King David, the great king of Israel who slays Goliath with a sling-shot, the great leader of the Jewish people, did a really, really wretched thing. We read about it with vivid clarity in second Samuel in the Bible. The story sounds like it could have been written yesterday about one of our corrupt politicians here in Albany. Let me read the text (2 Samuel 11) for you now:
In the spring, at the time when kings go off to war, David sent Joab out with the king’s men and the whole Israelite army. They destroyed the Ammonites and besieged Rabbah. But David remained in Jerusalem. One evening David got up from his bed and walked around on the roof of the palace. From the roof he saw a woman bathing. The woman was very beautiful, and David sent someone to find out about her. The man said, “She is Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam and the wife of Uriah the Hittite.” Then David sent messengers to get her. She came to him, and he slept with her. … [Later] the woman conceived and sent word to David, saying, “I am pregnant.”
So David sent this word to Joab: “Send me Uriah the Hittite.” And Joab sent him to David. When Uriah came to him, David asked him how Joab was, how the soldiers were and how the war was going. Then David said to Uriah, “Go down to your house and wash your feet.” So Uriah left the palace, and a gift [of delicious food] from the king was sent after him. But Uriah slept at the entrance to the palace with all his master’s servants and did not go down to his house. David was told, “Uriah did not go home.” So he asked Uriah, “Haven’t you just come from a military campaign? Why didn’t you go home?” Uriah said to David, “The ark and Israel and Judah are staying in tents, and my commander Joab and my king’s men are camped in the open country. How could I go to my house to eat and drink and make love to my wife? As surely as you live, I will not do such a thing!” Then David said to him, “Stay here one more day, and tomorrow I will send you back.” So Uriah remained in Jerusalem that day and the next. At David’s invitation, he ate and drank with him, and David made him drunk. But in the evening Uriah went out to sleep on his mat among his master’s servants; he did not go home. In the morning David wrote a letter to Joab and sent it with Uriah. In it he wrote, “Put Uriah out in front where the fighting is fiercest. Then withdraw from him so he will be struck down and die.” So while Joab had the city under siege, he put Uriah at a place where he knew the strongest defenders were. When the men of the city came out and fought against Joab, some of the men in David’s army fell; moreover, Uriah the Hittite died.
(Remember, this is from the Bible … it reads like a romance novel!)
Now does that story warm your heart to King David? I hope not! He sleeps with the wife of one of his loyal soldiers, tries to trick him into sleeping with his wife to cover David’s adultery, and finally has the Ammonites kill him in battle by exposing Uriah. I get furious just reading the story. If I were the Lord, I’d want to smite him for sure!
This is where I appreciate the role of Biblical Prophets. They speak the people’s demand for justice to the 1%. Nathan speaks for the people of Israel when he tells that evocative story of the rich man taking the poor man’s lamb and corners David into confessing his sin. (text at end for reference)
Yes, David repents but there will still be consequences. The son he has with Bathsheba gets sick. Nathan predicts his death as God’s vengeance. So David prays, fasts, lowers himself into the dust and will not rise up. He must have been a distressing sight as those around him who try to get him to rise and eat but he refuses. David shows by his actions the depth of his suffering and his love of his son, hoping through his display to inspire God’s mercy.
But once the child is dead, he gets up, changes his clothes, offers his prayers, returns home and eats.
David is pragmatic. God has passed judgment … and he has lived. He cannot bring the dead child back to life. Time to move on! David has atoned for his past transgressions and is ready to make a fresh start.
This was remarkable enough behavior, even for those times, that those around David question his behavior. Bathsheba continues to grieve her son’s death and they expect David to do the same.
That David is able to move on this way after the death of his child intrigues me. I wonder if his fasting and lowering himself into the dust and pleading with God eases his suffering after his son’s death. The process of externalizing his grief might have helped him come to terms with his loss. Not that he didn’t love his son – he would not have forgone food for seven days had he not wanted his son to live. But he recognized that the loss was part of the demands of justice that the Lord required.
I’ve been reading a fascinating book I found called, How Repentance Became Biblical by David Lambert. He argues that the way the ancient Hebrew peoples approached repentance was quite different from the way we think about it today. The story of David vividly illustrates a different attitude toward repentance than we might experience. David has an external experience of repentance rather than an internal one. He accepts God’s judgment and moves on rather than brooding about what he should or should not have done. David sins greatly, atones greatly and then is finished and moves on. That is very different from the experience we might have today.
Samuel Johnson in his famous dictionary defines repentance this way:
“To have such sorrow for sin, as produces amendment of life.”
Lambert highlights ways this more modern view of repentance differs from the way David experienced it. In this definition, repentance is something that happens in the mind as a discrete event. David’s “cessation of sin” has no specific moment when it happens because of some internal process. David doesn’t reflect on his past until Nathan confronts him. Then his response is not a reflection on his past bad behavior but remorse for the results of his actions.
We today would expect that someone who repents will have some degree of emotional sorrow. We are struck by David’s lack of sorrow for his actions after his child dies. He regrets the consequences and has sorrow for them – but moves on, conceiving another son, Solomon, who inherits his throne.
David’s “cessation of sin” doesn’t happen because of an inner change. It happens because he is caught and changes his ways. Without Nathan waking him up by operating as his external conscience, David would have ignored the situation. David is changed by external events not internal ones. David’s atonement is immediate and limited.
We are not at all confident that David has been changed as a human being by his sin. There isn’t evidence that he would avoid such bad behavior in the future. And if he does, it may not be because his character has been changed, but because of his restored obedience to God. Behavioral control is external and imposed by God rather than internally generated. Conforming to God’s law makes one good rather than an internalized view of the self as a person of character. This is evident in Psalm 51 (reference text found at bottom). God is in charge of David’s inner character development. What David can do is pray for God to form him into a better person.
We see the difference in the sense of character and development of self-identity in Jesus. I use him as a familiar example of a trend that is much larger than him happening in the encounter of Palestinians with Greek culture. The creative interchange of these two cultures supports what we see manifested in the stories we receive about Jesus.
Jesus was a follower of John the Baptist. What was John’s message? We read in the first chapter of Mark, John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. A few lines later, after Jesus gets baptized, hangs out in the desert for a while and gets tempted, he begins his ministry with a very clear commission: “The Realm of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”
Repent and believe would have been very unfamiliar to David. David’s choice was to confess his sin and restore his covenantal relationship with God. Believing was not necessary. No thoughts were needed to be placed in his brain – he just needed to be obedient to God’s law.
That isn’t the case with Jesus. Jesus wants his followers to have the right ideas in their heads about how to believe as well as the right way to behave. The root word for repent used in this verse is metanoia, a Greek word that has parallels with the Hebrew word teshuvah used in reference to Yom Kippur. The meaning of metanoia is more like the contemporary use of repentance, a change of mind. Notice metanoia isn’t a new behavior, it is a new way of thinking. David’s change is one of behavior. Jesus wants a change of mind.
Jesus is very focused on how people think. A great example is the parable he tells when the Pharisees criticize him for not washing his hands before he eats. Jesus offers this teaching:
“Hear and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.” … But Peter said to him, “Explain the parable to us.” And he said, “Are you also still without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.”
King David wouldn’t have gotten this distinction. The law says you wash your hands before you eat so you do it – this is what the theologians call orthopraxy, or correct conduct. Jesus wants people to choose the right intention for their action. That requires orthodoxy or correct thinking. David would understand orthopraxy but wouldn’t appreciate orthodoxy. Jesus and the Pharisees were at different points on the continuum of orthopraxy and orthodoxy.
We modern thinking people, especially in the western, Christianized world, are heavily influenced by the right thinking approach. It definitely has a lot of value and my goal is not to criticize it today.
My wondering however is have we lost something? In the effort to interiorize our right thinking to be good and moral people, have we lost something that the ancient Jewish people knew about externalizing their pain and suffering. By making our suffering visible, we encounter vulnerability, but we also reveal our hearts. And in the process, as we lament our grief and woe, there can be an opening for reconciliation. Confession is indeed good for the soul. But confession that reveals our emotional pain we are experiencing is far more persuasive than just the words, especially when they appear in the sterile form of an email or a text message. The depth of our remorse is lost when we do not confess to each other our sorrow face to face. It is our vulnerability and the intensity of our visible suffering that moves hearts and minds.
That is why this is such a valuable time to make amends with those we have wronged. These Days of Awe are an excellent time to attend to the wrongs that nag at our conscience. We may not be so worried about getting our name written in the Book of Life, but far more interested in taking this opportunity to restore our breeches of trust and heal the wounds we might have caused that still fester.
The lesson we can learn from David is that we might need to do more than say I’m sorry. We might have to find an action that shows how we feel and strive to demonstrate that our words have substance and weight.
David’s fresh start once his son dies suggests the power of action in repentance that far exceeds what words can accomplish. As I think we know watching the candidates for President, when words have no action behind them, no evidence of meaningful sacrifice, they ring very hollow.
So may we use this opportunity to be inspired by our Jewish brothers and sisters to use these Days of Awe well, for the benefit of the wholeness of the community of which we are a part.
[Nathan came to David and said], ‘There were two men in a certain city, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds; but 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. Now there came a traveler 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.’ Then 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; he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.’
Nathan said to David, ‘You are the man! (and recounts David’s crimes against Uriah the Hittite)
David 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. Nevertheless, because, by this deed, you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child that is born to you shall die.’
The Lord struck the child that Uriah’s wife bore to David, and it became very ill. David therefore pleaded with God for the child; David fasted, and went in and lay all night on the ground. The elders of his house stood beside him, urging him to rise from the ground; but he would not, nor did he eat food with them. On the seventh day the child died. And the servants of David were afraid to tell him that the child was dead; for they said, ‘While the child was still alive, we spoke to him, and he did not listen to us; how then can we tell him the child is dead? He may do himself some harm.’ But when David saw that his servants were whispering together, he perceived that the child was dead; and David said to his servants, ‘Is the child dead?’ They said, ‘He is dead.’
Then David rose from the ground, washed, anointed himself, and changed his clothes. He went into the house of the Lord, and worshipped; he then went to his own house; and when he asked, they set food before him and he ate. Then his servants said to him, ‘What is this thing that you have done? You fasted and wept for the child while it was alive; but when the child died, you rose and ate food.’ He said, ‘While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept; for I said, “Who knows? The Lord may be gracious to me, and the child may live.” But now he is dead; why should I fast? Can I bring him back again?
To the choirmaster. A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet went to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.
Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin!
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned and
done what is evil in your sight,
so that you may be justified in your words and
blameless in your judgment…
Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being,
and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have broken rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.