THE FORGIVENESS OF DAVID'S SIN.
And David said unto Nathan, I have sinned against the Lord.
i Samuel xii. 13. Third Sunday after Easter, 1878.
The incident, to which these words refer, occurred at the most brilliant epoch of a singularly brilliant career. The despised shepherd lad, the youngest of a large family, starting in life without wealth, without connexions, with no external advantages of any kind, had raised himself by his abilities and his exertions to a height of power which none of his race had ever reached before, and which none after him succeeded in maintaining—his favourite son and immediate successor alone excepted.
A youth of bold exploit and persevering endeavour, spent amidst trials and dangers and vicissitudes the most varied—the hard and precarious life of an outlaw at one time, the not less perilous service at the court of a jealous and moody king at another— all these had passed away. The severe discipline of youth had been crowned with the triumphant success of manhood. He had sown in tears, and he was now reaping in joy. Called from the sheepfold to a throne, environed with personal enemies and political malcontents, yet by firmness, by courage, by a lofty generosity and a wise discretion, by the ascendency of a personal character which united in itself a rare combination of gifts the most diverse, he had silenced all opposition. At length rebellions had been crushed, and feuds were dying out. He reigned the sole and undisputed sovereign of Israel.
Nor was this all. In internal administration and in foreign conquest alike his vigour and ability had triumphed. He had wrested the last important stronghold from the idolatrous inhabitants of the land; and had built there a fortress and a city, destined now to be the capital of his own dominions, but marked out hereafter as the religious metropolis of the civilised world—Zion and Jerusalem, the most cherished of all cherished names, the holiest of all holy places, the monuments of a past history unique in the annals of mankind, the symbols of all the deepest thought and the fondest hopes of the human heart to the end of time, the earthly types of our final and eternal home. He had organized an army with the regularity and the precision of Macedonia or of Rome. He had developed a striking and magnificent ceremonial of religious worship. He had surrounded himself with something at least of the pomp and splendour of an Oriental court. A succession of victories had crowned his arms abroad. One by one the hereditary enemies of his country had fallen before him. Philistia, Moab, Syria, Edom, all were humbled. At this very moment he was engaged in his final and successful struggle with the Ammonites. Here too he was triumphant. From the Mediterranean to the Euphrates he had no rival.
And, if his eye could have pierced through the veil of the future, and the scroll of the world's history had been opened before him, he might well have felt a proud self-complacency, as he read the enduring effects of his empire and administration. To us at least, who can trace these effects through long centuries of the past, who see in this empire and administration the channel whereby the truths, which have moulded the thoughts and guided the actions of men in successive generations, were diffused far beyond the limits of his own race, till they flooded and fertilised the whole civilised world—to us, I say, even if we could close our eyes for a moment to the eternal issues of the Gospel, this reign of David will appear to have set upon the history of mankind a stamp deeper and more enduring even than the conquests of an Alexander, or a Caesar, or a Timour, or a Napoleon.
But not only has he been thus triumphant as a monarch. His private designs also have been crowned with success. At this very moment he is enjoying the fruits of a secret and cherished project which was carefully planned and has been prosperously executed. An object very near to his heart has been attained. The risks were great, but they have been surmounted. Obstacles have been removed ; publicity has been avoided; no scandal has been created. Uriah has been slain fighting valiantly in the hottest of the battle; and Uriah's wife has become the wife of David.
At this crisis, when success culminates and selfsatisfaction is complete, the blow comes. His tower of pride is crumbled into dust by some unseen hand. Henceforth he is a changed man. He is no more light-hearted and joyous and hopeful. He has tangled a coil of difficulties about him, from which he can never again extricate himself. He has loaded himself with a burden of sorrow, under which he must stagger through life, only to bury it finally in the grave. Troubles gather thick upon him, troubles the most acute and numbing—gross crimes and irregularities in his own family, the rebellion of his sons, even of a favourite son, annoyances and perplexities and trials of all kinds. He has placed himself at the mercy of an unscrupulous and arrogant relation— the agent in his stratagem and the master of his secret. Everything goes wrong henceforth. From this time onward 'the sword never departs from his house.'
And yet, at this very moment, when the greatness of the crisis is revealed to him, his thoughts do not turn to any of these things. Not the gathering storm-cloud, not the fatal ascendency of Joab, not the existence of a perilous secret, not the loss of respect and of power, not any of the thousand perplexities and troubles in which this one act may involve him—rise up before him now. One thought dominates his soul. He remembers only One, Whom he has grieved and alienated, One Who is invisible and yet very present, One—this is the terrible thought which overwhelms and crushes him—One Who is 'of purer eyes than to behold evil'. 'And David said unto Nathan, I have sinned against the Lord.'
The feeling, which is here concentrated in one despairing sentence, is amplified in the 51st Psalm. 'Against Thee only have I sinned, and done this evil in Thy sight.' 'Wash me throughly from my wickedness, and cleanse me from my sin.' 'Lo, Thou requirest truth in the inward parts.' 'Turn Thy face from my sins, and put out all my misdeeds. Make me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.' 'O give me the comfort of Thy help again, and stablish me with Thy free Spirit.' 'The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, shalt Thou not despise.'
The oldest tradition regards this 51st Psalm as the outpouring of David's soul at this crisis, when the crowning sin of his life was brought home to him in all its heinousness. The ancient heading in our Bibles so describes it. Nor need we question the truth of this tradition. To the thoughtful mind it will appear to bear the very stamp of that terrible crime and that deep penitential sorrow. It would be difficult to fix on any incident, or any man, in the whole range of history, to whom the language and the feelings would be so appropriate, as to the man after God's own heart in the first revulsion of spirit after his terrible fall. One objection only is offered to this ancient and wide-spread belief. The concluding verses seem to speak of a later period, when the city was rebuilding after the return from Babylon. But is it not reasonable to suppose that these two verses were a later addition to adapt the psalm to liturgical uses? Quite independently of any difficulties which theycreate in connexion with David's authorship, they are marked off, as it were, from the rest of the psalm by their inherent character. They have no reference to the struggles of the individual heart; they are a national appeal to the God of Israel. They dwell not on the sacrifices of a broken spirit, but on the sacrifices of burnt offering. They utter the language no more of penitent sorrow, but of confidence and hope. The building of the walls of Jerusalem, the offering of bullocks upon God's altar—have we not here the language of the prophets and priests after the restoration, probably of Ezra himself, adapting the penitential utterances of the Psalmist King to congregational worship, now that the Second Temple was rising, and the service of the God of Israel was once more reinstated?
But I need not dwell on this point. It is sufficient that this psalm represents the very spirit of David at this crisis—the absorbing consciousness of the presence of a Being of infinite purity and holiness, the deep sense of alienation from that Being by sin, the loathing of self and the yearning towards God.
The interview between Nathan and David is better known and better remembered than almost any passage in the Old Testament. The lesson which it conveys is a very plain lesson. The preacher can have nothing to say beyond what must have occurred to any one who has bestowed more than a passing thought on it. Questions indeed there are in connexion with the narrative, on which much has been written and spoken. This signal fall of one who is commended as the man after God's own heart, this sudden plunge into an abyss of crime, may well be the starting-point for much serious reflection on the mixed good and evil which divide the empire of the human heart. The direct consequences of David's sin, following by an inevitable moral order and embittering his whole after life —the disorders of his family and the disturbances in his realm—will furnish an instructive example of the laws by which crime works out its own penalty. This latter point may supply matter for consideration on another occasion. Today I would ask your attention rather to the view which David himself takes of his act. At the moment when the veil of self-deception is torn aside, when he sees his conduct in all its hideous deformity, one thought alone possesses his soul—one absorbing, overwhelming, painfully bitter thought—' I have sinned against the Lord.' 'Against Thee only—against Thee only—have I sinned.'
Was David right in this, or was he wrong? Is there indeed a Being of infinite perfection, before Whom our hearts lie open, to Whom we are responsible for our acts, against Whom sin is treason, and from Whom guilt is alienation? Or is this mode of regarding human conduct a play of fancy, a trick of education, the result indeed of habits of thought handed down through many generations, but nevertheless illusory and unreal? If so, the Bible is the falsest of all books; for this is the one leading idea, the one unbroken thread which runs throughout from the first Chapter of Genesis to the last of the Apocalypse. In other things it exhibits growth, development, increasing light, successive revelation. Material conceptions graduallygive place to spiritual. National privileges expand till they embrace all mankind. The doctrines of a future life, a judgment, a redemption, a Christ, grow ever clearer, as the dawn spreading on the mountains, till the sun arises and all at once the world is flooded with a blaze of light. But is the foundation, on which this imposing superstructure is built, altogether hollow and rotten? Is the very light darkness? This day of the Lord, is it night after all?
I should not dare to use such words, but that it is only possible to state the momentous nature of the issue by a strong contrast such as this. It is obviously (I need not dwell on what must be self-evident) it is obviously the most important question, which can occupy the thoughts of any person. There cannot be any compromise or any halting between two opinions here. The one view must be false, and the other true; and the view that is false—whichever it may be—must be utterly, hopelessly, incurably false. It is a question which infinitely concerns every person in this congregation, young or old, learned or ignorant, rich or poor; for it affects the conduct of every day and every hour. According as a man answers it himself rightly or wrongly, so will his career be; if wrongly, an entire mistake, a more than life-long failure, a dazzling failure possibly—for he may go down to his grave rich in wealth, in fame, in popularity, in friendships—yet a disastrous failure nevertheless; but if rightly, then full of strength, of power, of vitality, of truth.
And, when I speak of answering this question, I do not mean answering it in a mere mechanical way, but answering it morally, answering it practically. It is not the response of the lips, but the response of the life, which I wish to elicit from you, from myself, from every one here. I cannot think that anyone in this congregation, if the question were pressed home to him, could boldly take the atheist's side. His presence in this church is a sufficient guarantee so far. But there are voices abroad, which obscure, where they do not deny, the idea of God—and with the idea of God the idea of sin stands or falls; and not a few, though they may not turn a direct ear to such voices, do yet suffer their spiritual senses to be confused by the din which they hear around them, till they hardly know what they believe.
If any such there be here, I do earnestly entreat him to reflect on the danger of allowing himself to drift he knows not whither from mere carelessness, because he will not make the necessary effort and face the momentous alternative which rises up before him. There are many points on which we may be content to wait for more light. But this is not one. It cannot be a trifling matter, for it affects every corner of human life. It is a matter, in which beyond all others we are bound to have clear views and to act upon them. It is a matter, in which it is perilous to court doubt and confusion.
But, as I said before, it is not the answer of the intellect, but the answer of the conscience, of the heart, of the life, which I desire to evoke. 'I have sinned against the Lord.' 'Against Thee only have I sinned and done this evil in Thy sight.' 'Against Thee only.' Has this been the one paramount, absorbing, overwhelming thought with you, as it was with David, when you were betrayed into sin? Or were you occupied with other considerations? Were you sensible of the presence of God, or did your thoughts turn solely, or chiefly, on the presence of man?
The wrong deed is done. What then? What is the chief anxiety which occupies your mind? Are you vexed with yourself, that in one moment of recklessness you should have coiled a chain around you which you will drag about to your dying day? Do you curse your folly, that for a transient gratification you should have bartered your good name, should have sacrificed (if so be) the ambitions of a lifetime? Are you distressed and anxious, lest by any means the law should get you into its clutches? Is it your first concern to hide away your wrongdoing that, hiding it away, you may avert its consequences? Or perhaps it is a secret sin. Do you congratulate yourself on its secrecy? Alas, it might have been a thousand times better for you, that your fall had been published to all the world, so that its publicity had taught you its heinousness. And meanwhile of God's image marred, of God's purity outraged, of God's truth defied, of God's love—of your heavenly Father's love—scorned and trampled under foot, how much or how little do you think?
Or perhaps your thoughts rise higher than this, but still are arrested far below the throne of Gcd. You are really grieved that you have done a wrong to another. You are dissatisfied with yourself, because you have forsaken your ideal, and your selfrespect has been wounded in consequence. Nay, ask yourself, this ideal, what is it, but God's image and superscription stamped upon your soul, though the legend be worn and the features blurred, so that you fail to trace the identity? This wrong done to another, what is it but a wrong done to God—to God in the person of Christ ?' Inasmuch as ye did it to one of the least'—aye, the poorest, the meanest, the feeblest —'of these my brethren, ye did it to Me'—to Me and none other. And so we return to the same point. 'Against Thee only, O Lord, have I sinned.' 'Against Thee only.' 'Thou alone hast been wronged, and Thou alone canst forgive.'
'Thou alone canst forgive.' No interposition of priests, and no multiplication of sacrifices, can dispense with that direct, immediate, personal confronting with the Eternal Presence, that absolving, purifying, renewing converse with God, wherein the sin is laid bare before the Throne of Grace, and the burden cast down at the foot of the Cross. Surely David, if any man, would have had recourse at this crisis to the sacrifices of the Mosaic hierarchy, if the slaughter of bulls and of goats could have taken away sin. Yet the very thought is abhorrent to him in the moment of self-revelation. Not the blood of hecatombs could wash out one single spot from his soul saturated with crime. The sacrifice which God asked was far other than this. 'The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, shalt Thou not despise.'
You know well—each man knows well, if he will cast a glance within, what is his special danger. He can lay his finger at once on the dark spot which stains his character. He feels instinctively where the burden presses, which weighs down his soul. Is it eating away your spiritual life by a slow, continuous, almost imperceptible process? Or does it, like the sin of David, after slumbering awhile, break out suddenly in some flagrant deed, startling and stunning you in the midst of your false security? Whatever it may be, take it at once into the presence of God. Single out your special sin; realise its heinousness; loathe its degradation; feel how it shuts out the light of heaven from your heart . If you have shunned God's presence, shun it no more. Seek Him. Dare to be alone with Him. He, and He only, can put away your sin. He only can cleanse your heart, and renew a right spirit within you.
Only do not expect that you are undertaking a light task. An inveterate habit (if such it be) is not soon laid aside. A diseased heart is not easily healed. It will be a sharp, painful, probably a prolonged, struggle. Persevere and conquer. If you play the courageous part, if you are firm and unflinching, if in spite of weariness, in spite of loneliness, in spite of darkness overhead, you wrestle with the angel from nightfall till dawn of day, be assured you will not depart without the blessing. If without reserve you cry from the depths of your heart, 'I have sinned against the Lord,' then too without reserve the prophetic voice will answer, 'The Lord also hath put away thy sin.'
The sin itself; but perhaps not its temporal consequences. It was not so with David. In a thousand ways the temporal consequences may remain. But the clean heart and the right spirit will be yours. You will live henceforth a true life. You will be free, as you never have been free before. Is this an ideal picture? Strive to realise it. He who does so has learnt the true lesson of the season; for he has indeed died with Christ; he has indeed risen with Christ; he is indeed living in Christ.