10. David's Rise, Fall, and Punishment (2 Samuel 8-12)

Audio (55:24)

James J. Tissot, 'Nathan Reproaches David' (1896-1902), gouache on board, The Jewish Museum, New York.
James J. Tissot, 'Nathan Reproaches David' (1896-1902), gouache on board, The Jewish Museum, New York. Larger image.

As king of all Israel, David finds success beyond his wildest dreams -- but that doesn't seem to be enough for him. While he was a fugitive in the Judean desert, he had to rely closely on God, since his life was tenuous. But here in the palace, David is surrounded by wealth and luxury and any pleasure he could desire -- and that becomes his downfall. I recall the thorny soil in Jesus' Parable of the Sower:

"The worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful." (Mark 4:19)

It is a sad and cautionary tale from which we must learn, especially those of us from the relatively affluent West that allows us to become soft and feel sufficient in ourselves.

This is a long lesson. While the first part doesn't include many deep spiritual insights, I've tried to fill in some of the geopolitical background context so you can understand better the empire that David developed. The real spiritual insights come later as we examine David's sin with Bathsheba.

David Subjugates the Philistines and Moabites (8:1-2)

When David took the throne, his first concern was the survival of his kingdom. But gradually he developed a policy of subjugating the nations around Israel, so they could not rise up against Israel. It is an expensive policy, but also extremely lucrative in terms of the tribute that these vassal nations send to David in his capital at Jerusalem.

David finally subdues the Philistines that have troubled Israel for centuries. We examined his victories over the Philistines in Lesson 7. (However, late in David's reign the Philistines trouble Israel again and are put down; 21:15-17).

David also defeats the Moabites. Despite the fact that David's ancestor Ruth was a Moabite (Ruth 4:17) and that the Moabites had protected David's parents while he was being hunted by Saul (1 Samuel 22:3-4), David enforces on Moab's conquered army a brutal punishment to reduce their numbers and end whatever threat they posed to Israel. Moab becomes a vassal state bringing tribute to David (8:11-12).

David defeats Zobah and the Arameans (8:3-6)

The Philistines and Moabites are nearby enemies. But now David begins to secure his borders to the far north, to Aram, a confederacy of Aramean kingdoms headed by the king of Zobah.

According to the ancient genealogies in Genesis, Aram was a son of Shem, thus a Semite people (Genesis 10:22). Abraham, born in Ur, was a Semite, but not an Aramean. However, Abraham moved to Haran, an Aramean region. And when Abraham and Isaac sought wives for their sons, they looked to "old country" around Haran, an Aramean region, in Aram Naharaim (that is, Aram of the Two Rivers, the Euphrates and the Tigris) and Paddan Aram (that is, the Plateau of Aram). Jacob is called an Aramean (Deuteronomy 26:5). Hebrew is a Semitic language, closely related to Aramaic, the language of the Arameans.

 Over time, some Aramean peoples moved south from Mesopotamia into the area known as present-day Syria. In David's time, these Aramean kingdoms or city-states consisted of an alliance headed by the kingdom of Zobah.[210] Zobah was centered in the what is known today as the Beqaa Valley, watered by two rivers, the Orontes and the Litani. The area was rich in vineyards, grain fields, and minerals, especially copper.[211] Zobah's king acted as overlord to a vast territory extending northeast, along the Fertile Crescent to the Euphrates River. Saul had fought against Zobah in his day (1 Samuel 14:47); now it is David's turn.

 Hadadezer, king of Zobah, is a powerful and aggressive king. So in order for David to secure the northern borders of Israel, it is necessary to subdue these Aramean kingdoms. It seems that David took the opportunity to attack Zobah from the south when Hadadezer's main army was away seeking to restore territory along the Euphrates River. Even when Zobah's troops were reinforced by allies from Damascus, David won an outstanding victory:

Map: The Extent of David's Kingdom (2 Samuel 8 , 10).
Map: The Extent of David's Kingdom (2 Samuel 8 , 10). Larger map.

 "4 David captured a thousand of his chariots, seven thousand charioteers and twenty thousand foot soldiers. He hamstrung all but a hundred of the chariot horses. 5 When the Arameans of Damascus came to help Hadadezer king of Zobah, David struck down twenty-two thousand of them. 6 He put garrisons in the Aramean kingdom of Damascus, and the Arameans became subject to him and brought tribute." (8:4-6)

We don't know much about the battle, except that David won a major victory, capturing a huge chariot division as well as 20,000 soldiers. In fact, the largest chariot battle in history in 1274 BC, took place between the Egyptians and the Hittites in the Beqaa Valley at Kadesh, involving 5,000 to 6,000 chariots. Chariots were a powerful military weapon in battles on flat river valleys -- a mobile fighting platform that could destroy an army of foot soldiers.[212] But David's kind of fighting, centered in the hill country, had no use for chariots, since they only were effective on flat ground. To weaken Zobah's ability to rebel, however, he hamstrung nearly all the chariot horses, a common military practice.

Since Hadadezer was the overlord of a number of vassal kingdoms extending all the way to the Euphrates River, when David conquered Hadadezer, David himself became the overlord of all these vassal kingdoms, and the influence of his reign extended over a huge territory, from the Brook of Egypt (probably Wâdī el-ʿArîsh[213]) in the south to the Euphrates River in the northeast.

To ensure continued control of these Aramean kingdoms, David puts a garrison of soldiers in Damascus. However, keeping the Arameans subdued is a continual struggle. In 2 Samuel 10 (later in this lesson) we see further battles with Hadadezer and other Aramean city-states hired by Ammon.

As a result of David conquering the Aramean kingdoms, David receives an appreciative visit bearing gifts from the king of Hamath, a Hittite kingdom that often warred with the Arameans (8:9-10). This looks more like a strategic alliance between Hamath and Israel, rather than an actual suzerain-vassal relationship.

In 8:13-14 we read about a major victory over the Edomites inflicting 18,000 casualties. After that, the Edomites were put under submission by garrisons of troops.

When we read a single sentence in the Bible that reports a victory, it's easy to pass over it quickly. But to wage war hundreds of miles from his home base against such powerful enemies, requires David and his officers to manage supply lines, military units, strategy on unfamiliar ground, to motivate large numbers of soldiers, and to coordinate their movements against huge and well-equipped armies. True, in Joab, David has a gifted general, but winning and then retaining such a vast kingdom says a lot about David's vision and abilities. Baldwin observes,

"These military operations must have been time-consuming, occupying much of David's best years, and displaying his brilliance as a general."[214]

David is a military and administrative genius, rising from being a shepherd boy to becoming the head of a substantial empire. However, the narrator attributes it not to David, but to God.

"The LORD gave David victory wherever he went." (2 Samuel 8:6b)

David Receives Tribute (8:7-12)

In the ancient Near East, a conquering king didn't usually rule conquered kingdoms directly. Rather, the existing kings would often continue to rule as vassal kings, who were now expected to support David's garrisons of soldiers and to send tribute regularly to David in Jerusalem. Here the narrator records tribute of gold and bronze that David then "dedicated" to the Lord. The word "dedicate" is qādash, that which is in the sphere of the sacred. So David transfers control from his own personal treasury to that of the Lord, apparently stockpiling materials that could be used later by Solomon to build the temple (1 Chronicles 22:14-16; 28:11-19).

David's Administrative Structure (8:15-18)

The narrator sums up David's role:

"David reigned over all Israel, doing what was just and right for all his people." (8:15)

Verses 16-18 along with 20:23-26 delineate David's cabinet of chief ministers. Note the divisions:

  1. National army. This is the army drawn from the tribes of Israel, under the generalship of Joab.
  2. Mercenaries made up a large part of the troops David uses to conquer and to occupy his far-flung kingdoms. These forces are under the control of Benaiah, a legendary military leader (23:20). The mercenaries seemed to consist of three groups.

  • Gittites. David's personal bodyguard is made up of Gittites (soldiers from Gath) under the leadership of Ittai (15:18-19). Using foreign troops to protect the king's person lessened intrigue that could have been based on tribal loyalties.
  • Kerethites or Cherethites. This group probably consists of Philistines from the Negev desert (1 Samuel 30:14).[215]
  • Pelethites are probably Philistine mercenaries also.[216] This interesting administrative division between the regular army and the mercenary army has important historical implications. When David is old,  Adonijah attempts to become king rather than Solomon. The regular army of Israelites under Joab supports Adonijah, while the mercenary troops  (who didn't have tribal loyalties) under Benaiah support Solomon, David's handpicked successor (1 Kings 1:7-8). Solomon win out.
  1. Priests. Abiathar and Zadok shared this responsibility. Later, Abiathar is deposed for supporting Adonijah, and Zadok is given full responsibility as high priest (1 Kings 1:7-8; 2:35). David is a strong patron of Yahweh worship, and, as we have seen, prepares for the construction of a temple. He sets up a whole Levitical structure to ensure appropriate worship both in Jerusalem before the ark and at the tabernacle site at the high place at Gibeon (1 Chronicles 16:39).
  2. Recorder, or perhaps "royal herald" (mazkir, literally, "one causing to remember"). We're not sure of the exact responsibilities of this officer,[217] though he may have been responsible for keeping the king informed, advising him, and communicating the kings commands.[218]
  3. Royal secretary or scribe (sōpēr) or secretary of state.[219] He may have served as an assistant to the Recorder, but since this office doesn't follow right after the Recorder in this list, it probably has specific duties. Both offices seem to have been important in later administrations (1 Kings 4:3; 2 Kings 12:10; 18:18; 2 Chronicles 34:8; cf. Esther 6:1).
  4. Royal advisors, literally, "priests"[220] (NRSV). David's sons apparently serve in his cabinet also -- which makes sense in developing them for a future role as king. The Chronicler mentions them as "chief officials."

A similar list in 20:23-26 reflecting a later period includes a couple more officers: a person in charge of forced labor and David's private priest, Ira the Jairite. Important roles that are not mentioned in these lists are instructive.

  1. Prime Minister or vizier. Since this is omitted, it is likely that David heads his own government, rather than being a king who delegates all the day-to-day governance issues to others. David exercises strong personal administrative and leadership gifts.
  2. Judicial. David, as was common in the ancient Near East, is the final judge. We see this role in Solomon, who famously proposed to settle a dispute about who was a child's true mother by cutting the child in half (1 Kings 3:16-28). Apparently, however, David delegates some judicial duties to a group of Levites (1 Chronicles 23:4; 26:29). In later years, however, David may not have taken his responsibility to judge disputes seriously enough -- at least according to his son Absalom, who offers to intervene on the behalf of people seeking the king's justice (2 Samuel 15:2-4).

  3. Taxation. David doesn't have a Department of Internal Revenue, since much of the income for his government comes from tribute from surrounding vassal nations. However, David's census (chapter 24) may have had implications for taxation as well as conscription of soldiers.

David did have a lot of expenses. By the end of his reign, he has a growing number of clients and pensioners eating at his table (19:32-38). Mephibosheth, whom we'll consider next, is one of these.

David Honors Jonathan's Son Mephibosheth (9:1-13)

Perhaps the following story about Mephibosheth is placed here because the narrator has just been talking about David's cabinet -- and Mephibosheth becomes, if not a member of the ruling council, at least a member of the royal household.

If you recall in Lesson 3, David and Jonathan had made a covenant with each other (1 Samuel 18:3), renewed again when David had to flee from Saul (1 Samuel 20:14-17; 20:42). Jonathan knew that David would become king, and had asked of David:

"Do not ever cut off your kindness from my family -- not even when the LORD has cut off every one of David's enemies from the face of the earth." (1 Samuel 20:15)

Jonathan had kept his promises to protect David from Saul's anger and David does not forget his promises to Jonathan. David even honors his promise to Saul not to kill his offspring when he gets the chance (1 Samuel 24:21-22; 2 Samuel 4).

Apparently, David is recalling his sweet friendship with Jonathan, which prompts him to ask his staff:

"Is there anyone still left of the house of Saul to whom I can show kindness for Jonathan's sake?" (9:1)

Inquiries are made and a man named Ziba, who had formerly been "a servant of Saul's household," is summoned to the palace. Presumably, Ziba had been a capable part of Saul's paid household staff, not an owned slave, for now Ziba appears to be a wealthy man with 15 sons and 20 servants (9:10). David asks him if anyone is left from Saul's family. Ziba informs him, "There is still a son of Jonathan; he is crippled in both feet" (9:3b).

This son is named Mephibosheth.[221] When he was a boy of five, word came to the palace that Saul and Jonathan had been slain. In order to protect the prince from the Philistines, who were expected to overrun the capital at Gibeah, his nurse had dropped him in her haste to flee and he became crippled (4:4).

Mephibosheth had been staying in Lo Debar, a town east of the Jordan, in the home of Makir son of Ammiel, a wealthy, generous, and hospitable man who later assists David when he flees from Absalom (17:27-29).

When Mephibosheth is summoned to appear before David, he is probably terrified. As the rightful heir of the previous king, he could be considered in line for the throne. Such offspring from a former dynasty were usually killed to insure the security of the new king (19:28). But David isn't motivated by fear. Rather, he is motivated by his love for Jonathan and his honor in keeping the covenant he has made with Jonathan. David says to Mephibosheth:

"Don't be afraid, for I will surely show you kindness for the sake of your father Jonathan. I will restore to you all the land that belonged to your grandfather Saul, and you will always eat at my table." (9:7)

The privilege of eating at the king's table is a high honor (19:28; 1 Kings 2:7) that Saul had once bestowed upon David (1 Samuel 20:5, 18). Now David accords this honor to the son of his friend Jonathan.

Moreover, David restores all of Saul's land to Mephibosheth (which, presumably had become David's as the new king), and commands Saul's former servant Ziba to manage these farmlands for him. Ziba may not like this change in status, but he wisely obeys David's edict. Later, however, he tries to get free from this obligation (16:1-4), and apparently succeeds (19:17, 26-29).

David not only spares Mephibosheth from death; he honors and blesses him. That's how David keeps the spirit of his covenant with Jonathan (Psalm 15:4).

Q1. (2 Samuel 9:1-13) Why does David honor Mephibosheth? What does this teach us about David's character?

David Fights the Ammonites -- and the Arameans Again (10:1-19)

Up to this point, David had an alliance with the king of Ammon, whose capital was at Rabbah (Rabbath-Ammon). Today it is Amman, capital of the modern Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

 But the former friendly king had died, so David sends a delegation to Rabbah to express his sympathy and to cement good relations with Hanun, his son, who reigns in his place.

But the son wants to assert the independence of Ammon from the increasing power of Israel. The new king's advisors interpret David's delegation as being spies trying to find the city's weaknesses so David can later attack to overthrow this walled city. On that provocation, Hanun thoroughly humiliates David's delegates by cutting off one half the beard of each man and cutting off their robes in such a way that their nakedness is exposed. Then he sends them home in disgrace. How stupid! Wise rulers don't insult the most powerful king in the entire region.

Finally, however, the Ammonite king realizes his stupidity. In order to defend his kingdom from David's inevitable retaliation, he pays some of his allies to send their armies:

  • Beth Rehob and Zobah send 20,000 Aramean foot soldiers from a kingdom David had previously subdued (8:3-8). This constitutes an act of rebellion of vassals against David their suzerain.
  • Maacah[222] sends 1,000 men.
  • Tob[223] sends 12,000 men.

David responds to the Ammonites' insult with his entire army under Joab.

When the Israelite army arrives at the gates of Rabbah, they find that their enemies threaten them from two directions. The Ammonites are arrayed in front of Rabbah's city gates, while their Aramean allies are deployed behind the Israelite army. The Israelite army is in extreme jeopardy!

Joab is forced to divide his army to fight a two-front battle. Joab commands the division that will attack the Aramean forces deployed behind them, while his brother Abishai, a valiant man in his own right (1 Samuel 26:6-12; 2 Samuel 23:18-19), commands the division that will attack the Ammonites stationed in front of their city. In Joab's words to the troops, you can sense the seriousness of the situation. They are in a fight for their very lives:

"If the Arameans are too strong for me, then you are to come to my rescue; but if the Ammonites are too strong for you, then I will come to rescue you. Be strong and let us fight bravely for our people and the cities of our God. The LORD will do what is good in his sight." (10:11-12)

And God is with them! When Joab advances on the Arameans, they flee, and the Ammonites then retreat into their city to avoid slaughter. Rather than put the walled city under siege at this point, Joab returns to Jerusalem. The Israelites have won the first round, though the Ammonites remain a dangerous enemy on Israel's eastern borders.

But David is aware that he not only has the Ammonites to cope with. Now his Aramean vassals are in full rebellion, trying to throw off his yoke as their suzerain.

The Arameans regroup. King Hadadezer of Zobah calls on troops from Aramean allies north of the Euphrates River (ancient Mesopotamia), and they assemble for battle at Helam, east of the Jordan,[224] with Zobah's chief general in command. It is a huge force, with tens of thousands of soldiers and hundreds of chariots.

Instead of leaving this battle to Joab, David himself gathers troops from all over Israel for the showdown and leads them personally. Israel's massed troops cross the Jordan at a ford and march towards the Arameans massed at Helam.

We don't know the details of the battle, but we know the result:

"They fled before Israel, and David killed seven hundred of their charioteers and forty thousand of their foot soldiers. He also struck down Shobach the commander of their army, and he died there." (10:18)

It is a decisive victory. As a result, all the city-states and kingdoms that had been loyal to Hadadezer of Zobah now transfer their allegiance to David and become his vassals. Baldwin observes:

"This means that the consolidated Israelite tribes had ... secured control over the main trade routes that connected Egypt and Arabia with Syria and further afield. As a result, Israel gained political dominance and economic advantage."[225]

And the Ammonites at Rabbah now have nowhere to turn for help. It is time to move against them.

Joab Lays Siege to the Ammonite Capital of Rabbah (11:1)

David returns to Jerusalem. But the next spring, when the rains are over, the weather is warm enough for an extended campaign, and the troops can sustain themselves from the ripening fields of wheat and barley surrounding Rabbah, David's troops move to besiege Rabbah.

David sends his own troops (perhaps his Philistine mercenaries -- the Gittites, Kerethites, and Pelethites), as well as troops from the various tribes of Israel, all under the command of Joab. They go with one purpose: to put down the Ammonite threat.

I've often heard David criticized for staying in Jerusalem rather than going off to war with his troops. That's unfair. David had gone out with the troops when threatened by a massive Aramean force that could have destroyed the Israelite army at Helam (10:17-18). But the siege of Rabbah doesn't require him to be present personally. After all, he has an empire to administer.

Joab is certainly competent to conduct the siege of Rabbah. No fancy strategies are required -- just a considerable period of time, even years in some cases (2 Kings 17:5). Typically, a besieging army would build earthworks (a line of circumvallation) to completely encircle their target, preventing food, water, and other supplies from reaching the besieged city. The plan would be to starve them for several months -- and, if possible, cut off their water supply and get them to surrender -- or get someone inside to betray the fortification.

If that failed, siege ramps would be built (Isaiah 37:33; Ezekiel 4:2; 21:22), from which battering rams might be able to break down the city walls or gates (2 Samuel 20:15; Ezekiel 26:8-9). Siege towers filled with archers could be erected (Isaiah 29:3; 2 Kings 25:1; Jeremiah 52:4). Sappers could dig tunnels to undermine and weaken a wall's foundations. Ropes and grappling hooks could pull down a wall (2 Samuel 17:13). The dangerous task of breaching the walls with assault ladders would take place only if surrender couldn't be achieved by other means.[226]

When it came time to finally enter the city, Joab would call David to bring the rest of the army and enter the city with a massive force, so that the king could take personal credit for the victory. And that's what happened (12:26-30). David wasn't shirking his duties by staying in Jerusalem. He would come when it was time.

The narrator tells the story of the siege of Rabbah here to introduce the story of David and Bathsheba, to explain why Bathsheba's husband wasn't at home, and to explain how he was murdered.

David Commits Adultery with Bathsheba (11:2-5)

David does a very bad thing.

"2 One evening David got up from his bed and walked around on the roof of the palace. From the roof he saw a woman bathing. The woman was very beautiful, 3 and David sent someone to find out about her. The man said, 'Isn't this Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam and the wife of Uriah the Hittite?'4 Then David sent messengers to get her. She came to him, and he slept with her. (She had purified herself from her uncleanness.) Then she went back home." (11:2-4)

It's springtime. David can't sleep. He gets up and goes out on the roof, where he is refreshed by the cool breezes blowing up the ridges from the Mediterranean. From his palace, probably at the highest point of Zion, he has a wonderful view of the city and the hills beyond.

Tonight he looks down into the city below and sees a woman bathing. Hollywood would portray Bathsheba bathing openly and immodestly, but that would have been contrary to Hebrew views about nudity. She is probably in her own courtyard or home, and doesn't have any idea that the king is peering down at her. She is a very beautiful woman. David is entranced. And the intimacy of bathing must have captured David's lustful imagination.[227] Suddenly he wants her -- and her alone.

It's not that David is starved for female companionship. By this time as a wealthy king, he has many women: Ahinoam of Jezreel, Abigail the widow of Nabal, Maacah daughter of a king from Geshur (east of Galilee), Haggith, Abital, Eglah -- that's six while he was living in Hebron -- and then "David took more concubines and wives in Jerusalem, and more sons and daughters were born to him" (5:13). In addition he has Saul's concubines in his harem (12:8). (See the discussion of Polygamy in the Bible in Lesson 5 above.)

But David is overtaken by lust. He sees a beautiful woman and wants her -- now.

He doesn't recognize her, so David sends one of his courtiers to find out who she is. It turns out that she is apparently related to three people close to David:

  1. Her father, Eliam, is one of David's thirty elite warriors (23:35).

  2. Her grandfather, Ahithophel the Gilonite, is David's chief counselor (16:23; 23:34).[228]
  3. Her husband, Uriah the Hittite, is also one of David's mighty men, one of the renowned group known as The Thirty (23:39). Though he was a Hittite by race, Uriah had a good Hebrew name meaning "Yahweh is my light."[229]

When David's courtier identifies Bathsheba, David sends for her -- even though he knows how intricately her family is tied to David's life and kingdom! Stupid!

Some commentators have blamed Bathsheba. Keil and Delitzsch faulted her because "she came without any hesitation and offered no resistance to his desires."[230] That's an argument from silence. The text doesn't blame her, so we have no cause to judge her. When the king sends for you, you come, since the king's word is absolute. The king would have the power of life or death -- though David had the reputation of being a righteous king up to this point.

In my opinion, Bathsheba is forced to submit to the king's sexual advances. She doesn't really have a choice. To blame her would be the same as blaming a woman for being raped, or blaming a woman under your supervision for instigating a sexual liaison with you. The person with the power here is David, not Bathsheba -- and David is held solely responsible for the sin by the Lord himself (12:9).

Bathsheba's bathing is probably part of her purifying herself from her menstrual period or "uncleanness" (11:4b). This demonstrates to the reader that she had not been pregnant previously. But it also gives us a hint as to her fertility, since the time seven days after her menstrual flow had ceased (Leviticus 15:19) puts her at the most fertile day of her monthly cycle when ovulation is most likely to occur -- about 14 days from the beginning of menstruation. A couple of months after this episode, Bathsheba realizes she indeed is pregnant and sends word to David.

David Attempts to Cover Up Bathsheba's Pregnancy (11:6-13)

David feels he must cover up his sin -- for Bathsheba's sake as well as his own. Plan A is to have Uriah come home, sleep with his wife, and then -- more or less -- nine months later (who is counting?) Uriah will have a child. He'll be happy. Bathsheba will be happy. And David will have complete deniability. No one will be able to prove anything.

Not that David is really in any danger. Though the penalty for adultery was death (Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:22), no court in Israel has authority to convict the king of adultery. And David would surely intervene to protect Bathsheba from being convicted. But it would be messy. It would hurt Bathsheba's marriage and sully the king's reputation as a righteous follower of Yahweh.

So he sends for Uriah, who returns the 40 or so miles from the siege of Rabbah to Jerusalem. When he arrives, David asks some general questions about how the siege is going, and then encourages Uriah, "Go down to your house and wash your feet." In other words, the king is encouraging him to go home, relax with his wife, and refresh himself -- and have sex!

The problem is that Uriah doesn't go home, but rather sleeps in the guardhouse at the gate to David's palace.[231] When David is informed and summons Uriah, the man explains:

"The ark and Israel and Judah are staying in tents, and my master Joab and my lord's men are camped in the open fields. How could I go to my house to eat and drink and lie with my wife? As surely as you live, I will not do such a thing!" (11:11)

Uriah is a man of honor. He doesn't feel right to relax at home when his fellow soldiers are undergoing the rigors of war "in the open fields."

There is also, likely, a ban against soldiers on duty having sex -- even if David has seemed to give him permission. Since serving as a soldier in Israel's army was considered service to Yahweh, for which one must be consecrated (Exodus 19:15; Leviticus 15:18), apparently David did not allow his soldiers to have sex while on duty (1 Samuel 21:4-5; Deuteronomy 23:9-11). So Uriah is being faithful to his God.

David doesn't give up. So he detains him another night and gets him drunk. Still Uriah won't go home and sleep with Bathsheba.

David Conspires to Have Uriah Killed (11:14-27)

Now David resorts to Plan B. He writes a letter to Joab:

"Put Uriah in the front line where the fighting is fiercest. Then withdraw from him so he will be struck down and die." (11:15)

David seals the letter so it cannot be opened, and sends Uriah back to Joab and the siege carrying his own death warrant! Joab complies with David's order, and Uriah is killed. Now there is no evidence of David's adultery.

However, palace gossip has surely told and embellished the true story so that the king's sordid acts are widely known (12:14). Certainly, David's palace servants will know that the child is David's. Even back then, people could count as high as nine (11:27). David marries Bathsheba after a period of mourning[232] and she becomes part of his harem. Everything seems to settle down and the baby is born.

"But the thing David had done displeased the LORD." (11:27b)

David, who had somehow avoided bloodguilt by God's grace up until now, is covered with the blood of Uriah!

  Q2. (2 Samuel 11) How can a "man after God's own heart" do something so ugly, so despicable as this -- first adultery and then murder by proxy to cover it up? What does this teach us about our human condition? What is our problem as humans? How can David ever recover his integrity after this?

Nathan's Story of the Poor Man with One Ewe Lamb (12:1-6)

The "man after God's own heart" has fallen and become hardened to God's voice. How will God restore him? "The LORD sent Nathan to David" (12:1a). Praise God that God's servants can hear the voice of the Lord and respond to Him!

Nathan has an extremely sensitive assignment: to help David repent of his sins without making him defensive and shutting off communication. It's hard enough to reason about such a sensitive subject with a normal man or woman. But a king has supreme authority, and doesn't have to listen to people who annoy him.

So Nathan tells David a story, a so-called "juridical parable."[233] On the surface it is a story that might have come from the local courts, though no names are mentioned. As king, David would often be asked to decide on more difficult civil cases such as this. So he listens with his "judge hat" on -- not realizing that this story is a mirror, a parable of his own sin!

"1b There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor. 2 The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, 3 but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him.

4 Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him." (12:1b-4)

Nathan sets up the comparisons: The rich man (David), who has numerous cattle (wives), takes the only lamb (Bathsheba) of the poor man (Uriah).

Painted in those terms, the decision is what American slang might call a "no-brainer." David responds with the obvious judgment -- not realizing that in so judging, he is judging himself. Angry, now, David says:

"5b As surely as the LORD lives, the man who did this deserves to die! 6 He must pay for that lamb four times over,[234] because he did such a thing and had no pity." (12:5-6)

Sigmund Freud developed a theory of human behavior known as "projection." This is a psychological defense mechanism where a person subconsciously denies his or her own attributes, thoughts, and emotions, which are then ascribed to the outside world, usually to other people. Though I don't subscribe to most of Freud's theories, this is an astute observation that has been generally accepted by psychologists. We can see it in action! David condemns his own sin as seen in another person.

Nathan Confronts David with Adultery and Murder (12:7-9)

Once David has stated his judgment on the rich man in the parable, Nathan nails him!

"7 Then Nathan said to David, 'You are the man! This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: "I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Saul. 8 I gave your master's house to you, and your master's wives into your arms. I gave you the house of Israel and Judah. And if all this had been too little, I would have given you even more."'" (12:7-8)

Look at the verbs in verses 7 and 8: "anointed -- delivered -- gave -- gave - gave." David is not deprived like the poor man. He is anointed. He has been protected by the Lord. He has been blessed and is rich. He has Saul's harem in addition to his own. He is king of Israel and Judah -- and God is prepared to give him even more.

"Why did you despise the word of the LORD by doing what is evil in his eyes? You struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and took his wife to be your own. You killed him with the sword of the Ammonites." (12:9)

David is guilty of adultery. But the cover-up is even worse. He is guilty of deliberate, premeditated murder.

What is the kernel of David's sin? What is the kernel of our sins? Despising the Lord's word. "Despise" (bāzâ) in verses 8 and 10 is a strong word. It means "to despise, distain, hold in contempt." The basic meaning of the root is "to accord little worth to something."[235] When we go against God's commands, we elevate ourselves to a place of greater worth, while demoting the Lawgiver's words and values to a place of lesser worth.

When we sin willfully -- that is, something more than an inadvertent slip-up -- we count ourselves as independent of God's rules. We despise our Ruler. We are in rebellion.

This has to do with love. Jesus said,

"If you love me, you will obey what I command." (John 14:15)

Christian love (agapē) is not just an emotion. It is not even primarily an emotion. It is not about feelings, but it is about commitment to another person. When we break these commitments, even though we feel the emotion of love, we have sinned against people.

My dear brother and sister. You and I are guilty before God. Though we may not be adulterers and murderers, we are not righteous, church-going people who are "pretty good" and "deserve heaven." We have each rebelled in our own way. We are sinners who desperately need a Savior! And Jesus is that Savior! Praise God.

Q3. (2 Samuel 12:1-10) Why might it be dangerous for Nathan the prophet to confront the king? What device does Nathan employ get the king to listen to him? How does David's condemnation of the rich man's greed help him acknowledge and condemn his own actions?

Nathan Pronounces David's Punishment (12:10-14)

Nathan continues:

"'10 Now, therefore, the sword will never depart from your house, because you despised me and took the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your own.'11 "This is what the LORD says: 'Out of your own household I am going to bring calamity upon you. Before your very eyes I will take your wives and give them to one who is close to you, and he will lie with your wives in broad daylight. 12 You did it in secret, but I will do this thing in broad daylight before all Israel.'" (12:10-12)

To his credit, David doesn't bluff and bluster. Though he has the power to kill the messenger, he doesn't. David's conscience has been seared by his sin and cover-up. But his heart is still hungry for the Lord he has spurned. So he confesses immediately:

"I have sinned against the LORD." (12:13a)

Nathan responds:

"The LORD has taken away your sin. You are not going to die. 14 But because by doing this you have made the enemies of the LORD show utter contempt, the son born to you will die." (12:13b-14)

  Forgiveness and punishment are two different things. I remember disciplining my older son. He told me, "I said I was sorry. Why are you going to spank me?" Forgiveness has to do with relationship. God has restored the relationship between himself and David. But the spanking is necessary because that is the way children learn that their actions have consequences. If we parents are always protecting our children from the consequences of their actions, we don't let them learn and grow up.

There are consequences for David's sin. That David and Bathsheba's son dies is part of it. That David's sons follow in his footsteps of sexual sin and murder is another. It seems hard. But dear friends, that's life.

Before we leave Nathan's words to David, consider Nathan's indictment:

"You have made the enemies of the LORD show utter contempt." (12:14a)

Our actions reflect on the Lord we claim to serve. One of the reasons that so many people are closed to the gospel in our day is because of hypocritical actions by church people. By our lives we have brought "utter contempt" on Jesus. God be merciful to us.

The phrase, "utter contempt" (NIV), "utterly scorned" (NRSV), "blaspheme" (KJV) consists of two words derived from the same stem. When a word is doubled like this in Hebrew, it indicates a more intense degree than just one word alone -- not just "scorned," but "utterly scorned." Here the verb is ʾaṣ, "despise, abhor." The root "signifies the action or attitude whereby the former recipient of favorable disposition and/or service is consciously viewed and/or treated with disdain."[236] 

Notice how personally the Lord brings the punishment:

"... I will do this thing in broad daylight before all Israel." (12:12b)

The Lord doesn't bring the punishment directly by zapping David from on high. Rather he uses people, as he indicated in the Davidic Covenant that he would:

"When he does wrong, I will punish him with the rod of men, with floggings inflicted by men." (2 Samuel 7:14)

I've heard naive Christians say -- and actually believe their words: "God never punishes people!" How foolish! Such people have a completely unbiblical and unbalanced understanding of God's love and justice. God's judgment here comes to pass when David's son Absalom tries to take the kingdom away from his father, and sleeps with all of his concubines publicly (16:21-22). Is God responsible for doing evil? No. Absalom sinned against his father. But God orchestrates these events, just as he did when Assyria attacks the Northern Kingdom centuries later and takes them into exile. On that occasion, through Isaiah, God says:

"Woe to the Assyrian, the rod of my anger,
in whose hand is the club of my wrath!" (Isaiah 10:5)

The Assyrian oppressors are not waived of responsibility for their evil attacks. Nevertheless, they fulfill God's purposes.

Q4. (2 Samuel 12:10-14) What punishment does David deserve? What does he get instead? How does this punishment relate to the provisions of the Davidic Covenant in 2 Samuel 7:14-15? How do David's sins hurt God's glory? How do our sins reflect on Jesus Christ?

David's Son by Bathsheba Dies (12:15-25)

Immediately after Nathan's departure, the newborn falls ill.

"David pleaded with God for the child. He fasted and went into his house and spent the nights lying on the ground." (12:16)

He does this for seven days until the child dies. But when he realizes that the child has died, he gets up, takes a shower, changes clothes, and worships. Then he resumes eating.

His courtiers can't understand it. They misinterpret David's fasting as mourning. It isn't. David explains,

"While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept. I thought, 'Who knows? The LORD may be gracious to me and let the child live.' But now that he is dead, why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me." (12:22-23)

David isn't mourning. Rather he is humbling himself before God and petitioning God for mercy. Why? Because he knows that even when God pronounces judgment, he sometimes relents if we humble ourselves before him. He is seeking God in repentance to change his mind, ask him to relent. In this case God doesn't. But many times in Scripture, indeed he does.[237]

This story shows us several things.

  1. David believes in God's grace -- that we sometimes receive blessings much more than we deserve with God. He knows that God sometimes relents and shows mercy.

  2. David knows that humbling himself before God for his former arrogance towards God -- "a broken and contrite heart" (Psalm 51:17) -- will be noticed by God.

  3. David accepts the Lord's punishment without complaint. He doesn't nurse anger against God like we sometimes do.
  4. David immediately worships. This is his response to trouble -- even trouble he has brought upon himself and his family. David worships the Lord.

The Birth of Solomon (12:24-25)

Notice how the Lord doesn't hold a grudge against David.

"24 Then David comforted his wife Bathsheba, and he went to her and lay with her. She gave birth to a son, and they named him Solomon. The LORD loved him; 25 and because the LORD loved him, he sent word through Nathan the prophet to name him Jedidiah." (12:24-25)

Verse 24 is interesting: David comforts[238] Bathsheba by having sex with her. Sex, here, is an act of love, not of a man using a woman. And God comforts her by allowing her to conceive Solomon and have a new child to love.

God expresses his love for Solomon and gives him a special name -- Jedidiah, "loved by Yahweh" -- to demonstrate this. That God would bring blessing through David and Bathsheba -- what had begun as an adulterous relationship -- shows God's great mercy. It's interesting to see some of the people mentioned in Jesus' family tree -- women including Rahab the prostitute, Tamar who prostituted herself, Ruth the foreigner, and Bathsheba -- as well as all the male sinners among the kings of Israel and Judah! We are what God makes us; we are not doomed to repeat our parents' sins or exhibit their same weaknesses, that is, if we yield ourselves to God.

David's Psalms help us understand spiritually how to humble ourselves and repent. If you like, you or your group can study two of these psalms in Appendix 8. David's Psalms of Repentance (Psalms 51 and 32).

David Defeats Rabbah of the Ammonites (12:26-31)

This lesson concludes with the defeat of Rabbah, the besieged Ammonite capital where Uriah had been killed. Joab captures the city water supply and the royal citadel. Then he calls on David to come quickly with the rest of the army, so David gets credit for taking the city, not he. The fall of Ammon's capital brings glory and riches to David:

"He took the crown from the head of their king -- its weight was a talent of gold, and it was set with precious stones -- and it was placed on David's head." (12:30)

A talent of gold weighted approximately 75 pounds! In addition, he takes much plunder from the city and consigns the Ammonite people to forced labor.

The glory of Ammon's crown is great, but it seemed somehow tarnished for David, the once-righteous king of Israel.

Lessons for Disciples

These chapters are full of lessons for us to take hold of.

  1. Faithfulness. God expects us to fulfill our promises, as David does when he honors Jonathan's son Mephibosheth -- at his own risk.
  2. Arrogance. God's blessings can make us feel self-sufficient, arrogant, and spiri­tually dull to God's voice unless we are very careful to remain humble and thankful. Don't let blessing make you spiritually soft.
  3. Temptation. Even godly men and women can be tempted and fall. We must put a guard around ourselves so that we don't ruin what God by his grace has built in our lives. You are not immune.
  4. Confession. Covering up our sin can be worse than the sin itself. Honesty and confession are better than covering up (Psalm 32:3-5).
  5. Confrontation. Confronting people with their sins is a delicate task that God sometimes asks his servants to perform -- with gentleness (Galatians 6:2-3). Don't take this upon yourself, but if God shows you how to do it, you can save a precious believer from ruin.
  6. Repentance. God will honor repentance, if we come with humility and turn away from our sin. Psalm 51 can help you do this. (See Appendix 8. David's Psalms of Repentance.)
  7. Mercy. Our God is merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in love and faithfulness (Exodus 34:607; Numbers 14:18; Psalm 86:15; 103:8). You can trust your future into the hands of such a God, even if you have sinned grievously. Jesus is your Savior!

In this lesson we've seen David fulfill his promises to Jonathan to protect his children. David has reached the pinnacle of his kingdom, attained power over a huge realm. The narrator keeps reminding us:

"The LORD gave David victory wherever he went." (8:6b, 14b)

Life of David, Discipleship Lessons in 1 and 2 Samuel, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Available as a book in paperback, Kindle, and PDF formats.

But from here on out, though David has been forgiven for his sin and his heart is right with God once more, he faces trouble of a different kind, from within his own family, as prophesied by Nathan. The once glorious story turns sad. Nevertheless, it still instructs how God relates to men and women for whom Christ died.

Note: If you like, you can follow this with an optional lesson, Appendix 8. David's Psalms of Repentance (Psalms 51 and 32).


Lord, thank you that you forgive our sins. David didn't know how you could forgive his sin, that his own Descendant, Jesus, would bear his awful sins. But we know. Thank you for your great love that sent Jesus to the cross for our sins. In his holy name, we pray. Amen.

Key Verses

"The thing David had done displeased the LORD." (2 Samuel 11:27b)

"Nathan said to David, 'You are the man!'" (2 Samuel 12:7a)

"Then David said to Nathan, 'I have sinned against the LORD.' Nathan replied, 'The LORD has taken away your sin. You are not going to die. But because by doing this you have made the enemies of the LORD show utter contempt, the son born to you will die.'" (2 Samuel 12:13-14)

[210] William S. LaSor, "Syria," ISBE 4:686-694; Jerome A. Lund, "Aram, Damascus, and Syria," DOTHB, pp. 41-50.

[211] Barry J. Beitzel, "Zobah," ISBE 4:1203-1204.

[212] Chariots could be used effectively along the coastal plain and in the valley of Jezreel. They were used at various times by the Egyptians, the Philistines (1 Samuel 13:5), and the Syrians (2 Samuel 8:4; 10:18). Solomon kept a stable of Egyptian horses and chariots, and exported them to the Hittites and Arameans (1 Kings 10:26, 39).

[213] R.K. Harrison, "Brook of Egypt," ISBE 1:550.

[214] Baldwin, 1 and 2 Samuel, p. 223.

[215] Anderson, 2 Samuel, p. 137. For etymological reasons, Klein (1 Samuel, 282-283) sees them as mercenaries from Crete in service of the Philistines. Later, the term "Kererthites" is used as a synonym for the Philistines (Ezekiel 25:16; Zephaniah 2:5).

[216] George Kroeze ("Pelethites," ISBE 3:736-737) sees this as a variant form of pelištî, "Philistine," with the "š" assimilating to the "t", citing J. Montgomery, in his ICC commentary on Kings.

[217] Zākar can refer to inward mental acts ("think (about), meditate (upon), pay attention (to)" as well as outward speaking ("proclaim, invoke.") Thomas E. McComiskey, zakar, TWOT #551.

[218] Baldwin, 1 and 2 Samuel, p. 224; Bergen, 1 and 2 Samuel, p. 351.

[219] Bright, History of Israel, pp. 205-207.

[220] Though there is occasional precedent for non-Levites performing priestly functions (Samuel, for example), it's more likely that kōhēn is used here in its early secular usage with the idea of the root being "serving as a minister" (J. Barton Payne, kōhēn, TWOT #959a, citing S. R. Driver, Notes on the Hebrew Text of the Books of Samuel, pp. 284-285).

[221] Mephibosheth ("dispeller of shame") is called Merib-Baal ("quarreler of Baal") in 1 Chronicles 8:34. The author of 1 Samuel apparently is offended by the name of Canaanite god Baal in his name, and substitutes for it the word bōshet, "shame." In a similar way as Ish-Bosheth in 2 Samuel 2:8, 10 is Eshbaal in 1 Chronicles 8:33.

[222] Maacah was a small Aramean kingdom situated between Gilead in the south and Mount Hermon in the North (Anderson, 2 Samuel, p. 147, citing B. Mazar, "Geshur and Maacah," Journal of Biblical Literature, 80 (1961), 16-28).

[223] Tob was a small Aramean city-state -- perhaps subject to or allied with Maacah -- apparently located at et-Tayîbeh (Anderson, 2 Samuel, p. 147; William S. LaSor, "Tob," ISBE 4:865).

[224] The location of Helam is uncertain, but it may be a region (rather than a city) in northern Transjordan. (Anderson, 2 Samuel, p. 148). It may be identical with Alema (1 Maccabees 5:26, 35), `Alma, northeast of Der`a (Edrei) in Ḥaurân (B.E. Hovey, "Helam," ISBE 2:676).

[225] Baldwin, 1 and 2 Samuel, p. 231.

[226] Details from Keith N. Schoville, "Siege, Siegeworks, Besiege," ISBE 4:503-505.

[227] There is an apocryphal addition to the Book of Daniel that tells the story of Susanna and the Elders. Susanna is spied upon by two elders while bathing in her private garden. Then they attempt to blackmail her into having sex with them -- which she refuses to do.

[228] Later, Ahithophel supports Absalom against David when Absalom rebels (2 Samuel 15:12, 31), perhaps because he is angry at David over David taking advantage of his granddaughter Bathsheba.

[229] Uriah may have belonged to Jerusalem's nobility which may have had Hittite associations (Ezekiel 16:3) (Anderson, 2 Samuel, p. 153).

[230] Keil and Delitzsch, 2 Samuel (reprinted, Eerdmans, 1976), vol. 2, p. 383.

[231] 1 Kings 14:27.

[232] The period of mourning probably lasted for seven days (Genesis 50:10; Book of Judith 16:24).

[233] There are several of these juridical parables in the Bible which disguise a real-life violation of the law as a parable told to the guilt person in order to lead him to pass judgment upon himself (Anderson, 2 Samuel, p. 160). They are: (1) the woman of Tekoa to David, to get him to welcome Absalom back (2 Samuel 14:1-20); (2) a prophet to Ahab (1 Kings 20:35-43); and (3) the song of the vineyard, a parable of Israel (Isaiah 5:1-7). Each of these parables shares an introduction, the supposed legal case, the judgment elicited, and then the judgment reapplied to the real culprit himself.

[234] This is the Torah's penalty for theft of a sheep (Exodus 22:1).

[235] Bruce K. Waltke, bāzâ, TWOT #224.

[236] Leonard J. Coppes, nāʾaṣ, TWOT #1273.

[237] Examples of God relenting upon repentance are: Nineveh in the time of Jonah (Jonah 3:10), Ahab (1 Kings 21:27-29), the people of Israel when Moses interceded for them (Exodus 32:14; Psalm 106:45), punishment upon Israel when David interceded (2 Samuel 24:16). See Jeremiah 18:8; 26:3, 13, 19; Joel 2:13; Amos 7:3, 6.

[238] "Comforted" (NIV, KJV), "consoled" (NRSV) is nāḥam, in the Piel stem, "to comfort." The word is used in "Comfort ye, my people" (Isaiah 40:1) and in the twenty-third Psalm, "your rod and your staff they comfort me" (Psalm 23:4). The origin of the root seems to reflect the idea of breathing deeply," hence the physical display of one's feelings, usually sorrow, compassion, or comfort (Marvin R. Wilson, nāḥam, TWOT #1344).

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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