We have been looking at the stories of early Israel, and specifically David, this summer. We have met the young shepherd boy David, who slew the giant Philistine, Goliath, and who was chosen by God to be Israel’s second king after the people demanded a king. We have seen how David grieved for Saul and Jonathon, and led the nation in grieving their first king. We have heard how David brought home the Ark of the Covenant and danced in celebration. David has led the nation in battle and as a leader of the people.
But then we come to today’s story, and we see a very different side of David. Instead of leading his people in battle, David stayed behind, and must have been bored without much to do. His mind did not seem to be on the battle. He saw a beautiful young girl bathing, and he wanted her. It was as simple as that. He sent for her, and he "took" her, the Hebrew word tells us. He did not sit down and talk with her first, to get to know her. He didn’t even call her by name. She was "the woman." He had his way with her and then sent her on her way. That was that, it was done…except that he did this at the wrong time, and she became pregnant. She sent word to David to let him know.
We have seen that David, the one who grieved and danced in public, was impulsive. He was not someone who spent a lot of time mulling over what to do. So presented with a problem, he sought a quick solution to cover up his indiscretion. He called home the husband of the woman from the heat of battle, and tried to get him to go home and lay with her so that no one would think a second thought about her being pregnant. But Uriah was a better man than David. In wartime, it was not right for him to go home and have a good time, he said. He respectfully declined.
So David had to think fast. He spent a night drinking with Uriah and got him drunk. Then he came up with a new plan – he would send Uriah to the front of the battle and make sure he was killed in battle. He enlisted the help of his general Joab to accomplish this dastardly deed. And the ruse worked, Uriah was killed. Bathsheba had a time of mourning, and then David married her. The story goes on tell us that she bore him a son, but the son later got sick and died.
If this story in our holy book were totally about David, these are the facts we would have, sad but true. The tabloids would have a field day with them. But the story is, as is all of the Bible, more about God more than about David. And if we read on, we would find that God sent the prophet Nathan to David with a parable to teach him a lesson. (But we will hear more about that next week.)
Today’s story is pivotal in the history of David and of Israel. Says Walter Brueggemann:
"This passage gives us a psychological look at David, and we see a ruthless political act. Innocence for both David and Israel are lost here. David’s life is now marked, and all Israel must live with that mark. The writer has cut very, very deep into the strange web of foolishness, fear, and fidelity that compromises the human map. This narrative is more than we want to know about David, and more than we can bear to understand about ourselves. We might wish the story about David could be untold." (Brueggemann, p. 272)
Sometimes we ignore this story when we talk about David. The children’s Bibles certainly do not deal with it (and I knew I could not use it for the Children’s Message!). In modern lingo, it is TMI, too much information, more than we want to know about someone, especially one we consider a hero.
Ancient civilizations looked to their kings or leaders to lead in battle but also in matters of life and faith. State and church were much closer united in ancient times. But with this quick-moving story, King David fell off the moral cliff. As Sir John Acton, a British parliamentarian who lived in the 19th century, said, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men."
Though we cannot over-characterize that greatness always begets evil, we could cite many instances where power seems to steer some people down the wrong path. There are probably just as many giving powerful people as there are takers. Maybe today’s story is one of the places we see absolute power corrupting absolutely. Somehow, David lost his way. His put aside his moral compass.
A moral compass is something that guides our decisions based on morals and virtues; it is the sense within us that makes us know what is right and what is wrong, and how we ought to behave. It is a set of core principles that guide us, like the 10 commandments.
There are many who think that the moral compass of our nation has "gone south," meaning it has waned and continues to wane. Over 75% of high school students admit that they cheat or plagiarize to get their work done. We see celebrities and sports stars in the news who do despicable things, like beating or cheating on their girls friends or wives, and yet the law and their fans overlook their crimes. We hear of elected officials sent to represent us in our government but who pursue their own interests or the interests of the companies who endorse them with large amounts of money. It might seem to many that our nation’s moral compass has also suffered greatly.
The Journal of Applied Psychology has defined a "moral identity" as the degree to which one finds it important to be caring, compassionate, fair, and generous. In an experiment aimed to see if power corrupts a few years ago, Katherine DeCelles, a professor of management at the University of Toronto, asked participants to rate ethically related attributes. She then told them that they were to share a pool of 500 points with other people, and that each could take between 0 and 10 points for themselves. The more points they took, the higher their change of winning a $100 lottery. But if they took too many, the pot would empty, and the lottery would be called off. No one would win anything. And there was no way to know where the tipping point was. Most, the average people, took about 6.5 points out of the 10. But those who had been primed beforehand to think of themselves as powerful, and who had lower moral-identity scores, grabbed 7.5 points. Those with high moral-identity scores took only about 5.5, wanting to leave enough so that the lottery continued and someone, anyone, could win. The conclusion of the study was that power does not corrupt as much as it enhances pre-existing moral tendencies. The moral compass with which we grow up may shape who we are as adults, as leaders, as neighbors. We develop our moral compass early in life.
And that is why those of us who work in church think attending church, Sunday School, Bible studies, and other church activities, is so important. It can be essential to forming identity, to developing a good moral compass that we carry throughout our lives. That is why we encourage you each week in our announcements with all the church has to offer. We strive to provide opportunities that help us all to grow to be better Christians, better citizens, better people.
As we continue to read the story of David this summer, we will find that the rash decisions and acts that David made around Bathsheba not only shaped his life, but also affected his children and the nation of Israel. Yes, he did good things for Israel, and his name is forever planted in our hearts and minds as a great leader. But his selfish missteps also shaped the future in ways he never stopped to consider for a moment.
Centuries later, Paul, or one of his disciples, wrote to the church at Ephesus. There must have been some moral lapses in the church community then too, because the letter calls for the highest levels of morality, both personally and socially. The church at Ephesus, which was largely Gentile, was proud of their independence from Israel and was increasingly intolerant of their Jewish neighbors and even their Jewish heritage. (Martin, p.5) To this church, the writer offered the prayer we read:
"For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from who every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of glory, God may grant that you be strengthened in your inner being through the power of the Holy Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God." (Ephesians 3:14-19)
"Rooted" in love implies a deep bed in which plants are set and nurtured. "Grounded" in love may be more of an architectural image, implying a solid base on which a structure rests, says Professor Ralph Martin (Martin, p. 45)
We still need a deep-rooted moral compass to guide us. Maybe we need it even more than ever before. It seems to me that the church community can be, should be, a place that guides us, nurtures us, encourages us, even corrects us lovingly when we need it, as we all strive to live and love one another as God loves us, as Christ shows us, and as the Holy Spirit fills us. When all around us the world seems to have lost its moral compass, it is a hard, life-long pursuit to keep ourselves on the right path. But we do not do it alone. And maybe that was David’s biggest mistake. In his rise to power, he became isolated, and had no one to whom to turn before he acted or reacted. In his royal and powerful position, he lost his way.
Let us not lose our way, but work together to live as good and faithful citizens, spreading not hatred, prejudice, or cynicism, which come too easily to us, but rather seeking to live out the fruit of the spirit – "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control" (Galatians 5:22-23). For this is the true and good will of God for us, for all creatures and all creation. Lord, make it so. Amen.
Brueggeman, Walter, I & II Samuel (Westminster/John Knox Press, GA, 1990)
Martin, Ralph P., Epeshians, Colossians, & Philemon (Westminster/John Knox Press, GA, 1991).
Shea, Christopher, "Why Power Corrupts," in Smithsonian Magazine, October 2012.