A sermon preached at St. Barnabas Anglican Church, 14 August 1988.
“Would I had died for thee, Absalom, my son” (2 Samuel 18:33)
The passage which forms our Old Testament reading today is from a part of the Bible late in the Second Book of Samuel, called ‘The Court History of David’. Essentially, it treats the part of David’s career when, after the death of Saul, he at last becomes the unchallenged King of Israel, and develops his power and prestige, and extends the boundaries of his Kingdom, up to the time of his death.
One would have expected this to be a period of sweetness and light in David’s life, with well-deserved rest, appreciation and recognition after years of unjustified persecution. Alas, it didn’t work out that way. The ‘Throne of David’ was a difficult throne to sit on! David’s enemies, from this point on, came from within his family, not from outside, but nevertheless were just as deadly.
The great value of this account of David’s history is that, reading between the lines of this section of the Old Testament, we can see in David a picture of God—the Bible calls him “a man after God’s own heart”. The picture that we see here of the nature of God, expressed in the actions of this King, is both profound and provocative.
The background to today’s passage dealing with Absalom’s death is an involved and not very pleasant story. David was a great lover, and sometimes, like Hamlet, he loved ‘not wisely but too well.’ Besides his proverbial love for Saul’s son Jonathan, he had a number of wives, and by them a number of children. Their upbringing and behaviour left a great deal to be desired. One of the comments, for instance, that the Scripture makes on one son, Adonijah (who tried to make himself King in David’s declining years) was that “never in his life had his father corrected him, or asked why he behaved as he did.”
Other brothers were guilty of equally unsavoury actions. One of these, named Ammon, had developed a crush on his half-sister Tamar, and securing her presence in the privacy of his bedroom by a trick, first raped her, and then abused and rejected her. The story became known, but David did nothing to punish Ammon. Another, elder, son Absalom, upset by what had happened, took time to plan his revenge. Two years later, he threw a banquet, invited Ammon as a guest, and had him murdered. Thereafter, Absalom set himself up in open rebellion against King David.
David therefore had to flee from his life from Jerusalem. Crossing the brook Kidron, he climbed Eastwards up the Mount of Olives, and out to the desert—a historic route that Jesus would himself follow on his own journey to the garden of Gethsemane. Absalom lacked the courage to capture David and secure a quick victory. David’s forces gradually rallied to him, and a pitched battle took place east of the river Jordan, in the forest of Ephraim.
Before the battle, David had given his troops strict orders to take Absalom alive. In the course of the battle, Absalom’s long hair caught in the branches of a tree in the forest, his mule moved on, and Absalom was left, a sitting target, hanging in mid-air by his long and beautiful hair. The first soldiers to come on the scene refrained, as ordered, from taking Absalom’s life. David’s general, Joab, however, quickly saw to it that Absalom was speared to death. Our lesson opened today as the news reached King David, and we see David racked by uncontrollable grief at the death of his son Absalom—this treacherous rebel—even to the point of making the Israelites ashamed of winning the victory and restoring David to his throne. “Absalom, my son, my son,” weeps David, “would I had died for thee, Absalom my son!”
Joab rebuked David, and insisted that he show his loyal troops more gratitude. Nevertheless, the absolute, unfeigned grief of David over the death of this vain, treacherous and conceited rebel moves our hearts now as much as it must have the hearts of the people of Israel three thousand years ago.
If David in this story symbolizes God the Father, what does this all mean? We can understand the love of a father for his children, and grief at their death—but when the boy was such a wastrel, when the King himself had nearly lost his life and his Kingdom, and his wives had been defiled by the actions of his child, one would have expected love to have been tempered with a little common sense. Certainly General Joab thought so. Moreover, if only David had exercised just a little bit of discipline towards all his boys as they grew up, wouldn’t the whole family have been a lot better for it? The writer of the story obviously thought David was a lot too lenient to be much good as a father! Is God the same? In fact, is God a bad father—too soft and loving for our own good?
I wonder if, by human standards, the answer is ‘Yes’. We, humankind, children of God, have been utterly spoiled, as Absalom was. We have been given an incredibly marvellous universe to inhabit, and we ourselves are part of it. We know, from God’s revelations to man, what we need to do to preserve this world, develop it, and carry out His purposes of harmony and reconciliation. Sinners that we are, we ignore his laws, raise ourselves up in rebellion and revenge every bit as bitter as Absalom, drive our Father from the seat of authority, and kill his son. Yet God still loves us. In the middle of all this hate, pride, vainglory and rebellion, He does not glory if we get our just deserts—He is mortified. He weeps “Would I had died for thee, Absalom, my son, my son.”
One truth that has come deeply home to me in recent weeks is the concept of the depth of God’s love—not just in creating the world for us, but in leaving us so utterly free either to wreck it, or to try to build it and redeem and restore it. God’s incredible love goes way beyond the mere rewarding of good deeds with thanks and benefits. It is a deep, deep love to death for the most unworthy, dangerous and rebellious of sinners. God himself would rather die than suffer the death of even the worst of sinners.
“O love, how deep, how broad, how high
It fills the heart with ecstasy!”
As we come to the Lord’s table, remembering this story of Absalom, how it reminds us of Christ, who indeed aid down his life in the same spirit for sinners. It is indeed a true saying, and worthy of all men to be received, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. And this was not just some exercise in spinning words. It was because he had such an estimate of the worth of even the vilest of humankind, that Christ would die rather than see them perish.
Is God a bad father? He has certainly raised a bunch of spoiled brats among his children on earth, and those who keep his laws spend much of their time cleaning up the mess, binding up wounds, suffering the consequences of the sins of others, and trying to stop this planet’s entire ruination. Like the armies of Israel, they are expected to save the day, starve, fight and sweat, and at the end of it all, be treated as lepers by their King who is bawling his head off because some poor sinner, contrary to orders, is given his just deserts.
If we are among the ninety and nine just people who need no repentance, God is very unfair in his demands on us, just as General Joab says. But if we are that one lost sinner, whose pride, rebellion and vanity have in the end led him to the brink of destruction—O thank God for such love. Thank God for a Jesus who out of his love for even the worst of sinners, died to be our Saviour!
Most of us in a typical Sunday church congregation are like the ninety nine sheep who have put up with less than perfect care, because their shepherd is out looking for the last, lost member of the flock straying on the mountains. We are in the position the elder brother of the prodigal son, who stayed with his father keeping the farm going, while his younger brother was spending the family fortune—and then was expected to be happy when this wastrel came home. We are like the members of Israel’s army, who after fighting their best, are rebuked for not saving the life of their greatest enemy. We all face the real temptation of losing our patience with God, of being unsatisfied with our pay, because those hired later generously received the same wages as we do. Yet it is precisely this accepting this unfair load with cheerfulness that marks us as ‘children of our father in heaven’. It is by bearing such burdens that we become “conformed to the image of his Son”!
It is a hard lesson for good, right thinking and right acting religious folk to learn, that God is who He is, not what we think He ought to be. Yet the truth is, that the greatest saints, by God’s mercy, are often people who once were the greatest of sinners. Where would the church be, if Ananias had not ministered to his greatest enemy, Saul, persecutor of the church, later to be known as Saint Paul? If Saint Monica had not prayed for the conversion of her dissolute son, the later Saint Augustine? If Jesus had not welcomed back Peter into the number of the disciples, after being denied three times? What would the history of Israel have been, if Absalom had survived and repented, and gone on to be the next King of Israel, greater perhaps than Solomon, and more faithful, because he had gone to the limits of rebellion and sin, and realized that he must turn back from them? God’s way to sainthood, in fact, perhaps comes not from avoiding evil, but from following it to the limit, until the perpetrator himself is disgusted. Then come repentance, and that deep sorrow and hatred for all that is evil that can be the mainspring of a saintly life. The greatest persecutors of the church, by this reasoning, are not simply to be tolerated or forgiven: we are to see in them the potential leaders of our church, and pray and work for their conversion.
Joab was wrong, and David, in his grief, truly reflects God’s sorrow at our lack of love for the sinful. May we, in our churches, learn to reflect this terribly costly love that God gives to us, but also demands of us, in caring for those who go astray.