David and Bathsheba

1.  If I did not know this story was from Scripture, I would think it was one of the morality plays popular in the 16th century.  In them, the main character was surrounded by good and evil influences and the tension was what choices they would make – good or bad. There are many tragic stories in Scripture but, for me, this is the one with the greatest sense of loss – not only for David and Bathsheba and everyone involved for the remainder of David’s life.  Nothing goes right.  Nothing is ever the same.  Camelot shuts down and the stage goes dark with only a few moments of light before the end.  It’s not fair that one act of infidelity should have such an effect and maybe under other circumstances it would not have but it was the perfect storm.

2.  David has a very complex history with women from beginning to end.  They are important to him not only personally but in his rise to power.  He accumulates them.  They help define his success.

They are also one of his vulnerabilities.  Saul sees immediately that his daughter adores David and he offers Michal to him.  “I will give her to him so that she may be a snare to him and so that the hand of the Philistines may be against him.”  David is not ensnared but defeats 200 Philistines and becomes Saul’s son-in-law by marrying Michal.  She loves and protects him but we don’t see any evidence that he feels the same. It seems she is less a person and more a symbol of his position.  Saul, in spite, gives her to another man but when Saul is dead David demands her back and takes her from her husband. Still, when she criticized him for dancing while bringing the Ark to Jerusalem he puts her away and denies her ever having children.  That was the worst punishment he could inflict on a wife. “I will become even more undignified than this, and I will be humiliated in my own eyes.  But by these slave girls you spoke of, I will be held in honor.”

He is especially vulnerable to those who flatter him – like Abigail.  She was the wife of a man she despised and she recognized David immediately for who he would be.  “When the Lord has done for my master every good thing he promised concerning him and has appointed him leader over Israel…and when the Lord has brought my master success, remember your servant.”  When her husband suddenly dies, David sends for her to become his wife.

By the time David moves from Hebron to Jerusalem he had acquired more concubines and six wives.  By the time he saw Bathsheba he likely had even more – as many as 16 wives and more concubines.  Still, we don’t read of his having any remarkable sons worth being his successor.  That is one of the many ironies of this story.

At the end of his life he is comforted by a beautiful young woman, Abishag, who becomes a trophy wanted by David’s oldest son, Adonijah.  Having her would prove he had more favor than Solomon.  Instead, David denies him and Solomon pursues and kills him.

3.  The story is one irony after another, isn’t it?  No one is where they are supposed to be. Everyone is out of place and disordered.

David should be in the field with his army but he is not. He probably sees this as a clean up operation.

Bathsheba is bathing in full sight of the palace.

Uriah is called back from the battle and encouraged to stay in Jerusalem.

The story comes at the peak of his success.  He has nothing but victories.  He is famous for his courage, skill, loyalty to his men and devotion to God.  After all, David was described when he was young as “a man after God’s own heart.” Scripture says, “David reigned doing what was just and right.”  He had shown kindness to Jonathan’s crippled son Mephibosheth.  He had established his throne and his reputation.

4.  That is where the Fall begins.  It begins with confidence, success, piety and recognition – and being out of place.  David is King and has become accustomed to the benefits.  It means privilege.  It means flattery and obedience.  It means control and power.  It means having people around you who do what you say and make a living by keeping your secrets.  It means having fixers, like Joab, who make unpleasant problems go away one way or the other.  It means taking what you want because you can – without considering the consequences.  It means being above the law and being special.

I’m not convinced David’s weakness is lust as much as it is the exercise of power.  Remember what he says to Michal when she criticizes him.  “You may think I am nothing but it was me rather than your father or anyone from his house when he appointed me ruler over the Lord’s people.”  In other words, I am somebody. I am important – someone to be reckoned with.

This feels like something straight out of the news and the #MeToo movement that started with Harvey Weinstein and has brought down so many powerful and abusive men in the last couple of years.  They were not seduced.  They were the aggressors and they knew they could get away with it.  As one of them said, “When you are a celebrity you can do anything you like and grab them anywhere you want.”

I looked at a number of paintings this week that portray this story and every one of them emphasizes Bathsheba’s being naked or at least incredibly seductive – as if being beautiful were her problem.  Being beautiful was an invitation. David is incapable of constraining himself and it is implied by some that she was too tempting for him to resist or that she knew what she was doing.  Poor David.  I don’t think so and I don’t think Scripture believes that, either.

David sent for her after he knew she was married.  She knew what the consequences of refusing him might be and she went.  He slept with her knowing that the penalty for adultery for the woman was death.  He sent her away.  Shortly afterwards she sends a message that she is pregnant.

5.  At that point David could have confessed and taken the consequences but instead he starts a massive cover-up to obscure what he has done. But every attempt to conceal his corruption only complicates and makes things worse.  You know the phrase “uneasy lies the head that wears the crown”?  It is true, isn’t it?  David is on the brink of a period of life that will make him sleepless and unable to rest.  Not only the guilt of what he has done but the instability of his throne for the balance of his life.

It’s full of irony, isn’t it?

David wanting Uriah to take a break from the battle and encouraging him to sleep with Bathsheba but Uriah’s vow not to sleep with a woman during war is stronger than David’s permission to break that vow.

Uriah sleeping at the palace with the servants (who probably know everything going on with his wife and David) but no one says anything to him.  They are covering for the King.  They are all implicated either out of loyalty, cowardice or wanting to protect their own positions.  Other than Uriah, everyone in the story is reduced by their part in it.  Everyone is dirtied and compromised. You know the old saying and it is true.  “You lay down with dogs and you get up with fleas.”

Uriah’s integrity contrasted with David’s lack of character.  Everything about Uriah that makes him one of David’s most trusted men only lights up David’s hollowness.  He is horrified that David would even think he would break a vow to David, his fellow soldiers and to God.  David has done all three.  “As surely as you live, I will not do such a thing.”  His regard for and loyalty to David is total.  “As surely as you live.”  Little does he know what kind of slow death David is experiencing.

David assuming a drunk soldier will break his vows.  But, a drunk soldier has more honor than a sober king.  Everything Uriah does is like holding up a mirror to David but he does not see.  He only sees character as an obstacle to overcome.  Honor has become the enemy.  Truth needs to be hidden and silenced.

David writes a note with Uriah’s death warrant and gives it to him to deliver to David’s fixer – Joab.  David is completely certain of Uriah’s integrity after trying to manipulate him and he uses that to his advantage.  It turns out that David trusts Uriah to carry the message to Joab more than anyone else he could have sent.  He even writes the note himself and had Uriah opened it he would have known it was the man he trusted most in the world who is the one intentionally sending him to his death.  He would not have known why and, I suspect, he would have delivered the message anyway.  That was the loyalty David inspired in his men.  “David longed for water and said, “Oh, that someone would get me a drink of water from the well near the gate of Bethlehem.  So the three mighty men broke through the Philistine lines, drew water from the well near the gate of Bethlehem and carried it back to David.”

Finally, after Uriah’s needless death, Joab sends messengers to tell David that not only Uriah was killed but several others with him.  David’s response?

“Don’t let this upset you; the sword devours one as well as another.”  In other words, these things happen and if there was a little collateral damage that’s to be expected.  The expense of covering up his corruption is worth it.  Everything is fine now.  You did your part and I owe you. No one is left to tell the tale – except Bathsheba, her maids, the servants, and likely all the messengers.  In the end there will be no secrets.

Do you know the phrase “Catch and Kill”?  It is what happens when a publisher wants to cover up a scandal. They buy the story and then bury it.  Sleazy periodicals do this all the time – especially when they want to protect friends in high places.  That’s what we see here in a way.  David did what he could to kill the story but he discovers a truth he could not avoid.  The truth will out.  I love the phrase, “The wheels of justice turn slowly but grind exceedingly fine.”

Once the betrayal begins there is no ending it short of the death of people who have done nothing to deserve it.

Remember the line from Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”?  “Th’ abuse of greatness is when it disjoins remorse from power.”  That is, sadly, the perfect description of David’s unwinding.  If only he had shown remorse at the beginning.

6.  The story is full of messengers, sending, third parties, distance, separation, and displacement.  It is as if no one is connected to anyone else.  Everything is done through go-betweens and only three people actually come face to face with each other – Bathsheba and David and David and Uriah.  And David betrays them all. Everything else is done through others.  It’s quite an image of how isolated and alone David has become.

That may have been the end of the story.  The secret is protected.  Life goes on.

7.  But then, a new character walks on stage.  Someone who has been silent up until now but who has been watching everything.

“But the thing David had done displeased the Lord.”  It displeases me as well but my displeasure would be anger and a bolt of lightning or two but not so with God.

Displeased does not mean angry but full of grief.  We see it in Genesis 6:6.  “The Lord saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time.  The Lord was grieved that he had made man on the earth and his heart was filled with pain.”

We see it again when Absalom is killed.  “The king was shaken. He went up to the room over the gateway and wept.  As he went he said: “O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you – O Absalom, my son, my son!

Again, we read in the New Testament when Jesus grieves over Jerusalem:  “As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it..”

This is not a God who is at a distance or disconnected.  He grieves and is hurt by all of it.  While David has no remorse, God is full of it. He is shaken and weeps. In the midst of all the separation, collusion, treachery, murder, lust, decay and betrayal God grieves.  He is not distant or detached. He does not shout or call down lightning but He weeps. Not only for what David has done but for the loss of what would have been his future.  There is a line from Shakespeare’s play The Tempest that sums it up for me. “There is not only disgrace and dishonor in that but an infinite loss.”  And for that God weeps.  The loss of a man once after his own heart.  The loss of a legacy.  The loss of who knows how many lives as a result.

The Bathsheba incident leads to a shift in the book’s perspective; afterwards David is largely at the mercy of events rather than directing them. He is no longer able to control his family as his son, Amnon rapes his half-sister Tamar and then Amnon is killed in revenge by his half-brother Absalom.  David is humiliated and overthrown by Absalom, betrayed by his closest advisor Ahithophel, abused publicly by Saul’s family, ridiculed by Joab, manipulated by Bathsheba, punished with a three year plague and the loss of 70,000 men.

“The golden era of his life has passed away; his sun has begun to go down; and what remains of his life is chequered with records of crime and chastisement, of sin and sorrow. What we now encounter is not like a spot but an eclipse; it is not a mere pimple that slightly disfigures a comely face, but a tumour that distorts the countenance and drains the whole body of its vigour.”  Charles Spurgeon

T.S. Eliot’s words are true.  “This is the way the world ends.  This is the way the world ends.  Not in a bang but a whimper.”

And as it is true for worlds so it is for men who become consumed with pride, arrogance, power, grievances, and lust.  They end not in a bang but a whimper.

”The wheels of justice turn slowly but grind exceedingly fine.”

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