King David lived a life of extremes. His is a story that has us shaking our heads on one page saying, “Wow, I could never do that,” only to turn the page and gasp, “Oh my God, I would never do that!”
“David was a star,” remarked Bono, “the Elvis of the Bible”—an apt description even if David never played Vegas.
David had an eye for beauty, a passionate soul, and a talent for expressing the wide range of human emotion. He either wrote or had written in his honor some of the most famous song lyrics ever written; lyrics like “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want,” lyrics like, “I waited patiently for the LORD; he inclined and heard my cry.”
But, again, David was a walking contradiction.
The same soul that saw God’s beauty and majesty also saw a darkness, and when David gave himself over to that darkness, he unleashed chaos in his kingdom and in his spirit.
David’s dance with the darkness created a scandal that had it all—vile corruption, virtuous victims, lies, treachery, and murder.
We pick up the story in Second Samuel, which tells us that it was springtime, “the time of year when kings go to war.” That particular spring David’s sights were set on a specific enemy, the Ammonites.
A year or so earlier, Ammonite-Judean relations took a turn for the worse when the Ammonite king arrested David’s ambassador to his kingdom, charged him with espionage, and humiliated him by shaving his head—a definite breech of diplomatic protocol.
This political crisis led to a war in which David’s forces gained a decisive advantage by inflicting over 40000 casualties on Ammon, an advantage David hoped would lead to total victory in the New Year.
Now, even at this point in the story, even before any mention of THE scandal of David’s life, we have to admit that the king’s actions are, at best, highly questionable.
Over 40000 human casualties because of a diplomatic misunderstanding? Was this really the kind of leadership God wanted from his anointed one?
The campaign against Ammon, however, merely set the stage on which David’s greatest scandal played out, a scene set in motion one afternoon when the king spied his neighbor Bathsheba and decided that he wanted her for himself.
The Scripture describes the subsequent string of events with disturbing brevity saying simply that David, “sent for her, and when she came to the palace, he slept with her.”
There’s no hint of seduction, only an exercise of the king’s power and depravity.
Afterward, David sent Bathsheba home, but the scandal he had created was just beginning.
Bathsheba soon sent word to the palace that she was pregnant with David’s child. It was the last thing that David wanted to hear; evidence of his infidelity and a potential heir to his throne. His response, nevertheless, was bone chilling.
David quickly called Bathsheba’s husband—a man named Uriah and one of the king’s soliders—back from the battle hoping that a week’s leave would lead to a happy reunion of husband and wife, the kind of reunion that everyone, especially Uriah, would remember a few months later when Bathsheba gave birth.
Bathsheba’s husband, however, proved far more honorable than devious David anticipated. Despite David’s prodding, Uriah would not go home to his wife. He refused to indulge in such pleasures while his band of brothers were looking across the line sat the enemy, and nothing David did could change his mind.
He tried to bribe him.
He tried to engage him in bawdy bar room talk.
He even tried to get him drunk, but Uriah’s virtue never wavered, and he made plans to rejoin his comrades
. David’s cool now turned to panic.
He was already willing to abuse his power and his people—he was willing to base military decisions on how best to cover his own misdeeds—but now he would add murder to his résumé.
David ordered his top general to send Uriah to the front line, and then to withdraw all others from his side, thus ensuring the honorable soldier’s death.
It was a perfect crime.
It’s also a sick story, isn’t it?
On their own, the actions described here are despicable, but to see someone with David’s potential and someone from whom so much was expected sink so low adds exponentially to the scene’s pathos.
Of course, we could keep on reading. We could read about how the prophet Nathan called David to account, how David faced the truth, confessed his sin, ultimately found forgiveness from God in a tremendous display of divine grace, and how he and Bathsheba both found a place in the genealogy of Jesus. That’s all part of the story and part of what makes David such in interesting and complex figure.
But for today, we need to stay right where we are, with David at his worst.
I heard a sermon a few years ago in which the preacher argued that in his crimes against Bathsheba and her husband, David broke everyone one of the Ten Commandments. It was an interesting sermon, and not altogether forced, for David’s actions certainly show contempt for the fundamental principles of loving God and neighbor.
In fact, it’s obvious to me that the only person whom David was interested in loving was himself and narcissism like that always runs counter to God’s desires.
The twisted love of self that leads to wanton consumption stands in sharp contrast to the outward flowing and sharing love God gives and inspires, and in this case, it’s that twisted love that places David in the unenviable company of history’s worst despots, leaders who used their power to line their own pockets and bolster their own list of conquests.
David, God’s chosen king, ultimately behaved like every other land-grabbing, woman-chasing, power-hungry tyrant (and this is the picture that people who liked him decided to write!)
So what are we to do with this?
What does this say about David?
What does this say about us?
I don’t think that there’s any doubt that David’s failure serves as a cautionary tale about our ability to deceive ourselves, to harm others, and to treat others as pawns in order to satisfy our own desires.
David had so much. He had seen God’s promises manifest in his life and he had risen to a position of great power and privilege, but he gave into the temptation to forsake the blessings he had received and to define himself only by what we could take for himself.
If we—who also have so much—can’t see something of ourselves in David’s story, then I think it’s pretty clear that we’re reading it wrong.
The New Testament’s Letter of Second Timothy notes,
All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.The story of David’s crimes does this by revealing the truth about our wandering hearts.
Gratitude escapes us, envy has its charms, and David isn’t the only person who sang praises to God one day and hurt and harmed and plotted and schemed and lied on the next.
David was a walking contradiction and so are we.
Prone to wander, though, we, like David, are also anointed and beloved of God. We’re offered forgiveness and mercy and shown the triumph of God’s compassion over our appetite for consumption.
We are blessed to be a blessing, because, in spite of ourselves, God loves us and gives us work to do.
This is the substance of the Good News. Our fundamental challenge, then, is to bring this Gospel message—this love story—to life through our acts of faith and devotion.
This, after all, is the love story about the Creator of all things dwelling within and among each one of us, flawed though we are.
This is the love story about the unimaginable holy hospitality that leads ordinary people like you and me to open our hearts to others even as we’re still learning about the amazing grace God shows to us.
This is the story in which light and life and love have the last word, not death; the story about a Sunday morning, long ago, on which Jesus’ friends found his empty tomb.
Our task as disciples of Jesus Christ is to live out this love story so that anyone who is already convinced about the power of their own failures, but still on the fence about the reality of God’s grace, can get a glimpse and a taste of just how much God loves them, could come to know that Divine Love which excels all others, could experience in the depth of their being the love that is stronger than our sin is foul.
That is our mission. That’s the teaching, reproof, and training David’s story offers us. That’s who we are —a wandering and flawed people, yes, but a people being shaped by and committed to sharing a love that will not let go.
Prone to wander, we, like David, are also anointed and beloved of God. We’re offered forgiveness and mercy and shown the triumph of God’s compassion over our appetite for consumption.
Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.