2 Samuel 11:1-15; 11:26-12:13a
David and Bathsheba
By The Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger
Sexy story, eh? We get lots of them these days. Parental Discretion Advised. In the comics Blondie and Dagwood are watching television. Dagwood remarks, “Boy, there sure is a lot of nudity on TV lately!”
“I’ll say,” Blondie replies.
They continue to stare at the TV, eyes wide open. Says Dagwood, “Darnedest tire commercial I’ve ever seen.”(1)
Uh-huh. If it is any consolation, as our lessons this morning indicate, a preoccupation with sex is nothing new, especially in high places. And if you were either horrified or fascinated with the saga of Bill and Monica a couple of years ago, this one is exponentially worse.
Of all the characters portrayed in scripture, it is hard to find one more complex than King David. David is the great hero who rose to power from humble beginnings, a shepherd boy not even admired by his own brothers, who had become, by God’s amazing grace, the king of Israel. He had replaced his flawed predecessor Saul and salvaged the monarchy from its less than stellar beginning. He became known as, not only Israel’s greatest king, but also as a man after God’s own heart.(2) But scripture is painfully honest in never attempting to canonize David, disguise his flaws, or excuse his mistakes. It simply lets the story unfold – his life as a shepherd, his loyalty to Saul, spectacular victories on the battlefield and equally spectacular failures at home.
Let us revisit the details: it was springtime in Jerusalem, the season of birds and bees and afternoon strolls on the roof for a dose of cool breezes. It was also “the time when kings go out to battle,” as the text says. But not all kings. The king of Israel sent his troops under the command of his nephew, Joab, who had been named commander, not because of the family relationship but as a reward for heroism in the conquest of Jerusalem.(3) Meanwhile, David lounged about high atop the palace, which afforded him a spectacular view of the Holy City below.
One day, after a fresh air nap on the rooftop, the king rubbed his eyes upon awakening. And then, no doubt, he rubbed them again. Yes, the view was breathtaking – and especially so today. The normally panoramic vista this afternoon included the sight of a gorgeous and quite naked lady taking a bath. Whoa!!!
An aside here. If you wonder about bathing up there in front of God and everybody with a higher vantage point, remember that the rooftops of houses in ancient Israel were flat and served as additional living and working space. The ancient Israelites also had water gathering and storage systems on their rooftops designed to trap dew and rainwater and carry it into cisterns through pipes.(4) I doubt that any of us remember life before indoor plumbing, but these rooftop systems were the next best thing.
Now what? David could have been a gentleman and turned away. But we know better – boys will be boys, even boys in high places, as we know all too well. “Let’s check this out! Who might this lovely be?” The answer comes back: this is Bathsheba daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite. Hmm. The bride of one of David’s own mercenaries (in fact, one of the best of the best(5)) who is off to war with the troops at Rabbah. Send for her. She comes over, whether willingly or unwillingly, we cannot tell, but he was the king, after all, and one does not refuse a command appearance. One thing leads to another…and another and another…and what it finally leads to is a probably frantic message not long after: “I am pregnant.”
Meanwhile, during the course of the narrative, we learn another rather personal detail not often uttered in polite conversation, much less from the pulpit. The reason why the tantalizing beauty was spotted naked in the first place was because she was immersed in her monthly purification bath after her menstrual period. If you wonder why such an indelicate detail was included by our storyteller, it was to make sure no one would wonder of this child, “Who’s your Daddy?” Since Uriah was off at war and Mrs. Uriah had ventured directly from that bath to David’s bedroom, we know what the answer has to be.
Now David has to think fast. As Bathsheba’s fertile body had conceived a child, David’s fertile mind was conceiving a plan. Cover-up. The original Zippergate. David sends word to Commander Joab, “Send me Uriah the Hittite.”
So Joab sends him. David calls Uriah in, ostensibly for a report on the war. After hearing the news from the front, David tells Uriah, “Go down to your house, wash your feet (ahem, wink, wink).” In other words, go spend some “quality time” with Bathsheba. The Hittite leaves the king’s presence, but instead of going down to his house he spends the night with the palace guards.
You see, as one commentator has it, “Uriah belonged to the John McCain school of war: as long as his fellow soldiers were out in the field, he himself would abstain from the pleasures of civilian life, including relations with the Missus” (6)(which, as we all know, is exactly what David was wanting him to do to make the cover-up work). For that matter, Uriah is not just objecting to having it better than his buddies – he knows the Israelite rules of holy war (even though he is not an Israelite); as a warrior who must return to battle, he knows that sexual relations, even with your wife, are not allowed.(7) Vietnam in reverse: make war, not love.
King David obviously hopes that Uriah is not concerned with Israelite covenant law, but he soon finds he is mistaken. Even when David presents Uriah with gifts and later tries to get him so drunk he will forget himself, Uriah the Hittite behaves himself like a virtuous Uriah the Israelite. Ironic, isn’t it, that in the end, Uriah, the foreigner, keeps himself holier according to Israel’s law than does Israel’s king? The guy was too good to be true.
And in being that good, he signed his own death warrant. If Plan A does not work, we move to Plan B. David sends Uriah back to the front carrying sealed orders that he be placed “in the forefront of the hottest battle.” Sure enough, Uriah is soon dead, along with a number of other soldiers who were caught in the same deadly assault. Collateral damage, as they say. David sends word with Joab’s messengers not to worry about it. Fortunes of war and all that. Win some, lose some. But we know better – this was murder, pure and simple. Yes, this was much worse than Bill and Monica.
The pregnant Bathsheba is now a widow with no one around to raise the “Who’s your Daddy?” question. After her period of mourning (normally seven days), David has her moved to the palace and marries her. And this before she would have begun to “show.” The cover-up has worked.
Or has it? The story says, “but the thing that David had done displeased the Lord.” Duh-du-duh-duh! [“Dragnet”].
Enter Nathan. A preacher. A storyteller. He says:
There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds; 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. 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.
What? David could not believe such a thing. He says to Nathan, “As the LORD lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; he shall restore the lamb fourfold [the normal penalty for theft], because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.”
You can picture the drama in that throne room. Nathan looks the king squarely in the eye, slowly raises his hand, pointing his finger defiantly forward at the king and says, “You are the man!”
You could have cut the horrified silence in that room with a knife. Then the prophet continued:
Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: I anointed you king over Israel, and I rescued you from the hand of Saul; 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.
David, you blew it! One commandment after another down the drain – it began with covetousness, then adultery, then murder. Will you suffer for it? You know it. You and your entire household.
What follows is truly amazing. The arrogance of power that David had displayed in the events leading up to this moment suddenly is gone. I can see both men staring at each other, then David lowering his eyes and saying quietly, choking a bit, “I have sinned against the LORD.”
In the Hebrew hymn book that we have come to call the Book of Psalms, we have one that comes from David’s heart in the aftermath of this sad affair, Psalm 51. I can picture him alone later with his reddened eyes toward heaven and tears streaming down his flushed cheeks speaking the words that have welled up from the depths of his being:
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.
There would be a pause as the tears would flow more freely now. From the inside out they would begin a process of cleansing and renewal. Then finally, as the tears have begun their work of restoration, David would be able to say,
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.
I love happy endings, and I would love to report that this story has one…but I cannot. The baby that Bathsheba has conceived dies only one week after his birth. The king’s family falls apart, his daughter is raped by her half-brother; another son has the half-brother murdered; son Absalom instigates a palace coup and foments a civil war; David finally dies, a sick, worn-out old man. As the old Pennsylvania Dutch proverb has it, “Too soon old, too late smart.” But remember, in spite of it all, David is still Israel’s greatest king, a man after God’s own heart.
Is there some moral lesson we are supposed to take from this sad story? Do we need to be reminded that we are not to murder or commit adultery? Do we need this story as an affirmation that “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely?” If you need any of that, take it. Moral lessons always have value.
But I think there is gospel in this story as well (and, to be honest, when I come to worship with you from week to week, I need gospel more than I need moral exhortations – I know all the “shoulds” and “oughts;” I need something more). The good news, the “gospel,” that I find here is that God can take someone even as horribly flawed as David, and do great things with him.
I find that wonderfully encouraging in a very personal way. Many years ago, on the Sunday after my birth, word of my arrival was announced to the congregation of the Chelsea Presbyterian Church in Atlantic City, NJ, the congregation to which my father had been called as pastor less than a year before. My parents told the church they had named me David, in the hope that I would grow up, like the David of old, to be a man after God’s own heart. In the year’s since, my sins may not have been as egregious or public as those of David the king, but to say that I am equally flawed frankly goes WITHOUT saying. That means then, if David of old can be used of God, perhaps, in a small way, so can I.
Can you see yourself in David’s story? Perhaps there is something in your past…or even in your present…that is tearing you apart, and making you wonder if things can ever be made right again. The good news I bring to you today is that the story of David says ABSOLUTELY!
Another story we all know well says the same. It is the story of a cross raised outside the city gates. Upon it hangs a man, not because of his sin but rather because of King David’s sin and Preacher David’s sin and your sin and yours and yours and yours. The cross does not erase the seriousness of the evils we commit, nor does it mean there are no consequences to what we do. Rather, the cross “crosses them out,” makes it possible for life to continue, and for God to do great things. We have come to call that “Amazing grace!” YES!
Then, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”
1. Young & Drake, “Blondie,” The Washington Post, January 28, 2000, C1
2, quoted in Homiletics, July-August, 2000, p. 33
3. I Chronicles 11:4-6
5. cf. II Samuel 23:18-39
7. Deuteronomy. 23:9; I Samuel. 21:4-5
Copyright 2000 Dr. David E. Leininger. Used by permission.