Most know the story of David and Bathsheba. Not so much seducing Bathsheba as conscripting her into his bed, King David took another man’s wife for his own gratification. Not just any man; one of his soldiers, Uriah. Upon learning Bathsheba was pregnant, David tried covering it up by inviting Uriah home from the battlefront on a weekend pass to be with his wife. When Uriah’s commitment to king and country would not allow him to, however, David returned him to the front and had his commander Joab place him in the thick of the fighting to be killed. David was then legally able to take Bathsheba as his wife.
In the wake of this incident, there’s a detail that might seem to underline just how diluted David has become; when Nathan approaches David to hold him accountable, he’s unwilling to be immediately honest with him. Instead of coming right out and taking him to task, Nathan tells David a story about an exploitative landowner. Once David’s ire is up, only then does Nathan end the pretense: “You are the man!”
When Jesus’ disciples once asked him why he speaks in parables, he said “To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been granted…Therefore I speak to them in parables; because while seeing they do not see, and while hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand”. In a sense, parables are for those who don’t get it or are on the outside of things. Considering David’s actions, it must have seemed to Nathan that with righteousness and truth no longer compelling David, perhaps a parable would. So instead of straightforwardness, he strategizes.
What might Nathan’s approach here say about what David’s leadership had become?
First, it says God’s spokesman didn’t trust David enough to be immediately straight with him. David had broken at least three of the commandments by coveting, murdering, and stealing (not to mention making Joab his accomplice); these are not the actions of a man who is handling truth well.
Second, it says that David’s actions have both grievously undermined God’s intended reputation for Israel as a righteous people and David’s ability to integrally represent and lead them in that pursuit.
Third, it says that rather than gratefully receiving what God would gladly give (2Sam12:8), David’s actions more closely align him with the kind of exploitative king both Moses and Samuel warned Israel about (Dt17:14-20, 1Sam8:10-22). David’s actions have exemplified why having “a king…like all the nations” was never a good idea. If Israel’s best king is doing these things, what will their worst kings do?
And fourth, Nathan’s approach suggests David’s sin had dimmed his wit. His discarding of God’s commands had made him one of those leaders you have to warily beat around the bush with, hoping it finally dawns on them how foolish or incompetent they have become.
Nathan’s approach ultimately demonstrates not so much how his relationship with David has changed as how David’s relationship with God, Israel, his family, and even himself has changed. The seriousness of those changes would be gradually seen in the consequences that would follow (2Sam12:10-15).
To avoid consequences in our own lives and ministries, it may benefit us to ask what these observations might correspondingly mean for those of us in Christian leadership.
First, it challenges us to pause and examine our relationship with those whom we work and serve. Are they comfortable around you? Enough to be straightforward with you? If not, why? While it could be their own insecurities, could it also be you? Are you willing to ask them about it?
Second, attitude reflects leadership. Like Israel’s relationship with their kings, a congregation’s atmosphere and tone suggests what kind of influence their leaders have actually had in the long term. For better or for worse, a congregation is always a reflection of its major influences; in part that means you. Consider your congregation; how has your influence shaped them into what they are? Has it helped or hindered their journey in becoming what Christ has called them to be?
Third, it reminds us that we cannot cultivate Christian community by utilizing the methods of a fallen world “like all the nations”. Consumer marketing, hierarchies, pandering, and power moves will not build Christ’s church. We cannot arrive at God’s desired destinations unless we’re moving along God’s directed avenues.
Fourth, disengagement diminishes our wit. Whether concerning God, his commands, the role he has given us, or the people our role affects, disengagement detaches us from reality, disrupting our ability to wisely process that reality to distinguish right from what’s wrong, which finally dissipates our resolve to do what’s right.
If you observe David’s life after these events, his actions here can be seen as an inciting incident that would sow great trouble for Israel. His abilities to govern the kingdom, parent his children, command respect, and inspire godly devotion were considerably diminished. Even David and Bathsheba’s son and grandson, Solomon and Rehoboam, would partake in similar actions that eventually resulted in Israel being ripped apart. David’s actions certainly speak to us of what not to do.
But it is Nathan’s example that speaks loudest and clearest to the reader. It’s interesting that even though David was chosen by God to be king, there was still the need to safeguard Israel’s holy conscience through the prophetic office. It’s an indication that despite the royal framework put in place at the people’s request, it didn’t supersede the undergirding covenant already in place between God and Israel. Nathan is the agent of this covenant and its holiness.
Nathan’s example is therefore a safeguard to us as well. Nathan shows us that godly leadership doesn’t begin by leading followers to God, but by following God ourselves. In challenging the man after God’s own heart by following God instead of the man, Nathan demonstrates that it’s the LORD’s edicts and not the leader’s example that is to command our loyalty, hold our heart, and inspire our actions.