How dare God kill David's child... but let David live!

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture

Question: How can a just God strike the illegitimate child of David and Bathsheba to death (2 Samuel 12:15) and allow David — who had committed first-degree murder on multiple accounts (Uriah and several other soldiers were killed by his scheme), lied, committed adultery, etc. — to live? This is a violation of Ezekiel 18, Deuteronomy 24:16 and other passages which God says people will be held accountable for their own sins. It appears not to be true in this case. The innocent unborn child was put to death by God. Please explain this one.

Answer: Greetings friend. I am glad to see that you are sticking up for both God’s justice and for the innocents in the world. But you are putting yourself through some unnecessary pain with your examination of these issues, so allow me to clarify a few things… but first, be warned: even when people come to a mature understanding of God — that is, when they come to the point where they begin to accept some of his harsher actions as justifiable — there is still no relief from the kick in the gut you feel when a child dies — in the Bible or anywhere else (… and may it be so until the Lord returns). Everyone should be hurt and appalled at the death of an innocent.

That being said, God does a lot of “uncomfortable” things that simply must be done in a world of sin… and here’s the thing: God never intended for us to be comfortable with sin and its outfall (which includes its punishment). Mature Christians understand this… and some days, the job is just to suck-it-up and move on.

So, now that I have shifted our orientation a bit (and our expectations, too… I hope), I will turn my focus to three aspects of your question that are causing your problems — and the first is that you are dealing with your anger at God for killing the child by accusing him of not dealing with David harshly enough… but just take a step back here. God did indeed punish David… and he did so threefold: David would never again have peace in his house; he would be publicly shamed for his private sin — and at the apex, his son would die.

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.’ “This is what the Lord says: ‘Out of your own household I am going to bring calamity on you. Before your very eyes I will take your wives and give them to one who is close to you, and he will sleep with your wives in broad daylight. You did it in secret, but I will do this thing in broad daylight before all Israel.’ ” Then David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.” Nathan replied, “The Lord has taken away your sin. You are not going to die. But because by doing this you have shown utter contempt for the Lord, the son born to you will die.” (2 Samuel 12:10–14, NIV, emphases mine)

In an honor-based culture (as was the Ancient Near East — and as is not in the USA), some things were worse than death… like public humiliation. This would be bad enough for the common citizen. But — and God made a point of reminding David… he was no common citizen — he was the king. A common cause of suicides today is when secret sins come to light and the person cannot bear the shame. You see, dying is relatively easy… it’s the living that’s hard. So, although God did not kill David for his evil deeds, the punishments he received were worse. David did not get off easy.

My second point is that when God sent the illness that killed the child, this did not punish the child; it punished David… I mean… just look at him. His servants thought he might die from the grief!

David pleaded with God for the child. He fasted and spent the nights lying in sackcloth on the ground. The elders of his household stood beside him to get him up from the ground, but he refused, and he would not eat any food with them. On the seventh day the child died. David’s attendants were afraid to tell him that the child was dead, for they thought, “While the child was still living, he wouldn’t listen to us when we spoke to him. How can we now tell him the child is dead? He may do something desperate.” (2 Samuel 12:16–18, NIV)

You have the cause-and-effect and God’s intention flipped around. This child was — as all innocents are — gathered up into the arms of God. This is not a bad thing. Now, don’t misunderstand me; when David sinned this sin, he stole the potential of a life lived from his child — and I hate the fact that he did that… because life is wonderful, and life is exciting… and God has a purpose for every life. But if you look to David’s other children as examples of how this child’s life might have played out, maybe God knew something we do not. If this child would have grown to reject God like his siblings, then his early death was his salvation. So, although the death of a child will never feel right… and in no reasonable eyes would this seem right… it would indeed be right when done by God — and in this case, that was demonstrably true: God caused the illness.

My final point is that you are confounding the high and perfect standards of God’s law with how its subsequent justice plays out through the filter of God’s mercy. God’s law and his mercy work together. They are decidedly cooperative, not mutually exclusive. In fact, if it were not for God’s mercy… if the law just had its way with sin… then God would have to destroy every person who ever lived… which would be counterproductive to his reasons for creating us — to glorify God and to enjoy him forever (Westminster Shorter Catechism).

Your observation is correct, though — “people will be held accountable for their own sins.” But this does not mean that God must strike them all down immediately. Instead, he brings them through a process called redemption… and processes take time… and we see this with David (Psa. 51). David was restored to fellowship with God. You see, God wants to work with the people who are willing to work with him — as was David… and the law plays a role here: we need the law to clarify sin (Romans 7:7). But why is that important? So that mercy might find its target.

he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities.
(Psalm 103:10, NIV)

Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail.
(Lamentations 3:22, NIV)

Today’s criminal law works on the principals that God had built. We spend our primary energies on the criminals’ lives… not on their deaths. Executions still occur, but they are rare.

There is an idea out there that Old Testament justice was swift, unyielding and deadly… and boy… we could use more of that today! But that’s simply not how it worked. Societies declare their highest standards by writing down their laws… but it is difficult to obey these perfectly. (This should temper our view of the persons who sin on purpose, like David.) The law serves society — and it does not serve society to kill its citizens… except to remove the occasional gangrene or cancer that are guaranteed products of free-will in the age of redemption. This consumes only a small percent of law-and-order’s resources today — and those biblical accounts where people were killed for offenses against God take up a tiny percent of the narrative. Mostly… that’s not what was going on. Atonement... that's what was going on — even before the law.

Godly people were sacrificing long before Moses came on the scene. But the law showed us that atonement had a greater purpose in view: to restore the sinner to God and to the people. This is why the law used the image of being either clean or unclean — not alive or dead — because death was not in view. Death is the last option in civilized legal proceedings. It is neither the focus nor the purpose of the law-and-order enterprise (… although the law-and-order enterprise is tasked to deal with it).

Killing King David would have sent the wrong message… we all deserve to die for sinning against a holy God… and we Evangelicals kind of get that. But God’s purpose for David then was the same as is for us today: he wants to restore us to fellowship… not kill us for our sins. This is why the law had ritual atonement… and this is why Christ had actual atonement… so that we (and David) do not have to die because of our sins.

If it is true that all have sinned (Romans 3:23), then, under your scheme, all must be punished… and life would cease. But God must let people live their lives — and sinning is a part of that process. As such, sin itself is a trial — and we are better people for having wrestled with it. Would you stop this? Would you have people killed who are learning and growing along the way? Or would you rather cheer them on (pray) and help them grow in Christ? God had the latter in view for us… but he did for David, too.

But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen. (2 Peter 3:18, NIV)

Justice and judgment are the habitation of thy throne: mercy and truth shall go before thy face.
(Psalm 89:14, AV)

Therefore, let us not rush to judgment. Let us instead rush to mercy.

(For comments, or to join the Monday Musings mailing list, contact us at To submit a question about God, the Bible or the Christian culture, click here.)