David is a strong but unassuming shepherd who becomes God’s choice to replace Saul as king of Israel. He is humble yet self-possessed, readily dismissing human opinion. His humility becomes clear early in his youth, when he kills the giant Goliath with a sling stone, declining the opportunity to use Saul’s royal armor. As king, his foremost quality is obedience to God. For example, when his wife expresses embarrassment at David’s dancing while he marches into Jerusalem, he rebukes her, boasting that he will embarrass himself so long as it pleases God.
David’s mercy to others displays his selflessness—a product of his strenuous commitment to ethical ideals. His sense of propriety is striking when he refrains from killing Saul while Saul has his back turned. David scorns the easy opportunity to attack because he feels it would be morally wrong to strike God’s current anointed ruler. As king, David forgives the kingdom’s traitors, and executes the traitors of his enemies. When his own rebellious son dies, David cries aloud in public, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom!” (2 Samuel 18:33). His weeping suggests the depth of a father’s blind love for his son.
David’s mercy may also be interpreted as a product of his political aspirations. David refuses to kill Saul because he senses that whatever standards he imposes against the current king may one day be used against himself as ruler. Moreover, seeds of revolt have already been planted in the northern tribes of Israel by David’s reign, and the kingdom’s unity may be on shaky ground. King David shows mercy to his traitors, especially Absalom, because he wishes to quell emotions and court the graces of all his subjects. By this reading, David appears to be a pragmatist—one who acts not out of his or her ideals, but on the basis of what is practical or expedient. However, the Old Testament ultimately seems to suggest that David’s religious ideals do not conflict with his pragmatism.