There is first an invocation, in the highest strain of devout poetry, calling upon the "sons of God," the angels who dwell above the lower sky, and who see from above the slow gathering of the storm-clouds, to ascribe to Jehovah the glory of His name -- His character as set forth in the tempest. They are to cast themselves before Him "in holy attire," as priests of the heavenly sanctuary. Their silent and expectant worship is like the brooding stillness before the storm. We feel the waiting hush in heaven and earth.
Then the tempest breaks. It crashes and leaps through the short sentences, each like the clap of the near thunder.
a. The voice of Jehovah (is) on the waters.
b. The voice of Jehovah rending the cedars!
c. The voice of Jehovah shakes the desert,
The voice of Jehovah makes the hinds writhe
Seven times the roar shakes the world. The voice of the seven thunders is the voice of Jehovah. In the short clauses, with their uniform structure, the pause between, and the recurrence of the same initial words, we hear the successive peals, the silence that parts them, and the monotony of their unvaried sound. Thrice we have the reverberation rolling through the sky or among the hills, imitated by clauses which repeat previous ones, as indicated by the italics, and one forked flame blazes out in the brief, lightning-like sentence, "The voice of Jehovah (is) hewing flashes of fire," which wonderfully gives the impression of their streaming fiercely forth, as if cloven from some solid block of fire, their swift course, and their instantaneous extinction.
The range and effects of the storm, too, are vividly painted. It is first "on the waters," which may possibly mean the Mediterranean, but more probably, "the waters that are above the firmament," and so depicts the clouds as gathering high in air. Then it comes down with a crash on the northern mountains, splintering the gnarled cedars, and making Lebanon rock with all its woods -- leaping across the deep valley of Coelo-Syria, and smiting Hermon (for which Sirion is a Sidonian name), the crest of the Anti Lebanon, till it reels. Onward it sweeps -- or rather, perhaps, it is all around the psalmist; and even while he hears the voice rolling from the furthest north, the extreme south echoes the roar. The awful voice shakes[E] the wilderness, as it booms across its level surface. As far south as Kadesh (probably Petra) the tremor spreads, and away in the forests of Edom the wild creatures in their terror slip their calves, and the oaks are scathed and stripped of their leafy honours. And all the while, like a mighty diapason sounding on through the tumult, the voice of the sons of God in the heavenly temple is heard proclaiming "Glory!"
[E] Delitzsch would render "whirls in circles" -- a picturesque allusion to the sand pillars which accompany storms in the desert.
The psalm closes with lofty words of confidence, built on the story of the past, as well as on the contemplation of the present. "Jehovah sat throned for (i.e., to send on earth) the flood" which once drowned the world of old. "Jehovah will sit throned, a King for ever." That ancient judgment spoke of His power over all the forces of nature, in their most terrible form. So now and for ever, all are His servants, and effect His purposes. Then, as the tempest rolls away, spent and transient, the sunshine streams out anew from the softened blue over a freshened world, and every raindrop on the leaves twinkles into diamond light, and the end of the psalm is like the after brightness; and the tranquil low voice of its last words is like the songs of the birds again as the departing storm growls low and faint on the horizon. "The Lord will bless His people with peace."
Thus, then, nature spoke to this young heart. The silence was vocal; the darkness, bright; the tumult, order -- and all was the revelation of a present God. It is told of one of our great writers that, when a child, he was found lying on a hill-side during a thunderstorm, and at each flash clapping his hands and shouting, unconscious of danger, and stirred to ecstasy. David, too, felt all the poetic elevation, and natural awe, in the presence of the crashing storm; but he felt something more. To him the thunder was not a power to tremble before, not a mere subject for poetic contemplation. Still less was it something, the like of which could be rubbed out of glass and silk, and which he had done with when he knew its laws. No increase of knowledge touching the laws of physical phenomena in the least affects the point of view which these Nature-psalms take. David said, "God makes and moves all things." We may be able to complete the sentence by a clause which tells something of the methods of His operation. But that is only a parenthesis after all, and the old truth remains widened, not overthrown by it. The psalmist knew that all being and action had their origin in God. He saw the last links of the chain, and knew that it was rivetted to the throne of God, though the intermediate links were unseen; and even the fact that there were any was not present to his mind. We know something of these; but the first and the last of the series to him, are the first and the last to us also. To us as to him, the silent splendour of noonday speaks of God, and the nightly heavens pour the soft radiance of His "excellent name over all the earth." The tempest is His voice, and the wildest commotions in nature and among men break in obedient waves around His pillared throne.
"Well roars the storm to those who hear
There still remains one other psalm which may be used as illustrating the early life of David. The Twenty-third psalm is coloured throughout by the remembrances of his youthful occupation, even if its actual composition is of a later date. Some critics, indeed, think that the mention in the last verse of "the house of the Lord" compels the supposition of an origin subsequent to the building of the Temple; but the phrase in question need not have anything to do with tabernacle or temple, and is most naturally accounted for by the preceding image of God as the Host who feasts His servants at His table. There are no other notes of time in the psalm, unless, with some commentators, we see an allusion in that image of the furnished table to the seasonable hospitality of the Gileadite chieftains during David's flight before Absalom (2 Sam. xvii.27-29) -- a reference which appears prosaic and flat. The absence of traces of distress and sorrow -- so constantly present in the later songs -- may be urged with some force in favour of the early date; and if we follow one of the most valuable commentators (Hupfeld) in translating all the verbs as futures, and so make the whole a hymn of hope, we seem almost obliged to suppose that we have here the utterance of a youthful spirit, which ventured to look forward, because it first looked upward. In any case, the psalm is a transcript of thoughts that had been born and cherished in many a meditative hour among the lonely hills of Bethlehem. It is the echo of the shepherd life. We see in it the incessant care, the love to his helpless charge, which was expressed in and deepened by all his toil for them. He had to think for their simplicity, to fight for their defencelessness, to find their pasture, to guard them while they lay amid the fresh grass; sometimes to use his staff in order to force their heedlessness with loving violence past tempting perils; sometimes to guide them through gloomy gorges, where they huddled close at his heels; sometimes to smite the lion and the bear that prowled about the fold -- but all was for their good and meant their comfort. And thus he has learned, in preparation for his own kingdom, the inmost meaning of pre-eminence among men -- and, more precious lesson still, thus he has learned the very heart of God. Long before, Jacob had spoken of Him as the "Shepherd of Israel;" but it was reserved for David to bring that sweet and wonderful name into closer relations with the single soul; and, with that peculiar enthusiasm of personal reliance, and recognition of God's love to the individual which stamps all his psalms, to say "The Lord is my Shepherd." These dumb companions of his, in their docility to his guidance, and absolute trust in his care, had taught him the secret of peace in helplessness, of patience in ignorance. The green strips of meadow-land where the clear waters brought life, the wearied flocks sheltered from the mid-day heat, the quiet course of the little stream, the refreshment of the sheep by rest and pasture, the smooth paths which he tried to choose for them, the rocky defiles through which they had to pass, the rod in his hand that guided, and chastised, and defended, and was never lifted in anger, -- all these, the familiar sights of his youth, pass before us as we read; and to us too, in our widely different social state, have become the undying emblems of the highest care and the wisest love. The psalm witnesses how close to the youthful heart the consciousness of God must have been, which could thus transform and glorify the little things which were so familiar. We can feel, in a kind of lazy play of sentiment, the fitness of the shepherd's life to suggest thoughts of God -- because it is not our life. But it needs both a meditative habit and a devout heart to feel that the trivialities of our own daily tasks speak to us of Him. The heavens touch the earth on the horizon of our vision, but it always seems furthest to the sky from the spot where we stand. To the psalmist, however, -- as in higher ways to his Son and Lord, -- all things around him were full of God; and as the majesties of nature, so the trivialities of man's works -- shepherds and fishermen -- were solemn with deep meanings and shadows of the heavenly. With such lofty thoughts he fed his youth.
The psalm, too, breathes the very spirit of sunny confidence and of perfect rest in God. We have referred to the absence of traces of sorrow, and to the predominant tone of hopefulness, as possibly favouring the supposition of an early origin. But it matters little whether they were young eyes which looked so courageously into the unknown future, or whether we have here the more solemn and weighty hopes of age, which can have few hopes at all, unless they be rooted in God. The spirit expressed in the psalm is so thoroughly David's, that in his younger days, before it was worn with responsibilities and sorrows, it must have been especially strong. We may therefore fairly take the tone of this song of the Shepherd God as expressing the characteristic of his godliness in the happy early years. In his solitude he was glad. One happy thought fills the spirit; one simple emotion thrills the chords of his harp. No doubts, or griefs, or remorse throw their shadows upon him. He is conscious of dependence, but he is above want and fear. He does not ask, he has -- he possesses God, and is at rest in Him. He is satisfied with that fruition which blesseth all who hunger for God, and is the highest form of communion with Him. As the present has no longings, the future has no terrors. All the horizon is clear, all the winds are still, the ocean at rest, "and birds of peace sit brooding on the charmed wave." If there be foes, God holds them back. If there lie far off among the hills any valley of darkness, its black portals cast no gloom over him, and will not when he enters. God is his Shepherd, and, by another image, God is his Host. The life which in one aspect, by reason of its continual change, and occupation with outward things, may be compared to the journeyings of a flock, is in another aspect, by reason of its inward union with the stability of God, like sitting ever at the table which His hand has spread as for a royal banquet, where the oil of gladness glistens on every head, and the full cup of Divine pleasure is in every hand. For all the outward and pilgrimage aspect, the psalmist knows that only Goodness and Mercy -- these two white-robed messengers of God -- will follow his steps, however long may be the term of the days of his yet young life; for all the inward, he is sure that, in calm, unbroken fellowship, he will dwell in the house of God, and that when the twin angels who fed and guided him all his young life long have finished their charge, and the days of his journeyings are ended, there stretches beyond a still closer union with his heavenly Friend, which will be perfected in His true house "for ever." We look in vain for another example, even in David's psalms, of such perfect, restful trust in God. These clear notes are perhaps the purest utterance ever given of "the peace of God which passeth all understanding."
Such were the thoughts and hopes of the lad who kept his father's sheep at Bethlehem. He lived a life of lofty thoughts and lowly duties. He heard the voice of God amidst the silence of the hills, and the earliest notes of his harp echoed the deep tones. He learned courage as well as tenderness from his daily tasks, and patience from the contrast between them and the high vocation which Samuel's mysterious anointing had opened before him. If we remember how disturbing an influence the consciousness of it might have wrought in a soul less filled with God, we may perhaps accept as probably correct the superscription which refers one sweet, simple psalm to him, and may venture to suppose that it expresses the contentment, undazzled by visions of coming greatness, that calmed his heart. "Lord, my heart is not haughty, nor mine eyes lofty; neither do I exercise myself in great matters, or in things too high for me. Surely I have smoothed and quieted my soul: like a weanling on his mother's (breast), like a weanling is my soul within me." (Psa. cxxxi.) So lying in God's arms, and content to be folded in His embrace, without seeking anything beyond, he is tranquil in his lowly lot.
It does not fall within our province to follow the course of the familiar narrative through the picturesque events that led him to fame and position at court. The double character of minstrel and warrior, to which we have already referred, is remarkably brought out in his double introduction to Saul, once as soothing the king's gloomy spirit with the harmonies of his shepherd's harp, once as bringing down the boasting giant of Gath with his shepherd's sling. On the first occasion his residence in the palace seems to have been ended by Saul's temporary recovery. He returns to Bethlehem for an indefinite time, and then leaves it and all its peaceful tasks for ever. The dramatic story of the duel with Goliath needs no second telling. His arrival at the very crisis of the war, the eager courage with which he leaves his baggage in the hands of the guard and runs down the valley to the ranks of the army, the busy hum of talk among the Israelites, the rankling jealousy of his brother that curdles into bitter jeers, the modest courage with which he offers himself as champion, the youthful enthusiasm of brave trust in "the Lord, that delivered me out of the paw of the lion, and out of the paw of the bear;" the wonderfully vivid picture of the young hero with his shepherd staff in one hand, his sling in the other, and the rude wallet by his side, which had carried his simple meal, and now held the smooth stone from the brook that ran between the armies in the bottom of the little valley -- the blustering braggadocio of the big champion, the boy's devout confidence in "the name of the Lord of hosts;" the swift brevity of the narrative of the actual fight, which in its hurrying clauses seems to reproduce the light-footed eagerness of the young champion, or the rapid whizz of the stone ere it crashed into the thick forehead; the prostrate bulk of the dead giant prone upon the earth, and the conqueror, slight and agile, hewing off the huge head with Goliath's own useless sword; -- all these incidents, so full of character, so antique in manner, so weighty with lessons of the impotence of strength that is merely material, and the power of a living enthusiasm of faith in God, may, for our present purposes, be passed with a mere glance. One observation may, however, be allowed. After the victory, Saul is represented as not knowing who David was, and as sending Abner to find out where he comes from. Abner, too, professes entire ignorance; and when David appears before the king, "with the head of the Philistine in his hand," he is asked, "Whose son art thou, young man?" It has been thought that here we have an irreconcilable contradiction with previous narratives, according to which there was close intimacy between him and the king, who "loved him greatly," and gave him an office of trust about his person. Suppositions of "dislocation of the narrative," the careless adoption by the compiler of two separate legends, and the like, have been freely indulged in. But it may at least be suggested as a possible explanation of the seeming discrepancy, that when Saul had passed out of his moody madness it is not wonderful that he should have forgotten all which had occurred in his paroxysm. It is surely a common enough psychological phenomenon that a man restored to sanity has no remembrance of the events during his mental aberration. And as for Abner's profession of ignorance, an incipient jealousy of this stripling hero may naturally have made the "captain of the host" willing to keep the king as ignorant as he could concerning a probable formidable rival. There is no need to suppose he was really ignorant, but only that it suited him to say that he was.
With this earliest deed of heroism the peaceful private days are closed, and a new epoch of court favour and growing popularity begins. The impression which the whole story leaves upon one is well summed up in a psalm which the Septuagint adds to the Psalter. It is not found in the Hebrew, and has no pretension to be David's work; but, as a resume of the salient points of his early life, it may fitly end our considerations of this first epoch.
"This is the autograph psalm of David, and beyond the number (i.e., of the psalms in the Psalter), when he fought the single fight with Goliath: --
"(1.) I was little among my brethren, and the youngest in the house of my father: I kept the flock of my father. (2.) My hands made a pipe, my fingers tuned a psaltery. (3.) And who shall tell it to my Lord? He is the Lord, He shall hear me. (4.) He sent His angel (messenger), and took me from the flocks of my father, and anointed me with the oil of His anointing. (5.) But my brethren were fair and large, and in them the Lord took not pleasure. (6.) I went out to meet the Philistine, and he cursed me by his idols. (7.) But I, drawing his sword, beheaded him, and took away reproach from the children of Israel."