On David’s Dance

And David danced before the LORD with all his might. And David was wearing a linen ephod. So David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the LORD with shouting and with the sound of the horn. As the ark of the LORD came into the city of David, Michal the daughter of Saul looked out of the window and saw King David leaping and dancing before the LORD, and she despised him in her heart. 2 Samuel 6:14-16 ESV

2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19

It’s such a wonderful scene, David dancing and rejoicing before the Lord. The ark of God is coming to Jerusalem and it’s a festival day in celebration. David is celebrating God’s presence and God’s victories with a parade and sacrifices to the Lord. With God’s help, David’s army had sufficiently defeated the Philistines that it was safe to start living a more normal life. There was a measure of peace and stability, and David celebrated by bring the Ark of the Covenant – where God sat enthroned upon the cherubim – out of twenty years of obscurity on Aminadab’s farm (1 Samuel 7:1-2) to the new capital of the unified kingdom. Ancient kingdoms often celebrated their victories with parades of captured slaves and looted treasure. David parades not with the treasure that he had captured, but with the treasure that had captured him: the Ark of God’s presence.

The quick and easy lesson that many Christian interpreters will draw from this text is this: if David celebrated with shouting and feasting and trumpets and dancing with all his might, maybe we should celebrate God’s greater victories in Jesus Christ just as passionately.

This passage should remind us that “sacrifice” – in both the the Old and New Testaments – is not always somber and mournful experience. Sometimes it is a celebratory feast. When I think of our experience of holy communion, for example, it sometimes seems that we try to make the occasion holy by putting our sour faces. That’s not necessary. I like the words at the end of the Great Thanksgiving:

And so, in remembrance of these your mighty acts in Jesus Christ, we offer ourselves in praise and thanksgiving as a holy and living sacrifice, in union with Christ’s offering for us.

Like the Passover meal on which it is modeled, Holy Communion can be a celebratory meal. When we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes, we are not only remembering the great price he paid, but the great victory that he won.

There’s nothing wrong with highlighting the celebratory aspects of this text, but interpreters should note a couple of other things as well.

First, neither the Old Testament nor the New suggest that celebration is the only mode of expression for God’s people. The same David who danced before the Lord also lamented over the death of Saul and Jonathan in last week’s reading (2 Samuel 1:17ff). David fasted and wept for his sick child in 2 Samuel 12. Whatever David’s faults might have been, he was certainly a man who expressed his feelings. The Psalms attributed to him express every form of human emotion. (In the New Testament, the same Lord who said, “Rejoice and be glad” also said, “Blessed are those who mourn, who hunger and thirst for righteousness.”)

Being a person of God does not mean living in a permanent state of ecstasy. God did not give us this passage to induce guilt in people because they are not happy enough or not “praising God” enough. There is no prescribed emotion which we are to bring to God. Emotional manipulation in worship or associating salvation with particular emotional states is contrary to the gospel of grace in Jesus Christ. Rather, we are to bring our entire lives – the highs and the lows – before God in faith.

Second, the hero of this story is God, not David.

The omitted verses of the lection relate that when Uzzah died from inappropriate-Ark-touching, David became both angry and fearful with respect to God. The hero who faced down Goliath and led Israel in combat had this solution to his fear: let’s make Obed-Edom keep the Ark for a while and see what happens to him. Only when David’s human guinea pig prospered did David want the Ark back for himself. What kind of faith is it that only wants God around when there’s a reward involved?

There’s one line in our text that stands out like a pimple on prom night:

Michal the daughter of Saul looked out of the window and saw King David leaping and dancing before the LORD, and she despised him in her heart.

You might remember that one reason David fought Goliath was so that he could marry the king’s daughter (1 Samuel 17:25). Saul reneged on his promise and gave his oldest daughter Merab to another (1 Samuel 18:19). His younger daughter, Michal, loved David, however, and Saul saw this as an opportunity to destroy the young man whom he now saw as his chief rival for power. He promised Michal to David upon delivery of 100 Philistine foreskins, with the hope that David would die in the battles required to claim his prize. (This involuntary imposition of circumcision – the sign of the covenant – on Philistine war-dead is shocking to modern sensibilities on so many levels.) David gave Saul a little “take that” as he doubled the required bride-price and presented 200 foreskins to the king. Saul gave Michal to David as his bride (1 Samuel 18:20-27), but they did not live happily ever after.

Saul still sought to kill David, but Michal helped David escape (1 Samuel 19:11-17). She lowered David down through the window and then made a mannequin to take his place in the bed. When Saul discovered this ruse, he challenged Michal’s family loyalty. Michal answered back, “Well, he said that he would kill me if I didn’t help him.”

In David’s absence, Saul gave Michal as a wife to another man, one named Palti (or Paltiel). Meanwhile, David himself married two others: Abigail, the widow of one of his enemies, and Ahinoam. (1 Samuel 25:39-44).

Later, Saul died. As David was consolidating his power, he wanted Michal back, more as a trophy and symbol of his power than as a companion in love. He demanded that Abner, Saul’s chief of staff who was seeking a treaty with David, and Ishbosheth, Saul’s son and Michal’s brother, return Michal to him. After all, he had paid one hundred foreskins for her. As Michal was dragged from her home, her husband Paltiel followed behind her for miles, in loud sobs and tears all the way. Abner told him to go home, and he did. It’s one of the most heartbreaking scenes in the Bible (2 Samuel 3:13-16).

In our text, Michal looks down on the king dancing in the streets – with his robes tied about his waist to free his movement – his privates somewhat exposed in the process – exhibiting himself in vulgar fashion in front of “slave girls.” Michal’s anger burns. When David returns to the royal apartments, she confronts him, and his response reveals at least some of the dynamics at work:

“I was dancing to honor the LORD, who chose me instead of your father and his family to make me the leader of his people Israel. And I will go on dancing to honor the LORD, and will disgrace myself even more. You may think I am nothing, but those women will think highly of me!” (2 Samuel 6:21-22 GNB)

In the text, all of this is inseparably woven together: David’s praise of God, his self-centered struggle with Saul’s family for power and dominance, and his now twisted relationship with his wife. He had risked his life to win her and she had risked her life to save him. Now, somehow, love had become bitterness and hate. Yet God was present and at work for the good of Israel.

Did the authors of this text really mean for us to look at it as more than just a nice little tale about David dancing before the Lord? I think so. Some have claimed that the Bible’s stories about David have been invented to glorify the Israelite monarchy and validate its royal power. I wonder if those who make such claims have actually read the stories of David; he is very much a broken hero. It is impossible for me to believe that those who wrote the narrative of Joshua-Kings (sometimes called the “Former Prophets” and sometimes called the “Deuteronomistic History”) idealized the Davidic monarchy as the unalloyed Golden Age of Israel’s history. It seems to me that the authors proclaim God’s faithfulness, patience and power in spite of David’s character, not because of it.

This, then, is a story of grace. Even Israel’s greatest king had feet of clay. Even the one “after God’s own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14) was a fatally flawed and tragic hero. God blessed him – and his people – anyway. That would have been good news to the Jews of the late kingdom, the exile and later. The prophets had proclaimed their sinfulness. The story of David says that God’s steadfast love is greater than our sin. That calls for blowing the trumpet. That calls for serving up the fatted calf with a side of raisin cakes. That might even call for hiking up your robes and doing a little dance.