LESSON: 2 Samuel chapters 11 & 12
Back in seminary, I took a class called “Survey of the Old Testament.” It was designed for the Presbyterian students, because they had to pass a test on the contents of the Old Testament. Part of it was to make sure that they had actually read the Old Testament before they were turned loose on the world. Part of it was also to make sure that they would know at least as much as the average parishioner—that they knew the difference between Adam and Abraham, Noah and Moses, Exodus and the Exile and so on.
It was straightforward: We read pretty much straight through the Old Testament and had to keep a journal outlining what we’d read. But in the class itself, we’d talk about broader themes. This is what the Old Testament says. But what does it mean?
We’ve tried this before, but it seems like a good time to try it again: These next few weeks, we’re going to use Old Testament stories as a way to discover the big themes. Today, we’ll use the story about David and Bathsheba as a kind of overview, to help us start to think about what the Old Testament might mean for us here in 2018.
First, let’s just tell the story. The first verse says: “In the spring, at the time when kings go off to war, David remained in Jerusalem.” So the story begins with a dereliction of duty. Kings were expected to “go off to war,” and David sent his army into battle. But he stayed home. Typical.
So, was he working in the palace situation room, poring over the maps and battlefield reports? Ummm, not quite. Verse 2 says, “One evening David got up from his bed and walked around on the roof of the palace.” Another translation makes it clearer: “Late one afternoon… David arose from his couch and was walking upon the roof…” In other words, while his men were out fighting and dying, he was goofing off, laying around the palace, napping and sleeping-in.
And that’s not all. As he’s strolling on the palace roof, verse 2 says,”He saw a woman bathing. The woman was very beautiful.” Well, that was enough for him. He sent a flunky to track her down. Turned out she was the daughter of someone he knew—a guy named Eliam—and she was married to one of his soldiers, Uriah the Hittite. Not to worry—David sent for her anyway, “and he slept with her,” verse 4 says.
But there was a complication. Verse 5 says, “The woman conceived and sent word to David, saying, ‘I am pregnant.’” So, verse 6 says, David sent for Uriah. Was it so David could own up to his misdeed ? Well, no. Verse 13 says that David got him drunk – pretended they were pals, I suppose–treating him like a friend, a drinking buddy.
Then in verse 14 & 15, David deliberately sent orders for Uriah to be sent to the front line, into the fiercest fighting,”so he will be struck down and die.”
The plan worked. Uriah was killed in battle. Then, verse 27 says, after a “respectable” period of mourning, David had Bathsheba move in with him, and before the baby was born, he married her. “But,” verse 27 adds ominously, “the thing David had done displeased the Lord.”
“That displeasure” was brought to David in the person of Nathan, a prophet—though in this case, more of a ”special prosecutor.” In chapter 12, Nathan basically sets up David. He tells a story about a rich man and a poor man. “The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle,” Nathan says in verse 2, “but the poor man had only the one little ewe It was more of a family pet than livestock.” Verse 3 says,” He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him.”
David should have smelled the set-up, but his political sense failed, and he walked right into the trap. Yes, Nathan said, when the rich man wanted to throw a party, instead of slaughtering one of his own animals, he stole that poor man’s sheep and ate that one at his party instead. That’s an outrage, David says. Verse 5 says, “David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan,’ As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this deserves to die!”
Well, “You are the man!“ Nathan says. That’s where our reading ends, but from there, Nathan goes on to spell-out David’s sins. Once David hears the indictment, he confesses. In verse 13, he says, “I have sinned against the Lord,”
What follows almost sounds like a plea deal. In exchange for that confession, Nathan says that David himself will not die. David will not receive the will the tooth-for-tooth punishment he deserved. But there would be other punishments that would come his way, including the death of his innocent newborn.
So the story itself represents all the broad categories of the Bible.
First, it comes from 2nd Samuel. The books from Joshua through Nehemiah are known as the Historical Books, explaining of the development of Israel into a nation, the ups and downs of its long lines of kings, its destruction, its exile, and its restoration. Think of it as the ancient version of “Game of Thrones”
Second, the focus on David reminds us of the Psalms. Many of the Psalms were credited to David. So the section of poetical and wisdom books is also represented—Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon.
Third, the first five books of the Old Testament, Genesis through Deuteronomy, are represented here by the depiction of David’s failed character.
Think of how shocking this passage really is. How many sins does David commit? While his troops are dying on the battlefield, he’s turned his palace into the Jerusalem Playboy mansion. He’s lazy and self-indulgent. He covets a married woman. He abuses his power in order to commit adultery with her. Then instead of telling the truth to Uriah, he pretends to be his friend, even while he’s plotting to cover up his adultery by sending Uriah to certain death.l
Do we really need to know this? Suppose you were Mary and Joseph 2000 years ago. Would you have wanted little Jesus to go off to Sabbath School and hear this sort of smut about the man universally acknowledged as the greatest king of Israel? Wasn’t it enough, whatever his personal failings, that he was doing a good job?
But by the time we get to David, especially after those first five books, we have come to expect that the so-called heroes aren’t heroes. They’ve got some pretty dirty laundry.
Noah got drunk and put a curse on his son.
Abraham cowardly passed off his wife–twice—as his sister and sent her into the Pharaoh’s harem, just to save himself.
Jacob swindled Esau out of his birthright and then, with the help of his own mother, he tricked his father into giving him the great blessing.
Isaac and Rebecca played favorites with their sons, and nearly lost both of them.
Jacob’s sons sold their own brother, Joseph, into slavery.
Moses insulted God in the desert and ignored his commandments, so that he was not allowed to enter into he promised land.
And Aaron caved–in to the pressure to build the golden calf.
In dramatic terms, this continuing theme of human failure highlights the power of God and his choice of Israel to be his people. Israel succeeds and thrives as a nation not because of the legacy of its ancestors or the skills of its leaders, but only by the power of God.
While Moses and the people continually doubt and whine, and want to go back to Egypt, God leads them through the desert into the promised land.
David indeed built Israel into a great kingdom—never again would Israel be a genuine world power as it was under David. But did that happened because of who David was? Not at all. It was because God chose to use David to fulfill his plans. Did the young David beat the giant Goliath because he was so clever with a slingshot? No. God made it happen.
Israel’s national health didn’t depend on their kings. They could be as disgusting, lazy, perverted and sleazy as the great David. No, Israel’s success depended on the relationship between God and his people. When the people followed God’s ways, they prospered. When they turned away and did their own thing, their kingdoms crumbled and they were carried off into exile.
That’s the message of the prophets, from Isaiah to Malachi—represented here by the prophet Nathan. Nathan’s powerful preaching moved David to confess and repent.
But another theme— another side of God’s character— is also seen in this story. God is merciful. David would not die for his sin. Instead, the son of David would be his savior – the innocent newborn son of Bathsheba would die for his horrible sins. The son would bear the punishment the father had earned.
Now that just doesn’t sound right to us! Why pick on the innocent baby? But that’s how sin works. Innocent people get hurt. The terrorist guns down people in church. A cop gets shot at the gas station. The drunk crashes his car into innocent bystanders.
But why didn’t God punish David directly?
Well—that brings us to the other major Old Testament theme: The Old Testament points us to the New Testament. Jesus Christ, the innocent son of David, died for our sins. Was it fair that Jesus died in such a horrible way? Of course not. Even Pontius Pilate, the man who signed the death warrant, had to admit that Jesus was innocent.
This is the gospel theme of grace, amazing grace—how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me! The Old Testament and the New Testament become a testimony to the gracious love of God. On our own, we fail—we may fail horribly, as David does in our lesson. But under God’s powerful love, we’re not abandon to the full consequences of our own evil. God promises time and again to stick with us, and lead us, step by step to a redeemed life—a life of hope and joy, peace and love.
In the Old Testament, there are no saints. There are no heroes. The only “hero” is God. God alone is holy. If we keep that in mind, it allows to read these stories for what they are.
Hopefully, as we take our own little trip through the Old Testament, we will discover, or perhaps re-discover the power of God and the love of our God, our true King and defender, our heavenly Father.