The history of Israel’s biblical monarchy is littered with prophets who advise, support, and castigate the nation’s leaders. Most do not have their own books, like Isaiah, or cycles of stories, like Elijah. Rather, they appear only as side characters, nudging history in one direction or another.
Many such royal prophets are merely passing through. Gad, for instance, is more an answer to a Bible trivia question than a well-known figure. Some, however, have earned a significant place in the history of biblical interpretation. Nathan is one such prophet.
Like all royal prophets, Nathan’s personal story — his birth, family and death — is of no importance. What matters is not who he is, but what he says — and to whom. Nathan has the honor of delivering two of the most famous prophetic speeches in the history of Israel’s kings.
The first is in II Samuel 7, when King David expresses his desire to build a house for God, what would have been the first Temple. It is Nathan who tells David no. But in doing so, he promises David an everlasting royal house — that is, a dynasty: “Your house and your kingship shall ever be secure before you; your throne shall be established forever.” II Sam 7:16
Nathan also proclaims that David’s son — the as-yet unborn Solomon — will be the one who builds the Temple. It is thus Nathan who voices the widespread biblical claim to the eternal Davidic kingship over Israel, and Nathan who announces the construction of the Temple, the center of Israel’s worship.
Nathan’s second great speech comes a few chapters later, in the wake of David sleeping with Bathsheba and having her husband Uriah killed in battle. God, we are told, is not pleased with David’s adulterous and murderous behavior. Nathan is sent to deliver the message. He does so in the form of the most famous parable in the Hebrew Bible, that of the poor man’s lamb:
The LORD sent Nathan to David. He came to him and said, “There were two men in the same city, one rich and one poor. The rich man had very large flocks and herds, but the poor man had only one little ewe lamb that he had bought. He tended it and it grew up together with him and his children: it used to share his morsel of bread, drink from his cup, and nestle in his bosom; it was like a daughter to him. One day, a traveler came to the rich man, but he was loath to take anything from his own flocks or herds to prepare a meal for the guest who had come to him; so he took the poor man’s lamb and prepared it for the man who had come to him.” II Samuel 12:1-4
The pathos of Nathan’s story drives David to vow vengeance against the rich man of the parable, which gives Nathan the opportunity to deliver one of the great lines of the Bible: “You are the man!” He follows this with the divine resolution that David would spend his days at war, that he would have his wives taken from him by a usurper, and that the child born of this illicit tryst with Bathsheba would die. Once that child has died, however, David and Bathsheba have another son, this one favored by God. Nathan names the child Jedidiah, but he is better known by the name Bathsheba gives him: Solomon.
Nathan’s third and final appearance in the narrative does not entail a major speech, but does contain another confrontation with David and another shift in the course of Israel’s history. This encounter takes place at David’s deathbed, as the king’s eldest son, Adonijah, has laid claim to the throne. Nathan schemes to ensure that it is Solomon who succeeds David — first bringing in Bathsheba, and then going with her to David to “remind” him that he had already chosen Solomon as his heir. The crisis of succession ends with Solomon becoming king, anointed to the throne by Nathan and the priest Zadok. Nathan will not appear again in the narrative.
In only three biblical passages, Nathan’s words are so memorable, and his speeches so influential, that his place in biblical history is secure. Nathan acts as a stand-in for the reader: rooting for the establishment of David’s dynasty, angry at David’s treatment of Bathsheba and Uriah, and concerned that it will be Solomon who ascends the throne. For the reader who knows how the story is supposed to go, it is Nathan who ensures that it gets there.
Nathan also serves, especially in his second appearance, as the moral voice. His outrage at David’s actions is palpable; he accuses David in a way that no one else in the story can. Indeed, throughout David’s kingship, it is perhaps only Nathan who can bend his will, as he does in each of his encounters with the king.
From the perspective of the story, then, Nathan is essential. The observant reader may note, however, that Nathan’s three appearances all have something else in common: They all have to do with Solomon. Nathan first appears to predict that Solomon will be the one to build the Temple. He appears again at Solomon’s birth. And finally, he enters the scene to ensure that David picks Solomon as his heir.
We may go further: Nathan always makes sure that no one can take Solomon’s rightful place. Nathan prevents David from building the Temple. He condemns David and Bathsheba’s first-born to death. And he removes Adonijah from his rightful place in the royal succession. Nathan may be David’s moral conscience, but in practical terms he is also the shepherd of Solomon’s rise to the throne. Once accomplished, his role — and his presence in the text — is complete.
Though Nathan is known to us as David’s prophet, he should perhaps better be known as Solomon’s. At the very least, we may understand that Nathan’s prophetic mission was on Solomon’s behalf first and foremost. This in no way lessens his status: the successful transition from David to Solomon is at the center of the biblical ideas of the united monarchy, the Davidic line, and the Temple in Jerusalem. Nathan is the prophetic architect of Israel’s glory days.