Singin' the Blues: David's Lament

This is the third in an ongoing sermon series on the figure of David, preached at saint benedict’s table over these summer months.  Our wrestling with these texts is to try to see just how this particular biblical character shapes and challenges the imagination of the people of God.


bluesmanetween last Sunday’s reading of the story of David and Goliath and this week’s Old Testament reading, the lectionary has skipped past a massive amount of material.  David, the shepherd boy and unlikely hero, has been taken into King Saul’s own household, in part because the young man’s skill as a harp player means he is able to offer one of the only things that can sooth the soul of the increasingly mentally unstable king.  Yet in time, because he is an increasingly popular and attractive figure, David becomes a threat to the king.  Saul eventually issues what amounts to a death warrant, and David narrowly escapes into the wilderness; an escape made possible through the assistance of  Saul’s own son Jonathan, with whom David has come to share a deep friendship.

For the next several years, David lives as a fugitive.  He gathers a bit of a following, and with his circle of young men hires himself out as a mercenary soldier, effectively working for the enemy.  They live rough off the land – and off of the support of sympathetic locals – playing an extended game of cat and mouse with the increasingly desperate King Saul.

Of this chapter in the story of David, the rock musician Bono writes,

(B)efore David could fulfill the prophecy and become the king of Israel, he had to take quite a beating.  He was forced into exile and ended up in a cave in some no-name border town facing the collapse of his ego and abandonment by God.  But this is where the soap opera got interesting, this is where David was said to have composed his first psalm – a blues.  That’s what a lot of the psalms feel like to me, the blues.  Man shouting at God – “My God, my God why hast thou forsaken me?  Why art thou so far from helping me?” (Psalm 22)

I hear echoes of this holy row when un-holy bluesman Robert Johnson howls, “There’s a hellhound on my trail” or Van Morrison sings “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child.”[1]

And that part of the story – that David is a bluesman, a singer and a poet – is crucial to the whole.  He’s not just some rugged hero destined for kingship; he’s also a bard, and a singer of hard truth.  He gives voice to things that heroes and kings, hedged in by the expectations of role and office, are not generally expected to name.

Well, the situation worsens for Saul.  The Philistines are again on the move and threatening, and in his desperation Saul does the unthinkable.  He seeks the services of a medium, of the witch of Endor.  In flagrant violation of the torah, Saul turns from God to sorcery, and it marks the beginning of his final slide.  Not long after his visit to the medium, Saul finds himself cornered in battle, and rather than let the Philistine enemy capture him he begs his armor-bearer to kill him.  The armor-bearer refuses, and Saul ends his own life by throwing himself on his own sword.  In that same battle Jonathan – the obvious hereditary heir to the throne – is also killed, and as the First Book of Samuel ends Israel looks to be shattered beyond all hope of recovery.

Now we come to today’s reading: David’s lament for Saul and Jonathan in First Samuel 1:1, 17-27.  You might have expected David to be celebrating Saul’s death, but no.  “How the mighty have fallen,” he sings.

23Saul and Jonathan, beloved and lovely!
In life and in death they were not divided;
they were swifter than eagles,
they were stronger than lions.
24O daughters of Israel, weep over Saul,
who clothed you with crimson, in luxury,
who put ornaments of gold on your apparel.
25How the mighty have fallen
in the midst of the battle!

What’s going on here?  Has David forgotten the last several years?  Is he just glossing over Saul’s madness, Saul’s desperation, Saul’s failure?  No.  David here gives voice to what is truly lamentable, namely the tragedy of Saul, and the loss of what could have been.  David’s act of public lament is a powerful acknowledgment of lost hope and shattered dreams.  Saul had been a king of great promise.  He was chosen and anointed, and he brought the potential of greatness to his role as the first king of Israel.   But he turned out to be something of the classic Shakespearean tragic hero; seemingly destined for greatness, yet bearing within himself a fatal flaw to which he apparently could not but succumb.

Beyond lamenting the death of this tragic king, there is something more personal, more fully heart-felt:

25How the mighty have fallen
in the midst of the battle!
Jonathan lies slain upon your high places.
26 I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan;
greatly beloved were you to me;
your love to me was wonderful,
passing the love of women.

This is the high point of David’s lament, this grieving over the death of his great and beloved friend Jonathan.  There is no resolution offered in this lament; no sentimentalized ending and no sugar-coating.  Here, David just sings the blues.

There is a long and deep tradition associating David with the Book of Psalms.[2] Many of the psalms are credited to other writers, and many arise out of historical contexts much later than David, but the tradition connects a good percentage directly to him.  And while the psalms include praise songs, royal hymns and thankful prayers, fully a third of these songs are laments, are the blues.

Ancient Israel knew – and these psalm writers knew – that life was not always easy, and that to pretend otherwise and to only and always sing praise is a lie.  Lament tells the truth about the way things often really are, which is something the contemporary church has all too often forgotten, as we opt to sing only music that is thought to be uplifting.  Maybe done in the name of keeping upbeat, faithful and positive – the attitude of “always look on the bright side of life” parodied so scathingly in Monty Python’s film The Life of Brian – Christians are sometimes convinced that we should really only sing alleluia.  To do otherwise is to appear untrusting or unfaithful in our relationship to God.

But life is not like that.  We do get sick, we do face death, we do fail and fall short, we do hurt each other, we do lose jobs, and we do fall out with friends and lovers.  We just do.

It is, I think, one of God’s great gifts to saint benedict’s table that we have writers and musicians here who have been unafraid to lament and to sing the blues.  We sometimes tease Gord Johnson for being the “Eeyore” of worship music, with his steady insistence on exploring difficult and sometimes sorrow-filled territory, but he’s not the only one who is prepared to take us there.  Mike Koop’s explorations in the blues and African-American gospel traditions yield rich food, to say nothing of what he brings us in his original songs like the starkly beautiful “Death Cures Everything.”  And Jenny Moore-Koslowsky’s little seven-song CD project, Songs for Listening to on the Train, can hardly be accused of shying away from this territory of lament.  I think that all of these writers have given us words to use when, like David, we find ourselves feeling abandoned or lost or in some state of loss and pain.

The language of faith – and so the language of worship – must be marked by a full and robust vocabulary.  Listen to what Walter Brueggemann writes in his commentary on this lament passage:

(W)ords matter.  Sound religion is so often a matter of finding the right words, words that will let us genuinely experience, process, and embrace the edges of our life.  The cruciality of words needs to be at the center of the church’s life, for we live in a culture that grows mute by our commitment to technique.  The dominant ideology of our culture wants to silence all serious speech, cover over all serious loss, and deny all real grief.  Such a silencing is accomplished through the reduction of life to technique that promises satiation.  But such a muteness will leave us numb, unable to hope or to care.  Against such an ideological urging, speech like this poem is a bold, daring, subversive alternative.[3]

And as Psalm 30 has it, “Weeping may linger for the night; but joy comes with the morning” (Psalm 30:5).  In that nighttime, to be able to name the lostness, the fear and the sadness is to be already on the way toward morning’s joy.  “Where there is such singing,” writes Brueggemann, “the unresolved hurt can be resolved.”[4]

May we always be blessed with voices sufficiently courageous to sing the blues.  Amen.

Jamie Howison
4th Sunday after Pentecost

[1] Bono, “Introduction,” Selections from the Book of Psalms (New York: Grove Press, 1999), pp. vii-viii.

[2] Biblical scholars argue passionately over what the historical David might actually have contributed to the Psalter.  Some suggest that none of the psalms can in fact be traced back to David, though many recent scholars are more than willing to uphold the tradition of Davidic authorship of at least a good number of these songs.   Of the lament in 1 Samuel, no less a scholar than Walter Brueggemann is quite comfortable in seeing it as coming from David’s own hand.  In some real sense, these critical and scholarly arguments are not actually all that important, in that the only David we can actually get at is the one presented in these biblical texts, which present him as both soldier-hero and poet-musician.  The texts also present him as being a very fallible character, unafraid to sing self-searching songs of grief and sorrow, which may be one of the most valuable things to which the church can attend.

[3] Walter Brueggemann, First and Second Samuel (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990), p. 217.

[4] Ibid., p. 218.

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