Let everything that breathes praise the Lord. These words, that end our Psalm today, close out the whole book of Psalms, the ancient hymnal of Israel: “Let everything that breathes praise the Lord.”
Those who put together our readings this morning have imagined, and possibly so, that David penned these words in response to the triumphal parade, when the seat of his kingdom moved from down in Hebron up to Jerusalem, dancing before the ark of God. As petty and errant as David can be, he also knows, in his heart of hearts, to share his victory – to credit it, really – to God and God alone.
David’s place in the Hebrew Bible is a critical one. The Israelites have made the transition from wandering nomads to a nation governed by tribal judges. Saul has served them as king, but only in the South – in Judah. The north, Israel – or Samaria – is disconnected. David will unite the kingdom under his rule, passing his legacy along to his son Solomon. Unfortunately, David’s grandsons will divide the kingdoms again between North and South, and this will ultimately lead to their undoing. It also means that David’s rule serves as a kind of “good ol’ days” to which the Israelites will look back with nostalgic longing.
That’s the thing about nostalgia, isn’t it? It remembers the good stuff but forgets the rest. Either that, or it tries to justify the bad in light of the good. That’s the kind of thought that hears every criticism and follows it up with, “Yeah, but…” We are capable of so much more nuanced thought! That’s what makes humanity so amazing: not only do we have the capacity for critical thinking, but we also are able to hold conflicting ideas in tension when the evidence warrants doing so.
Let me put it this way: as I see it, we have three ways of looking at David’s reign. One way is to see the whole thing as nothing but “good”; and therefore, anything we might otherwise consider “bad” is just stuff we have probably misunderstood, because it’s ultimately in service of the good. Another way of looking at it is as nothing but “bad”, which casts the “good” stuff under its shadow and, therefore, must not really be “good”. The third way is to be honest about the “bad” and the “good”, while still knowing that God is God and hope is always God’s desire for the world.
A couple of examples might help illustrate the point. David fathered the wise king Solomon. That’s a good thing. The way he did so was to betray his trusted general Uriah so he would die and battle and David could sleep with Uriah’s wife Bathsheba. That’s a bad thing. If we assume that everything is good, then Uriah’s death is merely collateral damage toward the unifying of the kingdom. If we assume that everything is bad, then Solomon is suspect from the moment of his birth. If we live with that middle honesty, then Solomon is still wise while David is held accountable for murder and adultery; all the while, God is still God, lifting up Solomon, humbling David, and loving and correcting them both, even at their most unlovable.
Our reading today offers another example. David lets everyone know outright of his hatred for the blind and lame. If everything is good, then the blind and the lame deserve to be hated – or, perhaps, the Jebusites deserved to be wiped out. If everything is bad, then David taking Jerusalem is just evidence of his greed to rule as much territory as possible. If we live with that middle honesty, then we recognize that this was, in many ways, simply a strategic victory: moving the capital city to a fortified hill; that Nathan, David’s trusted prophet, was a Jebusite; and that Jesus himself came to reach out to the blind and the lame who had long been turned aside, and wrongly so, evidence that God can continue to be at work.
Does this make sense? I raise all of this because I am concerned with how we read the Bible. We have a tendency to do so by seeing it as the story of victors who are always be doing as God desires; otherwise, why would God allow it to happen? This tends to make us overlook all the wrong that was done, even supposedly in the name of God, when even the Bible itself goes through pains to point out the times when those wrongs were as clear as day!
When the Israelites chose Saul as their king, they did so not because they thought monarchy was the best system of government, but because they were jealous of the other nations and their kings. They chose Saul not because he was the wisest or the smartest, but because he was the tallest – something, you may recognize, as utterly irrelevant to fitness for office. In the end, God’s word was to the effect of, “This is a bad idea; but if your hearts are set on it, so be it.” This doesn’t mean that God sanctioned Saul’s kingship and everything he did. This also doesn’t mean that God abandoned the Israelites and stopped caring about them and their fate. It simply means that God is still at work in the midst of a messy, messy history; and that God doesn’t give up on God’s beloved easily.
The story of the Prodigal Son illustrates this quite well. One son stays at home; the other takes his inheritance, essentially telling his father to his face, “You’re as good as dead to me”, and takes off. He loses everything and comes crawling home. His father welcomes him back with a celebration, so great was his love for his lost son. None of this justifies the son’s actions, or brings back the wealth he squandered. Nor does this position the dutiful son over the disobedient son. Instead, it is a story of God’s character at work in the father, giving us freedom – even the freedom to make dumb choices – and loving us all the while.
What troubles me about overlooking or justifying wrongs when reading Scripture is that it leads to doing the same in our own lives and in the lives of our own tribes. And we do this all the time. We do this as Christians, speaking only of the times the Church has been persecuted while forgetting the centuries when the Church was the foremost global persecutor. We do this as Americans, focusing on the good only while ignoring the legacy of egregious wrongs committed.
Admiring Tom Brady’s athleticism does not mean you have to agree with his politics. Loving the Huxtables does not mean defending Bill Cosby at all costs. Being a Redskins or a Braves fan does not preclude wanting to ditch the mascot. Though our national political scene tends to work against this kind of nuanced thinking, we are capable of intelligent, critical thought that transcends tribal allegiances. And the same goes for us: people are capable of loving us, even when they disagree with us.
Jesus put it quite simply: before you point out the speck in your brother’s eye, take care of the log in your own – whether that’s individually or collectively.
I may be wrong, but I think the reason we shy away from this kind of honesty is that we are afraid. We do not admit mistakes because we are afraid they will be thrown back in our face. That level of transparency can be a scary thing. There’s a reason we rarely see it. Fear is a powerful motivator – and yet, fear can get in the way of faithfulness.
I think we’re better, wiser than all this. We are capable of believing two things at the same time without picking sides. We can be grateful to the service of police officers who put their lives on the line while being troubled by the increasing militarization of police forces and the distressing statistics around the treatment and incarceration of people of color. These two things can be held in tension, because compassion is not a finite resource – at least, not when it echoes the light of God’s compass.
We don’t have to pick sides – let me rephrase that: we should pick sides, as long as that side is God’s side.
You see, as much as we might cast the Bible as the story of Israel, or the story of the Church, the Bible is the story of God, and God alone – and God’s love for God’s creation.
And King David, as great as he was and has imperfect as he was, recognized that, ultimately, his place in history paled in comparison to what God had in store for him. As our reading says, “David knew that the Lord had made him king over Israel, and that his rule would be exalted for the sake of all Israel.” No sooner has this been said, though, when we are reminded that David’s ascension to Jerusalem was accompanied by more wives and concubines – not exactly a paragon of monogamy.
You see, that’s the thing: the bigger point risks getting lost in this. David was far from perfect. And yet, he was still able to accomplish great things. We have to hold these two things in tension with one another. That’s the faithful thing to do. Because the bigger point is that David was, at his best, God’s vessel of grace. And he knew that. With all of his flaws, he knew that any glory he experienced was due to God and God alone. He knew that the spotlight was not his to hog, but to share.
You see, this is one of the reasons I am a Presbyterian. I don’t think we have a monopoly on the truth, or that we always get it right. At the same time, I think we shape and reshape our lives in such a way that we can strive for this kind of honest, fearless sharing – of our time, our resources, and even of ourselves.
In the Presbyterian Church, we often describe ourselves as the Reformed Church, always being reformed. In other words, we come out of that Reformation period of history when there was a need for sweeping change – but we don’t, even for a moment, think we have gotten it all figured out, or that we will never need to be transformed again.
We are a church that values education and critical thinking. Faith is not necessarily in opposition to doubt; instead, doubt can be the very thing that strengthens faith, as long as we don’t fear it.
And we are a church that strives for transparency. Our leadership meetings are open meetings. Their notes are a matter of public record. We manage our financials in the light of day – our Town Hall meeting following worship is an example of this desire for transparency, of the fearless sharing of information.
And…and…and…we will get it wrong from time to time. That’s not an excuse; it’s the truth. It’s the truth that the God we know in Christ desires from us. It’s the truth that leads us not into perfection, but into a more perfect love and empathy for a world and a creation that creaks and groans to sing praise to the God of all creation, the God who loved, created, and redeemed King David, the God whose judgment held him accountable, the God whose glory shone through him at his best.
May we, too, be such broken vessels of the goodness of God.