1 Samuel 16:14-23:14 Now the spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord tormented him. 15 And Saul’s servants said to him, “See now, an evil spirit from God is tormenting you. 16 Let our lord now command the servants who attend you to look for someone who is skillful in playing the lyre; and when the evil spirit from God is upon you, he will play it, and you will feel better.” 17 So Saul said to his servants, “Provide for me someone who can play well, and bring him to me.” 18 One of the young men answered, “I have seen a son of Jesse the Bethlehemite who is skillful in playing, a man of valor, a warrior, prudent in speech, and a man of good presence; and the Lord is with him.” 19 So Saul sent messengers to Jesse, and said, “Send me your son David who is with the sheep.” 20 Jesse took a donkey loaded with bread, a skin of wine, and a kid, and sent them by his son David to Saul. 21 And David came to Saul, and entered his service. Saul loved him greatly, and he became his armor-bearer. 22 Saul sent to Jesse, saying, “Let David remain in my service, for he has found favor in my sight.” 23 And whenever the evil spirit from God came upon Saul, David took the lyre and played it with his hand, and Saul would be relieved and feel better, and the evil spirit would depart from him.
After World War 2, people in cities all over the world found themselves faced with the task of rebuilding their homes from the rubble. There was so much work to be done: people needed houses, they needed places to get food, they needed hospitals. Where do you even begin, when everything needs rebuilding? Each city did things a little bit differently, but some, almost right away, started fixing up their opera house.
When I first heard that, it sounded odd to me. Really? That’s the bougiest thing I’ve ever heard. Your house has been blown in half and you haven’t eaten in two days, but what you really need is a sublime performance of Carmen. That’s not exactly the pragmatic decision.
But maybe that’s exactly what people needed in that moment. After the explosions and the screams, maybe they needed music in their ears. Maybe there were some frequencies they’d forgotten how to hear, that music helped them remember. After the ugliness of war, the very worst that people can do to each other—bombing and shooting and putting whole families in cages—maybe people needed beauty in their lives, not just to distract them or to provide a silver lining, but to show what else is possible. When everything falls apart and your world ends, maybe more than anything else you need whatever it is that lets you imagine a different world, and beauty does that by awakening our desires and drawing us out of ourselves to pursue them.
Our story this morning is about music and how God speaks to us and stokes our desires through the beautiful. As I said a couple weeks ago, David doesn’t leave behind any victory arches or even a remnant of his palace. He leaves behind the Psalms, the music that has shaped the worship and the imagination of Christians and Jews for thousands of years. So this morning we remember David as a musician, as the psalmist.
And it’s interesting how the storyteller introduces that feature of his life. We learn that David is a musician in the midst of despair, particularly, Saul’s despair. Saul’s world is in the process of falling apart. He’s the first king of Israel, anointed by God (even though God didn’t really want Israel to have a king). He was a great warrior, a powerful figure who helped this collection of tribes become a nation (whether that’s a good thing or not, it’s quite the accomplishment). But now, God’s anointing leaves Saul and goes to David, and it’s not entirely clear why. The story tells us about a couple moments where Saul doesn’t do what God asks, but he’s hardly unique among Israel’s kings in that way. Even David will end up sinning against the Lord a lot, but he doesn’t get replaced. But for some reason everything falls apart for Saul. We even read that “an evil spirit from the Lord” comes to torture him so that nothing will soothe his soul.
I think we can just admit that this is a disturbing passage. The thought that an evil Spirit would come “from the Lord” is unsettling, to say the least. What’s going on here? In the book of James, we read that God does not tempt us, and people of faith have long held that God is the very source of goodness and the Good reflects God’s own life, so God cannot will evil any more than God could make a square triangle. But then again from our perspective, it doesn’t always seem that way, does it, that goodness is absolute and in charge of the world? There is evil in this world, sometimes its spectacular and sometimes it just grinds away so that we become accustomed to it, but it is pervasive; evil seems eternal (history keeps repeating itself); injustice seems like it’s everywhere (history repeats itself all over the world and in our neighborhoods, too). Evil feels a little bit godlike; it’s powerful and mysterious, we can’t really find the words for it. It shapes our world and our hearts, co-opting some, sacrificing others, and tempting the rest to despair. We might have some clever theological ways of saying that God doesn’t do evil, but what’s the difference when the world, when we, continue to other and exploit and subject our neighbors. The evil spirit might as well be from wherever God is, it has so much power.
Maybe you know that feeling. Perhaps you’ve been tortured by your own deep grief or some pain that just lingers on or a trauma that you will carry with you for the rest of your life. Maybe you hear testimony from the border or Pittsburgh or the jail in downtown Durham and you’re inspired by the bravery that some people are showing to work for justice in places like that (maybe you do that work!) but struggling against the violence makes you all the more aware how pervasive it is, that this is just how the world works and even if you could do more it would be like pushing back the ocean. Occasionally we catch glimpses of beauty, but it’s like there’s a film or a crust over the surface of things that hides more lovely possibilities.
In this moment, this atmosphere of despair, Saul’s advisors say, “We need some music.” Which maybe to us sounds about as practical as building an opera house in a ruined city. Is music up to this despair? We need a better world, not a fiddler on the deck of the Titanic. It might seem like this is a call for distraction, escape, for comforting ourselves while leaving the status quo in place. It could be that. Music, and beauty more generally, have been used that way.
But music can open up other possibilities, too. Even the greatest composer doesn’t know what their work is going to awaken in someone’s soul. Music has this way of playing between tension and resolution that not only speaks to our minds, but our hearts, and even our bodies. (There have been studies that suggest playing music for ICU patients could be beneficial to their physical recovery.) Music moves us in ways we don’t understand, which is no small thing when you’re faced with despair. There’s a reason you remember the album you listened to after a break-up or that you can still hear that song from your loved one’s funeral. There’s a reason that some of the greatest music has come out of tremendous hardship: African Americans singing the spirituals and the blues, bluegrass coming out of poor Appalachian folk music. Music has a way of reaching down into our depths and letting those depths bubble up like a geyser to break through the surface of things.
So Saul has his advisors find a musician, and they pick David, whom Saul doesn’t know will be replacing him as king. Rather than overthrow Saul by force, David comforts Saul in his despair. And whenever the evil spirit from God came upon Saul, David took the lyre and played it with his hand, and Saul would be relieved and feel better, and the evil spirit would depart from him.
David’s music made the evil spirit depart. Now we know a little bit about David’s music, because according to tradition at least, David wrote many of the Psalms. I think I know why that kind of music could be comforting to Saul. Over the last year and a half, through James’ diagnosis and surgeries, I know that I got little to no comfort from the classic consolation verses like Romans 8 about how God works all things for good; but I got a great deal of comfort from the honesty of the Psalms. Whereas we might be a little uneasy accusing God of, say, sending evil spirits upon people, the Psalms boldly do just that: “How long O Lord, will you forget me, how long will you hide your face?…God, you led us into the net and lay a burden on my back…My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” And if they’re bold before God, the Psalms are even more so with the world: they are often angry and sad and desperate. Whether it’s poverty, sickness, grief, anything a person or community might experience, the Psalms put it in music. They don’t ask us to smile when we cry; they don’t tell us to grin and bear it. They invite us to name the breaks in our lives with unflinching honesty. There’s no risk in David’s poetry of making pretty what is in fact profoundly terrible. These words don’t ask us to find a silver lining around evils that should probably just be called out for what they are. They’re like the Cross, in that they name and unmask the powers of this world.
But they’re also like Resurrection, because they sing new life. David’s music can be so honest about our world because it sees through the cracks in the surface to what lies beneath, to the love of God at the foundations of the earth. The beauty of the Psalms is not therapeutic or cosmetic, but prophetic. The writer Fred Moten describes the prophet as “the one who tells the brutal truth, who has the capacity to see the absolute brutality of the already-existing and to point it out and to tell that truth, but also to see the other way, to see what it could be. That double-sense, that double-capacity: to see what’s right in front of you and to see through that to what’s up ahead of you…” The prophet offers the fantasy of what is possible, new creation: a day when everyone is invited to rejoice on the Lord’s Holy mountain; a land overflowing with milk and honey; a time of Jubilee where each gives according to their ability and everyone receives according to their need; a heavenly banquet where every tribe, tongue, and nation cry out “Holy, Holy, Holy” in a city where the gates are always open. That’s the music the Scriptures would write on our heart; that’s the world they would have us desire. Do we want a world that looks like that?
The beauty of the Psalms invites us to escape into reality, so that we can call this world what it is but so that we’re not limited by it’s possibilities. The Psalms alternate between lament and joy, and for those of us who call ourselves Christians, we know those as the patterns of salvation, of the very life of Jesus: cross and resurrection, descent and ascent, repentance and new life. They teach us that the shattered pieces of our lives and our world have not reached their final form, but instead our dry bones can learn to dance again. That’s why David’s music sends the evil spirit away from Saul, why it can work on us in our despair. That’s why you might build an opera house, or a church, in a ruined city. We sing our hymns and read our Psalm each week before we pray because we hope that these melodies will tune our hearts to sing God’s praise; that they’ll teach us to speak honestly about the world and give us a vision of new creation to start working on now.
That’s what I mean when I say that the Psalms are beautiful. Not that they’re glossy and ideal. But that they’re honest and hopeful in a way that sends us on the move, sets us working on new creation now.
So my friends, no matter how dark things get, no matter how great and overwhelming the many injustices in the world and in our communities are, don’t forget to sing. Look for the glimpses of beauty that flash through the cracks in the surface of things. Listen for honest songs that flow from a deep love (knowing that sometimes those songs are the angriest). That might seem impractical, even like a waste of time. But the powers of this world have a way of leveling our vision so that all we see are their possibilities. Beauty invites us to see through the veil our bosses and our leaders hold before our eyes, beauty can awaken our desires for a world beyond the world. So sing. Worship. Croak these hymns and eat a little bread. Shout down and laugh away the evil spirits or rage that they’re still here, and when the morning comes, let beauty lead us into new creation. Amen.
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