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Naked: Michelangelo’s Masterpiece as Spiritual Truth

Updated: Oct 28, 2021

Michelangelo lobbied hard to complete the masterpiece statue of King David after a succession of artists failed to finish the commission. I've seen the statue in Florence's Piazza Della Signoria. That is, I thought I had, only to discover I saw a replica, the original brought indoors protectively in 1873. (Ironic Trivia: In 1991, a deranged man hammered David's toes, claiming he was goaded by a 16th century artist's model.) Carved from a single block of white Carrara marble, the statue weighs more than 12,000 pounds and is an imposing 17 feet high. The famous work became a political symbol for Florence's civil liberties. I see it as a revealing symbol of a much deeper freedom.

Whether the original article or one of countless copies, David is widely considered a masterwork of Renaissance sculpture and aesthetic beauty. By many standards, perfect really, if only skin deep. I don’t know if Michelangelo or his predecessors intentionally chose to sculpt David naked, from a single piece of white marble, for the spiritual significance. I don’t know if they knew the marble itself was of inferior quality and quite flawed. Or if Michelangelo was fully aware of the commission’s sketchy history. But I believe God did.

The symbolism is striking.

A man after God’s own heart.

A "man after God's own heart," King David is said to have danced half-naked before God. I love the way a very young, handsome Richard Gere captures David's unbridled rapture dancing before the ark, which contained not only the 10 Commandments, but the very presence of God (2 Samuel 6).

David wore a linen ephod, a priestly garment. Some Christian scholars, probably scandalized by the suggestion and implications of David's half-naked worship, suggest the ephod covered a lot of skin. However, in context, the account clearly suggests otherwise. David's wife Michal is said to have looked on David's dancing with disgust, later confronting David with open contempt:

“How the king of Israel has distinguished himself today, going around half-naked in full view of the slave girls of his servants as any vulgar fellow would!” (v.20)

Shortly thereafter, we're told Michal never had children. We don't know why. Maybe David was permanently turned-off by her body-shaming ridicule. After all, with several wives to choose from, he didn't have to put up with it. I wonder how Michal's attitude may have also influenced David's eventual devastating detour with Bathsheba. I suspect it's all connected.

Just a few chapters later in 2 Samuel 11, David sees a married Bathsheba bathing on a nearby rooftop, sends for her, and they start an affair that turns into an epic mess.

Rembrandt, Bathsheba at Her Bath (or Bathsheba with King David's Letter), 1654.

Bathsheba promptly got pregnant and David schemed to conceal it. First, he summoned Bathsheba's husband Uriah back from the battlefield and tried hard to send him home to his wife, to muddy paternity. When noble Uriah

refused to indulge himself while his soldiers battled, David finagled deploying him to the front lines, ensuring his death.

David managed to do all this in one of those crazy clouds of denial and delusion we humans can conjure, until his trusty personal prophet Nathan (we should all have one) revealed David's sin to him through a parable a dense David didn’t at first grasp. In fact, David was initially so blindly indignant on behalf of the fictional victim, he was poised to punish the parable predator he didn’t recognize himself to be. Once aware of his criminally messed-up conduct however, David was devastated and genuinely contrite--one reason David is one of God’s favorite guys, notwithstanding really bad behavior.

A more authentic and attainable spiritual model.

Despite David’s many character defects—not limited to lethal lust and denial—he remains best known as a “a man after God’s own heart.” David is a regular source of inspiration and quotation for modern-day Christians of all stripes who somehow gloss over his ginormous sins. Fact is, David was God's top draft pick despite God's prescient, all-knowing awareness of the King’s eventual despicableness.

Instead, many Christians cherry-pick and magnify David’s heroics and other virtues, as we tend to do with our own. We actively air-brush David and our own persistent wretchedness.

Are we missing God’s gracious point and the comforting lesson for all of us? If it’s not David’s high moral standing, courage, and leadership skills that distinguish him, then what is it that makes David so admirable in God’s eyes? After all, God knew all along that David would go way off the rails. Yet God selected him to become not only a highly favored and effective national leader, but one of the most memorable Bible archetypes.

I find this very comforting, having a few dastardly defects myself.

Naturally, this isn't an invitation to indulge our waywardness with abandon. David, his family, and his nation suffered devastating, far-reaching consequences for his lousy choices. But I do believe David’s story, symbolically captured in the masterpiece statue, is a gracious invitation to see that God knows us, loves us, and can use us as we are. Naked.

What truly distinguishes David, so vividly expressed in the Psalms, is his passionate, sometimes achingly vulnerable, intimate relationship with God. David was in vivid, ongoing communication with God, thanking, praising and pleading with God for himself and on behalf of his people. Servant leadership of the best and humblest variety.

As "a man after God's own heart," David models naked candor with God and humble fraternity with the rest of humanity.

In this memorable passage, David openly confesses his sins and cries out for forgiveness. In verse 7, he asserts that God can wash him whiter than snow, a universal symbol of purity repeatedly used to describe Christ’s redeemed and Jesus Himself.

The NIV translation offers a familiar and eloquent summary of Psalm 51’s key takeaway:

You do not desire a sacrifice, or I would offer one. You do not want a burnt offering.

The sacrifice you desire is a broken spirit. You will not reject a broken and repentant heart, O God.

David echoes intimacy throughout all of the 147 Psalms. What God is really after is an honest, vulnerable, personal relationship. And yes, that involves fessing up, aka, repentence. Gulp.

At least several hundred years later, God provided a permanent fix for our brokenness with Him and ourselves through the ultimate sacrifice: Jesus.

The only requirement is recognizing Jesus as grace we cannot earn by sacrifice or striving. The key to recognizing Jesus is honestly recognizing our need. For most of us, like David, that often involves ego-leveling of standing before God. Naked.

Naked before God.

Albrecht Dürer, "Adam & Eve," 1504

In fact, God originally designed us to be naked before him. Genesis puts it this way:

“Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.” (v.2:25)

In Eden, Adam and Eve lived in open intimacy with God and each other. It's only after

Adam and Eve went rogue in search of knowledge (as an avid knowledge-seeker, I say, “What a PITA!”) that they felt the self-conscious shame of exposure. Ever loving, God himself clothed them, but sent them off to live in the broken world they created by their willful pride.

Naked before God is a whole different level of naked. He sees us. Really, really sees us. Not only does He see our strengths and beauty, he also sees through our carefully or unconsciously curated facades.

Naked before God means the deceit of our heart--which is deceitful--is laid bare. Where our messy motives, illicit longings, absurd rationalizations, petty grievances, etc., are all laid bare before a God who knows all about all--and welcomes us anyway.

Being loved this way is an exquisite and liberating luxury at the heart of both lust and the drive for romantic love, an ideal that foreshadows God's perfect love. Sadly, we seldom fully enjoy God's unconditional love.

Many of us get mired in image management, where our insides seldom match our outsides, the widespread malady of our social media age. In my personal, first-hand experience, relentless filtering is often fueled by ego and fear, conscious or otherwise. Some of us travel with the painful luggage of challenging childhoods that can cause us to hide or to outrun our fragile humanity.

In her landmark Ted Talk, Brené Brown affirms that vulnerability, being fully seen, is the door to real connection while shame is the barrier.

Whatever the cause, camouflage is a barrier to loving ourselves, others, and God.

God invites us to something more. Jesus is the key.

Circling Back to Replicas

That lovely statue of David in Piazza della Signoria is an exact replica of the real thing, but it’s not the real thing. I cannot say I saw the statue of David. I just saw a good facsimile. This is disappointing, but it’s not tragic.

Jesus says He is the only way to God. He claims to be the only means of closing the impossible gap between us and a perfect Creator. This also serves as a great equalizer since the gap is insurmountable for anyone, wherever we plot ourselves on the moral continuum.

While other gods of any variety may reflect Truth, the Bible is unambiguous from start to finish: There are lots of replicas, but only one God. I am uncomfortable with this exclusivity but am compelled to accept it with gratitude.

This “exclusive” club is actually open to everyone with a very accessible cost of admission: Believing Jesus is the perfect, permanent and only acceptable form of payment for our inherent imperfection. He fully absorbs our shame. There are no hidden fees or conditions.

The masterpiece statue of David was made of very poor-quality marble, full of flaws, likely a cast-off from the quarry. From the moment the project was conceived, amid socio-political turmoil, it faced many challenges, including artists who found the substandard marble unworkable. All told, it took a spiritually significant 40 years to finish the masterpiece.

In Christ, we’re not unworkable cast-offs with sketchy histories, we’re masterpieces. God doesn’t see our imperfections and dirty deeds. He sees us clothed in pure and brilliant white. Our nudity is no longer a source of shame, but rather, a symbol that we are fully known, accepted and fully loved.

Love, peace, joy, and grace,

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