“be merciful to me and hear my prayer”
It is impossible to know exactly when King David might have written this song, but it’s not difficult to come up with possibilities because no biblical story, save the gospels, is as complete, as much a great novel, as the story of King David. No Old Testament story has so complete a record of triumphs—but then, no OT story includes so many tales of woe.
No one will ever know, but it could have been sometime around the story of the curse of Shimei, son of Gera (II Samuel 16). Shimei came from King Saul’s tribe, the people of the King whom David had replaced. There remained in him, and probably others, more than a little animosity.
To say that King David is on the skids at the time of Shimei’s cursing is a royal understatement. Running away the way he is, David seems more a buffoon than a king. His rule has turned into disrule because of a flashy charismatic politico with looks to die for. For years, this national idol has stood just outside the palace and pandered to the people, promising them the justice he claimed they’d never get from the dirty rotten King. The Bible says this demi-god wouldn’t let people bow before him; instead, he’d kiss them. “He stole the hearts of the men of Israel”—that’s the Word of God.
Human beings are drawn to beauty like flies to honey. Some things don’t change.
But David is on the run, literally, at the time of Shimei’s curse, hoping simply to save his own life. It’s not among the great moments of his kingship.
Enter this man Shimei, a bit player really, a man who becomes the voice of King David’s own horror. Instead of bowing the king, Shimei hurls insults. “The Lord has repaid you for all the blood you shed in the household of Saul,” he screams. “You have come to ruin because you are a man of blood.”
Must have made the court go dumb.
David listens to the tirade, and when one of his aids asks for permission to lop off the offender’s head, he won’t hear of it. “Leave him alone,” he says; “let him curse, for the Lord has told him to.”
Now this charismatic rebel who is attempting to usurp the throne is, of course, the King’s own son, Absalom, and everyone knows it. David says that if his own son hates him so much, how much more should this man of the tribe of the former king.
King David worrying can make Hamlet’s worrying seem impetuous. He’s a world-class brooder, David, capable of remarkable bravery, as well a species of intense, selfless faith some might almost call blind. There are those who think hi bi-polar because his emotional valleys run fully as deep as his almost monstrous highs (remember that wild strip tease of a dance when he led the Ark back to Jerusalem?). But right here, with Shimei’s stinging public rebuke echoing through the castle, he’s in as dark a place as he’s ever found. Somewhere reverberating in his soul are the words of Nathan, too—the curse on his house after Uriah and Bathsheba.
I’m speculating, of course. Shimei’s screed may not be the point in time when David’s sleeplessness prompted him to write Psalm 4; there were other such moments in great plenty.
But if you want to feel the dislocation that’s so much the pattern of this psalm, think about David, the victim of his own beloved son. “Have mercy on me, Lord,” he says.
It’s no cliché.
Lord, have mercy.