I was reading through the Second Book of Samuel a while ago when I came across this famous passage:
And the Lord sent Nathan to David. He came to him, and said to him, “There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. 2 The rich man had very many flocks and herds; 3 but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. And he brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his morsel, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him. 4 Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was unwilling to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb, and prepared it for the man who had come to him.” 5 Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man; and he said to Nathan, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; 6 and he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.”
7 Nathan said to David, “You are the man. Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you out of the hand of Saul; 8 and I gave you your master’s house, and your master’s wives into your bosom, and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah; and if this were too little, I would add to you as much more. 9 Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in his sight? You have smitten Uri′ah the Hittite with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife, and have slain him with the sword of the Ammonites. 10 Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised me, and have taken the wife of Uri′ah the Hittite to be your wife.’ 11 Thus says the Lord, ‘Behold, I will raise up evil against you out of your own house; and I will take your wives before your eyes, and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this sun. 12 For you did it secretly; but I will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun.’” 13 David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.” And Nathan said to David, “The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die. 14 Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord,[a] the child that is born to you shall die.”
(2 Sam 12:1-14)
Something about this passage tickled my brain at the time, but I couldn’t quite place it. It was only while I was reading the Book of Deuteronomy recently that I realized what had seemed off to me. The following passage in Deuteronomy is not easy to reconcile at first with the account of David:
“The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, nor shall the children be put to death for the fathers; every man shall be put to death for his own sin.
David is not punished for his sins, instead it is his family which must pay the price for them. Yet this is the exact opposite of how punishment is supposed to work according to God. Needless to say, I had trouble with this for a while. At first I simply assumed that the restriction on punishment outlined in Dueteronomy was applied only to human justice. God could punish as He willed because it was His right and because He could see in a manner that we humans could not. Eventually I came to a different, deeper (and I hope more accurate) understanding.
The punishment allotted to David’s family is out of line with that principle of justice as a lesson for us. It aims to teach us that when we sin, the consequences of that sin will fall most heavily on the innocent. Indeed, this is one of the central messages of all of Scripture. Because of his sins, Adam was cursed to die, and all of us have shared in that punishment:
7 And to Adam he said,
“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife,
and have eaten of the tree
of which I commanded you,
‘You shall not eat of it,’
cursed is the ground because of you;
in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
18 thorns and thistles it shall bring forth to you;
and you shall eat the plants of the field.
19 In the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread
till you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.”
Of course, all of us are sinners, which makes us just as guilty as Adam. So it cannot be said that we were not deserving of punishment, indeed even death. For death is the punishment accorded to rebels, and we are all rebels, for to sin is to rebel against God. However, there was someone who was punished for Adam’s sin even though He was innocent:
39 One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” 40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed justly; for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.”
Let us keep in mind this valuable lesson: all too often it is the innocent who pay the price for our sins.