The Baffled King
II Samuel 11:1-12:13
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational UCC
29 July 2012
The core issue of J. R. R. Tolkein's great trilogy The Lord of the Rings is the use and abuse of power. In the novel the evil forces of Sauron are able to marshal great power – they have armies, new technologies, and dark magic. The evil forces also have a further advantage -- even good people are easily corrupted. The evil forces are helped by this fundamental truth of human nature.
Good people come to believe that the ends justify the means. They will succumb to the temptation to use unjust means to achieve their victory over evil. But when they do that, they've already helped evil to win.
In the LOTR, the forces of good are confronted with a sobering reality -- if they rely on their traditional sources of power, then they will fail. If they rely on strength of armies or the power of the wizards or the ingenuity of the elves, then they will eventually be overwhelmed by Sauron. What the forces of good must do is place their faith and their fate in the hands of the least of these – the hobbits, who would appear to have no power whatsoever.
But, in the most fortunate of ironies, that is precisely why the hobbits are so powerful. Their weakness, their powerlessness is the source of their greatest strength. Because they are weak and powerless according to typical standards, they can, more easily than most, resist the temptation to use the Ring of Power. Only the hobbits have the fortitude to carry the heavy burden to Mount Doom and to destroy it.
This story about David, Bathsheba, and Uriah is about power and weakness. This story presents a challenge to us, and it speaks a healing word. We would do well to listen to both.
When we are first introduced to David, we are introduced to his weakness. He does not possess typical power. He is the son of a country farmer. He's the overlooked eighth son. He is not privileged, but works out in the field with the sheep. He is a poet and a musician. His older brothers may taunt him for being a sissy.
Yet, God is drawn to David's heart. God sees something in David. It's possible that because David has lived the way he has, he will more easily identify with those in need.
The story of David's defeat of Goliath and then his subsequent rise to power is, partially, the story of the outcast and the rebels surviving the power of the state and actually rising to power themselves. The David story is a story of liberation and hope.
But alongside that story of nobility and virtue, the Bible also gives us the painful truth of the man David. He may be a hero and a king, but he is still vulnerable and weak. David has not remained in touch with the powerlessness that first attracted God to him. David the king is now insulated from those who are outcast and in need. He's a far remove from the put upon poet and shepherd boy. David is in danger of losing that which God loves best about him – his identification with the weak. Now that he has the power, we get to see what he will do with it.
And what he does with it in this story is abuse it. First off, he avoids going to war himself. Instead, he sends others to do his job for him. Bible scholar Eugene Peterson points out that the verb "to send" is used repeatedly in this story. David sends Joab to war, sends messengers to find out who Bathsheba is, sends for Bathsheba, then sends her away after having sex with her, sends for Uriah, then sends Uriah back to his death. The repeated use of this word heightens our awareness that David is abusing power. He can now send other people to do his bidding, even when that bidding is objectionable. David has distanced himself from normal activity. What has become of the brave young man who took a slingshot to challenge a giant?
Maybe David is suffering from acedia, slothfulness, the sickness of the soul. He's achieved the throne, conquered the Philistines, and maybe now he's bored and has sunk into torpor and laziness. If so, then this is a destructive form of weakness. It is not the weakness of one who has been denied access to power and privilege. It is the weakness of one who has achieved power and privilege and then rests comfortably. It is the weakness of one who no longer rises up to engage life.
So, already at the beginning of the story, before anything else happens, temptation is crouching at David's door. He is vulnerable to it, and he alone is responsible for being in this position. When temptation presents itself, David succumbs.
And how quickly the sins escalate – rape, deception, murder. At the end of the story, David excuses it all as just the reality of his kingly roll. He tells Joab, "Don't let this matter trouble you, for the sword devours now one and now another." David, like so many in power, tries to excuse his moral guilt by claiming, "We'll these things happen." Maybe, in our own way, we do that too?
So, this story is a cautionary tale. David has made himself vulnerable to temptation. We are warned to be on guard lest we do the same. Plus, we discover how quickly and easily sin can escalate and spiral out of control. What began as laziness ends up as callous murder.
The problem throughout is that David has lost sight of his best self, his true self, the person that he was meant to be.
But that is not the entire story. Besides the cautionary word, there is also the healing word. David is forgiven by God.
David told Joab not to be troubled. Yet, immediately the story tells us that God is troubled. And what does God do? God sends the prophet Nathan to confront the king. David had done all the sending in the first chapter of the story, but now God sends. You see, God is going to remind David that God is the true sovereign -- God really has the power. Despite everything David has done, God still loves David. God judges the sin, and something is now broken for David. Even when he repents, the consequences of his actions cannot be stopped. Sin is like that. We can find healing and reconciliation, but we can never go back in time and erase what we have done.
To begin the process of healing and reconciliation, we must confess our sins. Admitting our brokenness, our weakness, our responsibility for one another is a deeply powerful act. God gives David this opportunity for confession and healing, and David's confession is recorded in Psalm 51, which we read earlier. It is a profound, painful confession. David learned important truths about himself. He reconnected to his true self, the person he was meant to be, the person God desired him to be. This experience of confronting his brokenness, weakness, and responsibility led to genuine change.
The same can happen for us. Maybe we have somehow gotten off track? Maybe we are no longer living as our true and best selves? Maybe we are separated from the life that God desires for us? This story speaks a healing word to us – while still hoping the best for us, God loves us just the way we are. The glorious good news is that God forgives us too.
J. R. R. Tolkein's wisdom was that those who are vulnerable have the greatest power, because they are less likely to isolate themselves from others. Those in touch with their vulnerability are more likely to call on help and to assist each other. They don't remove themselves from ordinary life, sending others to do their bidding. They create fellowships.
One can imagine a different story of David. He becomes king and creates the kind of society that the characters in these stories have dreamed about and hoped for and sung about: the one where the downtrodden are lifted up, where the needy are cared for, where justice and righteousness roll down like water. That David wouldn't have built himself a palace. He would have kept on herding sheep and writing poetry, governing the people while still living among them. He wouldn't have sent others to do his bidding, but would have actively engaged in the life of the nation. This David would have kept in touch with his true self, the vulnerability that first attracted God to him.
Our vulnerability is our greatest asset. It opens us to one another. We develop genuine relationships of mutual care and support. Our vulnerability draws us closer to each other and closer to the heart of God. If we were perfect we wouldn't need each other, we wouldn't need the church, and we would be incapable of ministering to one another. Our weakness, like the hobbits, is our greatest strength.
In the song Julie and John performed earlier, Leonard Cohen wrote:
It doesn't matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah
He goes on:
I did my best, it wasn't much
I couldn't feel, so I tried to touch
I've told the truth, I didn't come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I'll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah