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Nathan the Prophet

To the chief Musician, A Psalm of David, when Nathan the prophet came unto him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.—Psalm 51:1, superscription

Michael Nekora

There are five Nathans in the Old Testament. One was a prophet who counseled both King David and King Solomon. He is frequently identified as Nathan the prophet—the Hebrew word means inspired man—perhaps to distinguish him from Nathan the son of David. It is possible David named one of his sons Nathan because of the esteem he had for this outstanding man of God.

We are told that the “first and last” acts of David are written in the book of Nathan the prophet (1 Chronicles 29:29) and that the “first and last” acts of Solomon are written in the book of Nathan the prophet (2 Chronicles 9:29). If this last statement is literally true, ­Nathan must have lived long into the reign of Solomon which would imply that he was considerably younger than David. Although our Bible does not contain a “book of Nathan,” some of what we have in Kings and Chronicles might well have come from him.

At about the mid-point of his reign the Scriptures say David is at rest. He thinks about where he’s living and where the Lord is “living”: “The king said unto Nathan the prophet, See now, I dwell in an house of cedar, but the ark of God dwelleth within curtains. And Nathan said to the king, Go, do all that is in thine heart; for the LORD is with thee” (2 Samuel 7:2,3). Without instruction to the contrary, any prophet of the Lord would support such a desire to honor God. But Nathan’s enthusiasm was premature. That night the Lord told Nathan to tell the king he would not be permitted to build the house of God. That would be a project for his son who would inherit the throne after him, though at that time no one knew that son had not yet been born (2 Samuel 7:12,13).

It seems a bit strange to be told David was at rest because the next several chapters describe wars Israel fought against various enemies of the nation. Israel won all of these wars. However, David did not lead the army himself; he delegated that job to his general Joab. He stayed in Jerusalem and allowed his mind to wander: “David tarried still at Jerusalem. And it came to pass in an eveningtide, that David arose from off his bed, and walked upon the roof of the king’s house: and from the roof he saw a woman washing herself; and the woman was very beautiful to look upon” (2 Samuel 11:1,2).


Bathsheba’s husband was fighting in Israel’s army; she was home alone. David is attracted to her and soon Bathsheba is pregnant by David. Acts have consequences, and the consequences of David’s terrible lapse in judgment were just beginning. Of course the ­palace staff knew what was happening. The account says David “sent and enquired after the wom­an” and that he “sent messengers and took her.” Yet he, like countless powerful people before and since, thinks any problem can be covered up. He summons Uriah, Bath-sheba’s husband, from battle and urges him to spend the night with his wife. Uriah refuses out of respect for his comrades still fighting on the battlefield. David becomes desperate. He throws a party for Uriah and gets him drunk. Still Uriah refuses to go to his own home and his wife.

What began as a terrible lapse in judgment progresses to an absolutely inconceivable level of evil. David decides Uriah must die. He asks Uriah to carry a sealed message to Joab. The message is brief: “Set ye Uriah in the forefront of the hottest battle, and retire ye from him, that he may be smitten, and die” (2 Samuel 11:15). Joab does so and Uriah dies. After a suitable period of mourning for her husband, Bathsheba becomes David’s wife.

Those around David say nothing. What could they say? He is blind in his need to satisfy his own desires no matter what the cost might be to others. He is the king, and kings generally do not limit themselves. If anyone around David were to say something critical, it would probably not do anything except bring one’s palace career to an end.

Prophets don’t worry about their careers. God sends Nathan to David to bring him to his senses. Nathan knows a frontal attack will not work because David is in full denial of any wrongdoing on his part. So Nathan begins by telling a story to the unsuspecting king. The story describes a rich man with many flocks and herds who takes a poor man’s only ewe lamb and kills it to feed a visitor. What does David think about that? “David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man; and he said to Nathan, As the LORD liveth, the man that hath done this thing shall surely die: and he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity” (2 Samuel 12:5,6). We can only imagine the thunderclap of shock that hit David when Nathan pointed at him and said, “Thou art the man!” Judgment has come from David’s own mouth: “The man that hath done this thing shall surely die.”

The law required a life for a life (Exodus 21:23). David may at that moment even think he is going to die, probably on the spot. But he immediately confesses his guilt, seeing for the first time the enormous consequences of what he has done: “And David said unto Nathan, I have sinned against the LORD. And Nathan said unto David, The LORD also hath put away thy sin; thou shalt not die. Howbeit, because by this deed thou hast given great occasion to the enemies of the LORD to blaspheme, the child also that is born unto thee shall surely die” (2 Samuel 12:13,14). The life-for-a-life principle was invoked, but it was not David’s life that was taken but that of the unborn child within Bathsheba.

We can commend David’s quickness to confess his sin and seek forgiveness. But acts ­always have consequences. Whether we do wrong blindly or deliberately, eventually there is a price to be paid. David was no exception. Although God did not take David’s life, there were many consequences he personally suffered because of his terrible acts:

1. You will never live in peace (2 Samuel 12:10). David had nothing but trouble from that moment until he died. Bathsheba’s grandfather, Ahithophel, one of David’s trusted counselors, later worked against him and even told ­Absalom he would kill David for him (2 Samuel 17:2).

2. Evil will come out of your own house (verse 11). In chapter 13 one of David’s sons rapes one of his daughters; then the daughter’s full brother murders the rapist who is his half-brother. As with David’s own sin, sexual immorality is again followed by murder, but this time in David’s own house.

3. Your wives will be defiled openly (verse 11). In 2 Samuel 16:22 his concubines were defiled by his son Absalom as a show of power in front of all Israel.

4. Bathsheba’s child shall die (verse 14). It did.

There are people who sow wild oats and who, after sowing them, seem surprised when they get a crop of wild oats. Lie and you will be lied to. Show no respect for others and others will show no respect for you. God does not insulate us from the consequences of our acts. If he did, we would learn nothing from them.

Psalm 51

David is called the “sweet psalmist of Israel” (2 Samuel 23:1). The Hebrew word rendered psalmist means “a song to be accompanied with instrumental music” (Strong’s Concordance). In other places this Hebrew word is rendered as songs or singing. David was a musician and was originally brought to the court of Saul because he was a “cunning” player of the harp (1 Samuel 16:16). Fifty-four of the 150 psalms are identified in the superscriptions as psalms of David. We are not sure how trustworthy these superscriptions are, though they are known to be quite old. In the English Bible they appear in fine print much like an editorial comment, but in the French Bible they are given verse numbers of their own like holy writ. This provides an extra challenge to translators if psalm verse numbers must be accurately translated between English and French.

We do know David wrote many of the psalms. Jesus identified him as the author of Psalm 110 when he said, “David himself saith in the book of Psalms …” (Luke 20:42). In 2 Samuel 22 we have the words of a song David spoke unto the Lord. It is an almost word-for-word duplicate of Psalm 18 which is identified as a “Psalm of David” in the superscription. It would be a part of David’s character, after ­going through this terrible experience, to turn to poetry to express his contrition of heart. The superscription suggests Psalm 51 was the result.

Space limitations preclude a verse-by-verse examination of Psalm 51. But in it David asks for God’s mercy and acknowledges his great sin: “Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me. Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight” (verses 2-4). David asks for what we all want: “Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from thy presence; and take not thy holy spirit from me” (verses 10, 11).


Sometime after Bath-sheba’s newborn died, she conceived and “bare [David] a son, and he called his name Solomon: and the LORD loved him. And he sent by the hand of Nathan the prophet; and he called his name Jedi­diah [Hebrew: beloved of Jah]” (2 Samuel 12:24,25). McClintock and Strong suggest that verse 25 could be read as “He sent him [Solomon] into the hand of Nathan” to be the child’s educator (Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature, vol. 6, p. 856).

Because David had a number of wives and concubines, the palace was a place of intrigue. Those who thought they commanded a following among the people were emboldened to seize power directly if they could not get it indirectly. Absalom was one who was so inclined and he possessed one natural advantage compared to the others: he was incredibly handsome. “But in all Israel there was none to be so much praised as Absalom for his beauty: from the sole of his foot even to the crown of his head there was no blemish in him” (2 Samuel 14:25).

Eventually Absalom seized the throne in a coup and nearly succeeded in overthrowing his father. But in a battle where 20,000 died, ­Absalom became caught in an oak as he tried to flee and was slain by the ever faithful Joab (2 Samuel 18:6-17). As time passed David became weaker and seemingly unconcerned about the question of royal succession. Adonijah, another of his sons, is the next to try to seize the throne. This time Joab allies himself with the pretender, a mistake that would later cost him his life. As Adonijah is busy making sacrifice with his close allies by the stone of Zoheleth in preparation for seizing the throne by force, Nathan discovers the plot and makes a counter-move: “Wherefore Nathan spake unto Bath-sheba the mother of Solomon, saying, Hast thou not heard that Adonijah the son of Haggith doth reign, and David our lord knoweth it not?” (1 Kings 1:11).

Nathan tells Bath-sheba to go in to David and have him confirm that Solomon is David’s choice to reign, not Adonijah, and that when the two of them are speaking, Nathan himself will go in to confirm it. The two of them carry out their plan, David confirms it is his intent to have Solomon reign, and immediately Nathan the prophet and Zadok the priest make it official. The strategy worked: “Zadok the priest took an horn of oil out of the tabernacle, and anointed Solomon. And they blew the trumpet; and all the people said, God save king Solomon” (1 Kings 1:39).

When news of this counter-coup reached the feasting ones at Adonijah’s “inaugural,” they realized the precarious position they were in. Fear seized them; those who thought they had all the power suddenly had none. Soon after Solomon ascended the throne Adonijah was executed as was Joab (see 1 Kings 1 and 2).

This intervention by Nathan the prophet to insure that Solomon would be king rather than Adonijah was the last we hear of him. He conducted himself with integrity and as a good ambassador of God. He did not shrink from doing God’s will even when others around him were quite willing to make any number of compromises to retain temporal advantage. Nathan stands as a paragon of virtue and worthy of emulation by those who likewise consider themselves God’s people.

“O Lord, open thou my lips, and my mouth shall show forth thy praise” (Psalm 51:15).