The Pinnacle of Success – 6/21/09 – 1 Samuel 17,18

A couple weeks ago Abbie and I watched a video online of a speech given by Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of the recent bestseller Eat, Pray, Love.  The subtitle of the book is “One woman’s search for everything across Italy, India, and Indonesian,”  with each country corresponding with one of these at times transcendent experiences of Eat, Pray, Love.  This is a book that Abbie has read and greatly enjoyed and one of the many on my ever-lengthening to-read list.

The surprising thing about the speech was that it was not about the book, per se, not retelling any of her stories or going more in depth with other things she experienced in her travels that didn’t make it into the book.  The speech was about her reflections on the possibility of this book, this best selling book with rave reviews, being the high point of her creative career, and some of her own fears and thoughts about what that might mean for the rest of her life.  As soon as the book became popular, she said, friends told her she was doomed.  Now, whenever she would write, she would be expected to come up with something just as, if not more brilliant.  She would always be in the shadow of this towering success, the person who wrote that Eat, Pray, Love book.  Which, she confessed, was a significant fear that she had.  She spoke briefly about writers and artists of the 20th century and how some of the most insightful and praised artists were those who also had psychological struggles, some taking their own life, and she raised the question as to whether the rigors and expectations for creative output were connected with this.  And so, in a very honest, straightforward, and at times humorous way, she laid out some of her own thoughts on this.  What if, as a person only in her late 30’s, she has already accomplished her greatest life work?  Could she be at peace with this?  Where does that leave her now, especially as she is getting ready to release her “much anticipated” next book?

(To see the video of this speech, click HERE)

As I was reading and studying the David and Goliath story this week, I couldn’t help but make some connections between that speech and this event in the life of the young David.  Surely, by any variety of standards one could use, this story, this feat of David, would have to be considered one of if not the high point of David’s legacy.  The story itself has all the elements of a classic.  There is the perfect villain, the unlikely child hero who also happens to be a poor peasant shepherd, suspense, the promise of the king’s daughter in marriage, the battle scene, and the triumph of good over evil.        

Gauging from how the story has endured over time, it has truly been successful.  If Jay Leno were to do his Jay-walking and ask people on the street to name a story about the life of David in the Bible, along with the no-doubt bizarre and ill-informed answers he would receive would also most likely be the common answer of David and Goliath.  This is a story whose influence has become firmly embedded in our culture.  We love to cheer for the underdog, the David, and when a sports contest features a dominant team highly favored to win over a less powerful team, sports commentators commonly refer to it as a match of David versus Goliath.  

One recent example of a public embrace of a David type figure was the rise of Susan Boyle, the small-town, middle aged, plain looking woman who entered the Britain’s Got Talent contest.  As she came out on stage, the audience and judges acted more out of the impulse of the Roman Gladiator scenario, with the judges rolling their eyes in mockery of her desire to be a successful singer and the audience smirking in anticipation of her getting tossed to the lions as soon as she would start to sing.  When she did sing, “I dreamed a dream” from the musical Les Miserable, suddenly the scenario shifted to something like David and Goliath.  The audience, and the judges, after one beautiful line of music from her mouth, almost instantly, began cheering in amazement for this newly found David who was conquering the Goliaths of ageism and judge-a-book-by-its-coverism.  Susan Boyle quickly became a You-Tube sensation and the hero of just about everybody who has heard her sing.  And, by the way, if you haven’t seen the YouTube video, it’s very much worth watching, to hear her great performance and also to reflect on this massive shift of spirit that took place when people recognized they were in the presence of beauty.  We love David.  We love Susan Boyle.  We love the underdog.  The whole scenario has captured our cultural imagination.  

  (To watch this video, click HERE)

Internal to the story itself, this is presented as a high point of success.  Things are looking very good for David after he defeats the menacing Goliath and he goes from an unknown small town nobody to a national hero.  Instantly he has the attention and the praise of the King himself, Saul, and Abner, the commander of the army.  David’s charisma proves to be magnetic and he gains a soul mate.  Right after speaking with the king after the battle in 1 Samuel 17, chapter 18 begins this way: “When David had finished speaking to Saul, the soul of Jonathan, the King’s son, was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.  Saul took David that day (into his service) and would not let him return to his father’s house.  Then Jonathan made a covenant with David, because he loved him as his own soul.  Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that he was wearing, and gave it to David, and his armor, and even his sword and his bow and his belt.  David went out and was successful wherever Saul sent him.” 

David’s celebrity status makes it difficult for him now to go through towns without being praised and drawing the attention of everyone.  Songs and poems are written about him.  When he would go through a town with the king and his army, the women would come out and sing “Saul has killed his thousands, and David his ten thousands.”  Saul had been the first king of Israel, chosen in part because he was a head taller than all the other men, a Goliath in his own right, but this event is part of his fall from power and David’s rise.  Chapter 18 ends by telling how one of the king’s daughter loved David and was given to him as a wife.  It then concludes by noting that in all the battles “David had more success than all the servants of Saul, so that his fame became very great.”  In the course of a short time, as a result of defeating Goliath the Philistine, David gains a soul-mate, is the subject of poetry and pop music praising his strength, is rising toward the throne of Israel, becomes married to a woman who loves him, and becomes famous.  

Can it get any better for David?  Has he reached the pinnacle of success?  Or, maybe more important of a question for us, is this how we are supposed to remember David?  Is this his main legacy?  Is this what is most important about his life that we are to admire or even seek to imitate?  Elizabeth Gilbert was that person who wrote that Eat, Pray, Love book.  Susan Boyle was the woman who wowed the UK and online world when she sang “I dreamed a dream,” and David was the unlikely hero who defeated Goliath.  

One of the remarkable aspects of the Bible is that it keeps telling the story.  Our culture may decide to drop Elizabeth Gilbert and Susan Boyle as ‘so 2009,’ but the biblical memory extends beyond this moment of fame.  Which is to say, it holds up as valuable, as important, as worth remembering, other aspects of David’s life. 

And this is important in a couple different ways.  For one, what we learn of David is not always pretty.  Murderer, adulterer, liar, disobedient to God.  There is no attempt to maintain a clean image of this supposed hero, or promote any kind of hero-worship. 

But there is another part of this that I find interesting.  By continuing to tell the story, by giving us these other events in David’s life, it allows us to ask the question of what really is important from this life of David.  What kind of legacy does he give us in our tradition?  How does our memory of him inform our understanding of a faithful life?

David and Goliath is a story of the weak being lifted up and the strong being humbled, a central feature of the God the Bible portrays, and a good value for any culture to have, but it’s also a story of great violence.  This is, after all, a battle scene, a story about killing, and a little more than just killing.  After David strikes the Philistine in the forehead with one of his stones out of his sling, we are told, “Then David ran and stood over the Philistine, he grasped his sword, drew it out of its sheath, and killed him; then he cut off his head with it.”  A little later we learn that David takes the head with him back to Jerusalem, a lovely trophy of war.  We could spiritualize the story and say it’s about defeating the giants of our life and overcoming the odds stacked against us, a fair interpretation in many ways, but the fact remains that this story, as it is told, is dripping with blood.  The severed head of one’s enemies is being held up as a triumphal sign of victory.  Is this is the high point of David’s life?

What I’d like to suggest is – maybe not.  There are other stories that we can hold up that offer us a different picture of success. 

One example happens not too long after this.  King Saul has become jealous of David’s fame and success and has already made a few attempts at David’s life. David has become a fugitive, with Saul and a large cohort of men pursuing him.  At one point, David is hiding out in the back of a cave, and Saul who is hot on his trail, chooses this particular cave to take a pit stop from the pursuits and relieve himself.  So there’s this pretty funny and ironic picture of David the fugitive in the back of the cave, looking out seeing his sworn enemy in a rather compromised position at the front of the cave.  What to do?  He could have believed that this was a case when God has delivering his enemy into his hands.  He doesn’t even need a sling and five stones.  All he has to do is come up and put a sword through the king.  Saul will never know what hit him and David will be the new king.  It would be David and Goliath, the sequel.  Instead, while Saul is there doing his thing, David sneaks up quietly and cuts off a piece of Saul’s garment that he’s placed to the side.  Saul gets done with his business, gets dressed, and leaves the cave.  And this is what happens told in 1 Samuel 24 – “Afterwards David also rose up and went out of the cave and called after Saul, ‘My lord the king!’  When Saul looked behind him, David bowed with his face to the ground, and did obeisance.  David said to Saul, ‘Why do you listen to the words of those who say, ‘David seeks to do you harm.’  This very day your eyes have seen how the Lord gave you into my hand in the cave; and some urged me to kill you, but I spared you.  See, my father, see the corner of your cloak in my hand; for by the fact that I cut off the corner of your cloak and did not kill you, you may know for certain that there is no wrong or treason in my hands.  I have not sinned against you, though you are hunting me to take my life.”  And then Saul responds.  “You are more righteous than I; for you have repaid me good, whereas I have repaid you evil.  For who has ever found an enemy, and sent the enemy safely away?” 

Whether David knew it or not, this could be a more important legacy than his defeat of Goliath.  Not a public act, but something done in the isolation of a cave.  It was in his power to take life, but instead he had mercy.  He becomes a peacemaker and uses his power for reconciliation rather than destruction. 

Unfortunately, this story of David’s life is not as well known.  It’s not even a part of our lectionary readings, which contain a wide swath of scripture that are read in a three year cycle.  Which means, that if one were just to stick to the script each week, we’d never hear this story in a worship setting.  I wonder what difference it would make if we started remembering this story.  If, when people now were asked to name a story from the life of David, they would first name the story of David and the Cave, or David’s act of reconciliation, or whatever it would come to be called.   

The New Testament doesn’t mention the story of David and Goliath.  As far as I can tell, Jesus recalls just one story from David’s life, when he draws from this same period when David was a fugitive on the run.  Being out of food, David stops in on a local priest, and asks for bread for him and his men.  The priest has nothing but the holy bread that was to be offered to God and was only for the priest to eat, but gives David this bread to eat.  Jesus tells this story to those who accuse him of wrongfully healing on the Sabbath, showing that the purpose of the holy things of life – the Sabbath, sacred bread, whatever, are for giving and restoring life, not withholding it.  So, according to Jesus, perhaps this was the pinnacle of David’s success.  An obscure instance when his companions are hungry, and he and a priest cross over the sacred boundaries of the culture in order to give food where it is needed.  In this way, Jesus does fit the title of Son of David, that so many called him.

Elizabeth Gilbert ends her talk by noting that as much as we would like to believe otherwise, we are not completely in control of the creative process that flows through us.  At certain points in our lives we get caught up, filled, moved into a writing or a project that wants to find fulfillment through us.  It’s impossible to know when such a movement will happen.  The best we can do is to remain open to it, and, as she says, to keep showing up everyday.  Judging by scripture’s standards of success, I’m not even sure that we will know in our lifetime what has been our greatest accomplishment, or if it even matters to try and keep track.  We show up everyday for the work we’ve been given, remain open to the Spirit, and see the ways we may be instruments of God’s peace in ways we do and don’t yet recognize.