In the last post, we briefly reviewed the text regarding David’s adultery with Bathsheba and murder of Uriah. We need to reflect on those tragic events and also consider David’s famous Psalm written following.
Church and state
As outrageous as David’s behavior was, it was not unusual for a Middle Eastern despot in ancient times. The king was considered a god — or nearly so, and in many cultures, his power was absolute. If he wanted a man’s wife, well, he was the king and so it happened as he wished. Killing her husband was the king’s prerogative.
Nathan’s confrontation of David is in dramatic contrast to the normal monarchy. In most nations, the prophets served under the king, who funded their ministries. In Israel, God was considered the true king (Deu 33:5), and his prophets stood face to face with kings, announcing God’s will, whether the king liked it or not. This doesn’t mean the prophets all survived! Many of God’s prophets were martyred, but the principle remains important: God’s kings serve under God and God’s messengers, the prophets.
This fact is symbolized by Samuel anointing Saul and David. Their power came from God, and not by their own hand. They were kings at the pleasure of God.
The story of David and Bathsheba is important at several levels, and one level is how it demonstrates the authority of God’s prophet over the king. Even the king must comply with the Law. Even the king has to honor God.
There was, therefore, no separation of church and state, well, not exactly. The king was not a priest and did not lead worship and did not have authority to re-write the Law of God. But the king served under God’s authority, ultimately answering to God and his prophets.
In the modern world, whether the Congress, President, or Supreme Court are willing to admit it or not, they are subject to the paramount will of God. But they are neither prophets nor priests. They honor God but their authority is limited to civil government (not that the line is always clear). Neither ancient Israel nor the modern US is a theocracy in the sense that the king or president has any authority in religious matters. Rather, the idea is that he is subject to God’s law.
And if that’s so, who in the United States fulfills the role of Nathan? Who stands before the power-that-be and announces God’s will? Who declares sin in government sin? Who is the modern day prophet — or is there any such person or institution?
After Nathan announced God’s forgiveness of David, he penned Psalm 51, a truly remarkable poem.
(Psa 51:1 ESV) To the choirmaster. A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet went to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. 2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!
David begins with a prayer for forgiveness.
3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.
Repentance begins with acknowledging guilt and feeling the pangs of guilt.
4 Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment.
This is a controversial verse. After all, David plainly sinned against Uriah and Bathsheba, among others. Why say that he has sinned only against God?
My best guess is that what he did is sin because it violates God’s will, and that is the only reason it is sin. All sin is therefore against God. That’s not to be callous toward his human victims, but to acknowledge that ultimately our sinfulness is between us and God. (Nor does it absolve us of our duty to seek forgiveness of the humans we sin against.)
5 Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.
This is a popular proof text among those teaching Original Sin, but I doubt David was pondering infant baptism at the time. It’s even less likely that David was accusing his mother of adultery.
Commentators struggle with the meaning of the passage, but the simplest explanation is that “sin” and “iniquity” are references to his sinful nature. David is confessing, not the taint of Adam’s sin, but his own sinfulness. He knows he’s sinned before and that he stands unworthy before the holiness of God. Nothing else fits the context. David is saying: I’ve sinned terribly, and it’s not the first time. I’ve always been a sinner. And that’s the mark of true humility before God.
6 Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being, and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.
David now speaks of the inner man. God wants his people right on the inside. It’s not superficialities that please God so much as having a right heart. God’s teachings go beyond rites and rituals to the heart.
7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Hyssop was used in various purification rituals under the Law of Moses. David symbolically speaks of God himself doing the cleansing, rather than a literal branch of hyssop.
8 Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have broken rejoice. 9 Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.
David declares that he cannot be happy again until God forgives him. His pain from guilt is so great it feels like broken bones. But he is confident that God can forgive even sins of this gravity.
10 Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.
In a passage Paul surely read many times, David prays that God change his heart. Repentance requires a changed heart, but David knows that true change comes from God.
11 Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me.
David had received God’s Holy Spirit, as had Saul. He was afraid he’d lose God’s Spirit and suffer as Saul had. And so he begs God to preserve his indwelling Spirit within him. Indeed, he pictures God’s Spirit in David as David being in God’s presence. And, indeed, God’s special presence in David meant that David had a special presence before God.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.
Again David begs for a return to happiness and a changed heart.
13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you. 14 Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness. 15 O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.
David declares that if God will forgive him, he’ll declare God’s righteousness to the world, and indeed, he did exactly that.
16 For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. 17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
Nathan declared God’s forgiveness before David offered a single sacrifice. David’s repentance was enough. Once David’s heart broke and he truly realized and freely acknowledged his guilt, there was no need for ceremony.
And yet God kept the ceremonies in place for another 1,000 years. Why? Why continue the temple rituals if God is satisfied with a broken spirit and a contrite heart?
18 Do good to Zion in your good pleasure; build up the walls of Jerusalem; 19 then will you delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings; then bulls will be offered on your altar.
The last verse comes as something of a surprise. Zion is, of course, the location of Jerusalem. Is David promising to build up Jerusalem as God’s servant so that the temple will be built? It’s hardly clear.
We are people who need rituals. When a member of one of our congregations feels sufficiently guilty, he or she feels compelled to “come forward” and beg forgiveness, as though only the contrition shown by walking down the aisle will be enough to cleanse a really bad sin. Indeed, I think we often have trouble accepting God’s forgiveness because of the lack of a ritual. We need something to happen to assure that God has forgiven.
And yet we have exactly that ritual. We call it “baptism.” You see, baptism immerses us into continuous forgiveness.
(1Jo 1:7 ESV) But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.
“Cleanses” is in present tense, which in Greek means the cleanses is ongoing, that is, continuous. We sometimes limit this passage to those moments of special holiness when we are pure enough to be in the light. But the text says,
(1Jo 1:5 ESV) This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.
If we’re in God at all, there is no darkness and we are in the light! This is a very big deal indeed.
Baptism is the ritual (much more than a ritual, but a ritual it is) that assures us of God’s forgiveness. We just often lack the faith to accept it.
(And, no, this is not once saved, always saved.)
So why doesn’t God repudiate the temple sacrificial system and just accept repentance as enough? Why did the temple sacrifices continue for 1,000 years? Since David’s forgiveness is so much like the forgiveness experienced by Christians, why the delay?
Well, I don’t know all the answers. But this much I think is true. David receive treatment not available to everyone. You see, David had the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit is God’s special means of forgiving — for those with the Spirit.
(Tit 3:4-7 ESV) 4 But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, 6 whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.
It’s the presence of the Spirit that makes grace so freely available, and this didn’t become generally available until the Spirit was “poured out” as the prophets promised.
(Isa 44:3-4 ESV) 3 For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my Spirit upon your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants. 4 They shall spring up among the grass like willows by flowing streams.
(Eze 39:29 ESV) 29 And I will not hide my face anymore from them, when I pour out my Spirit upon the house of Israel, declares the Lord GOD.”
(Joe 2:28-32 ESV) 28 “And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. 29 Even on the male and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit. 30 “And I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. 31 The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. 32 And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved. For in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the LORD has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the LORD calls.
Why wait until 30 AD? I have no idea. God had his reasons, I’m sure. Until then, he indwelt the people generally through his Glory in the tabernacle and then in the temple. God’s indwelling was at the Holy of Holies and that’s where forgiveness occurred.
For us, God lives within us through his Spirit, and that’s where forgiveness occurs. There’s no need to visit a temple for forgiveness.