Vacation Bible School: The Merciful God of David

“David playing the harp for Saul” by Rembrandt van Rijn

Mercy is borne in conditions of brokenness and is itself a breaking open of the self. God’s mercy and the human mercy that it inspires appear repeatedly throughout the bible and figure famously in the story of King David. There are few in the Hebrew Scriptures greater or more important than David: from shepherd-boy to warrior to king, David was as flawed as he was loved by God, which is to say deeply. When Saul makes an unlawful sacrifice in his battle with the Philistines, the prophet Samuel rebukes him saying, “the Lord has sought out a man after his own heart; and the Lord has appointed him to be ruler over his people, because you have not kept what the Lord commanded you” (1 Sam 13:14). That God directs Samuel to anoint the youngest of Jesse’s eight sons as Saul’s heir reveals much about the kind of god God is, acting through and in the smallest and most unexpected of places (1 Sam 16:13). That David, the man after God’s own heart, is flawed and imperfect and yet can return to God and enact God’s mercy reveals that it is possible for anyone to act with mercy, no matter how greatly separated they feel from God.

We can say two things about mercy and David: he believed in the abundant mercy of the Lord and he himself made mercy an example for his people. Taking the latter first: after Saul’s death, David became the second king of Israel. Once Saul saw the great love the people had for David for slaying Goliath, Saul would hate David and attempt to kill him for the rest of his own life. In those days, new kings would destroy the descendants of former kings to avoid any potential rivals. Yet David sends for anyone of Saul’s family still living so that he might show them mercy and kindness. He is told that Mephibosheth, the son of David’s beloved friend Jonathan and Saul’s grandson, is still alive, crippled in both feet. When Mephibosheth arrives at David’s house, he is afraid for his life until David tells him, “Do not be afraid, for I will show you kindness for the sake of your father Jonathan; I will restore to you all the land of your grandfather Saul, and you yourself shall eat at my table always” (2 Sam 9:7). Remembering that in those times sitting at table with someone was an act of social inclusion, this was a radical act of mercy on David’s part that would have repercussion throughout his kingdom. By welcoming Mephibosheth to dine with him as his own son, and returning Saul’s lands and household to him to that he would have a home and income, David enacted for others the kind of mercy he believed the Lord to show: one that transforms hearts and societies.

David knew himself to be a sinner. While he had many wives, he coveted Bathsheba, the wife of one of his soldiers, Uriah the Hittite. He slept with her, got her pregnant, and recalled Uriah home from fighting in the hopes he would sleep with his wife and think David’s child was his. But because Uriah respected the custom that soldiers should not sleep with their wives during times of battle, he slept on the steps of David’s house. David, seeing no other option but to see Uriah dead so that he could marry Bathsheba, had Uriah sent to the frontlines and his plan succeeded. The prophet Nathan rebukes David for these sins, helping him to see discord he has sown, and because David repents his life is spared but the scorn he has shown the Lord by his actions are not enough to spare the son Bathsheba will bear (2 Sam 12). The metanoia of David’s repentance weighs heavily on his heart and in his fervent desire to change his life he composes Psalm 51, singing,

“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy, blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.”

And although the child did not live for all of David’s prayer and fasting, David did not lose his repentant heart. While it is difficult to think of how the loss of innocent life can reflect a merciful God, in its context, the story shows a God who is moved with compassion to lessen the consequences for those who amend their ways yet not erase all consequence. Put another way, repentance for one’s sins and a belief in a merciful God will not be enough to shield anyone from sorrow and loss. To paraphrase Dante, it may be that God loves us enough to let us have the consequences of whatever it is that we have sought or created, no matter how disordered our love and that the loving thing would be for us to reap what we sow. With David we can see that even the face of sorrow and death we can still continue to turn towards God, sowing mercy in a world that we have broken.

Nathan reproaches David, David repents. (Paris Psalter folio, 136v)
Nathan reproaches David, David repents. (Paris Psalter folio, 136v)

Click to read other posts in Daily Theology’s Vacation Bible School 2015:  Mercy Edition.  

Christine McCarthy

Christine McCarthy is a Ph.D. Candidate in Systematic Theology and Ethics in the Department of Theology at Fordham University. Her dissertation work is on the intersection of Catholic Social Thought and family planning.  She received her B.A. in Theology with a minor in International Studies from Boston College in 2005 and her M.A. in Theology from BC’s Graduate School of Arts & Sciences in 2006.  She lived and worked at a care center for HIV+ indigenous women in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia, for five months in 2006 before returning to New York to work as a religion teacher and campus minister at an all-girls high school in Downtown Brooklyn.  In her spare time, Christine enjoys cooking, swimming, and watching documentaries.