The Absalom Tragedy (Preaching 2 Samuel 14 – 25 part 2)

“A short-lived Reconciliation” (2 Samuel 14)

In 2 Samuel 14, Joab seeks to get Absalom restored to court and reconciled with his father.  Is this the right thing to do? Given how we know the story turns out, we would suggest in hindsight that it looks unwise but something may be the right thing to do even if it brings painful consequences.

Joab’s methods are underhand but I also think we can detect some echoes from the past as Joab uses the wise woman to tell David a parable, we are reminded of Nathan the prophet’s appearance before David with a parable about sheep farmers following David’s adultery with Bathsheba.

Whether or not David’s decision and Joab’s advice is wise here in human terms, we can say two things.

  1. That forgiveness and reconciliation are good things to aim for.
  2. That our motivation to be reconciled to others is rooted in God’s forgiveness and reconciliation to us which unlike here is full, effective and permanent.

Our focal point is verse 14.

14 All of us must die eventually. Our lives are like water spilled out on the ground, which cannot be gathered up again. But God does not just sweep life away; instead, he devises ways to bring us back when we have been separated from him.

“Insurrection” (2 Samuel 15)

Absalom conspires to take the kingdom from his father.  He takes advantage of an opportunity that presents itself to him. He meets people who are coming with their complaints and grievances looking for justice and expresses his concern for their case, his desire to help them and sadness at their inability to get justice because the King and his servants are too busy.

Here are some things to pick up on from verses 1-6.

  1. There is the challenge when leaders are busy. This can become a pretext for grumbling. I am assuming that there must have been some truth in Absalom’s claim for this to be readily accepted although it is possible that he simply cuts off people who would have been seen and heard if he had not got in the way.  Back in Exodus 18 Jethro observes Moses’s attempt to provide justice for Israel and sees that he is being overwhelmed. This will exhaust Moses and the people, warns Jethro. Unlike Absalom, he acts out of concern for Moses and the people and proposes a solution. Absalom uses the situation to stir up trouble.
  2. Absalom puts on an incredible act. He appears sympathetic, he subtly puts blame onto David. He manages to portray himself both as powerful, charismatic and successful(v1) but also humble, approachable, a man of the people (v5). It is all an act. One application is for those who get involved in leadership and pastoral care to watch their own motives and attitudes to other leaders. Another application is for all of us to watch out for those whose intention is to cause division.  Sadly people like that can show up even in churches. When someone starts to set themselves up as the “go to person” then watch out. What are their motives. This is especially true when they seek to isolate people away from God’s Word and from those set apart to teach God’s Word and care for God’s people.
  3. We also want to take this further by considering how Absalom’s behaviour imitates the spiritual warfare we face. Satan’s tactics are the same as he seeks to undermine our confidence in God alone

These observations will help us to think through some pastoral/ethical applications from the passage. At the same time, we want to keep being reminded that God is using Absalom to discipline David in response to his sin. This horrendous situation is a direct consequence of David’s own abuse of authority in the pursuit of power and pleasure.

David escapes Jerusalem, he crosses the Kidron and goes to the Mount of Olives. Christians will not be able to read this without thinking about Jesus on the night of his betrayal heading across the same river and towards the Mount of Olives.  We should not be surprised by this. God is the author of the whole story and I believe we are right to see a form of foreshadowing here.  Jesus as David’s descendent is the one who in Gethsemane finds himself betrayed.

Although on one level this is just judgement for David. There are other clues that help us to evaluate the rightness and wrongness of the actors in the story. David heads towards the Mount of Olives where people worship (presumably at some point there was an altar there) with the Ark of the Covenant. He chooses to return the Ark but does so as one trusting in God righteous judgement. The sense here is that David is the one acting as righteous by demonstrating faith in the living God. David and his companions are weeping/mourning. There is a sense that these are “the poor in Spirit.”

“Cursed and Exiled” (2 Samuel 16-17)

David is met by two people Ziba and Shimei. One brings provisions and the other mocks David. There are different responses but the link between the two is that they belonged to Saul’s household. Ziba says that his master Mephibosheth is expecting the kingdom to come back to Saul’s dynasty and to him now (although this version of events will be challenged later). The content of Shimei’s curse is that this is vengeance for David’s dealings with Saul’s household. David willingly accepts the cursing as part of his discipline. However, Shimei and Mephibosheth (if he really did believe this) were wrong.  This had nothing to do with Saul, David had always acted righteously towards him and his dynasty was not being restored.

Application includes:

  1. We should be wary of jumping to conclusions it is only the light of direct revelation (specifically scripture) that we can assess events. We should beware those who are all to willing to misunderstand and misrepresent events to their own advantage. This includes those who make spiritual pronouncements about God’s judgement without any basis. It also includes those who are quick to see conspiracies and second guess the motives of others.
  2. The supporters of Saul think there is an opportunity here for their own advantage, Spiritual warfare means that God’s enemies and specifically God’s enemy loves to seek opportunities from the weakness and divisions among God’s people for his agenda. We must be alert to this and not create opportunities for those who oppose the Gospel to gain a foothold.
  3. David willingly bears the reproach of Shimei. Vengeance belongs to the Lord and whilst it is frustrating, we can trust God to answer our opponents in his time. We do not need to rush to vindicate ourselves.
  4. David is scoffed and abused and sees this as just discipline. Jesus bore the scoffing and reproach of men unjustly but for us.

David has his own people in the City now. They are used to bring some confusion to Absalom’s plans to delay him and to warn David.

“A Tragic Victory” (2 Samuel 18)

Joab who had brought Absalom back now ensures his death. Joab’s loyalty remained to David. Though often, Joab decides himself what is best for David.  Is it also what is best for Joab?

I’ve titled this section “A tragic victory” because although we see God restoring David and giving him victory we also see another aspect of the judgement from Bathsheba as a third son (the child, Amnon and now Absalom) is taken from him. The chapter ends with David mourning his son.

It has been suggested that there are two main types of story arch, comedy and tragedy. We see this particularly in Greek literature and Shakespeare’s plays.

A comedy as a literary style is not labelled as such because it is full of humour and jokes. Rather, it is essentially a story where the situation at the end is better than at the start even if the hero of the tale must go through tough times and loss along the way. Think of how Joseph is made ruler of Egypt or how Job ends up with greater wealth at the end than at the start for Biblical examples. Shakespeare concludes his comedies with a wedding feast (hold that thought). Good examples include A Midsummer Night’s Dream, A comedy of errors, All’s well that ends well and Much Ado About nothing.

A tragedy by contrast operates on a downward trajectory so that the ending is worse than the beginning often ending in death, think Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet and The Tempest.  The real life story Absalom fits with the “Tragedy” genre. By the way, it shouldn’t surprise us that real historical events also conform to literary genre, Shakespeare’s historical plays about Julius Caesar and Anthony and Cleopatra also fit with the genre.  What we are seeing in Scripture s that God is the great story teller.  David’s sin ushers in tragedy because sin leads to destruction.

However, although we see Absalom’s story as tragedy, it is a story within a greater, larger story. We need to look at the whole story of Redemption to see what type of a story it is. Peter Leithart as identified it as “Deep Comedy.” The greatest Comedy. It’s a story that starts with a garden and goes through the pain of the Fall. It’s a story that sees the true King rejected and turned against. It’s a love story about the Bridegroom who seeks out his bride despite her unfaithfulness and rejection of him. It’s a comedy because the ending is more glorious than the beginning. Rebels are restored, reconciled and forgiven, the Garden becomes a Garden City and yes, you’ve guessed it, the story finishes with a marriage and the Wedding Feast of the Lamb.