This week, I would like for us to turn our attention to an example of prayer that was embedded within a completely different set of circumstances and that reflected an entirely different matrix of emotions. 2 Samuel 11 tells the story of how David—who had once been described as a man after God’s own heart—had so disregarded God’s law and God’s goodness to him that he committed adultery with the wife of a loyal and valiant soldier and then had that soldier killed to cover up his crime. 2 Samuel 12 tells the story of how David’s wicked act was brought to light and of how it was punished. Psalm 51 informs us about David’s emotional and theological response to the uncovering of his sin.
The bible does not actually use the word “pray” to describe David’s response to the uncovering of his sin. Yet, it is clear from how his actions are described, and from the words of the Psalm that he wrote, that prayer is the appropriate word for what he was doing. (It is interesting—and even important—that Psalm 51 came to be used in Israel’s worship, but it must be kept in mind that the setting ascribed to the Psalm is David’s own wrestling with what he had done.) David had serious business before God. He had really messed up, and he knew it. More importantly, a precious little life was hanging in the balance. David may not have had the view of children that we do today, but it is clear from all of the narratives we have that he cared deeply about his sons. David pleaded for his son’s life, and he demonstrated his seriousness by putting on the garb of a mourner and by denying himself the normal pleasures of life.
Clearly, this was not the only time that David prayed. He was a man of prayer, and his prayers helped Israel shape its practice of prayer for generations. But I think that this episode in his prayer life is particularly instructive for those of us who want to pray well. There are at least two reasons why.
First, David did not receive that for which he asked. He had to have known going in that it was unlikely God would change His mind, but he had to try. He owed it to his son. He owed it to Bathsheba. But he also owed it to God. By throwing himself on the mercy of his Lord, he was acknowledging both God’s goodness and his dependence on God. If he had done these two things in the moment of his desire, he might not have found himself in such a terrible mess.
Second, when the boy dies, David accepts God’s decision. His advisors are puzzled by his behavior, but David’s logic is unassailable. God’s decision is final, and there is nothing that can be done to undo what God has done.
Indeed, David goes a step further by entering the house of God for a time of impromptu worship. David does not rail against God for not hearing his prayer. He does not withdraw from God in fear and anger. He continues to lean into his relationship with God, and, in turn, he gains the strength and the perspective that he needs to comfort Bathsheba.
Sometimes we mess up. We may know that we deserve punishment, but, just like Cain, we may feel that our punishment is more than we can bear when it actually comes. We would do well to imitate David’s example. Running to God may be the last thing that we want to do, but it is the very thing that we need to do, both for ourselves and for those we love.