Who is God?
The Meaning: the God of David
One of the most startling statements in the Bible – to my way of thinking – is that in which David, King of Israel, is described as “a man after God’s own heart.” When Saul, the first king of Israel, proves to be a disappointment, this is what the prophet Samuel says to him, “your kingdom will not endure; the LORD has sought out a man after his own heart [meaning David] and appointed him ruler of his people, because you have not kept the LORD's command.”
Now, I’ve got to tell you, I don’t find a lot to admire in David’s career. I don’t think him a particularly nice man. His seducing the wife of Uriah and sending him to the front to be killed is perhaps the blackest mark against his character, and in other ways he was pretty much like every ancient king – violent, headstrong, sticky-fingered. To romanticize him as the sweet singer of Israel, the simple shepherd boy, and all that is to choose to be blind to his record as a leader. So I’ve thought a lot about what it could mean to be “a man after God’s own heart” and I think I can understand it in terms of relationships.
David was not destined for kingship. He was born early in the reign of Saul, to a family of the tribe of Judah. He came out of nowhere as a young man when he ran an errand to his father and brothers and found the whole Israelite army in a standoff with the Philistines. A giant named Goliath was offering single combat to decide the battle, and nobody in Israel had the guts to face him. Except David. After David slew Goliath, he became what we today call a celebrity. Saul took him into the royal household and began to use him as a member of the court. And it was there that normal life ended for the young man.
Saul grew jealous of him and plotted against him. Those who disliked Saul’s reign cozied up to him. All his relationships – including his marriage – were warped by his proximity to power. Except one: his friendship with Saul’s son, Jonathan. Saul’s kingship was so new, so unsettled, that Jonathan had remained “normal” – and David was open and unwary as yet. Their friendship was the last ordinary relationship in David’s life.
After the death of Saul and Jonathan, David became king himself. And everybody wanted something from him; everybody schemed around him. Even his own children plotted and rebelled and did terrible things from their lust for his POWER. To be a king is to be terribly lonely. It means bearing awful responsibility. It means that just about nobody can tell you No, and that’s not good for anybody. So, despite David’s faults, I suppose he was a pretty good king, as kings go. But his use of power – even as a means of exalting the worship of the Lord – is not, I think, why he is called “a man after God’s own heart.”
Somewhere down in his heart, David knew the Lord, not as a king, but as a man – as the simple shepherd and poet he once was. He loves the Lord for himself, not just for what God can do for him, just as he knows that the Lord loves him for himself, not for what David can do for God. People who love you for a reason will cease to love you when the reason expires (and doesn’t THAT encapsulate everything you need to know about personal relationships and power) – so the only people you can trust are those who love you without a reason – who love you “just because.” But there is no one left in Israel who loves the king “just because” – except God – and David knows this. His relationship to God is immediate and honest and real. He pours out his soul in the psalms attributed to him: his griefs, his sins, his fears. He puts himself in the Lord’s hands. He trusts him implicitly.
And surprisingly, this man who was used to getting his own way will accept a rebuke from the Lord. When Nathan the prophet arrives to condemn him for seducing the wife of Uriah and then having him killed, David accepts it. David often rebuked the priests of the Lord, argued with them, but when the prophet says, “thus says the Lord,” David knows this isn’t about religion or policy. This is God talking to him – and he repents in great bitterness of soul.
After the death of Jonathan, the only relationship in David’s life where he is completely open to someone else is his relationship with God. It was the only relationship that KING David had, I would also venture to say, in which the king did not attempt to use the other person to get what he wanted. For David, God is never a means to an end; or at least, never JUST a means to an end. He IS the end, the goal, of David’s life.
Most kings assume that God’s job is to help them succeed. David assumed that his job was to please the Lord. Without the Lord, life has no inherent meaning. He IS the meaning, and to know him is to know the secret of life.
Seventy-three out of 150 psalms in our Bible are attributed to David. How many he actually wrote personally is anybody’s guess. But the psalms of David are often more personal than liturgical – more fitted to the expressions of a single person than to the ordered praise of a large congregation. Nevertheless, let us take them at their word. All 73, if not equally BY David are certainly Davidic in spirit; and out of them all, I thought that Psalm 19 would be a good example to share with you this morning.
At first blush, it looks like a nature poem – a way of seeing God by contemplating the works of God.
The heavens are telling the glory of God;– i.e., the beauty of the work declares the skill of the artist who made it.
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
But the words they speak (without speaking) can be understood not only as the testimony of the artifact about the skill of the maker, but also remember that the heavens – not only the stars, but the clouds and such – were used by ancient peoples for divination. Not only could you understand the maker by contemplating his works, people thought that you could read the will of God in the stars and in other natural phenomena.
But out of all these things, one creation of God stood out:
In them he has set a tent for the sun,The sun shines so brightly, the stars are hidden, their light swallowed up in its light. The sun gives warmth and light and penetrates everywhere, so it is the supreme example of God’s creation.
which comes forth like a bridegroom leaving his chamber,
and like a strong man runs its course with joy.
Its rising is from the end of the heavens,
and its circuit to the end of them;
and there is nothing hid from its heat.
And then, the writer shifts his metaphor:
The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul;What is the connection here? Well, it is this: the Law of God – the written law, the covenant given on Sinai, the self-revelation of God given to us – is like the sun. It shines on us, it stirs us to life, it penetrates all the secret corners of our lives – and it tells us the will of God far more certainly than the hints and whispers that are all you can get from watching the constellations.
the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple;
the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the LORD is clean, enduring for ever;
the ordinances of the LORD are true, and righteous altogether.
And you don’t need professional astrologers – you can know the commandments for yourself.
More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold;To know the will of God is to know the right way to live – a means of knowing him as he is – a means of finding the meaning of life.
sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb.
Moreover by them is thy servant warned;
in keeping them there is great reward.
And just like the sun banishes the shadows and searches everything out, so the commandments of the law do this in the soul of the believer:
But who can discern his errors?For David, it’s not enough to be clean in the eyes of the people. He wants to be clean even where it doesn’t show, down deep where only he – and sometimes not even he, but only God – knows it.
Clear thou me from hidden faults.
Keep back thy servant also from presumptuous sins;
let them not have dominion over me!
Then I shall be blameless, and innocent of great transgression.
The Artist senses something about God in contemplating the works of God. The Astrologer tries to divine the will of God, or of Fate, by reading the interactions of the stars. But the servant of the Lord KNOWS what God wants, directly. And the man – or woman -- after God’s own heart WANTS to want what God wants, wants to BE what God wants him – or her – to be. For without God, nothing makes much sense, nothing has much savor – just the same ol’, same ol’ with not much to sustain one’s interest.
David’s son Solomon, born to power and eager to use it, eventually learned what David knew from the get-go. You can find him expressing it wearily in the Book of Ecclesiastes, when he finally says, “Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come, and the years draw nigh, when you will say, ‘I have no pleasure in them.’” And then he says that here is “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.”
Let me sum up the lesson of David’s rel with God with a modern analogy from computers. Some people think of religion as a program, one among many whose little icon is on your computer screen, your “desktop.” For these people, the computer represents the whole of yourself, all the things you know, all the things you can do, all the things that interest you, and you click on first this icon, then that one. When you want to be religious, you click on the religion icon, but when you want to concentrate on your work or talk a little politics or watch a movie or play a game, then you move on to a new program.
Meanwhile, other people think of religion as an operating system, not a program. Their relationship with God affects literally everything they are, everything they do, everything they THINK. In fact, it is only because they have the right relationship with God that they can think clearly, or act rightly, at all. And the goal of all their activity should be – they hope one day will be – God. God is not a means to an end for these people – he is the end, the goal, the meaning – of their life.
We were created to know God and to enjoy him for ever, says the old catechism. “Thou hast made us for thyself,” said Augustine, “and our hearts are restless till they rest in thee.”
Religion is not a task to be done, nor is God a boss whose main purpose is to get us to do the work we are assigned. Religion is our response – the only reasonable response - to being loved without a reason by the God who gives Meaning to our lives.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable in thy sight, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.