Did David Speak the Truth?
By Jonathan Mitchell
Is a Mistake, a Deviation, a Sin, "Only" Against God?
Some Thoughts on Ps. 51:4a
The text of the LXX includes as its first verse what the English translation of the Hebrew text only has as an explanatory preface:
"Unto the goal (or: With a view to the end [of the matter]): A Psalm by David, in regard to the [situation when] Nathan the prophet came face to face with him, [regarding] when [David] entered in toward Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah."
Here is David's response to Nathan, in 2 Sam. 12:13 (LXX), simply,
"To (or: Against; With [regard to]; In) the LORD [= Yahweh] I sinned (failed; erred; deviated; made a mistake)."
When we read of this incident in Ps. 51:4a (LXX) he says,
"I sinned (failed; erred; deviated; made a mistake) ONLY against (to; with [regard to]; in) You, and before You (or: in the presence of You; in Your sight), I performed the worthless act (or: did the harmful, painful, malicious, wrong, misery-gushed thing; or: created the evil)" [emphasis added].
In this psalm we find that David uses the word "only" in his prayer to Yahweh. When he spoke to Nathan regarding the event, he did not say that his sin was "only" against God. Why, in this prayer, was David disregarding the sins against Uriah - the sins of adultery with his wife and then having him killed? Why was he not including the sin against Bathsheba? Why was he not speaking about his actions affecting Israel, for in 2 Sam. 12:12, through Nathan God tells David,
"I will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun"?
And what about 2 Sam. 2:11 where Yahweh tells David,
"I will raise up evil against you out of your own house, and I will take your wives... and give them to your neighbor..."?
The results of his sins affected everyone.
David's words in Ps. 51:4a sound very pious, but was he speaking the truth when he added the word "only" to qualify the extent of the effect from his mistake? Was he thinking like a human king, in the time of that culture and like the kings of the surrounding cultures? Did he think that a king can kill whomever he wants or take whatever woman he desires? Did his position as Israel's king exempt him from the effects of committing crimes against Israel's people? Or was he considering a Hittite and his wife as being inferior to "God's people"? Obviously, to these last four questions, God's answer was, No.
The reason that I have posed this question is that throughout my life in Christianity I have heard this statement in Ps. 51:4a presented as evidence that a "sin against God" trumped sins against humans - and to me this reasoning always seemed to be suspect. The Law of Moses dealt with sins and trespasses against the people of Israel, so why did David disregard his actions as being sins against other people? We find this same reasoning in later theology, that failure to accept Jesus as one's Savior, being a "sin against Christ," deserves greater punishment than a sin against another human being.
Now I realize that I am addressing only one word in only the first part of one verse - but I've heard this one clause repeated many times, and with the sense that I've just stated, above. So again I ask, Did David speak the truth in Ps. 51:4a? Was his sin(s) ONLY against Yahweh?
In Jesus' parable of the sheep and the goats (literally, "kids," i.e., immature folks), in Mat. 25, He identified Himself with those in need or in a bad situation, just as His ministry had identified with the social outcasts (considered to be "sinners" by the religious establishment), and as His teaching proclaimed that God's reign and sovereign activities belonged to and involved these same "poor" folks. I, also, agree that what one does against another person is done against God - and this is exactly what David said, both in 2 Sam. 12 and in Ps. 51. Yet the real concern in Mat. 25 was what was or was not done to or for the needy, the sick or the imprisoned - i.e., the love of one's neighbor. But the focus of my question, here, has been on what has historically been implied by David's qualifying "only" in Ps. 51:4a, i.e., that the "real" (read: most important) sin is "against God."
I do not question David's sincere remorse (once he was exposed by Nathan). What I question concerns his idea, or feeling, or understanding that his sin was "ONLY against God." To me this throws light on how he thought about what he had done. I'm not making a judgment on David, just endeavoring to hear what the Spirit would speak to us about what king David said about the matter, and thus where the social injustice appears to have stood in his mind. I suggest that it affects how we read those ancient texts, as well as our own attitude about social justice. Did David speak the truth about the matter? What he said to Nathan in 2 Sam. 12:13 was correct, because he had broken the Law (Ex. 20:17) that God had given to Israel, but what about his actions with regard to his neighbor, Uriah (Lev. 19:18b)? Perhaps we should understand Ps. 51:4a in the light of Jn. 1:17,
"the Law was given through Moses, yet grace and TRUTH are birthed (or: joyous favor and reality came to be) through Jesus Christ."
We need not fault David in his assessment of his failure, for he was likely thinking like a monarch of his day. But I suggest that we listen to the Spirit of Truth as we read OT statements such as this one that I am now questioning.
The traditional view that "sin is primarily an offense to God," leads us back to "the original sin." The first sin (mistake) was actually that of ignoring what God told them, and listening, instead, to the voice of another. It was also relying upon one's own reasoning and one's own perception when they contradict a revelation from God. And, of course, the disobedience of Adam and Eve fulfilled God's prophecy about what would happen if they did eat of that tree in the Garden. But they, in effect, really just hurt themselves. I see that story like the child who was told by a parent not to touch a hot stove. Ignoring the warning is not so much a "sin against the parent," but rather a sin against one's finger that winds up being burnt. The effects of mistakes (or, of missing the target; or: from sins) happen here and now, and historically seem to pertain to God primarily in regard to His rescuing us from the effects of those mistakes, or His decisions about what will best serve our healing and transformation.
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