2Samuel 11:1-15, Ephesians 3:16-19: The Darkness in King David’s Heart


A sermon preached on July 29th, based upon 2Samuel 11:1-15 and Ephesians 3:16-19

There is this powerful need we human beings have to divide people into two basic categories.  There are the good people, and there are the bad people.

There is a practical sense in which it is quite important to make such a division:   For instance, there really are people in this world who, at a given moment you can trust, and there are also really are people who at a given moment you shouldn’t trust.   Before you tell someone an intimate secret you need them not to pass on, you better know if they can be trusted with that secret.   Before you entrust your child into the care of another person, you better know that they can be counted on not to harm your child.

And so there is a sense in which is important to make these kinds of judgments about people.

But there is another sense in which the need to see people as either basically good or basically bad is at the root of the deepest problems that plague the human race.  And that is because it obscures the truth that we are all made in the “image of God”, and we are all of us are also “sinners”.  There is light and darkness in all of us.

When I say there is light and darkness in all of us, I mean this in two ways.   First, there is light in the sense of there being capacities for love and creativity.  And there is darkness in the sense of there being capacities for cruelty and destruction.   When we see people as “bad”, we tend to overlook the capacities within them for love and creativity.  And when see people as “good”, we tend to overlook their capacities for cruelty and destruction.

The other sense in which there is light and darkness in all of us is this:   To bring something into the light is to allow it to be seen.   Each of us has feelings we feel, thoughts we think, and deeds we do that we don’t have a problem allowing others to know about.   So, the other meaning to the light, is that it is the place where our thoughts, feelings and deeds can be openly seen. 

In contrast, the darkness it where we keep the feelings, the thoughts, the deeds we don’t want anybody else to see, basically because we’re ashamed of this stuff.   Sometimes the darkness of which I’m speaking can be so deep that even we, ourselves – that is, our conscious self — can’t see the stuff that’s hidden inside the darkness.

And invariably, it is the stuff that is hidden away in the darkness that is what causes the most harm to both oneself and others, indeed to the world itself.

The problem with separating people into the good people and the bad people is that it becomes a whole lot harder to bring our own stuff out of the darkness and into the light because we fear that in doing so we will lose our cherished membership in the good people club, both in the eyes of others and our own eyes.

Everything I’ve been talking about is expressed in this disturbing story we just heard about King David.

It doesn’t paint a pretty picture of David, to say the least.  It describes a middle aged king who no longer has a taste for leading his armies out into battle, staying in the comfort of his home where quietly he breaks multiple commandments.   David lusts after Bathseba, the wife of another man, and abuses his power by commanding that she be brought to his bedroom so he can have his way with her. In the process he impregnates her.

Hoping to cover up what he has done – keep it all in the dark — David has Bathsheba’s husband brought home from the front where he is fighting the King’s war.   David assumes that naturally Uriah will sleep with his wife, thereby covering up the fact that David was the impregnator.  The storyteller takes pains to show us the basic goodness of unsuspecting Uriah. Back home from the war, Uriah refuses to sleep in with wife, because his fellow soldiers back at the battlefront can’t sleep with their wives, so out of respect for his fellow soldiers, he too will refrain from such pleasure.

When Uriah departs to return to the battlefront, David sends with him a sealed message for Uriah to deliver to Joab, David’s ranking general that instructs him to secretly arrange Uriah’s death in the course of the battle, which Joab promptly does.  And so Uriah is murdered.

When David receives the word, he takes Bathsheba into his palace, making her one of his wives.   David gets what he wanted in the first place, while managing to keep it all out of view, hidden in the darkness, unseen in the shadows.   David has done something downright evil, but in the eyes of his adoring subjects, he remains the king who can do no wrong.

The story of King’s David’s reign is recorded in two different Old Testament books:  2 Samuel, from which we heard this morning’s reading, and 1Chronicles.  The story we just heard, however, isn’t recorded in 1st Chronicles.

It’s not hard to tell why. If David is somebody we’re supposed to look up to as a model how a good man lives his life, well, a story like this just won’t do.   Leave it out, concluded the author.  There’s no need for people to know about this.   It messes with those clear cut categories of the good and the bad that are so important to us. 

The author of 2Samuel, however, felt the need to include this story, in fact to tell it in great graphic detail, making it clear just how deplorable it was that David did.  It’s not that the author of 2Samuel doesn’t admire King David.  He describes the many great things David accomplished.  He considers David to be the standard by which all other kings of Israel are measured. He even calls David “a man after God’s own heart.”  But he feels compelled to tell the truth, which means recording the bad alongside the good, the darkness along with the light.

When people rise to the top, there is a kind of loneliness that can afflict them.  Often the powerful are surrounded by “yes men” for subordinates – people who won’t speak the truth to them when the truth is unpleasant.

The evil deed that was done by David may have gone unseen by his people, but it did not go unnoticed by God.   It never is.  The prophet Nathan wasn’t one of the King’s “yes men.”  He stood apart from the royal court, but his ear was tuned to God who sees everything.  Nathan pays King David a visit, and proceeds to tell him a little story about two men who were neighbors.  One was very rich, owning a great herd of thousands of sheep.  The over man was quite poor.  He owned just one sheep – but oh, how he loved this one sheep!  He treated her like she was his own daughter — had the sheep eat with him at his table and everything.

Then one day the rich man has an unexpected visitor to his house.   He knew he had to feed his guest, but he didn’t want to waste one of his own sheep on the meal.  So, he steals his poor neighbor’s sheep, kills her, and serves her up for dinner.

As David listen to the story, righteous indignation rises up within him regarding the rich man’s cruelty.  “As the Lord lives, this man must die!!!”

The story is, of course, a thinly veiled allegory of what David himself has done.  But David can’t seem to see that at first.   He’s managed to push the unthinkably cruel thing he has done into the deepest shadows, where even he doesn’t have to look at it.

Perhaps in some perverse manner he’s managed to justify the whole thing to himself.   “Yeah, I made a little mistake, but, that’s how it is with us men.  But hey! the people look up to me, and if they’d found out what I did, just think of how much pain it would have cost them, how disruptive to the civic order of the kingdom.  Unfortunately, Uriah had to die.”

He manages to keep the horror of what he has done pushed down into the darkness, that is, until the moment  when Nathan looks him in the eye, points his finger at the king and says, “You are the man!”

And suddenly, what has been done in the darkness is brought out into light.  Fortunately, David owns up to what he has done, sees perhaps for the first time how horrible it was, and repents.  There are consequences to his actions, and he bears them humbly.

It was fortunate for David that Nathan forced him to face the darkness.  Who knows what manner of evil he might have managed to justify further down the line if he’d gotten away with this?  In facing the darkness, David’s soul was saved.

There is a lot in the news lately that strikes me as relating directly to the themes of David’s story.

A young man appears in a movie theater in Colorado after midnight firing his assault weapons, killing 12, wounding 58, causing so much suffering and grief. Instinctively we call him a “monster”.  How was it that the young man came could do such a monstrous thing?

He wasn’t always a monster.   Alongside the darkness, presumably there had been light inside him as well.  We know he worked one summer at a camp for underprivileged kids.  He was bright, applying his brains in study, presumably hoping one day to make a contribution.

But over time, the darkness succeeded in blocking out all the light.  How did this happen?  We don’t really know.  There was mental illness involved for sure.

What strikes me about his story is just how incredibly isolated he was.  He was a thousand miles away from his family.  He didn’t seem to have any friends.  He spent all his time alone.

His isolation was different from the isolation of David sitting alone up on his throne, but isolation in whatever form it comes can be a dangerous thing.

Maybe with the dark thoughts and feelings arising within him, he figured there was no chance of ever being one of the “good guys”, like Batman.  Maybe he decided he might as well give himself over to the dark side, like the Joker.

No one was there to keep him connected to the human race.  No one was there to give him any kind of reality check.   Perhaps in his terrible loneliness he conjured up a world that was conspiring together in rejecting him, and so he hatched a sick, very evil plan to get even.

Who knows?

Consider also the whole tragedy that has taken place at Penn State.  It seems to me it has a lot to do with our need to see people as either good or evil.

Take Jerry Sandusky.   He did absolutely horrific things to little boys.   Like the young man with the guns in the movie theater, the word most often associated with him is “monster.”  We see him now as total darkness.

To this day, however, his wife of 40 years still thinks her husband as totally filled with light.   And before this all broke, there were thousands of other people in happy valley who did as well.   They put him up on the pedestal as one of the really good guys, a great coach of the beloved football team, a saint who devoted countless hours trying to help disadvantaged young boys.

There was at least one boy who tried to tell a school authority what Sandusky was doing to him, but since Sandusky’s membership in the Good Man Club seemed so obvious, the boy was accused of making it all up.

We can only imagine what went on in the heart of Jerry Sandusky, but I assume he started off with a mixture of light and darkness, just like everybody else.  I assume there was a part of him that really wanted to do good, as a football coach, and as a mentor to young boys.

But there were these desires inside him that were truly dark in both senses of the word – dark in the sense of cruel and destructive, and dark in the sense of hidden from view from the rest of the world.  When was he first aware of them?   What if early on Sandusky had been able to reach out for help, gone to see somebody in the mental health profession to deal with the sickness inside him?  What if he’d gone to see the pastor of the United Methodist Church where he went every Sunday to bare his soul?

Maybe those poor boys wouldn’t have had to suffer so.  But he didn’t.

It is pure speculation of course, but it would be my guess that his need, as well as the need of the people around him, to believe in the myth of Saint Jerry Sandusky was just too strong to allow the darkness come into the light.

And what about Joe Paterno?  Until very recently, Joe Paterno was the great man who came to Penn State fifty years ago with the intention of building a football program the right way, a program that not only would win more often than not, but would also insist that players commit themselves to their studies, making it all the way to graduation.   Joe Paterno was the great man who lived in the modest house right on campus, accessible to students, giving millions of dollars to endow a top quality academic library for the school  This was the Joe Paterno glorified in the bronze statue of him leading his players out onto the field, a modern day saint who could do no wrong.

But this past week that bronze statue was taken away.  As the scandal involving Gerry Sandusky came to light, a darker side of Joe Paterno was revealed.

As in the case of King David, lot of it has to do with power.  Over the years Paterno became the most powerful man on the campus of Penn State, more powerful than a football coach has a right to be, getting people fired if they dared to challenge his authority.

There is something about reaching the top and acquiring great power that makes it harder for a person to confront his or her own darkness, to bring things out into the light.  Just ask King David.

The worst darkness to be revealed, of course, was the fact that apparently when Joe Paterno got wind of the fact that in all likelihood his long time friend was doing horrible things to little boys, his instinct wasn’t to bring it out into the light where it could be fully examined; his instinct was to push it back into the darkness, hidden from view.   The result of which was that little boys continued to be abused.

Why did it he do this?  Evidently Paterno was too invested in the reputation of the program he had devoted his life to building.   In the end, it appears the program and its reputation was more important to Paterno than the safety of little boys.

And now in some quarters Joe Paterno is considered scum.  But Joe Paterno isn’t scum, just as he wasn’t a saint who could do no wrong.  He was just an ordinary human being with both light and darkness within him.

But we have hard time seeing people this way.

The story of King David sheds light on the discouraging state of political discourse in our country.   Already the presidential campaign is about mudsling.   Who is responsible for this?  It’s all of us.  It’s that need we all have to divide the world into the good guys and the bad guys, and my guy must be good so I’ll overlook evidence of his flaws, and the other guy is bad, and so I’ll believe every bad thing that anybody says about him.

If my guy is all good, and your guy is all bad, how can we connect to each other?  And how can we find a way for people on opposite sides of the aisle politically to work together to solve the enormous problems facing this country?

This same dynamic undermines our most intimate relationships.   There is this pattern I’ve seen a number of times over the years of my ministry.  A couple falls in love and come to see me about getting married.  They look at one another and each sees in the other one of the truly good people in this world.   They’ve been blessed to meet someone with so much virtue and so few flaws.

Several years later though, the marriage breaks up.   I talk to them again.  Now their former partner has morphed into an truly bad person, with more flaws than can be numbered, and essentially no redeeming qualities.

What would it take for us to come see each other more realistically, as people with both light and darkness?

It begins, of course, in the hearts of each one of us.  We fear what we may find in the darkness because we are afraid it will render us unlovable, and love is what we most need.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is about the love God has for each one of us that will never forsake us, no matter what turns up in the darkness within.   God’s light can penetrate any darkness.   That’s what Paul found, who discovered some pretty awful stuff hidden deep down in the basement of his heart – things like rage and self-righteousness and desire to hurt people who were different from himself.  But the love he discovered in Christ transformed him.    He was no longer afraid of the dark, because he knew the love of Christ was greater.

We started our worship this morning with some prayerful words that Paul wrote in his letter to the Ephesians.  Let’s finish by praying them once more, in the hope that in doing so, we may experience that same love:

I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:16-19)