Justice and mercy: God’s forgiveness of David
When asked about the difference between grace and mercy, someone said grace is when you get what you do not deserve, and mercy is when you do not get what you do deserve. In exegeting the story of David, we find powerful lessons to lift believers, whether they be despairing or judgmental, to a platform of grace and mercy.1
Second Samuel 10 – 12 narrates King David’s war against the Ammonites, the context for the story of David and Bathsheba, as well as Nathan’s visit and the terrible events that followed.
However sordid, the story of David having an adulterous fling with Bathsheba, murdering her husband, and then receiving God’s forgiveness serves as an example of grace given for even the worst of sins. Hence, the narrative powerfully reveals a truth that pastors must constantly preach.
Verse 27 of 2 Samuel 11—“But this matter that David had done was unpleasant in the eyes of the Lord”— serves as a preamble to chapter 12.2 According to 2 Samuel 12:1, the Lord sent Nathan to David, who approached the king, ostensibly, with a case for David to judge. Because the king has maximum judicial authority,3 the prophet presents a matter for his consideration.4
A legal parable, short and concise, is what Nathan used to have David condemn himself.5 The parable contrasts two men, one very rich with many possessions, a lot of cattle and sheep; the other very poor, owning only a small lamb that he has raised like a daughter. Not wanting to take from his own herd, the rich man takes the beloved lamb from his poor neighbor and cooks it.
The angry response of King David is immediate: under a solemn oath, he declares the rich man worthy of death and condemns him to restore fourfold the lamb.
Throughout the narrative, the verb “to take” is repeated strategically. David Janzen analyzes the function of the Hebrew verb “to take” in the story.6 The verb appears in 2 Samuel 11:4; 12:4, 9, 10, and 11. Nathan does not mention adultery or homicide in the parable but only that the rich man “took” his neighbor’s lamb. The syntax of 2 Samuel 11:4, together with the fact that verse 27 does not mention Bathsheba, has led some to conclude that verse 4 narrates a rape7—a scenario in which David takes advantage of his position as king. Here, too, the use of the verb “take” becomes important.
Janzen also shows that the emphasis in verses 7 and 8 of 2 Samuel 12 is on everything that God has given to David. God anointed David as king over Israel, delivered him from the hand of Saul, and gave him the house, and the women, of Saul. God gave him Israel and Judah and would have given him even more. In short, David had no right to usurp God’s place by taking, with his own means, what God had not given him.
The just punishment
Thus, as part of the punishment, God will take David’s wives and give them to a “friend” who will sleep with them in the full light of the sun, a punishment fulfilled dramatically in 2 Samuel 16:21, 22.
In verse nine, God condemns David’s disdain for His Word. This condemnation has Deuteronomic roots. In Deuteronomy, obedience and disobedience to the Word of God are mentioned as the difference between the path of blessing and the path of cursing.8 The Lord accuses David of having killed Uriah with the sword of the sons of Ammon. From now on, then, the sword will never depart from the house of David.
Twice the texts say that David took Uriah’s wife to be his wife. The Scripture will remember this sad episode twice as well: in 1 Kings 15:5, where an evaluation is made of the life and reign of David and in Matthew 1:6, where Solomon is mentioned in the genealogy of the Lord Jesus.
Meanwhile, before realizing that this parable was directed against himself, the king declares the rich man worthy of death and that he also must “restore fourfold for the lamb.” The four “payments” are executed, one after the other, against the house of David.
First, David’s son with Bathsheba dies; second, after raping his half sister Tamar, Amnon is killed by Absalom, who in turn flees (2 Samuel 13:1–38); third, Absalom dies after his insurrection (2 Samuel 18); fourth, Adonijah, after trying to usurp the throne (1 Kings 1:5–27), requests to have Abishag as a wife, and Solomon executes him (1 Kings 2:13–25). In short, four children of King David die dramatically, all as payment for David’s overt sin.9
Grace for the ungraceful
In 2 Samuel 12:13, King David recognizes his sin against the Lord. Psalms 51 and 32 were composed by him in relation to this experience. Evidently his repentance is profound and sincere, which is why the Lord accepted it. His sin is forgiven, his death sentence commuted. King David’s sincere repentance is what makes the Lord characterize him as “a man according to his heart” (1 Samuel 13:14), an idea that many have struggled with, especially in view of 2 Samuel 11.
Yet the character of God presents a perfect balance of justice and mercy. The formula of grace—“And the Lord passed before him and proclaimed, ‘The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children to the third and the fourth generation’ ” (Exod. 34:6, 7, NKJV)—is abundantly worked out in the Old Testament10 as the best description of God’s character and the foundation of His dealings with the repentant sinner, such as David, as well as with the ungodly who do not repent.11
And it is this balance of justice and mercy—coupled with the fact that it is God who ultimately bears the costs of the sin12—that allows the Lord to exercise mercy on those who, by praying and imploring His forgiveness, come to Him in repentance. This is how God, when He forgives the repentant sinner and punishes the unrepentant sinner, can still be just as well the Justifier of sinners.
How does the pastor absorb and then dispense these biblical truths in a way that will profoundly impact the daily lives of people? Above all, the preacher must understand that he or she will be misunderstood. When Paul preached law and grace in this manner, he was misunderstood and cried out to his accusers: “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?” (Rom. 6:1, 2, KJV). John Stott maintains, “In Romans 6 he [Paul] refutes the slander that the gospel encourages sin.”13
In fact, if you are misunderstood, “count it all joy” (James 1:2); you are most likely on the right path. Martyn Lloyd-Jones states, “There is no better test as to whether a man [or woman] is really preaching the New Testamentgospel of salvation than this, that some people might misunderstand it and misinterpret it to mean that it really amounts to this, that because you are saved by grace alone it does not matter at all what you do; you can go on sinning as much as you like because it will redound all the more to the glory of grace. That is a very good test of gospel preaching. If my preaching and presentation of the gospel of salvation does not expose it to that misunderstanding, then it is not the gospel.”14
In short, in the story of David, his sin, punishment, and the ultimate forgiveness given him, we can see a powerful example of Paul’s words, “This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief” (1 Tim. 1:15, NKJV).
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1 A version of this article was first published as “ ‘Tú eres ese hombre’ 2 Samuel 12:1–15 y el juicio del juez” in the November–December 2018 issue of Ministerio Adventista. Used with permission.
2 Unless otherwise indicated, the biblical texts are direct translation of the Hebrew text by the author.
3 In 1 Kings 3:16–28 Solomon acts as judge. See Simon J. DeVries, 1 Kings, Word Biblical Commentary, 2nd ed., vol. 12 (Dallas: Word, 2003), 61. Jerome T. Walsh, “The Characterization of Solomon in First Kings 1–5,” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 57 no. 3 (July 1995): 479.
4 As instructed in Deuteronomy 17:18–20.
5 Arnold A. Anderson, 2 Samuel, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 11 (Dallas: Word, 2002), 160–166.
6 David Janzen, “The Condemnation of David’s ‘Taking’ in 2 Samuel 12:1–14,” Journal of Biblical Literature 131, no. 2 (2012): 209–220.
7 See Jennifer Andruska, “ ‘Rape’ in the Syntax of 2 Samuel 11:4,” Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 129, no. 1 (March 2017): 103–109;Bulus Audu Makama, “The Abuse of Power and Sexual Violence: A Close Reading of 2 Samuel 11 Against the Background of Boko Haram Atrocities in Nigeria” (master’s thesis, University of Stellenbosch, South Africa, 2016), 60–99.
8 See Deuteronomy 28:1, 15, 45, and 58.
9 As the Talmud sees it, Yoma 22b says, “The lamb was a metaphor for Bathsheba, David, in fact, was punished by four for taking Bathsheba.”
10 See texts such as Num. 14:18; Pss. 86:15; 103:8; 111:4; 145:8; 2 Chron. 30:9; Joel 2:13; Jon. 4:2; Mic. 7:18–20; Nah. 1:2, 3a; Jer. 30:11; 32:18, 19; 46:28; and Dan. 9:4. See as well Ehud Ben Zvi, “Remembering Twelve Prophetic Characters from the Past,” in The Book of the Twelve—One Book or Many?, ed. Elena di Pede and Donatella Scaiola, Forschungen zum Alten Testament 2, vol. 91 (Tübingen: MohrSiebeck, 2016), 33; Donatella Scaiola, “The Twelve, One or Many Books?,” in Book of the Twelve, 190, 191.
11 See Carlos Granados García, “Misericordia y alianza en Ex 34,6–7,” Scripta Theologica 48, no. 1 (April 2016): 99–111.
12 According to Exodus 34:7, God bears iniquity, rebellion, and sin. The Hebrew verb that in this verse is translated “to forgive” literally means “to carry.”
13 John Stott, The Incomparable Christ (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 53.
14 D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Romans: Exposition of Chapter 6: The New Man (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1972),8, 9