by David Baer, October 19, 2014
One of my indulgences is the Game of Thrones series. I read the books first. When the TV series first came out I wanted to see what all the fuss was about, so I picked up the first book by author George R. R. Martin, and I couldn’t put it down. And then I quickly blasted my way through the rest of the books, the latest of which is over a thousand pages. The violence of these stories is a bit grim, but the characters are compelling. You see them fighting to hold onto or build an identity as they struggle for power or just survival. Ned Stark, a just an honorable man who wins your sympathy right from the start of the first book, teaching his son that it’s wrong to sentence someone to die if you can’t carry out the sentence yourself. He doesn’t survive very long—one of the lessons of the books seems to be that ideals and honor by themselves can’t achieve much in a world of ruthless people. Most of those who make it are compromised in some way or other. If you want to wield power, if you want to do some good in the world, you are going to have to get your hands dirty. Danaerys Targaeryen, the heir of a deposed ruling family, stands up for the rights of women and slaves, even as she builds an army to try to re-take her kingdom. But even she’s compromised by her furious anger, which leads her to make some ill-considered choices. And then there’s the boy who sits on the throne, King Joffrey, a bully, a brute who enjoys seeing others suffer. He’s a terrible ruler, but his family and too many others are so invested in the way things are that they continue to prop him up. It doesn’t look like you can solve the problem of a tyrannical ruler other than with a lot of war and bloodshed. Who is there for a cruel and unjust king to answer to?
In our reading of the Bible this year, we’ve skipped forward from the Exodus into the time of kings. The fact that the Israelite people have a king was not God’s first choice for them. The Bible narrates a scene where all the people gather in front of God’s prophet to beg for a king, and through the prophet God warns them about all the abuses of power they are going to suffer—a king will take your young men to run ahead of his chariots, and he will take your daughters to serve him, and he will take your produce and your land, he will take, take, take, and you will cry out and complain, and God will not listen to you, because you chose this for yourself. Fine, whatever, the people say. Just give us a king like all the other nations.
And God’s prediction came true. The first king, Saul, turned out to be a cruel and oppressive ruler who stopped listening to God. So God turned to David, a man after God’s own heart, as the scriptures put it. David is seen as the greatest and best king in the scriptures. In fact, in the gospels, when people want to talk about Jesus’ authority, they call him “Son of David.” But even David fulfills God’s warning about kings. Kings take what they want, and others suffer. And David took. He summoned Bathsheba to the palace and did what he wanted, and how do you say no to the king? And then when she got pregnant, he had her husband Uriah killed. He waited until Bathsheba had observed a respectable period of mourning, and then he did the respectable thing by marrying her, taking her into his house to live with him and his other wives, so that Bathsheba and her child could be cared for. I’m not sure he really fooled anybody—it was pretty obvious from the circumstances who the child’s father was. David’s general, Joab, had helped carry out the plot to murder Uriah. I have to believe that people knew what was up. But they said nothing—who wants to take on a king? And anyway, isn’t that just the way the world works? It’s sad, but what can you do?
And in most cultures, the gods were on the side of the king. In Egypt, the pharaoh was even considered to be a living god himself. But even if the king wasn’t considered a god, he certainly had enough resources so that he could atone for any wrongdoing with appropriate offerings to his god. Or at least he could make some arrangement with that god’s priests. Yes, in the ancient world, you wouldn’t expect a king to be called to account for his actions. That’s why what happens in this Bible story is so surprising.
God sends the prophet Nathan to David with a story. It’s a story about two men. One of them is rich, with many flocks of sheep and herds of cattle. The other one is poor, with only one little ewe lamb, which he cares for as if it’s his own child. When a guest came to stay with the rich man, he was obligated to show hospitality, but he didn’t want to slaughter one of his own animals, so he took the poor man’s lamb and fed it to his guest. Nathan tells this story as a hypothetical trial case. The unspoken question for the king, the chief judge of the whole country, is this: “What would you do? How would you decide this case?”
David’s anger is immediate. He explodes: “The man who has done this deserves to die!” After a moment, he settles down. David puts on his thinking cap and remembers what the law of Moses says about the punishment for theft of livestock: “He shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.”1 That’s what the law says, but David’s gut-wrenching anger shows that there’s a deeper wrong involved when the strong take advantage of the weak.
And now Nathan springs the trap: “You are the man.” Like the rich man in the story, David had everything he needed, but he made gratuitous use of his power, exploiting others to get what he wanted. There is no need for Nathan to pronounce the verdict against David, because David has just judged himself. There’s nowhere for David to hide, and so he admits he’s done wrong. It’s only through facing this hard truth that David’s life before God can continue.
One thing we can learn from this story is that simply knowing right from wrong isn’t enough. We’re a lot better at recognizing injustice when it doesn’t involve us. After all, David prided himself on being a fair-minded judge. He reacted instantly and viscerally to Nathan’s story—but that sense of right and wrong wasn’t enough to stop him from doing the very same thing he was so quick to condemn.
We all need a Nathan. We need someone who cares about us enough to lead us to take a step outside of ourselves so that we can see the truth. The scriptures tell us that God designed us for relationship. We are meant to be interdependent, and that means not putting ourselves in a position where we are the sole arbiters of right and wrong for ourselves. How many of David’s friends and servants were part of his schemes? How many of them were in a position to say, “Stop, your majesty. For your own sake, don’t do this.”? Maybe that’s not entirely their fault. Maybe David ought to have cultivated more honest and courageous friends. If someone gave you the level of power King David had, can you say that you are pure enough or free enough from self-interest that you too wouldn’t have done something awful? If not, who’s your Nathan? Is there a friend or a counsellor who knows you well enough, who can cut through the conventions of politeness to tell you the truth you need to hear?
I have to confess that I heard this text differently than the last time I read it. I have to name something that leaves me troubled and unsettled. I can’t get past the fact that David was the one who sinned, David was the one who did wrong, but it was his innocent child that suffered and died for that sin. I have an infant son at home, and when I thought of David the father, keeping watch over his son’s crib, forgoing food and pleading with God to the point of exhaustion for his life, I could see myself there. I’ve done wrong myself, but to think of my son having to suffer for me is just monstrous. A friend said to me recently that we ought to notice whenever we find ourselves stepping over bodies in scripture, and I don’t want to step over the body of this child without mentioning just how appalling I find this part of the story.
But I am not King David, and neither are you. My sins are real, my brokenness weighs me down, and I need God’s mercy. I need to be cleansed and renewed if my life with God is to continue. But my son doesn’t need to suffer for me, because God’s own Son already has. Jesus is the innocent Son who suffers for us. But his suffering is different. It isn’t something that’s simply done to him. It’s not as though Jesus has no say in what happens to him. Jesus’ suffering is a gift he willingly gives. He tells us that no one takes his life from him—he lays it down freely. And because of him, because of the suffering of God’s Son, God has become a parent like David who grieves and aches for a child. Through Jesus, God knows David’s grief and anguish, and God won’t ever again require children to pay the price of their parents’ sin.
David knew that he’d done wrong. He knew his guilt. But he also knew his God. He knew the promises God had made to him, and he trusted that God was also big enough to get him from here to there, chasm of guilt or no: “Purge me from my sin, and I shall be pure; wash me, and I shall be clean indeed.” You see, when you hide who you are, when you wear a respectable mask, it covers up your wrongdoing, but it also keeps you from seeing God for who God is. And when the mask comes off, when that searching light from God we’ve been so afraid of finally hits us, what God says is, “My child… There you are! I’ve been looking everywhere for you. Come with me, and we’ll take care of all this muss. Come with me, let’s go home.” Amen.
This punishment is exactly the one spelled out in Exodus 22:1.