Nothing prepares us for the story in II Samuel 11. In the chapters leading up to it, there is no mention of David starting to wane in his devotion to the Lord or of him becoming enamored with the power and prestige of being a successful and beloved king. Most everything in David’s story, as a matter of fact, has been universally positive to this point. He’s served God faithfully and God has blessed him from the time Samuel called him in from the pasture and anointed him king up to now when he’s likely in middle age and has been on the throne long enough to become a legend.
But in this chapter everything changes. Seemingly out of the blue he sins almost like no one else in the Bible. The forefather of the Messiah, the man whose throne has been deemed eternal by God, the writer of the Psalter and a man after God’s own heart throws it all away for lust. And he engages in some of the most egregious acts of any believer in the Bible. It’s shocking for the reader to go through this chapter and see a man with David’s credentials go so far into sin. It’s so out of line with the rest of David’s story that it can be difficult to comprehend.
Which is why we should thank God that He includes it in His word. If the Bible were a propaganda tool for Christianity this chapter wouldn’t be in it because it stains a hero of the faith. You wouldn’t include a story of so explosive a failure. But God’s word isn’t about the men of God – it’s about the glorious God of men. And the lessons of David and Bathsheba are that no one is beyond committing the most egregious sins (regardless of their spiritual background or standing), sin’s ramifications are always farther-reaching and more dramatic than we imagine (especially when we contemplate giving in to temptation), and nothing is beyond God’s forgiveness. David is ultimately all of us, and it’s to God’s glory and because of His love that He lets us learn the dangers of sin by reading about David’s enormous failure.
As the chapter opens, Israel is at war with the Ammonites. Spring is here and the military campaigns that were suspended for winter start up again. It’s the time that kings and generals go out with their armies and face the enemy. It’s what David has typically done throughout his career, both when he served Saul and throughout his time as king.
This year, however, is different. For reasons that aren’t explained, David decides to stay home and send Joab and the armies out without him. There’s no way to know why he makes this decision, but perhaps he thinks there’s nothing left to prove on the battlefield or maybe he’s comfortable in Jerusalem and a little older and the thought of roughing it in the field doesn’t sound as exciting and challenging as it used to. And it’s not necessarily wrong to choose to stay in the city, but it means he’s now home at a time when he’s not used to being home and he probably doesn’t have a lot to do because all the able-bodied men are gone and official activity in Jerusalem is likely at a minimum.
The story of David’s descent into sin is told rapidly and with only the facts necessary to establish his guilt. Many facets of the story that we as readers would like to know are left out. The author clearly wants to focus on David; the other characters in the drama and what they think aren’t important because the goal is to show David’s willful sin.
We don’t know how long he’s been in the city since Joab and the army left, but on a certain day he gets up from his couch in the evening – apparently after taking an afternoon nap – and decides to take a walk on the roof. The picture is of a man without a lot to do. He’s used to being in the field with the military at this time of year and likely doesn’t know what to do with himself. This is a completely different level of activity from what he’s used to.
As he’s walking on the roof, he sees a beautiful woman bathing. That he sees her bathing doesn’t mean she’s an exhibitionist or that she’s trying to seduce him. The way the text reads in verse 4 means she’s probably bathing after her menstrual period to become ceremonially clean. That he sees her has more to do with his vantage point than any actions on her part. His house is likely the tallest structure in the city and he’s able to look down on other roofs.
When he sees her he immediately wants to know who she is and so asks around to find out her identity. Once we find out that she’s the wife of Uriah the Hittite and the daughter of Eliam, it becomes a little strange that he doesn’t already know her. Uriah is one of his mighty men. He’s among the thirty men (II Sam 23:39) who have been with David since he was running from Saul. Eliam – Bathsheba’s father – is also counted among those men (assuming he’s the same man mentioned in II Sam 23:34). Eliam is the son of Ahithophel, who is David’s advisor (II Sam 15:12, Ps 41:9). All this to say, with all the ways he’s connected to people close to her it’s odd that David doesn’t know who she is. Perhaps it’s just a matter of how women function in the culture. He doesn’t know her because he hasn’t been around her even though he’s been around her husband, father and grandfather.
Even after finding out that she’s the wife of one of his most loyal men (and it’s interesting that he wants to know who she is before he decides to act – if her being the wife of one of his men doesn’t stop him, then what’s the point of asking?), he still sends for her and brings her to the palace. Again, we don’t know the details of how this works. Does he make up a reason for calling her to him? Does he simply tell her to come with no explanation? It’s probably a fair assumption that he doesn’t tell her the real reason. Based on how hard he’s going to work to cover this up, it would be odd if he’s honest now.
She comes to the palace and he sleeps with her. She then goes home. Later she finds out she’s pregnant and sends word to David (most likely in a complete panic because if she’s found out she can be executed for adultery). And since she was purifying herself after her menstrual period when David originally saw her, there’s no doubt as to who’s the father.
And that’s all there is to it. Just four verses needed to tell of an act that will bring down a kingdom, affect the rest of David’s life and cause ramifications that will last beyond his death.
One question begs to be answered – what is Bathsheba’s role in this? Is she a brazen woman cheating on her husband? Or is she an innocent pawn essentially raped by the king? There ultimately is no way to know, but a few nuances in the story give us some clues. For one thing, she’s not blamed by the author at all. Admittedly, this is perhaps the weakest point in her favor because the author – as we mentioned above – doesn’t really care about anyone other than David. This is the story of David’s sin and everyone else is a bit player. However, Nathan says nothing about her either when he comes to condemn David in Chapter 12. Even more telling, in the parable that Nathan tells to make David aware of his guilt (12:1-4), the lamb that represents Bathsheba obviously has no culpability in the rich man’s sin. The lamb is powerless over its fate. And beyond these things, the suddenness of David’s actions argues for her being simply a pawn in his lust. She bathes to become clean after her period and next thing she knows there are messengers from the king telling her to come to the palace. It doesn’t make sense that she automatically assumes he wants to sleep with her and decides on the spot to go along with it. It’s much more likely that she goes to the palace unaware and then finds she has little choice when he decides to take her for his own pleasure.
David now has a problem. His one night stand has produced a child. And even though he’s king, committing adultery with the wife of a loyal warrior who’s on the battlefield is way out of line. So he decides to cover it up. He calls for Uriah to come to Jerusalem and give a report on how things go in the field. Once Uriah comes back and meets with him, David tells him to go home and wash your feet. This is likely a euphemistic way of telling him to go home and sleep with his wife. And to aid in his homecoming, David sends a gift after him.
The problem is, Uriah doesn’t take David up on the offer. He’s too honorable to go home to his wife. He knows his compatriots and the ark are living in tents. Consequently, he doesn’t think it appropriate to enjoy his bed and his wife while they endure rough conditions on the battlefield. He instead sleeps with David’s servants at the door of the king’s house. The contrast with David here is striking. David is trying to cover adultery with the wife of a loyal subject and Uriah is worried about dishonoring his country, his God, and his fellow soldiers.
When David sees that his plan didn’t work, he tells Uriah to stay for another two nights (which means Uriah chooses not to go home to his wife for three nights in a row) and on the second night gets Uriah drunk during dinner at the palace. He assumes that Uriah – feeling no pain and forgetting all about acting honorably – will go home to his wife. Instead, Uriah again stays with the king’s servants at the door to the king’s house. He may be drunk but he doesn’t forget his fellow soldiers in the field. By doing so, he proves that even drunk he has more character than David.
Once David realizes that Plan B didn’t work either, he decides on the final solution. He writes a note to Joab and has Uriah carry it back to the battlefield. In the note he instructs Joab to place Uriah in the hottest part of the fighting and then desert him so he’ll be killed. Once again, we aren’t told how someone else in the story reacts. We get no report on Joab’s response when Uriah – one of his most trusted men – brings him a letter with his own death sentence in it. David gives no explanation; he simply orders Joab to engineer Uriah’s death.
[Joab and David have a complicated relationship. They are actually related – Joab is the son of David’s sister Zeruiah – and that perhaps plays a role in the tenuous nature of their interactions. Joab seems to alternate between trusted right-hand man and serial pain in David’s side. Things deteriorate so much toward the end of David’s reign that he instructs his son Solomon to kill Joab after David dies. Knowing what the future holds between these two, it’s interesting to wonder if the beginning of the problems in their relationship stem from Joab having to facilitate the death of a good man to cover David’s sin.]
Joab – as the loyal soldier – does just as he’s ordered. He places Uriah on the frontlines and then pulls back from him so that he dies. Joab enables the death of Uriah but others die with him as collateral damage. It’s not just Uriah who pays for David’s cover-up.
Joab sends word back to David and lets him know Uriah and others are dead. David – who now knows his plan worked and there’s no one who can stand in the way of his bringing Bathsheba to the palace and claiming the child she’s carrying as his own – seeks to comfort Joab after the losses. Showing just how devious and selfish his perspective is, he sends word back to Joab that he shouldn’t be upset about the deaths because war is hell and people die. He essentially tells Joab, “We’ll get ‘em next time – don’t worry about this little setback.” He’s so far gone in his sin that all he can see is that he’s off the hook. That he directly caused innocent men to die – men who thought they were fighting for their country and king – means nothing to him.
[It’s interesting to parse David’s words in verse 25. Does he mean to encourage Joab because of the deaths or does he mean for Joab to take it as “Don’t worry about what I had you do to Uriah, people die in war all the time so it’s not that big of a deal that you caused his death, so just focus on defeating Ammon and I’m sure you’ll be successful.” If it’s the latter, then perhaps he realizes Joab isn’t happy about what he was asked to do.]
Bathsheba hears that Uriah is dead (another unknown – does she know or does she ever know how he died?) and goes into mourning. When this time is over (probably seven days per I Sam 31:13), David brings her to the palace and makes her his wife. The timing of events kind of makes the reader’s head spin. Her husband dies and within days (perhaps) she lives in the king’s house as the king’s wife and becomes pregnant and eventually gives birth to the king’s son. Does anyone on the outside look at this and wonder about how quickly this occurred? Is there gossip all over Jerusalem? Is Bathsheba herself happy to be the wife of David instead of the wife of Uriah?
The chapter ends with a sobering observation. David’s plan has worked and no one is the wiser about his adultery (with the exception of Joab and those who inquired about Bathsheba and brought her to the palace). Uriah is gone and no one is now in the way of his marriage to the beautiful Bathsheba. But there’s one Person who isn’t pleased and who knows everything about what David’s done. He hasn’t been mentioned in the chapter to this point but He knows the original sin and knows everything about the cover-up. But the thing that David had done was evil in the sight of the Lord (11:27). David’s scheming didn’t account for one very important Person in his life.
Any of us is capable of the worst sin. As we mentioned in the introduction, this is probably the most extreme example in the Bible of a believer engaging in detestable sin. God’s anointed commits adultery and murder. But by doing so David shows us that we should never underestimate our capacity to fall away and rationalize the worst behavior. We should be sobered when we read this chapter. If the man who wrote Psalm 23 and said in another Psalm, “I delight to do Your will, O my God; Your law is within my heart” (Ps 40:8) can act as he does in this story, it means that all of us have to constantly guard our hearts and vigilantly pursue God and renew our minds every day. The sinful potential of a believer’s untended heart is terrifying.
Any sin left alone grows and destroys. Note the progression of David’s actions. He breaks the tenth commandment (covet) which leads to breaking the seventh (adultery) which leads to breaking the ninth (lie) which leads to breaking the sixth (murder). He perfectly illustrates James’ words about how we enter into sin and what sin does once we do: But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death. Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren (Jas 1:14-16). There is no such thing as dabbling in sin. Sin doesn’t stop once it has us in its grip. Unless sin is arrested by the Spirit’s work accomplished through confession and repentance, it will continue to drag us into a spiral of ever-increasing unrighteousness. We’re naïve to think we can just sin a little.
Any sin blinds us and distorts our perspective. David finds out that the woman he lusts after is the wife of one of his most loyal and valuable men and it doesn’t stop him from sleeping with her. He gets news that innocent men died and is relieved that their deaths mean Uriah died too. Think about those two things. He doesn’t care about violating a loyal man’s wife and is relieved to hear of the deaths of innocent men. Why? Because he’s selfishly lost in his sin and can’t see reality anymore. Sin always blinds and distorts. Once we enter into sin and don’t come out, it becomes more and more rational to proceed in ways that would shock us when we’re in our right minds. Can you imagine going to David a year before this story occurs and telling him that he’ll one day celebrate the deaths of innocent men who fight for him because it will mean he gets away with betraying one of his most trusted warriors? Perhaps the most dangerous aspects of sin are how it distorts our view of reality and blinds us to our selfishness.
Any sin affects more than just the sinner. This will become much more apparent in subsequent chapters, but David’s covetousness and resulting actions have already affected Bathsheba, Uriah, Joab, the men who fought and died with Uriah, and the newborn son of Bathsheba. And the ramifications are just starting. We never sin in a vacuum and are naïve to think that we do.