There are only nine out of a hundred and fifty Psalms that have a line at the beginning identifying the occasion of their composition. This is one of them, and what an occasion it was.
“A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.”
Here’s the story as it appears in II Samuel [11:1-13].
“In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab with his officers and all Israel with him; they ravaged the Ammonites, and besieged Rabbah. But David remained at Jerusalem.
It happened, late one afternoon, when David rose from his couch and was walking about on the roof of the king’s house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; the woman was very beautiful. David sent someone to inquire about the woman. It was reported, ‘This is Bathsheba daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite.’ So David sent messengers to fetch her, and she came to him, and he lay with her. (Now she was purifying herself after her period.) Then she returned to her house. The woman conceived; and she sent and told David, ‘I am pregnant.’
So David sent word to Joab, ‘Send me Uriah the Hittite.’ And Joab sent Uriah to David. When Uriah came to him, David asked how Joab and the people fared, and how the war was going. Then David said to Uriah, ‘Go down to your house, and wash your feet.’ Uriah went out of the king’s house, and there followed him a present from the king. But Uriah slept at the entrance of the king’s house with all the servants of his lord, and did not go down to his house. When they told David, ‘Uriah did not go down to his house’, David said to Uriah, ‘You have just come from a journey. Why did you not go down to your house?’ Uriah said to David, ‘The ark and Israel and Judah remain in booths; and my lord Joab and the servants of my lord are camping in the open field; shall I then go to my house, to eat and to drink, and to lie with my wife? As you live, and as your soul lives, I will not do such a thing.’ Then David said to Uriah, ‘Remain here today also, and tomorrow I will send you back.’ So Uriah remained in Jerusalem that day. On the next day, David invited him to eat and drink in his presence and made him drunk; and in the evening he went out to lie on his couch with the servants of his lord, but he did not go down to his house.”
David was stuck, and he was desperate. He sent Uriah back to the combat zone with a letter to his general, Joab. It said,
“Set Uriah in the forefront of the hardest fighting, and then withdraw from him, so that he may be struck down and die.” [II Samuel 11:15]
Joab followed orders, and Uriah died, along with several others who were totally uninvolved with the situation. Back in Jerusalem, shortly after that, David married the grieving widow and she bore him a son.
The coverup was complete. A few people had died, but the king’s reputation was intact. There was no public scandal. Uriah’s friends and the other officers did not rise in revolt or out of fear what might happen to their own wives while they were on duty. If there was any suspicion anywhere, David still had full deniability. All would be forgotten quickly, at least by everyone other than Bathsheba and David. Life could go on. New wars could be fought. New palace intrigues could be planned. Maybe David would look out from his roof again the following spring, and see an even prettier woman, this time without the marital encumbrances or, as Bathsheba would have by then, a child to care for.
Nathan the prophet, for instance, could keep bothering David with minor conflicts and problems among the people that they should have been able to sort out for themselves. For instance,
“He came to him, and said to him, ‘There were two men in a certain city, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds; but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. He brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his meagre fare, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him. Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was loath to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb, and prepared that for the guest who had come to him.’ Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man. He said to Nathan, ‘As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.’” [II Samuel 12:1-6]
That was an easy one. “Next case!” Then
“Nathan said to David, ‘You are the man!’” [II Samuel 12:7]
What do you do? What do you do when your entire public image is shattered? What do you do if you suddenly realize that the face you have shown to the world is shown to be a mask? What do you do if you come face-to-face with the worst deeds of your own life, things that you have tried to put behind you and to bury so that not even you yourself have to look at them?
What if something you have done somewhere along the line is incapable of being put right with an apology, or even some kind of reparation? No amount of “Sorry!” could bring Uriah back to life. No number of “Mistakes were made” could undo the destruction of Bathsheba’s reputation (not that she probably had much choice in any of this) or restore the potential damage to the trust that was vital between David and his army and his subjects as a whole. He could no longer be the big hero, the giant-killer, the musician-king, without also being the abuser of power, with blood on his hands.
Do you go out on the palace balcony and give a speech where you say, “People have got to know whether or not their king is a crook. Well, I’m not a crook.”? Do you gather all your courtiers around you and say, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Bathsheba.”? Or do you look your accuser directly in the eyes and say,
“I have sinned against the Lord.”? [II Samuel 12:13]
That’s what David did.
None of us is without sin. Remember the story of how a woman was caught in the act of adultery and dragged in front of Jesus, with the crowd demanding he pronounce sentence on her so that they could stone her. He did not deny that was the sentence set out in the Law. But what he said was
“Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her. …When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him.” [John 8:7,9]
So, too, David found himself alone with God, staring at his life, hearing his conscience tell him over and over the story of his failures. And he owned up to them.
“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.
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
and blameless when you pass judgement.
Indeed, I was born guilty,
a sinner when my mother conceived me.” [Psalm 51:1-5]
But he also owned up to God’s power to change his life from what it was to what it could become.
“Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence,
and do not take your holy spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit.
Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
and sinners will return to you.
Deliver me from bloodshed, O God,
O God of my salvation,
and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.” [Psalm 51:10-14]
This whole episode marked the beginning of years of struggle for David as king, because there would be fallout and consequences from what he had done. But it also brought the proclamation of a kind of mercy that he could now speak of in a clear and convincing way, of a kind of genuine righteousness that has nothing to do with our own piety or fitness, but comes directly from God and totally by God’s grace, because
“The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” [Psalm 51:17]