The story behind one of the most infamous crimes in history, and committed by one of the most virtuous men in history.
By Mark D, Harris
In the pantheon of world leaders, King David stands at the pinnacle of faithfulness, courage, and honor. Jews, Muslims, and Christians revere David as a warrior, a poet, a prophet, and a man after God’s own heart. God Himself honored King David uniquely among the kings of Israel.
Yet the Bible is clear that David was not a perfect man. In fact, his powerful character was marred by equally powerful iniquities. As recorded in the Bible, 2 Samuel 11, the New American Standard Version:
11 Then it happened [a]in the spring, at the time when kings go out to battle, that David sent Joab and his servants with him and all Israel, and they brought destruction on the sons of Ammon and besieged Rabbah. But David stayed in Jerusalem.
2 Now at evening time David got up from his bed and walked around on the roof of the king’s house, and from the roof he saw a woman bathing; and the woman was very beautiful in appearance. 3 So David sent servants and inquired about the woman. And someone said, “Is this not Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite?” 4 Then David sent messengers and [b]had her brought, and when she came to him, he slept with her; and when she had purified herself from her uncleanness, she returned to her house. 5 But the woman conceived; so she sent word and informed David, and said, “I am pregnant.”
6 Then David sent word to Joab: “Send me Uriah the Hittite.” So Joab sent Uriah to David. 7 When Uriah came to him, David asked about Joab’s well-being and [c]that of the people, and the condition of the war. 8 Then David said to Uriah, “Go down to your house, and wash your feet.” So Uriah left the king’s house, and a gift from the king [d]was sent after him. 9 But Uriah slept at the door of the king’s house with all the servants of his lord, and did not go down to his house. 10 Now when they informed David, saying, “Uriah did not go down to his house,” David said to Uriah, “Did you not come from a journey? Why did you not go down to your house?” 11 And Uriah said to David, “The ark and Israel and Judah are staying in [e]temporary shelters, and my lord Joab and the servants of my lord are camping in the open field. Should I then go to my house to eat and drink and to sleep with my wife? By your life and the life of your soul, I will not do this thing.” 12 Then David said to Uriah, “Stay here today also, and tomorrow I will let you go back.” So Uriah remained in Jerusalem that day and the day after. 13 Now David summoned [f]Uriah, and he ate and drank in his presence, and he made [g]Uriah drunk; and in the evening Uriah went out to lie on his bed with his lord’s servants, and he still did not go down to his house.
14 So in the morning David wrote a letter to Joab and sent it by the hand of Uriah. 15 He had written in the letter [h]the following: “[i]Station Uriah on the front line of the [j]fiercest battle and pull back from him, so that he may be struck and killed.” 16 So it was as Joab kept watch on the city, that he [k]stationed Uriah at the place where he knew there were valiant men. 17 And the men of the city went out and fought against Joab, and some of the people among David’s servants fell; and Uriah the Hittite also died. 18 Then Joab sent a messenger and reported to David all the events of the war. 19 He ordered the messenger, saying, “When you have finished telling all the events of the war to the king, 20 then it shall be that if the king’s wrath rises and he says to you, ‘Why did you move against the city to fight? Did you not know that they would shoot from the wall? 21 Who struck Abimelech the son of Jerubbesheth? Did a woman not throw an upper millstone on him from the wall so that he died at Thebez? Why did you move against the wall?’—then you shall say, ‘Your servant Uriah the Hittite also died.’”
22 So the messenger departed and came and reported to David everything that Joab had sent him to tell. 23 The messenger said to David, “The men prevailed against us and came out against us in the field, but we [l]pressed them as far as the entrance of the gate. 24 Also, the archers shot at your servants from the wall; so some of the king’s servants died, and your servant Uriah the Hittite also died.” 25 Then David said to the messenger, “This is what you shall say to Joab: ‘Do not let this thing [m]displease you, for the sword devours one as well as another; [n]fight with determination against the city and overthrow it’; and thereby encourage him.”
26 Now when Uriah’s wife heard that her husband Uriah was dead, she mourned for her husband. 27 When the time of mourning was over, David sent servants and [o]had her brought to his house and she became his wife; then she bore him a son. But the thing that David had done was evil in the sight of the Lord.
The Prophet Nathan, at the risk of his own life, confronted David in 2 Samuel 12. The rest of 2 Samuel covers the final years of David’s reign, which were by and large, a litany of troubles. These include Amnon’s rape of his sister Tamar and Absalom’s murder of Amnon (2 Samuel 13), Absalom’s revolt against his father David (2 Samuel 14-18), David’s restoration (2 Samuel 19), Sheba’s revolt against David (2 Samuel 20), Gibeon’s revenge against the House of Saul (2 Samuel 21), and David’s sinful census (2 Samuel 24). Only 2 Samuel 22 and 23 contain anything to cheer the heart.
Bible students may see David’s troubles as punishments from God for his sin, and so they are. However, much of David’s travails had to do with his loss of moral authority from the Bathsheba incident and the subsequent breakdown of his own character.
The inside story of David and Bathsheba
It was a hot evening in mid-April in Jerusalem. Expecting Joab to prevail against Rabah of the Ammonites, King David planned to remain in the palace until the battle was essentially over, at which point he would travel to Rabah to accept Ammon’s surrender. Such inactivity was unusual for the king, as he usually was the first to battle, as was expected for ancient near eastern kings (2 Samuel 5:2, 8:1-14, 10:17).
Around 50 according to Jewish tradition, David walked to the palace roof, the highest point in the city, hoping to catch some cool breezes. He looked with satisfaction over his capital. and in the fading light caught a glimpse of a woman bathing in a nearby courtyard.
Bathsheba, probably in her late teens, longed to see her husband, Uriah the Hittite, about 40, who was fighting in the army with Joab outside Rabah. Her house simmered in the spring heat, so Bathsheba bathed in her walled courtyard. She did not think that anyone could see her when she dipped her lithe body in the tub of cool water. After her bath, Bathsheba retreated to her bedroom to relax and fall asleep. She had no children, which was a surprise after having been married for several years but undoubtedly prayed to conceive when Uriah came home.
David asked a nearby servant who the woman was. The servant quietly asked around and discovered her identity: Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam and wife of Uriah. Eliam was the son of Ahithophel, an important counselor in David’s court (2 Samuel 23:34), and this pedigree suggests that Bathsheba was from a wealthy, influential family. During her childhood, Bathsheba may have even visited the palace. The king was at the height of his power, and yet found himself strangely weak. David could neither shake her image from his mind, nor muster the transparency to talk to someone who would object to his growing designs. In a moment, the king’s mind was set.
Bathsheba was nearly asleep when she heard a knock. Changing from her nightclothes, Bathsheba dressed and came to the door. Three men were outside, and the one closest to the door said, “Maam, please come with us.” Young and inexperienced, Bathsheba followed them, trying to remain unseen by her gossipy neighbors. She recognized the walk to the palace, but felt faint when they led her into the king’s chambers. Bathsheba saw David, and he approached her. Once their rendezvous was over, Bathsheba ritually purified herself and returned home, hoping that no one had seen her.
David’s closest personal servants whispered among themselves. “Do you know what the king did?” one said. “Who was that woman?” inquired another. The news slowly filtered through intimate members of the king’s court. “Is this the man who killed the giant? The one who escaped Saul? The one who defeated all our enemies? The man after God’s own heart?”
David released his tensions, and instantly knew that he had made a terrible mistake. The king did not mention anything to his servants, and they said nothing to him. All hoped that it would be forgotten.
Bathsheba waited for her period to come, as it always had before. After at least two years of marriage without conceiving, she began to wonder if she could conceive. Two weeks and then four weeks passed without a sign of blood. She begged God to keep her secret hidden. Finally, six weeks after her evening liaison, Bathsheba sent a message to David, “I am pregnant.” Terrible thoughts filled her mind. The label “adulteress” haunted her. “Will Uriah divorce me?” “Will they stone me to death?”
King David was shocked by the news. His reputation was paramount in his kingdom, and his people would suffer if he were shamed. Even Saul had not done anything like this. The king heard murmurs in his court; whispers quickly hushed when he came near. Always a decisive man, David called for his general, Joab, to send Uriah home. Uriah arrived several days later. To cover his real intent, David asked Uriah about conditions in the army. The king told Uriah to go home, and implied that he should sleep with his wife. David hoped that, with Bathsheba’s pregnancy still early, the people would believe that the baby was Uriah’s. But Uriah refused to go home. Day after day, David encouraged Uriah to lie with his wife, and even got him drunk, but still the faithful soldier refused. With poignant and ultimately fatal irony, Uriah kept himself from his wife even as David and his men kept themselves from women before war (1 Samuel 21:4-5).
His first plan having failed, David reasoned that if Uriah died soon, he could marry the widow Bathsheba. Perhaps, though the moons were passing, he could still make his people believe that Bathsheba’s baby was legitimately his. The king wrote a letter to Joab, telling him to abandon Uriah to be killed by the Ammonites. Uriah himself carried the letter, his death warrant. Now in on the secret, Joab obeyed the king, just like any opportunist would. Joab knew that to have Uriah killed alone would be suspicious, so he sent several soldiers on a suicide mission too close to the wall of Rabah. Under fire from the Ammonites, Uriah and several other Israelites perished. Many soldiers who had been completely uninvolved died from the command of King David (2 Samuel 11:22-24).
Bathsheba was thunderstruck by the news of Uriah’s death. She mourned for him for seven days, as was the custom, but could not help but wonder what role, if any, the king played in his demise. She wondered what she would do, now pregnant and alone. Soon, David’s messengers showed up to her door and took Bathsheba to the palace. David took her to be another of his wives, though perhaps his now favorite. David lamented so painfully for his enemy Saul and friend Jonathan, but could not lament the loss of so many of his bravest, most loyal soldiers.
King David was desperate to keep this quiet, as his reputation and the safety of his kingdom was at stake. The penalty for adultery in the Torah was death, and though David was king and would not be killed as a commoner would, his reign would be irreparably damaged. This all started with a snap decision on a warm April evening, and now resulted in the murder of one of his finest soldiers. As the weeks passed, word was getting out. Bathsheba had felt the baby kick, and she had begun to show. Few people believed David’s ruse. A scandal was afoot. David denied everything, but his protestations were wearing thin.
Months passed, with David neither having the courage to confess and repent, nor having the ruthlessness to arrange a quick “accidental” death for Bathsheba and her child. Having treasured his time with God, David now felt himself alone. As we learn in Psalm 51, David sank into despair, forgetting the wisdom of the Lord’s law and the quiet intimacy that he had known with the Father as a young shepherd.
Shortly before the birth of Bathsheba’s baby, God spoke to Nathan, His prophet, and told him to confront the king. Nathan knew that David could execute him on the spot, and in his current state, might well do it. Nonetheless, Nathan obeyed. In a testament to his genuine faith, David repented. He openly confessed his sin, and even allowed his response to be written into a song to be sung by all the Hebrew people. David mourned for his son but could not save him.
But David’s servants had changed. They no longer revered him as they did before, knowing that their seemingly divine king had feet of clay. Worse, David himself changed. The one who slayed Goliath no longer had the course to punish his son Amnon for the rape of his sister Tamar. The one who conquered his enemies did not have the wisdom to reconcile with his son Absalom. When Absalom rebelled, David lacked the will to stand against him. The older David mourned for the rebel more than the people who saved him. Finally, he relied on the strength of man, not of God, in performing the census.
David’s sin rippled throughout the kingdom. Ironically, Absalom, son of David, sexually assaulted his father’s concubines on the same roof from which David first lusted after Bathsheba years before (2 Samuel 16:20-23). Ahithophel, grandfather of Bathsheba, turned against David during Absalom’s revolt (2 Samuel 15:12, 17:1-23). When confronted by Nathan, after David’s initial outburst of anger condemning the rich man to death, which would have been an excessive judgment for a non-capital crime, the king ordered that the rich man must make a fourfold restoration (Exodus 22:1). For the murder of Uriah, David did indeed make a fourfold restoration: 1) the death of Bathsheba’s first son (2 Sam 12:18), 2) the death of Amnon (2 Sam 13:28-29), 3) the death of Absalom (2 Sam 18:14-15), and 4) the death of Adonijah, who sought to usurp Solomon’s throne (1 Kings 2:25).
King David was truly a man after God’s own heart, but in one fateful night destroyed his reputation, damaged his kingdom, set the stage for the deaths of many innocent people, and condemned himself to pain for the remainder of his reign. The greatest king had besmirched his name for all time. David faced the logical consequences for his wickedness, but God still gave him mercy, as well as an eternal kingdom through Jesus Christ.
We do the same. If we have not committed adultery and murdered someone, it is not because our nature is any better than his, but rather because we lack the courage or the opportunity to act in such obvious sins. David’s actions were reprehensible, but modern Christians cannot condemn David without equally condemning ourselves. In this story, and in all stories, mankind is evil. We can be rescued from ourselves, and each other, by God alone.
- Longman, T., & Garland, D. E. (2006). The expositor’s Bible commentary (Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 and 2 Samuel, Vol. 3, pp. 927–953). Zondervan.
- Oden, T. C. (2001). Ancient Christian commentary on Scripture. Old Testament (Vol. 4, pp. 355–365). Intervarsity Press.