David – rogue or inspired leader.

29th July 2018

The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson

Psalm 145: 10 – 18

2 Samuel 11: 16 – 27

Ephesians 3: 1 – 12

I’m not normally one for using titles for sermons, but tonight is different. The title is “David – rogue or inspired leader.” Let me explain.

Tonight’s first reading from 2 Samuel 11 is the end of a very sad series of readings we have heard over the past two Sundays – both in the morning and evening. The problem is we have not heard the whole of the story at any one time. We have heard a snippet here and a snippet there. At the end of the reading, both this morning and this evening, I have felt a distinct reluctance to say: Hear the word of the Lord: Thanks be to God! Quite honestly it is difficult to find God in the readings, and particularly in what David did.

David, you will recall, shot to fame from nowhere. He was the youngest of many sons, but initially made his mark in killing the Philistine giant and champion Goliath. He went on to become a favoured musician in the court of King Saul, apparently able, through his playing and music, to bring a sense of calm to the troubled king. Later he would show himself as a brilliant soldier, leader of troops, and skilled military tactician. Despite his close friendship with the king’s son David fell out with King Saul and fought a long and brutal civil war against him. In the end David emerged victorious and set about consolidating his hold on the country, swiftly and shrewdly moving his capital city to Jerusalem, and gathering together the long since scattered tribes of Israel, forming a strong nation about his person.

The Lectionary readings then take us into a very sordid chapter in the life of David. A successful and much loved king, he nonetheless exhibited a fatal character flaw. At the start of 2 Samuel 11, this morning’s reading, we are told of David’s lust for another man’s wife. The lady in question is Bathsheba, married to one of David’s trusted warriors, Uriah the Hittite. Not satisfied with the many concubines that appear to have been his by right, at least in the accepted culture of his day, David has Bathsheba brought to him and indulges himself – effectively raping her. Having enjoyed his moment of sexual pleasure, David sends the woman back to her house. A short time later she sends word that she is pregnant – a problem, as her husband is away fighting King David’s battles. Uriah, the blissfully ignorant, but cuckolded, husband is brought back from the battle front, flattered with attention and, well-oiled with liberal amounts of alcohol, sent off home – presumably to enjoy his wife’s company and so ensure there will be no suspicion about Bathsheba’s pregnancy.

Unfortunately the plan backfires on the king. Uriah, true soldier in all ways, refuses to enjoy the luxury of married life while his men are at the front, and instead sleeps elsewhere, presumably in the barracks. Clearly worried that his adultery will be found out, David tries several times to get Uriah drunk enough to go home – to be thwarted each time by the honourable Uriah.

In the end David resorts to sending a letter back to the commander, using Uriah as post man, to the effect that Uriah should be placed in a position on the front line where he is sure to be killed. Which is precisely what happens. We heard the story tonight. Loyal Joab sends a message back to King David, effectively apologizing for the tactical military misjudgment and then adds, “tell the king that Uriah the Hittite is dead too.”

Bathsheba, newly widowed, morns her husband with loud lamentation. As soon as the mourning period is over, David brings her into his harem where she had a son. That could have been the end of the story, and is as far as we read tonight. But, if we followed the reading in 2 Samuel and read on into chapter 12, there is more to the story.

Nathan the prophet arrives to speak to David. He has a long story about two men in a certain city – one very rich, the other very poor. Despite having plenty of his own to choose from, the rich man seizes the only lamb the poor man has. There is a touching description of the relationship between the poor farmer and the lamb – “He brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his meagre fare, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him.” (2 Sam 12: 3) The lamb is killed and prepared for a feast to feed the rich man and his guests.

King David is outraged at the story, the injustice done to the poor man, and demands that the rich man, while deserving to die, must, at the very least, make fourfold reparation.

It is at this point that the story reaches its climax. In a brilliant piece of writing and with a minimum number of words, the prophet rounds on the king as he says, “You are the man!” Listen to Nathan:

‘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; I 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. Why 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. Now 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. Thus 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 neighbour, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this very sun. For you did it secretly; but I will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun.’ (2 Sam 12: 7 – 12)

Surely it is all over for David? There can be no going back, no way out. He is well and truly caught out, having committed both adultery and murder.

But wait. David immediately recognizes what he has done and says, “I have sinned against the Lord.” Surprisingly the Lord forgives David, but there will be a high price to pay. Having done this most difficult and unpleasant of tasks, Nathan disappears from the story. The child of that union died, though Bathsheba did have another son to David – Solomon.

But let’s pause for a moment and consider the role of the prophet Nathan. He took a huge risk in confronting David – his own life could easily have been forfeit, but he did not shirk from this difficult task. Drawing David into the cleverly woven word trap around the story of the rich man taking the poor man’s lamb, Nathan exposes David’s shameful act of lust and murder and sends a strong message. In the eyes of God “there are certain moral norms for human life that not even the most powerful men and women may abrogate.” (Brueggemann in texts for Preaching, Year A, pg 449)

The psalm that is traditionally sung on Ash Wednesday, the start of a forty day period of fasting and repentance, is Psalm 51. Tradition suggests that this psalm was composed by King David as a lament and confession of what he had done both to Bathsheba and Uriah. Despite the exquisite musical setting by Allegri (so beloved by many and the aim of every self-respecting treble to land the solo part with its Top C) the words are deeply poignant. David of course, is revered as the greatest of the Hebrew kings, and the one on whom the Messiah was to be modeled. Was this adulation justified? You decide as to whether David was one of the greatest rogues and sinners, or a truly inspired leader, big enough to recognize his faults, terrible as they were, and still be useful to God. As you think about that, listen to some of the words from Psalm 51.

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.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
and blameless when you pass judgement.
Indeed, I was born guilty,
a sinner when my mother conceived me.

You desire truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.

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 me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit.