October 21, 2018

The David Saga, VII: David the Rock Star

Passage: I Samuel 16:14–23

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And whenever the evil spirit from God came upon Saul, David took the lyre and played it with his hand,
and Saul would be relieved and feel better, and the evil spirit would depart from him. —I Samuel 16:23

 I love people of omnivorous curiosities and omni-competent capabilities. The business manager at my church in Connecticut was like that. He was our Bev Lang.

Don Hibbard could do anything, fix anything, or build anything. He was trained as a CPA but never sat for the exam, so he spent his life as the CFO of various non-profits like my church. We had the cleanest, tightest books in New England.

Ten years ago, we tore down my whole church except the sanctuary and started over. It was Don Hibbard who designed the new building and oversaw the whole project: 40,000 square feet of new construction. To this day when people use the building in various ways, they say to themselves, with wonder and delight, “Who had the vision to think of this?”

Don was a great patriot; three of his children flew fighter jets in the Navy and the Air Force; at least one of them reached the rank of Captain.

Don loved motorcycles. Do you know about The Four Corners Tour? On the Four Corners tour, you get 21 days to ride your motorcycle and touch the four remotest corners of the continental United States: Madawaska, Maine; Key West, Florida; San Ysidro, California; and Blaine, Washington.

Don could never take 21 consecutive days off because the church would fall apart without him, so he did it in four consecutive summers; one corner of the States a summer on his motorcycle.

Shortly after I left Connecticut, Don was at the manse where I’d lived for 17 years. The Church owns my former home, so Don was there checking to make sure everything was okay, when he had a stroke in the driveway. He managed to call 911 before he lost consciousness and lingered for a few days and then died at the age of 66. I still miss him like crazy.

When you’re only good at one thing, you love people of omnivorous curiosities and omni-competent capabilities, and you’re probably wondering to yourself just now “What one thing does he think he’s good at?”

So I like the Jason Bourne movies. Jason Bourne can hotwire a truck, fly a helicopter, forge a fistful of fake passports from seven different countries, outwit and outrun the entire CIA, perform an emergency tracheotomy on the street corner with the barrel of a pen, and hack the Pentagon’s computer. Or Liam Neeson from the Taken films. Or MacGyver on TV.

The way the Hebrew Bible tells the story, King David was such a Renaissance Man. David slew giants. He was a war hero. The United States would have given him the Medal of Honor.

David was a movie star before there were movies. The Bible tells us that he was ruddy and handsome and had beautiful eyes. He would have been on the cover of People Magazine if they’d had People Magazine back then.

David was an Empire Builder. When David took the throne 960 years before Jesus, Israel was a loose confederacy of bickering clans spread scantily across a thin sliver of land the size of Vermont, stuck like a dagger into the heart of the Middle East. When he died 40 years later, Israel was one of the world’s most powerful empires.

EVERYBODY instantly fell in love with David on sight. Samuel, the Prophet and King-Maker, loved David. Saul, the king whose throne he would eventually usurp, loved David. At least for a while. Saul’s children loved David. His daughter Michal loved David, and his son Jonathan loved David. The Philistines, David’s sworn enemies, loved David.

The Jewish people loved David so much they’ve been waiting for his worthy imitation for three thousand years.

The three most important titles for Jesus of Nazareth are Son of God, Son of Man, and Son of David; his name is Yeshua bar Dawid.

Most of all, of course, Yahweh loved David. There is nothing in the Hebrew Bible like Yahweh’s unabashed love affair with David.

Yet for all David’s exploits in military conquest, international diplomacy, and shrewd political intrigue, the most lasting legacy of his life may be his accomplishment in the world of music. David wrote songs, he sang songs, he played songs.

The Hebrew Historian tells us that when King Saul would plummet into one of his suffocating, stygian bouts of depression, David would haul out the ancient version of Eric Clapton’s Fender Stratocaster and pluck Saul’s mood back to a more placid state.

The Bible also tells us that King David wrote 73 of the 150 songs in the Hebrew Psalter, just shy of half.

Now, Princeton Seminary would revoke my degree if I didn’t tell you that many modern biblical scholars are suspicious of the Davidic attribution of all these psalms. The Book of Psalms wasn’t completely assembled into the anthology we know until about 700 years after David.

That’s a lot of time between composition and publication, about the same number of years as between us and Chaucer. If you found a weathered poem slipped between the pages of an old book in a second-hand bookshop and told the world Chaucer wrote it, the English Department at Oxford would have some pointed questions for you.

Plus, there was the tendency among ancient unknown poets to borrow more famous names to give their poem more heft and punch and celebrity. It wasn’t fake news exactly, but it also wasn’t quite the truth.

So there is that. Still, it’s a wonderful tableau to conjure up, right? Shepherd Boy David picking at his harp and making up the notes and words of his songs as he watches his sheep in their green pastures and beside still waters?

Some of us come from Presbyterian or Congregational backgrounds. Our most important theological ancestor is John Calvin from sixteenth-century Geneva. John Calvin had a deep, deep respect for the power of music, a respect that verged on fear and suspicion.

For Calvin, music was such a powerful language that it could get you to do almost anything. Calvin had sort of the same attitude toward music as the John Lithgow minister in the film Footloose.

Music was like nuclear power, muscular but dangerous. Calvin said, “venom and corruption are distilled to the very bottom of the human heart by melody.”[1]

And so in Calvin’s Geneva and in most Reformed daughter churches down the centuries, the only hymns that were ever sung in worship were vernacular translations of the Hebrew Psalms. In some very conservative corners of the Reformed tradition, this is still true to this day. The only hymns they ever sing in divine worship are like the hymns we’re singing this morning: contemporary translations of ancient Hebrew songs.

The Hebrew Psalter has been the prayer book and songbook of the synagogue and later the Church for about 3,000 years, ever since the days of David himself. This is the way we praise God and thank God and honor God and plead with God, since the time of King David himself.

Giant Slayer. Warrior. Empire Builder.  Prosperity Creator. Among all of David’s great achievements, the most lasting legacy of his life might be the Songbook he left behind.

In Connecticut we had our own version of Presbyterian Homes in Evanston. You would go there to retire. You would go there to rehab after illness or stroke or surgery. You would go there to receive hospice care at the end of your life. There was a wonderful memory unit.

Just like in Evanston, the local clergy would go there to preach in a worship service on Sunday afternoon. It would take about an hour to push all the wheelchairs down the hall to the Chapel. Many of the worshipers were Alzheimer’s people from the memory unit.

I went there to preach one Sunday afternoon. I stood to read my scripture lesson: Psalm 23. When I started reading—“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. He leadeth me beside still waters.  He restoreth my soul.  Yea, though I walk...”—When I started to read, the whole congregation joined to read it with me. I hadn’t intended it to be a unison reading; I was going to read it for them. But they wanted to join me.

I knew for a fact that some of the people in that room did not recognize their own children. They had forgotten the names of their own children, but David’s simple little song was the last memory in their minds and the last words on their lips: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

Somehow these precious words make their way into the substratum of our cognition and stay rooted there till the last day. There is something spiritual about that, something existential, something aboriginal, something pre- or post-cognitive. It was one of the most touching experiences I’ve ever had at divine worship.

Craig Barnes tells a similar story. Craig Barnes is presently the President of Princeton Theological Seminary, but for most of his career he was a parish pastor.

In one of the churches he served, there was the most wonderful matriarch. She’d been married to one of the church’s former pastors, but he’d died long ago, and her influence outlasted and outshone his.

Dr. Barnes remembers a Sunday after worship when she glides gracefully through the fellowship hall like a prima ballerina. She gently touches the shoulder of a recent widow. She greets a first-time visitor with a wide smile and introductions to several longtime members in the church. She soothes the hurt feelings of a Board member who’s still nursing his wounds from a difficult committee meeting.

I couldn’t decide: Was she that congregation’s Marlene Bowen? Or Sallie Smith? Gliding gracefully through the fellowship hall like a prima ballerina.

But now she is afflicted with dementia, and she ends up in that town’s Presbyterian Homes. Dr. Barnes goes to visit her. He thinks to himself that this might be the last time he will see her. He makes small talk. He reads scripture to her. He prays with her. But she has trouble following the logic of his words.

Then she bursts into song: Our God Our Help in Ages Past; A Mighty Fortress Is Our God; Amazing Grace. She even knows the second and third verses. Dr. Barnes tries to sing along, but he can’t remember all the words. She does. Some of these songs are English translations of those ancient Hebrew Psalms; all of them are inspired by them:

Through many dangers, toils, and snares,
I have already come;
‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

The last memory in her mind, and the last words on her lips.[2]


[1]Quoted by Bernard Cottret in his biography Calvin (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), p. 173.

[2]M. Craig Barnes, “Closing Hymns,” The Christian Century, November 16, 2010, p. 35.