The David Story 5: Power, Peril and Promise
A sermon preached at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, July 15, 2012. This is the fifth sermon in our summer series on the Book of Samuel and the biblical David.
The first image of David is my own and is from the Nine Heroes Tapestry at The Cloisters in NYC. The second is from the Met.
Today we continue our summer series on the story of David, the shepherd boy who becomes king of Israel. At this point in the story, David has just been proclaimed King over both Israel (the northern kingdom) and Judah (the southern kingdom).
David did not simply ascend to the throne. No, he fought his way to being King. He fought the previous king Saul as well as the other tribes of Israel. Upon Saul’s death, David was proclaimed King of Judah by his own tribe and people in the city of Hebron. But the eleven other tribes all stayed loyal to Saul’s family and fought bitterly against David until every last hope, last loyalist, last family member, last son and heir, was dead – everyone that is but Saul’s daughter, Michal. Michal had been given to David as his first wife. But there was no love lost between them. David fought his way to the throne, claiming God was on his side, since he kept winning. And once every opponent was defeated he was finally proclaimed king over both Israel and Judah, uniting the kingdom and all twelve tribes under a common ruler.
David’s first act as King was to establish a capitol city. Hebron was out of the question: it was a part of David’s tribe and his home base during seven years of civil war. Equally out of the question were the prominent cities of the North, like Shechem, Shiloh or Jericho, so recently at war with him. So David shrewdly chose Jerusalem, the city of the Jebusites, who belonged to neither Israel nor Judah. It was already a great city: the Jebusites thought it was so impregnable and secure that it was reported that they let their blind and the lame guard the walls. But of course David had to defeat Jerusalem first. So David takes a mercenary force – they are referred to simply as David’s men – and he captures the city by sneaking in through the water system. This is how Jerusalem becomes known as “The City of David.” It was his and his alone.
As we pick up the story today, David has discovered the Ark of the Covenant which has been lying forgotten and neglected in the house of Abinadab these past twelve years. This is the Ark – the golden chest topped with angels which holds the two tablets on which God had written the Ten Commandments and a small jar containing manna which was a reminder that God provides. This Ark preceded God’s people into battle during the time of the judges; the time before the tribes decided that they wanted to have a king like other nations (see my earlier sermon 1 Samuel 8 and 17). However, up until now, the ark has played no role whatsoever in the era of Kings or in David’s rise to power. But now that he is king, David is going to provide the Ark with a permanent home. David reaches for the ark, the symbol of God’s presence with God’s people, and in doing so proclaims that the divine favor that followed him in battle will secure his dynasty as well.
Read 2 Samuel 6: 1-5, 12b-19
And so with liturgical procession, sacrifice and food, song and dance, shouts and trumpet blasts, and a distribution of God’s bounty for the well-being of all (a breadcake for every family), the ark, the presence of God comes to rest in the center of God’s people. It’s a grand and joyous occasion. And it is the legitimation of all that David has fought for. Now, with a king, a city, a united people and God’s presence in their midst, Jerusalem is established as the spiritual as well as the political center of Israel’s life.
And so David dances. He “dances with all his might” – wildly, ecstatically, leaping about, before the Lord. He dances with such joy and abandon that Michal despises him. Perhaps she despised him because the dance reminded her of a pagan festival. On the other hand, ecstatic dancing made him seem one of God’s prophets. Perhaps, as the daughter of the former king, she found such behavior unbecoming of the shepherd who would presume to take her father’s place. Perhaps it is because he pleased the other maidens. Perhaps it is because Michal sees David appropriating the ark for his own political purposes and is furious. Regardless, David dances before the Lord in thanksgiving for all that God has done.
This story of David dancing as the ark is brought into Jerusalem is the fulcrum of the entire narrative. This dance is David at the pinnacle of his power, believing God is on his side and will always guide his feet. Throughout his ascent to power, David prayed to God and thanked God for every victory. But from this moment onward, David’s life and reign takes a decidedly downward, indeed wayward, turn.
Our passage invites us not only to imagine ourselves celebrating in victory with a powerful king but also, through the eyes of Michal, to see David as an aggressive man whose luck or skill in battle do not necessarily equate with divine favor. It’s easy for us to imagine like David does that “God is on our side” when we struggle successfully and achieve it. We pray to God for our success. We thank God for our achievements. Sometimes we even think that if we fail, we haven’t prayed enough or been faithful enough. But through the eyes of Michal, we are warned not to equate success with divine favor.
While it’s not wrong to celebrate success, it is equally important to ask evaluative questions: at what cost has this success come? Have others been trampled? What or who has been ignored, suppressed, or placated with a cake of bread? These questions aren’t meant to make us dour, so much as they are meant to make us conscious of God’s desire that the whole community be well. Now David, after eating the meat from the choicest sacrifices, blesses the people in God’s name and gives them a cake of bread, a portion of meat, and a cake of raisins. With this act David may be proclaiming his intention to be a ruler who ensures the well-being of all the people. Or it may be the gesture of a man drunk with his own power – like the guy at the bar who’s had too much to drink and buys a round for everyone there.
The story is simultaneously one of exuberance and judgment. It invites us to break forth out of our own shells and uncertainties to exclaim joyous, unfettered praise to God for all the goodness we’ve experienced. And it also gives us pause perhaps precisely because it is such an exhibition. It’s the tension that makes this story so powerful. Some of us may need this morning to just get up and dance; to give that uncensored praise to God. Others of us may need to pause and consider and discern whether we are experiencing God or just a sense of power.
The story of David is not a simple tale. It’s not a fable with a moral. It’s the complicated history of a man, the Hebrew people and their wrestling with God. What the story does assure us, though, is that both in our rightful thanksgiving as well as our mistaken delirium, we are not alone – God is with us. Through it all, God is with us. Through joys and mistakes, through delight and deception, God is with us, in our midst.