Why did David change his mind?

Thu, 05/06/2014 - 20:30 -- James Oakley

I'm preaching on 1 Kings 2 this Sunday, and it's a trickier passage than it first looks.

David had previously overlooked two murders committed by his commander in chief, Joab, and pardoned the insolent Shimei.

Then the time comes to hand over the kingdom to Solomon. (So thank you to King Juan of Spain for choosing this week...). He urges Solomon to bring justice to these two.

So here's the question: Why did David change his mind?

In the literature, I've found 3 suggestions:

  • The grumpy old man. David did the right thing to pardon these two. But as his life draws to a close, he begins to regret being so lenient and goes back on his word. He finds a loophole in his original promise – he won’t kill them, but his son could do it for him.
  • Putting things straight on his deathbed. David did the wrong thing to pardon these two. In neither case was justice done according to Old Testament law; premeditated homicide and cursing the national leader are both capital crimes. Perhaps his motive for ducking this was originally political expediency. Regardless, he inherited the kingdom from Saul with some wrongs unavenged, and he doesn’t want to hand things to Solomon in the same misshape.
  • The political strategist. David reports this to Solomon as a matter of right and wrong, but in fact this is political opportunism. Joab had the potential to be extremely useful in the army, and Shimei was a key Benjaminite whose pardon could help unify the 12 tribes. Now, however, these two are a threat: Joab had temporarily sided with Adonijah, and Shimei could lead a revolt from the other tribes. Expediency required him to pardon them before, but Solomon’s reign is better with them out of the way.

The snag is: Unless the sermon is going to be very bland in its application, you have to work out what's going on before you can start to ask what the passage is saying to us today.

I think I've worked out what's going on.

What do readers of this blog think?

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Thomas Renz's picture

Many years ago I wrote the equivalent of a master thesis on the structure of 1 Kings 1-11. It seemed to me then that the narrator is evaluating David's instructions in 1 Kings 2 positively as a means of establishing the kingdom and I still think so. But this need not imply that David was wrong to show mercy at an earlier time.

One way of looking at this is to observe that the offences committed by Joab and Shimei operate at different levels. In so far as they were offences against God, God can deal with them. In so far as they were offences against David personally, David decided to forego punishment which is his prerogative. In so far as they were offences against the political order, David did not need to press justice because while he was in charge these offences did not threaten the political order. With Solomon in charge, the threat to the political order increased and at the same time it became possible to pursue the claims of justice with reduced danger of mixing in personal vengeance. 

In somewhat anachronistic language, we might say that David had given personal assurances to Joab and Shimei but he had not granted them immunity from state persecution. As long as the state was emboided in David, they were "safe" but the situation was going to change and with the changed situation came a different approach.

What was your conclusion?

James Oakley's picture
Submitted by James Oakley on

I didn't word it as well as you, Thomas, but I basically said something very like this.

In a nutshell, Joab and Shimei did do wrong earlier on. David suspended their judgement - maybe for mixed motives. It's possible his חֶסֶד was coming through. It's equally possible he did it for political expediency. Then, on his deathbed, he seeks to correct those injustices - again, maybe partly for policital reasons, and partly for judicial ones.

Where your explanation betters mine is that it shifts political expediency into a right kingly concern to protect the realm. But, like you, I was trying to find a way to have my cake and eat it. I wasn't willing to charge David with pure, unjust pragmatism. Neither was I willing to write-off David's earlier pardon totally, when it was so in character with what the writer of Samuel has been portraying.

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