Each year two days, Memorial Day and Veterans Day, are devoted to remembering and honoring those who have served and died in the armed forces. Though for many people these days are simply a time for picnics, cookouts or just taking a nice day off from work, for many neither day is cause for celebration, but rather are occasions for sadness and grief, bringing reminders of loved ones lost in war.
For everyone, though, these holidays should be times to reflect on the cost of violent conflict. They are opportunities to be reminded of the higher, better way God would have humanity resolve conflict.
Is war inevitable? Are hatred and revenge built into our very being? Will we always have enemies? When faced with these very basic questions and dilemmas, it is comforting to look intently into God’s word and search for answers. Often, when I think of the paradox of human nature — how we can feel and exhibit both such great love and such base brutality — I think of one of my favorite people in the Bible: David.
The shepherd-boy and healing harpist who wrote the beautiful Psalms that many so often turn to in prayer and worship was also the one who slew Goliath, vanquished the Philistines, and, as the second king of Israel, fought many bloody battles to unite his nation’s long-bickering tribes. Many died at his hands.
Consequently, then, it may be uncomfortable to cast David as an example of how to behave, but even though the Bible spins his story to glorify and establish his kingdom, it reports his flaws and weaknesses too.
From his psalms we learn the depth of his despair over his own darkness, sinfulness and betrayal of God. We see from stories how he handles temptations and conflict. He may not have always passed the morality test, but the depiction of David given in I Samuel 24 is of a righteous man, an example of a person all would aspire to be.
In this vignette, Saul, the first king of Israel, returns from yet another battle with the Philistines, a ruthless, annoying, relentless foe. It was “another day, another battle with the Philistines,” with one additional element: Saul’s relentless pursuit of David. The shepherd boy whose harp music had soothed the king when he was sick and ill-tempered, the beloved best friend of his son Jonathan, had become Saul’s most feared enemy. Where David was concerned, jealousy reigned in the heart of Saul. All the king could see in David was someone who made him look weak, ineffective and unworthy to be king.
At the time of Saul’s return from battle with the Philistines, David is hiding in the wilderness of Engedi. Saul gathers 300 of his best men and goes hunting for David. Seeking rest from the fevered pursuit, Saul enters a cave, unaware that David and his men are hiding deep inside that very cave.
While Saul is in there, David’s men get excited and say to him, “This is the day God is saying to you, ‘I’ve delivered your enemy into your hand and you’ll do to him what seems good to you!’”
Yet, David considered Saul as “anointed.” In the darkness of the cave, David slithers over to Saul, snips off a corner of his robe, and slithers back to his men, but, the Bible tells us, after David had cut off the piece of Saul’s robe, “his heart smote him.” Various translations convey slight differences: “he was stricken to the heart” (NRSV), or “he was conscience-stricken” (NIV), or “David was sorry” (CEV). David had not killed Saul, but was troubled that he had shown disrespect to “the Lord’s anointed.” The word identifying the person chosen by God to be king is mashiach, the same word connoting “messiah.” The original Hebrew speaks more strongly, with deeper feeling, telling us that David’s “heart smote him.” In Biblical Hebrew, the word lev means more than just the physical heart, more than one’s emotions, but also one’s mind, personality and courage. In our modern language, we would say, “the disrespect was killing him.”
Thus troubled, David goes out after Saul when the king leaves the cave, runs out into broad daylight and reveals himself to Saul and his troops. David proclaims, “May Yahweh avenge me. May Yahweh plead my case and be the judge and give the sentence and vindicate me. But my hand won’t be against you!” This is one of the most brutally honest and heart-wrenching scenes in the Bible: David and Saul facing each other, David crying out to the man whom he loves as though he were his father. With tears streaming down his face, he asks, “Why do you listen to these lies? How can you believe that I’d ever think of killing you?”
Moved to tears, Saul reaches out to the man whom he loves as though he were a son and cries, “Is that your voice, my son David? You are more righteous than I — doing good to me when I’ve done evil to you. When a man finds his enemy, does he let him go away unharmed? Who does that?!” Saul asks God to reward David for this act of incredible mercy. Then Saul affirms David’s calling to become king, asking only that David not cut off his descendants or wipe out his name, and this David promises him.
This should be the end of the story; however, just three chapters later (1 Samuel 26), Saul is back at it again — hunting him down — and David nearby with yet another opportunity to sneak into his camp while he’s asleep and kill him, but again refusing to do so, as Saul is the Lord’s anointed. David says, “God himself will strike Saul. But God forbid that I should lay a hand on him.”
Again Saul is filled with remorse and asks God to bless his son David. But really, the quest to kill David never ends. Saul relentlessly continues to seek David’s life until his own life ends fighting the Philistines.
And this brings us back to the holidays Memorial Day and Veterans Day and to the act of remembering year after year those who have fallen in battle, the misery, anguish, grief, loss and destruction of war. It seems impossible that no war has yet been sufficiently cruel and destructive to end all wars. Just as Saul was relentless, so wars and conflicts seem relentless. Jealousy, greed, pride, lies and misunderstanding, thirst for revenge, desire for power — all are relentless. One might be tempted to throw up one’s hands in hopelessness, but our enemies within are much fiercer than our enemies without and are much more powerful than any nation, despot, terrorist or criminal. How we respond to the enemies within will likely reflect and determine how we respond to the enemies without.
Whether speaking of ourselves as individuals or as a nation, I ask, “What if we were to take some cues from David who left it to God to decide if, when, and how to take action? What if, like David, we turned the temptation to engage in conflict over to God?”
Like David, we might want to pay attention to the state of our hearts. What if we — and the decision-makers of our society — were to feel slain by our hearts whenever we treated another disrespectfully? Jesus said, “Anyone who is angry with a sister or brother will be subject to judgment. Anyone who insults a sister or brother will be taken to court. And anyone who says ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fires of hell.” (Matthew 5:22) Can you imagine what would happen if we and our government were to feel ourselves violated, victimized and stricken whenever we so much as treat others unkindly, let alone harm or kill them?
Paul wrote to the Romans: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil . . . Do not take revenge . . . Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:17, 19, 21). What would happen if we followed this advice? Can you imagine living in the upside-down kingdom where, instead of an eye for an eye, we were always to first love our enemies? What if, like David, we were always to first ask, “Is he or she the anointed of the Lord?” We know that each person is a beloved child of God, chosen and cherished by his or her Creator. What if before we or our armed representatives were to lift a hand or a weapon against any one, we were first to say, like David, “I can’t do this! This is the Lord’s anointed!” Yes, the Philistines are relentless. The enemy will always be with us. But as Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against . . . the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil . . .” (Ephesians 5:11-12)
According to the story, David yields his life, his actions, his decisions, even his thoughts, feelings, mind and heart to God. This is the only way he is able to see, rather than an enemy, the anointed one of God. I believe this example is the only way the insidious, relentless onslaught of the Philistines of this world will be stopped.
We must yield our lives, our actions, our decisions, our thoughts, feelings, minds and hearts to God, putting our trust and faith in Jesus Christ who alone has the victory over relentless evil and who alone can save us by the power, grace and relentless love of God.
Maybe then, these special holidays honoring those who served and died in war will become times to remember only faraway and long-ago losses. Maybe then, we will truly rejoice, relax and enjoy our picnics, and celebrate with glad hearts the reign of God among us!
Sabrina Sigal Falls is a recorded Friends minister and a harpist. As a Certified Music Practitioner, she plays live therapeutic music at the bedside of sick or dying patients in hospitals, hospices, and homes. She is a member of First Friends Meeting in Richmond, Indiana as well as of Shalom Mennonite Church in Indianapolis, where she lives with her husband and 17-year-old dog.