Message for worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting, 8th of Eighth Month, 2021
Speaker: Brian Young
Scripture: II Samuel 18:5-10, 14-15, 31-33, NRSV
5 The king ordered Joab and Abishai and Ittai, saying, “Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.” And all the people heard when the king gave orders to all the commanders concerning Absalom. 6 So the army went out into the field against Israel; and the battle was fought in the forest of Ephraim. 7 The men of Israel were defeated there by the servants of David, and the slaughter there was great on that day, twenty thousand men. 8 The battle spread over the face of all the country; and the forest claimed more victims that day than the sword. 9 Absalom happened to meet the servants of David. Absalom was riding on his mule, and the mule went under the thick branches of a great oak. His head caught fast in the oak, and he was left hanging between heaven and earth, while the mule that was under him went on. 10 A man saw it, and told Joab, “I saw Absalom hanging in an oak.”
14 Joab said, “I will not waste time like this with you.” He took three spears in his hand, and thrust them into the heart of Absalom, while he was still alive in the oak. 15 And ten young men, Joab’s armor-bearers, surrounded Absalom and struck him, and killed him.
31 Then the Cushite came; and the Cushite said, “Good tidings for my lord the king! For the Lord has vindicated you this day, delivering you from the power of all who rose up against you.” 32 The king said to the Cushite, “Is it well with the young man Absalom?” The Cushite answered, “May the enemies of my lord the king, and all who rise up to do you harm, be like that young man.” 33 The king was deeply moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept; and as he went, he said, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”
David Mourning the Death of Absalom. Gustave Doré.
Good morning, Friends!
Today we’re going to conclude a brief series on the story of David. It will be some time before I speak again, and although there’s always more you could say, it seems best to try and tie things up here. Today we've stepped right into the middle of a civil war—Brian read us the account of 20,000 lives lost in one day. A very serious occasion. Obviously, much has happened in the story since our last look, so we'll need to recap at least a few details.
The last time we were with David, you'll remember it was in his throne room, when Nathan the prophet comes before him to indict him for having taken Bathsheba and murdered her husband Uriah. Part of the sentence from God that Nathan pronounces upon David is that “the sword shall never depart from your house... the Lord says, I will raise up trouble against you from within your own house; and I will take your wives before your eyes, and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this very sun” (II Sam 12:10a, 11). Since we last saw David, that sentence is coming true—in today's story, and in events leading up to it.
The human agent of David’s comeuppance is his own son, Absalom, who has turned against him and initiated a rebellion. This is the “young man” about whom David gives orders to his generals, that they should “deal gently with,” or protect, him. This is the leader of this rebellion—20,000 people are going to die—and yet David does not want his son harmed.
Absalom is more than simply “a young man,” of course; he is David's third son, born to him while David reigned in Hebron, and by this time a fully grown adult. He is his father's son in many ways—first of all, he is a nice-looking guy: “in all Israel there was no one to be praised so much for his beauty as Absalom; from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head there was no blemish in him...” (II Sam 14:25). It also says there that he cut his hair once a year, and he would always weigh the hair, and it was at least 200 shekels in weight. I don't know exactly how much that is, but he had a mane. In fact, we're meant to think of him as a Samson—the parallels to Samson are quite a few.
Second, Absalom is politically astute. When he begins his mutiny against his father, he does it by casting subtle aspersions on David's justice (II Sam 15:1–6). He gathers supporters in all the tribes of Israel by sidling up to them when they're coming into court and saying, you know, I understand what you're going through. I see the strength of your argument and if I were in a place to judge, I would judge for you... (He says this to just about everybody who comes in, which makes you wonder how he would judge cases where people had claims against one another.) Nonetheless, he's astute, there's no question about that. And because he gathers supporters throughout the nation of Israel, his army is identified as “Israel” in today's passage; he has supporters all over the map. David's army is simply “the servants of David”.
Now in some ways, Absalom goes beyond his father in his thirst for power: you might know that further back in the story, when David has been anointed as king by Samuel, but before David has been crowned—well, David can’t be crowned, because Saul still rules as king, even though David has been designated in his place. If you remember the story, you’ll remember how reticent David was to attack Saul and depose him. He held back for years, coming close enough to Saul on at least a couple of occasions that he could have killed him easily; and yet, because Saul was still the anointed one, David felt he couldn’t do then what Absalom is trying to do now.
In all this, it’s important to say that Absalom begins all this trouble because of a grave injustice, the rape of his sister Tamar by Amnon, their half-brother and another of David’s sons (II Sam 13:1-21). David does nothing to address this crime in his household, and that tragedy brings on more tragedy, as often happens.
And there is considerable irony here: Absalom's name, in Hebrew, is av shalom, which brings together the words for “father,” av, and the word for “peace,” shalom. The name could be translated in a variety of ways, perhaps “father of peace,” or “my father is peace.“ The best translation seems to be “father's peace,” “peace of the father.” For David, or any king, the promise of heirs is the most important thing there is—the assurance that his line will continue brings a peace like no other. So, the irony is that the one named “father's peace” is the one bringing war against his father.
Then we have Joab, one of the most complex characters in the entire Bible. Joab is David's foremost general; he follows David's orders, you remember, in having Uriah put in a position where he will die. Essentially, he is complicit in Uriah’s death on the front, in the siege of Rabbah of the Ammonites. So he follows David's orders; the foremost item on his agenda seems to be working for David's advantage, working to prolong David's reign, even when David himself is not concerned for that.
So he has to be calculating; in fact, his bent for calculation leads him to try to reconcile Absalom and David. In the middle of this story Joab actually brings Absalom back to Jerusalem, in the hope that they will reconcile and there will be peace. So Joab doesn't fight reflexively. He tries for peace, and David does forgive Absalom, but there does not seem to be a real reconciliation. It simply says he kisses Absalom, after Absalom waits for two years for David to even say hello to him (II Sam 14:25–33).
And then he is vengeful when things call for that, once Absalom is a threat and only a threat. The ironic thing is that Joab, the one who worked for reconciliation when he thought it would help the king, is the one who then turns to violence, when he estimates that that is the only thing that will now help.
This is not just an ironic story; this is also a tragic story. David's story has become tragic in a similar way to Saul's; yet we have the sense that David's is perhaps even more tragic because this tragedy could have been averted. If you remember Saul's story—again, Saul the first king, before David—the tragedy as I read it is that once the Lord has withdrawn favor from Saul, there seems to be nothing Saul can do. He is doomed, as the formerly anointed ruler who yet continues to rule, knowing that God has anointed someone else. But in David's case, there are a number of points in his larger story of with Absalom, where it seems like things could turn towards reconciliation. They had their chances! They had years in which to do something, but they didn't. Absalom is driven, first for vengeance and then for power, and this propels him and his father towards a final confrontation; and even there, we have a sense of hope, but that hope dies. Whether or not it fits the classical definition of tragedy, this story is tragic in that we can see things that could have turned out differently.
And where is God, in the midst of irony and tragedy? This is a chapter where God seems to be absent, except in the reports of the messengers as they credit the Lord for David's victory over his son. There is no prophet present here, Nathan or anyone else, telling David and us what the word of the Lord is. Indeed, in all of the intervening story since Nathan’s pronouncements in chapter 12, it seems that there has been no communication from God. David prays on one occasion, and in one place he bids his warriors to spare an opponent because he believes that God has bidden the man to act in that way. A number of others invoke the name of Israel’s God; but as I’m reading this, I can’t find a place where the narrator identifies discernible divine action. Where is God?
We could assume that God has stepped back, having pronounced the sentence upon David through Nathan, and then let things unfold as they will. This is sometimes how God appears to operate—acting by not acting. There are places in Scripture where it says that God will leave us to our own devices, allowing us to experience the consequences of our choices. Of course, there are plenty of places where the Biblical writers rail against God for allowing evildoers to prosper, when it would be only just for God to turn some of their evil back on them. This is a complex question, Friends, that I cannot hope to resolve in this message; but I do know that when I suffer the bad consequences of choices that I have made, almost always those were choices that I made without listening for God’s guidance—I am most likely to come to an ill harvest when I have run ahead of the Guide.
I want to return to that arresting image of Absalom “hanging between heaven and earth” by his hair—remember, the crowning glory of his physicality is what ensnares him in the midst of this great oak. (More irony.) Now, I don’t want to make too much of this, because to a large extent, the narrator is just giving us Absalom’s position. He’s stuck between the sky and the ground, unable to get out of a tree. Robert Alter suggests that Absalom here serves as a “microcosmic” metaphor, as one man standing in for the entire army: lost and disoriented in the forest, defeated by unfamiliar and hostile terrain, just as much as they are defeated by David’s army. Absalom is the emblem of that defeat.
But I wonder if we can also read this image as a metaphor for David’s story. As I’ve said previously, we’ve only been able to see a few brief sketches from his life, and there’s much more to it. But we have glimpsed that David was blessed by God in exceptional ways: the shepherd boy judged by his father to not even be worth consideration, yet singled out by God to be king; accompanied and anointed by prophets; eventually the one who makes Jerusalem Israel’s capital, and brings the Ark, the dwelling place of God, into the city—the point at which, in some people’s estimation, that earthly place becomes holy. And in terms of his character: some parts of David’s story that we haven’t read together show him to be capable of great compassion and mercy—while we know that the parts we have reviewed show his cruelty, selfishness, and willingness to use others for his own ends, even when that means murder.
In all of this, in all of the good and the bad of David, I read a story that tells of alternation between heaven and earth. At times David soars in the stratosphere, close to God, blessing those around him. At other times, he is bound to earth, in both triumph and tragedy: his political and military successes, the prerogatives of kingship, the getting and raising of heirs to the throne; and also the suffering, both his own and what he causes others to suffer due to the consequences of his desires.
But in the conclusion to this passage, we sit with David in the room above the gate, listening to his lamentation, to those few words, “Absalom, my son... Would I had died instead of you, my son Absalom...” Here he is in a space largely of his own making, suspended between heaven and earth—neither soaring, nor grounded. Here he is without the comfort of God’s presence, and also deprived of any possibility of peace with the son that, despite his rebellion and violence, David loved intensely. Oh, Absalom.
And of course, while there is more to his story, this is where we leave King David, in that space in between heaven and earth.
Sometimes we say that Christians read the Hebrew Bible through the lens of the New Testament, and so I have to ask what additional perspective that lens brings us in this story. Certainly, we trust that the prophets of Israel—Nathan and all the others—did not speak the last words from God, and that God's foremost Word was, and is, Christ Jesus. The Apostle Paul identifies Christ as the one who breaks down dividing walls of hostility between peoples (Eph 2:14). I trust that Christ is the ultimate expression of shalom, the ultimate expression of God's peace, wholeness, well-being for all peoples. Christ is av shalom—father's peace—in a way that Absalom was not able or willing to be, and that David was not, and that so many of us are not.
So one way that this caught-between-heaven-and-earth story of David and Absalom can serve is as a caution to us—a reminder that in many situations reconciliation is possible, much more possible than we would estimate—even for those as shrewd as General Joab. But in many of those situations, if we are to be involved in reconciliation, we cannot do it solely in our own power. Last week I suggested that we can’t really be ready to seek reconciliation until we have looked upon ourselves honestly, acknowledging our “honest ugliness”—knowing that the beam that is in my eye is more important than the speck in my sister’s eye. That spirit of honesty opens up our stuck places—places where we, ourselves, may be suspended between heaven and earth, without really touching either one. That spirit is the spirit of Christ. And that spirit is what empowers us to connect heaven and earth, for the blessing of both, and all who dwell therein.
David Mourning the Death of Absalom. Gustave Doré. Public Domain.
New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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