Expositor's Bible Commentary
And it came to pass, after the year was expired, at the time when kings go forth to battle, that David sent Joab, and his servants with him, and all Israel; and they destroyed the children of Ammon, and besieged Rabbah. But David tarried still at Jerusalem.CHAPTER XIV.
DAVID AND URIAH.
2 Samuel 11:1-27.
HOW ardently would most, if not all readers, of the life of David have wished that it had ended before this chapter! Its golden era has passed away, and what remains is little else than a chequered tale of crime and punishment. On former occasions, under the influence of strong and long-continued temptations, we have seen his faith give way and a spirit of dissimulation appear; but these were like spots on the sun, not greatly obscuring his general radiance. What we now encounter is not like a spot, but a horrid eclipse; it is not like a mere swelling of the face, but a bloated tumour that distorts the countenance and drains the body of its life-blood. To human wisdom it would have seemed far better had David's life ended now, so that no cause might have been given for the everlasting current of jeer and joke with which his fall has supplied the infidel. Often, when a great and good man is cut off in the midst of his days and of his usefulness, we are disposed to question the wisdom of the dispensation; but when we find ourselves disposed to wonder whether this might not have been better in the case of David, we may surely acquiesce in the ways of God.
If the composition of the Bible had been in human hands it would never have contained such a chapter as this. There is something quite remarkable in the fearless way in which it unveils the guilt of David; it is set forth in its nakedness, without the slightest attempt either to palliate or to excuse it; and the only statement in the whole record designed to characterize it is the quiet but terrible words with which the chapter ends - "But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord." In the fearless march of providence we see many a proof of the courage of God. It is God alone that could have the fortitude to place in the Holy Book this foul story of sin and shame. He only could deliberately encounter the scorn which it has drawn down from every generation of ungodly men, the only wise God, who sees the end from the beginning, who can rise high above all the fears and objections of short-sighted men, and who can quiet every feeling of uneasiness on the part of His children with the sublime words, "Be still, and know that I am God."
The truth is, that though David's reputation would have been brighter had he died at this point of his career, the moral of his life, so to speak, would have been less complete. There was evidently a sensual element in his nature, as there is in so many men of warm, emotional temperament; and he does not appear to have been alive to the danger involved in it. It led him the more readily to avail himself of the toleration of polygamy, and to increase from time to time the number of his wives. Thus provision was made for the gratification of a disorderly lust, which, if he had lived like Abraham or Isaac, would have been kept back from all lawless excesses. And when evil desire has large scope for its exercise, instead of being satisfied it becomes more greedy and more lawless. Now, this painful chapter of David's history is designed to show us what the final effect of this was in his case - what came ultimately of this habit of pampering the lust of the flesh. And verily, if any have ever been inclined to envy David's liberty, and think it hard that such a law of restraint binds them while he was permitted to do as he pleased, let them study in the latter part of his history the effects of this unhallowed indulgence; let them see his home robbed of its peace and joy, his heart lacerated by the misconduct of his children, his throne seized by his son, while he has to fly from his own Jerusalem; let them see him obliged to take the field against Absalom, and hear the air rent by his cries of anguish when Absalom is slain; let them think how even his deathbed was disturbed by the noise of revolt, and how legacies of blood had to be bequeathed to his successor almost with his dying breath, - and surely it will be seen that the license which bore such wretched fruits is not to be envied, and that, after all, the way even of royal transgressors is hard.
But a fall so violent as that of David does not occur all at once. It is generally preceded by a period of spiritual declension, and in all likelihood there was such an experience on his part. Nor is it very difficult to find the cause. For many years back David had enjoyed a most remarkable run of prosperity. His army had been victorious in every encounter; his power was recognized by many neighbouring states; immense riches flowed from every quarter to his capital; it seemed as if nothing could go wrong with him. When everything prospers to a man's hand, it is a short step to the conclusion that he can do nothing wrong. How many great men in the world have been spoiled by success, and by unlimited, or even very great power! In how many hearts has the fallacy obtained a footing, that ordinary laws were not made for them, and that they did not need to regard them I David was no exception; he came to think of his will as the great directing force within his kingdom, the earthly consideration that should regulate all.
Then there was the absence of that very powerful stimulus, the pressure of distress around him, which had driven him formerly so close to God. His enemies had been defeated in every quarter, with the single exception of the Ammonites, a foe that could give him no anxiety; and he ceased to have a vivid sense of his reliance on God as his Shield. The pressure of trouble and anxiety that had made his prayers so earnest was now removed, and probably he had become somewhat remiss and formal in prayer. We little know how much influence our surroundings have on our spiritual life till some great change takes place in them; and then, perhaps, we come to see that the atmosphere of trial and difficulty which oppressed us so greatly was really the occasion to us of our highest strength and our greatest blessings.
And further, there was the fact that David was idle, at least without active occupation. Though it was the time for kings to go forth to battle, and though his presence with his army at Rabbah would have been a great help and encouragement to his soldiers, he was not there. He seems to have thought it not worth his while. Now that the Syrians had been defeated, there could be no difficulty with the Ammonites. At evening- tide he arose from off his bed and walked on the roof of his house. He was in that idle, listless mood in which one is most readily attracted by temptation, and in which the lust of the flesh has its greatest power. And, as it has been remarked, "oft the sight of means to do ill makes ill deeds done." If any scruples arose in his conscience they were not regarded. To brush aside objections to anything on which he had set his heart was a process to which, in his great undertakings, he had been well accustomed; unhappily, he applies this rule when it is not applicable, and with the whole force of his nature rushes into temptation.
Never was there a case which showed more emphatically the dreadful chain of guilt to which a first act, apparently insignificant, may give rise. His first sin was allowing himself to be arrested to sinful intents by the beauty of Bathsheba. Had he, like Job, made a covenant with his eyes; had he resolved that when the idea of sin sought entrance into the imagination it should be sternly refused admission; had he, in a word, nipped the temptation in the bud, he would have been saved a world of agony and sin. But instead of repelling the idea he cherishes it. He makes inquiry concerning the woman. He brings her to his house. He uses his royal position and influence to break down the objections which she would have raised. He forgets what is due to the faithful soldier, who, employed in his service, is unable to guard the purity of his home. He forgets the solemn testimony of the law, which denounces death to both parties as the penalty of the sin. This is the first act of the tragedy.
Then follow his vain endeavours to conceal his crime, frustrated by the high self-control of Uriah. Yes, though David gets him intoxicated he cannot make a tool of him. Strange that this Hittite, this member of one of the seven nations of Canaan, whose inheritance was not a blessing but a curse, shows himself a paragon in that self-command, the utter absence of which, in the favoured king of Israel, has plunged him so deeply in the mire. Thus ends the second act of the tragedy.
But the next is far the most awful. Uriah must be got rid of, not, however, openly, but by a cunning stratagem that shall make it seem as if his death were the result of the ordinary fortune of war. And to compass this David must take Joab into his confidence. To Joab, therefore, he writes a letter, indicating what is to be done to get rid of Uriah. Could David have descended to a lower depth? It was bad enough to compass the death of Uriah; it was mean enough to make him the bearer of the letter that gave directions for his death; but surely the climax of meanness and guilt was the writing of that letter. Do you remember, David, how shocked you were when Joab slew Abner? Do you remember your consternation at the thought that you might be held to approve of the murder? Do you remember how often you have wished that Joab were not so rough a man, that he had more gentleness, more piety, more concern for blood-shedding? And here are you making this Joab your confidant in sin, and your partner in murder, justifying all the wild work his sword has ever done, and causing him to believe that, in spite of all his holy pretensions David is just such a man as himself.
Surely it was a horrible sin - aggravated, too, in many ways. It was committed by the head of the nation, who was bound not only to discountenance sin in every form, but especially to protect the families and preserve the rights of the brave men who were exposing their lives in his service. And that head of the nation had been signally favoured by God, and had been exalted in room of one whose selfishness and godlessness had caused him to be deposed from his dignity. Then there was the profession made by David of zeal for God's service and His law, his great enthusiasm in bringing up the ark to Jerusalem, his desire to build a temple, the character he had gained as a writer of sacred songs, and indeed as the great champion of religion in the nation. Further, there was the mature age at which he had now arrived, a period of life at which sobriety in the indulgence of the appetites is so justly and reasonably expected. And finally, there was the excellent character and the faithful services of Uriah, entitling him to the high rewards of his sovereign, rather than the cruel fate which David measured out to him - his home rifled and his life taken away.
How then, it may be asked, can the conduct of David be accounted for? The answer is simple enough - on the ground of original sin. Like the rest of us, he was born with proclivities to evil - to irregular desires craving unlawful indulgence. When divine grace takes possession of the heart it does not annihilate sinful tendencies, but overcomes them. It brings considerations to bear on the understanding, the conscience, and the heart, that incline and enable one to resist the solicitations of evil, and to yield one's self to the law of God. It turns this into a habit of the life. It gives one a sense of great peace and happiness in resisting the motions of sin, and doing the will of God. It makes it the deliberate purpose and desire of one's heart to be holy; it inspires one with the prayer, "Oh that my ways were directed to keep Thy statutes! Then shall I not be ashamed, when I have respect unto all Thy commandments."
But, meanwhile, the cravings of the old nature are not wholly destroyed. "The flesh lusteth against the spirit, and the spirit lusteth against the flesh." It is as if two armies were in collision. The Christian who naturally has a tendency to sensuality may feel the craving for sinful gratification even when the general bent of his nature is in favour of full compliance with the will of God. In some natures, especially strong natures, both the old man and the new possess unusual vehemence; the rebellious energizing of the old are held in check by the still more resolute vigour of the new; but if it so happen that the opposition of the new man to the old is relaxed or abated, then the outbreak of corruption will probably be on a fearful scale. Thus it was in David's nature. The sensual craving, the law of sin in his members, was strong; but the law of grace, inclining him to give himself up to the will of God, was stronger, and usually kept him right. There was an extraordinary activity and energy of character about him; he never did things slowly, tremblingly, timidly; the wellsprings of life were full, and gushed out in copious currents; in whatever direction they might flow, they were sure to flow with power. But at this time the energy of the new nature was suffering a sad abatement; the considerations that should have led him to conform to God's law had lost much of their usual power. Fellowship with the Fountain of life was interrupted; the old nature found itself free from its habitual restraint, and its stream came out with the vehemence of a liberated torrent. It would be quite unfair to judge David on this occasion as if he had been one of those feeble creatures who, as they seldom rise to the heights of excellence, seldom sink to the depths of daring sin.
We make these remarks simply to account for a fact, and by no means to excuse a crime. Men are liable to ask, when they read of such sins done by good men, were they really good men? Can that be genuine goodness which leaves a man liable to do such deeds of wickedness? If so, wherein are your so-called good men better than other men? We reply, They are better than other men in this, - and David was better than other men in this, - that the deepest and most deliberate desire of their hearts is to do as God requires, and to be holy as God is holy. This is their habitual aim and desire; and in this they are in the main successful. If this be not one's habitual aim, and if in this he do not habitually succeed, he can have no real claim to be counted a good man. Such is the doctrine of the Apostle in the seventh chapter of the Romans. Anyone who reads that chapter in connection with the narrative of David's fall can have little doubt that it is the experience of the new man that the Apostle is describing. The habitual attitude of the heart is given in the striking words, "I delight in the law of God after the inward man." I see how good God's law is; how excellent is the stringent restraint it lays on all that is loose and irregular, how beautiful the life which is cast in its mould. But for all that, I feel in me the motions of desire for unlawful gratifications, I feel a craving for the pleasures of sin. "I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members." But how does the Apostle treat this feeling? Does he say, "I am a human creature, and, having these desires, I may and I must gratify them"? Far from it I He deplores the fact, and he cries for deliverance. "wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from the body of this death?" And his only hope of deliverance is in Him whom he calls his Saviour. "I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord." In the case of David, the law of sin in his members prevailed for the time over the new law, the law of his mind, and it plunged him into a state which might well have led him too to say, "O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me?"
And now we begin to understand why this supremely horrible transaction should be given in the Bible, and given at such length. It bears the character of a beacon, warning the mariner against some of the most deceitful and perilous rocks that are to be found in all the sea of life. First of all, it shows the danger of interrupting, however briefly, the duty of watching and praying, lest you enter into temptation. It is at your peril to discontinue earnest daily communion with God, especially when the evils are removed that first drove you to seek His aid. An hour's sleep may leave Samson at the mercy of Delilah, and when he awakes his strength is gone. Further, it affords a sad proof of the danger of dallying with sin even in thought. Admit sin within the precincts of the imagination, and there is the utmost danger of its ultimately mastering the soul. The outposts of the spiritual garrison should be so placed as to protect even the thoughts, and the moment the enemy is discovered there the alarm should be given and the fight begun. It is a serious moment when the young man admits a polluted thought to his heart, and pursues it even in reverie. The door is opened to a dangerous brood. And everything that excites sensual feeling, be it songs, jests, pictures, books of a lascivious character, all tends to enslave and pollute the soul, till at length it is saturated with impurity, and cannot escape the wretched thraldom. And further, this narrative shows us what moral havoc and ruin may be wrought by the toleration and gratification of a single sinful desire. You may contend vigorously against ninety-and-nine forms of sin, but if you yield to the hundredth the consequences will be deadly. You may fling away a whole box of matches, but if you retain one it is quite sufficient to set fire to your house. A single soldier finding his way into a garrison may open the gates to the whole besieging army. One sin leads on to another and another, especially if the first be a sin which it is desirable to conceal. Falsehood and cunning, and even treachery, are employed to promote concealment; unprincipled accomplices are called in; the failure of one contrivance leads to other contrivances more sinful and more desperate. If there is a being on earth more to be pitied than another it is the man who has got into this labyrinth. What a contrast his perplexed feverish agitation to the calm peace of the straightforward Christian! "He that walketh uprightly walketh surely; but he that perverteth his way shall be known."
Never let anyone read this chapter of 2 Samuel without paying the profoundest regard to its closing words - "But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord." In that "but" lies a whole world of meaning.