Rock Star—The David Saga, XI: David the Dancer
David danced before the Lord with all his might. —II Samuel 6:14
So who do you think is the most compelling, attractive, three-dimensional, vivid protagonist in the annals of world history and literature? Who would it be?
Homer’s given us Achilles and Odysseus, and they’re certainly promising candidates.
History’s given us Caesar Augustus and Charlemagne and Abraham Lincoln, and I would buy that too.
King Arthur or Lancelot or Galahad? One of my personal favorites is Jean Valjean from Les Miserables. We’d have to consider Alyosha from The Brothers Karamazov.
Tolkien’s Aragorn, King of Gondor, belongs in that company. I was surprised I could not think of a single Shakespeare character that belongs in that company—Henry V maybe.
Yale scholar Harold Bloom says that the most charismatic protagonist in Western literature is Israel’s King David—better, bigger than Odysseus, Achilles, Arthur, or Henry V. I hope I’ve convinced you in this sermon series that Dr. Bloom has a good point. Part of it of course is the comprehensive scope of his competencies and personality: David was Shepherd Boy, Giant-Slayer, Rock Star, Outlaw, Hero, Sinner, Father, Warrior, and Empire-Builder.
There’re a lot of great reasons to be a Christian, but among the leading reasons is that our book is the best. The David Saga is just as entertaining as Game of Thrones. The David Saga IS a Game of Thrones.
But it’s not just the encyclopedic scope of his personality; it’s also his irrepressible joie de vivre; in David it seems as if human life itself is unchained to caper where it will.
David’s life is just saturated in unending doxology. Those 73 Top 40 Hits he wrote for the Hebrew Psalter, this rapturous frolic he dances to God before the Ark of the Covenant.
Someone once described the Dutch Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza as ein Gott-betrunken mensch—a God-intoxicated man, a man drunk with God’s near presence, and that’s how I see King David—a God-intoxicated man.
This story I read a few moments ago: You see what’s happening, don’t you? The Ark of the Covenant was the Hebrews’ most precious religious icon. It was the earthly throne of the Almighty and stood for God’s near presence with God’s people. If the Ark was gone, it meant that somehow God was gone too. If you want to know what the Ark meant to the Hebrews, you could do worse that seeing Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark; it’s actually not bad theology.
Anyway, through a series of misadventures we can’t really get into this morning, the ark had been lost to Israel’s enemies; then recaptured; and then stored in an ugly warehouse for twenty years.
It would be like if the Russians somehow snuck into the National Archives in Washington when we weren’t looking and made off with the original US Constitution and then we snuck into the Kremlin and managed to get it back but then slapped it behind one of those garage doors at a Mini-Self-Storage Unit for twenty years.
And David is the one finally to rectify this monumental oversight after twenty years. And he is so happy to get the Ark back that during the parade which will restore it to its beautiful new digs in Jerusalem, he breaks into a frisky little romp of a dance.
He strips down to his skivvies and cavorts for all to see. Can you see it? The King? A U.S. President? Dancing in his skivvies? Heaven forfend! But the crowd goes wild. After a stunned and momentary silence, the crowd goes wild. They’ve never seen a king do this before and they probably never will again, but his shameless joy is contagious.
God’s back in town! It’s a perfect day. For everyone. For David. For Yahweh. For the clergy. For the Jews. For the priests. It’s a perfect day for everyone.
Except for Michal, Saul’s daughter, once princess of her father’s court and now Queen of all Israel, David’s wife. She watches from a second-floor palace window. She is above all this, literally and figuratively, too hoity-toity to participate in such shenanigans. When David comes home after his little jig, Queen Michal greets him with dripping sarcasm: “How the king honored himself today, uncovering himself in front of his maidservants as any vulgar fellow might do.”
And you can see her point. I’m kind of on Michal’s side in this story.
But David of course is not embarrassed at all. “You ain’t seen nothing yet, Sister!” he tells Queen Michal. “I did this for THE LORD, and I will make myself yet more contemptible than this.”
And then that terse, sad coda to the story: “And Saul’s daughter, Queen Michal, had no child to the day of her death.” No explanation, just a brutal historical fact. What happened? Did the King banish the Queen from his bed ever after? Did the Queen refuse to sleep any longer with such a tacky King? Was God so ticked off at Michal that God closed her womb forevermore?
Whatever, no son of Queen Michal will ever inherit the throne. Michal is the second and last royal of the very brief dynasty of King Saul.
My Sunday School teachers never paid much attention to this story back where I was growing up among the stern Dutch Reformed folk of conservative western Michigan. Back where I came from, three worldly activities were banished from our kingdom: movies, card-playing, and dancing. They were symbols of rampant secularism. We had no truck with Hollywood, pinochle, or the Twist.
No dancing for us. We were so sure about it that we might have gotten our priorities a little mixed up. I’ve probably shared the old joke we told about ourselves: “Why are the Dutch Reformed opposed to pre-marital sex? It might lead to dancing.”
But we might have gotten that wrong. Jürgen Moltmann is one of the two greatest living Christian theologians; he’s German of course. Jürgen Moltmann says “the universe belongs to the dancer. The person who does not dance does not know what is coming to pass.” You see what he means, right? History is God’s Story, and, present appearances notwithstanding, what is coming to pass is a joy beyond the walls of this world more poignant than grief.
So I just thought we needed to hear the story of David’s unrestrained exuberance at this particular moment in our history, four days before Thanksgiving in a grim season. California is burning; 1,000 are missing. The European Union is fraying at the edges. Genocide in Yemen. Unscrupulous autocrats rule Russia, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and North Korea. Crazy haters keep shooting roomfuls of Jews and college students. The word ‘apocalyptic’ keeps leaping unbidden to my mind.
A while back the satirical journal The Onion posted a photograph of a conference room full of editors and journalists and reporters gesticulating and arguing, accompanied by this headline: “CNN Holds Morning Meeting to Decide What Viewers Should Panic about for Rest of Day.”
In such a time, it seems almost irrational or unfashionable to be filled with hope and joy. I love the novels of Peter DeVries. Peter died 25 years ago but before that he was on the staff of The New Yorker for 40 years. He was born and raised on the south side of Chicago in one of those classic Dutch families that made its living collecting trash curbside in the neighborhoods south of the city. He is the second most famous alumnus of Calvin College, my alma mater; and might be the funniest American writer between Mark Twain and Dave Sedaris.
But he could be serious too. In one of his novels Mr. DeVries tells of a young man who is a cynic because it’s chic. His greatest joy in life is to chip holes in the trust and faith of other people, especially the simple faith of his parents.
This guy gets splitting headaches whenever he has to look at anyone. The young man can’t hold a job, but is supposed to be busy writing a play about the meaninglessness of the universe. About him, people say, “My, he must be brilliant. He hates everything.”
When his mother asks him why he never goes to church, the young man says, “Because there is no God and no good, obviously. The whole thing is a joke–life, the universe. It’s all a joke.” And his mother responds, “Is that why you never laugh?”
Don’t you see? We can laugh because the universe is not a joke. It is God’s story with a fairy tale ending.
Whenever I get disconsolate over the state of the world, I consult Steven Pinker. Do you know the research of Harvard Psychologist Steven Pinker? In 2011 he wrote a wonderful if controversial book called The Better Angels of Our Nature, where he argues that we don’t appreciate what a privilege it is to be alive in our own day. Bill Gates says it’s his favorite book of all time. If I don’t have time to read the book, I call up his Ted Talk “Is the World Getting Better or Worse?”
Dr. Pinker points out that “Nothing is more responsible for the good old days than a bad memory.” He says you should never compare the bleeding headlines of the present with rose-tinted images of the past.
He says, “You never see a journalist saying, “I’m reporting from a country that has been at peace for 40 years.” Newspapers never run this headline: “137,000 people escaped from poverty yesterday, every day for the last 25 years.” One and a quarter billion people out of poverty.
He points out that for much a human history life expectancy was 30 years; today around the world it is 70; 80 in countries like ours. For much of human history, even in the richest countries, one third of the children never saw their fifth birthday. Today it is six percent in the poorest countries.
Two hundred years ago, 15% of Europeans could read; today the literacy rate is over 90% for those under 25. In the last 100 years, the chance of dying in an auto accident has declined 96%. Deaths in plane crashes are down 99%. Hope and joy might be unfashionable in a grim time but they are not irrational.
“How they cut loose together,” says Frederick Buechner, “How they cut loose together, David and Yahweh, whirling around before the ark in such a passion that they caught fire from each other and blazed up in a single flame of such magnificence that not even the dressing-down David got from Michal afterwards could dim the glory of it.”
So this week I will be thankful for tables burdened with plenty, surrounded by those I love and who, improbably, love me back, as hard as it is. I will be thankful for the eccentric dreams of children and their wild play and raucous laughter. I will be thankful for the Wolverines, and hold my breath next Saturday.
I will be thankful for the bittersweet melancholy of gray November days, and haunting winter winds, and the apparently lifeless unleafed trees just waiting for new life come spring, and the somnolent wheat fields of broken stalks which shall bring us our bread next autumn.
I will be thankful for Starbucks and Mondavi, who distill the essence of the good gifts of earth, in which you can taste the heat of the sun and the loam of the soil.
I will be thankful for rainbows above the rain, and more on the domes of deep-sea shells, the laser-look in the eye of my cat; the sad, soft, loyal eyes of my dog.
I will be thankful for the marine fragrance of Lake Michigan when a north wind hurls her curling swells against the pebbles on the beach, and they clack together as if to say, “Christ is King!” Can you hear it? The rocks clapping their hands, “Christ is King!” Praise! Praise!
Harold Bloom, The Book of J (New York: Grove Weidenfield, 1990), pp. 41–42.
Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life, trans. Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), p. 19.
Quoted by Steven Pinker in a Ted Talk, “Is the World Getting Better or Worse?” First aired April, 2018.
Peter DeVries, Through Fields of Clover (Boston: Little, Brown, 1959), p. 11.
Ibid., pp. 15–18
Steven Pinker, ibid.
Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures, (New York: Harper & Row, 1979), p. 23.