II Samuel 18
The historical chronicle found in the books of Joshua, Judges, Ruth, I and II Samuel, and I and II Kings is the work of a group of editors known as the Deuteronomists. The Deuteronomistic history covers Israel’s transition from a loose tribal confederacy to a centralized monarchy. We have been following this process in the period addressed in the book of Samuel, one book later divided into two. I Samuel begins with the call of Samuel who is to be the last of the great Judges, the charismatic leaders who arose in times of crisis. II Samuel ends in the final years of King David. The greater part of the books of Samuel concerns the David saga. The Deuteronomistic history explores the core questions that arise when a nation struggles to evolve to meet new challenges while remaining faithful to its founding instrument?
Israel’s core identity is forged in the Covenant (a form of contract) that God and Moses made on Mt. Sinai. In this sense, it’s helpful for us to think about the Covenant as a kind of constitution. In the historical tensions chronicled by the Deuteronomists, we find many echoes to our own contemporary experience as a nation. As in Ancient Israel, we too need to continually evolve to meet new challenges within the opportunities and limitations of our founding instrument, in our case the Constitution.
The Covenant between God and Moses forged on Mount Sinai dictated the kind of society Israel was to be. The terms of the Covenant stipulated that Israel was to have no God but YHWH and consequently in terms of government, there was to be only one king in Israel and YHWH was his name. In the time of Samuel, Israel transitioned from a tribal confederacy into a Near Eastern monarchy, but with a difference: the Covenant confined the powers of the king to the functions of regent. The Deuteronomists had a simple rule of thumb in assessing the success or failure of a king. Did he rule as God’s regent, or did he rule as God’s replacement? Was he a faithful servant or a usurper?
As we know because power corrupts there is a need for checks and balances. Alongside the institution of monarchy, a parallel institution of the prophet arose to call power to account. The prophet was to function as a kind of one-man Supreme Court, whose function was to declare executive actions legitimate or illegitimate according to the vision of the Covenant.
Today’s Old Testament reading concerns the rise and fall of David’s third son, the much beloved and stunningly handsome Absalom. We need, however, to set the David – Absalom relationship within its wider context.
The major turning point in David’s life was his adulterous affair with Bathsheba. His lust for her led him to orchestrate her husband’s murder, a murder executed by his ruthlessly loyal fixer, Joab. Enter the prophet Nathan, who calls the king to account and pronounces upon him God’s judgment and sentence. David confesses his sin. He accepts God’s sentence that the sword will never depart from his house. For the Deuteronomists, David’s downfall is also the defining moment of his greatness.
Through genuine repentance, David comes to know the power not only of God’s judgment but also of God’s forgiveness. God does not stop loving David and he knows it. It’s interesting to note that this growing sense of forgiveness does not avert the chain of personal tragedies, the sentence must be served. It changes the way David responds in the face of adversity. David has received both punishment and forgiveness at the hand of the Lord. In response to being nurtured by God’s continued love, we watch David rejecting his personal vanity and lust for power, and we watch him learning to become tenderhearted.
David is transformed by his experience of being forgiven and the evidence for this can be no more clearly seen than in the story of David and Absalom.
Last week I suggested that in his seduction or was it really his rape of Bathsheba (as a woman her voice is absent from the Biblical record, so we don’t know how she felt about this incident), David tried to erect a wall separating his personal choices from his public responsibilities. But God will have none of this and rejects the falsehood much parroted in our own time – that a lack of personal honesty and integrity has no effect on the holding of public office. David is forced to live through the consequences of private choices disrupting his public life.
We also seek to build a wall between the practice of our faith and life in the public square. Last week, I noted that when out of a sense of middle-class, liberal squeamishness we practice our faith privately, we ignore the consequences in the public square resulting from our decoupling of faith from action. Whenever someone tells me that politics should be kept out of religion, they are telling me that their faith has nothing to say about the evils perpetrated in the public square of political life. To follow that path renders our faith next to useless.
David and Absalom are two case studies on the power of forgiveness. His repentance brings him to realize the limits of his vanity and the glorification of power. In Absalom, vanity and the arrogance of beauty coupled with a grievance-fueled rage and lust for power, consume and compel him to spurn his father’s forgiveness, leading him to sin even more egregiously. So, to the story.
Previously, as they say on TV, Absalom murders his brother Amnon to avenge Amnon’s rape of their sister, Tamar. Absalom not only kills Amnon but rages against David for his inaction in failing to punish Amnon for his crime. Following the murder of Amnon, Absalom flees to the north, but under the auspices of Joab, a kind of reconciliation allows him to return to Jerusalem. But although back in Jerusalem, physically, an emotional estrangement between father and son continues for two years before Absalom eventually returns to the king’s house.
David forgives his son, but Absalom secretly spurns his father’s forgiveness. Under the guise of a ruse of needing to fulfill a vow, Absalom goes to Hebron, where he has himself proclaimed king. He raises and an Israelite (northern) army and moves on Jerusalem. David flees the city with only his household, for Joab has forbidden the king to accompany the loyal (southern) army. Before he flees, in the presence of his retainers David makes Joab promise to:
deal gently, for his sake, with the young man Absalom.
We might note an interesting aside, that on his way out of Jerusalem David ascends the summit of the Mount of Olives on his way to cross the Jordan, an ascent that finds an echo for us in Jesus’s journey via the Mount of Olives to the Cross.
Meanwhile, Absalom enters the city. His first demonstration of power there is to publicly rape the 10 concubines David had left to look after the palace. This action tells us something of how Absalom views the exercise of power.
The two armies eventually meet in the Forest of Ephraim, where Joab and David’s southern army routs Absalom’s northern army, killing we are told, some 20,000 men. Absalom flees alone. As he does his long hair catches on a low hanging branch, suspending him in midair while his mule keeps moving forward.
The beauty of Absalom’s long, thick hair was the source of legend in those days. Afflicted by vanity the young man had failed to cut his hair in preparation for battle. We cannot miss the symbolism here, caught by his vanity, Joab and his shield bearers separate Absalom not only from his hair but from his life.
When news reaches David, he ascends to his chamber weeping. He cries out:
O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom. Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!
Some commentators have wondered, having made Joab publicly promise not to kill Absalom, is David’s demonstrable grief an expression of plausible deniability in the death of his son? This takes the hermeneutic of suspicion too far, missing the fact that since his encounter with Nathan and confession of repentance, David is a changed man whose heart has softened.
God punished David but nevertheless continued to love him. David’s experience of God’s love as a sign of being forgiven led to his own transformation from the man who had lusted after another man’s wife and murdered her husband to get what he wanted, to a man who deeply loves his admittedly, ill-gotten wife, and now grieves for the death of the son who sought to take from him not only his crown, but his life.
The lust to possess, the pain of rage that feeds a hunger for power, the fragility of vanity that abuses the trust of those we serve, the arrogance of beauty that demands satiation, the rage of the fire that consumes the heart when forgiveness is spurned; these are no match for the power of the tenderheartedness of forgiveness received. God and David – David and Absalom – two stories: of forgiveness accepted and of forgiveness rejected.
David was a man of his time. He lived guided by the stark and usually brutal moral standards of his age. He had seven wives and numerous concubines. He is silent in the face of his daughter’s shaming. He is hardly the role model for modern-day Christian manhood. Yet, his fascination for us lies in his willingness to allow God’s love to transform him beyond the limitations of his culturally shaped imagination.
Are we not also creatures of our age with all the insight and blindness of our culturally formed limitations? How do we transcend the limitations of our shaping at the hands of our time and culture?
Failure and its bitter lessons forged in the heat of repentance is the instrument that breaks us open enough to allow God’s grace to shine through the cracks in our brittle facades.
As Leonard Cohen says in his song Anthem:
Rings the bells that still can ring, forget your perfect offering, there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.
I commend to you John Piper’s moving poem Absalom and David