“For the want of a nail.” Does anyone remember that one:
For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.
I guess it could be called a “proverb,” a proverb telling that something seemingly small or insignificant can mushroom into something much larger and more costly, a proverb, but though not a biblical one, a proverb that has so many applications. One is its application to lies or cover-ups after the fact, to which two of the celebrated examples are known from the words, “Watergate” and “blue dress.” In the saga of David and Bathsheba, maybe that something seemingly small is not literally, but figuratively the horseshoe nail, is lust, though temptation will also do.
Last week, we read about God’s promise to David, the “Davidic Covenant,” as it is called, God’s promise that God would provide a “House,” what we would perhaps more commonly call a “dynasty,” a covenant that someone from that “House” would always rule over the people of Israel.
In today’s reading, just the first part of the story of David and Bathsheba, we see the “nail” which is the beginning of trouble for that “House”; we see it as David stares down from his roof and spots a woman bathing. Call it “lust” or call it “temptation,” David’s yielding to it represents the “want of a nail” that will set off not a breaking of God’s promise, but lots of trouble, family trouble and otherwise, for the House of David.
This is a great story with at least one powerful message too easily lost in the overall sordidness of David’s conduct as he yields to that lust or temptation which results in Bathsheba’s pregnancy, and then David essentially conspires to cover up from her husband, Uriah, by making certain he will be killed in battle; covers up through murder.
We’ll encounter more of this story in coming weeks, including things as dramatic as the death of a son of David’s, which should probably upset us, since it is taken as punishment for David though the son is innocent, but despite David’s sinfulness, we should notice that God never renounces God’s promise, never renounces the Davidic covenant . . . nor does God withdraw God’s love from David. And as I have said each time that we have encountered this story, and I owe the clarity with which I believe I see this message, to about the only sermon of another minister that I can remember, a sermon by John Buchanan of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, “If God could love David despite the gravity of his sins, do not doubt but that God loves you despite your sins.”
But let me phrase that another way: David’s sins put God’s love on trial, put God’s love to the test . . . and God passed the test; God did not renounce God’s love for David.
David’s sins — my sins — put God’s love to the test, but God did not renounce David and, thanks be to God, God does not renounce me — nor will God renounce you, despite your sins.
But as we ourselves experience tests and trials, do we ever renounce God?
In a few moments, once again we shall recite from memory the Lord’s Prayer and its line, “And lead us not into temptation.” But not all translations from the Greek into English of the Gospel According to Matthew, where we first encounter this prayer, translate the Greek word, peirasmo, as temptation. The New Revised Standard Version, my default translation for both the Old and New Testaments, for instance, quotes Jesus as saying:
And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from [the] evil [one]. [italics added]
But what does “time of trial” actually mean? While Jesus did not speak Greek, His words as handed down to us are in Greek, and that word ascribed to him, peirasmo, that we interpret as temptation has the definition:
try to learn the nature or character of someone or something by submitting such to thorough and extensive testing.
It is not an often used word in the Bible, though it is used in two of the epistles in an interesting way. In 2 Corinthians, Paul writes:
Examine yourselves to see whether you are living in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless, indeed, you fail to meet the test!
And in the Epistle known as 1 Peter, the writer states:
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.
In other words, the “time of trial” is a test of faith, a test of our faith, or a test of our commitment to that faith.
Well, how does this have anything to do with the figurative nail of David’s lust — or with the Lord’s Prayer, or with you or me?
Allow me to suggest this: We do encounter temptation, temptations which might prove to be a nail in our own lives, so let us consider the nature of any such temptation, and ask whether it calls us to violate a tenet of our faith. At least if we can accept the timeline in the Bible, Moses’s receiving the Ten Commandments preceded David’s time by two centuries, so David’s taking up with the wife of one of his generals did and does violate a tenet of his and our faiths: the seventh commandment, against adultery; and his arranging the general’s death violated the sixth of those Ten Commandments, and was unimaginably beyond the pale. Both those violations arose from that one little nail, that lust and temptation.
Not all temptations pose the risk of being that proverbial nail that puts us in danger of violating our faith or God’s laws. Yielding to the temptation to take an extra chocolate chip cookie at fellowship might not be good for our waistlines or even for our health, and may even be unfair to the pastor, who might himself want that cookie if it is the last one remaining, but yielding to the temptation to eat it does call into question our allegiance to God and God’s laws.
But that to which David yielded is of that magnitude, and has taken down a number of top corporate executives these past months, and from the specifics of some of these cases, some of those who yielded to temptation were people of faith, people who had probably said many times: And lead us not into temptation.
Putting it bluntly, if And lead us not into temptation is indeed that for which we have prayed, God has not always favored us; temptation is always there.
Temptation is always there, and like David, sometimes we yield to it. But does this mean that we have failed the time of trial? Have we failed the examination to see whether we are at least seeking to live true to our faith?
That’s a tough one, but not impossible. In “examination” terms, we certainly blew that particular question, maybe flunked a pop quiz, but I think the main time of trial and the examination are asking: Are you abandoning your faith because you cannot live up to, or it takes too much effort to live up to, it?
The historical context in which the New Testament — including the Gospel according to Matthew — was written is relevant. It was a time when some Christians were being persecuted and even thrown into the ring to die. I believe it was these persecutions that were the center of the idea of time of trial, and the time of trial was when these Christians were called upon to renounce their faith or die.
We, here, do not face those threats — though there are certainly Christians in the world who do, — but precisely because we do not, because our trials are not so severe, I would hope that we do not let our failures to resist temptation cause us to say, “What the heck,” thrown up our hands, and decide it is just too tough to be a Christian.
I doubt any of us has or will commit murder, as did David, but I am certain that some of us have or might yet commit adultery, as did David, as did some of those executives. We are no more perfect than he or they.
But as we shall read on a future Sunday, when, and it was surprisingly not immediately, when David recognized that in yielding to temptation with Bathsheba, he had violated God’s rules (and sinned against another human being, Uriah, though there is certainly a historical sexism at work here), he did repent.
And our repentance, when we do fail, if we are sincere, is how we pass the exam even when we failed the pop quiz.
Sinfully yielding to temptation is of course sin; none of us should delude ourselves that it is not. But God through Christ has forgiven our sin. If God could love David, he can love us. If we can continue to believe that and to try to follow the way, even though we are led into temptation, we will survive those times of trial.
Oh God, if we cannot avoid encountering temptation, please give us strength to resist; if we fail to resist, let us not decide that seeking to follow you is not worth the effort; please accept the pleas of our guilt, and let us give thanks for the forgiveness that comes through your Son, in whose name we pray. Amen.