David speaks – from the wilderness

O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.

My life has been full – there have been moments of joy and fulfillment. I can think of moments in my life that I wouldn’t trade for anything in the world. I can think of moments when all the shadows seemed to be banished. There was that beautiful moment when the prophet Samuel plucked me out of obscurity, anointing me with oil – marking me as king. Some days I can still feel the oil poured over my head – some days the smell of the oil still fills my nostrils. It was such a dramatic and hopeful moment.

I think back also to my friendship with Jonathan – what a gift he was to me – what a gift his friendship was. He challenged me, he encouraged me, he helped me. We experienced very real happiness together.

I also think back to my early years as king, when the people were united with me – when we successfully defended the land against the Philistines who tried to drive us out. There was joy, glory, victory.

Those moments in my life  – when all the shadows seemed to be banished – I wouldn’t trade them for anything.

But now all of it seems a world away. Now those moments of delight and goodness – they seem like they belong to another lifetime.

O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.

What has happened to me? What has happened to my family? I almost cannot tell you of the horrible event that started it all. Some years ago, now, my son Amnon violated, raped his half-sister Tamar. It was such a repulsive thing that Amnon did – bringing shame and pain to Tamar. I was so angry, so distressed at what he had done – but at the same time I didn’t punish Amnon. He was my eldest son, my favoured son. I see clearly now it was a tremendous failure not to have acted – not to have punished or disciplined Amnon. Indeed, in the absence of clear action on my part, another of my sons, Absalom, Tamar’s full brother – he took things into his hands. Moving the cycle of violence one round forward, Absalom avenged his sister’s death by killing Amnon.

For his crime, for his sin, for his violence, I banished Absalom from Jerusalem for more than three years. He had no right to take things into his hands – no right to kill his brother. For three years Absalom was banished from Jerusalem. And when I finally allowed Absalom to return – when I finally extended an olive branch to him, what did he do? He took advantage of my graciousness. He set himself up in Jerusalem, and began to win the favour of the people. He began to gather supporters and warriors around himself. And when the momentum was in his favour, he set himself up as a rival king to myself.

So here I am now. I have escaped from Jerusalem, on very short notice, with my closest advisers and supporters – we have escaped into the wilderness in order to regroup and strategize. In Jerusalem we were vulnerable to Absalom’s attack, and so we wandering in the wilderness – trying to see if there’s any way we can defend my kingship. Here I am in the wilderness – the trappings of glory and power very nearly stripped from me.

A recent incident sticks out in my mind and will give you a sense of how far I have fallen. Surrounded by advisors and soldiers, I was travelling near a place called Behurim. And as we walked along, a man named Shimei appeared on the hillside next to us. And from the hillside he began to throw stones and dirt at me. He shouted out that I was under a curse from God. It wouldn’t surprise me if it were true. It wouldn’t surprise me if I were under some kind of curse from God. One of the soldiers alongside me wanted to go and kill Shimei for his insults, but I told him not to. Perhaps Shimei speaks God’s word – perhaps God has abandoned me. I certainly know my own brokenness and sin.

O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.

You may wonder why God is at the centre of my thoughts in this moment. Is it just a bunch of pious nonsense? Is it just irrelevant religious talk? This is the real world after all – wouldn’t it be better to preoccupy myself with political and military realities in this moment. Shouldn’t I be putting all of my energy and thoughts and effort into the campaign to defeat my upstart son Absalom, rather than offering pious sentiments about my desire for God?

Well of course I have not forgotten the political and military questions. In fact, I’m here in the wilderness precisely because I want to retain my throne and to continue ruling from Jerusalem – we’re here to regroup and strategize.

But if that’s all I focus on in this moment – if all I focus on are the political and strategic and military questions – I would feel less than human. If that’s all I focus on, I also won’t be true to myself. You see, I have encountered God. I know in a deeply personal way, in a powerful way, what it is to be touched by the hand of God. So significant have my encounters with God been that I would go so far as to say that knowing God, and knowing God’s love, is more important than life itself. God is love. God is life. God is hope. God is joy. To know God is not something – it is everything.

O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you. I will lift up my hands and call on your name.

I don’t call on God simply because Absalom is trying to kill me. I don’t call on God only because family life has disintegrated around me. I don’t call on God simply because I feel power slipping from my hands. I call on God because my experience of God’s Spirit, my encounters with God, have been more real and more beautiful than anything else I have ever experienced. It may sound meaningless and pious to some – some might wonder how someone as messed up as I am can possibly have encountered God – but I have. And it means more to me than life.

O God, you are my God, I seek you; my soul thirsts for you as in a dry and weary land where there is no water… Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you. I will lift up my hands and call on your name.

Now the truth is that I am not utterly alone here in the wilderness. As you’ve heard, I am surrounded by supporters, advisors, and family members. There are people watching out for me. Just a few days ago, when we came to a place called Maha-naim, three local men of social standing came and provided much needed resources for us: Shobison and Machir and Barzillai – they came with beds, basins, and earthen vessels – they came with wheat, barley, meal, parched grain, beans and lentils – they came with honey and curds, with sheep and cheese from the herd. We were all so exhausted and hungry from our wilderness wanderings – we were all so exhausted and hungry, these gifts came to us as almost a miracle.

God has not abandoned me. God’s provision has come to me in the most concrete form – friends come bearing gifts in their arms. You probably know what that’s like. Meat to eat when I was running out of energy. The sweetness of honey to enrich body and soul. Bread – fresh bread when all that had remained were a few stale crusts. It is something remarkable to go to sleep at night with a full belly when you have been so hungry, and when you thought it would be another evening of the strictest rations.

I hope I don’t sound ungrateful, though, when I say that even this food and friendship isn’t the most important thing for me. Yes, the wilderness is a place where my physical needs have become urgent – and yes, God has met those physical needs in the very real form of food and friendship. I have received them from God with much gratitude.

But there is also a place of spiritual isolation from God I experience – a spiritual wilderness. Such a place is often more difficult and troubling than any physical wilderness. You can have all the food in the world laid out before you, and still feel utterly empty inside. You can be surrounded by the greatest company of friends, and still feel isolated, alone, and lost. I know – I’ve been there. On the flip side of that coin, it is possible, like me in this moment, to have next to nothing in terms of food or shelter or friendship – it is possible to have next to nothing in terms of the comforts of life – and yet in that moment to have a deep encounter with God – one that gives life meaning.

My life has taught me that the answer to spiritual darkness does not lie primarily in external factors. The answer to the loneliness and guilt and fear lies primarily in encounter with God – the answer to spiritual darkness lies in seeing that God is present – in knowing that God’s spirit is upon me. That God is near.

My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast, and my mouth praises God with joyful lips when I think of God on my bed, and meditate on God in the watches of the night; for God has been my help, and in the shadow of God’s wings I sing for joy.

In the watches of the night. That is often when the spiritual darkness is at its worst – when the emptiness and loneliness of life can strike most powerfully. But in the middle of that darkness, I can attest, there is the possibility of joy and satisfaction. Some will think it just more pious talk to suggest that we should lay on our beds thinking about God in the middle of the night. But I have been there – and it is an enriching and renewing experience – in the middle of the night to meditate on, to dwell on, the reality of God’s love. And in meditating on God, in dwelling on the truth of God’s love – to know God’s presence – and be satisfied.

But of course my words won’t mean much to you, even if I speak to you from my own spiritual wilderness. You are in the middle of your own life – you have your own moments of anxiety or fear in the night. All I can do is speak to you from my experience. All I can do is offer a hopeful reminder: The God of Israel – the God who creates us and our world – the God who is goodness and truth – that God is near. In the midst of your own dark night – your own spiritual isolation – reach out to the God who is there, the God who is love. Perhaps my experience will become your experience.

Let me finish up this morning by acknowledging this morning that you’ve probably heard enough about me in recent weeks to know that my life has been a mixed bag. The fact that I am here in the wilderness today probably owes as much to my own failures in life as it owes to anything else. My own failures in life, with my family and relationships – those failures probably have as much to my presence in the wilderness today as anything else. It may be, as I have said, that Shimei, in cursing me, has spoken God’s own word.

But I will not lose hope. You’ll remember that I said to the soldier who wanted to go and kill Shimei for cursing and throwing rocks and dirt at me: “Let him alone and let him curse; for the Lord has bidden him. It may be that the Lord will look on my distress, and the Lord will repay me with good for this cursing of me today.”

Even in the ambiguity and messiness of my life – even if I deserve judgment – I hold on to my hope – and not only to my hope. I hang on to God. In the midst of my spiritual wilderness, I can do no other than reach out to the God I have encountered in the past – the God who is more real than the darkness I experience – the God whose love is better than life itself.

My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast, and my mouth praises God with joyful lips when I think of God on my bed, and meditate on God in the watches of the night; for God has been my help, and in the shadow of God’s wings I sing for joy. My soul clings to God; God’s right hand upholds me.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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