While reading the book “David,” by Chuck Swindoll, I came across the section where David played on the lyre for Saul. As I read this section, I knew I would have to return and spend some more time. As a worship pastor, I was intrigued by the contrast between Saul and David’s purpose for music.
Now the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and a harmful spirit from the Lord tormented him. 15 And Saul’s servants said to him, “Behold now, a harmful spirit from God is tormenting you. 16 Let our lord now command your servants who are before you to seek out a man who is skillful in playing the lyre, and when the harmful spirit from God is upon you, he will play it, and you will be well.” 1 Samuel 16:14-16
It is not really possible for us to know why God did this. But we know that this harmful spirit was “from the Lord because it plainly says; a harmful spirit from the Lord tormented him. We can realize that, in the Old Testament, God’s spirit didn’t permanently rest on any one other than David and John the Baptist. It wasn’t until the Day of Pentecost that God would send His spirit to permanently rest on His people. As Swindoll says, “when the Spirit of God comes into the believing sinner as salvation, He never leaves.” God no longer causes His Spirit “to depart from” those who are “in Christ,” nor does He send a “harmful spirit” to torment those of us who are “in Christ.” But He did do this to Saul.
It is widely thought that God did this as a form of judgement for Saul’s sin of turning against the Lord. This made it necessary for Saul to need soft, sweet music to relieve the spirit’s torments.
Reading through this chapter, I wondered what we could learn from Saul’s experience. We don’t share Saul’s malady, but perhaps we tend to adopt his purpose for music within our own worship strategies. And whenever the harmful spirit from God was upon Saul, David took the lyre and played it with his hand. So Saul was refreshed and was well, and the harmful spirit departed from him. 1 Samuel 16:23. Swindoll explains that the Hebrew word is ravach and it means “to give space so as to bring relief.” I can relate. Having 3 teenagers and a preschooler, sometimes I just “need a little space.”
Now, the words “refreshed” and “eased” are good words. In fact, I like them very much. We all need refreshed from time to time. This world can beat us up and wear us down. Living life takes it’s toll on us, but I don’t think the purpose for worship is that we be refreshed. That is not the goal of our worship. It is a byproduct of being in the presence of God. Being refreshed will be a symptom of an already-obedient heart. Refreshment is the reward for taking on the yoke of Christ, for He says “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
We would all confess that we worship God because He commands it, and because He deserves it. But we would never say, “I worship because God deserves to refresh me.” It just sounds weird! When it comes to worship, we don’t want to sidestep the object of our worship – God Himself. We miss the point when we focus only on what we can gain.
Often times, we are seeking refreshment from the anxieties and worries of life. Without a doubt, God wants to relieve us of those worries. Jesus says to us in Matthew 6:33 But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. In other words, God is saying, “Trust Me. Obey Me. Worship Me alone. Don’t worry about the things that make you worry. I am taking care of you.”
King Saul was tormented, because he was disobedient. The soothing music allowed him a way to cope with his torment and gain temporary relief, without having to actually repent and obey God. Saul had no intention of reconciling himself to God. He settled for the temporary refreshment.
David gives us a complete contrast to what we see in Saul. Where Saul has the goal to soothe his tormented soul, David desires to be made right in God’s presence. Saul desired to be pleased by the music, but David desired to please the Lord. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. Psalm 51:17.
In Psalm 51:11 David, in his song, asks God, “Cast me not away from your presence and take not your Holy Spirit from me.” How interesting! This same David who played to soothe a tormenting Saul, from whom God’s spirit had departed, now asks that God not take His spirit from David. I don’t know about you, but that seems like more than a coincidence to me. I’m so glad that we no longer have to resort to that request. Jesus declared that He would always be with us. Never will he leave us or forsake us. As we’ve already learned, God did not permanently rest his spirit on any one until the Day of Pentecost, except for David and John the Baptist.
During the closing verses of Psalm 51, we see that David recognized something very significant. God desires worshipers! For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. Psalm 51:16. David knew that it wasn’t the burnt offering, and it wasn’t the sacrifices that pleased God. Those were merely a medium to symbolize what it was that God really desired. God desires that we offer ourselves to him – that we offer hearts and lives, broken by our sin, and bendable for his correcting. This verse also looks forward to what Paul would tell us in Roman: I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Romans 12:1. David rightly viewed the physical sacrifice as a symbol of “dieing to his sinfulness.”
So, the question is – what is our goal when we worship? Is it to be soothed, refreshed and made to feel better, or is it to die to ourselves and offer wholeheartedly our very lives to God? Do we choose to make confession, or do we choose to seek refreshment while we live our lives in disobedience to God?