Some time ago, in a question-and-answer period, someone asked, "Dr. Boice, is it possible for a Christian to commit murder?"
I suppose the questioner held the view that there should always be a basic minimum of sanctification in a Christian that prohibits such things. But I answered as I always answer such questions, saying, "Yes, a Christian can certainly do that."
A Christian can murder, steal, commit adultery, run off and leave his family, and allow his life to be filled with such bitterness that he is a terror to all around him. In general, a Christian can make a total wreck of his life. The Bible itself suggests this when it warns Christians against such sins.
We must not think, of course, that God will permit sin in the life of a Christian to go undisciplined. And we must acknowledge that there is generally a point in our lives beyond which He will not let us go. We all sin, in big ways or little ways. We taste its consequences. Sin turns ugly. Pleasures turn to dust in our mouths. But this happens so that we will come to the point — as God intends — when we will yearn for the joy we once knew, and will turn to Him for His perfect forgiveness and cleansing.
We come now come to an incident in the life of King David in which this greatest of all Israel's kings, the one who was called "a man after God's own heart," sinned by committing adultery and then compounded that sin by an act of murder. It is a sad and solemn record. But we turn to it humbly in order that we might learn something of the depth of our own human depravity and that we might learn how to turn to God for cleansing.
The Sin of King David
The Bible says that in the time of the year when kings went forth to battle, that is, in the spring after the enforced inactivity of winter, David sent Joab and the troops of Israel out against the Ammonites. "But David," we are told, "tarried still at Jerusalem" (2 Samuel 11:1). It is an ominous "but" for it indicates the disapproval by the Lord of David's action. During this period, David saw Bathsheba bathing on a roof nearby. He sent messengers to find out who she was. They brought back word: "Is not this Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah, the Hittite?" (verse 3).
That should have been the end of the matter for David; Bathsheba was another man's wife. But instead, he took her to himself and later learned that she had conceived a child by him. We can imagine that at this point David's blood ran hot and cold. But instead of confessing his sin, he set out upon a course that greatly compounded it.
First, he invited Uriah home from the battle on the pretext of learning about it, hoping that the man would spend a few nights at home with his wife so that he could be identified as the father of the child. However, Uriah was more conscious of his duty than King David was of his. He would not go home but said, "The Ark, and Israel, and Judah abide in tents; and my lord, Joab, and the servants of my lord, are encamped in the open fields. Shall I, then, go into mine house, to eat and to drink, and to lie with my wife? As thou livest, and as thy soul liveth, I will not do this thing" (verse 11).
Uriah refused to go home, even when David made him drunk. Therefore, David sent a note to Joab by the hand of Uriah saying that Uriah was to be placed in a position in the battle where the fighting was hottest, abandoned, and left to be killed.
Joab must have wondered how David, the man who could write such beautiful, spiritual poetry and who would not act against King Saul, could command such a murder. For murder it was. Nevertheless, he did as David commanded. Uriah died. David breathed a sigh of relief and satisfaction. Yet we read: "But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord" (verse 27).
Matthew Henry, the well-known Bible expositor, once said, "Though God may suffer his people to fall into sin, he will not suffer his people to lie still in it." This is quite true. Thus, instead of abandoning David, God sent the prophet Nathan to confront him with his sin. Because of this David repented.
Nathan had said, "Thou art the man" (2 Samuel 12:7).
And David replied, "I have sinned against the Lord" (verse 13).
On the basis of that confession, God forgave David's sin — although he still had to suffer many of the consequences of it — and restored him to complete fellowship.
But how can a righteous God restore to fellowship a man who has committed adultery and then murdered an innocent man? The answer to that question lies in a great psalm that David wrote as the result of this incident in his life. It is important. For if we understand this psalm, we can understand not only how God could forgive King David but also how God can forgive us, no matter how great or small our sins may be.
Psalm 51 begins, "Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy loving-kindness; according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions" (verse 1). Notice how many times this single verse speaks of God's mercies. It says, "Have mercy upon me...according to thy loving-kindness; according to the multitude of thy tender mercies." Three times! Thus, when David turned again to God in the aftermath of his sin, the first thing he asserts is his confidence in God's mercy.
Now and then, as I speak to people who do not know the Lord, someone will say that he only wants justice from God. And I say, woe to that person. The man who wants only justice from God will receive hell and spiritual death, for death is the just punishment for sin (Romans 6:23). How wonderful to know that instead of coming to God on the basis of His justice, we can come on the basis of His mercy, the way David came.
Confession of Sin
The basis of forgiveness of sin, then, lies in God's mercy. But this is only the first of several principles that we must apply in our search for forgiveness.
The second is that the condition for forgiveness of sin lies in our confession of it. As soon as David recalled God's mercy, he immediately confessed his sin: "For I acknowledge my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight, that thou mightest be justified when thou speakest, and be clear when thou judgest" (Psalm 51:3,4).
David laid his sin before the Lord and confessed it utterly. This is the significance of verse four: "Against thee, thee only, have I sinned." Many people have observed that this was not entirely true. David had sinned against Bathsheba, as well as with her. He had sinned against Uriah, her husband. He had sinned against the armies of Israel, who lost a battle during the time of David's sin. He had sinned against the nation. Above all, however, he had sinned against God, and in his own mind this greatly overshadowed the other aspects of his offense. How great a difference there would be in your life and mine if we would only see our sin for what it is in God's sight and confess it openly.
The first step in David's great prayer is the basis of forgiveness — God's mercy. The second step is the condition of forgiveness — the confession of the sin itself. The third step is the means of receiving forgiveness — atonement and renewal. David says, "Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow" (verse 7).
Why does David say, "Purge me with hyssop?" Hyssop was a little plant that grew throughout the ancient Near East and was used in the sacrifices of temple worship. The plant, which was only six to ten inches high, was broken off at the stem and bound to a short stick with a scarlet cord. This made a small brush. It was then used to sprinkle the blood of the sacrifice either upon the doorpost of the house (as had been done on the evening of the Passover in Egypt) or upon the worshipers. Consequently, hyssop spoke of sacrifices and of the atonement provided for sin. David is saying, "I come confident of thy mercy, acknowledging my sin; but I also acknowledge that I need to have an atonement for my sin."
Finally David says that he needs renewal. "Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me" (verse 10). These words acknowledged that in addition to the cleansing that was his by means of the sacrifice, David also needed to receive a new inner nature. The word translated create in this verse is the word bara, the same word used in the first verses of Genesis to describe God's creation of the world out of nothing.
The Bible teaches that there is no good in man that can satisfy God (Romans 3:10-20). But it also teaches that God can and does plant a new nature within the person who comes to him (2 Corinthians 5:17; Colossians 3:9,10). Where there was nothing but sin before, there is now a new nature which alone is capable of pleasing Him.
The Consequences of Sin
We now move in our study to a very difficult subject — the consequences of sin. Does the believer experience some or all of the natural consequences of sin in his life even though he has been forgiven by God? The natural answer of our hearts is no. Of course not! If God forgives He forgives utterly, and so He removes the consequences also.
But the fact is that God does not cancel out all the consequences of sin. This truth is nowhere better illustrated than in the alter incidents of David's life. The whole story of the rebellion of David's son Absalom (2 Samuel 13-19) is an example. The judgment which God pronounced on David and his family because of his sin with Bathsheba is recorded in 2 Samuel 12:10-12. "Now, therefore, the sword shall never depart from thine house, because thou hast despised me, and hast taken the wife of Uriah, the Hittite, to be thy wife. Thus saith the Lord, Behold, I will raise up evil against thee out of thine own house, and I will take thy wives before thine eyes, and give them unto thy neighbor, and he shall lie with thy wives in the sight of this sun. For thou didst it secretly; but I will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun."
A study of the context of these verses reveals that immediately after this, David confessed and was assured by the prophet Nathan that he had forgiveness. Nevertheless, the events that God had spoken of in His words of judgment fell exactly as He had said.
This challenges us because it is precisely opposite from the way we think of forgiveness. What do we mean when we say that we are ready to forgive someone? We usually mean, "I'll forgive, but I'll never forget." We forgive to the extent of not insisting on retribution or on the prosecution of the law, but the fellowship that previously existed between ourselves and the other person is broken beyond recovery. We waive the law but break the fellowship. God in His perfect forgiveness does just the opposite. He restores the fellowship, but He does not eliminate all the natural consequences of our rebellion.
Each of these two types of forgiveness — man's and God's — is illustrated by David's story. David had sinned against Bathsheba and against her husband Uriah, first by committing adultery with the wife and second by arranging to have the husband killed in battle. The time came, however, when the very things that David had practiced against Bathsheba and Uriah began to occur in his own household. It almost seemed as if a cord had snapped at the time of David's sin, with the result that immorality began to increase within the palace.
First, the oldest of David's sons, a man named Amnon, developed a passionate fixation for Tamar, the sister of Absalom who was David's son by another wife. Amnon conceived a plan by which Tamar was brought to him privately, and then he raped her. Amnon did to Tamar what David had done to Bathsheba. We read that when David heard about it he "was very angry" (2 Samuel 13:21).
David was not the only one who heard of the crime, however. Absalom, Tamar's brother, also heard of his sister's mistreatment, and he began to plan for a way to repay Amnon. After two years had passed, Absalom sprang a trap in which Amnon was murdered. Then, in order to save his own life, Absalom fled. David remained in Jerusalem and mourned angrily for his son.
At this point, Joab reentered the picture with a scheme to restore Absalom to David's favor (2 Samuel 14). Joab appears to have been a shrewd and unprincipled politician. He had unscrupulously carried out the king's orders to have Uriah killed. Now he was equally unscrupulous in trying to get Absalom back into the palace. He probably said to himself, "Absalom is doubtless the one whom David would like to have become king since Amnon is dead, and he is best suited for it. He is handsome — a bit willful perhaps — but the one who can win the favor of the people. If I can restore good feelings between Absalom and David, I will both please David and endear myself to Absalom." So he plotted.
We read that Joab arranged for a woman to come to David with a sad story that concerned her two sons. One had killed the other and now, so she said, the whole family was demanding that the remaining son be punished. She asked for a merciful intervention. David, in disregard of the law, responded, "As the Lord liveth, there shall not one hair of thy son fall to the earth" (2 Samuel 14:11).
The king was caught. The woman applied her story to the case of Absalom, and David reluctantly agreed to let Absalom come back. Only for over two years Absalom was not allowed to see his father face to face (2 Samuel 14:24,28). From that point it was only a short step to Absalom's political rebellion (2 Samuel 15:1-12), David's flight from Jerusalem (2 Samuel 15:13-16:14), the literal fulfillment of God's judgments against David (2 Samuel 16:21,22), and the final battle in which Absalom was killed (2 Samuel 18). David's forgiveness of Absalom, such as it was, illustrates our forgiveness. We waive the law, as David did, but we do not restore fellowship. We will forgive, but not forget. God forgets the sin so far as fellowship with Himself is concerned. Nevertheless, sin has certain temporal consequences.
A Few Conclusions
There are conclusions to be drawn from this study of the life of David, whatever your position before God. Perhaps you have never turned to the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation, thinking that God will forgive you in the way that we naturally think of forgiveness. You may be expecting God somehow to overlook the demands of His law and justice and to tolerate your willfulness and rebellion. But God does not work that way. God considers the punishment of sin so important and so necessary that He sent His own Son, Jesus Christ, to die for your sin in order to bear its punishment. Salvation consists of believing that Jesus Christ did that for you and committing your life to Him.
Perhaps you are a Christian but have become sloppy in your relationship to God. You argue wrongly that God will somehow take care of you and work everything out, even if you do as you please. You feel that you can flirt with sin and get away with it. But God's love demands fatherly chastisement. If you persist in your own way, God will send judgment. At the very least your life will be unhappy and will lose its natural joy. At the worst, God will break your life into little pieces until you learn what kind of God you are dealing with and come to appreciate the One Who has called you to be His own.
You may be one who is walking in God's way but has failed to practice true forgiveness with friends or family. Like David, you have broken the fellowship but waived the discipline. There is no surer way to produce problem children or weaken a friendship or a marriage. If you are in a position to exercise discipline, as with children, it is your duty to do it. But it must be done in love and without destroying the fellowship.
Perhaps you are saying that this cannot be done — that you cannot do it. That is right. In yourself you cannot, for this is divine love and divine forgiveness. And yet, the Lord Jesus Christ can exercise His love and forgiveness through you if you are a Christian and will allow Him to do it.
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