‘O key of David!’ starts today’s antiphon: David, the second King of Israel, but the man whose name became synonymous with all forms of kingship and rule in Israel and Judah.
He is an extraordinary choice for the position of legendary revered ruler. It is sometimes suggested that he is indeed simply a figure of legend. Generally speaking, however, legendary kings are a good deal more noble and less flawed than David. The astonishing thing about the David narratives is their pictures of a fatally flawed but very vivid man. His beautiful lament for Jonathan, so beloved by those who want Biblical gay role models, should not blind us to the fact that Jonathan is killed as David makes his move on the throne. Jonathan is uncomfortably close to being the sacrifice made by his friend and lover in order to gain power. Indeed, too many of those whom David loves end up dead, particularly his sons. One of the most splendid narratives from the ancient world, the ‘succession narrative’, charts the closing years of David. His seduction of Bathsheba led to the skilful elimination (was she scheming?) of all plausible heirs to David except the son he has with her, Solomon. The narrative includes perhaps the most moving of all Biblical laments, that of David over Absalom: ‘O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would that I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!’ But only a fool could have believed that the action against Absalom was likely to end any other way – and David was no fool. This extraordinarily believable picture of a passionate man who keeps a very clear and calculating mind strikes me as so totally removed from hagiography as to be very believable.
History or fiction (and David’s period is far removed from the Victorians of whom I know something) the fact remains that this great king is consciously and deliberately presented as a flawed figure. Perhaps it is his very passions which make him such an attractive figure. Perhaps in the often grubby reality of life we are closer to God than we are in those noble moments when we are blinded by our illusions. For sometimes we come to believe that our aspirations actually reflect the daily reality of our lives; that we are the kindly, thoughtful, people we seek to be. If we are more honest, there is often a tangled mess of demands made on us, selfishness and loving response, a darkness of misunderstandings, naked greed and those loving actions which (like David’s desire to keep his power and save Absalom’s life) were never going to work out. There is a terrible reality about David’s mixed desires and ambitions which make him seem astonishingly contemporary.
In that sense, today’s antiphon seems to fit him well – and in fitting him, to fit all those of us who know too well our flawed and dark passions, our divided loyalties and the complexities of our lives. It promises the rescue (by ‘great David’s greater son’) of those in darkness, trapped and ignorant of the paths to escape.
O Key of David and sceptre of the House of Israel;
you open and no one can shut;
you shut and no one can open:
Come and lead the prisoners from the prison house,
those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.