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.
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!”
When Nathan the Prophet appeared before David, after he took Bathsheba, bedded her, and had her husband killed, the prophet told the king that things would go badly for him. He might not die, but there would be consequences. Such is the rest of the story. First one of his sons raped a half-sister (the sister of Absalom). This led to Absalom gaining revenge on Amnon, by having him killed. That led to Absalom’s exile, and later rebellion. I fact, Absalom at first gained the upper hand, getting himself crowned as Israel’s king in place of his father David, who ended up fleeing Jerusalem. That leads us to this week’s reading from 2 Samuel.
Many of us learned, as we grew up, that David was a man after God’s heart. We think of him as a righteous man, whose rightful successor (as Christians) is Jesus. If we attend to the story in 2 Samuel, we see a man who is not a great husband, father, and at times ruler. Perhaps the image of David the harp-playing song writer that has formed our opinion of him. It might be best to simply acknowledge that David was a complicated man—as we are also complicated human beings. There is light and there is darkness in each of us. Hopefully the good outweighs the bad, and perhaps it did with David, but we must admit that he might not be the best role model for our children.
Among those who came to believe that David was not only an unfit father, but an unfit ruler, was his son Absalom. Like his father Absalom was a beloved figure—handsome and strong, a true leader. He advisors, some of whom had advised David, who pushed him toward rebellion. Civil war has broken out between the tribes of Israel who have been persuaded that Absalom is a better choice than David. For his part, David raised an army led by three generals. In our passage for the week David’s forces defeat Absalom’s forces in battle.
The lectionary creators, as they often do, has chosen to abridge the reading, but we have enough to put things together. We have before us a reading composed of three parts—verses 5-9, verse 15, and verses 31-33.
The first part, verses 5-9, begins with David’s request that his generals deal gently with Absalom, that is, if they manage to defeat Absalom’s army. They are in fact successful in their battle. David’s army defeats Absalom’s army that was gathered from the tribes of Israel (remember that David had originally ruled only the tribe of Judah, only later, after Saul’s death, did he control the entire country), putting to flight Absalom and his troops that were not slaughtered in battle. The first section ends with Absalom, who was trying to escape through the forest, getting caught up in the branches of a tree. The passage isn’t clear as to what happened, but it is possible that his hair got caught up in the branches of a tree as he was quickly moving through the forest on his mule, which left him behind, hanging between heaven and earth.
Part two is but one verse, verse 15. We are told that Joab’s guard, Joab being David’s leading general, caught up with Absalom and found him hanging from the tree. Instead of being gentle with him, as David requested, Joab’s men choose to strike and kill him (this occurs after verse 14 suggests that Joab put three spears into Absalom’s heart, raising questions as to how there was enough life in him for the guards to kill). Thus, the rebellion is brought to a conclusion. Absalom met the fate that one would expect of the leader of a failed rebellion. David should be happy, correct? Perhaps not.
This leads us to the final section, verses 31-33. We’re told that a Cushite, one of Joab’s men, went to David to announce the “good news.” The Cushite declares: “the Lord has vindicated you this day, delivering you from the power of all who rose up against you.” That a man from Cush, in Africa, was part of Joab’s entourage, suggests that David’s army was made up of mercenaries. Of course, sending this man to deliver what Joab knew would be bad news, might have been a ploy to protect someone higher up, who would normally report David. After all, David has not always responded well to bad news. In any case, it is in his response to this news that we see the side of David we have come to love. He inquired as to the situation of his son Absalom. While the messenger joyously declares that Absalom is dead, David responds not with joy, but with grief.
When David heard the fate of his son, the one who had usurped his throne and rebelled against him, driving him from Jerusalem, he went away and wept. The words are moving: “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!” These are words that touch the hearts of parents. While not all parents would respond as did David, parents will grieve the death of a child, even a child who has chosen to disobey or rebel. This is flesh of one’s flesh, and bone of one’s bone. If we’re able, we can hear the pain present in David’s heart. Perhaps we have experienced something similar, and we can identify with him. Even if this isn’t our experience, we who are parents can feel the loss.
At the same time, the story does diminish David. As Arthur Van Seters notes, “in the overall story David is a leader of war; domestically he is a disaster.” This leads to the question of approach. Do we focus on the failed leader, whose army can win battles, but whose rule is problematic, or do we focus on “the domestic perspective of a persistent parental love even for a wayward offspring?” (Preaching God’s Transforming Justice,
p. 353). At the end we must admit that this is a rather unsettling story, as much of 2 Samuel is unsettling. As we give attention to the passage, we ought to reflection the militarization of our society. While I’m not a pacifist, I am deeply concerned about the way in which we seem quick to turn to violence to further our aims, both in the country of my citizenship and elsewhere in the world. Here again, there is the importance of grief, as a response to the tragedy of war.
As this reading is paired in the lectionary with Psalm 130,
we can hear David crying out from the depths: “Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications!” This cry of the heart is rooted in the hope that God’s steadfast love will redeem and sustain the one who cries out to God.
Picture attribution: Chagall, Marc, 1887-1985. David weeps for Absalom, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55329 [retrieved August 6, 2018]. Original source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/clicks2006/4150086667/.
Robert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan. He holds the Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of a number of books including Out of the Office (Energion, 2017), Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016), and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015) and blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.