Editor’s note: The following is extracted from David: Five Sermons, by Charles Kingsley (published 1865).
2 Samuel i. 26. I am distressed for thee, my brother Jonathan: very pleasant hast thou been unto me: thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.
Passing the love of woman? How can that be, we of these days shall say. What love can pass that, saving the boundless love of him who stooped from heaven to earth, that he might die on the Cross for us? No. David, when he sang those words, knew not the depth of woman’s love. And we shall have a right so to speak. The indefeasible and Divine right which is bestowed by fact.
As a fact, we do not find among the ancient Jews that exalting and purifying ideal of the relations between man and woman, which is to be found, thank God, in these days, in almost every British work of fiction or fancy.
It is enunciated, remember always, in the oldest Hebrew document. On the very threshold of the Bible, in the very first chapters of Genesis, it is enunciated in its most ideal purity and perfection. But in practice it was never fulfilled. No man seems to have attempted to fulfil it. Man becomes a polygamist, lower than the very birds of the air. Abraham, the father of the faithful, has his Sarah, his princess-wife: but he has others beside, as many as he will. And so has David in like wise, to the grief and harm of both him and Abraham.
So, it would seem, had the majority of the Jews till after the Captivity; and even then the law of divorce seems to have been as indulgent toward the man as it was unjust and cruel toward the woman. Then our blessed Lord reasserted the ideal and primæval law. He testified in behalf of woman, the puppet of a tyrant who repudiated her upon the most frivolous pretext, and declared that in the beginning God made them male and female; the one husband for the one wife. But his words fell on unwilling ears. His disciples answered, that if the case of a man with his wife be such, it is not good for a man to marry. And such, as a fact, was the general opinion of Christendom for many centuries.
But of that, as of other sayings of our Lord’s, were his own words fulfilled, that the kingdom of God is as if a man should put seed into the ground, and sleep and wake, and the seed should spring up, and bear fruit, he knew not how.
In due course of time, when the Teutonic nations were Christianised, there sprang up among them an idea of married love, which showed that our Lord’s words had at last fallen on good ground, and were destined to bear fruit an hundredfold.
Gradually, with many confusions, and sometimes sinful mistakes, there arose, not in the cloister, not in the study—not even, alas! in the churches of God, as they were then; but in the flowery meads of May; under the forest boughs, where birds sang to their mates; by the side of the winter hearth; from the lips of wandering minstrels; in the hearts of young creatures, whom neither the profligacy of worldlings, nor the prudery of monks, had yet defiled: from them arose a voice, most human and yet most divine, reasserting once more the lost law of Eden, and finding in its fulfilment, strength and purity, self-sacrifice and self-restraint.
That voice grew clearer and more strong as time went on. It was purged from youthful mistakes and youthful grossnesses; till, at the Reformation, it could speak clearly, fully, once and for all—no longer on the ground of mere nature and private fancy, but on the ground of Scripture, and reason, and the eternal laws of God; and the highest ideal of family life became possible to the family and to the nation, in proportion as they accepted the teaching of the Reformation: and impossible, alas! in proportion as they still allowed themselves to be ruled by a priesthood who asserted the truly monstrous dogma, that the sexes reach each their highest excellence only when parted from each other.
But these things were hidden from David. One can well conceive that he, so gifted outwardly and inwardly, must have experienced all that was then possible of woman’s love. In one case, indeed, he was notably brought under that moral influence of woman, which we now regard, and rightly, as one of the holiest influences of this life. The scene is unique in Scripture. It reads like a scene out of the Middle Age.
Abigail’s meeting with David under the covert of the hill; her turning him from his purpose of wild revenge by graceful compliments, by the frank, and yet most modest expression of her sympathy and admiration; and David’s chivalrous answer to her chivalrous appeal—all that scene, which painters have so often delighted to draw, is a fore-feeling, a prophecy, as it were, of the Christian chivalry of after ages. The scene is most human and most divine: and we are not shocked to hear that after Nabal’s death the fair and rich lady joins her fortune to that of the wild outlaw, and becomes his wife to wander by wood and wold.
But amid all the simple and sacred beauty of that scene, we cannot forget, we must not forget that Abigail is but one wife of many; that there is an element of pure, single, all-absorbing love absent at least in David’s heart, which was present in the hearts of our forefathers in many a like case, and which they have handed down to us as an heirloom, as precious as that of our laws and liberties.
And all this was sin unto David; and like all sin, brought with it its own punishment. I do not mean to judge him: to assign his exact amount of moral responsibility. Our Lord forbids us positively to do that to any man; and least of all, to a man who only acted according to his right, and the fashion of his race and his age. But we must fix it very clearly in our minds, that sins may be punished in this life, even though he who commits them is not aware that they are sins. If you are ignorant that fire burns, your ignorance will not prevent your hand from suffering if you put it into the fire. If you are of opinion that two and two make five, and therefore spend five pounds while you only possess four, your mistake will not prevent your being in debt. And so with all mortal affairs.
Sin, αμαρτια, means first, it seems to me, a missing the mark, end, or aim of our existence; a falling short of the law, the ideal, the good works which God has prepared beforehand for us to walk in; and every such sin, conscious or unconscious, must avenge itself by the Divine laws of the universe, whether physical or spiritual. No miracle is needed; no intervention of God with his own laws. His laws are far too well made for him to need to break them a second time, because a sinner has broken them already. They avenge themselves. And so does polygamy. So it did in the case of David. It is a breach of the ideal law of human nature; and he who breaks that law must suffer, as David suffered.
Look at the latter history of David, and at what it might have been. One can conceive so noble a personage under such woman’s influence as, thank God, is common now, going down into an honoured old age, and living together with a helpmate worthy of him in godly love and honesty to his life’s end; seeing his children Christianly and virtuously brought up, to the praise and honour of God.
And what was the fact?
The indulgence of his passions—seemingly harmless to him at first—becomes most harmful ere he dies. He commits a crime, or rather a complication of crimes, which stains his name for ever among men.
I do not think that we shall understand that great crime of David’s, if we suppose it, with some theologians, to have been merely a sudden and solitary fall, from which he recovered by repentance, and became for the time to come as good a man as he had ever been. Such a theory, however well it may fit certain theological systems, does not fit the facts of human life, or, as I hold, the teaching of Scripture.
Such terrible crimes are not committed by men in a right state of mind. Nemo repente fuit turpissimus. He who commits adultery, treachery, and murder, must have been long tampering, at least in heart, with all these. Had not David been playing upon the edge of sin, into sin he would not have fallen.
He may have been quite unconscious of bad habits of mind; but they must have been there, growing in secret. The tyrannous self-will, which is too often developed by long success and command: the unscrupulous craft, which is too often developed by long adversity, and the necessity of sustaining oneself in a difficult position—these must have been there. But even they would not have led David to do the deed which he did, had there not been in him likewise that fearful moral weakness which comes from long indulgence of the passions—a weakness which is reckless alike of conscience, of public opinion, and of danger either to earthly welfare or everlasting salvation.
It has been said, ‘But such a sin is so unlike David’s character.’ Doubtless it was, on the theory that David was a character mingled of good and evil. But on David’s own theory, that he was an utterly weak person without the help of God, the act is perfectly like David. It is David’s self. It is what David would naturally do when he had left hold of God. Had he left hold of God in the wilderness he would have become a mere robber-chieftain. He does leave hold of God in his palace on Zion, and he becomes a mere Eastern despot.
And what of his sons?
The fearful curse of Nathan, that the sword shall never depart from his house, needs, as usual, no miracle to fulfil it. It fulfils itself. The tragedies of his sons, of Amnon, of Absalom, are altogether natural—to have been foreseen, but not to have been avoided.
The young men have seen their father put no restraint upon his passions. Why should they put restraint on theirs? How can he command them when he has not commanded himself? And yet self-restraint is what they, above all men, need. Upstart princes—the sons of a shepherd boy—intoxicated with honours to which they were not born; they need the severest discipline; they break out into the most frantic licence. What is there that they may not do, and dare not do? Nothing is sacred in their eyes. Luxury, ambition, revenge, vanity, recklessness of decency, open rebellion, disgrace them in the sight of all men. And all these vices, remember, are heightened by the fact that they are not brothers, but rivals; sons of different mothers, hating each other, plotting against each other; each, probably, urged on by his own mother, who wishes, poor fool, to set up her son as a competitor for the throne against all the rest. And so are enacted in David’s house those tragedies which have disgraced, in every age, the harems of Eastern despots.
But most significant is the fact, that those tragedies complete themselves by the sin and shame of David’s one virtuous and famous son. Significant truly, that in his old age Solomon the wise should love strange women, and deserting for their sakes the God of his fathers, end as an idolater and a dotard, worshipping the abominations of the heathen, his once world-famous wisdom sunk into utter folly.
But, it may be said, the punishment of David’s sin fell on his sons, and not upon himself.
How so? Can there be a more heavy punishment, a more bitter pain, than to be punished in and by his children; to see his own evil example working out their shame and ruin? But do not fancy that David’s own character did not suffer for his sin. The theory that he became, instantly on his repentance, as good and great a man as he was before his fall, was convenient enough to certain theologians of past days; but it is neither warranted by the facts of Scripture, nor by the noble agonies, however noble, of the 51st Psalm.
It is a prayer for restoration, and that of the only right and true kind: ‘Take not thy Holy Spirit from me;’ and, as such, it was doubtless heard: but it need not have been fulfilled instantly and at once. It need not have been fulfilled, it may be, till that life to come, of which David knew so little. It is a fact, it was not fulfilled in this life. We read henceforth of no noble and heroical acts of David. From that time forth—I speak with all diffidence, and merely as it seems to me—he is a broken man. His attitude in Absalom’s rebellion is all but imbecile. No act is recorded of him to the day of his death but what is questionable, if not mean and crafty. The one sudden flash of the old nobleness which he has shewn in pardoning Shimei, he himself stultifies with his dying lips by a mean command to Solomon to entrap and slay the man whom he has too rashly forgiven. The whole matter of the sacrifice of Saul’s sons is so very strange, so puzzling, even shocking to our ideas of right and wrong, that I cannot wonder at, though I dare not endorse, Coleridge’s bold assertion, that they were sacrificed to a plot of State policy, and the suspicion of some critics, that the whole scene was arranged between David and a too complaisant priesthood, and God’s name blasphemously taken in vain to find a pretext for a political murder. And so David shivers pitiably to his grave, after a fashion which has furnished a jest for cynics and infidels, but which contains, to the eyes of a wise man, the elements of the deepest tragedy; one more awful lesson that human beauty, valour, wit, genius, success, glory, are vanity of vanities: that man is nothing, and God is all in all.
But some may ask, What has all this to do with us? To do with us? Do you think that the Scripture says in vain, ‘All these things are written for our example’? As long as human nature is what it is now, and was three thousand years ago, so long shall we be tempted to commit the same sins as David: different in outward form, according to the conditions of society; but the same in spirit, the same in sinfulness, and the same in the sure punishment which they bring. And above all, will men to the end be tempted to the sin of self-indulgence, want of self-control. In many ways, but surely in some way or other, will every man’s temptation be, to lose self-control.
Therefore settle it in your minds, young men, that the first and the last of all virtues and graces of which God can give is self-control; as necessary for the saint and the sage, lest they become fanatics or pedants, as for the young man in the hey-day of youth and health; but as necessary for the young man as for the saint and the sage, lest, while they become only fanatics and pedants, he become a profligate, and a cumberer of the ground.
Remember this—remember it now in the glorious days of youth which never will return, but in which you are sowing seed of which you will reap the fruit until your dying day. Know that as you sow, so will you reap. If you sow to the flesh, you will of the flesh reap corruption; corruption—deterioration, whether of health, of intellect, of character in some shape or other. You know not, and no man knows, what the curse will be like; but the curse will surely come. The thing which is done cannot be undone; and you will find that out before, and not merely after your dying day. Therefore rejoice in your youth, for God has given it to you; but remember, that for it, as for each and all of his gifts, God will bring you into judgment. And when the hour of temptation comes, go back—go back, if you would escape—to what you all were taught at your mother’s knee concerning the grace of God; for that alone will keep you safe, or angel, or archangel, or any created being safe, in this life and in all lives to come.