Misreading David and Bathsheba

The prophet Nathan confronts David

by Matt Morton

Last Sunday I preached on the David and Bathsheba story from 2 Samuel 11-12, an incident that easily ranks as the darkest moment of David’s life and reign. It’s stunning how quickly David’s life takes a terrible turn, from success to devastation seemingly overnight. Complacency leads to lust, which rapidly leads to abuse, adultery, deceit, and murder.

As I prepared my sermon, it occurred to me that this story is often misunderstood in some troubling and – I think – dangerous ways. Quite often our faulty interpretations of a Bible story tell us more about ourselves than anything else, and I think that’s especially true with the sad tale of David and Bathsheba.

I don’t have the space here to go into all of the ways in which this story has been wrongly interpreted (e.g. whether or not Bathsheba “seduced” David), but I want to explore one particularly egregious misuse of the David and Bathsheba narrative that has become increasingly common in the past five or ten years.

Throughout the course of the past two presidential elections, political partisans repeatedly used 2 Samuel 11-12 in conversations about whether or not moral character should be a factor in choosing our national leaders. I heard this argument being made from both sides of the political aisle, so my intent is not to single out one political party or another. Nor is it my intent to suggest that a leader’s personal character is the only factor determining whether or not they should be in charge. We live in a flawed world and we have a very flawed system. There is never a perfect choice, and sometimes we are forced into a “lesser of two evils” situation.

And there are many complicated and significant arguments, of course, about how highly we should prioritize a leader’s personal character. For example, some people would argue that policy matters more than character. Others disagree. That’s an important conversation to have, but it’s not what I want to talk about here.

Instead, I want to talk about how this particular biblical narrative – the story of David and Bathsheba – is almost always used in political discussions in a way that is directly opposed to the original purpose for which it was written. Typically when a politician’s moral character is in doubt, somebody will bring up the David and Bathsheba story and say something to this effect: “Look, David committed adultery and murder, yet God forgave him and still used him in amazing ways! David was a ‘man after God’s own heart,’ but he made some bad mistakes. Therefore, even a man or woman of questionable character can be a great leader. God can use even sinful people to do great things!”

Of course, it is true that God forgives sin. I mean, that’s the good news of the gospel itself. And it’s also true that a person with a dark past can be an effective leader, and even a godly leader. Just look at the apostle Paul or Moses (both of whom committed murder before being called by God to lead). As you do look at those men, though, keep in mind that (1) their sins had very real and devastating consequences and (2) each of them had to go through a fairly lengthy process of repentance and personal transformation before they were spiritually prepared for leadership.

Whatever you do, though, please don’t look at King David as an example of this principle, especially not when it comes to the story of David and Bathsheba. Why not, you ask?

Here’s why: The story of David’s sin with Bathsheba actually demonstrates that a leader’s moral failure can have absolutely devastating consequences for a nation, consequences that last for generations. That, in fact, is the entire point of the story of David and Bathsheba.

When a person says that David’s life proves that a leader can commit egregious sin without any negative consequences for his nation, I immediately know that they haven’t read the rest of David’s story. David’s sin utterly devastated his family and the country he was called by God to lead.

We all know that there were immediate consequences of David’s sin, of course. Uriah and a number of David’s best warriors were killed needlessly, and David’s infant son also died. But that was only the beginning. When the prophet Nathan confronted King David about his sin, he told him that the violence that he perpetrated against Uriah would be returned onto his own head. “The sword shall never depart from your house,” Nathan said. Not only that, but one of David’s own sons, Absalom, would steal the king’s wives just as David had stolen the wife of Uriah.

As a direct result of David’s personal sin, the nation of Israel experienced civil war and turmoil for years – for generations – to come. One of David’s sons, Amnon, raped his own half-sister, having apparently learned something from his father’s lustful and violent habits. Another son, Absalom, became so angry about Amnon that he eventually launched a rebellion against his father and attempted to claim the throne illegitimately. That rebellion sparked a war that ended not only with Absalom’s death, but also the deaths of more than 20,000 Israelites. After David died, his sons fought one another for the throne. The first few chapters of 1 Kings narrate the story of the bloodbath that followed in David’s wake once he was no longer around to keep things in check.

David’s violence sparked more violence, and his lust sparked more lust. The kingdom of Israel eventually split into two and was never reunited. The sword never departed from David’s house again. His personal moral failures had devastating national consequences.

But wait, you ask, didn’t David confess his sin? Didn’t God forgive him?

Yes to both. And David’s confession and repentance is the reason that he wasn’t put to death for his sin, the consequence that the Law demanded for adultery and murder. I also tend to think that David’s repentance is the reason that the kingdom wasn’t torn away from his family like it was torn from Saul. Saul made excuses; David quickly acknowledged his sin and asked for forgiveness. His confession and contrition matters; it’s vitally important to the story. But that doesn’t negate the terrible consequences that his sin had for his family and for the nation of Israel.

All of this brings us back to the issue of why we dare not use David’s life to make the case that moral character is unimportant in our national leaders. Again, you might want to make the case that there are things that are more important than moral character. And that’s a discussion worth having. And it’s fair to point out that David’s story isn’t predictive of what will always happen when a leader’s character spirals out of control. For one thing, God doesn’t maintain the same sort of theocratic relationship with the United States as He did with the nation of Israel. The consequences of a leader’s moral failures will usually be more indirect in our nation today than they were in Israel in David’s times.

Nonetheless, the story of David and Bathsheba is actually meant to highlight how seriously God takes a leader’s moral character, not how lightly He takes it. Character matters deeply to God. It should matter to us as well.

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