26 When the wife of Uriah heard that her husband was dead, she made lamentation for him. 27 When the mourning was over, David sent and brought her to his house, and she became his wife, and bore him a son.
But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord, 12 1 and the Lord sent Nathan to David. He came to him, and said to him, “There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. 2 The rich man had very many flocks and herds; 3 but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. He brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his meager fare, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him. 4 Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was loath to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb, and prepared that for the guest who had come to him.” 5 Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man. He said to Nathan, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; 6 he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.”
7 Nathan said to David, “You are the man! Thus, says the Lord, the God of Israel: I anointed you king over Israel, and I rescued you from the hand of Saul; 8 I gave you your master’s house, and your master’s wives into your bosom, and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added as much more. 9 Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. 10 Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, for you have despised me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife. 11 Thus says the Lord: I will raise up trouble against you from within your own house; and I will take your wives before your eyes, and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this very sun. 12 For you did it secretly; but I will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun.” 13 David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.”
“It’s good to be the king!” Those are the words of Louis XVI as portrayed by Mel Brooks in History of the World, Part One
. King David may have had similar thoughts when he spied Bathsheba bathing, while his army was off fighting his battles. When the king calls, you come. That’s just the way things work when a person has absolute power, or at least thinks that she or he has absolute power. David was king. He held absolute power, in part because no one in the inner circle would speak up. His closest associates, either out of devotion or out of fear, would keep silent. In other words, they were enablers of his darkest side. In the verses prior David had commanded the wife of Uriah (she is not yet named) be brought to him so he could engage in a sexual relationship with her. He saw some “thing” (I use thing here purposely), coveted it, and his aides made it happen. The question here is not whether the relationship was consensual, because in a situation like this the power differential is too great for anything to be called consensual. Bathsheba was not in a position to refuse David’s demands. As Grace Ji-Sun Kim points out “the passage plays on the dynamics between rich and poor, the powerful and the powerless, and the intimacy of husband and wife versus sexual domination by a powerful man.” [Preaching God’s Transforming Justice,
David’s problem here is that things happened that led to a cover up, and the cover up led to discovery. What happened here is that the wife of Uriah got pregnant, while her husband was at the front fighting David’s battles. David had a problem on his hands. Bathsheba was pregnant, her husband was away at the front and thus wasn’t in the position to be the father, and David figured that fingers would point at him. So, he came up with a plan designed to protect his power. And he was king, and when in power you do what you must do to maintain that power. His first attempt was to bring Uriah home, hoping he would share his wife’s bed. That way, when she child was born, everyone would think it was Uriah’s child (and no one would be the wiser). Unfortunately, David’s plan didn’t work. Uriah was a man of honor, and if his men were at the front putting their lives on the line, he wasn’t going to enjoy the comforts of home. So, when David’s first plan didn’t work, he had Uriah put into a position at the front where he would surely be killed. Again, when you’re the king, you get your way. Uriah was sent into a situation where David could be sure he wouldn’t survive. Thus, David’s problem was solved. Only his inner circle knew of the situation. He could then move on with life. Since Uriah was out of the situation, David felt safe to bring Bathsheba into his household, which included several other wives, including Michel, the daughter of Saul, and Abigail, the former wife of Nabal—who had insulted David and was struck down by God, allowing David to take her into his household (1 Samuel 25
As so often happens in life, bad decisions catch up with us. When no one else was willing to challenge David, who was known to be a man with a heart for God, God, who was displeased, broke the silence by sending Nathan the prophet to confront David. Nathan doesn’t challenge David directly. He uses a parable to get David to frame himself. The parable, which has become famous over time, speaks of a man who was raising a beloved lamb, treating the lamb as if it was his own daughter. Pet owners can understand. Then one day, a traveler stopped by to see this rich man—a neighbor of the owner of this beloved lamb. As a good host, he needed to provide the traveler with a meal, but the rich man didn’t want to slaughter one of his own animals to serve the traveler. Why should he when his much poorer neighbor had a lamb he could take and slaughter. If it is good to be a king, apparently, it’s good to be a rich man as well. This is what the rich man did. He took this beloved lamb and slaughtered it and had it served to the traveler. He had done his job of being a good host, and it didn’t cost him any of his own animals. Note here the power/wealth differential.
When Nathan finished his story, David got indignant. How could the rich man do such a thing? If he had a great flock of animals to choose from, why take from the man with only one lamb? David immediately pronounced judgment. Off with his head!! How could he do such a thing? Then comes the famous punch line. Nathan turns to David and pronounces judgment: “Thou art the man.” Yes, in taking Bathsheba, the wife of one of his officers, bedded her (likely raping her), and then covering up the act by having her husband—who faithfully served him as an officer in his army—put in harm’s way, David was like the rich man in the parable. If the man in the parable deserved death, then surely David deserved the same.
David’s deed was revealed. He deserved the punishment he believed the rich man in the parable deserved. David’s response is clear and direct: “I have sinned!” In other words, you caught me. He would be spared the death sentence, but his family, including the infant child, would suffer as a consequence. Psalm 51 is often paired with this story, suggesting that it is David’s confession of sin and desire to receive God’s forgiveness:
10Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me away from your presence,
and do not take your holy spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit.
The story is one of discovery, of repentance, and conditional forgiveness. It’s conditional in the sense that there are still consequences to be paid. David’s family life would get more complicated. A son would rape his half-sister, leading to the sister’s brother taking revenge, and then that same brother revolting against David, and suffering an inglorious death. We celebrate David as a man of God, and yet he was a complicated figure. The man who would be credited with writing many of the Psalms and the model for the later messiah, even Jesus himself, was a sinner, and a sinner who broke several important commands.
As I read this, and considered David’s actions, I thought of the Ten Commandments. When you read this story as a whole it becomes clear that David was truly a lawbreaker (and thus a sinner). The first commandment broken by David was the last of the ten, the one that spoke of coveting the neighbor’s wife. We may find this commandment to be disagreeable, for it treats women as something to be owned. Thus, we might want to read this in a different way. David coveted someone who was in a committed relationship to another. Having broken the law against coveting, David began to break other laws. The next in line was adultery, in taking Bathsheba and perhaps raping her, he entered an adulterous relationship. Finally, to cover up the previous sin, he conspired to commit murder. David can’t plead innocence because he didn’t pull the trigger. He set the who thing up, and so he is ultimately responsible. David was a sinner and a lawbreaker. Ironically, perhaps, there are Christians justifying the behavior of a certain President by pointing to David’s own behavior. I’m not sure that works well.
So, it may be good to be the king, but that doesn’t make one honorable or just because one is king or queen or any other position of authority. Power can and does corrupt when it is absolute. The best way to prevent misuse is to distribute it, but not only distribute it (as in the three branches of government in the United States), but to empower the poor. It also requires empowering those traditionally standing outside of power, especially women. As Grace Kim notes, “in a patriarchal society men have more power than women, who are sometimes viewed as little more than sexual objects.” To illustrate this point, she points out that women are often casualties of war, when they are sexually molested or raped. As a Korean, she knows the stories well of the Korean women who, during World War II, were forced to serve as “comfort women” to service Japanese soldiers. She writes that “sexual sins against women continue worldwide, and congregations and denominations need to bring these issues to public awareness so that they can be addressed” [Preaching God’s Transforming Justice
, p. 344]. Such is the story of David, the one who coveted his neighbor’s wife, committed adultery by raping her, and then murdering her husband to cover up his deed. This could occur because he possessed unquestioned power. Only the intervention of God, speaking through Nathan the Prophet, could overturn this misuse of power.
Triqueti, Henri Joseph François, baron de, 1804-1874. Thou shalt not commit adultery (Nathan confronts David), from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55139[retrieved July 28, 2018]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nathan_and_David.jpg.
Robert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan. He holds the Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of a number of books including Out of the Office (Energion, 2017), Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016), and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015) and blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.