Two weeks ago, Matt Smethurst and Rachael Denhollander ignited what turned into quite the Twitter war over her contention that King David’s conquest of Bathsheba was not a consensual affair but rather a sexual assault.
(For the record, I agree with Denhollander, and that is a position at which I arrived almost 30 years ago.)
But accepting that assessment–that David indeed committed rape–leaves us in a quandary: how does this affect our theological assessment of King David?
This is not a trivial question, as–over the years–commentators, both academic and devotional, have given a large amount of time to David. Beth Moore became a rock star with her Bible study, A Heart Like His. Just go to Google and search for books about King David and you’ll get a voluminous number of results.
First, I want to address the blowback against Denhollander, some of which I incurred in the Twittersphere.
The backlash was severe, coming from a faction of hardline conservative–hard Calvinist–devotees. This crowd, with very few exceptions, was very combative, not collegial at all, and downright insulting. Myself and a Twitter ally–a pathology professor–were called “stupid”, “liar”, “fool”, “heretic”, and told “you don’t know the first thing about Scripture”, all for pointing out the obvious, including the Hebrew and basic grammatical structure of the text.
Personally, I was not so much offended as I was beside myself as to why they were so passionate about digging their heels regarding this matter.
Keep in mind that as an old-school conservative, I am used to hard fights about tough issues: Biblical inerrancy, inclusive language, the Atonement, the Deity of Christ, the veracity of miracle accounts in the Bible, the Resurrection of Jesus, the end times, pedo-versus-credo baptism.
In those fights, it gets spirited to say the least. But in this case, the “David did NOT commit rape” crowd was fighting as if this was the last stand against the enemies of Jesus.
Oh, and then they “blocked” me. I’m not so much offended at that–I’ve got thick skin and big shoulders–but mildly entertained at the level of angst that they seem to convey. For people who oppose the “easily-triggered” crowd, they were quite easily-triggered.
My question to them: what do you have invested in this that explains the butthurt? Has Rachael Denhollander hit a nerve?
Kyle Worley provides as an insightful piece, writing in Christianity Today, as to why it’s hard for people to accept that David was a rapist.
My take: most people cannot envision themselves as rapists. We can see ourselves having illicit sex given sufficient motivation and opportunity; we can see ourselves doing great bodily harm to others given sufficient provocation; given the right circumstances, some of us may even be willing to kill another person.
But rape? We run from that one. No one likes the “sex offender” tag. Not even a sex offender.
But that brings us back to King David: what do we do with King David? What do we know of his character? Do we view him as a great man of God? Do we view him as a sexual predator and a murderer? How do the Scriptures assess him in the final analysis? And what are some of the implications of that for us as Christians?
First off, it is important to remember how David came onto the scene. The first king–Saul–started out strong but turned sour in a hurry. The Israelites had picked him, as he looked the part: he was the tallest man in the kingdom and looked like a warrior. Despite some early successes, he fell out of favor with God, as the Judge-Priest-Prophet Samuel chastised him for showing an utter lack of regard for the things of God.
After Saul failed a sufficient number of times–particularly in his disobeying the command of God to kill the Amalekites (including all livestock) and leave everything as an offering–God had Samuel anoint the next King.
As you read the story, God led Samuel to the tribe of Judah, to the house of Jesse. As Samuel met the seven sons of Jesse, God indicated that none of them were His choice for King. Then Jesse told him there was another son: the youngest, who was out taking care of the sheep. (In other words, the lowest of the bunch, as he had the task no one else wanted.)
That son was David, and that is the one God chose, and Samuel–in turn–anointed him as the next King.
The next time we see David, we see the Philistine warrior–Goliath, a 9-foot super-fighter–challenging the Israelites to send out a fighter to take him one-on-one. The Israelites, including Saul–ironically the tallest man in the kingdom–were not up to the challenge. One day, as David was taking food rations to his brothers, he took up the challenge:
What will be done for the man who kills this Philistine and takes away the reproach from Israel? For who is this uncircumcised Philistine, that he should taunt the armies of the living God? I Samuel 17:26 (NASB)
The response by this brothers was nothing short of an insult, amounting to, “You sure talk tough for a sheep herder who’s not even a fighter.” And David’s words to Saul were poignant:
Your servant was tending his father’s sheep. When a lion or a bear came and took a lamb from the flock, I went out after him and attacked him, and rescued it from his mouth; and when he rose up against me, I seized him by his beard and struck him and killed him. Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear; and this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, since he has taunted the armies of the living God.” And David said, “The Lord who delivered me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, He will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine. I Samuel 17:34-37 (NASB)
Clearly, David is a man of faith in God. For a young man–otherwise untested in battle–he’s confident that he can win. Is it because he knows that he has been anointed as the next King (which happened in the preceding chapter)? Is it because he sees Goliath as less-threatening than a lion or a bear? Is it because he has a level of marksmanship that awaits Goliath, who has no idea what kind of unconventional attack he is about to experience? I believe David knew that God was on his side, and–as of that point–he also was on God’s side.
The depth of David’s faith–and understanding of God’s word–is laid bare in the Psalms. He understood the importance of meditating on God’s word (Ps 1); he had a glimpse of the Godhood of the Messiah (Ps. 2); he trusted God for protection from the wicked (Ps 5); trusted God for mercy (Ps 6); worshiped God fervently and called others to do so (Ps 8, 9), implored God for forgiveness (Ps. 32, 51), extolled the great mercies of God (Ps. 103), spoke greatly about the law of God (Ps. 119); gave glory to the providence of God (Ps. 23).
We also know that David had great respect for God’s order. In spite of being the anointed King, David respected that Saul was King until he died, and David was in no rush to make that happen. He was willing to wait his turn. In fact, he was best-friends with Saul’s son, Jonathan. His first wife was Saul’s daughter Michal. Even when Saul tried–on multiple occasions–to kill David, he refused to fight Saul.
Even when he became king upon the deaths of Saul and Jonathan, David was gracious to Saul’s legacy, extending kindness to Jonathan’s son Mephibosheth. In taking the throne, David would become the standard for Godly kings.
But something happened between his anointing in 1 Samuel 16, and his assault with Bathsheba in II Samuel 17.
During the time in between, David killed a large number of people in battle. When he was first anointed, he was a lowly shephered who had fought off a bear and a lion. But from there, he killed tens of thousands of Philistines. This is one reason why God would not let King David build the Temple.
This high death toll is a big deal, even if it was in the course of “just war”. Any time you kill someone, even if the killing is justified, there is a price to pay. This is because justifiable homicide is still homicide. And the more you kill, the more it impacts your soul.
And that large death toll was a likely factor in making David cavalier–even Machiavellian–with the lives of others when it became expedient.
But there was another factor that seemed to play against David: his own success. From his victory over Goliath to his years on the run from Saul to his ascent to the throne, David was successful in his endeavors. Even as Saul sought to kill him, he still managed to score great victories against the Philistines, and even gained a popular following. As a King, he enjoyed great success against longtime enemies of Israel.
That also likely stoked a pride in David that lurked under the surface. That pride may have motivated him to stay in Jerusalem during that fateful Spring. That would be the kind of pride that says, “I’ve been successful; I have a competent army; they don’t need me; I can defeat my enemies without even being on the battlefield.”
Why do I point these things out? David’s “great sin” was not a spontaneous act, but rather a series of actions that required (a) a heart inclined to evil, (b) premeditation, (c) the use of other people to carry out the evil, and (d) purposeful action. In the process, David showed a callous disregard for the Law of God, a sense of entitlement to what was not even his, a callous disregard for the well-being of others, and a callous disregard for the lives of others.
Had David gone to battle like he should have, we would not be having this discussion. When he saw Bathsheba, he began lusting immediately. Had he stopped there, we would not be having this discussion. Had he harkened to the warnings of his men–that Bathsheba was married and therefore off-limits–we would not be having this discussion.
But let the record show that a man after God’s own heart–who cherished God’s word, who had a deep faith and understanding of the character of God–trampled over all that is holy and pure and did the unthinkable: he took another man’s wife, got her pregnant, whacked her husband to cover it up–oh, and she mourned over her husband’s death–and then tried to make himself look like a great hero by taking her in her pregnant widowhood.
And while some will point out that God forgave King David, we cannot ignore the terrible consequences of his actions:
- His first child with Bathsheba would die;
- there was perpetual turmoil in his house;
- Amnon raped his sister Tamar;
- Absalom killed Amnon;
- David exiled Absalom;
- Absalom mounted a coup against David;
- David was forced to flee Jerusalem for his life;
- The most powerful King in the region couldn’t even protect his wives from being publicly raped by his son;
- Absalom would be killed in battle;
- Adonijah tried to make himself the King as David neared death;
- Even in Matthew 1, God calls attention to David’s sin, referring to Solomon “by Bathsheba who had been the wife of Uriah”, even as he refers to Jesus as “the son of David”;
- his taking of the census resulted in mass death among his own people;
- David–while not dying in the disgrace that Saul did–left this earth with a whimper;
- successive kings would lead Israel to idolatry, then civil war, beginning a descent to captivity.
Was David a man after God’s own heart or was he a rapist and a murderer who played fast and loose with other people’s lives and dignity? Yes: he was all of those things.
Theologically, David was the closest thing to a Messiah in the Old Testament. And yet he was short of the glory by at least half a universe. He committed not just one, but rather two, death penalty offenses, one of which was a sexual assault on a married woman.
And yet, even as his actions reflect a profound spiritual degradation, I would note that David still was notable in his character.
When Nathan confronted him and gave him a prophet-to-king smackdown of all time, David’s response was one of uncommon humility. Contrast the way he received Nathan’s rebuke–admitting his sin–with the way other kings (Joash, Asa) responded to prophetic rebuke.
Contrast David’s response to the way many preachers and evangelists–caught in scandal–have responded. David does not respond with any expectation that he should live; in fact, he states that the offender “deserves to die” (II Samuel 12:5) and does not retract that when Nathan responded, “Thou art the man!” He owns his failure. When his son dies, he does not whine about the consequences, nor does he–at any subsequent point in his life–complain about his consequences.
In fact, for the remainder of David’s rule, he was humble in his dealings with others. When we read the Psalms, we see his anguish over his sin (Ps 51: “my sin is ever before me”) even as he rejoices in God’s forgiveness (Ps. 103).
The implications are staggering, as, without a doubt, many ministers today have committed similar abuses of power–taking sexual license with people in their care. The Andy Savage/High Point fiasco of 2018 brought this reality to light, as a 22-year-old Savage–a youth minister at the time–took 17-year-old Jules Woodson to a dark place and solicited a Clinton.
Many of Savage’s defenders called attention to King David and implored the Church for forgiveness, as Savage had “repented”.
The problem is, that wasn’t the case. When confronted with his past, Savage attempted to minimize what he did, spinning it as a “sexual incident” and even an “organic moment”. Even after his resignation–in which he finally admitted that what he did was “abuse”–he later tried to downplay the #churchtoo movement.
Over the years, the scandals have been voluminous. And almost every time the pastors are exposed, the immediate talk is of restoration: when will they return to ministry. Their fans will cite King David.
But in so doing, we miss the point. In so doing, we overlook the horrid trail of damage, the victims left in the wake. And before you overlook these offenses, chalking them up to “youthful indiscretions”, talk to the victims and ask about what they went through.
Ask Jules Woodson–she’s easy to find on Twitter and is outspoken about her experience. Ask Anne Marie Miller. Ask Brooks Hansen and Kenny Stubblefield; ask Kim Rung; ask Kelly Haines. And if you want to know what drives the predatory abusers, I can direct you to experts such as trauma therapist Mike Phillips and University of Michigan pathologist Julia Dahl, who will teach you more than you ever wanted to know about narcissists and their grooming and damage control techniques.
Sadly, by glossing over these abuses–chalking them up as “oopsies” or “screwups” or “mistakes” or “misconduct”–we overlook the price born by the victims, and, worse, the ugliness of sin.
David, by accepting Nathan’s rebuke, accepted that he was entitled to nothing good, that he deserved to die, that he did not deserve to remain on the throne let alone remain in the covenant that God had established with him. When was the last time you heard a minister–caught in his sin–admit that much?
We could use a lot more humility among our clergy and Church leadership, and less entitlement. And the better we understand how an otherwise Godly King abused his power and took a married woman for his own sexual pleasure–and comitted murder to cover it up, and then tried to spin himself as a hero–the better we’ll be able to understand that need for humility.
May we not become like David before we ‘get it’.