There are many influential figures in the Bible: King Solomon. Noah, Abraham, who was the father of the world’s three most populous religions, the Apostle Paul, the 12 disciples, and of course, Jesus of Nazareth. King David is yet another who has garnered an enormous amount of attention among archaeologists, authors, pastors, and the everyday reader of the Old and New Testaments alike. He is widely attributed as the author of most of the book of Psalms and is revered by many as the greatest of the many Israelite kings.

Early Life

David of Bethlehem was the youngest son of a man named Jesse and brought up to be a shepherd circa 1,000 BCE. He is introduced as, “ruddy, with bright eyes, and good looking” (1 Sam 16:12). According to the Old Testament, the prophet Samuel had been sent to Bethlehem to find a replacement for King Saul who had failed to “obey the voice of the Lord” (1 Sam 15:19) by not completely destroying the Amalekites after God had delivered them into Saul’s hand.

After being anointed by Samuel as the next king of Israel, David was recruited by Saul’s court to calm the nerves of the king due to a “distressing spirit from God” (1 Sam 16: 15), as he was a very talented musician and singer. Obviously, Saul was unaware of the previous anointing of David as his successor, and he greatly appreciated David’s calming musical voice and beautiful harp. Saul asked David’s father to allow his son to stay at court due to the fact that, after hearing David, Saul’s “soul would become refreshed and well, and the distressing spirit would depart from him” (1 Sam 16: 23).

A painting from the early 1630s by Jan van den Hoecke depicting David playing a harp for King Saul, who appears contemplative as he sits on his throne. Several courtiers and guards observe the scene in the background, set within a grand architectural setting with columns and rich drapery. The expressive brushstrokes capture the emotional weight of the moment, with David engrossed in his music and King Saul lost in thought.
David Playing the Harp for King Saul by Jan van den Hoecke, early 1630s, Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest

Goliath, and One of History’s Most famous Battles

From sporting events to business ventures, the modern vernacular is rife with the David and Goliath metaphor. When a smaller and seemingly less capable participant is faced with an opponent that looks or feels invincible, the Biblical contest between David and Goliath is so often employed that the origin of the metaphor is lost on the listener. However, in this case, the reality was far more fantastic than its subsequent comparisons. 

King Saul and his army were encamped in the Valley of Elah preparing for battle against their mortal enemies, the Philistines. According to the Bible, Goliath of Gath was a champion of the Philistines “whose height was six cubits and a span” (1 Sam 17:4), which would equal an incredibly large 9.75 feet! The giant was taunting the Israelites claiming that if any man was able to kill him, “then we will be your servants. But if I prevail against him and kill him, then you shall be our servants and serve us” (1 Sam 17:9).

The Israelite army was “dismayed and greatly afraid” of the enormous Philistine and none would come forward to face him. However, the young shepherd from Bethlehem, while bringing food to his brothers who were in the army, and hearing the boasts of Goliath, became angry that someone had the audacity to mock the Israelite God and His people.

The young David was infuriated by the words of Goliath, and by the lack of faith and action on the part of the Israelites, when confronted by the Philistine giant. He was brought before the king and told Saul that he would face this man who was mocking his God and people. Saul was not convinced by David’s confidence and tried to dissuade him by saying, “you are a youth, and he a man of war from his youth” (1 Sam 17;33).

The young shepherd disregarded all of the warnings about facing Goliath in the field saying that “[the Lord] will deliver me from the hand of the Philistine” (1Sam 17:37). Seeing that the boy was determined to fight the giant, Saul attempted to clothe David in his armor, which was too cumbersome and heavy for the young boy, and he said “I cannot walk with these, for I have not tested them” (1 Sam 17:39). David removed the armor, took his staff in his hand, and instead, opted for a cluster of five smooth stones from a nearby brook to accompany his simple shepherd’s sling. 

Coming upon David in the field, Goliath asked “am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks?” 1 Sam 17:43). David was not afraid. And after informing the giant of his intentions to feed Goliath to the birds of the air and beasts of the field, he approached the enormous man from Gath, put one of the stones in his sling, and launched the projectile deep into the forehead of the man that no one else would face. After the giant fell, David took Goliath’s own sword, and cut off his head. The Israelites then chased the Philistine army, which had fled after seeing the young Hebrew behead their champion, and “the Philistines fell along the road to Shaaraim” (1 Sam 17:52).

A painting from the 1620s by Alessandro Turchi depicting David, a young man with curly red hair and a contemplative expression, holding the severed head of Goliath. David is shown bare-chested, draped in a white cloth and a rich purple robe, while Goliath's head, with a dark beard and a prominent wound on the forehead, dangles from his grip. The background is dark, focusing the viewer's attention on the central figures and the stark contrast between David's youth and the lifeless visage of his foe.
David with the Head of Goliath by Alessandro Turchi, circa 1620s, Wikimedia Commons

David and King Saul

After the slaying of Goliath, and subsequent defeat of the Philistine army, Saul would no longer allow David to return to his family home in Bethlehem. According to the book of Samuel, David became very close friends with Saul’s son, Jonathan. David then obeyed Saul’s commands and went out on every mission upon which he was sent without question, and he quickly became a national hero of the Israelites. One day, while returning home, Saul heard the people of Israel exclaiming that “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands” (1 Sam 18:7).

Upon hearing the praise being heaped upon David, Saul became jealous of the boy and his popularity. Saul’s envy caused him to attempt to kill David by throwing a spear at him, which would set off a long series of events that would lead to David leaving Israel, and Saul hunting him and trying to kill the Bethlehemite on multiple occasions. David may well have been killed by the king had it not been for his friendship with the king’s son. Jonathan was determined to help David survive the king’s wrath, which occasionally aroused Saul’s anger against his own beloved son. Indeed, Saul was so determined to kill David that he slaughtered the Levite priests who had sheltered him.

An evocative painting from 1646 by Guercino titled 'Saul Tries to Kill David with His Spear'. The scene portrays a tension-filled moment as King Saul, with an expression of fury, lunges forward with a spear aimed at David. David appears alarmed and agile, attempting to dodge the attack. The backdrop is shadowy, with muted tones, highlighting the dramatic action and emotional intensity of the foreground. The masterful brushwork captures the urgency and turbulence of the biblical narrative.
Saul Tries to Kill David with His Spear by Guercino, 1646, palazzo Barberini, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica

David would eventually outlast Saul and become king of Israel. Refusing to attack God’s anointed, he allowed Saul to live even though he had multiple opportunities to kill him. On Mt. Gilboa, Saul and his sons, including David’s close friend Jonathan, met a grisly end. Once again fighting the Philistines, Saul’s sons were killed. According to the Bible, Saul was then struck and severely wounded by an arrow, and subsequently fell on his own sword. The Philistines found the bodies of the king and his sons the next day. They beheaded them and hung their bodies on the walls of the city of Beth Shan, but the bodies were quickly removed by Israelite crack troops, burned, and buried near Jabesh.

David as King

Upon hearing of the death of King Saul and his sons, David was so upset that he killed the messenger who brought him the news because the man claimed to have killed Saul at the king’s request. David mourned Saul and his sons, and then went up to Hebron at the Lord’s instruction where he was anointed king. However, Abner, Saul’s general, took Saul’s other son and made him king of all of Israel, besides Judah, which followed David as king. Soon after, David’s men defeated Abner at Gibeon. A long war between the two factions followed, which David eventually won, and Abner came to his side.

Eventually, all of Israel came to accept David as king. During David’s return to Jerusalem with the Ark of the Covenant, he famously danced his way into the city before the Lord. The display upset his estranged wife, and she accused him of making a fool of himself in front of the people. A jibe against which David bristled and scolded his wife, as he felt that dancing in a thankful manner before the Lord was a proper thing to do.

David enjoyed a long reign of forty years over the kingdom of Israel. During his time as king Israel flourished. However, the king was by no means perfect. Soon after being crowned, David felt that he should build a temple for the Lord. He lamented that “I dwell in a house of cedar, but the ark of God dwells inside tent curtains” (2 Sam 7:2). However, the prophet Nathan told him that he had too much blood on his hands to build the temple, and that his son would build the House of the Lord.

A serene painting by Louis-Jean-François Lagrenée from 1770 titled 'David and Bathsheba'. The artwork portrays Bathsheba, a beautiful woman with flowing hair, standing near a water's edge, her delicate form modestly draped in white fabric. Beside her sits a maidservant in golden attire, attentively handing her a garment. In the background, King David is observing her from far, near a grand, classical structure with ornate pillars. A small dog, excitedly splashing water, adds life to the tranquil scene. Lush trees and foliage frame the composition, creating a sense of privacy and intimacy.
David and Bathsheba by Louis-Jean-François Lagrenée, 1170, Wikimedia Commons

The greatest sin that David committed, however, was not one of warfare. David woke one evening and saw a beautiful woman bathing on a rooftop in Jerusalem. The woman’s name was Bathsheba, and although she was already married, David as king sent for her and slept with her, and she became pregnant with his child. She was married to one of David’s military captains, Uriah the Hittite.

David cared greatly for the woman and had her husband killed in battle by purposefully sending him to the front of a battle. The Old Testament tells us that this action angered God greatly. The prophet Nathan was sent to David, and he told the king a story about a rich man stealing a poor man’s beautiful lamb that he loved, the only one the poor man had. After decreeing that the rich man should die for his actions, and then finding out that he was the rich man, and Bathsheba was Uriah’s lamb, David was overcome with grief and guilt and repented before God.

A captivating painting from 1650 by an unknown Flemish artist titled 'The Repentant King David'. The scene portrays King David, adorned in opulent regal attire, seated on a golden throne. He looks up with a remorseful expression, captivated by an angelic figure above him who gracefully extends a skull towards him as a symbol of mortality. To David's left, a figure draped in humble brown robes, possibly a prophet or advisor, gestures towards the heavenly vision. A backdrop of dark, moody clouds gives way to divine light, illuminating cherubic faces that watch the scene unfold. The richly detailed setting, from the intricate throne to the lavish carpet and draperies, underscores the drama and gravity of the moment.
The Repentant King David, by an unknown flemish artist, 1650, The Portland Art Museum

Although David repented of his sin, the child that he had borne with the woman died soon after birth. However, the next son he conceived with Bathsheba would be named Solomon, and Solomon has become nearly as well-known as his father and would eventually build the temple to God.

Over the next decades, David would have to continually fight his enemies, one of which was his son Absalom. Absalom, and David’s other enemies, would be defeated, often to David’s sadness and dismay. David maintained a relationship with God throughout his life and although he was destined to put down repeated rebellions and attacks from his neighbors, David’s reign is considered one of the high points of Hebrew history. David died after ensuring that his oath to his wife Batsheba that Solomon would be king of Israel was fulfilled, setting up the kingdom of Israel for its future success.

Minimalists and Maximalists

Near East ancient historians are often divided into two main categories when studying the history of the area. They are known as maximalists, who believe that the Bible is a reliable historical source and that the information contained therein is a proper primary source. Contrarily, the minimalists believe that the book is little more than a collection of oral histories that has little or no relationship to historical fact. 

Regardless of one’s stance on the relevance of the Bible and its accuracy, the subject is incredibly intriguing. And the oral histories, if that is all they are, share the voice of a people that has endured repeated attempts at their destruction throughout history. However, there is a great deal of evidence that points to the Bible being a much more reliable source of information than a simple collection of myths or stories. 

Ancient historians often cling to the established set of historical markers in order to dissuade the maximalist notions of the historical accuracy of the Old Testament. There can be little doubt that, for instance, the Hyksos rebellion in Egypt resembles the stories in the book of Exodus and the Israelite flight from Egypt. Solomon’s six chambered gates in the cities of Hazor, Megiddo, and Gezer also correspond to a shocking degree with the biblical assertations made in the book of 1 Kings. Perhaps most applicable here, the Tel Dan inscription, which clearly names the House of David, seems to point to more than the defeat of a simple brigand, or tribal chief, as the minimalist take on King David often claims. Regardless, the voice of untold generations of Hebrews shines through in the stories of David, his son Solomon, and the Psalms of David and his chief musicians.

A striking portrait from the period 1540-50 by Girolamo da Santa Croce titled 'King David'. The central figure, King David, is depicted in rich, regal attire with a crown atop a white turban, highlighting his majestic status. He holds a large, ornate zither, symbolizing his role as a psalmist. His focused gaze is directed away from the viewer, suggesting a moment of contemplation or perhaps inspiration for his next psalm. The dark, dramatic background showcases a rugged mountainous landscape under a stormy sky, creating a contrast with the luminous and detailed depiction of the king. David's robe shimmers with golden embroideries and the bright red of his undergarments peeks out, further emphasizing the lavishness of the scene.
King David by Girolamo da Santa Croce, 1540-50, Samuel H. Kress Collection