David’s sin regarding Bathsheba and Uriah undermined the testimony of David’s past devotion to God. He had dishonored God’s name, and now God, who had graciously blessed him beyond measure, publicly shamed David. Because David was a leader in God’s household, his behavior affected many others and required strict judgment (12:14); God takes sin very seriously, especially when it leads others to misunderstand his holiness.
David would experience God’s mercy, but not before he had experienced great anguish. Sometimes we think that David’s punishment ended with his unnamed son’s death (12:18). But David would lose two or three more sons afterward, many of his followers would die, and one of his daughters would be terribly abused. He had set the example by sexually exploiting one subject and killing another. Sexual exploitation and murder were soon to devastate his own household.
In 12:11, Nathan prophesies against David judgment from within his household, including the rape of some his wives (as he committed immorality with another man’s wife) by a friend of his, in public. This prophecy provides almost an outline for the rest of 2 Samuel.
The Bible is clear that suffering is not always judgment; sometimes even when it is judgment, it is judgment on a group, not on the specific person who suffers. In chapter 13, David’s son Amnon rapes his half-sister Tamar. It is important to remember that Tamar is innocent in this narrative. Yet, although David was angry (13:21), he apparently does not even punish Amnon! Whether that is because he recognizes that Amnon has simply carried his own example of sexual exploitation further, or because he was reluctant to discipline (as later with Absalom), he leaves a matter of justice unsettled.
Before the end of chapter 13, Tamar’s full brother Absalom avenges his sister’s honor by killing Amnon. Perhaps more than coincidentally, Amnon also happens to be the brother immediately Absalom’s elder, meaning that—if Chileab is uninvolved in politics (he is nowhere mentioned)—Absalom is also next in line for the throne by birthright (2 Sam 3:2-3).
Eventually Absalom returns from exile through the help of Joab, who knows that the king longs for Absalom’s return anyway (ch. 14). (Absalom later burns Joab’s field to get his attention, in 14:31. It works, but we are not too surprised when Joab later is unfriendly toward the spoiled prince, ensuring that he is quite dead in 18:14.) Absalom eventually leads a revolt that nearly destroyed David and his allies (chs. 15—18)—and broke his father’s heart. Absalom slept with his father’s concubines in the sight of Israel (16:21), despite the fact that this was against the law (Lev 20:11).
Once this revolt was quelled and David returned to Jerusalem in peace (ch. 19), he had to deal with another revolt in the wake of the previous one, by a Benjamite usurper (ch. 20). By the opening of 1 Kings, the son immediately younger than Absalom is plotting to seize the throne (1 Kgs 1). Though forgiven by God and restored to his throne, David suffered the consequences of his pattern of sin for the rest of his life.
This story provides a harsh warning for spiritual leaders today who forget their responsibility to live holy lives. It is true that we all have areas of weakness and failure and we cannot afford to throw stones at those who fall. Any of us can live holy lives only by God’s grace, who takes us through the dark times and teaches us deeper dependence on him. May we learn to draw close to him, and encourage one another in doing so. Not only for our own sake, but also for that of others, and for the Lord’s honor.