2 Samuel 12: Nathan Rebukes David
In the previous passage King David:
- Committed adultery, getting Bathsheba pregnant in the process;
- Tried to force her husband Uriah to sleep with her (despite the fact that Israelite military regulations forbid him from doing so) to make it look like the baby was his (or at least call it into question);
- Had Uriah murdered in an attempt to cover it all up.
By the end of the chapter, there didn’t seem to have been any consequences to David for these actions. However, none of this was hidden from the Lord, who has a prophet named Nathan. I’ll simply quote the first part of this chapter, because there’s no sense trying to summarize such a perfectly executed piece of text:
The Lord sent Nathan to David. When he came to him, he said, “There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him.
“Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him.”
David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, “As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this must die! He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity.”
Then Nathan said to David, “You are the man! This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Saul. I gave your master’s house to you, and your master’s wives into your arms. I gave you all Israel and Judah. And if all this had been too little, I would have given you even more. Why did you despise the word of the Lord by doing what is evil in his eyes? You struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and took his wife to be your own. You killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. Now, therefore, the sword will never depart from your house, because you despised me and took the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your own.’
“This is what the Lord says: ‘Out of your own household I am going to bring calamity on you. Before your very eyes I will take your wives and give them to one who is close to you, and he will sleep with your wives in broad daylight. You did it in secret, but I will do this thing in broad daylight before all Israel.’”
David’s response is succinct—but you don’t need a lot of words to say what needs to be said:
Then David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.” (verse 13)
Immediately, immediately, Nathan tells David that the Lord has taken away his sin, and that David is not going to die. However, there are still going to be consequences: the son born to David and Bathsheba is going to die.
And, as promised, after Nathan leaves the Lord strikes the child with an illness. David spends seven days pleading with God for the child, fasting and refusing to get up to eat when others try to get him to do so. But on the seventh day the child dies.
David’s attendants are now even more worried: given how distraught David was when the child was just sick, how is he going to respond to news that the child has died? So they’re afraid to tell him, but he notices them whispering amongst themselves and asks them outright if the child is dead, so they confirm it for him.
But then David shocks them. After learning that the child has died he gets up from the ground, washes and puts on lotions and changes his clothes, and goes to the house of the Lord to worship. He then returns home, and eats.
His attendants asked him, “Why are you acting this way? While the child was alive, you fasted and wept, but now that the child is dead, you get up and eat!”
He answered, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept. I thought, ‘Who knows? The Lord may be gracious to me and let the child live.’ But now that he is dead, why should I go on fasting? Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me.”
But David the father isn’t the only one who’s suffering: there is also Bathsheba the mother. David goes to her and comforts her, and they also make love and eventually end up with another child, named Solomon.
Meanwhile, Joab is still fighting the Ammonites! And… he seems a bit annoyed with David:
Joab then sent messengers to David, saying, “I have fought against Rabbah and taken its water supply. Now muster the rest of the troops and besiege the city and capture it. Otherwise I will take the city, and it will be named after me.” (verses 27–28)
So David musters “the entire army”—other than the army already with Joab, obviously—and goes to join him. And it’s interesting, after all of the work Joab has done, how much credit David gets for the ensuing victory:
So David mustered the entire army and went to Rabbah, and attacked and captured it. David took the crown from their king’s head, and it was placed on his own head. It weighed a talent of gold, and it was set with precious stones. David took a great quantity of plunder from the city and brought out the people who were there, consigning them to labor with saws and with iron picks and axes, and he made them work at brickmaking. David did this to all the Ammonite towns. Then he and his entire army returned to Jerusalem. (verses 29–31, emphasis added)
I don’t know how much significance to put on this, but as a reader, my initial reaction is, “But what about Joab? Didn’t he already do most of the work?” It’s possible that I’m reading Joab’s message to David as being more snarky than it really is, too; the ESV Study Bible notes seem to interpret Joab’s message as specifically calling David to come and take the credit for the victory.
The Bible calls David “a man after God’s own heart”—a phrase which I feel I probably use quite often in this blog—and my guess would be that this particular passage is one of the ones we think of when we use that phrase. Yes, in the previous passage he committed adultery, got Bathsheba pregnant, then killed her husband in order to cover it all up; the Bible doesn’t try to gloss over any of that. But in this passage, when confronted by the Lord (via Nathan), he genuinely repents.
And the repentance does feel genuine to me. (I’ve never heard a preacher call the genuineness of his repentance into question so I’m not the only one.) David isn’t “a man after God’s own heart” because he is sinless; nobody ever was (except for Jesus). David is “a man after God’s own heart” because holiness and righteousness and a love for God are important to him. If you love God it’s important to obey Him, and when you fail to do that it’s important to come before Him in repentance and faith to ask for forgiveness. David does that here.
We sometimes read the Bible in a very surface manner, not thinking too deeply about the stories we’re reading, and forget to think about the timeline of what’s happening. For sure I’ve done this myself, and I know I’ve come away with an impression such that David sleeps with Bathsheba, and then the next day she tells him she’s pregnant, so the day after that he brings Uriah, and then the next day, …
But if we pay attention to the actual events and think about it even a little bit1 we’ll see that this story of David’s sin and repentance is actually taking place over a long period of time.
|David and Bathsheba have sex, and then she informs him that she’s pregnant||I don’t know much about the available technology at the time for a woman knowing she was pregnant, but I know that in the 21st Century it’s weeks before a woman can know she’s pregnant, so it had to be a matter of weeks, minimum, before Bathsheba knew she was pregnant and could inform David.|
|David has Uriah brought back to Jerusalem||Again, given the technology of the time, Uriah either came back on horseback (I’m not sure how much Israel used horses in David’s day) or maybe even on foot. I’ll be conservative and say it was a matter of days, but it could have been weeks.|
|David has Uriah killed in battle||Uriah has been in Jerusalem with David for a few days, and now, again, it would take him days (or weeks) to get back to the battle. Even if we assume that Joab had Uriah killed immediately, there would be another delay of days or weeks before the messenger would be able to bring word back to David.|
|David makes Bathsheba his wife||By the time this happens, given the weeks that must already have passed, it’s probably obvious to anyone in David’s household that Bathsheba is pregnant. Or, even if she still isn’t showing at that moment, when she has her baby it’s going to be clear that the timelines don’t add up. People in David’s household (and probably even more widely than that) will know some or all of what has happened.|
|Nathan confronts David||The passage isn’t 100% clear on this, but it strongly looks like the baby has already been born by the time the Lord sends Nathan to David, so it’s a minimum of nine months since the original adultery by the time David is confronted by the prophet.|
|David mourns for the baby||The passage is explicit on this point, so we don’t even need to think about it: David mourns for his son for seven days.|
|The birth of Solomon||Although the passage doesn’t mention it, I would assume there would be a period of mourning for their son before David and Bathsheba came together and made love, and even aside from that it clearly took nine months for Solomon to be born—that’s just how it works! So when Joab sends for David to come join the battle, I have to assume this is before Solomon is born. The birth of Solomon is a bit of a flash-forward.|
Thinking about these details can make the passages more real to us. We can put ourselves in the place of David during those seven days of pleading with the Lord, before his child dies; it’s easy to read this passage without much thought, but… seven days. It’s a long time! Seven days of revisiting his sin over and over in his mind, of pleading with God to save his son, perhaps of getting angry with God and then repenting of that anger… so much time in which he was probably in anguish before God.
I can’t even imagine what Bathsheba was feeling during those seven days, because I don’t know how willing of a participant she was in the initial adultery, when the king of the nation had her summoned to his bedchamber. The more willing of a participant she was the more she’d be feeling guilt and shame, too; the less willing of a participant the more she’d probably be blaming David for bringing all of this calamity upon her.
In the first prophecy delivered by Nathan, mention is made of someone “who is close” to David bringing David’s wives out and publicly sleeping with them, which sounds pretty barbaric to us. At the time, sleeping with a king’s wife/wives/concubines would be tantamount to a public statement that “everything the king had belongs to me now.”
We saw Abner being accused of this in 2 Samuel 3:6–21, and my take was that he was innocent of it. However, in this case, we’ll see this prophecy coming true in Chapter 16, when David’s son Absalom goes up onto a rooftop and sleeps with David’s concubines.
“The Lord has taken away your sin”
It’s interesting that the Lord doesn’t tell David, “the Lord has forgiven your sins,” he tells David “the Lord has taken away your sins.” The Christian can read this with a lot more knowledge about Grace than David had, but even to David, this would have been a very strong statement. The Lord doesn’t tell David to go and make a sacrifice to atone for his sin, He tells David that the sin is just… gone.
And yet… the consequences of that sin remain! Which brings us to:
David’s Son Dying
I’m 100% positive that the majority of modern readers of this passage—and even readers from previous times—would be uncomfortable at the death of David and Bathsheba’s son. He’s not guilty of anything! Why is he suffering for something his parents did? Maybe not even his mom, maybe only his dad2!
I’m not going to pretend to offer an answer to that problem, either. It would seem cleaner, to me, for David to be punished for his sin, not his son.
What I will say, however, is that this is something the Bible is realistic about: our sins do often impact others, such that they suffer consequences for our deeds. Sometimes the person committing the sin suffers very little from their actions, while others do all of the suffering. We don’t have to look very far to find examples of rich, powerful people doing whatever they want, regardless of the impact to others, and seemingly suffering no consequences of their own. Or we can even look at commonplace examples such as abusive husbands, where the wife and children end up suffering for his sin.
The Christian can look to eternity, and Christ’s death on the cross, and make some sense of this at a big picture level, but clearly injustice happens in this world. The Bible doesn’t pretend otherwise. Yes, there are examples of people committing sins and being specifically punished for those sins, but there are also examples like this one of one person committing a sin that causes consequences for others. Someday Jesus will return and this will be fixed, but in the meantime it’s still true, so Christians live in the fallen world and often suffer in it.
I think it’s right to struggle with our questions: why did the boy die, and David not? This boy died because of something his parents did, which had nothing to do with him; as a Christian, how do I deal with that? When something bad happens to someone I know, and it’s clearly not their fault, how do I help them? How do I talk to them, in the midst of their tragedy, knowing that I probably won’t have answers that will explain their suffering?
I should never question the integrity of God—if I come up with a hypothesis as to how the world works and that hypothesis involves God being less than Holy my hypothesis is just plain wrong—but that sometimes makes things more difficult to understand, not easier! If we try to oversimplify the world in such a way that we think everything “makes sense,” we’re not being honest with ourselves, and we’re also setting ourselves up for mental anguish when such circumstances hit us.
All that being said, and knowing that we will not often be able to explain such tragedies, we should recognize that we live in a fallen world, and are to be working to make it better in whatever ways we can. We won’t always be successful, but the attempt is worthwhile regardless.
And we should also live in faith. I don’t understand everything but God does, and He is in control.
In this passage, David spends seven days prostrate before the Lord praying for his son, but when his son dies David gets up and goes back to business as usual. “But now that he is dead, why should I go on fasting?” he asks in verse 23; “Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me.”
Does this serve as an example to us when it comes to mourning our lost loved ones? When someone I love dies, should I follow David’s “example” and say, “I can’t bring them back, I’ll go to them but they won’t return to me, so why bother mourning”?
Emphatically no. This would be a very bad passage to generalize in that manner. This is a specific circumstance in which David has already spent seven days essentially mourning his son in advance. There are other examples in the Bible of people losing loved ones and mourning their loss, which is the appropriate response in the vast majority of cases.
Yes, when a Christian dies they go to be with the Lord, and we will see them again, so there’s a sense in which there is joy to be had. But death is also unnatural and tragic; when someone dies it leaves behind a hole in the lives of their loved ones, and mourning their loss is the right response.
I don’t know if people view David’s actions in this passage as an example to follow when it comes to mourning, but if so I don’t think they should be. It’s definitely not the intent of the passage, but I also think it’s a very special case when it comes to death, and should be treated as such.
I didn’t call it out above, but there’s an interesting side note in verses 24–25 in which the Lord sends an additional word to David via Nathan, saying that He (the Lord) loves the child so much that they should name him Jedidiah (which means “loved by the Lord”). The reason it’s an interesting side note is that this is Solomon we’re talking about; the boy/man is referred to as Solomon throughout the Scriptures, not Jedidiah. It’s possible that he shows up on a genealogy at some point as “Jedidiah” instead of “Solomon,” I don’t know the Scriptures well enough to say that that doesn’t happen, but if so those are isolated cases; the Bible tends to refer to him as Solomon.
So, after all of the repentance called out in this passage, when the Lord gives instructions to give the child a particular name, why do we know him as Solomon instead of Jedidiah? It seems like the Lord’s wishes on this matter are ignored, though, given the tone of the rest of the chapter, I don’t think that makes sense. I can only guess that the boy’s official name was Solomon, and maybe was given the nickname Jedidiah.
Yes, I’m claiming that I didn’t think about things “even a little bit” when I was reading this passage as a series of events that happened over a couple of days, as opposed to a number of months. ↩︎
I keep harping on this point because I genuinely don’t know how much, if any, guilt Bathsheba bears for the events in Chapter 11. ↩︎