David the Hot Mess

David the Hot Mess

• When I was young I tended to read King David through the moments that revealed him as the ideal man: his absolute and singular passion for God which translated to fearlessness before a superior army and the genetic anomaly that was Goliath; the tenderness of his love for Jonathan (it takes a certain kind of man to have such a friendship); the mere fact of his Psalms which have proven timeless; his unwillingness to take Saul’s life, which was really his willingness to trust in God’s sovereignty; his sweet humility in hearing from Nathan that his throne would be established forever. I loved David.

• Then I passed through years during which I came to see David more “realistically” (which is what I would have called it). He knew where the women bathed and in a sense was just waiting for Bathsheba because she suited his tastes. Killing her husband was such a prolonged effort, involving so little integrity or self-awareness. The fact that he doesn’t know why Nathan has come to him (2 Sam 12) is stunning in its ignorance. His refusal to do anything about Amnon or to humble himself before Absalom, two things he certainly needed to do. Joab was so right to rebuke him (2 Sam 19), not as a prophet rebukes, but as a subordinate who is just sick and tired of him.

• How complicated he was. How conflated and conflicted. To love God with such exquisite intensity (“my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you”), and to resist him with such willful stubbornness (“Absalom lived two full years in Jerusalem, without coming into the king’s [David’s] presence”). Oh, David, David.

• Yet, I love David. He is the biblical ideal. It’s just that the Bible is more honest than I want it to be. We tend to want our heroes to approximate Jesus, not Judas. Perhaps we want to believe that such a thing as David without the flaws is possible, and this as an extension of wanting to believe in the possibility of our own lives without flaws. But it is not possible. We are sin and righteousness conflated and in ongoing conflict. Luther, the man who said “sin boldly but obey more boldly still,” had another phrase that is perfect for David: simul Iustus et Peccator, which means “justified and sinful at the same time.” It is the fact of who David was; it is the fact of who we are; it is the truth about humankind.

• Our real need was never for an example of righteousness, but for someone who would be righteousness on our behalf; someone who was and is all that we are not. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21). We needed this as a gift, not as a demand. Then, with the gift of righteousness clothing us and creating us anew, we might have strength and freedom to thirst for God as the deer, in dehydrated desperation, “pants for flowing streams” (Ps 42:1).