Bible and biblical

David and Saul

Writers are at the mercy of publishers when it comes to book covers. But the choice of this painting for the front of my book Fear and Trust: God-centred leadership is inspired. It is the work of a French artist, Leslie Xuereb.  

It shows two figures. 

One is a king on a bulky throne, crowned and gripping a spear.

The other is a musician, simply clothed, bare feet, perched on their toes on a stool too high to comfortably balance the large harp on their lap. It could be a man or a woman unless you know the story. 

It is in fact Saul and David.

Though they are in the same picture they are separated by a hard white light – a shared vocation but very separate destinies.  

The background is stormy and threatening.

Both are attentive – inclining their heads to the centre of the picture, which is a large harp. 

The harp is gold – as is the crown. And harp and crown incline towards each other. The music of the harp will interpret the vocation of the monarchy. 

The image of David is full colour and alive. He receives the harp with open hands.

Saul is deathly pale. His posture is ambivalent, his back to the centre of the picture, twisting awkwardly, even reluctantly on the throne to attend to the music. His face is flushed and disturbed. 

The harp also appears to be resisting the place of the throne itself in the picture – pushing it to the side. The message is clear. The throne is not the centre here – even if its carving has caught something of the likeness of the harp. But Institutions never are the centre they presume themselves to be. They too must incline and learn to attend. 

Saul’s spear slopes away from the centre too and he is gripping it in his left hand – in a culture where the right hand is the one that wields the power and initiative. The right hand holds our strength. But he presents from his left.

Whenever we grip status, authority or anything as a weapon to compensate our weakness rather than fulfill our vocation – we will be using power manipulatively. And the painting warns us it will drain us of life.  And that was Saul –  a person who never really found his strength and who more often acted out of weakness. His was a vocation that never quite began, a music left unplayed. He is an image of fear not trust.

But though David seems in harmony with the music and the harp rests on his lap he is not here the idealized, heroic alternative that Christian teaching too often assumes. 

He is not the centre of the picture either. He too must incline and listen to the music. He too must learn the use, not abuse, his vocation. 

It is the paradox of music that it can only be made by working with things that are in tension or even contradiction to each other. It requires the ability to harmonise across diversity, to embrace difference … the sensitivity to co-operate with rather than impose or dominate. 

The contemplation of power in this picture – creative or destructive, fearful or trusting – is about far more than Saul and David.

There is no one here whose life and vocation is not found in this picture too. 

It is not the story that is being told in 1&2 Samuel – but how it is being told that makes this it so telling. The storytelling art is more that of a musician than a modern documentary or history lesson. Now as then the task is not to master yet more strategies or techniques but to learn to incline – to listen to a music that is playing.

As we seek the interpreting and redeeming of the story of our own trouble times this ancient saga models ways of trusting and responding, told by one, who long ago learned to listen to the music that was playing across the turbulence of his times – and understood – and trusted.

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