Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done that which is evil in thy sight…
One of the great things to do when you don’t understand or are disturbed about something you read in Scripture, is to look at it more closely. Studying a troubling passage may not bring resolution or peace, but it always brings deeper understanding – even when all you learn is that you don’t understand. That’s a healthy thing to admit about Scripture, because it reminds us what is also true about God. We must always seek deeper understanding because God’s ways are so different than our ways. Stopping to look when you’re troubled at why is like Moses stopping to look at the bush that was filled with fire but not burning. It is the stopping and looking that benefits us. Even after we look, we don’t always understand. But coming closer and asking questions, both of the Scriptures and of our God always leads us to what we need. Stopping to pray over a difficult time in your life or stopping to study a difficult passage are each truly the pause that refreshes!
Come with me on a closer look at Psalm 51:4a, and let’s see what we can see. This is a difficult passage, so this will be a two-part article, but this month I’m just setting the stage for what my problem is with this passage at first glance. Then you and I will both take some time to wrestle with the problem and in doing that, we will both learn. I will share my learning next month! For now, I will set the stage for why this passage troubles me.
The quote in question comes from one of the most beautiful poems in Scripture, written by the master poet and “man after God’s own heart,” David. Psalm 51 is David’s Psalm of deep repentance. The occasion is announced to us in the inscription, which reads:
“To the choirmaster. A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.”
This song is David’s great cry of sorrow as he understands the full truth about himself and for the first time considers how his actions have affected others. This the universal cry of all who realize how through their own selfish actions they have used and hurt other people. This is the universal cry of every heart that learns the truth about itself, and weeps in sorrow. Only this sorrow can ever lead to healing. The truth sets you free, painful though it may seem.
David had reason to repent. His nation was at war, yet while the battle raged he did not take his place at the head of his army. He didn’t even stay near the back watching from a safe place. He didn’t go at all. He sent others to do the work and take the risk while he stayed home. On the couch. This first sin led inexorably to another and another and another. Sin does that. You need to keep on sinning and lying in your futile attempt to make reality come out right and match your lies, only it never does.
David’s sin against his army companions (and through his dereliction of duty against his entire nation) is now compounded with even more lies and sin. Our idle King gets up from a nap and spies the private rooftop bath of one of his close friends as his wife is taking a bath. The woman, Bathsheba by name, has a rooftop bath because it’s private and seemingly no one can see her. But she lives very close to David’s palace, and everyone knows the King lives in the tallest house. This gives him a bird’s eye view of her roof. She has a house next to the King’s for a reason, and it’s not so he can spy on her bathing. Proximity to the King is awarded to the most faithful and brave, in this case the ones who have stood next to him in hand-to-hand combat. David’s friend Uriah’s house is next to his. Uriah is a Hittite, and though not born of the nation of Israel, it is Uriah’s bravery and commitment and integrity that are on display throughout this story, in direct contrast to the king. It is Uriah who follows the ways of God, not King David. As Uriah battles with the rest of the army to keep the rapacious Ammonites from destroying them all, David is back home, sleeping with his wife.
We read this story from 2 Samuel 11. When trying to understand a difficult passage, always let Scripture interpret Scripture. Psalm 51 is written about the story told in 2 Samuel, where we read about how David’s slide into sin continues. By the end of the story David is clearly guilty of destroying the lives of many people around him, from Bathsheba and Uriah to unnamed soldiers and friends and families who lost husbands and sons in battle. Through this sordid tale David’s shameful behavior includes adultery, murder, lying and causing others to join him in sin. You never sin alone. And after all of this, when his great friend Nathan has the courage to confront David with his lies and schemes which have cost so many so much pain, David writes a beautiful and heartfelt Psalm of woe. One that means so much to all of us. But as he prays, he says to God: “against Thee and Thee only have I sinned, and done that which is evil in Thy sight…”
This is the line I do not understand and which I want to wrestle with. It seems ludicrous and woefully out of touch for David to say that. David! What about your fellow countrymen who are at risk from the Ammonites because you refuse to do your job and protect them? Have you sinned against them? What about Uriah? Bathsheba? Dead soldiers who are not named? Fellow friends drawn into this web of lies and deceit who now join this game because you asked them to murder and lie? How many hundreds has David sinned against in this story? Against Thee and Thee only have I sinned? I don’t agree. I can’t imagine David thinks that either, can he? What is going on here?
Take some time this month and wrestle with this passage. Always pray first and ask the Spirit to guide you. Study the passage. Read it in as many different translations as you can. Read the story from 2 Samuel in different translations. Mull it over. Pray and study, use the internet to help if you lack resources. Decide what you think is going on here. Next month, I’ll share my own thoughts after I spend some more time seeking to know the Word. Until then,
I’ll see you in Church,