Hebrews 11: The Humility of David
The Humility of David
In the honor roll of the Epistle to the Hebrews stands the name of David. He “conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised” (Hebrews 11:32,33). Is David then our model as a heroic king of Israel? Not if we read the context in Hebrews. At the beginning and the end of his list the author tells us why he named Moses, Rahab, Samson, David and the rest of these Old Testament men and women. They are commended for their faith. They are not presented as paragons of virtue, but as witnesses who believed. They trusted God’s promises, and their lives showed it. They understood that God was pointing forward to One who was to come. They are already telling us to look for the promise, that is, to fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of their faith and ours (Heb. 12:1,2).
When Sunday School lesson writers thought they should give children Bible characters as examples to be followed, they had to suppress many stories, including some from the life of David. When David took his sling and went to meet Goliath, he was admirable. We do not hear him matching Goliath’s boasts with his own. He does not warn Goliath that those cumbersome weapons are no match for his airborne missile. Instead, David boasts not in his sling or his skill, but in his God. His simple modesty shows the humility of faith.
His faith shone through later, soon after he brought the whole kingdom under his rule. The Philistines, taking their cue from David’s new power, invaded from the south, and occupied Bethlehem, David’s hometown. David gathered his troops out in the desert of Judea. There, one hot afternoon, he wished he could have a drink of water from the well of Bethlehem where the Philistine garrison was. Three volunteers from his old guard had just come to camp. They heard the king’s murmured wish. “Let’s go!” they said.
They broke through the Philistine lines, reached Bethlehem, and drew water from that well. When the three warriors presented him with the water, David poured the water on the ground. He did not say, “Thanks, men,” or even (in a modern setting), “Where’s the ice?” Rather, David said, “I can’t drink this water. You risked your lives to gratify my wish. You have brought me your very blood.”
David poured the water out as an offering to God. He showed humility, love and respect for his men. Yet that was all the fruit of his faith. David knew that the water was a sign from the Lord, a blessing he did not deserve. It was too good for him, and could only be offered in thanksgiving to God. In that humility of faith, David also pointed his men to share his trust. They were not merely serving their king: they were serving the Great King, the God of Israel.
Read on in the story of David. At the end you come to David’s last words, and to a memorial of his faithful warriors (2 Samuel 23). There are the three, the thirty mighty men and their exploits. Who now remembers Naharai, General Joab’s armor bearer, or the Ithrites, Ira or Gareb? But the last name burns on the page: Uriah the Hittite.
Uriah, faithful to the death. Uriah, still fighting David’s battles when David was secure in his kingdom and relaxing on his palace roof. Uriah, Bathsheba’s faithful husband, summoned from the front to the king when David learned that Bathsheba bore the fruit of his adultery. Uriah, who would not go home to embrace his beautiful wife, because he was on duty, and his comrades were in battle.
David’s attempted cover-up failed. He sent Uriah back to Joab bearing his own death warrant. The murder of Uriah and of companions-in-arms was the price David paid to take Bathsheba as his wife. Joab reported to David the loss of life in a useless sally against the gate of Rabbah, the Ammonite capital. He added, “Your servant Uriah is dead also.”
David answered Joab with horrifying hypocrisy. “Don’t let this upset you; the sword devours one as well as another. Carry on.”
David composed no lament for Uriah, no celebration of the Lord’s enduement of Uriah for mighty deeds. Instead, David spoke not out of faith, but out of unbelief: “In a chance universe, you win some, you lose some.”
Months of silence hardened David’s heart. At last, Nathan the prophet caught the king out by appealing to his remaining sense of justice. “You are the man!” David was not now humble, but humbled. His sensitivity had been trampled down by unfaith, by pride and lust. His hard heart could not be softened. It had to be broken.
Convicted at last of his crimes, David knows that his sin is not just against Uriah, Bathsheba, Joab, his warriors and his people. His sin is against God. He had turned to the disobedience of unbelief. He cries out now, not complaining about the injustice of his enemies, but confessing his own wickedness and shame (Psalm 51). He pleads for washing from the pollution of his sin. He cannot escape his guilt. Indeed, his betrayal shows the truth of God’s indictment against him. His sin is no accident. It is as deep as his being. He was born a sinner, conceived in iniquity. He deserves to be cast from God’s presence and deprived of his Spirit. No sacrifices from the altar can cleanse him. All he can offer is his broken heart. Only the power of the Holy One can make his black heart as white as snow, and restore his salvation.
From the abyss of his contrition, David pleads for unimaginable grace. He asks for God’s unfailing covenant love: “Save me from bloodguilt, O God, the God who saves me, and my tongue will sing of your justice.”
David the murderer deserves death. How can he promise to praise God’s justice in forgiving him? Forgiveness through his mercy perhaps, but how can it be of God’s justice?
The answer lies in the devotion of God’s saving love. God has bound himself to his people as their Redeemer. If David, king and murderer, is not to die for his crime, God himself must yet pronounce sentence. Animal sacrifices symbolize this: the sentence is pronounced against another. Animals symbolize it, but they cannot provide it. God’s own devotion must open the way. The Lord must provide the victim. Abraham could not offer Isaac. The Lord must provide the Substitute; not a ram caught in the bushes, but the Son.
How profoundly David grasped this mystery we do not know. But we know what he claimed. He claimed the mercy that brings salvation through justice. We cannot misunderstand, for David’s shamed confession leaves no shred of righteousness for him to plead. There must be another righteousness, another Victim, not the nameless infant son of David who was conceived in sin and died in judgment, but another Son of David, whose agony David foresaw (Psalm 22). David was not forsaken, but David’s Son and Lord was (Psalm 110).
David’s broken heart found the depths of new humility – not just deference to others, not like our civility that can gentrify culture wars, but the broken heart of the sinner. He knows himself to be not only low, but lost, not only modest, but guilty, not only honoring others, but adoring the Lord of love.
David, too, was taken to the cross. The triumph and praise of Psalm 22 does not celebrate David but the Lord. “They will proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn – for he has done it (Psalm 22:31). When the Apostle Paul heard that the church was being divided by some who prided themselves in him, his question brought down their vaunting. “Was Paul crucified for you?”
There is One who is the hero of God’s saving love, the meek and lowly Jesus. Because of what he did, and how he did it, Jesus is our example in humility. The Lord of glory washed his disciples feet. His humility is divinely royal. Jesus was among us as one that served. Service in his name is therefore never slavish or contemptible. His atonement has paid the price of our sin, and claimed us in love. In him we are children of God the Father, beloved in his Son. We need no pride to assert our worth, for we are proud of him. Neither do we seek to manipulate others by flattery or humility. Instead, we know David’s contentment of faith:
My heart is not proud, O Lord, my eyes are not haughty;
I do not concern myself with great matters, or things too wonderful for me.
But I have stilled and quieted my soul like a weaned child with its mother,
Like a weaned child is my soul within me.
O Israel, put your hope in the Lord both now and forevermore (Psalm 131).
Search the site
- ~ William Edgar Remembers Dr. Clowney
"Ed’s teaching was mind-boggling. No one had ever explained so many issues using what I now know to be biblical theology, the progressive unfolding of redemptive history, culminating is Jesus Christ, the “yea and amen of the promises of God.” A whole group of us from Harvard did come to Westminster, and we never regretted it for a minute. There we discovered that exegesis was controlled by biblical theology, which in turn yielded the good fruits of systematics. We sat under the likes of Paul Woolley, John Murray, E. J. Young. But Edmund Clowney remained a central inspiration. It was he, more than any of the others, who opened the Bible to us. Ironically, in those days, many of the courses on the Pentateuch or the Psalms or Galatians were little more than painstaking refutations of the German critics. We were no doubt still in the era of Westminster’s origins in controversy, called to “demolish strongholds.” But many of us came from outside the Christian faith and did not worry particularly about these guys with funny names like Gunkel or Mowinckle. We needed basic Bible knowledge, and we got it from Ed Clowney’s courses in, of all things, Practical Theology. Whether homiletics, worship, missions, or the church, his sermon-like lectures took us through one era after another, climaxing in Jesus Christ. As he got more and more excited about the structure of revelation, Ed spoke contagiously about the impossibility of God’s extravagant promises. How would he do it? What about Abraham rising up in the morning to sacrifice the only son of the pledge? For a people in exile, how will the very bells on the horses have the Lord’s name inscribed on them, and the cooking pots in the Lord’s house be like the sacred bowls before the altar? The answer: “Remnant and renewal! Remnant and"
- Read more testimonials »