The life of David is naturally divided into epochs, of which we may avail ourselves for the more ready arrangement of our material. These are—his early years up to his escape from the court of Saul, his exile, the prosperous beginning of his reign, his sin and penitence, his flight before Absalom's rebellion, and the darkened end.
We have but faint incidental traces of his life up to his anointing by Samuel, with which the narrative in the historical books opens. But perhaps the fact that the story begins with that consecration to office, is of more value than the missing biography of his childhood could have been. It teaches us the point of view from which Scripture regards its greatest names—as nothing, except in so far as they are God's instruments. Hence its carelessness, notwithstanding that so much of it is history, of all that merely illustrates the personal character of its heroes. Hence, too, the clearness with which, notwithstanding that indifference, the living men are set before us—the image cut with half a dozen strokes of the chisel.
We do not know the age of David when Samuel appeared in the little village with the horn of sacred oil in his hand. The only approximation to it is furnished by the fact, that he was thirty at the beginning of his reign. (2 Samuel 5:4.) If we take into account that his exile must have lasted for a very considerable period (one portion of it, his second flight to the Philistines, was sixteen months, 1 Samuel 27:7),—that the previous residence at the court of Saul must have been long enough to give time for his gradual rise to popularity, and thereafter for the gradual development of the king's insane hatred,—that further back still there was an indefinite period, between the fight with Goliath, and the first visit as a minstrel-physician to the palace, which was spent at Bethlehem, and that that visit itself cannot have been very brief, since in its course he became very dear and familiar to Saul,—it will not seem that all these events could be crowded into less than some twelve or fifteen years, or that he could have been more than a lad of some sixteen years of age when Samuel's hand smoothed the sacred oil on his clustering curls.
How life had gone with him till then, we can easily gather from the narrative of Scripture. His father's household seems to have been one in which modest frugality ruled. There is no trace of Jesse having servants; his youngest child does menial work; the present which he sends to his king when David goes to court was simple, and such as a man in humble life would give—an ass load of bread, one skin of wine, and one kid—his flocks were small—"a few sheep." It would appear as if prosperity had not smiled on the family since the days of Jesse's grandfather, Boaz, that "mighty man of wealth." David's place in the household does not seem to have been a happy one. His father scarcely reckoned him amongst his sons, and answers Samuel's question, if the seven burly husbandmen whom he has seen are all his children, with a trace of contempt as he remembers that there is another, "and, behold, he keepeth the sheep." Of his mother we hear but once, and that incidentally, for a moment, long after. His brothers had no love for him, and do not appear to have shared either his heart or his fortunes. The boy evidently had the usual fate of souls like his, to grow up in uncongenial circumstances, little understood and less sympathised with by the common-place people round them, and thrown back therefore all the more decisively upon themselves. The process sours and spoils some, but it is the making of more—and where, as in this case, the nature is thrown back upon God, and not on its own morbid operation, strength comes from repression, and sweetness from endurance. He may have received some instruction in one of Samuel's schools for the prophets, but we are left in entire ignorance of what outward helps to unfold itself were given to his budding life.
Whatever others he had, no doubt those which are emphasized in the Bible story were the chief, namely, his occupation and the many gifts which it brought to him. The limbs, "like hinds' feet," the sinewy arms which "broke a bow of steel," the precision with which he used the sling, the agility which "leaped over a rampart," the health that glowed in his "ruddy" face, were the least of his obligations to the breezy uplands, where he kept his father's sheep. His early life taught him courage, when he "smote the lion" and laid hold by his ugly muzzle of the bear that "rose against him," rearing itself upright for the fatal hug. Solitude and familiarity with nature helped to nurture the poetical side of his character, and to strengthen that meditative habit which blends so strangely with his impetuous activity, and which for the most part kept tumults and toils from invading his central soul. They threw him back on God who peopled the solitude and spoke in all nature. Besides this, he acquired in the sheepcote lessons which he practised on the throne, that rule means service, and that the shepherd of men holds his office in order that he may protect and guide. And in the lowly associations of his humble home, he learned the life of the people, their simple joys, their unconspicuous toils, their unnoticed sorrows—a priceless piece of knowledge both for the poet and for the king.
A breach in all the tranquil habits of this modest life was made by Samuel's astonishing errand. The story is told with wonderful picturesqueness and dramatic force. The minute account of the successive rejections of his brothers, Samuel's question and Jesse's answer, and then the pause of idle waiting till the messenger goes and returns, heighten the expectation with which we look for his appearance. And then what a sweet young face is lovingly painted for us! "He was ruddy, and withal of a beautiful countenance, and goodly to look to" (1 Samuel 16:12)—of fair complexion, with golden hair, which is rare among these swarthy, black-locked easterns, with lovely eyes (for that is the meaning of the words which the English Bible renders "of a beautiful countenance"), large and liquid as become a poet. So he stood before the old prophet, and with swelling heart and reverent awe received the holy chrism. In silence, as it would seem, Samuel anointed him. Whether the secret of his high destiny was imparted to him then, or left to be disclosed in future years, is not told. But at all events, whether with full understanding of what was before him or no, he must have been conscious of a call that would carry him far away from the pastures and olive yards of the little hamlet and of a new Spirit stirring in him from that day forward.
This sudden change in all the outlook of his life must have given new materials for thought when he went back to his humble task. Responsibility, or the prospect of it, makes lads into men very quickly. Graver meditations, humbler consciousness of weakness, a firmer trust in God who had laid the burden upon him, would do in days the work of years. And the necessity for bidding back the visions of the future in order to do faithfully the obscure duties of the present, would add self-control and patience, not usually the graces of youth. How swiftly he matured is singularly shown in the next recorded incident—his summons to the court of Saul, by the character of him drawn by the courtier who recommends him to the king. He speaks of David in words more suitable to a man of established renown than to a stripling. He is minstrel and warrior, "cunning in playing, and a mighty valiant man," and "skilled in speech (already eloquent), and fair in form, and the Lord is with him." (1 Samuel 16:18.) So quickly had the new circumstances and the energy of the Spirit of God, like tropical sunshine, ripened his soul.
That first visit to the court was but an episode in his life, however helpful to his growth it may have been. It would give him the knowledge of new scenes, widen his experience, and prepare him for the future. But it cannot have been of very long duration. Possibly his harp lost its power over Saul's gloomy spirit, when he had become familiar with its notes. For whatever reason, he returned to his father's house, and gladly exchanged the favour at court, which might have seemed to a merely ambitious man the first step towards fulfilling the prophecy of Samuel's anointing, for the freedom of the pastoral solitudes about Bethlehem. There he remained, living to outward seeming as in the quiet days before these two great earthquakes in his life, but with deeper thoughts and new power, with broader experience, and a wider horizon, until the hour when he was finally wrenched from his seclusion, and flung into the whirlpool of his public career.
There are none of David's psalms which can be with any certainty referred to this first period of his life; but it has left deep traces on many of them. The allusions to natural scenery and the frequent references to varying aspects of the shepherd's life are specimens of these. One characteristic of the poetic temperament is the faithful remembrance and cherishing of early days. How fondly he recalled them is shown in that most pathetic incident of his longing, as a weary exile, for one draught of water from the well at Bethlehem—where in the dear old times he had so often led his flocks.
But though we cannot say confidently that we have any psalms prior to his first exile, there are several which, whatever their date may be, are echoes of his thoughts in these first days. This is especially the case in regard to the group which describe varying aspects of nature—viz., Psalm 19. viii., xxix. They are unlike his later psalms in the almost entire absence of personal references, or of any trace of pressing cares, or of signs of a varied experience of human life. In their self-forgetful contemplation of nature, in their silence about sorrow, in their tranquil beauty, they resemble the youthful works of many a poet whose later verse throbs with quivering consciousness of life's agonies, or wrestles strongly with life's problems. They may not unnaturally be regarded as the outpouring of a young heart at leisure from itself, and from pain, far from men and very near God. The fresh mountain air of Bethlehem blows through them, and the dew of life's quiet morning is on them. The early experience supplied their materials, whatever was the date of their composition; and in them we can see what his inward life was in these budding years. The gaze of child-like wonder and awe upon the blazing brightness of the noonday, and on the mighty heaven with all its stars, the deep voice with which all creation spoke of God, the great thoughts of the dignity of man (thoughts ever welcome to lofty youthful souls), the gleaming of an inward light brighter than all suns, the consciousness of mysteries of weakness which may become miracles of sin in one's own heart, the assurance of close relation to God as His anointed and His servant, the cry for help and guidance—all this is what we should expect David to have thought and felt as he wandered among the hills, alone with God; and this is what these psalms give us.
Common to them all is the peculiar manner of looking upon nature, so uniform in David's psalms, so unlike more modern descriptive poetry. He can smite out a picture in a phrase, but he does not care to paint landscapes. He feels the deep analogies between man and his dwelling-place, but he does not care to lend to nature a shadowy life, the reflection of our own. Creation is to him neither a subject for poetical description, nor for scientific examination. It is nothing but the garment of God, the apocalypse of the heavenly. And common to them all is also the swift transition from the outward facts which reveal God, to the spiritual world, where His presence is, if it were possible, yet more needful, and His operations yet mightier. And common to them all is a certain rush of full thought and joyous power, which is again a characteristic of youthful work, and is unlike the elegiac tenderness and pathos of David's later hymns.
The nineteenth Psalm paints for us the glory of the heavens by day, as the eighth by night. The former gathers up the impressions of many a fresh morning when the solitary shepherd-boy watched the sun rising over the mountains of Moab, which close the eastern view from the hills above Bethlehem. The sacred silence of dawn, the deeper hush of night, have voice for his ear. "No speech! and no words! unheard is their voice." But yet, "in all the earth goeth forth their line,[B] and in the end of the habitable world their sayings." The heavens and the firmament, the linked chorus of day and night, are heralds of God's glory, with silent speech, heard in all lands, an unremitting voice. And as he looks, there leaps into the eastern heavens, not with the long twilight of northern lands, the sudden splendour, the sun radiant as a bridegroom from the bridal chamber, like some athlete impatient for the course. How the joy of morning and its new vigour throb in the words! And then he watches the strong runner climbing the heavens till the fierce heat beats down into the deep cleft of the Jordan, and all the treeless southern hills, as they slope towards the desert, lie bare and blazing beneath the beams.
[B] Their boundary, i.e., their territory, or the region through which their witness extends. Others render "their chord," or sound (LXX. Ewald, etc.)
The sudden transition from the revelation of God in nature to His voice in the law, has seemed to many critics unaccountable, except on the supposition that this psalm is made up of two fragments, put together by a later compiler; and some of them have even gone so far as to maintain that "the feeling which saw God revealed in the law did not arise till the time of Josiah."[C] But such a hypothesis is not required to explain either the sudden transition or the difference in style and rhythm between the two parts of the psalm, which unquestionably exists. The turn from the outer world to the better light of God's word, is most natural; the abruptness of it is artistic and impressive; the difference of style and measure gives emphasis to the contrast. There is also an obvious connection between the two parts, inasmuch as the law is described by epithets, which in part hint at its being a brighter sun, enlightening the eyes.
[C] "Psalms chronologically arranged"—following Ewald.
The Word which declares the will of the Lord is better than the heavens which tell His glory. The abundance of synonyms for that word show how familiar to his thoughts it was. To him it is "the law," "the testimonies" by which God witnesses of Himself and of man: "the statutes," the fixed settled ordinances; that which teaches "the fear of God," the "judgments" or utterances of His mind on human conduct. They are "perfect, firm, right, clean, pure,"—like that spotless sun—"eternal, true." "They quicken, make wise, enlighten," even as the light of the lower world. His heart prizes them "more than gold," of which in his simple life he knew so little; more than "the honey," which he had often seen dropping from "the comb" in the pastures of the wilderness.
And then the twofold contemplation rises into the loftier region of prayer. He feels that there are dark depths in his soul, gloomier pits than any into which the noontide sun shines. He speaks as one who is conscious of dormant evils, which life has not yet evolved, and his prayer is more directed towards the future than the past, and is thus very unlike the tone of the later psalms, that wail out penitence and plead for pardon. "Errors," or weaknesses,—"faults" unknown to himself,—"high-handed sins,"[D]—such is the climax of the evils from which he prays for deliverance. He knows himself "Thy servant" (2 Samuel 7:5, 8; Psalm 78:70)—an epithet which may refer to his consecration to God's work by Samuel's anointing. He needs not only a God who sets His glory in the heavens, nor even one whose will is made known, but one who will touch his spirit,—not merely a Maker, but a pardoning God; and his faith reaches its highest point as his song closes with the sacred name of the covenant Jehovah, repeated for the seventh time, and invoked in one final aspiration of a trustful heart, as "my Rock, and my Redeemer."
[D] The form of the word would make "reckless men" a more natural translation; but probably the context requires a third, more aggravated sort of sin.
The eighth psalm is a companion picture, a night-piece, which, like the former, speaks of many an hour of lonely brooding below the heavens, whether its composition fall within this early period or no. The prophetic and doctrinal value of the psalms is not our main subject in the present volume, so that we have to touch but very lightly on this grand hymn. What does it show us of the singer? We see him, like other shepherds on the same hills, long after "keeping watch over his flocks by night," and overwhelmed by all the magnificence of an eastern sky, with its lambent lights. So bright, so changeless, so far,—how great they are, how small the boy that gazes up so wistfully. Are they gods, as all but his own nation believed? No,—"the work of Thy fingers," "which Thou hast ordained." The consciousness of God as their Maker delivers from the temptation of confounding bigness with greatness, and wakes into new energy that awful sense of personality which towers above all the stars. He is a babe and suckling—is that a trace of the early composition of the psalm?—still he knows that out of his lips, already beginning to break into song, and out of the lips of his fellows, God perfects praise. There speaks the sweet singer of Israel, prizing as the greatest of God's gifts his growing faculty, and counting his God-given words as nobler than the voice of "night unto night." God's fingers made these, but God's own breath is in him. God ordained them, but God visits him. The description of man's dignity and dominion indicates how familiar David was with the story in Genesis. It may perhaps also, besides all the large prophetic truths which it contains, have some special reference to his own earlier experience. It is at least worth noting that he speaks of the dignity of man as kingly, like that which was dawning on himself, and that the picture has no shadows either of sorrow or of sin,—a fact which may point to his younger days, when lofty thoughts of the greatness of the soul are ever natural and when in his case the afflictions and crimes that make their presence felt in all his later works had not fallen upon him. Perhaps, too, it may not be altogether fanciful to suppose that we may see the shepherd-boy surrounded by his flocks, and the wild creatures that prowled about the fold, and the birds asleep in their coverts beneath the moonlight, in his enumeration of the subjects of his first and happiest kingdom, where he ruled far away from men and sorrow, seeing God everywhere, and learning to perfect praise from his youthful lips.