Sermon delivered by Keith Herron, pastor of Holmeswood Baptist Church in Kansas City, Mo., on July 12, 2009.
II Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19
There’s a less-than-subtle mixing of King David’s public and private life in this text. On the surface, it’s one of the cutest tales in the Bible if you can animate the story in your imagination. Here’s a king so full of the joy of life he’s moved to dance and twirl before the Ark as it’s carried up to his city, the City of David – better than President Bush doing a jig to entertain the White House press corps on the front portico waiting for Republican nominee John McCain to emerge for a press appearance!
David’s first action as king of the merged tribes of Israel was to decree that the Ark of the Covenant be brought up to Jerusalem, the new capital. As it was brought up the road he danced wildly at the head of the parade publicly flashing his privates before all the slave girls who egged him on. This public spectacle shifted from the embarrassment of what we might consider whenever someone gets drunk at a party and wears a lampshade to a marital shame by his wife who watched from the palace window. Marital shame is not a relational strength in any marriage because it’s often a sign of desperation or manipulation. It’s a sign of something terribly amiss in the privacy of their marriage and so the Bible gives us a hint into the private lives of King & Mrs. David of Bethlehem.
Much like any high-profile public figure, there are almost no secrets one can maintain, as one’s own private life is never beyond the scrutiny of the public eye. The list of public figures we could list where this is known is long and illustrative. Seems every other day a new inductee is admitted to the Hall of Shame and they come from all public walks of life … Presidents and presidential wanna-be’s, governors, mayors, members of Congress and/or the Senate, preachers, musicians and actors. Actually, the list goes on and on. Both Republicans and Democrats are equally represented as neither seems to get the morality and family message in balance with the peccadilloes of the power dynamics of their lived experience. Remember Nixon and his “law and order” campaign? Point taken.
Private secrets and public notoriety seem destined to implode and the more insistent one becomes about righteousness, the more likely a secret’s being deflected. They’ve been about sex and money and power; most often those transgressions are salacious and twisted thus fueling the power of the secret. They’ve included others as willing participants and as victims. And often they leave in their wake a fractured marriage that’s shamed their spouse and children who are condemned to bear the stain of their sin for the rest of their lives.
David, now king over both Israel and Judah, decided to bring the Ark of the Covenant to his city, a neutral site from the power base of either alliance and yet in a safe proximity to the no-man’s-land separating one from the other. As one of his first actions as the unifying king of both Israel and Judah, it was a wise move. Much in the way the colony after the American Revolution, the colonies looked around and New York City was the capital city for a few years but they wanted to choose a place that had not been included in any of the colonies or was not officially a part. So they created the District of Columbia and Washington D.C. as a planned city to serve the new country as its capital. It was not a part of any of the thirteen colonies and not a part of any of the states. In similar fashion David looked around and realized that Jerusalem would be a marvelous capital city. Jerusalem had not been a part of any of the kingdoms, either kingdom or any of the tribes.
There was something for both kingdoms in this move. The Ark was a unifying symbol even though it was in the hands of northern tribes of Israel – both tribal confederations were attached to it and placing it at the heart of the new capital symbolized the blessing of God’s central role in their unity and God’s presence upon them all.
Twenty years earlier, the Philistines had captured the Ark in battle. They had carried it off triumphantly as one of the spoils of war. Their victory couldn’t have been sweeter because they had captured the symbol of the spirit of the Hebrews. We might consider it akin to the cutting of Samuel’s hair; in their minds, they had robbed the Hebrews of their masculine virility and not even YHWH could help them without their special talisman, the Ark of the Covenant. But keeping the Ark was troublesome because a plague broke out among the Philistines and they were forced to give it back. David accepted it back and arranged to bring it to Jerusalem, his new capital.
But attached to this move the veil shielding David’s private life from view was opened for our view and here we are – three thousand years later considering the private relationship David had with his wife Michal. We’re given a glimpse into his private life with Michal, his wife who was a gift from Saul for his military prowess. In those days, “trophy wives” were the spoils of war, or the insurance of political alliances with tribal chiefs who became family members of neighboring tribes as a means of ensuring peace in the region. When reading these stories, consider the list of David’s wives first as a sign of his kingly politics and only in a secondary sense as romantic love between a husband and wife as we understand it today. This was particularly true for the polygamous powerful ruler who had more wives than he could possibly maintain a relationship. Consequently, there are very few clues of romantic love in these stories. Behind the shame, the Bible tells us Michal was in love with David. Strangely, we’re never told how David felt about her. But understanding politics will shine a light on how they acted with one another as the Bible tells us obliquely she was barren.
Larger than the shame exchanged in their marriage, larger than the unification of Israel with the guiding presence of the Ark of God in new capital, was their the commentary we’re given about the state of things as David confronted in typical Middle Eastern style how to deal with the remnants of Saul’s years as the titular head of the so-called tribes of Israel – a power never fully realized as it has become under David’s leadership. Behind all these events, David has been systematically ridding the kingdom of the remnants of Saul’s family so no one from the old kingdom can rise up and challenge David’s new power on the throne. Like Herod, the greatest fear of the sitting king has is that he might have left some stone unturned from a known threat. So newly crowned kings would systematically have every family member from the previous king killed.
The stories surrounding this story of David’s dance before the procession bearing the Ark to Jerusalem are bloody stories as one by one, Saul’s descendants are executed in a sequence of events… all but Meribbaal, the crippled son of Jonathan. Now the Bible depicts David as showing great kindness to Meribbaal because of his pledge of loyalty to his friend Jonathan. But it should be pointed out that David’s mercy also meant Meribbaal’s freedom to live meant he was kept under house arrest in David’s palace – probably meant to ensure he was kept on a short leash and always under David’s ever-vigilant eye. As Saul’s daughter, the one way to ensure no heirs were produced, would be to hold her as a sexual prisoner unable to give David the one thing in the Middle East a successful wife could give her husband, a male heir.
Thus, the titillation of the dance became a terribly haunting image for Michal, as she understood David was free to cavort among the servant class of women who would gladly make themselves available to the king for pleasure. All the while, Michal was the sexual suspect David could not afford to visit. She loved him and hated him at the same time and out of spite, she attempted to shame him when he arrived all sweaty at their shared palace from his lusty dance before the people who lined the streets for the spectacle of it all. So her love soured and she tried to shame him for his lascivious cavorting before the Ark.
The new king of the unified kingdom brought the Ark home and in doing so, brought the presence of God home too. But as much of a cause for celebration it was, as much of a national victory it was, it only highlighted the internal strife of David’s private life with Michal, his political wife whom he couldn’t quite trust enough to love. And no matter how much she loved him she couldn’t move his heart to love her in return.
After serving as bridge pastor at First Congregational Church of St. Louis, Missouri, during the past year, Herron moved recently to Lawrence, Kansas, where he will continue to minister in interim settings. He is author of Living a Narrative Life, Exploring the Power of Stories (Smyth & Helwys, 2019).