In King David Steven McKenzie attempts to write an historical biography of David. He states that much of this biographical information is widely accepted among scholars, but unfamiliar to laypeople. Therefore, McKenzie has written this book as an attempt to make the widely held scholarly views accessible to laypeople.
To this end, McKenzie begins by discussing the sources outside of Scripture that can inform an historical biography of David. These include several ancient inscriptions and steles. McKenzie concludes that these offer evidence of David's historical existence, but little more. Within Scripture, the sources are Samuel, Chronicles, and some of the Psalm headings. However, both Chronicles and the Psalm headings that mention David are based on Samuel. Therefore, Samuel is by far the most helpful and extensive source when considering the historical David.
Before beginning the biography, McKenzie informs the reader of the basic nature of Samuel (and much Old Testament narrative). Samuel is a piecing together of several sources that are much later than David's time. These sources are not primarily concerned with painting an historical picture of David, rather with serving the purposes of their contemporary times. This is why we see such extensive apologies of David throughout the narrative. Clearly, the authors were concerned with painting David in a very positive light to serve their purposes. Therefore, the critical reader's responsibility is to differentiate between the figurative and mystical David to find the historical David.
With this in mind, McKenzie begins his biography of David. With each chapter of David's life (and chapter of the book) McKenzie first retells the narrative according to Scripture. He then considers the historicity of this part of David's life. McKenzie first considers David's origin and youth. There is conflicting information about David's origins. Some places call him a shepherd, others a warrior. McKenzie concludes that "shepherd" is a metaphor for leading the people of Israel and Judah. A more historically reliable description is found in 1 Samuel 16:18, "I have seen a son of Jesse, the Bethlehemite, who knows how to play. He is a powerful nobleman, a warrior, eloquent, and a handsome man, and Yahweh is with him." This description goes against the young, gentle shepherd boy image that is usually assumed of David.
Moving to the David and Goliath story, McKenzie sees this as legendary. It is likely that David distinguished himself in battle against the Philistines, pleasing Saul and propelling David into military leadership. David's continuing military leadership likely brought him a significant following among Saul's subjects, though not to the extent that the Bible says. Saul eventually perceived a threat by David, but before he could act, David escaped.
Having escaped, David moves into the wilderness of Judah. There he gathered a following of fellow outlaws who terrorized the inhabitants of the Negev. David's most important single conquest during this period was the conquest of the Calebite chief, Nabal. David and Nabal's wife, Abigail (perhaps David's sister or half-sister) conspired to have Nabal killed, and David married Abigail. Thus, David assumed Nabal's wealth and power, effectively giving David control over Judah. David created an alliance with the Philistines by treaty. This combined force proved too great for Saul, bringing him down.
After Saul's demise, David and his men provoked war against Ishbaal, Saul's successor. This two-year war came to an abrupt end when David engineered the assassinations of Abner and Ishbaal, giving David control of both Judah and Israel.
With this control of both Judah and Israel, David began consolidating these rules. He established the new capital and Jerusalem, and transferred the ark there. Typical of Middle Eastern rule, David had Saul's heirs executed, all except Meribball whom he kept under house arrest. In this, and other ways, David's rule was characteristic of Middle Eastern monarchy. These include a central capital with a royal palace and shrine to the king's deity, a bureaucratic government with a standing professional army, a harem, and a feudal system of social organization in which the king is the "supreme court" of the land. These are all things that Saul's rule did not have. For this reason, McKenzie considers David to be the first true king of Israel, not Saul.
McKenzie now moves to consider the revolt of Absalom. The Bible goes to great lengths to portray David as being gentle and loving, so much so that he cannot punish his sons. This apologetic nature discredits its historicity. Instead, David had Absalom and Amnon killed because they were threats to his kingship. The narrative portrays the revolts as Yahweh's punishment for David's Bathsheba affair. This story, however, is a later addition. While the Bathsheba story claims it as the cause for the revolt, there is not such acknowledgement in the revolt narrative. The Bathsheba story was likely based on history, but did not happen before the revolt.
Towards the end of David's life, the Bible depicts him as being mentally acute, ordering Solomon as his successor, and the execution of Joab for the assassinations of Abner and Amasa. 1 Kings 1 - 2 hint that David was actually senile in the end of his life. He likely was not aware that Solomon reined in his place, nor did he order the executions of Joab and Shimei. These executions were for Solomon's own political reasons. We also see that Bathsheba was intelligent, industrious, and devoted to her son. Looking back in 2 Samuel 11 - 12 we can see that she used these characteristics to maneuver her way into David's court, and that she likely had a far greater impact on the course of events during his reign than she is usually given credit for.
McKenzie's portrait of David seems to be more historically reliable than the narrative of Samuel. He goes to great length to support his claims by a careful reading of the Scripture. He considers extensively the names and places to examine the historical plausibility. This careful examination is its greatest strength. McKenzie does not simply dismiss Samuel's David portrayal as implausible; rather he explains why it is historically implausible and suggested a more likely biography of David. This careful examination is also its greatest weakness. At the outset, McKenzie explained that he had little new insight to offer on David's life. Instead, his task was to make the wide-held scholarly views accessible to laypeople. His careful etymological examinations, and geographical study are hindrances for the average layperson. There are readers who will quickly dismiss it at the outset because of its dismissal of the Biblical account of David. Those readers will not be convinced by any amount of scholarly examination. Then there are those readers who may be open to the possibility that the historical David is not the same as the David portrayed in Samuel. Those readers will be put off by McKenzie's over examination of the scholarly articles. All of this to say, McKenzie's biography of David does not serve as an accessible summation of scholarly opinions. Rather, it serves as a starting point for the scholarly arguments. Those who find this book helpful will be those who are interested in further study of David, not those who are interested in an easy-read, historical biography of David.