On one level, this is a brilliant story handed down to us by a brilliant storyteller. This is a gripping, plot-twisting, edge-of-your seat sex and murder mystery that threatens to topple the ruler of a great nation. On another level, followers of Jesus believe that this story, as well as the entire Bible, has power because it is "God-breathed" and therefore "useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in how to live right" (2 Timothy 3:16-17). In other words, this story doesn't merely thrill or entertain; it pierces our hearts with truth and displays God's power to save in the midst of deep sin and brokenness.
So let me begin by telling the story. It's much more than a story of lust and adultery; this is a story of the gradual hardening of a human heart—a heart that was once sensitive, open, and alive, but grew calloused, closed, and dead. If you've heard it before, listen with new ears for what God wants to tell you now.
"In the spring, at the time when kings go off to war … David remained in Jerusalem." This is not the David we know and love. Remember one of the first times we meet David? When everyone slinks back in terror before the bully Goliath, David runs into the thick of battle, madly twirling a sling over his head, flinging the stone, cutting off the giant's head. That became David's motto: engage life, fight oppression and evil, stay alive with God, live and dare passionately, and risk it all for the glory of God. David fought, prayed, ran, loved, hated, danced, and argued—even with God. In everything, David faced life with a fully alive heart. Somehow, somewhere, maybe in the midst of all the battles, or maybe even more likely in the midst of all the successes, life drained the passion out of David. He's a shell of that David. David's army is out there on the front line, risking their lives, defending the kingdom, sweating, bleeding, dying, and where's David, the commander in chief, the one who should be with the troops? He's at home, taking a leisurely stroll on his marble deck, waking up after a late afternoon nap (see verse 2). From that perch David surveys all the signs of his own success. Largely through his leadership, the nation is united, the economy is flourishing, the military is advancing, and the shepherd boy is living in a palace. But watch out, David! When we arrive at the middle stage of our life, we're always the most vulnerable to destroying everything we built during the first stage. Success can be dangerous.
Of course, the battle is not all David saw: "From the roof he saw a woman bathing. The woman was very beautiful." In another Bible story, the Hebrew phrase "very beautiful" describes Queen Esther, who was "lovely in form and features" (Esther 2:7). I don't think I need to describe the details of "form and features." The woman, Bathsheba, is gorgeous—an absolute stunning, head-turning knockout.
David in charge … or so he thinks
In verse 3 we read that "David sent someone to find out about her." Here's where the storyteller gets interesting. The verb "sent" is used 11 times in this story, and David is usually the one who sends. In verse 1, David sent Joab to lead his army. David sends a servant to find out about the bathing beauty. David sends messengers again in verse 4. In verse 6, David sends word to Joab and commands him, "Send me Uriah, the Hittite." After Uriah dies in battle, David sends for Bathsheba. Clearly, David is in charge. He sends; people jump. He's in control, or so he thinks.
Bathsheba is married to Uriah the Hittite, a foreigner who, nevertheless, has risen in the ranks of David's army. That doesn't stop David. David has everything, but his heart is still restless. "David sent messengers to get [the woman]. He came to her, and he slept with her …. Then she went back home." End of story. A simple, uncomplicated affair. Once again, David controls his destiny. But then the story takes a twist: "The woman conceived and sent word to David, saying, 'I am pregnant.'" Who is doing the sending now? It's not David. It's Bathsheba. For all his control, for all his sending and master-minding and planning, there are some things David can't control—like the growth of new life in the womb.
But not to worry, David immediately takes control of the situation, engineering and overseeing a brilliant three-phase scheme to cover-up the scandal. He sends word to his General Joab: "Send me Uriah the Hittite."
Phase one: Verse 8 says, "Go down to your house and wash your feet." We call this an innuendo or a double entendre. Certainly, surrounded by dusty roads, Uriah needed to wash his feet. But feet in the Bible can also refer to male genitals. So with a wink and a nod, David tells Uriah, "Go have sex with your wife," and then he even sends him a basket of wine, cheese, and fresh fruit. But Uriah doesn't do it. David is confused. The whole time he thinks Uriah is just like him; instead, Uriah, the foreigner, the foot soldier, the servant, acts with more integrity and faith than David, the God-appointed king, the man after God's own heart (see Uriah's comments in verse 11).
Phase two: David throws a party and gets Uriah drunk. "Hey," David tells Uriah for the 15th time, "Let me fill that cup of yours, you've hardly even started with the wine." But this doesn't work either. Uriah, ever loyal to his fellow-soldiers, refuses to go home while his comrades struggle, sweat, and die on the battlefield.
Phase three: That's it, David says, Uriah must go down. So he arranges for Uriah's murder. In verses 14-17, David orders Joab to place Uriah in the front of the battle where "the fighting is fiercest" and then, retreating and abandoning him, Uriah will meet his fate: he will be "struck down and die." This time the plan works, although it gets much messier than David's original plan. The canny Joab realizes that if all the men pull back, David's plot will be exposed. So he coldly sends an entire contingent of soldiers to die with Uriah.
In verses 18-24, Joab sends an update from the front to David, and the messenger concludes with the one item that really matters: "Oh, by the way, your servant Uriah the Hittite is dead." David takes the losses in stride, sending back a shallow cliché to Joab: "Don't let this upset you; the sword devours one as well as another." David has become a man of platitudes rather than a man of convictions.
According to verses 26-27, David's plan finally worked. Uriah is dead. Bathsheba mourns. Notice that David, the man who taught us so much about the power of lament, doesn't cry about this tragedy. And after a respectful amount of time for Bathsheba's mourning, David acts quickly: he has her brought to his house—literally translated "he sent and collected her." Once again, David takes charge and asserts control. God hasn't yet spoken during this story.
God enters the story.
But in the last verse of chapter 11, God enters the story: "But the thing David had done displeased the Lord." Then in chapter 12, God acts. Remember David sending this and that, taking charge, staying in control, working his plan. Well, look what God does in chapter 12:1: "The Lord sent Nathan to David." It's as if God finally says, "Hi, David, it's me. I'm in charge and you're not." And then Nathan, the prophet, the man who serves as God's mouthpiece, declaring God's truth, comes to David and tells a simple story: A rich man had some house guests and needed some lamb chops. So rather than take a lamb from his own vast flocks, he stole a sweet little lamb from his poor neighbor. The outrage of it all: the poor man had fed that little lamb like we would feed a puppy. He had held it in his lap; the lamb grew up drinking out of the poor man's bowl. But the rich man stole it, butchered it, and cooked it.
Notice David's reaction: "David burned with anger" (verse 5). He's ticked off. Finally, his heart engages, and he responds with a sense of moral outrage. Then Nathan closes his masterful trap: "You are the man" (2 Samuel 12:7). All David's defenses have been flattened at a stroke, and he stands naked before his judge. First, David must consider everything God did for him: I anointed you … I delivered you … I gave to you. Despite all this, David has done what is evil in God's sight: "You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword … You killed him with the sword." Though David had engineered Uriah's death from a distance, he might as well have taken the sword and stuck it through Uriah's chest. David's rather callous message to Joab—"the sword sometimes consumes one way and sometimes another"—is now thrown back in his face.
The words pierce David's calloused heart and he quietly says, "I have sinned against the Lord." As Eugene Peterson puts it, "He quits giving out opinions on other people's lives, good or bad, realizes his position before God—a sinner! A person in trouble, a person who needs help, a human being who needs God." And immediately comes the astonishing response: The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die.
Lessons from this story
This is a story about sin. Sin is the word we use to describe our attempt to become our own gods or to make other gods for ourselves. It's not so much a moral term (i.e., doing bad things) as it is a relational term. Sin is avoiding God, acting like we're our own god or creating gods more to our liking. We learn three things about sin from this story:
First, sin is personal. The gospel is, first and foremost, about Jesus and me. Notice that David easily gets worked into a frenzy of anger about someone else's sin. But Nathan tells him, "You are the man." This is where the gospel starts: you are the man; you are the woman. The gospel is never, first and foremost, about someone else; it's always about my own sin. I always want to shift the blame and worry about someone else. No, God says, let's change your marriage, your family, your neighborhood, your school, your community or nation—and how about we start with you?
Second, sin is deceptive. A year ago my computer caught a virus called the Klez32 virus, a particularly nasty virus because it, first of all, deactivates your anti-virus software. Sin does the same thing: it deactivates our ability to detect it. That's what happened to David. He slid into sin—lust, adultery, lies, deception, murder—and all the time he never saw it. His heart hardened. The deceptiveness of sin is that it doesn't feel like sin when we're doing it; it feels godlike, it feels religious, it feels fulfilling and satisfying. Eugene Peterson says, "David didn't feel like a sinner when he sent for Bathsheba; he felt like a lover—and what can be better than that? David didn't feel like a sinner when he sent for Uriah; he felt like a king—and what can be better than that?" And all the time is heart dies a little bit more each day. Part of our mess is that we can't see our mess.
Third, sin has consequences. Notice what happened with David's sin: it impacted more people than he ever imagined. David had no idea that his simple plan to dispose of Uriah would lead to the death of an entire contingent. Sin never stays in the neat boxes that we try to create. My sin will have ramifications that I cannot predict or control. My sin is wider and deeper than I could ever imagine.
Sin is ugly. A few years ago, the New York Times ran a full-page ad with a question on the top of the page: "When was the last time you had a good conversation about sin?" For most of us, it's probably been a long time. Most of us prefer other words: dysfunction, addiction, co-dependency, alienation, etc. Why talk about sin? Because honestly facing our sin is the prerequisite to understanding the second half of the gospel: we are more loved than we could ever imagine.
God's invitation to grace
Although this story focuses on David's sin, it is ultimately a story that ends and focuses on God's invitation to grace. Even in the midst of an ugly story about ugly sin, we find the gospel here. And the gospel is God's invitation to come to Jesus Christ in the midst of our fallen, ugly, stupid, twisted sin. In this passage we find a double invitation.
First, there is an invitation to come clean. Everything David did is wildly outdone by God's grace. No one minimizes David's sin. It's huge and it's ugly. But God's grace looms larger—infinitely larger. After the experience ended, David wrote a poem-song about his experience. You can read it in your Bible; it's called Psalm 51. It's fascinating that for all of his sinning, David uses only four words to describe sin in that song; he uses 19 words to describe God's forgiveness and restoration. Sin is basically the same stale, dull routine that we've perpetuated for years. But when it comes to God's grace, it's fresh, original, and surprising—every single time it happens. It never gets old.
This passage is also an invitation to come alive. We saw what happened in David's spirit with his sin: it killed his passion for God and for life. Sin leads to death—physical death but also spiritual death. Coming to Christ leads to spiritual life: "You were dead in your trespasses and sins … but God in his rich mercy, made you alive in Christ" (Ephesians 2:1-10).
Here's the invitation in this messy story: come clean, come alive. There is someone who has the power to cleanse us and the power to raise us—Jesus Christ.
Matt Woodley is the pastor of compassion ministries at Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois.