Allaert Claesz, David and Bathsheba, Rosenwald Collection, National Gallery of Art
“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. ”
2 Samuel 11:1, NIV
In the last post we brought up the report recently released by Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM) concerning the late Ravi Zacharias (RZ) and the scandal around his sins that came to light after his death last May. We used this as a springboard to discuss why Paul in 1 Timothy 5 instructs that leaders should be aware of his sin, specifically that they should be aware of the sin that likely twisted him, pride.
In this post we are going to continue the discussion of pride as the sin of leadership by investigating one of the most egregious examples of a major biblical figure, King David. We will look at the point when he slept with a friend’s wife then murdered the man.
Before jumping into the sordid details, we first need to look at David’s situation when this scene unfolded. David has passed a couple milestones here. One is age. David is probably somewhere between 38 and 45 when these events happen. We know that he was 30 when he was made king of Judah, and that almost 8 years later he was crowned king of Israel as well. A little more water has flowed under the bridge here, but it is not completely clear how much.
A second milestone is authority. He has really come into his own at this juncture. There are myriad points to illustrate this, but we’ll confine it to one here. He has recently conquered Jerusalem, the chief city of the hill country, and the uncontestable seat of power for that region. The text we headed this post with points out that in the spring, kings go off to war, and David’s armies did just that, but David’s authority, and maybe the demands thereof were sufficient to leave the going out to his generals. Kings go off to war, but high kings have other things to attend to.
What this combination of milestones mean is that David is at a major life turning point, one we might almost call mid-life crisis were it in the present. For the first time in his life things are working out in such a way that he has a time of rest, time to reflect and take stock of his situation. For a change, no one is trying to kill him. Sure, he has affairs of state to attend to, but compared to years hiding in caves and riding the warpath, court is probably more tedious than strenuous. Moreover, he gets to spend lots of quality time now with his wives and passel of well-adjusted children🤭.
For his whole adult life, David had been a general and often an outlaw. He was a man accustomed not merely to the battlefield and command structure of the military, but to the deeper trust of those who joined him in what amounted to a righteous rebellion, trusted men who would jump to carry out every command because this commander was not just successful and blessed by God; he was willing to go first into the fight.
David’s men loved him. His enemies feared him. His subjects knew him as somewhere between a celebrity musician and a national hero and worshipped him as such. Even the inscrutable God seemed pleased with him most of the time.
Imagine then that, for David, the byzantine circuitous intrigue of the court coupled with the realpolitik, not to mention stresses, of royal family life were both lacking the action of life on campaign and presenting challenges that he was not as comfortable with. Home and court, where his rank and honor had placed him, were practically the only places he likely did not receive the honor and acclaim to which he had become accustomed. As an explanation for why David left his bed that spring night, this is most certainly conjecture, but it is sound conjecture.
Furthermore, we can all but establish that like RZ, sex was one of David’s vices, or at least something that he had strong inclinations towards. This is clear even before the events of 2 Samuel 11. Before Bathsheba, he had married at least 6 women, maybe 7, most likely in the not quite 8 years that he ruled from Hebron. That’s averaging a new wife almost every year. While OT laws, and the customs of the culture did not necessarily say that was wrong, they did say it was excessive.
But it was an excess permitted a king, so David took advantage, a fact which in itself demonstrates David’s pride. King was still a relatively new role in David’s Israel. The first king had done a lot of harm before basically going nuts. David had the privilege to put his mark all over that role, and he chose marriage to a bunch of women as one component of kingship he wanted to promote. Clearly Solomon got the message.
It could, of course, be argued that these marriages were merely those of a king cementing tribal relations, which is certainly plausible. But the almost casual way the text leads us to conclude that David initiated the affair with Bathsheba as well as the complicity of his staff shows us a man who was accustomed to pursuing his interests in this area. It is hard to imagine this as customary for a Man after God’s Own Heart or the staff who served him, and that is not just trying to write modern prudery into the text. God’s responses through Nathan in chapter 12 are livid.
Apart from Abigail and Bathsheba, and maybe Michal, we do not have much real information on how David came to be married to his other wives (we don’t even know for sure how many wives he had). Which means that arguing for marriages of state in David’s case is just as much conjecture as any other argument. That brings us back to the evidence we actually have. To argue that this familiarity had potentially been developed in the course of meeting some of his wives, not to mention potentially unmentioned wives and concubines, and all of this in a way that fit within the parameters of ancient kingship while not transgressing laws or customs severely enough to receive any censure is among the most likely explanations for the evidence we do have.
Which supports the idea that David was a man accustomed to using his power to procure new additions to his harem whenever the desire took him. I could extend this speculation further remaining in reasonably logical bounds, but I think my point is made.
To be honest, within the cultural context, this further cements the idea that David was at a high point in his power and status. He had wives because he could. But that creates a family dynamic that cannot be anything but stressful, to say the least.
Thus, we can imagine David, that spring night, sleeplessly arising and looking over his city. The text says he got out of bed and went out on his roof. What other than stress keeps a king in the heart of his kingdom from sleep? He struggles, we can imagine with feelings of inactivity and impotence concerning court and home, unfamiliar sensations considering his earlier life.
This struggle drives him to search out his accomplishments. He looks out across the city and like Nebuchadnezzar later, is proud, but this pride, but unlike the later Babylonian’s, is not yet sinful. His pride is based in truth, and he recognizes that what he has done has been done with God’s help and to achieve God’s aims. I can see him looking over the city, the view providing solace for his tired mind, affirming a place in God’s purpose.
But pride is a risky sentiment to mess with, even when it is just. It is too easy for us to lose ourselves to the emotion. I have surmised with reason that David had difficulty reigning in his more base passions. I have posited that part of why he rose from his bed that night was a struggle with his family, the women of whom were for him at least part of the way that he dealt with those passions. It is in this volatile state of mind, pride already in place, that David’s eye settled on a woman on another roof, close enough to be enticing, but far enough to leave questions about identity. “Who is she,” he wonders, calling a servant.
His staff runs to find out, accustomed to this drill as we have already established. They tell him that she is Uriah’s wife. This indicates that the staff is watching out for David’s honor. Knowing she is another man’s wife, it would be sinful at this point for David to pursue a dalliance, but his staff are not surprised when the king asks for her to be brought in. This shows either a lack of concern on their part that he would sin, or complicity, which seems to go against their pointing the fact out a moment before.
The text then tells us that she was ritually unclean due to her monthly. Some argue that this disclosure on her part demonstrates reluctance, an attempt to dissuade the king from his desire, meaning that she was essentially raped. That’s plausible, but just as plausible is the notion that she might have been encouraging him. That time of the month was one of the best forms of birth control before the modern era; everyone knew this. If she wanted to tell him, “Don’t worry. No one will ever know,” this would be a really good way to do it. The fact that the text records this probably leans toward the latter interpretation. Someone had to tell the biographer. One can almost imagine an old David, describing the affair, “How did she even get pregnant? I tell you, it was that time of the month! She knew! She told me! We thought we were safe…”
We know how the story unfolds. We see when David finds out that his little fling had bigger ramifications than he expected, and his world begins to unravel. He had sinned in a way that now threatened to go public. As a religious leader in our culture, he would probably only face votes of no confidence. It might cost him his job, but that’s a small price to pay all told. As a ruler or authority today, it would just depend on his constituency whether anyone would even care.
In that culture though… His kingly power gave him the right to add people to his harem, as we have already seen, but that only worked for people who were unattached. Bathsheba was very definitely spoken for. She was a man’s wife, and not just any man, the wife of a trusted man, of a friend!
David knew the law. Uriah would have rights against him. Against Bathsheba. Against the child. His kingship might shield him, but there would be fallout. What’s more, as one of his own cadre of warriors, what would this cost his honor? Would his men continue to trust him? Would they still follow him? This could really hurt the country, set back what he’d been trying to build. If he couldn’t keep a lid on this, someone, maybe Joab, would decide that David was finished, like Saul.
No! This is the point where dark pride begins to consume his mind. He was smarter than Saul. David would defend Saul and his reputation to the end, but he knew inside that he was better than Saul. The pride begins to flow. David wouldn’t fall like Saul did. He would figure out a way out of this mess. He would, he would… he would bring Uriah home. Yes! He was the king. He’d write Joab and bring Uriah home and this could solve all their problems.
David’s solution here further demonstrates his own predilection for sex. If David had gotten a few days leave and been married to Bathsheba, there’d have been no question what he would have done. Who wouldn’t go home to their wives? In his eyes, this problem was as good as gone.
But Uriah didn’t go home. He slept outside on the ground, like a soldier. Inconceivable! David questioned him and urged him to go be with his wife. He refused citing his honor. David got him drunk. Still he refused. At that point we can imagine the wheels turning in David’s head. “Why won’t he just… what a strange man. I like him, but this can’t get out, the price is too high. I have to do something.” As he pondered, a thought probably occurred to him, “If I go down, Israel goes with me.”
In the end, David was a soldier, a general, and a king. Soldiers know they might die in battle for the good of their country, and Generals know that some men must die for a cause greater than any one man. But kings know that if they fall their kingdom will suffer. No kingdom weathers a succession well, and one under scandalous pretenses…
Thus, as a soldier, a general, and a king, in the name of honor, twisting that word almost beyond recognition, David ordered the death of a friend.
Of course the justifications grew and became more elaborate. “I must protect Israel. I can’t see any way to fix this except… no, I can’t… But if it will save Israel, I must. Uriah must go. I must marry her. All this needs to happen soon, for the good of the country. Joab can take care of it.”
There is no other explanation here that preserves David as a man of honor, a man after God’s own heart. How poorly he read God’s heart here.
David was clearly delusional as he ordered the death of one of his mighty men. His justification of this sin undoubtedly seemed wise to him at the time; he went through with it after all. David does not have the reputation for wisdom that his son came to have, but no one questioned his wisdom. It’s a big part of why people followed him. It had helped him evade a king who wanted him dead, gathering a following all the while. It had stayed his hand from killing that same king, likely winning him the nation. Wisdom had even been present at the beginning, as David relied on God to help him bring down the giant. David knew the wisdom of God.
But in his pride, he allowed fear to overwhelm the voice of God, and he replaced wisdom with a cold self-logic, the same sort of logic that later drove Caiaphas to state, “Better one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” There is nothing illogical in the path that either of these men’s followed, but this logic carries a cost; the price of one’s soul.
I can imagine David that night, plying his friend with wine, watching with each swallow, gently pushing the man, not the soldier, to go cover David’s tracks. It would have been so much easier as a command, but that would give away the game, so David cajoled instead.
I wonder what Uriah thought. This is pure speculation, but I can almost imagine him, excited but curious over David’s reasons for calling him home, seeing his king’s encouragement to be with his wife as part of some sort of test of his honor. He could have thought that David was actually considering him for a role of some responsibility, checking to be sure he was made of the right stuff. It is like a scene out of the Godfather, as the poor unsuspecting schmuck sits in dinner with his friend and king, unaware that here is a man who at that moment embodies the definition of the term enemy, never having a clue that the special orders he would later take to his commander were orders for his execution. That makes Uriah sound like a Rube. He’s not. He’s a truly trustworthy man of honor.
As David poured him his last glass before sending him home that second night, had he already decided to kill him? We know this turned out badly for Uriah, but I would raise the question here, what kind of damage was it doing then and there to David’s soul?
Like RZ, David had come into a position of power with both its influence and its stressors. He was already a proud man, justly earned through a life of thorough humility, and now he had finally come into his own. His harem was plausibly a means of controlling his sexuality. But it wasn’t enough. His desires had come alive at exactly the wrong moment and this man after God’s own heart had become a criminal, little more than a mob boss, all in the name of protecting something that was not really his to protect.
Let’s develop that a little as probably the most profound of David’s errors here. God did not need David. The sin of David’s dalliance with Bathsheba had opened a door in David’s soul, transforming the just pride of seeing himself as part of God’s plan into the unjust pride of seeing himself as the heart of God’s plan.
But God never needed David. Sure, the world as we know it would be different if someone else had become the noteworthy forebear of Jesus. But God is just as capable of having Jesus come from the house of Jim or Bob as the house of David. God had already replaced one king of Israel. Would it really inconvenience him to do it again? The only person essential to God’s plan was Jesus. All any of the rest of us qualify as are side characters.
If David’s story stopped there, it would actually look fairly similar to a number of his less than stellar descendants in Chronicles. But that’s not where it ends. We will examine the next chapter of David’s life in the last post in this series, alongside a speculative look at the development of this sort of pride in a present day church leader. Stay tuned.