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2 Samuel

Author and Date

Freedman[1] says Genesis–2 Kings have common emphasis, and must predate the return from exile or they would describe it; 1 Chronicles–Nehemiah have a very different emphasis, and must be more recent since they describe the return from exile. Anderson[2 p.xv] and Koppers[3] agree that Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings show a unity of language, style and content, and are attributed to a hypothetical "Deuteronomistic Historian" or "circle"[4].

Anderson[2 p.xxi–xxii] says the text of 2 Samuel appears to have suffered from inaccurate copying over the centuries. The LXX, Masoretic and Samaritan versions represent separate traditions, and all are represented by scrolls from Qumran going back to at least the 3rd century BCE, so the copying errors and the resulting differing versions arose a very long time ago. Scholars compare them to see which version of each section makes best sense and is thus likely to be a faithful copy.

Ancient tradition says that the prophet Jeremiah wrote 1 and 2 Kings. Jeremiah prophesied from 627 BCE [5]. The books of Samuel show common ancestry with them, yet signs of compilation from several sources, so perhaps Jeremiah edited the books Deuteronomy– Samuel into their present form.

Structure (after Anderson[2])

1 Samuel 16–2 Samuel 5: David's rise (c. 1000 BCE);
2 Samuel 6: the Ark Narrative (continued from 1 Samuel 4–6);
2 Samuel 9–20 and 1 Kings 1–2: the Succession Narrative;
2 Samuel 21–24: Appendices.

Audience and Content

Anderson[2 pp.xxiii–xxxi] 2 Samuel 9–20 and 1 Kings 1–2 show a consistent style involving direct speech and well-developed secondary characters, and appear to be a complete literary unit. However, 1 Kings 1–2 go into far more detail than the earlier passages, suggesting that the author lived at that time. Perhaps the succession narrative was written to justify the questionable events around the end of David's reign, and the section about David's rise had a similar purpose in relation to the start of his reign. Overall, the book is an official version of selected events.

The tribes of Israel were oppressed by the Philistines (1 Samuel 31:7). The southern tribe, Judah, was sandwiched in the hills between Philistia (the Mediterranean coastal strip) and the Dead Sea with Moab beyond. Having a long border with Philistia, it probably suffered particularly badly.

Samuel had secretly anointed David king (1 Samuel 16:13). Saul made David a general, and he led the army to notable victories, but Saul was jealous and tried many times to kill David. David eventually fled to Gath in Philistia where he was welcomed as a deserter. They gave David the town Ziklag (1 Samuel 27:1f)—​though it was in Judah!—​as a vassal (1 Samuel 28:1) but forbade him to join a pitched battle against Israel (1 Samuel 29), so David and his men returned to Ziklag, to find it burned and the women captured by Amalekites (1 Samuel 30). They defeated the Amalekite group (1 Samuel 31) and rescued the women, while Saul and his sons died in the battle with the Philistines.

After Saul's death David became king of Judah and then of all Israel. The author does not pass judgment, but the characters speak for themselves. The book presents anointed kings as sacred (cf. Romans 13:1–7) and David as a good one. It emphasises David's dependence on God, loyalty to Saul, and innocence of crimes against the northern tribes. God loved David despite his sins, but throughout his life there was conflict within his family, his people, and with the nations nearby.

This book is titled "2 Kingdoms" in the Greek Bible.[9]

According to Nehemiah 8:17, the full Law was not followed throughout the period covered by this book.

See Old Testament regarding authorship.


David's rise (1000 BCE)


There appears to be a discrepancy with the parallel account in 1 Samuel 31:1–7 concerning whether Saul killed himself or the Amalekite did it; see comment on 1 Samuel 31:9. David claimed in 2 Samuel 4:10 that the Amalekite hoped for a reward for killing Saul, which proved to be a mistake. The story earns its place here by explaining how David got Saul's crown and bracelet within hours of his death.[2]


It is remarkable that while David was fighting Amalek (verse 1) an Amalekite who lived in Israel (verse 13) was in Saul's army camp.


This is the first instance of the recurring theme of an anointed king being sacred. cf. Romans 13:1–7.


The news of Saul's and Jonathan's deaths prompted David to recite part of a poem called "To teach the sons of Judah the bow" that he knew from The Book of Jashar. It makes an appropriate funeral lament because it contrasts reminiscence of a glorious past (with some poetic licence) with a sad present.[2]


"The Lament of David is doubtless a tenth century work." [10 p.122].


Actually, the celebrations in Ashkelon, Gath and the rest of Philistia had already started, according to 1 Samuel 31:9.


The lament calls on the hills on which the deaths occurred to mourn the dead by becoming deserts.


The scarlet cloth and gold trinkets were probably spoils of war.[2]


The idea that David's and Jonathan's relationship might have been homosexual is inconsistent with David's weakness for women.[2]


This story claims that David's action was commanded by God, and establishes him as the publicly anointed king of Judah and thus sacred. God's will was probably sought by divination giving a yes/no answer.[2] Ziklag was one of the southern-most towns of Judah; Hebron was more central, and important historically (Genesis 13:18). The town's-people of Hebron were in no position to stand in David's way when he arrived with an army and the royal crown.

Anderson[2] thinks that David would have consulted not only God but also the Philistines about taking over Judah, since he was their vassal (1 Samuel 28:1). David was from the tribe of Judah, being from Bethlehem (1 Samuel 16), but the Jews probably resented his arrival, both as a Philistine invasion and because he was already known in the area for running a protection racket (1 Samuel 25). Anderson[2] p.36 says David became king of Judah in almost exactly 1000 BCE.


News of David's anointing soon reached the northern kingdom. The heroism of Jabesh-Gilead is apparent from 1 Samuel 31:8–13, and David's words to them imply that he identified with the northern tribes as much as he did with Judah.

The Ark Narrative (continued from 1 Samuel 4–6)


Those loyal to Saul made his surviving son king over the north of Israel (though Saul's defeat gave Philistia control over the west) starting the division between north and south. (The mention of "Israel and Judah" in 1 Samuel 17:52 and 18:16 may simply reflect the mind-set of a later author.) The new king may have been only a boy, too young to fight and hence the only survivor of his family.


War began between the northern and southern kingdoms of Israel. Anderson[2 p.47] says David felt pressure as a Philistine vassal to fight Israel. Gibeon was 10 km north of Jerusalem, on the border between Judah and Israel. Anderson says this is the last time that the bible records combat between representatives; it failed because they all died.[2]


Abner tried negotiation but it failed, leaving the choice of killing or being killed.[2]


Joab said the killing would end on the morning after the battle, as was customary.[2]

The division of Israel into northern and southern kingdoms can be traced like this:

Genesis 35:10–12, 22–26

Twelve brothers, patriarchs of the twelve tribes of Israel

1 Samuel 8

Israel sought a king; Saul was anointed by Samuel

1 Samuel 17:12

David was from the tribe of Judah

2 Samuel 2:4, 10–11

David became king of Judah

2 Samuel 3:1

Judah under David was at war with the rest of Israel

2 Samuel 5:1–9

All Israel accepted David as their king

2 Samuel 6:12–19

The Ark of the Covenant was moved to the capital Jerusalem

2 Samuel 11:1–12:11

David took Bathsheba and she became a favourite queen

2 Samuel 15:1–14

David's son Absalom usurped power

2 Samuel 18

War between the northern tribes under Absalom and Judah under David

2 Samuel 20:1–2

David won the war but not the hearts of the northern tribes

1 Kings 1:5–49, 4:1

Solomon (Bathsheba's son) succeeded David as king of all Israel

1 Kings 11:26–12:2

Separate northern and southern kingdoms after Solomon's death


The details imply that the war was not between David and Ishboseth (also known as Ishbaal) but Abner, the northern general, and Joab, his southern counterpart, who had already led the factions in chapter 2. David seems to act in the interests of peace.


The growth of David's family is one aspect of his increasing status and power.


Anderson[2] p.49 suggests that the marriage with a minor king's daughter may have been political, to bring peace; but in fact Absolom made trouble.


Abner increasingly operated independently of Ishbosheth, leading to his resignation as northern general. He took the opportunity to increase his personal power by negotiation with David, with the aim of pushing Ishbaal off the northern throne. Might he even supplant Joab?


Michal was Saul's daughter (1 Samuel 14:49). She loved David, and in 1 Samuel 18:20–27 they were married, but it appears that when David fled to Gath she stayed behind in Israel and was married to someone else. Now their relationship had become politically important: the marriage should help unite all Israel under David by giving him a place in the royal family.


The tribe of Benjamin was key because they were Ishbosheth's[6] power-base.


Though David called himself king, he was still living like an outlaw.


David distanced himself from the murder of Abner the northern general, which removed the potential advantage he had gained from of Abner's desertion, and indeed threatened to make his relations with the north even worse.


David felt unable to punish Joab (did some regard the murder as justified? did the army support him?) so he cursed him and ordered them all to mourn Abner. Joab was eventually executed in 1 Kings 2:29–35 after David's death.


History views David as a good king, but he couldn't control his family or his staff.


It seems that everyone in this region was a bandit, like the Northumbrian reevers.


Perhaps the captains were involved in a power struggle with Ishbosheth, or avenging something that Saul had done.


As in 2 Samuel 1, a messenger came to David's court with news of the death of a rival, but they were not rewarded but assassinated. The account presents David as sitting in judgment over the leaders of the northern kingdom.


cf. 1 Chronicles 11. Mephibosheth, the only surviving member of Saul's family, was not a contender for the throne; he was crippled, and unable to lead the army in battle or inspire others to fight, so the deaths of Abner, Ishbosheth and the captains ended the northern kingdom's hopes of independence. Comparison of 2 Samuel 2:10 and 2 Samuel 5:4–5 suggests that it took them five years to face up to the fact.


Anderson[2] says the period of forty years, often cited in scripture, represented a generation. Thirty was the prime of life, when Jesus started his public ministry. So it seems that men did not marry and raise children until their late thirties, when they had been mature for long enough to become well established.


David ruled over two kingdoms, but did not succeed in uniting them. Capturing Jerusalem ended a compromise dating back to Joshua 15:68.


David continued his northward progress from Ziklag (2 Sam. 2:2) then Hebron, via Bethlehem where he grew up, to Jerusalem in the north of Judah, near the geographical centre of his kingdoms. David did not call upon the resources of Judah, but took Jerusalem with his private army.

A city that might be besieged needs walls and a water supply. Jerusalem, whose ancianet name[4] refers to a god Shalem[2], is built on a dry hill-top, but there is ground-water below. Tourists today see "Hezekiah's Tunnel" which taps the ground water and feeds the Pool of Siloam, half-way down the slope of the hill, and enclosed within a bulge in the city walls. Verse 8 refers to an earlier tunnel, which was a defensive weakness, but necessary for giving access to water.

The Jebusites claimed that the blind and lame could defend their walls. Anderson[2] thinks the term was also used of ineffective soldiers, of whom David despaired. Apparently cripples (including Mephibosheth?) were excluded from public life. Jeremiah 31:8 and Micah 4:7 saw that this was not God's will, and in Matthew 21:1–14 Jesus received the blind and lame in the temple.


This verse refers to events some decades later; Hiram was a contemporary of Solomon (2 Kings 5). It is included here to show David's increasing greatness.


These verses show that David was preoccupied with defence, and perhaps that the Philistines resented their vassal rebelling.[2] Jones says the Philistine attacks drove a wedge between David's northern and southern kingdoms.[4] They lost their idols, as the Israelites lost the Ark in 1 Samuel 4:11, and David gained access to the sea coast.[4] The author ascribes the victory to God rather than to human skill.


Many commentators have come to think that "thousand" was the term for a military unit, perhaps a platoon.[2] [4]


Carrying the Ark on a cart disobeyed Exodus 25:14 and Numbers 7:9. The parallel account in 1 Chronicles 15 omits this incident.


The punishment is consistent with Leviticus 16:2, Numbers 4:15. Anderson suggests Uzzah was made responsible for moving the Ark, so the disaster was his fault.[2]


This time it appears that the Ark was transported in the correct way, carried on its poles by priests (1 Chronicles 15:26).


David may have danced wearing a loin-cloth like those worn by Egyptian priests[7] which did not cover him when he was dancing energetically.[2]


Priests blew a "shofar", a trumpet made from a ram's horn (e.g. Joshua 6:5).


Saul's blood-line, and thus his dynasty, was extinguished.


The mention of rest from enemies may mean that years or decades have elapsed. This chapter promises to Judaism and Christianity an everlasting godly kingdom.


David wanted to make God a "house", meaning a temple; God turned this around and promised to make David a "house", meaning a dynasty.

See Hebrews 11:9–10 for the significance of whether God was thought of as dwelling in a tent or a house; it seems that God did not yet want his people to think that they had "arrived", or that he was static.

There are also parallels with Peter's suggestion at the Transfiguration (Mark 9:5) that they should make three booths, apparently to make the wonderful event an enduring one. Anderson[2 p.115] suggests that the eventual destruction of the temple should not surprise us, because it wasn't God's will in the first place. Perhaps the whole idea originated in Hiram's gifts.

Some see conflict between the statement that the Ark had not dwelt in a building and references to a "house" at Shiloh (Judges 18:31, Jeremiah 7:14), but the word "house" is used of the tabernacle in 2 Samuel 12:20.


The covenant about King David's dynasty was based on God's promise and involved adoption and standards of behaviour, like Christianity. It was better equipped to survive than most Old Testament covenants, because it made provision for human sin, though the fulfilment in Jesus might not have been what David thought it meant!


cf. Psalm 89, Psalm 132:11–12.


cf. Exodus 6:7.


See comment on People in the Bible: David.


The author cites a long list of brutal activities as signs of God's blessing, which sits uncomfortably with modern ethics.

"There are no 'goodies' or 'baddies' in the Old Testament; every hero falls off their pedestal, and every tyrant has godly moments."[8]

It might be better to say that God's blessing gave David scope to do what he wanted, good or evil. And perhaps God looked more on his motives, as Jesus did (e.g. Matthew 15:19–20).

We are imperfect people living in an imperfect world, and there is a limit to the extent that we can differ from those around us, short of becoming recluses.


David's Moabite descent through his grandmother Ruth did not prompt mercy toward them. The prisoners who were kept alive probably became slaves.[2]


David's enlarged domains required a correspondingly enlarged administration.

The Succession Narrative


Anderson[2 p.141–3] suggests that David was motivated by his covenant with Mephibosheth's father Jonathan (1 Samuel 20:42) rather than loyalty to Saul, and Jones[2] adds that he would want to keep an eye on Mephibosheth as a potential rebel.


In an age of violence and duplicity any action can be misunderstood, and revenge compounds it. Leviticus 19:18 only forbids revenge on one's own people. David clearly regards any follower of Yahweh as one of his people.[2]


Why did David not go with his troops to the battle at Rabbah (near present-day Amman in Jordan[2]), which verse 1 says was customary? As the saying goes, "the Devil finds work for idle hands to do"—​cf. 1 Peter 5:8. We might ask, in order to learn from the story, "where did David go wrong?" We should then focus on verses 1 and 2, because by the time verse 3 arrives the outcome already seems inevitable. There are therefore only a few possible lessons to be drawn:

  1. we should not shirk unpleasant, difficult or dangerous work that falls to us;
  2. we should learn to appreciate beauty without falling into lust, and
  3. when we find sinful thoughts in our mind we should pray scripturally (as demonstrated by Jesus in the wilderness) and avoid sin.

Perhaps Mr Worldly-Wise would add that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.


The fact that Uriah mentions sleeping with his wife is interpreted by some to mean that he has guessed the reason for his recall from the front line, though I find it unconvincing; surely the reason for the rule of not going home was to minimise the frustration of those who were unable to go home to their wives. Uriah sets an excellent example by his restraint, though Bathsheba might have felt snubbed. His noble action signed effectively his own death-warrant—​which he then delivered personally.


It appears that the "time of mourning" was no more than six months; cf. Genesis 50:10 (a week) and Deuteronomy 34:8 (a month).


Verse 9 shows that Nathan's story was both about Bathsheba being abused and Uriah being murdered. David engineered it all and was to blame for both. Nobody asked Bathsheba what she felt; perhaps neither she nor anybody else thought her opinion relevant, just as there is no record of anyone asking David or Michal whether they wanted to be betrothed in 1 Samuel 18:27. The penalty in verse 11 is merciful to David when compared with Leviticus 20:10. It may appear that the sins of the father would be visited on his children (cf. Exodus 34:7), but history shows that David's children weren't innocent.


See Psalm 51. David seemed repentant, his sin was taken away, and he did not die at once. Nevertheless history and peoples' lives were irrevocably altered. The "sword" not departing from David's house need not be a consequence of this particular sin; the word "because" does not appear in the original Hebrew. We could regard this sin as a symptom of a culture of scheming and violence.

David's weakness, in retrospect, opened the way for Solomon's greatness[4], and the evidence for it is therefore important to the overall sweep of the story.


David pleaded with God for the child's life, trying to overturn what Nathan said in verse 14. Sadly his officials could not understand this, despite the well-established tradition of pleading with God, for example, Hannah (who again was misunderstood) in 1 Samuel 1:13. Jones says that the death of the child, and David's marriage to Bathsheba, enabled Solomon to inherit as a legitimate son. See also Appendix 1:Solomon concerning the names 'Solomon' and 'Jedidiah'.


The unclear details suggest a victory won in stages, first over the royal palace, then over the city water supply, making victory inevitable; Anderson[2] conflates these into the capture of a royal fort which guarded the water supply. David's continuing absence from the battle-field was becoming increasingly embarrassing and was weakening his position.

When David eventually arrived it became possible to crown him king of the vanquished Ammonites. Anderson says the name of the Ammonite god Milcom means "king" so probably the impractical crown weighing a talent (about 30 kg or 66 lbs) came from a statue to their god[2], turning the staged "coronation" into an acted-out assertion that the human victory proved that Jahweh had defeated Milcom.


Jonadab's scheming lies behind the incident; was he a friend in verse 3, or destroying Amnon using clumsy echoes of David's treatment of Bathsheba and Uriah, which he apparently understood better than the messenger in verse 32?


Absalom's remark suggests that the rape was no surprise; he knew what had happened. Was he complicit in it? He may have despised David for being duped into creating the opportunity for a foreseeable crime.


Amnon should have obeyed Exodus 22:16–17. It seems that neither David nor Absalom knew what to do about Amnon's outrageous behaviour; as David's eldest son he was heir to the throne so legal action would be too humiliating, and forcing them to marry would not be a solution. There are parallels with Queen Victoria's eldest son Albert, whose outrageous behaviour was ignored.

Absalom's anger at Amnon's behaviour and David's inaction may have encouraged him to plot against them, and in his mind justified killing Amnon.


Absalom eventually found a way to get Amnon away from most of the guards in order to kill him. Anderson[2] thinks that the Tekoite woman's story might be included in order to show that David was duped into playing his part in the outcome. Then Absalom ran away to his mother's family (2 Samuel 3:3).


David blocked traditional vengeance without putting new processes in its place, and his failure to protect Tamar or punish Amnon was a symptom of it. Meanwhile the people loved Absalom because he was handsome, which may have made him vain, while David shunned him. Joab attempted to reconcile David and Absalom, but the situation tended to get worse rather than better. Again the author carefully points the finger of blame at everyone except David.


Shekel: see Appendix 2 Money.


It is possible that Absalom was the heir apparent after the death of Amnon, because Chileab, listed in 2 Samuel 3:2–3 as the second son born at Hebron, is no longer mentioned. Absalom attracted several groups who were unhappy with David's administration:

  1. northern tribes and those loyal to Saul;
  2. those who resented the centralisation of power and religion at Jerusalem,
  3. those who resented having to travel to Jerusalem for justice, and
  4. those swayed by Absalom's physique.

Then, with support in both north and south, and now within the court, Absalom rebelled and was crowned at Hebron, the capital before the move to Jerusalem.

David fled with his court into the wilderness alongside the River Jordan. Recent events in the middle east show that a diverse group of rebels can overthrow an otherwise stable administration, only to prove unable to agree on what should take its place, leading to anarchy.

David simultaneously placed his trust in God and took what practical steps he could, setting us a good example.


David believed Ziba's statement that Mephibosheth hoped to become king through the upheaval (though Mephibosheth subsequently denied it in 2 Samuel 19:26) and passed his possessions to Ziba who seemed loyal.


Disunity is shown by the fact that while one resident of Bahurim insulted David as he passed, 2 Samuel 17:18 shows supporters of David there.


Hushai said "long live the king" without saying which king he meant; on his advice Ahithophel's offer of immediate action was altered into a later mass attack for which Absalom could take the credit, giving time for Hushai to alert David.


See comment on 2 Samuel 16:5.


Ahithophel's position as counsellor was untenable in that his advice was ignored.


The two armies converged, and a battle was inevitable.


Machir of Mahanaim had looked after Mephibosheth (2 Samuel 9:4) until David took him to Jerusalem, so he was probably sympathetic originally to Saul and later to Mephibosheth's hopes of becoming king; but faced with a substantial army he acted like David's supporter.


The army did not want David to interfere when they dealt with Absalom.[4]


David's skilled troops led Absalom into a forest where they could win.[4]


Joab deliberately disobeyed David's orders given in verse 5. Shekel: see Appendix 2 Money.


Perhaps Joab wanted a foreigner to carry the news in case David killed him, as he did on hearing of Saul's and Ishbosheth's deaths in 2 Samuel 1:15 and 4:12.


It appears that this took place at Mahanaim.


Joab was tired from battle and annoyed at David making choices that cost lives. It seems possible that the warning of a revolt was actually a threat.


David urged the chiefs of the south to show their support, but in doing so he alienated the north.


Joab was cursed in 2 Samuel 3:29 and had now killed Absalom. David might have hoped that appointing Absalom's general to his staff would bring unity.


As David returned victorious he was greeted by grovelling. The history portrays him as a magnanimous ruler. But as the fickle people rushed to change sides, tension between north and south re-emerged, ignited by David's invitation to the southern chiefs to welcome his return.


Again the author exonerates David concerning the deaths of Sheba and Amasa.


At last a sense of peace and order is established.



The theology is primitive, viewing God like a pagan deity that must be appeased; but then, under the old covenant God sent hardship when people wandered into sin, causing them to ask "why?" (Joshua 24:20). This incident may precede chapter 9 when the only remaining member of Saul's family was Mephibosheth.


Perhaps this incident also occurred early in David's reign, before the surrounding nations were subdued in chapter 8.


Shekel: see Appendix 2 Money.


Goliath appears be a generic term applied also to one in 1 Samuel 17:49–50 who fell to David's slingshot.


This psalm is very similar to Psalm 18; the language is archaic and poetic.


refers to a covenant, possibly the promise through Nathan in 2 Samuel 7:13.


Great men served David, implying his superior greatness. But Joab is not mentioned; he was cursed in 2 Samuel 3:29 and seems to have been out of favour.


In scripture, counting or measuring on the scale of nations is seen as God's prerogative, linked with control (Job 38:5, Revelation 21:15). Perhaps this census was prompted by pride, fear or mistrust.


2 Chronicles 3:1 says Solomon's temple was built where David sacrificed, and was on Mount Moriah where Abraham went to sacrifice Isaac in Genesis 22. The supposed connection between David's sacrifice and the salvation of the people validates the new dynasty's policy of central government and religion.[4]


Shekel: see Appendix 2 Money.


  1. D Freedman "The Pentateuch" in Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible (ed J Dunn & J Rogerson) Eerdmans 2003 p25–26
  2. A Anderson 2 Samuel in Word Biblical Commentary series (ed. D A Hubbard et al) Word Inc., Dallas 1989
  3. G Koppers "Deuteronomistic History" in Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible (ed D Freedman) Eerdmans 2000 p341
  4. Jones, G. "1 and 2 Samuel" in The Oxford Bible Commentary (J Barton and J Muddiman, eds) OUP 2001, p.196f
  5. "Jeremiah" in Britannica Encyclopaedia Online available from www.britannica.com/ accessed 17 June 2014
  6. Ishbosheth is also known as Ishbaal
  7. De Vaux, R. Ancient Israel—​its Life and Institutions (London: Darton Longman and Todd 1973) p.350
  8. Diana Lipton of King's College London speaking at a "Bishop's Study Day" at Southwark Cathedral on 15 Nov. 2007
  9. Holy Bible New Revised Standard Version Anglicized Edition, 1998 Oxford: OUP, 1989 & 1995
  10. Cross, F. Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic London: Harvard University 1973

© David Billin 2002–2021