1 Samuel 16:14-23 Now the spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord tormented him. And Saul’s servants said to him, ‘See now, an evil spirit from God is tormenting you. Let our lord now command the servants who attend you to look for someone who is skilful in playing the lyre; and when the evil spirit from God is upon you, he will play it, and you will feel better.’ So Saul said to his servants, ‘Provide for me someone who can play well, and bring him to me.’ One of the young men answered, ‘I have seen a son of Jesse the Bethlehemite who is skilful in playing, a man of valour, a warrior, prudent in speech, and a man of good presence; and the Lord is with him.’ So Saul sent messengers to Jesse, and said, ‘Send me your son David who is with the sheep.’ Jesse took a donkey loaded with bread, a skin of wine, and a kid, and sent them by his son David to Saul. And David came to Saul, and entered his service. Saul loved him greatly, and he became his armour-bearer. Saul sent to Jesse, saying, ‘Let David remain in my service, for he has found favour in my sight.’ And whenever the evil spirit from God came upon Saul, David took the lyre and played it with his hand, and Saul would be relieved and feel better, and the evil spirit would depart from him.
Reflection David is introduced in a very different way in this passage, although still a son of Jesse looking after sheep. Here his primary gift is as a renowned musician, with the skill to play in ways that can soothe tormented souls and instil a sense of peace. He is also identified as a brave warrior, a man of faith with good judgement, someone to be esteemed; the text implies a degree of maturity. His portrayal contrasts with the picture of the insignificant youngest son depicted in yesterday’s passage.
David is summoned into Saul’s service and Jesse complies with the demand. David gives no indication of being ‘the next king in waiting’ but humbly serves his master’s needs.
This passage has given rise to the many art works that depict David playing a lyre (or a harp) and it perhaps underlies the traditions that associate David with the psalms. In the biblical narratives the only other specific references to David playing the lyre (1 Sam.18:10; 19:9) are linked with Saul’s distress and David’s attempts to soothe him – which are not always successful!
Music is often a contentious subject in the life of the church. We can probably all recall discussions about worship groups, organs, digital hymnals etc that have evoked strong emotions; we all have different musical tastes. Nonetheless we can probably all agree that music has the capacity to inspire us to action, or to still our souls, or simply to bring enjoyment. I give thanks for those who are skilled in composition and in musical performance, as soloists, or in company with others; and rejoice in the gift God has bestowed on them, whatever its style.
If you are so gifted, praise God; and like David may you find ways to use your gift in the service of others.
Prayer Infinite God, we thank you for the diverse gifts we have each received and pray that we may use them in your service. Forgive us when we have allowed music to become a topic of dissension in our congregations and help us to discover the many ways in which it can enrich our common life. May it enliven our praise, enable our contemplation and draw us ever closer to you. Amen.
The Revd Dr Janet E Tollington A retired minister and member of Downing Place URC in Cambridge.