August 29, 2004

Michal: On Sacrificing Joy for Dignity
2 Samuel 6:16-23

My name is David ben Jesse, and the events described here in 2 Samuel 6:16-23 stand out in my mind as though they had just happened yesterday. There was overwhelming excitement in the air—everyone, or so I thought, was joining in the celebration. The Ark of the Lord, sometimes called Ark of the Covenant, was coming to Jerusalem. The ark had at one time been a symbol of great religious significance to my people, a symbol for which you moderns have no precise counterpart. It was, without going into great detail, an elaborately decorated box or chest containing written portions of the law and other sacred objects. Our priests often carried the ark around during communal processions, and, to be honest, many of my people came to associate the ark with the very presence of God among us. But its importance waned, at least in the hearts and minds of my predecessor, King Saul, and his followers. Just before Saul became king, the ark had actually been captured by our arch enemy, the Philistines, in one of their many military skirmishes against us. They soon returned it, however, assuming that their control of the ark lay behind a deadly outbreak of the plague that killed more of them than I can count. When my people finally saw the ark again, they stashed it away in a barn in the town of Kiriath-jearim, a few kilometers – miles, I mean! – west of Jerusalem. There it sat, unnoticed and unused, for at least 20 years (1 Sam. 7:1). King Saul never even paid any attention to it.

Then I became king in Saul’s place. Among various strategies that I followed soon after my coronation, I sent word and had the Ark of God brought to Jerusalem. I confess, right up front, that my motives for doing so were, shall we say, complicated. I was, as the writers of the Bible repeatedly point out, a man of considerable devotion. I cared deeply about God and the religious traditions of my people, and I thought it unfortunate—perhaps even sinful—that the sacred ark remained abandoned in that old barn. I wanted it in Jerusalem. It only seemed right. But, your modern scholars are also correct in recognizing no small amount of political ambition in this initiative. I realized that, were at least some of the people of Israel to genuinely embrace my kingship and thereby establish a degree of unity never realized during Saul’s reign, they would need to be convinced of my commitment to the God of Israel. What better way to convince them, I thought, than to bring the sacred ark to Jerusalem.

So I did. What a festive day it was. Confetti filled the air, music reverberated off of the walls, and people—thousands and thousands of people—were dancing in the streets. I suppose, for want of a better analogy, that it resembled to some degree your own annual celebration on New Year’s Eve at, what doyou call it, Time’s Square. I myself got so caught up in the celebration that I shouted and danced almost uncontrollably—almost—along with the crowd. I was—how do you young people say it?—pumped! It was quite a day.

Well, I was, as you might imagine, physically and emotionally drained when I went home that night. I just wanted to sit for a moment, watch the news, and unwind—“chill,” I think is the word some of you use. But it didn’t take long for me to realize that Michal, one of my wives and the daughter of Saul, in no way shared my enthusiasm. In fact, she never even attended the festivities. I found out later that she watched some of the events from the palace window, steaming inside while the rest of us partied. She was, to say the least, upset, and she wasted no time in telling me about it. “How the king of Israel honored himself today,” she said to me in an obviously mocking tone, “uncovering himself today before the eyes of his servants’ maids, as any vulgar fellow might shamelessly uncover himself!” I was stunned, and I wasted no time in responding, somewhat sarcastically, “You haven’t seen anything yet.”

Anyway, as I cooled down, – I’ve had hundreds of years to think about it – I reflected further about Michal’s reaction. I imagine that most of you, when you hear this story, assume that she was some nagging prude, a grumpy old hag who forgot how to laugh. Perhaps you know people like that in your own life—maybe your own spouse!—and conclude that Michal was like that, too. In truth, she loved me deeply, or at least she used to, and she simply couldn’t hide her affection for me earlier in life (1 Sam. 18:20). What happened, I wondered. Why did she react the way she did when I danced before the ark? I don’t know for sure, to be honest, and the story-teller here in 2 Samuel doesn’t help either of us out, does he? Reactions like this are often complex, as your own psychologists are quick to point out. But I do have some suspicions.

Michal, for one thing, might very well have believed that my behavior was sufficiently undignified for someone in my position. Kings were often held in high esteem in those days, and people often expected us to act in prescribed ways. Kings sat on their thrones, held their royal scepters, and pronounced earth-shattering decrees. We were always supposed to maintain our composure, hide our emotions, and conceal our deepest thoughts and struggles. And such expectations, I confess, always burdened me. I am a rather sensitive person, and I am both “left” and “right” brained, to use your terminology. I write poems, some of which are recorded in your book of Psalms. I sing. I play musical instruments. I care deeply about many things, and I tend to get excited. Sometimes being king didn’t suit me so well because I wanted to act like a boy again—to just be me.

In that way I suppose that my situation might not have been all that different from many people in your modern world. People trying with all of their energy to be someone other than who they really are. People feeling pressed into certain molds, sentenced to act in prescribed ways. People always looking over their shoulders wondering what others think of them. “Don’t let them see the real you,” you’ve been told. Come on. Some of you can at least begin to relate to what I am talking about, can’t you? Maybe that is what Michal was troubled about, though she never really said it in quite those words. She didn’t want me to embarrass myself, and perhaps her in the process. “Grow up, David,” she perhaps thought, “and act like a king.”

Or, perhaps she was jealous in her own sort of way. As you might very well imagine, a considerable degree of notoriety went with my position. I typically found myself on center stage, and everyone knew my name. I drank coffee and ate falafel with foreign dignitaries, met regularly with my own influential advisors, and frequented one public event after another. While all of this was going on, Michal and my other wives typically remained behind, perhaps feeling neglected or even abandoned.

I, at least on one occasion, felt something of that. Years before, when a prophet named Samuel—you may have heard of him—came marching across our land in search of a king, my father paraded my older brothers before him, leaving me standing alone out in the field. But by and large, I know very little of what it means to stand on the sidelines. To be left alone. To hold up the fort, so to speak, while someone else receives all of the attention. I know—believe me, I know—virtually everything about ruling and organizing and instructing and leading. Only the good Lord himself could ever count how many autographs I’ve given over the years. “That’s David,” I’ve often heard people whisper to each other as I walked by. But I don’t know what it is like to stay off to the side. No one ever came up to me and asked, “Are you Michal’s husband?” Perhaps that is it. As she watched me dancing in the middle of the street, she felt the overwhelming frustration of years of neglect. Of feeling unimportant. Unappreciated. I’m really not sure. She never quite said.

People, as I’ve said before, are complex, and feelings run deep. I can’t help but think, after centuries of journaling about it, that Michal might very well have also resented the lack of respect extended to her at various times in her life. If you recall—it is all here if you take the time to read it—Michal was given in marriage for political reasons on three separate occasions. Three times! On the first occasion, her father Saul gave her to me as part of a plot to kill me (1 Sam. 18:20). Rather than require a considerable amount of gold for the bride price, as was customary, Saul asked that I bring him the foreskins of 100 Philistines. I hear that you learned something about foreskins last Sunday as well! Saul never thought I could do it, expecting me to either decline the challenge or die trying.

On the second occasion, Saul took his daughter from me and gave her to another man named Palti, just to spite me. Oh, Saul hated me, and his rage knew no limits. So once again, Michal served as a pawn in the hands of her royal father, a pawn with no apparent feelings or interests of her own.

And on the third and final occasion, and I can’t blame Saul for this one, I, years later, initiated Michal’s return to me. I had been serving as king of only the southern part of Israel at that time, and I was attempting to unify the entire kingdom under my control. When Abner, an influential northerner, approached me with unification thoughts of his own, I demanded that Michal be given back to me as a symbol of the agreement. Never mind that she was married—happily, I might add—to Palti. Oh, the scene must have been pathetic. As it was related to me, Palti followed after Michal as Abner drug her away, weeping uncontrollably. I honestly don’t recall even wondering what Michal might have thought about all of this. What did that matter, anyway? She was yet again an unnoticed, uncared for nobody. Perhaps that is what went through her mind as she watched me from the palace window. She had been used, taken advantage of, over and over again. Now, she resented me, her once deeply felt love long since gone.

I don’t know for sure. I really don’t know. We didn’t talk so much about psychology and interpersonal relationship like you people do today. I didn’t have a book on my shelf entitled How to Save Your Marriage Before it Starts, nor did we ever sponsor seminars on improving communication skills. But I’ve thought about it a great deal over the years, and one thing I do know is that Michal failed to attend a wonderful celebration that day long ago. While the rest of us danced and sang as the Ark moved down Jaffa Road toward the center of town, she watched from a distance. She never enjoyed even one minute of the festivities. Perhaps it was the accumulated pressure to preserve her dignity. “Act royally,” she might have thought to herself. “Do what people expect, and never let your guard down.” Perhaps it was jealousy. She watched and stewed as the rest of us enjoyed ourselves, but her own sense of neglect, or self-pity, prevented her from joining in. Or maybe, just maybe, she was overcome by resentment. Hers was to some extent a difficult past, I readily admit. Neither I nor her father Saul showed her much respect, and I suppose, though I obviously didn’t think about it a great deal at the time, that one painful occasion after another eventually took their toll on her. I’m just not sure. She never quite said, and we weren’t particularly good at talking about such things.

Now, as I look back, I feel deep regrets. Oh, I don’t regret dancing before the Ark of God. It was a wonderful celebration, and I would dance again in a minute. But I do have other regrets. I only wish that someone would have seen her standing by the palace window, watching the celebration from a distance. I wish that someone would have simply said, “Michal, relax and be yourself. Go and dance with the others! Stop worrying so much about getting everything right and what others may or may not think. Relax and enjoy the moment.” I wish that she could have somehow moved past her jealousy and resentment, both of which loomed before her as insurmountable walls and prevented her from joining the party. I realize that the issues are sometimes complex, and I have even come to realize that I played no small part in shaping Michal over the years. I wish that I might have known all that was going on in her heart and mind and shown a bit more consideration. I wish, oh I wish, that she could have spoken with someone who might have helped her move beyond her inner turmoil. I wish that she had danced beside me.

But it never happened. Michal, for a whole host of reasons, substituted jealousy for celebration, resentment for exuberance, and dignity for joy. She never left her window and came down to the street. She never shouted and joined in the song. She never danced. She was invited, and it was great fun.

Oh, by the way. I’ve been asked by someone above me to tell you that the celebration is still going on, and that you are invited, too. No, the Ark of God won’t be delivered here this morning, although a number of your pseudo-archaeologists wish they could find it. But God himself is here in this place. The risen Christ is among us. The Holy Spirit, who guides, empowers, teaches, and transforms, is right here. And knowing this is more than enough to put a bounce in anyone’s step. So set aside your dignity for a moment or two. Let go of your feelings of jealousy and resentment. Just be yourself and join the celebration. Sing the song. Dance.