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The King Who Should Have Gone to War

July 27, 2015

“The King Who Should Have Gone to War” 2 Samuel 11:1-27 © 7.26.15 Ordinary 17B by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

When the steward said that was the last of the documents, David breathed a sigh of relief. He hated paperwork with a passion, yet that seemed to be all he did these days. The war with the Ammonites was on again, but General Joab had insisted that David was much too important a national asset, too precious a treasure, to be risked in battle. He supposed his friend and field commander was right. After all, David had paid his dues many times over. Yet the warrior in him wouldn’t die. How he would love to ride into the fray, swinging his sword and striking down the enemies of God and Israel! Those were the days!

He hardly knew who he was anymore. He seemed to be on the boundary between then and now, that and this. Nothing was clear. What did it mean to be king if not to go out and defend his nation? Was it just sitting here at a desk or on his throne, sealing documents, hearing petitions, hosting official dinners, receiving ambassadors, putting up with obsequious favor-seekers? He had everything: land, money, concubines, wives, a fabulous house; the loyalty, even love, of the army and the people; power such as he had never imagined in his youth. Was having and getting the essence of royalty, accumulation of goods the sum total of life?

The heat of early afternoon was beginning to be almost palpable. Time to retire to his chambers for a siesta. Maybe it would be cooler there. He dismissed his ever-attentive servants with a wave of his hand and was off to his bedroom to sleep and perhaps, in doing so, to forget for awhile his sorrow at having become no better than the bureaucrats who did his bidding.

Late in the day he finally awoke. He washed his face in the bedside basin and poured some fine red wine in a decorated silver goblet. When that was gone, he helped himself to another of the exquisite vintage. David took the drink out on the terrace, from which he could see the city that bore his name. Still haunted by his questions and doubts, almost in a trance, David scanned the landscape. But then his gaze fixed on the most beautiful woman he had even seen, bathing in her walled courtyard just a few blocks away, unaware that someone higher up was spying on her. The king stared, unashamed to be a voyeur, for as long as the woman remained there. Even when she went back inside her modest home, David didn’t move, so transfixed was he with awe at such loveliness. Plans and schemes raced through his mind, emotions overwhelming him, adrenalin pumping. He had to have her! He didn’t care who she was or whose she was; she would be his, even if he had to kill to get her.

But surely such a drastic measure wouldn’t be necessary. He was, after all, the king, the anointed of God, blessed and gifted by Yahweh. With a snap of his fingers, David could have whatever or whomever he desired. Just like that. No questions asked. That’s what it meant to be king. To have people at your beck and call, to command and be obeyed! The longing for battle and glory was not so strong now. It had been replaced by his lust for this young woman, whom he soon found out was the wife of Uriah, a Hittite mercenary in the army.

Perfect! The war with the Ammonites was far from over. Uriah was in the thick of it, no doubt, as one of their best soldiers. He would never, ever know. And besides, what could he do even if he found out? David was the king; Uriah, a mere hired gun, a nobody.

Bathsheba exceeded David’s wildest fantasies. All his wives and concubines paled in comparison to her. This is what it meant to be king: to have and hold someone so beautiful and skilled at love as this woman. To take what he wanted without consequence or cost. Even another man’s wife. To get away with the most outrageous action, even crime, scot-free. To have absolute, total control over everything and everybody. Long before Mel Brooks coined the line, David thought it was good to be the king. He was glad now he had stayed in Jerusalem.

Years before, when Saul was still monarch, yet David had been anointed, the prophet Samuel had tutored him on the art of kingship. The one thing the old man had stressed was that the leader of Israel could not be like the kings of other nations. The one true King of Israel was Yahweh, the Lord. So, even the man on the throne had to observe limits, honor boundaries.

David had once believed that. Maybe somewhere deep down, he still did. But right now, it all seemed like hogwash, the pious sentiments of an old man out of touch with the real world. David had the power to get what he wanted, so why not take it? Why restrain himself when there was no one to stop him?

Then one day, a message came, and David’s control began to slip away. The note shattered his comfortable world. He felt himself spiraling deeper into an abyss. Why had he looked out that day? Why hadn’t he slept later? He was filled with regret, not because he felt he had done anything wrong, but because he was being inconvenienced.

David cursed quietly to himself, frustrated that a mere woman, no matter how beautiful, had the upper hand on him. When he had taken her, she had no choice or control; David was king, and Bathsheba had to do his bidding. This was different; David was at a momentary loss as how to do damage control. Wait a minute! What was that clown’s name, her husband? Uriah, that was it. Summon him from the battlefield, ask how the fighting was going, standard commander-in-chief stuff, then subtly suggest he might want to rest a bit, have some pleasure before returning to the field. Go home and be with his wife.

Wham! Brick wall again. Uriah slept in the courtyard instead. “Why?” David asked the next morning. “Well, sir,” the mercenary said, “my men are out in the field, and they can’t go home to their wives. It was my duty to sleep where I did. How can I have pleasure while my comrades are fighting and suffering deprivation? Your Majesty is very kind, but I couldn’t do it.”

David ran twice through the lexicon of Hebrew profanities when Uriah had left. That idiot! Give him an opportunity to eat a decent meal instead of field rations, take a bath, enjoy a night of love, and what does he do? He sleeps in the courtyard! He’s too principled for his own good. Brave, loyal, committed soldier. Impressive, really, though annoying. Why is he so insistent on following our rules, this Hittite who doesn’t even worship Yahweh? How can a pagan infidel be so good and moral? David momentarily felt shame that a hired gun would show him up, would remind him of what he once was, what he at one time held dear.

One more try to get this dolt to help me in my cover-up, David thought, to make it look like this baby is his. Surely if I get him drunk, be his pal, he’ll be open to suggestion. But even three sheets in the wind, Uriah remembered he was a soldier, and refused to go home. Meanwhile, David fumed.

Once so in control, so sure of himself, so able to get anything and anyone he wanted, he had been thwarted first by this woman he wished he had never laid eyes on, then by her loyal, honorable husband. David wasn’t used to this. It was as if he were a puppet with some hidden master pulling the strings or a mouse being played with by some big cosmic cat. He felt like he was being tested to see how far he would go.

It was then David sank his lowest. He sent Uriah back into the front lines with his own death warrant in his hands. Not only did David’s sin with the wife of Uriah cost that man his life, but other good men theirs as well. There were many more widows in Israel that night than Bathsheba, all because David didn’t honor limits, refused to recognize boundaries. He had forgotten who and whose he was, and his amnesia had the ancillary effect of closing his eyes to the good and the true.

Now, as he stood there before the priest with the pregnant wife of Uriah by his side, David wondered if it had all been worth it. Would it be? What would his life with Bathsheba be like, with such a guilty secret haunting him? What if Joab suspected that David had used him to engineer a cover-up? Would the general have to go, too? As Bathsheba slept in his arms that night, David lay wide awake, counting not sheep but the cost. The cost of not going to war. The cost of wanting everything. The cost of believing there were no limits.

Some years later, during the reign of Solomon, a great writer would set out to pen a history of Israel. No, not a history. A theology. And he would tell a story that went something like this: Once there was a beautiful garden. And in the garden, God put a man he had made. Then, because the man was lonely, and there was no other creature like him, God made a woman and brought her to the man. And the man and the woman lived happily with each other and with God, who walked with them in the garden. They could eat the fruit of any tree they wanted, except one. It was in the middle of the garden, off limits, its fruit forbidden. And isn’t it strange, this author asked, that with all they had to choose from, the only one they wanted was the one they couldn’t have?

It was a tale about beginnings, yes, but also a veiled commentary on the recent past, the actions of a certain beloved king. Is this the way it is with all of us, the writer wondered, the way it was with David?

A thousand years later, in the springtime, another king would stay in Jerusalem yet go to war. Not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers, against evil in high places, against sin and death. And though he bore the title “the Son of David,” he was really more like Uriah, one who kept faith even when it meant his undoing. One who made and makes it possible for those who sometimes forget who they are to regain their memories. One who brought and brings forgiveness to those who do evil in God’s sight and hurt others. One who led us then and leads us still to understand that life is more than having what we want and being human is more important than being king.

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