“How the king of Israel distinguished himself today! He uncovered himself today in the eyes of his servant maids as one of the foolish ones shamelessly uncovers himself!” ( 2 Samuel 6:20).
It’s hard being best remembered for your worst moment. But this is what we find when we think of Michal, daughter of Saul, wife of David. We remember her most for her longest speech in Scripture: the scathing words she poured upon David as she rebuked him for his abandoned worship before the Lord. While all the people rejoiced, Michal looked out the palace window and despised him in her heart. And when David returned to the palace she wasted no time letting him know her critical thoughts. The application I most frequently hear drawn from this passage is that it’s not our place to judge another’s worship. That’s true, but I think there may be another truth to glean. To do that, though, we must first ask the question: how did we get here?
To answer that question, we have to begin by backing up about 10 to 15 years or so. We first meet Michal as a young woman living in her father’s palace. She is introduced simply as Michal, Saul’s daughter, who “loved David” (1 Samuel 18:20). Saul, already hardened in his jealousy and hatred of David, offers her to David in marriage for the bride price of 100 Philistine foreskins. For Saul, it’s a win-win: either David falls by the hand of the Philistines, or he has his daughter in place to use as a “snare” against her husband. David returns with 200 foreskins, and the wedding takes place. When Saul understands that Michal truly loves David, Saul grows even more afraid of his rival.
It couldn’t have been an easy way to start off marriage—under the scrutiny and political intrigue of palace life, caught between her husband and a murderously insane father. FinallySaul takes action and attempts to kill David. Michal intervenes and urges David to flee. She lowers a rope through the window so he can escape and hides a household idol in his bed to buy him some time. When Saul confronts his daughter, Michal insinuates that David threatened her life if she didn’t help. It’s an obvious lie according to the story, but it averts her father’s wrath.
So David flees, and Michal is left alone at her father’s mercy. Time passes. You have to wonder—did Michal expect David to return for her? She was his wife, after all. Her brother was his best friend. Surely this great hero, this legend in battle, could arrange tosomehow spirit her away under her father’s nose. But David never comes. Granted, he’s busy. Running from Saul, gathering supporters, taking other wives . . .
Other wives? Yup. At least two, by the end of chapter 25. And perhaps, somewhere along the way, Michal starts to suspect what a careful reader already knows: she loves David, but he doesn’t love her. Her father gives her as a bride to another man: Palti, the son of Laish.
More time passes. It’s hard to determine precisely how long, since few dates in David’s chronology are very firm. But we know he reins over Judah alone for seven years and was on the run from Saul for some period of time. My best guess is that Michal lives as Palti’s wife for at least 10 years, and possibly longer. That’s a long time. Longer than she had been married to David in the first place. Long enough for sincere affection and respect to grow between them. When David finally sends for her—after he has been established as king of Israel, and most likely seeking a political tool to build allegiance among those Israelites still loyal to the line of Saul– Palti follows behind her, weeping. We don’t know how Michal felt about him, but Palti it seems, loved her.
Can you blame her for being bitter? Can you blame her for being angry? This is just my theory, but I think somewhere along the way to Jerusalem, her husband weeping behind her, that kernel of hurt left from David’s abandonment hardened into bitterness and anger. Somehow I doubt that Michal wanted to return to David at that point. But in an age where women were largely regarded as property and king’s daughters were raised to be political pawns, she had no choice. The king commanded. Michal went.
The other piece to this puzzle is that we don’t know much about Michal’s relationship with God—or if she had one. Saul, we must admit, was not the best example of a faithful Israelite. While we are told repeatedly that Michal loved David, nothing is said about the Lord. And then there is that curious matter of the household idol she uses to cover David’s escape—what is that doing in David’s home? Could it be that Michal was responsible for its presence there?
What we do know is that she misses the point of the party. The ark, the symbol of God’s abiding presence, was finally being brought to its rightful place in Jerusalem. By bringing the ark home, David was signaling that he wanted the Lord to be at the center of Israel’s social, political, and religious life. That God allowed the ark to be safely transported after the tragedy of the first attempt was a sign of God’s favor and blessing. No wonder David dances and leaps for joy. But through her lens of bitterness and anger, Michal misses the wonder of a king dancing with abandoned joy before his God. She sees only a man making a fool of himself, and she despises him for it.
Hebrews 12:15 says “See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springing up causes trouble, and by it many be defiled.” I recently heard bitterness defined as “unfulfilled revenge.” Bitterness is what happens when our hurts harden into hatred, when we hold on to the sour taste of our pain rather than embracing God’s comfort and healing.
And this, I think, is Michal’s real problem. Life did not go her way. She had every reason to be angry and hurt. But she also had choices of how she responded. We have no record that she ever turned to God for comfort and purpose through the pain. And let’s be honest: you would be hard pressed to search the pages of Scripture and find someone for whom life did work out according to plan. One of the amazing things about the story of redemption is God’s ability to step in and bring beauty from our ashes. Surely this grace was available to Michal also—and yet she missed it. Bitterness blinded her to the divine activity going on in the streets below. Instead of an amazing confirmation of God’s grace and favor, she saw only foolishness. In that moment, she spoke from the bitterness of her heart. And for that, she was judged.
We all have Michal’s in our lives. We have those people around us who have allowed hurt and hardship to turn them bitter and cold. Sometimes it’s a family member; sometimes a member of our church family. How do we respond to those people? I think one way is by doing all we can, as much as it lies with us, to be at peace with them. We cannot control other’s reactions or responses, but we can stand in the integrity of our hearts and know that we have done rightly in our treatment of this person. And, I think we can also look for opportunities to point them gently to God’s grace. Our God, after all, is a healer—even of bitter, broken hearts.
There is a little Michal in all of us. Bitterness has a seductive whisper. We hear it when we find out the prince we married has a few frog-like warts., when no matter how hard we try we never seem to get ahead. It’s there when dreams collide with reality, when prayers seem to go unanswered, when friends tell us those things “we need to know for our own good.” Sometimes life just hurts. And sometimes—more often than we would like—life doesn’t turn out like we thought it would. Yet, like Michal, we have choices. God gives us the grace to forgive. He providesbalm for our souls. And on the other side of the pain comes rejoicing. Choose joy.