He started as a Peeping Tom; he ended up an adulterer and murderer (2 Sam. 11.1-27).
Before this march into madness began, king David had achieved victory over numerous foreign powers (2 Sam. 8.1-13). Because of his faith, the Lord blessed him “valiantly” (Ps. 60.12; cf. Heb. 11.34), causing him to “rejoice” (Ps. 60.6).
However, while on this moral plateau, he next set his sights down into the city upon a different sort of conquest — the sort that would turn his glory into shame and his joy into sorrow.
A Roof-Walking King
Late one evening, David took a stroll “on the roof” of his “house” (2 Sam. 11.2a).
To the modern mind, this statement sounds rather odd. Since roofs today tend to be constructed with an A-frame design, we usually only walk on them for extraordinary reasons (e.g., to make occasional repairs/upkeep).
Because of this perspective, some are left with the impression that David must have been desperate in a search for nefarious gratification when he climbed his roof. But this impression is misguided.
On the contrary, ancient roofs tended to be flat in design. As such, the roof functioned as an additional living space for many (cf. 1 Sam 9.25; Acts 10.9).
Roofs were visited so often that God required his people to build railings on them to prevent others from falling (cf. Deut. 22.8).
And when Jesus counseled his disciples to “flee to the mountains” during the impending Roman invasion, he told them that if they were “on the housetop” at the time, not to “go down to take anything out of his house” (Mt. 24.17). Since rooftops were both flat and close together, he was likely suggesting that, to avoid any delays, they should retreat from the city via the rooftops, an escape route which the rabbis called, “the road of the roofs” (Vincent, p. 128; see also Ellicott).
From that perspective, then, there is nothing extraordinary in David’s decision to walk on his roof. We need not read anything nefarious into that aspect of the story.
A Bathing Bathsheba
While on the roof, the king happened to spot a woman “bathing” (2 Sam. 11.2b) and began to lust for her.
Again, the cursory reader is prone to draw unwarranted conclusions. At once, we ask: why would she be bathing in open view? That immodest woman must have been asking for trouble!
However, a few points tend to augur in Bathsheba’s favor.
First, many homes in the ancient world were constructed with a secluded — but roofless — courtyard in the middle of the house, where there was a spring or pool of water for washing (cf. Mt. 26.69, 71). This courtyard would not necessarily have been visible to anyone on the street, but could, conceivably, be seen from on high.
If she was washing in this area, there is no reason to assume that either “she [or her husband] had ever suspected that [they] could be observed from the roof of the king's palace” (Smith, p. 265).
Second, the passage seems to indicate that she had just completed a ritual cleansing, likely due to a menstruous discharge (2 Sam 11.4). If so, then she was not bathing in the evening for health or pleasure, or to seduce a man, but to purify herself according to the law (Lev. 15:19, 24, 28; 20.18). This suggests a holy mindset, rather than one of wanton indecency.
Third, the careful interpreter will note that the Bible does not suggest that Bathsheba was nude. The term “bathing” (rachats) generally denotes to “wash” with water, such as when Abraham encouraged three visitors to “wash” their feet while he served them (Gen. 18.4), or when Joseph “washed his face” (Gen. 43.31). It is possible, therefore, that Bathsheba was simply washing herself (e.g., hands, feet, face, hair) by applying water rather than by soaking unclad in the fountain.
Furthermore, it is fallacious to suppose that, since David lusted for her, Bathsheba must have been bathing nude. On the contrary: (1) A man does not need to see a woman naked to lust for her (cf. Prov. 6.24ff; Mt. 5.28; Gen. 38.15-16), and (2) the text simply says that David found her to be “very beautiful.” Is it not plausible that David could have deemed Bathsheba “very beautiful” while she washed herself clothed?
It is only fair, then, to concede that Bathsheba, while no paragon of virtue in the narrative ultimately, may not have been bathing immodestly at all. The evidence is insufficient to hold her partly responsible for David’s voyeuristic exploits.
A Pedantic Justification
The aroused king then summoned Bathsheba to his quarters, where they both yielded to temptation. But there is a curious statement in verse four: David “lay with her, for she was cleansed from her impurity” (2 Sam. 11.4). What could this mean?
Again, the law had forbidden a man to have sex with a woman “as long as she is in her customary impurity” (Lev. 18.19), particularly during menstruation (Lev. 15.19, 24, 28; 20.18). If Bathsheba had “just purified herself” (Brown, et al., p. 873) from this issue, then the Bible writer seems to be suggesting that the rationale (“for” is explanatory in thrust) the two of them concocted to justify their sexual congress was this: at least she was no longer ceremonially unclean! We can now sleep together!
If that is the meaning (though see Keil & Delitzsch, and Smith), then how crass it is for these two to be so scrupulous regarding ritualistic purity, but so libertine regarding God’s precepts on adultery! To follow Lev. 18.19 rigidly (don’t sleep with an unclean woman), but ignore the very next verse (don’t sleep with your neighbor’s wife), is a clear case of “straining out a gnat but swallowing a camel” (Mt. 23.24), both of which were off-limits (Lev. 11.4; Deut. 14.19)!
A Savage Cover-Up
Next, the affair created a pregnancy (2 Sam. 11.5). For fear of exposing his blunder, David turned to chicanery to make it seem as though Uriah was the father (2 Sam. 11.6-13).
When this plan failed, David proceeded to murder him by proxy (2 Sam. 11.14ff). Assuming he had gotten away with this crime, David became so audacious that he chose to take Bathsheba as his wife — but at least he had the “decency” to wait until she had mourned a while!
Naturally, all this “displeased the Lord” (2 Sam. 11.27). Consequently, he sent Nathan, the prophet, to rebuke the king (2 Sam. 12.1-12), which finally brought the man to his senses (2 Sam. 12.13ff).
A Public Confession — Psalm 51
In the aftermath of these events, David wrote the fifty-first psalm. His remorseful words reveal at least three things about his character.
(1) The psalm reveals a heart haunted by his infamous actions. “My sin is always before me” (Ps. 51.3). This is not a conscience so seared that it can no longer feel ashamed (cf. 1 Tim. 4.2; Eph. 4.19). Rather, genuine guilt gripped him in a state of constant anxiety.
(2) He manifests humility before God. He does not palm off his guilt onto another; he is at fault (Ps. 51.2-4a). Nor does he arrogantly respond to Nathan’s rebuke by accusing him (or God) of being too “judgmental,” or “unloving,” as is the trend today. Rather, he acknowledges that God is “just when [he] speak[s]; and blameless when [he] judge[s]” (Ps. 51.4).
(3) Moreover, he displays his holiness in that, instead of seeking to comfort himself in his sins, he recognizes that joy is only proper when, through repentance, one is restored to fellowship with the Lord (Ps. 51.7-16).
A Broken and Contrite Heart
From this backdrop, David conveys one of the most significant principles relative to human redemption:
“The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, A broken and a contrite heart—These, O God, You will not despise” (Psalm 51.17).
Note the following:
First, E. W. Bullinger, in his Figures of Speech Used In The Bible, mentions that the plural, “sacrifices” and “these,” applied to the singular, “spirit/heart,” constitutes a “heterosis of number,” where the plural is exchanged for the singular to emphasize the “great excellence or magnitude” of the thing (pp. 529-30).
In effect, David is affirming that the most prized type of offering to God — the “truly excellent sacrifice” — is when a man feels remorse for his wickedness. In short, God wants souls offered to him, not stuff (cf. Isa. 61.1-2; Acts 17.25).
Second, a “broken” (shabar) spirit is one that has “burst in pieces.” Hence, it is no longer “whole.” A “contrite” (dacha) heart is “crushed,” “collapsed,” or “bowed down.”
This describes a man who is thoroughly demoralized. He raises the white flag, admitting he can no longer muster strength by himself. Instead, he must offer himself to the power of another.
By contrast, a brazen individual possesses unwavering confidence in himself, morally and/or intellectually (cf. Prov. 14.16). Far from being broken and contrite, he enjoys breaking others, ridiculing them for their follies or their foibles, while he himself cannot abide criticism flung in his direction (cf. Prov. 23.9; 9.8; 15.12). “Trembling” (cf. Isa. 66.2), to this sort, is cowardly or weak.
David — a man after God’s heart (cf. 1 Sam. 13.14; Acts 13.22) — was not of that ilk.
Third, it should be noted that David employs another figure of speech in the passage. By saying that God “will not despise” a broken and contrite heart, he was speaking in tapeinosis — i.e., “the lessening of a thing in order to increase it.” It really means that God will “graciously accept and welcome and bless” this type of attitude (ibid., p. 160).
Finally, though God is not opposed to joy or mirth, per se (1 Chron. 16.27; Ps. 4.7; 16.11; Jn. 15.11; Rom. 12.12; 14.17; Gal. 5.22; Phil. 4.4), yet this principle reveals that the path to joy in God must begin with heartache.
The righteous can laugh with holy humor, but sinners need to mourn! James wrote:
“Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Lament and mourn and weep! Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up” (James 4.8-10).
In Luke 6.25, Jesus said: “Woe to you who laugh now, For you shall mourn and weep.” Sinners who revel in mirth will be bereft of such at long last!
However, a few verses earlier, he presents the converse: “Blessed are you who weep now, For you shall laugh” (Lk. 6.21b). It is only when the sinner sobers up and, with broken-heartedness, acknowledges his iniquities that he can then discover true delight.
Eventually, David himself found happiness again, and victory was his once more (2 Sam. 12.24-31).
William A. Ward, a notable motivational writer of the last century, remarked:
“We should be thankful for our tears: They prepare us for a clearer vision of God” (p. 85).
No wonder so many today have lost sight of God! We have become a people who are desperate for constant amusement. We have forgotten how to feel ashamed — how to feel “broken and small” (cf. Jer. 6.15; 3.3; 8.6 Zeph. 3.5).
Paradoxically, then, if we are to find true happiness, we must remember how to cry!
“Those who sow in tears
Shall reap in joy.
He who continually goes forth weeping,
Bearing seed for sowing,
Shall doubtless come again with rejoicing,
Bringing his sheaves with him.” (Psalm 126.5-6)
Brown, F., S. Driver, & C. Briggs. The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2001. Bullinger, E.W. Figures of Speech Used In the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 2007. Ellicott, C. J. Ellicott’s Commentary. Biblehub.com. Access date: March 21, 2021: https://biblehub.com/commentaries/ellicott/matthew/24.htm. Keil, C. F. & Franz Delitzsch. Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament. Sacred-texts.com. Access date: March 22, 2021. https://www.sacred-texts.com/bib/cmt/kad/sa2011.htm. Smith, R. Payne. “Exposition of 2 Samuel,” The Pulpit Commentary: Volume 4. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 19 Vincent, Marvin. Word Studies in the New Testament. Vol. 1. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1973. Ward, William A. Thoughts of a Christian Optimist. Droke House, 1968.