David has self-destructed. God’s anointed, God’s appointed, he has devolved into a reptile-king: a crooked crowned head, an unscrupulous sovereign, a lizard of a lord whose knavery knows no limits. By his gallantry, giants had fallen. By his guile, nations had fallen. But now, by his greed and by his grasping, he himself has fallen. David the good, he is tangled up in scandal. David the godly, he is tainted by sin. He helped himself to another man’s wife, then having gotten her pregnant, set to having him killed. The monarch once cheered for his faithfulness and morality is now jeered as a philandering murderer. But God, abounding in mercy, does not abandon David; God does not leave David to his own devices. God sends Nathan to speak to the king – to convince him of his wrongdoing and to call him back to the straight and narrow. And so Nathan has words with David, and David does indeed heed his counsel. He confesses his sin, and there is something of a moral dawn in David, there is a sort of reawakening of conscience in David. David, he is chastened, he is cut to the heart, and he commits to turn his life around.
Remorse pours forth from David. He weeps repentantly. He begs to be pardoned. The psalm we read together – create in me a clean heart, O God – tradition has it that it was David, as he writhed in guilt and regret, who inscribed this prayer, that it was David who left us this lament. Lord, have mercy on me, according to your steadfast love, he pleads. And Nathan does absolve David of his sins and declare him forgiven; Nathan pronounces David’s prayer heard and answered, assures David that mercy has been measured out and grace granted… But what sort of mercy is this? What sort of grace? In the same breath, Nathan says: Oh, but by the way, this child you have sired in adultery, this child will suffer and die. And as you have sown by the sword, so shall you reap. You who cut down an innocent man and destroyed his home, listen, violence will consume your own house, and strife bring the demise of your line. Is this what God’s steadfast love, is this what forgiveness look like? What about second chances and clean slates?
I do not believe that God took David’s baby, that God put a curse on its mother’s womb and ordained that it die. This would be beyond tit-for-tat barbarism. And I do not believe that God destined the house of David to know the agony that did await it. I do not believe that God bids punishment to be passed down, generation to generation. I do not believe that God makes children pay the price for their parents’ mistakes. Yet, yet, I believe – let me put it more strongly than that: it is the case, it is incontrovertibly so, it is sadly so, that sometimes children do pay the price for their parents’ mistakes. Mom messes up and lasting damage might indeed done. Dad’s bad decision may beget long-term disadvantage. It is not a surprise to me that a father’s rapacious womanizing might rub off on his son – and by the way, it is precisely this dynamic which plays itself out with David and his boy Amnon, a predator, who proves to be a chip off the old block. It is not a surprise to me that a father who wantonly sheds blood would raise up a son, a son such as David’s Absalom, who would do the same. I do not believe that there is an inevitability to any of this. I do not believe that children are doomed to follow in their parents’ footsteps, or that, if there is a bad apple of a kid, Mom and Dad are necessarily to blame. But there are, tragically, many, too many, who suffer for the sins of others.
Even after David confesses his sins and says he is sorry and gets right with God, even still, trouble and woe befall him. And what it worse, the trouble and woe, they spill over, trouble and woe ruin his children. Even David’s moment of moral catharsis cannot seem to stop the run of cause-and-effect and reverse the chain of consequences already set in motion – and all this shows us not, not that God is a mean, vindictive ogre who refuses to let David or any one of us off the hook until God has got a pound a flesh; no, this shows us only the hugeness of the mess that David has made. We are not punished for our sins, but by our sins. Could God wave a magic wand so that every time David said, Oops! Did I have an affair? or, My bad! I seemed to have killed that man – could God make it so that every time David or anyone apologizes they just are guaranteed a get-out-of-jail-free or a get-out-of-your-wife-throwing-you-out-of-the-house-free card? Maybe? I guess. But I do not think forgiveness means protection from the fallout of my own actions. I don’t think mercy means that David, or that I, get off scot-free. David repents, and God receives him back into the fold, but even so, his life is wrecked.
God doesn’t sweep up the mess David made. God gives David to see that there is steel inside of him, and so readies him and steadies him for the inevitable suffering of consequences. Because though God is compassionate, though God is kind, so, too, is God just. Mercy. Justice. In this story, we are talking: Tomato. Tom-ah-to. Just as there is a kindness to God’s justice, so, too, is there a justice to God’s kindness. There is a sense of you’ve-got-to-pay-the-piper here; there is a sort of what-goes-around-comes-around to the way of things. God did not pluck up David, and probably will not pluck me, from the pickles I get myself into. I hate to say it, but God’s grace, God’s mercy as a sort of justice – it hurts. So understood, mercy like this would be falling on my face and feeling the full brunt of the futility of what I’ve been up to. Mercy like this would be what we call it when, in spite of the pain, I claim my head hitting the pavement as a moment of awakening and of coming awares. Mercy would be a wake-up call. Mercy would be the pushback of the moral universe, would be hitting rock bottom and blessing the hard ground beneath me for breaking my fall. Mercy would be what transpires within me, would be the something-of-God that is coursing in me in the split-second between when I am down and out cold, and when I am starting to stand up again. It would be the… being given back to myself, it would be my right sense restored, my right sense smacked into me. Mercy, grace – these would be a species of heartbreak, these would be a fullness I only ever know when I know myself to be empty, these would be riches I only ever reach for when I’m poor. These would be the worst best things that can happen to me, or maybe these would be the best worst things that can happen to me. Mercy, grace, these would be pain as invitation. These would be falling as falling up.
The calling of our falling, the calling in that moment, the calling of mercy’s hard knocks, of tough grace, of God’s justice, the calling of face-planting it, then, would be to let the hurt be power, it would be to take that coming clean, to take that catharsis and to shape it into a commitment, it would be to take that wake-up call and fashion it into a new way of life. It would be to decide that, though the damage has been done, that, though the consequences of sin have a half-life longer than we could account, it would be to decide that we are not going down like that again. The calling of mercy, of grace, of the hard, physical, spiritual confrontation of self and the self, of the me splattered on the floor and the me that, by God, would get up, the calling of mercy, of grace would be to walk a new way, would be to shake off the wooziness baby step by baby step. David is forgiven; mercy is measured out and grace granted but there is no magic here – just the daily bread’s worth of oomph God has given him, and by which he puts one foot in front of the other and so forges a truer path of faithfulness. And that may not seem like much, but I think it is enough. May it be so for me.