King David of Israel
The story of Israel's most famous king
9 - David and Bathsheba
David continued on his career of conquest. It was during that career that an incident occurred which was to have far-reaching consequences. Nahash, king of the nation of Ammon, died. The territory of Ammon, descendants of Lot the nephew of Abraham and therefore of blood-kinship to Israel, lay on the other side of Jordan more or less east of Jerusalem. It would appear that David and Nahash had always been on friendly terms and no animosity existed between the two peoples (2 Sam. 10.1-2). Not unnaturally David sent envoys to the new king, Hanun, to commiserate with him on the death of his father, and probably to reiterate his pledges of friendship. Hanun, however, being in all probability a young man, allowed himself to be advised by his probably equally young advisers, treated the ambassadors with contempt and shameful insults and expelled them from his country. David, furious at this affront and despite his past friendship with Ammon, immediately declared war and sent his forces under Joab, his nephew and commander-in-chief, to teach Hanun a salutary lesson. The Ammonites, knowing that conflict was inevitable, called upon the Syrians to come to their aid and when Joab arrived he found himself facing the joint strength of Ammon and Syria. In the ensuing melee the Syrians were the first to give way and withdraw from the contest; this induced Hadadezer the king of Syria to call up reinforcements from his outlying dominions and allies and send Shobach his own senior military commander to direct operations. This escalation of the conflict brought David himself to the scene of operations with a greatly augmented force of Israelites. The result was that the Syrians were defeated and largely annihilated, their commander Shobach slain, their equipment captured by David, and only a pitiful remnant got back to Syria to tell the tale to Hadadezer. In consequence Syria and her allies became tributary to Israel and David extended his dominions still farther. The Israelite historian who recorded these things in 2 Sam. 10 concluded his account, a trifle maliciously and certainly with relish "So the Syrians feared to help the children of Ammon any more".
David, flushed with success, now set out to even up the score with Ammon. He sent Joab again, with a suitable force, to lay siege to Rabbah their capital city. It is evident that Hanun was next on the list for the chop. Joab and his men took up their positions and David relaxed from the rigours of war in his palace.
That relaxing was his undoing. He would have been better employed in communion with God giving renewed thanks for his unparalleled succession of victories, for the peace and safety Israel now enjoyed, and seeking guidance for the future. Instead he took a stroll upon the roof of his palace, much as did King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon upon a later memorable occasion, looking over the city he had built, and perhaps congratulating himself upon his achievements as had that king. It was while thus occupied that his gaze was attracted by a movement in the courtyard of a private house below him not far from the palace. From earliest times the houses of the relatively well-to-do in Eastern countries consisted of rooms built completely round a central courtyard open to the sky. Complete privacy was afforded in such a courtyard except from above and probably the roof of the palace was the only vantage point from which a view into this courtyard could be obtained. The king looked more closely; a woman was there, engaged in her ablutions, and he could see that she was beautiful. How long he gazed is not stated; eventually he descended to his apartments and summoned a servant. The servant was to ascertain the identity of the woman residing in the house he described. David waited rather impatiently for the man's return. The answer came. The woman was Bathsheba, wife of Uriah the Hittite. Uriah was one of the thirty stalwarts who had adventured with David and stood by him in those dark days of Adullam when Saul was seeking his life. He was one of David's loyal supporters and a close friend. He was, also, at this moment, not at home in Jerusalem; he was away at the battlefront with Joab, fighting the Ammonites. David thought for a moment, then came to a quick decision. "Bring her to me", he ordered curtly, and turned and retired to his own apartments. The messenger went as the king had commanded.
Let it be realised that Bathsheba herself had no choice in this matter. The king was supreme; he could do as he liked and he did do as he liked. The messengers came, and she had to go with them. Afterwards she was permitted to go to her own house and so far as David was concerned that was the end of the matter, or so he thought. But a little later on his complacency was rudely disturbed. He received a message from Bathsheba which said, in the succinct words of 2 Sam. 11.5, "I am with child".
David probably panicked a little at first. Not because he had committed adultery, and that more or less by force, but because of the scandal in Israel this would create. The king stood as the champion and example of the Divine law and should appear always beyond reproach. And there was the probable reaction of Uriah when he found out. He was a tough and hardened warrior and not likely to take this lying down. The war with Ammon must end eventually, and he would be home. Kings had been toppled from their thrones for less than this. David did some more thinking and in consequence despatched an urgent message to Joab to send Uriah back to Jerusalem for consultations.
The warrior entered into the presence of his king. David, all affable, made him welcome and discussed with him the conduct of the war, the welfare of the troops and how Joab was standing up to the strain. They probably chatted a little about old times, and then David, still affable, told Uriah he deserved a short respite from the rigours of the campaign and he was sending him home to spend a few days with his wife before going back to Rabbah. So Uriah went out from his presence and David leaned back in his chair feeling that all would now be well.
Unfortunately for David, it was not. There was a nobility in the character of Uriah upon which the king had not reckoned. When morning came David's servants told him that Uriah had not gone down to his own home; he had found himself a bed for the night with them. In some annoyance, not unmixed with a certain perturbation, David sent for him and demanded an explanation. He got the answer. The army, and Joab, were enduring the rigours of war in the open fields, said Uriah, and while they are there I will not enjoy the comforts of my home, "Shall I then go to my house", he said "to eat and to drink and to lie with my wife? As you live, and as your soul lives, I will not do this thing" (RSV).
David was baulked. His very obvious plot had failed. He must think of something else. But meanwhile he had another try. He called Uriah to a private convivial evening for the two of them and plied his guest with liquor, until he had made him thoroughly drunk. Then he told him to go home to his wife for the night, hoping that he had made him so drunk that his resolve would weaken. But when morning came the position was as before.
The king was getting desperate. Had he been in his right mind he would not have done what he did do next. He was not in his right mind; he was desperately worried and clutching at any expedient that offered a way out of his dilemma. He sent a letter to Joab by the hand of Uriah telling Joab to set Uriah in a battle position where he would be isolated and slain by the Ammonites. "Set Uriah in the forefront of the hardest fighting, and then drawback from him, that he may be struck down and die". To his former crime he was now adding that of murder.
Joab did as he was told. Before long another messenger appeared before David with dispatches from the battle-front. As a casual postscript Joab had added "Uriah the Hittitie is dead also". David told the messenger to assure Joab that he was not to be cast down "for the sword devours now one and now another" he added unctuously, conscious of an inner feeling of relief that the matter had now been very satisfactorily settled. He began to think of Bathsheba again and the beauty that had first attracted him. She, when she heard that her husband was dead, says the narrator, "mourned for her husband" but probably nobody took any notice of that. And after an appropriate period had elapsed, "David sent and fetched her to his house, and she became his wife, and bore him a son". He most likely felt that this was the easiest way to regularize the matter and avoid any breath of scandal later; one more wife added to the eleven or twelve he already had was neither here nor there. Bathsheba's own wishes were, of course, not consulted, but with her husband killed in battle she might have felt this to be the best solution to her own personal problems. David must have developed an affection for her later, for she became his favourite wife and it was one of her sons that he designated to succeed him as king.
But in all his self-congratulations David quite forgot one factor, and that an important one. The narrator records it at the end of the story. "The thing that David had done displeased the Lord.". From that moment nothing went right for David. The first eighteen years of his reign were marked by continuous and unqualified success in everything. The remaining twenty-two years were times of continuous disaster, treachery, rebellion, and heartbreak. David ultimately received Divine forgiveness for his sin, but its repercussions never left him to the day of his death.
(to be continued)