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Who was King David? Lessons Learned from Brooks' Novel, The Secret Chord

Insights from the prophet Nathan

David Playing the Harp portrait
David Playing the Harp. Portrait by Gerard von Honthorst, 1622

Becoming a Geraldine Brooks groupie

I had not read a single book by Geraldine Brooks until the fall of 2023 when my book club read Horse. Since I thoroughly enjoyed that book, I decided to read more of Geraldine Brooks' works. Happily, I could do this while as many Pulitzer-prize-winning novels as possible. It was a logical choice to read March, Brooks' story about the absent father from the classic novel, Little Women.

Both books were good reads. Horse took me to something I knew little about, the history of horse-racing, thoroughbreds, trainers, and jockeys. The story illustrated how the wealth gained by the owners of racehorses was by the labor and skill of enslaved black horse trainers before the Civil War. Horse is a fascinating story that ties the past to the present, a social commentary on racial relations today based on the true-life story-life of a legendary horse.

March, too, was an interesting book. Geraldine Brooks takes the beloved American Classic, Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott, a step further. She creates a life for the absent father of the March girls. By doing so, the reader is taken through the era before the Civil War and right into the battlefield, seeing firsthand the mental and physical toll the war took on the men involved. March was the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2006.

A novel about the Biblical King David?

Ah! For me, the "icing on the cake" and the feather in Brooks' cap is the book, The Secret Chord. This novel is the one that made me a true fan of the Australian author, Geraldine Brooks. First because of the beauty of the writing, and second for her boldness in telling a story that might not have popular appeal.

I wish I could have been a fly on the wall when Brooks told her agent that she wanted to write a novel about a Biblical character. I imagine a stricken look, a swallowed gasp, a mind swirling with arguments against it. The agent might have questioned Brooks' move, concerned that the topic might narrow the audience too much. While religious publishing is a growing segment of the industry, increasing by 22.3% from 2011 to 2021, that trend may not have been noticeable when Brooks' The Secret Chord was published in 2015. Today, the religious market is valued at 1.2 billion by 2020, but fiction accounts only for 3% of the Christian books sold, a fact which must have terrified Brooks' agent and/or publisher.

Kudos to Geraldine Brooks, for researching, writing, and publishing this novel that brings to life one of the most flawed, most fascinating characters in the Bible.

The Secret Chord is the story of the King David, his beauty, his baseness, his

talent, and his terrible - often cruel and criminal - treatment of others. Yes, I knew that David was a poet and a musician, the writer of much of the book of Psalms. I remembered that David had lusted after a woman he saw bathing on a nearby rooftop, the infamous Bathsheba. But the backstories that surrounded the character of David had escaped my memory. The Secret Chord elucidates the life of David, bringing him to life - a pulsing, vibrant, sometimes violent life - that deserves to be studied.

David, a flawed human being

David is lauded as one the great Jewish leaders. No doubt, he was. But he was also a flawed human man.

Take, for instance, the story of Bathsheba. Not only does David lust after a beautiful woman he sees bathing on a nearby rooftop and commands she be brought to him, but he purposely finds a way to kill her husband, one of his own loyal soldiers.

David also mistreats his first wife, Michal, the younger daughter of King Saul. Even though she helped him escape, he sent her home to her father. Years later, he reclaims his marital status over her, in spite of the fact that she has remarried and has children with a man she loves.

Then there's the story of Tamar, David's daughter. David turns a blind eye to the bad behavior of his sons, one who rapes his half-sister, Tamar, setting up a massive family tragedy that involves murder.

David, the multi-faceted man of The Secret Chord genius in many regards

Despite his flaws, King David was a musician and poet. The Secret Chord illustrates how this instrument-playing, word-loving Psalm writer brought beauty and song to the people while offering praises to his God.

Visionary. Military strategist. Leader. David was a multi-talented man. He loved architecture and drew plans for the great Temple, envisioning a structure worthy of his God. His sins, however, kept him from being able to carry out his ideas.

Not only was David a genius in many ways, but he was a man of faith. One of my favorite scenes in the novel was the depiction of a jubilant David dancing and singing with all his might when the Ark of the Covenant returns to Jerusalem. I felt his exuberance. Sadly, David's joyful actions had an unexpected outcome when another person was scandalized by his wild enthusiasm...

What's it like to be a prophet?

What I appreciated most about Geraldine Brooks' The Secret Chord was the point of view from which it was told. We hear the story from the viewpoint of David's loyal "seer," the prophet Nathan.

Surely, this is what it must be like to hear the voice of God, to feel the pain and aftermath of delivering holy messages. The portrayal of Nathan's life gave me a glimpse into what it might be like in the service of a King who wants to listen to the Lord, despite his failings. Nathan is the most sympathetic character in the book, a young boy who spends the rest of his life as a messenger giving David messages from a God who gave visions without explanations.

Geraldine Brooks' Perspective

Geraldine Brooks, was born in Australia and earned an advanced journalism degree from Colombia University in the United States. As a foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, she covered unrest in Africa, the Balkans, and the Middle East. Brooks met American journalist Tony Horwitz in France and married him in 1984 when she converted to Judaism.

Brooks is known as a Christian and Judaism scholar, a multi-award-winning journalist, and recipient of multiple prizes for her novels, including the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for the novel March.

The Secret Chord may not be as well known as some of her other works, but so far, it's my favorite. My next Brooks read will be Year of Wonder, about Europe during the plague.


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