Commentary on 2 Samuel 12:1-9; Psalm 51:1-9
The exchange between Nathan and David after the incidents with Bathsheba and Uriah (see 2 Samuel 11) are among the most well-known in 2 Samuel.
The narrative does not indicate what God knows, or how God knows, only that God sends Nathan to David (2 Samuel 12:1; cf. the superscription to Psalm 51), who tells the king a story. The parable is memorable and rhetorically shrewd: A rich man had everything, but a poor man had nothing — save a little ewe lamb that he had raised as a member of his house, so much so that it would eat from his table and sleep in his arms. “It was like a daughter to him,” verse 3 says — precious, that is, and irreplaceable. But one day when a traveler came to the rich man (the visitor isn’t even named, so we ought not think of an important personage, just some individual who happened along), the rich man wasn’t willing to take one of his own animals for the meal but took the poor man’s lamb as the dinner entrée for his guest.
Preachers and readers need to pause here because this turn of events is shocking. This isn’t just any old lamb for dinner. This is a daughter (v. 3), taken by force and power, killed and cooked, then offered up for another’s culinary pleasure! And not only a daughter, but the only daughter (of this kind, at least) that the poor man had (v. 2). He has nothing else to his name and certainly no replacement for this particular child.
The bait is set and David seizes it, as we all should: what the rich man has done is unconscionable. David is incensed and swears a rather elaborate oath in the Lord’s name that the rich man must restore the poor man’s lamb many times over (v. 6).1 It may be that David also issues the death penalty for the rich man (v. 5).2 At the very least, the rich man will pay dearly; he may also have to pay with his life.
But then the blow is struck by Nathan: “You are that man!” In Hebrew this phrase is only two words long, and is the second of three important two-word phrases that drive the plot in 2 Samuel 11-12. The first belongs to Bathsheba when she tells David, “I’m pregnant” (11:5: harâ ?anokî); then comes Nathan’s “You are that man!” (12:7: ?attâ ha?îš); the third is David’s own two-word phrase after hearing God’s judgment through Nathan, “I’ve sinned against the LORD” (12:13: ?a?a?tî la-yhwh). Much is communicated with very few words in this narrative. Big things hang on two-word phrases.
Two key terms are crucial for this text. The first is the verb ?amal. In v. 4, in Nathan’s mouth, ?amal describes how the rich man “wasn’t willing” (CEB; NRSV: “loath”) to take a lamb from his own flock. In v. 6, in David’s mouth, ?amal describes why the rich man must be punished so severely: because he “had no compassion.” In point of fact, the first formulation does not employ a negative particle. Rather woodenly one might translate that the rich man “spared to take” one of his own lambs. The rich man, that is, had compassion on his own flock, and spared it. David’s formulation, however, does employ the negative particle: the rich man did not have compassion, did not spare. Elsewhere in the Old Testament, the verb ?amal is used in the extension of mercy, consideration, and care (e.g., Exodus 2:6; Jeremiah 15:5) or the denial of such (e.g., Deuteronomy 13:9; Jeremiah 13:14).
If one maps Nathan’s parable back to David, armed with the information gleaned from ?amal, some new angles on this old story can be seen. Clearly David is the rich man (v. 7) with Uriah the poor man who is robbed of his precious possession (here understood as Bathsheba) and ultimately killed (v. 9). This much is obvious from the parable and Nathan’s judgment, but then ?amal enters the picture. David’s actions of killing Uriah (even if that is by someone else’s sword, v. 9) and his taking of Bathsheba are seen, via the verb ?amal, as actions that are not compassionate, not merciful — that lack or somehow deny care and consideration. To modern minds, murder is obviously an act that lacks compassion and mercy, but adultery? Most moderns are foolish enough to think that act is limited to two consenting adults. Far from it! The verb ?amal suggests that the act of adultery (which is considerably broadened in scope and definition by Jesus in Matthew 5:27-30) lacks compassion, consideration, mercy. “Lack of compassion and consideration and mercy for whom?” we might ask. The first, most obvious answer is the spouse who has been cheated on, but perhaps the adulterous spouse him/herself is another, close second. In the case of 2 Samuel 11-12, we know nothing of Bathsheba’s feelings about all this, nor her level of complicity (or lack thereof) in the affair with David. The parable may even suggest that she is anything but complicit — she has been “taken” by the rich man, David, from the bosom of her caring husband.
Indeed, the second key word in this unit is precisely the Hebrew verb laqa?, “to take,” which occurs at four crucial points in the story (vs. 4 [twice], 9, 10). The rich man does not take one of his own sheep, but takes the poor man’s lamb instead (v. 4). David takes Bathsheba, who is twice mentioned, not by her name, but by her definition as the wife of another in vs. 9-10, which underscores the illicit nature of David’s action: this is someone else’s wife! In 1 Samuel 8, when Israel first requests a king, Samuel tells them that what kings do is “take” — extensively and mercilessly (see 1 Samuel 8:11-18). In 2 Samuel 11, David fits the bill, with his royal taking exceeding even that predicted in 1 Samuel 8. His royal power is out of control — even by his own account. By his “objective” standards, as he stands in the role of judge, the rich man that is he himself is now “a son of death” and responsible for massive restitution.
That restitution is announced, via Nathan, in 2 Samuel 12:10-12. The reasons for the brutal judgment of David’s “house” (i.e., his dynasty) are not solely due to adultery and murder, but are first and foremost because he “despised the LORD’s word by doing what is evil in his eyes” (v. 9; CEB). This brings us to a third and final response to our earlier question: “For whom does adultery show lack of compassion, consideration, and mercy?” According to Nathan in 2 Samuel 12, and also Matthew in the Sermon on the Mount, the response to that question includes the Lord.
A final remark: David, his life, his career, and so on and so forth are often popularly glossed by preachers and believers alike as being somehow “after God’s own heart.” It pays to remember that, in Samuel, that phrase occurs very early on, in connection with the rejection of Saul’s kingship (1 Samuel 13:14). David has not yet been introduced in the narrative, is not mentioned by name there, and is not yet anointed king — all of which doesn’t happen until 1 Samuel 16. Much happens after 1 Samuel 13:14, that is — including 2 Samuel 11 — which should give us pause whenever we are tempted to tritely say that David was a king “after God’s own heart.” Not always! Definitely not always! Sometimes, instead, David was a king who “despised the LORD’s word” and who did what was evil in God’s eyes (2 Samuel 12:9). That is why he must suffer the judgment of God in so many shocking and horrific ways (2 Samuel 12:10-13).
And yet David doesn’t dissemble. He hears Nathan’s parable, hears the two-word conclusion, ?attâ ha?îš (“You are that man!”) and replies with a stunningly quick and brief two-word confession: ?a?a?tî la-yhwh (“I’ve sinned against the LORD”). It almost seems too quick, too brief, which may be what led to the long association of Psalm 51 with this exchange with Nathan. We’d like to hear David say more, be more contrite, than just two words. We’d like to hear him talk about how he knows his wrongdoings and how his sin is always right in front of him (Psalm 51:3). We’d like to hear him say that he knows God is correct in judging him (Psalm 51:4b). We’d like to hear him beg for mercy and forgiveness (Psalm 51:1-2, 7-13). Of course all of that and more is what Psalm 51 delivers. And yet, even in 2 Samuel 12, even with only two words at hand, David doesn’t dissemble, he confesses. Immediately, quickly, without excuse — in front of Nathan and God and all others who witnessed this dialogue. There he is: Great king David, a man after God’s own heart, an adulterous, murderous sinner. And yet, there he is: adulterous, murderous, sinful David, confessing. Perhaps he is a man after God’s own heart after all because he is somehow able to hear God’s judgment and immediately accept it and the results that follow upon it.
Perhaps the immediacy of David’s confession is what sparks the immediacy of his forgiveness (2 Samuel 13:13). But even forgiveness can’t erase the damage that has been done and the judgment that has been announced. Forgiveness doesn’t mean that the consequences just disappear — not when a baby is now gestating and a husband has been murdered. David must live with the consequences of his taking for the rest of his life. That should come as no surprise, really. That is always the case when someone fails to show ?amal.
1 The Hebrew text (MT) says the repayment should be fourfold, while the Greek (Septuagint/LXX) says sevenfold.
2 The Hebrew text reads that the rich man is “a son of death,” which could be idiomatic for “as good as dead,” signifying the death penalty. The CEB renders the phrase, “demonic,” perhaps taking the phrase as referring to the Canaanite god of death, Mot (“a son of Mot”).
PRAYER OF THE DAY
God of forgiveness, you showed your servant David the error of his ways, and forgave him for his sins. Forgive us, and help us to see how we might live differently to honor you. We pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
For by grace you have been saved, ELW 598
Change my heart, O God ELW 801
Great God, your love has called us ELW 358
God, when human bonds are broken ELW 603
Create in me, Carl Mueller/Various