In a previous blog post we saw how the early Christians often understood the sacraments as having been pointed forward to, or foreshadowed, in the Old Testament. We looked at the example of how lepers who had been cured were examined by priests, who then reintegrated them into the community. We saw how St. John Chrysostom said that this prefigured the Sacrament of Confession, in which the priests of Jesus Christ have the power not only to confirm that someone had been cured of bodily leprosy, but to actually heal the leprosy of the soul, that leprosy caused by sin.
In this post we’ll look at a second prefiguration of the Sacrament of Confession—the forgiveness of King David’s sin through the prophet Nathan. The Bible says that King David was a man after God’s own heart (cf. 1 Sm 13:14). And yet, David was also a great sinner. After he committed adultery with the beautiful Bathsheba, he had her husband sent to the frontlines of battle with the hopes that he would be struck dead. Adultery and murder. Not exactly what God wants for his children.
But David was not a man after God’s own heart because of his great sins, but because of his even greater repentance.
When the prophet Nathan found out about David’s sin, he came to David and told him a parable. Nathan described how a rich man had flocks and flocks of sheep. Nearby lived a poor man, who only had only small sheep. When a guest came to visit the rich man, he didn’t want to kill any of his own sheep, so he stole the sheep of the poor man, killed it, and offered a banquet for his guest.
When David heard this story, he became furious, and declared that the rich man should be put to death. But David was in for a big surprise when he heard the prophet Nathan’s response: “That man is you!” (2 Sm 12:7).
The prophet Nathan explained to David that he, who could have had any woman as king, stole the only wife of Uriah the Hittite. He, David, was that rich man who stole the only sheep of the poor man.
It’s at this moment that David really revealed what he was made of. “I have sinned against the Lord” (2 Sm 12:13), he cried out, realizing the terrible depths to which he had fallen. His cry was a sincere and humble petition for forgiveness.
Amazingly, Nathan then replied, “The Lord has forgiven you. You will not die.”
Only God can forgive sins, and yet God wanted to share his forgiveness of David through his representative, the prophet Nathan.
This event pointed forward to, or foreshadowed, the Sacrament of Confession, when a representative of Jesus Christ, a priest, forgives sins in God’s name (cf. Jn 20:21–23), just as the prophet Nathan did with David.
This prefiguration was commented on in the ancient Byzantine Liturgy, which goes back to the times of St. John Chrysostom, in a text quoted by the Catechism. One of the formulas of absolution that the priests use to forgive sins mentions Nathan’s forgiveness of David:
May the same God, who through the Prophet Nathan forgave David when he confessed his sins, who forgave Peter when he wept bitterly, the prostitute when she washed his feet with her tears, the publican, and the prodigal son, through me, a sinner, forgive you both in this life and in the next and enable you to appear before his awe-inspiring tribunal without condemnation, he who is blessed for ever and ever. Amen. (Byzantine Liturgy, as quoted in CCC 1481)
Just as the prophet Nathan, a sinner, forgave King David his sin, so also Jesus desires to use lowly priests to offer us his forgiveness. What can we learn from this foreshadowing of the Sacrament of Confession?
First of all, God is a loving Father, who knows that we need to hear that he has forgiven us. The Sacrament of Confession allows us to know that God has forgiven us, just like David knew that God had forgiven him when the prophet Nathan told him.
Secondly, Nathan was able to help David turn his life around by his wisdom and advice. In the Sacrament of Confession, the priest can share with us key pointers and motivation to not only accept God’s forgiveness, but also to grow in virtue, and occasionally to see something in our lives we may have never noticed before.