“Give me a sign of Your kindness, that my enemies may see it and be ashamed.” (Ps. 86:17)
What was this sign that King David prayed for? What kind of sign would embarrass his enemies?
The Sages explained that David wanted a clear indication that God had forgiven him for the sin of Batsheva. This was a sign of divine kindness and forgiveness. Such a public sign would make all who had assailed and denounced David feel ashamed of their actions.
The verse only registers David’s entreaty, but the Midrash supplies the rest of the story. God informed David that he was indeed forgiven — but this forgiveness would not be made public during his lifetime. His exoneration would become known to all only in the time of his son Solomon.
When Solomon finished building the Temple, he was unable to place the holy Ark into the Holy of Holies. The Temple gates blocked the way! Nothing availed, until the king entreated God for his father’s sake, “Remember the righteousness of Your servant David". Only then did the gates relent, allowing the Ark in. At that time, “the faces of David’s enemies darkened like the undersides of a kettle, and all of Israel knew that God had forgiven David for the sin of Batsheva". (Shabbat 30)
This Midrash needs clarification. If God had already forgiven David, why withhold a public sign of this kindness until after his death?
To answer this question, we need to analyze the nature of forgiveness. Sin prevents an individual from progressing spiritually according to his natural aptitude towards holiness. Divine forgiveness restores the soul’s former abilities to receive the spiritual light from wisdom and righteousness.
However, this only repairs the negative impact of sin on the inner workings of the soul. Sin can have an additional effect. Righteous individuals influence the balance of good and justice in the world. The purer the righteousness of a great soul, the greater will be its impression on the external world. Sin, on the other hand, hinders the positive contribution of a righteous soul to the universe.
For King David, it was not enough to regain his own personal inner powers — prophecy, enlightenment, and joy in divine redemption. David also requested a public sign. He wanted to restore his former positive influence on the world. The very mention of this righteous tzaddik would fill people with sacred emotions.
While an individual is still alive, however, it is impossible to restore this public influence, for we cannot truly evaluate people while they are alive. Only after they have passed away is it possible to assess the influence they had on their surroundings and the entire world.
Teshuvah (repentance) stems from the intellect. It is effective in cleansing and repairing the inner purity of the soul. The external impression on the world, on the other hand, lies within the realm of the imagination. The imaginative powers cannot fully grasp the true value of teshuvah. An individual’s penitence will not succeed in removing the flawed image that the sin created in the eyes of the people.
Sin’s negative impression on the people can only be healed after death. When the righteous are no longer with us, we are overwhelmed with a sense of loss. This outburst of yearning repairs the limitation of imagination, which cannot appreciate the exquisite redemptive power of teshuvah.
Therefore God informed King David that his “sign of kindness", his public rehabilitation, would only occur in Solomon’s days. Then the longing and feelings of loss would neutralize the negative impression created by his sin.
(adapted from Ein Eyah III:82-3)