After starting so well, David’s reign hits a rough patch in these chapters. He begins to act in ways that recall Saul, and his own attempts to have David killed.
It starts when David, like Saul before him, started to enjoy the privileges of kingship without taking up the responsibilities. 11:1 makes it clear – this was the time for kings to go out to battle, but David sent the army without him while he stayed in Jerusalem. And it doesn’t seem to be because he has so much paperwork to do – 11:2 spells it out that it’s after David has had an afternoon nap and is ‘walking about on the roof of the king’s house’ that he looks down on a nearby house and sees his beautiful neighbour Bathsheba bathing on her own rooftop – probably out of sight of anywhere except the higher palace roof. David looks again – and temptation leads to adultery and pregnancy. So David schemes to cover up the evidence by bringing Uriah, Bathsheba’s soldier husband, back from the front line in the hope that he will sleep with her and then assume that the child is his own.
Uriah has higher standards of duty than David shows. He comes back as ordered, but will not live in comfort with his wife while he knows his troops are out facing the enemy and living in tents. So David goes further than Saul. Where Saul simply kept sending David into battle in the hope that he would die a glorious death (emphasis on the ‘death’ part) fighting the Philistines, David arranges for Uriah to be abandoned in the thick of the fighting so that he will definitely be killed. It’s murder by Ammonite. The plan works, but while everyone else may be fooled by David’s efforts to comfort the grieving widow, the LORD is not, and he passes on the message to the prophet Nathan.
David’s conscience, unlike Saul’s, is not beyond the LORD’s reach. Nathan’s parable strikes to his heart and he recognises his guilt. The death of the child seems to us incredibly unjust, but we have to think ourselves back into the less individualistic world of the Old Testament, where a newborn child was seen as a blessing to its father more than as a person. David’s sin has consequences, and they are tragic.
However, David, again unlike Saul, has not reached despair – and once his child is dead, he realises that he still has a job to do as king, and gets on with it. He worships and looks to the future. Traditionally, it’s during this time that he wrote Psalm 51 – it certainly fits this episode in his life.
Interestingly, it seems that Joab hears about Nathan’s visit. For David’s other mistakes begin to catch up with him. Again, there are echoes of an earlier great leader of Israel, Gideon – and once again, I realise that I’m seeing something here which I haven’t been aware of before, thanks to reading the Bible in order and quickly! Gideon started well, but one of his failings was taking many wives and having many sons, which led to civil war and tragedy after his death. David too has taken many wives even before Bathsheba, and the story of Absalom, Ammon and Tamar comes about in the middle of the tensions and tangled relationships of so many half-siblings.
Joab, keen as ever for vengeance on wrongdoers, tries to repeat Nathan’s success with a wise woman and a new parable of injustice (again, an echo I’d never noticed before). But David sees through the pretence – the story may be similar, but it doesn’t have the power of God’s word behind it to bring conviction of wrongdoing. David’s weakness for women and his weakness as a father and enforcer of justice come together to leave Absalom feeling both alienated from his father and immune to prosecution – and I know this will just lead to things getting worse soon!
But for a moment let’s go back to David, Bathsheba and Uriah. It’s a classic story of how one thing leads to another. In this case it ends up with a conspiracy to murder, which follows on from a failed cover-up, which in turn follows on from adultery, which again followed on from lust, which was sparked by an accidental glimpse of a beautiful woman in a bath on a rooftop.
But that ‘accidental’ glimpse wouldn’t have happened in the first place if David was where he should have been, leading the army. The whole sorry mess began with a neglect of duty. When we are getting on with the tasks God has given us, we are less likely to give temptation a way in, to stop the problem before one thing leads to another and things spiral out of control.
Perhaps one way to avoid sin is to be so absorbed in God’s work that we hardly notice the temptation in the first place.