How can 1 Kings 15:5 say David did not sin except in Uriah’s case?

How can 1 Kings 15:5 say David did not sin except in Uriah’s case?
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Thursday, September 17, 2009 at 8:41am

An inquirer asked about 1 Kings 15:5, which reads (in the ESV), “David did what was right in the eyes of the LORD and did not turn aside from anything that he commanded him all the days of his life, except in the matter of Uriah the Hittite.” Verse 3 could also be noted, which says that David’s heart was “wholly true to the LORD his God.” This seems to say that David never sinned except in this one incident. But what about, e.g., the fact that he had multiple wives? And what about 2 Sam. 24:10, where David confessed that he had “sinned greatly” when he numbered the people? How can these texts be reconciled?

When I first read this question, my mind turned immediately to a subject that I have dealt with in my book, “God the Redeemer” (pp. 201ff.), namely, the distinction between man’s ABSOLUTE righteousness and his RELATIVE righteousness. The Bible affirms both. On the one hand, it denies that anyone is righteous in an absolute sense: “None is righteous, no not one” (Rom. 3:10). I.e., when compared with God’s own perfect holiness, no human being measures up (Rom. 3:23). But on the other hand, countless times the Bible refers to human beings who are righteous. This is true especially in the OT, where the righteous are constantly contrasted with the wicked. They are considered righteous because in a relative sense—i.e., relative to the wickedness of the wicked—they ARE righteous. They have a measure of piety and good works, of trust in and dependence upon God, that makes it proper for them to be called righteous—in comparison with the wicked. (See my full discussion of this in “God the Redeemer.”)

My judgment is that it is in this relative sense that David is described as having a heart that was “wholly true to God,” and as not turning aside from God’s commands except in the case of Bathsheba and Uriah. This Bathsheba incident was the one outstandingly grievous sin in his life, as shown by God’s judgment in killing the baby and by David’s inspired writing of Psalm 51. All his other sins paled in comparison with this one, so it is specifically mentioned in 1 Kings 15:5. Take this sin out of the picture, and David was indeed a kind of “super God-fearer,” especially in contrast with the wicked kings such as are mentioned in 1 K. 15:1-3.

One should also note that the main emphasis regarding David’s piety is that his HEART was right before God (1 Kings 11:4; Acts 13:22). I.e., one can have a strong, heart-felt desire to obey every one of God’s commands, yet slip on some of them. See Rom. 6:17; 7:13-25. This is the main point with David: in his heart he did not turn aside from any of God’s commands (except in the Uriah situation) in the sense that he fully desired to be completely obedient to God. This is seen in the very fact that once he realized that he HAD sinned against God, his heart was filled with repentance—as in 2 Sam. 24:10. This very confession is evidence that his heart was not turned aside from God.

Just because questions like this arise often in the course of our ministries, I recommend that every Christian worker have a copy of a book such as Gleason Archer’s “Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties” or Norman Geisler’s “When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook of Bible Difficulties.” Here I will close by citing Geisler’s remarks on this very passage, 1 Kings 15:5:

“The statement in question is by no means a pronouncement of David’s virtual sinlessness for several reasons. First of all, it is a general and true characterization of David’s life. Just as Job was not sinless, but was called ‘blameless and upright’ (Job 1:1), even so David’s life was without major fault. Second, this commendation of David is not absolute, but relative to all the sins Abijam had committed (cf. 1 Kings 15:1, 3). David did, with one major exception, ‘that which was right in the eyes of the Lord’ (v. 5). Third, even when he sinned, he did what was right, namely repented immediately when confronted by God (cf. 2 Sam. 12:1ff and 1 Chron. 21:8). Fourth, the exception clause (‘except in the matter of Uriah the Hittite’) is not found in many manuscripts of the OT, including the Vatican Ms. Without it, the point that this was only a general commendation of David has even stronger force. Fifth, the phrase ‘had not turned aside’ indicates that God is speaking of the generally steadfast direction of David’s life, not every specific sin in it. This would account for why David’s other sins are not mentioned, since they did not turn him from the generally forward direction of his life in serving the Lord to this point.”

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