‘A Question arises: whether it be better to be loved than feared or feared than loved.’
Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince
In 1 Samuel 18 we read a story that will make even the most nonchalant of us squirm and wince in our seats, particularly the males among us.
Picture the scene, a young woman is in love with a young man. The woman is a princess, the man is a famed warrior, one of the king’s fighters – not born into wealth or prestige. The man cannot make the required payment for marriage. Now, throw into the mix an unsteady relationship between the man and the King, who has already tried to kill him a couple of times. This all starts to sound a bit like a Shakespeare play to me.
The king wants the man dead. This is nothing to do with his daughter’s love for the man. He just has grown to dislike him and his ever-growing popularity among his subjects. So, he comes up with an almost unthinkable plan…a just, plain weird plan. He will let the man marry his daughter for the price of one hundred foreskins. Yes! You read that right. Why all the foreskins? Well, perhaps he needed some extra rubber bands around the palace, or maybe he just could not find any good calamari around Israel since the Philistines took the ports…too far?
To be honest, we probably can give a good guess as to why he wanted all the foreskins. He was requesting them to come from his sworn enemies. He knew news will have spread that this warrior is soon to be the King’s son-in-law and therefore every Philistine would have had him in their sights. The King’s aim was for David to be killed in battle, he probably didn’t want or expect to receive any foreskins at all.
I’m sure the look on the King’s face was clear when the man returned, living, breathing and carrying not one hundred but two hundred foreskins. His daughter would marry the man she loved. The man who grow, yet again, in popularity and fame. The King would have to figure out what to do with all those foreskins.
This is the story of Michal, David and King Saul. A story dominated, not by foreskins but, by fear.
Saul is a King living in fear
If you read all of 1 Samuel 18 you will witness the development of Saul’s fear. Beginning with a hint of insecurity, which went on to fuel his anger, jealousy and, ultimately, total fear of David. Up to this point in the history of Israel, Saul and David have enjoyed a good, even blossoming, relationship. Saul even appears to regard David as his protégé. Sadly, this positive relationship lasted only as long as Saul’s position remained secure and he felt in control. Saul’s security stemmed from having a position of authority and recognition.
All in all, he had been a popular king, Saul, and was well acquainted to receiving praise from his people after winning battles. However, as he hears the songs sung to a returning Israelite army after victory over the Philistines doubts begin cloud his mind. The song gave greater credit to David than Saul. The tables turned from that point onwards.
Taking the comparison personally, Saul’s positive regard towards David turned into insecurity and anger. Saul is living in fear. Fear of losing his power. Fear of being a ‘nobody’. This fear not only affects his relationship with David, and drives him towards attempted murder, but also his relationship with family, using his daughters to get to David, and his ability to lead clearly.
The problem with fear is the more you feed it, the hungrier it gets. Until it consumes you. All your actions, your words, your thoughts filtered through fear. This is what is happening to Saul.
David is a warrior using fear.
I know, I know, as Christian’s you rarely hear anyone say a bad word about David because he was, after-all, King David…a man after God’s own heart. He wrote many beautiful poems and songs describing a full range of emotions throughout life. He led Israel for many years. But come on… this passage does not place him in the best light. And neither do a load of other passages.
David may have been a man after God’s own heart and he may have been used by God in any number of ways but, to put it really really politely, David was not a very nice man. We again and again witness David killing, maiming, and horrifying people. In my book, that does not just get ignored. Yes, God used him. Yes, he loved God. Yes, he wrote some beautiful poetry. Can a man be equally awful and yet still do good? Well…in my experience yes. We humans do not fit in boxes very well. We aren’t made for labelling. We are much much more complex than that. That’s probably a whole other matter though. Let’s continue to think about fear and leading.
Why did David collect double the number of foreskins than he needed? Was it because he loved Michal? Interestingly the passage mentions Michal’s love for David and never says David loved her.
Did it happen by chance? Or to put it another way was he just blessed to collect that much? I’m not sure I would say you are blessed if get 100 more foreskins than needed. Also, we have to assume that all these foreskins came from dead men. So, does God bless one man by killing a small village?
Or was it to show he was a great warrior? David was a great warrior, this has already been proved time and time again. Was it to create fear? To prove he was someone not to be messed with. I feel like this might be closer to the truth.
After Saul’s death, David becomes the king that uses fear. He leads his armies into committing gross barbarities, countless war crimes and heinous atrocities (even by the standards of conduct of war and treatment of defeated peoples in ancient times). In today’s terms, he would be right up with the worst of them in the International Criminal Court. And this, like Saul, ends up putting him at odds with his family and affects his leadership. David’s actions, and ever increasing fear of losing power as he gets older, leads to the death of his son Absalom. Nearing the end of his life even God does not want David to build Him a temple because he has been involved in so much violence. Neither living in fear or using fear appear to be beneficial. They appear to lead down the same path.
One of the central parts of Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’, a book all about gaining and holding onto Power, is about cruelty and mercy. Or being feared and being loved. ‘A Question arises: whether it be better to be loved than feared or feared than loved’ he goes on to answer ‘since love and fear can hardly exist together, if we must choose between them, it is far safer to be feared than loved’.
Far be it for me to disagree with Machiavelli…but I disagree.
I disagree because when I look at the King of Kings, the ruler above all rulers, the Lord of everything we can see and touch, and can’t see and can’t touch, seems to lead differently. Not by fear, but by love. And it’s not even that he doesn’t use fear, it’s that he commands us not to be afraid. I’m not the only one who noticed a difference in leadership styles. Napoléon Bonaparte, the famed French military and political leader of the 18th and 19th Century is widely reported to have said, when asked about Jesus, ‘I will tell you. Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne, and myself have founded great empires. But our empires were founded on force. Jesus alone founded His empire on love, and to this day millions would die for Him. I think I understand something of human nature, and I tell you, all these were men, and I am a man. Jesus Christ was more than man.’
Jesus Christ was more than man. Jesus Christ is more than man. He is the king who rules with love instead of fear. He is the ruler that proclaims do not be afraid.