The Prophet Nathan’s confrontation with King David in the wake of his abusive use of power to satisfy his lust and his murderous effort to cover it up (2 Samuel 11-12) is a vivid reminder in the biblical testimony of the possibilities and the perils of the human journey.
With a story about a rich man who takes a pet lamb from a poor neighbor to feed a guest, Nathan stokes the king’s ire and prompts his righteous reply: “Why, one who would do such a thing deserves to die!”
Then we picture the prophet putting his finger in the king’s face and saying, “Thou art the man!”
With no avenues of denial available, David accepts the indictment and, according to the testimony, seeks to live forward in repentance for what he had done.
The compilers of the testimony we find in the books of Samuel and Kings could easily have left this story out of the record and preserved an image of King David without this significant blemish.
But here, as in other places, we find Israel’s covenant testimony brutally honest in its portrayal of the human spirit.
If this were a story about a particular ancient king who let power, wealth and popularity inoculate him from sound moral and ethical judgment, it would be an isolated event of limited significance.
But its place in the testimony is a perceptive reminder of the vulnerability of those with power, wealth and popularity in all times and places to lose a sense of justice and compassion, even as those are claimed as core commitments.
The human journey is a drama of many acts, each with many scenes; in large ways and small, there are prophetic voices that confront misguided power, often at significant risk, with a “Thou art the man!” message that marks a turning point in the journey.
Nathan was a successor to Samuel, who had warned the people of the risks of having a king (1 Samuel 8) and was an early voice in a long line that would include Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Micah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, whose message was clear: Power that departs from the service of justice is contrary to the covenant, no matter how fancy and impressive its religious trappings are.
This theme is so pervasive in Israel’s covenant story that it is easy to think the primary challenge was the tendency of leaders to abuse power and to forget the foundations of the covenant.
But there is another dimension to this confrontation with the king that invites us to imagine a kind of sequel to the story.
In this scenario, Nathan leaves the king to deal with his guilt and remorse and goes to the temple, where he addresses an assembly of the covenant faithful and the culturally expedient, who gather regularly to pay homage to their status as God’s chosen.
He tells another story – this time of a people blessed with an amazing promise of a partnership with God that would carry them through unbelievable trials and would enable them to build a community that would steward the different gifts of people toward amazing accomplishments, not only of civilization, but also of peace, prosperity and justice.
But in spite of that promise, this people began to chase after other gods of more immediate reward – privilege, security, pleasure – and they rallied around leaders who personified those rewards and served as cheerleaders for their pursuit.
They found themselves in a place where their vision of who they were called to be as people of the promise became so blurred that they could barely see and make it out anymore.
His listeners said, “Why, a people who would let that happen don’t deserve to have that special promise they received!”
And Nathan said, “Thou art the people!”
The king in his palace and (in our imaginative sequel) the people in their temple were confronted that day with their actions – the king with his abuse of power, and the people with their enabling of that abuse – that resulted from a loss of vision about who they were as a covenant community.
Moments like this are decisive, for in them the decision will be made whether to continue a course of less than healthy consequences or to embrace the possibility of renewed vision of a foundational promise.
We might well wonder how close we are to such a “thou art” moment, and where we will go from there and who we will choose to be.
Professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University, a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and the author of Keys for Everyday Theologians (Nurturing Faith Books, 2022).