Saturday, December 23, 2017

Forgiven and Forgotten?

A couple of fairly old quotes raise important issues about forgiveness:

“The confession should be real and full, and at once forgiveness and cleansing follow, though not often realised to the full at once. David was forgiven the instant he confessed his sin in the presence of Nathan, but later he wrote the 51st Psalm.”

“David confessed his sin and was straightway forgiven, but the Lord dealt with him governmentally in three ways: ‘the sword would never depart from his house,’ the child would die, and he would receive the same treatment he had meted out to others (2 Sam. 12). So that though sins are forgiven and forgotten in one sense, they are not in another.”

— William Hoste, Bible Problems and Answers (1957)

Real and Full

With respect to the first quote, a few thoughts:
  1. Hoste is quite correct that David was forgiven instantly: Nathan tells him right on the spot, “The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die,” a fact I didn’t recall until I turned to the relevant passage in 2 Samuel.
  2. That said, I’m not sure that passage demonstrates the necessity for “full” confession to God. David’s demonstrably wasn’t: his words as recorded are simply, “I have sinned against the Lord,” which is about as pithy and generic a confession as one is likely to get, though to his credit he singles out the most important issue, which he expounds on in Psalm 51. In fact, Nathan’s characterizations of the king’s sin (“you have despised me”, “you have utterly scorned the Lord”) are more specific than David’s confession.

    But we can hardly fail to note that David had also sinned against Bathsheba, Uriah and the members of his own household. He had sinned against the nation he led. He had been lustful, deceitful, selfish, murderous … one could go on at considerable length without exhausting the litany of badness involved. A “full” confession to God would surely examine motives and consequences, would it not?

    I think I might argue that while full confession is important with human beings, who may not otherwise understand precisely what it is you’re guilty of and whose willingness to extend forgiveness to you may depend on the apparent depth of your contrition, it is quite unnecessary with God, who knows both the condition of the heart and the actual extent of our guilt far, far better than we do. What is important is that the confession be real and that no attempt be made to deliberately withhold, cover over or excuse guilt. “He who conceals his transgressions will not prosper.”
  3. I’m also not so sure the 51st Psalm is a case of forgiveness not “realised to the full at once”. The introductory note to Psalm 51 (for which authenticity is argued at length by James H. Fraser here) reads “when Nathan the prophet went to him” which seems to suggest it was written almost immediately after the prophet’s visit, and might therefore simply be a fuller and more eloquent expression of David’s heart toward God in the moment Nathan confronted him.

    Even if the Psalm were written months or years after David’s rather terse verbal confession in front of Nathan, this Psalm is addressed “to the choirmaster”. It is intended to be sung by others, and sung in coming generations. Thus it is surely intended to be as universal and relatable as possible; and it may not be that every word of it relates specifically to the Bathsheba Incident and its fallout.
In One Sense and Not Another

Further, with respect to the second quote:
  1. I have difficulty with the thought expressed in the last line that there is any sense in which confessed sins are not forgiven and forgotten. It is possible to receive full and complete forgiveness in every sense while still having to deal with the ongoing consequences of sin, as David did.
  2. It’s preferable to look at each of the governmental consequences to David, however dire, as merciful chastening rather than tit-for-tat (“Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline”, “For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives”, “If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons”, and “It is time for judgment to begin at the household of God”.) The judgment David was to bear did not in any way diminish the forgiveness he received.

    This is evident from the words of Psalm 51: “I will teach transgressors your ways”, “my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness” and “my mouth will declare your praise”. David is able to say every one of these things while knowing he would have to live with the consequences of his sin. Does that sound like someone who thinks his sin remains unforgiven and unforgotten in some indeterminate sense?
The Best of a Bad Situation

David’s punishment seems very well designed to make the best of a bad situation. The Lord was simply applying necessary treatment to the wound David had inflicted on his own life:
  • Imagine if this child had lived and become David’s heir just as his younger brother did, succeeding him on the throne of Israel. The Messianic line would have a shadow hanging over it that could never be removed. David’s enemies might say the new king was actually the son of Uriah the Hittite, and who could argue? There were no DNA tests available to prove otherwise. Moreover, if the king were to escape the consequences of his adultery, what would the effect of his example be on the population? There was no good, constructive way for David’s bastard son to make his way in the world, and the Lord made his exit as quick and relatively painless as possible.
  • The sword never departing from his house? I’ve got to work on that one a bit. It may have something to do with the way reality is structured. Principles like “blood pollutes the land” are well established in the Law. If David himself was going to get a pass on the death penalty (for reasons which would become evident as he aged, walked with God and became the single most significant factor in the original temple construction), somebody else had to pay, and it might as well be David’s children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, whose behavior was more consistently deserving of the direct judgment of God. I’m looking at you, Rehoboam, Abijah, Jehoram, Ahaziah, Ahaz, Amon, Jehoahaz … and on down the line.
  • As for David receiving the same treatment he had meted out to others, I actually find that both touching and absolutely necessary. David is said to have been a man after God’s own heart. God’s purposes with respect to David were to bring him into ever-increasing understanding of his own character. Until David had been betrayed in the same way he betrayed Uriah and his own Lord and Saviour, he could not possibly truly understand how utterly he had scorned the God that had so blessed him, and more importantly, he did not know what it felt like to be treated that way.
The end result of God’s punishment of David was that David knew his God better than ever. Which, I suspect, was the point.

And why would God do that for David if he hadn’t forgiven him? In EVERY possible sense.

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