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Politics of Scripture

Condemning Unjust Kings—2 Samuel 11:26—12:13a

Nathan’s courageous condemnation of King David’s sin is a timely example of court prophecy faithfully performed.

26When the wife of Uriah heard that her husband was dead, she made lamentation for him. 27When the mourning was over, David sent and brought her to his house, and she became his wife, and bore him a son.

But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord,

12 1and the Lord sent Nathan to David. He came to him, and said to him, ‘There were two men in a certain city, one rich and the other poor. 2The rich man had very many flocks and herds; 3but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. 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. 4Now there came a traveller to the rich man, and he was loath to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb, and prepared that for the guest who had come to him.’ 5Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man. He said to Nathan, ‘As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; 6he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.’

7Nathan said to David, ‘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; 8I 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. 9Why 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. 10Now 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. 11Thus 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. 12For you did it secretly; but I will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun.’ 13David said to Nathan, ‘I have sinned against the Lord.’ Nathan said to David, ‘Now the Lord has put away your sin; you shall not die.

The Old Testament lectionary passages related to the reign of King David seem particularly pertinent in this political season, which has witnessed the rise to power of popular but morally dubious strongmen around the globe. In the United States, for instance, comparisons between King David and Donald Trump have become quite explicit, with many conservative Christians defending Trump as “a man after God’s own heart.”

While last week’s lectionary passage in 2 Samuel 11:1-15 provided the opportunity to discuss the moral failings of King David, this week’s passage invites us to focus not on David but on Nathan, David’s court prophet. It asks us to consider what responsibility we have as people of faith to call attention to the moral failings of those in power and to pronounce God’s judgment on those leaders who wield power unjustly.

The story of Nathan’s encounter with David follows immediately on the story of David’s rape of Bathsheba and the ensuing cover-up in which David commands the murder of Bathsheba’s husband Uriah (2 Samuel 11:1-25). In this week’s passage, the prophet Nathan must confront David about the crimes he has committed against Bathsheba and Uriah.

Importantly, Nathan challenges David not as an adversary, or as an outsider, or as a member of a competing political faction. Rather, Nathan is David’s court prophet—a member of David’s own royal administration. He is a political insider close to David. He doesn’t wish to see David’s downfall, but nor can he ignore the wrong that David has done.

Indeed, Nathan has long been by David’s side as a trusted advisor. It was Nathan whom David had consulted about his plan to build a temple for Yahweh in Jerusalem and Nathan who had announced that God would give David an unending royal dynasty in Jerusalem (2 Samuel 7:1-17). Even after David’s death, it would be Nathan who would help secure the throne for David’s son Solomon (1 Kings 1:1-40).

Nathan is David’s guy. And yet when David behaves immorally, committing injustices against his own people, Nathan doesn’t excuse his behavior because David “was a man after God’s own heart.” Rather, Nathan calls the king to account and pronounces God’s judgment against him.

The process Nathan uses to pronounce judgment against David warrants our attention. Nathan doesn’t approach David directly, accusing him of wrongdoing. No doubt such an approach would have resulted in denials and dissembling from the great king. A powerful ruler like David doesn’t take criticism well.

Rather, Nathan approaches David by telling him a seemingly unrelated story about a rich man who defrauds a poor man. David, believing Nathan is approaching him to judge the case, pronounces judgment against the rich man—only belated to realize the rich man is in fact David himself. Nathan uses his access to the king and his understanding of the king’s temperament to elicit a confession.

The story Nathan tells David involves two men, one rich and one poor. The rich man has “very many flocks and herds,” while the poor man has only one little ewe lamb, who is “like a daughter to him” (12:2). By describing the way the little lamb eats at the man’s table, drinks from his cup, and sleeps in his arms, Nathan evokes in David a sense of sympathy for the poor man that David seems not to have felt for Uriah or Bathsheba in his dealings with them.

Nathan continues the story by telling of a time when a traveler comes to the rich man’s house. While custom would have the rich man prepare a meal for his guest, the rich man doesn’t want to give up one of the many sheep from his own flock to host his guest. So, instead, he steals the little ewe lamb from the poor neighbor, slaughters her, and serves her to his guest for dinner.

By slaughtering the ewe lamb, the rich man has violated the poor man in both emotional and economic ways. Most obviously, he has deprived the poor man and his family of their beloved pet lamb.

More subtly, the rich man’s actions have profound economic implications for the poor man’s future. One doesn’t simply slaughter a ewe lamb, since as a female she has potential to produce many more lambs in the future. The ewe lamb could have been the poor man’s way to build his wealth. He could have had “very may flocks” of his own. He could have left an inheritance to his children.

The rich man, not wishing to diminish his great resources by even a single animal, is willing to destroy the poor man’s economic future—perhaps for generations to come.

Nathan’s story has its desired effect on David. The king is incensed. He declares not only that the rich man must repay the poor man four times over for the lamb that he stole (the standard penalty for a stolen sheep, according to Exodus 22:1), but that “he deserves to die!” (12:5-6). The king, who seems to have no moral compass when it comes to his own actions, proves decisive in his judgment of this heartless rich man.

Only once King David has pronounced his judgment does Nathan reveal, “You are the man!” (12:7). David is trapped. In condemning the rich man, he has condemned himself. If the rich man “deserves to die” for slaughtering the beloved sheep of his poor neighbor, how much greater a penalty must be due to David himself, who has perpetrated sexual violence against his neighbor’s wife and murdered the man in order to cover up his own crime!

By flattering the ego of King David, who believes himself to be the executor of justice for the poor man, Nathan has trapped King David into an admission of his own guilt. Now David cannot protest when Nathan pronounces God’s judgment against him.

First Nathan states the charges against David directly. “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” (12:9). Then he pronounces God’s judgment for these transgressions:

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 from within your own house; and I will take your wives before your eyes, and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this very sun. (12:11).

Faced now with this accusation, David can do nothing but confess. “I have sinned against the LORD” (12:13).

In response to his confession, God relents from putting David to death, which is the punishment that he deserves according to both the law and his own pronouncement against the rich man in Nathan’s parable. He declares that David will not die (12:13).

Yet God doesn’t let David off the hook, despite David being his chosen king. Rather God executes judgment against David, the effects of which last for the rest of David’s life. The child born to Bathsheba dies (12:18). David’s son Amnon rapes his half-sister Tamar and is killed by his brother Absalom (2 Samuel 13). Absalom in turn rebels against David and is killed by David’s general Joab (2 Samuel 15—18). After Nathan’s pronouncement, the glory of David’s kingdom is never restored. His David’s reign ends with a whimper, a once-great king dying old and impotent (1 Kings 1—2).

Despite being “a man after God’s own heart” David is profoundly punished for his transgressions. And it his court prophet Nathan who calls him to account.

Like Nathan, those who compare leaders of our own today to King David have a responsibility to call those leaders to account when they engage in immoral or unjust behavior. The prophetic voice doesn’t simply shrug its shoulders and say, “God uses even imperfect people like David.” Rather, the prophetic voice should use its access to evoke confession and retribution for leaders who, like David, have used their power to injure and abuse others.

Biblically speaking, it is never the case that the wrongdoings of a leader can be overlooked as long as they advance our own agenda. Even a king as great as David must face his transgressions and accept the penalty for what he has done. The task of the prophet—even a prophet who works for the king himself—is to pronounce judgment against those leaders when they have lost their way.

So it should be among us.

One thought on “Condemning Unjust Kings—2 Samuel 11:26—12:13a

  1. I appreciate this commentary, which unlike most considers the prophetic rather than just “pastoral” implications of the text. The consequences of wayward leadership in this case are so instructive in an individualised self-actualised culture of achievement and impunity which influences Christian leadership.
    Thank you for simply covering essential theological ground in this passage!

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