“Set Uriah in the forefront of the hardest fighting, and then draw back from him, that he may be struck down and die.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ. The text for our meditation tonight on the Fifth Commandment is the entirety of the eleventh chapter of 2 Samuel, the affair of David with Bathsheba and the murder of Uriah. Dear friends in Christ: the message was put in terms of comfort, comfort to a commander who had lost one of his best soldiers in a seeming tragedy, a foolish attack. “Thus shall you say to Joab, ‘Do not let this matter trouble you, for the sword devours now one and now another.’” These things happen in war, dear Joab; do not fret. The sword devours the mighty along with the weak. Stuff happens; you win some, you lose some. Keep on fighting, my honorable general, while I stay in Jerusalem and prepare to take my newest wife to bed. Oh, yes, she’s the widow of heroic Uriah, faithful Uriah, dead Uriah; out of my mercy I will comfort and provide for the widow of this great warrior. These things happen; the sword devours now one and now another. Someone had to pay the price for my sin, and Uriah was too stubbornly faithful to cover it up by performing his marital duty, and so he had to die. One night of pleasure could’ve spared his life, but he refused, and so the sword must devour, as it always does. Do not fret, dear Joab, the sword has done its duty.
David understood one thing about Uriah; a man like him would never open a private note from the king to his general. The man was faithful, he was honorable, he could be counted upon to do his duty. He honored and exalted his vocation as a soldier. While David stays behind in Jerusalem, spying on and sleeping with the wife of one of his soldiers, Uriah will not be hindered from his duty. “The ark and Israel and Judah dwell in booths, and my lord Joab and the servants of my lord are camping in the open field. Shall I then go to my house, to eat and to drink and to lie with my wife? As you live, and as your soul lives, I will not do this thing.” He is a soldier; his duty, his vocation, is to serve and protect his fellow soldiers and the people who have sent him to fight. Even though he has shed more blood than most men, Uriah serves the Fifth Commandment. “You shall not murder. What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not hurt or harm our neighbor in his body, but help and support him in every physical need.”
In bearing the sword, Uriah’s vocation serves the Fifth Commandment, for he fights to protect the people of Israel from harm. Luther writes in the Large Catechism: “Anger, reproof, and punishment are the prerogatives of God and His representatives, and they are to be exercised upon those who transgress this and the other commandments.” Uriah bears the sword as a representative of God in accordance with the Fourth Commandment, there to punish evil and protect the good, just like any police officer, soldier, or judge today. Saint Paul teaches us, “[The ruler] is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain.” Uriah was not sinless, not perfect, he sinned in his vocation as we do in ours, but he was innocent of any crime; he served faithfully in his vocation. He had nothing to hide, nothing to be ashamed of as a soldier or as a husband.
David, on the other hand, had everything to hide. Where Uriah was faithful, he was faithless. He abandoned and brought to utter disgrace his vocation as king, as ruler of God’s covenant people. “In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab…” but he didn’t send himself. In violation of his vocation, in violation of the Fourth Commandment, “David remained at Jerusalem.” From there, the sins quickly piled up. An evening stroll leads to lust, the violation of the Sixth Commandment, “You shall not commit adultery,” then a violation of the Tenth, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife,” and more violations of the Sixth. In one night of sin, unrepentant sin, the man who was after God’s heart has given his own heart to Satan. Make no mistake, dear friends in Christ: the Holy Spirit will not dwell in an unrepentant heart. But God would not let go of David so easily. “The woman conceived, and she sent and told David, ‘I am pregnant.’” His sins have consequences.
The earthly consequences of our sins should drive us to repentance, they should drive us to cry out to God for mercy. But so often they don’t. Like David, we cover sin with sin; we spiral deeper into depravity. Repentance is not our first thought; instead, when the harsh light of the Law shines on our darkness, we try to obscure the view with more darkness. David, the faithless king, tries to deceive faithful Uriah, and when that fails, he condemns an innocent man to death. The king, charged with protecting his people, puts to death one who is in his care; he perverts justice by punishing the innocent for his own sin. The Fifth Commandment is violated to cover over other sin, a pattern repeated all too often in our world. There is no difference between Uriah in the Old Testament and the child in the womb today; both are killed to cover up sins against the Sixth Commandment. We bully and attack others to exalt ourselves. The innocent are raged against, insulted and hated, not because they are wicked, but because we are.
Even the guilty are not to be murdered in thought, word, or deed. Jesus warns us: “I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.” The Fifth Commandment condemns physical violence against others, but also any words or acts that could lead to violence. Your neighbor’s body is sacred; what God has made is not to be the object of your rage, whether he ‘deserves it’ or not. “‘Vengeance is mine,’ says the Lord, ‘I will repay,” and He repays only through His appointed instruments.
Even inaction is condemned by this commandment. When Joab had opportunity to help and support his neighbor in every physical need, he refused to act, and Uriah perished. When we see our neighbor in need, the Fifth Commandment requires us to act. In fact, the very definition of a ‘neighbor’ is one who is in need. Luther writes: “If you send a person away naked when you could clothe him, you have let him freeze to death. If you see anyone suffer hunger and do not feed him, you have let him starve.” The Fifth Commandment will not let any of us escape; not only murder but hatred, not only murder but failure to act, leaves us condemned with faithless David.
Take heart, good Joab, David had said. “The sword devours now one and now another.” Yes it does, faithless David, and the sword of God’s judgment especially devours the unrepentant. “The thing that David had done displeased the Lord.” Nine months later—nine long months of unrepentance—David would finally see the sword poised over his own neck. From his own mouth would he speak his condemnation and yours: “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die!” Nathan speaks to David what I this day speak to you and to myself: “You are the man!” As Uriah carried his own death sentence, so David declares his own penalty, and yours, and mine, and all who violate this commandment. You are the man, condemned by the Fifth Commandment; the light of God’s Law shines too brightly for you to cover your sin.
Uriah was not spared the penalty for David’s sin; the innocent died for the guilty. But David was spared; another innocent one stood in his place. “David said to Nathan, ‘I have sinned against the Lord.’ And Nathan said to David, ‘The Lord also has put away your sin, you shall not die.’” The first offspring of Bathsheba’s womb would perish; once again the innocent would die in place of the guilty. But the womb of Uriah’s wife would produce another son, and through him the line of the Messiah would continue, the Messiah who would be born of a virgin to stand in the place of David and all who have been condemned by God’s stern word of Law.
Like Uriah, the Messiah who came from the line of Bathsheba was innocent of any crime. But Jesus was more than innocent, He was sinless. He fulfilled every vocation perfectly, He followed every command. And like Uriah, the innocent one would die in the place of the guilty. Jesus died for David’s sin, and He died for yours and mine. Where we sought revenge, He submitted to the blows of His enemies without complaint. Where we had hatred, He had love for a world that raged against Him. Where we failed to help, Jesus was the Good Samaritan who nursed our wounds. Where we even took human life, from the neighbor who sinned against us to the most innocent of human life in the womb, He pronounces His blood-bought forgiveness. Jesus Christ died so that I can this day say to all of you: You are the man! A man or woman like David, condemned by your sin but forgiven by Christ. “The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die.” You shall not die eternally, for Jesus died in your place. You are forgiven, and through Jesus, you are pleasing to God. Take heart: The sword devoured Christ; it will not devour you. In the Name of Jesus, Amen.