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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary

2 Samuel 12

Verses 1-12

CHAPTER XV.

DAVID AND NATHAN.

2 Samuel 12:1-12; 2 Samuel 12:26-31.

IT is often the method of the writers of Scripture, when the stream of public history has been broken by a private or personal incident, to complete at once the incident, and then go back to the principal history, resuming it at the point at which it was interrupted. In this way it sometimes happens (as we have already seen) that earlier events are recorded at a later part of the narrative than the natural order would imply. In the course of the narrative of David’s war with Ammon, the incident of his sin with Bathsheba presents itself. In accordance with the method referred to, that incident is recorded straight on to its very close, including the birth of Bathsheba’s second son, which must have occurred at least two years later. That being concluded, the history of the war with Ammon is resumed at the point at which it was broken off. We are not to suppose, as many have done, that the events recorded in the concluding verses of this chapter (2 Samuel 12:26-31) happened later than those recorded immediately before. This would imply that the siege of Rabbah lasted for two or three years - a supposition hardly to be entertained; for Joab was besieging it when David first saw Bathsheba, and there is no reason to suppose that a people like the Ammonites would be able to hold the mere outworks of the city for two or three whole years against such an army as David’s and such a commander as Joab. It seems far more likely that Joab’s first success against Rabbah was gained soon after the death of Uriah, and that his message to David to come and take the citadel in person was sent not long after the message that announced Uriah’s death.

In that case the order of events would be as follows: After the death of Uriah, Joab prepares for an assault on Rabbah. Meanwhile, at Jerusalem, Bathsheba goes through the form of mourning for her husband, and when the usual days of mourning are over David hastily sends for her and makes her his wife. Next comes a message from Joab that he has succeeded in taking the city of waters, and that only the citadel remains to be taken, for which purpose he urges David to come himself with additional forces, and thereby gain the honour of conquering the place. It rather surprises one to find Joab declining an honour for himself, as it also surprises us to find David going to reap what: another had sowed. David, however, goes with "all the people," and is successful, and after disposing of the Ammonites he returns to Jerusalem. Soon after Bathsheba’s child is born; then Nathan goes to David and gives him the message that lays him in the dust. This is not only the most natural order for the events, but it agrees best with the spirit of the narrative. The cruelties practiced by David on the Ammonites send a thrill of horror through us as we read them. No doubt they deserved a severe chastisement; the original offence was an outrage on every right feeling, an outrage on the law of nations, a gratuitous and contemptuous insult; and in bringing these vast Syrian armies into the field they had subjected even the victorious Israelites to grievous suffering and loss, in toil, in money, and in lives.

Attempts have been made to explain away the severities inflicted on the Ammonites, but it is impossible to explain away a plain historical narrative. It was the manner of victorious warriors in those countries to steel their hearts against all compassion toward captive foes, and David, kind-hearted though he was, did the same. And if it be said that surely his religion, if it were religion of the right kind, ought to have made him more compassionate, we reply that at this period his religion was in a state of collapse. When his religion was in a healthy and active state, it showed itself in the first place by his regard for the honour of God, for whose ark he provided a resting-place, and in whose honour he proposed to build a temple. Love to God was accompanied by love to man, exhibited in his efforts to show kindness to the house of Saul for the sake of Jonathan, and to Hanun for the sake of Nahash. But now the picture is reversed; he falls into a cold state of heart toward God, and in connection with that declension we mark a more than usually severe punishment inflicted on his enemies. Just as the leaves first become yellow and finally drop from the tree in autumn, when the juices that fed them begin to fail, so the kindly actions that had marked the better periods of his life first fail, then turn to deeds of cruelty when that Holy Spirit, who is the fountain of all goodness, being resisted and grieved by him, withholds His living power.

In the whole transaction at Rabbah David shows poorly. It is not like him to be roused to an enterprise by an appeal to his love of fame; he might have left Joab to complete the conquest and enjoy the honour which his sword had substantially won. It is not like him to go through the ceremony of being crowned with the crown of the king of Ammon, as if it were a great thing to have so precious a diadem on his head. Above all, it is not like him to show so terrible a spirit in disposing of his prisoners of war. But all this is quite likely to have happened if he had not yet come to repentance for his sin. When a man’s conscience is ill at ease, his temper is commonly irritable. Unhappy in his inmost soul, he is in the temper that most easily becomes savage when provoked. No one can imagine that David’s conscience was at rest. He must have had that restless feeling which every good man experiences after doing a wrong act, before coming to a clear apprehension of it; he must have been eager to escape from himself, and Joab’s request to him to come to Rabbah and end the war must have been very opportune. In the excitement of war he would escape for a time the pursuit of his conscience; but he would be restless and irritable, and disposed to drive out of his way, in the most unceremonious manner, whoever or whatever should cross his path.

We now return with him to Jerusalem. He had added another to his long list of illustrious victories, and he had carried to the capital another vast store of spoil. The public attention would be thoroughly occupied with these brilliant events; and a king entering his capital at the head of his victorious troops, and followed by wagons laden with public treasure, need not fear a harsh construction on his private actions. The fate of Uriah might excite little notice; the affair of Bathsheba would soon blow over. The brilliant victory that had terminated the war seemed at the same time to have extricated the king from a personal scandal David might flatter himself that all would now be peace and quiet, and that the waters of oblivion would gather over that ugly business of Uriah.

"But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord."

"And the Lord sent Nathan unto David."

Slowly, sadly, silently the prophet bends his steps to the palace. Anxiously and painfully he prepares himself for the most distressing task a prophet of the Lord ever had to go through. He has to convey God’s reproof to the king; he has to reprove one from whom, doubtless, he has received many an impulse towards all that is high and holy. Very happily he clothes his message in the Eastern garb of parable. He puts his parable in such life-like form that the king has no suspicion of its real character. The rich robber that spared his own flocks and herds to feed the traveler, and stole the poor man’s ewe lamb, is a real flesh-and- blood criminal to him. And the deed is so dastardly, its heartlessness is so atrocious, that it is not enough to enforce against such a wretch the ordinary law of fourfold restitution; in the exercise of his high prerogative the king pronounces a sentence of death upon the ruffian, and confirms it with the solemnity of an oath - "The man that hath done this thing shall surely die." The flash of indignation is yet in his eye, the flush of resentment is still on his brow, when the prophet with calm voice and piercing eye utters the solemn words, "Thou art the man!" Thou, great king of Israel, art the robber, the ruffian, condemned by thine own voice to the death of the worst malefactor! "Thus saith the Lord God of Israel, I anointed thee king over Israel, and I delivered thee out of the hand of Saul; and I gave thee thy master’s house, and thy master’s wives into thy bosom, and gave thee the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little I would moreover have given thee such and such things. Wherefore hast thou despised the commandment of the Lord, to do evil in His sight? Thou hast killed Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and hast slain him with the sword of the children of Ammon."

It is not difficult to fancy the look of the king as the prophet delivered his message - how at first when he said, "Thou art the man," he would gaze at him eagerly and wistfully, like one at a loss to divine his meaning; and then, as the prophet proceeded to apply his parable, how, conscience-stricken, his expression would change to one of horror and agony; how the deeds of the last twelve months would glare in all their infamous baseness upon him, and outraged Justice, with a hundred glittering swords, would seem all impatient to devour him.

It is no mere imagination that, in a moment, the mind may be so quickened as to embrace the actions of a long period; and that with equal suddenness the moral aspect of them may be completely changed. There are moments when the powers of the mind as well as those of the body are so stimulated as to become capable of exertions undreamt of before. The dumb prince, in ancient history, who all his life had never spoken a word, but found the power of speech when he saw a sword raised to cut down his father, showed how danger could stimulate the organs of the body. The sudden change in David’s feeling now, like the sudden change in Saul’s on the way to Damascus, showed what electric rapidity may be communicated to the operations of the soul. It showed too what unseen and irresistible agencies of conviction and condemnation the great Judge can bring into play when it is His will to do so. As the steam hammer may be so adjusted as either to break a nutshell without injuring the kernel, or crush a block of quartz to powder, so the Spirit of God can range, in His effects on the conscience, between the mildest feeling of uneasiness and the bitterest agony of remorse. "When He is come," said our blessed Lord, ’’He shall reprove the world of sin." How helpless men are under His operation! How utterly was David prostrated! How were the multitudes brought down on the day of Pentecost! Is there any petition we more need to press than that the Spirit be poured out to convince of sin, whether as it regards ourselves or the world? Is it not true that the great want of the Church the want of is a sense of sin, so that confession and humiliation are become rare, and our very theology is emasculated, because, where there is little sense of sin, there can be little appreciation of redemption? And is not a sense of sin that which would bring a careless world to itself, and make it deal earnestly with God’s gracious offers? How striking is the effect ascribed by the prophet Zechariah to that pouring of the spirit of grace and supplication upon the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, when "they shall look on Him whom they have pierced, and shall mourn for Him as one mourneth for an only son, and shall be in bitterness for Him as one that is in bitterness for his firstborn." Would that our whole hearts went out in those invocations of the Spirit which we often sing, but alas! so very tamely -

"Come, Holy Spirit, come,

Let Thy bright beams arise;

Dispel the darkness from our minds.

And open all our eyes.

"Convince us of our sin,

Lead us to Jesus’ blood,

And kindle in our breast the flame

Of never-dying love."

We cannot pass from this aspect of David’s case without marking the terrible power of self-deception. Nothing blinds men so much to the real character of a sin as the fact that it is their own. Let it be presented to them in the light of another man’s sin, and they are shocked. It is easy for one’s self-love to weave a veil of fair embroidery, and cast it over those deeds about which one is somewhat uncomfortable. It is easy to devise for ourselves this excuse and that, and lay stress on one excuse and another that may lessen the appearance of criminality. But nothing is more to be deprecated, nothing more to be deplored, than success in that very process. Happy for you if a Nathan is sent to you in time to tear to rags your elaborate embroidery, and lay bare the essential vileness of your deed! Happy for you if your conscience is made to assert its authority, and cry to you, with its awful voice, "Thou art the man!" For if you live and die in your fool’s paradise, excusing every sin, and saying peace, peace, when there is no peace, there is nothing for you but the rude awakening of the day of judgment, when the hail shall sweep away the refuge of lies!

After Nathan had exposed the sin of David he proceeded to declare his sentence. It was not a sentence of death, in the ordinary sense of the term, but it was a sentence of death in a sense even more difficult to bear. It consisted of three things - first, the sword should never depart from his house; second, out of his own house evil should be raised against him, and a dishonoured harem should show the nature and extent of the humiliation that would come upon him; and thirdly, a public exposure should thus be made of his sin, so that he would stand in the pillory of Divine rebuke, and in the shame which it entailed, before all Israel, and before the sun. When David confessed his sin, Nathan told him that the Lord had graciously forgiven it, but at the same time a special chastisement was to mark how concerned God was for the fact that by his sin he had caused the enemy to blaspheme - the child born of Bathsheba was to die.

Reserving this last part of the sentence and David’s bearing in connection with it for future consideration, let us give attention to the first portion of his retribution. "The sword shall never depart from thy house." Here we find a great principle in the moral government of God, - correspondence between an offence and its retribution. Of this many instances occur in the Old Testament Jacob deceived his father; he was deceived by his own sons. Lot made a worldly choice; in the world’s ruin he was overwhelmed. So David having slain Uriah with the sword, the sword was never to depart from him. He had robbed Uriah of his wife; his neighbours would in like manner rob and dishonour him. He had disturbed the purity of the family relation; his own house was to become a den of pollution. He had mingled deceit and treachery with his actions; deceit and treachery would be practiced towards him. What a sad and ominous prospect! Men naturally look for peace in old age; the evening of life is expected to be calm. But for him there was to be no calm; and his trial was to fall on the tenderest part of his nature. He had a strong affection for his children; in that very feeling he was to be wounded, and that, too, all his life long. Oh let not any suppose that, because God’s children are saved by His mercy from eternal punishment, it is a light thing for them to despise the commandments of the Lord! "Thine own wickedness shall correct thee, and thy backslidings shall reprove thee; know therefore and see that it is an evil thing and bitter that thou hast forsaken the Lord thy God, and that thy fear is not in Me, saith the Lord of hosts."

Pre-eminent in its bitterness was that part of David’s retribution which made his own house the source from which his bitterest trials and humiliations should arise. For the most part, it is in extreme cases only that parents have to encounter this trial. It is only in the wickedest households, and in households for the most part where the passions are roused to madness by drink, that the hand of the child is raised against his father to wound and dishonour him. It was a terrible humiliation to the king of Israel to have to bear this doom, and especially to that king of Israel who in many ways bore so close a resemblance to the promised Seed, who was indeed to be the progenitor of that Seed, so that when Messiah came He should be called "the Son of David." Alas! the glory of this distinction was to be sadly tarnished. "Son of David" was to be a very equivocal title, according to the character of the individual who should bear it. In one case it would denote the very climax of honour; in another, the depth of humiliation. Yes, that household of David’s would reek with foul lusts and unnatural crimes. From the bosom of that home where, under other circumstances, it would have been so natural to look for model children, pure, affectionate, and dutiful, there would come forth monsters of lust and monsters of ambition, whose deeds of infamy would hardly find a parallel in the annals of the nation I In the breasts of some of these royal children the devil would find a seat where he might plan and execute the most unnatural crimes. And that city of Jerusalem, which he had rescued from the Jebusites, consecrated as God’s dwelling-place, and built and adorned with the spoils which the king had taken in many a well-fought field, would turn against him in his old age, and force him to fly wherever a refuge could be found as homeless, and nearly as destitute, as in the days of his youth when he fled from Saul!

And lastly, his retribution was to be public. He had done his part secretly, but God would do His part openly. There was not a man or woman in all Israel but would see these judgments coming on a king who had outraged his royal position and his royal prerogatives. How could he ever go in and out happily among them again? How could he be sure, when he met any of them, that they were not thinking of his crime, and condemning him in their hearts? How could he meet the hardly suppressed scowl of every Hittite, that would recall his treatment of their faithful kinsman? What a burden would he carry ever after, he that used to wear such a frank and honest and kindly look, that was so affable to all that sought his counsel, and so tenderhearted to all that were in trouble! And what outlet could he find out of all this misery? There was but one he could think of. If only God would forgive him; if He, whose mercy was in the heavens, would but receive him again of His infinite condescension into His fellowship, and vouchsafe to him that grace which was not the fruit of man’s deserving, but, as its very name implied, of God’s unbounded goodness, then might his soul return again to its quiet rest, though life could never be to him what it was before. And this, as we shall presently see, is what he set himself very earnestly to seek, and what of God’s mercy he was permitted to find. O sinner, if thou hast strayed like a lost sheep, and plunged into the very depths of sin, know that all is not lost with thee! There is one way yet open to peace, if not to joy. Amid the ten thousand times ten thousand voices that condemn thee, there is one voice of love that comes from heaven and says, "Return unto Me, and I will return unto you, saith the Lord."

Verses 13-25

CHAPTER XVI.

PENITENCE AND CHASTISEMENT.

2 Samuel 12:13-25.

WHEN Nathan ended his message, plainly and strongly though he had spoken, David indicated no irritation, made no complaint against the prophet, but simply and humbly confessed - "I have sinned." It is so common for men to be offended when a servant of God remonstrates with them, and to impute their interference to an unworthy motive, and to the desire of someone to hurt and humiliate them, that it is refreshing to find a great king receiving the rebuke of the Lord’s servant in a spirit of profound humility and frank confession. Very different was the experience of John the Baptist when he remonstrated with Herod. Very different was the experience of the famous Chrysostom when he rebuked the emperor and empress for conduct unworthy of Christians. Very different has been the experience of many a faithful minister in a humbler sphere, when, constrained by a sense of duty, he has gone to some man of influence in his flock’ and spoken seriously to him of sins which bring a reproach on the name of Christ. Often it has cost the faithful man days and nights of pain; girding himself for the duty has been like preparing for martyrdom; and it has been really martyrdom when he has had to bear the long malignant enmity of the man whom he rebuked. However vile the conduct of David may have been, it is one thing in his favour that he receives his rebuke with perfect humility and submission; he makes no attempt to palliate his conduct either before God or man; but sums up his whole feeling in these expressive words, "I have sinned against the Lord."

To this frank acknowledgment Nathan replied that the Lord had put away his sin, so that he would not undergo the punishment of death. It was his own judgment that the miscreant who had stolen the ewe lamb should die, and as that proved to be himself, it indicated the punishment that was due to him. That punishment, however, the Lord, in the exercise of His clemency, had been pleased to remit. But a palpable proof of His displeasure was to be given in another way - the child of Bathsheba was to die. It was to become, as it were, the scapegoat for its father. In those times father and child were counted so much one that the offence of the one was often visited on both. When Achan stole the spoil at Jericho, not only he himself, but his whole family, shared his sentence of death. In this case of David the father was to escape, but the child was to die. It may seem hard, and barely just. But death to the child, though in form a punishment, might prove to be great gain. It might mean transference to a higher and brighter state of existence. It might mean escape from a life full of sorrows and perils to the world where there is no more pain, nor sorrow, nor death, because the former things are passed away.

We cannot pass from the consideration of David’s great penitence for his sin without dwelling a little more on some of its features. It is in the fifty-first Psalm that the working of his soul is best unfolded to us. No doubt it has been strongly urged by certain modern critics that that psalm is not David’s at all; that it belongs to some other period, as the last verse but one indicates, when the walls of Jerusalem were in ruins;- most likely the period of the Captivity. But even if we should have to say of the last two verses that they must have been added at another time, we cannot but hold the psalm to be the outpouring of David’s soul, and not the expression of the penitence of the nation at large. If ever psalm was the expression of the feelings of an individual it is this one. And if ever psalm was appropriate to King David it is this one. For the one thing which is uppermost in the soul of the writer is his personal relation to God. The one thing that he values, and for which all other things are counted but dung, is friendly intercourse with God. This sin no doubt has had many other atrocious effects, but the terrible thing is that it has broken the link that bound him to God, it has cut off all the blessed things that come by that channel, it has made him an outcast from Him whose loving-kindness is better than life. Without God’s favour life is but misery. He can do no good to man; he can do no service to God. It is a rare thing even for good men to have such a profound sense of the blessedness of God’s favour. David was one of those who had it in the profoundest degree; and as the fifty-first Psalm is full of it, as it forms the very soul of its pleadings, we cannot doubt that it was a psalm of David.

The humiliation of the Psalmist before God is very profound, very thorough. His case is one for simple mercy; he has not the shadow of a plea in self-defense. His sin is in every aspect atrocious. It is the product of one so vile that he may be said to have been shapen in iniquity and conceived in sin. The aspect of it as sin against God is so overwhelming that it absorbs the other aspect - the sin against man. Not but that he has sinned against man too, but it is the sin against God that is so awful, so overwhelming.

Yet, if his sin abounds, the Psalmist feels that God’s grace abounds much more. He has the highest sense of the excellence and the multitude of God’s loving- kindnesses. Man can never make himself so odious as to be beyond the Divine compassion. He can never become so guilty as to be beyond the Divine forgiveness. "Blot out my transgressions," sobs David, knowing that it can be done. "Purge me with hyssop," he cries, "and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than the snow. Create in me a clean heart, and renew a right spirit within me."

But this is not all; it is far from all. He pleads most plaintively for the restoration of God’s friendship. "Cast me not away from Thy presence, and take not Thy Holy Spirit from me," - for that would be hell; "Restore unto me the joy of Thy salvation, and uphold me with Thy free Spirit," - for that is heaven. And, with the renewed sense of God’s love and grace, there would come a renewed power to serve God and be useful to men. "Then will I teach transgressors Thy ways; and sinners shall be converted unto Thee. O Lord, open Thou my lips; and my mouth shall show forth Thy praise." Deprive me not forever of Thy friendship, for then life would be but darkness and anguish; depose me not for ever from Thy ministry, continue to me yet the honour and the privilege of converting sinners unto Thee. Of the sacrifices of the law it was needless to think, as if they were adequate to purge away so overwhelming a sin. "Thou desirest not sacrifice, else I would give it: Thou delightest not in burnt-offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise."

With all his consciousness of sin, David has yet a profound faith in God’s mercy, and he is forgiven. But as we have seen, the Divine displeasure against him is to be openly manifested in another form, because, in addition to his personal sin, he has given occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme.

This is an aggravation of guilt which only God’s children can commit. And it is an aggravation of a most distressing kind, enough surely to warn off every Christian from vile self-indulgence. The blasphemy to which David had given occasion was that which denies the reality of God’s work in the souls of His people. It denies that they are better than others. They only make more pretence, but that pretence is hollow, if not hypocritical. There is no such thing as a special work of the Holy Ghost in them, and therefore there is no reason why anyone should seek to be converted, or why he should implore the special grace of the Spirit of God. Alas! how true it is that when anyone who occupies a conspicuous place in the Church of God breaks down, such sneers are sure to be discharged on every side! What a keen eye the world has for the inconsistencies of Christians! With what remorseless severity does it come down on them when they fall into these inconsistencies! Sins that would hardly be thought of if committed by others, - what a serious aspect they assume when committed by them! Had it been Nebuchadnezzar, for example, that treated Uriah as David did, who would have thought of it a second time? What else could you expect of Nebuchadnezzar? Let a Christian society or any other Christian body be guilty of a scandal, how do the worldly newspapers fasten on it like treasure-trove, and exult over their humbled victim, like Red Indians dancing their war dances and flourishing their tomahawks over some miserable prisoner. The scorn is very bitter, and sometimes it is very unjust; yet perhaps it has on the whole a wholesome effect, just because it stimulates vigilance and carefulness on the part of the Church. But the worst of the case is, that on the part of unbelievers it stimulates that blasphemy which is alike dishonouring to God and pernicious to man. Virtually this blasphemy denies the whole work of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of men. It denies the reality of any supernatural agency of the Spirit in one more than in all. And denying the work of the Spirit, it makes men careless about the Spirit; it neutralizes the solemn words of Christ, "Ye must be born again." It throws back the kingdom of God, and it turns back many a pilgrim who had been thinking seriously of beginning the journey to the heavenly city, because he is now uncertain whether such a city exists at all.

Hardly has Nathan left the king’s house when the child begins to sicken, and the sickness becomes very great. We should have expected that David would be concerned and distressed, but hardly to the degree which his distress attained. In the intensity of his anxiety and grief there is something remarkable. A new-born infant could scarcely have taken that mysterious hold on a father’s heart which a little time is commonly required to develop, but which, once it is there, makes the loss even of a little child a grievous blow, and leaves the heart sick and sore for many a day. But there is something in an infant’s agony which unmans the strongest heart, especially when it comes in convulsive fits that no skill can allay. And should one, in addition, be tortured with the conviction that the child was suffering on one’s own account, one’s distress might well be overpowering. And this was David’s feeling. His sin was ever before him. As he saw that suffering infant he must have felt as if the stripes that should have fallen on him were tearing the poor babe’s tender frame, and crushing him with undeserved suffering. Even in ordinary cases, it is a mysterious thing to see an infant in mortal agony. It is solemnizing to think that the one member of the family who has committed no actual sin should be the first to reap the deadly wages of sin. It leads us to think of mankind as one tree of many branches; and when the wintry frost begins to prevail it is the youngest and tenderest branchlets that first droop and die. Oh! how careful should those in mature years be, and especially parents, lest by their sins they bring down a retribution which shall fall first on their children, and perhaps the youngest and m.ost innocent of all! Yet how often do we see the children suffering for the sins of their parents, and suffering in a way which, in this life at least, admits of no right remedy! In that "bitter cry of outcast London," which fell some years ago on the ears of the country, by far the most distressing note was the cry of infants abandoned by drunken parents before they could well walk, or living with them in hovels where blows and curses came in place of food and clothing and kindness - children brought up without aught of the sunshine of love, every tender feeling nipped and shriveled in the very bud by the frost of bitter, brutal cruelty. And if in ordinary families children are not made to suffer so palpably for their parents’ sins, yet suffer they do in many ways sufficiently serious. Wherever there is a bad example, wherever there is a laxity of principle, wherever God is dishonoured, the sin reacts upon the children. Their moral texture is relaxed; they learn to trifle with sin, and, trifling with sin, to disbelieve in the retribution for sin. And where conscience has not been altogether destroyed in the parent, and remorse for sin begins to prevail, and retribution to come, it is not what he has to suffer in his own person that he feels most deeply, but what has to be borne and suffered by his children. Does anyone ask why God has constituted society so that the innocent are thus implicated in the sin of the guilty? The answer is, that this arises not from God’s constitution, but from man’s perversion of it. Why, we may ask, do men subvert God’s moral order? Why do they break down His fences and embankments, and, contrary to the Divine plan, let ruinous streams pour their destructive waters into their homes and enclosures? If the human race had preserved from the beginning the constitution which God gave them, obeyed His law both individually and as a social body, such things would not have been. But reckless man, in his eagerness to have his own way, disregards the Divine arrangement, and plunges himself and his family into the depths of woe.

There is something even beyond this, however, that arrests our notice in the behaviour of David. Though Nathan had said that the child would die, he set himself most earnestly, by prayer and fasting, to get God to spare him. Was this not a strange proceeding? It could be justified only on the supposition that the Divine judgment was modified by an unexpressed condition that, if David should humble himself in true repentance, it would not have to be inflicted. Anyhow, we see him throwing his whole soul into these exercises: engaging in them so earnestly that he took no regular food, and in place of the royal bed he was content to lie upon the earth. His earnestness in this was well fitted to show the difference between a religious service gone through with becoming reverence, because it is the proper thing to do, and the service of one who has a definite end in view, who seeks a definite blessing, and who wrestles with God to obtain it. But David had no valid ground for expecting that, even if he should repent, God would avert the judgment from the child; indeed, the reason assigned for it showed the contrary - because he had given occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme.

And so, after a very weary and dismal week, the child died. But instead of abandoning himself to a tumult of distress when this event took place, he altogether changed his demeanor. His spirit became calm, "he arose from the earth, and washed, and anointed himself, and changed his apparel, and he came into the house of the Lord and worshipped; then he came to his own house, and when he required, they set bread before him, and he did eat." It seemed to his servants a strange proceeding. The answer of David showed that there was a rational purpose in it. So long as he thought it possible that the child’s life might be spared, he not only continued to pray to that effect, but he did everything to prevent his attention from being turned to anything else, he did everything to concentrate his soul on that one object, and to let it appear to God how thoroughly it occupied his mind. The death of the child showed that it was not God’s will to grant his petition, notwithstanding his deep repentance and earnest prayer and fasting. All suspense was now at an end, and, therefore, all reason for continuing to fast and pray. For David to abandon himself to the wailings of aggravated grief at this moment would have been highly wrong. It would have been to quarrel with the will of God. It would have been to challenge God’s right to view the child as one with its father, and treat it accordingly.

And there was yet another reason. If his heart still yearned on the child, the re-union was not impossible, though it could not take place in this life. "I shall go to him, but he shall not return unto me." The glimpse of the future expressed in these words is touching and beautiful. The relation between David and that little child is not ended. Though the mortal remains shall soon crumble, father and child are not yet done with one another. But their meeting is not to be in this world. Meet again they certainly shall, but "I shall go to him, and he shall not return to me."

And this glimpse of the future relation of parent and child, separated here by the hand of death, has ever proved most comforting to bereaved Christian hearts. Very touching and very comforting it is to light on this bright view of the future at so early a period of Old Testament history. Words cannot express the desolation of heart which such bereavements cause. When Rachel is weeping for her children she cannot be comforted if she thinks they are not. But a new light breaks on her desolate heart when she is assured that she may go to them, though they shall not return to her. Blessed, truly, are the dead who die in the Lord, and, however painful the stroke that removed them, blessed are their surviving friends. Ye shall go to them, though they shall not return to you. How you are to recognize them, how you are to commune with them, in what place they shall be, in what condition of consciousness, you cannot tell; but "you shall go to them;" the separation shall be but temporary, and who can conceive the joy of re-union, re-union never to be broken by separation for evermore?

One other fact we must notice ere passing from the record of David’s confession and chastisement, - the moral courage which he showed in delivering the fifty-first Psalm to the chief musician, and thus helping to keep alive in his own generation and for all time coming the memory of his trespass. Most men would have thought how the ugly transaction might most effectually be buried, and would have tried to put their best face on it before their people. Not so David. He was willing that his people and all posterity should see him the atrocious transgressor he was - let them think of him as they pleased. He saw that this everlasting exposure of his vileness was essential towards extracting from the miserable transaction such salutary lessons as it might be capable of yielding. With a wonderful effort of magnanimity, he resolved to place himself in the pillory of public shame, to expose his memory to all the foul treatment which the scoffers and libertines of every after-age might think fit to heap on it. It is unjust to David, when unbelievers rail against him for his sin in the matter of Uriah, to overlook the fact that the first public record of the transaction came from his own pen, and was delivered to the chief musician, for public use. Infidels may scoff, but this narrative will be a standing proof that the foolishness of God is wiser than men. The view given to God’s servants of the weakness and deceitfulness of their hearts; the warning against dallying with the first movements of sin; the sight of the misery which follows in its wake; the encouragement which the convicted sinner has to humble himself before God; the impulse given to penitential feeling; the hope of mercy awakened in the breasts of the despairing; the softer, humbler, holier walk when pardon has been got and peace restored, - such lessons as these, afforded in every age by this narrative, will render it to thoughtful hearts a constant ground for magnifying God. "O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are His judgments, and His ways past finding out!"

Verses 26-31

CHAPTER XV.

DAVID AND NATHAN.

2 Samuel 12:1-12; 2 Samuel 12:26-31.

IT is often the method of the writers of Scripture, when the stream of public history has been broken by a private or personal incident, to complete at once the incident, and then go back to the principal history, resuming it at the point at which it was interrupted. In this way it sometimes happens (as we have already seen) that earlier events are recorded at a later part of the narrative than the natural order would imply. In the course of the narrative of David’s war with Ammon, the incident of his sin with Bathsheba presents itself. In accordance with the method referred to, that incident is recorded straight on to its very close, including the birth of Bathsheba’s second son, which must have occurred at least two years later. That being concluded, the history of the war with Ammon is resumed at the point at which it was broken off. We are not to suppose, as many have done, that the events recorded in the concluding verses of this chapter (2 Samuel 12:26-31) happened later than those recorded immediately before. This would imply that the siege of Rabbah lasted for two or three years - a supposition hardly to be entertained; for Joab was besieging it when David first saw Bathsheba, and there is no reason to suppose that a people like the Ammonites would be able to hold the mere outworks of the city for two or three whole years against such an army as David’s and such a commander as Joab. It seems far more likely that Joab’s first success against Rabbah was gained soon after the death of Uriah, and that his message to David to come and take the citadel in person was sent not long after the message that announced Uriah’s death.

In that case the order of events would be as follows: After the death of Uriah, Joab prepares for an assault on Rabbah. Meanwhile, at Jerusalem, Bathsheba goes through the form of mourning for her husband, and when the usual days of mourning are over David hastily sends for her and makes her his wife. Next comes a message from Joab that he has succeeded in taking the city of waters, and that only the citadel remains to be taken, for which purpose he urges David to come himself with additional forces, and thereby gain the honour of conquering the place. It rather surprises one to find Joab declining an honour for himself, as it also surprises us to find David going to reap what: another had sowed. David, however, goes with "all the people," and is successful, and after disposing of the Ammonites he returns to Jerusalem. Soon after Bathsheba’s child is born; then Nathan goes to David and gives him the message that lays him in the dust. This is not only the most natural order for the events, but it agrees best with the spirit of the narrative. The cruelties practiced by David on the Ammonites send a thrill of horror through us as we read them. No doubt they deserved a severe chastisement; the original offence was an outrage on every right feeling, an outrage on the law of nations, a gratuitous and contemptuous insult; and in bringing these vast Syrian armies into the field they had subjected even the victorious Israelites to grievous suffering and loss, in toil, in money, and in lives.

Attempts have been made to explain away the severities inflicted on the Ammonites, but it is impossible to explain away a plain historical narrative. It was the manner of victorious warriors in those countries to steel their hearts against all compassion toward captive foes, and David, kind-hearted though he was, did the same. And if it be said that surely his religion, if it were religion of the right kind, ought to have made him more compassionate, we reply that at this period his religion was in a state of collapse. When his religion was in a healthy and active state, it showed itself in the first place by his regard for the honour of God, for whose ark he provided a resting-place, and in whose honour he proposed to build a temple. Love to God was accompanied by love to man, exhibited in his efforts to show kindness to the house of Saul for the sake of Jonathan, and to Hanun for the sake of Nahash. But now the picture is reversed; he falls into a cold state of heart toward God, and in connection with that declension we mark a more than usually severe punishment inflicted on his enemies. Just as the leaves first become yellow and finally drop from the tree in autumn, when the juices that fed them begin to fail, so the kindly actions that had marked the better periods of his life first fail, then turn to deeds of cruelty when that Holy Spirit, who is the fountain of all goodness, being resisted and grieved by him, withholds His living power.

In the whole transaction at Rabbah David shows poorly. It is not like him to be roused to an enterprise by an appeal to his love of fame; he might have left Joab to complete the conquest and enjoy the honour which his sword had substantially won. It is not like him to go through the ceremony of being crowned with the crown of the king of Ammon, as if it were a great thing to have so precious a diadem on his head. Above all, it is not like him to show so terrible a spirit in disposing of his prisoners of war. But all this is quite likely to have happened if he had not yet come to repentance for his sin. When a man’s conscience is ill at ease, his temper is commonly irritable. Unhappy in his inmost soul, he is in the temper that most easily becomes savage when provoked. No one can imagine that David’s conscience was at rest. He must have had that restless feeling which every good man experiences after doing a wrong act, before coming to a clear apprehension of it; he must have been eager to escape from himself, and Joab’s request to him to come to Rabbah and end the war must have been very opportune. In the excitement of war he would escape for a time the pursuit of his conscience; but he would be restless and irritable, and disposed to drive out of his way, in the most unceremonious manner, whoever or whatever should cross his path.

We now return with him to Jerusalem. He had added another to his long list of illustrious victories, and he had carried to the capital another vast store of spoil. The public attention would be thoroughly occupied with these brilliant events; and a king entering his capital at the head of his victorious troops, and followed by wagons laden with public treasure, need not fear a harsh construction on his private actions. The fate of Uriah might excite little notice; the affair of Bathsheba would soon blow over. The brilliant victory that had terminated the war seemed at the same time to have extricated the king from a personal scandal David might flatter himself that all would now be peace and quiet, and that the waters of oblivion would gather over that ugly business of Uriah.

"But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord."

"And the Lord sent Nathan unto David."

Slowly, sadly, silently the prophet bends his steps to the palace. Anxiously and painfully he prepares himself for the most distressing task a prophet of the Lord ever had to go through. He has to convey God’s reproof to the king; he has to reprove one from whom, doubtless, he has received many an impulse towards all that is high and holy. Very happily he clothes his message in the Eastern garb of parable. He puts his parable in such life-like form that the king has no suspicion of its real character. The rich robber that spared his own flocks and herds to feed the traveler, and stole the poor man’s ewe lamb, is a real flesh-and- blood criminal to him. And the deed is so dastardly, its heartlessness is so atrocious, that it is not enough to enforce against such a wretch the ordinary law of fourfold restitution; in the exercise of his high prerogative the king pronounces a sentence of death upon the ruffian, and confirms it with the solemnity of an oath - "The man that hath done this thing shall surely die." The flash of indignation is yet in his eye, the flush of resentment is still on his brow, when the prophet with calm voice and piercing eye utters the solemn words, "Thou art the man!" Thou, great king of Israel, art the robber, the ruffian, condemned by thine own voice to the death of the worst malefactor! "Thus saith the Lord God of Israel, I anointed thee king over Israel, and I delivered thee out of the hand of Saul; and I gave thee thy master’s house, and thy master’s wives into thy bosom, and gave thee the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little I would moreover have given thee such and such things. Wherefore hast thou despised the commandment of the Lord, to do evil in His sight? Thou hast killed Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and hast slain him with the sword of the children of Ammon."

It is not difficult to fancy the look of the king as the prophet delivered his message - how at first when he said, "Thou art the man," he would gaze at him eagerly and wistfully, like one at a loss to divine his meaning; and then, as the prophet proceeded to apply his parable, how, conscience-stricken, his expression would change to one of horror and agony; how the deeds of the last twelve months would glare in all their infamous baseness upon him, and outraged Justice, with a hundred glittering swords, would seem all impatient to devour him.

It is no mere imagination that, in a moment, the mind may be so quickened as to embrace the actions of a long period; and that with equal suddenness the moral aspect of them may be completely changed. There are moments when the powers of the mind as well as those of the body are so stimulated as to become capable of exertions undreamt of before. The dumb prince, in ancient history, who all his life had never spoken a word, but found the power of speech when he saw a sword raised to cut down his father, showed how danger could stimulate the organs of the body. The sudden change in David’s feeling now, like the sudden change in Saul’s on the way to Damascus, showed what electric rapidity may be communicated to the operations of the soul. It showed too what unseen and irresistible agencies of conviction and condemnation the great Judge can bring into play when it is His will to do so. As the steam hammer may be so adjusted as either to break a nutshell without injuring the kernel, or crush a block of quartz to powder, so the Spirit of God can range, in His effects on the conscience, between the mildest feeling of uneasiness and the bitterest agony of remorse. "When He is come," said our blessed Lord, ’’He shall reprove the world of sin." How helpless men are under His operation! How utterly was David prostrated! How were the multitudes brought down on the day of Pentecost! Is there any petition we more need to press than that the Spirit be poured out to convince of sin, whether as it regards ourselves or the world? Is it not true that the great want of the Church the want of is a sense of sin, so that confession and humiliation are become rare, and our very theology is emasculated, because, where there is little sense of sin, there can be little appreciation of redemption? And is not a sense of sin that which would bring a careless world to itself, and make it deal earnestly with God’s gracious offers? How striking is the effect ascribed by the prophet Zechariah to that pouring of the spirit of grace and supplication upon the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, when "they shall look on Him whom they have pierced, and shall mourn for Him as one mourneth for an only son, and shall be in bitterness for Him as one that is in bitterness for his firstborn." Would that our whole hearts went out in those invocations of the Spirit which we often sing, but alas! so very tamely -

"Come, Holy Spirit, come,

Let Thy bright beams arise;

Dispel the darkness from our minds.

And open all our eyes.

"Convince us of our sin,

Lead us to Jesus’ blood,

And kindle in our breast the flame

Of never-dying love."

We cannot pass from this aspect of David’s case without marking the terrible power of self-deception. Nothing blinds men so much to the real character of a sin as the fact that it is their own. Let it be presented to them in the light of another man’s sin, and they are shocked. It is easy for one’s self-love to weave a veil of fair embroidery, and cast it over those deeds about which one is somewhat uncomfortable. It is easy to devise for ourselves this excuse and that, and lay stress on one excuse and another that may lessen the appearance of criminality. But nothing is more to be deprecated, nothing more to be deplored, than success in that very process. Happy for you if a Nathan is sent to you in time to tear to rags your elaborate embroidery, and lay bare the essential vileness of your deed! Happy for you if your conscience is made to assert its authority, and cry to you, with its awful voice, "Thou art the man!" For if you live and die in your fool’s paradise, excusing every sin, and saying peace, peace, when there is no peace, there is nothing for you but the rude awakening of the day of judgment, when the hail shall sweep away the refuge of lies!

After Nathan had exposed the sin of David he proceeded to declare his sentence. It was not a sentence of death, in the ordinary sense of the term, but it was a sentence of death in a sense even more difficult to bear. It consisted of three things - first, the sword should never depart from his house; second, out of his own house evil should be raised against him, and a dishonoured harem should show the nature and extent of the humiliation that would come upon him; and thirdly, a public exposure should thus be made of his sin, so that he would stand in the pillory of Divine rebuke, and in the shame which it entailed, before all Israel, and before the sun. When David confessed his sin, Nathan told him that the Lord had graciously forgiven it, but at the same time a special chastisement was to mark how concerned God was for the fact that by his sin he had caused the enemy to blaspheme - the child born of Bathsheba was to die.

Reserving this last part of the sentence and David’s bearing in connection with it for future consideration, let us give attention to the first portion of his retribution. "The sword shall never depart from thy house." Here we find a great principle in the moral government of God, - correspondence between an offence and its retribution. Of this many instances occur in the Old Testament Jacob deceived his father; he was deceived by his own sons. Lot made a worldly choice; in the world’s ruin he was overwhelmed. So David having slain Uriah with the sword, the sword was never to depart from him. He had robbed Uriah of his wife; his neighbours would in like manner rob and dishonour him. He had disturbed the purity of the family relation; his own house was to become a den of pollution. He had mingled deceit and treachery with his actions; deceit and treachery would be practiced towards him. What a sad and ominous prospect! Men naturally look for peace in old age; the evening of life is expected to be calm. But for him there was to be no calm; and his trial was to fall on the tenderest part of his nature. He had a strong affection for his children; in that very feeling he was to be wounded, and that, too, all his life long. Oh let not any suppose that, because God’s children are saved by His mercy from eternal punishment, it is a light thing for them to despise the commandments of the Lord! "Thine own wickedness shall correct thee, and thy backslidings shall reprove thee; know therefore and see that it is an evil thing and bitter that thou hast forsaken the Lord thy God, and that thy fear is not in Me, saith the Lord of hosts."

Pre-eminent in its bitterness was that part of David’s retribution which made his own house the source from which his bitterest trials and humiliations should arise. For the most part, it is in extreme cases only that parents have to encounter this trial. It is only in the wickedest households, and in households for the most part where the passions are roused to madness by drink, that the hand of the child is raised against his father to wound and dishonour him. It was a terrible humiliation to the king of Israel to have to bear this doom, and especially to that king of Israel who in many ways bore so close a resemblance to the promised Seed, who was indeed to be the progenitor of that Seed, so that when Messiah came He should be called "the Son of David." Alas! the glory of this distinction was to be sadly tarnished. "Son of David" was to be a very equivocal title, according to the character of the individual who should bear it. In one case it would denote the very climax of honour; in another, the depth of humiliation. Yes, that household of David’s would reek with foul lusts and unnatural crimes. From the bosom of that home where, under other circumstances, it would have been so natural to look for model children, pure, affectionate, and dutiful, there would come forth monsters of lust and monsters of ambition, whose deeds of infamy would hardly find a parallel in the annals of the nation I In the breasts of some of these royal children the devil would find a seat where he might plan and execute the most unnatural crimes. And that city of Jerusalem, which he had rescued from the Jebusites, consecrated as God’s dwelling-place, and built and adorned with the spoils which the king had taken in many a well-fought field, would turn against him in his old age, and force him to fly wherever a refuge could be found as homeless, and nearly as destitute, as in the days of his youth when he fled from Saul!

And lastly, his retribution was to be public. He had done his part secretly, but God would do His part openly. There was not a man or woman in all Israel but would see these judgments coming on a king who had outraged his royal position and his royal prerogatives. How could he ever go in and out happily among them again? How could he be sure, when he met any of them, that they were not thinking of his crime, and condemning him in their hearts? How could he meet the hardly suppressed scowl of every Hittite, that would recall his treatment of their faithful kinsman? What a burden would he carry ever after, he that used to wear such a frank and honest and kindly look, that was so affable to all that sought his counsel, and so tenderhearted to all that were in trouble! And what outlet could he find out of all this misery? There was but one he could think of. If only God would forgive him; if He, whose mercy was in the heavens, would but receive him again of His infinite condescension into His fellowship, and vouchsafe to him that grace which was not the fruit of man’s deserving, but, as its very name implied, of God’s unbounded goodness, then might his soul return again to its quiet rest, though life could never be to him what it was before. And this, as we shall presently see, is what he set himself very earnestly to seek, and what of God’s mercy he was permitted to find. O sinner, if thou hast strayed like a lost sheep, and plunged into the very depths of sin, know that all is not lost with thee! There is one way yet open to peace, if not to joy. Amid the ten thousand times ten thousand voices that condemn thee, there is one voice of love that comes from heaven and says, "Return unto Me, and I will return unto you, saith the Lord."

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Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on 2 Samuel 12". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/2-samuel-12.html.