It had all been going so well for King David. After a brief civil war, he had been anointed as king over the whole country. He had secured for himself a new capital city, Jerusalem, and defeated the ever present threat of the Philistines. The ark of the Lord was now in position in his city and the Lord had appeared to him in very special way, promising that his kingdom and throne would last forever. One by one his enemies were crumbling before his eyes as the Lord gave victory wherever he went. True a huge army of Arameans had briefly menaced the kingdom, but the Lord had helped him overcome even this threat.
So all that David still had to do was to mop up the Ammonites and his position would be secure. The peace and safety of Israel was within his grasp. Yet as 2 Samuel 11 opens what do we read? 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 (their capital city). But David remained in Jerusalem. Why did David choose to remain in Jerusalem? We are not told directly. But the way it reads, it sounds like David felt he could safely leave the dirty work to someone else. He’d already seen off all the other opposition, and he was the king after all. Kings shouldn’t be expected to fight all the time. That’s why you have army commanders like Joab. Let them do the fighting and let’s stay at home, for once. What could be the harm in that?
Well, as the events of chapter 11 unfold, it becomes clear that actually there is a quite a lot of harm in David’s attitude. David had known the Lord’s guidance. He had trusted Him in many a battle and won many a victory. Yet once the going got easier, it’s almost as if he stopped trusting in the Lord.
And maybe as we gather on this Ash Wednesday there’s a particular lesson for us. We can so often think of sin as things we do when the going’s tough, when we’re right up against it, and we make decisions under pressure. But the subtlety of sin is that it often creeps up on us when the going’s good, when maybe we get a bit complacent about how well things are turning out, and we stop trusting in the Lord. In my experience folk often fall away from the faith, not when all kinds of issues and problems are crowding in on them, but when they are in a place of ease and plenty, when it no longer seems so important to believe and trust in God.
And that it is the case for you, then maybe David’s story should act as a warning sign to you. If we’ve lost our spiritual discipline, if we’re not in the place the Lord wants us to be, watch out! There is danger lurking round the corner. And, yes, I mean danger. Sin is not just a question of a minor misdemeanour, a bit of naughtiness the Lord will easily forgive. It is a destructive force that without the grace and mercy of God can easily snowball out of control. It can ruin our lives. It can ruin the lives of other people. And if you think I am exaggerating, look at what happened to King David.
David didn’t mean to commit adultery. He didn’t mean to commit murder. But without even realising it, he let sin grow and flourish and take control of his life. How? All because one evening – when he should have been out on the battlefield – he was walking round the roof of his palace. Now of course standing on a flat roof in Jerusalem surveying the view is not a sin in itself, but it wasn’t what he was supposed to be doing. And as he complacently viewed the charms of his capital city, his gaze turned to a beautiful woman who was having a bath. I suppose you could even argue a momentary glance is not a sin, after all we all face temptation from time to time. But at that moment sin got the upper hand in David’s life. A glance turned to a gaze. A gaze turned to a desire. A desire led to a secret meeting. A secret meeting led to adultery. An act of adultery led to a pregnancy.
So what is David’s response? Does he get down on his knees and repent? Does he go and offer sin offerings before the ark of the covenant? No, the Lord has by this stage completely disappeared from the story. David seeks a human problem to the situation. It involves a cover up, and deception, as David brings Uriah – Bathsheba’s husband – back from the front and gets him blind drunk in the hope Uriah would go home to his wife. You have to credit David with some ingenuity for his plan, but like any cunning plan, it ultimately fails. Uriah refuses to go home. Bathsheba still has no explanation for her pregnancy. So there is only one thing for it – David sends Uriah into the thickest of the fighting where he knows Uriah will be killed.
The story of David’s affair with Bathsheba is shocking, brutal and compelling. It is good to read it at least once a year to recognise just how subtly sin can gain a hold on our life, and how deadly are the consequences. Sadly there are too many David and Bathsheba incidents even in our churches today, where apparently the most committed Christians are ruined by a gaze and a temptation that was too strong to resist. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 10:12 if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! There is a lesson in this chapter for all of us.
And yet my text this evening is not 2 Samuel 11, but 2 Samuel 12. Because, yes, it is important to see how sin takes over David’s life, and yes, we need to understand the lessons for our own experience. But I think it is important too to understand how David became aware of his sin, how David came back to the Lord in humility and repentance.
You see, for the next seven or eight months it looked very much as if David had got away with his crimes. There was no bolt of lightning, or deadly pestilence. The world carried on very much as before, and the news from the siege of Rabbah continued to give encouragement. Thanks to the grace of God, we do not live in a world where every act of sin is immediately punished, where there is a simple law of cause and effect. After Uriah’s death, David took Bathsheba his wife. She lived with him and at the due time she bore him a son. There is no indication David came back to the Lord during this time. He happily remained in Jerusalem. He continued to enjoy a life of health and strength and peace.
So how did David finally come to his senses? Well, let’s look at the point at which the Lord re-enters the story, right at the end of chapter 11 and right at the beginning of chapter 12. In the Hebrew the two sentences are linked, and indeed some English translations actually put them together into one verse. But the thing David had done displeased the Lord so The Lord sent Nathan to David.
I wonder how Nathan felt when the Lord told him to go? After all, David had thought nothing of murder to cover his own tracks. If Nathan got this assignment wrong, then his very life was in peril. And he wouldn’t be the first, or the last prophet, to pay the ultimate price for speaking the truth. Being a prophet of the Lord in ancient Israel could be a dangerous occupation, and we should not underestimate the very real danger Nathan was facing.
And yet Nathan went, apparently without a murmur or a question. Why?
Well, first of all Nathan knew the Lord his God. Back in chapter 7, David had told Nathan of his plan to build a great temple for the ark of the covenant. It didn’t seem right that while the king was living in a splendid new palace, the ark remained in the same old tent. And in effect Nathan shrugged his shoulders and said: Whatever you have in mind, go ahead and do it, for the Lord is with you.
But that night something happened which changed not only David’s mind, but also the very history of the nation Israel. The Lord appeared to Nathan and gave him a wonderful message to go and tell David that a promised son instead would build the temple, a son whose kingdom and throne would last forever. Why did the Lord appear to Nathan, and not to David directly? We can’t be sure, but one answer must be that Nathan was in the habit of listening to, and obeying the word of God. When the Lord spoke, Nathan responded. His was a living relationship with the Lord and he knew that the Lord was worthy of all faith and trust. So, if now the Lord was sending him to David a second time, even with a message that was hard to hear, then that was all that really mattered. His personal safety was nothing compared to the task of faithfully carrying out the Lord’s will.
Nathan knew the Lord. He also knew David. The relationship with David was a close and deep one which lasted throughout David’s lifetime. They were able to speak openly and honestly with each other, and they knew each other well enough to speak the truth. So when on the first occasion the Lord gave Nathan a very specific message for David, we read in 2 Samuel 7:17: Nathan reported to David all the words of this entire revelation. Not just the bits David wanted to hear, or the edited highlights, but the entire revelation the Lord had been pleased to give him. And that was important because it meant that in the current situation David could trust whatever Nathan was about to say.
And this leads on to the third point about the prophet, that Nathan knew how to speak into a situation. We don’t know if deep down David had a guilty conscience or not. But clearly if Nathan had simply gone in with all kinds of accusations, then David may well have reacted unfavourably. Even at the best of times we don’t like somebody pointing out our faults. So instead Nathan tells David a story. After all, we all like a good story. Stories have a way of drawing out our emotional responses. You hear the story of a rich man taking the ewe lamb from his poor neighbour and you can’t help saying, “That’s not fair!” even if the story is being told against you. Stories expose our deepest instincts for justice and fairness.
That is exactly what happens here. David burns with anger as he hears the story told and he issues a royal decree for the man to be punished. That’s why Nathan’s next words are so completely and utterly devastating: You are the man! To use a military image, the king’s defences have been well and truly breached. He can do nothing but acknowledge the truth I have sinned against the Lord. He has committed adultery. He has committed murder. And there is no-one to blame except himself. All those months of self-deception and complacency in one single moment come to an end. All he can do is come before the Lord and plead, no, beg for mercy.
And, yes, the astonishing message of the story is that even despite all has happened, the Lord does show David grace and mercy. Even David’s wickedness does not extinguish the covenant promises the Lord has made to him. But this does not mean there are no consequences to his actions. The son Bathsheba bears will die. One day there will be civil war and David’s sin of adultery will be exposed for all to see. And yet, and yet, even despite all this, the Lord will continue with his covenant people. If we had the time, we would read on the end of the chapter, we would read that Bathsheba bore David a second son. And what was his name? His name was Solomon, the one who would build a temple, who for a short period of history show what it would mean for God’s people to enjoy the covenant blessings of the land.
There is so much to take away from Nathan’s encounter with David. How can we apply the lessons of this passage to us today?
Well, there are some Christians who are what I call the “speaking the truth in love” brigade. They are the ones who think it their Christian duty to point out your every fault, out of some idea of love. Sometimes they are right to do so. But so often when you scratch beneath the surface, you find they are more often speaking from their own agenda, with a desire to promote their own position. They certainly lack the subtlety or the grace of a Nathan, and they are usually a lot less effective.
But on the other hand there are Christians who take seriously Jesus’ words: Do not judge, or you too will be judged. Out of a right and proper concern for other people, they are slow to form judgements about other people. But maybe sometimes they forget that Jesus tells us that when we have taken the beam out of own eye we have to remove the speck from our brother’s. If we truly love someone, then there are times when we need to confront them with the reality of what they have done.
So how, then, do we strike the balance? It seems to me that Lent is a time when we devote ourselves to getting real with God. We learn the spiritual disciplines of prayer, and Bible-reading and self-examination. And of course it is right we spend time renewing and restoring our relationship with the living God. But the Christian life is more than simply about me and my relationship with God. It’s about learning to be real with God so that we can real with other people. It’s about finding that security and faith in the Lord which Nathan possessed so that we can winsomely and graciously love each other Jesus first loved us.
There’s been plenty of talk recently about revival in Plymouth and I know some people have become very excited about various prophecies and words of knowledge. But the history of the church confirms the lesson of David and Nathan, that revival comes when we become aware of our own sin, and learn to confess our sins to each other. Because it’s then we truly recognise our need of God’s grace and mercy, and it’s then we discover just how great is that grace to cover each and every sin.