Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 5, 2018
2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a Commentary
The world is full of people who seem to get away with murder, and theft, and adultery, and lying, and abuse, and rape. Oh, every once in a while someone gets caught and punished, like the Golden State Killer. But for everyone who gets caught, how many aren’t? It sure seems as though you can get away with murder in this world. But things are not always as they seem. Indeed, when you put on your glasses, life looks very different. That’s exactly what happens when we look at this whole business of getting away with murder through the spectacles of Scripture, especially this story of David and Bathsheba.
Everyone knows the story well, so your listeners won’t be surprised when you enumerate the sins of David. They range from the acedia (sloth) that kept him lolling on his roof instead of marching off to war, to coveting and lust and adultery and lying and murder and theft. Some scholars are able to discern violations of nearly the entire second table of the Ten Commandments in this sordid chapter of David’s life. There isn’t a bad enough name to call King David, who, earlier in the story, is called the “man after God’s own heart.”
Our text begins with what seems to be the conclusion of the matter. David gets away with it, all of it. After Uriah’s death and an appropriate time of mourning for Bathsheba, David has her brought to his house, where he marries her. She bears his love child, which, presumably, everyone thinks is Uriah’s. No one is the wiser. No one leaks confidential information. No one confronts the wicked king.
He gets away with it. Except for this one line that rumbles ominously. “But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord.” That, by the way, is the first time God is mentioned in the entire chapter, which is telling. To commit this kind of sin, you have to omit God from your story, put God out of your mind and leave him out of your decisions.
In what follows we learn that nobody, not even God’s favorite, gets away with it. And much to our amazement, we discover that David is still a man after God’s own heart, as God immediately forgives all of David’s sins. And much to our consternation, we learn that even when God forgives his favorite, there may be horrific consequences to forgiven sins. Which raises all kinds of questions about God. Those questions about God are what I would pursue in my sermon on this text, even though most commentators focus on either the sinfulness of David or Nathan’s prophetic confrontation with corrupt power. More on the God questions later.
For now, we need to dwell in the story for a while. It is an amazingly well told story. For example, the way the RCL divides up our text for today forms a perfect inclusio: David gets away with his sin (verses 26-27), God confronts his sinful King (27a- 12:12), and David confesses his sin (13a). For another example, notice the typical brevity of Hebrew narrative. Verses 26 and 27 cover 9 months of Bathsheba’s pregnancy, the 9 months of guilty silence to which David refers in Psalm 51, our Psalm reading for today.
And there is a plethora of juicy details that will preach. Verse 27b is an unusual insight into God’s role in our sin. As the story is told throughout II Samuel and as we live our own lives, God is out of sight and often out of mind (as I’ve just pointed out). We may believe God is up there somewhere, but we don’t know how God is involved in our decisions and we certainly don’t know what God is thinking. Here the narrator tells us a divine secret, revealed by the Holy Spirit. It is a cautionary note for all of us when we think God doesn’t know or care. “But the thing David had done displeased the Lord.” Given what follows, that is an understatement.
What follows is a classic example of the power of story in a sermon, even when that sermon is a direct word from God. If Nathan had simply confronted David with his sin, the prophet might well have lost his head. The story of the rich man and the poor man slipped around David’s defenses and left him vulnerable to the truth. It aroused in David the kind of compassion and outrage he should have felt when he did something even worse than the rich man in the story. Stories move the heart, the emotions, rather than just the head which is very good at evasion and deception and self-justification.
“David burned with anger against the man, and said to Nathan, ‘As surely as Yahweh lives, the man who did this deserves to die! He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and did not show pity.’” In those words, David condemned himself. Even more importantly, David spoke for God. When he wasn’t committing or justifying his own sin, David was able to feel exactly what God feels about our sin.
David could get very angry about the sin of another, and so can we. We can rage against injustice. We can decry the inhumanity of sin. We can call for punishment. Those are very human responses. Even more, they are very divine responses, rooted deeply in the fact that we have been made in God’s image. David’s response to the sin of the man in the story will help us as we deal with the God questions to which I referred earlier.
Nathan’s words to David in verse 7 land like a bomb shell in David’s conscience, and they are followed by the chatter of a machine gun. “You are the man!” You are just like that man in the story, only worse. The narrator makes that point by the machine gun repetition of the first person pronoun as God details all he had done for David: “I anointed you king… and I delivered you… and I gave you your master’s house… and wives… and I gave you the house of Israel and Judah…. And if all this had been too little, I would have given you even more.” God is highlighting the monstrosity of David’s sin (and ours) by reminding David of the magnitude of God’s grace. I gave you everything, and you took that little thing. Gift gave way to grab.
It is incomprehensible that we should respond to God’s gracious gifts in such a way. Thus, the first word of verse 9 is exactly the right word. “Why?” Why indeed? Why do we sin? It makes no sense at all. We should never try to make sense of our sin. Even when we think our sin is the natural thing to do, the normal way to act, the necessary response to the situation, the defensible reaction to a tough spot, and thus no big deal, it is simply foolish, stupid, irrational, and destructive beyond our imagination. Our sin is all that, says God, because at its root sin is “despising the word of the Lord (verse 9).” Indeed, it is despising the Lord himself (verse 10).
“Now therefore,” says God through Nathan, here are the consequences of your sin. The word “therefore” is important, because it links the punishment directly to the crime. The punishment comes directly from the sin; indeed, the sin shapes the punishment. That is always the case in Scripture. Sin always rebounds or recoils or reverberates into the life of the sinner in ways the sinner never anticipated, but should have. We always reap what we sow. Sin is its own reward. We think we get away with it, but it always follows us. It even follows into the lives of those we love, to the third and fourth generation. That isn’t the arbitrary punishment of a fickle tyrant God. It is simply the way things are in a just universe ruled by a perfectly righteous God. “The soul that sins will die.” Sin brings death. Sin is death.
So, even as David ruined a whole family with the sword, the sword will ruin David’s family. Even as David took another man’s wife, another man will take David’s wives. And even as David killed to cover his love child, that child will die. With that last detail, we have stepped outside our reading for today, but I had to go there because that last detail raises the great God question of this story. What kind of God would do something like that to David and, more to the point, to that little baby?
Before we deal with that question, we have to focus on David’s response to the prophetic word of the Lord. Unlike today’s leaders and, to be honest, unlike me, David doesn’t make excuses, cover up, blame others, protest that God isn’t being fair, or otherwise avoid the condemnation he deserves. He says simply, “I have sinned against the Lord.” Boom! And that’s that. Except it isn’t, thanks be to God!
God replies through Nathan, “The Lord had taken away your sin. You are not going to die (as you said the man in the story deserved).” Forgiveness is given and received. David will not die for his own sin. That is Good News, the Gospel we all know and treasure.
But that’s not the end of the story, because, apparently, even forgiven sin has natural consequences. David will be spared death, but he has unleashed death into his family. They will be a family that wields the sword. Sin has generational power. We all know this truth from our own experience. We wish it weren’t true, but it is. We wonder why God doesn’t stop the recoil effect of sin. He could, and he sometimes, maybe often, does. But why doesn’t he always do that? Why does God allow us to suffer for our sins and, even, sometimes actually inflict that suffering on us? What kind of God visits this kind of punishment on those he loves?
The answer was given to Moses back in the wilderness in Exodus 34:6, 7. “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished….” That revelation of God’s covenantal faithfulness has been read and preached for centuries now. It is central to our relationship with God. It is at the heart of God’s revelation of himself in Jesus.
But we never seem to get it. So God keeps teaching us with stories like the one we’re reading today, stories so clear and graphic that we cannot misunderstand them, stories about sin and forgiveness and consequences. But because mere stories never quite convince us, God allows those consequences to happen in our own lives.
God loves us too much to let us live with our sin, even our forgiven sin. Thus, to save us from the deceitful power of sin, God allows the consequences to fall upon us. If he doesn’t, we will never learn and things will get worse and worse. Without consequences, life will be as it was in the days of the Judges when every person did what was right in their own eyes, because there was no king in the land. (Judges 21:25)
Well, there is a King in the land. And this King won’t have it, because he loves us too much to let sin go unchecked. The quintessential assurance of pardon used in every church says it perfectly. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness (I John 1:9).” Yes, he forgives, but he also purifies. And sometimes purification requires more than water or alcohol. It requires fire, as I Peter 1:6 and 7 put it. “God loves us just the way we are,” goes the old saying. But, says our text and many others, he loves us too much to leave us this way. (Cf. Hebrews 12:7-11 for the definitive explanation of the way our loving Father disciplines his beloved children to make them holy.)
It is important to show how this story in II Samuel connects to Christ. I think I John 2:1-2 says it perfectly. David was an unrighteous king, but he was forgiven because of the Righteous King who gave his life for David (and for all who sin, but then repent as David did). “My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for our sin but also for the sins of the whole world.”
Even in countries with fully democratic forms of government, there is still a fascination with royalty. How else do we account for the millions (billions?) who watched the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Megan Markle in England in May. And millions are fascinated with royal shenanigans. How else do we account for the popularity of the sexually explicit and graphically violent TV show, “Game of Thrones?” Our passage from II Samuel 11 and 12 reads like the script for that TV show, except that in our story, God matters.
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