I Samuel 16:14-23: David Plays the Lyre
The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast June 8, 2008
Craig D. Atwood
Introduction: Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class. I hope it was a good first week of June for you and those you love. High school students have almost completed their final exams, and summer break is almost here. In just three weeks I’ll be leaving for Bohemia, Moravia, and Austria, and I want to give a shout out to the folks at Aladdin travel who have been so helpful in organizing this Moravian history trip. I have a very special announcement. Home Church’s Dr. Daniel Crews has just published his history of the Unitas Fratrum. It is the first history of the ancient Unity written by an American to be published in over a century. Congratulations, Daniel! I also want to give a shout out to Rev. Hal Cole who is now back in his home almost a year after his near fatal aneurism. This week I went to see the movie Prince Caspian and was very impressed. One of the themes of the movie is that faith and love are joined to hope.
Last week we met David, the son of Jesse, for the first time. We read the only story that includes both Samuel and David. The elderly priest anointed the young shepherd to be the next king of Israel. It is an important story theologically because it links the most important king with the last of the judges. Many biblical scholars suggest that the story of the anointing should be read theologically, not historically, since there are two other stories that introduce David seemingly for the first time. One of them of the famous story of David fighting Goliath; the other is our lesson for this week.
Multiple Stories We should not be too concerned that we have multiple stories introducing a figure as important as David. Even in our world of mass communication and documented history we have multiple stories introducing an important leader. When did the country first encounter someone like JFK or George Herbert Walker Bush? Was it when they served in the military or entered government service or ran for the Presidency? When did people first notice that either of them might one day be the leader of a powerful nation?
There is a tendency for biographers to highlight stories from a leader’s youth to indicate that such a person was destined for the presidency; that they were anointed. You may remember President Clinton had a picture of him shaking hands with JFK. The trouble with such stories is that many people who thought they were destined to be president did not even win their party’s nomination.
We have three stories of David because David became a great king. The trouble with the three stories about David is that they do not fit well together. We can try to force them to fit, and there is evidence that the final editor of I Samuel tried to do that with the Goliath story, but the truth is that each story is complete in itself and is just too good to mess with. In different ways they communicate the same idea: that God had chosen an obscure son of Jesse to replace Saul as king.
The story we have this week is the least known and the strangest of the three, and it was probably the oldest version of how David came to serve in the court of Saul. I like it because it reveals a great deal about Saul and David in a few lines and gives an interesting glimpse into the early monarchy.
Read: I Samuel 16:14 f.
Ruach It is possible that this passage originally followed one of the earlier stories of Saul, such as the battle when Jonathan ate honey. It could be that the Spirit of God left Saul after that debacle, and in response the king sent for a musician to help his moods. The narrative as we have received it, however, connects Saul’s troubles to the anointing of David by Samuel. The implication is that once the prophet anointed a new king, the Spirit of God left the old one. It is almost as if the spirit could inspire only one person at a time.
The word for spirit here is Ruach, which is also the Hebrew word for breath or wind. This is the same word used for the breath of God that brought the earth into being. It is the same Ruach that gave the prophets the ability and authority to speak on God’s behalf. Ruach was a mysterious force, like magnetism, that people could sense but not fully understand. Each of the main characters in this book possesses Ruach to some degree: Samuel, Saul, Jonathan, and now David.
We have some inkling of this concept of Ruach in our world today, but we tend to connect it to creative powers rather than military prowess. We talk about painters or writers who are inspired or who lose their inspiration. Creative ability is such a rare thing that it appears to come from outside of person, from a muse, and many creative people know how frightening it is to feel that ability slipping away. Another word to describe this type of inspiration is charisma, which is a Greek word for gift. Charisma refers to that almost mystical power that some individuals have to inspire others to follow them. Like inspiration, charisma is frighteningly fickle.
This chapter of I Samuel gives us a nice vignette of a great leader whose charisma is fading fast, and he does not know what to do. Saul did not have a stable kingdom with an established bureaucracy to take care of things. His “kingdom” was a loose confederation of tribes and clans that were held together by their common covenant with the LORD and by their loyalty to the heroic king Saul. Like many medieval monarchs, Saul was powerful because he inspired loyalty in others. He was a charismatic ruler who governed by force of personality, but he had lost his most important ally, the prophet Samuel, and had nearly killed his eldest son.
Evil Spirit Saul’s plight is described poetically by saying that the Spirit of the Lord had departed Saul and that he was tormented by an evil Ruach sent by God. During the Middle Ages the Catholic Church adopted a lot of pagan superstition about demons and evil spirits and created all kinds of stories about demonic possession and witchcraft. Most of the literature on evil spirits was simply the fevered imagination of monks and scholars, but belief in demonic possession led to the murder of thousands of women as witches in the 16th and 17th centuries. It is hard for us today to read that Saul suffered from an evil spirit, and not think about Western literature, ghost stories, or horror movies where someone is possessed and made evil, but the Bible is not describing a scene from the Exorcist.
It comes as a surprise to many Christians, as it did to me, to learn that Satan or the devil is mentioned only three times in the whole Old Testament, and one of those times he does the bidding of God. The devil appears more often in the New Testament where he is a tempter and opponent of Christ, but the Bible does tell us much about demonology. Most of what you hear about Satan or demon possession comes from outside the Bible and has its roots in paganism.
In interpreting I Samuel, we need to recognize that the word evil here does not mean demonic or that Saul was tempted to do evil. It could be translated as an injurious or harmful spirit, or simply a bad spirit. In other words, Saul is the one suffering. Medieval doctors might have said that he was suffering from a bad humor. If this were a cartoon, Saul would be pictured with a dark cloud over his head and rain falling just on him. The French might say he had a malady.
It is disturbing to many Christians to read in I Samuel that it was God who sent the evil spirit that afflicted Saul, but the ancient Hebrews were monotheists. They did not believe that there was a cosmic opponent of God who did evil in the world. God alone is the source of all things. We are uncomfortable with that ancient theology because we want God to be only the giver of good gifts. We don’t like the idea of divine punishment or evil spirits sent from God, but the author of I Samuel assumed that God’s hand was in all things.
It is probably best not to dwell too much on the statement that the evil spirit was sent by God, but to focus on Saul himself. In just a few verses the author of I Samuel has given us a clear picture of a leader who is tormented by his own fears and failures. He has lost the support of the man who anointed him king. He nearly executed his own son. He is feeling the lost of his own charisma and inspiration. He knows the kingdom slipping away from him, just as the prophet foretold. He is King Lear or Macbeth, slowly losing his own sense of self.
Music Saul’s medical advisers recognized that he is suffering, and they prescribed Prozac to stabilize his moods and put him in occupational therapy. That’s what we would do today, but that wasn’t an option in ancient times. I saw a cartoon once of what the world would have been like if there had been Prozac in the 19th century. It showed a very cheerful Friedrich Nietzsche at church. Karl Marx decided that capitalism would work out okay, and Edgar Alan Poe looked at the raven and said, “Hello birdie.” Saul did not have recourse to modern psychiatry, so his advisors suggested an older method of dealing with bad moods. Music.
We’ve talked about music before. In ancient times music was almost like magic, and skilled musicians were seen as possessing spiritual gifts. Music was a rare and wonderful treat, and it is illuminating that King Saul did not have musicians in his court already. Music was used to rouse troops for battle, create a sense of God’s presence in the temple, and soothe a troubled soul. Saul’s servants knew what they were talking about. Even in our day, music can change our perspective and improve our disposition. Or make us angry and irritable, particularly if we are listening to someone else playing hip-hop loudly while pumping gas.
David One of Saul’s entourage mentioned that he knew just the musician for the king. One of the sons of Jesse was skilled in playing the lyre, but that’s not all. He is described as valiant and prudent in speech, a true warrior and a man “of good presence.” This is a pretty good recommendation for a position serving the king, but it comes as a bit of a surprise after our lesson from last week. We know that shepherds can be brave since they have to defend the sheep from predators, both animal and human, and we can imagine that the eighth son of a powerful man has probably learned to be prudent. The surprising part is that David is described as a warrior. In the previous story, he is so young as to be overlooked by his family and in the next story he is left at home while his brothers go to war. How could the shepherd boy have become a warrior?
There are several possible explanations. One is that this story takes places a long time after the initial anointing by Samuel, and in the intervening years David has become a warrior. Or it is possible that these two stories about David are not related to each other, and that in one tradition David was a warrior before coming to Saul’s court. A third possibility is that Saul’s servant is simply padding David’s resume since he knew that Saul was always on the look-out for brave warriors to add to his retinue. Finally, it is possible that the author was simply giving a description of David as he would be not as he was.
More important for our lesson for today is that the sum of these qualities is more important than each one. We have here a description of manhood that is more complete than that commonly offered. David is not simply brave in battle, a man of valor, he is skilled in music and prudent in speech. In the Middle Ages, this description of David as one skilled in music and words as well as weapons was important for the concept of chivalry. To be a man was to be something more than an Achilles who only knew how to end the lives of others. It was to be poet and diplomat as well.
The text also says that David is a man of “good presence,” which probably means that he was handsome, but it may mean a little more than that. This is probably a reference to David’s sense of grace and the good impression he made on others. He was the kind of person that everyone in the room noticed because he was so confident and calm. He was someone worth paying attention to because he spoke wisely, and those who met him knew instinctively that God’s spirit was with him.
It is no wonder that David has been the subject of so many artistic pieces, including the giant statue in Florence. No wonder the king commanded that this multi-talented man be invited to play the lyre for him. That’s l-y-r-e. Saul was not hiring David as his press secretary. What may surprise us is that Saul asks for David by name even though he has been described only as the son of Jesse. We should not assume that this indicates the king already knew about Jesse’s sons. Rather it is probably just a chronological slip of the writer’s pen.
It is interesting that the first David’s name is said by anyone in the Bible, it is Saul who speaks it. God called Samuel by name, and Samuel called Saul to be the king, but here it is King Saul who said, “Send me David.” The evil spirit that tormented Saul made it possible for him to ask for David by name. There are two big ironies in this request of the king. First, you may remember Samuel’s warning about how the king will take the people’s sons and daughters to serve in his court. Here is taking Jesse’s son, but his request will fulfill a higher purpose. The second irony is that Saul asks for David to relieve his troubled mind, but in the end David will be the major source of his troubles.
Gifts for the King Jesse sends his youngest son as the king requested, and he sent gifts as an expression of his respect for the king. The gifts are simple: bread, wine, and a kid. Today we read this list as evidence of David’s rustic background, but originally this was probably meant to communicate just how wealthy Jesse was. There is probably nothing significant in the bread and wine, but some ancient readers may have remembered the gifts of the priest Melchezedeck. What these humble gifts show us is just what a simple society it was. It is hard to imagine today that gifts of homemade wine, bread, and a goat could be fit for a king, but that is the kind of kingdom Saul had.
Of course, the best gift Jesse gave was David, and we are told that Saul loved David when he saw him. There was something about David that appealed to almost everyone: men, women, and even his enemies. Clearly he was more than a pretty face who was good on the lyre. Saul gave him a position of great honor and responsibility as armor bearer for the king. This was much more than being a page-boy or squire; this was being admitted into the king’s inner circle and fighting with him in battle.
Conclusion The last statement is rich in its simplicity. Whenever Saul was tormented in his spirit, David played the lyre for him, and Saul was refreshed. It is a beautiful image of grace in action, and a reminder of what a friend can do for us. Even the mighty and powerful on their thrones are human beings who need a gentle hand to play soothing tunes and sing away the blues. We know that things will eventually sour between these two men, but for now let your minds rest on the image of the aging, battle-scarred king and the young retainer who handles the lyre as well as he does the sword. I hope that you have someone like David whose friendship can drive away whatever evil spirits afflict you. If you do not need a David, then perhaps you may have the blessing of being that kind of friend for another person. I Samuel teaches us that friendship and music are great gifts of God and we should not take it lightly.