We’re currently delving into the book of 2nd Samuel. It’s a fascinating story, with lots of twists and turns.
But maybe like me you often wonder how best to read it. This ties in with an even broader question: how do we interpret Old Testament narrative in general?
Here are 10 quick suggestions, accompanied by examples from 2nd Samuel.
1) Try and grasp the overall point of the book.
The overall point of 2nd Samuel is that God is establishing an eternal kingdom through David. Even David’s grotesque sin will not stop the promise and grace of God.
2) Read in big chunks – narrative often tells you ‘a little, in a lot.’
Chapters 2 to 5 of 2nd Samuel are basically about God raising David to power. Of course there’s lots of detail along the way, but the basic point is that David becomes the king of all Israel not through his own scheming and machinations, but by God’s divine hand..
3) Narratives tell you what happened, not what SHOULD have happened.
David shouldn’t have taken many concubines and wives to strengthen his political position. But he did it anyway (2 Sam 5:13-15). Likewise, the fact that Scripture reports Amnon’s abuse of Tamar doesn’t mean the Bible approves of it (2 Sam 13).
4) OT narrative is first and foremost about God: his holiness, grace, salvation and justice.
In 2nd Samuel we see that God puts David in power (2-5). God is holy and worthy of worship (6). God establishes an eternal kingdom (7). God gives his king and people the victory (8, 10). God is merciful to enemies (9). God is a disciplining Father, but forgiving (11-20). God is our rock, our fortress and our Saviour (21-24).
5) Moralise…but not too much.
It’s not wrong to draw moral lessons from the good or bad behaviour of characters in the Old Testament. The New Testament sometimes does this. We definitely shouldn’t lie like the Amalekite (1). We should pray before big decisions (2:1). And we should hold one another accountable when we sin (11). Yet these probably aren’t the most important points in the passage!
6) Repetition is a clue to what the passage is about.
The confrontation between King David and his wife Michal could be interpreted in various ways (6:20-23). But repetition in the passage helps us to properly understand it. Three times Michal is called the “daughter of Saul.” (6:16, 20, 23). This is likely implying that she is his daughter in character, not just biology. Michal has the same godless mindset as Saul – she is fixated on personal glory, rather than God’s glory.
7) Don’t get bogged down in what the narrative DOESN’T tell you.
Why did David not take stronger action against Joab after Joab killed Abner in cold blood (2 Sam 3)? Was David’s reticence due to family ties to Joab? Did he feel the legal case against Joab was in some way “unclear”? (Abner had killed Joab’s brother in battle). The text doesn’t tell us. What the author is more concerned about is that David is innocent of Abner’s death (3:28, 37).
8) Place names and people names are always important.
David goes up to “Hebron” – a place associated with Abraham (2:1). Implication: God is going to move forward the promises made to Abraham now through David!
The name “Ishbosheth” (Ishbosheth was a rival to David for the throne) was probably not an original name. It means “man of shame.” This is more like a nickname he was given – it implies that this man was doing something shameful by seeking to usurp God’s plan of making David king.
9) When the writer’s “point of view” is revealed, you’ve just found gold.
“But the thing that David had done displeased the LORD” (2 Samuel 11:27). Now we know how to read the passage before.
10) The New Testament ultimately fulfils whatever narrative you are in and is the supreme ‘commentary’ on your passage.
Are there themes in the passage that find their fulfilment in Christ? (kingship, God’s presence, victory over God’s enemies, mercy to enemies, sin and forgiveness).
How does King David point us to Christ – positively and negatively?
How does the sin in this passage reveal our need of God’s future kingdom?