In recent years, the daily sports television program SportsCenter has added a corollary segment to its Top 10 Plays called, originally, Not Top 10. The Not Top 10 segment is enjoyable to watch, but no athlete wants to make the cut and have his or her embarrassing moment replayed to millions.
Throughout the course of King David’s life, he had some top-ten moments and some not-top-ten moments. The man after God’s own heart is perhaps best known for two events in his life—his number one top-ten play, the defeat of Goliath; and his number one not-top-ten play, the episode with Bathsheba. Both were consequential in the life of Israel, but only one of them moved David to a level of repentance he hadn’t yet known, as David was forced to deal with the consequences of his sin that was broadcast before millions.
After the Bathsheba incident, 2 Samuel 12 reveals that it took a prophet’s bold confrontation to elicit David’s repentance, which he subsequently put to paper. David’s psalm of repentance and confession is a beautiful plea for mercy from a man struck by the gravity of his sin, which is recounted in narrative form in 2 Samuel 11. Psalm 51 has soothed many consciences riddled with guilt. It has given words to the penitent sinner to pray when he feels the weight of shame brought on by the remembrance of sins committed.
The beauty of God’s grace is showcased in His eagerness to blot out David’s grievous iniquities. Yet, it’s the grievousness of David’s sin that has led to some bewilderment over his statement in Psalm 51:4: “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment.” In particular, David’s claim that God, and God alone, is the only offended party seems to depreciate his sin against all of the others involved. How could David say that he sinned against God only? Could Bathsheba or Abigail read David’s words without anger and a sense of injustice welling up inside?
Degrees of Heinousness
To be sure, these are fair questions. Toward the end of the Larger Catechism, the Westminster divines address the question of whether all sins are equal in heinousness. Their answer is no (WLC 150). In WLC 151, the divines explain various factors that make certain sins more heinous than others. When we examine David’s sin in 2 Samuel 11 through this grid, it becomes clear that David’s sin was about as heinous as it gets. Consider, for example, the first factor: the person who committed the sin.
Q. 151 What are those aggravations that make some sins more heinous than others?
A. Sins receive their aggravations,
1. From the persons offending; if they be of riper age, greater experience or grace, eminent for profession, gifts, place, office, guides to others, and whose example is likely to be followed by others.
Who was the one doing the offending? David, king of Israel—God’s vice-regent. We tend to understand this at an intuitive level. It feels different, doesn’t it, when a minister of the gospel commits a grievous sin? That’s because it is different. He holds a divinely instituted office. Consider also the offended party in the David and Bathsheba incident.
2. From the parties offended: if immediately against God, his attributes, and worship; against Christ, and his grace; the Holy Spirit, his witness, and workings; against superiors, men of eminency, and such as we stand especially related and engaged unto; against any of the saints, particularly weak brethren, the souls of them, or any other, and the common good of all or many.
As the offended party, we could list God, Bathsheba, Uriah, David’s family, David’s army, and, in one sense, all Israel, who was under his kingship and whose safety the army was entrusted to protect. John Calvin comments, “His transgression, although it sprung from one root, was complicated, including, besides adultery, treachery and cruelty; nor was it one man only whom he had betrayed, but the whole army which had been summoned to the field in defence of the Church of God.” The third factor in WLC 151 is the nature and quality of the offense:
3. From the nature and quality of the offence: if it be against the express letter of the law, break many commandments, contain in it many sins: if not only conceived in the heart, but breaks forth in words and actions, scandalize others, and admit of no reparation: if against means, mercies, judgments, light of nature, conviction of conscience, public or private admonition, censures of the church, civil punishments; and our prayers, purposes, promises, vows, covenants, and engagements to God or men: if done deliberately, willfully, presumptuously, impudently, boastingly, maliciously, frequently, obstinately, with delight, continuance, or relapsing after repentance.
As Calvin remarked, David’s transgression was complicated in its nature; yet, we can identify a few obvious ones: laziness (2 Sam. 11:2), lust (2 Sam. 11:2), abuse of power (2 Sam. 11:4), adultery/sexual immorality (2 Sam. 11:4), violation of cleanliness laws (2 Sam. 11:4), deceit/coverup (2 Sam. 11:6–13), murder (2 Sam. 11:14–17), more coverup (2 Sam. 11:18–25), insensitive opportunism (2 Sam. 11:26–27), hypocrisy, and reluctance to repent (2 Sam. 12:1–6).