A Sermon for the 9th Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 12 – Year B – 26 July 2015
John Edward Miller, Rector
In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab with his officers and all Israel with him; they ravaged the Ammonites, and besieged Rabbah. But David remained at Jerusalem.
It happened, late one afternoon, when David rose from his couch and was walking about on the roof of the king’s house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; the woman was very beautiful. David sent someone to inquire about the woman. It was reported, “This is Bathsheba daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite.” So David sent messengers to get her, and she came to him, and he lay with her. (Now she was purifying herself after her period.) Then she returned to her house. The woman conceived; and she sent and told David, “I am pregnant.”
So David sent word to Joab, “Send me Uriah the Hittite.” And Joab sent Uriah to David. When Uriah came to him, David asked how Joab and the people fared, and how the war was going. Then David said to Uriah, “Go down to your house, and wash your feet.” Uriah went out of the king’s house, and there followed him a present from the king. But Uriah slept at the entrance of the king’s house with all the servants of his lord, and did not go down to his house. When they told David, “Uriah did not go down to his house,” David said to Uriah, “You have just come from a journey. Why did you not go down to your house?” Uriah said to David, “The ark and Israel and Judah remain in booths; and my lord Joab and the servants of my lord are camping in the open field; shall I then go to my house, to eat and to drink, and to lie with my wife? As you live, and as your soul lives, I will not do such a thing.” Then David said to Uriah, “Remain here today also, and tomorrow I will send you back.” So Uriah remained in Jerusalem that day. On the next day, David invited him to eat and drink in his presence and made him drunk; and in the evening he went out to lie on his couch with the servants of his lord, but he did not go down to his house.
In the morning David wrote a letter to Joab, and sent it by the hand of Uriah. In the letter he wrote, “Set Uriah in the forefront of the hardest fighting, and then draw back from him, so that he may be struck down and die.”
– 2 Samuel 11:1-15
O God, the protector of all who trust in you, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: Increase and multiply upon us your mercy; that, with you as our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we lose not the things eternal; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
“It happened late one afternoon.” That line is an attention-getter. It sounds like a movie title – one that promises to deliver a suspenseful, if not salacious product. The story recorded in 2nd Samuel does both. It is laced with intrigue and treachery, and it is steamy. If it were made into a movie, it would at least be Rated R for adult content. Nevertheless this is one of the biblical accounts assigned by the lectionary for our consideration today, and who could resist it?
Before the narrator gets to his dramatic opener, he sets the scene by telling us that it was springtime. His explanation is that this was the customary season for military campaigns, and that is why King David had sent out his armies with General Joab to attack and destroy the neighboring Ammonites. That was the time when the conditions were right for warfare – in the environment and in the soldiers’ morale. In spring their blood was running high; they were up for a fierce fight. But it soon becomes clear that war wasn’t the only desire that was peaking.
On that spring afternoon, the king had risen from a siesta and was walking about on the roof of his palace, presumably to gaze at the city of Jerusalem from his regal perch. However, his eyes fastened on a sight that stirred his hormones to a fully awakened state. David was gawking at a beautiful woman who was taking a bath, unaware that anyone could see her.
The king’s heart was consumed with lust. He had to have her.
When he learned that she was the wife of Uriah the Hittite, one of his soldiers, David sent for her and she complied. And once she was in the palace of the mighty and glorious king, she succumbed to his amorous intentions. The differential in power and authority between David and Bathsheba was immense. The imbalance made her fully vulnerable to his advances. There was no way she could say no to a man who was not only larger than life, but was also her husband’s commander-in-chief. It was an impossible situation that conceived an innocent child and hatched an insidious plot.
Once the king learned that Bathsheba was with child, he summoned Uriah the Hittite to Jerusalem. The dutiful soldier obeyed, leaving the fields of war to have an audience with his lord. David, however, was not interested in talking; he counseled the man to go home, where he could enjoy the comforts of family life.
This suggestion was not about the king’s benevolence; it was an attempted cover-up. A conjugal visit might have relieved the king of responsibility for his behavior. When Uriah balked, stating that he couldn’t imagine the joys of home when the rest of the army was at war, the king knew the jig was up. He had to take more drastic measures. David plied Uriah with enough food and drink that the weary soldier passed out. Then David ordered his general Joab to recall Uriah to the campaign. Once there, Uriah would personally deliver a message from the king. It said that he was to be dispatched to the front line, and then abandoned by his comrades. That would leave unsuspecting Uriah totally vulnerable, and he was killed in action by the enemy. But this was not an act of war; it was murder. Uriah’s blood was on David’s hands.
Don’t let anyone tell you that the Bible is dull and dry! This text is filled with lurid, malicious detail. It is wrong in so many ways that it is hard to know where to begin at an interpretation.
The huge issue is that this is about David the king, the royal ideal, whose star is to this day emblazoned on Israel’s flag. This is David, the one who made God’s promised land a reality; the one chosen by Nathan to lead God’s people, and whose divine mandate was blessed with total victory, material wealth, and national security; the one about whom the Psalmist and the prophet Isaiah waxed eloquent, memorializing him as “God’s anointed,” a king by divine right whose reign will last as long as the moon and sun.
Now this same David is exposed as a scoundrel and a voyeur, a covetous manipulator who lusted in his heart, and overpowered the object of his fancy, a despoiler of a cuckolded, yet dutiful soldier, and the devious architect of a murder, all to get what he wanted when he wanted it.
Talk about breaking bad, and going off the rails! This is malice and mayhem on steroids.
The question is: Why is it preserved in Holy Scripture? Why didn’t David just have the tapes erased? It is not as if we’ve discovered the unexpurgated version of an unseemly story about the famous king. This narrative is there in the Bible for a reason. It is a tell-all moral tale for our consumption and our benefit.
First, a little context: our story from 2nd Samuel belongs to a body of Scripture known as the Deuteronomic history. It interprets all of Israel’s history by the principle that you get what you deserve for your actions. It’s similar to a law of karma approach to the way things are. The Deuteronomic idea is that God holds us accountable for our behavior, for good or ill. If you look at history, it explained, you’ll see that bad times and misfortune do not happen by accident; they are the direct result of bad behavior. Good deeds, on the other hand, lead inexorably to reward and blessing.
Thus the Deuteronomist shows us the real David, revealing that he royally messed up, and warning that he was going to pay dearly for it. (We didn’t get that far in the narrative, but it’s coming, believe me!). It won’t be long before David is condemned by Nathan, the very prophet of God that anointed him king. The child conceived in this tawdry affair would be doomed. David and Bathsheba would suffer the consequences of breaking the law of God.
The point of this painful revelation is to issue a solemn warning to the people. Good behavior will bring blessings, while evil deeds invoke curses; therefore choose life. That’s what the Deuteronomist wants his people to know and to heed.
Well, what shall we say to this? I admit that I like accountability, and personal responsibility. But I’m not convinced that life is that simplistic – black and white, and utterly predictable. Instead, I take heart that this is not the only point of view in Scripture, and take my stand with Job and Jesus, who take issue with Deuteronomy’s open-and-shut case. Life is far more ambiguous than that; it’s just not that easy to explain its complexities. You can’t look at all of the tragic, broken, suffering souls in history and say they got what they deserved. Uriah certainly didn’t.
And yet, we can applaud the Deuteronomist for attempting to draw a persuasive moral lesson based on David’s egregious behavior. Even though people don’t necessarily get what they deserve, moral imperatives are essential to a civil society. In our faith tradition a cardinal teaching is that God is love, and that God loves us even though we do not deserve it. For us that truth serves as an ethic. Thus we express our gratitude to God for accepting us by loving our neighbor in return. This is not wishful thinking. Morality matters; it is for the common good. Disregard for morality undermines the whole moral platform that supports us. If everyone did what David did, the result would be chaos.
Another thing that I take from the story is that David was real – he was a flesh and blood, fallible being, and not (with apologies to Michelangelo) a marble man with no flaws. And we are David’s brothers and sisters, fully capable of doing the wrong thing even while we know what the right thing is. Paul the apostle speaks for the whole of humanity with his self assessment: “The good that I would I do not: the evil which I would not, that I do.”
It’s a major mistake to gloss over or forget that truth. Denial of reality condemns us to repeat the past like hamsters in a cage. Christian realism helps us to reckon with what could result from every choice. In this service of Morning Prayer (which is intended for daily use by all of us), we begin with the General Confession, saying: “Almighty and most merciful Father, we have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep, we have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts, we have offended against thy holy laws . . .” That kind of honesty can lead to a godly, righteous, and sober life if we embrace it.
Finally, there is hope in this story – good news in abundance. Despite his flaws and his moral failure, David was not done; his life was not a lost cause. He would figure greatly in the future of God’s kingdom, not because of his deeds of courage but because of God’s power to save. A full view of biblical literature, one that encompasses both the New and the Old Testaments, reveals that God can and does use fragile, sinful people to accomplish his redemptive purpose.
David’s story brings to mind that of another notorious sinner – John Newton. Once a slave trader and plunderer of people, Newton wallowed in evil and degradation. But that was not the end of his journey. By the grace of God, which worked on his conscience and sense of morality, John Newton awoke. He repented, and asked for mercy, and begged for the strength to turn his life around toward the good. And it happened. A humbled and grateful Newton became one of the mighty advocates that brought about the end of British slave trading. He lived no longer for himself but for God’s sake, exclaiming,
Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound)
That sav’d a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
In David’s case, a life poorly lived would take a lot of repairing, but thanks be to God, it was not David alone that made the repairs. Redemption is God’s gift — pure, simple, and unmerited. Acknowledging his faults, and asking for help, he would live by grace. With God’s mercy David became a type – a messianic type – for those who would look for a redeemer to come. A thousand years later, Jesus emerged from the house of David. Thanks be to God, who is able to turn the shadow of death into the morning, and make us worthy at last to stand before him.
 The Deuteronomic historical corpus includes the books of Joshua through 2nd Kings.
 Romans 7:19.
 The Book of Common Prayer, p. 41.