It seems inevitable, an utter certainty, the rule, not the exception. Any time someone publicly complains of the lack of reverence in what passes for worship in so many modern churches, a particular objection is bound to be set forth. “David danced naked!” or “David danced in his underwear!”. Those who make this objection think it is doubly strong, because not only did David supposedly behave in this way in the worship of God, but Michal, his wife, wrongfully judged him for behaving in such a way and was subsequently cursed with barrenness for the remainder of her days. I even remember some “Christian Rock band” in the late 80’s or early 90’s had a song entitled “Dancing Naked” that boldly proclaimed at the end that they would not be surprised if those who spoke out against their form of worship would not be able to have kids. (My wife and I both find this form of music to be irreverent in worship, but God has graciously blessed us with eight children, to answer foolishness with foolishness.)
But where does this common claim come from? Did David actually behave in such a way in the act of worshiping God? Should we all keep our mouths shut when we witness what appears to us to be irreverence in worship in the fear that God may judge us for holding such standards?
Let us look at the Biblical passages in regard to this event and see what they teach us. The event was the bringing of the ark of the covenant into Jerusalem. I will provide the pertinent passage, 2 Samuel 6:14-15, 20 in three major English versions.
Then David danced before the Lord with all his might; and David was wearing a linen ephod. 15 So David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the Lord with shouting and with the sound of the trumpet.
20 Then David returned to bless his household. And Michal the daughter of Saul came out to meet David, and said, “How glorious was the king of Israel today, uncovering himself today in the eyes of the maids of his servants, as one of the base fellows shamelessly uncovers himself!”
And David was dancing before the Lord with all his might, and David was wearing a linen ephod. 15 So David and all the house of Israel were bringing up the ark of the Lord with shouting and the sound of the trumpet.
20 But when David returned to bless his household, Michal the daughter of Saul came out to meet David and said, “How the king of Israel distinguished himself today! He uncovered himself today in the eyes of his servants’ maids as one of the foolish ones shamelessly uncovers himself!”
And David danced before the Lord with all his might. And David was wearing a linen ephod. 15 So David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the Lord with shouting and with the sound of the horn.
20 And David returned to bless his household. But Michal the daughter of Saul came out to meet David and said, “How the king of Israel honoured himself today, uncovering himself today before the eyes of his servants’ female servants, as one of the vulgar fellows shamelessly uncovers himself!”
We see first of all that David was not naked. Verse 14 informs us that he was wearing a linen ephod. As Mathew Henry notes, “On this occasion David laid aside his imperial purple, and put on a plain linen ephod, which was light and convenient for dancing, and was used in religious exercises by those who were no priests, for Samuel wore one, 1 Samuel 2:18. That great prince thought it no disparagement to him to appear in the habit of a minister to the ark.” An ephod was not underwear, but a light religious garment.
We have no reason to believe that the ephod was all that David was wearing either. It was customary to wear an ephod along with other garments, not by itself, as we can see here:
Leviticus 8:6-9 Then Moses brought Aaron and his sons and washed them with water. 7 And he put the tunic on him, girded him with the sash, clothed him with the robe, and put the ephod on him; and he girded him with the intricately woven band of the ephod, and with it tied the ephod on him. 8 Then he put the breastplate on him, and he put the Urim and the Thummim in the breastplate. 9 And he put the turban on his head. Also on the turban, on its front, he put the golden plate, the holy crown, as the Lord had commanded Moses.
And the parallel passage, 1 Chronicles 15:27 speaks directly against the idea: “David was clothed with a robe of fine linen, as were all the Levites who bore the ark, the singers, and Chenaniah the music master with the singers. David also wore a linen ephod.” (emphasis mine)
As if these facts were not enough to lay aside the claims of David dancing naked, or in his underwear, an understanding of this event in its context makes the idea even more indefensible. David’s first attempt to bring the ark of the covenant into Jerusalem failed. He had acted irreverently by transporting the ark on a cart instead of following God’s specific instructions in regard to its transport. As a result, God struck Uzzah dead for touching the ark. Now, a short time later David is carefully following God’s instructions. He has taken the time to study God’s word on the matter and is reverently obeying.
That same law that demanded such detailed obedience with regard to the ark is not silent about nakedness. Take this passage for instance:
Exodus 28:40-43 “For Aaron’s sons you shall make tunics, and you shall make sashes for them. And you shall make hats for them, for glory and beauty. 41 So you shall put them on Aaron your brother and on his sons with him. You shall anoint them, consecrate them, and sanctify them, that they may minister to Me as priests. 42 And you shall make for them linen trousers to cover their nakedness; they shall reach from the waist to the thighs. 43 They shall be on Aaron and on his sons when they come into the tabernacle of meeting, or when they come near the altar to minister in the holy place, that they do not incur iniquity and die. It shall be a statute forever to him and his descendants after him.(emphasis mine)
When offering worship to a Holy God, a careful lack of nakedness is demanded! To “uncover nakedness” is repeatedly used as a euphemism for unlawful intercourse throughout the Mosaic law. And even as Noah’s two righteous sons were in the act of covering his nakedness they were careful to do so in such a way as not to unnecessarily expose themselves to it. So the idea that David would feel free to expose himself in the very act of rejoicing at the Lord’s goodness toward him in allowing him to bring the ark into Jerusalem, is patently ridiculous.
But must we at least admit that this scriptural example gives us warrant to include dancing in our public formal worship? I think not. This is not an example of dance as performance art. As Matthew Henry expresses it:
He himself attended the solemnity with the highest expressions of joy that could be (v. 14): He danced before the Lord with all his might; he leaped for joy, as one transported with the occasion, and the more because of the disappointment he met with the last time. It is a pleasure to a good man to see his errors rectified and himself in the way of his duty. His dancing, I suppose, was not artificial, by any certain rule or measure, nor do we find that any danced with him; but it was a natural expression of his great joy and exultation of mind.
Or as John Gill notes:
“not a set dance, or along with others; but he leaped and skipped as “car”, a lamb, does, and that for joy that the ark was like to be brought home to his house, without any token of the divine displeasure, as before.”
These expressions of David were no part of formal worship, but rather, on this special occasion were the physical manifestations of the outpouring of joy in his heart. This was no dance meant to entertain others.
But he was uncovered!
The idea that David was somehow exposing his nakedness or his underwear must surely come from Michal’s accusation: “How glorious was the king of Israel today, uncovering himself today in the eyes of the maids of his servants, as one of the base fellows shamelessly uncovers himself!” But does this statement annul what we have already seen? Is all our evidence laid aside by this testimony? Again, I think not.
This is not the testimony of God in regard to David’s behavior, rather it is the statement made by a hostile witness. Michal was ashamed that David had not behaved himself in a stately manner as she supposed a King ought to, but had allowed his joy and exuberance to be displayed before the entirety of his kingdom.
Matthew Henry’s insights are very helpful here:
Observe, 1. How she taunted him (v. 20): “How glorious was the king of Israel today! What a figure didst thou make to-day in the midst of the mob! How unbecoming thy post and character!” Her contempt of him and his devotion began in the heart, but out of the abundance of that the mouth spoke. That which displeased her was his affection to the ark, which she wished he had no greater kindness for than she had: but she basely represents his conduct, in dancing before the ark, as lewd and immodest; and, while really she was displeased at it as a diminution to his honour, she pretended to dislike it as a reproach to his virtue, that he uncovered himself in the eyes of the maid-servants, as no man would have done but one of the vain fellows that cared not how much he shamed himself. We have no reason to think that this was true in fact. David, no doubt, observed decorum, and governed his zeal with discretion. But it is common for those that reproach religion thus to put false colours upon it and lay it under the most odious characters. To have abused any man thus for his pious zeal would have been very profane, but to abuse her own husband thus, whom she ought to have reverenced, and one whose prudence and virtue were above the reach of malice itself to disparage, one who had shown such affection for her that he would not accept a crown unless he might have her restored to him (2 Samuel 3:13), was a most base and wicked thing, and showed her to have more of Saul’s daughter in her than of David’s wife or Jonathan’s sister.
Or as Gill tersely notes:
because he had put off his royal robes, and put on a linen ephod; for that he had stripped himself naked cannot be supposed, nor do her words import so much though a passionate exaggeration of the case.
And so, with all the evidence before us we must rightly conclude:
David was not naked or in his underwear, he was clothed in a robe and ephod. He was not engaging in performance art. He was expressing the joy of his heart through his outward actions. Michal was not cursed because she felt David’s worship lacked reverence, but because she despised his willingness to lay aside his royal pomp and circumstance and joyously express his delight in God’s graciousness toward him and his kingdom.
His Throne is Forever and Ever!