His Inordinate Grief
2 Samuel 18
Man is a composite creature, possessing a soul as well as a spirit. God has bestowed upon him an emotional nature as well as a rational principle. True, in some persons the passions are much stronger, while in others the intellectual faculty is more prominent; but whichever be the case, we should seek to preserve the balance between their play and interplay. The emotions must not be allowed to run away with us, for if they do we shall be incapacitated for clear thinking and prudent acting. On the other hand, the emotions are not to be utterly crushed, or we shall degenerate into callous cynics and cold intellectual machines. There is a happy medium between epicureanism and stoicism, yet it can only be attained by constant watchfulness and self-discipline. The regular management of our unruly passions is essential if we are to obtain the mastery of them, and not be mastered by them.
Stoicism or the complete suppression of our emotions receives no countenance from the teachings of Holy Writ. How could it, seeing that the Author of Scripture is the One who has endowed us with an emotional nature! God’s Word and His works do not contradict each other. Let it be remembered that it is recorded of the Perfect Man that He wept by the graveside of Lazarus and made lamentation over the doomed city of Jerusalem. He who created muscles in the face which are only called into action by a hearty laugh and a tear-duct for the eye, meant that each should be used in their season. They who are physically incapable of breaking out into a healthy sweat, suffer far more than those who perspire freely in hot weather; and they who weep not when a great sorrow overtakes them, incur the danger of something snapping in their brains. Laughter and tears are nature’s safety valves; they ease nervous tensions, much as an electric storm relieves a heavily-charged atmosphere.
Nevertheless, it remains that our emotions are to be disciplined and regulated. "Keep thy heart with all diligence" (Prov. 4:23): an essential part of the task that involves, is the government of our passions and emotions—anger is to be curbed, impatience subdued, covetousness checked, grief and joy tempered. One of the things we are bidden to mortify is "inordinate affection" (Col. 3:5), and that includes not only unholy lustings, but also excessive desires after lawful things. "Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth" (Col. 3:2); that does not mean it is wrong for us to have any love for earthly objects, but it does mean that such love is to be regulated and subordinated to divine and spiritual things. Responsibility attaches as much to our inner life as it does to our outward.
Rejoicing and merrymaking are seasonable at a wedding or a birth, while grief and lamentation are natural at the death of a loved one; yet even on such occasions we are required to hold our emotions within due bounds. If on the one hand we are bidden to "rejoice with trembling" (Ps. 2:11), on the other hand we are exhorted to "sorrow not, even as others who have no hope" (1 Thess. 4:13). The subject is admittedly a delicate one, yet is it one of practical importance. Intemperate grief is as unjustifiable as is intemperate joy. The hand of God is to be viewed in that which occasions the one as truly as that which occasions the other: if He is the One who gives, He is equally the One who takes away; and the more the heart recognizes this, the less likely are we to overstep the bounds of propriety by yielding to uncontrolled passion.
That God takes notice of inordinate grief may be seen from the case of Samuel mourning for Saul. Samuel is one of the brightest characters of which we have recorded in Scripture, yet he failed at this point. The thought of God’s having rejected Saul from being king, so moved the bowels of natural affection in the prophet that he sat up all night weeping for him (1 Sam. 15:11), yea, he continued mourning until the reproof of heaven stopped the torrent of his tears. "And the Lord said unto Samuel, How long wilt thou mourn for Saul, seeing I have rejected him from reigning over Israel?" (1 Sam. 16:1)—had such grief been acceptable to God, He surely had not rebuked him for the same! This incident is recorded for our learning and warning.
The hour of emergency is what usually brings to light that which is to be found within us. It is not the ordinary routine of life, but the crises which revealed character: not that the crisis changes or makes the man, but rather that it affords opportunity to display the benefits of previous discipline or the evils of the lack of the same. Therefore it is of little or no use to bid a person control himself or herself when deeply agitated over an unusual experience, for one who has never learned to govern himself day by day, cannot begin doing so under exceptional circumstances. Here, then, is the answer to the question, How am I, especially if of passionate nature, to avoid inordinate joy or sorrow? A person cannot change his disposition, but he can greatly modify it, if he will take pains to that end.
"He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty: and he that ruleth his spirit than he that taketh a city" (Prov. 16:32): it is this ruling of our spirits which is the subject we are attempting to develop: the mind perceiving the needs and the will exerting itself to govern our emotions. Inordinate grief is the outcome of inordinate love, and therefore we need to watch closely over our affections and bring reason to bear upon them. We must discipline ourselves daily and control our emotions over little things, if we are to control ourselves in the crises of life. As the twig is bent, so the bough grows. The longer we allow bur passions to run riot, the harder will it be to gain control of them. Much can be done by parents in training the child to exercise self-control and be temperate in all things.
Does not the reader now perceive the practical importance of what has been before us? How many there are who go entirely to pieces when some grief or calamity overtakes them. And why is this? Because they have no self-control: they have never learned to govern their emotions. But can we rule our spirits? Certainly; yet not in a moment, nor by spasmodic efforts, but only by the practice of daily and strict self-discipline. From the habit, then, of keeping tab on your desires, and check them immediately you find they are going out after forbidden objects. Watch your affections, and bring reason to bear upon them: see that they do not become too deeply attached to anything down here: remember the more highly you prize an object, the more keenly will you feel the loss of it. Seek to cultivate a mild and even disposition, and when provoked, assure yourself such a trifle is unworthy of perturbation. Paul could say, "all things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any" (1 Cor. 6:12)—that was his own determination.
The pertinency of what has been before us will appear as we resume our consideration of David. The reader will remember that we last viewed him disposing of his forces, and then commanding his generals, "Deal gently for my sake with the young man, even with Absalom" (2 Sam. 18:1-5). Two things are to be noted. First, David was under no qualms of the issue of the conflict, no fear that the battle would go against him. As we pointed out in a previous chapter, Psalms 42 and 43 (composed at this time) show that he had overcome his despondency and doubts, and again had confidence in God. Second, we behold again the doting father: not only in referring to Absalom as "the young man" (he had had at least four children: 14:27), but in laying such an unlawful charge upon his officers he allowed sentiment to override the requirements of righteousness.
"And David sat between the two gates: and the watchman went up to the roof over the gate unto the wall, and lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold a man running alone" (2 Sam. 18:24). What a pathetic picture is presented her: the aged king and tender parent anxiously waiting for news? He must have known, deep down in his heart, that the providence of God would execute that just punishment which he had been too weak to inflict upon the evil doer; yet, doubtless, he hoped against hope that the guilty one would escape. Moreover, as he sat there with plenty of time for meditation, he must have reflected upon his own sins, and how they were responsible for this unhappy conflict, which seriously threatened to permanently split the Nation into two opposing factions. If only we would look ahead more and anticipate the consequences of our actions, how often we should be deterred from entering upon a mad and sinful course.
"And the watchman cried, and told the king. And the king said, If he be alone, there is tidings in his mouth. And he came apace, and drew near. And the watchman saw another man running: and the watchman called unto the porter, and said, "Behold another man running alone. And the king said, He also bringeth tidings" (vv. 25, 26). Within a short time at most the king’s anxiety was to be relieved, and he would know the best or the worst. When the watchman upon the walls reported that a single runner was approaching, followed by another lone individual, David knew that his forces had not been defeated, for in that case, his men had fled before the enemy in confusion, and had come back in scattered groups. These persons were evidently special messengers, bringing report to the king: God had prohibited the multiplying of horses in Israel, so that these couriers came on foot.
"And the watchman said, Me thinketh the running of the foremost is like the running of Ahimaaz the son of Zadok. And the king said, He is a good man, and cometh with good tidings" (v. 27). It will be remembered that Joab had first dispatched Cushi and then had yielded to the importunity of Ahimaaz to follow him, but the latter taking a short cut and being the swifter of the two, "overran Cushi" (v. 23). Upon hearing that the son of the priest was approaching, David concluded he was the bearer of favorable news. As other writers have pointed out, this illustrates an important principle: those who bear good tidings should themselves be good men. Alas, what incalculable harm has often been wrought and the Gospel brought into contempt by the inconsistent and worldly lives of many who proclaim it. How needful it is that the servants of Christ should practice what they preach, and secure the confidence of those who hear them by reputation for integrity and righteousness. "In all things showing thyself a pattern of good works" (Titus 2:7).
"And Ahimaaz called, and said unto the king, All is well. And he fell down to the earth upon his face before the king, and said, Blessed be the Lord thy God, which hath delivered up the men that lifted up their hand against my lord the king" (v. 28). Truly this was "a good man" indeed, who both feared God and honored the king (1 Peter 2:17). First, his "all is well" was to assure David that his forces had been successful; then he rendered obeisance to his royal master, and honored God by ascribing the victory to Him. This was both pious and prudent, for his words were calculated to turn David’s mind from Absalom unto the Lord, who had so mercifully interposed to defeat his counsels. Herein is a most important lesson to be heeded by those who have to break the news of the death of a loved one: seek to direct the heart of the grief stricken to Him in whose hands alone the "the issues from death" (Ps. 68:20).
"And the king said, Is the young man Absalom safe? And Ahimaaz answered, When Joab sent the king’s servant, and me thy servant, I saw a great tumult, but I knew not what it was. And the king said unto him, Turn aside, and stand here. And he turned aside, and stood still" (vv. 29, 30). David’s question showed he was more concerned about the welfare of his wicked son than he was over the well-being of his kingdom: that was natural no doubt, nevertheless it was a serious failure—those who serve the public are often called on to set aside their own private feelings and interests. Ahimaaz avoided giving a direct reply to the king: he was deeply attached to him, and no doubt wished to spare his feelings as far as possible; yet that did not excuse him if he resorted to prevarication. We are never justified in telling an untruth: no, not even to relieve the suspense of an anxious soul or to comfort a bereaved one.
"And, behold, Cushi came; and Cushi said, Tidings, my lord the king: for the Lord hath avenged thee this day of all them that rose up against thee. And the king said unto Cushi, Is the young man Absalom safe? And Cushi answered, The enemies of my lord the king, and all that rise against thee to do thee hurt, be as that young man is" (vv. 31, 32). The second courier now arrived and confirmed the word of Ahimaaz that the Lord had graciously undertaken For the king. His language too was pious, though not so fervent as that of the former. It was couched also in general terms, so that David had to repeat the question concerning his son. His query now received a definite reply, though the harrowing details were wisely withheld. Cushi did not mention Joab’s having thrust the three darts into Absalom’s heart, nor that his body had been contemptuously cast into a pit and covered with a great heap of stones. Instead, he merely intimated that Absalom was now safe in the grave, where he could work no more harm against the kingdom, whither Cushi loyally desired all other traitors might be.
"And the king was much moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept; and as he went, thus he said, O my son Absalom! my son, my son Absalom! would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!" (v. 33). Gratitude that his kingdom had been delivered was completely submerged by overwhelming grief for his wayward child. Probably this was one of the most pathetic lamentations that ever issued from a stricken heart, yet its extravagance and impiety cannot rightly be defended. David’s inordinate affection for Absalom now found expression in inordinate grief. His passions carried him completely away, so that he spake unadvisedly, rashly, with his lips. No doubt his sorrow was made more poignant by the realization that Absalom’s soul was lost, for there is no hint whatever that he sought to make his peace with God; yet that in nowise warranted such an inconsiderate outburst.
Matthew Henry ably analyzed and summarized this sin of David’s. "He is to be blamed. 1. For showing so great a fondness for a graceless, however handsome and witty, son, that was justly abandoned both of God and of man. 2. For quarreling, not only with Divine Providence, the disposals of which he ought silently to acquiesce in, but divine justice, the judgments of which he ought to adore and subscribe to: see how Bildad argues, ‘If thy children have sinned against him, and he hath cast them away in their transgression (thou shouldest submit) for doth God pervert judgment?’ (Job 8:3,4 and compare Lev. 10:3). 3. For opposing the justice of the Nation, which, as king, he was entrusted with the administration of, and which, with other public interests, he ought to prefer before any natural affection, 4. For despising the mercy of his deliverance, and the deliverance of his family and kingdom, from Absalom’s wicked designs, as if this were no mercy, nor worth giving thanks for, because it cost the life of Absalom. 5. For indulging a strong passion, and speaking unadvisedly with his lips. He now forgot his own reasoning upon the death of another child (can I bring him back again?) and his own resolution to keep ‘his mouth as with bridle when his heart was hot within him’; as well as his own practice at other times, when he ‘quieted himself as a child that was weaned from his mother.’"
The practical warnings from this incident are obvious. David had allowed his inordinate affection for Absalom to hinder the discharge of his public duty. First, in failing to inflict the penalty of the divine law for Absalom’s murder of Ammon. Second, in allowing him to return from banishment. The claims of God must prevail over all natural inclinations: fleshly sentiment, and not a concern for Gods glory, moved David to send for his son. As chief magistrate in Israel he condoned his grievous offences. His inordinate love terminated in this inordinate grief. How we need to watch and pray against excessive affection, the indulging of wayward children, and passionate outbursts in times of stress and strain. Doubly we need to keep a strict guard upon ourselves when that is removed from us which is very dear to us: much grace is required to say with Job "Blessed be the name of the Lord."