II Samuel 10-12, Psalm 93, Acts 8
Losing our moral bearings
II Samuel 10-12
Critically bad decisions often have major consequences. Chapter 10 captures David’s continued success as he outfights and outwits his opponents. He seems invincible. His practice has been to fight alongside his troops and to make the same sacrifices that they make in battle. In chapter 11, things change. Five words signify the turning point in his leadership. “But David remained at Jerusalem.” (2 Samuel 11:1)
People get into trouble when they have too much time on their hands. David is a prime example. While his troops engage in warfare, the king enjoys afternoon nap. Awakening from his couch, he spots a naked and beautiful Bathsheba, whose name means “daughter of abundance” bathing on a nearby rooftop. She is appropriately named. Lust seizes the king, who summons his one of his staff to identify the bather and then orders to have her brought to him and sleeps with her.
She is clearly off limits. Bathsheba is another man’s wife, who has been bathing following menstruation, a common Jewish practice possibly using a mikvah or traditional bath with seven steps leading down into it. Bathsheba who conceives a child from their encounter. Once David learns that she is pregnant, the sinister wheels of his mind begin to turn. Hoping to mask his sin, he orders for Uriah the Hittite, Bathsheba’s husband, to return home on a furlough.
David then wines and dines Uriah and sends him home in hopes that he will have sexual relations with his wife. Instead, Uriah models David’s previous noble behavior, refusing to indulge himself while his fellow soldiers are waging war. He sleeps outside the palace door with the king’s other servants.
Upon learning this, David once again feasts with Uriah and over-serves his guest, who gets drunk. Uriah is not free of blemish. While he might forgone having sex with his wife, he appears to have no qualms with being lubricated at the king’s table. Having had his cover-up scheme thwarted, David expedites Uriah’s removal like a man emptying a trash can. He drafts a letter insuring that Uriah will be sent to the forefront of the battle lines and instructs Joab, his general, to pull the troops back exposing Uriah and those with him to certain death.
Joab, who has experienced David at his best, now sees his king who stooping to a different kind of behavior. Dispatching Uriah with a letter ensuring his own death is one of the most devious acts found in the Bible. David clearly has a shadow side as all of us have, and it will cost him dearly.
After being informed that Uriah was dead, Bathsheba mourned for her husband in the appropriate way, before David summoned her and took her as his wife. She soon bore him a son. How does one confront a dictator? Nathan the prophet used what the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard called “indirect communication.” Rather than accusing David of committing adultery and committing murder to cover up his sin Nathan tells a story. “Once upon a time there were two men, one very rich and the other poor as dirt,” Nathan says. David, a man used to seeking and doing what is fair is caught off guard.
Nathan describes how the rich man with many sheep stole the poor man’s one little ewe lamb and produced shish kabobs for his guests. David became irate and said, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die…” (2 Sam. 12:6) After letting David put the noose around his own neck, Nathan replies, “You are the man!” (2 Sam. 12:7) Few lines in the Bible are more gripping. Shakespeare never wrote a more dramatic line. This is human tragedy in its most profound state.
Each of us is called to see ourselves in David. Often that which causes us to become most irate about the actions of others has much to do with what lies deep within us. We are wise to ask ourselves when we get irate with another, “Why does this so upset me?” Often what we despise in others is something that we ourselves do. A man, who is forever angry that his father is cheap, is himself stingy to a fault. He can see his father’s niggardliness clear as day, but he is blind to his own lack of generosity.
Nathan then pronounces sentence on David listing three consequences of his immoral act. First, the sword shall never depart from David’s house. (2 Sam. 12:10) Second, Yahweh will stir up trouble from within David’s own family. Third, David’s wives shall be taken from him. (2 Sam. 12:11).
David acknowledges his sin. The rabbis have traditionally believed that David composed Psalm 51, the greatest penitential psalm in the Bible, shortly after he committed adultery with Bathsheba. I encourage you to read it now. David tells Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord,” and the prophet replies, “Now the Lord has put away your sin…” (2 Sam. 12:13) This line appears in The Book of Common Prayer at the conclusion of the service for Reconciliation of a Penitent after the priest pronounces absolution. The priest says, “Now there is rejoicing in heaven; for you were lost, and are found; you were dead, and are now alive in Christ Jesus our Lord. Go in peace. The Lord has put away all your sins.” (BCP, p. 451)
There are more consequences to follow for David. Nathan prophesizes, “…because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child that is born to you shall die.” David fasted and prayed hoping to entreat the Yahweh to spare his son, but to no avail. Once informed that his son is dead; David consoled Bathsheba and lay with her again. She conceived a second time and bore Solomon, whose name means “peace” or “prosperity.” He will become Israel’s third king and will also be known as Jedidiah, which means “beloved of the Lord.” He shall accomplish deeds which the Lord prevents his father from doing.
One of the challenges facing clergy and leaders of all organizations is to avoid living as though the world revolves around them. Everyone may speak, but when the leader speaks, his or her word is deemed more important. Sometimes it recalls the old commercial, “When E.F. Hutton speaks everyone listens.”
Such was probably the downfall of David. The world began to revolve around him, and he was the epicenter of the kingdom. People stopped challenging him and telling him the truth about his actions and behavior. They probably had to speak indirectly in order to avoid his wrath or judgment.
Psalm 93 provides an antidote. The Psalmist reminds us, “The Lord is king, he is robed in majesty; the Lord is robed, he is girded with strength. He has established the world; it shall never be moved.” (Ps. 93:1) Christian leaders are wise to listen closely to these words and ensure that the Lord, not ourselves, is at the center of our faith community. Each of us is a servant of the Lord. We exist to equip and serve others. God is always at the center.
Sin is easier to commit the second time. Once Stephen has been stoned to death, persecuting other Christians became easier. We are told that a severe persecution broke out in Jerusalem. Saul, in particular, who stood by witnessing the stoning of Stephen, took a central role, ravaging houses and dragging off both men and women who were thrown into prison.
This is not just the stuff of history. This is the reality for many Christians living today in areas with significant Muslim populations. Yesterday, it was reported that al-Queda affiliate al-Shabab claimed credit for attacks that killed dozens on Sunday in villages along the east coast of Kenya, near the resort of Lamu. Islamist gunmen went house to house questioning people about their religious identity before shooting Christian men. The well-planned and politically motivated attacks killed at least 60 people.
What kind of religion would want to be associated with such behavior? Early on, the forces of persecution were extremely strong against Christianity. Two thousand years later, Christians in many parts of the world are experiencing similar persecution merely for following Jesus.
One benefit from these early attacks was that Christians were scattered and took their faith with them. Philip proclaimed Christ to those whom he met and produced many signs, healing and curing people of their infirmities. His words and actions convinced many to follow Jesus, including, Simon Magnus, a magician, who sought to buy the Holy Spirit as if it were a commodity on the black market, saying, “Give me also this power so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 8:19)
Peter chastised Simon saying, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought that you could obtain God’s gift with money! You have no part or share in this, for your heart is not right before God.” (Acts 8:20-21) Simon’s request gave birth to an illicit activity known as “simony,” which was named after him. It means to pay for an office in the Church hierarchy and is regarded as a Christian crime.
Throughout the Middle Ages there were endless reports and accusations of simony. The office of bishop, cardinal and even Pope were at times for sale to the highest bidder. People with no spiritual qualifications could purchase an office in the Church hierarchy for themselves or for a family member. Dante’s Inferno is littered with Christian leaders who paid for their high offices.
The Church of England also struggled with simony after its separation from Rome. English law viewed simony as an offense, but treated it as an ecclesiastical matter rather than as a crime against the state. Edward VI and Elizabeth I promulgated statues against simony. The cases of the Bishop of St. David’s in 1699 and the Dean of York in 1841 were notable examples of simony.
Philip then encountered an Ethiopian eunuch, whose conversion signified Christianity branching out to other cultures. After being instructed by an angel to travel south from Jerusalem on the road to Gaza, Philip set out. In the wilderness, where God so frequently acts, Philip met an Ethiopian eunuch, who was a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians.
Philip found him reading aloud, which was the common practice. Reading silently did not become a common practice until late in the Middle Ages. As the eunuch read from the book of Isaiah, Philip asked him, “Do you understand what you are reading?” This is a question that every Christian leader should ask as the Bible can be very baffling at times. The simplest of things can be challenging to comprehend.
“How can I, unless someone guides me?” replied the eunuch. Then Philip entered his chariot and sat beside him. He did not invite the man come to his church and attend his weekly Bible study. He met the seeker where he was. The eunuch was reading from Isaiah 53:7-8. Indeed, Isaiah 53 played a central role in early Christian preaching. (See Matt. 8:17, John 12:38 and 1 Peter 2:22-25) Later in Isaiah, the prophet seems to prophesize about this very kind of conversion, when he writes,
The foreigner who has given his allegiance to the Lord must not say, “The Lord will exclude me from his people.” The eunuch must not say, “I am naught but a barren tree.” These are the words of the Lord: The eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, whose choose to do my will and hold fast to my covenant, will receive from me something better than sons and daughters, a memorial and a name in my own house and within my walls; I shall give them everlasting renown, an imperishable name. (Is. 56:3-5)
After Philip explained the Scriptures to the unnamed eunuch so that he could understand the significance of Isaiah’s prophecy about the Messiah, who would be “led to the slaughter…like a lamb silent before its shearer,” the eunuch sought to be baptized. Philip baptized him by immersion, which was common in the early church.
“You are the man!” (II Samuel 12:7)
What angers you most about others? Do you think that what angers you about others is sometimes something resident in your own actions and behavior? Why does it so upset you? Do you at times place yourself in the center of the universe instead of God? How aware are you of the persecution facing many Christians today living around the world? Why do you think Islam is so connected today with violence behavior? What should Christians and Christian leaders do about it? If you are developing some understanding of the Bible, what prevents you from helping others to understand it as well?
Gracious God, let us walk and act throughout each moment of this day as if you were beside us, in front of us, behind us, above us, below us and within us. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania