A Bard in the Thicket
“Look! He’s not drinking a single drop: he’s just pouring it all out to the Lord!” They might have expected as much, knowing their king as they did. Pouring water out to the Lord was not unusual. It was the devout poor man’s version of the sacrifices offered in temples and on mountains (cf I Sm 7:6; Ps 22:15; Lam 2:19). On the battlefield everybody is a devout poor man – even the king himself.
David’s men had heard him express a nostalgic craving for a drink of water from the cistern which was in the outlying pastureland of Bethlehem. Bethlehem! What sweet memories!
It was there that he had lived and grown, tending his father’s flocks, drinking from the cistern and watering the sheep there. It was there that he had learned to make music with his harp, and there that he had rescued the sheep when they were attacked by a wild beast. And so we find his three most brave and fearless men, at the risk of their lives, breaking through the Philistine camp to procure a drink for him. But “how could I drink the blood of these men?!” was the king’s response (II Sm 23:5-17) as he emptied the jug out upon the ground. With all his faults and all his sins, David was a man of innate nobility: in fact, a man after God’s own heart (Acts 13:22; I Sm 13:14).
A Look at the Bard
A servant of King Saul described the young David as “a skilled harpist, a stalwart soldier, an able speaker, and handsome” (I Sm 16:18). That was a good beginning, but only a beginning of the emerging portrayal of the thicket of unlikely contrasts which was the person of David. Son of Jesse, the shepherd boy, he was taunted as a nobody, as had been Saul before him and as would be his Messiah-Son after him (I Sm 10:11f; 11:2f; Mk 6:2f; 15-29). Those very same hands that could pluck the strings of the harp, drawing tones gentle enough to soothe the betroubled mind and spirit of the burly king of Israel, could tear apart the jaws of an attacking lion and bear (I Sm 17:36). He was saint and sinner, cunning as a serpent while yet as simple as a dove (cf Mt 10:16). He was wise and foolish, strong and weak. He could slay his ten thousands while refusing to lay a hand upon the Lord’s anointed who was pursuing him relentlessly with deadly intent. He could blush at the thought of receiving an undeserved honor, and then sally forth unabashed to bring in double its indecent price (I Sm18:18, 23, 27). He could collapse under the onrush of the heat of a moment’s human passion, and yet shed floods of tears of repentance and supplication.
But the complexity of his own personhood was not the only thicket which colored and defined the life of David. No one knew better than he that to insult the army and people of Israel was to insult the God of Israel (I Sm 17:13). Therefore the vicissitudes of Israel had to be his own. The glory of Israel and of the God of Israel had to be the driving force of his life. He enters the fray, therefore, by taking on the gigantic Philistine warrior, Goliath of Gath, overcoming him with a sling and a stone, walking off the field with the giant’s own sword and his bloodied head.
The Philistine army is put to flight, at least temporarily, and interestingly enough, Achish, king of Gath, seems to forget the incident entirely (I Sm 21:11-22:1; Chapters 27, 28). Foreign enemies, however, are the least of David’s worries. Before long he finds himself having to deal with power struggles within his own country. First of all he is forced to flee for his very life from the jealous fury of Saul, who finds him a threat to his kingship. After the death of Saul the struggle intensifies and there ensues a war between the northern tribes and the south. Meanwhile David has been anointed king in Judah. David knows that the Lord is with him (II Sm 5:10) and has said to him, “You shall shepherd my people Israel and shall be commander of my people Israel (II Sm 5:2). This word of the Lord does finally come to pass and, although the union is fragile, the two kingdoms are united under David’s rule.
Not least among the many talents predicated of this son of Jesse, however, was his astuteness as a politician. As such he knew that it was expedient for him to capture the Jebusite city of Jerusalem, for it lay at the strategic point between Judah and the northern tribes. This he did, and took up his residence in the part of the city called Zion, which became known as the City of David. As significant as this was politically, it became equally so religiously. Here David built his palace, and here he pitched the tent for the Lord, to which he subsequently brought the Ark of the Covenant. Centuries later the author of the Book of Sirach would give us, to his own delight and ours (Si 50:27), this profile of David, the King of Israel (Si 47:2-12):
“Like the choice fat of the sacred offerings was David in Israel.
He made sport of lions as though they were kids, and of bears like lambs of the flock.
As a youth he slew the giant, and wiped out the peoples’ disgrace
when his hand let fly the sling-stone that crushed the pride of Goliath.
Since he called upon the Most High God who gave strength to his right arm
to defeat the skilled warrior and raise up the might of his people,
therefore the women sang his praises, and ascribed to him ten thousands.
When he assumed the royal crown
he battled and subdued the enemy on every side.
He destroyed the hostile Philistines and shattered their power till our own day.
With his every deed he offered thanks to God Most High in words of praise.
With his whole being he loved his Maker, and daily had his praises sung.
He added beauty to the feasts and solemnized the seasons of the year
with string music before the altar, providing sweet melody for the psalms,
So that when the Holy Name was praised
before daybreak the sanctuary would resound.
The Lord forgave him his sins, and exalted his strength forever;
He conferred on him the rights of royalty, and established his throne in Israel.”
Piety and Politics
Power struggles did not end, however, with the establishment of David’s kingship. They continued to define his thicket until the very end of his life. Not only were there rivalries, often violent, between his officers and those who had been supporters of Saul, but they persisted even within his own household. At one point he found himself again having to flee for his life, this time from his own son, Absalom. Even when the aged king was on his death bed, the struggle went on, with another of his sons, Adonijah, attempting a coup d’ etat to gain accession to the throne.
It is from out of this colorful interplay, the pervasively thorny thicket which was the life of King David, that there arises the Bard.
Among all the historical figures of whom we have autobiographical data, it would be impossible to find one who has given us entry into the rock-bottom depths of his soul such as David has done. But just as in Israel’s tradition the authorship of the entire Pentateuch and the entire corpus of Wisdom literature have been ascribed (traditionally although unrealistically) to Moses and Solomon respectively, so the entire Psalter has been ascribed to David, likewise unrealistically. We might legitimately, therefore, refer to a “corporate David”. Jesus himself, and the apostles and evangelists after him, accepted Israel’s tradition and made it their own. We can say, therefore, that the psalms speak initially of David, traditionally of Israel, and quintessentially of Jesus Christ, for ultimately the psalms, indeed all of Sacred Scripture, are about him (cf Lk 24:44; Acts 2:22–36). But they are also about us, for we are the Church, the Body of Christ, i.e., we are Israel. This explains why, in praying these prayers we hear the strains of our own theme mysteriously echoed in them. Sometimes the notes are distinct and solo. At other times they tumble over each other in harmonies major and minor. In the psalms we are innocent and guilty, lovers of God’s law and violators of it. We are fearful and confident, harassed and rescued, abandoned by God while yet knowing that he is always on our side.
There is, then, an historical David who embodies archetypally and sets the pattern for the entire drama and is then enfleshed in the extended or corporate Israel. David remains, of course, the harpist, and his songs and hymns echo down through Israel’s history. Archetypally the harp participates in the symbolism of the ladder, its high notes reaching to the heavens and its low notes resting on the lowly realities of earth. The harpist represents Death, i.e., the agent or angel who conducts an individual from one mode of being to another. We see this in the psalms of David: he ushers us again and again from the hot energies of youth to the stiff frigidities of old age, from the fears and terrors of conflict to the glories of kingship. His harp gives expression to the cycles of life and death, creating harmonies of prophesy and praise, of hope and hopelessness, all so typical of the thorny yet beautiful thicket of his own personhood.
Playing the Riddles
“My ear is intent upon a proverb,” muses the Bard. “I will set forth my riddle to the music of the harp” (Ps 49:5). We might say that David’s harp was his companion in prayer, his place of prayer, his rosary, so to speak. On his harp he pondered the hard truths of life – his own life and the entire drama of life and death as he saw it played out all around him. On his harp he became wholly teachable; on it he learned to be humble under rebuke, grateful for a gift freely given and open-handed in sharing the gift. On it he is both a simple child on its mother’s knee and a warrior. On it he makes his examen and his confession, and on it he makes his vows to the Lord. On it he pours out his rage and naughty desires for vengeance, and on it he ponders long, long, and deeply, the mysterious parables of the history of his people: where did it all begin? Where will it end?
Perhaps we could say that it is David’s Psalter that gives us the Table of Contents for the entire Book of Life, beginning in Eden and culminating in the glory of the true Paradise. Chapter One, the First Psalm, situates us in the Garden where our first parents have tragically fallen from grace. They hear the voice of God calling to them: “Where are you?” (Gen 3:9). And where are they? They are hiding in the thicket, hooking together some flimsy leaves to cover their embarrassment. And so the thicket, heretofore a friendly cluster of beautiful bright verdure and healthful berries, has suddenly become a maze of thorny and deceitful contrasts:
good — evil
life — death
unity — fragmentation
truth — the lie
love — hate
light — darkness
obedience — rebellion
the blessing — the curse
The list could go on and on. The First Psalm sums it all up under the title “The Two Ways”: the one way leading to life and the other leading to death. It gives us the image of the tree planted beside running waters, verdant and fruitful, as contrasted with the tree which has no water source, dry and barren.
But a loving and all-powerful God cannot simply leave them in their sorry plight; the rescue is immediately in view. The Second Psalm gives it to them without delay, for the Almighty looks down upon the Adversary and derides him. Then in anger he speaks to him: “I myself have set up my King…”, he says, and his word holds out the awesome promise of a Redeemer: his very own Son will come and crush the serpent’s head. To him will be given all the ends of the earth for his possession, and he will reign forever.
The Table of Contents goes on, pressing through and foretelling all the lights and shadows of salvation history: its shame and its glory, its sin and its chastisements, its covenants made and broken, the wealth of the Wisdom overflowing from its Law like the Pishon, and sparkling like the Gihon at vintage time (Si 24:22-25); and most importantly of all, the decisive Divine Intervention in Jesus Christ, whose presence illumines every page with the brilliance of his Mystery. Finally the Holy Book comes to its final Chapters when, in its penultimate Psalm it reveals the crowning victory, when the poor and lowly ones by the power of the Divine King will be vindicated and raised up over every adverse power that has fought against them. The Last Psalm is the resounding celebration of the eternal triumph, where all of creation will join in jubilant song to the glory of God and of his
Triune creating love.
Known and Saved
Pope Saint John Paul II has expounded at length in his Encyclical Fides et Ratio how, far from opposing each other, faith and reason go hand in hand, illuminating and confirming each other. Perhaps in this vein we can speak of a mutuality between thought and prayer, between understanding and love. David is no stranger to this interplay, to this coalescence, which is to say that he is no stranger to himself, his own inner dynamic. He is aware that he is known through and through by the One who once knit him together in his mother’s womb (22; 90; 139) and who searches his inmost impulses, the One who saves him from himself, and understands his heart’s desire. His heart’s desire! His heart’s desire! How it sears his soul like the burning heat of summer! His nostalgic desire to drink from the cistern of Bethlehem has become in his soul a burning thirst for God like that of a deer panting for the running streams, or like a parched, weary land without water. “When, Lord, when, oh when will you come?!”
(Ps 42, 63, 119, 143).
This son of Jesse has known trauma; and trauma in any of its forms has a way of opening the door into the labyrinthine depths of the human spirit. The first section of David’s 18th Psalm, more than any other, takes us through that door. The heading that has been given to this Psalm, however, hardly prepares us adequately for what is to come:
“For the leader. Of David, the servant of the Lord,
who sang to the Lord the words of this song
when the Lord had rescued him
from the grasp of all his enemies
and from the hand of Saul (or of SHEOL)”.
This heading is as a sign over the door to this poem. Seeing it we pass through it, humbly, shyly, aware of ourselves as entering holy ground, as privileged witnesses of the rare and numinous encounter with death undergone by our revered Bard. We descend with him into the subterranean foundations of his soul, shaken ourselves as the earth quakes and the very pillars of the world rock. The breakers of death and the destroying floods overwhelm him as he struggles, enmeshed as he is in the snares of the nether world. But the Most High hears his cries and descends with the full force of his wrath. The tremendous power of this divine rescue event cannot be described in human terms, but only imaged in such symbols which can be grasped within our weak and limited concepts. It is portrayed in terms reminiscent of the great Sinai Theophany (Ex 9:16), though even more graphically. For the Almighty One descends, borne upon the wings of the wind of his fury amid black clouds and flashes of lightning, wreathed in the billows of the fire and smoke that issue from his nostrils and his mouth. In his infinite divine power he reaches down into the chaos and seizes the Victim, drawing him up into freedom, into eternal, glorious victory. Yes! For the Protagonist is Jesus himself who has undergone the “stupendous combat” with evil, the evil which threatened us all with the frightening danger of everlasting damnation. In our littleness we have no idea of what that danger was, or of the price our Savior has paid for our redemption. The soul-shaking drama of his Paschal Mystery is described for us here in human words and images that we can endure, but the reality of what Jesus suffered is not only beyond our comprehension but beyond our power to bear.
Jesus is the New David. Little in his own eyes, David can characterize himself before the worldly powers as “a dead dog or a single flea” (1 Sm 24:15), and then go on to become the leader of the company of anawim (22:1f). Yet ultimately in him the promise of dynasty is given and fulfilled (II Sm 7:8-17) in a way that David could never have imagined. He passes on his kingly throne to his son, Solomon, and can now be gathered to his fathers. His life – the love of his life – can be summed up, we might venture to say, in his final canticle, entrusted to us by his Chronicler (I Chr. 29:10-13).
“Blessed may you be, O Lord,
God of Israel our father,
from eternity to eternity.
Yours, O Lord, are grandeur and power,
majesty, splendor, and glory.
For all in heaven and on earth is yours;
Yours, O Lord, is the sovereignty:
You are exalted as head over all.
Riches and honor are from you,
and you have dominion over all.
In your hands are power and might;
it is yours to give grandeur and strength to all.
Therefore, our God, we give you thanks
and we praise the majesty of your name.”
Thank you, our beloved Bard: Rest in Peace.