READ : 2 Samuel 11:1-18, 26-27
Some people think Bible stories are just for children. Well, here is a story from the Bible that is very much intended for a mature audience, one you might not have expected to even find in the Bible.
In the spring, at the time when kings go off to war, David sent Joab out with the king’s men and the whole Israelite army. They destroyed the Ammonites and besieged Rabbah. But David remained in Jerusalem.
One evening David got up from his bed and walked around on the roof of the palace. From the roof he saw a woman bathing. The woman was very beautiful, and David sent someone to find out about her. The man said, “Isn’t this Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam and the wife of Uriah the Hittite?” Then David sent messengers to get her. She came to him, and he slept with her. (She had purified herself from her uncleanness.) Then she went back home. The woman conceived and sent word to David, saying, “I am pregnant.”
So David sent this word to Joab: “Send me Uriah the Hittite.” And Joab sent him to David. When Uriah came to him, David asked him how Joab was, how the soldiers were and how the war was going. Then David said to Uriah, “Go down to your house and wash your feet.” So Uriah left the palace, and a gift from the king was sent after him. But Uriah slept at the entrance to the palace with all his master’s servants and did not go down to his house.
When David was told, “Uriah did not go home,” he asked him, “Haven’t you just come from a distance? Why didn’t you go home?”
Uriah said to David, “The ark and Israel and Judah are staying in tents, and my master Joab and my lord’s men are camped in the open fields. How could I go to my house to eat and drink and lie with my wife? As surely as you live, I will not do such a thing!” . . .
In the morning David wrote a letter to Joab and sent it with Uriah. In it he wrote, “Put Uriah in the front line where the fighting is fiercest. Then withdraw from him so he will be struck down and die.”
So while Joab had the city under siege, he put Uriah at a place where he knew the strongest defenders were. When the men of the city came out and fought against Joab, some of the men in David’s army fell; moreover, Uriah the Hittite was dead. . . .
When Uriah’s wife heard that her husband was dead, she mourned for him. After the time of mourning was over, David had her brought to his house, and she became his wife and bore him a son. But the thing David had done displeased the Lord.
2 Samuel 11:1-18, 26-27
MANY QUESTIONS, ONE ANSWER
The story of David and Bathsheba is nothing if not dramatic. In fact, it reads like a televison or movie plot; for that matter, it has been used as one, more than once! It’s not hard to see why. This drama has everything Hollywood wants: a handsome and powerful leading man, a beautiful woman, love, war, intrigue, treachery, betrayal, murder – and the engine that drives the entire plot is sex. What more could a screenwriter ask for? This story has “screenplay” written all over it.
But there’s a problem. As I look again at the story of David and Bathsheba, I find myself coming up with a lot of questions – more questions, in fact, than answers. I wonder about the feelings, motives and reactions of the various characters. There is so much that we don’t know about them. What were their emotions as the drama played itself out? What did all of them think about what was happening? What made the various characters do what they did?
The story’s opening sentence says that it was spring, the time of year when kings go off to war. That’s a very grim commentary on human nature, isn’t it? There are many things for which spring is the ideal time of year. You would think people could take advantage of the season for something better than the business of systematically slaughtering their fellow human beings. But that’s the way it is in our world. So spring is the time when kings go to war; David is a king; Israel is at war against an old enemy, the Ammonites. So why isn’t King David out there in the field? While his army under the command of Joab is besieging the Ammonite capital city Rabbah, David remains behind in the comfort and safety of his Jerusalem palace. What is he doing there? What’s happened to David? He always used to lead his men into battle from the front. Has he become soft? Has he turned into a politician? Has he become just another Oriental potentate, sending his men to risk their lives while protecting his own? I’d like to know the explanation for David’s hanging back, but there’s no hint of one given.
And then there’s Bathsheba. What about her? David, relaxing on his palace rooftop in the cool of the evening, spots this beautiful woman bathing in her courtyard. The biblical writer notes that this was not just a regular bath, it was the ritual cleansing required by the Old Testament law following a woman’s menstrual period. A significant detail provided so that we can be certain who the father of Bathsheba’s child would be. But I wonder, was David’s glimpse of Bathsheba just an accident? Was Bathsheba only an unfortunate victim? Could she have been aware of the sight lines between her garden and the palace roof? What did she think when the message arrived, inviting her to come to the king? Did she go willingly? How did she feel about the men in her life? Did she love her husband? Did she love David? Was her mourning for Uriah real grief, or just play-acting? Again, questions without answers.
Joab, David’s commander, had to do the dirty work. Did that bother him? Joab was never squeamish when it came time for killing, but did he have any private qualms about betraying and murdering one of his best officers? In fact, Uriah is the only innocent character in the whole story. And he was a Hittite, a non-Israelite, a foreigner. He was an outstanding soldier, one of David’s “mighty men,” a special group of thirty warriors who made up a sort of elite unit in David’s army. Uriah obviously earned his place through courage and ability. But circumstances caused him to become an embarrassment, an obstacle to David’s personal pleasure, a threat to the king’s reputation. After David seduced and impregnated Uriah’s wife, Uriah was recalled to Jerusalem from the front lines in the hope that David could trick him into thinking the baby was his. But Uriah’s sense of duty did not allow him to go home and visit his wife, despite David’s repeated attempts to make him do so. This gentile mercenary behaved with more honor than any of the Israelites. Uriah drunk was more virtuous than David sober. So he had to go. Uriah had to be eliminated to avoid a royal scandal.
Perhaps the most sordid detail in this whole ugly affair was the cynical way that David made Uriah carry the message with his own death sentence back to Joab. Now there’s a nice touch! David could have given the Godfather lessons. There is something especially sickening about the way Uriah was killed, but again, a question. Did Uriah ever suspect anything?
And once more, no answer. We just don’t know. We aren’t given the answers to any of these questions about the various characters. We can guess, we can try to read between the lines, we can imagine what they thought and how they felt, but we can’t say for sure. The Bible doesn’t tell us about the feelings or reactions of any of the participants in this drama.
Except for one.
“But the thing David had done displeased the Lord” (v. 27). That statement – the concluding sentence of the story – is the key to the whole affair. We are not told how David or Bathsheba or Joab or Uriah felt about the whole affair. But we are told how God felt about it, and that’s what really matters. The point of the drama of David and Bathsheba is not simply to reveal the depths of human sinfulness, or to show the awful kinds of things that even God-fearing people are capable of doing. We don’t need the Bible to teach us that! We can see evidence for human depravity everywhere, including within our own hearts. No, the purpose of this story is not to reveal the truth about human nature. The purpose of this story is to reveal the truth about God’s nature. The important lesson concerns God’s character. And that’s why his reaction to this shameful drama is the crucial one.
Have you ever wondered why the story of David and Bathsheba was included in the Bible? It’s rather surprising to find it here, if you stop to think about it. I mean, aside from the fact that the details are rather unsavory, it isn’t very flattering to one of the Bible’s leading heroes. Here is David, Israel’s greatest king, with the most shameful things in his life exposed for all to see. Why wasn’t this incident hushed up, erased from the record like the 18 minute gap on Richard Nixon’s incriminating White House tapes? But that’s just the point. David isn’t the Bible’s hero, God is! Preserving David’s reputation isn’t what interests the biblical writer, but promoting God’s. Most ancient history was written to glorify a nation’s king. But Israel’s history was written to glorify Israel’s Lord, to illustrate his attributes, to “show off” – so to speak – the beauty and purity and righteousness of his character.
LESSONS ABOUT GOD
So what do we learn about God from this story? We learn first of all that God is all-seeing, the one before whom all hearts are open, and from whom no secrets can be hidden. Sinful humans plot treachery and mischief, and try to keep their evil deeds from the light. But God knows everything, and he is determined to publish the truth. Jesus said that even the words whispered in secret would someday be shouted from the rooftops. Part of me is troubled by the thought of every secret coming to light, because of all the shameful things I’ve done. But more of me is encouraged by this prospect. In the end, there will be no unsolved mysteries, no successful coverups, no conspiracies enforced by silence and murder. Eventually every sinister scheme, every crooked plot, every evil deed will be exposed by the God who sees what is done in secret and who abhors the hidden crimes that humans commit.
We learn also that God is impartial. He is no respecter of persons, as the Bible says. High or low, rich or poor, famous or unknown, powerful or insignificant, God holds all people to the same standards of conduct and morality. God is not like us. His kingdom doesn’t operate the way human societies do. With God there is not one law for the influential and important people – the ones with connections and money – and a different law for the powerless and friendless. Think what a good thing that is. Think how terrible it would be if we lived in a world where ultimately the Uriahs were always betrayed and killed and the Davids always got away scot-free. That’s how it often does seem to go here in this world. But it will not always be so, because there is a God who sees and who will judge and punish all evil eventually. The same law, God’s law, applies to everyone, and it is a just law. From his justice no one can escape. God is the avenger of all innocent victims of human arrogance and brutality, and he holds everyone – everyone – responsible for their actions.
We learn here as well that God is righteous. God loves truth and goodness, and he hates evil. How wonderful again to know that God is displeased by things like the self-serving, underhanded acts of David. It wouldn’t have to be like that. God could simply be a brute force, an uncaring supernatural power. None of the gods of Israel’s neighbors would have objected to what David did. It’s difficult to imagine Baal or Ra or Apollo making a fuss about the seduction of another man’s wife; according to the ancient myths, that sort of thing was right up their alley. And as for getting rid of someone who stands in your way, well, that’s why Zeus carried thunderbolts. Goodness is not always matched with greatness. In fact, in the religions of paganism it never was. But it is in the character of God, and because this is so, we know that righteousness will eventually be established everywhere throughout the world.
Finally, we learn from this story that God is also merciful. After all, the easiest thing would have been for God to let David go on to his ultimate doom, guilty of his sin and treachery. But instead the Lord sent his servant Nathan to stir David’s conscience. Of all the many wonderful and beautiful things David said during the course of his life, none was greater than the first three words out of his mouth after he was confronted eventually with the evil that he had done. “I have sinned,” David said. And God’s response to David’s confession of sin was this gracious word: “The Lord has taken away your sin” (2 Samuel 12:13). When David repented, God forgave. But not because David repented. Forgiveness is not something we earn from God. Forgiveness is a gift, given out of the gracious mercy of God. But repentance is the only way we can receive this gift.
Maybe God is saying something to you right now about your sin. You thought it was a secret. But you know he knows. Whatever it is, it can hardly be worse than the things that David did. Yet God still loved him, and he loves you too. He will forgive you, just as he forgave David. Will you acknowledge your sin right now, and through repentance accept God’s gift of forgiveness?