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Of the King with Clay Feet and Huge Heart


     2nd Samuel 6:12-23   

1st Samuel 24:1-12                Mark 10:46 -52


I: — He was a poet, a musician, a lover, a military genius.   He was also a shrewd administrator and a formidable dispenser of justice. He was generous, kind, merciful, a loyal friend. Above all he was a man of God.

DAVID was his name. Men envied him. Women swooned over him. Enemies dreaded him. All of these responses befitted him, for there were gifts in him worth envying, a virility that could make any woman gasp, and a determination that only fools trifled with.

David had a faith in God that could move mountains.   He also possessed immense human affection.  And he had feet of clay. He sinned as ardently as he worshipped, and as a result of his sin his life fell apart; domestic disaster overtook him, and his son even sought to kill him.

A hero in Israel , David was adulated at a civic reception, one day, and an aristocratic princess, Michal, daughter of King Saul, fell for him.  Later she despised him. Of course she despised him. She came from the royal family, while he came from rural people devoid of social sophistication and cocktail party smoothness.  Later still — in fact last of all — he died a broken man, everything around him in ruins.

Nevertheless David’s people remembered the glory that had been his, and because his, theirs as well.  So it was one thousand years later that shepherds were told they would find the saviour of the world in the city of David . So it was that a blind beggar cried repeatedly to Jesus, “Son of David, have mercy on me.”

Not only can his people, Israel , not forget David to this day. I can never forget him either.

II: — Who was David? He was a red-haired shepherd boy, born in Bethlehem , the youngest of eight brothers. When only an adolescent he found favour in the eyes of King Saul.   As David gained fame, however, Saul became jealous; soon his jealousy curdled to hatred. Saul was plainly manic-depressive, paranoid as well.  Paranoid? Certainly.         “All of you have conspired against me”, Saul thundered one day, “All of you.” Saul was deranged. In his derangement he tried to spear David.  David fled from the royal court and hid himself in a cave, twenty kilometres from Bethlehem . An outlaw now, he was joined by four hundred other men who had had to flee the psychotic king and who were as desperate as David himself.   “Everyone who was in distress …   in debt … or bitter of soul” is how the bible describes the band that gathered around David.

The four hundred men had wives and children with them.  They had to eat. Money and food were gathered from the sheepfarmers whom David’s men protected against the Philistines. In addition, the men plundered any raider foolhardy enough to take them on.

Then Saul died. David was no longer an outlaw. Much happened overnight. His fame increased dramatically. He was royal ruler, military general, civil service administrator, chief justice — all at the same time. He seemed invincible. Nonetheless, his life unravelled. Amnon, David’s son, raped and then discarded Tamar, a half-sister.         Whereupon Absalom, another son, killed his brother Amnon for the foul deed. After this Absalom came to think himself quite important, a vigilante hero (at least in his own eyes). Following much scheming and manipulating Absalom proclaimed himself king to the cheers of his own crowd of sycophants.

David had to flee for his life, flee from his own son.  In what I regard as the saddest picture in all of scripture, David fled across the river Jordan and staggered up the Mount of Olives , weeping, a broken-hearted, broken-down king.  Meanwhile, on the other side of the Jordan , David’s friends pursued Absalom.  Absalom tried to escape only to hang himself accidentally.  Distraught, David lamented his murderous son’s death in a lament we shall never forget: “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom. Would that I had died instead of you, O Absalom my son, my son.” And there David died.

III: — David moves me as often as I think of him.

(i) He moves me, in the first place, on account of his immense affection and his intense loyalty. He moves me inasmuch as today we live, by contrast, in an era of cavalier human encounters and superficial relationships and dessicated affection.   Whole-soulled affection poured upon people dear to us whom we love as our own soul and to whom we shall remain loyal though the earth shake? Not likely.  No generation has used the expression “meaningful relationship” as frequently as our generation, and no generation has meant so little by it.

I watch people change relationships (so-called) the way I change socks. I have people come to me who complain that they lack friends.  I recall the quiet word of my long-dead dad, “If you want to have friends, you have to be a friend.” When I probe the friendless person’s understanding of friendship, invariably I find that the friendless person has no appreciation that the claim of a friendship is as strong as the friendship itself.  Put the other way, a friendship is only as strong as the sacrifice we are willing to make for it, the humiliation we are willing to undergo for it, the sheer inconvenience of it.

Inconvenience? Sure.  The Saturday morning we begin to paint the garage our friend phones us, upset. He wants us to go over to his home immediately, so upset is he.  But we’ve waited five months to paint the garage; it’s rained every Saturday since the weather was warm enough to paint, and we have to leave town tomorrow night on a business trip.   Then do we drop everything (this means having to clean the brush with paint on it even though we’ve only dipped it in the paint-can and haven’t yet painted so much as one stroke) and call on him? Or do we “explain” why we can’t see him, however upset he is, because we simply must paint today? If the latter, we are refusing the claim of the friendship and forfeiting a friend — if ever friend we were.

My friends have embarrassed me in public; and I know I’ve done as much to them. My friends have unloaded their emotional burden on me precisely when I’ve been so emotionally burdened myself I didn’t feel I could withstand it; but I know too I’ve done as much to them.   My friends have pestered me and pestered me again; but no more than I’ve pestered them. A friendship is only as strong as our friend’s claim on us.  The “selfist” people of our narcissistic age assume that a friendship consists of someone else gratifying them endlessly; selfist narcissists never understand that having a friend means we’re willing to be drained, and in fact are drained more than once.

Those who can’t forge so much as a friendship are never going to establish a long-term, stable union.  No wonder they dabble in human superficiality and flit from one shallow encounter to another.

And then I think of young David and his friendship with Jonathan.  “David loved Jonathan as his own soul”, we are told.  And Jonathan felt the same way about David.  Ardent affection; unshakable loyalty; inexhaustible self-giving.  Risking disgrace and expulsion at the hands of his father, King Saul, Jonathan saved David’s life by tipping off David when Saul was in a murderous mood. When Jonathan died prematurely David cried, “I am distressed for you, my brother, Jonathan…your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.”

David’s magnanimity he poured out not only on his best friend but even on his worst enemy, Saul. During his outlaw days David was resting in the far end of a cave when Saul came in to relieve himself. Saul removed his coat and laid it aside.   While Saul was preoccupied with his toilet details David cut off part of the hem. As Saul left the cave David called after him, “Why do you listen to people who say I’m bent on harming you? See what I have here; your coat-tail. I could have sliced you up as readily.” With tear-choked voice Saul called back, “Is that you, David? You are more righteous than I; for you have repaid me good, whereas I have repaid you evil.”

In our era of frippery and frivolity David’s fathomless affection and undeflectable faithfulness loom huge.         To be such a friend, to have such a friend means that we are bound to at least one other person in a bond marked by tenderness and toughness, sensitivity and frankness, comfort and honesty, gentleness and truthfulness. Such a friendship perdures, even thrives, in those times when our friend is moody, interferes with long-made plans, even irks us because he seems to be trading on the friendship. What is such a friendship worth when we are fragile and must be handled delicately, when we are wrong and must be corrected, when we are offensive and must be confronted, when we are insensitive and must be rebuked, when we are bleeding and must be bound up?

I have such friends. I know how David and Jonathan felt about each other.  My heart beats with David’s.

(ii) David moves me, in the second place — sobers me, in fact, even startles me — every time I recall his treachery.         He frightens me as often as I recall his self-delusion as he stumbled into his shame.

Can the man whose huge-hearted magnanimity spared Saul be the same man whose reptilian lust slew Uriah, a loyal supporter who wanted only to help David? “Ur-i-ah” is a compressed Hebrew word meaning “The Lord is my light”.  And the light that Uriah was David extinguished for the shabbiest reason imaginable: he wanted Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba.  What shocks me most about this incident isn’t that David behaved badly on this occasion (although his behaviour was reprehensible) but rather the self-delusion, the rationalization, the unconscious but nonetheless self-willed blindness that left him unable to see what anyone else could see in an instant.  I am dismayed when I contemplate the incremental insensitivity to sin that inured him against the God whose voice he heard undeniably on other occasions and relished hearing.

David frightens me. Like him, I believe in original sin. Like him, I believe that there’s an innermost, down-deepest warp – utterly perverse warp – to my heart and my mind and my will.  I can’t pretend that where David was vulnerable I’m impervious. I’m aware that David’s erudition concerning theology didn’t inoculate him against that disaster which ruined his earthly future and tore his family apart.

For this reason I have no difficulty understanding the Supreme Court judge who is found taking bribes, or the supermarket cashier with the sweetest smile who is caught pilfering money from the till, or the sincerest Sunday School teacher whom the newspaper describes as incestuous, or the physician whose fatigue and isolation are met by a caring patient and whose disgrace becomes notorious thereafter.  I have no difficulty understanding this.  What scares me is that it can happen nevertheless to anyone whose understanding of it all is adequate. Plainly, more than understanding is needed.

David was brought to his senses when the prophet Nathan confronted him, confronted him by means of a parable that exposed David as sleazy. Who holds the mirror up to you? To me? My wife does, my friends do, my colleagues do, even my enemies do.  (I have thanked God for my enemies a thousand times over, since my enemies have often told me the truth about myself — albeit from the worst of motives — when others have left me self-deluded from the best of motives.)


Now please don’t think that this part of the sermon has spiralled down into gloom and doom, unrelieved negativity. You see, the glory of David’s story is this.  So great is God’s mercy, so marvellous his patience, so inscrutable his providence (to quote John Calvin), so persistent is God’s purpose, that not even David’s sin disqualifies him from being used of God most wonderfully. Not even David’s treachery, his blindness, his betrayal; none of it disqualifies him as a servant of God.  Glorious as David’s pardon is, more glorious still is that incomprehensible surge of God’s grace whereby God’s work moves ahead even through the most clay-footed.

And therefore I find myself encouraged for myself and encouraged for you and encouraged for the church of Christ throughout the world. Without thinking for one minute that I can trade on God’s pardon and patience and persistence, I yet know that our sin disqualifies none of us as useful servants of God. God’s work will triumph; triumph in spite of us, to be sure, yet triumph through us nonetheless.

(iii) Lastly, David moves me with his sheer, simple delight in God.  On the one hand David trembled — as he should have — before the awesome lordliness of God; on the other hand, David loved God and delighted in God with the childlikeness of the youngster for whom freshness and  simplicity and exuberance and merriment are natural.

When the Ark of the Covenant (the ark signified God’s presence) was wrested from the Philistines who had dishonoured it and was brought back to Jerusalem , David “danced before the Lord with all his might” (says the text).         David never did anything by halves.  Then of course he danced with unselfconscious abandon.  (As a matter of fact his kilt flew up and he inadvertently exposed himself.) The day the Ark of the Covenant was returned to Jerusalem may well have been the most important day in David’s life.  What else, then, but ecstasy and exuberance and enthusiasm?

But not so with Michal, the wife who had blue blood in her veins and vinegar everywhere else. Not so with Michal, who was ashamed of her husband’s boisterous boyishness. She regarded David as an exhibitionistic oaf whom she had had the misfortune to marry. She saw her husband behaving in conformity with the breeding he had inherited; namely, a socially inferior lout who would never know how to behave like a king.  After all, David’s celebratory cavorting had caused the servant girls to snicker at the spectacle of the king (no less) behaving like a football fan feeling no pain in the victory parade following a Superbowl win. Michal despised him for it. Of course she did. Those who are deaf always despise those who dance, don’t they? “It was before the Lord I was dancing”, David insisted, dumbfounded, thinking somehow that if he told his sourpuss-wife often enough she’d get the point.         Michal would never get the point: those who are deaf despise those who dance. “It was before the Lord.” Before the Lord? Michal had never known David’s God; she knew nothing of the heights and depths of David’s immersion in God.         Her heart was as frigid as David’s was inflamed.

When I was only a child I came upon a line that I didn’t comprehend fully, yet understood enough at the time so that the line has never left me. The line came from an old Scottish clergyman of the last century: “You show me someone who has never purchased a gift he can’t afford for someone he loves and I’ll show you someone who isn’t fit for the kingdom of God .” But I understand it now. David had always understood.

David was the poet and the musician of Israel . He knew that poetry and music are the heart’s outpouring of an immersion in God so deep that prose is insipid compared to that poetry which itself is finally inadequate. If David’s outpouring strikes us as exaggerated — or worse, much ado about nothing — then we can only wait for and wait on the God who moved David to exclaim, “Thou dost show me the path of life; in thy presence there is fullness of joy, in thy right hand are pleasures for evermore.” We shall have to wait for and wait on him who came among us one thousand years after David and said, “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you and your joy may be full.” We shall have to wait for and wait on him until we cry with Paul, “He loved me and gave himself — for me.”

David knew. And because he did, I find him to be a reflection of what goes on in my own heart, even if my experience of God is slender compared to his and my articulation of it feeble.

IV: — David was Israel ’s greatest king: colourful, gifted, passionate, an outrageous sinner and yet the tenderest child of God.

Someone greater than David came among us, came one millennium later. To this one a blind beggar called out, “Son of David, have mercy on me”.  And in his mercy Jesus Christ our Lord freed Bartimaeus to see and believe and follow.

Then may you and I ever cry out, “Son of David, have mercy on me.” For in crying out to the Son of David who is also the Son of God we shall find ourselves seeing, believing, hearing our Lord, and together with all who hear, dancing too, as we joyfully await that day when the old king and you and I alike fall on our faces in adoration of him who was born in a stable in the city of David, and who is our blessed Saviour for ever and ever.

                                                                                                 Victor Shepherd      

July 2009