King David: Hero or Despot
In reading the accounts of the biblical King David, one can observe Machiavellian principles at work. Specifically, David procures a contradictory reputation for kindness and cruelty, inspires his citizens to love him, and establishes himself as one who is righteous and devout. The interplay of these factors definitely contribute to David’s success as a ruler, and it appears that David’s manipulation of these factors and his contradictory actions make him a less of a hero and more of an opportunistic and ambitious military leader.
King David displays remarkable tenderness at times, especially during times of extremely public mourning. For instance, he weeps over his enemy Saul after he learns of his death. He then, upon learning that the messenger finished off Saul’s lingering suicide, has the person executed. After this, he sings a lament for Saul and his son and orders it to be taught to the people. Superficially, this has the appearance of incredible feeling towards one’s enemy. Nonetheless, it is likely a political ploy to bring Saul’s rebellious subjects under control. On one hand, they are given an example of David’s swift cruelty; on the other hand, the public would likely see David as merciful for honoring their dead king. The result is that those who thought about fighting David likely thought twice, and those who did not know him immediately saw him as a just and respectable leader. The glaring contradiction between the order to kill the servant and the order to teach the song demonstrate that David was not acting out of any strength of character but was ambitiously solidifying his future control.
David further proves his ambition by actions that seduce his people into loving him. Although arguably termed a boy at this time, David slew Goliath in order to procure the favor of the Israelites. The bible speaks plainly of how the people loved him for it. The strife between David and Saul even has its root in the fact that David has become so popular. David, however, again engages actions which would seem to have a contradictory nature. Samuel 1:23 is an account of how David saves the town of Keilah. At first, it would appear that David comes to their aid in order to support what is and just as a servant of God. Conversely, when Saul’s men journey to the city in order to engage David and his army, he and his men flee. Logic would declare that if David was truly interested in the well-being of this city, he would have stayed to defend it against Saul. But since David is more interested in glory inducing a favorable effect upon his followers, he chooses not to stay and leaves in the not so that he will not have to face Saul. Later, in Chapter 30, one finds David’s followers despondent and threatening to stone him. To suppress their ire, David takes them to battle the Amalekites. Once victorious, David makes sure to send portions of the spoils to various friends. This is all done under the guise of sharing, but it is likely that David is trying to create alliances in case his men weary of him again. One wonders even if he was redistributing the spoils stolen from his own people. Regardless, David’s obvious actions that serve to win the hearts of his followers show him as a cunning and ambitious person.
Machiavelli states that a ruler must appear righteous and devout, but be able to act contrary to this when the need arises. This can be seen with David. There are many instances where David acts contrary to his own devout beliefs. One example is his fighting with Saul. If David truly believed Saul was the one chosen as God’s King, why doesn’t he attempt more to reconcile with Saul than wage war against him. Also, David seemingly allows the slaughter of priests by Saul’s hand. In Samuel 1:22 it is written, “When I saw Doeg there that day, I knew that he would be sure to tell Saul. So I am responsible for the death of all your relatives” (23-26). A truly devout man surely would have fought more to secure the lives of holy men. Later, David even takes bread intended to be used in religious practices to feed his men. The priest allows it since David claims his men have been free of sexual relations, but the use of ritual bread for food seems a blasphemous action on the part of David. Further, a battalion of men engaged in conquering various cities would not likely have remained chaste since women were often considered part of the spoils of war. Although there is no evidence to contradict David’s claim directly, the chastity of soldiers was probably very unlikely during this time, especially an entire group of them. It would appear, based on David’s oscillating devoutness, that he was merely an ambitious man manipulating the rules for his own power.
The biblical King David definitely appears to be an ambitious politician and military leader. He overtly manipulates his reputation, works to establish an approval from the people, and has an opportunistic belief system that changes whenever a situation arises. Due to the repeatedly overt discrepancies between David’s speech an his actions, one has little assumption as to the reason for his contradictions: he wanted power and he wanted to maintain it. Verily, it would seem David would have been entirely capable of writing “The Prince.” His ends always seemed to justify the means.