This is a pretty famous picture in Australia’s history. It is of a man dancing through the streets of Sydney at the end of World War Two. After nearly six years of fighting, the arrival of peace brought this man such joy that he danced through the city. It’s interesting to look at the people’s reactions around him. Some of their faces reflect his joy, while others are confused and a bit surprised at this actions. I wonder if anyone disapproved of what he did.
What motivated King David to start dancing in 2 Samuel 6:1-19 was the arrival of the Ark of the Covenant in Jerusalem. The Ark had been made almost five hundred years earlier by Moses when the Israelites had left slavery in Egypt and were camped at Mount Sinai. It contained the two stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments were written, a jar of manna – the food God had provided for the Israelites during their forty years in the wilderness – and the staff of Aaron, Moses’ brother (see Hebrews 9:3,4). For the Israelites of the Old Testament, the Ark of the Covenant represented the presence of God. They believed that wherever the Ark was, that was where they could find God to give them blessing and peace.
We don’t know whether David’s dance was premeditated or spontaneous. There is also a bit of disagreement among biblical scholars about what the ‘linen ephod’ (v9 NIV) was that David was wearing. Some argue that is was a garment that priests wore (see Exodus 28:6,7). It would have been extremely controversial for the king to be dressed as a priest. They were two very different roles in Jewish society. If the ‘linen ephod’ meant that the king was dressed in a ‘priestly garment’ (NLT), effectively bringing the two roles together in one person, then this can point us to Jesus, a descendant of David, who functions as both our eternal King and High Priest.
What was most scandalous about David’s dancing was that he was ‘shamelessly exposing himself to the servant girls’ (v20 NLT) while he danced. Michal in particular was upset as she looked down at the spectacle from her window (v16). David’s relationship with Michal was already complicated. She was the daughter of Israel’s first king, Saul, who had given her to David in marriage as part of his reward when David killed Goliath (see 1 Samuel 18:17-29). Saul had then married her to another man when David had fled from Saul’s court (1 Samuel 25:44). David reunited with Michal when he took the throne (see 2 Samuel 3:12-16) but I can imagine that their relationship would have been strained after Saul had died and David took his crown. Their relationship hit an all-time low when Michal watched David dance through the streets of Jerusalem in what many interpret as his underwear, and ‘she was filled with contempt for him’ (v16 NLT).
Where might we find ourselves in this story? Can we picture ourselves in the procession, dancing with David, celebrating the presence of God with us? Or would we be more comfortable upstairs with Michal looking down on something we think is an inappropriate, unacceptable, or even blasphemous expression of worship?
I guess most of us have ideas of what we think are acceptable worship practices. I grew up in a church culture where there were very strict expectations and unwritten rules about what a person did or did not do when we came to services. In my ministry, I have often seen disapproving looks or even outright condemnation because of how people might be dressed (including myself as the pastor!), how they might be behaving, or the amount of noise their children are making (again from personal experience). If we are going to approach worship with a set of rules and expectations, and if we are going to look down on people who do not live up to them, then what makes us any different from Michal, sitting up in her room, looking down with contempt on what she saw happening below her?
When Michal challenged David about his dancing, however, he explained that he was celebrating what God had done for him by making him king (v21). David’s dance wasn’t a choreographed performance for him to look good in front of others or somehow gain their approval. Neither was David dancing because he thought it was fun. David danced because of his joy in God’s goodness to him and to celebrate God’s presence with him. His dance was all about God: it focused on the goodness of God and it celebrated God.
We have even better reasons to celebrate like David. God has made us his ‘royal priests’ and is forming us together into the spiritual temple where God’s presence resides in the world (1 Peter 2:5) through the grace of Christ Jesus. We have not just been given an earthly kingdom like David, but an eternal kingdom through Jesus’ death and resurrection and our adoption into the family of God. We don’t serve at a temporary altar like in the Tabernacle in ancient Jerusalem, but we have access to the throne room of heaven to present our prayers, praises and thanksgivings (see Hebrews 10:19-22). God’s presence isn’t hidden behind a veil, obscured by rituals and religious observances, but we have his presence with us in the nitty-gritty and messiness of life through the Holy Spirit in God’s Word, in the waters of Baptism, in the bread and wine of Holy Communion, and the body of Christ that is the community of believers. David celebrated the presence of God who was still obscured to a large extent. As God’s New Testament people, we celebrate the God who is fully present with us in Jesus through the Holy Spirit!
This doesn’t mean that worship can become a self-indulgent free-for-all or a chaotic exercise in self-gratification. There is still a time and place for reverence, humility and good order in worship (see 1 Corinthians 14:26,40). Maybe what this story can do is broaden our understanding and expressions of worship to include a greater sense of celebration and joy, not at the expense of reverence and good order, but alongside those times when it’s appropriate to be silent before Almighty God and always to build others up in their relationship with our loving Father through Jesus.
Not everyone celebrated the end of the Second World War by dancing in the street. In the same way, not all of God’s people need to celebrate what God has done for us in Jesus by dancing. For some of us, we will celebrate by dancing on the inside. However, if people want to celebrate God’s goodness to them in Jesus by dancing, I’m not going to look down on them like Michal. Instead, we can give thanks that God is at work in each other’s lives through Jesus, making us his royal priests and giving his full presence to us in the Holy Spirit.