Commentary on 2 Samuel 11-12 (David and Bathsheba)

In previous chapters, Israel has been at war with the Ammonites, but they have not yet completely defeated them. As chapter 11 begins, David sends the army to finish off the Ammonites once and for all. They have retreated to a city named Rabbah, so David’s forces are besieging Rabbah.

David, however, does not travel to the front lines and instead stays home during the siege. One evening, as David walks around the roof of his palace, he sees a beautiful woman bathing on another roof. He sends word for her to come to the palace, and then he has sex with her. She quickly learns that she is pregnant and tells David.

So who is this woman? Before David even sends for her, he learns that she is Bathsheba, “the daughter of Eliam and the wife of Uriah the Hittite.” Robert Bergen, in 1, 2 Samuel: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture (The New American Commentary), explains that “she was the daughter of one of David’s best fighters, the granddaughter of his most trusted counselor, and the wife of one of his inner circle of honored soldiers.” David is thus choosing to commit adultery and betray some of his most loyal followers.

Since Bathsheba is pregnant, the only way to hide the secret is for David to entice Uriah to sleep with Bathsheba immediately so that when the child is born everyone will think it belongs to Uriah. Since Uriah is off fighting the Ammonites, David summons him back to Jerusalem and encourages him to go to back to his house to rest and rejuvenate. Surely he will have intimate relations with his wife when he goes home.

Instead, Uriah sleeps at the palace with the servants. So David gives him alcohol and gets him intoxicated, assuming that his drunken stupor will cause him to go to his house and sleep with his wife. Again, Uriah refuses to go home.

Why does Uriah refuse to go home? Robert Bergen writes:

Uriah’s refusal to have sexual contact with his wife at this time was clearly an expression of his devotion to the Lord: all sanctioned military activity was a form of service to the Lord, and it required the Lord’s blessing for success. In order to maximize the probability of receiving that blessing in military endeavors, David seems to have required soldiers carrying out military assignments to keep themselves in a state of ritual purity, which necessarily meant refraining from all sexual contact (cf. 1 Sam 21:5; Exod 19:15). If Uriah had had sexual relations with Bathsheba, he would have rendered himself temporarily unfit for military service (cf. Lev 15:18) and thus unfit for service to the Lord.

Since Uriah refuses to sleep with Bathsheba, David concocts a new plan to murder Uriah, which will allow David to legally take Bathsheba into his household as her kinsman-redeemer. David sends a message, carried by Uriah, to his general, Joab. Joab is to mount a risky assault close to the walls of Rabbah, and make sure Uriah is part of the assault. When the soldiers come under attack, Joab is to withdraw the other soldiers so that Uriah is left alone and defenseless, to be killed by the enemy.

Joab does what David commands, but he loses several other soldiers in the assault, in addition to Uriah. The Ammonite archers of Rabbah slay the soldiers because they were so close to the city walls. Keep in mind that this assault was completely unnecessary as they had Rabbah surrounded. Given enough time, the city would have surrendered without this useless attack on the city wall.

So David has now committed adultery and murder. His commands to Joab are directly responsible for the death of Uriah, but indirectly responsible for the deaths of the other soldiers in the risky assault.

Upon hearing of Uriah’s death, Bathsheba mourns. After her mourning is over, she moves into the palace with David. How did David not arouse suspicion when he moved Bathsheba into the palace, married her, and then impregnated her? Robert Bergen offers a plausible explanation:

As perhaps in the case of Abigail, David may have been acting as a royal, surrogate kinsman-redeemer (Hb. gōʾēl). David might have claimed he was taking the gōʾēl responsibility on himself since Uriah was a foreigner who had no near kinsman living in Israel. As such, David would have assumed the lifelong responsibility of caring for the needs of Uriah’s widow and was obligated to father a child in order to raise up an offspring to preserve the family line of the deceased (cf. Gen 38:8; Deut 25:5–6; Ruth 4:5). Such a pretext would have made David’s actions toward Bathsheba following Uriah’s death seem truly noble and would have accounted nicely for the birth of the son.

Even though David may have fooled everyone else, he did not fool God. Chapter 11 ends on an ominous note for David: “But the thing David had done displeased the Lord.”

At the opening of chapter 12, the confrontation between God and David takes place through the prophet Nathan. Rather than accuse David of his sin, Nathan instead tells a story to incite David to accuse himself. Nathan tells the story of a rich man (he owns a large number of sheep and cattle) who steals the beloved lamb of a poor man (who owns no livestock except the lamb) in order to feed a traveler who has arrived at the rich man’s home.

Upon hearing the story, David exclaims, “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.” To which Nathan responds, “You are the man!”

Nathan then reveals the word of God that he received about David’s evil deeds. God reminds David that He gave him the throne of Israel, that He gave David everything that Saul had possessed, and that He was going to bless David even further. But David murdered Uriah and stole his wife from him.

The consequences that would follow are that David’s own household would suffer tremendously. His wives and concubines would be taken by a family member and this family member would publicly sleep with them. There would be public rebellion against the reign of David from within his own household. Robert Bergen elaborates:

Uriah had died because of David’s sin, but God decreed that death would enter David’s life as well: ‘the sword will never depart from your house’ (v. 10). This dark judgment presages fatal violence within David’s family and can be seen as the literary motivation for chaps. 13–19 as well as 1 Kings 1–2. All told, four of David’s sons would experience premature death—an unnamed son (cf. 12:18), Amnon (cf. 13:29), Absalom (cf. 18:14–15), and Adonijah (cf. 1 Kgs 2:25). Traditional Jewish and Christian interpretation of this passage has correlated the death of the four sons to be the ‘fourfold’ of v. 6. To remove all doubt about why this would occur, Yahweh restated the fundamental cause: ‘You despised me and took the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your own.’

In verse 13, David, unlike Saul, when confronted with his sin simply states, “I have sinned against the Lord.” There are no excuses, no elaborate rationalizations, only heartfelt repentance. Note that even though David sinned against Uriah, his primary offense is sinning against God. By breaking God’s commands in the Torah, David despised God Himself.

The penalty for adultery and murder, as prescribed by the Torah, is capital punishment. Would the Lord take David’s life? Nathan reassures David that his life would be spared, but the life of his son would be taken instead. God strikes the child with an illness and David prays and fasts that God will change his mind and show mercy to his son. On the child’s seventh day of life, he dies. David, hearing of his son’s death, ceases his fasting, washes himself, puts on a change of clothes and eats a meal. His servants are confused at his actions, so he tells them his rationale:

While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept. I thought, ‘Who knows? The LORD may be gracious to me and let the child live.’ But now that he is dead, why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me.

While the child was still alive, David prayed for God’s grace and mercy, even though he knew that God had already told him his son would die. Praying for a dead child is pointless as he knows he cannot bring the child back from the dead. David assures his servants that he will see his son again in the afterlife.

David and Bathsheba then conceive another child, and name him Solomon. Solomon is loved by God and given the Hebrew name Jedidiah, which means “loved by the Lord.”

If David is anointed by God, is a man after God’s heart, has been promised a dynasty, then how can we comprehend his heinous sins in chapter 11? Dale Ralph Davis, in 2 Samuel: Out of Every Adversity (Focus on the Bible Commentaries), puts it in perspective:

The unvarnished truth is that life for God’s people can be like that even in the supposed kingdom of God. That kingdom is not safe even in David’s hands. It is only safe when Jesus Christ rules and will rule with justice and righteousness. Yet until Jesus publicly enforces that just regime at his second coming, it will not be unusual for God’s people to suffer even within (what claims to be) the kingdom of God.