As a child, I loved the story of David and Jonathan, even though for some reason, I identified with Jonathan (most likely because I have a brother of that name). David was one of the titanic figures of the Bible; warrior, king, and writer of psalms. But behind his façade of greatness, we clearly perceive a resolute, vulnerable, and dogged humanity.
My adult attachment to the story came first from the beautiful lament by Heinrich Schütz. “Fili mi Absalom” is one of those phrases of which I talk so much, that go round and round in my head during the night. I subsequently read the long passage on David in Josephus’ “Antiquities of the Jews” which opened my eyes to the betrayals and treacheries that lie behind the laments.
I remember as a small boy how David continually surprised me. I knew him first as the romantic slayer of Goliath, something appealing to a gosse. Then he was the shepherd boy chosen the King of Israel. But then to my shock, I learned that the anointed King was also an adulterer and a murderer. How difficult it was to reconcile this human weakness and contemptible behavior!
The very humanity that enabled David to kill Goliath and love Jonathan led him to covet another man’s wife and have her husband Uriah killed so that he might lie with her, have a child from that woman and when it died as an infant, refuse to grieve. After his affair with Bathsheba, his family was torn asunder. His eldest son raped his own half-sister and was in turn murdered by her brother, Absalom. The beloved son Absalom was forgiven by David, yet he subsequently betrayed his father and raised rebellion against him.
When forces loyal to David defeated the army of Absalom, Absalom fled into the Wood of Ephraim to escape. As the mule he was riding passed beneath a great oak, his hair got caught up in the branches. The mule ran on, leaving Absalom dangling by those beautiful long locks of hair that were praised throughout the Kingdom. Some of the men loyal to David discovered and killed him while he was suspended from the tree.
David waited eagerly at Mahanaim for news of the battle and when he saw the messenger coming toward him, he rejoiced in the knowledge of his victory. But when he learned of the death of Absalom, that joy turned into inconsolable grief.
“And the king was much moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept: and as he went, thus he said, O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!” (2 Samuel 18:33)
David lamented. He grieved over the death of Absalom as he had grieved over the deaths of Saul and Jonathan. “The beauty of Israel is slain upon thy high places: how are the mighty fallen!” (2 Samuel 1:19).
These lamentations run so deep that the sins of David pale in comparison. Can you imagine us today, how we would judge David if he stood in our midst? Would we recognize his humanity?
I have often wondered whether in the origins of humanity, song came first from joy or lamentation. When I hear a three-year old outside my window singing happily in his solitary play, it is tempting to believe that song originated from this impulse to joy. But when I hear lamentations and the keening of mourning in all cultures world-wide, I am more inclined to believe that the cry of the bereaved heart is the true source of song. Both joy and grief share an intensity that is far beyond the normal emotional or spiritual state in our lives, but joy is more ephemeral and grief longer-lasting. But it could be that the very ephemeral nature of joy makes it more worth marking with song.
Stephan Vitas wrote me a letter recently that caused me some reflection, about how Abbot Suger conceived of the Gothic in order to “… bring folks out of the darkness into something a bit more uplifting. Let them see hope and joy when they raise their heads heavenward, not angels fighting demons of the dark.” This explains in a way that I had not previously considered why historiated capitals are not part of the Gothic vocabulary in the same way that they are in the Romanesque.
This understanding perhaps echoes the thoughts of Angelico Surchamp, that “the Romanesque induces internal experience and reflection; Gothic induces external reflection. Gothic is the demonstration of the belief of spirituality while Romanesque is the experience of that belief.”
✚Note: Gordon Stewart’s sermon on “Holy Tears: David, Absalom … and Us” was the immediate inspiration for this post.✚