In 2 Samuel 12, the prophet Nathan confronts David concerning his sin with Bathsheba and pronounces a judgment against David. That judgment included the death of David and Bathsheba’s infant son. “Howbeit, because by this deed thou hast given great occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme, the child also that is born unto thee shall surely die.”2 Samuel 12:14. The fact that an innocent child dies—instead of the guilty pair—is troubling in light of what we know of God’s justice and His care for children. Even when we come to understand God better and accept some of His “harsher” actions, there is no relief from the visceral response we get when a child dies. Everyone should be hurt and appalled at the death of a child.
God does a lot of “uncomfortable” things that simply must be done in a world of sin. But the fact is that God never intended for man to be comfortable with sin and its outfall (which includes its punishment). We should be bothered by the effects of sin. Christians understand this, but it doesn’t make living in a fallen world any easier.
In the case of the death of David’s infant son, there are two main points of contention that can cause problems in our thinking. The first is that God did not deal with David harshly enough. But this accusation ignores the context of the passage at hand; God did punish David, and He did so threefold. David would never again have peace in his house, he would be publicly shamed for his private sin, and, at the apex, his son would die. Nathan outlined the three judgments:
“Now therefore the sword shall never depart from thine house; because thou hast despised me, and hast taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be thy wife. Thus saith the Lord, Behold, 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 neighbour, 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. And David said unto Nathan, I have sinned against the Lord. And Nathan said unto David, The Lord also hath put away thy sin; thou shalt not die. Howbeit, because by this deed thou hast given great occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme, the child also that is born unto thee shall surely die.” 2 Samuel 12:10–14
In an honor-based culture (as was the ancient Near East), some things were worse than death, like public humiliation. Dishonor would be bad enough for the common citizen, but, as God made a point of reminding David, he was no common citizen—he was the king (2 Samuel 12:7). So, although God did not kill David for his evil deeds, the punishments he received caused him to live in shame. David did not get off easy.
A second point of contention is that, when God sent the illness that killed the child, He was unjustly punishing the child. However, from God’s perspective, He was not punishing the child; He was punishing David. The king’s grief was so severe that his servants thought he might die himself: “David therefore besought God for the child; and David fasted, and went in, and lay all night upon the earth. And the elders of his house arose, and went to him, to raise him up from the earth: but he would not, neither did he eat bread with them. And it came to pass on the seventh day, that the child died. And the servants of David feared to tell him that the child was dead: for they said, Behold, while the child was yet alive, we spake unto him, and he would not hearken unto our voice: how will he then vex himself, if we tell him that the child is dead?” 2 Samuel 12:16–18
God’s intention in taking the infant in death was to punish David. After a brief illness, the child was gathered up into the arms of God—as all innocents are. This is not a bad thing. This does not exculpate David; when David sinned, he stole the potential of a life lived from his child, and that was a horrible theft, because life is wonderful, life is exciting, and God has a purpose for every life. But, using David’s other children as examples of how this child’s life might have played out, we can say that its possible God was preventing something worse. If this child had grown to reject God like his siblings, then his early death was his salvation. The death of a child will never feel right—and in no reasonable eyes would such a death seem right—yet it can be right when ordained by God. In this case, that was demonstrably true, since God caused the illness.
Finally, we should not confound the high and perfect standards of God’s Law with how its subsequent justice plays out through the filter of God’s mercy. God’s Law and His mercy work together.
They are decidedly cooperative, not mutually exclusive. In fact, if it were not for God’s mercy—if the Law just had its way with sin—then God would have to destroy every person who ever lived, and that would be counterproductive to His reasons for creating us (to glorify God and to enjoy him forever, as the Westminster Shorter Catechism says).
It is true that people will be held accountable for their own sins (Ezekiel 18:4). But this does not mean that God must strike them all down immediately. Instead, God brings them through a process called redemption—and processes take time. We see this in David’s life (Psalm 51). After he repented of his sin, David was restored to fellowship with God. God wants to work with those who are willing to work with Him, as was David, and He desires that all come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9). The Law plays a role in that we need the Law to clarify sin (Romans 7:7).
God’s mercy is evident throughout Scripture. “He does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities” Psalm 103:10. “It is of the Lord's mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not. Lamentations 3:22
Today’s criminal law works on the principles that God established. We spend our primary energies on the criminals’ lives, not on their deaths. Only rarely do we exercise capital punishment.
Some have the idea that Old Testament justice was swift, unyielding, and deadly. We declare the highest standards of our societies by writing down our laws. But it is difficult to obey these perfectly, which should temper our view of those who sin (like David). The law serves society—and it does not serve a society to kill its citizens, except in isolated, narrowly controlled cases. Executions consume a small percent of law-and-order’s resources today—and they are also rare in Scripture.
The concept of atonement existed even before the Law. Godly people were sacrificing animals long before Moses revealed the instructions for the tabernacle sacrifices at Sinai. But the Law showed us that atonement had a greater purpose in view: to restore the sinner to God and to the people. This is why the Law used the terminology of “clean” vs. “unclean”—not “alive” vs. “dead”—because death was not in view. Death is the last option in civilized legal proceedings.
We all deserve to die for sinning against a Holy God. But God’s purpose for David then was the same as it is for us today: He wants to restore us to fellowship, not kill us for our sins. This is why the Law had ritual atonement (and why Christ had actual atonement), so that we (and David) do not have to die because of our sins.
It is true that all have sinned (Romans 3:23), but if all sinners receive instant punishment in the form of physical death, then life on earth would cease. God lets people live, and sin is a part of life in this fallen world. Sin and temptation themselves become a trial, and we are better people for having wrestled with them. God had plans for David and Bathsheba—Solomon would be born to them next. He has plans for His children today, even when they sin. As we stumble along, we are also learning and growing and being sanctified.
“But grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and for ever. Amen.” 2 Peter 3:18. “Justice and judgment are the habitation of thy throne: mercy and truth shall go before thy face.” Psalm 89:14.
The lesson of David and Bathsheba’s loss is to never rush to judgment, rather let us instead rush to mercy.