History is basically the story of people and events. Sometimes the events define the history, and sometimes the force of personality is so great that it defines the history.

David was someone whose personality defined the events of his time. He left a stamp not only on his generation but all later generations – indeed, not only on Jewish history and civilization but on world history and the entire story of human civilization as well.


David did not have an easy life.

Even before he was born, the conversion of his great-grandmother, Ruth, was questioned by the Great Sanhedrin (Court). He grew up ostracized by his family who made him a shepherd and had him tend the flocks far from home.

Rather than turn bitter with his lot, David used the opportunity to develop the most profound, intimate personal relationship with God. Many of his most moving psalms, including the famous line in Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd…” originated in David’s firsthand experience as shepherd of his father’s flocks.

David was an unknown 28-year old when Saul began to fail as king. At that time, Samuel received a prophecy to go to the house of Jesse to anoint one of his sons the next king. No one, from Samuel to Jesse, even thought David was a possible candidate. Only as an afterthought did they bring in the ruddy shepherd boy. God then told Samuel that David was the one to anoint.

Even that late in the game no one knew who David really was.

Besieged by Enemies

David’s rise to prominence was meteoric. His slaying of the Philistine giant Goliath propelled him into the spotlight and made him a national hero (I Samuel 17). He then married the king’s daughter, Michal, and thus became son-in-law to the most powerful man in the land.

Hollywood would have ended the story there: the shepherd boy everyone thought was illegitimate slays the wicked giant, becomes a national hero, marries the king’s daughter and lives happily ever after.

If only reality were so simple.

David had the misfortune of possessing so much talent that he became a lightning rod for all the jealousies, intrigues and pettiness. “Those who sit in the gate [the scholars and elite] speak against me; I am also the song of the drunkards [the lowly and crass]” (Psalms 69:13). The scholars debated if he was Jewish. The drunkards composed songs of ridicule because that is what low people do.

Arguably, David suffered most from his father-in-law. In his melancholy, Saul viewed David as the source of all his troubles. Ironically, had he seen him correctly, David would have been the source of his salvation, as well the salvation of his government and family. His enmity toward David was his own downfall.

All of David’s life was marked by the hostility that existed toward him by so many important people, starting with Saul, Saul’s advisors, and, later on, David’s own advisors, as well as his own children. Two of them, in fact, mounted rebellions against him!

A recurring theme in the Book of Psalms is how his enemies sought to destroy him without attempting to understand what he was trying to accomplish or who he was. Many in the generation who lived with David did not see him for who he was. They did not see him in historical perspective. If you stand right next to a mountain you cannot see how tall and imposing it is. Only when you go fifty miles away can you begin to see it for what it is.

David was the mountain. Today we realize that without him there would be no Jewish people. He was not only the past, but as the forerunner of the Messiah he is the hope for the future. Yet, in his time his contemporaries lacked the perspective to see and acknowledge his true greatness.

The Great Unifier

After Saul died in battle against the Philistines, the Jewish people were once again on the verge of chaos. David became the single unifying force to finally bring them together after more than four centuries of war, bickering and every man doing what was best in his own eyes. He vanquished all Israel’s outer enemies and inner demons.

More than by force of arms, David unified the people because he was all things to all people. First, he was the great Torah scholar. He was a musician (I Samuel 16:16-23). He was a powerful warrior. And he was a truly righteous person.

David was everything for everybody. That is why he was able to unite the Jewish people. To the masses he was a hero. To the scholarly he was a hero. To the pious he was a hero.

On top of it all, he got the job done. He defeated Israel’s enemies and made peace with everyone else, developed trade, stabilized the economy and expanded the borders, including all the land from the Mediterranean in the west to across the Jordan River in the east to the Golan Heights in the north into what is today Syria and Lebanon. One can be the greatest person but if the job does not get done then few will look at him as a great leader. David got the job done.

Jerusalem & Temple

Originally, David was king only over the tribes of Judah and Benjamin with his capital in Hebron (II Samuel 2:11; 5:5). Jerusalem itself was inhabited by a Canaanite tribe called the Jebusites. David first purchased parts of the city and then conquered the rest (II Samuel 5:7). Afterwards, the prophet came and told him that this was the city God had chosen and David made it the capital city.

When he moved to Jerusalem, David got the idea to build the Temple as well (II Samuel 7:4-17; I Kings 8:18). However, God prevented him from doing so because David was a warrior (I Chronicles 22:7-8). Even though the wars were necessary to defend himself and his people, it was held against him when it came to physically building the Temple, the House of God, which is the symbol of peace and tranquility. It would be unseemly that a person so engaged in war should build it.

Nevertheless, even though Solomon built it credit was given to David, as seen in an incident on the day Solomon dedicated the Temple. As they were about to complete the ceremony the doors to the main building would not open until Solomon invoked the name of his father, saying, “Remember the goodness of my father, David” (II Chronicles 6:42).

David indeed laid the physical and spiritual groundwork of the Temple. He assembled the materials and put money in the treasury (I Chronicles 22:1-5). Most of all he laid down the spiritual foundations.

The Book of Psalms

Arguably David’s greatest accomplishment was the Book of Psalms.[1] On one level it is a virtual biography of David’s life, recording many of his individual experiences and how he faced them. “This is the psalm when Saul pursued him…” (Psalm 18);  “This is the psalm when he had to flee his son Abshalom…” (Psalm 3); “This is the psalm on the day he dedicated the Palace…” (Psalm 30).

You can get a complete picture of David through his psalms. Yet, virtually everything he said on a personal level is something everyone can empathize with in their own way. It is as though it were written for each of us individually. He expressed the thoughts and emotions of every human being at every stage in life.

That is the great lasting quality to the Book of Psalms. It is the book that carried the Jewish people on its back during its long, arduous journey through history.

Hope for the Future

David was able to bring the Jewish people to the highest point in their history. His last years, together with the first years of his son Solomon, mark the high point in Jewish history. The Temple enabled God’s Presence to exist in a tangible way it never had previously. At the same time, there existed a plethora of prophets and teachers who were able to raise the Jewish people to a level of understanding and sincerity unparalleled in history. It was the Golden Age of the nation.

The rest of the world clamored to convert – some 150,000 converts, according to one Tradition. However, Judaism is not a proselytizing religion. Indeed, the influx of converts became such a concern that eventually the authorities forbade conversion lest others were joining the Jewish people for ulterior motives: to be part of the social, economic, military and spiritual superpower of the day rather than for the everlasting values of Judaism. Consequently, the rabbis closed the door to conversions (the same will happen in the Messianic Era).

The whole Golden period we are talking about lasted perhaps three decades, little more than a generation. By the end of Solomon’s reign it began to fall apart. Nevertheless, the David-Solomon era was Jewish utopia. It was the forerunner of what the era of the Messiah will be like.

[1] In actuality, there were nine other authors, including Adam (Psalm 92), Moses (Psalm 90), the sons of Korah (Psalms 42, 44-49, 84-85, 87-88). Nevertheless, Psalms is David’s book.

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Berel Wein adapted by Yaakov Astor
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