II Samuel 12:20, "Then David arose from the earth, and washed, and anointed himself, and changed his apparel, and came into the house of the LORD, and worshipped: then he came to his own house; and when he required, they set bread before him, and he did eat."
This morning, our culture is quickly losing any hold on the idea of situational acceptability. With the lines between proper and improper, right and wrong, and good and evil being blurred, it is really quite unsurprising that people would get hazy as well when something is acceptable and when it is not. For example, the clothing choices that people make today to wear – or not wear – in public defies any rational thinking of common decency. About the only situation where such attire would be suitable would seem to be the privacy of your own home. Terms like business attire, "Sunday-go-meeting clothes," and formal wear have either been lost in society's collective consciousness or are fading fast. However, to the disciple of Christ, we need to remember that while we are called upon to be faithful at all times, there are times in our lives that require more of us than other times.
Our study verse is found in the midst of one of David's most troubling times. He has by this time fallen prey to some of the consequences of his adultery, falsehood, and murder in the matter of Uriah and his wife Bathsheba. God has pronounced several evils upon David as a result of this sinful conduct, and many of those consequences are lifelong. Today, we see many soft-headed ideas from the Christian world, and two of them are: 1. People should forgive and not make the person suffer anymore, 2. What I do only hurts myself. Now, the second is a mindset that comes from the particularly unstudied person that fails to see how many times people either suffered or are punished for the sins of others. Our verse comes on the heels of David learning that his illegitimate son has died. That child died as a direct result of David's sin with Bathsheba. That child's life was forfeit for what another did. What we do most certainly affects far, far more people than we possibly realize: both for good and evil.
The first soft-headed idea needs a little space here before we get to David's pattern in our verse. Many equate the idea of forgiveness with the removal of consequences. Friends, those two things do not necessarily align with each other, though they can. Consequences many times remain even after forgiveness has been extended. For example, God forgave David by the mouth of Nathan the prophet. Nathan tells him in Verse 13 that God put away his sin, and as a result, he would not die – though he deserved to as David himself declared in verse 6. God forgave David. However, he still suffered for the rest of his life with the sword never departing his house. His children still rose up against him. His children still died. All of this came as a consequence of what he did, yet God forgave him. I have known people that had a night's worth of illicit behavior that today carry a disease in their body that will remain with them for the rest of their lives. They are truly sorry for what they did, and I have confidence that God has granted the peace of forgiveness to their broken spirit. Yet, the disease remains. Friends, consequences follow people even after repentance and forgiveness are in force.
The verse before us presents an interesting situation. David has been fasting and praying to God for a while (the child died after 7 days of the sickness, and we might infer from the reading of it that David was doing this for almost the whole time). During this time, he is in sackcloth and ashes, begging God to have mercy on his son. However, after the child dies, the servants are afraid to tell David for fear that what they have seen for days (prayer and fasting in the dirt) would then swell into mortal heartbreak knowing that the child had passed away. David discovers the truth through their change of behavior and proceeds to go through the actions in our verse. And what an order they are!
One might think – at least I would – that eating would be a high priority. Having never fasted for anything near what might have been 7 days, I would rather suspect from the back flips of my stomach eating would be a good way to start. Yet, David understood what Job did, and that was that God's word and service came before even our necessary food. (Job 23:12) Today, people are so self-centered that God gets "the leavings" of our lives. Bible reading occurs at the end of the day – if at all – once we have done all that we "had to do." Church service is something that we attend if "nothing else is going on." One person even told me, "If I have to miss from time to time, I think God will understand." One of my former employers was trying to convince me of the need for me to work a Sunday, "You go to church all the time. I think God will understand if you have to miss this one time." My response did not exactly excite him, "I have to work far, far more days of my life than days I get to go to church. I don't think God will understand since my church days are less in number than my work days. Maybe in this case, the company will understand that I can't do it."
Prayer becomes an afterthought of what we should do, rather than a foremost thought in all that we do. Friends, these things are not pleasant to consider, yet I can see them far too clearly in my own life many times. David's foremost thought after prayer and fasting was not his natural needs. Worship of the Lord came first. Today, we all would do well to put this pattern before our eyes. Natural needs should be placed squarely behind God's worship. Church service should not be built around your life. Your life should be built around church service. Anything short of that is plain, old-fashioned idolatry. However, notice something even more peculiar to this sequence of events. David knew to put worship of God in His house first, but something had to be accomplished before that.
Before David went to the house of God, he made himself respectable. Sackcloth and ashes in the dirt outside the palace was a perfectly acceptable way to show God his penitence for his sins. Sackcloth and ashes with dirt-smeared skin was not an acceptable way to present himself in God's house. A change had to be made. Sometimes I get told that people only dress up for church to satiate their own vanity and pride. Their charge is that people go to church to say, "Oh, look at me!" Doubtless, pride and vanity afflict us all, and there have perhaps been cases of that: though I do not know of any firsthand. However, my preference of wearing a suit to church is not because I am a preacher (been wearing one since I was 4 or 5). My preference was thrust upon me as a child, but it is voluntary at this point. It is my preference as that is the absolute best that I can put on to present myself in God's house.
David was before the Lord both in the dirt and in the house. However, the idea of situational acceptability was familiar to him. He knew that God's house should demand more respect than old rags. Now, if old rags are all someone has, then by all means, come to church in what you have. A man once told me that he would wear suits to work when there was a board meeting, to a funeral, and to a wedding. These events were special. My reply was met with shock, "Well instead of presenting yourself to board members, a grieving family, or a happy couple, church is where you get to present yourself to the King and a special portion of His family. Is that not the most special event we could have in our lives?"
In the parable of the sower, part of the lesson of the good ground is that it does not have the clods, rocks, and weeds of the other parcels. However, we know from natural observation that ground is never naturally clod, rock, and weed free. Those things are part of the old earth that we live on. So, if ground is good and free of those things, it must be prepared thusly. Lately, I have spent a lot of time in my garden, and it never ceases to amaze me just how fast the ground can get out of control if allowed to. Diligence is required to keep the good plants free of all obstacles and intrusions. Preparing our heart and mind to seek the Lord and rejoice in His pavilions requires diligence. However, it also behooves us to make the outside as presentable as we can as well. David came to worship. Worship means reverence, and the reverence of God requires that we be as presentable as we can.
When I was about 8 years old, I stumbled out of my room one Sunday morning. I already had my shirt and slacks on, and was laying my coat and tie on a chair. Dad was sitting at his desk, and he took one look at me and said, "What's your problem?" Sometimes youngsters are just foolish enough to tell you. "I don't want to go to church." He said, "That's obvious. So, what's your problem? You know we're going." "Yes sir, I know we are, but I don't want to." I will never forget the reply he gave, "Whether you want to or not is not important. You know we are going, and you need to put a better look on your face. You are going to the house of God where His special people meet. They deserve and He certainly deserves more than you are giving right now." Many years later, I finally understood his point – though that day, I can assure you I put a better face on – in that part of being prepared for worship is how we appear. Though God knows how we feel, our days in His courts should be marked with praise not woe.
David had a bad day that day. Yet, he worshipped in the courts of the Lord. Though heavy in spirit, he still made every effort to give the Lord all he had in church. If he had showed up poorly dressed or poorly attuned in his countenance, the Lord would not have gotten David's all. Friends, God has not changed, and He still deserves our all. May we put the very best forward in our service while seeking to give Him our all. Does it trump our natural wants or needs? Yes it does. Does it trump how we feel? Yes it does. Does it give a pass for bad seasons? No it does not. David knew that His help and strength came from the Lord, and for that, David was willing to press into God's house in worship no matter what life’s circumstances threw at him. One final thought about worship is that if someone is having a rough go of it like David was, God’s house is the best place one could be. As the old hymn-writer said, "There, there on eagles wings we soar, and sin and guilt seem there no more. And heaven comes down our souls to greet. And glory crowns the mercyseat."