2 Samuel 12
"The emperor Arcadius and his wife had a very bitter feeling towards Chrysostom, bishop of Constantinople. One day, in a fit of anger, the emperor said to one of his courtiers, ‘I would I were avenged of this bishop!’ Several then proposed how this should be done. ‘Banish him and exile him to the desert,’ said one. ‘Put him in prison’, said another. ‘Confiscate his property’, said a third. ‘Let him die,’ said a fourth. Another courtier, whose vices Chrysostom had reproved, said maliciously, ‘You all make a great mistake. You will never punish him by such proposals. If banished the kingdom, he will feel God as near to him in the desert as here. If you put him in prison and load him with chains, he will still pray for the poor and praise God in the prison. If you confiscate his property, you merely take away his goods from the poor, not from him. If you condemn him to death, you open Heaven to him. Prince, do you wish to be revenged on him? Force him to commit sin. I know him; this man fears nothing in the world but sin.’ O that this were the only remark which our fellows could pass on you and me, fellow-believer" (From the Fellowship magazine).
We recently came across the above in our reading, and thought it would form a most suitable introduction to this chapter. What cause have we to fear Sin!—that "abominable thing" which God hates (Jer. 44:4), that horrible disease which brought death into the world (Rom. 5:12), that fearful thing which nailed to the Cross the Lord of glory (1 Peter 2:24), that shameful thing which fouls the believer’s garments and so often brings reproach upon the sacred Name which he bears. Yes, good reason has each of us to fear sin, and to beg God that it may please Him to work in our hearts a greater horror and hatred of it. Is not this one reason why God permits some of the most eminent saints to lapse into outrageous evils, and place such upon record in His Word: that we should be more distrustful of ourselves, realizing that we are liable to the same disgracing of our profession; yea, that we certainly shall fall into such unless upheld by the mighty hand of God.
As we have seen, David sinned, and sinned grievously. What was yet worse, for a long season he refused to acknowledge unto God his wickedness. A period of months went by ere he felt the heinousness of his conduct. Ah, my reader, it is the inevitable tendency of sin to deaden the conscience and harden the heart. Therein lies its most hideous feature and fatal aspect. Sin suggests innumerable excuses to its perpetrator and ever prompts to extenuation. It was thus at the beginning. When brought face to face with their Maker, neither Adam nor Eve evidenced any contrition; rather did they seek to vindicate themselves by placing the blame elsewhere. Thus it was with each of us whilst in a state of nature. Sin blinds and hardens, and nought but divine grace can illumine and soften. Nothing short of the power of the Almighty can pierce the calloused conscience or break the sin-petrified heart.
Now God will not suffer any of His people to remain indefinitely in a state of spiritual insensibility: sooner or later He brings to light the hidden things of darkness, convicts them of their offenses, causes them to mourn over the same, and leads them to repentance. God employs a variety of means in accomplishing this, for in nothing does He act uniformly. He is limited to no one measure or method, and being sovereign He acts as seemeth good unto Himself. This may be seen by comparing some of the cases recorded in the Scriptures. It was a sense of God’s awe-inspiring majesty which brought Job to repent of his self-righteousness and abhor himself (Job 42:1-6). It was a vision of the Lord’s exalted glory which made Isaiah cry out, "Woe is me for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips" (Isa. 6:1-5). A sight of Christ’s miraculous power moved Peter to cry, "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord" (Luke 5:8). Those on the day of Pentecost were "pricked in their heart" (Acts 2:37) by hearing the apostle’s sermon.
In the case of David God employed a parable in the mouth of His prophet to produce conviction. Nathan depicted a case where one was so vilely treated that any who heard the account of it must perforce censure him who was guilty of such an outrage. For though it is the very nature of sin to blind its perpetrator, yet it does not take away his sense of right and wrong. Even when a man is insensible to the enormity of his own transgressions, he is still capable of discerning evil in others; yea, in most instances it seems that the one who has a beam in his own eye is readier to perceive the mote in his fellow’s. It was according to this principle that Nathan’s parable was addressed to David: if the king was slow to confess his own wickedness, he would be quick enough to condemn like evil in another. Accordingly the case was spread before him.
In the parable (2 Sam. 12:1-4) an appeal is made to both David’s affections and his conscience. The position of Uriah and his wife is touchingly portrayed under the figure of a poor man with his "one little ewe lamb," which was dear to him and "lay in his bosom." The one who wronged him is represented as a rich man with "exceeding many flocks and herds," which greatly heightened his guilt in seizing and slaying the one lone lamb of his neighbor. The occasion or the offence, the temptation to commit it, is stated as "there came a traveller unto the rich man": it was to minister unto him that the rich man seized upon the poor mans lamb. That "traveller" which came to him pictures the restless flesh, the active lusts, the wandering thoughts, the roving eyes of David in connection with Bathsheba. Ah, my reader, it is at this point we most need to be upon our guard. "Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ" (2 Cor. 10:5).
"Keep thy heart with all diligence, for out of it are the issues of life" (Prov. 4:23). Part of that task lies in regulating our thoughts and repelling unlawful imaginations. True it is that we cannot prevent wandering thoughts from entering our minds nor evil imaginations from surging up within us, but we are responsible to resist and reject them. But this is what David failed to do: he welcomed this "traveller," he entertained him, he feasted him, and feasted him upon that which was not lawful—with that which belonged to another: pictured in the parable by the lamb belonging to his neighbor. And, my reader, it is when we give place to our sinful lusts, indulge our evil imaginations, feed our wandering thoughts upon that which is unlawful, that we pave the way for a sad fall. "Travellers" will come to us—the mind will be active—and our responsibility is to see that they are fed with that which is lawful: ponder Philippians 4:8 in this connection.
Nathan, then, traced the trouble back to its source, and showed what it was which occasioned and led up to David’s fearful fall. The details of the parable emphasized the excuselessness, the injustice, the lawlessness, the wickedness of his crime. He already had wives of his own, why, then, must he rob poor Uriah of his! The case was so clearly put, the guilt of the offender so evidently established, the king at once condemned the offender, and said, "The man that hath done this thing shall surely die" (12:5). Then it was that the prophet turned and said to him, "Thou art the man." David did not flame forth in hot resentment and anger against the prophet’s accusation; he made no attempt to deny his grievous transgression or proffer any excuses for it. Instead, he frankly owned, "I have sinned against the Lord" (v. 13). Nor were those words uttered mechanically or lightly as the sequel so clearly shows, and as we shall now see.
David’s slumbering conscience was now awakened, and he was made to realize the greatness of his guilt. The piercing arrow from God’s quiver, which Nathan had driven into his diseased heart, opened to David’s view the awfulness of his present case. Then it was that he gave evidence that, though woeful had been his conduct, nevertheless, he was not a reprobate soul, totally abandoned by God. "The dormant spark of divine grace in David’s heart now began to rekindle, and before this plain and faithful statement of facts, in the name of God, his evasions vanished, and his guilt appeared in all its magnitude. He therefore was far from resenting the pointed rebuke of the prophet, or attempting any palliation of his conduct; but, in deep humiliation of heart, he confessed, ‘I have sinned against the Lord.’ The words are few; but the event proved them to have been the language of genuine repentance, which regards sin as committed against the authority and glory of the Lord, whether or not it have occasioned evil to any fellow-creature" (Thomas Scott).
In order fully to obtain the mind of God on any subject treated of in His Word, Scripture has to be diligently searched and one passage carefully compared with another—failure to observe this principle ever results in an inadequate or one-sided view. It is so here. Nothing is recorded in the historical account of Samuel about the deep exercises of heart through which David now passed; nothing is said to indicate the reality and depth of his repentance. For that we must turn elsewhere, notably to the penitential Psalms. There the Holy Spirit has graciously given us a record of what David was inspired to write thereon, for it is in the Psalms we find most fully delineated the varied experiences of soul through which the believer passes. There we may find an unerring description of every exercise of heart experienced by the saint in his journey through this wilderness scene; which explains why this book of Scripture has ever been a great favorite with God’s people: therein they find their own inward history accurately described.
The two principal Psalms which give us a view of the heart exercises through which David now passed are the fifty-first and the thirty-second. Psalm 51 is evidently the earlier one. In it we see the fallen saint struggling up out of "the horrible pit and miry clay." In the latter we behold him standing again on firm ground with a new song in his mouth, even the blessedness of him "whose sin is covered." But both of them are evidently to be dated from the time when the sharp thrust of God’s lancet in the band of Nathan pierced David’s conscience, and when the healing balsam of God’s assurance of forgiveness was laid by the prophet upon his heart. The passionate cries of the sorely stricken soul (Ps. 51) are really the echo of the divine promise—the efforts of David’s faith to grasp and appropriate the merciful gift of pardon. It was the divine promise of forgiveness which was the basis and encouragement of the prayer for forgiveness.
It is to be noted that the title affixed to Psalm 51 is "A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet came unto him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba." Beautifully did Spurgeon point out in his introductory remarks, "When the divine message had aroused his dormant conscience and made him see the greatness of his guilt, he wrote this Psalm. He had forgotten his psalmody while he was indulging his flesh, but he returned to his harp when his spiritual nature was awakened, and he poured out his song to the accompaniment of sighs and tears." Great as was David’s sin, yet he repented, and was restored. The depths of his anguish and the reality of his repentance are evident in every verse. In it we may behold the grief and the desires of a contrite soul pouring out his heart before God, humbly and earnestly suing for His mercy. Only the Day to come will reveal how many sin-tormented souls have from this Psalm, "all blotted with the tears in which David sobbed out his repentance," found a path for backsliders in a great and howling desert.
"Although the Psalm is one long cry for pardon and restoration, one can discern an order and progress in its petitions—the order, not of an artificial reproduction of a past mood of mind, but the instinctive order in which the emotion of contrite desire will ever pour itself forth. In the Psalm all begins (v. 1), as all begins in fact, with the grounding of the cry for favour on ‘Thy loving-kindness,’ ‘the multitude of Thy tender mercies’; the one plea that avails with God, whose love is its own motive and is own measure, whose past acts are the standard for all His future, whose own compassions, in their innumerable numbers, are more than the sum of our transgressions, though these be ‘more than the hairs of our head.’ Beginning with God’s mercy, the penitent soul can learn to look next upon its own sin in all its aspects of evil" (Alexander Maclaren).
The depth and intensity of the Psalmist’s loathing of self is clearly revealed by the various terms he uses to designate his crime. He speaks of his "transgressions" (vv. 1, 3) and of his "iniquity" and "sin" (vv. 2, 3). As another has forcibly pointed out, "Looked at in one way, he sees the separate acts of which he had been guilty—his lust, fraud, treachery, murder; looked at in another, he sees them all knotted together in one inextricable tangle of forked, hissing tongues, like the serpent-locks that coil and twist round a Gorgon head. No sin dwells alone; the separate acts have a common root, and the whole is matted together like the green growth on a stagnant pond, so that, by whatever filament it is grasped the whole mass is drawn towards you."
A profound insight into the essence and character of sin is here exhibited by the accumulated synonyms. It is "transgression," or as the Hebrew word might be rendered, "rebellion"—not merely the breach of an impersonal law, but the revolt of a subject’s will against its true King; disobedience to God, as well as contravention of a standard. It is "iniquity"—perversion or distortion—acting unjustly or dealing crookedly. It is "sin" or "missing the mark," for all sin is a blunder, shooting wide of the true goal, whether regard be had for God’s glory or our own well being and happiness. It is pollution and filth, from which nothing but atoning blood can cleanse. It is "evil" (v. 4), a vile thing which deserves only unsparing condemnation. It is a fretting leprosy, causing him to cry, "Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow" (v. 7).
"Against Thee, Thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in Thy sight" (v. 4). In these words David gives evidence of the sincerity of his contrition and proof that he was a regenerate man. It is only those possessing a spiritual nature that will view sin in the presence of God. The evil of all sin lies in its opposition to God, and a contrite heart is filled with a sense of the wrong done unto Him. Evangelical repentance mourns for sin because it has displeased a gracious God and dishonored a loving Father. David, then, was not content with looking upon his evil in itself, or in relation only to the people who had suffered by it. He had been guilty of crimes against Bathsheba and Uriah, and even Joab whom he made his tool, as well as against all his subjects; but dark as those crimes were, they assumed their true character only when seen as committed against God.
"Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me" (v. 5). Many have been puzzled by this verse in the light of its setting, yet it should occasion no difficulty. Certainly it was not said by David in self-extenuation; rather was it to emphasize his own excuseless guilt. From the second half of verse 4 it is plain that he was vindicating God: Thou hadst nothing to do with my sin: it was all mine own—out of the proneness unto evil of my depraved nature. It was not Thou, but my own evil lusts, which tempted me. David was engaged in making full confession, and therefore did he acknowledge the defilement of his very nature. It was to humble himself, clear God, and magnify the divine grace, that David said verse 5.
In the clear light of Psalm 51 we cannot doubt the reality, the sincerity, nor the depth of David’s repentance and brokenhearted contrition. We close, then, with a brief quotation from Thomas Scott: "Let not any vile hypocrite, who resembles David in nothing but his transgressions, and who adds the habit of allowed sin to all other aggravations, buoy up his confidence with his example; let him first imitate David’s humiliation, repentance, and other eminent graces, before he thinks himself, or requires others to consider him, as a backslider."