Fellow Passengers: This week’s Poetry Passage* (Psalm 128) transports me to the retirement banquet and roast for Stan Hastey, who served as the founding Director of the Alliance of Baptists. One of my favorite people in the world, James Dunn, was one of the “roasters” and promised to keep his remarks short with the following intro line: As Elizabeth Taylor said to her seventh husband, “I won’t keep you long.” It reminded me of the time someone asked Elizabeth Taylor why she got married so often, and she responded, I was taught by my parents that if you fall in love, you get married. I guess I’m very old-fashioned.
While the authorship is not stated, Psalm 128 has long been associated with the Psalms of King David. The poet and shepherd king was old-fashioned in his own right, a la Elizabeth Taylor, having 8 wives of his own. So if you can imagine Elizabeth Taylor authoring a book or leading a seminar on healthy families, you can imagine King David penning a poem about the glories of family life. Walk in the ways of the Lord, the song says, and your wife will be a fruitful vine, your children like olive shoots around your table, you’ll enjoy prosperity and see your grandchildren living in a peaceful nation. Here’s the interesting thing about the Hebrew Bible – it doesn’t sugar coat the inconsistencies of life. Here was the great Renaissance man – the warrior king, the shepherd, the singer-harpist, described as a man after God’s own heart, described elsewhere as a man who indeed walked in the ways of the Lord, and yet he did all this while living with eight wives. When peeping tom David crossed the corrupt power line and had a man killed to get the man’s wife, whom he had spied bathing, God sent prophet Nathan to deliver some severe threatening words – Thus saith the Lord, I’m going to take your wives and give them to your neighbor so he can lie with them in broad daylight. Woah. The Lord who mandated one flesh fidelity works in some mysterious ways indeed. Back to the Psalm: Seven of David’s wives were indeed fruitful, but his children could hardly be said to be like olive shoots around his table. More like buckshot. And David did not live to see his grandchildren enjoying peace; he lived to see a family and nation torn apart by violence and revenge. And in a side note, remember that one of his sons, Solomon, the product of the peeping tom murder-rape, was characterized in scripture as the wisest man ever, and wrote the wise book of Proverbs. Solomon, in his best straight face impersonation of Elizabeth Taylor, counseled the young man in Proverbs 5 to be satisfied with the wife of his youth, let her breasts satisfy you at all times, and of course this was the same Solomon who would be diagnosed today with sexual addiction, as 700 wives and 300 concubines were not enough to satisfy his desires.
We all have our ideals about what a family should look like, we have our Psalm 28 and Proverbs 5 marriage enrichment passages, but we live in the same world as those authors, a world that includes plural marriages, serial monogamy, divorce recovery workshops, defense of marriage acts, holy unions, civil unions, sexual additions, family circuses and family courts. What wisdom can we glean from a sometime sacred songwriter sometime circus clown like David? What insight can we gain from one who walked in the ways of God and was a man after God’s own heart and wrote eloquent poetry about the stability of family, while leading one of the most unstable of families imaginable? No doubt the beauty of the Hebrew Bible is that it is a story of grace, a story of wounded healers, a story of second and third and eighth chances, a story where the most dysfunctional of patriarchs can still have pipe dreams about some peace and quiet in the den with the English Shepherd at his feet. What these promise passages give us is the true family circus, where values of fidelity and faith are passed along the trapeze and across the high wire and out of the cannon via the most unlikely of performers time and time again.
How about you? Where does this Poetry Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment.