Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 26, 2015
2 Samuel 11 Commentary
This commentary is for both 12B and 13B:
In a memorable sermon on this text, Haddon Robinson said that this difficult chapter in the David saga is a good example of what can happen in middle age when we let our defenses down and become maybe a bit too full of ourselves, a bit too wistful over the good old days of youth. That seems about right.
A note before proceeding: The Common Lectionary divides up the David-Bathsheba story into two subsequent lections. This set of sermon commentaries will be posted for both Proper 12 and 13 (in 2015, July 26 and August 2) so as to treat the narrative as a whole. Ideas for how to preach 2 separate sermons based on the Lectionary’s textual division are included near the end of these commetaries. But now back to commenting on this story:
A few chapters earlier—in 2 Samuel 7, which the Common Lectionary looked at the prior week, we saw David using his own settledness and his own possession of a lovely house in which to live as a reason to offer to build God a house, a glorious Temple in which to dwell. But God turned down that request and, as we noted in that set of sermon commentaries, the reason seemed to be in large part because God didn’t want David feeling so self-sufficient that his own efforts and work would eclipse the prior and ongoing work of God. What David needed to learn was that Israel was about what God was building, not about what David could build for God.
But maybe God should have let David do it after all! If idle hands are the devil’s workshop, then the idleness we detect in David in this chapter leads to a great deal of mayhem indeed. It’s clear that David has now left most of the exciting tasks of life to underlings. In the spring when the roads and meadows dry up sufficiently as to allow one to defend one’s territory against invaders—and that in turn gives such would-be invaders the chance to go to war against neighboring lands. Yet David stays behind in Jerusalem.
He’s older now. And although there was a time when he looked good riding in his chariot with his royal cape flapping regally behind him in the wind, now he sensed he looked a touch ridiculous. He has a bit of a paunch now. The armor was a bit snug. His swagger was gone. It hurt some days when his feet hit the floor when he got out of bed in the morning. It was easier to let Joab and the younger folks go to war and do what needed doing. And anyway, he was the king now. It could be seen as a sign of strength and royal privilege that he no longer needed to dirty his own hands in the mud and blood and guts of battle. He could run things just as well from the palace situation room.
That all may have been true but in truth, he was bored. Having accomplished all he had set out to do, having consolidated the kingdom and built up the holy city (and having been told by God that even his heyday of building programs was at an end), David just didn’t know what to do with himself. He didn’t exactly miss the days when at any minute Saul might pin him to the wall with a javelin, but there was something about living with a death threat that made David feel (oddly enough) profoundly alive. As it turned out, the machinations of governing the nation were not near as exciting as all that he had to do to become king in the first place. He missed working the ropelines and shaking the hands of all those adoring citizens. The shouts of “Saul has slain his thousands, David his tens of thousands” were now faint echoes from his past, distant reminders of the better days that once were.
David was churning all that through his head more days than not of late, including that morning when he took his morning coffee out onto the rooftop veranda to wonder what he might do that day.
That’s when he saw her.
A real beauty in a neighboring courtyard wearing nothing but the shape God had given her. Suddenly David found something new he could yet conquer, a new quest to set out upon. He had to meet her, had to have dinner with her, had to . . . have her.
We don’t know from the text whether David, having sated his lust and succeeded in his quest to sleep with Bathsheba, felt good about it or was filled with self-loathing. We don’t know whether his royal conquest of this woman eased his ennui or only served to increase it. Instead we are fast-forwarded some weeks or months hence by which time Bathsheba—who hadn’t seen her husband Uriah in a good long while—found herself pregnant and so sent the king a little note to break the news.
It’s all tawdry soap opera drama from that point forward. Plan A is the cover up. It’s a dictum in politics to this day that cover-ups almost always end up being worse and more problematic than the original crime. It’s also a fact of politics that no politician who finds himself guilty of a crime pays that dictum much heed and so proceeds post-haste with a cover-up. In this case David hits on a simple little plan that won’t hurt a soul (even though truth will die in the course of it all). He’s got to find a way to get Uriah to sleep with his wife. The math might be off a bit—but here’s hoping no one works too hard to count backwards 9 months—but the baby could then appear to be Uriah’s and all would be well.
Uriah ends up being as loyal and true as David was just then being mendacious and deceitful. Nothing drives a liar crazy like an honest man. And so David goes a little crazy. When it becomes clear that Uriah will not indulge in sensuality (even with his own wife) so long as his fellow soldiers are eating C-rations in dirty trenches and only dreaming of home, David gets mad and launches the far darker Plan B, making the necessary arrangements to get Uriah out of the way permanently so he could make an honest woman out of Bathsheba by marrying her himself.
“But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord.”
But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord.
Talk about dramatic understatement!
The presence of the Lord had been absent throughout this entire chapter until the very end. But that’s only on the surface. Most everything David did here was “while no one else was looking,” but we know that’s never true. And the story’s climax in II Samuel 12 delivers what most of us would agree was a fairly predictable outcome based on the Lord’s watchful eye.
It’s no doubt a mark of how thoroughly David had deluded himself and convinced himself that he came out of this incident scot-free that he didn’t catch on sooner to what was—all things being equal—a fairly ham-handed little analogy about a rich man, a poor man, and a little lamb. If you’ve just stolen your neighbor’s car and some minister comes and tells you a story about a theft, your skin starts to crawl fairly early on in the telling of the analogical story. It cuts a little too close to home.
But not for David. Maybe he was distracted when Nathan told him the homely little lamb story, shuffling papers on his desk and tending to the busy work of a king while the prophet’s words dribbled on in the background. Or maybe he had so thoroughly insulated himself from the truth that he just couldn’t be reached. One suspects it’s the latter, and it’s a pretty scary prospect for us to face that we are capable of such self-deception. Yet we are.
If it’s surprising that Nathan is so easily able to sneak past David’s defenses and get him to express righteous indignation over a crime that is galactically less important and serious than what he himself was guilty of, it’s equally stunning to hear Nathan instantly declare forgiveness to David (albeit with the warning that the poor example David had set would come back to bite him within his own household one day soon). Actions can have consequences that not even the stunning grace of God can undo. One can only look to that same grace to sustain through the crises that our own actions sometimes unleash.
This could all be preached as one sermon. But if you want to follow the letter of the Lectionary and preach 2 sermons, here are some ideas:
As noted above, the Common Lectionary splits this story into a kind of cliffhanger Part 1 and Part 2, breaking off the narrative for Proper 12 just at the point when David arranges for Uriah’s death, then for Proper 13 picking the action back up after the worst of that part of the narrative is finished and cruising on into the Nathan part of the story. Frankly, it’s difficult to preach a two-parter on a story as seamless as this one. If one did so, however, it might be possible to let the first sermon on II Samuel 11:1-15 ponder what all led David to get himself into a situation in which he made such a manifestly bad set of decisions. And what is it in our own lives that can make us lose sight of God, God’s design for life, God’s dearest desires for our lives, so as to plunge into recklessly self-destructive patterns?
Then the second sermon could be a consideration of how God’s grace saves us anyway. Too often we use God’s ability to see and know all as a way to scare the daylights out of people. Even that little Sunday School song “Oh be careful little hands what you do . . .” carries with it the semi-ominous refrain, “For the Father up above is looking down in love.” The “in love” part softens it a bit but the song’s main message is clear enough: Behave, you little galoots, because God’s watching (and he’s got that rolled-up newspaper in his hands for a reason!!).
But the good news of the Bible is that although God may indeed be looking down from above, his doing so is not a short-circuiting of grace but becomes instead the occasion for grace. That’s no excuse to do whatever you want, of course. But it is a reminder for us in the church that our primary task is to preach grace, not fear; forgiveness, not damning tirades against sinfully weak people. Of course, neither grace nor forgiveness can be presented effectively without a concurrent acknowledgment that such things are needed in the first place—David had to fess up and own up to the reality of sin for the word of grace to have its truest depth of meaning for him. But it’s still grace that needs to set the tone.
This story seems like a knife through the heart of the entire David saga in the Old Testament. It’s been used as proof that even the mightiest can fall, that even the godliest people can sin. In the late 1990s when some ministers were using their pulpits to finger-wag at Bill Clinton and call for his impeachment in the wake of the Lewinsky sex scandal, other pastors were pointing to II Samuel 11-12 as a reminder that God can forgive and restore fallen leaders and that the church should be much more excited about that forgiving message than about the condemning message in which some seemed to be taking altogether too much relish.
In the biblical long run, though, this story—and the appearance of Solomon’s mother Bathsheba—serves a far more curious function. By the time you get to the New Testament and encounter Matthew’s opening genealogy of Jesus, you discover that Matthew goes out of his way to include some of the more scandal-associated figures from the Old Testament. Four women are referenced in Matthew 1:1-17 (and that in and of itself was a bold move for Matthew) but each of the women was a non-Israelite and several of them had whiffs of sexual scandal surrounding them (Tamar, Rahab, Bathsheba). But Matthew twists the knife a bit more when it came time to reference Bathsheba, not mentioning her by name but only by reminding his readers that Solomon’s mother was “Uriah’s wife.” Ouch.
It turns out Jesus of Nazareth had quite the family tree, and this knife through the David saga was one giant skeleton in the closet. But Matthew flung open the closet door because he knew as keenly as any gospel writer that if ever there were a reminder of why this world needs a Savior who is full of grace, this story provides it.
It is, therefore, simply too bad whenever preachers use this story (or biblical stories like it) only as an excuse to tut-tut over the sins of people in order to make them feel bad or, worse, as a way to make us holy ones in the church better than those sexually silly people out there in the world.
Idea #1: Some weeks ago in the sermon commentary article on the story of David and Goliath, I mentioned that in the Pennyroyal Caxton illustrated Bible that came out a few years ago, illustrator Barry Moser does a masterful job contrasting the young David with the middle-aged David. In the drawing designed to accompany the story of David’s confrontation with Goliath, Moser depicts the young and rugged David as forward looking—his chin is slightly raised into the air and there’s a gleam in his eye that bespeaks of confidence and with just a slight hint of youthful cockiness and arrogance, too. It’s all ahead of him yet. But later in II Samuel Moser depicts the middle-aged David around the time of his affair with Bathsheba. In this picture David’s eyes are downcast just a bit. His facial features have softened and show a little middle-aged pudginess. There is an air of weariness about this picture. It’s all behind him now. Taken together, the pictures seem to say that if over-confidence may be a temptation and error of youth, ennui and restlessness are the temptation of one’s later years, a temptation that can lead to indiscretions designed to recapture some of the flair of the glory days now past (but that usually succeed only in sullying one later years instead).
Idea #2: From Eugene Peterson, Leap over a Wall: Earthly Spirituality for Everyday Christians (Harper Collins, 1997): Here is Peterson on Nathan’s devastating “You are the man” verdict on David:
“This is the gospel focus: you are the man; you are the woman. The gospel is never about somebody else; it’s always about you, about me. The gospel is never a truth in general; it’s always a truth in specific. The gospel is never a commentary on ideas or culture or conditions; it’s always about actual persons, actual pain, actual trouble, actual sin: you, me; who you are and what you’ve done; who I am and what I’ve done. It’s both easy and common to lose this focus, to let the gospel blur into generalized pronouncements, boozy cosmic opinions, religious indignation. That’s what David is doing in this story, listening to his pastor preach a sermon about somebody else and getting all worked up about this someone else’s sin, this someone else’s plight. That kind of religious response is worthless; it’s the religion of the college dormitory bull session, the TV spectacular, the talk-show gossip. It’s the religion of moral judgmentalism, self-righteous finger-pointing, the religion of accusation and blame.” P. 185
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