According to the biblical text, David was the person selected by God himself to be the new king of Israel. Because of his disobedience, Saul was found unworthy to continue to lead Israel as king. Early in his reign, David had the support of all Israel, but that support was fragile, as can be seen in the several attempts at revolt during David’s reign.
One evidence that the throne of David was not as secure as some have imagined, was the revolt of Absalom. Absalom was the third eldest son of David. Absalom revolted against his father because David refused to deal with Amnon after he raped Tamar, Absalom’s sister (2 Samuel 13:12-14). Absalom took advantage of the people’s dissatisfaction with some of David’s policies, went to Hebron and there with the help of some army people, proclaimed himself king in place of David.
The second evidence for political problems in David’s kingdom was the revolt of Sheba. Sheba, the son of Bichri, was a Benjaminite who led a group of people from the Northern tribes to revolt against David because of the heavy taxation imposed upon the Northern tribes and because Sheba and his group believed Judah was receiving special favors from David (2 Samuel 20:1-2).
Thus, after Absalom was killed, at a time when some people believed that David was too old to continue as king of Judah, “Adonijah son of Haggith exalted himself, saying, ‘I will be king’” (1 Kings 1:5). Adonijah was the fourth son of David. He was the son of Haggith and the heir apparent to the throne.
According to 2 Samuel 13:3, there were three sons older than Adonijah. David’s firstborn was Amnon, the son of Ahinoam. Amnon was killed by Absalom. David’s second born was Chileab, the son of Abigail, the widow of Nabal. Chileab probably died as a child, since his name does not appear in latter texts. David’s third was Absalom, the son of Maacah, who was killed by Joab after his revolt against David (2 Samuel 3:2-4).
Since Adonijah was the oldest living son of David, he believed that he was the rightful heir to the throne. The Bible says that David “was old and advanced in years; and although they covered him with clothes, he could not get warm” (1 Kings 1:1).
These words have been interpreted to mean that David’s health was failing because of his old age. Because of the apparent incapacity of David and because of the king’s old age, Adonijah acted with speed to claim David’s throne. Thinking that David’s death was imminent, Adonijah believed that the time had come for a new leader to replace his father.
After Adonijah expressed his desire to be king, he gathered to himself people who supported his claim to the throne. According to the biblical text, David “had never at any time displeased him by asking, ‘Why have you done thus and so?’” (1 Kings 1:6). This statement raises the question whether David opposed Adonijah’s claim to his throne. The Bible is silent on this issue, maybe because David had not made his final decision. Since the people and most palace officials supported Adonijah, it is clear that the decision who would succeed David had not been made yet.
The people who supported Adonijah’s claim to David’s throne were the same people who had been with David from the beginning of his reign. Among Adonijah’s supporters were Joab, the commander of the army and Abiathar, the high priest whose father had also supported David (1 Kings 1:7). In addition, Adonijah had the support of “all his brothers, the king’s sons, and all the royal officials of Judah” (1 Kings 1:9). The reason for Adonijah’s broad support was because all Israel expected him to be the next king, since he was the oldest living son of David.
Adonijah’s decision to invite Joab and Abiathar to his coronation was crucial to his success in claiming David’s throne. Joab was a powerful man and the commander of the regular Israelite army. Joab was with David when he became a king, when David conquered Jerusalem, and he was the leader of the army who fought side by side with David in the wars that helped David establish his kingdom. Abiathar was the high priest who represented the ancient religious traditions of Israel. His support gave Adonijah the religious blessings he needed to establish his own kingdom. Adonijah’s strategy in selecting his supporters was to win military and religious support and the approval of the people and of the palace officials to his claim to David’s throne.
However, Adonijah did not invite Zadok, the high priest who ministered to the population of Jerusalem, Benaiah, the commander of David’s personal army, Rei, a court official who was loyal to David, and Shimei, a relative of Saul who was loyal to David because David had spared his life after Absalom’s revolt (1 Kings 1:9).
Adonijah’s decision not to invite some of David’s officials to his coronation reflects the political reality of David’s court. According to Marvin Sweeney, I & II Kings (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), p. 55, “The two groups represent two very distinct constituencies within the royal court of David: those associated with David prior to this ascent to Jerusalem and those associated with him afterward.”
Adonijah’s reason for not inviting the people who opposed his kingship was because their choice of the person to be David’s successor was Solomon, David’s tenth son. The people who supported Adonijah had supported David from the time David became a fugitive during Saul’s reign. Those who supported Solomon came into David’ service late in his reign, after he moved the capital of his kingdom to Jerusalem. It is also possible that some of the people who opposed Adonijah were not Judahites by birth or culture.
What seems to be clear is that in the struggle for David’s throne, two groups, with ideological differences, coveted the leadership of Israel. One group, led by Adonijah, represented the ancient traditions of the twelve tribes. The truth of this view is reflected in the fact that Adonijah was born in Hebron, that Abiathar represented the priesthood that once ministered in Shiloh, the city that had housed the Ark of the Covenant in the days of the judges and had been the religious center of the tribes of Israel, and Joab, who was the commander of the army composed primarily of men conscripted from all the tribes of Israel.
On the other hand, the people who supported Solomon were all from Jerusalem, the city that once was a Jebusite city. Solomon was born in Jerusalem (2 Samuel 5:14), his mother Bathsheba was probably a Hittite woman, Zadok and Nathan probably were converted Canaanites, and Benaiah was the commander of the royal bodyguard, a group of foreign soldiers composed primarily of the Cherethites and the Pelethites (2 Samuel 8:18). Solomon’s supporters may reflect a cosmopolitan outlook that was more open to religious and political innovations.
Thus, in the struggle for the throne, two groups, one more traditional and another more cosmopolitan, vied for David’s throne. Who would prevail? Although we have the answer in the Bible, the people of Israel who were involved in this struggle, had no idea who would be their next king. As Nathan told David: “Now, my lord the king, the eyes of all Israel are on you to tell them who will sit on the throne of my lord the king after him” (1 Kings 1:20).
My next post will deal with the events that transpired which allowed Solomon to become the second king of the united monarchy.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary