When you take the time to study not so much the reign of David but David himself you come to see how, when it came to family relationships he was an abject failure. But it is no wonder given what we know of his relationship with his own parents. Midrash mythology has offered various theories about David’s childhood. In the text there is no mention at all of his mother and being the youngest and least important son of Jesse’s family the only evidence of any relationship with his father was his ordering David to enter a field of battle to take food to of his older three brothers. Most scholars agree that David penned this psalm during a rebellion against him that was fueled by his twisted relationship with his son Absalom.
David had a number of sons, four of whom became conspicuous in the history of Israel, Amnon, Absalom, Adoniah, and of course Solomon. David’s first-born and presumed heir to the throne was Amnon. We are told in 2 Samuel 13 that David also had a beautiful daughter, Tamar, by another of his wives. Amnon became obsessed with his half sister to the point of being physically ill. Guilefully he convinced the King to have Tamar come to his bedroom ostensibly to feed him in his illness. He raped her. Her full brother, David’s son Absalom, was beside himself with rage. And David refused to acknowledge the crime. Absalom smouldered for two years, waiting for his father to do something. When it came time to shear the sheep, Absalom invited all his brothers to a feast on the frontier. On a predetermined signal from Absolom his servants slaughtered Amnon. Fearing punishment Absalom fled to his mother’s family in Geshur. For five years David, unable to forgive Absalom, would not see him. Absalom grew to hate his father.
Absalom considered himself heir to the throne given that Amnon, the first born son, was dead. Secretly he planned an insurrection. With 200 men he launched his revolt in Hebron and the people there joined him.
When word of this reached David he was crushed. Instead of going on the defensive, with his entire household, servants, and followers, David abandoned the strong hold of Jerusalem. Mourning, weeping and barefoot, with his mantle drawn over his head he walked up Mount Olivet. His whole following, hiding their weeping faces, did the same. When David learned that his chief counselor Ahitophel had joined Absalom and gave the rebellion the weight of his name and experience his sorrow and despondency found new depths.
As David continued his retreat from Jerusalem many he thought to be his allies lied to him, street people threw stones and insults at him. Meanwhile his son Absalom and his growing army were welcomed into Jerusalem. Of course, if you read further you will learn the rest of the story and how it all turns out — but for now, this is where we find David as he writes this 143rd psalm. The enemies who have prevailed against are actually led by his own flesh and blood. And those in whom he had placed his greatest trust, the people for whom he had been champion, had joined ranks against him. David knew full well that he had been wrong in not having dealt with Amnon’s violation of his Tamar. He knew that his five year refusal to reconcile with Absalom meant that he had no claim to be found just in God’s sight. Knowing that he had no worthiness of his own on which to rely he turns to God’s compassion. Now listen to David as he prays.
1Hear my prayer, O Lord; give ear to my supplications in your faithfulness; answer me in your righteousness.
2Do not enter into judgment with your servant, for no one living is righteous before you.
3For the enemy has pursued me, crushing my life to the ground, making me sit in darkness like those long dead.
4Therefore my spirit faints within me; my heart within me is appalled.
5I remember the days of old, I think about all your deeds, I meditate on the works of your hands.
6I stretch out my hands to you; my soul thirsts for you like a parched land. Selah
7Answer me quickly, O Lord; my spirit fails. Do not hide your face from me, or I shall be like those who go down to the Pit.
8Let me hear of your steadfast love in the morning, for in you I put my trust. Teach me the way I should go, for to you I lift up my soul.
9Save me, O Lord, from my enemies; I have fled to you for refuge.
10Teach me to do your will, for you are my God. Let your good spirit lead me on a level path.
11For your name’s sake, O Lord, preserve my life. In your righteousness bring me out of trouble.
12In your steadfast love cut off my enemies, and destroy all my adversaries, for I am your servant.
Mature spirituality requires a good memory. The prophets of the Old Testament were forever admonishing the people to “remember” the merciful deeds of the Lord. Sacred Scripture became the corporate memory of the Jewish people. Relying on Scripture gave them the assurance that, despite their feeble day-to-day memories, they would never forget the goodness of God. For them, the story of God’s dealings with Israel, their salvation history, is less a record of what God did and more a portrait of who God is. David’s soul is parched but he remembers God’s promise, spoken through Isaiah, to make parched land flourish and deserts to become like gardens. He recalls how God is characterized in the story of the Moses receiving the Ten Commandments that we read in Exodus 34:6 “a God of loving-kindness and mercy … extending compassion … forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin.” It is this God that David remembers in his despondency and it is to this God that David turns.
In the eighth verse of Psalm 143 we find the simple phrase “Let me hear of your steadfast love in the morning,…” In the Hebrew the Rabbis could see that it could mean several things. It could simply mean ‘Let me hear of your steadfast love soon’. It could mean “Let me hear of your steadfast love each morning’. “In the morning could also be translated ‘when the troubles have run their course’. But best, at least to my mind, was the sense that it is a period of darkness, a night time of the soul, which prepares us to hear of God’s steadfast love.
David’s prayer is blunt and refreshingly human. “Rescue me,” he prays. Don’t let me fall into the pit of depression; “put an end to my foes,” he pleads, “for I am your servant.” The psalm actually begins and ends with that idea “I am your servant.” David believes that one who has the status of God’s faithful servant, one who serves God loyally and devotedly, can expect God to come to his assistance for a master is required to protect his servant. Knowing his place in his relationship with God, knowing that as a servant he belongs to God apparently gives him the right to ask for God’s protection; to cling to God, and hide within God robes. The challenge to David is whether he can truly claim such status. Can we too expect the Lord, like a good big brother, to go out and dispatch the bullies who threaten us?
David acknowledges that: “My misfortune flows from my sin; so forgive me, Lord, and deliver me from this distress”. It is a simple formula that has never been annulled: we, too, can—in fact we must—turn unashamedly to God and say, ”I am your unworthy servant, O God, but in your goodness save me; save me from my sins and from the malice of my foes.” David wants to do better and he seeks the guidance of God’s Spirit. He prays “Show me the path I should walk” and “Teach me to do your will…”.
This isn’t the first time David prays such a prayer. You find it as well in Psalm 7 and 24, 25 and others. Show me the path and teach me to do your will are two different things. One is to pray for discernment the other is to pray for the willingness to consistently do what we know to do. So with David we too pray: Show me the path I should walk” and “Teach me to do your will…. William Littleboy, a early twentieth century British Friend wrote: “The fact is that … we habitually over-emphasize the place of the emotions in the spiritual life. We speak as if love (in the sense of conscious affection), rapture, overflowing peace were in themselves the essential characteristics of life in Christ rather than the attitude of the soul toward God indicated by the qualities of faith and obedience. To be a Christian consists not in feeling, but in following; not in ecstasy, but in obedience.”
Dare we pray with David: “Let me hear of your steadfast love in the morning, for in you I put my trust. Teach me the way I should go, for to you I lift up my soul ,… for I am your servant. ?