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I was randomly assigned to read a total bummer today as part of the church’s legionary schedule. The day’s reading from the Hebrew Scriptures is 2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a. It is the conclusion of the story of David and Bathsheba. The story is known well enough to be a cross-cultural anecdote thousands of years later. David and Bathsheba is the story of a ruler’s complete misuse of power, the abuse of a woman, and the disgrace and murder of a soldier who, up to that point, had only shown bravery and loyalty to that king.
In the power of myth, a story like this speaks past its own context. It is a total bummer to read because the actions of the ruler bring destruction to many innocent people just as that leader sits enthroned in his self-righteousness. Yet, with the destruction of a marriage and a soldier’s life appearing to evade detection, the prophet Nathan is sent. You see, what has been covered up has been seen, and it is displeasing. Very displeasing.
“But the thing that David had done displeased the LORD, and the LORD sent Nathan to David.”
I imagine Nathan was afraid of this type of confrontation. Who dares to speak against the Lord’s anointed? Some religious leaders, more in love with power than the truth, will tell you never to speak back to a leader. Who dares to accuse a great person of a terrible wrong? Who dares to speak truth to power? I imagine that Nathan could have just let “Kings be Kings.” But he didn’t. Prophets take risks, but their confidence comes from the truth and the good of the Kingdom - not from the approval of their kings.
“Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man. He said to Nathan, “As the LORD lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.”
Nathan breaks the ice with a story of a wealthy man who needs to care for a guest and steals a poor man’s only lamb. This angers David. He swears that the man will pay and pay dearly. His righteousness is deluded because he thinks Nathan is telling a story and not giving an analogy. David’s anger is an example of reaction formation. His decisiveness to punish is an attempt to reduce the anxiety of his scrambled, inconsistent, and thoroughly selfish leadership ethic. With such power and such a perspective, evil thrives.
“Why have you despised the word of the LORD, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. Now, therefore, the sword shall never depart from your house, for you have despised me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife.”
Nathan’s message connects with crystal clear clarity. David end’s the passage with “I have sinned against the LORD.” The Second reading for the day from Psalm 51 is related to this episode. The Psalm is said to be a prayer of David’s for mercy, for confession, and for a new and clean heart.
1 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving-kindness; *
in your great compassion blot out my offenses.
2 Wash me through and through from my wickedness *
and cleanse me from my sin.
3 For I know my transgressions, *
and my sin is ever before me.
4 Against you only have I sinned *
and done what is evil in your sight.
5 And so you are justified when you speak *
and upright in your judgment.
6 Indeed, I have been wicked from my birth, *
a sinner from my mother's womb.
7 For behold, you look for truth deep within me, *
and will make me understand wisdom secretly.
8 Purge me from my sin, and I shall be pure; *
wash me, and I shall be clean indeed.
9 Make me hear of joy and gladness, *
that the body you have broken may rejoice.
10 Hide your face from my sins *
and blot out all my iniquities.
11 Create in me a clean heart, O God, *
and renew a right spirit within me.
12 Cast me not away from your presence *
and take not your Holy Spirit from me.
13 Give me the joy of your saving help again *
And sustain me with your bountiful Spirit.
Today, Psalm 51 is a popular worship song called “Create in Me in a Clean Heart.” I cannot read it without hearing the tune. I also cannot read it without feeling sadness because of the truth it speaks about the ongoing human experience. Hierarchy and rulers may be inevitable facts of civilization, but they need not be evil. They need not abuse the powerless. They need not be beyond rebuke. But when they are, even the God-ordained leaders and hierarchies cannot cover up their misuse of power. Something is watching. Always watching.
Prophets exist to speak the truth to power, even when it terrifies them. But at the moment’s when truth and justice meet reaction formation, the Leader’s true heart cannot be covered up. Will they confess and seek mercy? Will they restore the wrong delivered? Will they prevent future misuses of power? Or will they continue cloak themselves in self-righteousness and continue to damage those that they are supposed to protect?
I read a total bummer today in 2 Samuel and Psalm 51. Despite reconciliation and forgiveness, abuse of power has its consequences. David, King of Israel, wasn’t the first time something like this occurred, and it won’t be the last.
May all who hold power know that what is covered up is still seen.
May we all make space in hearts and mind to hear the prophets who are sent to speak truth to power.
May the confrontations with the truth restore leadership to its God-ordained purpose of justice.
May this ancient story stop being so very familiar to us all.