If there’s anything more reckless than preaching about David and Bathsheba in church, it’s preaching about David and Bathsheba in church for two Sundays in a row. If you were here last week, you heard Dave Zahl preach a remarkable sermon on this story about God’s irrationally gracious use of broken vessels like you and me and adulterous, murdering David. Well, the same scandal has popped up in our lectionary again, this time honing in on the second half of the tale, when the prophet Nathan confronts David. And this confrontation peels back another layer to the David-Bathsheba episode, one so startling and important and true, it’s worth digging into. So prepare yourselves, because we’re diving into this cesspool of grit and impropriety—again.
Let’s recap. David is King over Israel. He gets up one day from an afternoon nap and goes out onto his balcony, where from a distance he spies a woman bathing on her roof. He can make out just enough to know that he wants her—so he takes her. He sends for her, has her brought to him, has his way with her, and sends her back again. He’s probably never planning on seeing her again—she’s a married woman, after all, and her husband Uriah is actually away fighting in David’s own military at this very moment. So when Bathsheba sends word to David that she’s pregnant, he has to think fast.
He immediately calls her husband home from battle with a plan to cover up the whole mess. But it turns out that Uriah—who’s clueless about all of this, by the way—he has too much integrity to make David’s plan work, so David, now desperate, plots a way for Uriah to be killed intentionally in the line of battle. The plan works. Uriah is killed. Now that Bathsheba is a widow, David can marry her. So he summons her once more to his own house to be his own wife.
Enter Nathan, a prophet. Nathan approaches David and spins for him the story that we read today, a story which, I’m sure you’ve figured out by now, is really just analogy for the whole scenario. It goes like this: There were two men, one rich, and the other poor. The rich man had tons of sheep and cattle, flocks and herds of them. The poor man had one little ewe lamb, who was really like a member of the family. It grew up with him and his kids, drank from his own cup, laid in his own arms—Nathan is sparing us none of the the empathy-inducing details. It was like a daughter to him, he tells David. But one day the rich man has a visitor, and instead of killing one of his own sheep or cows for dinner, he steals the poor man’s little lamb and slaughters her.
Now let’s stop there. Sheep and cattle. On Nathan’s analogy, David’s many wives—because Bathsheba is not, surprise, his one and only—they’re compared to livestock. Why would Nathan draw this comparison? It’s because this is precisely how David has treated them. Sheep and cattle, especially in Israel’s agrarian society, are valuable commodities. They are things that can belong or do not belong to other people, things that exist largely for the sake of one’s own personal benefit, one’s own pleasurable use. They are things capable of being had, things capable of being taken.
And this is what David did with Bathsheba. He took. In his mind somehow he had already removed Bathsheba’s personhood so far from her person that he became capable of treating her not quite as a full human being, but as something that existed for his own purposes. Bathsheba’s own needs and desires were never asked after. The only time we hear her voice in this story is when she sends word to David to tell him that she’s pregnant. And Bathsheba is not the only woman that David has treated this way—remember that he already “has” flocks of women. But then there’s one more that he wants. And which one is that, one Nathan’s analogy? It’s the one little ewe lamb that lives with the poor man.
We are looking back to a point in history, remember, that made it easy, natural, to dehumanize women. David’s attitude here is far from unprecedented. But then we have this poor man in Nathan’s story, who stands as a symbol for Uriah, and in him we see an example of someone who had made some progress towards re-humanizing the dehumanized. For starters, this poor man has no herds—he has just one. And she’s treated, well, like a person. Her needs and desires are asked after. She eats from his plate, drinks from his cup. The poor man doesn’t see her as a thing that exists solely for his own use, but he carries out some form of relationship with her.
David, on Nathan’s analogy, fails to see her this way. Instead of relationship, the rich man treats her like the kind of livestock who’s purpose is to be consumed. He takes her, slaughters her, serves her up on a platter. And really, Bathsheba has undergone a sort of death. Her own humanity has been ripped away from her; David has torn her from cherished relationship with honorable Uriah to dehumanizing use.
Isn’t it interesting that David needed a metaphor about animals to show him how he treated people? When David hears Nathan’s story, he’s outraged over the theft of a pet, but not the theft of a person. He’s livid over the slaughter of an animal, but not the slaughter of a human being. And with this fresh anger now churning in his gut, he spews out his own sentence. “That man deserves to die! He must pay for the thing four times over because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.” Of course, at this point David still hasn’t put the pieces together. He still thinks that this story is about sheep, about things that can be paid for.
There’s a lot of sin swirling around in this mess of David’s, plenty of strands to tease out. There are the obvious, glaring sins of lust and adultery and deception and murder, and, as Dave pointed out last week, there’s the seed of entitlement that undergirded those actions. Now Nathan’s confrontation peels back yet another layer. We see here that David’s sin went much deeper and started much earlier than anything that occurred in this particular incident. David’s sin began when he failed to see human beings as they truly were, as precious human clay impressed with the image of God. Bathsheba was not a sheep; she was a person. She was, as the book of Genesis tells us, created as a representative of the divine in this world. She possessed a God-given worth that cannot be measured, cannot be paid back, and cannot be taken.
This sinful tendency of David’s, to separate women from their humanity, was deeply burrowed in him long before this incident. It’s clear that he wasn’t even aware of it. You see, David himself was embedded in a world that in many ways trained him to take on this viewpoint. It was the water he swam in, the air he breathed. It was an invisible sin, a cultural sin, one he inherited.
But when David heard Nathan’s story, it was so clear to him, so visible, that the rich man was in the wrong. He burned—rightly—with anger against the injustice of the thing. But then Nathan twisted his finger of condemnation back on himself and told him, “You are the man.” And with those words, David eyes were opened. He turned his gaze inward upon himself and saw a man infected with sin, and he looked outward and saw the string of tragedies that he had caused, and he was able to say, “I have sinned against the Lord.”
It is easy for us to see David’s sin. We look at what he did and we burn—rightly—with anger against the injustice of the thing. He failed to see Bathsheba as a person. He treated her like a subhuman thing, turned her body into an object for his own use, then murdered her husband. This man is guilty. But then a Nathan in my own life will speak up, and in an instant, this story becomes for me what Nathan’s story was for David. My own finger of condemnation is twisted back on myself, and I hear the Spirit saying to me, “You are the man.” That very sin that David committed—I’m guilty of it, too.
In fact, we are all implicated. David’s sin—that tendency to remove the humanity from human beings—it is alive and well in us. And worse, it’s often invisible to us, which makes it all the more insidious; any sin we cannot see is that much more dangerous precisely because of its hiddenness. And like David’s sin, it tends to only show itself when it’s followed to its natural conclusions, when a string of tragedies results. Our culture’s objectification of women erupts in the haunting statistic that 1 in 3 American women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetimes. And it’s not just women. Our country’s long history of racial prejudice, now simmering just beneath the surface, erupts all to often in the killing of unarmed black civilians. There are countless examples of David’s sin in our world.
Nathan’s confrontation with David also reminds me that, however invisible my sin might be to me, it doesn’t just touch me. It doesn’t stay tucked away in my own individual heart, isolated in some dark corner, hidden from the world. The roots are there, but the sin breaks out, it grows like kudzu, it ensnares other people.
There was an art installation in the Garage last month by an artist named Louise Dechow that I really hope you got a chance to see. The piece was entitled, “Guilt,” and what the artist did was take black thread and black yarn and strips of different kinds of black cloth, and she strung them up, tied them together into this sort of grotesque web that draped off the walls. What began as a single thread branched out, tangled into other strands, became a part of a foreboding and inscrutable mess of a tapestry. This is what our sin is like. We do not commit neat little blips of indiscretion. Our sin has deep roots and far reaching vines. It’s something that we are trapped in just as much as we produce it.
When David had this realization, when he was forced to see himself as he truly was, it devastated him. Because the temptation, of course, is to look away. We don’t want this to be true of ourselves. We minimize it. We point out the good we’ve done. We point out the bad others have done. We try especially hard to extricate ourselves from the web of invisible, cultural, inherited sin. It takes a terrible courage to stare into your own darkness without flinching away. When we are led into those moments, where we see ourselves truly, there is little left to do but lament.
This is what David does in Psalm 51, the prayer he gives in response to Nathan’s confrontation. In it, we hear a man desperate to get clean. “Wash me,” he begs. “Cleanse me. Purge me.” And as he sits in this state, face to face with his own darkness, we hear him cry out for a better ending. “Let me hear of joy and gladness,” he says. “Let the body you have broken rejoice.”
Any story worth its salt is bad news before it is good news. The best stories—the truest stories, the ones that grip you and leave you crying in your seat as the credits roll—they are tragedies before they are triumphs. The Gospel is no different. This is the bad news: we are David. We are worse off than we know. Our sins, visible and invisible, have constructed a world where God’s image-bearers are stolen like livestock, where innocent men are killed by their own kings. And despite our best efforts at finger-pointing, the Gospel tells us the truth: You are the man.
But this is the good news: Jesus entered into this world. He inhabited our mess. And instead of extricating himself from it, cutting himself loose and splitting while he had the chance, he stayed until it killed him. Jesus loved us, Paul writes, “while we were yet sinners.” He loved us here, in our worst state. This is a Love I don’t understand, one so deep and honest and true that it looks down on the very people who are crucifying Jesus and says to them as he is dying, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
And this is the best news: That Love is a force stronger than sin, more permanent than death. When Jesus broke out of the tomb, resurrected, he carried with him a promise to one day make our world right. Our death will end in life. Our tragedy will end in triumph. Thanks be to God.