King David's Adultery
February 17, 2002
In the spring, at the time when kings go off to war, David sent
Joab out with the king’s men and the whole Israelite army. They
destroyed the Ammonites and besieged Rabbah. But David
remained in Jerusalem.
One evening David got up from his bed and walked around
on the roof of the palace. From the roof he saw a woman bathing.
The woman was very beautiful, and David sent someone to find
out about her. The man said, “Isn’t this Bathsheba, the daughter
of Eliam and the wife of Uriah the Hittite?” Then David sent
messengers to get her. She came to him, and he slept with her.
(She had purified herself from her uncleanness.) Then she went
back home. The woman conceived and sent word to David, saying,
“I am pregnant.” . . .
David wrote a letter to Joab and sent it with Uriah. In it he
wrote, “Put Uriah in the front line where the fighting is fiercest.
Then withdraw from him so that he will be struck down and die.”
So while Joab had the city under siege, he put Uriah at a place
where he knew the strongest defenders were. When the men of
the city came out and fought against Joab, some of the men in
David’s army fell; moreover, Uriah the Hittite died. . . .
When Uriah’s wife heard that her husband was dead, she
mourned for him. After the time of mourning was over, David
had her brought to his house, and she became his wife and bore
him a son. But the thing David had done displeased the Lord.
The Lord sent Nathan to David. When he came to him, he
said, “There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the
other poor. The rich man had a very large number of sheep and
cattle, but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb
that he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his
children. It shared his food, drank from his cup, and even slept in
his arms. It was like a daughter to him.
“Now a traveller came to the rich man, but the rich man
refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a
meal for the traveller who had come to him. Instead, he took the
ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the
one who had come to him.”
David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan,
“As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this deserves to die!
He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a
thing and had no pity.”
Then Nathan said to David, “You are the man! This is what
the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘I anointed you king over Israel,
and I delivered you from the hand of Saul. I gave your master’s
house to you, and your master’s wives into your arms. I gave you
the house of Israel and Judah. And if all this had been too little, I
would have given you even more. Why did you despise the word
of the Lord by doing what is evil in his eyes? You struck down Uriah
the Hittite with the sword and took his wife to be your own.
You killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. Now, therefore,
the sword shall never depart from your house, because you
despised me and took the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your
own.’ ” (2 Samuel 11:1-5, 14-17, 26, 27; 12:1-10)
Reading from Swedenborg
If we want to be set free, we have to recognize our faults and regret
them. We recognize our faults when we learn what sorts of things
are wrong, see them in ourselves, admit them, take responsibility
for them, and criticize ourselves for them. When we do this in
front of God, we are recognizing our faults.
We regret our faults when, once we have admitted them and
asked with a humble heart for help in giving them up, we stop
acting on them and start living a new life in harmony with the
rules of kindness and faith. (The Heavenly City #159–161)
King David was the dream come true. It took over a thousand
years, but God’s promise to Abraham and Sarah that a great
nation would spring from them seemed fulfilled at last in David’s
sparkling reign. Any rabbinical teacher will tell you King David
represents the high point of ancient Israel. Not only did he mold
King Saul’s fledgling national Hebrew coalition of tribes into a
minor empire, but he had star quality all over him. The Bible calls
him handsome, with beautiful eyes and a ruddy complexion. In
one person were amalgamated a marvelous, even sexy, array of talents.
A fearless fighter, he broke into the Bible narrative as the
secretly anointed but publicly unknown shepherd boy who volunteered
to face the Philistine giant, Goliath, in a challenge match.
Without donning a single piece of armor, he felled the enemy’s
fiercest warrior with a smooth river stone.
David in rapid succession became a military genius and then a
brilliant city planner. Jerusalem’s glory was his inspiration—and
he built it. Artistic as well, King David developed the worship arts
to new highs. He composed psalms that would serve the ages, and
he was also superbly able on the lyre. When David played, it was
said, everyone’s problems seemed less important. Make no mistake:
he was God’s anointed one. In the first book of Kings, you
can read how he went down in history: “David did what was right
in the sight of the Lord, and did not turn aside from anything that
he commanded him all the days of his life, except in the matter of
Uriah the Hittite” (1 Kings 15:5).
Ohhh, that. That little Uriah matter; that little Bathsheba
matter. Hmmm, what did the independent prosecutor turn up?
That he had taken one fatal look at Bathsheba and plotted to have
her. That when she became pregnant, David’s strategical mind
went into high gear. That the first thing he tried was a coverup. If
he could get Uriah and Bathsheba to spend a romantic weekend together, Uriah might believe the child was his own. The only
problem was that Uriah was out of town fighting a battle, and like
all other soldiers he was sworn to celibacy until the fighting season
was over. David ordered him back to Jerusalem and told him to go
see his wife, but Uriah refused. The same thing happened the next
day. So the day after that, David invited Uriah to supper and got
him drunk; but still Uriah refused to go home to Bathsheba.
Exasperated by Uriah’s loyalty, David changed his strategy. He
wrote a letter to Uriah’s commander Joab that said, “Set Uriah in
the forefront of the hardest fighting, and then draw back from
him, so that he may be struck down and die.”
This time it went down exactly as the king ordered. Uriah was
killed. Bathsheba mourned him; and when her mourning was
over she became David’s wife and bore him a son. But the thing
that David had done displeased the Lord, and before the baby
could make a fist, Nathan the prophet was knocking on the front
door of the palace, sent by God to confront the king.
The way he did it was pure genius: not head-on, like a Beltway
litigator, but sideways, with a story. Why did he take such an
indirect route? Because he had not come to condemn David. That
would have been easy enough to do, given the facts at hand. But
Nathan was up to something much more profound than that. He
had come to change David’s life, if he could—to help the king see
what he had done so that his conscience would be elevated and his
sense of justice restored. Then Israel might have the king she was
supposed to have, instead of this handsome hero whose power had
begun to stink.
If David could see that—if he could pronounce judgment on
himself—the impact would be a hundred times greater than if
Nathan did it for him. But it called for real restraint on Nathan’s
part. He had to contain his anger and resist the temptation to do
David’s work for him.
So Nathan told David a story, knowing good and well how
human beings tend to drop their defenses while they are listening to a story about someone else. When words are not aimed right at
us, we can usually receive the message more purely. And so when
Nathan told him about the rich man with many flocks and the
poor man with nothing but one little ewe lamb, and how the rich
man stole even the poor man’s lamb, David’s heart and conscience
saw the thing clearly—and he pronounced a swift verdict and a
death sentence on that one who had done such a despicable thing.
He pronounced a verdict on that rich man—on that man who
already had so much, and whose appetite was so roaring out of
control that he felt that anything he could get was his fair share,
and it didn’t matter how his rapacious appetite affected others.
“You are that man!” Nathan told him; and David’s heart split
in two. “I have sinned against the Lord,” he said—not because
Nathan had told him so but because he saw it for himself. And
that was the beginning of his coming back to life again.
Think about it: he had broken three commandments in short
order: thou shalt not covet, thou shalt not commit adultery, thou
shalt not kill. And in the depth of his conscientious confession, he
even condemned himself to death. But that was not what God
had in mind for him.
“The Lord has put away your sin,” Nathan told him. “You
shall not die.” That was the first important news. The bad news
was that the sword would never be absent from his household.
A straightforward reading of this story provides an essential
principle of our spiritual lives, namely, that even in our worst
occasions of sin God’s goal is not to punish, but to help us
become aware of the ugliness of our choice and to feel the wrongness
of such choices, so that we can be inspired to throw off the
old will and let the Lord flow into our minds and hearts with
renewing impulses to live aright.
Swedenborg, however, helps us go deeper and more completely
into an understanding of sin, repentance, and reformation.
Serving as a backdrop for the human challenge, we must accept
that it is part of being human to make deep and grievous mistakes spiritually—to sin. In the inner sense of David’s story, we come to
see that every sin is a consequence of spiritual adultery, because
adultery in the spiritual sense is to separate truth from goodness.
Marriage in the spiritual sense is the union of good and truth,
which is the mechanism for life expressing itself. Adultery as
something that breaks up a marriage in the spiritual sense has to
do with mixing falsity into previously good intentions. To desire
love is intrinsically good. But David rationalized his desire to have
this potentially beautiful thing with Bathsheba, another man’s
wife. So he split up a marriage on two levels—literal and metaphysical.
Adultery was the precipitating cause of David’s great sin.
In the inner sense this is so because as we move into our productive
years, the primary spiritual dynamic we deal with is spiritual
adultery: the temptation to compromise our early idealism.
Spiritual adultery occurs with everyone, and that is why David
and Bathsheba is our own story. The inevitability of spiritual
adultery begins with the fact that we always understand a higher
ideal than we can fully live out. When we are young, we often
have a great deal of confidence that we will be able to fulfill our
ideals a lot better than the generations before us. This is the young
David, the shepherd boy who slayed Goliath. But in the path of
real life, the matter of soul development gets very intense as we
move into our twenties and thirties. It is tough to remain pure
and innocent as we build Jerusalem and a great army and new cultural
It is impossible not to mix in some falsity with our ideals as we
begin to live a real life in the world. I once had a very close friend
who was a pothead. He truly believed, as so many did and do, that
he was more brilliant when stoned. He was a very idealistic and
wonderful person; but it was obvious to me that his drug habit
was curtailing his potential. I look back now and see his vociferous
arguments about drugs actually helping his potential as one of
his particular versions of spiritual adultery. (Take it on good
authority: he was not more brilliant when he was stoned!)
But let’s remember the good news. David’s story assures us
that on the regeneration path we gradually master our various
temptations to spiritual adultery, slowly building an inner foundation
of experiential strength in uniting with healthy and constructive
behaviors. Still, the “reality piece” is sobering: once we
commit a sin, we set off consequences that are not easy to overturn.
The pull of the hells is powerful. Frequently we cannot walk
away from the inner consequences of volitional sin that easily, and
we find that Nathan’s prophecy bears out in our living: “Therefore,
the sword will not depart from your house.”
The heavenly doctrines suggest that our sins have spiritual
consequences for our characterological makeup that even the
Lord cannot annul. Sin can be forgiven and then redeemed, but
that redemption is not an erasure. It is like the addict whose
recovery leads to an incredible strength; but it is a strength that
has not only a memory in it, but a taste as well. Swedenborg says
that even with angels in the most advanced states of love and wisdom,
the effect of sin remain forever—even though it may be
eternally pushed farther and farther to the periphery of the soul’s
Indeed, that “sword” provided a cutting edge for David’s soul
for the rest of his long life. Amnon, Solomon, Absalom and other
offspring represented episodes of subsequent spinoffs of his profound
sin of spiritual adultery. The deeper message for us is that
we need to know that our own versions of spiritual adultery will
take a while for us to really get under control, even with productive
regeneration. This lengthy and intense struggle is part of the
contract for obtaining eternal life. “Sanctification,” to use an old
evangelical term, takes a lot of work.
David’s psalms are dramatic renderings of the inner processes
in regeneration. In the psalms we see his courageous vision and his
humbled lowness. And especially, we see his persistence and ultimate
progress as a truly wise and authentic spiritual leader.
Psalm 51 is an expression in verse of David’s wrestling with his
greatest sin. Its words are a part of our traditional liturgy: “Create
in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within
me . . . restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me
with a willing spirit” (Psalm 51:10, 12).
King David! The most attractive figure in the Hebrew Testament.
From Boy Wonder to military and civic genius to spiritual
leader, David’s is the greatest story, not because of his winsomeness
and his accomplishments, but because with all his promise
and talent, he sinned so spectacularly—and then knew what he
had to do about it.
Jehovah God, Creator and Ruler of all the universe, we thank you
that you have given us dominion over the earth and over our own
lives. We thank you for the respect and trust you give us, believing
that we are capable of making our own decisions and directing
our own lives. Yet when we anoint ourselves king and master of
our lives, as exhilarating as this can be with all its exciting chal-lenges
and victories, we find that we never quite measure up. All
too often, we make blunders on a royal scale. Give us the wisdom
and humility, O Lord, to hear your prophetic voice within us, and
recognize when we have made a terrible mistake. And though the
consequences of our mistakes will always be with us, make them,
we pray, the material from which a better character is built. Amen.
Rev. Dr. James Lawrence