5th August, 2018
“I heard there was a secret chord, that David played and it pleased the Lord…”
– Leonard Cohen
Now there are some weeks where I decide to use a popular culture reference and feel concern over just how many people will get what I’m talking about. Today, however, I’m a little less cautious because I know there is quite the contingent of Leonard Cohen fans in this congregation. You might not like to admit it…but I know you’re out there.
I would argue that the best known song Leonard Cohen ever wrote is Hallelujah. If you don’t know the original, you will have certainly heard a version of it. The song has been used in over 200 movies and countless television programs. In fact one could argue that the song has been somewhat worn out due to its overuse.
A detail that I’m sure passes quite a few people by is that the song, which is partly a lament about love, actually begins by referencing the tail of King David and Bathsheba. “Your faith was strong, but you needed proof. You saw her bathing on the roof. Her beauty in the moonlight overthrew you.”
To this day King David is remembered as a great king. His story, as contained in the bible, paints him as an almost mythological figure, the King to end all kings. David came from humble beginnings and yet came to conquer many different tribes and established a kingdom that is significant today in that much of Israel’s claim to the land of Palestine is based on the lands occupied by David centuries ago.
On the other hand, the bible is also surprisingly frank when it comes to some of David’s character flaws. I say surprising because often when we remember great people from history we play up their strengths and ignore their weaknesses. We don’t like to talk about how Martin Luther King was not a faithful husband, or how Walt Disney held certain racist viewpoints. When it comes to people we want to remember in a positive light, it can become difficult to reconcile behaviours or attitudes that don’t fit comfortably with our perception of that person. That is until something like the #metoo movement begins to shed light on previously hidden truths about a person’s life.
King David is not about to be the next person caught up in #metoo. What I am going to say about him is not rumour or innuendo, or bringing to light dark secrets that have been kept from the public. That is because the bible already tells us a great deal about David’s dark side. The whole gritty truth was recorded and is there for us to see today. That in itself is remarkable. Why did the biblical writers include all the sordid details of David’s life?
There are a number of possible explanations. Firstly, it could simply have been that David’s scandals were so well known that excluding them from the biblical record may have undermined the credibility of the writings. What I mean by that is that you couldn’t write a credible history of World War Two which ignored the invasion of Poland. Such a book would be immediately consigned to the rubbish bin.
A second reason could be that the writers themselves felt it important to remember David as the human being he was. The best antidote to hagiography is to attempt to offer a balanced perspective on the person being written about. As it happens, David is still remembered as a great leader, but a leader who was human and was far from perfect.
So to the scandal itself. The story begins at a time when David’s army is out fighting yet another war. David, however, is not with his army. He is residing in the safety of his palace. This detail in the story immediately draws or attention to the fact that something is rotten in the state of Israel. A younger David would always have been with his army. This older King, for some reason is not.
One night, as Leonard Cohen tells us, David sees Bathsheba bathing on her rooftop. He is overcome with desire and sends for her. The sordid details of what happened next are somewhat glossed over by the text. We don’t know if Bathsheba willingly went to bed with David, but given his status as King it is fair to say that the power dynamics in this relationship were far from equal.
Following their encounter David realises that if Bathsheba were to become pregnant that would be a threat to his political power. So, he sends for Bathsheba’s husband Uriah, who he very crassly encourages to return home to his wife. The bible makes it very clear that David is trying to cover his tracks. However, Uriah does not return home, so David conspires to have Uriah placed at the front line of a battle, knowing that this is effectively a death sentence. Uriah dies, and David then marries Bathsheba. As a side note, we do not actually have a clear picture of how many wives David had. It may have been a dozen or more. Bathsheba holds a particular place in the biblical record because her second son, Solomon, was the one who eventually became David’s successor. Many of David’s wives are not named at all.
In today’s passage from 2 Samuel we have the moment when David is forced to confront what he had done. The prophet Nathan comes to David and tells him a hypothetical story of injustice. When David becomes enraged, Nathan is quick to point out that David had committed the same injustice against Uriah.
It can be very hard to face up to our own failings. It is easier to tell ourselves that we were justified to give in to our darkest impulses and that we were not in the wrong. Self-preservation can make us blind to seeing the moments when we’ve acted out of insecurity, jealousy or some other negative impulse. In this story however, David does not seek to justify himself. Whatever it was that was preventing David from taking responsibility for his actions crumbled, when Nathan had the courage to directly challenge his king.
In recent times I’ve heard a number of people use the expression courageous conversation, as a way of naming certain difficult discussions they’ve had to have. Given that David had the power to put Nathan to death if he wanted to, I think the level of courage summoned by Nathan was a different order to what we might face in conversation with people these days.
One of the aspects of American culture that I am envious of, is the way American’s embrace a comeback. In New Zealand when someone in public life falls from grace, that tends to be the end of their career. In America however, there are times when people make mistakes, but after a period of time, and typically following genuine apologies and some personal reflection, they are welcomed back into public life. I am not going to begin listing off examples but can think of many occasions where this is the case. There is something about a redemptive story that people like to get behind.
It turns out that God is also a big fan of the comeback. The story of David is a clear example of how a person can take a very dark turn in their life, and yet God offers a pathway back. That pathway includes facing the injustice, taking responsibility for it and genuinely seeking to make amends. The comeback is not an easy thing. It can be costly to admit our mistakes. And yet doing so opens up the pathway to forgiveness and reconciliation.
If I were to summarise Nathan’s words to David in a single phrase it would be, you can do better than this. God knew it, Nathan knew it, and David himself knew it. David’s story, in all its richness and all its grittiness, shows us that God has great faith in each of us. That despite our ability to pursue our own desires for selfish reasons, God is always calling us on, always encouraging us to be better than we were the day before. Each of us can be better than we were the day before. Thanks be to God.
– Reverend Richard Bonifant
Sermon 5 August 2018 (14:01)
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Date: August 05, 2018
By: Reverend Richard Bonifant