A Heart Probed and Exposed

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Nathan Rebukes David, engraving by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, Getty images.

Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” imagines a baffled King David composing the psalms: “Probe me, God, know my heart” (Ps 139:23). That baffled king takes center stage in this week’s Lectionary. Last week the newly anointed king triumphed over the Philistine giant, Goliath, and then escaped Saul’s murderous designs. This week opens with the victorious king entering Jerusalem for the first time in a seemingly bloodless conquest. But by week’s end King David is stretched out on the floor of his palace in penitential sack cloth. What has happened? The biblical narrator takes us on a journey into David’s heart and our own.

From the beginning of the David Story in 1 Samuel 16 until 2 Samuel 10, David is portrayed as a biblical hero. His power peaks when he relocates the ark of the covenant (the symbol of God’s presence among the Israelites) into Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6). His plan to build a house for the ark (the temple) is rejected by God who instead promises to build David a house (a royal lineage). God seems to enjoy the word play (2 Samuel 7).
Then things start to unravel.

“The David and Bathsheba story” (Friday) opens with the narrator’s ominous comment: “At the turn of the year when kings go out on campaign, David sent out Joab,” his general. Why did David stay home when kings should go to war? Did he want to ensure that Uriah was away in order to have access to his wife Bathsheba? Did he want to reduce palace personnel to ensure that fewer eyes were around for his tryst? When David inquires about the name of the bathing woman, the palace messenger responds as if David should already know who she is. Did he? Is all of this just a ploy to get Bathsheba? Over the years I have come to think so.

Bathsheba is summoned, and the Hebrew text makes clear that David was the actor and Bathsheba was violated. At the king’s command, what choice did she have? Her pregnancy means that the tryst will become public. Now David’s lies begin to multiply. Uriah is called from the battle line (where David should be!), and David orders him to go home to Bathsheba. When he refuses, David gets him drunk, but still Uriah does not abandon his mission. So David orchestrates Uriah’s murder in letters that the faithful soldier carries back to the front in his own hands. David descends into depravity. Has he forgotten his psalms?

This study of the human heart reaches its apex in David’s encounter with the prophet Nathan (Saturday). Nathan spins a story about a rich man, a poor man, and a ewe lamb. Its import is obvious to everyone. But David? The rich man who took the ewe lamb deserves death, he hollers, unwittingly naming the sentence he should receive for his adultery (Deut 22:22). Is David playing Nathan, or is he completely unconscious of his own crime, unaware of the lie he lives? We have to decide for David . . . and for ourselves.

We leave this hallelujah composer stretched out on the floor, refusing to eat or get up. The schemes of his heart have been probed and exposed by God . . . just like ours.

© Liturgical Press.

Fr. Craig E. Morrison, O.Carm

Craig E. Morrison, O.Carm., teaches at the Pontifical Biblical Institute and lives at the ancient Roman parish dedicated to St. Martin of Tours. He is a member of the retreat team at Mount Carmel Spiritual Center in Niagara Falls, Canada.

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