Why Did God Spare David’s Life?

Posted on July 5, 2013


Gregory Peck as David in "David and Bathsheba."

Gregory Peck as David in “David and Bathsheba.”

By David Ettinger

 The account is shocking and beyond comprehension.

A famous king is bored one evening and decides to take a little stroll on the porch of his palace. It is a cool evening and the chilled air provides a refreshing diversion from the pressures of ruling a nation. The king also takes delight in the view his porch affords him: his palace is built high, and he can look down upon the homes.

As the monarch roams his pedestal, he is struck by a stunning sight: a fetching woman bathing, her bare figure illuminated by her servants who hold torches aloft in order to see what they are doing.

Bathing outdoors is a common practice during this time, for the era of indoor plumbing is still centuries in the future. Bathing like this several times a week under the cover of darkness is a routine exercise for the lovely lady, and she thinks nothing of it.

The king, however, is entranced. Though being married would dictate that he cast his eyes elsewhere, the ruler cannot help but to gape longingly on the stunning sight. His fascination leads to desire, and an idea takes root.

Summoning a servant, the monarch inquires as to the woman’s identity, which yields the fact that she is married. This crucial piece of information means little to the king at the moment. He summons the beautiful bather to his palace and spends the night with her.

A short time later, the woman sends a disconcerting message to the man she sinfully engaged with: “I am pregnant – with your child.”

The monarch is panicked. He sends for the woman’s husband, a courageous soldier currently employed in battle with his nation against one of Israel’s profusion of menacing  enemies. The king wines and dines the valiant warrior, eventually causing him to become intoxicated. “Go, friend,” the king heartily coaxes his guest, “you’ve been on the battlefield for many a week. Go home to your wife. Sleep in a soft bed and take pleasure in your delightful bride.”

The soldier, however, will have none of it. His reasoning is as follows: How can I enjoy my wife when my men face death every moment? Instead of going home, the great warrior spends the night sleeping among the king’s servants at the entrance to the palace, which proves to be yet another disturbing turn of events for the king.

He attempts the next evening to entice the soldier to sleep with his wife ­– and hence make it seem as if the woman’s child is her own husband’s – but again he refuses.

In full frenzied mode, the king sends the warrior back to the battlefield with a note addressed to the army’s general. “Put this soldier on the front lines where the fighting is fiercest … and make sure he does not make it out alive.”

Surely, you are thinking, God put this deceptive king to death for such a vile act of treachery.

You’d be correct in your sense of outrage, but wrong in your assumption.

Deserving of Death
david bathshebaYou probably recognize this infamous and tragic biblical incident. The king is David. The object of his desire is Bathsheba. Her husband is Uriah. And yes, David was responsible for all the above.

When reading the account of David and Bathsheba, we almost do a double take, so shocking are David’s sins in committing adultery with Bathsheba and then plotting the death of her husband. In fact, this portion of scripture is so stunning that it is not unusual to overlook one of the most extraordinary aspects of it. While the prophet Nathan pronounces judgment on David, he utters these incredible words: “The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die” (2 Samuel 12:13).


Did we read this right? Did a true prophet of Israel, speaking on a holy God’s behalf, just tell a murderer and adulterer that he was not going to die? This hardly seems right. At first glance, it appears as if the God of Israel is extending special favor to David for all the good he has done for his nation.

However, nothing can be further from the truth.

God abhors adultery and is unwilling to wash it away with a sweeping wave of His majestic arm. Consider this explicit condemnation of adultery in the Mosaic Law: “The man who commits adultery with another man’s wife, he who commits adultery with his neighbor’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress, shall surely be put to death” (Leviticus 20:10). In ancient Israel, there is no escape clause: you commit adultery, you die. And, may we add, this applies to the man and to the woman. (Yes, Bathsheba is also guilty.)

If the Lord is so severe concerning adultery, He is equally so regarding premeditated murder. God’s hatred of it predates Israel’s birth as a nation. Following the Great Flood during the days of Noah, as eight individuals emerge from the ark, God gives them a number of commands. One concerns murder: “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed; for in the image of God He made man” (Genesis 9:6; cf. Exodus 21:12). The Lord allows plenty of provision for accidental death (Exodus 21:13; Numbers 35:9-28), but when it comes to cold-blooded murder, there are no shades of gray. Though David does not directly slay Uriah, he is indisputably responsible for the innocent man’s death. David cold-heartedly planned it.

And yet, Nathan declares: “The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die.”

The question now is: Why? Why does God spare David’s life for not just one, but for TWO heinous sins?

“Why” questions regarding God are very difficult to answer with certainty, and this incident is no exception. We know that God can see inside David’s heart and has a justifiable reason for sparing David, but Scripture does not tell us what it is. Understandably, this causes problems in human comprehension, problems which can sometimes disturb us.

Also complicating the issue is that God has executed the death penalty on other biblical personalities for seemingly much smaller infractions, such as improper worship practices, theft, and lying. All sins, yes, but worthy of death when adultery and cold-blooded murder are not?

Who are some of these other personalities who died for their sins, and how can they help us solve the David-Bathsheba mystery?

Let’s put on our Sherlock Holmes attire, sniff out clues, and see if we can crack this case, or at least come to a reasonable conclusion.

God’s Bitter Judgment

A dramatic painting depicting the deaths of Nadab and Abihu.

A dramatic painting depicting the deaths of Nadab and Abihu.

Nadab and Abihu. These two young men are the oldest of the High Priest Aaron’s four sons (Exodus 6:23). It is important to note that Aaron is Israel’s first priest, as well as the High Priest. Throughout the first nine chapters of the book of Leviticus, the priests are given specific instructions from God on how they are to conduct themselves when serving the Lord. God is very, very specific as to when the priests are to enter the tabernacle, how they are to dress, how they are to behave, and how they should offer up animal sacrifices and memorial incense (which represents the prayers of Israel).

One of God’s specific commands regarding the offering of incense is this:

Aaron shall burn on it sweet incense every morning; when he tends the lamps, he shall burn incense on it. And when Aaron lights the lamps at twilight, he shall burn incense on it, a perpetual incense before the Lord throughout your generations. You shall not offer strange incense on it, or a burnt offering, or a grain offering; nor shall you pour a drink offering on it (Exodus 30:7-9, italics added).

The Lord cannot be any clearer: Do exactly as I tell you to do and don’t swerve from it.

However, something goes terribly wrong. Shortly following their ordination, this happens:

Then Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it, put incense on it, and offered profane fire before the Lord, which He had not commanded them. So fire went out from the Lord and devoured them, and they died before the Lord” (Leviticus 10:1-2, italic added).

We are not sure what this “profane fire” is. What is certain, however, is that Nadab and Abihu clearly acted out of ignorance, presumption, or conceit – possibly all three – and what they did was a complete departure from the previous two chapters in which the priests adhered to everything according to God’s commands. Nadab and Abihu shrugged off God’s instructions and did what was in their own sinful hearts to do. Their actions are clearly wrong. They had no right to do what they did. Regardless, their startling execution appears drastic. Okay, you are thinking, they did the wrong thing. They were probably full of themselves and thought they could do what they wanted. But did this sin deserve death? After all, it isn’t as if they committed adultery or murder. In the long run, who did they hurt?

Before answering, let’s dig in to another case.

Achan stealing some precious treasures.

Achan stealing some precious treasures.

Achan and His Family. It is now forty years later and Israel, under Joshua’s leadership, is ready to begin her conquest of the land of Canaan. Her first target is the fortified city of Jericho. Though Jericho is just a small city covering but a paltry nine acres, it is nonetheless a very strategic city. Jericho is the fortress of the Jordan Valley. For Israel to make its assault upon the cities that lay beyond, the Hebrews first must go through Jericho.

Just before the historic assault on the city, God gives Joshua this definitive command:

And you, by all means abstain from the accursed things, lest you become accursed when you take of the accursed things, and make the camp of Israel a curse, and trouble it. But all the silver and gold, and vessels of bronze and iron, are consecrated to the Lord; they shall come into the treasury of the Lord” (Joshua 6:18-19).

In other words, the Israelites are not to seize any booty for themselves. The only spoils of war which they may claim is silver, gold, brass, and iron, and even those are not for personal use, but are to be dedicated to the Lord.

However, the temptation proves too great for one man to overcome. In the aftermath of the battle, a soldier named Achan discovers “a beautiful Babylonian garment, two hundred shekels of silver, and a wedge of gold weighing fifty shekels …” He then “coveted them and took them. And there they are, hidden in the earth in the midst of my tent, with the silver under it” (Joshua 7:21). In so doing, Achan grievously disobeyed the Lord’s exacting instructions. However, compared to murder and adultery, Achan’s sin seems rather small. Yet, God sentences Achan, his family, and his animals to be stoned to death.

There seems to be somewhat of an inequity here on God’s part. In other words, murder and adultery are forgivable, but simple theft is not?

Let’s continue sniffing out clues.

The death of Uzzah after he reached out to steady the ark.

The death of Uzzah after he reached out to steady the ark.

Uzzah: Fast-forward 420 years or so. There is a man named Uzzah who is the son Abinadab, at whose home the Ark of the Covenant of God had been residing for many years. This is long enough, King David decides, and so he sets out to bring the Ark to Jerusalem. For this, he is to be commended. David knows that Jerusalem is to become the center for Israelite worship of Yahweh, and that the chief symbol of this worship system – the Ark of the Covenant – belongs in the new capital city of Israel.

With this in mind, David gathers his men and “set the ark of God on a new cart, and brought it out of the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill; and Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, drove the new cart. And they brought it out of the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill, accompanying the ark of God; and Ahio went before the ark” (2 Samuel 6:3-4).

All seems to be going well until the oxen pulling the cart stumble, jostling the Ark of the Covenant. Uzzah innocently (so he thinks) reaches out to steady the Ark and “the anger of the Lord was aroused against Uzzah, and God struck him there for his error; and he died there by the ark of God” (2 Samuel 6:7).

Uzzah … killed … just for trying to prevent the Ark from falling to the ground?

Why on earth for?

Upon further review, it is clear that David fails to follow the Lord’s instructions when it comes to carrying the Ark, which is supposed to be transported atop the shoulders of the Levites, NOT on a cart led by oxen (Exodus 25:12-15; Numbers 4:5-6,15). But still, did God have to be so harsh on Uzzah? Did Uzzah commit blatant adultery? Did Uzzah murder — or plot the murder — of an innocent man?

His death sentence hardly seems fair — especially in comparison with David’s atrocious actions.

Okay, hang in there. We’re gathering evidence and building a case, but our sleuth work is not complete quite yet. Why was David allowed to live? Let’s look at one more instance of God’s bitter wrath.

The deaths of Ananias and Sapphira.

The deaths of Ananias and Sapphira.

Ananias and Sapphira: Time travel another one 1,050 years into the New Covenant age. God has sent His Son Jesus Christ into the world to take away the sins of the human race and offer salvation to all who would accept His free given of forgiveness and redemption. Jesus has been crucified and miraculously raised from the dead, and has birthed a new institution on earth: the Church, which is to carry on the work of Christ until His glorious return.

This new holy body of believers is in its infancy and the followers of Christ are in good cheer. They display their love and zeal for Jesus by selflessly selling their homes and property, then donating the money they make to the Church so that it can be doled out to the poor and needy (Acts 4:32-37). It is an act of magnanimity that is shared by one and all.

Well, not quite all.

There is a couple named Ananias and Sapphira who see things differently. Like many of their brothers and sisters, they too sell a piece of property and give their money to the Church (Acts 5:1-2). But there is a hitch as Ananias “kept back part of the proceeds, his wife also being aware of it, and brought a certain part and laid it at the apostles’ feet” (Acts 5:2).

Why the couple holds back part of their earnings is not explained, but perhaps they truly need the money. If this is the case, it is quite all right. The money, as the Apostle Peter explains to Ananias, is the couple’s to do with as they please (v. 4). However, where husband and wife stray is in presenting the money as if it is the full amount when they know it isn’t. For this act of deception, Peter grimly rebukes Ananias: “…why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and keep back part of the price of the land for yourself? … Why have you conceived this thing in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God” (vv. 3, 4).

Upon hearing the dire reproach, Ananias falls down dead, a victim of God’s wrath. Several hours later, Sapphira, who was not present at her husband’s execution, echoes Ananias’ false claims and suffers the same fate.

God takes their lives for lying to the Holy Spirit. And yet, we still wonder: Was this really worse than what David did? Lying to the Holy Spirit is foul indeed, but is it a greater sin than murder and adultery.

Nadab and Abihu. Achan. Uzzah. Ananias and Sapphira. They died for their sins, but David didn’t die for his. We’re still having difficulty accepting this. At this point, let’s solve part of the mystery: why the six perpetrators mentioned above died. We’ll try to wrap up the David-Bathsheba conundrum a little later.

A New Work by God
So, what do Nadab and Abihu, Achan, Uzzah, and Ananias and Sapphira have in common that caused them to incur such holy wrath for seemingly insignificant infractions when others (i.e., David and Bathsheba) have committed much worse crimes and lived?

The answer lies in the timing – God’s timing. At the moment of all four infractions, God’s people are at the threshold of a new stage of His witness in the world.

Nadab and Abihu sin at the dawn of Israel’s priesthood. God is ushering in a new age of holiness, righteousness, and accountability to Himself. Nadab and Abihu, the two highest-ranking priests after Aaron, decide to worship in a way they see fit, which is in total conflict to God’s very specific and pointed command. If God allows them to get away with what they did, then He would be sending a message to the Israelites that they can worship God any way they choose. The Lord, however, will have none of it. He will determine how and when His people worship Him, and not them.

Achan strays – confiscating plunder following the destruction of Jericho – just when the children of Israel are to begin to conquer the land of Canaan. The Hebrews have been wandering in the desert for 40 years. God has molded them and fashioned them from a mob of slaves into a people set apart and made ready to serve Him. Part of His shaping of His people requires them to learn how to obey His every word. Speaking on behalf of Yahweh, Moses told the people, “…man shall not live by bread alone; but man lives by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 8:3). Achan – and his family (his wife excluded) who were complicit in his sin – blatantly disobey God at this crucial juncture of Israel’s history.

Uzzah commits his misdeed – reaching out and steadying the Ark of the Covenant – at the beginning of Israel’s settling into the kingship of David in the Lord’s appointed capital of Jerusalem. Uzzah goes astray at a time when God had recently transferred leadership of all Israel from the house of Saul to that of David. God will establish His presence on earth in this chosen city, and it is crucial that He be accorded the full respect due Him. Uzzah’s flippant action – though well intended – is a breach of God’s commandments He simply cannot permit. God’s swift judgment upon Uzzah is His way of warning the Israelites, MY way, not yours!

Regarding Ananias and Sapphira, the misguided couple sinned at the dawn of the Church Age, when the light of God’s perfect testimony shone the brightest. The Church would represent a departure for God’s chosen people; there would be no more “business as usual.” God’s people were to be holy and pure with no stain of sin to be found in them. What Ananias and Sapphira did could not be tolerated at this time of Church history. If God allowed them to slide by after lying to the Holy Spirit, He would be setting a low moral bar for His people to live down to.

One Down, One to Go
Okay, we’ve made progress. Our adept detective work has explained why God punished seeming “lesser offenders” – those who did not commit adultery or murder – and this is good. A little clarity is always welcome as it sheds light on God’s workings. However, we are still left with our original dilemma: How does God’s punishment of Nadab and Abihu, Achan, Uzzah, and Ananias and Sapphira explain the Lord’s apparent disregard of David’s dastardly deeds.

Let’s investigate further.

Was David the only man or woman in the Bible who received an alleged pass from the deserved death penalty?

The answer is no.

More Offenders

Adam and Eve banished from the Garden of Eden.

Adam and Eve banished from the Garden of Eden.

Adam and Eve: We read, “And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, ‘Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die’” (Genesis 2:16-17). Yet Adam and Eve eat – and don’t die; at least, not in the conventional way. God did not issue forth a bolt of lightning and fry them. Of course their sin will result in physical death (they would die of old age) and temporary spiritual death (a relational separation from God), but the merciful Lord provides a way out (the ultimate sacrifice of Christ). Yet, even at that moment, God chooses not to snuff out Adam and Eve’s lives, instead allowing them to live on.

Cain: Cain, the oldest son of Adam and Eve, in a fit of jealous rage, plots out and kills his innocent and unsuspecting younger brother Abel (Genesis 4). Without a doubt, Cain deserves death. What he did was no accident, but every bit as heinous as David’s arranged murder of Uriah. However, God refrains from destroying Cain, though he does sentence him to a life of wandering. When Cain expresses his concern that someone will kill him, God vows His protection (4:15). Just as in the case of David, the Bible gives no reason for God’s foregoing the death penalty that Cain’s nefarious act so richly warrants.

Israel: Throughout Israel’s history we see sterling examples of God’s refusal to wipe the nation off the face of the earth when the Lord would be perfectly justified in doing so. God tells His people innumerable times to not worship idols, yet they blatantly disobey Him. God eventually punishes His people with exile and death to many, but He refrains from exterminating them.

So, did God blindly pardon the sins of Adam and Eve, Cain, the nation of Israel, and David and Bathsheba? Absolutely not.

The Answer
The answer to this mystery, as Sherlock Holmes would have discovered had he been assigned to this enigmatic case, is to be found in one small but monumental word: “Grace.” Grace is the imparting of God’s favor where none is deserved. God forgives because He chooses to forgive. That fact that we do not comprehend God’s forgiveness does not mean that He does so arbitrarily. In His perfect wisdom and sovereignty, God punishes whom He will, and forgives whom He will. God tells Moses, “I … will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion” (Exodus 33:19). The Lord does not explain why this is, it just is. He is the Creator of heaven and earth and all that is in them; He need not explain Himself to anyone, particularly lowly human beings.

So, is God winking at David and Bathsheba’s sin? Absolutely not. For the record, the Lord does punish David. Nathan tells him: “Now therefore, the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised Me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife” (2 Samuel 12:10). The remainder of David’s life would indeed by misery as he would endure the death of three sons (Amnon, Absalom, and the one-week old infant born as result of the adultery), the rape of a daughter (Tamar) and another son’s (Adonijah) quest to assume the throne of Israel not intended for him while David lies on his deathbed.

Yet, God offers wonderful grace to David by allowing Him to live. This grace extended by God is something only He can do. God’s grace is also something humanity can never fully grasp this side of Heaven. Why God sees fit to kill Achan and his family, but spare David is a mystery, one that can only be explained by incomprehensible grace and the perfect will and perfect justice of the perfect Sovereign.

Does this all seem a little random and unfair to you? If so, consider this. The Bible tells us that, “… all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). The word “all” is huge. Every soul who has ever lived – yes, that includes you and all of your loved ones – has sinned (by act or “position,” i.e., being born into sin) and is therefore condemned and sentenced to “the wages of sin,” which is death (Romans 6:23). Yet God, in His grace, offers salvation. Jesus Christ came to take away your sins. All you need do is claim Christ as your Lord and Savior and accept His saving grace. Do you deserve this grace? Did God have to provide a Savior for you? Overwhelmingly “no!” on both counts. God chose to do this, as undeserving as you – and all of us – are.

So, let’s ask the question once more: Why did God spare the lives of David and Bathsheba, but sentenced Nadab, Abihu, and Achan to death? Why did He pardon Cain of the death penalty and execute Uzzah? Why did He absolve Israel from total destruction and strike down Ananias and Sapphira?

The Nadab and Abihu, Achan, Uzzah, and Ananias and Sapphira answer is easy: God killed them because they deserved to die – as did David, Cain, and Israel. Death is the only fitting punishment for humanity’s sin. Whenever God withholds punishment, it is because – in his infinite wisdom and mercy – He chooses to bestow grace instead.

Why did God spare David?

Why did God spare you?

Grace, and grace alone.

It’s His sovereign choice. Nothing more need be said.

Follow David Ettinger on Twitter.

Posted in: Bible teaching