And so begins the story of the sin of David. A powerful narrative wonderfully told, it ends with the classic understatement, that what “David had done displeased the Lord.” No kidding!
The story of David is the story of a kind of everyman. Just before the March reading break, we saw David as a hero though not simply in the usual characteristics of physical size and strength. The point was the contrast between how “man looks on the outward appearance but God looks on the heart.” We saw what God sees in the heart of David in terms of his courage - literally, what is in the heart - and his insight and commitment to the truth and power of God. It was that which allowed him to stand up against the formidable figure of Goliath, the champion of the Philistines. What is bigger than Goliath’s physical stature was his ego and presumption in defying God as the author of all creation.
But here, too, in the story of David’s sin, we see the heart which God sees, the heart in its darkness and deceit, the heart in its contradiction and denial of its own truth. David shows us, as John Donne concisely says, “the slippery ways into sin.” This, too, is part of our reality, the reality of our sinfulness, of our doing what in some sense we know is wrong. If I were to ask whether anyone here in Chapel has ever done something wrong or has made serious mistakes, we would all have to raise our hands, at least if we are being honest with ourselves. I would have to raise two hands. We deceive ourselves and one another in claiming to be perfect and good, in protesting that we never lie or fudge the truth. This story awakens us to ourselves in the sad but true fact of our sinfulness; not just mistakes but mistakes which we know to be wrong yet have done anyway.
So what happened “late one afternoon”? First, David sees a beautiful woman bathing. He conceives a lust for her in his heart. He inquires and finds out that she is Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite, a non-Israelite, but a soldier fighting for David. In other words, he knows that she is the wife of a loyal soldier. But here is the first moment of the slippery slope argument about how sin begets sin begets sin. It provides a wonderful commentary on the logic of the Ten Commandments and of the movement and connection between the commandments. It begins “late one afternoon” with the last of the commandments: “thou shalt not covet.” David covets in his heart another man’s wife. The lust of the eyes leads to the lust in his heart to possess another for himself. It leads to adultery. He takes Bathsheba and has sex with her. “Thou shalt not commit adultery.”
She conceives a child; she is pregnant but not from Uriah. She tells David who then undertakes a scheme to cover up his sin. Uriah is recalled from battle and fêted by David and told to go down to his house. The idea is that he will sleep with Bathsheba and thus the child can be passed off as his own. But Uriah is loyal to David and to the warrior code. He does not go down to his house but stays with the servants and other soldiers at the king’s doorstep, protecting the king. So David’s scheme to deceive and to cover up his sin is foiled by the honesty and loyalty, the goodness, of Uriah.
What then does David do? He gives orders to Joab, his general, to have Uriah placed in the heat of the battle where he is most likely to be killed. He conspires to have Uriah killed! In an amazing economy of words, we are simply told that “Uriah the Hittite was slain also”. “Thou shalt not kill.”
These highlight the more obvious commandments which David breaks. Yet in possessing Bathsheba, he treats her like a thing, a possession, but one which he is stealing. “Thou shalt not steal.” He is also not honouring the principle of the family of Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam, an Israelite. His conspiracy to try to cover up the pregnancy and to have Uriah killed involves deceit and lies, a form of false witness. But at a deeper level, David contradicts himself in relation to God. He betrays God. For the commandments about our relation to one another are grounded in our relation to God. To put in a later formulary which itself is drawn out of the Torah, the love of God and the love of neighbour are inseparable. Leviticus states that “thou shalt love your neighbour as yourself” and extends the idea of neighbour to the stranger and the sojourner, hence Uriah, too. The stranger in your midst is also your neighbour. That insight is joined to the love of God. Love of God and love of neighbour go together.
This story of the sin of David ends with the cryptic understatement that “the thing that David had done displeased the Lord.” “The thing” refers to this sequence of events that belong to the heart of David in disarray and sin. Yet it is really all about a denial of the truth of God. “Against thee only have I sinned” (Ps. 51.4), David will say.
What is the significance of this story? At the very least, it holds up a mirror to ourselves. It confronts us with the sad reality of human sin in terms of “thoughts, words and deeds,” as the Confession of Sin puts it. David conceives in his heart a lust for Bathsheba - thoughts. He conspires against Uriah - words. He commands Joab to place Uriah where he will be killed - deeds. The story offers a powerful picture of the slippery slope into sin. Lies lead to more lies, for instance, especially when we try to justify actions which we know are wrong or try to hide them or deny them or when we blame the world or others rather than face ourselves.
The ethical teaching here is about confronting ourselves in the reality of things done which we should not have done. But does the story simply end there? Are we simply left with this closing statement about God’s displeasure? Is the lesson then simply negative? Leaving us in our sins? Well, stay tuned! For as John Donne observes, the story of David is not just about “the slippery ways into sin but also the penitential ways out of sin.” How will David come to face himself in the acknowledgement of his actions?
Chair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy
(Rev’d) David Curry
Chaplain, Head of English & ToK teacher