When a King Sins

A sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B
2 Samuel 11:1-15

David sinned.

Scripture leaves no question in our mind. King David sinned.

It’s springtime in the story from 2 Samuel we heard this morning. Apparently spring is the favorite time of year for kings to wage war on each other, who knew? Springtime, as we know from poetry, is also a time when men’s thoughts turn to love as well.

David has sent his army away to fight the Ammonites, but he remains behind in Jerusalem. Can trouble be far off?

Up to this point in the story, David has basically been a hero. We have no reason to question his character or his motives. He has become king over Israel after the death of Saul and Saul’s heirs. A country torn apart by civil war has been reunited under this new king. God’s blessing is with David.

We heard in last week’s reading how God called David to build a temple, a permanent home, as it were, for God, to replace the temporary tabernacle the Israelites had been carrying with them since the days of Moses. What an honor for David! To build a home for God’s glory, and yet…

David is distracted. David is restless.

He remains behind in Jerusalem, sending his army off to fight without him. A good king would have led his troops into battle. Now he can only kill time waiting for news from the front. What’s up, David?

tissot-david-sees-bathheba-bathing-640x459In researching this sermon, I came across a fascinating spin on the tale of David and Bathsheba. In a Midrash (a story told by rabbis that expands and explains the original story) a rabbi recounts that it was Satan himself who tempts David to sin. David is already leaving himself open to temptation by not going to battle. What does the proverb say about idle hands? Satan comes to bored King David in the form of a beautiful bird. At first David tries to catch the bird, but it eludes him. Then, in his anger, David tries to kill the bird by shooting arrows at it. One of these arrows sails over to a neighboring house and strikes the wicker screen behind which Bathsheba is bathing, knocking it down and revealing her to his sight. Satan, in the form of the bird, then flees the scene, his work done.

Now, the scriptural account doesn’t soft-soap this moment in David’s life. We are told that Bathsheba is married, and David knows it. Her husband is Uriah, the Hittite. We already know that at this point David has at least seven wives, including one of Saul’s daughters.

Apparently seven wives weren’t enough. David wanted this elusive one, even if she belonged to another.

At any point do we hear of David taking a moment in this encounter with Bathsheba to consider the consequences? Does he mull things over in his heart? Does he think of the woman? No. He’s pretty impulsive. He sees something attractive and wants to possess it, just like the bird.

Now, we are told what would seem to be a rather indelicate detail – Bathsheba is cleansing herself after her period. Why do we need to know that? Well, the obvious reason is that we need to know that the child David and Bathsheba are about to conceive is David’s – no doubt about that. But rabbinical scholars also question that this encounter between them may have been in more ways “unlawful” – she is still ritually unclean for a full week and must not be touched. David, it would seem, is not just committing adultery; he’s breaking MANY purity laws as well.

As in any good drama, a wicked deed does not go unpunished. Bathsheba becomes pregnant, and David is faced again with a choice – do I confess my deed and take the consequences? Do I repent before God and Israel? Or…do I try to cover things up?

David, as we know, chose the latter. First, he recalls Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband, home from the frontlines in hopes that he would naturally sleep with his wife, covering up David’s sin. But no such luck. It’s almost comical to hear David basically begging Uriah to go home, but to no avail. What thwarts David’s scheme is nothing less than Uriah’s personal integrity and sense of loyalty. Talk about salting the wound.

One source suggests that the very fact that Uriah lives so close to David’s palace in the first place tells us how deep his loyalty is to the king. David suggests Uriah should go home and wash his feet (which I suppose is tantamount to “putting your feet up”), but Uriah will have none of it. He decides instead to sleep outside the king’s house – the opposite of comfortable. He is doing so out of a sense of loyalty during a time of war.

king-david-handing-the-letter-to-uriah-pieter-lastmanWhat will David do now? His sin with Bathsheba will be exposed. She is pregnant, after all. Time is of the essence!
He sends Uriah back to the frontlines, bearing in his hand his own death warrant. David instructs Joab, his commanding officer, to put Uriah at the very front of the troops and very much in harm’s way. Do you think Uriah might have thought of this as a promotion? David reasons, if Bathsheba were a widow, he could add her to my wives, thereby honoring Uriah’s sacrifice and preserving David’s own reputation.

What could possibly go wrong with this plan? That’s part two of this sermon, so you’ll have to stay tuned next week.
What I find remarkable about stories such as these and others like them in the Hebrew Scriptures is the very human face that we encounter even in the most heroic of figures.

Sadly, we have become used to very flawed heroes in our day, from athletes to politicians, from priests to teachers and coaches, we are reminded how even the most beloved figure can turn out to have a dark side, a very dark side. So many of us wrestle with demons, and sometimes the demons seem to win.

Many heroes of the Bible have a flaw, often a fatal flaw. These are not superheroes. These are often tragic figures, hindered by limps (remember Jacob). Others are slaves to their own lusts and passions. David, we are told repeatedly, is a man after God’s own heart, but we see how even his heart can be perverted by sin.

In these Biblical characters I believe we are meant to find both a connection and a warning. We identify with them, both their good and bad sides, but we are also meant to learn their lesson with them.

What lesson is David supposed to learn? Thou shalt not covet? Keep it zipped – or whatever the Bronze Age equivalent might be? Do not let your passions rule your judgment? Or, perhaps one that recurs so many times in scripture – absolute power corrupts absolutely?

We know this much. David is a sinner. The King has sinned.

Will he get caught? If he does, will he repent? Will God abandon him for another king?

Stay tuned next week!

Amen

Poster - David and Bathsheba_01

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