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"The single most exciting thing you encounter in government is competence, because it's so rare."
-- Daniel P. Moynihan
David was not only a great military leader, he was also a good ruler. A single, often overlooked verse (2 Samuel 8:15) notes his greatness as a ruler, yet his reign set the standard by which all later reign were judged and most often found deficient.
ACTIONS. During David's reign, he did what was just and right (administered justice and equity - ESV). Doing what was "just" meant not only that he and all the courts throughout the land made correct judgments (see Deuteronomy 16:18-20; 17:8-13; and 19:15-21), but also that all in his administration thought and acted accordance to right judgments (see BDB, #6666). Doing what was "right" meant that all those in authority acted in accordance with an ethical or moral standard (TWOT, 1999, #1879). Hence, every function of government was carried out according to Mosaic Law. Later, God calls David "my servant" because he "kept my commandments and my statutes" (1 Kings 11:34).
ADVOCACY. A part of the Mosaic Law which David carried out was advocacy for the poor. Even before he was king, the distressed, the debtors, and the discontented found refuge with him (1 Samuel 22:2). When he became king, he continued to do what was just and right "for all his people," for the poor, the weak, and the alien, as well as the rich. David was bound to defend the poor by the Law. He did this not through government programs but through judicial regulation and priestly instruction. Accordingly, he did not allow anyone to oppress the alien (Exodus 23:9) or take advantage of the widow and orphan (Exodus 22:22-24); instead, he made sure generosity was shown to the poor (Deuteronomy 15:7-11). He provided for safety by requiring parapets around rooftops (Deuteronomy 22:8) and he required that runaway slaves be given refuge (Deuteronomy 23:15-16). He did not allow the people to charge their fellow Israelites interest (Exodus 22:25; Deuteronomy 23:19-20), nor to take a person's means of livelihood as a pledge for a loan (Deuteronomy 24:6). nor to keep a cloak as pledge overnight, nor to enter a house to obtain a pledge (Exodus 22:26-27; Deuteronomy 24:10-13). He required that wages be given to a laborer at the end of each day (Deuteronomy 24:14-15) and that corners of fields and fallen grain be left for the poor (Deuteronomy 24:19-22). He prevented cheating in the market by requiring merchants to keep but one scale and to use it for both buying and selling (Deuteronomy 25:13-16).
APPOINTMENTS. Part of the reason that David succeeded in promoting justice and righteousness is because he gave priests and Levites prominent positions in his government. The priests and Levites had been appointed by God to teach the people all that God commanded in the Law (Leviticus 10:11; Deuteronomy 17:8-13; Malachi 2:7). Three of the men mentioned as a part of David's government were Zadok and Ahimelech, who served as priests, and Benaiah, a Levite (see 1 Chronicles 27:5) who promoted what was just and right in the military. Thus, justice and righteousness were promoted in all institutions by priests and Levites, whom Saul had alienated along with God's prophets.
ASPIRATION. The kings who came after David often did not follow his example of doing what was just and right. Isaiah 5:7 notes the failure of later kings:
The vineyard of the LORD Almighty
is the house of Israel,
and the men of Judah
are the garden of his delight.
And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed;
for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.
Because their ways were evil, God admonished them in Isaiah 1:16-17 to return to the just and right ways practiced by David:
Take your evil deeds
out of my sight!
Stop doing wrong,
learn to do right!
encourage the oppressed.
Defend the cause of the fatherless,
plead the case of the widow.
Few kings lived up to the ideal established by David. Accordingly, the prophets and the righteous who listened to them looked for a king, the Messiah, who would again aspire to justice and righteousness. Isaiah 9:6-7 foresaw that king:
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David's throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty
will accomplish this.