Question: "Why did God punish David and Bathsheba's innocent child with death?"
Answer: In 2 Samuel 12, the prophet Nathan confronts David concerning his sin with Bathsheba and pronounces a judgment against David. Sadly, that judgment included the death of David and Bathsheba’s infant son (verse 14). The fact that an innocent child dies—instead of the guilty pair—is troubling in light of what we know of God’s justice and His care for children. We will attempt to clarify a few issues involved here. At the same time, we recognize that, even when we come to understand God better and accept some of His “harsher” actions, there is no relief from the visceral response we get when a child dies. Everyone should be hurt and appalled at the death of a child.
God does a lot of “uncomfortable” things that simply must be done in a world of sin. But the fact is that God never intended for us to be comfortable with sin and its outfall (which includes its punishment). We should be bothered by the effects of sin. Mature Christians understand this, but it doesn’t make living in a fallen world any easier.
In the case of the death of David’s infant son, some people feel anger at God for killing the child. There are two main points of contention that can cause problems in our thinking. The first is that God did not deal with David harshly enough. But this accusation ignores the context of the passage at hand; 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. Nathan outlined the three judgments:
“‘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. . . . 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).
In an honor-based culture (as was the ancient Near East), some things were worse than death, like public humiliation. Dishonor would be bad enough for the common citizen, but, as God made a point of reminding David, he was no common citizen—he was the king (2 Samuel 12:7). So, although God did not kill David for his evil deeds, the punishments he received caused him to live in shame. David did not get off easy.
A second point of contention is that, when God sent the illness that killed the child, He was unjustly punishing the child. However, from God’s perspective, He was not punishing the child; He was punishing David. The king’s grief was so severe that his servants thought he might die himself: “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).
God’s intention in taking the infant in death was to punish David. After a brief illness, the child was gathered up into the arms of God—as all innocents are. This is not a bad thing. This does not exculpate David; when David sinned, he stole the potential of a life lived from his child, and that was a horrible theft, because life is wonderful, life is exciting, and God has a purpose for every life. But, using David’s other children as examples of how this child’s life might have played out, we can say that maybe God was preventing something worse. If this child had grown to reject God like his siblings, then his early death was his salvation. The death of a child will never feel right—and in no reasonable eyes would such a death seem right—yet it can indeed be right when ordained by God. In this case, that was demonstrably true, since God caused the illness.
Finally, we should not confound 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, and that would be counterproductive to His reasons for creating us (to glorify God and to enjoy him forever, as the Westminster Shorter Catechism says).
It is true that people will be held accountable for their own sins (Ezekiel 18:4). But this does not mean that God must strike them all down immediately. Instead, God brings them through a process called redemption—and processes take time. We see this in David’s life (Psalm 51). After he repented of his sin, David was restored to fellowship with God. You see, God wants to work with those who are willing to work with Him, as was David, and He desires that all come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9). The Law plays a role here in that we need the Law to clarify sin (Romans 7:7).
God’s mercy is evident throughout Scripture. “He does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities” (Psalm 103:10). “Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail” (Lamentations 3:22).
Today’s criminal law works on the principles that God established. We spend our primary energies on the criminals’ lives, not on their deaths. Only rarely do we exercise capital punishment.
Some have the idea that Old Testament justice was swift, unyielding, and deadly—that we could use more of that today! But that’s simply not how it works. We declare the highest standards of our societies by writing down our laws. But it is difficult to obey these perfectly, which should temper our view of those who sin (like David). The law serves society—and it does not serve a society to kill its citizens, except in isolated, narrowly controlled cases. Executions consume a small percent of law-and-order’s resources today—and they are also rare in Scripture.
The concept of atonement existed even before the Law. Godly people were sacrificing animals long before Moses revealed the instructions for the tabernacle sacrifices at Sinai. 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 terminology of “clean” vs. “unclean”—not “alive” vs. “dead”—because death was not in view. Death is the last option in civilized legal proceedings.
Killing King David for his sin with Bathsheba would have sent the wrong message. We all deserve to die for sinning against a holy God. But God’s purpose for David then was the same as it 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 why Christ had actual atonement), so that we (and David) do not have to die because of our sins.
It is true that all have sinned (Romans 3:23), but if all sinners receive instant punishment in the form of physical death, then life on earth would cease. God lets people live, and sin is a part of life in this fallen world. Sin and temptation themselves become a trial, and we are better people for having wrestled with them. God had plans for David and Bathsheba—Solomon would be born to them next. He has plans for His children today, even when they sin. As we stumble along, we are also learning and growing and being sanctified.
“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). “Justice and judgment are the habitation of thy throne: mercy and truth shall go before thy face” (Psalm 89:14, KJV). Therefore, let us never rush to judgment. Let us instead rush to mercy.