Texts: Psalm 130, II Sam. 18:5-9,15,31-33; 19:1-8
Hear these lines from the psalmist: “Help, God—I’ve hit rock bottom! Oh God, hear my cry for help!”
That’s how Eugene Peterson (The Message) renders the beginning of Psalm 130. Some of you might be more familiar with how it reads in the King James version: “Out of the depths I have cried to you, O Lord; Lord hear my voice!”
The meaning is the same. Both translations recognize the need for exclamation points!
We don’t know the poet’s situation—at least not the specifics—but we know that the poet has nothing left, has nowhere to turn, has no hope, can’t even count of the value of his good name. The poet hits the bottom and cries from the depths.
The situation might be a bit like your own, or a bit like the one in our Old Testament reading from II Samuel. That book tells the story of David’s reign as king of Israel. David, of course, is a central character in the biblical drama. There are just about 1000 references to him in our Bible, a little more if you include the Apocrypha. Even so, I sometimes find it hard to appreciate or sympathize with David, maybe you feel the same. David’s origin story is intriguing: faithful shepherd boy, brave champion of his people, man on the run, soulful poet. But things change when he becomes king. The power seems to “go to his head,’ as we say.
The Bible tells us that David commits murderer and rape. He is out of touch with his people and his family. He keeps a harem. David’s many children are ridiculously spoiled and unhelpful. Skim the book of II Samuel and you’ll find account after account of intrafamily fighting.
Here in II Samuel 18, we drop into one such account. One of David’s sons, a young man named Absalom, had conspired against his father. For years he spoke ill of David behind his back. “My father has no time for you,” he would say to those at the city gates, “but if I were king . . . .” Absalom’s mother, who was named Maacah, was the daughter of a foreign king (I Chron. 3). Absalom may have felt that he was destined to rule, even if he had to grasp power illegitimately.
When Absalom had himself declared king, David and his entourage were forced to flee the capital city. They left Jerusalem with their heads covered, weeping, barefoot, humiliated. As the group passed a nearby town, we’re told that a man named Shimei came to the edge of the road. He yelled insults at David and through dirt.
One of David’s loyal bodyguards asked permission to kill Shimei. Slow motion road rage: he would have beheaded the man for his insolence. But David declined, saying, “My own son wants to kill me, what does it matter if this man wants me dead too. Let him yell his curses. Maybe it will get God’s attention. Maybe God will defend me.” So Shimei followed David down the road, yelling and throwing stones.
Psalm 3 records the words that show David’s sentiment at the time: “O LORD, how many are my foes! Many are rising against me; many are saying to me, ‘There is no help for you in God.’”
You don’t have to be very sympathetic toward David to recognize that he was in a tough spot. His own son was out to kill him, a son whom David had once publicly forgiven. David, the great warrior and the unifier of the nation, is now on the run. He is embarrassed and disgraced. In Jerusalem, Absalom goes out of his way to make sure of it.
Remember, this story comes to us from the Ancient Near East. There is no United Nations to appeal to, there is no supreme court to sort things out. So David did what he could. He sent what was left of his forces into battle . . . against their own people, against David’s own son.
David insisted on giving one order to his military leaders. He commands them to “Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.” Everyone knew the order, but it wasn’t followed. David’s son was killed by the personal guards of David’s loyal general.
When David received the news, the relief and vindication of the victory evaporated into grief. His son was dead. David wept. He moaned, “O my son Absalom my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”
David’s grief was so public that his soldiers were ashamed. They snuck back from the battlefield, as though they were the losing party and not the victors, as though they had not just saved the life of the king and his family. David’s grief was unchecked.
It’s hard to know what to make of David here. Has his situation just gone from bad to worse, from having his life at risk to having a child dead? Or was David naively hoping for too much. Did he expect a solution to his son’s malevolence that was without justice?
Whether or not we can see the logic in David’s grief, the text makes it clear that he was devastated. But perhaps the illogic is itself instructive.
Grief does not always adhere to rules. Sometimes we miss those whom we should not. Sometimes our hearts demand an outcome for which we have no right. Sometimes we can’t help but think the terror should happen to someone else, never us. Grief is a fist, one that hits the heart and not the head. We grieve what we loved. We grieve what we dreamt of—what we hoped for, what was—for some unsparing reason—never to be. Logical or not. It is.
The Nigerian-born novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, writing just last year in the New Yorker, put it this way: “Grief is a cruel kind of education. You learn how ungentle mourning can be, how full of anger. You learn how glib condolences can feel. You learn how much grief is about language, the failure of language and the grasping for language.” She was reflecting on the death of her father. “Grief is a cruel kid of education”—indeed.
I imagine some of you are wondering, what is all this about grief and wailing? I thought the summer theme for this congregation was joy.
There’s an old preacher’s joke: a joke about a preacher. Apparently, at some point in time there was a preacher who wanted to drive home a point about clean living and avoiding vices. So he (she?) started the sermon by lining up four glass jars on the front of the pulpit. The first he filled with whisky, the second with cigar smoke, the third with liquid chocolate, and the fourth with good natural soil. He dropped a worm in each jar and then proceeded to give his sermon.
At the end, to drive his point home, he pulled the worm out of the jar filled with whisky. It was dead. He then pulled the worm out of the jar filled with cigar smoke. It was also dead. Same thing for the one in the liquid chocolate. They were all dead. Except for the worm in the good, wholesome, natural soil. It was still alive and wriggling.
“So,” the preacher asked, “what can we learn from this?”
A hand shot up in the back. It was a woman who had attended the church faithfully for years. In a loud voice, she said, “If we drink, smoke, and eat enough chocolate, we won’t have to worry about getting worms!”
The point is: preachers can be pedantic, but we’re all prone to listening to voices that confirm what we want to be true.
Joy is a good theme. In these last months I’ve become more aware of my own need to be intentional about cultivating joy, especially the enjoyment of everyday things. It’s a decision and a habit. It’s something we practice.
The reason I’ve chosen to give this story our attention today, is because joy isn’t something we look for from a neutral position. Some of us are, or have been, looking for joy, or wishing that we could wish for joy from a situation of deep personal grief. So, I’m thankful that this account doesn’t hide David’s pain. Whether or not he ‘should be’ grieving the death of a murderous and conspiratorial person, he is. It’s a legitimate emotional place to be.
It’s hard to imagine that authentic joy could come from ignoring loss or papering over disappointment.
Now, if you’re looking for something more, let me point out two things about the rest of David’s experience. David does a couple of things right. First, even though he is despondent, he does not wall himself off. He allows Joab to point out that others need something from him. David’s supporters risked their lives, risked the wellbeing of their own families, on his behalf.
Joab does not ask the grieving David to create a false reality. He simply asks David to “speak kindly” to his supporters. David’s path forward came through acknowledging those who remained a part of his life. That is important.
The second thing is important too. It may be that David’s grief was “a cruel kind of education.” Later in chapter 19 we see that David was merciful to Shimei. That was the fellow who had pelted him with curses. David was also merciful those who turned on him during his time of vulnerability.
Maybe his grief was transformative. This does not mean that his experience was a good thing or that he should be thankful for it, but it means that his grief may have allowed him to meet others in a way he could not before.
Psalm 130, if we can return there in closing, is described as a Song of Ascents. It’s a poem with an emotional shape. It begins low, with grief and vulnerability: “I’ve hit rock bottom! Oh God, hear my cry for help!” The poet acknowledges that God owes him nothing. He has no favours with God to cash in. There is nothing. Nothing, except that God’s habit is forgiveness and God’s ways are love. So, the poet waits and watches, waits and watches, encouraging the people of God to do the same.
Wait and watch—for the generous arrival of God. The return of joy!