Why ‘200 Philistine Foreskins’ Matter

By Adam Brown –

I have been preaching through the Rise of David in 1 Samuel. In last Sunday’s preaching text (1 Samuel 18:12-30), David very shrewdly wormed his way into the royal house by collecting on his reward for killing Goliath (see 1 Samuel 17:25). For more about this, you can listen to the sermon, David the Supplanter, on the Southshore website.

In this article, I want to focus in on a detail that does not often receive enough attention. It certainly did not get an appropriate treatment in Sunday’s sermon, except to explain the historical and literary allusions it presented, along with the political implications it created.

200 Philistine Foreskins

The detail I am referring to is David’s delivery of 200 Philistine foreskins to his future father-in-law as the dowry for Princess Michal. Now, hold on a minute, Are we really going to talk about 200 Philistine foreskins? Yes, yes we are. Why? Well, you’ll see, but first the text:

1 Samuel 18:25–27 (ESV)

25Then Saul said, “Thus shall you say to David, ‘The king desires no bride-price except a hundred foreskins of the Philistines, that he may be avenged of the king’s enemies.’ ” Now Saul thought to make David fall by the hand of the Philistines.

26And when his servants told David these words, it pleased David well to be the king’s son-in-law. Before the time had expired,

27David arose and went, along with his men, and killed two hundred of the Philistines. And David brought their foreskins, which were given in full number to the king, that he might become the king’s son-in-law. And Saul gave him his daughter Michal for a wife.

Notice a number of things in this text:

  1. Philistine foreskins as a bride-price is King Saul’s idea. Let us remember that, at this point in his life, King Saul is demon possessed. Therefore, this is a demonic idea.
  2. Saul’s motive is made clear. He is banking on the fact that it is not easy to collect one Philistine foreskin, let alone one hundred! Philistines, and men in general, tend to be fairly protective of that which is rightly theirs to protect.
  3. David agrees to the demonic, and down-right-gross, dowry and he delivers double.

Why does David agree?

Put simply, David agrees because this is the price of his rise within the royal house. If he can deliver the foreskins, he will get his princess. If he gets his princess, he can make a legitimate claim on the throne. And, with a claim on the throne, he is only a few shrewd moves away from checkmate.

Since we all love David, we collectively shudder at Saul’s ill conceived plot, but give David a pass, suggesting he had been backed into a corner. 

In truth, however, this is far from the truth. David need not rise to the throne of Israel This Way. There is nothing in the text that hints that this is the only way David could have achieved his endgame. 

Moreover, there is nothing in the text to hint that God thought this was a good idea. Indeed, and this is important, there is no divine sanction given. In fact, all textual evidence seems to suggest the contrary, that this foreskin-collection is a demonic idea and, therefore, rightfully deemed Satanic. It is hatched, after all, in the raving mind of a demon possessed madman.

Nevertheless, David plays along and, like Jacob’s double dowry of 14 years instead of 7, David collects, and counts-out, 200.

How did David get those 200 foreskins?

He killed for them. Presumably, each in hand-to-hand cold-blooded murder. Old men in their beds. Young men on their way to the supermarket. Maybe even a few boys coming to or from school. Husbands taken from their wives. Fathers never making it home for supper with their families. Sons never again able to honour their mothers. 200.

This is what 200 looks like:

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Why did David do it?

Well, because David wanted to be king and to be king he thought he needed a princess. It’s heartbreaking really. It makes me shudder and, even now, I can feel a lump bobbing in the back of my throat.

Each foreskin represents a life taken. Not by old age. Not by natural disaster. Not even by war. Or cancer. Or accident. No, each life was taken by David, on the jealous whim of Old King Saul.

Hope and Grace

And herein is the hope for us: If God can extend love and grace to a man like David – if God can establish the kingdom of Jesus Christ through the merciless murder of 200 Philistine men and boys – then the depth of His grace is boundless.

And the same grace that fell to David is available to us all, through the Son of David, the Lord Jesus Christ. Praise be to God.

The Conflicting and Confounding Characterization of a King

By Adam Brown –

Who is David?

In 1 Samuel 16, we are introduced to David for the first time in the Bible. In this chapter, David says nothing at all.

He is beckoned twice. First, Samuel calls him from the sheep field to be anointed the future king of Israel. Then, Saul calls him from this same sheep field to become the king’s music therapist. In both instances, David comes saying nary a word. And yet, in both summonses, David’s character is described.

In 1 Samuel 16:12, the narrator records,

“Now he was ruddy and had beautiful eyes and was handsome.”

In 1 Samuel 16:18, one of the king’s servants is recorded as testifying,

“Behold, I have seen a son of Jesse the Bethlehemite, who is skillful in playing, a man of valor, a man of war, prudent in speech, and a man of good presence, and the LORD is with him.”

Whereas verse 12 is focussed exclusively on external physical descriptions of David, verse 18 captures inner character qualities of David. It might seem, therefore, that we have been given an inside and outside summary of who David is.

And yet, we must inquire of the source of this information. The description in verse 12 is coming from the narrator and should, therefore, be considered trustworthy. The description in verse 18, however, is coming from an anonymous servant in King Saul’s court. We have no idea who this servant is, how he might know David; whether he is reliable, or if he is a scoundrel. Therefore, we cannot be certain that the description of David in verse 18 is trustworthy.

We immediately discover that David does, indeed, possess the musical talent that the servant vouched for. David becomes an able music therapist in the court of the king. We also know from his aforementioned anointing that the LORD is with David. Finally, from verse 12 we can affirm that – what with his ruddy appearance, his beautiful eyes, and his handsome exterior – David is indeed a man of good presence. As for the rest, time will have to tell. Is David these things or not?

Having read all of David’s biography in 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 Kings, I can report that all of these qualities do emerge, at least vestiges of them do appear. Does that mean that Saul’s servant is trustworthy? Perhaps.

However, one cannot help but wonder why the writer chose to characterize David in this introductory chapter through the mouth of a shady secondary character? Let me offer two reasons.

Saul’s Servant Foreshadows the Masses (Both then and Now)

Just as the servant identifies these character qualities in David, so also the masses will identify these same qualities. People are drawn to David as he carefully cultivates a public persona to match the early testimony of this servant.

Likewise, many Bible readers today are drawn to David because they too see these qualities in David. The danger now, as in David’s own day, is the flatness of this characterization. David may be these things, but he is not only these things. His character arch is far more complex, which is why, I believe, the trustworthy narrator remained silent in verse 18.

The Testimony of Saul’s Servant is Put in Tension with the Testimony of David’s Brother

In the next chapter, David’s own brother, Eliab, will offer a second chance at indirect characterization of David. In 1 Samuel 17:28, Eliab rebukes his brother, “Why have you come down? And with whom have you left those few sheep in the wilderness? I know your presumption and the evil of your heart, for you have come down to see the battle.” David, the quintessential younger brother retorts, perhaps with a fraternal whine, “What have I done now?”

Whereas we are quick to embrace the testimony of Saul’s unnamed servant, we are equally apt at quickly dismissing the testimony of David’s named brother. It is true, Eliab might have motive for resentment, having been passed over at Samuel’s anointing for his youngest brother. However, we don’t know if Eliab wanted to be king. He might just as easily have been relieved that the burden fell to David instead of him. We simply don’t know.

Whatever the case, of the two witnesses, Eliab is a much stronger witness than the unknown servant. We know his name and we know his relationship to David. Therefore, we cannot easily dismiss his insight, that David is motivated by an evil heart.

Both characterizations are indirect, through the voice of other characters. Neither can be called a direct characterization, which comes from the voice of the narrator. This means that their conflicting testimonies must be taken and weighed with equal scrutiny.

Final Thought

When reading Old Testament narrative, we must be careful in our evaluations. God has recorded this history through the conventions of ancient Hebrew storytelling. For today’s lesson, keep this in mind: Be quick to trust the narrator and God, but slow to trust any of the other characters.

Who is David? If we take the testimony of Saul’s servant and of David’s brother into consideration, it seems David is sure to be complex, conflicted, and difficult to pin down.

Did God Choose David Because He Had a Good Heart?

By Adam Brown –

Why did God choose David?

Did God choose David to be king because he had a good heart?

In 1 Samuel 16, the prophet Samuel was sent by God to anoint a son of Jesse to be King Saul’s successor. Jesse’s eldest, Eliab, was an impressive physical specimen, just as Saul had been, causing Samuel to remark to himself, “Surely the LORD’s anointed is before me!”

But Samuel was mistaken and God rebuked him: “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).

What are we to make of this statement from God?

It is easy to trip over this verse by concluding that God chose David because, looking on his heart, He saw some goodness. In other words, we can easily conclude that God chose David to be king because he had a good heart.

Man may choose kings by looking for GOODNESS of outward appearance but the LORD chooses kings by looking for GOODNESS of heart.

Here are five problems with this conclusion:

One

The goodness of David’s heart is not affirmed in 1 Samuel 16. In fact, the only description of David comes in verse 12: “Now he was ruddy and had beautiful eyes and was handsome.” It seems, David had a good outward appearance. But, notice, nothing is said about his heart.

Two

The narration of 1 Samuel 17:28 suggests that David might be motivated by a presumptuous and evil heart. Put in the mouth of Eliab, David’s eldest brother, this fraternal rebuke is the sequel to the divine rebuke against Samuel in 1 Samuel 16:7, which had been occasioned by Samuel’s faulty impression of Eliab. Perhaps Eliab is simply a jealous older brother who was still sulking for having been passed over. Or, perhaps, the narrator is using Eliab in both chapters to reveal twin truths. First, God does not look on the outward appearance. Second, though chosen by God, David is as flawed on the inside as the rest of us.

Three

David’s biography in 1 and 2 Samuel does not paint the portrait of a man with a good heart. By his own admission, David is in desperate need of inner-transformation: “Create in me a clean heart O God” (Psalm 51:10).

Four

The Son of David, Jesus the Messiah, denies us the ability to conclude that David was chosen because he was in possession of a good heart: “Why do you call me good?” Jesus asked the rich young ruler, “No one is good except God alone” (Mark 10:18).

Five

If David had a good heart, meriting his selection by God to replace Saul, then we have a serious theological problem. We would be saying that some, like David, are chosen by the merits of their good hearts, while the rest of us are chosen by God’s grace in spite of our wicked hearts. Of course, this works-based option must be ruled out, even for David: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

How, then, are we to make sense of 1 Samuel 16:7?

Let me suggest that we solve the riddle of this verse in the same way that we solve the riddles of 1 Samuel 13:14; 1 Kings 11:4, 6, 33, 38; 15:3, 11; 2 Kings 14:3; 16:2; Acts 13:22. In all of these verses, David is held up as a perfect example of heart-obedience and covenant keeping righteousness. And yet, even the sloppy reader must acknowledge that David’s life, as painted in 1 and 2 Samuel, falls far short of these affirmations.

What, then, is going on here?

David himself gives us the answer, as quoted by Paul in the book of Romans: “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin” (Romans 4:7–8).

In 1 Samuel 16:7, and all the other verses that portray David as having been perfectly righteous, God is not looking on David’s heart directly, but through the mediation of his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. David was justified. When God looked at David, then, He didn’t see David as he was. Rather, God saw in David the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ.

Let’s return to our original line of query. Why, then, did God choose David? Did God choose David to be king because he had a good heart?

God chose David because God chose David (Romans 9:14–18). We are never told why. But, this much is clear: It is in the choosing, and in the choosing alone, that David’s heart was declared to be good, and this by the imputation of Jesus Christ, David’s own Son.

So it is with all of us who are in Christ. Wicked hearts are declared to be good by the righteousness of David’s own Son, given for us and imputed to us. Praise be to God!