O Absalom! (Sermon)

“O Absalom!”

2 Samuel 18

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church


Then David mustered the men who were with him, and set over them commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds.2And David divided the army into three groups: one third under the command of Joab, one third under the command of Abishai son of Zeruiah, Joab’s brother, and one third under the command of Ittai the Gittite. The king said to the men, “I myself will also go out with you.”

3But the men said, “You shall not go out. For if we flee, they will not care about us. If half of us die, they will not care about us. But you are worth ten thousand of us; therefore it is better that you send us help from the city.”

4The king said to them, “Whatever seems best to you I will do.”

So the king stood at the side of the gate, while all the army marched out by hundreds and by thousands. 5The 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.

6So the army went out into the field against Israel; and the battle was fought in the forest of Ephraim. 7The men of Israel were defeated there by the servants of David, and the slaughter there was great on that day, twenty thousand men. 8The battle spread over the face of all the country; and the forest claimed more victims that day than the sword.

9Absalom 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.

10A man saw it, and told Joab, “I saw Absalom hanging in an oak.”

11Joab said to the man who told him, “What, you saw him! Why then did you not strike him there to the ground? I would have been glad to give you ten pieces of silver and a belt.”

12But the man said to Joab, “Even if I felt in my hand the weight of a thousand pieces of silver, I would not raise my hand against the king’s son; for in our hearing the king commanded you and Abishai and Ittai, saying: For my sake protect the young man Absalom! 13On the other hand, if I had dealt treacherously against his life (and there is nothing hidden from the king), then you yourself would have stood aloof.”

14Joab 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. 15And ten young men, Joab’s armor-bearers, surrounded Absalom and struck him, and killed him. 16Then Joab sounded the trumpet, and the troops came back from pursuing Israel, for Joab restrained the troops. 17They took Absalom, threw him into a great pit in the forest, and raised over him a very great heap of stones.

Meanwhile all the Israelites fled to their homes.

18Now Absalom in his lifetime had taken and set up for himself a pillar that is in the King’s Valley, for he said, “I have no son to keep my name in remembrance”; he called the pillar by his own name. It is called Absalom’s Monument to this day.

19Then Ahimaaz son of Zadok said, “Let me run, and carry tidings to the king that the Lord has delivered him from the power of his enemies.”

20Joab said to him, “You are not to carry tidings today; you may carry tidings another day, but today you shall not do so, because the king’s son is dead.”

21Then Joab said to a Cushite, “Go, tell the king what you have seen.” The Cushite bowed before Joab, and ran.

22Then Ahimaaz son of Zadok said again to Joab, “Come what may, let me also run after the Cushite.”

And Joab said, “Why will you run, my son, seeing that you have no reward for the tidings?”

23“Come what may,” he said, “I will run.”

So he said to him, “Run.” Then Ahimaaz ran by the way of the Plain, and outran the Cushite.

24Now David was sitting between the two gates. The sentinel went up to the roof of the gate by the wall, and when he looked up, he saw a man running alone. 25The sentinel shouted and told the king.

The king said, “If he is alone, there are tidings in his mouth.”

He kept coming, and drew near. 26Then the sentinel saw another man running; and the sentinel called to the gatekeeper and said, “See, another man running alone!”

The king said, “He also is bringing tidings.”

27The sentinel said, “I think the running of the first one is like the running of Ahimaaz son of Zadok.”

The king said, “He is a good man, and comes with good tidings.”

28Then Ahimaaz cried out to the king, “All is well!” He prostrated himself before the king with his face to the ground, and said, “Blessed be the Lord your God, who has delivered up the men who raised their hand against my lord the king.”

29The king said, “Is it well with the young man Absalom?” Ahimaaz answered, “When Joab sent your servant, I saw a great tumult, but I do not know what it was.”

30The king said, “Turn aside, and stand here.” So he turned aside, and stood still.

31Then 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.”

32The 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.”

33The 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!”  (NRSV)

Absalom’s death and David’s reaction to it pulse with real-world pathos. It can make you want to grab someone you love and hold on for dear life. It’s no isolated tragedy, though. This story represents the culmination of years of one family’s lust-charged violence, poisonous vengeance, and shameless treason. And all this dysfunction stems from the family’s basic bankruptcy: Their failure to learn the difficult but life-giving art of forgiveness.

Let’s recall some of the backstory.

Not long after David claims kingly power, power claims the king. When he sees the beautiful Bathsheba, David sends servants to find out who she is. He learns that she is the wife of Uriah, one of one of David’s military leaders.

Bring her to me, anyway, he says.

A month later, Bathsheba sends word to David that she’s pregnant. David immediately sends for Uriah, planning to get the husband to enjoy a little R&R at home with the wife, thereby covering the king’s entitlement-fueled betrayal. Faithful to his fellow soldiers and oblivious to the state of affairs, Uriah refuses to take time for things his men cannot enjoy. A desperate David arranges a front-line assignment for the cuckolded warrior. Had Uriah volunteered for that post, it would have been a suicide mission. On David’s order, it becomes murder.

Later, when David’s children are grown, his son Amnon takes a shine to his own half-sister, Tamar, who is a full sister to Absalom. With the help of his servants, Amnon orchestrates some alone time with Tamar. After forcing himself on his sister, Amnon does what spoiled and selfish men usually do when they have used women for their own pleasure. He throws Tamar out with cruel disgust.

In that misogynistic culture that faults women who suffer sexual violence, Tamar takes a profound risk. She reveals her shame to someone with enough power either to protect her, but who could kill her. She tells her brother, Absalom. He takes her in, and immediately begins to plot the assassination of their brother, Amnon.

All this is right there in the Bible. The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God?!

Having avenged Tamar’s rape, Absalom must flee Jerusalem and his father’s wrath. It takes David three years to invite Absalom to return, but it takes him two more years to welcome his fratricidal son back into his presence and to offer forgiveness. The two meet, but it’s too little, too late. David’s forgiveness only releases Absalom into his next mischief.

Finally free to move about, the handsome and charismatic Absalom begins a subversive political campaign. He tells disaffected Israelites, You know, if I were king, I’d take better care of you than David does.

Four years later, Absalom asks David for permission to go to Hebron so that he might make good on a promise to God. But it’s a ruse. At Hebron, the site of David’s anointing, Absalom gathers a majority of Hebrews and declares himself king of Israel.

Outnumbered now, David flees Jerusalem. After two-and-a-half chapters of political espionage and prophetic intrigue, we get to the story of Absalom’s brutal execution at the hands of Joab and his lieutenants.

Staring up at the ravaged, lifeless body of the king’s son swinging from a tree by his luxurious hair, Joab, who has done what David publicly asked him not to do, sends a lowly Cushite to break the news. Messengers who bring news of a king’s personal tragedy are often killed. But hearing of his son’s death, all David can do is to heave cries of overpowering grief and devastating guilt.

“O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”

There’s a fascinating observation in this story. It invites reflection into the often furious realities of life. The storyteller informs us that when David’s and Absalom’s armies meet: “The battle spread over the face of all the country; and the forest claimed more victims that day than the sword.”

The primordial forest of vengeance, envy, resentment, and greedy power reduces virtually everyone to predator or prey. And combatants know for sure which one they are only at the moment when they take a life or lose their own. And if they survive that moment, everything may change the next.

Samuel understood this when he cautioned Israel about demanding a king so that they would be “like other nations.”

Think carefully about this, says Samuel. A king will only lead you deeper into the forest of vengeance, envy, resentment, and greedy power. If you become like other nations, you’ll find yourselves demoted from God’s Image Bearers to predators and prey. Worldly kings survive by manipulating people with fear and by ravaging them with the sword. They’ll regard you and your children as Cushites, as expendable resources. But suit yourself.

It seems to me that as long as individuals, communities, and nations choose to homestead in that graceless forest, we will continue to deal deviously and violently with each other. And as long as those in power benefit from the disarray caused by such arrangements, they will call them good, or even blessings. But if power, wealth, and the means of violence are blessings, they are the blessings of idols. And idol worship inevitably leads one generation to bequeath its destructive ways to the next. It’s a sad, deadly, and all-too predictable cycle.   

In his song “Absalom, Absalom,” singer/songwriter Pierce Pettis paraphrases David’s lament this way:

You were the laughing boy who danced upon my knee.
You learned to play the harp and use the shepherd’s sling.
Always watching, my impressionable son,
Oh, Absalom, what have I done?

You were watching when I took a good man’s wife,
Gave the order for his murder just to cover up the crime.
All the vanity, cruel arrogance, and greed,
Oh Absalom, you learned it all from me.1

When Absalom dies in that forest, something in all of Israel dies. And we are all, still trying to learn that God is not a mere projection of our own pride, to learn that being chosen by Yahweh has nothing to do with entitlement. God has chosen Israel, and us, to serve as a visible witness to all Creation, a witness to the eternal strength of grace, which God manifests most memorably and most transformingly in the gift of forgiveness.

Forgiveness is about more than dismissing past offenses. To give and receive forgiveness is to hitch our wagons to the open-ended future of love.

The first death and resurrection of Jesus happens at his temptation. After facing down his own internal David and Absalom, Jesus returns from the wilderness—from the primordial forest. He returns, cured of any desire to live as a greedy, fearful, and vengeful predator.

At that first resurrection, God cries, You are my son, my beloved son!

From that point on, Jesus lives as prey. To predators, his grace smells like weakness, and they come running. Yet even when the predators kill him, God remains committed to forgiveness and love.

And on Easter morning God cries, O Humanity, my child! I have died and risen that you might live! O Humanity, my child, my beloved child!

1From Pierce Pettis’ album Making Light of It. https://www.piercepettis.com/music

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