Recent journalism has acquainted us with little-known episodes in the lives of famous people. We are given detailed portrayals of a variety of political, military, athletic, and entertainment celebrities and their unpleasant and tragic failings. We seem to be a generation that suffers from a poverty of heroes. Our culture holds up very few individuals as exemplary, people whose lives inspire us to lift our eyes in the direction of a meaningful existence amid the conflicts of our times. We seek those whom the best-selling author Gail Sheehy designates "pathleaders." And then when possible candidates do appear, rare though they may be, suspicion constantly lurks that journalists, credit-rating researchers, computer biographers, or electronic recorders will eventually expose a repulsive side of the character, causing the hoped-for one to lose face and his or her supporters to slink off in embarrassment and disillusionment. Our supposed heroes have feet of clay.
Then, too, when we ourselves reluctantly consider that duty calls us to stand up for a needy cause in the face of the dearth of more talented leadership, we wonder, "Will something in my past be brought forward to the detriment of any accomplishment?"
In light of this, what view does the Bible give on heroes and their aberrations, on societal leaders and their backgrounds of personal indiscretions and misused opportunities? In our time, needing direction as we do, we are fortunate to have the gift of the Biblical record to guide our perspectives. Thinking first of the greatest heroes celebrated in song and story, and searching the Scriptures, we let our eyes fall on the story of David, the anointed one of Israel.
Contemporary Biblical scholarship places the narrative of the Bathsheba incident from the second book of Samuel in a larger literary unit of 2 Samuel 9-20 and 1 Kings 1,2. These chapters have been designated "The Court History"; they belong to the "succession narrative" genre in the royal literatures of the ancient Near East. (See Bernhard W. Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament [Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice- Hall, Inc., 1975], p. 176.) Succession narrative served to give account in the chronicles of a dynasty as to who would be the next king. In other words, the point of the literary collection is found in the final chapters, which tell who ascended the throne. The preceding material was collected and included to introduce that person. According to this particular theory of Biblical scholarship, then, the purpose of any particular section of this narrative is to be seen in light of the purpose of the larger unit.
Chronicles of the royal court
In ancient Near Eastern annals the chronicles of the royal court characteristically present the succession in terras blatantly favorable to the entire dynastic line. The mighty and glorious king, victorious in battle and accomplished in statesmanship, passes the crown to the most deserving of the heirs, proven in skills and dazzling in unquestionable royal pedigree.
But in Israel we find something else. Here we have the account of the key figure in the royal line shamed beyond belief by his own foolish choices, heed less recklessness, determined lawlessness, and ridiculous cover-up. And, startlingly, Israel's annals introduce a pivotal figure not of the royal house who calls the king to account and has the audacity to appear before the throne and cry with unabashed authority, "Thou art the man!" Then, wonder of wonders, the incredible happens. The king, the anointed one, the royal David of Israel, repents. He repents before the pages of history and the thousands of years to come: "I have sinned, I have sinned."
The political theory behind the constitutional monarchy of the Davidic government contributes to our under standing of this incident. The Bible gives evidence that although the king in Israel was anointed to the governing office of the land, the monarchy, so to speak, was in reality an empire. The primary ruler, the emperor, was God. Scripture refers to God as the King of kings, the Lord of lords, the ultimate political authority in the cosmos. David received his kingship as a bequest from Yahweh. Along with this right to govern came a constitution consisting of a complex set of legal instructions and binding guidelines. Historically this legal corpus began with the founding work of Moses and can be summarized basically in the ten commandments of Exodus 20. The prophet's office, in which Nathan served, functioned to call the anointed king to the constitutional terms of his position by reminding him of the system of justice at the foundation of the political order. His message brought David to return to his allegiance to the real sovereign power, the divine Emperor.
Reading the narrative that relates the incident with Uriah's wife, we are astounded at the number of serious legal aberrations involved, the number of constitutional commandments broken. The episode centers in adultery, but David also is guilty of perpetrating murder, deceiving a loyal subordinate, offering him a bribe, causing him to become drunk, conspiring with his commander, disregarding blatant incompetence in military strategy for personal advantage, endangering the troops, entering into treachery against them, and finally, desperately trying every conceivable method in attempting a cover-up.
Leaders' sexuality a concern
Interestingly, the initial issue in this massive collection of hypocrisy and misuse of power is adultery. Why is the sexual aspect of human experience so central in our concern for our leaders' and heroes' lives?
Is it not because, even though most of us may not be familiar with the complex responsibilities of political authority or the pressures those vested with power beyond our ken experience, each of us does know the sensitive area of deep personal relationship encompassed by and expressed through sexuality? Is it not here in this exquisitely sensitive area of our humanity that we are most poignantly aware of the foundation for respect? And that foundation, that first essential, is trust. If we cannot trust our leader in one area that we universally can understand, that we know in the depths of our being demands honesty and loyalty, then we cannot trust this person elsewhere. Hence we question every other dominion under his control, every other aspect of our dealings with him. David's life illustrates this dramatically. Once his sexuality became a snare to him, other elements in his dominion fell consecutively, like a house of cards.
Maybe this explains why Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount teaches that we reach the point at which we can first cry out to God, "I have sinned," when we look at the attractive and desire what has not been given to us. Here we acknowledge the primary sovereignty of God and plead for His aid in preventing ignominious disaster and unimaginable suffering. We are assured that our cry for help will be answered and that the Holy One, who is always more ready to forgive than we are to ask, will indeed forgive us. Even here in 2 Samuel, at the extremity of this horrible chain of human sin, barely are the words out of David's mouth admit ting his guilt than Nathan proclaims, "The Lord has put away your sin." David, you are forgiven, forgiven of all these things! This is divine, gracious, bountiful forgiveness! And we are not surprised at all that the child born out of the adulterous union will die—a small penalty on the scales of justice; perhaps a severe mercy, but a healing penitential price.
What a lovely story with its just and merciful resolution, abounding in stead fast love!
The real hero
But the Bible does not stop here. We must turn the subsequent pages for the finale. The conclusion goes so far beyond what we could ever anticipate that even though it is in the text, we may overlook it as too fantastic to believe. The majestic conclusion to this succession narrative is matchless in all of literature.
We may overlook it because the central character in the story is not seen as readily as the very real and human king David. The central character in this account, as in all the books of the Bible, proves to be none other than the true Monarch, the King of kings, the divine Emperor Himself. Thundering across the pages of this royal chronicle is God, brilliantly marching and leading His people as the heavenly hero.
Notice what happens. After Nathan's pronouncement of forgiveness, the story unfolds in page after page of breathtaking accounts of David's royal progeny. We hear of all the contenders to the throne of Israel as the succession narrative continues. Who will be the next ruler? Will it be David's son Amnon; or the handsome Absalom; or Mephibosheth, from the house of Saul; Jonadab, David's nephew; the revolutionary Sheba ben Bichri; or Commander Joab; or Amasa; Ahithophel, the traitor counselor; or surely Adonijah? Will it be the child of a royal line, the heir of the house of Saul, the legitimate first king? Will it be the one best schooled in diplomacy and political science? The one most acclaimed democratically by the people? The smartest in defense and military strategy? The most powerful in justice? The nearest royal heir of David from a marriage of state?
All of the candidates are paraded before us in these wild chapters of the court history. We see all the majesty and intrigue of an Oriental court; but the end reveals a surprise. One after another the candidates are disqualified for all kinds of reasons until, breathless, we see only one left. Here the court history climaxes. Other characters in the drama have their parts to play, but we are led by the overarching Biblical framework to the one who by strong implication must be king for one reason only—he is the candidate of God's choice. And who is it? Solomon, the second son of David and Bathsheba—an almost invisible con tender. His designation as king over Israel must have been an utter shock to the people living at that time. Yet the astonishing fact is that Israel reached its greatest period of nationhood and prosperity and peace during Solomon's reign. God's Promised Land became a historical, political reality under this the most dazzling of Israel's rulers.
These Biblical records tell us that out of David's most notorious sin came a miracle of God's most beneficent grace. David repented before the prophet, the nation, and all humanity, and God in His glory, accepting that repentance, made the locus of the sin the place of an inconceivable transformation. Out of the adulterous relationship with Bathsheba came, in time, a true marriage that brought forth the greatest political figure the nation ever knew. And from that union came the Messianic line, with the promise of salvation for all.
Often when theologians and saints wish to expound on the marvelous qualities of Divinity, they emphasize that God is Creator, the one who creates the world and the cosmos, even out of nothing. But the Bible presents here a far more magnificent view. God takes human sin, man's mistakes, and creates glory from them. The Bible focuses on God's creating a people, a people endowed with divine love—His making a kingdom, a nation even, out of sinners. " 'You shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation,'" God thunders from Mount Sinai (Ex. 19:6, R.S.V.).' "'I will make nations of you,'" God promises Abraham, "'and kings shall come forth from you'" (Gen. 17:6, R.S.V.).
The Gospel according to Matthew begins in the style of an ancient Near Eastern royal chronicle. Matthew desires to demonstrate by legal declaration the divine right of Jesus Christ's messiahship. He has no time to recount a long succession narrative or court history, so he gives the legally accepted abbreviated form. First he makes an identifying summary: "The genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David" (R.S.V.). Then the writer begins to trace the direct line of descent of the royal house of God's chosen people.
In his list, Matthew carefully does not refer to Bathsheba by name; her epithet is "the wife of Uriah" (R.S.V.). This rivets the attention of his readers on the incident of David's sin. They are to recall that out of that tragic situation in the life of the people of God came David's repentance and Solomon in all his glory.
For Matthew is writing a Gospel—the good news of an imperial decree that has transformed sin into astounding righteousness. He too has a story to tell. It is a story about disloyalty, the breaking of faith, murder, and crucifixion.
Matthew, strong in the tradition of Nathan, the Biblical prophet, is going to call humanity to repentance for the worst sin in the world—killing God's Son. And Matthew, too, is going to give voice to our forgiveness and to tell us how the sovereign God used the locus of our sin, the crucifixion of Christ, as the primary vehicle for His grace in the transformation resulting in our eternal salvation. Hallelujah, the King of kings, the Lord of lords, our Hero of heroes, is with us! And that begins a new story . . .