Sunday, August 07, 2016

some thoughts about Psalms 51 and 55 about a king who did and didn't recognize the depth of his own sin

At church this summer we're going through the psalms, as has been our custom for years.  Recently the sermons have been on psalms 51 and 55 and it has been interesting to consider these psalms in light of the Samuel narrative. 

One of the reasons I've struggled to appreciate the Psalms over the last twenty some years has been that, as former Mars Hill pastor Tim Smith used to put it, David often comes across as a whiny emo boy.  Smith really did say that but there's an element of viability to that point, even if Smith never exactly made the point.

King David's psalms could often come across as self-aggrandizing pity parties.  There's a few reasons early Christian interpreters may have felt inspired to read the Psalms as prophetic anticipations of the coming of Jesus Christ because if you took some of those sermons and read them only in terms of David's life the sheer number of times David acts as if he's above reproach in the Psalms in contrast to how he actually behaved as recounted in 1 & 2 Samuel can make it seem like David went through life with a spectacular reality distortion field. 

For instance, take Psalm 51 where David wrote that it was against God alone he sinned.  So he didn't kill Uriah the Hittite?  Sure, ultimately all sin becomes sin against God as well as neighbor but on its face this declaration is a puzzling one and even a Charles Spurgeon had no trouble saying so.  One of the things we have to bear in mind is that David was possessed of an, at times, apocalyptic imagination--he could perceive things in a way that could be out of proportion to their mundane sense of time, place and action.  In a period where he recognized his guilt he couldn't overstate that sense of guilt, of feeling that he was culpable of sin from the moment he was born. 

But then you can read Psalm 3 and Psalm 55 and get the sense that David felt he was innocent of wrong-doing.

For Psalm 55 it's relatively common to propose the Psalm was likely written as a reflection of David's dismay that Athihophel joined Absalom's rebellion.  With that in mind we need to go back and get a clearer sense of the background to Absalom's uprising.

The uprising itself is something foretold in Nathan's rebuke of David.  But we need some background.
Deuteronomy 2:19
19 When you come to the Ammonites, do not harass them or provoke them to war, for I will not give you possession of any land belonging to the Ammonites. I have given it as a possession to the descendants of Lot.”
2 Samuel 11:1-5
1  In the spring, at the time when kings go off to war, David sent Joab out with the king’s men and the whole Israelite army. They destroyed the Ammonites and besieged Rabbah. But David remained in Jerusalem.
2 One evening David got up from his bed and walked around on the roof of the palace. From the roof he saw a woman bathing. The woman was very beautiful, 3 and David sent someone to find out about her. The man said, “She is Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam and the wife of Uriah the Hittite.” 4 Then David sent messengers to get her. She came to him, and he slept with her. (Now she was purifying herself from her monthly uncleanness.) Then she went back home. 5 The woman conceived and sent word to David, saying, “I am pregnant.” ...

2 Samuel 12:7-12
7 Then Nathan said to David, “You are the man! This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Saul. 8 I gave your master’s house to you, and your master’s wives into your arms. I gave you all Israel and Judah. And if all this had been too little, I would have given you even more. 9 Why did you despise the word of the Lord by doing what is evil in his eyes? You struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and took his wife to be your own. You killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. 10 Now, therefore, the sword will never depart from your house, because you despised me and took the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your own.’

11 “This is what the Lord says: ‘Out of your own household I am going to bring calamity on you. Before your very eyes I will take your wives and give them to one who is close to you, and he will sleep with your wives in broad daylight. 12 You did it in secret, but I will do this thing in broad daylight before all Israel.’” [emphasis added]
26 Meanwhile Joab fought against Rabbah of the Ammonites and captured the royal citadel. 27 Joab then sent messengers to David, saying, “I have fought against Rabbah and taken its water supply. 28 Now muster the rest of the troops and besiege the city and capture it. Otherwise I will take the city, and it will be named after me.”
29 So David mustered the entire army and went to Rabbah, and attacked and captured it. 30 David took the crown from their king’s[d] head, and it was placed on his own head. It weighed a talent[e] of gold, and it was set with precious stones. David took a great quantity of plunder from the city 31 and brought out the people who were there, consigning them to labor with saws and with iron picks and axes, and he made them work at brickmaking.[f] David did this to all the Ammonite towns. Then he and his entire army returned to Jerusalem.
The Ammonite king has a footnote that discusses Milcom aka Molek.  If it seems weird that David was willing to have himself crowned with a crown associated with Milcom aka Molek after the fighting was done, it likely should.  We've seen from Deuteronomy 2 that one of the warnings in the Torah was against waging a war of aggression against the Ammonites with a promise that the Lord would not give their lands to Israel.  There are those who would propose that David's military campaign in 2 Samuel 11 was understandable but to take that approach doesn't mitigate Deuteronomy 2 or its prohibitions.  David was arguably already undertaking an aggressive war against the Ammonites in contradiction to the Torah before he took Uriah the Hittite's wife and arranged for Uriah's murder. 

In doing all these things David was actively abusing royal privilege and power in ways that weren't done by his predecessor King Saul.  If King Saul's recurrent sin was failing to execute royal responsibilities while grasping at royal privilege and taking credit for the victories of others; David's defining trajectory of sin seems to have been choosing to undertake a war for personal prestige and honor over against the welfare of Israel as a whole.  He had taken up arms as a matter of personal legacy and that this was the case is conveyed to us by the resumed war narrative at the end of 2 Samuel 12.  Joab's message sent to David threatening that Joab would name the city after himself if he had to do all the conquering as David's delegate has its force because that's what it took to inspire David to leave the palace and take up arms himself.  Throughout the Uriah/Bathsheba incident Joab was fighting in the trenches for a war David commanded without having ever taken the field of battle. 

The turmoil within the house of David had to do with Amnon raping his sister Tamar and David being angry and doing nothing; Tamar's rape would be avenged by Absalom, who murdered Amnon went into exile.  David did nothing there, too, and as sins of omission in failing to adjudicate crimes within the royal family compounded Absalom built a case that David's failure to adjudicate within his own household was also reflected in the lack of regional judges to adjudicate cases. 

As has been noted in passing, a common interpretation of Psalm 55 is that it is David's venting of frustration at having been betrayed by Ahithophel:
20 Absalom said to Ahithophel, “Give us your advice. What should we do?”
21 Ahithophel answered, “Sleep with your father’s concubines whom he left to take care of the palace. Then all Israel will hear that you have made yourself obnoxious to your father, and the hands of everyone with you will be more resolute.” 22 So they pitched a tent for Absalom on the roof, and he slept with his father’s concubines in the sight of all Israel.
23 Now in those days the advice Ahithophel gave was like that of one who inquires of God. That was how both David and Absalom regarded all of Ahithophel’s advice.
We can see in the narrative that Ahithophel joined Absalom's rebellion and was the one who counseled Absalom to have sex with his father's concubines as a political move.

Some of the rabbis have proposed that Ahithophel was the grandfather of Bathsheba and joined Absalom's faction to avenge the murder of Uriah and the sins David committed in taking Bath-sheba.  Not all the rabbis agree on this matter, though, because it would seem difficult to buy the idea that Ahithophel would just turn on the royal family.  On the other hand ... David conquered Jerusalem, so it's not entirely fixed that this wasn't a family that had its place within the city prior to David's rise to kingship.  In other words, there's some debate even about the points of debate.  But what may be pertinent for today's discussion is to propose that Ahithophel's heel-turn against David can be construed as psychologically plausible in spite of his previous loyalty to the king.  If you look at all the grisly cases in which David just let nasty things get done without punishing them, and if you look at how Absalom positioned himself to address precisely the judicial lapses and favoritism that increasingly came to characterize David's later reign, the betrayal that seems wildly offensive to the monarch can be seen as actually making a lot of sense. 

After all, didn't the prophet Nathan warn that from David's own household strife would come and that a man would go into his wives in broad daylight?  Now, sure, for our contemporary idiom concubines wouldn't seem to be wives--let's just float an idea here, we don't know for sure if Ahithophel didn't know about Nathan's rebuke and prophecy.

You won't see any sign in Psalm 55, assuming for the sake of discussion that it really was a psalm reflecting upon Ahithophel's defection, that David's own sins abusing royal authority and using people laid the foundation for the rebellion against him.  David seems fixated on the clean innocence of his person.  One of the puzzles of Christian interpretation of the psalms is that for as often as we talk about grace and its unmerited favor when we look at David's psalms he very often seems to believe he does merit divine favor even in contexts where his moral rectitude is moot not because he's observably without fault but because his vices overwhelm what virtues he had.  Yet God shows David favor time and again, as we see from the narrative literature.   If there is an area where there is a "pious bias" it can show up in interpreting the psalms where we can be inclined to take David's word for it over against things that the narrative literature spells out for us in astonishingly unflattering detail. 

And this is the David who is described in Acts 2:30 as a prophet.  So it would seem that a prophet can be a warlord who has multiple wives and concubines and kills loyal followers, puts down a series of insurrections, shows favoritism in his dealing with family when he's not neglecting them altogether, and then ends his career with a disastrous plague-spreading census. 

What David set in motion ordering a war against an Ammonite city led to the affair with Bathsheba, the murder of Uriah the Hittite (and it's worth hammering away at the fact that this wasn't a direct murder, it was an invocation of royal authority and correspondence to make a bureaucratic/tactical decision that would ensure the death, which makes the whole thing more craven and cowardly).  But the biblical narrative, so to speak, lets us "read the mail" between David and Joab about the frontlines.  And after all this, the defection of Ahithophel still hit David like a shock--if Ahithophel turned against David to join Absalom after so many years it would be a shock, naturally, and yet the narrative we get in 2 Samuels shows, arguably, a painfully inevitable disaster that was grounded in the precedent of David's own rule. 

Something Jacob L Wright wrote in David, King of Israel and Caleb in Biblical Memory that has stuck with me since I read it a few years ago is that David put down quite a few insurrections and that along the way this demonstrated that under David's reign the professional standing army loyal foremost to the monarch proved significantly stronger than the civilian militia that could be mustered by tribal chieftains.

So with an observation like that in mind it might be worth pointing out that what we know as the united monarchy was, during David's time, possibly kept together by dint of military power wielded by a group of men who were mercenaries with David while he was on the run from King Saul--the bitter debtors and cast-offs of society who didn't fit into the Israelite/Judean culture of their day when Saul was on the throne but who cast their lot with David. The irony of Absalom fomenting a direct rebellion against his father who had himself gained a loyal following among the disaffected outliers of Saul's kingdom almost doesn't need to be mentioned.  The difference between the two men was that David waited until Saul fell by his own vices, more or less (though Joel Baden, for instance, might have us believe that David had the Saulide dynasty massacred by Phillistines) whereas Absalom wanted to gain the kingship by a direct bid. 

So, yes, David loved the Lord and was God's anointed king, and yet he was also in many ways a pretty bad guy and had many a moment where if you read the Psalms and compare that to what his life actually looked like he can proclaim his innocence in a way that can make him come off like a preening self-pitying narcissist local warlord who regarded himself as the apple of God's eye.  Yet the narrative literature of the Bible presents us with a David who was, to put it mildly, possessed of profound character flaws--if there's been a determined whitewash campaign it's we who have brought it to the narratives over against what's in the narratives themselves.  One of Jacob Wright's terse observations was that the scholastic bromides about how the Old Testament narrative literature somehow whitewashed David's reputation to make him look better than he was could only have survived as long as it did because of the inertia of academic fads, not on the basis of any honest observation of just how terrible the narrative literature of the Hebrew Bible actually makes David look.

Now a believer could observe that the Davidic dynasty survived because of the unmerited favor of God because if you actually look at how even the best of them behaved they were all pretty bad in the end.  It's actually little wonder how swiftly and thoroughly Christian interpretation of the Psalms saw Christ foretold in the psalms because it was so easy to observe how David failed to be righteous and perpetrated bloodshed to see that however these things were fulfilled it would be most fully fulfilled in Christ. 

David didn't lose his calling from God but God made a point of telling David that the kinds of sins by which he'd abused royal power and ruined the lives of people by focusing not on the legacy of the welfare of Israel but his own personal legacy of prestige that the sword and chaos would never depart from his house. 

Sometimes David seemed to remember that and sometimes he seemed to think primarily about how bad it felt that so many people betrayed him while not always granting that these disasters were foretold by the Lord.


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