Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 29, 2018
2 Samuel 11:1-15 Commentary
When my family lived in West Germany in the early 70’s, teenagers celebrated New Year’s Eve by lighting firecrackers. Among their favorites were strings of firecrackers that they linked together. One lit fuse would eventually produce a whole string of small explosions.
2 Samuel 11 is a bit reminiscent of those firecrackers. After all, just one little “spark” causes a whole string of “explosions” that eventually scar a number of people. Yet the Old Testament lesson the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday starts apparently innocently enough. It recounts a basically ordinary day during the time of the year when kings often go out to fight each other.
David, however, stays home. So Israel’s king is not, as one preacher points out, where he’s supposed to be. When, however, you’re not in the right place, as that preacher also notes, temptation can be very powerful.
Maybe David is just too tired to fight this year. Or perhaps it’s that he has already defeated most of his country’s biggest enemies. David has subdued the Philistines, Moabites and Edomites. In any case, this spring Israel’s king decides to just send his best general and soldiers, including one Uriah, a Hittite, to mop up his last enemy.
Yet while David may be too tired to stay awake all afternoon or bored to fight, he isn’t too tired to take a walk on his rooftop. From there he can see signs of his success: Israel is united, Jerusalem is established and the economy is strong. Yet from the rooftop of his lavish palace, David can also see a beautiful woman who is bathing. She turns out to be Bathsheba who just happens to be married to David’s soldier, Uriah.
Sin, however, often grows and flourishes in the fertile soil that is sight. I may, after all, see my neighbor’s house or car and, as a result, covet it. Sin, however, seldom stops with such seeing. Undisciplined vision can easily become like a firecracker that lights another firecracker that is sinful action.
This may be, in fact, even truer for men than women. Some experts suggest while that things like smells can trigger romantic feelings in women, sight has immense sexual power in men. So those who want to remain faithful are careful about both where we put ourselves and what we look at.
The David who has put himself in the wrong place to look at the wrong person sends for Bathsheba so that he can do the wrong thing to her. It is hardly a romantic encounter: “David sent messengers to get her. She came to him, and he slept with her … Then she went back home” (4). There is, as Scott Hoezee points out, no courting, no conversation, no tenderness, no love – just male lust.
Samuel had warned Israel that that kings are takers. Yet while David has not yet taken much in the past, 2 Samuel 11’s king is apparently different now. Since he’s now in full control, he seems to assume he can take whatever he wants.
We sometimes say that it takes “two to tango,” meaning that adultery always involves two people. However, David has unlimited royal power over his Israelite subjects. Bathsheba is, what’s more, a largely powerless woman who would endanger herself if she refused her king’s advances. Essentially, then, David takes advantage of his position to sexually assault Uriah’s wife.
So David’s lust is the match that lights the first explosion that is his assault of Bathsheba. This in turn lights a second kind of firecracker: the conception of a child (5). Uriah’s wife learns that she’s pregnant, not by her husband, who’s still off fighting David’s battles, but by David.
So for the first time, Bathsheba speaks: “I am pregnant” (5). She makes no demands or threats. Uriah’s wife doesn’t have to say anything more. After all, she probably realizes that her message alone threatens not just her, but also David’s whole world.
Since Israel’s king wants no one to know that Bathsheba’s child is his, he tries to trick Uriah into being intimate with his pregnant wife. Then both Uriah and everyone who sees him enter his home will assume Bathsheba’s child is his.
So David summons Uriah home from the front. Yet the furloughed and refreshed soldier foils his scheme. When, after all, Uriah leaves his king’s palace, he doesn’t go home to sleep with Bathsheba in their bed. He, instead, sleeps at the palace entrance with the rest of the king’s servants.
Bathsheba’s husband remains, after all, loyal to his comrades who are still out in the field, sleeping in tents. Even God’s ark, he says, remains in a tent. Since everything about which he cares is still at risk, how, Bathsheba’s husband asks his commander-in-chief, can he possibly be unfaithful by enjoying himself?
So a frustrated king tries one more ploy. He gets Uriah drunk, hoping that alcohol will dissolve his inhibitions. Yet even drunk, this soldier again foils David’s plot. Perhaps, in fact, he’s so drunk that he just passes out, not at home, but right back in the place where he’d slept the night before. Ironically, then, a drunken Uriah proves to be more faithful than a completely sober David. Even an inebriated foreigner is more disciplined than his sober Jewish king.
Sin, however, doesn’t just grow out of being in the wrong place. Sin doesn’t just move from sight to action. Sin also often entangles others in its strong and sticky web. Until now, David has been the only responsible sinner in the whole episode. In his lust he has conquered vulnerable Bathsheba all by himself. He alone has also tried to cover up his sin by duping Uriah.
However, when that doesn’t work, David decides to enlist Uriah’s commander’s help. He entangles Joab in his sin’s web by ordering him to station Bathsheba’s husband where the fighting’s the heaviest. Then, David tells his commander, abandon Uriah, exposing him to the enemy’s expert marksmen’s lethal fire.
David’s cynical desperation shows that it has no boundaries. Earlier he’d tried to cover up his adultery by trying to convince Uriah to sleep with his wife. Now it’s Uriah whom the king cynically sends with his own death warrant to the firing squad. Uriah carries the precise suggestion for how David can cover up his rape of his wife.
With Hoezee, I sometimes wonder what Joab thought when he received this message. Did he question why David wanted Uriah killed? Did Joab flinch even just slightly at the thought of essentially condemning one of his best soldiers to die?
We certainly wish he’d had the courage to say “no” to David’s order. Yet just as Bathsheba would have risked her life by refusing the king’s invitation, so Joab also would probably have endangered himself by refusing the king’s order. So we’re not surprised that he obeys orders.
The story’s denouement is quick but outside of the parameters of the text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday. So those who stick to the suggested text will have to decide how much, if any, of the rest of the story they want to include on this Sunday. (Here is, by the way, yet another occasion on which preachers and teachers sometimes question the limits the Lectionary imposes on some of its texts).
Joab follows David’s orders. He, in fact, puts not just Bathsheba’s husband but also other Israelite soldiers right where the enemy defenders are the fiercest and most lethal. If, after all, he reasons, Uriah isn’t the only Israelite who falls under those archers’ withering fire, no one will even suspect the king planned his demise. So David entangles perhaps as much as a whole regiment or company of soldiers in his sinful web.
Yet David doesn’t just enlist Joab to join his tawdry conspiracy. He, in a sense, also draws his unwitting enemies into his tawdry plot. The Ammonites, after all, carry out Israel’s king’s “contract” on Uriah. They become his hit man.
Those who proclaim or hear 2 Samuel 11 may have, like David, have lit a fuse that caused a string of other explosions of sin. Or perhaps someone else lit a firecracker that exploded in their face, like it did in Uriah’s, causing them deep pain.
Thankfully, then, there is some gospel in our narrator’s later assertion that David’s sin displeased the Lord. There’s good news for those in whose faces the firecracker that is sin has blown up. Sadly, however, this story’s explicit gospel doesn’t come until the next chapter of 2 Samuel and David’s life.
God will let David suffer the consequences of the lit string of firecrackers that is his sin. While David and Bathsheba’s young son will soon sicken and die, God will take David’s sin away. God will let David live to father more descendants, including, in a sense, Jesus Christ. God will remain tenaciously faithful to sinful David, just as God remains faithful to sinful people like us, for Jesus’ sake.
Yet is there gospel within the limits the Lectionary imposes for this Sunday? Perhaps it’s this: 2 Samuel 11 reflects the Scriptures’ honesty about human sinfulness. Divine inspiration doesn’t provide divine cover-up. God’s people can be honest about our as well as others’ sins because God’s people’s Scriptures are honest about them.
In his Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis recounts a conversation between Screwtape, senior devil, and Wormwood, a junior devil and Screwtape’s nephew: “You will say that these are very small sins; and doubtless like all young tempters, you are anxious to be able to report spectacular wickedness. But do remember, the only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy [God].
“It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their accumulative effect is to edge the man away from the light and toward the Nothing. Murder is not better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”
The incline from David’s staying home from battle to murdering Uriah and other Israelites is, in fact, a very gradual one.
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