Read the passage here.
Continuing in our study of the book of Samuel, we last left off in chapter 7 with God entering into a covenant with king David. This is especially important in the larger context of the biblical story as Jesus, called son of David, is considered the fulfillment of the Davidic Covenant (indeed, Jesus is the culmination of all of God’s dealings with human beings).
In chapter 8, we read about David’s continuing victories over his enemies. This included the Philistines, the Moabites, the Arameans, and the Ammonites. We might say that chapter 8, following upon the covenant in chapter 7, demonstrates David’s exceeding favour with God, and firmly establishes him as God’s chosen, bringing victory and glory to Israel.
Chapter 9 probably deserves some attention: In chapter 9, we read of David’s determination to show favour to the house of Saul, the first king of Israel. We read the David seeks out Saul’s heirs and finds Mephibosheth, son of Jonathan, returns to him land, and (as the text tells us) treats us like “one of the king’s sons.” This might serve to demonstrate how David is different from his predecessor, Saul – but I don’t want to over-simplify, so I’ll leave that with you.
And in chapter 10, we read about David’s battles with the Ammonites and the Arameans. Again, I don’t want to over-simplify, but this sets the immediate context for our passage today – that is, chapter 11 occurs in the midst of David’s war with the Ammonites.
But all in all, and in short, David’s kingship seems to be going pretty well.
And that brings us to our passage today (where things are going to take a tragic turn). We are looking at chapter 11, the story of David and Bathsheba – which, apart from the David and Goliath story, may be the most well-known of the David stories. Now we should probably consider chapters 11 and 12 together (chapter 12 is the story of the prophet Nathan’s rebuke of David). In an important sense, we cannot separate the two. But for the sake of expediency, we will focus on chapter 11 today.
Now the story is probably familiar to most of us, and it’s pretty straightforward, so I don’t want to reiterate the “plot.” And one of the things that we notice right away is that David has sinned. Specifically, he took the wife of Uriah (that is, Bathsheba) to fulfill his own desires. But it would be a mistake, in my opinion, to think of this as solely a sexual indiscretion. And I recognize that this is probably obvious to many of us. But I’ve heard my fair share of sermons and teachings that use this passage to talk about the importance of sexual purity.
And make no mistake, I’m not disagreeing with that principle. I’m not suggesting that what David did here was not sexual sin. However, it seems to me that this is not the main concern of this passage.
And here, it’s worth pointing out that, by this point in the David story, David has already accumulated numerous wives. He first married Michal, then Abigail, then Ahinoam, and here we read that he marries Bathsheba. (We get a list of David’s wives in 2 Sam. 3; which is essentially the same as what we read in 1 Chron. 3).
Now we’re not going to get into the idea of permissible polygamy based on a kind of dispensationalism – the idea that God had different rules for people at different times in human history (though this is an over-simplification). But the New Testament seems clear that we are to have only one husband or one wife.
My point simply is that the narrator has been completely silent of any kind of judgement towards David having multiple wives. Similarly, the specific judgement here does not seem to be that David committed adultery with or took Bathsheba as his wife.
Again, David’s sin is indeed a sexual sin, but the text seems to be even more concerned with something else.
What then is David’s sin that the text is highlighting? What is it that David had done that displeased the Lord? Quite simply, it seems to me to be an issue of power.
At the beginning of the chapter, we read:
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.2 Samuel 11:1
In the immediately preceding chapters (esp. chap. 8 and 10), we read about David’s battles with Israel’s enemies. And we read that David led Israel to victory, presumably confirming his favour with God. Because David has God’s favour, Israel is successful in battle – and this is in stark contrast to the leadership of king Saul.
Here, we read that the war (specifically with the Ammonites) is still going on. But David remained in Jerusalem. Now we have to be careful about reading into David’s not going into battle. Indeed, different commentators interpret this inaction differently (or don’t see need to interpret it at all). And the text certainly doesn’t comment on it. But it seems to me that sending your armies into battle while safe in the capital city is a unique prerogative of the king.
Following that line of thinking, I want to pick up on what Eugene Peterson, in his commentary on 1 & 2 Samuel says. Peterson notes the repetition and emphasis of the verb “to send.” Note how often the word, “send” shows up in the text:
- 1 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.
- 2b …The woman was very beautiful, 3 and David sent someone to find out about her.
- 4 Then David sent messengers to get her. She came to him, and he slept with her.
- 6 So David sent this word to Joab: “Send me Uriah the Hittite.” And Joab sent him to David.
- 14 In the morning David wrote a letter to Joab and sent it with Uriah. 15 In it he wrote, “Put Uriah out in front where the fighting is fiercest. Then withdraw from him so he will be struck down and die.” [this one is interesting because Uriah is sent with the orders for his own death]
- 18 Joab sent David a full account of the battle.
- 22 The messenger set out, and when he arrived he told David everything Joab had sent him to say.
Now the main thing to notice about this repetition of the word “send/sent” is that it is always used in the context of authority. There are a couple of instances where Joab sends a message with the messenger. But the majority of usages have to do with David sending – in effect, David commanding. Think of how we use the phrase, “to send for…” That’s the kind of sense we’re dealing with here. So what we’re saying is that, by repeated usage of the word (in this particular way), the text focuses our attention on David’s use of power, as king of Israel. Indeed, if you look at the language of the passage, even beyond the use of the verb, “send,” it seems clear that the emphasis is on how David uses power. Again, and not to belabour the point, but the emphasis is on David using, and specifically how David uses, his authority.
And this should inform how we understand the precise nature of the relationship between David and Bathsheba. David sent someone to find out about her. David sent messengers to get her. Now there is a fair amount of debate about this. But it seems to me quite clear that Bathsheba was not a willing participant in this adultery. She does not choose to be with David. David sent for her because he is the king. Bathsheba is sometimes spoken about as a temptress, or as a partner in David’s sin. But, to me, she is clearly a victim. She is the object of David’s abuse of power. And of course, this is no less true of David’s interaction with Uriah.
Now at this point, it’s worth noting that the verses describing David’s encounter (that is, abuse of) Bathsheba take up a minority of verses. And this might be surprising because, at least in the NIV, the passage heading is given as “David and Bathsheba.” But in fact, the bulk of the verses describe David’s dealings with Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband. And when we read the following chapter (12), Nathan’s judgement of David has mostly to do with how he treated Uriah.
And this shouldn’t make us think that Bathsheba is therefore less important or that David’s treatment of her isn’t abhorrent. Mostly, I am highlighting how the text’s concern has less to do with David’s sexual infidelity than it does his abuse of power.
So, what do we read about Uriah. Well, I don’t want to re-hash the entire passage. But what we read is that David wants to cover up his adultery with Bathsheba, and the resultant pregnancy, by bringing Uriah back from war. David assumes that Uriah will sleep with his wife, Bathsheba, and it will be assumed that the child is his. But Uriah does not cooperate. And this leads, ultimately, to David plotting to have Uriah killed in battle.
But I want to pause in the midst of that interaction to note Uriah’s response to David’s invitation. When explaining why he chose not to go home and be with his wife, Uriah says:
Uriah said to David, “The ark and Israel and Judah are staying in tents, and my commander Joab and my lord’s men are camped in the open country. How could I go to my house to eat and drink and make love to my wife? As surely as you live, I will not do such a thing!”2 Samuel 11:11
Now this brief speech by Uriah should, on the one hand, paint a picture for us of a man who is committed to his army, his nation, and Israel’s God. Uriah seems to be a pious, devout man. But more importantly, Uriah’s response stands in stark contrast to David’s own actions. Uriah is essentially saying, “how can I enjoy myself, how can I indulge my own urges when my people are off at war?”
But shouldn’t that be David’s response as well? Or something similar? We read at the very beginning of the passage that Israel’s armies are at war with the Ammonites, but David stayed in Jerusalem. So doesn’t Uriah’s restraint stand in judgement of David’s own gluttony?
Instead, David seems to take the opportunity, the privilege that he has as king, to avoid going to the battle, sending others instead, and take whatever he wants while safe at home.
Now there’s a great deal more we could say about this passage, many things that we can and should reflect on. For example:
How do we think about the women in David’s life? Primarily, and for this I want to refer you to Jack who posed the question to me (though I’m sure I don’t remember the question properly), in the David story there are a couple of significant women. Back in 1 Samuel 25, we encounter Abigail who is able to convince David not to kill her husband, Nabal, for his disrespect. Like Bathsheba, Abigail is someone who has no power. And yet David is able to accept her “guidance” to not do something abhorrent before God. How does his interaction with Bathsheba indicate a change (or at least a difference) in David’s character and actions. And what does that tell us about the story of David’s kingship and kingdom?
Similarly, in previous chapters we saw that David was unwilling to take Saul’s life (and he also refrained from taking Nabal’s life as we just mentioned). Here, with much less justification, he is very willing to take Uriah’s life here.
Another question has to do with the means by which he takes Uriah’s life (and by extension, how he seeks to hide his sin). Previously, in the chapters (2 Sam. 2-4) outlining David’s battles with Ish-Bosheth, Saul’s son (the war between Judah and Israel), we talked about this motif of deceit and duplicitousness. And we asserted that this indicated a failing, a shortcoming in the character of the people involved. That is, the nation of Israel (that is, both Israel and Judah) was in disarray. Now in the passages immediately preceding our passage today, most notably the covenant between God and David, with the firm establishment of David as king, can we not understand that in some way God’s promises are being fulfilled? What then do these actions of David tell us about David’s character, about how he is settling in as king of Israel? And what might this suggest about the prospects for the nation of Israel?
All of these are things that are worth thinking about. Though we’re not going to discuss them in further detail now. I simply want to say that there’s a lot going on, and we want to resist the urge to simplify, to minimize, or even to sum things up.
So to return to the things that we have been talking about, what I’ve been suggesting is that (in my opinion) the text seems to be pointing us in the direction of a denunciation on David’s abuse of power. Now this may not be all that insightful or revolutionary. It is likely obvious to many of you that David’s sin here is the abuse of his kingly authority. But what should be surprising is that nobody ever seems to learn from this.
We know that the expectations of the crowds during the ministry of Jesus was that He would defeat the enemies of Israel and restore the kingdom of David. The Messiah was supposed to overthrow the oppressors so that Israel could re-establish the kingdom of God as they understood it. So the scandal of Jesus was that His kingdom was to be accomplished by way of the cross. And for most who followed Jesus, for those who put their hope in Jesus as the Messiah, the cross was precisely a reason for despair. Many left Jesus because what He was doing was not what they wanted, not what they expected. They wanted to recover their power and Jesus simply wasn’t interested in this.
And we keep doing this. We keep expecting that to build the Kingdom, to be followers of Jesus means that we get to win in the earthly realm – that we get to take the power. And so we continue trying to build something, to take hold of something, that accords with our concept of strength, victory, or success in worldly terms.
Now I don’t want to get ahead of ourselves because we can’t understand David’s actions here, and the narrative as given, without consideration of the next chapter, chapter 12, where we hear God’s rebuke through the prophet Nathan. However, what we can try to understand from David’s situation is the danger and the temptation that comes from power, privilege, and position.
And I’m sure we understand that at some level. Or at least we think we understand it. But the question we have to ask ourselves, in light of David’s journey so far, is what are we looking for? What are we hoping for? And what are we working for, even presumably in the name of Jesus?
Are we like the post-exilic Israelites in Jesus’ time? Longing for a return to the glory and prestige (or so we think) of David’s kingdom? Are we longing for a time when we are the envy of all our neighbours? When they tremble before our might and wealth?
Or do we eagerly seek the way of the cross? Do we seek to embrace the message of Jesus who repeatedly told his disciples not to seek glory? But rather said that blessed are the meek, the merciful, the poor, and the hungry? Do we really understand when he said that anyone who wanted to follow Him, to walk as Jesus did, must take up their cross and follow Him?
We may not want to hear it. We may not like it much. But this is the way of the cross. This is the way of the kingdom. This is the kind of people that God is calling us to be. It may not gain us much according to the world’s economy. It may not seem like much on this side of eternity. But the story does not end on this side of eternity. Rather, on the other side of eternity, we may find that the things we strive so hard for now do not matter so much after all. We may find that things that matter, the things that give life, are not power and position, but rather how well we love, how quickly we give, how generously we take care of one another. And isn’t that what we are called to even now? Isn’t this at least part of what it means to be an eschatological people? That we might live the wonder of the Kingdom, the fullness of God’s rule, in the midst of this broken and fallen world.