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Timeline: David, Warrior Artist

This famous painting by Rembrandt depicts young David playing the lyre for King Saul to ease the king's mind.
U.S. Public Domain
This famous painting by Rembrandt depicts young David playing the lyre for King Saul to ease the king's mind.

We are continuing our series of episodes based on the biographical sketches found in Lewis Holmes' book The Mystery of Music. This story dates back to ancient Israel, around 1000 BCE.


In the biblical text of I Samuel chapter 16 we find the first king of Israel, Saul, suffering from a troubled mind. Saul’s advisors suggested that he seek a musician, a skillful player of the lyre; which might ease his pain. The lyre was an important symbol of divine connection, a means of communicating with God. The advisors recommended a shepherd boy named David, whose musical talents were well-known. Saul called on the young musician and David’s lyre calmed the “evil spirits” that plagued the king’s mind.

In the very next chapter, David slays the giant Goliath with nothing but a sling and a rock. These two stories are given equal weight in the narrative. David is described as the warrior artist, the military musician. His musical influence is evident in three major world religions. Judaism and Christianity both revere David’s psalms as the model for religious, musical expression and Islam honors David for having “the most beautiful voice that God created.”

An ancient document found at Qumran in Palestine claims that David wrote over 4000 songs. Tradition attributes 73 of the 150 poems of the biblical book Psalms to him as well. Psalm 144 depicts David playing the ten-stringed lyre, which some even suggest he invented. These numbers and these claims are not agreed upon by modern scholars. There’s quite a bit of controversy here. What is clear is that David stood, and still stands, as an important figure of religious music.

Most scholars do agree that David likely wrote the song that is found in the first chapter of II Samuel, a lamentation for the death of King Saul and his son Jonathan, David’s best friend.

Saul and Jonathan, beloved and lovely! In life and in death they were not divided: They were swifter than eagles, They were stronger than lions. How are the mighty fallen, And the weapons of war perished!

The story of David’s ascendency to the throne is long and complicated, but his 33 year reign as king saw the birth of a mighty empire. Not only was David noted for his victories in battle, but also for playing music, composing songs and leading in worship and dance. It’s thought that David’s use of raucous celebration, especially in front of the Ark of the Covenant through the streets of Jerusalem, was a means of bridging the divide between the conquering Israelites and the native Canaanites. David established that city as the political, religious and artistic center of the entire kingdom. His legacy lives on in that region and in the religious practices of billions around the globe. Not bad for a lyre playing shepherd boy from Bethlehem.

Learn more about King David in Lewis Holmes’ book The Mystery of Music.

Timeline is an exploration into the development of Western music.

James Stewart is Vermont Public Classical's afternoon host. As a composer, he is interested in many different genres of music; writing for rock bands, symphony orchestras and everything in between.
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