Audio can be found here.
Samuel had warned them. When the people came to him and begged for a king just like the other nations, Samuel the prophet and judge told them exactly what would happen. “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons . . . . He will take your daughters. . . . He will take the best of your fields. . . . He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle. . . . He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”
And today, in our Scripture lesson, those words are frighteningly fulfilled. The ways of war have become so routinized that people under David’s reign plan their calendars around them. It was the time of year when the kings go off to war. But David didn’t go off to war, did he? Joab and David’s generals went to war. They went to war with the sons of Israel. For David had taken them. And they ravaged and they besieged.
And while the sons were away dying for the king who had taken them, David saw a daughter. And he took her, too. Indeed the brevity of the account—and the bluntness of the verbs—leave us with no suggestion of moral deliberation. No attempts to weigh up the consequences. No courtship of any sort. None of the usual drama and tension that build until an affair occurs. The narrator’s language is, if anything, curt. David saw, David sent, David lay. David was the king. David could do as he pleased with the sons and daughters of Israel. And he did. David is the actor.
But even as the actor, he is calculating. He carefully stage manages his actions to stay one step removed from what is going on until the actual sex act takes place. He sent someone to find out more about her. And the messenger returns with information. He sends men “to fetch” her. They did not go with chocolate and flowers. The word translated to fetch here is the very same word used in 1 Samuel to name the actions of kings—kings take sons; they take daughters; they take the best of the fields. And David’s messengers took Bathsheba. She came with them because she had no choice. At no point is Bathsheba portrayed as active in this story. She is from first to last, passive. The action is initiated by David and carried out through his thuggish proxies. This is a story of rape.
But Bathsheba conceives. She becomes pregnant. Her rapist is the only one who can rescue her from her predicament so she sends word to him. And, calculating as ever, David tries to cover his tracks. But calculating David is frustrated by a truly honorable man. Did you notice, by the way, that the one honorable man in this story is not an Israelite? Uriah the Hittite. Uriah the outsider. Uriah who is not really one of us. He is the one honorable man. And because he is honorable, when he is called to the king, he goes. And because he is honorable, when the king tells him to go home and wash his feet (that’s a euphemism—and it has nothing to do with feet), he does not. He chooses instead to sleep with the servants to show his loyalty to his king, his fellow soldiers. Even after David made him drunk, he did not return home, but had the presence of mind to maintain his display of loyalty. He did not go down to his house. Uriah was an honorable man.
And his honor was his undoing. For, still calculating and still acting through his thugs, David concludes that he’s not going to get Uriah to go home and sleep with his wife. He’s going to have to kill him. So David wrote a letter to his ever obedient general, Joab, ordering him to set Uriah at the front line and then abandon him. And Joab did as he was ordered. And Uriah died.
This is a story that could easily be re-written as a mafia family drama set in the 1960s, couldn’t it? The Don—the capo di tutti capi, the boss of bosses—sends his soldiers to get him a bit on the side that he saw in one of his strip clubs. That she’s the moll of one of his loyal lieutenants doesn’t seem to bother him. He’s the Don. And when the lieutenant is too loyal to the family for his own good, all of a sudden, he’s not around anymore. As Tony Clemenza might have said, “Leave da gun. Bring da cannolis.”
And the villain of the piece is David. The very man who three weeks ago lamented the deaths of Saul and Jonathan in powerful poetic language. The very man who two weeks ago danced before the Lord. The man who last week resolved to build God a Temple. David—the sweet Psalmist of Israel. David—the giant-slayer. David—the shepherd-king who is, Christians believe, a forerunner and and literary type of Christ. David—who, we read in last week’s Psalm, was favored by God, the recipient of promises from God that one of his sons would sit on the throne of Israel forever in a dynasty that would never end. David—the man after God’s own heart.
There can be no doubt in the biblical text that David is a heroic figure. He is the king to which all other kings are compared, to which they all harken. If they follow in his ways, they are declared successes. If they do not, they are judged failures. As a result, we are struck by the change in tone in this story. There is no attempt by the narrator to add some sort of moral or theological gloss to the story that would justify or rationalise David’s actions. Even Saul is presented in a better light. Saul, the narrator tells us, suffered from fits of depression. There were times when Saul was not in his right mind. There were times when his irrational actions were just that—irrational. They were made understandable by Saul’s unstable mental state. But not David. David saw. David sent. David lay. David called. David wrote. And Uriah died. This is a man who most assuredly is not after God’s own heart. This is a king who takes what he wants and then covers his tracks by whatever means necessary.
And, as we have seen two weeks ago, this one action begins a spiraling of events that eventually undo David’s reign. Not only can David not cover his tracks, he cannot keep the consequences of his sin to himself. For what happens next? Amnon, David’s son, rapes his half-sister, Tamar, and having taken what he wanted, despises her and rejects her. Absalom, Tamar’s full brother, takes her into his house, but the text tells us that she remains a desolate woman from then on. Absalom, in turn, waits for his father the king to avenge the deed. To right the wrong. And when the father fails, Absalom takes revenge on his half-brother, murdering him, and eventually, rises up to steal the throne from his father. Both Amnon and Absalom have learned from their father. Both take what they want when they want it. David’s sin has taken root in their lives and borne its bitter fruit.
But we’re not done! Where once she was passive, where once her only words were the profoundly vulnerable, “I am pregnant.” By the end of this drama, Bathsheba is a cold and calculating Queen, conspiring with the prophet Nathan to ensure that of David’s sons, her son, Solomon would be the heir. With blood on her hands, too, she has graduated top of the class in David’s school of sin.
What are we to take from this terrible story of lust and rape and murder? How on earth is this God’s word? There are four themes that I would draw to your attention this morning.
First, Sin is personal. The Bible speaks of sin in many ways. Sometimes, it is spoken of in terms that the liberation theologians call structural. Sin is something that is bigger than us. Sin is something that enslaves us from the outside, that takes us prisoner, from which we need to be saved or rescued. This time, however, sin is spoken of in deeply personal terms. The sin is David’s. David saw. David took. David sent. David lay. David called. David wrote. David. David. David. David’s sinful heart is at the root of it all. However it may be that sin is structural, enslaving and big, it always and nevertheless remains personal. However mired in sin we may be, we cannot resort like Flip Wilson’s character Geraldine Jones did, to “the devil made me do it.” Sin is an intensely personal matter. I sin. I am responsible for my sin. I am accountable to God for my sin. And you are for yours.
How can we be enslaved to sin and responsible for our sin at the same time? I don’t know. But the paradox makes for great novels! In The Chamber we meet Sam Cayhall, on death-row for the bombing murder of two Jewish boys in the Deep South during the Civil Rights era. Sam is a racist and a bigot and when we meet him, he is positively proud of his actions. And yet, when his grandson Adam discovers a picture of a six-year old Sam attending his first lynching, we are forced to ask, as Adam did, how could Sam have turned out any other way? And yet, not all southerners were racists and certainly, the vast majority of those who were, were far from being murderers. Their racism was the far more subtle kind, portrayed in the movie, “The Help.” In some way, Sam was shaped by forced beyond his control, and yet, Sam is responsible for his actions. And what is true of Sam Cayhall is true of Absalom and Amnon and Bathsheba and David and me, and you, too. Sin is personal and we are all implicated. None of us is just or only ever a victim.
Second, the consequences of sin spill over. In David’s case, they spill over into the lives of his wives and children. As the drama of Bathsheba’s rape and her first husband’s murder are replayed, in magnified scale, I can’t help but wonder whether David recalled that he saw, and he sent, and he lay, and he wrote, and that all that followed afterward could be traced back to those actions? I wonder if, when he heard that Amnon had raped Tamar, he thought this is the fruit of my own sin? I wonder if, when Absalom lured Amnon to his death David asked, is this my sin compounded and repaid? I wonder if, when Absalom publicly humiliated his father and took up arms against him, David considered his own culpability? I wonder when David took up the mourning cry, “O Absalom my son, would to God that I had died for thee?” if he thought, if only I hadn’t seen, and sent, and taken? The consequences of our sins outlive them and us. They spill over to shape our children. And they do so in public ways.
Third, the worst consequence of sin is more sin. We have inherited—and largely rightly rejected—a view of God who actively punishes for our sin. Who tosses lightning bolts and brings on plagues. And we have rejected this God for the God who is unfailingly nice and accepting and affirming. We have, in this switch turned from a Trinity of wrath to a Trinity of See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. But the text this morning does not present us with an uncomplicated picture of either God the angry smiter or God the cosmic kitten. We are left with a picture of the divine in which sin is punished with the consequences it brings on itself. That, as my Old Testament Professor, Don Legget once put it, the consequence of sin is more sin.
So it is that David’s story leaves us in a cycle. We are trapped, we are responsible, our actions create consequences that spiral downward, ever intensifying, ever more evil, ever more out of our control. How is that good news?
Well, it isn’t really. But it is the truth. Not all of us are kings who take what is not ours. Not all of us can act through proxies. Not all of us can take a life with the stroke of a pen. But, if we’re honest with ourselves, we may well all say that there have been times in our lives when, if we had had the power to act similarly, we could have done so.
And that hard truth is the first step to the good news. For the good news is, God has not left us finally to the consequences of our sin, but has promised forgiveness to those who repent, healing to those who know they are sick, and life to those dead in trespasses and sins. St. Paul summarizes it this way: “But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, To redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons.” So that David’s sin and those of his children, and yours and mine, might be forgiven.