His Son Absalom
2 Samuel 14
It was fleshly sentiment, and not a concern for God’s glory, which moved David to authorize Joab to bring back Absalom. Some of our readers may regard this as a harsh verdict and say, "Possibly the writer is not a parent, if he were, perhaps he would better understand the case before him. Was not David actuated by love for his erring son? Surely God does not expect His people to be without natural affection." Ah, dear reader, the claims of the Lord are both high and comprehensive, and His requirements much more exacting than many like to recognize. Right eyes are to be plucked out and right hands cut off (Matthew 5:29,30)—things which are very dear to us—if they prove a hindrance to our treading the Narrow Way; and that is indeed a painful sacrifice, is it not?—so painful, that nothing short of the supernatural but sufficient grace of God can enable any of us thereunto.
"If any man come to Me," said the Lord Christ, "and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple" (Luke 14:26). No wonder that He bade intending disciples to "set down first and count the cost" (Luke 14:28). Christ will be Lord of all, or He will not be Lord at all. He requires the throne of our hearts, and all other interests and inclinations must bow before His sovereign will. Alas, how little are His claims emphasized today! How His holy standard has been lowered! How His Gospel has been cheapened! How maudlin sentimentality now ousts the principles of holiness in the great majority of those who bear His name! How those who endeavor, in their feeble way, to press the divine requirements are now condemned as being heartless and censorious.
"But surely a Christian is not required to become an unemotional stoic, devoid of all natural affection." No, indeed; grace in the heart does not harden, but softens. Nevertheless, holiness, and not carnal sentiment, is to dominate the Christian. Natural affections are not to be granted a lawless license, but are to be regulated by the precepts of Scripture. A Christian is permitted to lament the death of a fellow-believer, yet is he bidden to "sorrow not even as others which have no hope" (1 Thess. 4:13). We are exhorted to mortify "inordinate affection" (Col. 3:5), that is, lawless and excessive fondness. And sometimes we have to choose—as David did—between honoring God by an obedience which requires us to set aside the yearnings of nature, or dishonor Him by yielding to fleshly emotions: in such a case self (the natural man) is to be denied.
Take it on its lowest ground. Do not those parents defeat their own ends who, from a miscalled "love," fail to deal sternly with the disobedience and defiance of their little ones; and who when their children are grown up, wink at their sins? How many a shiftless youth, whose every whim is gratified by his doting mother, develops into a worthless wastrel! How many a flighty daughter is allowed her own way, under the pretext of "letting her have a good time," only to end in her becoming a woman of the streets! Even the natural man is responsible to bring his affections under the control of his judgment, and not let his heart run away with his head. But the child of God is to be regulated by far higher and holier principles, and is to subordinate the yearnings of nature to the glory of God by obeying His commandments.
Now in his ordering Joab to Fetch back Absalom from Geshur, David acted according to the dictates of "natural affection," and not out of any regard to the honor of the Lord. Joab knew how to work upon his weakness, as is evident from the success of his scheme through the woman of Tekoah. She so wrought upon his sentiments that he rashly gave a verdict in favor of the criminal depicted in her story; and then she persuaded him to restore his treacherous son. Yet nothing could possibly justify him in disregarding the divine law, which cried aloud for the avenging of Amnon. God had given no commandment for his son to be restored, and therefore His blessing did not attend it. David paid dearly for his foolish pity, as we shall see from the sequel; and that is recorded for our learning. God grant that some parents at least who read these lines will take this solemn lesson to heart.
"So Joab arose and went to Geshur, and brought Absalom to Jerusalem. And the king said, Let him turn to his own house, and let him not see my face. So Absalom returned to his own house, and saw not the king’s face" (vv. 23, 24). Previously we read that "David mourned for his son every day" and "the soul of king David was consumed (margin) to go forth unto Absalom" (13:37, 39), whereas now that he is brought back to Jerusalem orders are given that he must not see the kings face. What a strange thing human nature is! What expedients it will resort to and compromises it will make in order to save its face. Possibly some of the more godly of David’s counselors had demurred at his Routing of the Law, and maybe his own heart was uneasy over the step he had taken; and so as a sop to his conscience, and in order to quiet the censures of others, Absalom was confined to his own private dwelling.
Some writers are of the opinion that this measure of the king was designed for the humbling of his son, hoping that he would now be brought to see the heinousness of his sin and repent for it. But surely there had been sufficient time for that in his three years’ sojourn in Geshur. No, we believe that what we have pointed out above is the more likely explanation. By permitting Absalom to return to his own house David exercised mercy, and by denying him entrance to the court he made a show of justice, persuading himself by this interdict he evidenced his abhorrence of Amnon’s murder. Nevertheless the fact remained that, as chief magistrate in Israel, David had set aside the divine law. Therefore he must not be surprised if his wayward son now resorts to further lawlessness, for there is no escape from the outworking of the principle of sowing and reaping.
"But in all Israel there was none to be so much praised as Absalom for his beauty: from the sole of his foot even to the crown of his head there was no blemish in him" (v. 25). How this reveals the low state of the Nation at that time! Absalom was not esteemed for his moral worth, for he was utterly lacking in piety, wisdom, or justice. His handsome physique was what appealed to the people. His abominable wickedness was ignored, but his person was admired—which only served to increase his arrogance, ending in his utter ruin. Alas, how often a corrupt mind indwells a sound body. How sad it is to observe our decadent generation valuing physical beauty and prowess more highly than moral virtues and spiritual graces. The allowing of his luxuriant hair to grow to such a length, and then afterwards weighing it (v. 26), shows the pride and effeminacy of the man. The three sons born to him (v. 27) evidently died at an early age: see 18:18.
"So Absalom dwelt two full years in Jerusalem, and saw not the king’s face. Therefore Absalom sent for Joab, to have sent him to the king; but he would not come to him, and when he sent again the second time, he would not come" (vv. 28, 29). In the light of the immediate sequel it is clear that Absalom was chafing at his confinement (that he "sent for Joab" indicates he was virtually a prisoner in his own house) because it interfered with the development of his evil plans, and that the reason why he was anxious to be reconciled to the king was that he might obtain his liberty and thus be able to win the Nation over to himself. Probably this was the reason why Joab declined to visit him: suspecting his disloyal designs, knowing what a dangerous character he was to be at large.
"Therefore he said unto his servants, See Joab’s field is near mine and he hath barley there; go and set it on fire. And Absalom’s servants set the field on fire" (v. 30). He was still the same self-willed character: "who is lord over us?" being the language of all his actions. The three years he had spent at Geshur and his two years of isolation in Jerusalem had wrought no change in him: his heart was not humbled and his pride was not mortified. Instead of being thankful that his life has been spared, he deems himself sorely wronged for being secluded from the court. Instead of being grateful to Joab for bringing him back from Geshur, he now takes a mean revenge upon him because he refused his present request. Such conduct displayed a self-will that would brook no denial; a man of violence ready to go to any lengths in order to have his own way. The fear of God was not in him, nor had he any respect for his neighbor.
"Then Joab arose, and came to Absalom unto his house, and said unto him, Wherefore have thy servants set my field on fire?" (v. 31). At first sight it seems strange after twice refusing to see Absalom, that now, after being insulted and injured, Joab should grant his request, and mediate for him with the king; yet a little reflection will make it clear. Joab was a shrewd politician, with his finger on the public’s pulse, and he knew full well that Absalom stood high in the favor of the people (v. 25): and now that he had further proof of the fury and power of the man—his servants being ready at his bidding to do violence unto the property of the general of the army!—he was afraid further to cross his will; and probably, with an eye to the future, he also wished to keep in his good books.
"And Absalom answered Joab, Behold, I sent unto thee, saying. Come hither, that I may send thee to the king, to say, Wherefore am I come From Geshur? it had been good for me to have been there still: now therefore let me see the king’s face; and if there be any iniquity in me, let him kill me" (v. 32). What an arrogant and insolent attitude to assume toward his royal parent: one which manifested the grossest ingratitude, a contempt for the king’s authority, and a deliberate challenge for him to enforce the law. Rightly did Matthew Henry point out, "His message was haughty and imperious, and very unbecoming either a son or a subject. He undervalued the favour that had been shown him in recalling him from banishment, and restoring him to his own house. He denies his own crimes, though most notorious, and will not own that there was any iniquity in him, insinuating that, therefore, he had been wronged in the rebukes he had been under. He defies the king’s justice, ‘Let him kill me, if he can find it in his heart,’ knowing he loved him too well to do it."
"So Joab came to the king, and told him: and when he had called for Absalom, he came to the king, and bowed himself on his face to the ground before the king; and the king kissed Absalom" (v. 33). Alas, notwithstanding his insulting rudeness Absalom prevailed upon the king to yield. His better judgment blinded by intemperate affection for his son, David invited Absalom to the palace. By prostrating himself before the king Absalom feigned submission to his authority, yet his heart was full of base designs to secure the throne for himself. David sealed his pardon with a kiss, instead of allowing the Law to take its course. As another has well said. "David’s inordinate tenderness only paved the way for Absalom’s open rebellion. Terrible warning! Deal tenderly with evil, and it will, assuredly, rise to a head and crush you in the end. On the other hand, meet evil with a face of flint, and victory is sure. Sport not with the serpent, but at once crush it beneath your feet."
Whilst all this trouble was brewing around David a strange passiveness seems to have crept over him, and to have continued till his flight before Absalom. The narrative is singularly silent about him. He appears to be paralyzed by the consciousness of his past sins: he originated nothing. He dared not punish Amnon, and could only weep when he heard of Absalom’s crime. He weakly craved for the return of the latter, but could not bring himself to send for him till Joab urged it. A flash of his old kingliness appeared for a moment in his refusal to see his son, but even that vanished when Joab chose to insist that Absalom should return to the court. He had no will of his own, but had become a mere tool in the hands of his fierce general—Joab having gained this hold over him by his complicity in Uriah’s murder. At every step he was dogged by the consequences of his own wrong-doings, even though God had pardoned his sins.
Beautifully did Alexander Maclaren, in his little work, "The Life of David as reflected in his Psalms," throw light upon this particular stage of his career, and we feel we cannot do our readers a better service than close this chapter with a rather lengthy quotation therefrom. "It is not probable that many Psalms were made in those dreary days. But the forty-first and fifty-fifth are with reasonable probability, referred to this period by many commentators. They give a very touching picture of the old king during the four years in which Absalom’s conspiracy was being hatched. It seems from the forty-first that the pain and sorrow of his heart had brought on some serious illness, which his enemies had used for their own purposes and embittered by hypocritical condolences and ill-concealed glee. The sensitive nature of the Psalmist winces under their heartless desertion of him, and pours our its plaint in this pathetic lament. He begins with a blessing on those who ‘consider the afflicted’—having reference, perhaps, to the few who were faithful to him in his languishing sickness. He passes thence to his own case, and, after humble confession of his sin—almost in the words of the fifty-first Psalm—he tells how his sick bed had been surrounded by different visitors.
"His disease drew no pity, but only fierce impatience that he lingered in life so long. ‘Mine enemies speak evil of me—when will he die, and his name have perished?’ One of them, in especial, who must have been a man in high position to gain access to the sick chamber, has been conspicuous by his lying words of condolence. ‘If he come to see me, he speaketh vanity.’ The sight of the sick king touched no cord of affection, but only increased the traitor’s animosity—‘his heart gathered evil to itself’—and then, having watched his pale face for wished-for unfavorable symptoms, the false friend hurries from the bedside to talk of his hopeless illness—‘he goeth abroad, he telleth it.’ The tidings spread, and are stealthily passed from one conspirator to another: ‘all that hate me whisper together against me.’ They exaggerate the gravity of his condition, and are glad because, making the wish the father to the thought, they believe him dying—‘a thing of Belial’ (i.e. a destructive disease) say they, ‘is poured out upon him, and now that he lieth, he shall rise up no more.
"We should be disposed to refer the thirty-ninth Psalm also to this period. It, too, is the meditation of one in sickness, which he knows to be a divine judgment for his sin. There is little trace of enemies in it; but his attitude is that of silent submission, while wicked men are disquieted around him—which is precisely the characteristic peculiarity of his conduct at this period. It consists of two parts (vv. 1-6 and 7-13), in both of which the subjects of his meditations are the same, but the tone of them different. His own sickness and mortality, and man’s fleeting, shadowy life, are his themes. The former has led him to think of the latter.
"It may be observed that this supposition of a protracted illness, which is based upon these Psalms, throws light upon the singular passiveness of David during the maturing of Absalom’s conspiracy, and may naturally be supposed to have favoured his schemes, an essential part of which was to ingratiate himself with suitors who came to the king for judgment, by affecting great regret that no man was deputed of the king to hear them. The accumulation of untried causes, and the apparent disorganization of the judicial machinery, are well accounted for by David’s sickness."