Author's Note: I wrote this story long, long ago. It only just occurred to me that I should upload it here.
The king sat and watched the dancers without seeing them, listened to the singers and storytellers without hearing them. He put onto his face a look of earnest concentration as his people strove to please him, but his mind and heart were far away. What was wrong with him these days? He had everything that could please him. His enemies were vanquished and no longer plagued his kingdom. The people in his land were content, and the land was fertile. His palace was sumptuous, and his servants served him for love. He had recently married the woman of his dreams, a woman who was the perfect queen in every sense of the word, and they had not a month ago had a baby boy. A smile flickered over his face as he thought of his beautiful son whose bright eyes already recognized him. Sometimes he would go into the room where his child slept in the middle of the night just to look at him and marvel over the perfection of his tiny body and the abundance of his curly dark hair, and his wife would join him, slipping an arm around him so he could press her close to his side, just where she belonged. But even then he knew something was missing. Something in him was empty and dead. His heart was numb, and he didn't know why. For nearly a year this depression had been on him, and nothing could stir it.
No longer noticing the entertainment put on for his benefit, he rose and left the room, walking straight through a symmetry of dancers without seeing them. Behind him the music died, and the dancers and musicians stared helplessly after him, wondering what was wrong with their king, whom they loved. The king headed for his wife's apartments and found her surrounded by attendants. When she saw his face, she sent her attendants away with a quiet word and came toward him, her hands spread toward him. He took her into his arms and kissed her with a desperation in his heart to feel something, anything, but she stepped away and looked at him with compassionate eyes.
"What is wrong, my lord?"
"I don't know," he groaned. "I just don't know. I may be going mad." He pulled away from her and strode out of the doors into the garden, leaving her with an aching heart. Could it be possible he was feeling as hopeless and empty as she was?
The king strode savagely through the beautiful gardens, switching at flowers with a long stick, little caring for the beauty he destroyed. When had this happened, this numbness that stole his joy, his love for his wife, his enjoyment for life? Even pain would be preferable to this.
An attendant came toward him calling, "My lord! My lord king!"
"What?" he snapped, not even feeling ashamed of his rudeness.
"My lord, a man is here demanding to see you. He says he is an old friend and bids me tell you to remember the establishment of your throne and the palace of cedar. We tried to make him leave, but he threatened us with your displeasure if his message was not conveyed."
The king wheeled on his servant. "He was correct! Send him to me immediately!" He had not seen this man in several years, but a good friend he had always been. Maybe he would be able to help him.
Soon a tall, thin man came striding through the gardens toward him. His hair was iron gray, his face brown and lined as old leather, his dark eyes bright and wise, like one who has looked into mysteries and understood them. The king greeted him with outstretched arms.
The old friend embraced the king and then stepped back to examine him. His eyes, sharp as swords, saw far more than the king revealed. "My lord, I have a story to tell you, a matter that requires your judgment."
"Come and sit with me on this bench. Would you like a cool drink? Some fruit perhaps?"
"No, my lord. I desire only to tell you my story."
"Very well." The king sent the servant away and sat down by his friend. "Tell me."
"There were two men in a certain town," the friend began, keeping his dark eyes on the king, "one rich and the other poor. The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup, and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him." He paused a moment.
The king wondered where the story would lead, thinking that the poor man knew well how to care for what he loved. His mind went back to his own shepherding days, to the love he had felt for his lambs when they were born, to the ferocity with which he had protected them. He gestured for his friend to continue.
"Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him." His glance out of his eyes was piercing.
The king felt the stirring of an emotion. Deep anger seized him and almost choked him for a moment. He finally shouted, "That man deserves to die! He must pay for what he has done! Who is he? I will attend to the matter myself!"
Nathan was silent for a moment, allowing David to feel the full import of the sin. "You are the man!" he said, and it was impossible to tell whether he felt anger or sadness or nothing at all.
"This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: 'I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Saul. I gave your master's house to you, and your master's wives into your arms. I gave you the house of Israel and Judah. And if all this had been too little, I would have given you even more. Why did you despise the word of the LORD by doing what is evil in his eyes? You struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and took his wife to be your own. You killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. Now, therefore, the sword will never depart from your house, because you despised me and took the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your own.'"
First shock filled the king's face, then understanding, then fear, and finally something like relief mixed with pain. He clutched the stick he still held in his hands until it snapped between his fingers as his face became white. Nathan continued mercilessly.
"This is what the LORD says: 'Out of your own household I am going to bring calamity upon you. Before your very eyes I will take your wives and give them to one who is close to you, and he will lie with your wives in broad daylight. You did it in secret, but I will do this thing in broad daylight before all Israel.'"
David slipped slowly from the bench and fell on his face on the ground. The numbness of his heart that had hidden the enormity of his guilt broke at last, and he was flooded with pain and the great gulf of separation from the One who had always been his best friend and closest companion. For nearly a year he had hidden his horrific sin and yet had not understood the silence and emptiness of his soul as he had turned away from his God. "I have sinned against the LORD!" he cried as sobs from the depth of his being welled up and shook him.
Nathan knelt beside him, tears slipping from his own eyes yet peace in his heart, peace he had not felt since the day the LORD had laid the burden of his friend's guilt on his heart. "The LORD has taken away your sin," he said softly. "Hear me, David: the LORD has taken away your sin. But because by doing this you have shown utter contempt for the LORD, the son born to you will die."
The king wept, and his old friend slipped away into the garden. Guilt and despair flooded around David as the weight of his sin settled on him and the gulf between him and his LORD seemed ever greater. Not half an hour later, a cry arose from the house, and a servant came running out into the garden crying out, "My lord! My lord! You must come!" He almost stumbled over the prone form of the king, and he started back as David arose with blazing, streaming eyes. "Do you know already, my lord?" he whispered.
"Is my son dead?"
"No, lord, but he is fallen deathly ill."
David turned away and went into the house to his son's room. The baby lay in his mother's lap gasping for breath and trying to cry, white and shaking. The king stretched out a hand to touch him but fell to the ground instead, crying, "LORD have mercy on my son! Bring my guilt upon my own head, but have mercy on my son!"
For seven days the king's palace was in an uproar. The king's son fought for his life while the king lay on the ground and wept and pleaded for his child. He ignored his servants and advisors who begged him to arise and eat and sleep, and it was feared that there would soon be two deaths to mourn. The pleas of the king were audible over the entire house, but none but Bathsheba understood why David's groans conveyed deep guilt and repentance. All knew that their king was a man who lived close to his God and any separation between them would be unspeakable agony, but none knew what kind of sin he might have committed that would bring about death of his son. For on the seventh day, the king's son died. Bathsheba fainted dead away with the perfectly still form of her son in her arms, and the king's advisors quickly hushed the mourning wails.
"What shall we do?" they whispered amongst themselves.
"We must tell the king."
"We tried to speak to him while the child was alive, and he would not listen to us. How can we tell him his child is dead? He will do something desperate."
They cast nervous glances at the king lying on the ground almost as still as his dead son, and as if in response, he sat up, stiff, thin, white, and haggard, his eyes deep pools of pain. "Is the child dead?" he asked in a voice raw from weeping and crying out.
"Yes, my lord. The child is dead," they answered and stiffened, waiting for some new outburst. It never came.
David felt something new in his soul. I have paid, he thought, and the LORD has forgiven me. Through him flooded the old, familiar touch of the presence of his God. I do not know how He could forgive me, why He would come to me again after I turned away and scorned Him. But He does. He got up and went to his apartments, startling his attendants by calling for a bath, lotions, and fresh clothes. He prepared as if on the day of his wedding, took up his lyre, and went from his palace to the house of the LORD. There he poured the longing his heart into a song. For now it was only the barest outlines, but later he would expand it and give it to the ministers of music. For now it said simply, Have mercy on me, O God, according to Your unfailing love; according to Your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones You have crushed rejoice. Hide Your face from my sins and blot out my iniquity. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from Your presence or take Your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of Your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
And as he sang it, he felt his plea answered. Though he deserved to be cast away from his LORD forever, he was filled with His presence. Though through his sin his son had died, joy was returned to his heart. Though his sin surpassed that of the pagans he had slain, his heart was washed clean and white again as if he had never sinned. Casting away his lyre, he fell on his face again and worshipped.
Some time later, the king returned to his house looking more like himself than he had in over a year. "Please bring me some food," he requested his servants, and they hastened to do his bidding, completely confused. He ate amidst the wails of the mourners, and when he was finished, he said to his attendants, "Speak your mind."
"Why are you acting this way?" they demanded. "While the child was alive, you fasted and wept, but now that the child is dead, you get up and eat!"
He realized how strange it must seem to them. "While the child was alive, I fasted and wept, for there was a chance that he would live, that the LORD would be gracious to me and let him live. What shall I do now that he is dead? Fast and pray that he be given back? Can I bring him back again? Someday I will go to him, but he will not return to me." And who knows, maybe the LORD will have mercy on my innocent son and let him see the light of His face.
So the dead child was attended to, and after the funeral David went quietly to Bathsheba where she mourned in her rooms. For a long time he held her in his arms as she wept, and finally he said softly, "Do you hate me, Bathsheba, for my sin that has led to our son's death?"
She turned her tear-stained face to him and whispered brokenly, "No, my lord, for it was my sin also and my guilt. It has crushed me for too long, and I think it has crushed you, but there is peace now on your face."
"Bathsheba, my sin was so great that I would have gladly given up my life for it, to be able to pay the smallest part of it, but it has been fully forgiven. The presence of my LORD is again with me, and though my heart is heavy for my child, the LORD sustains me." He tipped her face up and kissed her slowly. "I have sinned, and I think there may be more repercussions, but I think also the Lord will give us more sons." He kissed her again, and Bathsheba was comforted, and a month later when she knew she was with child, she knew the LORD had forgiven her and restored joy to her and to the king.