Last week in the return to Chapel we read Paul’s powerful hymn to love in First Corinthians 13 and its counterpart in Isaiah’s Song of the Beloved about his vineyard (Is.5). This week we embark upon a brief consideration of the story of David, one of the greatest narrative moments in antiquity, a story which extends over the books of 1st and 2nd Samuel and into 1st Kings. Central to that narrative arc is the story of David, a story which has a remarkable power of truth and eloquence. “The story of David”, as the literary and Jewish biblical scholar and translator, Robert Alter, notes “is probably the greatest single narrative representation in antiquity of a human life evolving by slow stages through time, shaped and altered by the pressures of political life, public institutions, family, the impulses of body and spirit, the eventual sad decay of the flesh.”
What is it all about? About the truth of our humanity in all its disarray and about the return of our humanity to God. Alter’s observations are complemented by those of the 17th century poet/preacher John Donne. “David”, he says, “shows us the slippery ways into sin and the penitential ways out of sin”; in short, David is a kind of everyman. Yet he is a figure whose story is brilliantly told precisely because of the insights and careful observations of the anonymous narrator into the ambiguities and uncertainties of our humanity, especially about knowledge and power explored by way of Samuel, Saul, David, and others that belong to this outstanding literary narrative.
The dynamic between prophecy and kingship is one of the underlying themes and questions. Samuel is a prophet, one who by definition speaks on behalf of God and has an insight into God’s will for his people. “A prophet was formerly called a seer” (1 Sam 9.9); literally, one who sees into the truth of things. Yet Samuel is also moved by self-interest and worldly ambition. He has chosen Saul to be king, yet Saul is an uncertain quantity in terms of ambition and knowledge. Saul has been chosen, it seems, more on the basis of outward appearance and assumptions about power; someone whom Samuel thinks he can control.
The story of David begins with his being anointed king by Samuel in place of Saul. The story in its simple eloquence complements Paul’s great hymn to love which ends with the cryptic statement that “now I see through a glass darkly but then face to face; then shall I know even as I am known.” Such is the desire for wisdom in love, to know even as we are known by God. Samuel comes to Bethlehem as directed by God to choose a king from among the eight sons of Jesse. The first to come before him is Eliab whom Samuel wants to anoint, seeing him much as he had seen Saul but, in a brilliant phrase, he is told by God not to look on his appearance, “for the Lord sees not as man sees; man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart”.
How do we see others and how do we see ourselves? Is our knowledge of self and others based on outward appearance and the trappings of power, upon might and strength? Seven of the sons of Jesse pass before Samuel, none of whom the Lord has chosen. Where is David? In a telling image he is in the fields tending the sheep as shepherd, the youngest of the sons of Jesse, and while he is said to have “beautiful eyes” and is “ruddy and handsome”, he is not described as physically imposing. Yet God says to Samuel, “arise and anoint him; for this is he”.
The image of shepherd and king is an ancient concept that provides a counter to the forms of technocratic rule and reason in our day which reduces us to technobots, to mere cogs in a machine, as things to be used by the technocratic elite. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh is initially described as a bad king precisely because he uses his people for his own interests and is not acting as a shepherd to his people. True rule is grounded in justice, Plato teaches. Virtue is not found in techne, in the variety of human skills, nor in technology. There is no wisdom, no justice in technology. As Neil Postman trenchantly observes “there is no getting away from ourselves. The human dilemma is as it has always been, and it is a delusion to believe that the technological changes of our era have rendered irrelevant the wisdom of the ages and the sages”.
In Plato’s Republic, the question about what is justice, the greatest of the classical virtues, cannot begin to be considered without countering Thrasymachus’s claim that justice is simply “the interest of the stronger”; in short, that might equals right. That is what you think you can get away with, but, as Socrates shows, it is inherently incoherent and contradictory because it is power without knowledge and indeed a denial of knowledge itself. We can be quite mistaken about what we think is in our interest and thus do harm to ourselves as well as others.
Thrasymachus challenges the idea that the shepherd actually cares for the sheep, arguing instead that the shepherd really seeks to profit from the sheep for his own interest. Yet as Socrates points out, that means the shepherd is not really a shepherd but a businessman. It is a sophistical category mistake.
The argument that underlies the Republic and runs through the David story has very much to do with care for those over whom you rule and how that depends entirely upon virtue - upon wisdom and love, we might say. To put it in another way, the story of David speaks to the question of character. What kind of person are you in the truth of yourself? Are we defined simply by outward events and circumstances? By how you are seen? Or more by how we respond to such things on the basis of something inward, upon the virtues which are nothing less than the qualities of human excellence?
In the opening scene of the story of David we have the compelling idea that who we are inwardly is the real truth of the matter over and against the ambiguities and uncertainties of human judgement, self-serving and incomplete. Paul, in 1st Corinthians, and the anonymous author of the David narrative together point to who we are in the sight of God as the defining truth of our humanity and its dignity. The narrative will explore ‘the good, the bad, and the ugly’ about ourselves and show us something of the way in which God speaks to human conscience to recall us to ourselves. It is about the journey of the understanding, knowing even as we are known. Such is wisdom in love.
(Rev’d) David Curry
Chaplain, Head of English & ToK Teacher,Chair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy