Same King, Different Story: How Narratives Shape the People of God
ABSTRACT: The books of 2 Samuel and 1 Chronicles both tell the extended story of King David’s reign, yet they do so in strikingly different ways. Whereas the author of Samuel tells the tragic story of David’s sin and subsequent troubles, the author of Chronicles focuses almost entirely on David’s blessings. A close look at the context and audience of the two books helps to explain why they differ so significantly. The author of Samuel, writing between the nation’s division and its return from exile, needed to offer warnings and hope to an Israel facing God’s discipline. The author of Chronicles, writing after the return from exile, needed to encourage Israel toward wholehearted devotion to God in a time of blessing. Both authors offer a tour of the same reign, but they take different paths to communicate different lessons for their original audiences.
For our ongoing series of feature articles for pastors and Christian leaders, we asked Richard Pratt, president of Thirdmill and former professor at Reformed Theological Seminary, to offer an approach for faithfully interpreting biblical narratives.
I grew up in a family that loved to tour important historical sites in the United States. I remember following my parents in a group of strangers, going to one station after another and listening to a tour guide tell stories about events that happened long before I was born. I always wanted to know more, but the intrigue was compelling, the treachery was frightening, and the jokes were funny too. What I remember most today are the subtle — and often not so subtle — patriotic lessons that the tour guides usually wove into their stories. We took a lot of those lessons home with us.
Old Testament stories are like tours, but they are sacred tours. “All Scripture is God breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16), and God “never lies” (Titus 1:2). While ordinary tour guides are notorious for mixing fact and fiction, the authors of Old Testament historical narratives never fabricated or misconstrued history for ancient Israel. Jesus and his apostles believed this to be true, and there are no more reliable witnesses. Moreover, unlike the flawed lessons ordinary tour guides often give, Old Testament authors taught fully trustworthy lessons through their tours. They selected, shaped, and arranged their narratives to give invaluable guidance for ancient Israelites to take home with them.
To explore how Old Testament authors acted like sacred tour guides, we will look at two presentations of King David’s reign in Scripture, the first in 2 Samuel and the second in 1 Chronicles.
Two Tours, Different Paths
Most of us already know a lot about David. God miraculously raised up David to be the king of Israel in the place of Saul, but when he sinned with Bathsheba, his kingdom fell into disarray. Actually, that’s a reasonably good summary of what appears in the book of 2 Samuel, but the book of 1 Chronicles gives us another, strikingly different path through David’s reign.
“Chronicles replicates, modifies, rearranges, supplements, and omits materials in Samuel in a variety of ways.”
If you’ve ever compared Samuel and Chronicles, then you already know that they do not tell the same story, even though they cover the same King David. Chronicles replicates, modifies, rearranges, supplements, and omits materials in Samuel in a variety of ways. Scholars have devoted a lot of time to analyzing thousands of smaller variations, but focusing on these details is a daunting task even for experts. Still, it isn’t difficult for anyone to discern significant differences in the paths these tours followed.
Before considering why the authors took these different paths, follow along on the two paths themselves.
Tour One: Samuel
Most of us are familiar with David’s reign in the book of Samuel, so let’s start there. By and large, interpreters agree that this book divides David’s reign in 2 Samuel 2:1–24:25 into three main sections, or to draw from our analogy, into three tour stations.
At the first station, the author of Samuel explains how David received tremendous blessings from God in the early years of his reign (2 Samuel 2:1–10:19). These chapters report David’s anointing, his widespread support in Israel, his possession of Jerusalem, and the placement of the ark there. The high points of these years of blessing were God’s covenant with David, David’s submission to the God’s plan that he would prepare for Solomon to build the temple, David’s subsequent victories, and a description of the strength of his kingdom as he ruled in Jerusalem.
The second station of the tour (2 Samuel 11:1–20:26) covers David’s later years, when he fell under severe disciplinary curses from God. David sinned with Bathsheba. The prophet Nathan confronted him and warned that the sword would never pass from his house. The rest of these chapters illustrate some of the ways Nathan’s prediction proved to be true. David’s own family members and a number of other significant figures brought terrible troubles to David’s kingdom.
The third station (2 Samuel 21:1–24:25) is often called an appendix because it consists of a topical chiastic arrangement of events that occurred throughout David’s reign. These chapters present three pairs of similar events. They open and close with two reports of David’s prayers that brought relief from Israel’s trials. Twice they draw attention to victories that David’s mighty warriors won in support of his kingdom. The centerpiece of this chiastic arrangement sets David’s psalm of deliverance in the days of Saul alongside David’s last words near the end of his reign.
Tour Two: Chronicles
Now let’s turn to the path followed in the second sacred tour of David’s reign, in 1 Chronicles 9:35–29:30. This version also divides into three main sections or stations, but it offers a different presentation of David’s kingdom.
The first station (1 Chronicles 9:35–12:40) closely resembles the book of Samuel. It also explains how David received God’s blessings for his faithful service early in his reign. Chronicles notes that David was immediately recognized as king after Saul’s death. He was anointed as king by representatives of all the tribes of Israel at Hebron. He conquered Jerusalem and continued to enjoy widespread support. This section then closes with mighty warriors from the tribes of Israel who supported David while he reigned in Jerusalem.
The second station (1 Chronicles 13:1–16:43) follows the book of Samuel less closely, but it also reports familiar blessings from God. It begins with it the well-known story of David’s failed attempt to bring the ark to Jerusalem. Following this setback, the author of Chronicles turns to a few blessings David received years earlier to remind his audience of God’s special favor toward David. The account in Chronicles then moves to David’s success in bringing the ark into Jerusalem and adds how he instructed the priests and Levites to lead worship in ways that pleased God.
The third station (1 Chronicles 17:1–29:30) begins with God making a covenant with David and David agreeing to prepare for Solomon to build the temple, as in the book of Samuel. But at this point, this tour differs dramatically from what we learn from Samuel. Rather than reporting David’s failure and troubles, the author of Chronicles elaborates on David’s devotion to preparing for Solomon’s temple. Chronicles notes that David devoted the plunder of his victories to the temple. It adds to the story of David’s sinful census that David discovered where God ordained for the temple to be built. After this, the book of Chronicles takes us on a different path through the later years of David’s reign. David charged Solomon, and he organized the Levites, the priests, and other officials for Solomon. David then commissioned the temple construction and publicly appointed Solomon. He also held a grand assembly of Israel’s leaders in which he collected large donations for the temple. After this assembly, the tour in Chronicles notes that Solomon was anointed king and served alongside David until David’s death.
On the whole then, the book of Samuel begins with David’s early years of blessings, turns to his later years of curses, and ends with an appendix of positive events throughout David’s life. By contrast, the book of Chronicles begins with David’s earlier blessings, turns to more blessings, and ends with even greater blessings in David’s reign. But did you notice how the book of Chronicles forms this second tour? The author of Chronicles omits a major focus in Samuel and replaces it with a different set of events in David’s later years.
On the one side, the author of Chronicles omits the eleven chapters of Samuel devoted to David’s sin with Bathsheba and the curses that followed (2 Samuel 11:1–21:17). Think about that for a moment. It is nearly impossible for us to mention the name David without thinking of those events. Yet Chronicles does not mention David’s sin with Bathsheba, Nathan’s rebuke, or those tragic troubles that plagued David’s kingdom throughout his later years. That’s a significant difference.
On the other side, while the book of Samuel has little to say about ways in which God blessed David in his later years, 1 Chronicles 22–29 elaborates on God’s later blessings quite a bit. The author of Chronicles added eight chapters not found in Samuel to tell the rest of the story of David’s later years. God blessed David as the king devoted himself wholeheartedly to preparing for Solomon’s temple.
This quick comparison of Samuel and Chronicles makes it clear that we are dealing with two different tours of David’s reign. They do not contradict each other because they are both God-breathed. Yet it is undeniable that they represent two substantially different versions of the king’s reign.
Two Tours, Two Lessons
I first became aware that the two sacred tours of David’s reign followed different paths as a young student, and it troubled me deeply. There was just one David. Why did the authors of Samuel and Chronicles present two versions? Perhaps it will help to compare what we see in Samuel and Chronicles with the more familiar landscape of the New Testament.
The New Testament gives us four accounts of the one life of Jesus. As we study the four Gospels carefully, we learn that they are similar in many ways, but they are also different from each other. They represent four sacred tours of Jesus’s earthly ministry. Why are they not entirely the same? We’ve all heard the answer. God led Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John to write different accounts of Jesus’s life to address four audiences facing different needs and challenges that had arisen in the early church.
A similar explanation holds for the two sacred tours of David’s reign in the books of Samuel and Chronicles. The Spirit of God ensured that the authors of these books wrote only true facts about David, but he also led them to follow different paths to give lessons that met the needs and challenges that Israel faced in two circumstances.
To understand how this is true, we have to say a few words about the human authors of Samuel and Chronicles. Who were they? For whom did they first write? What were their circumstances? What lessons did their versions of David’s reign offer? As you can imagine, answering these questions thoroughly goes far beyond the limits of our discussion here. Yet it isn’t difficult to grasp several helpful perspectives on the identities, circumstances, and purposes of these two books.
Tour One: Samuel
The book of Samuel is anonymous, so we cannot know precisely who wrote it. We can know, however, that its author was among the leaders of Israel. On many occasions, the book of Samuel indicates that its author made use of official records of Israel’s royal court. Such records were available only to a few nobles, officials, priests, Levites, and the like.
Beyond this, it is especially important for modern readers to keep in view that this book was written in the first place for other leaders in Israel. In our day, Bibles are so plentiful that we are accustomed to looking for lessons that address the personal needs of ordinary, individual believers. In ancient Israel, this was not the case. Literacy and publishing technologies were so limited in Israel that only leaders even had access to the Scriptures. Faithful leaders taught and applied the lessons of Samuel to the lives of common people. Yet the lessons of David’s reign in Samuel did not arise primarily from the personal needs of individual ancient Israelites. Rather, they arose from the conditions of the entire nation of Israel, the state of the kingdom of God in Israel.
So, what were the conditions of God’s kingdom when the book of Samuel was written? Evidences within the book itself clearly indicate that Samuel was written sometime after the division of Israel into the northern and southern kingdoms and prior to the return of a remnant of Israel from exile. On no less than five occasions, the author of Samuel acknowledges that the division had occurred (see 1 Samuel 11:8; 2 Samuel 5:5; 12:8; 21:2; 24:1). Moreover, 1 Kings picks up where the story line of Samuel ends. So the book of Samuel had to have been written before the last scene of 2 Kings. This last scene reports an event that occurred while Israel was still in exile (see 2 Kings 25:25–30).
God graciously sustained Israel during these centuries between the nation’s division and the return from exile, but by and large conditions were dire. It was a period largely characterized by God’s judgments against the kingdom of Israel. The nation was divided. The northern and southern kingdoms faced economic insecurity, threats of war, and foreign dominance. In the end, the Assyrians defeated northern Israel and exiled most of its population. Later, the Babylonians destroyed the temple and Jerusalem, and most of Judah’s population was exiled from the promised land as well.
Throughout these centuries, God sent prophets to bring his word to Israel, and the author of Samuel aligns himself with these prophets by weaving the themes of their proclamations into his stories. The prophets repeatedly explained that the troubles of the nation came from God’s responses to the failures of Israel’s leaders, especially the house of David, to lead the nation in righteousness. The prophets called for repentance, but Israel repeatedly spurned their message. As a result, severe judgments fell on the nation time and again and eventually led to exile from the promised land. Nevertheless, the prophets also assured Israel that one day, when they repented, God would bring their exile to an end. He would fulfill his promises to David by raising up a righteous son of David who would suffer and die for the sins of his people. This king would rise in victory, restore the nation in the promised land, rebuild their kingdom, and lead them into victory throughout the earth.
The author of Samuel wrote his account of David’s reign in the spirit of these prophets. Israel was suffering under curses from God. His record of David’s early years of blessing demonstrated God’s special favor toward David and his house. He raised up David as Israel’s king in Jerusalem and made a covenant to establish David’s house as the permanent royal dynasty over his people.
The record of David’s later years of curses from God explained why Israel was suffering. Their trials were rooted in the troubles that David’s rebellion introduced to the nation, and they continued generation after generation because the sons of David rebelled against God.
Still, like the prophets of Israel, the author of Samuel offered hope for Israelites under God’s curses as he wrote the appendix to his book. Despite the failures and troubles of David’ house, Israel must have faith that God will keep his covenant with David. He will raise up a righteous king from his royal line to bring God’s immeasurable blessings to the nation of Israel.
The author of Samuel called for faith in God’s promise to David throughout his appendix, but he did this most forcefully in David’s last words in 2 Samuel 23:1–7. There, David proclaimed to Israel that when their king
“rules justly over men, ruling in the fear of God,he dawns on them like the morning light, like the sun shining forth on a cloudless morning,like rain that makes grass to sprout from the earth. For does not my house stand so with God?For he has made with me an everlasting covenant, ordered in all things and secure.” (2 Samuel 23:3–5)
The hope of Israel was to long and pray for this kind of son of David.
Tour Two: Chronicles
As crucial as the instruction of the book of Samuel was for Israel prior to the end of the exile, we have seen that the Spirit of God led the author of Chronicles to write a different version of David’s reign. His book is also anonymous, but his use of royal records indicates that the author of Chronicles was also a leader in Israel. Moreover, the author of Chronicles refers to an assortment of records that were available only to leaders, suggesting that ordinary people did not have access to his book. He wrote to guide the kingdom of Israel, not to meet individuals’ needs.
When did the author of Chronicles write his book? The book itself indicates that he lived after Israel had been released from exile in Babylon. The opening genealogies close with reports of people who had returned to Jerusalem (see 1 Chronicles 9:1–34). The closing scene of the book rehearses how Cyrus ordered Israel to return and to build their temple in Jerusalem (see 2 Chronicles 36:22–23). Now, we cannot be certain precisely in which year or decade the author of Chronicles wrote. Yet Chronicles was written in relatively hopeful days of blessing. The exile had ended; a remnant had returned. The author wrote to call more Israelites to return to Jerusalem, to rebuild the temple, and to set the priests and Levites in order under the leadership of David’s house.
The author of Chronicles weaves into his account of David’s reign the central themes of prophets who spoke hopeful words from God after Israel’s return. We have in mind here especially Haggai and Zechariah, both of whom called on Zerubbabel, a descendant of David, to lead Israel toward the goal of restoring the kingdom of God. As the representative of David’s house, Zerubbabel was to welcome the return of more Israelites, to lead the reconstruction of the temple and the reestablishment of proper worship in Jerusalem in preparation for the great Messiah to come. The Spirit of God led the author of Chronicles to confirm these priorities for Israel through his tour of David’s reign. He wrote to affirm the practical program of reconstruction begun in the days of Zerubbabel as the path toward God’s blessings.
“The first audience of Chronicles needed to follow David’s example in their day.”
Understanding this historical context helps us grasp why the author of Chronicles took Israel on a different tour of David’s reign. In comparison with conditions prior to Israel’s release from exile, Chronicles was written in a day of light and hope. Yet that hope had to be turned into a practical program of service to God. Those who had returned to the promised land faced new challenges. What were they to do to move the kingdom of God forward in their day? So, the author of Chronicles replaces David’s sin and troubles with a spectacular account of his full devotion to uniting the people of God in service to the construction of the temple. David was Israel’s exemplary king, the one who fulfilled the priorities they should have in their own lives. The first audience of Chronicles needed to follow David’s example in their day. If they did, they would see the blessings of God.
These themes appear throughout the tour of David’s kingdom in Chronicles, but they take center stage especially in David’s prayer near the end of his reign. When David saw Israel’s generous support for building the temple, he prayed these words:
In the uprightness of my heart I have freely offered all these things, and now I have seen your people, who are present here, offering freely and joyously to you. O Lord, . . . keep forever such purposes and thoughts in the hearts of your people, and direct their hearts toward you. (1 Chronicles 29:17–18)
In Troubled and Hopeful Times
The two tours of David’s reign in Samuel and Chronicles had much to say to ancient Israel, but they also speak to us as followers of Christ. We know that Jesus is the great and final royal son of David who fulfills all of God’s promises to the house of David in the inauguration, continuation, and consummation of his kingdom.
“We know that Jesus is the great and final royal son of David who fulfills all of God’s promises to the house of David.”
Prior to the return of Christ in glory, the needs and challenges we face vary. There are times when the discipline of God comes upon us in Christ. We feel boxed in by disappointment and hardship; life in this world seems hopeless. In these sorts of circumstances, the tour of David’s life in Samuel has much to say to us. Just as Israel was to put their hopes in the righteous son of David to come, we are to put our hopes in Jesus, the righteous son of David. He is the one who will rescue us. Our faith must be in him alone.
Other times, however, our needs and challenges are much closer to the situation for which the book of Chronicles was written. God mercifully opens doors of service, opportunities to further his kingdom in the power of the Spirit. We are positive and hopeful, ready to reach for the sky. The tour of David’s life in Chronicles is especially good for us in those times. Just as Israel was to learn from David’s life after the exile, the lessons of David’s reign in Chronicles teach us the projects we should pursue and the priorities we should follow as we devote ourselves to the kingdom of God in Christ.
Go back to these two sacred tours of David’s reign on your own. Read through them. You’ll find countless ways they direct us all in service to Christ.