Murder in the Palace

2 Samuel 11:1-15

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to do be able to do anything that you wanted to do, to have anything that you wanted to have? No one could stop you or threaten you. As the king of an ancient empire, David had that power. He could do whatever he wanted to do. He could have whatever he wanted to have. Ancient kings had absolute power and David was no exception.

This was a new voice in David’s head. You have power. Do what you want. Take what you want. It is yours. But there was another voice, an older voice. And this voice said that all of God’s people are subject to God’s law. You shall not murder. You shall not sleep with the wife of another man. You shall not take what is not yours. You shall not deceive. You shall not covet what belongs to your neighbor.

David had to choose which voice to listen to. The old voice seemed irrelevant and out of date. It belonged to the time when the Israelites were a bunch of backward hicks. It belonged to the wilderness and to the unsettled days of yesterday. But now Israel was an empire and David was the emperor.

When David was younger, he led his troops in battle himself, sharing the risks and hardships of combat. Now he preferred the comforts of the palace and the town. One afternoon, he went out on his balcony to see what he could see. The palace was tall, so it looked down on the roofs of the neighboring houses. Lo and behold, down there on one of the neighbor’s roofs was a lady taking a bath. And, as the Hebrew says, “He was looking at a woman.” And his mind and his body began to tell him what a man in his position could do. A king could have whatever he wanted.

So he said to himself, “I’ll just find out a little more about her. No harm in that.” So he asked around. “Who lives in the little house down on the corner? Who’s that good looking woman who lives there?”

“Oh that’s Bathsheba. She’s married to Uriah the Hittite…you know the foreigner who’s a soldier in your army…the one that’s fighting your battle over in Ammon.”

“Hmm,” says David. She’s married. I can’t marry her. I can’t make her into one of my concubines. And I can’t … What am I saying, ‘I can’t’? I’m the king. Kings can do whatever they want to. It’s in our contract. Every other king takes what he wants. No one is going to stop me. No one would dare say anything. Besides, no one need ever know and no one need ever get hurt. Her husband is out of town.”

So he sent someone to get her. “Tell Bathsheba that the king wants to see her.” His army was out in the field, living in tents, fighting and dying in the hot sun. And he, the king, was back at headquarters sleeping with one of his soldier’s wives.

You know the rest of the story. The woman got pregnant. David said “Whoops. Well, I’ll just get her husband home from the front, and he’ll think the baby is his. No one will ever know, and no one will get hurt.” But the husband wouldn’t break his promise to his God and his buddies in the field. He would not satisfy his own needs while his brothers were still fighting at the front.

“No problem,” says David. “I’ll just get him drunk, and he’ll forget all about that silly old vow. No one will ever know. No one will get hurt.” But Uriah still would not spend the night with his wife. Even three sheets to the wind, he had too much honor and too much integrity.

By this time David is getting desperate. “Well … if I can’t get Uriah to help me out of this jam, I’ll just get rid of him. I’ll get Joab to send him on a dangerous mission, and when he dies I’ll make Bathsheba my wife. Everybody will think the baby is just early. No one will ever know. And nobody … ”

Uriah died in battle when then commander withdrew the supporting troops, purposefully leaving Uriah isolated and exposed to the enemy. I don’t believe there’s a Soldier alive who could read this story without being sickened and enraged by David’s disloyalty to his troops.

David then married Bathsheba. She had a baby, and the baby became deathly ill. Uriah is dead. Bathsheba is watching her baby die and David is hurting like crazy. Eventually, the baby joins Uriah in death. And everyone knows what is going on.

Now if we were telling this story today, we would say a lot about Bathsheba’s part in all of this. Was she forcibly raped? Was she trying to seduce David all along? The author doesn’t tell us much about her. The author is more interested in telling us the story of the anointed king and his kingdom. From start to finish, this is a story about David’s abuse of power.

Like every other Israelite, Bathsheba was subject to the absolute will of the king. The king demanded Bathsheba come to him, despite the fact that she was married to one of his officers now engaged in battle. David put her in a no-win situation.

What David demanded from Bathsheba was more than just an offense against her body and spirit, as horrible as that might have been. David’s actions put her very life at risk if the violation was discovered. Unfortunately, we see how, even today, rape victims in many cultures are blamed, punished or even killed.

For her, the whole thing went from bad to worse. She went from being sexually violated to being a pregnant by her violator to being a pregnant widow to being a grieving mother. And from the author’s point of view, all of this is David’s responsibility. All of it.

Even that’s not the end of the story. Later, David’s son Amnon the crown prince, David’s eldest would force himself on his half-sister Tamar. He was following the old man’s example, except he refused to marry Tamar. And David didn’t do a thing. He didn’t lift a finger. Perhaps he the fact that he had once done something very similar paralyzed him.

Tamar’s brother, Absalom, got so mad that he murdered Amnon, and later staged a rebellion against his father David. As part of the rebellion, he publicly took his father’s concubines as his own. It was a way of saying that David’s possessions and rights now belonged to him.

It looked like David was going to lose the kingdom. He managed to keep control only by having Absalom – his own son – killed. It sounds like something out of a sick movie.

It all begins here in the eleventh chapter of Second Samuel. Bathsheba violated. Uriah murdered. A newborn taken by death. David and Bathsheba grieving. David’s family in turmoil and the kingdom was torn to pieces. And the Bible says that all of this can be traced to what David decided to do standing on his rooftop one spring evening. The prophet Nathan says it very clearly in chapter 12, and the editors of the book of Samuel make it very clear by telling all of these tragic stories in sequence.

David had made his choice. He thought that he could do anything that he wanted. He forgot that there is a power greater than that of a king. He thought that his deed would be hidden. He forgot that there is one who sees all of the deeds of men. He thought that no one would get hurt. A lot of people were hurt.

David’s story could easily be set in today’s world. The same kind of things still go on. People still have to make choices. The world around us today seems to be saying, “Everybody is doing this. No one need ever know. No one need get hurt. Take what you want. Do what you want.” And many men and women who are frustrated at finding satisfaction in life grab at the chance to do something that seems both desirable and available.

Many years ago, I had a friend who fell in love with the woman next door. He had an attractive, charming wife and the woman next door had a husband. At first it was just something he kept to himself, an infatuation, but he soon discovered that she was also attracted to him. They started spending time together. And more time. And more time. I think they knew all along where this was heading, but they kept telling themselves, “We’ll take this relationship just a little farther. No one need ever know. No one is getting hurt.”

I don’t know the full story of what happened, but I do know that it took a move to another state for my friend and his wife to get a fresh start. I do know that the couple next door soon divorced. Someone did find out, and someone did get hurt.

As a chaplain I have had a lot of people come to me with problems. Many of those problems can be traced to people thinking they knew better than God about what to do with their sexuality. Families split up. Kids grow up without one parent or another. People wind up hopping from one empty relationship to another. I’ve never had one person say to me, “Boy I’m glad I slept around.” I’ve spoken to hundreds who wish they hadn’t – because it messed up their lives terribly.

I know that there are a lot of psychological factors behind what people do. But it ultimately comes down to a decision. My friend told me that he couldn’t help himself. David might have said the same thing. He couldn’t help his feelings to begin with, but he was responsible for his behavior. David was the one who chose to keep looking, to inquire, and ultimately to send for Bathsheba. My friend was the one who kept moving closer and closer to an affair. We are not machines. We choose what we do.

Jesus gave some advice that sounds both gruesome and less than heroic. He said if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. He did not mean that literally, but he did mean it. Cut off the tempting relationship before it destroys you.

Sometimes, sin just sneaks up on you. Before you know it, you’ve done something you regret and you ask yourself why. At other times, you see it coming a long way off and you invite it to come just a little bit closer. David knew where his relationship was going long before it ever got there. Jesus said that even contemplating adultery or murder are sins of their own kind. If you find it on your mind all the time, deal with it. Don’t ignore it. Don’t pretend it isn’t there. Don’t just get swept along by the waves of emotion.

If you are strong enough, you can ask yourself, “What’s going on in me? Why am I feeling this way?” You can look inside your heart and inside your other relationships. We all have reasons for what we do, and those that have studied these things say that the reason for adultery is not usually simple physical attraction. If you are strong enough, you can look inside – or have someone else help you do that – and deal with the problem in you. That is where the real problem lies.

But not everyone is strong enough to do that. In that case, run away from temptation if you have to. It might be more heroic to say, “Stand up to temptation. Face it head on.” That’s what Jesus did, and there will be a time when each one of us will have to do that. We can’t run away forever. But there is a time for everything. We don’t send wounded men into combat. Neither do we send those most vulnerable into the heat of a spiritual battle that will destroy them.

We tend to think of ourselves as stronger than we really are, more controlled by principle than we really are. Jesus saw our vulnerability, our weakness, and taught us seek deliverance from the deadly power of sin. “Don’t let us fall into the traps life sets for us,” he taught us to pray, “but deliver us from the power of the evil one.”

On one level, David’s story is a tragedy, like those of Sophocles or Shakespeare. David’s story is common to humanity. It’s all the more tragic because David is God’s messiah, God’s chosen one. It’s a story that gets played out again and again in our families, and among our acquaintances. The Bible, my friends, is about real life.

On another level, the story is about God’s universal law. It applies to kings as well as common folk. It applies to you, and to me. The culture around you may tell you to ignore it, but it will not ignore you. You can close your eyes to it, but God’s eyes are not closed. You may think your deeds are done in secret, but they are done in the sight of God. To sin against God’s law brings grave consequences, and David’s story stands as a warning.

On still another level, the story is about God’s faithfulness and mercy. We are sinful, every one of us. I would be blind if I thought that we were not subject to David’s kind of temptation and naive if I thought that none of us ever succumb.

The prophet Nathan confronted David with his sin and pronounced God’s judgment upon him. And yet in David’s story, the last word is not about David’s sin, but about God’s mercy.

The prophet Nathan appears twice in David’s story. The first appearance is the scene of rebuke. Nathan confronts David with his sin and pronounces God’s judgment upon him. The other appearance, however, is an occasion of promise. God promises that one of David’s descendants will be on the throne forever. God’s promises to David were unbroken, even after David’s sin. From David and Bathsheba’s descendants, God’s messiah was born. Even in this mess, God was at work for the good of all. (See my piece on David’s Eternal Throne.)

According to the traditional understanding of our book of Psalms, some of the most beautiful and most moving of these cries of the heart come from David himself, as he wrestled with his guilt and with the grace of God.

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me. O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. – from Psalm 51

David cried out to God, and God heard his prayer. We have the blood of Jesus Christ crying out on our behalf. Will not God hear our prayer, as well.

Law and grace. Warning, judgment, forgiveness. This story is about many things. I imagine each one hears its message differently. Let each one of us hear – and respond – to the voice of God.

Originally published on my old site on July 30, 2006