The Death of Absalom: Drama & Theology
Fifteen years ago I was asked - when I was a schoolteacher and very occasional preacher - to preach on 2 Samuel 18:19-19:8, the news of the death of Absalom. Just one sermon in a series from that extraordinarily vivid sequence from David's adultery with Bathsheba in 2 Samuel 11 up to the accession of Bathsheba's son Solomon in 1 Kings 1. Chapters of history told with the consummate skill of the biblical storyteller.
The passage I was given was no exception: vivid, emotionally charged, dramatic. The stuff of a film-maker's dream: tension, character studies, tears, joy, passion and perplexity. But what was I to make of it for a sermon? I puzzled over this for a long time. And I still remember the comment of an old friend with whom I shared my puzzlement. His brief unprepared comment unlocked the passage for me, because with his instinct for whole-bible truth he moved the camera back from a close-up on the passage to a view of these events in the context of whole-bible truth. I will tell you his comment later.
In this Biblical Theology Briefing I will place the sermon in the context of whole-bible thinking. We begin with the passage itself in its immediate context, as all preparation should. Then we move back to place it in the wider picture of whole-bible theology. And from there we move to constructing the sermon itself. After that, I will give you the sermon more or less as preached (albeit on a subsequent occasion and in a slightly more polished form than 15 years ago).
1. The bare bones of the passage in its immediate context
After David's adultery with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11) his family falls apart. Tamar, beautiful sister to David's son Absalom, is raped by her half-brother Amnon; Absalom kills Amnon in revenge (2 Samuel 13). And then a complicated train of events leads to Absalom taking the throne from David, David fleeing Jerusalem and Absalom entering (2 Samuel 14-16). After the conflicting advice of Hushai and Ahitophel (2 Samuel 17 - a sermon in its own right), it is time for the battle.
David has been persuaded to stay behind in Mahanaim (his temporary base) during this battle. And as his loyal fighters leave the city he publicly orders his three army commanders (Joab, Abishai and Ittai), "Deal gently with the young man Absalom" (18:5). But unfortunately for Absalom, he has very long hair (a sermonic red herring, perhaps, that men ought not to wear their hair long?!); and while riding his mule he gets caught up by his hair in a tree, "suspended between heaven and earth" (18:9). The loyal fighter who sees him doesn't know what to do (but knows he mustn't kill him, 18:12f), and reports it to Joab. Joab, the hard-nosed realist politician, fiercely loyal to David, knows that in spite of David's soft-heartedness (18:5) it is vital for David's throne that Absalom be killed; so he kills him (18:14).
In our passage Ahimaaz the son of Zadok wants to run with the battle news to David. Joab tells him not to, and instructs a Cushite to do it. The Cushite does, but Ahimaaz insists on running after him; he runs by a different route and gets to David first. He tells David the battle is won. David asks after Absalom and Ahimaaz doesn't tell him. Then the Cushite arrives. David asks him after Absalom and he tells David Absalom is dead. David immediately retires to his room above the city gate and weeps for Absalom. Then Joab gets back with the victorious troops, finds David in mourning, sternly rebukes him and tells him he must congratulate his loyal and victorious troops. So David does.
2. The passage as dramatic narrative
That is the bare bones, eviscerated of all the drama, tension and emotion. But in a narrative passage it is important to enter into the flow of the narrative, both in mind and heart. This is not a series of propositions; it is a story and must be read as such. So let us enter into how the story is told. For the narrator gives us clues as to what he wants us to feel.
Our passage takes place in two locations. Think of it as a film. We begin near the scene of battle and then move to Mahanaim. We begin with Joab and the army; we move to the waiting David. We begin with those who know what has happened; we move to the one who does not. We begin with those who have news to give; we move to the one who waits anxiously to receive news.
The drama of this passage is the bringing of news (the word 'news' appears in vv19, 20, 22, 25, 26, 27, 31). It is news (as we, the readers, know) of a death. And the dramatic question is whether this death is good news or bad news. Will David be cheered or saddened? Ought David to rejoice or weep? Joab's view is quite clear: the news is good, for it is news of a victory and the death of a rebel. For David, however (and Joab anticipates this) it is also news of the death of a son. Some of us instinctively will side with Joab; we can appreciate the sane objective grasp of political reality that is Joab's great strength. And yet even the least sensitive of us cannot fail to feel the tragedy of David's grief.
It is precisely in this unresolved tension that the drama of the passage consists. For there is no closure, no resolution. Although David comes out to review his returning troops, we sense that he does so with a still-heavy heart. This is in no sense a 'feel-good' movie; we go home troubled and unsettled, longing for resolution but finding none.
3. What this passage is not about: false trails in sermon preparation
There is a long and unedifying tradition of taking a vivid story like this and using it as a springboard for various uncontrolled preacherly reflections on human life and behaviour. Some of these reflections might actually be true insofar as they derive their authority from other parts of scripture; but none of them reads out of this passage what God has put into it and therefore in none of them do we hear the word of God as spoken by God in this passage.
Ideas for inappropriate use of the passage might include the following.
- A comparison between Ahimaaz and the Cushite. Two runners epitomising two kinds of Christian disciple. The Cushite is the Christian who does what he is told to do out of dutiful obedience. Ahimaaz, by contrast, is the Christian who obeys from the heart, who 'runs' because he really wants to run. And so - of course - he outruns the Cushite, for the disciple who is zealous from the heart will always 'outrun' the disciple motivated by cold duty. This is entirely alien to the thrust of the passage, and incidental to its theme.
- Reflection on a runner bringing news as typifying the Christian as messenger of the gospel. How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news. And so on. Here the drama of runners with news is used as an occasional illustration of a motif from elsewhere in scripture.
- Disapproval of the dishonesty, or at least dissimulation, of Ahimaaz when David asks him for news of Absalom (v29). As so often in biblical narrative, morally good, bad and ambiguous acts are recorded without comment; for the narrator is telling a bigger story and it is not his purpose here to comment on the morality of the minor players in the drama.
- Reflect on different personality types in church life. The hard-nosed pragmatic Joab's who get things done and understand the realities of life in the world. The sensitive emotional David's who feel with and for people. And to go on to say how we need both types of person in church life, etc.
The points above evacuate the passage of significance by trivialising it so that it has no worthwhile part to play in telling the big bible story.
There is another false trail, which in a different way evacuates this passage of the main content put in it by its divine Inspirer. This is to resolve the tension either by coming down firmly on the side of Joab or by siding sympathetically with David. It would be possible to preach this passage consistently from Joab's point of view throughout, lamenting the softness of David. Or to preach it all from David's heart, bewailing the hard pragmatism of Joab as undermining of love and human sensitivity. But the significance of the passage is precisely, I suggest, in the sharpness and pain of the unresolved tension.
4. What this passage is about: the difference biblical theology makes
This is all well and good in terms of entering into the drama of the passage as it stands in its immediate context. Now just suppose I could preach this with such vividness that we were all there with David and Joab and the messengers, in our minds and hearts entering into the passion and tension of it all. Just suppose I had the preaching skill to do that. But so what? Just a good story, the bible as vivid drama? After all, this is meant to be a sermon. This is Christian scripture. What purpose does God intend it to fulfil in us when it is read and preached? What impact ought it to have on us, what effect, what change ought it to effect in us its hearers today?
It was here that I was stuck. Until my friend almost casually commented, "I suppose the tension could not be relieved until Calvary." And quite suddenly for me the camera pulled back and I saw this little drama in the context of the big drama of the whole-bible story. Of course this tension could not be relieved until Calvary. And of course it simply had to be relieved in some way at some time; else the Universe would not cohere and be worth living in. As the children's chorus used to begin,
At the cross of Jesus,
pardon is complete.
Truth and mercy mingle,
Love and Justice meet.
For on the one hand with Joab we understand the demands of justice. Absalom was the rebel who had set himself up against God's King, David. He therefore deserved to die. And he must die, if God's King is to reign. For there is no room in the kingdom for two conflicting kings.
Which is a microcosm, and anticipation in salvation history, of the demands of justice in the universe at all times. Joab can speak with real biblical force when he rebukes God's king with the words, "you love those who hate you and hate those who love you" (19:6). Both sides of this rebuke have biblical support. For, as Abraham insisted in bold prayer (Genesis 18:25) it would be unthinkably unjust for the Judge of all the earth to destroy a righteous man (Lot in Sodom); this would indeed be to 'hate those who love you', and it cannot be if the earth is to be worth living in. Likewise in the tidy theological system of Job's "comforters", it simply cannot be that the righteous should ever perish (Job 4:7); this is axiomatic.
And the converse is also true. For if, as Asaph thought for a time (Psalm 73:3-14), those who hate God are loved by him and blessed ('you love those who hate you'), then the righteous keep their hearts clean 'all in vain' (Psalm 73:13). Were this to be true it would threaten the holy righteousness of God; as Habakkuk cries out, "You who are of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong, why do you idly look at traitors and are silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he?"
No, the bible writers repeatedly insist, God has appointed and anointed his King, his Christ, to rule his world with justice; and he will rule (eg Psalm 2). That rule, the kingdom of God, is not possible if rebels are allowed forever to succeed in their rebellion, to usurp Christ's rule and displace Christ's sovereignty. Rebels must be punished if there is to be justice in the universe.
And so the problem of unpunished sin is very serious. It threatens the justice of God himself, as the logic of Romans 3:25b, 26a makes clear. So Joab is testimony to a great whole-bible truth and theme: the demands of the justice of God.
And yet David also bears testimony to a great bible theme. For David is always a type of Christ. Sometimes negatively, as by his failures and imperfections he points forward by contrast to the coming King in whom these failures will not be found, 'great David's greater Son'. And sometimes positively as he anticipates and foreshadows the kingship of the Christ to come. David's tears are a significant foreshadowing of the tears of Jesus Christ. Jesus weeps over impenitent Jerusalem, whom he longs to gather under his wings (Luke 19:41-44; Matthew 23:37). He is moved to tearful indignation at the grave of Lazarus (John 11:33, 38, where 'deeply moved' - embrimaomai - denotes anger even more than sorrow), when he sees the unnaturalness and horror of what sin has done to bring death into the world. These tears of love are foreshadowed by David's tears for Absalom.
For David knows that Joab only has a grasp of one side of the greatest tension in the universe. Alongside the demands of justice we must place the longings of love. And in David's life, and in the death here of Absalom, there is no way in which these two great strands can be woven together. The pain of this tension is evident in God himself, as we feel with great force in Hosea 11:1-9, where God the Father of Israel 'ought' (if we may say this reverently) to destroy his 'son' Israel, and yet his Father's heart 'recoils' within him (v8).
Only at the Cross were these terrible conflicting strands woven together in an awful harmony. Romans 3:21-26 expounds this resolution, exposing its logic of penal substitution. It is a resolution anticipated as David cries out of Absalom, more truly than he knew, "Would I had died instead of you" (18:33).
5. Sermon Shape and Structure
And so the sermon took shape. Structurally I followed the flow of the narrative, which seems to me almost always the best way to preach narrative. There are two good reasons why it is generally a mistake to distil a narrative into tidy homiletic 'points', each extracted from various scattered places in the narrative flow. The main one is that God has chosen to give us his word here in narrative form, rather than as a didactic enumeration of 'points'.
The second, which flows out of the first, is that narrative functions in a different way from other didactic forms. Narrative draws us the hearers into the flow of the story and so, because we are, in our hearts and minds, 'there' with the actors in the drama, it embeds its worldview deep inside our thoughts, our memories, our feelings and our wills. It is the role of the preacher to 'go with the flow' and to draw out of the narrative not only the doctrinal points that may be extracted or distilled, but also the narrative flow itself. For the message here is not so easily separated from its narrative medium.
For this passage the whole-bible perspective gave me three framing features of the sermon.
Away in, at the very start, a 'hook' to grab my hearers and engage with them. "Is a death good news or bad news?" I wanted provocatively to get them to see that this is not an obvious question, that a death may be good news in some respects, as well as sad in others. And to ask themselves why this is so. For this leads inexorably to the Cross, which is my conclusion.
Two themes that jostle for precedence through the entire passage: the demands of justice and the longings of love. I wanted us to feel the weight of both themes, so that the tension was not dissolved in favour of one or the other. I wanted my hearers to feel by the end of the narrative passage a very deep sense of unease, to be passionately troubled by this lack of closure.
And then to conclude with the Cross. I was wary of doing this at too great length, for I was preaching 2 Samuel not the New Testament. I ask myself what people leave with as the dominant impression from the sermon. Is it the New Testament truth of the Cross that happened (in the background) to be illustrated by an isolated Old Testament episode? For if it is, then the Old Testament is being used by the preacher as a convenient and rich vein of scattered illustrative material that may be placed alongside other illustrations and anecdotes the preacher has happened to collect over the years. This is to evacuate the Old Testament of its canonical authority. Rather my aim is that my hearers should leave not with the Cross illustrated from 2 Samuel, but with 2 Samuel ringing in their ears, illuminated by the Cross and thus properly interpreted and rightly understood. But, having entered this caveat about the dangers of over-weighting the sermon in the direction of the Cross, it does not seem to me that the passage can be preached Christianly without concluding with at least a pointer to the Cross, which is what I therefore did. The function of the Cross in resolving the terrible tension of Absalom's death should move us to rejoice more profoundly in the Cross and live our lives more passionately in its light.
So here is the sermon, more or less as preached in St.Andrew the Great in Cambridge in 1996, interspersed with some comments about why I preached it as I did.
6. The Sermon
I begin with a 'hook'. The idea is to grab my hearers before their attention wanders, and to turn them firmly in the direction of the main theme of the sermon.
May I begin with a question? How do you respond when you hear news of a death? Is it good news or bad news when you hear that someone has died? Do you cheer or do you weep? Or, to put it another way round, Will others care when you die? Will they weep or will they cheer?
Those are not quite the insensitive questions you may think. What if a terrorist dies by the hand of his own bomb exploding prematurely, or a murderer by the barrel of a police marksman's gun, or a perpetrator of genocide at the hands of a court of justice? Is that good news or bad? A week or two ago I read the obituary of Bokassa, the self-styled "Emperor" of the Central African Republic, a brutal murderer, a man in whose fridge was found human legs and arms ready for cooking. I didn't weep for him.
These are painful questions. And because they are painful, we sometimes prefer just to laugh about them. As Mark Twain does, in Tom Sawyer. You may remember how the good-for-nothing rascals Tom and Huckleberry Finn and another friend Joe run off to an island in the Mississippi, and are taken for dead. And that marvellous scene when they creep back to the village just in time for their own funeral. They hide in the church gallery. "As the service proceeded, the clergyman drew such pictures of the graces, the winning ways, and the rare promise of the lost lads, that every soul there ... felt a pang in remembering that he had persistently blinded himself to them .. and had .. seen only faults and flaws in the boys. The minister related many a touching incident in the lives of the departed ... which illustrated their sweet, generous natures... The congregation became more and more moved" until when they are all in tears, including the preacher, the 3 boys, basking in these unexpected eulogies, walk calmly down the aisle. It's a hilarious scene. But it derives its comedy from a serious question: What will people think when we die?
After this introductory 'hook' I move straight to the central themes of the sermon. I am quite up front about these at the start, because I want to make this point repeatedly until it sinks in. So I tell them at the start, then go on telling them right through the story, and then tell them again at the end. If they remember nothing else, I want them to remember the story of Absalom in the light of the theological framework that the tension between the demands of justice and the longings of love is resolved only at the Cross.
That the answer is not obvious focusses for us the tragedy of what it is to be a human being. There is in human life and death an unresolved tension: between the demands of justice and the longings of love. Those are my two headings, and they run in parallel throughout the passage. According to the demands of justice, when I die you should cheer. Because while I live there is on the face of this earth at least one human heart riddled with ungodly motives, with self-interested thoughts, with greed and lust and self-pity and disloyalty to friends and salacious gossip and moral cowardice. My walking around upright is an insult to the God who made me. It mocks his justice. It ought not to be. And when I die the angels should cheer. At last, another rebel hits the dust.
I deliberately put this first theme very starkly and shockingly. This is because in our culture we tend to be soft on justice and long on a rather soppy version of 'love'. The challenge in preaching this is to get people to feel Joab's point of view and to see that he is right. Otherwise we shall end up failing to grasp the full wonder of penal substitution.
And yet. And yet that was a shocking thing to say, wasn't it? Because there are longings of love which are devastated when a human being dies. And if the angels were to cheer, should there not also be tears in their eyes?
You may know the story of the salesman selling a toy to an anxious aunt in the week before Christmas. "I've tried to assemble this toy, but can't get it to fit." 'Madam, this toy is the perfect preparation for the modern world for your nephew. Whichever way he puts it together it won't fit.' The world is like that. We have no way of fitting together our innate sense of right and wrong with our strong sense of the enduring value of a human life.
This is the poignancy of the death of Absalom. Let's go back to the story.
In setting the context (below) I want to give my hearers the bare minimum of context necessary to understand the passage before us. Too many 'context' sections of sermons are massive 'turn offs' because they give far too much and it is not all necessary. And so it becomes a lecture rather than a focussed sermon. The particular point of background that I wanted to emphasise is the terrible nature of what Absalom had done and the depth of his guilt. (Hence the Duke of Wellington quote below.)
First a word or two to set the scene. We are nearing the end of the life of King David. After his adultery with Bathsheba and his arranged murder of her husband Uriah, David's own family life just falls apart. It is an appalling story [from chapter12 onwards] - of incestuous rape, of paternal weakness and indiscipline, of fratricide. They say the family is disintegrating today. But there can't be much worse than this.
And David's son Absalom leads a rebellion. Handsome, attractive, spoilt, deceitful, ruthless Absalom. He has led the country into civil war. I think it was the first Duke of Wellington who said, "If you have seen one day of war, you will pray God Almighty never to let you see such again." And if that is true for international war, how much more true it is of civil war. Families, brothers, households, lifelong friends torn apart, as we have seen in our day in Rwanda or in Bosnia. And Absalom caused it, culpably, unrepentantly.
Last week we saw the climactic battle of this civil war. We heard David's men persuade him to stay behind in the city of Mahanaim for his own safety as elderly king. We heard David publicly order his army commanders [18:5] "deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom."
18:5 is a very important part of the context background. Maybe I ought to have stressed this more.
We witnessed a horrendous day's fighting, with 20 000 fatalities [v7] and a massive victory for David's troops. And we saw the villain Absalom caught by his hair in a tree in the forest. We saw Joab - David's fiercely loyal general - we saw Joab himself deliberately disobey David's orders and thrust three javelins into the heart of Absalom, so that he dies and is buried in ignominy. The trumpet is blown. The war is over.
I felt it was important at this point to guard against the ever-present human tendency to self-righteousness. And so (below) I make the point that in terms of biblical typology the actor in the drama who is a 'type' (if I may put it like this) of us is Absalom. We tend to place ourselves either with David (if we like his responses) or Joab (if we sympathise with his); we ought rather to line up with Absalom.
Last week we saw what was called 'the Absalom principle' at work, the principle of rebellion against God's King. We saw its destructive effect. And we saw its God-ordained defeat. And incidentally, that gives us an important clue to reading the story. I wonder with whom you naturally identify yourself as this story is read. With David the old king? With Joab the loyal general? With one or other of the runners, perhaps? According to the New Testament, the deepest link we have is with none of these. I am Absalom in the story. And so are you. Absalom, watching from the grave nervously to see how people react to the news of my death. What will they think when I die?
Now I begin to talk through the drama again (for the 3rd time, in a way!), but emphasising the twin themes of justice and love throughout. My main effort in preparing this section is to bring the narrative to life with vivid and faithful retelling.
Today's passage focusses not on events but on response to those events. It is a passage which invites us to think. It is about 'news' [NIV]or 'tidings'[RSV], a word coming 7 times, in vv.19, 20, 22, 25, 26, 27, 31. As readers, we know the content of the news. The battle is won. The rebellion is crushed. Absalom is dead. But is it good news or bad news? Will David cheer or will he weep? There is the tension.
In vv.19-23 we see the two messengers. Ahimaaz is the son of Zadok the high priest, a close 'cabinet colleague' of General Joab. Ahimaaz was one of the loyal runners who had risked their lives to run an intelligence message from occupied Jerusalem to the fugitive David [17:17ff]. And because he's loyal, he's thrilled to bits at the victory and desperately wants to be the one entrusted with telling David the good news [v19 Let me run...] But Joab, for all his ruthlessness, has enough sensitivity to know it's not as simple as that. It's perfectly true [v19] that 'the Lord has delivered [David] from the power of his enemies.' But it is also true that [v20] 'the king's son is dead.'
And Joab knows that to bring bad news to David as if it were good news is a risky thing. Perhaps he remembers the Amalekite who told David with glee that he had assisted the suicide of King Saul [ 2 Samuel 1]. What did David do? He executed him. Or the men who - beaming and expecting a reward - told David they had assassinated Saul's son Ishbosheth [ 2 Samuel 4]. The only reward they got was the chop. No, says Joab to Ahimaaz, I wouldn't wish that on you.
So, v21, Joab turns to a dark-skinned unnamed foreigner, 'the Cushite', probably because Joab doesn't much care if this foreigner of a different race gets the chop: 'You go.' So he does. But Ahimaaz is desperate to go [v22] 'come what may'. But you'll get no reward, says Joab. Again, [v23] 'come what may I will run.' And whether by a better route or greater fitness or just plain zeal, he gets there first [v23].
In vv.24-27 the tension mounts. The scene switches to the anxious old king sitting where the city elders gather between the outer and inner gates. There's a solitary runner. He must be bringing news. There's another. The first one is Ahimaaz. I'd recognise his lolloping gait miles away. He's a good man. So it must be good news, says David, clutching at straws.
vv.28-30 Ahimaaz arrives. "All is well.[Peace, shalom]" It's good news. "Blessed be the Lord your God, who has delivered up the men who raised their hand against my lord the king." But what of Absalom?
Suddenly Ahimaaz the enthusiast picks up from David's words and David's demeanour why Joab hadn't wanted him to run. And his nerve fails and he mumbles, "It was all a bit of a muddle. I'm not sure. You know what battles are like, your majesty." And he has to stand still and silent to one side, no doubt gulping with nervous tension.
And then, v31, the Cushite came. "Good tidings..! For the Lord has delivered you this day from the power of all who rose up against you." But what about Absalom? [v32] "Is it well with the young man Absalom?" Perhaps as a foreigner the Cushite was unaware of the background. Perhaps he'd not been present when David gave his public command to deal gently with Absalom. For him, the death of Absalom was just part of the good news. After all, a war is a war is a war. A rebel who had lived by the sword had died by the sword. So he goes on with joy and confidence, "May the enemies of my lord the king, and all who rise up against you for evil, be like that young man."
Having, I hope, got my hearers well onto the side of justice, we now move to feeling with David. My paradoxical aim is that by the end we really do not know what we think! This is an aim that sits uneasily with our instinctive love (as preachers) of tidiness; but in this case the tension of the narrative forces us in exactly the opposite direction. It is an emotionally and volitionally ragged story and we must preach it as such.
And as the Cushite speaks each word strikes the king with terrible impact. It is as if the cruel darts Joab had plunged into Absalom's chest were driven into David's heart. Have you ever felt like that when someone has brought you news? So painful it's physical. He is utterly convulsed. Devastated; gripped by a paroxysm of naked unguarded grief; elemental, desperate grief, the cry of a human heart that is torn in two.
And [v33] as he makes his lonely way up the stairs to the little room above the gate he weeps and he weeps and he weeps. There may be some of us here who have cried like that, or sat with others in such grief. It is a scream of agony from a broken human heart. No longer is it 'the young man Absalom'. v33 "O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would that I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!" All the old regrets and betrayals and possibilities and might-have-beens, the 'what-if's, the shattered hopes, the emotional debris of family life.
And as the exhausted soldiers come back through the gate for their victory celebrations [19:1-4] they hear that tortured voice from the room over the gate [v4] "O my son Absalom, O Absalom, my son, my son!"
It is lonely grief. The painter Annigoni, when asked what picture he would most like to be remembered by, replied, "Solitude" [a theme on which he painted 12 canvasses]. He said, "The whole conviction of my life rests upon the belief that loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon peculiar to myself and a few solitary men, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence." When the chips are down, we human beings are all alone. We live alone and we die alone. There is no answer to lonely grief.
Now, having got firmly onto poor David's side, we have to get right back on Joab's side! It is an emotional roller-coaster.
And indeed there is no answer in this passage. Instead of an answer we are brought back to the tough political realities of the world with a bump. And who better to bring us back than Joab - Joab the loyal clear-thinking thug, the rational public man par excellence. And [v5] Joab barges in uninvited where the rest of Israel dare not go, straight into the private grief of the king with a blunt public message. He speaks to David not as distraught father, but as negligent king. 'A fine king you are, blubbing like that. There's a loyal army out there, who've gone through blood, sweat, toil and tears for you today. They have saved your life, and the lives of your sons [ironically], your daughters, your wives and your concubines. And all you can do is be a cry-baby for that despicable rebel. You know, I really think you'd be pleased if he'd won and all the rest of us were dead. Pull yourself together. Go out on the balcony and wave to the crowds. Salute the flag. Thank the troops. Award some medals. There are guys out there who deserve the Victoria Cross. There is a power vacuum while you cover your face in selfish grief. If you don't get off your backside, blow your nose and get out there, there'll be a mutiny, I tell you. Then you really will be all alone.'
Well, he's right. Someone has to do what Joab did then. When the world reeled at the assassination of President Kennedy, someone had to arrange the swearing in of Vice-President Lyndon Johnson and make sure political life continued.
But it's not the usual way to speak to a king, is it? And if you read on to v13 you'll see that the only reward Joab gets for his bluntness is the sack. But he's right, of course. That's what all the commentaries say. They point to the selfishness of David's grief, the dereliction of duty as king, the ingratitude to his troops. Joab is absolutely right.
Now I move towards my conclusion and resolution.
Let's pause there a moment. Absalom's death satisfies the demands of justice. He deserved to die. There must be at the heart of a moral universe accountability. The wicked must be punished. The actor Robert De Niro once wrote:"My joy as an actor is to live different lives without risking the real-life consequences." But you and I cannot live in the real world without real-life consequences. And we live with them all our lives. Many of us here wish there were words we could unsay and deeds we could undo. But we can't. It is part of the dignity of being human that we are accountable. And we would be horrified at the thought of a universe where that was not so.
There was in 1940 a massacre by some SS troops of 80 British troops who had surrendered during the retreat to Dunkirk. One of the suspects was acquitted recently in the German courts. And I heard a survivor of the massacre saying with understandable bitterness on the Radio, "He's laughing his head off." But it is the contention of the bible that he will not do so for ever, if he's guilty. That God cannot be mocked. That the demands of justice are insistent and will be heard in God's court.
So Joab is right. He's right politically and he's right morally. We ought to cheer when the king's enemy dies.
And yet. And yet. And yet. And yet while it is good news for the king when a rebel is destroyed, can it ever be good news for a father when his son dies? Can it? Can it really? For the king's enemy can only be destroyed if the king's son dies. The demands of justice could only be satisfied with the shattered longings of a father's love.
At this point I felt I had to do some theology arising from the relationship between David and Absalom.
Now David got just about everything wrong in his nurture of Absalom. He made every mistake a parent can make. And Absalom broke the 5th commandment almost every hour of his life. But, says David, he was still my son.
That blood tie is an extraordinary thing. I remember being moved to tears in the moments following our first child's birth. This little boy is my son. And whatever happens in the years ahead he will always be my son. For all his uniqueness, there is in him a likeness to me.
When Adam's son Seth is born, Genesis 5:3 uses that word likeness: Adam ... became the father of a son in his own likeness, ... and named him Seth. But two verses earlier Genesis reminds us that When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God.
And just as Adam looked on Seth with love, as a person in his own likeness, so God looks at every human being, as men and women made in the likeness of God.
The bible never teaches that God is the Father of all mankind. The privilege of adoption as a child of God is the privilege of the Christian. But there is in the heart of God the Father's longing love. This is why he does not want the sinner to die. He is not willing that any human being should perish. Each and every human being in this building tonight - Christian or not-yet-Christian - has an 'alien dignity', a value given you from outside, as made in the image and likeness of God. There are longings of God's love attached to you, whether you realise it or not.
The anguish of human grief is but a pale echo of the passionate love in the Father God's heart for you and for me. We should think of that in our pain sometimes.
But it's a terribly unsatisfying end to the story of Absalom, isn't it? All ragged and painful. Down-to-earth Joab with the demands of justice. Heart-broken David with the longings of love. But - let me ask - could you do better? Could you make up an ending which satisfies at the same time the longings of the Father's love and the demands of the King's justice? I can't.
It will tear the cosmos apart if it lies forever unresolved. A universe without justice would be a terrible place. A universe without love doesn't bear thinking about. It waited 1000 years for the ending to be written. And it tore the godhead apart when it was.
David spoke better than he knew, when in v33 he said, "Would I had died instead of you..."
A thousand years later great David's greater Son did just that. He died instead. And as he died the demands of justice were satisfied forever. And the longings of love could be fulfilled at last. The story of Absalom's death ends at the Cross of Jesus Christ. There is a Saviour, who because he has dealt with sin can deal gently with sinners. A Saviour whose Father longs to be Father to you and to me. We shall never plumb the cosmic depths of what Jesus achieved at the Cross. But our lives should be shaped by gratitude for what he did there.
I read very little that really helped me with this passage. But one very helpful commentary was by Walter Brueggemann (First and Second Samuel, Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990, 'Interpretation' series). Brueggemann makes some assumptions I regard as unwarranted as regards the historicity of the text, but he has a remarkably perceptive skill in drawing out the flow and dramatic tensions within the text as it stands. He does not however, here, move from the unresolved tension to the Cross of Christ.
Dale Ralph Davis 2 Samuel: Out of Every Adversity (Christian Focus, 1999)
is characteristically perceptive and readable on this passage, although I have pressed the whole-bible perspective somewhat further than he has done in the limited space available to him in a short commentary.
- 1 Corinthians
- 1 John
- 1 Samuel
- 1 Timothy
- 2 John
- 2 Kings
- 2 Samuel
- 3 John
- Biblical Theology
- New Testament
- Old Testament
- Old Testament Theology
- Song of Songs
- Wisdom Literature