King David is one of the most vivid and lifelike figures in the entire Bible. If you envision the Bible as a vast painting, the figures most likely to catch your eye would be Moses, David, perhaps the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah, Mary – the mother of Jesus – Jesus, and Paul.
David is one of the most believable figures in the Bible because he is presented as fully human.
First, he has fully human desires and needs. The Book of Psalms was attributed to David. Even though I do not personally believe that David wrote the entire psalter, there is no doubt that he was a skilled musician. The author of First Samuel tells us that “And whenever the evil spirit from God was upon Saul, David took the lyre and played it with his hand; so Saul was refreshed, and was well, and the evil spirit departed from him.”
Secondly, David is also presented as a person capable of extraordinary courage. As a very young man, he kills the Philistine warrior Goliath with a stone from his sling. First Samuel also tells us that David was such a skilled warrior that Saul put him in charge of all his soldiers.
Thirdly, David is presented as someone capable of enormous love. The Bible says that “the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.” When Jonathan is killed in battle, David laments his death, saying, “ I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan… your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women…”
Finally, David is also presented as a deeply flawed human being. First Samuel also describes David as a “man after [God’s] own heart.” How can a “man after God’s own heart” do the things we see him doing in today’s Old Testament reading?
One of the things that emerges most clearly not only from the Bible but also from any reading of human history is that great leaders are capable not only of great good but also great evil.
In today’s Old Testament reading we are told that “In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab with his officers and all Israel with him; they ravaged the Ammonites, and besieged Rabbah. But David remained at Jerusalem.” In other words, David was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
We know what happened when David did not lead his troops into battle at the time “when kings go out to battle.” But why do you suppose he did not go with him? Did David feel that he had arrived, that he had done all that he was supposed to do? Or did he stay behind hoping to catch a glimpse of his lovely neighbor Bathsheba?
Often it is in the very moment of success that we undermine ourselves. Think of Richard Nixon. I’m no great fan of Nixon, but there is little doubt that he was one of America’s most intelligent presidents. And in spite of his multiple failings, Nixon achieved some great things: he established strong standards for clean air and water, and he reestablished diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China. And after he left the presidency he wrote several important books about American foreign policy and even advised his successors in the White House. But in spite of the fact that he knew that his re-election was a virtual certainty, he authorized illegal surveillance of the Democratic National Committee, and we all know about the tragedy of Watergate that followed.
The story of David is even more sordid than Watergate. David not only commits adultery with Bathsheba; he arranges for the murder of her husband Uriah.
The contrast between Uriah and David could not be more stark. Uriah is presented as loyal to a fault. When Uriah returns from battle, he does not go home to his wife as David hopes he will, he remains as close to his king as possible. Finally, in desperation David orders that Uriah be put on the frontline where death in battle is almost a certainty.
What are we to make of this hero who is guilty of both adultery and murder?
I think the first lesson for us to take away is this: All of us have both Goliath moments and Uriah moments.
A Goliath moment is when in spite of our weakness, we reach down deep within ourselves and find a power that we did not know was there. In a moment of weakness we find the strength to do things we thought were beyond our power. When confronted with a great challenge we find the strength to meet and overcome that challenge.
But we also have Uriah moments. Like David we have moments when we believe that we have arrived or that we have accomplished all that we have set out to do, when we are coasting along, confident in ourselves, believing that we are the lords of all we survey, masters of the universe. And it is precisely in those moments that we are most vulnerable. To quote “Spiderman,” with great power comes great responsibility.
We may be able to see this more in the history of institutions and nations than in the lives of individuals. At the end of the 19th century, Great Britain ruled the world. For the most part, they ruled wisely and well. In many ways they left India and Africa better than they were before. They built schools and railways. They established the rule of law and built up a strong civil service in the countries they ruled. But they also committed great crimes.
And what was true of the British empire is equally true of the American empire. We have only to think of Vietnam to see the truth of that.
The child abuse scandals involving Penn State University and the Roman Catholic Church are perfect examples of Uriah moments. Persons with great power misused their power in the most dreadful way. They abused the most vulnerable persons among us.
But we have to do today not with institutions but with persons – with King David and with ourselves.
Another lesson I take away from this sordid tale of David, Uriah, and Bathsheba is this: While great crimes undoubtedly tarnish the image of great men and women, it is also wrong to forget the good they accomplished.
Humorist Ambrose Bierce said that a saint is only a dead sinner who has been revised and edited. There is a lot of truth in that.
Several years ago I read a controversial biography of the great Christian writer C.S. Lewis. It was controversial because it presented Lewis not as a saint in a stained glass window but as a real human being capable of anger, a man who did not suffer fools. But after reading the biography, I admired Lewis more, not less. I saw him as someone I could aspire to be, who did good things in spite of great flaws.
I think also of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a man I admire for his courage and his consistent practice of nonviolent resistance in the face of prejudice and violent racism even though his weaknesses and flaws were manifold.
Even though David did not write the entire book of Psalms, there are two psalms that I feel certain go back to David himself.
The first is the 23rd psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.”
The second is Psalm 51: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to thy steadfast love; according to thy abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. 2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin! 3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.”
The Bible holds up a mirror to our lives. It shows us men and women like ourselves in our strength and weakness, glory and shame. It challenges us to look within ourselves, to take a long, hard, and honest inventory or our lives.
We need to look honestly at our strength. The Bible tells us that we are made in the image of God, that there is a goodness in the human heart, a light in the soul that cannot be extinguished.
But the Bible also tells us that we are fallen, weak, limited, and finite. It tells us that we may very well use our power to harm and even kill.
But the Bible tells us that there is a remedy when we use our power to harm. It tells us that God is ever ready to forgive, heal, restore and redeem.
“Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, thou God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of thy deliverance. 15 O Lord, open thou my lips, and my mouth shall show forth thy praise. 16 For thou hast no delight in sacrifice; were I to give a burnt offering, thou wouldst not be pleased. 17 The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.”