2 Samuel 12
13David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord. “Nathan said to David, “Now the Lord has put away your sin; you shall not die. 14Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child that is born to you shall die.”
We might as well start here because it is the thing in the text we all find most disturbing. Why should the child perish because of the sin of its parents? I wish the answer were simple, but it isn’t.
Not that there aren’t simple answers, they just aren’t good ones. Job’s friends had a simple answer for his suffering – he must have sinned – but it wasn’t true. A sin may result in suffering, but suffering doesn’t mean there was a sin.
Another simple answer is that God has a hidden purpose in it – and while it is true that God works God’s purposes in the midst of suffering and that God can bring good out of the worst evil, the idea that God should slay a child to teach its parents a lesson is deeply disturbing. The truth of human experience is the opposite: it is we who sacrifice our children at the altar of ambition and desire.
It’s not just that we trash families pursuing our desires or neglect children for our various addictions. We bury children sent off to fight our wars. We drive them to self-destruction in the quest to be perfect in body or sport or academics. We let them perish on our highways rather than restrict our right to drink and drive. It is always the innocent who suffer. And so it is here 3,000 years ago, the innocent child suffers the consequences of the parental pride, lust and ambition.
In the world of David and Bathsheba the death of children was painfully common. The King’s household – with better food and shelter than most – may have had fewer such tragedies, but it was the way of life for all humanity before modern medical care. Children died. The prophet’s word in this case is that this death is not just one of those ordinary deaths – it is rooted in David’s sin. There is no child without his sin; there is no death without his sin – neither of Uriah or the child.
Whatever hopes David and Bathsheba had for their illicit union – and Bathsheba will succeed in setting a son of her womb on the throne, though Solomon is not the eldest son and heir – God has interposed a resounding “No!” The powerful imagine they can act with impunity; God holds them to account. For David this is a personal message: “You think you can have it all. You can’t.”
The death of this child is not a general principle or an abstract theological problem; it is a specific prophetic word to a specific person in a specific time and place. The role of a prophet is to reveal the meaning in the events of the time. The meaning of David’s sin is that it brings death – death starting with this very own child. David’s life will never be free of the sword. His attempt to stand above the law will echo through his lifetime with violence in his own household. One son will rape his step-sister and her brother will strike him down. The eldest will lead a revolt and take all his father’s concubines in full sight of the whole city. David will see the consequences of his surrender to the corrupting power of privilege.
None of this is surprising in a prophetic word. What is surprising is that David repents. The King does not destroy the prophet for his message; he submits. He does not ignore the divine word; he turns back to God. And God forgives.
It is this that makes David great.