“You are the man!”
Nathan the prophet is best remembered for his dramatic speech to King David, confronting him about his adultery with Bathsheba. However, Nathan did far more in the service of God and King David than what is portrayed in this single incident.
So who was Nathan, the man who had the audacity to appear before a king and convict him of sin? It turns out, Nathan and King David had a history together, and a relationship that would continue for years to come.
Though Nathan may not possess a book in the Bible named after him, he was a significant biblical figure who played a major role in the building of the Temple and the delivery of the Messianic promise.
Who Is Nathan?
Nathan was a prophet during the reigns of King David and King Solomon. Little is known about Nathan’s early life, though some Jewish sources, like Avrohom Bergstein in this article, indicate he may have studied either directly or indirectly under Samuel. He was a court prophet, providing counsel to the kings. Nathan appears in the Bible on at least four occasions.
Where Is Nathan Introduced in the Bible?
The first time Nathan is mentioned in the Bible is in 2 Samuel 7:1-2:
“After the king [David] was settled in his palace and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, he said to Nathan the prophet, ‘Here I am, living in a house of cedar, while the ark of God remains in a tent.’”
David was addressing the fact that the Tabernacle, the center of worship and the house of the Ark of the Covenant, was a tent, whereas his palace was luxurious (cedar was considered a sign of wealth). Nathan replied, “Whatever you have in mind, go ahead and do it, for the Lord is with you” (2 Samuel 7:3).
However, that night God spoke to Nathan and told him otherwise; it was not His plan for David to build Him a house. Instead, God promised David the He would build him a house:
“‘The Lord declares to you that the Lord himself will establish a house for you: When your days are over and you rest with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, your own flesh and blood, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son… Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever’” (2 Samuel 7:11-14, 16).
This passage points forward to Jesus. God promised that someone from the line of David would sit on the throne forever; this is known as the “Davidic Covenant.” Since Jesus came from the line of David, this came true, and Jesus’ throne is established forever. Though it is not mentioned in this passage, 1 Chronicles 22:8 and 28:3 indicate that David was not chosen to construct the Temple because he was a man of war and had shed much blood, whereas God wanted the Temple to be established in peace.
David was overjoyed to hear this news from Nathan. However, the next time the Bible records Nathan delivering David a message from God, it isn’t nearly as joyful.
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Nathan Rebukes David
David lusted after a married woman named Bathsheba. When she became pregnant with his child, he had her husband killed and married her to cover up his sin.
However, this sin wasn’t hidden from God. Thus, the Lord sent Nathan to David with a message.
Nathan told David a story of two men, a rich man and a poor man. The rich man had a large number of sheep, while the poor man only had one little lamb that he loved dearly and treated like his own child. When a traveler came to the rich man, instead of slaughtering one of his own sheep, the rich man took the poor man’s lamb and prepared it for the traveler to eat.
David responded with great anger. “As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this must die! He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity” (2 Samuel 12:5-6).
Nathan replied, “You are the man!” (2 Samuel 12:7). David had everything, but still took another man’s wife.
David repented of this wrongdoing (which he writes of in Psalm 51), and Nathan passed along God’s message of forgiveness. However, because of this sin, David’s son with Bathsheba died.
Does Nathan Appear Elsewhere in the Bible?
Nathan brings another message to David after the birth of Bathsheba’s second son, Solomon, telling of God’s love for the child (2 Samuel 12:24-25).
Nathan appears in the Bible again in 1 Kings 1 in David’s old age when David’s son Adonijah conspires to take the kingship. Nathan and Bathsheba confront David about the issue, and David declares that Solomon should be made king, as promised. Nathan is instrumental in securing Solomon’s kingship, after which Adonijah’s cronies disperse.
The fourth son (third to live) of Bathsheba was named Nathan. This Nathan is mentioned in Luke’s genealogy as an ancestor of Jesus in Luke 3:31. It can only be imagined that this son was named after the faithful court prophet.
What Is a Prophet?
Nathan is called “Nathan the prophet,” or, in the Hebrew, Nathan the “nabi.” A prophet proclaimed a message given to him. Prophets spoke God’s truth to others, often delivering direct messages from God. During Nathan’s time, schools or orders had arisen for the proper training of prophets.
Often, the messages of prophets concerned both the present and the future, for example when Nathan confronted David about his current sin of adultery while also warning that David’s son would die. In Israel, when prophets weren’t being killed by people who didn’t like what they were saying, they were often greatly respected.
What Is a Court Prophet?
Prophets in the time of the kings might serve in the temple or places of worship, live alone, or even serve in the court of the king himself. Those of the last category are called “court prophets.” They were in the service of the ruler and were consulted about important decisions. Though corrupt court prophets would eventually become a major problem for the kings of Israel and Judah, Nathan was a godly and reliable court prophet.
What Happened to Nathan?
Nathan had a lasting influence even after his death. A “book of Nathan the prophet” is mentioned in both first and second Chronicles. Although this work has since been lost, there is some speculation that parts or all of it might have been integrated into the books of Samuel or Kings.
Three centuries later, King Hezekiah followed instructions left by Nathan concerning Levite musicians in the Temple (2 Chronicles 29:25).
Nothing is known for sure about Nathan’s late life or death, but apocryphal sources claim that he lived to an old age and was buried in his own land. A midrash of the Jewish Talmud teaches that two honorary seats flanked the throne of Solomon, one for Gad the seer and one for Nathan the prophet.
However Nathan died or spent his last years, he had a lasting influence even after his death. The story of Nathan and David is recounted numberless times in churches and Sunday schools all over the world, reminding believers about the consequences of sin, the beauty of repentance, and the greatness of God’s forgiveness.
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Alyssa Roat studied writing, theology, and the Bible at Taylor University. She is a literary agent at C.Y.L.E., the publicity manager at Mountain Brook Ink, and a freelance editor with Sherpa Editing Services. Her passions for Biblical study and creativity collide in her writing. Her debut novel Wraithwood releases Nov. 7, 2020. She has had 150+ bylines in publications ranging from The Christian Communicator to Keys for Kids. Find out more about her here and on social media @alyssawrote.