david, spirit, music

This past week B and I had S and S Jenvey as guests in our home. Of course many of you know them since S served as student minister here a number of years ago. They were back in town so S could attend the continuing education program at the Presbyterian College. A special part of their visit with us this week was the fact that S brought along one of her harps. On the first night that they stayed with us, S went up and played a lullaby on the harp for R and E as they were settling down to sleep. It’s a common part of the human experience, isn’t it – the lullaby. After a full day, to calm excited bodies, to sooth anxious minds, to settle the child down for the night, the lullaby brings everything down a notch or two. It was a wonderful gift for us this week to have the tones of the harp setting the bed-time mood in our home.

We all know this soothing function of music – this capacity of music to bring comfort – it’s not reserved for children or for bedtime. For many of us, in many contexts, I’m sure, music has had the capacity

to relieve our sadness

to dull our pain

to ease our fears.

The servants of King Saul can’t help but know his tormented nature – they can’t help but know his depression, his fears and anxieties. We don’t have time to look at it his morning, but part of the reason for Saul’s anxiety and emotional volatility, is his alienation from God. Saul has failed to follow the leading of God’s spirit, and as a result, God says, “Fine, have it your way, Saul.” And God withdraws his spirit from Saul – sending Saul into an emotional tailspin. But regardless of the exact cause of Saul’s anxiety and depression, his servants know of his distress and they say to themselves and to the king: “We need someone to come and play music. We need someone who can drive out your anxiety and depression – someone to lift your spirits.” They went looking, perhaps, for what we today might call music therapy.

Here again David is introduced into the narrative. “Saul, there is a young man named David. He is a strong warrior, a man of valor, someone of good presence, the Lord is with him.”

Oh the irony – that the young man invited into the royal court is the one who has received the spirit withdrawn from Saul. Oh the irony – that the young man invited into the royal court is the one who has been marked as successor to Saul. The one who will calm Saul’s heart, who will play soothing music, is in some sense a cause of the king’s stress and emotional darkness.

In 1991, a coalition of nations, led by the United States, deployed military forces to expel Iraqi forces from neigbhouring Kuwait. And you may recall that during the war Iraq launched a number of Skud missiles at Israel. Gas masks were issues to all Israeli citizens out of fear these missiles might be carrying chemical weapons.

One evening in February of 1991, during the war, Isaac Stern – the Ukrainian born violinist  – was giving a concert with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in Jerusalem. And early in the concert the air raid siren sounded, warning of a Skud missile attack. The orchestra left the stage, and the 800-member audience all put on gas masks, waiting anxiously for the threat to pass. Isaac Stern, along with conductor Zubin Mehta waited off in the wings with their own gas masks on. But after a moment, Isaac Stern decided that he should do something – and so he took off his gas mask, returned to the stage, and played a Bach saraband for solo violin. He wanted to announce both the triumph of music and to calm the audience – to relieve their anxiety.

1 Samuel 16:23  “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.”

David plays skillfully on the lyre – probably a ten-stringed harp or guitar-like instrument. We might wonder what kind of music David played for Saul. And our first reaction might be to think that David played light or joyful music to brighten Saul’s mood. But in fact, it is just as likely, perhaps more likely, that David played sad music, music that had a soulful, perhaps even mournful quality to it, in order to turn Saul’s mood around. Perhaps even something along the lines of Bach’s sariband.

Daniel Levitin is professor of psychology, neuroscience and music at McGill University and this week I was reading in his book: The world in six songs. In it he argues, among other things, that all music can be placed in one of six categories. And one of those six categories is what he calls comfort music.

Music that soothes us.

Music that comforts us.

Music that relieves our distress.

What struck me in his discussion of comfort music was his point that when we are depressed or sad – when we are feeling the heaviness of life – very often we don’t want to hear happy music. When you’re upset or anxious, often the last thing you want is to hear is some upbeat pop song, or even a light and cheerful classical composition.

Levitin points out that there are a number of possible reasons why we like to hear sad music – music that leans toward the melancholy – when we are sad. One of the reasons is neurochemical. Sometimes when we listen to sad music a specific hormone, prolactin, is produced that actually helps turn our mood from sadness toward comfort and peace.  So there’s a neurochemical reason we might listen to sad songs when we are sad.

He also suggests that when we listen to sad songs – songs that express sorrow or pain – we get the sense that someone is empathizing with us. Levitin quotes Cambridge music professor Ian Cross: When we listen to a sad song, “basically there are now two of us at the edge of the cliff. This person understands me. This person knows what I feel like.” When we are anxious or fearful or sad, we often will listen to music that reflects our mood, and it might just turn us around, because in listening to the music we have a sense that we are understood, and that we are not alone in that place of darkness or difficulty.

Music is vital to our identity as human beings. And Daniel Levitin gives us a small glimpse into the very complex and even mysterious relationship we have to music – a relationship that is, in truth, little understood. Yet, even though the precise contours of our relationship to music remains beyond our scientific and human understanding – at a more basic level we understand the relationship very well. Whatever the complexities of our relation to music, we understand, we ourselves have experience, the comfort that music provides.

1 Samuel 16:23  “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.”

Here we might try to push a little deeper in thinking about our relationship to music. We’ve said a lot about music in the human dimension. We’ve tried to say something about how music might touches us with comfort. But the question we push toward is the question whether there is a divine dimension to all of this – a spiritual dimension. It is perhaps the question whether David is just one human being offering soothing music for another human being. Is music, whether in its capacity to comfort or in some other dimension, is music just another aspect of our human reality, to be explained without reference to the God who creates us and redeems us in love?

The narrative of 1 Samuel, certainly presents David as a human being with his own particular strengths and weaknesses. But the narrative also pushes into the spiritual realm. The narrative reveals David as one upon whom the Spirit of God has been poured, even as the spirit is withdrawn from Saul for his refusal of God. As the prophet Samuel poured oil over the head of David to anoint him; as the oil ran down his hair and over his stubbly chin – the Spirit of God came upon him in a mighty way.

It is by the Spirit that David is gifted for his ultimate service as king. It is by the Spirit that David becomes one after God’s own heart. The presence of the spirit with David is expressed in various ways. For example, after he has been anointed as the new king, we could easily have imagined David grasping after the throne – trying to displace Saul in his own time, rather than in God’s time. Instead, David waits patiently for God to fulfill God’s own purposes. Later in the narrative, on at least two occasions, David in fact has a chance to kill Saul, but he doesn’t do it. On one of those occasions, David declares: “The Lord forbid that I should do this thing to my king, the Lord’s anointed, to raise my hand against Saul; for he is the Lord’s anointed.” David gives himself in the service of Saul, who for the moment remains God’s chosen king.

In the narrative, David is represented not merely as a particular, if remarkable, human being. Rather, he is portrayed as one upon whom God’s Spirit has come mightily, and one who is therefore able to walk in God’s way. As the Spirit of God moves in David’s heart and mind, David expresses genuine love and respect for Saul, and an unwillingness to betray the purposes of God. Coming to our theme for today we see that in his playing the lyre to soothe and comfort Saul, the narrative presents David as one who is filled by and moved by the spirit of God.  In a profound sense this is not just one human being offering soothing music for a distraught individual. It is that. It is one person offering comfort to another. But it is also much more. David is filled with the spirit, and by the spirit he offers himself and his gift of music in service to God and God’s servant Saul. By God’s spirit, David faithfully serves the king by soothing, comforting, and calming him with the ten-stringed lyre. From the perspective of our New Testament faith also, it is the Spirit who equips and strengthens us to serve one another, also to comfort one another with the gift of music.

We might push just one step deeper on this theme as we come to a conclusion this morning. Whenever we explore the realities of human life, we cannot help but recall that through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ the gift of new life is extended to our world. Through him our world was made, and through him our world find release from the spiritual alienation into which we had thrown ourselves. Like king Saul, humans have determined, time and again, that they don’t need God, that we can do it on our own thank you very much.  Yet this self-imposed spiritual alienation has always resulted in degrees of brokenness and fear and anxiety and grief. Yet God remains faithful, and in Jesus Christ comes to graciously and persistently – with healing.

Which brings us back to our theme, for our faith allows us to declare that to the extent that music provides us with

peace when we are anxious

or comfort, when we are trouble,

to this extent music is a sign and expression of the love of God in Christ.


To the extent that music provides us with

freedom when we are afraid,

or courage to go on when we are at a loss,

to this extent music is a sign and expression of the Spirit’s presence with us.

Music is not just a generic feature of human life. Neither is music mere evolutionary happenstance. It is the gift of God in Christ, for which we offer our gratitude and thanks. Through songs of comfort, through music that soothes and restores and calms, Jesus Christ comes to us by his spirit and says: Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.

Thanks be to God. Amen.


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