Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon
2 Samuel 12:1-15
There are times when I preach from the text.
There are times I preach with the text. And, there are times I actually
preach against the text. And I'm going to do all three this morning.
Our text is one of those great turning moments of history, at least as
far as the biblical record is concerned, which will establish one of the
most fundamental principles of government upon which the Declaration of
Independence is based. So, those who were here last Sunday will recall
the context for the text this morning, in the continuation of the story
of David and Bathsheba. Again, it fits very well with today's theme of
empowerment of women.
You'll recall in that story that David sees Bathsheba and lusts after
her, she has really no choice in the matter, they conceive a child and
then he tries to cover it up. So we refer to this, of course biblically
speaking, as "Bathsheba-gate" :) But the cover-up doesn't work, and and
so then he arranges to have Uriah (Bathsheba's husband) killed. And he
would have gotten away with it -- would have gotten away with murder --
save for one who knows the real story. And so that's where we pick up
the rest of the story then, from second Samuel Chapter 12:
And the Lord sent Nathan to
David. He came to him, and said to him, ‘There were two men in a
certain city, one rich and the other poor. 2The rich man had very
many flocks and herds; 3but the poor man had nothing but one little
ewe lamb, which he had bought. He brought it up, and it grew up with
him and with his children; it used to eat of his meager fare, and
drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter
to him. 4Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was loath
to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who
had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb, and prepared that
for the guest who had come to him.’ 5Then David’s anger was greatly
kindled against the man. He said to Nathan, ‘As the Lord lives, the
man who has done this deserves to die; 6he shall restore the lamb
fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.’
[Now, you get how the storyteller is just
setting us up here, the contrast between the two is just so
wonderful. And David doesn't have a clue]
7 Nathan said to David,
[These are immortal words]
‘You are the man!
Thus says the Lord, the
God of Israel: I anointed you king over Israel, and I rescued you
from the hand of Saul; 8I gave you your master’s house, and your
master’s wives into your bosom, and gave you the house of Israel and
of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added as
much more. 9Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what
is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with
the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed
him with the sword of the Ammonites. 10Now therefore the sword shall
never depart from your house, for you have despised me, and have
taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife. 11Thus says
the Lord: I will raise up trouble against you from within your own
house; and I will take your wives before your eyes, and give them to
your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this
very sun. 12For you did it secretly; but I will do this thing before
all Israel, and before the sun.’ 13David said to Nathan, ‘I have
sinned against the Lord.’ Nathan said to David, ‘Now the Lord has
put away your sin; you shall not die. 14Nevertheless, because by
this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child that is born
to you shall die.’ 15Then Nathan went to his house.
The Lord struck the child that
Uriah’s wife bore to David, and it became very ill.
We assume, typically, that the great sin that
David commits here is that of adultery and murder, when in reality those
are but symptoms of a much deeper sin. The real sin, as I suggested last
week, is revealed here by the prophet of his abuse of power and the
misuse of privilege.
But before we get to that, I need to make two preliminary comments that
are very important.
The first is that this is one of those classic stories which reveals
what a prophet does, contrary to the popular conception. Nathan's
prophetic act here is not a prediction of events to come, but the
pronouncement of judgment on acts done. The job-description of a prophet
is not that of fortune-teller, but forth-teller. Not forecaster, but
newscaster -- the one who tells it as it is from the perspective of God.
Abraham Heschel, the great biblical scholar of the 20 century, refers to
prophets as the mouthpiece of God, who gives "divine understanding of a
human situation". And that's what Nathan is doing.
And so what we see as a prediction -- that ill
will fall upon the house of David -- is simply the outcome of judgment.
It's the sentence, if you will. Or you might think of it as a natural
consequence. So when I say that the Ducks will win the Pac-12 football
championship that is not a prediction -- it's natural consequence! When
you have the best team on the field, of course, right? :) Now, Nathan is
not predicting the future, he's just announcing the sentence for David's
sin by describing those natural consequences.
One of those consequences, however, is very troubling to our modern
sense of fairness and justice. And so that's the second preliminary
comment I need to make, and this is when I preach against the text.
There may have been a time when the death of children was attributed to
God. But that time has gone. We no longer live in a world where
otherwise unexplainable events have to be attributed to God as the only
rational explanation. Why else do good people suffer? When there is an
eclipse of the sun, we know that is not God's doing -- turning off the
light of the sun -- it's natural events of the rotation of the Earth and
the Moon and the Sun.
When floods wipe out homes and farms and entire communities, we know
that is not an act of God, but it's the randomness of nature or it's the
foolishness of building in floodplains, right? Or, it's the natural
consequence of destroying watersheds. Conversely, we know that the
drought that we are now seeing across much of the country is not some
punishment by God for the sins of the nation, but likely is the result
of climate change, as James Hansen (the NASA scientist has just recently
released a study on). And even one of the most ardent critics of climate
change has now confessed that he agrees with with much of it.
When we get pummeled with endless political ads, we know it is not God
punishing us for our failure to create a more fair system untainted by
dollars, it's. . . . well, on second thought, maybe it is :)
But when an illness strikes a child, simply due to random disease, or
exposure to toxins, or failure to provide adequate vaccinations, to
attribute such illness to God is blasphemy. The God we worship does not
take innocent lives to satisfy God's whims, and certainly not as
punishment for the sins of the parents. Or in this case, as I suggested
last week, the sin of the father (being more likely that this is rape,
How could such a God who punishes the innocent
for the sins of the guilty be worthy of our praise? How could such a God
be called good or loving? So yes, I preach against this text as contrary
to what we believe and teach about God, what we know about God from our
own experience, even as we recognize that this is what our ancestors of
faith believed from their experience of God as the only explanation of
why an innocent child would die.
The question is: did God change, or did our understanding of God change?
To borrow the slogan of the United Church of Christ, I believe God is
still speaking. And the latest word of God is not what is in the text,
it is what is on our hearts. And that's not to say that our heart should
overrule scripture, but that the two must be in constant dialogue with
one another. Much in the same way that we use a GPS -- to check our
location in light of our desired destination. Sometimes, you know, the
GPS will lead you astray -- that street is a one-way going the wrong
way. Or it's under construction, and you've got to find a different way.
The idea that God caused this innocent child to
die is a theological dead-end. So don't go down that road or you will be
stuck in an irrational set of beliefs that ultimately blames God for
that which is not God's doing.
I had to an example of this just a few weeks ago
with the fire behind the church. I'm out there doing my pastoral thing
out there, helping put out the fire (no, that wasn't what I was doing
:), but in talking to people in the neighborhood, and one woman, very
distraught, learning that I was the pastor of this church, who was a
resident in that apartment at the top of the building, said to me: "Can
I ask you a question? Why is God doing this to us?".
And you could feel her pain, I mean her whole life, all of her
belongings were going up in smoke. And I did the best I could (I'm sure
it wasn't adequate) just to reassure her that that was not the act of
God. God was there in the firefighters. God was there in the people
offering help and support, not in consuming all the contents of her
In this story, though God is portrayed as taking the child, the blame is
solely on David. And once again that's why I'm convinced that this is
rape and not adultery. So let's focus now on what David did that was so
wrong, as seen through the eyes of the prophet.
When Nathan creates this story of this poor man with a little ewe lamb,
you know, your heart breaks for him. It's very interesting that he puts
it in these terms, of a rich man vs a poor man. I mean, what does
economics have to do with rape and murder? As it turns out, everything.
What Nathan reveals is that it is not just the personal sin of David, of
lust and greed, it is about what his predecessor (the prophet Samuel)
said was going to happen in appointing Kings, because this is the nature
of Kings -- to take what is not theirs. And so the real crime of David,
then, is about that abuse of power and misuse of privilege. Using
government for his own personal gain and desire, taking what he has no
right to take.
And this is the principle enshrined by Thomas Jefferson in the
Declaration of Independence: that there is a limit of power, of
government, and when Kings go too far, assume too much power for
themselves, the people have that right to say "no more" and to take it
back. And it is a principle around which there is enormous debate today
-- how much is too much? Has the government gone too far, particularly
in the whole healthcare issue? Frankly, I think it hasn't gone far
enough, but that's me, but we understand the philosophy behind the
So let me take you just a little further back in our own history, to a
very great illustration of a Nathan vs David moment. Nathan in this case
was played by David Frost, a British interviewer in the field of
entertainment with very little expertise in politics. David is played by
Richard Nixon. Four years after his resignation as a result of
Watergate, and he agrees to be interviewed by Frost in an attempt to
reshape his public image, to redeem himself in the public eye. The clip
I want to show you is from a movie made about this interview (movie made
in 2009) -- it takes a bit of dramatic license (as movies do) but the
encounter is very much a real one and the dialogue is essentially taken
from the actual interview itself. Now, up to this point in the series of
interviews, the President has shown his true capability and skill of
politics and word-smithing and his understanding of events, and frankly
his intellectual brilliance by outdueling the more inexperienced Frosts
at every turn. But that is about to change. So watch:
See, the only thing that would have made it more
clear in that moment, what the president had just admitted to, would
have been if Frost had stood up and said: "You are the man!". For you
have indicted yourself, believing that you, like David, were above the
And unlike the president, of course, David remains in the throne, though
his position as King will be severely challenged from this moment on.
But the story of David and Bathsheba ends on an up note -- with the
birth of a second son, of course, Solomon. And this pronouncement that
the Lord loved him. And so with judgment comes grace. And perhaps the
greatest difference between human judgment and God's judgment is this.
And it may be the hardest part of the story for many to accept, that a
person who wronged me, or that President who did that, or that person
who committed that atrocity could find any grace.
Or, that I could be forgiven for that sin. Such is often hard to accept.
And though the consequences for David are severe, and all does not end
well for him, his own sons turn against him, commit the atrocities
Nathan said would be done by a neighbor, still he will live to see
Solomon become the next King and Bathsheba the Queen Mother. So at the
end of the day, we are left to ponder the consequences of our actions.
Those harmed by misdeeds of power and abuse of privilege, and yet
inexplicably how the grace of God can still, in spite of everything,
find good in the midst of evil. To turn even death into life.
Now, there's one "P.S." to this sermon. Many of the Psalms have an
inscription at the top, if you scan through the Psalms, you'll see some
in italics at the very beginning. Usually it's an instruction, how to
sing or chant, or an attribute of who wrote this particular Psalm. Psalm
51 (that we heard earlier) begins with this inscription: "To the leader,
a song of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him after he had gone
into Bathsheba". And these are the words said to have been composed by
the King in that moment:
"Have mercy on me O
God, according to your steadfast love, according to your abundant
mercy. Blot out my transgressions, wash me thoroughly from my
iniquity and cleanse me from my sin, for I know my transgressions
and my sin is ever before me. Create in me a clean heart O God, and
put a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your
presence, and do not take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to be
the joy of your salvation".