Opening The Old Testament
The Corruption of Power: Reflections on 2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a
Though we know nothing of his origin, he feels completely free to stride into the king's presence and tell to him a short story. It could be said that Nathan's story is the first example in history of a story sermon. Listen to the story:
There were two men in a certain city, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had vast flocks and herds, while the poor man had only one small ewe lamb that he had acquired. He brought it up and it grew up with him and his children. It would eat of his meager food, drink from his cup, lie in his lap; it was like a daughter to him. Now the rich man had a visitor, but he was reluctant to take one of his own flock and herd to prepare for his visitor, so he grabbed the poor man's lamb and served her to the guest who had come to him. (2 Sam 12:1-4)
Nathan has no need to ask the king what he would do to such a callous, rich man. David quickly became furious and said, "As YHWH lives, the man who does such things is a child of death! He shall restore the lamb four times over because he did this thing and because he had no pity." (2 Sam 12:6) Nathan fixes the king with his best prophetic stare and thunders a sentence that has echoed down the ages, "You are the man!" The story sermon has worked its will; David has been skewered on his own sword. Nathan proceeds to tell the king that his actions with Bathsheba and Uriah are nothing less than the actions of the rich man in the story. Even though YHWH has made David king and given him many wives and the rule over Israel and Judah, YHWH would have offered even more to him. (2 Sam 12:7-8)
Why have you done these monstrous deeds of adultery and murder and thereby "despised the word of YHWH?" The result of all this will be terrible: "I will raise up trouble against you from within your own house; I will take your wives before your eyes, and give them to your neighbor, and he shall sleep with your wives in the sight of this sun!" (2 Sam 12:11) Your secret evil will be matched by a very public evil. And so it all transpires just as Nathan has warned; David's very public humiliation follows in the remainder of his story.
And David replies to this withering prophetic tongue-lashing, "I have sinned against YHWH." (2 Sam 12:13a) Many readers of this text have focused squarely on this confession of David, as if that simple utterance will resolve the evil of the king's appalling deeds. The editor of Psalm 51 went so far as to connect that psalm with David's contrition, implying that the king wrote these famous words to cleanse the evil from his very soul. There is, of course, no proof at all that David wrote Psalm 51. We can only say that someone, in the course of the transmission of the poem, wanted to say that he hoped that David would have said such a thing. I must admit that the David I read about in this story isn't likely to confess much of anything, at least in any very serious way.
We may applaud David for his act of confession, but we can never forget that that confession did not stop the avalanche of evil that resulted from all his monstrousness. The child dies, his children either kill or rape one another or are rebels against their father, and the king himself dies in his cold bed, breathing out revenge on a helpless ancient enemy. Indeed, his very last words are a command to Solomon to murder Shemei, a man who had once cursed him many years before. (1 Kings 2:8-10) No greater example may be found of the dire results of the raw abuse of power. To any of us who think that power grants us license, we would all do well to deeply ponder this rich story of warning "To those who are given much, much is expected." The infamy of Israel's second king must never be forgotten.
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.