A year ago, best-selling author Joseph Heller (Catch 22, Good as Gold) tried his hand at retelling the life of King David. The resulting book, God Knows, met with little success, and a Time magazine reviewer suggested the reason: no novelization could make King David’s life any spicier than the Bible itself.

The original sources, 1 and 2 Samuel, need no embellishment. They include all the seamy parts: the lies and deceits, the endless battles, the acts of bravado, the feigned insanity, the family failures, the adultery, the murder.

Heller’s mildly irreverent book does raise a question, an unavoidable question, that dangles over the biblical record as well. How could David, so obviously flawed, be called “a man after God’s own heart”? What was David’s secret?

I have recently started a reading exercise that just may offer a clue. I am comparing, to use the current jargon, David’s inward journey with his outward journey.

The Book of Psalms, with its 73 poems attributed to David, offers a window into his soul. Some of those 73 have introductory comments that allow us to check the actual circumstances in which they were written. For my exercise, I read from David’s spiritual diary first, in the Psalms. From the evidence in that “inner” record, I try to imagine what “outer” events prompted such words. And then I turn to the historical account in the Books of Samuel.

Psalm 56 records the famous words, “In God I trust,” and in it David credits God for delivering his soul from death and his feet from stumbling. Reading the psalm, I try to envision the circumstances. It sounds as if God miraculously intervened and rescued David. But what actually happened? When I turn to 1 Samuel 21, I see a scared and desperate prisoner drooling spittle and flinging himself like a madman in order to save his neck.

I read these words in Psalm 59: “O my strength, I sing praise to you; you, O God, are my fortress, my loving God.” Again, it seems from the psalm that God miraculously saved David’s life. But in 1 Samuel 19, the corresponding passage, I find David sneaking out through a window, and his wife tricking his pursuers with a statue wrapped in goats’ hair.

I read of weakness and trembling in Psalm 57, of a fugitive crying out for mercy. David must have been wavering in faith when that psalm was written, I think. But I turn to 1 Samuel 24 and its record of the historical context, and see one of the most extraordinary displays of defiant courage in all of history.

And finally, I read a summation of David’s entire military career in Psalm 18, written when, undisputed king at last, David sat back and reflected on all his adventures. The psalm describes in incandescent detail miracles from God that, time after time, saved David’s life.

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If you read just that psalm, and not the history, you would think David lived a particularly charmed and sheltered life. The psalm tells nothing of the years on the run, the all-night battles, the chase scenes, and the wily escape plots that fill the pages of 1 and 2 Samuel.

In short, if you read the psalms attributed to David you might envision a pious, other-worldly hermit, or a timid, neurotic soul favored by God, but not a giant of strength and valor. What can explain the disparity between two biblical records, of David’s inward and outward journeys?

Actually, all of us experience an inner life and an outer life simultaneously. We perceive life as a kind of movie, consisting of characters and sets and twists of plot—with ourselves playing the starring roles.

If I attend the same event as you (say, a party) I will take home similar “outer” facts about what happened and who was there, but a wholly different “inner” point of view. My memory will dwell on what impression I made. Was I witty or charming? Did I offend someone, or embarrass myself? Did I look good to others? Most likely you will ask the same questions, but about yourself.

David, however, seemed to view life a little differently. His exploits—killing wild animals bare-handed, felling Goliath, surviving Saul’s onslaughts, routing the Philistines—surely earned him a starring role. But as he reflected on those events, and wrote poems about them, he always found a way to make Jehovah, God of Israel, the One on center stage. Whatever the phrase “practicing the presence of God” means, David experienced. He intentionally involved God in every detail of his life.

Throughout his life David believed, truly believed, that the invisible world of God, heaven, and the angels was every bit as real as his own world of swords and spears and caves and thrones. The psalms form a record of his conscious effort to subject his own daily life to the reality of that invisible world beyond him.

Psalm 57 illustrates this process as well as any. David composed it, the title says, when he had fled from Saul into a cave. First Samuel 24 sets the scene: Saul with his well-armed hordes had completely encircled David’s small band. Blocked off from all escape, David holed up in a cave next to a sheep pen.

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The psalm expresses anxiety and fear, of course. But it ends with an oddly triumphant imperative, “Be exalted, O God, above the heavens; let your glory be over all the earth.” Somehow, in the process of writing, David was able to lift his eyes from the dank, smelly cave to the heavens above. In the most unlikely of settings, he came to affirm, simply, “God reigns.”

Perhaps it was the next morning that David strode out, unarmed, and confronted King Saul’s entire army with no weapon but an appeal to conscience. Perhaps the very process of writing the psalm had emboldened him for such a bravura display of moral courage.

Few of us, fortunately, live on the edge of danger like David did. But we do, like David, have times when nerves fail, when fear creeps in, when it seems that God has withdrawn, when hostile forces have us surrounded. At such a moment I turn to the Psalms.

I have a sneaking suspicion that David wrote the psalms as a form of spiritual therapy, a way of “talking himself into” faith when his spirit and emotions were wavering. And now, centuries later, we can use those very same prayers as steps of faith, a path to lead us from an obsession with ourselves to the actual presence of our God.

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