Read the passage here.
Last week in Samuel, we looked at the episode with David, Bathsheba, and Uriah. And we suggested that David’s sin, perhaps having become comfortable in his position as Israel’s king, as God’s favoured and anointed, was the sin of abusing his power. Though David has been placed on the throne by God, David’s authority has been given to him by God, it’s how David uses this power that is the problem. That is, he doesn’t use his position as king for the sake of God’s kingdom; rather, he uses it for his own pleasure. Which of course should make us stop and wonder why we so frequently think that the solution (to whatever) is to obtain more power. Especially in light of the example that is set for us by Jesus Christ. And that of course begs the question, what is it we are actually longing for? Is it the kingdom of God? Or do we expect God to merely be the means to achieve our own kingdom?
But of course I don’t want to repeat all of last week’s message or things that we have discussed numerous times in the past. So our passage today picks up right where we left off (and as I said last week, it should indeed probably be considered together).
Once again, there are many things that we need to consider with this narrative. And once again, we unfortunately don’t have the time to examine most of it. What I want to do today is focus particularly on David’s repentance, and what that means for the David story (especially in light of the characterization of David as “a man after God’s own heart), and then consider what that means for us – what that means for our relationship with God in this time and this place.
But first, let’s briefly outline the passage as a whole. For the sake of simplicity, we might consider that the passage happens in three main movements:
In the first, (vv. 1-12), Nathan the prophet comes to confront and ultimately judge David. He tells a story, which might be a parable, but David seems to take the anecdote seriously – that is, that the incident deserves an actual judgement. David’s response is that the rich man who stole from the poor man must die and pay for the stolen lamb four times over (vv. 5-6).
Of course, Nathan reveals that David is in fact the rich man and he has just judged himself. Then, beginning the word of judgement, in vv. 7-8, Nathan reminds David that everything he has has been given by God. Now more than merely reminding David of his debt to God, this has strongly covenantal overtones. In other words, David has not just stolen Uriah’s wife, he has broken covenant with God.
And like we see in typical covenant forms, there are consequences for breaking covenant. In vv. 1-14, we read that David’s actions, David’s sin, has consequences. First, that the “sword will never depart from your house,” and second, that calamity will be brought to David (specifically that his wives would be given to one close to him).
The next movement is vv. 13-25. Now at this point it’s worth mentioning that these divisions as I’m indicating them are not definitive divisions. One might argue that vv. 13-14 continue Nathan’s judgement as part of the previous section as they describe further consequences for David’s sin. However, I’m arguing that this entire section describes David’s repentance. Certainly it begins with David’s confession, “I have sinned against the Lord.” But I think the rest of the passage gives us some more insight into what that repentance means. But we’ll get into that in a moment.
So what we see in these verses is that David repents, but still faces the consequences of his sin. This is actually really important for us to understand. David’s repentance is genuine – at least we have no reason to think that it is not. David fasts and prays to God. But he still loses the first son he has with Bathsheba. Now as I said, we will talk more about David’s repentance so we’ll leave this here for now.
In the final section of this chapter, we get a somewhat puzzling narrative of David’s victory over the Ammonites. I say puzzling because it seems a little divorced from the rest of the story. But if we remember that chapters 11 and 12 are properly understood as one narrative block – remember that we mentioned that we have to consider these two chapters together – then we might also recognize that chapter 11 begins with David sending his armies to fight the Ammonites, but he remains at home.
- a. 11:1 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. They destroyed the Ammonites and besieged Rabbah. But David remained in Jerusalem.
- b. cf. 12:29 So David mustered the entire army and went to Rabbah, and attacked and captured it.
So far from these closing verses (of chapter 12) being a mere addendum or afterthought, they are actually quite important. Firstly, it serves as a closing bracket to the opening bracket of 11:1. In other words, the entire narrative of chapters 11 and 12 hang together and give us important insight into the character of David and the David story. Secondly, they highlight the movement (or change) in David’s character from the beginning of chapter 11 to the end of chapter 12.
And it’s this change in character that we’re concerned with. As I said earlier, we want to focus particularly on David’s repentance. Beginning at verse 13, after Nathan’s judgement upon David, we read that David repented.
13 Then David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.”
Nathan replied, “The Lord has taken away your sin. You are not going to die. 14 But because by doing this you have shown utter contempt forthe Lord, the son born to you will die.”2 Samuel 12: 13-14
So the text tells us that Nathan confirms David’s forgiveness (i.e. “The Lord has taken away your sin…”). But it also tells us that David’s son – the one he had with Bathsheba – will still die. Now on the one hand, most of us are probably pretty comfortable with the idea that one’s actions have consequences – regardless of whether or not the party involved is “sorry.” In fact, we would probably mostly agree that you can’t do something wrong, say “sorry” and then get away with it.
However, there may also be a degree to which, according to our understanding of Christian theology, this is precisely what should happen. Because doesn’t the bible tell us that if we repent before God, we will be forgiven? Isn’t the entire foundation of Christianity based on the notion that God loves us, and if we repent of our sins, we won’t have to face the consequences of that sin?
Now obviously what I’ve described is a caricature of Christian theology. Because while true repentance means that we won’t face the ultimate consequences of our sin, scripture also repeatedly demonstrates that our actions do in fact have consequences. The entire history of Israel (including the Church) tells the story of God allowing human beings to reap what we have sown. Indeed, covenant theology (God’s covenants with Israel) actually promises this. And we saw it most recently in God’s covenant with David. In 2 Samuel 7, we read:
“‘The Lord declares to you that the Lord himself will establish a house for you: 12 When your days are over and you rest with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, your own flesh and blood, and I will establish his kingdom. 13 He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. 14 I will be his father, and he will be my son. When he does wrong, I will punish him with a rod wielded by men, with floggings inflicted by human hands. 15 But my love will never be taken away from him, as I took it away from Saul, whom I removed from before you. 16 Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever.’”2 Samuel 7: 11b-16
So we should not be surprised that David faces consequences for his actions.
However, I don’t want to leave it there. Because remember that we read that David repented of his sin with the words, “I have sinned against the Lord.” But David’s repentance doesn’t stop there (hence why I’m considering vv. 13-25 as a coherent “section”). We go on to read that when David’s son became ill, “16 David pleaded with God for the child. He fasted and spent the nights lying in sackclothon the ground.”
And then we get what might seem an odd passage to our ears. When the child finally died, David washed, put on lotion, changed his clothes – essentially, cleaned himself up and made himself presentable – and then worshiped God. The servants remark at this, basically saying, “you pleaded with God for your child, but now that he is now dead, why aren’t you in mourning?” (This shouldn’t suggest that David was in fact not in mourning; merely that his mourning didn’t look like his attendants expected). And David responds:
22 He answered, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept. I thought, ‘Who knows? The Lord may be gracious to me and let the child live.’ 23 But now that he is dead, why should I go on fasting? Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me.”2 Samuel 12: 22-23
Now this may be a strange response because it can come across as cold or unfeeling. But what I want to suggest to you is that this whole episode (vv. 13-25) is actually an example or a demonstration of David’s true repentance.
Remember what we read in chapter 11 – the story of David’s sin. In chapter 11, we read that David stayed home rather than going to war against the Ammonites. And, without re-hashing all of last week’s message, we read about how David used his authority, his power, as king in order to get what he wanted, and then in order to cover it up. In chapter 12, however, what we see is a king who doesn’t take advantage of, or take refuge in, his power. Rather, we see a king who accepts the judgement of his sin, accepts what God is giving him, and accepts what God is doing in his life. In other words, we see a David who is willing to accept the authority of God.
You may remember what we’ve said in the past about repentance. Repentance isn’t just saying, “I’m sorry.” And repentance especially isn’t just saying “I’m sorry” and expecting to escape the consequences of our actions. Repentance is about a change of mind (Gr. metanoia). And by this, as we’ve discussed before, we are ultimately talking about a change in worldview. We are talking about a fundamental shift from (among other things) thinking of the world as “me-centred” to “God-centred.” We are talking about a shift from choosing for ourselves what is right and wrong and becoming subject to what God has created the world to truly be. In the context of this story, metanoia, a change of mind, a change of worldview, means accepting the authority of God rather than trying to claim it for ourselves. Here, David allows God to be God. This is what it means to repent.
So at this point, it’s worth considering the general structure of this entire narrative (chapters 11 and 12). We might picture it as something like this:
- 1-David stays in Jerusalem (avoiding the war with the Ammonites)
- 1a-David’s sin with Bathsheba
- 1b-David tries to hide his sin
- 1c-David murders Uriah
- 1b-David tries to hide his sin
- 2a-David’s Judgement
- 2b-David repents of his sin
- 2c-David’s son dies
- 2b-David repents of his sin
- 1a-David’s sin with Bathsheba
- 2-David goes to Rabbah (winning the war with the Ammonites)
The point is that we can see, on the one hand, the parallels between the two halves of the story. And on the second hand, we can see the shift in David’s actions and therefore his character – we can see the difference in his attitude towards God.
So it seems it’s the shift in David’s character that’s the point (though we might better describe it as growth, or even discipline). The scriptural refrain that we’ve noted throughout Samuel is that David is “a man after God’s own heart.” But what does that mean? It doesn’t seem to mean that David was an exceptionally good man. Any more than any of the “heroes of faith” throughout the Old Testament that we’ve discussed can be said to be exceptionally good men. What we’ve seen is that all of these human beings are broken, fallen, selfish, cowardly, or rebellious. But God continues to work through them. And more than working through them, God continues to work in them so that they may become people of the kingdom. We see this in Abraham, in Moses, in David, and we see this in the apostles. And it’s not so that they can be “good enough” (i.e. so that they can ‘earn’ salvation or God’s favour); rather, God works in and through them according to His grace so that they can reflect the grace by which they have been called.
Again, I think what we’re seeing here in David is someone who is learning, or being reminded once again, of the importance of trusting in the sovereignty of God.
And this whole episode reminds me a little of Job. Job was a man who was tested by God – that is, he lost everything he had. He lost his children, his wife, his fortune. Though in Job’s case, it wasn’t because of sin – it was because Satan wanted to prove something to God. And in the midst of this situation, Job’s wife tells him to curse God and die because of his misfortunes. And Job’s reply is, “Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?”
Now obviously there’s a lot more in the book of Job, but the main point of the book of Job, at least as it seems to me, is that God’s ways are higher than ours, that God’s wisdom is beyond our understanding. Our responsibility is not to try to figure God out, not to force God to make sense to our minds, but to be obedient, worshipful, and faithful.
Of course that’s an over-simplification, and I’m not suggesting that God is completely unknowable or that we shouldn’t try to seek to know God. But what David’s repentance looks like here is, firstly and obviously an admission of his own wrong-doing and guilt, but also, a forsaking of his own power, a relinquishing of his own authority, and a willingness and desire to accept whatever God gives him. Shall David accept good from God and not trouble?
Now that may be a hard word for many of us to accept. Especially in a world that tells us that our own will is the most important thing. But the piece we cannot forget, the part that’s easy to overlook if we’re not paying attention to the whole story, is that God’s intention for us, His purpose and His entire work in human history, is that we might be restored to what He has meant us to be. Everything that we’re reading, from Genesis to Revelation, has to do with God’s redemption.
So what I mean is that when we read, “Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?” is that we can remember God is not a capricious God. He’s not a punitive God. He’s not a God who demands faithfulness and worship because of some fragile ego. And He’s not a God who metes out blessings and curses arbitrarily.
All of God’s dealings with human beings throughout human history are because He loves us. Were it not so, He could have simply wiped the slate clean and started over from scratch. But He doesn’t (this is what the Noahic covenant tells us, remember). Rather, He desires to redeem a people who have done nothing to deserve redemption, because of His great love for us. And though His ways of doing so may not always make sense to us – more often, we may simply not like it – we can know and trust that His way is grounded in love, wisdom, justice, and mercy. We can know and trust that His way is in fact the only way. And His way is the way to eternal life.
Next Sunday is the first Sunday of Advent. And as we have done in previous years, we are going to take a break from our study of Samuel for the season. Now most of us are familiar with the season of Lent, the time leading up to Easter, which is observed by many with fasting. Something I wasn’t aware of for most of my life was that, at least in the Orthodox Church, many Christians also fast over the Advent season. This isn’t as strict a fast as the Lenten season – in fact, in some circles, it’s called “little Lent.” But the notion of fasting in preparation for Christmas appeals to me. That is, as we’ve discussed before, the idea of giving up what we think constitutes life, of putting ourselves in a position of need, and of recognizing that true life is only found in God – I think that fasting as we await the coming of our Lord during the Advent season has great merit.
And I’m not necessarily recommending anyone to fast over the next several weeks of Advent. What I’m simply saying is that we think about how we prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ. That in the midst of a sinful and broken world, out of the darkness that so frequently seems to make up our days, the true Light is coming into this world.