Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Sermon on II Samuel 11, St Luke’s, 10 August 2008: ‘One thing leads to another’ or Hallelujah

This story describes a crucial moment in the life of David. David you’ll remember was Israel’s greatest king. In coming years the Jewish people would look back to David’s reign as the greatest time in their history: a time when they were a prosperous nation who other nations feared and respected. And in the future they would look for a king - descended from David and like him - to rescue them from the difficulties they found themselves in. Besides being a great king David was also a great musician: he wrote the Psalms - or at least most of them - the Jewish people’s hymn book. In others words David was a hero. But a flawed hero for all that.

Until this point in his life David has never put a foot wrong[1]. Certainly he’d benefited from wicked deeds but he had never been implicated in them: he had always been ‘Mr Clean’. Then we come to this disgraceful episode in David’s life. It puts David in such a bad light that the authors of Chronicles - the potted history of Israel - which you can find later in the Bible - miss it out altogether. The story is told quite baldly by the writers of II Samuel: they don’t try to excuse David’ behaviour. They clearly think that what he did was inexcusable.

One of the things that the story shows is that God can use people like David who, although they have obvious qualities, also sometimes do disgraceful things. And this is reassuring because none of us are prefect. And we can think: well if David - who God chose to rule his chosen people and was such a great king - could do such bad things - well perhaps God can use us too. But I’m not going to talk about this aspect of the story today. The title Jane gave me for my talk is ‘One thing leads to another’ and it’s what the story can tell us about this that I am going to focus on.

I think we can all agree that one thing does certainly does lead to another, and bad things often lead to more bad things, and good things often lead to more good things. But sometimes - perhaps even always - because God is good and gracious - bad things eventually lead to good things. The story today is mostly about bad things leading to more bad things so I’ll start with that. But some of the bad things do eventually lead to good things and I’ll come on to those towards the end.

So firstly bad things leading to bad things. But before I go into this you need to spot - and I didn’t at first - the way David tries to cover up his affair with Bathsheba before he resorts to getting Uriah killed. When Bathsheba realises she is pregnant - David summons Uriah back from the front and tries to get him to have sex with Bathsheba - so that the baby will appear to be Uriah’s own. When the writers of II Samuel tell us that David tells Uriah to go home and while he is there ‘wash his feet’[2] they are using a well known Hebrew euphemism for ‘have some sex’. When Uriah refuses, this cover-up operation fails, so David has to resort to even worse ways of dealing with Bathsheba’s pregnancy.

So in this story bad things lead to even worse things, but in fact it starts with a rather small - even good - thing: Bathsheba taking a bath. It can be summarized as a series of consequences, something like this:

Bathsheba takes a bath and
David spots Bathsheba taking a bath and so
David lusts after Bathsheba and so
David has sex with Bathsheba and so
Bathsheba falls pregnant and so
David needs to cover-up his affair with Bathsheba and so
David tries to get Uriah to have sex with Bathsheba but this fails and so
David has Uriah killed

So it starts with a bath and ends with a murder.

Now I’m certainly not suggesting that all that happened is Bathsheba’s fault: far from it. Bathsheba cannot be blamed for taking a bath on the roof, or for being beautiful so that David lusts after her or even for succumbing to the lustful demands of her King: she was in really no position to say no to having sex with him, and she can’t be blamed for falling pregnant. She certainly can’t be blamed for what happens to Uriah. We are even told that ‘she grieved for her husband’ and I think we ought to give her the benefit of the doubt that that grief was genuine.

David on the other hand is entirely to blame for what happens, well almost. OK he cannot really be blamed for spotting Bathsheba taking a bath: but even here there is a suggestion, at the beginning of the story that David should have gone with his troops to fight the Ammonites rather than stay at home lazing around with enough time on his hands to engage in torrid love affairs. And we cannot really blame him for lusting after Bathsheba: we are told she was very beautiful. However he doesn’t have to have sex with her, and when she falls pregnant he doesn’t he need to try and cover up the affair, and when that fails he doesn’t need to have Uriah killed. At three points in the story: David has a choice to do what is right and what is wrong and at each point he makes the wrong choice.

Nevertheless who are we to cast stones? OK we might not go as far as having people killed but when we do things that are shameful - surely our natural tendency is to try and cover them up. Firstly we try and deny that we have done what we have done and when it is impossible to deny it any more we try to wriggle out of the consequences of our action. And when that fails - as it often does - we may even resort to desperate measures, such as in David’s case, violence.

David - as we hear in the next chapter - does eventually admit that he was wrong to have sex with Bathsheba - but he should have done that earlier - before things really started getting out of control. And surely this a lesson for us all: when we do things wrong we should say sorry and try to correct things as soon as possible - rather than let things get out of hand! (Easier said than done!)

But the story also shows us another way in which one bad things lead to another bad thing. When people do bad things it generally involves other people and these people sometimes end up doing bad things themselves. As the story goes on and David does more and more bad things, more and more people are affected by his actions. First - pretty obviously Bathsheba - gets involved. Bathsheba may be pretty blameless in what ends up happening - but she does have some part to play in the affair with David. Uriah is the one good guy in the story - who seems to behave honourably - but he ends up getting killed.

But now let’s look at Joab’s role in the story. Joab is the Commander-in-chief of David’s army. Notice that when David asks Joab to: ‘Put Uriah in the front lines where the fighting is the fiercest. Then pull back and leave him exposed so that he's sure to be killed’[3]. David is being desperately stupid. If Joab had done what David had told him to do, then Joab would surely have been rounded on by all his other troops for recklessly putting the life of one of his best commanders in danger and for no obvious reason. Instead Joab devises a strategy for getting Uriah killed which won’t expose him to so much ridicule. However this strategy means putting a whole platoon - including Uriah - into a situation which is more dangerous than is necessary from a military point of view - right under the wall of the city that they are besieging. This strategy ensures that Joab won’t be so readily blamed for the death of Uriah but it means that 17 men besides Uriah get killed unnecessarily. What in effect happens is that Joab gets dragged into doing what is clearly wrong - and which he knows is wrong - because of David’s earlier actions.

This is surely sometimes the case when we do bad things. For example if we are selfish ourselves we set a bad example to our children, others we are responsible for, even our friends. They are - in effect - given permission to act badly themselves. And it’s even easier to act badly when it seems to be for other people’s sake. Joab presumably excuses his bad behaviour on the basis that David has told him to have Uriah killed, but he too like David has some choice in the matter. He could tell David that he is behaving badly and should stop. In the next chapter Nathan the prophet does tell David that he has behaved badly and David has the sense - at that point - to see that he has. Why didn’t Joab do the same at an earlier point?

But as I said earlier not all bad things lead to more bad things and because God is good and gracious bad things also lead to good things. Paul reminds us - in his letter to the Romans - that ‘all things work together for good to them that love God’.[4]

Now the main reason for this story being in II Samuel at all is - most biblical scholars agree - that it helps to explain why Solomon gets to be king after David. It’s a way of explaining how Bathsheba - Solomon’s mother - gets to be David’s lawful wife (albeit by having Uriah killed). And in the next few chapters we hear how the baby that results from the affair that we have heard about today and also David’s other sons all end up dieing leaving Solomon to inherit the throne. (It’s all pretty sordid.)

And so although what he have here is a disgraceful series of events in which lots of bad things lead to more bad things, and they don’t stop even after Bathsheba becomes David’s wife - in the very long term these events do have some good consequences. Solomon - after David - was Israel’s greatest king - who ruled wisely for 30 years and it is he who builds the temple in Jerusalem. And eventually all that happens to Israel and its kings leads to the coming of Jesus. It is I think interesting to note that Matthew - in his genealogy of Jesus - at the very beginning of his gospel makes a point of mentioning that Bathsheba is one of Jesus’ ancestors. God can use all things, however apparently bad, for his eternal purposes.

Finally I’d like to play you a song. It’s the original version of ‘Hallelujah’ by Leonard Cohen who is or was of course Jewish and well versed in the Bible. You might recognise it from the movie Shrek where - at least on the soundtrack album - the song is covered by Rufus Wainwright. Lots of other people have covered this song - including Jeff Buckley, K D Lang and Alison Crowe. And it’s played - generally as backing to a sad situation - in lots of other movies besides Shrek and also in various episodes of TV programmes such as the OC and Scrubs[5].

I think Rufus Wainwright sings it better than Leonard Cohen but he uses different words to those that Leonard Cohen used. The original version is firstly less sad than the Rufus Wainwright version and secondly its words are - in my view - much easier to understand. Here are the words [below]. I’m not completely sure what the song means but it contains clear references to today’s story.

First you probably don’t need reminding but ‘hallelujah’ means ‘praise the Lord’: the word is constructed by putting two Hebrew words together: hallelu (meaning ‘praise’) and Yah (for the name of God, ‘Yahweh’ or ‘the Lord’). It is the opening word for at least ten of the psalms.[6] But obviously people use it in other contexts. And in doing this, as the third verse acknowledges, they can be accused of taking the name of the Lord in vain because the word contains the name of God.[7]

The first verse of the song is clearly about David composing music that ‘pleased the Lord’ i.e. the psalms. I can’t find a direct reference in the Bible to David composing psalms to please the Lord - but presumably they did - and in clear contrast to what he was up to in today’s story. Note that in II Samuel 11 the only mention of God comes in the very last verse and it says of the events described in that chapter: ‘But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord’.[8]

The second verse has the clearest references to today’s story. It says that: ‘You (David?) saw her bathing on the roof’, that ‘her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you’ and that she (Bathsheba?) ‘broke your throne’.[9] The affair with Bathsheba, did according to the writers of II Samuel, metaphorically break David’s throne - at least in the long term. If you read further into II Samuel the affair had (as I have said earlier) ongoing repercussions for ‘the House of David’ which in the end left David virtually powerless. Of course Cohen’s suggestion that Bathsheba tied David to a kitchen chair and in this way broke his throne also has pretty passionate sex in mind - no wonder David then shouted ‘Hallelujah’ - ‘Praise the Lord’.

The reference to the women cutting the king’s hair in this verse is - of course - to another Biblical story of sex and politics: the story of Samson and Delilah. On the face of it this is a bit confusing but when you think about it there are strong parallels between the David and Bathsheba and Samson and Delilah stories: both are stories of rulers loosing their powers (both sexual and political) because of extra-marital affairs.

The third verse is, I think, about David explaining his affair with Bathsheba afterwards. In II Samuel 12 we have the story of the prophet Nathan castigating David for what he’s done. Nathan does this in an extremely clever and subtle way: he tells David a parable about a rich man with lots of sheep stealing a lamb from a poor man who has just one and in this way gets David to admit that he was wrong. Obviously it takes time for David to come to regret having sex with Bathsheba. You can imagine him saying to Nathan, ‘You say I took the Name [of God] in vain…But if I did well really what’s it to you?’ ‘OK they heard me shouting hallelujah but so what?’

In the fourth verse David seems to have come round (perhaps a long time later) to admitting that his affair with Bathsheba wasn’t exactly a good thing: he now agrees that somehow ‘it all went wrong’. However he still trying to justify himself: ‘I did my best, it wasn't much. I couldn't feel, so I tried to touch’ [10] but he only regrets things up to a point: ‘Even though it all went wrong, I'll still say Hallelujah’.

OK I’m probably making too much of this. It seems clear that the second verse is definitely ‘about’ the affair between David and Bathsheba but you may not agree with me that the third and fourth verses are. But what is surely undeniable about this song is that it is making connections between passionate religious and sexual feelings.

And the feelings we sometimes (rarely for most) get when we feel in touch with God and the feelings we get in the best of sex surely do have a lot of similarities. Both (well in my experience) can be tremendous, explosive and both are rarely unalloyed - both are generally tinged with sadness - if only because climactic and transitory - you know that they not going to last. Both can lead to you shouting ‘Hallelujah’: and there is a blaze of light’ in the (holy) Hallelujah you can feel when you know for sure that God is there and in the (broken) Hallelujah that you feel in orgasmic sex (even sex you know you might come to regret afterwards).

Both in our relationship with God as in sex there is an inevitable and/or a necessary ‘letting go’. In sex this letting go is pretty obvious. In our relationship with God we surely have to bow to the inevitable. We might be able to see clearly how one thing has led to another, how the bad things we have done - even if they seemed relatively harmless at the time - have sometimes had dire consequences. But although there might be some point in recognising our part in the course of events (in confessing our sins!) there is little point in regretting what we have done. (By God’s grace our actions may even eventually lead to good things). In the end all we can really do is ‘stand before the Lord of Song’ and say ‘Hallelujah’.

Hallelujah (Leonard Cohen)

Now I've heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don't really care for music, do you?
It goes like this
The fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you
She tied you
To a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

You say I took the Name in vain
I don't even know the Name
But if I did, well really, what's it to you?
There's a blaze of light
In every word
It doesn't matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

I did my best, it wasn't much
I couldn't feel, so I tried to touch
I've told the truth, I didn't come to fool you
And even though
It all went wrong
I'll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

Hallelujah, etc.

[1] Goldingay J (2003) Old Testament Theology, Inter Varsity Press: Downers Grove p594
[2] RSV; Message Bible: ‘Take a refreshing bath’.
[3] Message Bible
[4] Romans 8: 28 RSV
[5] Bathel M (2007)It Doesn't Matter Which You Heard": the Curious Cultural Journey of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah"
[6] Psalms 106, 111-113, 135, 146-150: the so called ‘Hallelujah psalms’
[7] Note that ‘Name’ in the version of the lyrics supplied with the album ‘Various Positions’ is capitalized and you would only capitalize ‘Name’ if you meant the name of God.
[8] RSV
[9] The song seems to be a conversation between at least three people. Note that the ‘you’ in the first verse cannot be David - he clearly does care for music - though the ‘you’ in the second verse must be David. And who is the ‘you’ in the third and fourth verses? It’s tempting to think that it’s the prophet Nathan - but that’s probably too fanciful.
Note too that ‘I’ in the first verse and second verses can’t be David (unless he is talking about himself in the third and second persons respectively. In the first verse the narrator (I) is first speaking about David and then, in the second verse, to David. In my view the third and fourth verse makes most sense if the narrator (I) switches to being David.
[10] Why this particular justification? What couldn’t he feel? It is fairly well known that David was a notoriously dispassionate and unfeeling individual (Goldingay p 593). In the Bible we hardly ever get to hear how he felt about anything. For example Jonathan - the son of Saul, the previous king - clearly falls in love with him and there are lots of references to Jonathan’s love for David, but none to David’s love for Jonathan so did he have any? In the story of David and Bathsheba in II Samuel 11 we have to presume David fancied Bathsheba. We are certainly not told and we cannot know whether he loved her. When the baby that results from his affair with Bathsheba dies, David behaves really oddly and refuses to grieve. It is however surely difficult to have sex, without feeling something for the other person. Of course these feelings can be negative (disgust even hate) but generally in ‘normal’ sex they are positive. Perhaps David wanted to feel - through sex with Bathsheba - at least something.

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