When Nathan confronts David concerning his sin with Bathsheba, the Scriptures present us with a model of divine restoration. God mercifully restores the fallen king through His prophet, Nathan. Nathan does this by re-contextualizing the law within a framework of affections and relationships. He does this in order to help David reestablish himself within such a framework. In this scriptural depiction of restoration, we discover the gravity of sin, the mercy of God, and the cosmic nature of restoration.
After David had been firmly established as King, after God had preserved him time and again, providing him with family, wealth, power, and prosperity, David takes another man’s wife and uses his God given authority to murder her husband. David displays deep ingratitude; yet, God still sends Nathan to him, moving to restore and not to destroy the king. On display here is a divine restoration which is not only gratuitous, but gracious in its very means of restoration. For, Nathan the Prophet does not come into the throne room finger-wagging. He instead tells David the story of two men:
1The Lord sent Nathan to David. When he came to him, he said, “There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor. 2The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, 3but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him. 4“Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him.” 5David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, “As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this must die! 6He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity.” 7Then Nathan said to David, “You are the man!
2nd Samuel 12:1-7
The mystery and mechanics of forgiveness are certainly on display in this passage of scripture. They are beautifully, if implicitly, figured in Nathan’s story, but we are focusing on a different mystery here, that of the human heart. In terms of repentance and restoration, the meaning and purpose of Nathan’s story is twofold: First, it serves as a kind of Trojan Horse by which to infiltrate David’s defenses. Second, it restores to David a context of cosmic awareness and responsibility.
First, Nathan’s story succeeds in arousing anger, pity, and judgment. Where confronting David directly may have caused defensiveness and deeper alienation, the story helps recreate in David a heart of empathy and justice. It does this under the Trinitarian structure of otherness. The story speaks of a town which although like unto the city in which David dwells is yet different. In this town, David is not threatened by the demands of the law, and so he can behold the story impartially, humanly, emphatically. Just like the scriptures themselves, word take on the structure of otherness in order to reflect the world and our very selves back unto us. Story creates distance in which we can be free from our prejudices and defenses, in order that we might reread things. Stories can overwhelm or elude our best defenses and penetrate a citadel which has shut out the light of truth and mercy. This is, in part, how stories accuse us and teach us. They even teach us to accuse and teach ourselves.
But accusation and recognition are not the only work which such stories perform. They also enact a powerful form of restoration by returning us to a world which is not our own–a world which is truly a world. Nathan’s story creates space in David’s heart and mind for empathy, guilt, and sorrow. It does this simply by presenting David with a powerful reminder of the relational structures in which we live and move and have our being. Accusation and law alone cannot create such a space. The law remains an abstract and enemy thing, a thing written upon stone tablets and stony hearts until the heart itself is changed. This change of heart, accomplished by the Spirit, involves, in large part, a restoration of relationships, the creation or renewal of a kind of cosmic awareness and gratitude.
The story of the lamb does this because it reminds David, not simply of legal boundaries he has crossed, but of the social, economic, emotional, personal, and divine relations which he has violated. Story gives flesh to a law which is but an abstraction to a hardened heart. The story recreates Uriah as neighbor, and thus David as neighbor to Uriah. It speaks of men who are not isolated moral beings, but who dwell together in a town, who although distinct, have implicit relations to one another by the very fact of their social moral nature. The fact of the rich man’s abundance signifies certain responsibilities and relations to those around him; the fact of the poor man’s affections depict certain values and responsibilities. One might say that the world which God restores to David is a world of value and love. Through Nathan, David is returned to a world of meaning, a world which he had previously shut out and been shut out from.
When we sin, our vision narrows upon a desired end. In such moments, heart and mind disconnect from a whole system of connections and values in which we exist. A woman becomes an object of possession (not her own person, someone’s daughter, or someone’s wife), material goods appear as life-giving necessities, honor or victory take on a veneer of eternal glory. When our neighbor ceases to be like unto us, we ourselves cease to see self and neighbor in the context of divine love. In such moments, we declare in practice that God is not truly God. All the ties and connections which make a world meaningful become invisible or secondary to us. The excellence of divine restoration is such that God reinstates this cosmic awareness in us, possibly more richly than before, for it is now permeated by a knowledge of his mercy and forgiveness.
In his mercy, we do not merely repent of rule breaking, although we certainly do this, but repent of betraying the relations and structures by and in which God has graciously blessed our very existence. The law is but the expression of the realities in which God creates and purposes our lives. The substance of the law is the cosmic and communal nature of love. His law is therefore not an abstraction, but an expression of the logocentric (or logos-centric) realities of creation, modeled upon the divine Logos. When read aright, by the enlightening power of the Holy Spirit, we begin to perceive the gracious nature of such boundaries which reveal God’s structural provision and mercy. Gratitude becomes the heartfelt mindset which perceives every word and command of God as Fatherly provision, communion, and mercy.
This is made clear in God’s condemnation of David, which surprisingly focuses, not so much upon his trespass (of possibly all ten of the ten commandments), but rather, on his ingratitude (2nd Samuel 12:7-10). It is this which has grieved God and been the source of David’s fall, rather than the rule breaking. We discover in God’s rebuke, that David had been unmindful, not simply of the law, but of that central Fatherly relationship which gives the law meaning. It is ingratitude, a lack of heartfelt thanksgiving, which constitutes David’s chief crime.
Ingratitude abstracts the gift from the giver, the creation from the creator, and neighbor from neighbor (Romans 1:21). Gratitude can only be grasped in the context of story, in the structure of role and relationship where there is giving and receiving, in which there is mercy and provision. Such structures are formed in the likeness of the Trinity itself. They embody God’s sameness and otherness, procession and interpenetration. Gratitude invites us into a form of Trinitarian communion like unto the Son who receives his very being from the Father through the Holy Spirit. Ultimately, this is the meaning of the law and the creation. God is not interested in a mere obedience, but in world in which neighbor together with neighbor are drawn into the imitative giving, receiving, and gratitude of God himself. Implicit in the structure of all story and all word is this structure of gift, gratitude, and communion. This is the restoration which Nathan’s prophetic work seeks to effect.
While God is certainly concerned with being recognized as sovereign and Lord, He is chiefly concerned that His Lordship be founded upon a recognition of his compassion and mercy, and not power alone. In order to establish such a kingdom, He not only accuse us with the law, but teaches us to accuse ourselves by rearing us up in a narrative of familial-discipleship. In this school discipleship, in the loving pedagogy of the Father we discover a cosmic context to our bery existence and come to more and more deeply repent of our sins, to love the One who first loved us, and to love his people. In this school, we are presented with the story of a spotless lamb who was slain for sinners, who became other than himself, in order be like unto us, so that those alien to the family of God might be invited in.
In the mercy of God’s restoration, we not only repent of sin, but are restored to a world full of relationships, to a life full of wonder, pity, joy, and yes sadness, but ultimately and radically, to the friendship and family of God who is Himself World without End.