Lord, have mercy!

As I suggested recently, everyone has a secret. There are things about us we wouldn’t want others to know. It may be something small, that threatens a moment or two of embarrassment. Or it may be something big, the revelation of which would get us into serious trouble. The bigger the problem, the harder we work to conceal it, sometimes going to great lengths to keep from being found out.

In the previous post, we looked at King David’s crime against Bathsheba and Uriah (2 Sam 11:1-27). Hollywood may prefer to tell the tale as a love story, but the condemnation from God through the prophet Nathan clearly frames David’s acts as a selfish abuse of power (2 Sam 12:1-9).

What began as a crime done in secret soon threatened to become a public scandal. Bathsheba became pregnant with David’s child. David tried to cover up the situation by calling Uriah home from the battlefront, hoping he would sleep with his wife so that the child could appear to be his. But Uriah proved to be the man of greater character. With impressive loyalty, he refused to allow himself the comforts of home while his comrades had to remain out in the open field (2 Sam 11:11).

Desperately, David resorted to murder by proxy. Poor Uriah, returning to the battlefront, had no idea that the message he was carrying to his commander was his own death warrant. By David’s order, Joab put Uriah where the fighting was the thickest and the enemy the strongest. Uriah was killed by design, and David, guilty of treachery against a man who had served him faithfully, took his wife as his own.

God sent the prophet Nathan to confront David. Rather than accuse David directly, Nathan tells David a story: a rich man, to feed a guest, took and slaughtered the one and only lamb that belonged to a poor man, a lamb who was treated like a beloved member of the poor man’s family. David, enraged by this injustice, declared the rich man deserving of death. That’s when Nathan sprung the trap: “You are the man!” (2 Sam 12:7, NRSV). Thus exposed, David could say nothing other than, “I have sinned against the LORD” (vs. 13).

Why did Nathan resort to this clever ruse? It’s possible that he feared the king’s wrath. Nathan, remember, knew that David would resort to murder to keep his secret safe. And who, when accused directly of a crime they’ve tried so hard to conceal, would simply fess up?

I prefer to believe, however, that Nathan didn’t just take the safer course, but the one more likely to produce confession and repentance. David was caught, and he knew it, and had condemned himself with his own words. He could do nothing but hope for mercy.

. . .

This is the story associated with Psalm 51. Only a handful of psalms bear a superscription that locates the poem in a specific historical context. The superscription for Psalm 51 reads, “A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.” Scholars insist that to label a psalm as being “of David” does not necessarily mean that David actually wrote it; it can mean, for example, that the psalm is of the Davidic tradition. And many scholars date the psalm as having been written during or after the time of the Babylonian exile, in part because of verse 18, which calls upon God to “rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.” Thus, they surmise, the editors who put together the collection of psalms associated this one with the story of David because of the similarity in theme (repentance) and wording (“I have sinned against the LORD,” 2 Sam 12:13; “Against you, you alone, have I sinned,” Ps 51:4).

So: did David write the psalm? Did he write part of the psalm, while someone in the post-exilic period added to it? Did someone else entirely write the psalm with David in mind? Did the editor of the collection simply impose his own understanding? Ultimately, there is no way to prove the matter one way or another. My own position is that we needn’t believe that David wrote the psalm to take the superscription seriously. In other words, it behooves us as a worshiping community to inhabit the story of David as we read and understand the psalm.

And let us begin with this: quite apart from simplistic stereotypes of the Old Testament being about law and the New Testament about grace, the psalm begins on a resounding note of divine love and mercy. The psalmist writes:

Have mercy on me, O God,
    according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
    blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
    and cleanse me from my sin
. (vss. 1-2)

David was guilty of greed and adultery, treachery and murder. In response to Nathan, he inadvertently condemned himself to death. If we were to identify with the depth of David’s crimes, would we dare to call upon God to show us his steadfast love? Would we be able to cry out for mercy, to have God wash our sins away?

Or perhaps the better question is: what else could we do? The options are death and repentance. God is just, and cannot allow sin to go unpunished. But God is also merciful and loving, and as the psalm itself declares, will not reject the plea of a heart that is truly broken over its own sin (vs. 17).

We’ll turn to that idea in the next post.