“I cry aloud to the Lord, and he answers me from his holy hill.”
When I was a kid, I played paintball. Myself and a rambunctious collection of neighborhood kids would traipse around the woods for hours welting each other with plastic bullets, all of which were filled with a paint-like chemical I’m sure will someday give me cancer. It was great.
My mother had reservations about allowing us to buy actual paintball guns. Instead, we used our allowances to purchase small slingshots which were called ‘wrist rockets.’ The whole thing was like Lord of the Flies except we didn’t kill each other, which was only because- again- my mother wouldn’t let us buy the guns.
The third psalm has a grim opening: “Oh LORD, how many are my foes!” (3:1). The “foes” to which David here refers are the armies amassed against him by his son Absalom. whose name (ironically) comes from the Hebrew words for “son of peace.” The coup against David is the culmination of events that began with David’s first-born son, Amnon, raping his half-sister- Absalom’s sister. David’s refusal to punish Amnon led Absalom to take justice upon himself. He killed Amnon, then fled from David. When two years had passed, Absalom and David were reconciled. Sorta. Because a few years later, Absalom gained enough support to declare himself king and amass an army to lead against David.
So no, family holiday’s were not pleasant. Thanks for asking.
I remember the first time I was shot playing paintball. It was dusk. We were playing in a construction lot. There were about six of us and it was a simple game of annihilation; last team with members standing wins. About halfway through the game, I was moving ahead of some teammates to another bunker when I felt a giant wasp sting my right butt cheek. I yelped and looked back, quick enough to catch a “I-can’t-believe-that-happened-but-damn-it-was-funny” look on my teammate’s face. The twerp had shot me.
“My bad,” he said after the game, grinning widely.
So that was also the first time I’d ever shot somebody.
Retributive justice is all we human beings really know. You hit me in the eye; I hit you in the eye; we’re even. It’s even found in the Bible (…whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed. Genesis 9:6). Justice is brought about when the killer is killed and somehow moral algebra erases the presence of a new killer.
With all that in mind, it’s interesting that this psalm is written following David’s decision not to take up arms against his rebellious son. One could argue that the decision was motivated by fatherly love; but, then again, Absalom also killed David’s first son. Furthermore, David doesn’t shy away from beckoning God to take action ( Rise up, o Lord…you strike all my enemies on the cheek and break the teeth of the wicked. 3:7). There’s something else at work here.
Contrary to human nature, contrary to the justice instincts of humanity, David accepted a posture of penitence and refused violent defense. Instead he sought defense in the humility that comes from reliance upon God.
Therein lies the hope: when David cries out to God, and God answers. Not just that, but God answers from his holy hill (3:4). The “holy hill” is the Mount of Olives to which David- and his followers- fled so as to avoid the violent clash with Absalom’s forces. Once there, David ascended the Mount of Olives, climbing barefoot with his head covered and weeping (2 Samuel 15:30). Generations later, David’s descendent would sit in an upper room and share a final meal with his disciples. Afterward, Jesus and his disciples sang a psalm, and then they went out to the Mount of Olives (Matthew 26:30).
The answer David found at the Mount of Olives was the answer Christ gave to all creation when he went to the Mount of Olives. Christ’s apex of glory was his journeying to the the holy hill, whence he gave himself up to humiliation, torture and death. Christ’s was the same message David had for the Philistine people when he defeated Goliath: the Lord does not save by sword and spear (1 Samuel 17:47). That’s quite the paradigm shift, both then and now.
It felt natural, it felt human, to shoot the twerp who shot me; the hangman’s noose, a standing army, defense budget and the electric chair seem natural, necessary, and pertinent to battle the injustice of the world. But this psalm alludes to the fact that true justice- divine justice- is to be found elsewhere.
The psalm does not, Ellen Cherry notes, mention confession or repentance from Absalom or David. But it’s unstated message is that if David can so rise to the occasion then we can too. And perhaps Cherry is right.
Then again, it felt good to shoot that twerp.