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Probably the most important person in the life of King David was the prophet Nathan. His very name means “gift,” and Nathan was certainly God’s generous gift to the king. Were it not for Nathan, in truth, we have no reason to believe that the Bible’s final word on David would be any more favorable than the Bible’s final word on King Saul.
David, himself a prophet (Acts 2:29,30), had lost his way, not only succumbing to an adulterous passion, but even initiating a cunning plot of murder, so it was Nathan’s divinely appointed task to call him back from sin to the path of repentance (2 Samuel 12). As was noted by St. John Chrysostom, “one prophet was sent to another” (Peri Metanoias 2.2.8). Nathan was assigned to do for David what the apostles were appointed to do for all mankind—to preach repentance and the remission of sins (Luke 24:47).
Among the various ways by which to preach repentance to sinners, Nathan’s inspired choice is that of the parable, a preference evidently favored also by a certain Prophet from Galilee at a later period. Nathan tells David the story of the ewe lamb, a narrative surely to be numbered among the Bible’s finest examples of what Eliot called “the moral imagination.” By means of storytelling Nathan successfully engages the king’s own sense of decency and justice. He skillfully stimulates David’s return to “the permanent things.”
Nathan’s method, of course, is to cloak the king’s sinful actions within the folds of his own homespun. As Nathan’s account progresses, David becomes morally aroused, with no suspicion that he is himself the villain of the narrative. Finally he pronounces the anticipated moral judgment, or, as the Scripture says, “David’s anger was greatly aroused against the man, and he said to Nathan, ‘As the Lord lives, the man who has done this shall surely die!’” It is at this point, finally, that the prophet’s impeaching finger is thrust at the royal face: “You are the man!”
It is important to observe that, in preaching repentance from sin, Nathan does not “preach down” to the sinner. He does not assume the “higher moral ground.” On the contrary, the prophet’s story compels David himself to seize that ground. He does not directly accuse the king until after he brings the king to accuse himself. Nathan’s method is to transform the sinner’s imagination within a drama, until at last David is disclosed in the character of the villain. Again in the words of Chrysostom, “Nathan wove a dramatic scene, secretly concealing his weapon” (op. cit., 2.2.9).
Moreover, even as David is explicitly condemned, he is implicitly affirmed. That is to say, in order to impugn the very worst in David, Nathan addresses himself to the very best in David—his innate, more deeply abiding sense of right and wrong. As a result of this preaching, the king’s condemnation of his sins springs forth from his own conscience. David becomes his own accuser: “I have sinned against the Lord.” Thus, Nathan’s preaching functions very much as the crowing of the nocturnal rooster that dramatically awakened the sleeping conscience of Simon Peter (Matthew 26:75).
One may further argue that this narrative of Nathan also provides the key for understanding biblical parables in general. Simply put, the parables of Holy Scripture are not to be interpreted “from outside,” but to be engaged from within. These are imaginative stories of the human heart. We do not so much interpret the parables as we permit the parables to interpret us. They are narrative invitations. They summon us hearers of the Word to become parabolic, so to speak. They are mirrors of the soul, stories about our inner selves; we enter them by searching the inner caverns of the heart and mind. Otherwise we remain “outsiders.”
While this is a universally valid principle for all interpretation of Holy Scripture, it is perhaps most obviously at work in our Lord’s story of the sower and his seed. Examined closely, this narrative is actually a parable about the function of parables (Mark 4:1–20). In describing the differing destinies of the various hearers of God’s Word, the Lord is actually addressing the question of our spiritual state as we attend to the story. The parable of the sower serves to turn us to the examination of our hearts, whether they be invaded by birds or infested by thorns, and so on. The terrible question posed here is whether or not we ourselves are simply “outsiders” to the parable (4:11).