Theology in 3D

How Could a Just God Not Judge David?

Layton Talbert | March 5, 2018
Old Testament, Theology

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 (Lev 20:10).

Moreover you shall take no ransom for the life of a murderer who is guilty of death, but he shall surely be put to death (Num 35:31).

Sounds pretty clear. So why (an emailer asked me) did David not die for his double sin of adultery with Bathsheba and arranging for her husband’s death (2 Sam 11-12)? Some may quibble over whether Uriah was the victim of murder or manslaughter; but even if it wasn’t murder, the penalty for adultery alone was death. Does God play favorites? Does he make random exceptions for some people but not others?

The first point to be made is that justice is not some objective standard outside God himself to which he is compelled to conform if he is to qualify as God. Still less is he bound by our fallen criteria for justice. His character defines justice. Moreover, any penalty he demands as a righteous requirement is always exacted—whether on the guilty party in this life or the afterlife, or on the acceptable Substitute. We too readily discount the validity of justice rendered in the afterlife. (Solomon corrects that misconception to some degree in Ecclesiastes 3:16-17 and 8:9-14, where he assures those frustrated by human injustice “under the sun” that there is ultimate justice rendered by God).

Yet an objection surfaces (as it did in my emailer’s reply). If part of God’s requirement is that the penalty be executed “by man” (Gen 9:6), then how can it be executed in the next life? We can talk of justice being done in the afterlife, but when the penalty prescribed is to be carried out in this life, then it is not carried out according to God’s own standard unless it is carried out in this life, right?

The divine legislation of capital punishment (Gen 9:6) authorizes humans to be self-governing (hence the specification that the sentence be carried out “by man”). The law, in other words, is an instrument of human government, not a requirement for God so that he is always bound to execute the sentence “by man.” Capital punishment by the hand of manis God’s standard for man, not God’s standard for himself. Otherwise there is a whole host of failures on God’s part to execute “perfect justice” since there are many murderers, adulterers, and other lawbreakers who are never executed by man.

But that still doesn’t address the core problem raised by my emailer. Human failure to execute capital punishment is one thing. But what are we to say when God himself fails to call for the execution of a capital criminal like David? Speaking on God’s behalf, Nathan said, “You shall not die” (2 Sam 12:13). As if to say, God does not require his own legislation to be followed in your case. Why does he get off? Does God take liberties with his law that are not allowed to us?

Three considerations. And the last one surprised even me when it occurred to me, simply because I had never applied it in this context before.

  1. The divine penalty for any and every sin is death; and that penalty is entirely, ultimately meted out in the divine realm—either on Christ or in hell.
  2. Repentance plays a role in this issue as well. Nathan could pronounce that David would not die because “God has put away your sin” (2 Sam 12:13). Clearly, David repented; and because he did the penalty for his adultery and murder was absorbed by Christ, because “in his forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed” and caused them to land on Christ (Rom 3:25). Repentance is the means by which all our sin and all its penalty are transferred to Christ.
  3. But finally, every capital crime unpunished by man in this life will be executed by Man in the afterlife. The Father has granted all judgment to the Son (John 5). And he either substitutes his own execution for the penalty or he, the Son of Man and Second Adam, will execute it on the unrepentant resurrected sinner in the final judgment.

We’ve probably not yet comprehended all the theological difficulties that may be resolved by the full, perfect, and eternal humanity of Christ.

Photo Credit: Isaac Talbert

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