Description / Transcription
If you’ll turn in your Bibles to the second book of Samuel, chapter 11. Whereas this morning’s reading was a long one, this evening’s reading will be comparatively short. I just want to read the first five verses of this chapter. But first let us pray for the Lord’s illumination as we come to the reading and the proclamation of His Word.
Lord God, as we come before You this evening on the evening of Your day, we thank You that You have given us one day in seven to set aside to reflect upon You, Your being, Your works, and Your Gospel. As we come to reflect upon this, yet another difficult passage within Your Word, we would pray, O God, that Your Holy Spirit would be at work in our hearts and minds renewing them, that we might see even in this most disastrous of moments in the rule of king David, the greatest of the Old Testament kings, we might see something here that allows us to understand our own times more thoroughly and allows us to see Christ more clearly. For we pray these things in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Hear the Word of the Lord.
“In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab, and his servants with him, and all Israel. And they ravaged the Ammonites and besieged Rabbah. But David remained at Jerusalem. It happened, late one afternoon, when David arose from his couch and was walking on the roof of the king’s house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; and the woman was very beautiful. And David sent and inquired about the woman. And one said, “Is not this Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite?” So David sent messengers and took her, and she came to him, and he lay with her. (Now she had been purifying herself from her uncleanness.) Then she returned to her house. And the woman conceived, and she sent and told David, “I am pregnant.””
Praise God for His Holy Word.
When I got a note from Kevin last week asking for a title of the sermon, I’ve never quite got into the American habit of giving titles to sermons, so I generally try to give a title that merely is the title of the chapter that I’m looking at, but my eyes were caught by the little book on my bookshelf, written by the wonderful Dorothy L. Sayers, Are Women Human? It is a great essay that I commend to you. If you can get hold of a copy, it is well worth reading.
It struck me that that captures a key question that lies at the heart of many of the developments that we’ve been looking at earlier today and yesterday. So much of the revolution in what it means to be a human I think has had a most detrimental effect on women. It has dehumanized us all but it has particularly dehumanized women. That is not all of what I want to say tonight relative to this passage, but it is a key part of what I want to say relative to this passage. I might summarize it by saying the way David treats Bathsheba in this is an inhumane way. She is dehumanized by what takes place here.
I want to make three basic points relative to this passage, which touch on that issue. I want us to use this passage to reflect upon the way morality and what I call taste connect to each other, both in the biblical narrative and in contemporary society. Secondly, I want to look once again at the power of sexual desire and what it does and our understanding of it, what that does to what it means to being a human being. Then finally I want to conclude by reflecting upon the seductive nature of the myth of human autonomy and power which lies, I think, very much at the heart of so much of what I’ve been talking about the last couple of days. I want to reflect on morality and taste, I want to talk about the power of sex and sexual desire, and I want to talk about the seductive nature of this myth of autonomy, this idea that we are born free and everywhere in chains.
But before we come to those points, first of all a little bit of context for this passage. In many ways this passage, the tragedy of this passage, derives from the fact that this is the moment in David’s career where he is at the zenith of his power. Not only has he succeeded to the throne, not only has he effectively crushed the internal opposition, not only has he dealt very graciously with some of his enemies and positioned himself really in a fantastic position over a unified kingdom, he is now unchallenged. It is the peak of David’s career and it is at this very moment, of course, that he will plunge his family, his dynasty, and his kingdom, into crisis.
This passage really deals with what we might say is the fall of David. Yes, David was a flawed human being. He was fallen in Adam as we all are. But this is the moment in his own narrative biography where David’s public life and private life will be plunged into a crisis from which they will never truly recover. His family and the kingdom will never be as united again as they were prior to this.
There is some foreign policy issue going on here. His amazing general, Joab, is off in the field fighting with the Ammonites. David is in Jerusalem. Some people think that there is a hint of condemnation in this passage that, yes, the men are off in the field, engaged in war, David is in Jerusalem. It’s hard to say if that’s the case. The text, I think, is at best ambiguous. It doesn’t seem to me to necessarily imply delinquency. The real point, I think, of this passage is this, from that perspective. Joab is off fighting Israel’s enemies, but the real enemy of Israel is going to prove to be David at this point, the king himself is going to be the one who undoes Israel and all of the good work that he has done thus far. Israel, the kingdom, is going to be destabilized because of what David does in Jerusalem, not what Joab does on the field of military combat.
So that’s the background then. The story, of course, is very straightforward. David is on the roof of his palace. He catches sight of a naked woman bathing. Two preliminary points, I think, are worth making relative to this. First of all, accidently seeing this woman naked and bathing is not a sin. There is nothing in the text that implies that he went on the roof to be a sort of peeping Tom. He was not up there to spy on his neighbor.
About 12 months ago my neighbor told me that we’d had, he’d videoed a bear wandering through our garden late one night, and I was left wondering why is my neighbor videoing my garden at 1:00 a.m. in the morning. It was slightly creepy, but I think it was a perfectly innocent thing. He saw the bear and videoed it.
As with David here. I think this is an innocent thing that he’s doing. He’s up on the roof of his palace, he looks down, he happens to see a naked woman bathing. The sin is not that he sees her. The sin is that he fails to take immediate remedial action.
We’ve perhaps all blundered into situations where we’ve seen or heard things we should not have seen or heard, and the right response is those situations is always to back away immediately, not to indulge ourselves. The problem with David is that he indulges himself. He sees and does not immediately avert his gaze. He sees and does not immediately return into the palace itself.
So that’s the first point. I don’t think David is sinning by being on the roof of the palace, I think he sins the moment he fails to avert his gaze and get out of there as quickly as possible.
The second, and this is perhaps a more controversial point, is Bathsheba does not seem, as far as the text is concerned at this point, to be doing anything wrong. We can assume that the height of the place roof gave David sight of an area of her dwelling that would typically have been private.
If you’ve ever spent any time in a Muslim country, if you’ve gone to the Middle East at all, you’ll know that Middle Eastern houses often have fairly tall walls. I’m told that the reason for that is that the household is to be kept private, particularly the women of the household are to be given privacy from prying eyes.
Presumably she was out there with every expectation of privacy. It was just unfortunate that the building next door gave the king a sight of what should have been a private area. We are told, of course, that she is engaged in a ritual bathing, a ritual bathing required of an Israelite woman after her period was over. The fact that she’s engaging in the proper ritual bath at this point, the fact that she’s engaged in a religious exercise at the very moment when David is losing the plot, makes her look pretty good, I think, in comparison to David. She is engaged in an act of ritual piety just as he is kind of losing the moral plot.
So those are two preliminary points. But what we can learn from this passage that may be of more perennial significance to us?
The first thing is this. Sight is powerful. The visual is very powerful. One of the things, of course, that the Reformation or certain more radical strands of the Reformation, more reformed strands of the Reformation, are known for, of course, is iconoclasm, the getting rid of images and stained glass windows. I think Christians can disagree and debate on that particular issue, but one thing that it acknowledges, the very fact that it is an issue, it acknowledges that sight, the things you see, are important.
One of my favorite passages in Church history relative to this is found in Augustine, the great fourth/fifth century bishop’s confessions, when he’s talking about his very close friend Alypius, the man who is converted at the same time actually as Augustine. Alypius had this dislike of gladiatorial games. He disliked the violence of gladiatorial games and one day his friends, a bunch of young men get together and they sort of drag him to the circus. He, all the way he’s going there, he’s saying, “You can drag me there, but I’m not going to watch.”
Augustine describes what happens. He says that Alypius is there and he’s got his eyes closed. Then one of the gladiators strikes a mortal blow, slays the other gladiator. The crowd roars and Alypius intuitively opens his eyes. Augustine has this very powerful literary phrase where he says, “The blow that was struck to his soul was more deadly than that which the one gladiator struck the other one.” It’s a very powerful passage.
From that moment onwards, Alypius is a fanatical follower of the gladiatorial games. Think of that. That scene of extreme violence changed him. The way Augustine describes Alypius after that is he’s a different man. Fascinating.
It’s interesting, actually, that modern science would kind of confirm that. We know that exposure, or I’m told, I shouldn’t say I know, I’m told by people who are cleverer than me and know these things more than I do, I’m told that exposure to images of explicit sex and explicit violence actually reframe the brain, the neural pathways of the brain, those things that change depending on the habits we have. If you play a musical instrument or you learn a foreign language, your brain sort of rewires itself and that’s why if you learn one foreign language it’s easier to learn a second and a third because the brain has adapted to that.
Well, we know that as positive as that is with musical instruments, as negative it can be with things like pornography and violence. The brain rewires itself to expect this kind of stuff.
So what Augustine we might say naively describes the transformation of his friend Alypius, actually has biological grounding. The visual profoundly affects the physiological structure of the brain, reinforcing the moral structure of the heart. Enslavement to pornography falls into that category, doesn’t it? Some of the most hopeless canceling situations that pastors find themselves in these days, I think, certainly in my experience, young men enslaved to pornography. Their brains have come to expect it. The moral condition of their soul is dragged down by the transformation that has occurred within them of the things they have seen.
It’s interesting. Sight in the Bible is very, very powerful. The Bible acknowledges this in its understanding of what it means to be human. Adam, when he first sees Eve, “this is now bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.”
I commended, I don’t know if it was this morning or last night, I commended John Milton’s Paradise Lost, that section in Paradise Lost where Milton sort of poetically speculates on what’s going through Adam’s mind when he sees this beautiful creature standing before him – this at last is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.
Then negatively, of course, in the Fall, sight seduces Eve. Genesis 3:6 – so when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate. And she also gave some to her husband who was with her and he ate.
Notice there are three things in Eve’s decision. She makes a judgment of practicality. This food is to be desired, presumably to fill the belly and to make her wise. She makes a judgment of appearance. It’s pleasing to the eyes, it’s beautiful. I might suggest that her judgment in those two areas is basically correct. Certainly the fruit must have tasted good because she hands it to her husband. If it was bitter and foul she’d have thrown it away. It filled her belly. It was also beautiful to the sight.
What she allows to happen there, though, of course is this. She allows the sight of the fruit and the utility of the fruit to overwhelm the moral structure of the garden that God has given to her. There is no larger moral framework.
I would suggest a couple of things that we might bear in mind as a result of that.
First of all, as I’ve already said, we should be careful what we see. Images are powerful.
Secondly, we should not allow morality to be overwhelmed by utility or taste. That has broader implications than just the visual.
I’m very interested in the way language shifts at particular points in time. It’s very interesting, isn’t it, that the language of right and wrong has pretty much disappeared. We tend not to say about somebody, “That’s wrong.” What we tend to say is, “That was a distasteful remark. That was a hurtful comment. That was an off-color joke.” Think about that language. That’s not the language of right and wrong. It may be saying a similar thing but it’s actually the language of taste.
I might say it’s the language of esthetics. It’s the language of emotional response to something that’s gone on.
We must now allow our moral framework to be overwhelmed by utility, or I think more dangerously for many of us in the Church today, taste. The world will tell us that being hurtful is the worst sin. We have to affirm people because if we do not affirm them, we hurt them. That is not, we don’t want to hurt people unnecessarily. We really don’t. But we do not want our concept of what is hurtful to stand in opposition to what is moral. We do not want what is moral to be overwhelmed by esthetics and feelings. The truth has to drive our taste as Christians.
I facetiously use myself as an example in class when I’m teaching this to students and I say the statement that Trueman is a bald guy with crooked teeth is true. It’s very hurtful, but it’s true. It’s undeniably true.
We must allow the truth to be the foundation of our moral decision making, not taste.
That’s the problem with Eve. She allows the beauty, the tastefulness of the fruit, perhaps the taste, literal taste of the fruit, to overwhelm the moral framework.
That’s what we see with David here. He sees a beautiful woman and his moral framework is overwhelmed by that.
So that’s the first thing to notice then.
Second thing to notice, the power of sexual desire. We are probably all aware of that. Every day of the year you can open the newspaper or switch on the news, or maybe it occurs with somebody you yourself know personally, and see crazy stories of people who’ve thrown it all away for a moment of passion or a moment of insane desire.
That’s what we see here. There is an insanity to what David does. Not only does he not turn away on the roof, he engages in a conspiracy to get this woman into his palace. Overwhelmed with desire, he first inquiries about Bathsheba, at which point he learns that she’s off limits. She is married to Uriah the Hittite. She is the daughter of Eliam. She is off limits. Yet still he presses forward.
Notice the risk he takes. This is a public act. He’s asking other people about this. I’m a big believer in that statement that three men can keep a secret if two of them are dead. Here he’s showing his hand to his retainers. Her married status makes no difference to him. Still he presses on.
Notice, and this is where we start to get to the question of are women human, notice this. She is objectified. Verse 3 and 5 she is referred to simply as “the woman.” The choice of words, I think, is significant. There is a very interesting, and you can read to the end of this chapter, it’s very interesting to note when Bathsheba is referred to as “Bathsheba” and when she is referred to as “the woman.”
She is only ever referred to as “Bathsheba” in reference to her father and her husband. Why? Because she’s a person to them. We can put it in slightly fancier philosophical language if you like and we could say to them she is a subject, not an object. She is a person, not a thing.
There is some debate in this passage is this an act of adultery. I don’t think so. Okay, we’re not told that she resists any way, but we all know that what would resistance look like when the king makes a demand and your husband is away at war? But even setting that aside, I think the language of the text lays the moral burden on David because with reference to her, she’s just “the woman.” It’s only with reference to her husband and her father that she is “Bathsheba.”
So why does he do it? Sexual desire is powerful, and in a fallen world that power manifests itself in corrupt, terrible, and destructive ways. I mentioned this morning, or was it, I get so confused when I’m talking about this all the time, maybe it wasn’t this morning, maybe it was last night, but I talked about The Iliad, I talked about Othello, I talked about how literature is permeated with sexual desire because it is perennially powerful.
Sexual desire, when it is allowed to run rampant, objectifies people. It turns them into objects. Hence, the language that is used about her here.
What we’re going to witness in this is not the way sexual desire should be deployed or fulfilled. Sexual desire in the Bible finds its correct locus, its correct place, its correct end, in marriage. One of the beautiful things about marriage is this – it is the essence of a good marriage that each partner treats the other as an end in themselves and not a means to an end.
I use a couple of relatively trivial illustrations to draw this point out in class. I ask the students, often there’s an engaged couple in class, if on the wedding day you hear the music change and you know the bride’s come in and you, the groom, turn around and you look down the aisle and there’s a beautiful woman walking towards you but it’s not the beautiful woman you’re engaged to, do you go through with the marriage ceremony? With only one exception has the answer always come back, “Absolutely not.” Once a student said to me “probably not” and his fiancee was away and I actually followed up with second question. I said, “Would you like to reconsider the adverb you used in that answer?” and then he gave the correct answer.
But the obvious answer is no, of course not. Because you’re not marrying an object. You could marry another woman and yes, you could have children with her, you could do all the things you’re going to do with this woman that you wanted to do with your fiance, but that’s not enough. You want to marry the woman because she is a subject to you and not an object. She’s not “the woman,” she’s a name.
That’s why we see those tragic stories on the news where a couple get married in hospital because one of them has a terrible, terminal disease and sometimes even by the time the news report has been made in the evening, you hear that the one has passed away. Nobody watching those news reports ever thinks what a stupid thing to do. We’re deeply moved by those reports because we understand that love and marriage is not about using somebody else as a means to an end, it’s about the other person being an end in themselves.
Here David uses this woman as a means to an end, his own personal gratification. That’s the logic of the sexual revolution. What you see in this chapter is the logic of how the world around us thinks about sexual relations. It is recreation that is there for my pleasure, not for the other person. It is not about giving, it is about taking.
That’s why, interestingly and encouragingly enough, certain feminists are now turning against the sexual revolution because they’ve suddenly realized that actually it dehumanizes women. It favors men and it turns women into objects, less than human, there for male gratification.
I got an interesting taste of this a couple of weeks ago chatting to a friend. He happens to be a Catholic, that’s sort of important in the story, actually. He was with two other Catholic friends, they’re all businessmen, and he said we were in Rome doing some business and we went to a café bar in the evening and we went into the bar and the three of us, three guys, our wives are at home in the United States, we sat down and three English women came up and started to sort of flirt with us. Finally, to get rid of them, my friend said, we said this to them, “If you can guess how many children we have, we’ll buy you a drink.” The women guessed sort of four, five, six. The answer I think was 27. They’d all got eight or nine children. They were all a bit like our friend Kevin. 27 children.
The interesting thing was the response of these women to that answer. They said, “Can we ask you something?” and my friend said, “Sure.” They said, “Where can we find men who will be as committed to us and care for us as much as you clearly care for your wives?” These were three good-time girls on holiday in Rome looking for a good time and something brought them up sharp and they realized they’d been dehumanized by the world in which they live.
This is the logic of the sexual revolution that we see playing out here in this passage. It dehumanizes people. David is degraded by it. Bathsheba is dehumanized.
It brings us, of course, then to the seductive nature of autonomy. Why does David do it? It’s an interesting question, isn’t it? Why does he do it? Why does he throw it all away? I think the answer is he does it because he can. He does it because it confirms his autonomy and his power. So far David has shown himself to be a good king, but here the power goes to his head.
Now some people try to cut leaders slack on this. They’ll say, well, the temptation with a leader is the leader gets, he’s on the point of the spear, he’s the guy who takes all the aggravation, he’s the guy who gets beaten up all the time, he’s the guy who can never please all of the people all of the time. So the leader will inevitably at some point cut himself a bit of slack. He will think to himself, well, the normal rules apply to everybody, but because my life is so rough and I shoulder so much responsibility, maybe I can cut myself a bit of slack.
I’m not so certain about that. I read some years ago an interview with a conservative MP in the UK whose stellar career had been destroyed by a sexual misdemeanor. He wrote a very interesting and very honest reflection about it, trying to himself understand why he’d done it. He said, “I did it because it made me feel invulnerable. I did it because I could. I did it because it confirmed to me that I was a powerful and important person that could not be touched.” He was disabused of that by the British press when they got hold of the story.
David will be disabused of this by Nathan when he confronts him in the next chapter. That is David’s situation here.
Notice as well, again the language of verse 4 – he took her, he took her. Again, I said in one of my earlier talks, I was talking about why are sex crimes so heinous, and I said I think it’s because they involve the taking of something that can only be legitimately given. You cannot take it as an object, it has to be given to you by a person, by a subject. David takes.
Notice that’s exactly what Eve does. She saw that the fruit was beautiful and she took it. David saw that the woman was beautiful and he took her. It’s reminiscent, of course, of 1 Samuel chapter 8. It’s exactly what Samuel predicted. Remember when the Israelites ask for a king. Samuel is disgruntled by this and the Lord says to Samuel it’s not you they’ve rejected, it’s Me. He says go and tell them this is the king that I’m going to give them.
If you read 1 Samuel chapter 8, one of the things you’ll notice is that language of “take” is used repeatedly. The king will take your sons, he will take your daughters, he will take your lands, he will take the fruit of your fields and of your vines. The king who is coming will be a taker.
Of course, we read the story of Saul and we think that’s a great description of Saul. Then suddenly in the story of David the language of “take” rears its ugly head. He saw that the woman was beautiful, he sent for her and he took her. David has wives. He could take any woman legitimately as his wife if he wished, but he took that which he should not take, the wife of Uriah the Hittite.
It reminds us, of course, that David is not the great king to come. What is the contrast between David and the great king who is to come? David takes, Christ gives. Christ gives of Himself. He gives of Himself for His bride. He does not take the bride of another.
David is as good as it gets in ancient Israel. It’s as good as it gets. It’s not that good, is it? When you look at it through the frame of 2 Samuel 11. Praise God that there is a greater king, a king who does give unconditionally of Himself rather than taking.
That brings us then to the consequences of all this. Again, one of the burdens I suppose of some of the things I’ve said this weekend is this – we go wrong when we start by thinking of human beings as individuals and autonomous. We are not. We always exist in a relationship of dependency and obligation relative to others. That means that all of our actions have consequences for others.
That is what we see in this chapter. David’s sin will have consequences, immediate consequences for Bathsheba. She will fall pregnant. That will leave them both with a big problem when Uriah returns from the field. And incidentally, isn’t it interesting that Uriah is more honorable than David when he’s drunk than David is when he’s stone cold sober in this passage.
But the consequences go much further than that. It will lead to a murderous plot again Uriah. It’s the kind of thing that Saul himself might have engaged in.
But it also has significant consequences for David. You might say, well, yes, the Lord will plunge David’s reign into chaos at this point. He will, and He will partly do it through a very clear personal connection.
Bathsheba is the daughter of Eliam. You have to do a bit of digging for this, but have you ever asked yourself who Eliam is? Eliam is the son, we are told in 2 Samuel 23, of Ahithophel. Who is Ahithophel? Ahithophel is one of David’s closest advisers. But he will join Absalom’s rebellion. A key part of Absalom’s rebellion will be the role of Ahithophel.
Think about that. Put yourself in Ahithophel’s shoes. When we read the story of Ahithophel and his betrayal of David, I think our instincts are to think, “What a rat bag. He betrayed David.” Think about this, though. If David had conspired to murder your granddaughter’s husband, how well disposed towards him would you be? How well disposed towards him would you be? David’s action cannot be isolated, not just from his relationship with Bathsheba, but from the whole framework of Israelite society. Eliam is the son of Ahithophel, and Ahithophel will stick the knife in David’s back, and one might say understandably so, even if that is not to say that he was right to do it.
It’s a catastrophe. It’s like Adam and Eve’s sin. The language of “look” and “take” is there and the massive consequences beyond the immediate moments are there as well. The kingdom is plunged into disaster.
So what can we learn from this passage then, in closing? I would say a couple of things.
One, realize this. You as an individual connect to other individuals. Our personal sins cannot be isolated from the body as a whole. That’s a tough way for us to think as modern people and when Paul will talk about the body being pulled down by the sin of others, that’s hard for us to imagine. We tend to think that our sins are singular sins, maybe they have an impact on those immediately next to us when they find out about them.
I think Paul’s teaching on this is much deeper and richer. Our sins pull the body down even if the body doesn’t know about our sins. There are consequences to our sins. Why? Because we’re not isolated, independent individuals. When we act, what we do affects everybody.
Secondly, where then should true humanity be modeled? If true humanity is treating others as subjects, not objects, treating others as persons, not things, where is it to be modeled? The answer is the Church.
In the Old Testament it was ancient Israel. Be hospitable. In the New Testament, it’s the Church. What does Christ say? By this will all men know that you’re My disciples, by the love you have for each other.
There’s a very practical lesson here. David should have modeled what true humanity was. He was the king of Israel, the representative of God in the kingly role on earth at that point and he abjectly fails by treating Bathsheba as a thing. As I said, she’s always “the woman” in this passage except in reference to Uriah and Eliam, to whom she was a person, not a thing.
It is the task of the Church to model true humanity. How are we to respond to the crazy chaos, the dehumanizing chaos of the world around us? Well, first and foremost, we’re to be human ourselves in the context of the Church, demonstrating the power of true, loving community, where one person looks into the eyes of the other and that person can see that they see them as a person, not as a thing.
Thirdly, it points us to Christ, who is the One who treats as persons, not objects, who is the King who treats His subjects not as “the man,” “the woman,” “those men,” “those women,” but who knows us each by name, who calls us each by name, who is the Good Shepherd. Surely it is the Lord Jesus Christ, who does not treat us as things but lays down His life for us.
Let us pray. O Lord God, we do thank You for the beauty of Your Son, the Lord Jesus Christ and His Gospel. We pray, O Lord, that as He treats each of us as a person, as He calls each of us by name, so we might resist the temptation of this fallen world to treat others as objects, to treat others as means to selfish ends, but we might learn to look upon others as You look upon them, as persons made in Your image. For we pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.