The Existential Psalms



A retelling of the story of David and how he became King of Israel

David had been secretly anointed by the old prophet Samuel to be the future king of Israel because Saul, Israel’s first king, although militarily successful had failed to pay proper attention to his religious role.

David then entered Saul’s service but Saul quickly came to distrust the young upstart when his success and popularity exceeded that of the aging warlord’s. Under the strain of the kingship Saul became increasingly unstable and began to make violent threats on David’s life. With the help of Saul’s son Jonathan, who had become his bosom friend, David managed to escape before Saul’s murderous intentions could bear full fruit.

As he escapes he travels to the priest Ahimelech at Nob. Without revealing his status as a fugitive from Saul David manipulates Ahimelech into helping him, even though Ahimelech suspects something is wrong. Tragically for Ahimelech a spy of Saul’s sees what happens and when he informs Saul, Saul has all the inhabitants of Nob slaughtered.

The guilt clings to me
“I am responsible”
These words gag my heart.
They are true
I did not do the deed.
He, my Lord, he commanded it
And I am trapped in his blood-lust
His hatred of me
Snared me in a double cage
Of his violence and my guilt ...

For it was me:
The honeyed words,
The clever tongue,
The blithe reassurance
Were the daggers of their doom
As surely as if I had drunk their blood myself.

O! I am sated with blood already
And the struggle has just begun
I am henceforth a man of blood
Guilt clings to me even in the sanctum of my righteousness
Each step is bloody
Each act deadly
But this is God’s anointed path. I must walk in it.

David escapes into the wilderness and gathers a band of outlaws and desperados around him. With this band of men David saves the Israelite town of Keliah from a rampaging Philistine warband. However, through a religious divination, David comes to believe that the inhabitants will hand him over to Saul who has gathered a task force to hunt down David. David escapes into the hill-country and evades capture when Saul is called away to repulse another Philistine incursion.

Love God.
Love God's people
and those you save will betray you like a gutter thief

I follow the way of blood-guiltiness
The way of God's ephod
And I reap a strange righteousness:
No peace, no loyal kindness ... betrayal is my blessing

Yet you keep me safe
Here in this wilderness the lumbering divisions of my enemy will not find me.
The armies fat with royal favour
Cannot catch the twinkle-steps
Of men made sly
By the desperation of lives
Pick-pocketed from death.

O God what righteousness is this?
What anointing ...?
Slick weasels
Half dead in the wilderness ...
But more alive than any palace fat cat could even dream:
Whole lives bound in a taut struggle
Where life
And life alone
Is each day’s prize

David becomes ever more skilled in evading Saul’s task force and by chance has the opportunity to kill Saul but he declines because of his respect for the king’s quasi-religious status as the Lord’s anointed. Saul is moved by this act of devotion and leaves off his pursuit. In the meantime Samuel dies and is mourned by all Israel.

I did you no harm
and yet I have harmed you
You know it well
My life is an insult to you;
I have stolen from you your family
Even Jonathan is not your son but mine
And the memory of you shall be but a shadow of mine
I am great and you are small
Even my acts of kindness only add to your guilt
and my love is but the candle to your hate.

O! Saul your guilt is my guilt.
And my guilt, your guilt
We are forever anointed as one King
Now the old man is dead
And there is no mediator for our anger
Nothing can undo
What he made in the furnace of Israel's fears
A king must be made
And it will mean blood for us all.

In the respite David won by sparing Saul’s life he established himself in the marginal wilderness land of Israel. In this frontier land David is slighted the wealthy and ill tempered ill-tempered man called Nabal, in vengeful wrath David moves to massacre Nabal and his household. but Nabal’s wife, Abigail, on hearing of this, acts decisively to placate David with lavish gifts of food and wine. David is impressed by Abigail and thankful that he was saved from a brutal act which would have damaged his reputation. Within the month Nabal dies of natural causes and David sends a proposal of marriage to Abigail which she swiftly accepts.

Your hands Abigail, daughter of wisdom
Wash my feet
But it is not my feet you wash but my heart
You wash my heart of the blood stain.

Without you my feet stumbled to death's tune;
Before your coming
I was the fool, lost to vengeance
Staggering under the burden of my hate.

Saul was still my King
And the torments of his soul still my master
But your voice is the lyre to my madness
And you, you have become my Queen!

So on my wedding day dance! Dance one and all!
Forget the paths of war and the coils of guilt
Let a woman's love wash me this day
And her hands guide gentle to a different way...

Saul’s vengeful hatreds, however, are undiminished and on receiving information concerning David’s whereabouts forms another task force to hunt him down. David is well prepared by now and again turns the tables on Saul by slipping into his camp by night and removing the king’s spear and water jar. David once more challenges Saul with his steadfast devotion to the king’s royal person. Saul is again moved and repents of his obsessive pursuit of David but David still doesn’t trust Saul’s unstable nature and decides to leave Israel and try his luck with the Philistines.

Can I trust him?
No David, you know his heart
His words, his tears, his loud lament -
You know the devil in his soul
The demons and the dark fiends which whisper in his heart.
No skin-stretched smile changes the man within.

Then why that stunt?
Why dangling your neck in the lion's grin?
Yes, fine words you can speak
'Lord's anointed' 'Guiltless' 'Righteousness'
But do they mean more than his empty mouthings?
I only drive him deeper into his madness
Conjure more demons in his soul
Smear his guilt deeper into every furrow of his brow
... and see, see! what guilt bloodies my 'guiltless' hands.

I am David. Pure and guiltless!
I will run to the house of my enemy
For I am sick of the squalor of my house
I will walk another tightrope
Dance another jig
Long for the time
When I walk free into the temple of my God
Redeemed by simple grace and not my conjured tricks.

David manages to win the confidence of Achish - king of a Philistine city, by pretending to raid Israelite settlements. This, however, leads David into a further crisis as Achish asks him to fight with him in a major campaign against Israel. This would ruin David’s credibility with the Israelites but he has no alternative as Achish’s vassal. Fortunately Achish’s commanders still don’t trust David so he is sent home only to discover that his settlement, Ziklag, has been raided by Amalekite freebooters. David gives chase and overhauls the raiders and in the process nets a considerable amount of booty which he distributes to his Judean allies in Israel.

I do not know how it happened.
I am the master of all that surrounds me
And a few short days past
We wept in the midst of carnage and despair
And crept anxious through the divisions of our enemy.
Now I am the benefactor,
The blessed one,
The anointed one of God
Abigail warms me, Ahinoam comforts me
And all rests at peace.

All rests at peace
Except the hidden centre of my heart
The mouth smiles and blesses
But the soul trembles in its fragility

I had no plan in the midst of Achish’s armies
The Philistines with their iron swords
Make the heart of any Israelite tremble
It was only the strange confluence
Of Achish’s paternal pride in an enemy turned
And his princes’ more careful jealousies
That saved me.
The luck still frightens me - for it can as easy
Turn and trip itself as land me safe and clear
 ... and Ziklag, I remember Ziklag. Empty and burnt. My home
I cannot forget
The back turned
And all that makes my life and succours it is gone
Ransacked in revenge for my violence schemes.
O I am strong
I claim back what God has granted me
I have faith. I have belief. The ability to win and go on winning
But for how long O God will luck and strength be the angels on my back
To guard what I do not foresee.

Something still lurks
These are not wars
They are but skirmishes ...
The war is in my heart
And I know not yet if I can win it.

Saul is increasingly desperate after the death of Samuel and the Philistine invasion overwhelms him with anxiety. In his desperation he consults an occult medium but only receives a prophecy of defeat and disaster from a ghostly apparition of Samuel.

In due course Saul is routed by the Philistines. Saul kills himself and his son Jonathan is also killed. David moves swiftly to claim the crown (which he duly achieves after a lengthy struggle) but is distraught over the death of Jonathan.

Saul is dead?
No, not yet
But my dream ... yes, my dream is dead
For Jonathan you have forsaken me
And I am left help-less

I will mourn for Saul
I cannot but mourn for the Lord’s anointed King
But for him I spill only water tears
The tears in my heart, for Jonathan,
Are tears of blood.

O my one true friend!
O the companion of my heart!
We were forged in the one furnace
To be the sword and shield of Israel
But now your strong covering has gone
And I feel naked on this tear-swept field ...

Saul is not dead
His hand lives in Abner
And Ishbaal is his puppet ...
But what if you, Jonathan
Had not died?
Would you have been the glove
For the long hand of Saul?
Could our friendship have lasted on the cusp of that question?
How long could you have taken the blows
And not yearned for the glory of the sword?

Saul is dead,
My sorrow dazzled me,
For despite the wail of battle the war is over ...
But Jonathan is dead
And my dreams are dead.

All that is left is the dry road of my destiny.

David gradually establishes his position and turns Israel into a regional power. Part of this process is the capture of Jerusalem which he makes his capital. This involves the removal of the Ark of the Covenant to the city and culminates in a great procession which David leads, dancing in his linen undergarment, as an expression of his religious devotion to the God of Israel. This behaviour, however, irritates Michal who, as a daughter of Saul, was attracted to David and so persuaded her father to give her to him as his first wife.

Michal would you still speak Saul’s words,
Speak even still from the shadows of his soul?

Am I still not Goliath-slayer
Even though my sling felled him?
Am I still not the poet of God’s choosing
Even though my songs make creation sing?
Am I still not the Lord’s anointed
Even though by the same hand we were blessed?

Would you still entangle me in the guilt of Ahimelech?
Have I not, at every crossing, taken the good path?
Was not Nabal, the fool, spared?
And Ishbosheth and Abner: I did not slay them.
Abner’s blood has not touched me
Joab takes all the blame!
And Saul - your own father, I could have slain him,
My sword was on his neck
I could have orphaned you!

But these things you will not remember
Only scoff at my sacrifice to God
Must I not dance?
Dance! Fling restraint to the four corners of God’s world?
The burdens. They entwine me
And guilt beguiles me
Doubts stalk me
Must I not dance and fling my burdens off!
Swirl and send them flying!?

No Michal. I will taste your scented flesh no more
Henceforth I fast from the wine of your navel
You shall be as childless as Saul has become
And I shall be David: free and abundant
And I shall be David: free and abundant God’s anointed one!

David continued to extend his power and ruled justly over his growing kingdom but he also, at times, departed from the path of righteousness.

One day he saw the young wife of one of his soldiers bathing on the roof of her house and arranged for her to be brought to the palace so that he could have sex with her. This resulted in her becoming pregnant. David sought to cover up his sin by bringing her husband back from the front but he, following the military code of honour, refused to enjoy the comforts of his house. David therefore arranged for him to be left exposed and killed back at the front. This was not the end of the story, however, as the prophet Nathan, confronted David with his complicity and prophesied disaster for David. David’s repentance is accepted but the baby dies and soon afterwards events are set in train which lead to a serious rebellion by one of David’s sons.

Michal. Your love I remember.
Bought of a hundred foreskins
You nearly devoured me
Before you had encompassed me.

Ahinoam your loveliness
Is ever with me. The young girl
Who seemed to me sweeter
Than the ripeness of the stolen cherry.

And Abigail. My wife.
Stronger than any man. Wiser than any proverb
If I should ever have had one wife
You were she: beauty and sense perfectly entwined.

And ... and ... Bathsheba ...
You are all of my wives
Dangerous as Michal
Sweet as Ahinoam
And like Abigail, the wife of another man.
But Abigail was strong
You fell soft, like fallen fruit, into my lips
... falling ... falling ... into the favours of your King.

Now I have you
And I cannot resist you yet.
The fruit of your womb is as sweet to me
As the planting of it;
But it will be to me nothing but violence,
As Nathan has decreed,
Violence to all my family ...

What an anointing is this Kingship
To bear this power. This Omnipotent Hegemony.
This Divine Seal so that my whim is not ... whimsical
But the very seal of Divine Authority.
So that this woman, is not the unreachable perfection,
But the attainable flesh: soft and yielding.
What man could live with this.

Now I see only violence.
My heart is pure:
It has been refined on the edge of death,
Sanctified in desperation
But you, Solomon,
What hope have you - born in this cradle of comfort;

Born to power and the exercise of it?
Beloved that you are of God and the King
It will not help you.
Samuel was right.
The tragedy was not Saul but the Kingship
Nothing can come of this
A man cannot be God.

A different King is needed, a new anointing,
Only this will save my legacy.