Project Canterbury

Dancing before the Lord
and Other Sermons
Preached in St. Ignatius' Church, New York

by the Reverend Arthur Ritchie

Reprinted from "Catholic Champion."

New York: The Guild of St. Ignatius, 1892.

Sermon I
Dancing Before the Lord.

"And David danced before the Lord with all his might, and David was girded with a linen ephod." 2 SAM. vi, 14.

The story of King David, as told us in the Bible, is one very often misunderstood and not uncommonly misinterpreted. It ought to stand as one of those undesigned evidences of the genuineness of the ancient Scriptures that the writer of the life of David has made no attempt to ignore or minimize the king's great transgression. The facts are told with unshrinking fidelity; nothing is glossed, but the hero's vices are as clearly described as his virtues. The enemies of the faith are not slow to seize upon such an instance, and to use it in disparagement of God's holy Word. How could David be indeed the man after God's own heart when he is thus clearly shown to have been both a lustful tyrant and cold-blooded murderer?

Those who are influenced by objections of this sort do not generally consider that a man ought to be judged by his whole life, and not by a few incidents in it. God judges with broader judgment than men, and takes into account all the good in one's life as well as the evil. And concerning David's life considered as a whole it seems to me there are three distinct points to be weighed well before inferences are drawn from the story of his transgression in the matter of Uriah the Hittite.

I. The first of these is that the king by no means escaped the penalty his sin deserved. God forgave him because he was contrite, and his guilt was by that forgiveness put away, nevertheless the punishment which was meted out to him was no light one. His child was to die; because he had caused Uriah to be slain with the sword, the sword should never depart from his house; as he had violated his neighbour's hearth, so also should his own household be brought to shame and violation; his son Absalom should rise up in unfilial revolt against him; and who shall say it may not have been on account of this great misdeed that the dearest wish of David's heart could not be gratified, the raising up of a worthy house for the indwelling of the Lord God of Israel, for in the first book of the Chronicles we are told that God said "Thou shalt not build a house for my name, because thou has been a man of war, and hast shed blood?" At least no one can say that the king escaped punishment for his crime.

2. Then in the second place we must not overlook the fact that David had already earned great favour in the eyes of the Almighty by his Christ-like spirit of forgiveness displayed towards Saul when that ill-starred monarch was hunting the son of Jesse as one doth hunt a partridge in the mountains. Does not our Master say "If ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you?" Let us remember that David carried out this sublime precept one thousand years before our Lord spake it in the sermon on the mount, and that in an age of vengeance, when it was said by men commonly "Thou shalt love thy neighbour and hate thine enemy." Twice the son of Jesse had Saul in his own power, and might easily have slain him, indeed was urged by his followers to do so. Do you not think that this was well pleasing to the Most High, and that David found great mercy in the day of his sin because he had shown great mercy in the day of his persecution?

3. The third point which ought to be taken into account by those who would pass judgment upon the man after God's own heart, is that he loved much, and therefore was forgiven much. Do you remember how our Lord, when in the house of Simon the Pharisee He was faulted because He had allowed a woman which was a sinner to wash His feet with tears and to wipe them with the hairs of her head, said to that proud zealot "Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much: but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little"? Perhaps you and I are forgiven little because we love so little. We may be sure that David was forgiven much because he loved much. And it is to the very striking proof of this his great love that I would now direct your attention.

In the days of Eli the judge, when Samuel was yet a youth, the Ark of God had been brought into the camp of Israel to encourage the people to fight more successfully against the Philistines. But the Lord was not with the host, therefore Israel was defeated and the Ark taken by the enemy. God would not allow those uncircumcised heathen men to triumph over the true faith however. He afflicted them with a grievous plague until they sent back the Ark into the land of Israel. And it was cared for by the men of Kirjath-jearim for twenty years. When David came to the throne he determined to bring up the Ark into the city of David. It had hardly left the men of Kirjath-jearim before presumptuous Uzzah was smitten, and fearing to carry the most holy thing any further the king allowed it to find a resting place in the house of Obed-edom the Gittite. But when he found after three months that Obed-edom's house had been greatly blessed because of the sacred presence in the midst of it, David took heart again to carry the Ark up to his own city.

It was a day of great rejoicing and of the sounding of the trumpet. When they that bore the Ark of the Lord had gone six paces, the king sacrificed oxen and fallings; and then we are told that clad in a linen ephod he danced before the Lord with all his might.

I. Perhaps the first thought suggested by the king's conduct on this occasion is that he acted in a very undignified way. The royal head of Israel and Judah was no mean personage in the eyes of men. The monarch who as a youthful warrior had slain the giant Goliath, and who since that time had lifted up the head of his people above all their enemies round about them, making the name of Israel feared and respected by all, was almost idolized by his people. Yet forgetting his royal state, he puts aside his crown and costly robes; he girds himself with the linen ephod of the priests, and in a transport of enthusiasm leaps and dances before the Lord with all the abandon of a child.

Truly it was a strange spectacle. To many it must have seemed that the king was pitifully undignified. We know that his wife, Michal the daughter of Saul, thought so. She looked through the window and saw king David leaping and dancing before the Lord, and she despised him in her heart. When he came to his house, after the rejoicings were ended, the queen went forth to meet him, and said, "How glorious was the king of Israel to-day." The proud daughter of Saul was ashamed of her royal husband's lack of dignity, yet we cannot think that God approved her judgment. Does He not teach us that there is nothing more glorious in His eyes than that supreme humility which makes a man become as a little child in his estimate of himself? "Except ye be converted and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven."

May we not believe that the sight of the great king thus forgetting himself and his own importance, and making himself as one of the humblest of his followers, was very dear to the Most High? Is it not another instance of that wonderful anticipation on David's part of the very spirit of the Gospel, a trait of character which justifies the name of the man after God's own heart?

Who can think of this willing self-abasement of the king and not at the same time call to mind those majestic words uttered by the great Apostle in the Epistle to the Philippians: "Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus; Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: but made Himself of no reputation, and took upon Him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: and being found in fashion as a man, He humbled Himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the Cross."

There can be no perfect love of God so long as there is self-conceit, and the cherishing of our own dignity and personal importance. Yet how often is it true that in the Church almost more than in the world we find heart-burnings and jealousies, wounded pride and self-importance that has been hurt. One is not willing to help in the work because he thinks another has been given the place of dignity which was rightfully his. Another will not undertake certain duties because they seem to him beneath his dignity, too much like servile employment. For his part he had not rather be a door-keeper in the house of his God, than to dwell in the tents of wickedness.

The youth dreads to be confirmed and become a communicant because his fellows will think him soft; the older man will not practise ceremonial lest others call his religion puerile; one will not go to Confession for fear somebody will say it is unmanly, and another will not go to the Church he ought to go to because the seats are not rented and he cannot have a pew to himself.

One might multiply instances almost indefinitely, and the conclusion to be drawn from them all is that we love little because we are so full of our own importance, while David loved much, so much that his own personality was obliterated, and no thought of his dignity restrained the devotional rapture of his soul.

It may be argued that to forget one's dignity altogether in the service of God would be to countenance the wildest vagaries of the Salvationists. The answer to that in brief is this, they forget God's dignity as well as their own; it is well to forget one's own dignity but a grievous error to lose sight of the dignity of God. David while he danced with all his might before the Lord did not for one moment forget the honour and glory, the fear and reverence that were due the most High. The Ark had gone forward but six paces when a halt was made that oxen and fallings might be sacrificed. So far as the enthusiasm of the Salvationist is concerned one might well imitate it; so far as he wholly disregards the ridicule of the world in the service of God he is to be praised--though the willingness to provoke ridicule may sometimes indicate ostentation rather than self-effacement--we should fault him however for the familiarity of his addresses to the Almighty, the frivolity of his songs, and the apparent absence of the spirit of reverence from all his religious meetings, David worshipped the Lord with lowliest adoration, yet without inconsistency leaped and danced before Him with all his might.

Had we more of the childlike spirit which characterized the great king of Israel would there not be found more Church workers, fewer Church disputes, more frequenters of the Confessional, fewer rented sittings in the house of God?

II. The second thing most noticeable in the dancing of the King of Israel before the Lord is that it is so clear an evidence of the exuberance of his joy. He could not contain his ecstasy of delight at the thought of the restoration of the Ark of God to its rightful place of honour in the nation's capital. His happiness was uncontrollable and found vent in great leaps and bounds of joy. Does his conduct seem exaggerated? We cannot say that, and yet it is so different from anything we have felt ourselves in the service of God.

Now though it be foreign to our own conception of spiritual rejoicing, dancing is not necessarily so much more extravagant a way of expressing devotion than the singing of triumphal songs and hymns. The Church has ever thought it meet to use the clangour and din of great instruments of music in the celebration of her high festivals. We are told that in some parts of the world even in these days, as notably in Spain, the clergy are wont to celebrate the joyful day of our Lord's Resurrection by a solemn dance in the Choir before the high Altar. Possibly the origin of the custom may have been this dancing of David before the Lord, for as an old commentator says, If the king of Israel could be so transported with joy because of the presence of that which was but a shadow of the reality, how should we rejoice who have the true Ark of God, and the very Presence of the Incarnate Lord Himself! Yet we do not. Our worship is so often cold and unloving, rarely do we rise to rapture. If it may be sometimes at Christmas or at Easter we warm with enthusiasm because of the glories of the Lord's house and of His worship, it is only too painfully true that such moments of ecstasy are the exception, and dull lifeless praise the rule of our devotion. Yet how can one stimulate himself to rapture if it come not spontaneously? We cannot compel our joy, nor would such a hollow thing be precious in the eyes of God. The dancing must be no mechanical performance but the exultant effervescence of the rapture of the heart. May it not be that we have not the enthusiasm of David for our Lord, because we do not live close to the Lord, as David lived. He could say "I have set God always before me." The cry of his heart was "O God, Thou art my God; early will I seek Thee: my soul thirsteth for Thee, my flesh longeth for Thee in a dry and thirsty land where no water is."

The truth is that David in his devotion was full of the spirit of our Lord Christ in a marvellous degree. Is it not a strange thing that the Psalms composed nearly three thousand years ago, a thousand years before our Lord had come in the flesh, should express in language unsurpassed the very deepest and intensest emotions of the Christian life, so that still in the Church, and to the end of time, devout spirits shall say there are no words like these words, no prayers like these wonderful Psalms for voicing the profoundest penitence, the sublimest faith, the most triumphant praise and joy. They are inspired words, but so is all the rest of the Bible inspired. These words of the Psalms express the very mind of Christ. How wonderful then must have been the Christ-likeness in David, notwithstanding all his sin, which could rise up to the spirit of these sublime compositions, the treasure of the Church in all ages!

David lived close to God; his heart beat very near his Lord's; no wonder that his joy was so ecstatic, his rapture so uncontrollable as with leaps and bounds he danced before the Lord. Did we seek God's society as he sought it perhaps we too should know something of the rapture of his joy. If you tell me that you experience no consciousness of bliss in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament I shall tell you that it is probably because you are so indifferent to Holy Communion. The Lord is found of them that seek Him, and no one can earnestly cultivate the society of the Most High without finding the sweetness, the ineffable joy of that association.

III. Once more, David's dancing before the Lord was a proof of his zeal for the service of God. St. Ambrose represents him as ascending with leaps and bounds even to the seat of our Lord Christ, so that he might hear and see the Lord saying unto his Lord, "Sit Thou at my right hand until I make Thine enemies Thy footstool." He could not restrain himself for he burned to be at work in the service of the Lord. How like that Lord again as He cries concerning His passion "I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how am I straitened till it be accomplished!" May we not believe that there then rose up before the king the vision of the house that he would build for the Lord, a worthy dwelling place for the Ark? And his fiery spirit, eager to begin the work, moved his body to express in leaping and bounding its impetuosity. Where do we find among ourselves zeal like that? Thank God that it has not gone quite out of the Church, that for every martyr who falls by the hand of the savage or the yet more dreadful pestilence there are found ten to volunteer in his place; that the newspapers can record almost every day the glad surrender of itself by some pure soul to serve God in the life of religion, or the generous laying down of vast wealth that noble Churches and great houses of mercy may be built. But what of ourselves. How does our zeal display itself! What sort of dancing before the Lord do men behold in our lives? You reply perhaps, we cannot build Him an house. And David, despite his enthusiasm, was not permitted to build an house. Was his dancing therefore at an end? Nay, he was too true hearted for that; he could sink self and work that others might do what he could not do. With untiring zeal for all the rest of his days the great king went to work to collect great treasures of gold and silver and precious stones, all manner of choice timber and goodly hewn stones, that Solomon his son upon coming to the throne might find abundant material at hand for raising up the house of the Lord. Which one of us is willing to work for posterity after that fashion? to lay foundations upon which others shall build, and to lay them strong and deep and well for the honour of the Lord God and for His Name's sake.

We so often say, Let others work, for I have so little time, or so few gifts, or I do not like that sort of work; let others give for they have much and I have but little, and I cannot see that my little can accomplish anything at all. And so we do not work at all, and we do not give at all, and it is because we have no zeal, and that means we have no love.

Is it not plain that David loved much and therefore was forgiven much? Does not his dancing before the Lord demonstrate his utter self-forgetfulness, his joy in the Lord, his zeal for that Lord's service; and all these mean that his heart was aglow with truest, most devoted love?

May it not suggest a thought for us to carry away with us into our daily lives--something like this: I have sinned many times and most grievously against the Lord; and I am all too painfully aware of the wretched inclinations to evil that are still so strong within me, and because of which I fear that I may fall many times more in the years to come: how then can I hope for salvation? David fell very grievously too. yet he found forgiveness because he loved much.

May it not be that if I love much, much may be forgiven me also? And while I hardly dare say it, I am sure in my inmost heart I do love much. Thou know'st it, O my God, I can forget self in devotion to Thee; Thou art the very joy of my life; I have no such happiness as in spending and being spent for Thee. If this be true, O soul, thou hast ground for hope. Thy dancing before the Lord will not be despised by the Most High. Thou canst make it true; thou canst love much if thou wilt, and love attains to all things, the forgiveness of guilt here, the accomplishment of penance hereafter, the Vision of God in eternity.

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