After hearing the story of the rich man who stole a lamb to feed his own visitor,David reacts by passing a death sentence

2 Samuel 12:5-6 NIV

5 David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, “As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this must die! 6 He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity.”

But according to the law the rich man was supposed to reimburse the poor man four times what he had stolen

Exodus 22:1 NIV

22 [a]“Whoever steals an ox or a sheep and slaughters it or sells it must pay back five head of cattle for the ox and four sheep for the sheep.

Did David overreact in his pronouncement of the death sentence?

  • Unless I am missing something, stealing a poor man's main or only source of food inevitably results in starvation, hence the first affirmation; however, due to the prophet's intervention, his life has been saved, and the death penalty is (temporarily) suspended (to be revisited, were said behavior to continue).
    – Lucian
    Sep 9, 2021 at 10:39

2 Answers 2


Actually, the Hebrew in 2 Sam 12:5 is subtle as the Pulpit commentary explains:

Verse 5. - Shall surely die. It is strange language to declare that a man shall be put to death and then fined four lambs; But David says nothing of the sort, but that the man is "a son of death," that is, a wretch who deserves to die. The Revised Version correctly renders, "is worthy to die." The sentence actually passed, of fourfold restitution, is exactly in accordance with the Mosaic Law (Exodus 22:1), but the moral turpitude of the offence was far greater than could be atoned for by the legal penalty. Rightly, therefore, David expressed his indignation, and regretted that the sentence was so light; but a judge must not strain the law, which necessarily has regard chiefly to the outward offence. 2 Samuel 12:5

I note that many modern versions have "deserves to die" such as NLT, ESV, BSB, NASB, CSB, etc.


II Samuel 11:27 through 12:25 records David's interaction with the prophet Nathan in which David recognizes his sin because of a story God instructs Nathan to tell him. Upon hearing the story, David’s reaction is that “the man that hath done this thing shall surely die: And he shall restore the lamb fourfold”. Upon initial reading, this seems to be David’s judgment upon the man as king. What is unusual about this judgment, however, is that restoring a lamb fourfold is impertinent when sentencing a man to death. This calls the text into question. In the Lamsa Bible David’s reaction reads:

...the man who has done this thing is worthy of death; And he shall restore the ewe lamb fourfold because he did this thing and because he had no pity. II Samuel 12:5,6

In the course of events, judgment was pronounced upon David.

Wherefore hast thou despised the commandment of the LORD, to do evil in his sight? thou hast killed Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and hast taken his wife to be thy wife, and hast slain him with the sword of the children of Ammon. Now therefore the sword shall never depart from thine house; because thou hast despised me, and hast taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be thy wife. Thus saith the LORD, Behold, I will raise up evil against thee out of thine own house, and I will take thy wives before thine eyes, and give them unto thy neighbour, and he shall lie with thy wives in the sight of this sun. For thou didst it secretly: but I will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun. II Samuel 12:9-12

Stolen lambDavid's angerThe man

Since the judgment pronounced upon David did not include his death, it appears that David's reaction that the man was worthy of death was an overreaction. This is because the offense in the story of the man with the sheep was in actuality David's offense. We cannot be certain it was an overreaction, however, since we know that David recognized his sin, while we are not told if the man in the story of the sheep recognized his.

  • Framing your statement from the viewpoint of accomplishments that please God. I would say that when we have lost or lack perspective we tend to misapply truth. Here, Nathan’s visit, although unpleasant, helped David regain an accurate perspective of his life and personal affairs. After this, he was known as a man after God’s own heart.
    – user42820
    Sep 12, 2021 at 12:14
  • It may have been an overreaction in that David felt the rich man deserved more (death) than what the Law actually prescribed for theft. David perhaps was guilty of "playing God" here, against his own better judgment. But in declaring that the rich man only "deserved" to die instead of sentencing him to death, David may have unwittingly decreed his own punishment: You'll live, but you'll have hell to pay.
    – moron
    Dec 18, 2021 at 23:20

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