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.”1 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).
Last, the Westminster divines propound that Scripture takes into account the circumstances of time and place:
4. From circumstances of time, and place: if on the Lord’s day, or other times of divine worship; or immediately before or after these, or other helps to prevent or remedy such miscarriages: if in public, or in the presence of others, who are thereby likely to be provoked or defiled.
At a time when David was supposed to be protecting God’s people during the vulnerable time of battle (2 Sam. 11:1), he committed this sin. Of course, the initial sin was private, but it later became public and known to all Israel.
When we filter David’s actions through the grid of WLC 151, it becomes clear why the Lord was emphatically displeased (2 Sam. 11:27). All things considered, David’s sins were about as heinous as anything we could conjure up. In particular, the parties offended are astounding. It’s hard to think of other contextual sins that could affect so many people. This is why it has perplexed so many that David exclaims in Psalm 51: “Against you, you only, have I sinned” (Ps. 51:4). Martin Luther acknowledged: “This verse is differently expounded by different persons, and it has ever been considered, that this one little point is the greatest difficulty that is met with in the whole Psalm.”2 How are we to understand, then, David’s claim that he sinned against God only? When we consider the text in depth alongside Scripture’s theology of sin and guilt, I believe the explanations are fairly straightforward.
A Class Alone
The word “only” or “alone” is translated from the Hebrew word bad. It denotes an item that is in a class all by itself—no other is beside it or in addition to it. It does not necessarily, however, describe an item to the exclusion of other items. For example, we might say that Michael Jordan is all alone, in a category all by himself, but that doesn’t exclude the possibility that other basketball players can be classified as great. We’re merely saying that Jordan exists in a domain of greatness all by himself. Elsewhere in the Old Testament, the word bad is used to designate God as being in a class by Himself. For instance, Deuteronomy 4:35 states, “To you it was shown, that you might know that the Lord is God; there is no other besides him.” Moses is not claiming that God alone exists to the exclusion of others’ existing, only that God alone is in a way that no other being is. He is in a class all by Himself.
Further, the Bible elsewhere uses language of sinning against others (Gen. 42:22; 1 Sam. 19:4–5; 2 Chron. 6:22; Matt. 18:21; 1 Cor. 8:12; James 4:11). We can even sin against our own bodies (1 Cor. 6:18). We also see that Jesus commends Zacchaeus for restoring the resources fourfold to those whom he defrauded (Luke 19:8–9). We could provide many more examples of Scripture’s referring to sins against fellow human beings. With this in mind, David clearly is not making a theological case that transgressions are committed against God to the exclusion of all others. What does he mean, then?
A Heightened Confession
Far from downplaying his sin, David actually highlights the heinousness of his sin. David knew that he appeared as a sinner in the holy courtroom of God. So even though David’s vertical sin consisted of deep horizontal offenses, his sin was ultimately against the Lawgiver. As A.A. Hodge asserted, “The sinner in every transgression of virtue is conscious that he is guilty of disobedience to the supreme Lawgiver.”3 David, then, wasn’t minimizing the effects of his sin. Quite the contrary. He was in fact labeling his actions with the worst possible category of offense because he was labeling the offended as the holiest possible—God Himself. Every sin committed against neighbor is a sin against God, but every sin against God is not necessarily a sin against neighbor. Thus, David broadens and heightens his sin. If he is to find acquittal, all the human courts in the world could not declare him guiltless; rather, God would ultimately be the One who offers forgiveness. G.C. Berkouwer suggests: “In this confession there is no disclaimer of David’s guilt over against Bathsheba and Uriah, and no minimizing of sins, but rather, in this guilt as over against his fellow man, he confesses his guilt before God. There is no delimiting of sin here, but rather an acknowledgement of guilt in the much wider context of its relation to God.”4
Therefore, David’s sin was ultimately against God, which was infinitely worse than any sin merely committed against man. Jonathan Edwards argued: “Nothing is more agreeable to the common sense of mankind, than that sins committed against any one, must be proportionably heinous to the dignity of the being offended and abused. . . . This was the aggravation of David’s sin, in comparison of which he esteemed all others as nothing, because they were infinitely exceeded by it. Psalm 51:4. ‘Against thee, thee only have I sinned.’”5 David’s sin against God far exceeded his sin against any other in its gravity and scope. Thus, by acknowledging that his sin against Bathsheba, Uriah, and Israel was a sin against God, he was recognizing that his sin was far deeper and wider than it appeared to any human eye. Yes, he committed adultery and murder, but this was so heinous because it was cosmic treason against a holy God.6
Interestingly, David in Psalm 51 isn’t the only place in the Bible where we read that God is the ultimate one offended in instances when sins are committed against others. When Joseph is being seduced by Potiphar’s wife, he objects on the grounds that Potiphar has been faithful to him by making him lord over all of his house and possessions (Gen. 39:8). Then he exclaims, “How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” (Gen. 39:9). Of course, if Joseph would have slept with her, he would have sinned against Potiphar. But Joseph, like David after him, understood that every sin is against God—to sin against neighbor is so heinous fundamentally because it is a sin against God. Charles Spurgeon helpfully clarifies:
The Psalmist’s sense of sin toward others rather tended to increase the force of his feeling of sin against God. All his wrong-doing centred, culminated, and came to a climax, at the foot of the divine throne. To injure our fellow men is sin, mainly because in so doing we violate the law of God. The penitent’s heart was so filled with a sense of the wrong done to the Lord himself, that all other confession was swallowed up in a broken-hearted acknowledgment of offence against him.7
Sin is a vertical, Godward category. When we sin, God is the offended party, for, as Spurgeon noted, “the virus of sin lies in its opposition toward God.”8 When we wrong others, God is ultimately the One sinned against. This is why repentance is primarily Godward as well, although horizontal “repentance,” as in the case of Zacchaeus, should many times accompany and demonstrate our vertical repentance, as John the Baptist called for us to bear fruit that is in keeping with repentance (Matt. 3:8). Yet it remains true that sinning against others is first and primarily a sin against the One who gave the law. Sin incurs a debt, and God is the One who ultimately requires an accounting for that debt. It is to Him alone—as the One who is in a category all by Himself—that we owe our debt. If all others forgive us but God does not, we are condemned. If God forgives but no other does, we enjoy a forgiveness deeper than we can imagine.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on October 28, 2020.
- John Calvin, ed. James Anderson, Commentary on the Book of Psalms, vol. 2 (Bellingham, Wash.: Logos, 2010), 285. ↩︎
- Quoted in C.H. Spurgeon, The Treasury of David, vol. 2 (London: Marshall Brothers, 1881), 411–12. ↩︎
- Archibald Alexander Hodge, A Commentary on the Confession of Faith: With Questions for Theological Students and Bible Classes (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication and Sabbath-School Work, 1869), 299. ↩︎
- G.C. Berkouwer, Man: The Image of God, Studies in Dogmatics (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1962), 190. ↩︎
- Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 1 (Edinburgh, Scotland: Banner of Truth Trust, 1974), 669. ↩︎
- See R.C. Sproul, What Is Repentance?, Crucial Questions (Orlando, Fla.: Reformation Trust, 2014), 22–23. ↩︎
- Spurgeon, The Treasury of David, 2:403. ↩︎
- Spurgeon, The Treasury of David, 2:403. ↩︎