When I was a kid, I roamed the alleys and nearby fields with a pocket full of pebbles and a slingshot in hand. My grandfather had carved me the slingshot from the fork of a mesquite tree. I’d even burned my name into the wood using the sun and a magnifying glass.
While David’s soldiers were fighting in the field, the general was surrendering at home – skulking around his rooftop, peeping at exposed flesh, luring the woman in and letting his lust have full rein. In the regal door, between the regal sheets, out the door again – there goes the daughter of Sheba, the mistress of David, the wife of Uriah. The whole nasty affair would have been easily hushed up had not David’s wild oats, sown into forbidden soil, taken root and begun to grow. Nine months later, not a single “Hosanna” greeted this son of David. He came in the name of the Scarlet Letter. The erstwhile husband of his mother had been cut down on a battlefield, neatly killed by his father’s treachery. The child of an adulteress. The son of a murderer. Ugly, so pitifully ugly, is the whole mess.
We don’t even know his name. He is stricken by the Lord. As if a sad emblem of how bad, how utterly spoiled, is this world God once crafted in seven days, the child is sick, then still sicker, then sick unto death in one week’s time. This son of David never makes it to the 8th day.
Who of you does not shudder to think that this is what your sin does? Oh, we giggle at our faults, we downplay our wrongdoing, we yawn during confession. But whose eyes are dry and whose heart is unfeeling when the tiny casket is lowered into the cold, dark earth?
Repent. For David and his lover have more than a little in common with you. For their lot is yours and yours is theirs. For it is not only the man who says he says no sin that deceives himself, but also the man who says he has only a little sin. And be it lust or be it pride or be it greed, whatever it be, its wages are still paid in that currency called death.
Yet as we mourn, but unlike those who have no hope, so also we repent, but unlike those who have no absolution. For we though we weep, there is a hand that dries all tears. And though we confess, there is a mouth that answers, “I forgive you. I have taken away your sin; you shall not die.”
David arose from fasting and weeping after the death of his child for, as he said, “I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.” And why should he return, for had he not gone to Abraham’s bosom? Circumcised as the heavenly Father’s own or commended to Him by David’s weeping and tears – either way, this son of David, who heard no Hosannas at his birth, was greeted by angelic choirs when he left this veil of tears. And David awaits the day he will join his son.
For the blood that would be shed by the greater Son of David covered them as it covers you. He who was in the womb dies for those in the womb. He who was an infant dies for infants. He who was a toddler and teenager and adult – He sums up all humanity in Himself and brings it through the day of crucifixion, through the day of burial, to the day of resurrection life. Yes, this Son of David makes it to the 8th day, and you He brings with Him. Your adulteries of heart or flesh; your greed of mind or hand; from the sin of which you have boasted to that of which you are most ashamed, He swallows it all in the cup of the Father’s wrath.
And so it is done. All is done well. Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord.
The national media would have been blood-drunk. Sex always makes for a catchy headline, especially when politicians are involved. But this was a bonanza of epic proportions. A national leader gets caught with his pants down. Rumor is his paramour is a military wife. But the story gets even juicier. Turns out she's pregnant, and her husband, who couldn't possibly be the father, was all-too-conveniently killed on the battlefield recently. And, as icing on this scandalous cake, the nation's leader makes the war widow his wife. When the scandal of David and Bethsheba leaked out, reporters would have descended upon the Jerusalem palace like locusts on a ripened field.
This story of lust and adultery, intrigue and murder, callousness and cover-up, captivates readers to this day. Perhaps that's because it's one of those ripped-from-the-headlines biblical stories. Perhaps it's because the characters in the narrative make "better people" feel even better about themselves. And perhaps it's because some of us see ourselves, and our own lurid personal narratives, reflected in this biblical story. For those of us in this latter category, a poetic outgrowth of David's sin, and subsequent repentance, is especially meaningful. I refer to Psalm 51, which according to its heading, David penned after his affair with Bathsheba.
I have prayed this psalm more times than any other. Its confessions and laments and declarations of faith express perfectly the bitterness and sweetness of the life of repentance, of dying and rising. Yet within this psalm, one expression had always tripped me up. Indeed, when I prayed it, I seemed to utter a half-truth, at best. It comes near the beginning, where David says,
Against You, You only, I have sinned And done what is evil in Your sight, So that You are justified when You speak And blameless when You judge.
"Against You, You only, I have sinned." How could you say that, David? You sinned against God, to be sure, but also against Bathsheba, Uriah, your family, your military, indeed, your entire nation. How can you possibly limit the scope of your sin, and need for confession, to God alone?
Perhaps the answer to that question is found in a parallel situation, this one related to the holiness of God. In her liturgy, the church sings, "You alone are the Holy One," (Gloria in Excelsis), echoing Revelation 15:4, "Who will not fear, O Lord, and glorify your name? For you alone are holy.” God alone is intrinsically, eternally, essentially holy. Yet, God is not stingy with His holiness; He grants it to people, places, things, and times. They share in what is His. The Lord, the Lord alone, is holy. And all else that is holy is holy because it is of Him. To desecrate that holiness is to do harm to the one with whom the Lord has shared His holiness, but the desecration is truly and ultimately directed at God alone, since He is the sole source of sanctity.
Similarly, when I seduced Bathsheba, when I stole from and murdered Uriah, when I brought dishonor to my family, when I failed in my office--when I was David--I sinned against all these people. Their forgiveness I implore. At the same time, against God, God only, I have sinned and done what is evil in His sight. For it is His law I have broken, His office in which I have failed, His people against whom I have sinned. All is from Him, so all I have taken, I have taken from Him. All others against whom I have sinned, I have sinned because they are of Him.
Within this confession, there is also a hidden beauty, a secluded comfort that is perhaps only truly appreciated when it is a lived reality. There were, I suspect, people in Israel during David's lifetime who never forgave him for his scandalous conduct, his lies, his lust, his bloodshed. He had sinned against them, to be sure, but even in his life of repentance, even as he sought their absolution, they withheld it, whatever their reasons might have been. Did their refusal to forgive mean that David was unforgiven? Did David's absolution depend on people's willingness to forgive? Absolutely not. For "against You, You only, have I sinned." Just as confession is directed fully and ultimately to God alone, so absolution is received fully and ultimately from God alone, in Jesus Christ.
There is the hidden beauty in this seemingly limiting confession of King David. For David's sin, another David would pay the price in blood. In Him, and in Him alone, would absolution for the world be earned and given. For that reason, this verse from Psalm 51 that used to trip me up, now is my greatest delight. For as much as it may hurt that others refuse to forgive, Christ does not. Against Him, Him only, have I sinned. And from Him, Him only, I receive absolution, full and free.