Awhile back, I was introduced to the talents of Eric Whitacre and his evocative song “When David Heard”, by my composer-friend, Zachary Horner (if you get the chance, be sure to check out his Sound Cloud account for samples of his own amazing work), and continue to be fascinated by the song’s depth and intensity conjured up by–most astounding!–the singing of just a single verse from 2nd Samuel.
“When David heard that Absalom was slain he went up into his chamber over the gate and wept, my son, my son, O Absalom my son, would God I had died for thee!” (2nd Sam. 18:23 KJV)
The song is brimming with emotion. It was nearly too much for me to bear the first time I heard it. When the voices got loud my eyes started to fill and I had the wild impulse to rip my earbuds out, cover my ears and run. I could picture it all–the gut-wrenching grief like voices screaming in my ears, chasing me down, hunting me like a wild animal then, as the voices quieted I could feel the loneliness creeping in like a quiet mist. I could see the memory of the long march back home, the uncertain glances from the soldiers as they watched their brave warrior-king retreat within himself, his eyes glazing over, unresponsive to those around him, uncaring of where he went next, his thoughts consumed by the one who was not with them, the son whom he loved and was dead. It was like a darkness had fallen over the whole company.
Later, it felt like a dream. It was easy for me to imagine King David waking up, panting, sweat glistening on his brow and sitting up in bed only for the silence to tear his soul more than his dream. I could feel the coldness, the unresponsiveness of the palace stone walls. I could feel the cry for answers, the despair, the emptiness.
In the final minute of the piece, it was as if the shepherd-king was standing on one of his many balconies, looking out over the business of the city, listening to the voices bubbling up from the market square and remembering all that once was. Time has passed and the gut-wrenching grief has passed, leaving behind only a dull ache.
He can never forget.
He can’t simply move on.
He can’t explain why.
It just is.
That’s where I hear the song ending, with a kind of sad acceptance. Listen for yourself:
Professing neither atheism nor Christianity, the composer, Eric Whitacre, had no basis to end his song in hope and even those of us with a hope founded on the redemptive work of Jesus Christ may have difficulty in finding hope in the story of David and Absalom or even making sense of the narrative.
The occasion for Eric Whitacre composing the song “When David Heard” was the death of a friend’s teenage son in a car accident. He wanted to capture the wide range of grief and regret that his friend might be experiencing and seized upon the long-standing tradition of composing a song for the death of a Prince, centered around the verse “when David heard”.
The song does well to capture the universal grief of a parent bereaved of their beloved child but there is more to King David’s grief than this. When David wept, he wept not only for a dead son–but an outcast, a transgressor, a man who fully deserved the death he received. Unlike the son of Mr. Whitacre’s friend, Absalom was not a victim of someone else’s sin or misjudgment. His death was a natural consequence to a long list of wickedness.
Justice demanded his blood.
Murdering his half-brother, Amnon, was the first of Absalom’s death-sentence sins. Fear of the consequences of this action drove him to flee into exile. After a time, David allowed Absalom to come back to Jerusalem but not to enter into his presence. Two years passed then David’s commander of the army, Joab, hired a “wise woman” of Tekoa to come to the King in disguise and plead with the King to end Absalom’s banishment and reinstate him into the royal family.
2 Samuel 14:14 (ESV)
We must all die; we are like water spilled on the ground, which cannot be gathered up again. But God will not take away life, and he devises means so that the banished one will not remain an outcast.
This was, in fact, what David desired to do because his “heart yearned after” his son but bringing the banished man back was not as easy as speaking a word. There are consequences for rebellion and a burden to carry out justice that rests on the King’s shoulders.
As Pastor McLaren writes in his commentary on the chapter:
“…The pardon, which many of us seem to think is quite sufficient, is a pardon that is nothing more noble than good-natured winking at transgression. And oh! if this be all that men have to lean on, they are leaning on a broken reed. The motto on the blue cover of the Edinburgh Review, for over a hundred years now, is true: ‘The judge is condemned when the guilty is acquitted.’ David struck a fatal blow at the prestige of his own rule, when he weakly let his son off from penalty.”
“Further, if there are to be forgiveness and restoration at all, they must be such as will turn away the heart of the pardoned man from his evil. The very story before us shows that it is not every kind of pardon which makes a man better. The scapegrace Absalom came back unsoftened, without one touch of gratitude to his father in his base heart, without the least gleam of a better nature dawning upon him, and went flaunting about the court until his viciousness culminated in his unnatural rebellion. That is to say, there is a forgiveness which nourishes the seeds of the crimes that it pardons. We have only to look into our own hearts, and we have only to look at the sort of people round us, to be very sure that, unless the forgiveness that is granted us from the heavens has in it an element which will avert our wills and desires from evil, the pardon will be very soon needed again, for the evil will very soon be done again.”
When David wept, he wept because of the reality he could no longer deny–that he could not save his son Absalom, that in order for the banished ones to be restored, justice must first be satisfied, mercy coming at a great unfathomable cost he couldn’t pay.
Though this was more that Eric Whitacre intended to communicate in his song, when I understand the context of David’s grief, I hear in “When David Heard” a deeper grief than for the mere death of a loved one. I hear grief over sin–the sin of David’s that led to his divided house and the sin of the son he couldn’t save.
“If only I had died for thee!” David wept for a redeemer, for a substitutionary atonement that would satisfy justice in the sinner’s stead.
And that redeemer came–the stump of David–our Father in Heaven displaying “a love which [could not] be dammed back or turned away by any sin, and which…found a way to fulfill David’s impossible wish, in that it [gave] Jesus Christ to die for His rebellious children, and so made them sharers of His own kingdom…” –Pastor McLaren
King David, when fleeing from Absalom, ascended the Mount of Olives, “weeping as he went”. One thousand years later another King ascended that mountain and wept for Jerusalem, saying, ““O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”
The Garden of Gethsemane resides at the bottom of the Mount of Olives.
Amazingly, the Master Storyteller so ordered events that both David and David’s Lord wept on the same mountain. The thought gives me chills but there is more.
Since ancient times, Jews have desired to be buried at the Mt. Olivet because they believed when the Messiah came, those buried there would be the first to rise in the resurrection.
Absalom erected a monument to himself that tradition long-placed in the valley of Kidron, at the foot of Mt. Olivet. A tomb stands there to this day still colloquially called, “Absalom’s Shrine”.
And it was from the Mount of Olives that Jesus ascended into Heaven and was seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty while His disciples looked on in wonder.
“But God will not take away life…he devises means so that the banished one[s] will not remain…outcast[s].”
The Master Storyteller so ordered events that the very mountain where King David was unjustly banished by his rebellious son–who was rightly deserving of banishment–was the same mountain where the Son of God, banished in place of sinners, ascended to the Righteous Judge on High as intercessor for Man.
Alexander McLaren again:
“…let nothing, dear brethren, rob us of the plain fact that God’s love moves all around the worst, the unworthiest, the most rebellious in the far-off land, and ‘desires not the death of a sinner, but rather that he may turn from his iniquity and live.’”
“Lay your sins upon His head, and your hand in the hand of the Elder Brother, who has come to the far-off land to seek us, and He will lead you back to the Father’s house and the Father’s heart, and you will be ‘no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow-citizens with the saints and of the household of God.’”
The song “When David Heard” is a masterpiece of art, brimming with honest, raw, human emotion but it ought not stand alone–a chord of tension unresolved, a story half-told. It demands a sequel, a second song to complete its saga…any volunteers?