Nathan the Prophet
John Scarsbrook, Killamarsh, England
We learn from 1 Chronicles chapter 29, and from 2 Chronicles chapter 9, that Nathan the prophet recorded ‘the acts of David’ and ‘the acts of Solomon, first and last’. No doubt it would have been interesting and instructive if these records had been preserved for us to read, and we would maybe have learned more about Nathan himself. However, the Spirit of God, in His wisdom, has left us just three brief incidents in the life of this prophet of God, sufficient to show us a man who moved with acceptance in the courts of kings, who, when occasion demanded, was fearless before David and faithful to Solomon.
We are introduced to Nathan in 2 Samuel chapter 7. King David was well established in his kingdom, all his enemies had been subdued; the land had peace. It is then that David’s thoughts turn to the situation of the Ark of the Covenant, the symbol of the Lord’s presence with His people. For twenty long years the ark had rested in the house of Abinadab in Kirjath-jearim after its return from the Philistines’ land. David’s attempt to bring the ark to Jerusalem on a new cart had resulted in the untimely death of Uzzah, after which Obed-edom, a Gittite, a man from Gath, Philistine territory, gave sanctuary to the ark. Three months passed by and it was brought to David’s attention that the Lord had blessed the house of Obed-edom for his conscientious care of the ark. David realized that where the Lord’s presence is appreciated there is blessing, so no time was lost in bringing the ark to Jerusalem; this time carried by Levites and accompanied by sacrifices, ‘after the due order’.
Some 400 years had passed since the nation, under Joshua, had entered the Promised Land and still it would seem that the wilderness tabernacle was in use; as David expressed it, ‘the ark dwelleth in curtains’. As he thought about it, the inconsistency of his own comfortable, even lavish, lifestyle compared with the apparently primitive resting place of the ark, his conscience was stirred. A later generation would be challenged by the prophet Haggai for building their expensively veneered houses, while the house of God lay waste! We must remember that the scriptures have a voice to every succeeding generation.
Nathan, it would seem, had access, and a welcome, within the royal courts and David was happy to share his thoughts with the prophet. Nathan listened attentively and could not fault David’s reasoning, so he gave him his blessing. We may forget sometimes that not only are our private conversations heard in heaven, but also the thoughts and intents of our heart are discerned! What follows is one of the many night scenes in 1 and 2 Samuel, as the Lord makes known His mind to Nathan on the matter of David’s plans.
The message received by Nathan and relayed to David amounted to far more than a rebuke for his presumption. The reason given, but not revealed until 1 Chronicles chapter 28, was that David had been a man of war, involved in much bloodshed; the temple would be built by his son Solomon, whose reign of peace foreshadowed the Prince of Peace and the millennial reign of righteousness.
But Nathan’s message did not end there. The word from the Lord revealed the terms of the Davidic Covenant, a place appointed for ‘my people Israel’, a throne established ‘for ever’. Many years later, these same promises were confirmed to a young virgin in Nazareth concerning the Son she would bear, ‘the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end’, Luke 1. 32-33. How can any intelligent reader of scripture deny a future for a redeemed, restored and regathered Israel?
A few years pass before we again encounter Nathan. David consolidated his kingdom with crushing victories over any nation who would dare to raise a sword against him. Then, with his army in the capable hands of Joab, David chose to stay in his house rather than take the field against the Ammonites. What followed is well known, but for any who are not familiar with the tragic events involving Bath-sheba and her husband Uriah the Hittite, they can be read in 2 Samuel chapter 11.
Rumours may have circulated around the palace courts, yet only a few knew what had truly taken place. David, of course, and Bath-sheba, lived each day hoping that the guilt would lift and the shame would evaporate. ‘For’, David wrote, ‘day and night thy hand was heavy upon me’, Ps. 32. 4. Like the nagging pain of broken bones or a burning thirst, he longed to be cleansed, purged, washed.
Joab knew. Joab had sent a good and brave man to his death, breaking all the rules of comradeship in war, ‘retire ye from him, that he may be smitten, and die’; that would be offensive to Joab, professional soldier that he was. But then, he would say, ‘I was only following orders’. Joab’s knowledge gave him a hold over David. It also meant that David had lost the moral right to pass judgement on Joab for his callous vendettas; it was left to Solomon after David’s death to complete what David should have done himself.
Of course, above all, heaven knew. And it was by divine communication that Nathan was instructed to act. Several renaissance painters and later, have tried to portray the scene as Nathan exposed David’s sin. Invariably they show a white bearded, cloak enveloped prophet, with blazing eyes and accusing finger, thundering forth, ‘Thou art the man’, to a cringing, cowering David, with courtiers recoiling in horror. Somehow, I don’t see it like that.
I see the prophet, burdened with the message he bears, deeply conscious of the consequences communicated to him as, I judge, he seeks a private audience with the king.
Nathan’s parable is a masterpiece of diplomacy and discretion. He touches David exactly where he knows the impact will be greatest: his shepherd heart. The response elicited from David is exactly what Nathan anticipated. It was, however, rather incongruous to issue a death penalty for sheep stealing, whereas hidden in David’s heart was the guilt of adultery and murder by proxy. I see the faithful and fearless prophet, trembling with emotion as with voice lowered to a restrained whisper, he pronounced in measured tones to his friend, ‘Thou art the man’. But Nathan’s word to David did not end there. He detailed God’s gracious care and provision for David and the assurance that he could have asked for much more. Then came the revelation that every last detail of his sin was known and recorded; it would reap a bitter harvest for David.
Conviction smote the ‘man after God’s own heart’; confession quickly followed, ‘I have sinned against the Lord’. Cleansing was at hand, ‘the Lord also hath put away thy sin; thou shalt not die’. One more thing was needed: reconciliation. If Nathan’s task thus far had been burdensome, his last word was heartbreaking, ‘the child also that is born unto thee shall surely die’. Solemn lesson, there could be no reconciliation without the death of the son! A keystone in Paul’s masterful legal document to the Romans is found in chapter 5 verse 10, ‘we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son’. For David, the first restoration of a fourfold sentence had been made, three more would follow.
Twenty more years pass by before we encounter Nathan for the last time in the narrative chapters, and David is now on his deathbed. Intrigue, plot and counterplot consume the palace population. Which of David’s sons will ascend the throne? Two candidates take centre stage, Adonijah and Solomon. Adonijah had been fourth in line, but two older brothers, Amnon and Absalom, were now dead and, of Chileab, David’s second son, we know nothing save his name. So Adonijah had a legitimate claim to the throne. However, the purpose of God, made known to David, 1 Chr. 22. 9-10, was for Solomon, the son of David and Bath-sheba, to ascend the throne; a remarkable token of the grace of God.
Both contenders had their supporting followers: for Adonijah, Joab and Abiathar the priest; for Solomon, Zadok the priest, Benaiah, a man whose support would be coveted in any confrontation, and Nathan the prophet. When Adonijah makes his move to gain further endorsement, it is Nathan who takes the initiative. Aware of the very real threat to Solomon and Bath-sheba should the following for Adonijah be allowed to gain momentum, Nathan engages in a piece of pure theatre with Bath-sheba to draw the attention of the ailing David to the critical situation, 1 Kgs. 1. 11-27. Their plan has the desired effect and David, even in his weakness, confirms the right of succession to Solomon.
So, as David passes off the scene and Solomon takes the throne, the nation is blessed with the king of God’s choosing. Also, in Zadok, the priestly line reverted to the descendants of Eleazar as intended; the priesthood having become distorted somewhere in the chaotic days of the Judges, with Abiathar being a descendant of Ithamar. And, close to the throne was Nathan, a true prophet of God, as the nation moved towards the zenith of its years of monarchy.