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The Treachery of David

"Have mercy on me, O God, according to your merciful love... Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin! For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned, and done that which is evil in your sight."

There is much wisdom to be found in the Psalms of David, especially in this, Psalm 51. In the Catholic tradition, it is known as the Miserere, a prayer of repentance. Both the Catholic and Jewish traditions maintain that this prayer was written by King David after he had committed adultery and murder. David's treachery is well depicted in the popular song "Hallelujah," which is sometimes played at weddings, despite its depiction of David's unfaithfulness and treachery found in the eleventh chapter of the Second book of Samuel.

David had been king for a while, and instead of leading his armies into battle (as was custom), he remained in Jerusalem, sending lesser officers to fight the Ammonites. One night, he decided to stroll onto the roof of his home, and from there, he saw Bathsheba bathing. He eventually inquired that she was the wife of Uriah the Hittite, the Armor-bearer of Joab, an officer in his army. He sent messengers to have her brought to him. Soon after, she notified David that she had become pregnant. David sent a message to Joab, asking to see Uriah, Bathsheba's husband. After asking Uriah about the war, David told him to go to his home and rest- but Uriah did not do so, because he did not wish to abandon his fellow soldiers. The next day, in another attempt to conceal his own sin, David summoned Uriah once again and got him drunk so that he might sleep with Bathsheba- so as to make it appear that Uriah, not David, is the father of Bathsheba's unborn child. Even then, Uriah did not sleep in his own home, but where the servants slept. The next morning, David very plainly wrote to Joab, "Place Uriah up front, where the fighting is fierce. Then pull back and leave him to be struck down dead" (2 Sam 11:15). Joab did as commanded, and Uriah was sent to the front lines, where he was killed. Joab had a messenger report the casualties and outcome of the battle to David, who sent back the messenger to "encourage him" after losing several men, including Uriah. Shortly after David had received the news of the casualties, and ordered his men to press onward, the news of Uriah's death reached Bathsheba- who mourned the loss of her husband. After her mourning, David took her as his wife and brought her into his house, where she bore him a son.

This story ends quite bluntly with the following: "But in the sight of the Lord what David had done was evil" (2 Sam 11:27). Shortly after this story, the prophet Nathan rebukes David and calls him out on his sin. David's actions are not justified, not even by David himself. We do not see him morally conflicted until God, through the prophet Nathan, makes him aware of the grave sins he had committed. The way in which Nathan works out God's justice is important, in that it also exposes David's own selfishness and pride through the telling of a parable of a rich man who takes all that a poor man has and uses it for himself. David, still blind to his own sin, angrily replies "As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves death! He shall make fourfold restitution for the lamb because he has done this and was unsparing" (2 Sam 12: 5-6). Nathan, knowing of the treachery of David, replied equally as angry "You are that man!"

The prophet Nathan, acting on behalf of God, if you will, was cracking open David's heart that had hardened from sin. David's sin, and his descent into such a place, is what we all experience- although often times in different, less dramatic ways. Murder and adultery are to this day viewed as grave sins, regardless of belief or religious tradition. Nevertheless, it happens. It takes a great deal of greed, selfishness, cruelty, and numerous other vices to stoop to the level of taking a human being's life. Yet it is also something we are all capable of. There is, within each of us, the capacity for great good and great evil- and it seems today that we feed the latter much more. America in particular has become quite efficient at murder, with millions of firearms in circulation today- not to mention our often exploitative foreign policy. That, however, is on a broader, national, or political level. Our capabilities to do good in the world are matched, if not exceeded by, our sinful tendencies. Nobody is perfect. Claiming otherwise is naive at best, damaging at worst.

David was, as is plainly obvious, a very imperfect man. Regardless, God works with him and through him so that he might come to know and love God and his neighbor more deeply. After the prophet Nathan confronts David about his sin, David is moved to repentance immediately, scripture tells us. David, even though he had fallen so far into sin, was still called back. God did not spare him punishment, but neither did God condemn him. In a way, we punish ourselves when we sin. In sinning, we wound or seriously harm our relationship with God. The guilt or shame we feel after sin is our consciousness of that loss of relationship- that increased distance between ourselves and God that we have, by our own deeds, made wider. David, having been anointed King of Israel and brought up a devout Jew, was very much aware, at least intellectually, of sin. The problem was that this awareness or understanding was expelled from his heart. His hardness of heart lacked the energy or the potency to shake him from his spiritual slumber. His intellect had become a tool of the world- seeking only worldly things and resisting the continual call to change, repentance, and holiness.

That is not just the tragic story of a once-great king of old. It is the story of humanity, which we have been hiding from for over 100 years. It is the story of the drama of human sin and God's ever-present proposal of love, sacrifice, and mutual self-gift. Hopefully, we may soon come to recognize what we have lost and reignite our long-lost friendship with God that we were all made for.

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