This is a long piece but I hope you are able to get a few minutes to read it. I do. But don’t begin it until you are free to do it. God bless us all in such matters.
In his extended poem Saul. Robert Browning has David called to play his music for the wayward king Saul who is in the dark abyss of depression and feelings of abandonment. David’s music, we’re told, had soothed Saul in times past (1 Samuel 16:23) and if ever Saul needed help he needed it now.
The love of David for Jonathan, son of Saul, is well known to Bible readers, but David’s deep feeling for Saul is not given the notice it calls for and merits (see 1 Samuel 24 and 2 Samuel 1 as parts of the story). Browning uses the biblical text and his own depth of imaginative insight and gives us a lesson we need to hear again and again. I hope you can read what follows with patience. In a world as mad and bad as this one is and can be, the existence, depth and selflessness of human love at its best says something the whole creation needs to hear.
David’s met by Abner who tells him the king is in a dreadful state and that he and the men haven’t eaten a bite since he went into his tent. Nor would they eat or drink until David came back out to say the king was alive and well because he has been three days in the black tent in the middle of the camp—in complete silence. The troops know a struggle is going on between Saul and the Spirit of God.
David first prays and then enters, creeping in on his knees, praying as he goes, into the great darkness. He speaks into that darkness, “I’m David, your servant.” Not a word or a sound, only deep darkness. Then his eyes make out something even darker, an upright—the center beam of the tent and then, blackest of all, he makes out the huge figure of Saul. A beam of sunlight suddenly gives some light and David sees him there, propped up against the central beam with his arms draped over the cross beam—like one crucified, covered in sweat, head drooping, like a king-serpent, cut off from his own kind while he’s waiting to shed his skin.
David begins to play the kind of music he plays for His sheep—the kind that calms them; then music that charms the birds and other animals, even crickets. Then he played happy music, the kind they play at harvest when friends enjoy one another and expand each others’ hearts and then came the kind of music they play as they bear a man to his grave. The kind that goes along with the praise they proclaim as they walk saying, “The land has none left such as he on the bier.” Then there was wedding music and music that men do hard work by when they have to get their shoulders under huge stones when building. And more, there was the praise music as when men go to worship, led by the Levitical singers,
up to the altar in glory enthroned. But I stopped:
for here in the darkness Saul groaned.
For a moment David’s silent, listening, then the tent shakes “for mighty Saul shuddered”, but after that only his head moved. David begins to play again, speaking of the joys of human life, the rock-climbing, swimming, bear-hunting. He sings of love of family and the joys of it, the love of boyhood friends and then of the king’s coming to glory and being monarch of the nation. And at that point, carried away by the beauty and truth of it all, and anxious for Saul to drink it in and end his night, he calls out the king’s name—Saul!
The whole tent’s brighter with the singing but the figure in the center is like a dark mountain that’s the last thing in the valley to be hit by the rising sun’s light. But not so dark that David can’t make out the scars the king bears, scars he received in the nation’s defense. Saul gives a long shudder, then silence again, but now he’s aware of who and where he is. He has heard all the words and in great sadness:
He said, “It is good;” still he drinks not:
He lets me praise life,
Gives assent, yet would die for his own part.
David understands that the king knows something he doesn’t know. That all David has sung, while it’s true, and lovely and joyous—it’s not enough. There’s got to be more. Life’s joys aren’t enough to take the awful sting out of living much less out of dying.
David imagines himself lying in a little rock fissure while he’s out tending his sheep. The rocks on each side hem in his view of the sky and narrow it down to only a sliver while high above him flies an eagle. What can he see? From that height, what can he see? Much more than David! David as a shepherd boy knows so little of life, and there’s so much more. Now convinced of that, he takes up his harp and begins to sing again.
He tells the king he’s right not to put too much stock in life as it is on the physical level, “it’s good” but it’s not enough, and people grow tired of it and feel empty. But this life and the praise the king will get in future years from a grateful nation is God-given! God gave it!
And as he sings, Saul moves, fixes his hair , adjusts his turban, wipes off the sweat with his robe, fixes his tunic and stands erect; looking now like the old Saul “before error had bent” Then, weak, with his back against the central post he slides down to sit on the ground right close to David, his huge knees hemming the boy in. And then, without a word, slowly, he lifts a hand and puts it on the boy’s head with “kind power” and pushes it back so he can look long in his face. David’s heart is bursting with love for the man. He hears himself say he would give anything, anything if he could make the king well, if he could give him not just longer life—but new life! If love could do it, love would. His mind leaped to God and the thought startled him and he could play no more nor sing.
Can David out-love God and so what?
Shocked into silence by the new and daring thought, he reflects on creation, admitting it’s more than he can fathom, it far outreaches all his wisdom, it exposes all his limitations. And what of God’s love—did it not surpass his? He thinks of his own love for Saul, Saul the bent king. He thinks how gladly he’d do whatever it took to make him right. And in this, does the creature do better than the Creator? Does he compare himself with God and out-shine God? It’s true he doesn’t have God’s power to execute, but does he think he has out-willed God? Does he will Saul good more than God? Does God have more power but less good will toward sinners than David? No, God out-wills him as well as out-powers him.
Should David then in all the lesser matters trust God and when it comes to what matters most “distrust” him? Is it too good to be true? Should he, now having seen so much go “thus far and no farther?” Would God make Saul and not love him? And if He loved him, would He not redeem him? David would! Could God be less than David in loving? Perish the thought! When the truth sinks in, he begins to weep. His own weakness doesn’t prevent him from willing Saul’s redemption though his weakness depresses and frustrates him. Still, it suddenly dawns on him, “tis not what man does which exalts him, but what man would do!” So David’s service is perfect; weakness doesn’t change his purpose.
Could I wrestle to raise Him from sorrow,
grow poor to enrich,
To fill up his life, starve my own out, I would….
Oh, speak through me now!
Would I suffer for him that I love? So
wouldst thou—so wilt thou!
Knowing then that God felt as he felt, Browning has David long for the incarnation of that character, purpose and power (compare Psalm 27:8).
O Saul, it shall be
A Face like my face that receives thee; a
Man like to me,
Thou shalt love and be loved by, forever;
a hand like this hand
Shall throw open the gates of new life to thee!
See the Christ stand!
All this came to David with stunning power and since it was so profound a revelation, involving the Creator of all things in a “covenant” based on His very own character, David feels that the whole of creation must have been affected.
He stumbles His way home in the night and feels there’s a host of creatures as well as a universe watching Him, like a nation famished for news on how the war went.
As He walks home it’s getting close to dawn and creatures stand, awe-stricken at the revelation, flowers stare in awed astonishment, winds whisper and brooks quietly murmur in hushed voice—all, joining together in responding to the “new law” (which was really an old law) given to David, “Even so, it is so!”
All of this comes to us in stunning power too for we now know that what Browning has David long for has actually taken place in Jesus of Nazareth: God’s character, purpose and power has shown itself in a face like our faces; the face of one who is not only able but has the will to bring new life to all of us no matter how far we’ve gone astray.
(Holy Father, this moves us and makes us want to be more like you but it seems to call us too high though we constantly long for such heights. At least, Holy One, enable us we pray, to love in such a Christlike way our beloved ones whom you have given to us to protect and love and who are within our reach. And perhaps in so loving them we will grow to feel more and do more for those who are not our special ones with whom you have blessed us. Hear our prayer because we ask it in the Lord Jesus and in His Spirit.)