King David Plays the Harp, by Dutch artist Gerard van Honthorst.
I’ve written before about how, in my most recent read-through of the Old Testament, I’ve been struggling with the character of David. As I’ve read about his many sins, David has come to represent a larger issue for me, and I’ve been rebelling against the idea that David--the murderer, the sexual predator, and the ineffective father--is labeled (by scripture, and even more frequently by the church) as a “man after God’s own heart.”
The story of David, like all stories of people in the Bible, is meant to point us to the character of God, who graciously remains faithful despite the many times we fail. He is called a man after God’s own heart because he is continually penitent, continually convicted of his sin, and always crying out to God. And I can appreciate that. Yet as I’ve slogged through the book of Psalms, the words that are often so quick to touch the hearts of believers have felt like a burden to me. The many, many times that David asks God to vanquish his foes and rescue him from his enemy’s traps make me feel like rolling my eyes; all I can think about are David’s own sins.
But today I read Psalm 144. It’s a beautiful passage that has within it the famous lines: “Lord, what are human beings that you care for them, mere mortals that you think of them? They are like a breath; their days are like a fleeting shadow (verses 3-4.)” But my eyes stopped on the following words in verse 12, which David inserts into a section in which he longs for the day God will fulfill his promises:
May our sons in their youth
be like plants full grown,
our daughters like corner pillars
cut for the structure of a palace (ESV)
I have been thinking about these lines all day, and I can’t get over them. David--the man who took Abigail, Michal, and Bathsheba from their husbands, who did nothing when one of his sons raped one of his own daughters--this man wrote those lines. They have been sitting on my heart all day, revealing to me the anger I’ve harbored towards men who have hurt women. And I think these words are showing me a way forward.
Before I get into all that, I want to take a moment to unpack the metaphors themselves. Here are a few other translations:
That our sons may be as plants
grown up in their youth;
that our daughters may be as corner stones,
polished after the similitude of a palace (KJV)
Then our sons in their youth
will be like well-nurtured plants,
and our daughters will be like pillars
carved to adorn a palace (NIV)
It probably will not escape your notice that these are the very verses the name for this website was taken from. It’s been years since I reflected on Psalm 144, and even when Hannah posted this excellent piece about why we named this site “Carved to Adorn,” I don’t think I ever really considered David’s words about sons, focused as I was on his metaphor for daughters.
But what are his images implying? Let’s start with the daughters. They are likened to “corner pillars,” or “corner stones,” indicating great strength and the essential nature of their character and presence. There is a mention of carving, cutting, or polishing, which implies that they have been shaped, perhaps through difficult means. And they are said to be there for the purpose of adorning or upholding a palace, which implies that they have a communal duty, since a pillar cannot hold up a structure in isolation.
And the sons? They are likened to “well-nurtured” plants, and David makes a point of saying the word “grown.” The contrast between the images of a pillar and a plant was what struck me first, and what struck me next was the total reversal of who I would have expected him to attribute each metaphor to. A fully grown plant implies strength, but also fruitfulness and nourishment and new life, attributes we often associate with women. The concept of having “grown” implies suppleness, bringing to mind green and fragrant images. All of these are archetypes we tend to give to women, but here the woman is given the role of the corner pillar--strong and unmoving, dedicated in her duty--and the man is given the task of growth and new life.
The more I think about these ideas, the more I begin to feel something come loose in my gut. With his words, David has cut my anger out from under me, because he has presented an idea of the flourishing of men and women that is so beautiful, it hurts. I’ve written before about how the Bible is continually reminding me that sex-discrimination is not found within its pages, although it can be found in the history of the church, and Psalm 144 is another place where I am gently being told to let go of my anger and rest in the goodness of God’s restoration. There is no place for my lingering resentment against men who have repented of their sin; to deny them my good will in Christ Jesus is to say that my sins are not as heinous as their own, and I know that is not true.
Thinking about David writing these words makes me want to weep. Many think that he wrote this psalm after the defeat of Absalom--after his son dethroned him and then was killed when David was restored to the throne. Most of David’s sons were the opposite of “well-nurtured plants;” they were unrepentant rapists and murderers and traitors. The only one of David’s daughters that we are given a full story about is Tamar, who was sexually assaulted and lived the rest of her life as a “desolate woman;” she is the opposite of a strong and proud pillar. David knew what it was to see his sons and daughters in turmoil and anguish; he knew that it was partially his own fault. He made no secret of his repentance.
But there is an additional layer to David’s words, because by couching the metaphor in the terms of daughters and sons, it’s clear that he was thinking about restoration. He knew that he too was a murderer and a predator (ask Bathsheba) but he believed in a God who was able to take his abused daughter and make her a pillar--a God who was able to take himself and his sons and wash away their horrible deeds as they sprouted new growth. There at the end of his life, David painted a beautiful picture of how men and women should be, and the metaphor of men like growing plants is strikingly helpful in our world: a world where women are finally taking a stand and speaking up about how they have been abused.
My long journey with David feels representative, to me, of the space women have a right to; forgiveness is a journey, and sometimes a very lengthy one. Yet it is an exquisite idea to think of men bearing fruit, of growing tall and providing shade and protection for those who shelter under them. This is an idea we must pay attention to--particularly the idea of growth. In a world that suddenly seems to see people as very good or very evil, David’s metaphor holds within it the space for repentance and forgiveness, and new life. It can feel wrong to extend forgiveness--as if we’re letting people off too easily for sins they should rightfully be punished for. But it only feels too easy if we don’t understand how much we ourselves must be forgiven for; when the depth of our own sin reaches us, the grace that breaks through suddenly becomes enough to cover us all.
I am thankful to say that I have never been abused, but there is a man in my past who was hurtful to me and who hurt other women I know. Over the course of many years I have seen him change; seen him grow into a well-nurtured plant. Yet though I can say with surety that this man truly has changed, my heart has held out, wanting to deny him any trust, any chance to come back into my life even in the smallest way. Through Psalm 144 God has convicted me of the anger I’ve been harboring against him and against the faceless men who have hurt other women.
There is certainly a place for righteous indignation over the injustice in the world. But it is God who promises to bring judgment, and he will uphold his promise. Judgment is his, and that is very hard and very freeing to say. It is important to be discerning and protect my sisters, surely, but as a member of the body of Christ it is also essential to watch my brothers grow and repent, to recognize the grief of my own sins as well as theirs, and to welcome the fruit and shade that they provide. Whether it is towards David or any other repentant man, I am seeking not to harbor anger any longer. Instead, I am going to rejoice in our mutual restoration in Christ.
A Long Obedience in the Same Direction
Eugene H. Peterson
The Devil in the White City
Peter A. Pitzele