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Bible Commentaries

James Nisbet's Church Pulpit Commentary

2 Samuel 12



Verse 4


‘And there came a traveller unto the rich man, and he spared to take of his own flock and of his own herd, to dress for the wayfaring man that was come unto him.’

2 Samuel 12:4

The mixture of gold and clay of which our nature is composed is nowhere so strikingly displayed as in the constant tendency of men to conceive lofty purposes, and then to attain them by mean and sordid methods. The high impulse and the low self-indulgent method are both real, and this confused and contradictory humanity of ours is able to attain them both. We are always building steps of straw to climb to heights of gold.

There is real charity in the impulse of the rich man in Samuel, there is essential meanness in his act. He really wanted to help the poor traveller who came to him, but he wanted to help him with another man’s property, to feed him on a neighbour’s sheep. A great deal of our official charity comes very near the pattern of this ancient benefactor.

I. One of the truths about the advancing culture of a human nature is, that it is always deepening the idea of possession and making it more intimate.—There are deepening degrees of ownership, and as each one of them becomes real to a man, the previous ownerships get a kind of unreality. With this deepening of the idea of property, the idea of charity must deepen also. No relief of need is satisfactory which stops short of at least the effort to inspire character, to make the poor man a sharer in what is at least the substance of the rich man’s wealth. And at the bottom of this profounder conception of charity there must lie a deeper and more spiritual conception of property. The rich man’s wealth, what is it? Not his money. It is something which came to him in the slow accumulation of his money. It is a character into which enter those qualities that make true and robust manliless in all the ages and throughout the world: independence, intelligence, and the love of struggle.

II. This makes charity a far more exacting thing than it could be without such an idea.—It clothes it in self-sacrifice. It requires the entrance into it of a high motive.

III. The deeper conception of benefaction which will not rest satisfied with anything short of the imparting of character still does not do away with the inferior and more superficial ideas.—It uses the lower forms of gift as means or types or pledges. The giving of money is ennobled by being made the type of a Diviner gift which lies beyond.

—Bishop Phillips Brooks.


(1) ‘Detestable as was the double guilt of this dark story, we must still remember that David was not an Alfred or a Saint Louis. He was an Eastern king, exposed to all the temptations of a king of Ammon or Damascus then, of a Sultan of Bagdad or Constantinople in modern times. What follows, however, could have been found nowhere in the ancient world but in the Jewish monarchy. A year had passed; the child of guilt was born in the royal house, and loved with all the passionate tenderness of David’s paternal heart. Suddenly the prophet Nathan appears before him. He comes as if to claim redress for a wrong in humble life. It was the true prophetic spirit that spoke through Nathan’s mouth. The apologue of the rich man and the ewe lamb has, besides its own intrinsic tenderness, a supernatural elevation, which is the best sign of true Revelation. It ventures to disregard all particulars, and is content to aim at awakening the general sense of outraged justice. It fastens on the essential guilt of David’s sin—not its sensuality or its impurity, so much as its meanness and selfishness. It rouses the king’s conscience by that teaching described as specially characteristic of prophecy, making manifest his own sin in the indignation which he has expressed at the sin of another. “Thou art the man” is, or ought to be, the conclusion, expressed or unexpressed, of every practical sermon.’

(2) ‘Nathan puts his parable in such life-like form that the king has no suspicion of its real character. The rich robber that spared his own flocks and herds to feed the traveller, and stole the poor man’s ewe lamb, is a real flesh-and-blood criminal to him. And the deed is so dastardly, its heartlessness is so atrocious, that it is not enough to enforce against such a wretch the ordinary law of fourfold restitution; in the exercise of his high prerogative the king pronounces a sentence of death upon the ruffian, and confirms it with the solemnity of an oath—“The man that hath done this thing shall surely die.” The flash of indignation is yet in his eye, the flush of resentment is still on his brow, when the prophet, with calm voice and piercing eye, utters the solemn words, “Thou art the man!” Thou, great king of Israel, the robber, the ruffian, condemned by thine own voice to the death of the worst malefactor.’

(2) ‘The man who sneers at David does not know his own heart, nor does he dream how a fierce, hot breath might consume to ashes his own boastful superiority! The true man will profit by David’s example, and double the guard over his own conduct; while he will be profoundly grateful that even for David was there forgiveness with God. It is the parable of the prodigal in real life. It will send no man into the slums, but it will encourage many a man to come back or to call a halt in his course. There are scars upon your soul, perhaps; there are secrets that haunt and curse you; there are memories that torment you; but the gate of return is open, and He who pardoned David has mercy for thousands, and will make you whiter than snow if you come to Him with a broken heart.’

Verse 7


‘And Nathan said to David, Thou art the man.’

2 Samuel 12:7

David spoke to Nathan like a man whose conscience made no answer to the parable of the prophet; we see him so devout before his sin, and so penitent afterwards, yet apparently (for the moment) quite unconscious of his great offence; so that he needs to have his own righteous indignation turned backwards by the prophet’s word upon himself, to be plainly told—‘Thou art the man.’ We see here:—

I. An instance of one of the saddest effects of sin.—So long as it is willingly entertained by us, sin overpowers the conscience and destroys it—that, so long as sin is living and reigning there, the soul is dead, for the Holy Spirit is grieved and silent, or has departed from us; and, so long as this is the case, all hope of recovery or deliverance is at an end. Whatever our sin may be, we may yet be saved, if we find grace to repent of it. But the very first consequence of sin is a deadness and insensibility of soul; with every advance in sin our own chance of retreat is more and more cut off, and our hope taken away; it brings, as it were, its own judgment with it. This fact will explain why good men have spoken so strongly of their own sinful state in a way which may sometimes have seemed to us overdone and untrue; for it is a reward and consequence of holiness that, as men advance therein, the spiritual faculties become more enlightened; just as it is a consequence of sin persevered in that the conscience becomes darkened and dead.

II. Let us take this warning of the blinding power of sin to ourselves.—But who shall speak it? Who shall point to God’s Word, when they set before us our sins, or say to us, ‘Thou art the man of whom these things are spoken’? We must undertake to do this for ourselves. We are bound to read or hear the Word of God with this view, that we may apply it to our own state. When we hear our own sin denounced we are to say to ourselves, ‘Thou art the man’ of whom this is spoken; it is your own worldliness, or pride, or lust, or envy, or love of pleasure; it is your own carelessness or indifference, your own sloth or gluttony, or intemperance, your own impatience or uncharitableness, your own hard dealing or dishonesty, your own self-will or unbelief, which are rebuked by these words of the Holy Ghost: they are spoken for your sake, and to you alone, as though there were no other in the world to whom they applied.

—Rev. J. Currie.


(1) ‘Although David was severely punished, he was yet freely forgiven. The forgiveness of an offender may be granted in two ways: it may be without any conditions, or it may be granted quite as truly, quite as freely, and yet not so unconditionally. In the present case God had annexed a chastisement to His pardon and declared that it should fall upon David, and from that day forward every worldly visitation which recalled the memory of his sin brought with it a twofold blessing: it kept his conscience tender that his fall might be his warning; and it renewed the pledge of the full and final forgiveness that had been promised to him.

(2) ‘Too little attention is commonly bestowed on the severity with which David was punished for his sins. He was punished as long as he lived, and as long as he lived he repented of those sins and humbled himself under the consciousness of them. When Nathan was sent to David, he spoke five distinct prophecies, not only “Thou shalt not die,” but four others also, and these of a very different tenor; and all of them were alike fulfilled. To point out the fulfilment of these prophecies is simply to give a summary of the after-life of David.’

(3) ‘Nathan’s advent on the scene must have been a positive relief. How little the royal sinner realised that this simple allegory, borrowed from a shepherd’s life, depicted himself! But, as a flash of lightning on a dark night suddenly reveals to the traveller the precipice on the edge of which he is standing, so did that brief, awful, stunning sentence, “Thou art the man!” reveal him to himself. “I have sinned against the Lord,” sobbed out the king, and his confession at once gave him relief. As soon as the prophet had gone, he beat out that brief confession into Psalms 51.’

(4) ‘David had to suffer till he died. When Dr. Hood Wilson once went to visit a woman who was suffering very excruciating agony, some one by the bedside said to her, “Surely that suffering must be as bad as hell.” But the poor woman, who was a true disciple, and who knew what it was to have her sins forgiven, answered, “No, no, there is no wrath in it.” There is a good deal of experience in that answer—there is no wrath in the cup of the forgiven.’

Verse 14


‘This deed.’

2 Samuel 12:14

I. When we read the history of David’s fall, what surprises and perhaps somewhat perplexes us at the first is the apparent suddenness of it.—There seems no preparation, no warning. But if we look back to the first verse of the chapter preceding, we shall find the explanation there: ‘At the time when kings go forth to battle … David tarried still at Jerusalem.’ Had he been enduring hardship with the armies of Israel, these temptations to luxury and uncleanness would probably never have come near him; certainly he would not have succumbed beneath them. The first lesson from the story is that prosperous times are perilous times.

II. Notice the way in which sins are linked to one another, in which, as by a terrible necessity, one leads on to a second, and a second to a third, and so on.—The great enemy of souls is in nothing more skilful than in breaking down the bridges of retreat behind the sinner. Wrong may become worse wrong, but it never becomes right. Close walking with God is the only safe walking.

III. Do not miss this lessonthe ignoble servitude to men in which the sinner is very often through his sin entangled.—Mark how David becomes the servant of Joab from the moment that he has made Joab the partaker of his evil counsels, the accomplice of his crime. Let no man in this sense be thy master. Let no man know that of thee which, if he chose to reveal it, would cast thee down from the fair esteem and reputation which thou enjoyest before men.

IV. Note the darkness of heart which sin brings over its servants.—For wellnigh a whole year David has lain in his sin, and yet all the while his conscience is in a deathlike sleep, so that it needs a thunder-voice from heaven, the rebuke of a prophet, to rouse him from this lethargy.

V. In David’s answer to Nathan we observe.—(1) The blessing that goes along with a full, free, unreserved confession of sin, being, as this is, the sure token of a true repentance. (2) While he who has fully confessed is fully forgiven, there is still, as concerns this present life, a sad ‘howbeit’ behind. God had taken from him the eternal penalty of his sin; but He had never said, Thy sin shall not be bitter to thee. God may forgive His children their sin, and yet He may make their sin most bitter to them here, teaching them in this way its evil.


‘One brief spell of indulgence, and then his character was blasted irretrievably, his peace vanished, the foundations of his kingdom were imperilled, the Lord was displeased, and occasion was given to his enemies to blaspheme. Let us beware of our light, unguarded hours. Leisure moments may be more harmful than those of strenuous toil. Middle life—for David was above fifty years of age—has no immunity from temptations and perils. One false step taken in the declension of spiritual vigour may ruin a reputation built up by years of religious character. It was David’s plan to cover his sin; but God could not for His servant’s soul-health allow the crime to be glossed over thus; the abscess must be lanced that the flesh may heal properly; and so, at all costs, God will deal with us rather than allow sin unrepented of and unconfessed to eat out our vitals.’

Verse 23


‘I shall go to him.’

2 Samuel 12:23

Few, but big with meaning, are these words of the inspired prophet. No less than four scriptural and heart-cheering doctrines are contained in and taught by them.

I. Infant salvation.—‘I shall go to him.’ Whoever may doubt or call in question infant salvation, David believed it, and comforted himself by the faith of it. ‘I shall go to him.’ Whither? To the grave to him? No, no! What communion is there there? Where, then? to purgatory, as some teach? David knew not of such a place. Whither, then, was he to go to him, but to where he was, in heaven? How strange that any, with the Bible in their hand, should be found calling in question what the Holy Spirit so plainly teaches in the above Scripture. David, the inspired prophet of God, and speaking by the Spirit of God, says, ‘I shall go to him.’ Besides, special promises are made to children. No threatenings of eternal misery are found in the Word of God against them. Nineveh was spared for their sake. They are not subjects of a judgment to come. They have done no ‘deeds in the body.’ The Apostle speaks of a generation (infants) who have not sinned after the similitude of Adam’s first transgression. Christ says—and will not that satisfy every one?—‘Of such is the kingdom of heaven.’ Observe, He does not say that such will make a part of the kingdom, but that the kingdom mainly consists of such. ‘Of such is the kingdom of heaven.’

II. Recognition in the future state.—‘I shall go to him.’ But if recognition were not a fact, what better had David been in heaven than he was on earth? But David believed in it, and comforted his stricken spirit by it. And did not Christ teach it in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus; and did not the disciples know at sight Moses and Elias on the mount? And the wicked (we are taught) shall look into the kingdom and see friends and parents there. And shall we know less in heaven than we do on earth?

III. Personal assurance.—‘I shall go to him.’ Not a single doubt does he entertain of it. ‘I shall go to him.’ And is not this assurance the privilege (purchased by the blood of Christ) of every Christian believer? Adam in innocency enjoyed it, and do the blood-bought sons of God enjoy less blessing? Nay, says Christ, ‘I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.’ And, says the Apostle, ‘We have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but we have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father.’ And ‘the Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirits that we are the children of God.’ Besides, their faith, their repentance, their love of God, say it; and the Holy Spirit both in the Scriptures and in their hearts say it. ‘I shall go to him.’

III. Final salvation of saints.—‘I shall go to him.’ Some call this in question, but David did not. ‘I shall go to him.’ Were our salvation of ourselves, we might call in question the doctrine; but as it is wholly of God, He will perfect His own work. Hear Him Who cannot lie: ‘I give to My sheep eternal life. They shall never perish,’ etc. How can God condemn those He has pardoned and justified, or how cast off those He has adopted as His own? Hence, says the Apostle, ‘Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?’ ‘There is, therefore, now no condemnation to them who are in Christ Jesus.’ Well, then, might David say, and every Christian parent, mourning his or her infant dead—‘I shall go to him.’


(1) ‘It is certain by God’s Word, that children which are baptized, dying before they commit mortal sin, are undoubtedly saved.’—Rubric, Public Baptism of Infants.

(2) ‘The following well-known epitaph was placed on the tombstone of four infants:—

“Blind infidelity, turn pale and die:

Beneath this stone four infant children lie,

Say, are they lost, or saved?

If death’s by sin, they sinned, for they are here;

If heaven’s by works, in heaven they can’t appear:

O reason! how depraved.

Revere the sacred page, the knot’s untied;

They died ’cause Adam sinned;

They live ’cause Jesus died.”

That is, imputation of Adam’s guilt slew them,—imputation of the righteousness of Christ saved them.’

(3) ‘“I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.” The glimpse of the future expressed in these words is touching and beautiful. The relation between David and that little child is not ended. Though the mortal remains shall soon crumble, father and child are not yet done with one another. But their meeting is not to be in this world. Meet again they certainly shall, for “I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.” And this glimpse of the future relation of parent and child, separated here by the hand of death, has ever proved most comforting to bereaved Christian hearts. Very touching and very comforting it is to light on this bright view of the future at so early a period of Old Testament history. Words cannot express the desolation of heart which such bereavements cause. When Rachel is weeping for her children she cannot be comforted if she thinks they are not. But a new light breaks on her desolate heart when she is assured that she may go to them, though they shall not return to her.’


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Bibliography Information
Nisbet, James. "Commentary on 2 Samuel 12:4". Church Pulpit Commentary. 1876.

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