David’s judgement and the difficult matter of a child’s death

When David committed adultery with Bathsheba and had her husband murdered, he thought he had got away with it but God saw and God was not pleased. In 2 Samuel 12, God sends the prophet Nathan to pronounce judgement. David repents (you can read his confession in Psalm 51).  God forgives David, his life is spared. However, he is told:

“You won’t die for this sin.  Nevertheless, because you have shown utter contempt for the word of the Lord by doing this, your child will die.”[1]

Many of us will struggle with these words. How can it be that God can forgive David and save his life but take the child’s life? This seems cruel and unfair. We particularly struggle with the idea of a baby dying.

All of us will find those words hard to read but even more so for anyone who has lost, or knows someone who has lost a little one.

I want to spend a little bit of time looking at what is happening here but at the outset, I want to acknowledge that there are no easy answers here. You may feel no less comfortable afterwards. Now that might not be what you want to hear. We want to have all the answers sorted out – and sometimes apologetics and Bible teaching are presented as doing that for us. The Atheist will see our response as weak. How can we believe if we cannot give a full explanation, evidence and justification? Yet, part of believing in God in a fallen world means that we must acknowledge that because we are finite, we will not grasp everything here and now.

So, a couple of comments on what I think is happening

  1. Bathsheba has provided David with a son -but by taking her from Uriah, he has denied Uriah a son and heir. The sense is that David is benefiting from his sin. God makes it clear in his judgement that we should not benefit from sin.
  2. I think this needs to be put in a wider context. The consequences are not just with the one son but with the whole family. Amon, Tamar, Absalom and Adonijah are all affected and involved in the fall out as blood feuds open between brothers and as a family is ripped apart by sexual violence leading to shame. There is a reminder, through the next few chapters and on into 2 Samuel that sin has far reaching consequences. My choice to do things my way, to act selfishly, to disobey God, to entertain temptation doesn’t just hurt me but others too
  3. David acts knowing that Bathsheba is Uriah’s wife and also about her parentage. David Firth suggests that his action is driven as much by a thought-out desire to deal with Uriah as a potential rival as it is a mindless response to sexual urges. I also can’t help wondering if it is significant that this comes after the promise to David of a Son who will reign for ever.  I think that David is starting to get older, he isn’t the youthful warrior leading from the front. His eye is on the succession now. Just as Abraham tried to engineer an heir rather than trusting God’s promise, is David also trying to sort out the fulfilment of the promise himself? If so, what we see here is David being pushed back to trusting in God’s promise that he will provide an heir. This point is more speculative but it is significant that the consequences for David are seen in terms of the chaos in his household as his sons fight over the succession and are eliminated.

 

Now some thoughts on the pastoral challenge

  1. First of all, there is a difficult balance between sensitivity and sentimentality. Whilst dealing with a specific circumstance is particularly emotive, we cannot respond emotionally here and not be challenged by Romans 5 where we are told that sin and thus death entered the world through Adam’s sin so that all die. Death is not the judgement on one baby because of his Dad but the inescapable judgement on us all because of Adam’s sin. Paul is clear that we have all sinned so that God is just in his judgement.
  2. This means that our sadness and anger here should be at death itself. Whilst the reality is that we do respond differently to different types of suffering, Biblically, there isn’t the idea that there is a cut off point when we move from innocence to guilt. David in his confession reminds us that we re all conceived in sin. Suffering and death are distressing and horrific at any point in life, whether it’s the young person cut down in their prime by a terminal illness, the 65-year-old who drops dead of a heart attack depriving youngsters of a grandparent and meaning he never gets to enjoy his retirement or the elderly 90-year-old in the side room at the hospital confused and unable to take fluids any longer.  Death is an enemy. Death is painful. Grief and anger are right responses to death because life was not meant to be like this. This is true at every stage, including when a little one dies.  That we feel the horror and pain even more acutely in this context should cause us to see even more acutely the full horror of sin.
  3. This also means that it is important that we help protect grieving parents from false blame. There is a clear link between David’s sin and what follows but it is rare for such direct links to be drawn.  When a baby or young child dies, as well as sadness and anger, parents will suffer guilt. Were they to blame? Is God punishing them? Sadly, some theologies, especially those lined to prosperity type gospels and generational curses are likely to increase that false guilt. Whilst sometimes suffering can be linked to specific wrong choices (e.g. the heavy smoker who develops lung cancer) we must keep going back to the point that suffering and death come as a collective judgement on all humanity for our sin in Adam.  God is not punishing the parent.  Christian parents need to be encouraged back to the Gospel and the good news that they are justified in Christ, they have peace with God and they are no longer under condemnation.
  4. Pastorally we need to be aware that sometimes a parent will make a mistake or do something wrong that leads to accident or illness. At such a time, saying “It’s not your fault” may not be that helpful. It’s not that they are superstitiously looking for a cause within themselves, it is that they are very aware of their error. Here it is vital that we stick alongside them, love them, don’t judge them, remind them of God’s love and grace.
  5. I do believe there is hope in this story. I don’t think we should go beyond what we do know and make claims we are not in a position to. However, I do think it is right when talking about a child’s eternal destiny to note two things:

–          The Biblical concept that we trust in the judge of all to do right. I do think there is a sense there that his judgement is in line with the revelation we have had.

–          That specifically in this passage, David finds hope in the resurrection and his expectation that his child will be there

“Why should I fast when he is dead? Can I bring him back again? I will go to him one day, but he cannot return to s me.”[2]

Conclusion

There can be no easy answers to difficult questions like this. However, our concern should be to stand alongside those who suffer and grieve. Our hope is in the God who is eternal love and compassion, the God who is just and does right. A day will come when in his presence, questions die.

[1] 2 Samuel 12:13-14.

[2] 2 Samuel 12:23.

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