The story of David and Bathsheba is a familiar one. The king commits adultery with another man’s wife and has him killed to cover up the affair. In church the story is most often taught on from one particular angle: how to avoid sexual sin in your life. It wasn’t until recently that I realized:
David and Bathsheba isn’t only about sex. It’s also about power.
While God does care about our sex lives, I believe we in the majority-culture American church have almost completely missed one of the main points in the story. Yes, it was wrong for David to sleep with another man’s wife, and God was not pleased with His sin. But there was another theme in God’s punishment of the king’s action.
If we pay close attention to the story the prophet Nathan tells, we’ll see the theme of abuse of power come to the surface. He tells David of two men in a city — one rich and the other poor. The rich man had flocks of animals, while the poor man had only one. When it came time to entertain a guest, rather than use his power to serve his guest, the rich man uses his power to abuse the poor man. He took his only lamb and served it to the guest for a meal. When Nathan tells the King, “You are the rich man!” it breaks through the blinding effects of sin in the heart of David.
But then an interesting thing takes place, when Nathan starts to spell out in plain language for David how the allegorical story applies to his situation, he doesn’t start with sex. The first thing he shares as a message from God is, “So why have you treated the word of God with brazen contempt, doing this great evil? You murdered Uriah the Hittite, then took his wife as your wife.” (2 Samuel 12:7-12) If he were replaying the scene as it happened factually, Nathan should have stated that David slept with Uriah’s wife, then killed him, then took her as his wife. But he doesn’t. He starts with the murder.
David was the most powerful man in the kingdom. He was the king. His commission from God was to use his power to serve the people, not to abuse them (and certainly not to kill them). As Andy Crouch says, by his power the people were to flourish.
And while we know that what David did sexually was wrong, I have seldom heard his abuse of power preached on in a sermon. Evidently, that’s not something new for the majority-culture church in America. Consider this passage from The Psychology of a Suppressed People, published in 1937:
“The love of prestige or the craving of superiority is coming more and more to be recognized as of equal power with the sex drive as a determinant in human conduct. Its unrestrained exercise and misuse has equally devastating results in human relations and deterioration of personality. There is a strong probability that the two drives are so closely connected that undue repression of the one stimulates expression of the other. In the New Testament, particularly in the teaching of Jesus, there is a greater emphasis upon the moral danger connected with the misuse of the power urge than upon sexual abberration. There has, however, been nothing like an equal stress upon the two drives in the teaching and thinking of Western Christianity. The accumulation of personal power and authority and prestige has been a fairly respectable sin that the Church is only beginning to attack.” – J.C. Heinrich, The Psychology of a Suppressed People, (1937), p. 84-85.
I would argue that the attack on the accumulation of personal power and authority has not been strong in the years between now and 1937 when this was first written. Abuse of power is rarely talked about and often tolerated in the church. It’s certainly hardly ever preached on. Maybe it just hits too close to home.
What if, when preaching on David and Bathsheba, we talked about abuse of power as much as sexual sin? What if we were to begin to read other passages in the Bible through the lens of power? How might familiar stories illuminate new applications for us in ministry?
I long to do my part to help the Church become a place where innocent lambs are free to roam and be loved, rather than abused and sacrificed for the whims of the powerful. May I be a leader who uses their power for the flourishing of those I serve, rather than merely my own.
I’d want to follow a leader with a shepherd’s heart like that. They’d truly be a man or woman after God’s own heart. God, help me be the kind of leader I so desperately want to follow.
photo credit: Jim Forest