Does the Case of David and Bathsheba Justify Adultery Today?
David was one of the remarkable men of the Old Testament. He was a capable musician and beloved poet. He excelled as a military leader and king. And as “a man after God’s own heart” he was an exceptional religious leader. Yet, in spite of his illustrious achievements, Israel’s greatest king was not without some grievous faults — not the least of which was his shameful conduct with Bathsheba (2 Sam. 11:1-27).
In the spring of the second year of Israel’s siege of Rabbah, David, who had remained in Jerusalem, arose one evening from his bed and saw, from the roof of his palace, the beautiful Bathsheba, wife of Uriah the Hittite, bathing. Inflamed with passion, the king sent for the immodest temptress, and with her committed adultery.
From this evil union a child was conceived. When David was informed of Bathsheba’s pregnancy, he determined to conceal the sin. Accordingly, Uriah was summoned from the battle front under the presumption that, while on furlough, he would visit his wife, and thus when Bathsheba’s child was born, it would appear to be the offspring of Uriah.
Uriah, however, being the patriotic warrior that he was, refused to indulge in matrimonial pleasure so long as his comrades-in-arms were “encamped in the open field,” and thus deprived of similar domestic enjoyment. Frustrated, David then sought to intoxicate the soldier, to break down his resistance, that he might go down to his wife and so cover the illegitimate conception. But, again, Uriah “went not down to his house.”
Finally, in a truly desperate measure, the king sent him back to the battlefront; and by his hand he sent a message to Joab, his captain. Uriah was to be placed in “the forefront of the hottest battle.” The troops were to withdraw from him that he might be slain. Thus did the courageous warrior expire, never knowing of his wife’s infidelity with the king of Israel.
When Bathsheba heard of Uriah’s death, she went through the usual period of mourning; afterward, “David sent and took her home to his house; she became his wife, and bare him a son.” However, the inspired writer soberly adds this appendix: “But the thing that David had done displeased Jehovah” (2 Sam. 11:27).
A Modern Abuse of this Case
As the Pharisees of Jesus’ day possessed a diabolical skill at twisting the Scriptures to justify their own evil desires, even so, some today are equally adept at textual manipulation. In an attempt to justify the notion that adulterers are not required to repent of their adultery (and hence to sever such relationships), the case of David and Bathsheba frequently is cited as precedent. It is argued that though David committed both adultery and murder, when he repented, Jehovah accepted him as he was — without requiring the king to abandon Bathsheha.
So today, it is contended, one may enter an adulterous union, repent, and not be required to dissolve the arrangement. One writer stated the position thusly:
“How long will it be before we can see that God recognizes this second union, even though it was entered into by a sinful act. Even though the second marriage should never have been made, yet, when it has been made, God recognizes it as binding. This is why Bathsheba is recognized as David’s wife (1 Sam. 12:24). David sinned when he took her — he had no right to her at all. Yet after it was done, God recognized this union. And never forget for a moment that David could and did repent, and he did not have to separate himself from Bathsheba. The birth of Solomon is proof that they continued to live as man and wife.
Cases Not Parallel
In the first place, there is no parallel between the David and Bathsheba incident, and such adulterous affairs as are contended for today. It is true that the king committed adultery with Uriah’s wife, and subsequently murdered her husband. It is also true that he repented, as indicated in 2 Samuel 12:13 and Psalm 32 and 51. And his repentance, which involves turning from one’s evil works (cf. Mt 12:41; Jonah 3:10), was evidenced by the fact that he did not repeat such acts.
David’s eventual marriage to Bathsheba, after Uriah’s death technically was not adultery (even our opponents concede) — however unethical or inexpedient it otherwise might have been. And certainly he did not continue to practice murder.
Yet, those who argue for the “sanctified adultery” concept allege that one can engage in sexual relations with another’s companion — which they acknowledge as adultery even though legalized as “marriage” by the state — then “repent,” and subsequently resume the identical acts in which they formerly engaged!
This in no way resembles David’s case. If the post-repentance adultery doctrine is valid, one might retrospectively conclude that David could have continued a life of seduction and murder with Jehovah’s endorsement!
It is imperative at this point that a vital principle concerning Biblical inspiration be recognized. The fact that an event is recorded in Scripture does not necessarily suggest that the Lord approved of it. It is a fundamental feature of inspired Scripture that it documents the sins and follies of both its heroes and villains alike.
One therefore can read of Abram’s lies (Gen. 12:13; 20:2), and similarly of Isaac’s (Gen. 26:7). Jacob was a deceiver (Gen. 27:19). Judah, who was promised a regal seed, i.e., Christ (Gen. 49:10), committed fornication (Gen. 38:12ff), and Moses was guilty of unbelief (Num. 20:10-12).
Too, David, the subject of our present study, was guilty of other violations of divine law. He transported the ark of God on a cart, disregarding the Mosaic code (2 Sam. 6:3; Ex. 25:14). Influenced by Satan (1 Chron. 21:1), David, tempted to trust in military might rather than Jehovah’s protective care, numbered Israel — an act which cost the lives of seventy thousand men (2 Sam. 24:15).
Surely, though, none of these examples ought to be used as a precedent for conduct under the New Testament system. The truth is, any attempt to justify modern-day adultery by appealing to David is more akin to the distorted perversions of rabbinical Judaism than to accurate biblical exegesis. The Jewish Talmud seeks to justify the adultery of David on the ground that every soldier, before going into battle, was required to grant his wife a divorce; according to that twist, Bathsheba was actually free (Edersheim, IV, p. 191).
Moreover, if David’s marriage to Bathsheba is to be employed as a pattern for illustrating God’s marriage code under the law of Christ, then polygamy becomes permissible. History reveals that Bathsheba was only one of eight wives (in addition to a number of concubines) which the king had (1 Sam. 18:27; 25:42-43; 1 Chron. 3:2-5).
And, as noted scholar Dean Stanley observed: “His crime itself had sprung from the lawless and licentious life, fostered by the polygamy which he had been the first to introduce into the monarchy …” (II, p. 195).
The Fruit of David’s Sin
It is truly remarkable that some could seemingly suggest that Jehovah virtually “looked the other way” with reference to David’s transgression, hence, will do so today. How desperate is the case of those who are obliged to defend their teaching by an example of which the Bible says: “the thing that David had done displeased Jehovah” (2 Sam. 11:27).
The aftermath of this sordid affair is evidence aplenty of the Lord’s abiding displeasure of it. The prophet Nathan was sent unto David. After telling the parable of the pirated ewe lamb, the fearless spokesman for God made application to the king: “Thou art the man.” He then boldly asked: “Why have you despised the word of Jehovah, to do what is evil in his sight?” (2 Sam. 12:9). A heavy penalty was about to be exacted.
First, David had taken Uriah’s wife and had him slain by the sword of the Ammonites; so, the sword was never to depart from his house. The fulfillment of this punishment is a matter of historical record.
Amnon, David’s eldest son by Ahinoam (1 Chron. 3:1), raped his half-sister, Tamar. Two years afterward, Absalom, the king’s son by Maacah (2 Sam. 3:3), had Amnon murdered (2 Sam. 13). Then, later, Absalom “stole the hearts of the men of Israel,” rebelled against his father, and was ultimately killed by Joab (2 Sam. 18). And even after David’s death, Adonijah, the king’s son by Haggith (2 Sam. 3:4), was slain by Solomon (1 Kgs. 2:24-25). A truly bloody price was paid for David’s lust and violence.
Second, David secretly fornicated with his warrior’s wife while the latter was engaged in defense of the nation. And so, Jehovah declared:
“I will raise up evil against thee out of thine own house; and I will take thy wives before thine eyes, and give them unto thy neighbor, and he shall lie with thy wives in the sight of this sun. For thou didst it secretly: but I will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun” (2 Sam. 12:11-12).
Some years later, Absalom openly rebelled against his father. David, upon hearing that the hearts of the men of Israel were in favor of Absalom, fled Jerusalem, leaving ten of his concubines behind to keep the palace (2 Sam. 15:16). When Absalom entered Jerusalem, upon the advice of Ahithophel (Bathsheba’s grandfather – 2 Sam. 11:3; 23:34), the young rebel pitched a tent upon the palace roof (the very place where David had first observed Bathsheba) and “went in unto his father’s concubines in the sight of all Israel” (2 Sam. 16:22).
Third, Nathan informed David that since this deed had “given great occasion to the enemies of Jehovah to blaspheme, the child also that is born unto thee shall surely die” (2 Sam. 12:14). Though we will briefly comment on this later, it will be sufficient to note here, with Edersheim, that the baby’s death was “for David’s sake, that he might not enjoy the fruit of sin” (p. 196).
How strange that this case is cited in support of the modern theory which alleges that adulterers should be allowed, with impunity, to enjoy the fruit of their sin.
Finally, it is not without significance that the apostle Matthew, centuries later, in listing the legal genealogy of Christ from Abraham downward, records by inspiration: “And David begat Solomon of her of Uriah” (Mt. 1:6).
The Greek text literally says ek tes tou Ouriou, i.e., “of [the her belonging to] Uriah.” Lenski comments:
“The simple way in which Matthew connects Israel’s two greatest kings is telling to the highest degree. Behind the little phrase lies adultery and murder and the death of the first child. And this woman, though unnamed, was a queen; rightfully she belonged to Uriah” (p. 29).
The thrust of this particular point is this: even in the dimness of pre-Christian antiquity, there were sometimes lifelong penalties attached to sins. God did not simply overlook the sin of David and accept the penitent king as he was. There was a price to be paid.
Even so today, frequently there are agonizing consequences that result from illicit relationships.
The Mosaic Toleration
There is another extremely important principle which must be noted in this study. Most Bible students are aware of the fact that Jehovah’s revelation of his will to man was gradual. Of God’s progressive revelatory process, J.I. Packer has written:
This revelatory process continued intermittently for centuries. It was thus progressive: not in the sense that each new revelation antiquated the last, but rather in the sense that from time to time God underlined and amplified what He had taught already and added to it further intimation of what He intended to do until He had completed the pattern of truth which was to be fulfilled in Christ (p. 27).
Some writers have referred to the three great dispensations of time by the progressive light characteristic of them. Accordingly, the Patriarchal Age was the starlight era, the Mosaic Age was the period of spiritual moonlight, and the Christian Age is the dispensation of glorious sunlight.
Now here is a vital fact: with increasing illumination (knowledge), there is progressive responsibility, and an intensity of demands. Some things, therefore, that were tolerated in ages of the past, are not overlooked today.
Let us illustrate this principle. Retaliation was sanctioned under the law of Moses (Ex. 21:24), but it was not to be so under the Christian system (Mt. 5:38-39). Likewise, capricious divorce was allowed by Moses due to the hardness of the Israel’s hearts, but it is not now so (Mt. 19:8-9).
At Lystra, Barnabas and Paul acknowledged that in “the generations gone by” God had “suffered all the nations to walk in their own ways.” Currently, however, it is man’s obligation to turn from vain things to serve the living God (Acts 14:15-16).
At Athens, the inspired apostle announced: “The times of ignorance therefore God overlooked; but now he commands men that they should all everywhere repent . . .” (Acts 17:30).
In Romans 3:25, it is argued that due to God’s forbearance (anoche, “clemency, tolerance” – Danker, p. 86), sins committed aforetime (in previous ages) were passed over. This, of course, does not mean that Jehovah ignored those sins; rather, the “passing over” (paresis) means “letting go unpunished” (Danker, p.776), and it is used of the “temporary suspension of punishment which may at some later date be inflicted” (Sanday & Headlam, p. 90).
The point is, though Jehovah may have allowed certain weaknesses to go unpunished fully in times past, man assumes full responsibility in the Gospel Age.
The foregoing principle certainly was applicable in the David-Bathsheba affair. They committed adultery. Had the law of Moses been strictly executed, they both would have been put to death.
“And the man that committeth adultery with another man’s wife, even he that committeth adultery with his neighbor’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death” (Lev. 20:10)
Really, David unwittingly pronounced his deserved punishment when, at the conclusion of Nathan’s parable, he exclaimed: “As Jehovah liveth, the man that hath done this is worthy to die …” (2 Sam. 12:5). Nevertheless, because of God’s forbearance, Nathan informed the king: “Jehovah also hath put away thy sin; thou shalt not die” (2 Sam. 12:13).
In view of the foregoing, it is the very epitome of folly to attempt the justification of present-day practices in the light of God’s lenient dealings in ages of lesser responsibility. Especially is this so regarding the question of divorce and remarriage.
To contend that God will tolerate the violation of His marriage law today, simply because he did in the past, is to fly directly in the face of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 19:8-9. Yes, Moses allowed divorce for trivial causes because of Israel’s hardness of heart. Yet Christ said, “but from the beginning it hath not been so.”
Vincent points out:
“The verb is in the perfect tense (denoting the continuance of past action or its results down to the present). He means: Notwithstanding Moses’ permission, the case has not been so from the beginning until now. The original ordinance has never been abrogated nor superseded, but continues in force” (p. 65).
Thus, in spite of that temporary relaxation during the Mosaic economy, the mind of God on the subject had never changed. And the Lord Jesus, speaking in anticipation of the New Covenant, pronounces the imminent repeal of that period of toleration.
The marriage-divorce law of Christ, therefore, is this:
“Whosoever shall put away his wife, except for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and he that marrieth her when she is put away committeth adultery” (Mt. 19:9; cf. 5:32).
This is the simple and strict will of Christ, and neither the case of David and Bathsheba, nor any other alleged biblical circumstance, can vitiate this strong teaching which so wonderfully undergirds the home, the foundation of society.
We must never allow emotionally wrought situations to sway us from the plain teaching of the truth of God. Our contemporaries deserve better from us than that.
- Danker, F.W., et al. (2000), A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago).
- Edersheim, Alfred (n.d.), Bible History (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans ).
- Lenski, R.C.H. (1964), The Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel (Minneapolis: Augsburg).
- Packer, J.I. (1954), “Revelation and Inspiration,” The New Bible Commentary, F. Davidson, Ed. (Grand Rapids:Eerdmans).
- Sanday, Wm. & Headlam, A.C. (1930), “The Epistle to the Romans,” The International Critical Commentary, Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark).
- Stanley, A.P. (1906), Lectures on the History of the Jewish Church (London: John Murray).
- Vincent, M.R. (1972), Word Studies in the New Testament (Wilmington, DE: Associated Publishers and Authors).