Psalms 23 & 51
When I was in my early 40s I listened to an interview with a man who recommended we reread the classics we had read when we were in our teens and early twenties. The classics of the Western world are probably not familiar to some of you, but for those who are familiar, I reread Treasure Island, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde, and Kidnaped by Robert Louis Stevenson. The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas. Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo. I read books by Mark Twain, including Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. I read books by Daniel Defoe, including Robinson Crusoe. I read books by Charles Dickens and many more. Twenty years later I would love to read them again.
It was in reading Robinson Crusoe, the unabridged version, that I was led by God to consider selling my company which led to my coming to Rabat to be pastor of RIC. The abridged versions of Robinson Crusoe strip the Christian character from the novel which is a shame. So If you pick up Robinson Crusoe, be sure to read the unabridged version.
The point is that when we read a book in our younger years, we read it with different eyes than when we are adults. When I was 40 years old, I had twenty more years of making mistakes than when I was 20 years old. I had twenty more years of learning about myself and others. These years of making mistakes and learning from them is what produces wisdom.
When we pick up a book we read in our earlier years the content has not changed. It is the same book, but we are not the same person. We have changed and so we read it with different eyes.
Clifton Fadiman was an American intellectual, author, editor, radio and television personality and is know for many of his quotes. He said, “When you re-read a classic you do not see in the book more than you did before. You see more in you than there was before.”
I thought of this because a couple weeks ago I reread a book by John Hercus, Out of the Miry Clay. I first read this book when I was in my 20s and loved it.
John Hercus was an Australian medical doctor who wrote case histories of Biblical characters. Out of the Miry Clay is a case history of David. He begins with the Biblical evidence about the life of David and then uses his medical, sociological, and psychological understanding of men and women to suggest reasons why David did what he did.
The contents of this book have stayed with me for decades. I thought I knew this book well. So I was shocked when I read it again and was surprised to see how much more I understood this time. The book was familiar. I remembered what he was writing, but I understood it at a far deeper level.
I am learning that at the age of 66 my relationship with my mother and father and my home environment when I was a child still have a powerful impact on me. They continue to influence my behavior, my reactions, my dreams, and ambitions. We can have an overreaction to what someone says or does because they trigger something from our childhood. In counseling we try to discover what those triggers are so we do not get so emotionally reactive to something that does not deserve a strong reaction.
I was sitting in a coffee shop in Boston in June and overheard two women talking about their husbands. As they were talking I began to resent them because of what they were talking about and I realized that this is because it triggered feelings of my mother and sisters manipulating and managing my behavior when I was growing up in a female household.
David had his own triggers and he overreacted to events and made bad choices, in part, because he was not aware of the connection between his childhood experiences and his adult life.
So let us turn to David and consider what it was like for him as a child.
David was born when his father, Jesse, was quite old. There were already eight sons when David was born and some of them were married and had children. Joab, David’s general, was his nephew, born about the same time he was. There were likely nieces and nephews of David who were older than he was.
David’s older brothers were his half-brothers. Jesse’s first wife, the mother of his eight sons, died and then Jesse remarried the widow of Nahash who had two grown daughters from her first marriage.
Why did they marry? Was it because as a widow David’s mother needed to have someone to protect her? Was it because Jesse wanted someone to help run his household? For whatever reason, they married and the consequence of their marriage was the birth of a son, David.
This was probably not his family name. He family name was likely Elhanan which means “God is good”. When David came to be king, he took David as his throne name. David is associated with the verb, to love, but it seems clear that love was not a strong part of David’s early family life.
Consider the household situation. Jesse is married to the widow of Nahash. She has two daughters who may or may not have been married. Jesse had eight sons, some of whom were married and had children. So perhaps there were four or five families living in the family compound. The grandchildren of Jesse were running around. There were eight sons competing for their place in the power structure. Jesse’s daughters-in-law were fighting to protect the rights and interests of their daughters and sons. There was a very clear pecking order. First was Jesse, then his oldest son, Eliab, then the next two sons, Abinadab and Shammah. After that there were five more sons but these are not named in the account. Everyone knew who was in charge. Everyone knew the pecking order: father, son 1, sons 2&3, sons 4-8, wives, daughters, grandchildren.
Into this bustling clan came a baby boy. Another mouth to feed. There was no need for another baby boy. He was not wanted or needed but there he was, a nuisance and a distraction.
If he had been a complacent child there would not have been a problem. If he had been an invisible child, taking what was given to him and staying out of the way, not drawing attention to himself, there would not have been a problem.
But consider who David was. He had a genius IQ. He was smarter than all his brothers and father put together. He had an ear for music and an aptitude for playing musical instruments. He had the eye-hand coordination of a skilled athlete. And he was an ingenious problem solver and strategic thinker, which later made him a skilled military leader.
Put this precocious boy at the bottom of a large family household in a small town and what do you have? You have a difficult child. David not only was smart, he knew he was smart. And he was most likely arrogant, letting everyone know how smart he was.
His creative intelligence and curiosity were always getting him into some kind of trouble. Not ordinary trouble, but creative, ingenious mischief. His parents and brothers did not recognize or appreciate his intelligence and talents and so he was pushed down, pushed away, resented.
David learned from his very early years that if he wanted something, he had to fight for it. If he saw something he wanted, he knew he had to fight to get it. And this is where his creative intelligence and strategic thinking came into play. He did not just go up and use whatever muscle he had to get what he wanted. He learned to out think, outmaneuver his brothers, which did not endear him to his older brothers. Perhaps he used his skills on his nephews who were older than he was and then their parents, David’s half- brothers and their wives, resented what he had done to their sons.
David was a nuisance, unloved, unappreciated, and unwanted. So David was sent out to watch the sheep where he could do the least damage.
This brings us to Samuel who came to anoint a new king. Samuel had anointed Saul king but now God was displeased by Saul’s disobedience and sent Samuel to anoint a new king. Samuel went to tell Saul the bad news. (1 Samuel 13:13–14)
“You have done a foolish thing,” Samuel said. “You have not kept the command the Lord your God gave you; if you had, he would have established your kingdom over Israel for all time. 14 But now your kingdom will not endure; the Lord has sought out a man after his own heart and appointed him ruler of his people, because you have not kept the Lord’s command.”
Samuel set out to find this man after God’s own heart and God gave him a clue. He told him that this man was a son of Jesse in Bethlehem.
Samuel arrived in Bethlehem, which was a big deal. Why had Samuel, a prophet/judge, come to little Bethlehem? People were relieved when they discovered it was not to pass judgment on someone. Samuel told them he wanted to make a sacrifice and invited Jesse to come with his sons.
This was a big deal and Jesse did not want to mess it up. So he decided to play it safe. He would leave David in the fields with the sheep. Who knew what smart aleck remark David might make to Samuel? Who knew what he would do or say? So Jesse came with his eight oldest sons.
You know the story. Whatever sign God told Samuel to look for, it was not found in the eight sons. So Samuel asked Jesse if he had any other sons. Someone went to get David and when David arrived, Samuel anointed him with oil.
David continued to stay in his father’s household tending the sheep for some time and then his brothers went off to fight the Philistines. From time to time Jesse told David to take some food to his brothers and David visited the front lines of the battle.
One day he arrived just as Goliath made his daily challenge to the Israelite army. He taunted them, ridiculed them, goading them to send someone out to fight him. When David saw this he saw a challenge that he could meet. David was highly motivated to prove himself by rising to this challenge. He had defeated bears and lions by outsmarting them; he could do the same to Goliath.
When he mentioned to some soldiers standing near him that he could kill Goliath, his oldest brother got angry and in this interaction we can see the family dynamic. (1 Samuel 17:28–31)
When Eliab, David’s oldest brother, heard him speaking with the men, he burned with anger at him and asked, “Why have you come down here? And with whom did you leave those few sheep in the wilderness? I know how conceited you are and how wicked your heart is; you came down only to watch the battle.”
29 “Now what have I done?” said David. “Can’t I even speak?”
Eliab viewed David as conceited and wicked. It is very clear that David was not loved by his oldest brother. He was a young, trouble-making nuisance.
And you can see how David felt about all this in his response. David was the whipped child, the beaten child. “What have I done now? Can’t I say anything? Why don’t you leave me alone?”
When Eliab belittled David, it only motivated David more to go out and fight Goliath. His brothers were always telling him he was not capable of doing something and he was determined to prove them wrong.
Then David was taken to Saul. With his determination, David spoke with confidence and set out for Goliath. David was smart. He knew that Goliath could defeat a soldier by fighting in hand-to-hand combat, but David had no intention of getting that close. Goliath was stronger but David was quicker and more agile – and he had the ability to send a pebble from his sling at 200 feet per second and hit a small target thirty feet away. A pebble propelled with the kind of sling David used can penetrate 1/4 inch steel, .635 centimeter steel. Goliath’s forehead was not much of an obstacle.
Goliath was a challenge and David rose to the challenge. Goliath did not have a chance.
Scripture is silent about what Eliab and his other two brothers had to say or what they thought after this, but the killing of Goliath propelled David out of his isolated existence in Bethlehem into being the most popular warrior in Israel.
What drove David to be so successful? He was exceptionally talented, but talent alone does not make people successful.
I read a book that made the case that people who are exceptionally successful in life are most often people who were not popular in high school. Those who were popular in high school had their need for approval met when they were in high school and did not have the drive to be exceptionally successful. In interviews with many highly successful people, it became clear that the need to prove to the world that they mattered, that they had value and worth, is what drove these people to be so successful.
David was driven to be successful. David was driven to prove to his family, to the world, and to himself that he had worth. He was not just a pesky little nuisance. In his childhood he was told he could not do something and then he figured out a way to do it. So every challenge he met was a personal challenge to prove he could overcome it. He knew how to get what he wanted. He used his head and out-thought, outmaneuvered the opponent to get what he wanted. And he knew that if he wanted something no one was going to give it to him; he would have to fight to get it.
David’s drive to be successful, to avoid defeat at all costs, to instinctively fight to get what he wanted, led him to make some very bad choices.
When David ran away from Saul and needed food, he had no trouble lying to the priest of Nob to get bread and a sword to fight with. He needed food and would do whatever it took to get it. He lied even when he saw Saul’s chief herdsman watching and knew he would report what happened to Saul. What was the consequence for David’s lie? Saul sent his forces and the priests of Nob and their families were killed.
When David was hiding in the wilderness with his band of men, he sent some of them to get food from Nabal, a wealthy sheep herder. He told his men to say Nabal owed them food because they had not taken any themselves and had protected his herders. Nabal had no time for this nonsense so David set out in anger with the intention of killing Nabal and all the other men that worked for him. In the competition for food, David’s brothers had pushed him to the side and favored their own families. When Nabal rejected David’s request, David was triggered by what his brothers had done to him and he overreacted. Only Nabal’s wife, Abigail, who David later married, saved Nabal and his men from being killed by David and his men.
When David was hiding from Saul in Gath, among the Philistines where Goliath had come from, he provided for himself for a year and four months by raiding remote villages, taking all the plunder, and killing every man, woman, and child to cover his tracks. This was not God’s judgment, this was David taking care of himself without regard to the cost of human lives.
Move up all the way to a time when David did not go out with his army but stayed behind in Jerusalem. He was bored, looked out and saw Bathsheba, desired her, slept with her, and then killed her husband to cover his tracks.
Why did David do all these terrible things? David had learned in his life to take what he wanted. He had learned to fight for what he wanted. David could not handle defeat. To be defeated was to submit to what his older brothers had thought of him. He was determined to be successful. To get whatever he wanted.
All his life David was driven by the unmet needs of his childhood.
So in what way was David a man after God’s heart?
There was another side to him, his psalms.
As I mentioned a couple weeks ago, David’s psalms were how God worked in his life. Along with his ruthless determination to rise to a challenge and be successful, despite the cost to others, was a heart being drawn to God.
David was sent out to tend the sheep. He left the chaos of his father’s household and was alone. He was alone with his sheep. He was alone with his thoughts. He had a lot of time to think. He practiced slinging pebbles. He strategized about how to protect his sheep against predators. He wrote new melodies and practiced them on his lyre. His brilliant, creative mind did not go to sleep. His mind was active, thinking, dreaming.
And somewhere in his thinking and dreaming, God found him. At some later point in his life David wrote Psalm 19 which opens with:
The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
2 Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.
3 They have no speech, they use no words;
no sound is heard from them.
4 Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.
As David observed the stars by night and the behavior of birds, insects, and other animals by day, David heard the voice of God speaking through his creation. David became aware of the presence of God.
Perhaps it was in the way David cared for his sheep. When a lamb was injured by a lion or bear David fought off, David picked up that little lamb and nursed it back to health. David had a soft spot in his heart for these sheep. He loved these sheep and the ones who were pushed around were the ones he cared about most because they were like him, pushed off by his family.
As David cared for his sheep, so did God care for David. David understood that God was his shepherd.
Psalm 23 came from this understanding. John Hercus, at the end of his book, has a conversation with the young shepherd David. David tells him about how he protects his sheep and keeps them safe. Hercus asks him, “David, your sheep are safe enough. They’ll get along. But what about you? Who looks after you?”
“Yahweh,” David replies, “the Lord looks after me. He is my shepherd. I’m all right.”
As they continue to talk, Psalm 23 comes into form. David understands that God will lead him to green pastures and quiet waters, just as David does this for his sheep. God will protect him when he goes through dangerous paths in his life, just as David is alert and protects his sheep when they move along places where a wolf or lion might jump out at them.
In David’s household he had to fight for the food he needed, but God will provide David with a rich feast of food.
David has been anointed with oil by Samuel and filled with God’s spirit. David knows that he will have the love of God all the days of his life.
Psalm 23 is a favorite psalm because it speaks so tenderly about God’s love for us. This was David’s experience. He was pushed aside by his family but loved and cared for by God.
Did David instantly become a saint? Not at all. But David was on his way.
As he moved through his life, from conquest to conquest, his ambition propelled him, drove him. He continued to be a fighter who rose to every challenge as a test of his abilities.
David moved from victory to victory. His ambition, his drive to prove himself, served him well. But his desire to conquer, to take what he wanted, also got him into trouble. And all through these victories and difficult and ugly moments, David wrote psalms. 73 of them are recorded in the Bible but there must have been many more he wrote.
Through these psalms God kept pulling David’s heart to himself.
After David had slept with Bathsheba and murdered her husband, Uriah, to cover his tracks, the prophet Nathan was sent by God to confront David with his sin.
How did Nathan confront David? If he had just come up to David and told him what he had done was wrong, he might have suffered the same fate as Uriah. But Nathan was led by God to tell a story about a poor landowner who had only one sheep. A wealthy landowner who had many sheep took the poor landowner’s only sheep to use for a meal for a visitor.
This was a story that tugged at David’s heart. David had an immediate sympathy for the poor landowner who was taken advantage of, just like David was taken advantage of by his older brothers when he was a youth in his father’s household. Nathan spoke to David’s heart and so when Nathan told David, “You are the man!” David’s heart was open and he saw his sin.
So David wrote his Psalm 51
Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash away all my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin.
3 For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is always before me.
4 Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight;
so you are right in your verdict
and justified when you judge.
5 Surely I was sinful at birth,
sinful from the time my mother conceived me.
10 Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
17 My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart
you, God, will not despise.
This is an amazing look into the heart of David. “Surely I was sinful at birth,” When David wrote this psalm, he was under no illusion that he was a naturally good person. He saw his life, all the way back to his childhood. David matured as he aged. David grew in his knowledge of God.
I have struggled for a long time with David, wondering how he could write such wonderful psalms and do such horrible things. But as I reread Hercus’ book, I realized that I am very much like David myself. I have not done the horrible things David did, but I have done things I am ashamed of. I too have two forces at work in my life.
David’s life is a magnified life. David had far more power than you or I have. This made his mistakes much worse than our mistakes. If we had his power, we would have a different story to tell. So I am less quick to judge David.
We too have ambitions, desires, fears, and biases, that drive us in our lives. The wounds we suffered as children continue to affect us. They continue to influence how we relate to people and how we face challenges in life. But, like David, God has found us and is working to help us draw close to him. We have to find healing for the hurts we experienced in our past. We need to be able to forgive those who hurt us. We need to become aware of how our childhood experiences drive us.
Sitting down and being honest with God is the way to do that. It might help you to write down what you are thinking. Writing a psalm might be helpful to you. Talking with a counselor is a good way to help you in this path to healing.
In two weeks I will be preaching from Psalm 24 and continue looking at David and how God worked in his life through his psalms.
Many of you, perhaps most of you, have had difficult experiences in your childhood. Some have suffered physical and sexual abuse. Some have suffered from emotional abuse. Some of us know what it is like to be rejected by a parent. For some of us, it may seem that our suffering is not much compared to what others experience, but it still will have a powerful impact on how we react to situations and how we respond in relationships.
We are created to be God’s beloved daughters and sons but the world beats us down and tells us we are not worth so much. God is at work to build us up, to repair what has been torn down, to make us whole, to help us rejoice and relax in the knowledge that we are God’s beloved daughters, we are God’s beloved sons, precious in his sight.
Come to God with your brokenness. Ask for God to help you as you open up to repressed pain in your life. Let it come out as you talk with God. You are safe with God. You will not be rejected. You will not be thought less of. You will not be pushed away. The Lord is your shepherd.
Psalm 23 (Bailey)
1 The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2 He settles me down in green pastures,
he leads me beside still waters,
3 he brings me back / he causes me to repent
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk
through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
for the length of the days.