October 14, 2018

Rock Star—The David Saga, V & VI: Outlaw and Hero

Passage: I Samuel 22:1–2; 26:1–12

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Everyone who was in distress, and everyone who was in debt,
and everyone who was discontented gathered to David; and he became captain over them. —I Samuel 22:2
The Lord forbid that I should raise my hand against the Lord’s anointed.  — I Samuel 26:11

 

Fred Craddock was an Emeritus Professor of Preaching at Emory University, Jo’s alma mater, and one of the greatest American preachers of our lifetimes. Years ago, he wanted to see the Holy Land, up close and personal, so he hired his own personal tour guide, just the two of them. The Jewish guide showed Dr. Craddock around Jerusalem, all the sacred sites, and then said to Dr. Craddock, "Can I show you something else, something not on the maps?" Dr. Craddock said, "Sure, it's your tour."

So the Israeli guide drove him several miles out of town into the countryside, and they came to a place which was really no place, just a nondescript rise along the side of an untraveled road. And the guide got out, and said, "This is the place where we won a great victory over our enemies. They had us trapped behind this rise, and they thought they'd taken us by surprise, but we were ready for them, and some of us circled around behind them, and we had them surrounded, and, ah! We had them, every last one of them, a great Jewish victory."

Dr. Craddock asked, "Which war was that?  1967—The Six-Day War? 1948—The War for Independence?" The guide said, "No, it was the Maccabean War." Dr. Craddock said, "The Maccabean War! Why, that was 2,000 years ago. You speak as if you were there." And the Israeli guide looked him straight in the eye and said, "I was."[1]

That’s the unshakeable solidarity and robust memory of the Jewish people. They tell these stories that are so alive and vivid that you feel as if you’re there.

The same thing happens to faithful Jews when they read the David Saga; they are transported back 3,000 years, and it’s as if they are there, because the author of the David Saga is one of the greatest storytellers in history. He belongs in the same literary pantheon as Homer and Vergil.

And what he gets right in this morning’s stories is his character development. In a few, small, deft, efficient strokes, he shows us two rivals for the Jewish throne who could not possibly be more different from each other.

Saul is brooding, dark, shy, and painfully lacking in self-confidence. God and God’s press secretary Samuel think Saul has what it takes to be a great Jewish king, but when they come to tell him so, Saul hides in the luggage; he does not want to be king; he doubts that his character is carved from royal timber.

Later, the narrator will tell us that Saul is afflicted with an evil spirit, a spirit so evil that Saul tries to pin his friend David to the wall by hurling a lethal spear at him. If Saul were alive today, we would not talk about evil spirits; we would say that he is clinically depressed. Clinically depressed people usually do not make great monarchs.

And if from your scientific, sophisticated frame of mind you are suspicious of the Bible’s frequent references to spooky, unseen things like demons and evil spirits, remember that the accomplished contemporary author Andrew Solomon calls depression “The Noonday Demon.” Depression is so horrible and so frightening it is as if it’s alive and wants to haunt you.

David is Saul’s exact opposite. David is charming, charismatic, and bursting with joie de vivre and raw, irrepressible, masculine energy. Women swoon in David’s presence and men envy him for that very reason but still want his autograph. David collects an impressive entourage of men AND women just walking down the streets of Bethlehem.

If you are a Shakespeare aficionado, Saul is a dithering, indecisive Hamlet; and David is Prince Hal or Hotspur. David has so much ambition he is on the verge of becoming MacBeth: “I have no spur to prick the sides of my intent but only vaulting ambition, which o’er leaps itself and falls on th’ other.”[2] David verges on regicidal.

When I think of King David, I think of an old adage which I think is very true: In life, as in sports, your greatest strengths lie right next door to your greatest weaknesses. To put it a different way, your strengths can make you a hero or an outlaw.

So, for instance, in tennis, a huge serve will give you many aces and many double faults.

In boxing, a muscular, roundhouse right hook might give you a knockout, or leave your chin and torso exposed to your opponent’s rapid inside jabs.

In baseball, if you swing for the fences, you will have many home runs, and many K’s.

Reggie Jackson hit 563 home runs in his career, including three in a row on three consecutive pitches from three different pitchers in Game Six of the 1977 World Series against the Dodgers. Reggie is 14th on the career home run list.

He also struck out 2,597 times, the most in baseball history. Reggie struck out almost five times for every home run he hit. Reggie struck out every fourth time he came to the plate.

In life as in sports, your greatest strengths lie right next door to your greatest weaknesses. If you are so focused and intense and irrepressible that you always get your way, you might be successful in business and a failure at home.

If your sense of fairness is so sensitive that you take instant umbrage at the slightest injustice that might make you a valiant crusader for the disenfranchised on the city council or the state senate or the church board, but also an unpleasant dinner guest.

If you are placid and passive and easy-going and unflappable, that might make you a wonderful friend to the gracious but an easy mark for the unscrupulous.

If you are as ambitious and brave and omni-competent as David, you might become a hero who spares the king’s life or an outlaw who usurps the throne from the legitimate monarch.

That’s what David is at first right, just an outlaw? David has to flee Saul’s wrath so he goes and hides in a cave in the wretched wilderness but somehow every ne’er-do-well in the kingdom finds his way to David—every bankrupt debtor, every plaintiff who’s ever lost a court case against the present administration, every Democrat who is aggrieved over Brett Kavanaugh. David is a magnet for every malcontent in Saul’s land. There are 400 of them. This is the army he will use to attain his throne.

David is a lovable scoundrel like Butch Cassidy or the Sundance Kid. David is Che Guevara. David is Fidel Castro. David is the Bolsheviks in 1917. David is George Washington, nipping at the heels of the world’s greatest empire like an ankle-biter and eventually prevailing.

They’re making a movie which will come out next year with Chris Pine as the Scottish revolutionary Robert the Bruce. It is called The Outlaw King. I don’t know if the movie will be any good but it will be required viewing for those of us who will travel to Scotland next fall. David is The Outlaw King, a usurper to the throne, a traitor to his homeland; but you know what Gore Vidal says, “A traitor who prevails becomes a patriot,” like George Washington.

But David’s irrepressible ambition and resolute courage also make him capable of heroic deeds. He and his small band of malcontents are in the wilderness on the run, outnumbered ten to one by a battalion of Saul’s best Green Berets.

At nightfall, Saul’s army encamps under the stars and Saul falls asleep with his canteen and his spear, stabbed like a flagpole into the earth, at his head.

David and a lieutenant somehow manage to sneak undetected into the middle of the army and there is his unprotected nemesis at his mercy. Perhaps this alone proves that Saul is not competent to rule Israel: he fails to set a watch, leaving himself undefended against this pretender to the throne.

Now remember God has already told David that David will be Israel’s next king; perhaps God Godself has put Saul into David’s hand in just this way at just this time.

But David will not lay a hand on the Lord’s anointed monarch. David and his henchman make off with Saul’s canteen and weapon and after sunrise hold them high like trophies, which I guess they are, to prove to Saul that he, David, is a man of honor and a respecter of sacred office.

David spares Saul’s life and becomes king only when Israel’s enemies dispatch Saul at a later time.  David stops short of MacBeth’s vaulting ambition and never becomes guilty of regicide.  When Saul and his minions go low, David and his malcontents go high.

David is the most beloved and admired hero in Jewish history; to this day the Israeli flag is emblazoned with the Star of David. Yet like the rest of us David is no more than a brew of false and true, of bad and good, of vice and virtue.

With this alloy of vaulting ambition and relentless integrity in his character, David faces a vexing dilemma: what do you do when you believe that the holder of the highest office in the land is not fit to hold that office?

There’s a new book out this year called Then They Came for Me: Martin Niemöller, the Pastor Who Defied the Nazis.[3]  Do you know the name Martin Niemöller?

During World War I, Martin Niemöller was a German U-Boat commander of highest distinction. After the war he attended seminary and became a Lutheran pastor. In 1931, he became the senior minister at a prominent parish in Berlin, and by 1937 had become so vocal in his criticism of the Nazis that Hitler imprisoned him in the Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps, where he stayed for eight years until the Allies liberated the camps in 1945.

If you know the name ‘Martin Niemöller’ at all, it is probably because of the famous Niemöller Confession. He said, “First they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Communist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out, because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.”

Martin Niemöller was a hero for all those German Christians who stayed true to Jesus and loathed Hitler. He was one of their heroes. He is one of my heroes. Yet I was surprised to discover from his most recent biographer that Mr. Niemöller came very late to his righteous opposition to the Nazis.

He was by nature very conservative and voted for the Nazi party twice, first in 1924, and again in 1933, the very last democratic vote in Nazi Germany. He was an anti-Semite and an anti-Communist. He was, says his biographer, “an influential pastor who voted for the Nazis, welcomed Hitler’s rise, and showed contempt for groups he deemed anti-Christian and anti-German.”

In a word, he was one of Hitler’s early enablers.[4]

I was crestfallen to learn that one of my heroes was a brew of false and true, bad and good, vice and virtue, his character marred by tragic flaw.

Still, out of the likes of David, and you and me too, God builds empires.


[1]Fred Craddock, recordings of Preaching As Storytelling, lectures at Furman University, 1981.

[2] William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of MacBeth, I, vii, 25–28.

[3]Matthew D. Hockenos, Then They Came for Me: Martin Niemöller, the Pastor Who Defied the Nazis (New York: Basic Books, 2018).

[4]Matthew D. Hockenos, “Before They Came for Him,” The Christian Century, September 26, 2018, 30–34.