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The unraveling of David’s life is now, with this story, complete. It begins with the king’s strange command, “Deal gently for my sake with the young man, Absalom,” and ends with the racking sobs of a grieving father, “”O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!” David the king is disobeyed; David the father is broken. David is both politically weakened and personally ruined.
It had been a long time coming. Amnon feigned an illness and asked for his half-sister to tend to him. David sent the beautiful—that’s how the text describes her—David sent the beautiful Tamar to him to cook for him. Amnon raped her, and having raped her, despised her and sent her away. She fled to her brother’s house. Absalom. This is how we meet him. We meet him as the older brother taking in, protecting and caring for his violated sister. Absalom does the right thing. What does David do? Well, listen to the text again. “When King David heard of all these things, he became very angry, but he would not punish his son, Amnon, because he loved him, for he was his firstborn.” What does David do? Not. One. Thing. David loved Amnon, we are told. But the chapter ends with these words: “Absalom hated Amnon, because he had raped his sister.”
And Absalom would not do nothing, like his father. He held a party at sheep-shearing time. He got his brother drunk. And when Amnon’s heart “was merry with wine,” Absalom gave the order. “Strike down Amnon!” and his servants did. There’s enough ambiguity in this text to make it look like Absalom had more on his mind than vengeance. It looks like the original plan was to do in the king and all his sons in one fell swoop. But the king refused to go to the party and the other sons had the presence of mind to flee. Only Amnon the firstborn was murdered. And what did David do? “The king and all his servants wept very bitterly.” That’s what the text says, but again, the king did nothing.
After three years, Absalom returned from his self-imposed exile toJerusalem, and eventually, after another two, to his father’s court. A meeting was arranged by Joab, the king’s ever obedient general. “So Absalom came to the king and prostrated himself with his face to the ground before the king; and the king kissed Absalom.” And all was well in the kingdom.
If you read through these chapters of 2 Samuel, it is clear that David’s inaction on the rape of Tamar and his further inaction on the vengeance and likely fizzled coup of Absalom, that both Joab and Absalom now perceive David as weak. Both are plotting against him. Absalom’s villainy is out in the open; Joab’s can only be guessed at, but wherever there’s trouble—on both sides!—in this story, there’s Joab. David’s trusted general. One of the mighty men who rode with David when he was a bandit and an outlaw. I can’t help but put this in Cosa Nostra terms. Mario Puzo could write this and Martin Scorsese or Francis Ford Coppola could direct it. The Don is old and indulgent and weak. The heir—young and beautiful—wants to get his hands on the family business and the wizened consigliere is not going to go quietly. He wants to take over too and so is playing both sides against the middle.
The heir however, is not as smart as the old obedient general. He makes his move. He foments revolution. Over four years, he turns the hearts of the people against David. Then, he goes toHebronand proclaims himself king. The coup once failed now begins again. And this time, in earnest.
Absalsom, the text tells us, grew in numbers and strength, to the degree that, for his own sake, David had to fleeJerusalem. But he wasn’t going down quietly. As he travelled, he mustered his own forces. Of all the scenes of intrigue here, I want to mention just one. Absalom has installed himself inJerusalem. His father is on the run. “How can I show that I have triumphed?” wonders Absalom. And he turns to his advisor, Ahithophel—who once advised King David and now had switched sides—and asks him, “Give us your counsel; what shall we do?”
Ahithophel’s answer? Sleep with your father’s concubines. Rape—like war—is never about sex and always about power. And this would be a sure sign of Absalom’s victory over his father. So, he took David’s concubines to the roof of the palace—the very roof where, some years before, David lusted over Bathsheba—and there, in the sight of allIsrael, says the text, Absalom lay with his father’s concubines. Do you remember the words of God sent through Nathan? “Now therefore the sword will never depart from your house . . . I will raise up trouble from within your own house. . . . your neighbor . . . shall lie with your wives in the light of this very sin. For you did it secretly, but I will do this thing before allIsraeland before the sun.”
Eventually, however, Absalom is drawn into the fighting in theforestofEphraim. And in the battle—and in the text, it was a heavy one, with a strange throw away verse that suggests that even the trees in the end takeup David’s part—we’ve gone from the Godfather to the Lord of the Rings—David’s forces are victorious and Absalom now flees as his father did. And he is caught by his hair in an oak tree. Imagine the scene. Absalom—the son of the king; the traitor. His coup is now fallen apart. And he is suspended between heaven and earth. He is no longer alive; He is not yet dead; he is completely vulnerable.
And Joab comes upon him. Joab the mighty man. Joab the general. Joab the old consigliere who now sees just what side is going to win. And he is reminded of David’s command—deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom. The command is even repeated now in the text so that we know that no one has forgotten. And for the first time in the David story, Joab disobeys his king.
He takes from his armour-bearers three spears. And as I imagine it, he leers at dangling Absalsom has he circles him on his mule. Weighing the consequences. Deliberating. Remembering the king’s words. Remembering David’s weakness. Playing out what might happen next. If Absalom lives, perhaps he thought, I’ll have no chance. And his gaze hardens; his resolve stiffens and he rides toward Absalom and thrusts the first spear into his heart. He wheels, wipes the blood from his face and spear hand, and takes up the second spear. He rides again. He thrusts again. And again. And then he leaves Absalom—if he has any life left—to his armour bearers to finish.
And now back to David, safe in Mahanaim, in his wilderness fortress. The coup is put down. He is standing at the gate waiting for word. And Ahimaaz comes to the king to announce the victory: “Blessed be the Lord your God, who has delivered up the men who raised their hands against the king!” But David doesn’t care. “Is it well with the young man Absalom?” But Ahimaaz doesn’t know. Then an anonymous character, the Cushite, comes with the news: May all your enemies end up like Absalom! And the king went to his chamber and looked out over his city and wept. “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”
And the text continues, so the victory that day was turned into mourning for all the troops; for the troops heard that day, “The king is grieving for his son.” And the troops snuck back into David’s fortress in shame. They all did. Except ever-obedient and utterly ruthless Joab. Joab strides into the King’s chamber and says to him, wash your face. Go out and greet your troops and honour them. If you don’t, not one will stay with you. You have to stop looking weak! So David got up. And cut short his grieving. And went and met his troops and eventually, returned toJerusalemto end his reign. A great king and a broken father.
We have been watching David’s life slowly come undone for the last few weeks. We have seen the cycle of sin that began with a lustful look spiral to this! A daughter despoiled. Two sons dead. A father destroyed and a king—and isn’t this ironic?—dominant. That is the image of David that we’re left with.
Where is the Gospel in this story? Where is the good news of Jesus? I have heard the Absalom story used to expound on parenting principles, on the virtue of forgiveness—which David shows at various points, on the important example that a father ought to play in the lives especially of his sons. None of that, interestingly, is in the text. The story of David is not given to us as a fable with a moral—with a go and do likewise, or go and do otherwise at the end. For it’s not really the story of David at all. It is, first and always, the story of God. The God who searches us out. The God who finds us. The God who redeems us. This is the story of God’s unrelenting search. And if we remember that, we just might begin to find a glimmer of hope, a glimpse of Gospel here.
To do that, we need to go back to the Bible’s most-quoted description of David. David was a man after his [God’s] own heart (1 Sam. 13:14). When we read those words, we often assume it has to do with David’s piety. David’s heart was aflame for God. That’s what we think this description means. Well, we cannot help, as we read David’s poetry in the Psalms and elsewhere, to conclude that his heart was indeed aflame for God. But his heart was also aflame for women and for battle. And in the stories that dominate second Samuel—when we turn from David’s victorious reign to his dysfunctional home—we conclude that David heart is not, in fact, after God is so simple and straightforward a way.
But the phrase says nothing about David’s devotion, piety, or virtue. It does not extol him as an example. It refers instead and only to the work of God in the setting up of David as King. When the Israelites wanted a King, God acquiesced to their desire and gave them the king they wanted—someone tall and good-looking and admirable but with the pretense of humility. He gave them Saul. But Saul did not follow in God’s ways or obey God’s commands and the throne was taken away from him. Listen to what Samuel says to Saul: “now your kingdom will not continue; the Lord has sought out a man after his own heart; and has appointed him to be ruler. . . .”
Ah! In their heart of hearts,Israelwanted Saul. Out of the reasons of his own heart, God chose David. God’s election of David, God’s promise that his throne would be forever established, that one of David’s sons would reign forever, is not down to David’s devotion. It is down to God’s grace. And, if I might borrow from Martin Luther, God’s grace alone.
David the shepherd. The ruddy, young, half-useless son of Jesse whom nobody considered. David the musician and poet who calmed Saul’s soul and praised God in song. David the giant-slayer. This is the David God chose. David the bandit and outlaw. David the king. David the luster. David the indulgent and hamstrung father. David who, at the end of our story today, is at one and the same time, the victorious king and broken dad. This is also the David God chose. And that is the good news.
For the message to us is simply, left to our own devices, we will always make a mess of things. And while outwardly, like David, we may appear to all the world to be successful, our personal lives are pockmarked in places and our closets hold all sorts of skeletons. And sometimes, like David, there may arise times when we can’t hide the consequences of our sin anymore. There may arise times when victory will turn into mourning and our cries will not be of triumph, but of grief. And so God gives us the story of David—that great King, that great sinner—to remind us that none of us is ever beyond the reach of God’s grace. None of us is ever beyond the scope of the love that searches us out, that calls us to repent, that forgives us, and invites us to the table.
God gives us the story of David not to thrill us with a life of radical devotion, but to strengthen us with a description of his faithfulness and mercy.