICOT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), 257.

[12] Bergen 1, 2 Samuel, 150.

[13] Ralph W. Klein, 1 Samuel, WBC 10 (Waco, TX: Word, 1983), 128.

[14] Bergen, 1, 2 Samuel, 167.

[15] Bergen, 1, 2 Samuel, 170–71.

[16] Klein, 1 Samuel, 155.

[17] HALOT 1202.

[18] Edward Welch, When People Are Big and God Is Small: Overcoming Peer Pressure, Codependency, and the Fear of Man, Resources for Changing Lives (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1997).

[19] Jeremiah Burroughs, Gospel Fear, or, The Heart Trembling at the Word of God Evidences a Blessed Frame of Spirit, ed. Don Kistler, 4th ed. (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria, 2001), 30.

[20] Joyce G. Baldwin, 1 and 2 Samuel, TOTC 8 (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1988), 100.

[21] Bergen, 1, 2 Samuel, 132.

[22] Bergen, 1, 2 Samuel, 173.

[23] Bergen, 1, 2 Samuel, 282.

[24] Baldwin, 1 and 2 Samuel, 182, emphasis original.

[25] Baldwin, 1 and 2 Samuel, 182, emphasis original.

[26] Baldwin, 1 and 2 Samuel, 182.

[27] Bergen, 1, 2 Samuel, 148.

[28] Jan Fokkelman, Reading Biblical Narrative: An Introductory Guide, trans. Ineke Smit (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1999), 39.

[29] Kyle McCarter summarizes this position well in II Samuel: A New Translation with Introduction, Notes, and Commentary, AB 9 (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1984), 468.

[30] While these words are taken from 1 Kings 11:33, similar evaluations can be found elsewhere. 1 Kings alone includes 3:3, 3:6, 3:14, 9:4, 15:3, and 22:2.

[31] Baldwin, 1 and 2 Samuel, 309.

[32] McCarter, II Samuel, 288.

[33] Baldwin, 1 and 2 Samuel, 247–48.

[34] Baldwin, 1 and 2 Samuel, 252.

[35] Baldwin, 1 and 2 Samuel, 124; Bergen, 1, 2 Samuel, 173.

[36] Baldwin, 1 and 2 Samuel, 255.

[37] McCarter, II Samuel, 512–14.

[38] Baldwin, 1 and 2 Samuel, 316.

[39] Robert G. Bratcher and Howard Hatton, A Handbook on Deuteronomy, UBS Handbook Series (New York: United Bible Society, 2000), 310.

[40] Baldwin, 1 and 2 Samuel, 190.

[41] Baldwin draws meaning from Joab’s inclusion in the mandatory mourning, noting that Abner’s murderer appearing in sackcloth would be noticed by the crowd and communicate David’s distance from the act (1 and 2 Samuel, 204).

[42] Bergen, 1, 2 Samuel, 313.

[43] A. A. Anderson, 2 Samuel, WBC 11 (Dallas: Word, 1989), 140; Baldwin, 1 and 2 Samuel, 242–43; McCarter, II Samuel, 260.

[44] Anderson, 2 Samuel, 140.

[45] Anderson, 2 Samuel, 226.

[46] Though Uriah is listed as a Hittite and was perhaps born a Hittite, his name (Yahweh is my light) and distinction in Israel’s army suggest he was either born in Israel or changed his name. Either way, he was certainly one of the brothers David was not to lift his heart above. See Anderson, 1, 2 Samuel, 153.

[47] Bergen, 1, 2 Samuel, 373.

[48] Bergen 1, 2 Samuel, 374.

[49] Bergen, 1, 2 Samuel, 375.

[50] Bergen, 1, 2 Samuel, 373; Baldwin, 1 and 2 Samuel, 255.

[51] Block, Deuteronomy, 421.

[52] Bratcher and Hatton, A Handbook on Deuteronomy, 310.

[53] Anderson, 2 Samuel, 112.

[54] Anderson, 2 Samuel, 122.

[55] David’s oracle is “clearly one of the highlighted passages in 2 Samuel,” according to Bergen, 1, 2 Samuel, 464.

[56] Baldwin poetically refers to these four lines as a “fourfold portrait of the writer” (1 and 2 Samuel, 311).

[57] Roger Omanson and John Ellington recommend rendering verse 4 as the sunshine coming after the rain (A Handbook on the First and Second Books of Samuel, UBS Handbook Series [New York: United Bible Society, 2001], 1154).

[58] Bergen, 1, 2 Samuel, 464.

[59] Bergen, 1, 2 Samuel, 466.

[60] Baldwin, 1 and 2 Samuel, 311.

[61] Bergen, 1, 2 Samuel, 464.

David M. Cook

Dave Cook is Senior Pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Greenwood, Indiana.

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