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Relevant Verses: 2 Samuel 11-12; Psalm 51

Leading Question: How much time should one take to ponder the seamy side of Scripture?

The title for this lesson could just as easily be “The Cost of Sin,” for the lesson encompasses David’s sin with Bathsheba and its aftermath. As told in 2 Samuel 11 and 12, it is lurid, painful, tragic.

Paired with this unhappy story is that great penitential Psalm, Psalm 51. But I would like for us ponder this sordid event in the light of the experience of a devout and passionate brother who displayed a thinly disguised distaste for the Old Testament. He insisted on taking Philippians 4:8 as his touchstone for everything biblical.

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

Question: Are some people more vulnerable than others to the racy parts of Scripture? Should we encourage them to overcome their prudishness? Or should we help them build a reading program that matches and requirements of Philippians 4:8?

Comment: The same question could be asked for those who don’t see themselves as being “blessed” by the melancholy parts of Scripture, especially the “lament” psalms. Most of lament psalms, after plumbing the depths, break out into the light. Psalm 22 (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me. . .”) does just that.

Yet others find the laments very helpful, even the grim ones that don’t break out into the light. Psalm 88 fits that mold. Church historian, Martin Marty, tells this wrenching story about his experience with his wife who was dying of cancer. It is found in the preface to his book, A Cry of Absence: Reflections for the Winter of the Heart (HarperCollins, 1993), xi-xii.

SHE: What happened to Psalm 88? Why did you skip it?

HE: I didn’t think you could take it tonight. I am not sure I could. No: I am sure I could not.

SHE: Please read it, for me.

HE: All right:

…I cry out in the night before thee…
For my soul is full of troubles…
Thou has put me in the depths of the Pit,
in the regions dark and deep…

SHE: I need that kind the most.

In that midnight exchange, though its author did not yet know it, this book A Cry of Absence, was beginning to be conceived. (See pp. 88ff)

In the little exchange above, “she” was Elsa, whom I married forty years before this second edition of a book occasioned by her illness (pp. 161-62) and after her death (p. 39), and who died a dozen years ago. I had agreed, through the seasons of her terminal illness, to take turns with her reading a biblical psalm at the time of each midnight taking of medication. The medicines were pain relievers, fighters against nausea, palliatives. Half the psalms were not.

I had agreed to read the even-numbered and she the odd-numbered psalms. But after a particularly wretched day’s bout that wracked her body and my soul, I did not feel up to reading Psalm 88. She noticed that. After the conversation I have recorded here, we continued to speak, slowly and quietly, in the bleakness [xi-xii] of midnight but in the warmth of each other’s presence and in awareness of the Presence.

We agreed that often the starkest scriptures were the most credible signals of the Presence and came in the worst times. When life gets down to basics, of course one wants the consoling words, the comforting sayings, the voices of hope preserved on printed pages. But they make sense only against the background of, and in interplay with, the dark words. Dark/light. Night/day. Winter/summer: yes, here was a “wintry sort of spirituality.” That phrase about winter by the Catholic theologian Karl Rahner came to mind and later got wedded to our midnight experiences.

After Elsa’s death a kind dean urged me to take a winter quarter off from teaching. I would rise at four in the morning, let the snow blow past the study window, and hear the sound, not of the classical music that usually accompanies my writing, but of the wind. Only the wind. One of my ways of “working through the experience” was to write. (pp. xi-xii)

The goal, mission, dream – call it what you will – for this book was to be as helpful as possible to people in their various pilgrimages without distracting them by telling someone else’s story. I knew that at our house during the bad days we had a hard time finding books that did not say “Cheer up!” or “All will be sunny, because God loves you, and so do the authors!” Books of despair, unmarked by the hope that I hope shines through by the end of this one, or books of easy solace, which is no solace on nights that call for the realism of Psalm 88, were the most recommended but always unwelcome suggestions to us.

The response to this book through the years has been revealing. I have published over forty books, and most of them have been reviewed [xiii/xiv] perhaps more frequently than they deserved; the files pile high and the archives bulge. But reviewed books by historians do not often elicit letters. A Cry of Absence evoked more letters than the other dozens did together.

Many of the letters came from people who knew me and knew the story of illness and death behind the book. Just as many did not, since they had the book recommended to them by friends and had no reason to know the name of a University of Chicago religious historian. Those who knew said, and even those who did not know sensed, that a death shadowed these pages. When they were reading it as an accompaniment and companion in their passage involving a death, they were empathic as they elaborated their responses.

More often, to my surprise, the absence of which they wrote (and write, still), was occasioned not by death, but by other experiences. Almost always they could be summarized under two words: “separation” or “alienation” (xiii-xiv).

One can take the same approach to “violent” biblical passages. I once had a student who was really angry with God. We met weekly in an attempt to help him find a meaningful experience. He would come into my office, seething with anger. When I asked him what parts of the Bible he was reading “devotionally,” he almost spat out the word: “Judges!”

So I urged him to lay Judges aside and read the Gospels instead. He agreed.

The next week he came my office, still in an angry mood. “What have you been reading?” I asked. “Judges!” came the angry reply.

I don’t recall making much program over the few weeks we met. He simply could not stop feeding his anger.

A remarkable quote from Ellen White is worth noting in connection with the questions discussed above:

Every association of life calls for the exercise of self-control, forbearance, and sympathy. We differ so widely in disposition, habits, education, that our ways of looking at things vary. We judge differently. Our understanding of truth, our ideas in regard to the conduct of life, are not in all respects the same. There are no two whose experience is alike in every particular. The trials of one are not the trials of another. The duties that one finds light are to another most difficult and perplexing.

So frail, so ignorant, so liable to misconception is human nature, that each should be careful in the estimate he places upon another. We little know the bearing of our acts upon the experience of others. What we do or say may seem to us of little moment, when, could our eyes be opened, we should see that upon it depended the most important results for good or for evil. – Ministry of Healing, 483 (1905)

Question: In light of our above discussion, how should we direct the discussion of the story of David and Bathsheba?

Comment: There is at least one other reason for avoiding the discussion of the story of David and Bathsheba, a reason reflected in Chronicles, the last book in the Hebrew Bible. Samuel/Kings was most likely written shortly after Judah when into Exile in 587/586. The author’s intention was to show how even Israel’s best kings (e.g. David and Solomon) were moral basket cases. Samuel/Kings lay out all the unhappy events that followed in David’s life as a result of the collapse of his moral standards.

But by the time the Chronicler was writing, the ethos in the exilic community had radically changed. The people had apparently taken the message of Samuel/Kings to heart and as a result were deeply depressed. So Chronicles repeats much of the history of Judah, but in a thoroughly revised version: the author leaves out as much of the dirt and grime of Israel’s great kings. Chronicles doesn’t mention a squeak about David and Bathsheba – not one word.

Is that justified. Why not? If the point has already been made, let’s change the subject. In short, all of our reading of Scripture should guided by our search for helpful soul food. If your malaria has been cured, you don’t need to take quinine any more.

Shifting Our Focus to Psalm 51

The other element in our lesson is Psalm 51, a favorite penitential psalm, and one that has been linked with the David/Bathsheba narrative via the title or superscription. Certainly the official study guide assumes that it reflects David’s experience. We shall return to the issue, but first some more technical background information relative to the titles,

Psalm titles: either unclear or later additions

“It is perhaps no exaggeration to say that where their meaning is clear, we have reason to doubt their reliability, and that where they might provide us with valuable data about the history and use of various pss., their interpretation is debated or obscure. Those which are straightforward but unreliable are the historical notices which assign individual pss. to particular occasions…. The remainder seem to indicate the authors or origin of the pss., their character, the tunes or musical instruments appropriate to them, and the cultic actions for which some pss. were intended. But there is so much uncertainty about the interpretation of most of these terms that even a general classification can be offered only with considerable reserve.” — G. W. Anderson, “The Psalms,” Peake’s Commentary on the Bible (rev. ed., 1962), p. 409.

A. A separate textual history (from the psalm text itself). Original NEB excluded titles; but cf. 2 Sam. 22:1 (part of the Hebrew text) and Ps. 18:1 (separate from the text). Note that in the MT (= Masoretic Text) 34 of the psalms are “orphans” without titles; the LXX (= Septuagint [Gr. OT]) gives additional information for 18 of these (cf. also the use of the word Selah: 71 times in MT [plus 3x in Hab.] almost all in Books I-III, but 92 times in LXX).

B. Titles and names for God loosely linked to organization. Book I, for example is both Davidic (“of David” in titles) and Yahwistic (uses Yahweh, not Elohim). Except for 1 (preface to the Psalter?), 2 (Davidic psalm that lost its title?), and 33 (later addition?), book I is thus a Yahwistic Davidic collection (2-32, 34-41 = “of David”). The Elohistic collection (42-83) is followed by an appendix of Yahwistic psalms (84-89). NB: Some psalms are duplicates except for the name of God: 14Y = 53E; 40:13-17Y = 70E.

C. Names in titles may indicate collections rather than authorship. Some Ugaritic psalms are “of Baal”; Ps. 72 is “of Solomon” but is one of the “prayers of David” (72:20).

Question: Why is it important that we “know” whether or not David wrote the psalm?

Comment: Probably for most people it would be a matter of indifference. But if the Davidic authorship is linked with the truthfulness or helpfulness of the psalm, one could be in for a rude awakening! For the end of the Psalm clearly indicates the psalm in its present form is post-exilic, i.e after 586 CE.

Just as secular tunes can be “baptized” into sacred hymns, so psalms from one setting can be transplanted into another setting. One of the best modern examples of this process was in the celebration of the fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989. Leonard Bernstein’s legendary live recording of Beethoven’s Ode To Freedom (Symphony No. 9) captured not only the elation of the moment but conveyed a celebration of and a longing for freedom which extended far beyond the occasion. Von Schiller’s original lyric, “Ode to Joy (Freude),” was transformed by Bernstein’s into “Ode to Freedom (Freiheit).”

Note the striking contrast between Psalm 51:16-17 and the last two verses:

16 For you have no delight in sacrifice;
if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.
17 The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

18 Do good to Zion in your good pleasure;
rebuild the walls of Jerusalem,
19 then you will delight in right sacrifices,
in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings;
then bulls will be offered on your altar.

The new “form” reflected the hope that God would rebuild Jerusalem. Then sacrifices would again be offered in Jerusalem. The original psalm had declared that God did not want animal sacrifices, but the sacrifice of “broken spirit,” a “broken and contrite heart.”

That’s the part that really applies to David. “Create in me a clean heart, O God” declared the psalmist. That’s what the Lord longed for from David.

Question: Can this information about Psalm 51 be made beneficial? Or is it sometimes destructive?

Comment: The more general nature of Psalm 51 helps explain its value in worship setting. There is not a single explicit reference to David’s sin in the psalm itself. That makes the psalm very useful in a congregational setting. One doesn’t have to be an adulterer to be blessed by Psalm 51.

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