Last week in our exploration of songs of the bible, we heard a lament from David, that famous musician, and great king of Israel. Today we hear one of King David’s many songs of praise. This song is found twice in the bible: once in the book of Samuel after David and his army have won a military victory; and then again as Psalm 18.
The song starts with a beautiful passage honoring God with many names. David calls God his rock, fortress, deliverer, refuge, shield, stronghold, savior, and horn of salvation. He goes on to describe how in a time of grave trouble, he called upon God, and God hears him. God responds with a magnificent uprising of creation: moving the earth, sending forth flame, coming down from the heavens, flying on the wind, sending forth lightening, laying bare the foundations of the world.
David says, “God delivered me from my strong enemy…the Lord was my stay… God delivered me, because God delighted in me.”
So far in the song, I am with David. To be sure, we don’t always experience God helping us in such a powerful way. Sometimes it’s hard to be sure that God is with us at all. But I do believe that God hears us, and helps us, in ways small and great. God can be for us a rock, fortress, deliverer, refuge, shield, stronghold, savior, and horn of salvation. God works to deliver us, because God delights in us.
As the song continues, however, I begin to have less sympathy for David’s point of view. It seems that David feels that God helps him because of his own great merit and faithfulness. “The Lord rewarded me according to my righteousness,” David says; “I was blameless before God, and I kept myself away from guilt.”
Some of you may be aware that David’s life was not one of unblemished morality. David was a King; both his path to the throne and the process of naming a successor were complicated. David was a military leader, too, and had the difficult task of deciding when and how to use violent force to defend and build up the nation he ruled. Then there is the question of David’s household, and the power he wielded over his eight wives and numerous concubines. There are many areas of moral complication in David’s life. Most troubling, however, is the story of David and Bathsheba, in which David begins an affair with a married woman, and then facilitates the death of her husband Uriah, so that he will not discover what has happened.
I’m not sure any of us are blameless before God. David certainly wasn’t. Did God really help him because of his righteousness?
I also struggle with the descriptions David gives of what God enables him to do. Some of these images are wonderful: David says, “God lightens my darkness…God has girded me with strength and opened wide my path.” However, I feel less comfortable with his claims that “By you I can crush a troop” or “God trains my hands for war” or “You made my assailants sink under me…I beat them fine like the dust of the earth.”
Does God help us to do anything we want? Is God a tool whose power we can call upon, even for violent ends?
Part of the problem here is that this song mixes the personal and the collective; the religious and the political. This is the voice of a king who believes himself to be divinely ordained; whose welfare he imagines to be especially precious to God; and whose victories on the battlefields can only have come from God’s hands.
What would it mean to claim some of the language of this song, as everyday people, rather than rulers? What would it mean to claim some of the beliefs in this song, as people whose greatest enemies are not armies, but the forces of evil that move through all of us? What would it mean to embrace this song, as people who believe God’s power does not dominate or destroy, but liberates and makes way for compassion?
Oddly enough, when I read this text again this week the first song that came to my mind was not one of the musical settings of it, but the song, Loves Me Like a Rock by Paul Simon. Simon sings about how love like a rock – a mother’s love – is strong enough to ward off the devil in both childhood and in adulthood. This love is even strong enough to ward against the temptations inherent in being the president of the united states; including the temptations of congress, here equated with the devil (it may help to remember that this song was written in the aftermath of Watergate).
Simon is Jewish, so perhaps he knew the Hebrew poem sung at Hannukah which praises God as a refuge, a rock of salvation. Since he mentions a Sunday Choir, perhaps he was thinking of the Christian hymn “Rock of Ages.” This song may have been influenced by scripture, or maybe Paul Simon just experienced his mother’s love as a rock: something that helped him resist evil in whatever forms he found it, throughout his life.
Simon’s song may be entirely secular, but to me it describes very well who God is and what God can do for us. God is our rock: a foundation of love for us to build on. That love can help us tell the truth from a lie. It might even make us bold enough look right into the face of the Devil – or congress — and say, “who do you think you’re fooling?” That love gathers us all up in her arms, like the best of mothers, whenever we need comfort. Our God loves us, loves us, loves us, loves us, from the very beginning and forever, no matter what.
I hope that in your life you may experience God as your rock, your fortress, your deliverer, your refuge, your shield, your stronghold, and the horn of your salvation. May God hear you when you cry out in distress, and move heaven and earth to come to your help. May God lighten your darkness, gird you with strength, and open wide your path.
The Lord lives! Blessed be our rock, and exalted be our God, the rock of our salvation.