Sunday, January 23, 2011

"David danced before the Lord"

Anyone who has ever been engaged in any earnest discussion about liturgy with persons of the progressive camp (or sometimes with charismatics) has probably come across the story of David dancing in front of the Ark of the Covenant being cited as a precedent for liturgical dance and other such exuberant manifestations of piety. The argument as it is usually put forward is that since King David danced before the Ark of the Covenant, there can be no objections to dance being incorporated into modern liturgies. This argument is an interesting one - on the one hand, I don't know a single person against liturgical dance who has been convinced by this argument; on the other hand, I have yet to hear anyone give a real cogent response, either.

Any such response to this argument must both affirm David's antics in front of the Ark (as the Bible seems to) while at the same time explaining why such behavior is not appropriate for the liturgy. Such a response I will attempt to give in this post.

First, the  back story. The account of David dancing before the Ark comes from 2 Samuel 6. In this chapter David is bringing the Ark of the Covenant up to Jerusalem from Kiriath Jearim, where it had sat in the house of Abinadab for the past twenty years (1 Sam. 7:2). The bringing of the Ark up to Jerusalem was a highly festive occasion, for it was the first time in over a generation that the Ark was being returned to the holy tabernacle, its proper dwelling place. According to Scripture, this translation occurred in the context of a great procession. It was in this festive procession that David danced before the Lord:

And when they that carried the ark of the Lord had gone six paces, he sacrificed and ox and a ram: And David danced with all his might before the Lord: and David was girded with a linen ephod. And David and all the house of Israel brought the ark of the covenant of the Lord with joyful shouting, and with sound of trumpet. And when the ark of the Lord was come into the city of David, Michol the daughter of Saul, looking out through a window, saw king David leaping and dancing before the Lord: and she despised him in her heart. And they brought the ark of the Lord, and set it in its place in the midst of the tabernacle, which David had pitched for it: and David offered holocausts, and peace offerings before the Lord (2 Sam. 6:13-17).

In the first place, those who use this verse as a precedent in support of liturgical dancing do so in a very arbitrary, selective manner. David danced before the Lord, true enough; he also did so immodestly dressed, yet none of the proponents of liturgical exuberance would suggest we imitate the King of Israel in this regard. Note that Michal, daughter of Saul "despised" David for his dancing. A few verses later we see the reason for this contempt:

And David returned to bless his own house: and Michol the daughter of Saul coming out to meet David, said: "How glorious was the king of Israel to day, uncovering himself before the handmaids of his servants, and was naked, as if one of the buffoons should be naked" (2 Sam. 6:20).

Apparently, though David was "girded" with a linen ephod, this ephod did not in any way constitute a complete outfit, for David is accused of immodesty and indecency for wearing only the ephod; clearly this ephod didn't leave much to the imagination if he can be described as "naked" while wearing it. Do all of those who use this verse to support the use of dance in the liturgy because of King David's example also propose that we should follow David in doing it while half-naked?

More importantly, however, is the oft forgotten fact that David, besides being a king, was a prophet. The New Testament even declares him so in Acts 2:29-35. Anyone who has read the prophets knows that, besides delivering oral prophecies, the Lord sometimes has them actually "act out" the prophecies to get the point across. St. Thomas says that this is one of four ways in which prophecy may occur, which he calls "outward presentation of sensible images" (II-II, Q. 173, art. 3). A few examples of this sort of prophecy:

Isaiah 20:2-3: The prophet Isaiah is told to prophecy naked for three years time "as a sign and portent against Egypt and Ethiopia", signifying that the Assyrians will lead their captives away naked and barefoot. 

Jeremiah 27:2: To prophecy to coming captivity of the Israelites, the Lord tells the prophet Jeremiah to actually construct a heavy yoke and walk around with it on his shoulders as a sign of the coming bondage to Babylon.

Ezekiel 4: This passage offers us one of the most radical examples of the prophets acting out a prophecy. Ezekiel is told: As for you, son of man, take a clay tablet; lay it in front of you, and draw on it a city [Jerusalem]. Raise a siege against it: build a tower, lay out a ramp, pitch camps, and set up batteringrams all around. Then take an iron griddle and set it up as an iron wall between you and the city. Fix your gaze on it: it shall be in the state of siege, and you shall besiege it. This shall be a sign for the house of Israel. Then you shall lie on your left side, while I place the sins of the house of Israel upon you. As many days as you lie thus, you shall bear their sins. For the years of their sins I allot you the same number of days, three hundred and ninety, during which you will bear the sins of the house of Israel.When you finish this, you are to lie down again, but on your right side, and bear the sins of the house of Judah forty days; one day for each year I have allotted you. Fixing your gaze on the siege of Jerusalem, with bared arm you shall prophesy against it. See, I will bind you with cords so that you cannot turn from one side to the other until you have completed the days of your siege (Ezk. 4:1-8). This is a total of 430 days that Ezekiel spends laying down to signify the coming siege!

Hosea 1: To signify the infidelity of Israel, God commands the prophet Hosea to marry a harlot. The anguish the prophet goes through witnessing his wife's infidelities give him insight into the offense that Israel's idolatry gives to God.

These actions are all uniquely prophetic, and as such are not meant to be copied or used as precedents. Should David's dancing be interpreted in a similar light? I think so, for the simple fact that this episode of the dancing is prophetic of the coming of Christ in the New Testament. Just as David rejoiced and leaped to see the presence of God in the Ark coming into its rightful sanctuary of Jerusalem, so St. John the Baptist leaped before the presence of God in the womb of Mary as she came to the house of Elizabeth - and as the Ark had been three months in the house of Obed-Edom, so was Mary three months in the house of Elizabeth. Granted, the dancing of David is not prophetic in the sense that it specifically foretells the future, but in the sense that his actions are typologically related to one of the mysteries of the New Covenant (similarly, the selling of Joseph into slavery was a "prophecy" of the betrayal of Christ).

This means that the dancing was not "normal" behavior even in David's time. There is no prescription in Jewish liturgy anywhere for dancing, and if this sort of thing were normal, David's wife Michal would not have been scandalized by it. David was a man full of the Holy Spirit, and this action was carried out in a sort of inspired prophetic euphoria at the presence of God. This does not indicate an undue familiarity on the part of David; after all, this dancing occurs just after the episode of the slaying of Uzzah by God for merely touching the Ark (2 Sam. 6:7-9), an event that so thoroughly frightened David that he delayed bringing the Ark into Jerusalem for another three months. Another indication of the prophetic nature of this action was the wearing of the linen ephod, a garment reserved for the priests (see Exodus 28:4, 29:5, 39:2; Lev. 8:7), and as such should not have been worn by the king. The fact that the king does in fact wear one nonetheless points to Christ as both priest and king. We are in the presence of a prophetic moment.

Here is the crux of the matter: David's dancing was a prophetic act, not a liturgical one. As such, it should not be incorporated into the liturgy. Liturgical actions should come from other liturgical actions as their precedents; actions that are prophetic should not be forced into liturgical settings. In fact, because of the often bizarre or disarming nature of prophetic actions, a key characteristic of them is that they not be repeated. Consider how the apostolic Fathers regarded prophetic actions in the Didache:

[E]very prophet, proved true, working unto the mystery of the Church in the world, yet not teaching others to do what he himself does, shall not be judged among you, for with God he has his judgment; for so did also the ancient prophets (Didache 11).

What does this passage mean? The writer of the Didache warns his readers that the actions of the prophets may seem a bit bizarre, yet by their actions they signify the "mystery of the Church in the world." It is recognized that this was always how prophecy worked. Therefore, despite the oddity of their prophecy at times, they should not be hindered, so long as they do not try to teach others to do what they themselves are doing. It is one thing for Isaiah to preach naked, or Jeremiah to walk around wearing a yoke, or the prophet Agabus to tie his own hands and feet with the belt of St. Paul (Acts 21:10-12), for these are prophetic acts; but as soon as anybody starts insisting that such behavior be imitated by all, then there is a problem. Thus, the writers of the Didache state plainly that, so long as a prophet does not teach others to "do what he himself does," his prophetic actions should not be judged, regardless of how bizarre they may seem, "for so did also the ancient prophets."

A main characteristic of prophetic activity is that it is for a specific time and person alone and is not to be imitated. If we recognize, as the St. Luke tells us in Acts, that David is a prophet, and if we recognize in his dancing a spirit-inspired prophetic action, we immediately see that this action falls into the same category as Hosea marrying a harlot and Jeremiah walking around with a yoke on his neck, and as such should not be imitated. If there remain any doubt as to whether this is in fact the case, I challenge you to search the Scriptures for even one more account of any person dancing in the presence of the Ark of the Covenant. The fact that this display was apparently never repeated in the Old Testament should be enough to convince us of its uniqueness for that time, place and event (a similar prophetic action permissible only to David at a certain time and place was his eating of the Showbread; see Matt. 12:3-4, 1 Sam. 21:2-7).

Therefore, if even in Old Testament times this was considered an aberration, something permissible to David at that point but not done by any previous or subsequent ruler, why would we take David's prophetic action and say that its one, solitary occurrence in salvation history is a good enough precedent for it to become a liturgical norm? This would be quite an argument, especially considering that many of these same folks who use this one example from David's time to justify liturgical dancing would also be against ad orientem Masses and communion on the tongue, practices with vastly greater degrees of precedent than liturgical dancing. Thus, the fact that an inspired prophet and King of Israel, a "man after God's own heart", should dance in front of the Ark emphatically does not mean that the sort of thing seen here should become the norm.

David's dancing was not liturgical. There never was any such thing as liturgical dancing in Judaism; there was celebratory dancing and prophetic dancing, but never liturgical dancing - and to take something that is not liturgical and try to force it into liturgical constructs destroys the very liturgy it attempts to enliven.


Anonymous said...

Interesting, youve made some good points there.
I would say dance could be a form of using a talent given by God as a way of exspressing the emotions of praise,as an illustration of a hymn etc. But obviousley Father is'nt going to be right tap dancing the Consecration prayers!

Boniface said...

Nobody denies that dance can be a form of worship - but but not all worship is liturgical, and there is no precedent in either Judaism or Christianity for dancing liturgically. So, yes, dancing can be a form of worship, just as one can "worship" God (in the sense of giving glory) through their art, writing, architecture, etc. But these things are not liturgical, and it is only when we attempt to place dancing in the realm of liturgical worship that we run into serious problems. Polka music can also give glory to God (I suppose), but that doesn't mean it is fit for liturgy. Some things that are good of themselves nevertheless become offensive when we try to make them liturgical actions.

Alexander said...

Your argument is good and I will add it to my own. I tired to make it simple:

The primary function of the Mass is to offer sacrifice and that sacrifice is the Sacrifice of Christ at Calvary. Therefore, dancing before Christ dying (because Calvary is brought to the present) would be absurd.

Throwback said...

People who use this argument are just folks who have seen Footloose too many times.

Ben G said...

"And David and all the louse of Israel brought the ark of the covenant of the Lord with joyful shouting" ?!! That's freakin' hilarious.

Boniface, I saw that you said on catholicanswers that you had posted the text of "Dum Diversas" of Nicholas V on the blog. But I was still having some trouble finding it--could you please point it out to me?

Boniface said...

Ben G-

I thought I said I was about to post it but hadn't yet...the translation I have is very literal and has not been put into idiomatic English, so it leaves something to be desired. I may post it anyway, though.

Boniface said...


Also, forgive me, but what is "freakin hilarious" about the joyful shouting as they brought the Ark in? I think I am missing something.

Ben G said...


It's not the joyful shouting, it's the fact that it was done by the "louse of Israel".

Boniface said...

heh heh...woops...problem corrected. That would be funny indeed.

Marco da Vinha said...

The Ge'ez Rite seems to have a form of liturgical dance. If I'm not mistaken, it is the only Rite with liturgical dance.

Does anyone know the origin of that?

Boniface said...

I think you may be right, but if so, the Ge'ez "dancing" has almost nothing in common with the contemporary liturgical "dance" seen in America. I'm guessing its origin is deep in Ethiopia's distant history.

Marco da Vinha said...

@ Boniface

No; from what I've seen it has nothing to do with the weird antics that pass as "liturgical dance".
If I find a link to a video I'll send it.

Ben G said...


If you don't want to go through the effort of polishing up your text of Dum Diversas so that it's professional enough to post, I'd be very happy if you could e-mail it to me privately, even if it's only the original Latin.

God bless you!

Boniface said...


Ask and ye shall receive:


Anonymous said...

Im puzzled by this post. In talking about David dancing, are you not judging him too by discribing his actions as 'antics'. You also seem to justify his wife's disapproval not mentioning that GOd judged her for her response by making her barren? While I appreciate that maybe his dancing was 'prophetic''.. is not there not the possibility of GOd desiring 'prophetic' dancing again in our day? Perhaps you could explain the difference between liturgical worship and any other sort of worship. Because I am concerned that if dancing is ommitted from liturgical worship it might not happen else where. And it is surely instructed, but more than that, its a natural expression of joy Psalm 150 v. 4. Cymbals are mentioned too... I think we need more of them.

Boniface said...


There are several questions here. Let me take them one at a time.

1) I don't judge David just because I used the word "antics." Not sure why you think that would imply a negative judgment.

2) The quote from Michal was simply to establish the fact that David was immodestly dressed. I did not mention God judging her because all I was trying to do was prove that David was not dressed modestly, which that quote establishes. I do not justify her disapproval. In the opening paragraph, I said that any reasonable explanation of this episode has to "affirm" what David did.

3)If God does desire prophetic dancing in this day, it is not in a liturgical context.

4)Liturgical worship is public, corporate worship by the Church based on the norms and practices handed down in the Church for centuries. Private worship is the worship you offer to God on your own on your own time or in public events that are not the public worship of the Church. There is no precedent in the Church's liturgical tradition of any sort of dancing.

5)Omitting something from liturgical worship does not imply it will be forbidden everywhere; likewise, just because something is "good" does not mean it should occur in liturgical worship - I cited polka music, for example, but we could also cite shouting and waving your arms, both valid actions in private worship but which have no liturgical precedents. Not everything we can do privately needs to be affirmed publicly.

6)Re: cymbals, our goal is not to imitate Old Testament worship. Cymbals are appropriate in certain cultures - to this day the Chaldean Catholics announce the consecration of the Eucharist by the use of cymbals - but they have no precedent in the Latin rite, although we do of course use bells. The mere fact that an instrument is mentioned as being used in Old Testament Temple worship does not make it a universal mandate for all forms of worship.

I hope this answers your questions.

Anonymous said...

I hope you put as much effort towards spreading the Gospel and loving/accepting others as you put towards "correcting" other Christians. There are plenty of Catholic practices that aren't anywhere in the Bible (or based on scripture out of context), but am I going to come up with a whole post about it? No. Because the Catholic Church, for now, still spreads the Gospel.

I have been in some pretty animated worship services, do I dance? No, do I care that others do? Not at all. If they're THAT excited about the saving power of the Cross and God's love, then by all means!

I know the Catholic church loves a good guilt trip, but come on. "They will know you are my followers by your love for one another", not by winning pointless arguments on a blog.