Saturday, September 10, 2011

O my son Absalom, my son

The story of Absalom`s rebellion against his father King David is one of the great tragedies in history. It is narrated in the Second Book of Samuel (Chapters 13 to 18).

David loved Absalom.

Absalom is described as the most handsome man in the kingdom, He had a charmed life. But behind the comely appearance and acts, we learn that Absalom was not what he appeared to be.

David had already forgiven him for the killing of Amnon, David`s eldest son. David had reinstated him to favour and Absalom had returned to Jerusalem after a period of exile.

After four years, Absalom showed his ingratitude and contempt. He slept with his father`s concubines. Then he raised the standard of revolt against David at Hebron.

David was forced to flee in terror of his life and with the near certainty that his Crown was lost. David had to go into hiding. He became a common fugitive whose prospects of survival were grim.

This is the background to Psalm 3 which was the topic of this week`s catechesis by the Pope on the Psalms: the prayer of David in the wilderness, betrayed and being hunted to death by a beloved son.

Louis Cheron 1660 - 1720
Psalm 31: The Revolt of Absalom compelled David to leave Jerusalem with his loyal troops, encouraging them with the assurance that God would confound the plans of his enemies
Pen drawing
141 x 92 mm
Musée des beaux-arts, Nancy

The tale of David and Absalom has been the subject of some of the greatest works in Literature. One of the most famous being, of course, Dryden`s Absalom and Achitophel

In it Dryden writes of the Monmouth Rebellion.

The Duke of Monmouth was the illigitimate son of King Charles II of England. Before Charles II`s death, Monmouth plotted rebellion to seize the Throne and to usurp the claims of Charles II`s brother, James II, to accede to the throne. Charles discovered the plot, arrested Monmouth and put him on trial for high treason. He was acquitted.

But Dryden`s work is a political satire, probably commissioned by the King`s party. The David in Dryden`s work is a man chosen by God to be King, a Stuart King. The King is an unreal Superman who rises above his humanity to behave like a King should do and act in the public interest. In the interests of State. It is an invective against a patricide and regicide. The focus is on Absalom and the monstrosity of his character

In Absalom and Achitophel, we do not see David - the putative victim - at the nadir of his temporal fortunes. That would not be regal

But the real King David was "in his cups": this is what we see and hear in Psalm 3.

But what of this David we see in Psalm 3 ?

This King David is not like another fictional English King - King Lear.

We recall the scenes of Lear on the desolate heath in a frightening storm.

Lear rants and raves to the wind about the unnaturalness of daughters turning against a father. The Fool rhymes that Lear has caused all the trouble himself. Lear has to take shelter in a hovel. His madness and despondency at his situation deepens. Lear then learns of Goneril's and Regan's commands--to lock Lear out from shelter in hopes that he will die in the storm.

Anger, bitterness, self-pity, despondency, blindness, isolation, no God, bleakness. A man who has given up the fight, sees no future, nothing and wishes to die. It is depicted in the painting by Benjamin West, the celebrated American artist

Benjamin West, American, 1738–1820
King Lear
1788, retouched by West 1806
Oil on canvas
271.8 x 365.8cm (107 x 144in.)
The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Here is an extract from one of the two scenes from the play by Shakespeare

"King Lear:

1 Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
2 You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
3 Till you have drench'd our steeples, drown'd the cocks!
4 You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
5 Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
6 Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
7 Smite flat the thick rotundity o' the world!
8 Crack nature's moulds, an germens spill at once,
9 That make ingrateful man!


10 O nuncle, court holy-water in a dry
11 house is better than this rain-water out o' door.
12 Good nuncle, in, and ask thy daughters' blessing:
13 here's a night pities neither wise man nor fool.

King Lear:

14 Rumble thy bellyful! Spit, fire! spout, rain!
15 Nor rain, wind, thunder, fire, are my daughters:
16 I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness;
17 I never gave you kingdom, call'd you children,
18 You owe me no subscription: then let fall
19 Your horrible pleasure: here I stand, your slave,
20 A poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man:
21 But yet I call you servile ministers,
22 That have with two pernicious daughters join'd
23 Your high engender'd battles 'gainst a head
24 So old and white as this. O! O! 'tis foul!


25 He that has a house to put's head in has a good
26 head-piece.
27 The cod-piece that will house
28 Before the head has any,
29 The head and he shall louse;
30 So beggars marry many.
31 The man that makes his toe
32 What he his heart should make
33 Shall of a corn cry woe,
34 And turn his sleep to wake.
35 For there was never yet fair woman but she made
36 mouths in a glass.

King Lear:

37 No, I will be the pattern of all patience;
38 I will say nothing."

William Shakespeare King Lear Act III, Scene 2

Psalm 3 presents a different man entirely from King Lear, a different man and a different King:

"A psalm of David. When he fled from his son Absalom.

1 LORD, how many are my foes!
How many rise up against me!
2 Many are saying of me,
“God will not deliver him.”

3 But you, LORD, are a shield around me,
my glory, the One who lifts my head high.
4 I call out to the LORD,
and he answers me from his holy mountain.

5 I lie down and sleep;
I wake again, because the LORD sustains me.
6 I will not fear though tens of thousands
assail me on every side.

7 Arise, LORD!
Deliver me, my God!
Strike all my enemies on the jaw;
break the teeth of the wicked.

8 From the LORD comes deliverance.
May your blessing be on your people"

Lear has sought the blessings of his daughters and has been disappointed. He is a "slave" to the elements. He is ruled by them. Lear speaks to the wind , the rain and his Fool. Then Lear retreats into silence. He has no prayer to utter.

But Psalm 3 is the prayer of another man chosen by God. But this man also has faith in God and places his full faith, confidence and trust in Him.

He knows that without God, he is nothing. With God, all is possible.

He glorifies God. God, in the words of the cliche, is his "refuge and his strength". It may be a cliche but that does not mean that it is untrue

David is the man who determines to recover his Kingdom. He does not know how. He gives the order that when his son is defeated, he is not to be killed.

And he grieves mightily for his son when his son is killed. Unlike Lear when Regan and Goneril die. David has not crushed his love. He does not turn from love towards hate. He is at one with God, the God of Love.

Throughout and despite his tribulations he stays by the one thing needful. He does not stop loving his son even when his son has tried to usurp and kill him.

In 2 Samuel 18:33 we read of David's grief at the loss of his son:

"And the king was much moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept: and as he went, thus he said, O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!"

At the end of King Lear, all is carnage and desolation. Lear`s family is all dead, destroyed, extinct

A French Miniaturist
King David Kneeling in Prayer
1300 - 1320
Illumination on parchment
Episcopal Library, Pécs

The Pope said of Psalm 3:

"The first psalm I wish to consider is a psalm of lament and supplication imbued with profound trust, in which the certainty of God's presence forms the basis of a prayer arising from the extremely difficult condition in which the man praying finds himself.

It is Psalm 3, attributed by the Hebrew tradition to David in the moment he fled from Absalom his son (cf. Verse 1):

This is one of the most dramatic and anguished episodes in the king's life, when his son usurps his royal throne, forcing him to leave Jerusalem in order to save his life (cf. 2 Samuel 15ff). The perilous and anguished situation David experiences serves as the backdrop to this prayer, and it helps us to understand it, by presenting itself as the typical situation in which such a psalm might be recited.

Every man can recognise in the psalmist's cry feelings of pain and bitterness together with a trust in God that -- according to the biblical account -- accompanied David as he fled the city.

The psalm begins with an invocation to the Lord:

"O Lord, how many are my foes!
Many are rising against me;
many are saying of me,
there is no help for him in God!" (Verses 1-2)

The prayer's description of his situation is marked by strongly dramatic tones.

Three times he repeats the idea of the multitude- "numerous," "many," "how many" -- which in the original text is said with the same Hebrew root, in order to underline even more the immensity of the danger in a repeated, almost relentless way.

This insistence on the number and greatness of the foe serves to express the psalmist's perception of the absolute disproportion there is between himself and his persecutors -- a disproportion that justifies and forms the basis of the urgency of his request for help; the aggressors are many; they have the upper hand, while the man praying is alone and defenseless, at the mercy of his assailants.

And yet, the first word the psalmist pronounces is "Lord"; his cry begins with an invocation to God.

A multitude looms over and arises against him, producing a fear that magnifies the threat, making it appear even greater and more terrifying, But the man praying does not allow himself to be conquered by this vision of death. He remains steadfast in his relationship with the God of life, and the first thing he does is turn to Him for help.

However, his enemies also attempt to break this bond with God and to destroy their victim's faith.

They insinuate that the Lord cannot intervene; they maintain that not even God can save him. The assault, then, is not only physical but also touches the spiritual dimension: "The Lord cannot save him" -- they say -- even the core of the psalmist's soul is attacked.

This is the great temptation to which the believer is subjected -- the temptation to lose faith, to lose trust in the nearness of God.

The just man overcomes this ultimate test; he remains steadfast in the faith, in the certainty of the truth and in full confidence in God, and it is precisely in this way that he finds life and truth.

It seems to me that here the psalm touches us very personally; in so many problems we are tempted to think that perhaps not even God can save me, that He doesn't know me, that perhaps it is not possible for Him; the temptation against faith is the enemy's final assault, and this we must resist -- in so doing, we find God and we find life.

The man praying our psalm is therefore called to respond with faith to the attacks of the impious: The enemy -- as I said -- denies that God is able to save him; but he instead calls out to Him, he calls on His name, "Lord". He then turns to Him with an emphatic "You" that expresses an unshakeable, solid relationship, and within himself he holds on to the certainty of a divine response:

"But thou, O Lord, art a shield about me,
my glory, and the lifter of my head.
I cry aloud to the Lord,
and he answers me from his holy mountain" (Verses 4-5).

The vision of the enemy now disappears. They have not defeated him because he who believes in God is certain that God is his friend: There remains only the "You" of God -- the "many" are contrasted now by one alone, who is far greater and more powerful than many adversaries.

The Lord is help, defence, salvation. As a shield He protects the one who entrusts himself to Him, and He raises up his head in a gesture of triumph and of victory.

The man is no longer alone, his enemies are not as invincible as they once seemed, because the Lord hears the cry of the oppressed and responds from the place of His presence, from His holy mount.

The man cries out in anguish, in danger, and in pain; the man asks for help, and God responds.

This interweaving of the human cry and the divine response is the dialectic of prayer and the key to reading the whole of salvation history.

The cry expresses the need for help and it appeals to the faithfulness of the other. To cry out means to express faith in the nearness of God and in His readiness to listen.

Prayer expresses certainty in a divine presence already experienced and believed in, [a presence] manifested most fully by God's saving response.

This is significant: that in our prayer the certainty of God's presence be important, that it be present. Thus, the psalmist, who feels himself besieged by death, confesses his faith in the God of life who as a shield wraps him with invulnerable protection; he who thought himself already lost can now lift up his head, for the Lord saves him; the man who prays --threatened and scorned -- is in glory, because God is his glory.

The divine response that receives his prayer gives the psalmist complete assurance; fear is also gone, and his cry calms and quiets in peace, in a deep interior tranquility:

"I lie down and sleep;
I wake again, for the Lord sustains me.
I am not afraid of ten thousands of people
who have set themselves against me round about" (Verses 5-6).

The man praying, even amid danger and battle, can lie tranquilly in an unequivocal attitude of trustful surrender.

His adversaries encamp around him, they beleaguer him, they are many, they rise up against him, they deride him and attempt to make him fall. But he instead lies down and sleeps in tranquil serenity, assured of the presence of God.

And when he awakes, he finds God still beside him, as a guardian who will neither slumber nor sleep (cf. Psalm 121:3-4), who sustains him, who holds his hand, who never abandons him.

The fear of death is conquered by the presence of the One who never dies. And the night, filled with ancestral fears, the painful night of solitude and of anguished waiting, is now transformed: What evokes death becomes the presence of the Eternal One.

The enemy's visible, massive, imposing attack is contrasted by the invisible presence of God, with all His invincible power. And it is to Him that the psalmist once more -- following his two expressions of trust -- addresses this prayer:

"Arise, O Lord! Deliver me, O my God!" (Verse 8).

The foes "rise up" (cf. Verse 2) against their victim, [but] he who will "rise up" is the Lord, in order to strike them down. God will save him by responding to his cry. For this reason, the psalmist can conclude with a vision of liberation from the danger that kills and from the temptation that can make him perish.

After turning to the Lord and asking Him to rise up and save him, the man praying describes the divine victory: The foes -- who with their unjust and cruel oppression, are symbolic of all that is opposed to God and to His plan for salvation -- are defeated.

Struck in the mouth, they can no longer attack with their destructive violence, nor can they insinuate the evil of doubt in the presence and action of God: Their senseless and blasphemous talk is definitively denied and reduced to silence by the Lord's saving intervention (cf. Verse 7bc).

Thus may the psalmist conclude his prayer with a phrase with liturgical connotations, which celebrates, in gratitude and in praise, the Lord of life:

"Deliverance belongs to the Lord; thy blessing be upon thy people!" (Verse 8).

Dear brothers and sisters, Psalm 3 presents us with a prayer full of trust and consolation.

In praying this psalm, we can make the psalmist's sentiments our own -- [the psalmist] who is a figure of the just man who is persecuted, and who finds his fulfillment in Jesus.

In suffering, in danger, in the bitterness of misunderstanding and offense, the psalmist's words open our hearts to the comforting certainty of faith.

God is always near -- even in difficulties, in problems, in the darkness of life -- He listens,

He responds and He saves according to His ways. But we need to know how to recognise His presence and to accept His ways, like David in his crushing escape from Absalom his son; like the just man who is persecuted in the Book of Wisdom; and finally and fully, like the Lord Jesus on Golgotha.

And, when to the eyes of the impious, God seems not to intervene and the Son dies, precisely then are true glory and salvation's definitive realisation manifested to all who believe.

May the Lord grant us faith; may He come to the help of our weakness; and may He enable us to believe and to pray in every anxiety, in the painful nights of doubt and in the long days of suffering, by trustfully abandoning ourselves to Him who is our "shield" and our "glory." "