Absalom's Return

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As we continue our journey through the book of 2 Samuel we come to chapter 14 and it would be a great help if you could turn back to page 266 so we can look at that together. The background is that David is the king of Israel. His oldest son, Amnon raped his half-sister Tamar and because David did nothing about it, her brother Absalom killed Amnon and then ran away to hide. At one level the account is pretty straight forward. After three years away, David is persuaded to allow Absalom back from hiding. He refuses to talk to him for two more years but eventually allows him to return back to the palace. Before we look at the passage in more detail, let me point out three themes that the author wants us to see:

The first is that sin is incredibly serious and has horrendous consequences. From chapter 11 we read about David committing adultery with Bathsheba and murdering her husband, and onwards to chapter 20 we see the incredible ways David and his children ignore God's commands. The author of the book makes clear to us that such evil behaviour causes suffering, and consequences for others too, and deserves the punishment of death.

The second is that God is in control and will do what he has promised. Back in 2 Sam 7.12-16 God tells King David about his great plan to rescue the world from sin and its consequences. God promised that his plan would include him choosing one of David's descendants to be king forever. So, as we shall see, however much someone might want or try to become the next king, God was in charge of making that happen! Both those themes come up throughout the second half of 2 Samuel and have been covered in previous talks in this series – which of course you can look up on our website church.org.uk and on clayton.tv if you missed them! I'm not going to dwell heavily on them, but now that I have pointed them out, hopefully you'll see them in the details of chapter 14.

There is a third theme that I think the author wants us to notice which I will focus on tonight. Riddled through this account is the tension between the demands of justice and the demands of love. David loves his son, but that son has done what is wrong and justice demands he is punished. What should David do? Will he forgive him or will he punish him? With all that in mind let's turn to verse 1:

"Now Joab the son of Zeruiah [she is David's sister] knew that the king's heart went out to Absalom."

Joab is King David's nephew and the commander of his army and so knew him well. It has been three years since Absalom ran off from the capital Jerusalem to his mother's family. How is David feeling about Absalom? I don't suppose you ever get over the loss of any child and David has, in effect, lost two. But while Amnon is dead and gone, Absalom is still alive and as he's the next oldest prince, he was expected to become king after David. Is David missing him? The translators have a bit of an issue here. The phrase "the king's heart went out to Absalom" could be read in a variety of ways, both positive and negative. So which one is it? Because David needs convincing to accept him back and then refuses to speak to him for two years, many assume this really must mean something on the negative side like: 'the king's heart was set against Absalom'.

The fact is that throughout this whole situation David has done absolutely nothing – he may have longed to see him but he didn't call him back. And he may have known he deserves to be punished and that justice must be seen to be done but again he does nothing. He is torn, trapped between the demands of justice and the demands of love and so I don't think it is a mistake that it could be taken in two ways.

It was becoming a habit with David that he failed to punish those who did wrong in his family. Part of that is his own weakness, but what would you have done if you had been him? Go with justice and punish your son who deserved death? Or because of your love for him, ignore what your son had done? Remember Tamar and Amnon were David's children too. There is no easy answer and perhaps that is why David simply did nothing. Let's read on in verses 2-7:

"And Joab sent to Tekoa and brought from there a wise woman and said to her, "Pretend to be a mourner and put on mourning garments. Do not anoint yourself with oil, but behave like a woman who has been mourning many days for the dead. Go to the king and speak thus to him." So Joab put the words in her mouth. When the woman of Tekoa came to the king, she fell on her face to the ground and paid homage and said, "Save me, O king." And the king said to her, "What is your trouble?" She answered, "Alas, I am a widow; my husband is dead. And your servant had two sons, and they quarrelled with one another in the field. There was no one to separate them, and one struck the other and killed him. And now the whole clan has risen against your servant, and they say, 'Give up the man who struck his brother, that we may put him to death for the life of his brother whom he killed.' And so they would destroy the heir also. Thus they would quench my coal that is left and leave to my husband neither name nor remnant on the face of the earth."

Joab wanted David to do something about Absalom. Perhaps he worried about what might happen after David's death and how that might impact him. When he failed to persuade King David, he came up with a plan to try to fix things. He asks a woman to seek the King's help with a carefully made-up problem to see what he would advise her to do. Her 'problem' is of course quite like his dilemma with Absalom. The prophet Nathan used a similar tactic when he challenged David about his affair with Bathsheba in chapter 12. However, this time the words are not from God. The parallels are obvious. Both of them have been mourning for many days, so David would understand how the woman felt. They both have a son who had killed his brother. Most obvious of all is that she needs to decide between justice and love. Surely the right thing here is not to punishment her son who has done wrong? This woman is described as wise, but that does not mean what she argues for here is morally right. She pushes him hard for a decision and gets him to promise before God that her son will not receive what he deserves. He goes, in her situation, with the demand for love over justice. Verse 11:

"Then she said, "Please let the king invoke the LORD your God, that the avenger of blood kill no more, and my son be not destroyed." He said, "As the LORD lives, not one hair of your son shall fall to the ground.""

Then she turns the tables on him and asks why he has not made the same decision in his own dilemma with Absalom. He cared about her son, but was not willing to show the same compassion to his own son. Verses 13-14:

"And the woman said, "Why then have you planned such a thing against the people of God? For in giving this decision the king convicts himself, inasmuch as the king does not bring his banished one home again. We must all die; we are like water spilled on the ground, which cannot be gathered up again. But God will not take away life, and he devises means so that the banished one will not remain an outcast."

God himself, she says, would not insist on justice over love. God would not take away life. He is loving - not judgemental. God would never be offended, nor angry, nor inflict punishment. He would find a way for love to win through in the end. She's not right here and I think David sees through it. Of course God is a God of love. But he is also a holy God and cannot tolerate evil. What she says is not a new argument to him - he's heard it before from Joab and so guesses that he is behind all this. Verses 19-20a:

"The king said, "Is the hand of Joab with you in all this?" The woman answered and said, "As surely as you live, my lord the king, one cannot turn to the right hand or to the left from anything that my lord the king has said. It was your servant Joab who commanded me; it was he who put all these words in the mouth of your servant. In order to change the course of things your servant Joab did this."

So here is Joab's motive. He wanted to change the course of things. But God is the one in control, not the commander of the army! However much someone might try to plot and scheme and plan who might become the next king, God was in charge! Let's see how well Joab gets on, verses 21-24:

"Then the king said to Joab, "Behold now, I grant this; go, bring back the young man Absalom." And Joab fell on his face to the ground and paid homage and blessed the king. And Joab said, "Today your servant knows that I have found favour in your sight, my lord the king, in that the king has granted the request of his servant." So Joab arose and went to Geshur and brought Absalom to Jerusalem. And the king said, "Let him dwell apart in his own house; he is not to come into my presence." So Absalom lived apart in his own house and did not come into the king's presence."

David agrees to Absalom being brought back but he still can't find a way past his own dilemma. Absalom may be back in Jerusalem, but he's not got his old room back at the palace and David still won't see him. What we find next is the author's description of Absalom. Verses 25-27:

"Now in all Israel there was no one so much to be praised for his handsome appearance as Absalom. From the sole of his foot to the crown of his head there was no blemish in him. And when he cut the hair of his head (for at the end of every year he used to cut it; when it was heavy on him, he cut it), he weighed the hair of his head, two hundred shekels by the king's weight. There were born to Absalom three sons, and one daughter whose name was Tamar. She was a beautiful woman."

So Absalom was handsome. He was also popular. And he was proud of his long hair. What should we make of all this? Back in 2 Samuel 7 when God promises David that one of his descendants would rule forever God also says that his choice will not be someone like King Saul who was king before David and turned away from God. The description of Absalom, with its focus on outward beauty, is a deliberate echo of a description of Saul from earlier in the book (1 Sam 9). We've also been told that God looks at the heart (1 Sam 16.7). So, the author expects us to pick up the clues that despite Joab and Absalom's efforts, this is not someone God will allow to be raised up to succeed David. There are more clues to come. Verses 28-29:

"So Absalom lived for two full years in Jerusalem, without coming into the king's presence. Then Absalom sent for Joab, to send him to the king, but Joab would not come to him. And he sent a second time, but Joab would not come."

Joab has only half succeeded in his plan and because he's responsible for bringing Absalom back, he gets the blame when two years go by and David still won't speak to him, let him live in the palace or prepare him to become the next king. It's pretty clear how frustrated Absalom is and when Joab refuses to come, his anger explodes and we see what kind of man he is on the inside. Verses 30-32:

"Then he said to his servants, "See, Joab's field is next to mine, and he has barley there; go and set it on fire." So Absalom's servants set the field on fire. Then Joab arose and went to Absalom at his house and said to him, "Why have your servants set my field on fire?" Absalom answered Joab, "Behold, I sent word to you, 'Come here, that I may send you to the king, to ask, "Why have I come from Geshur? It would be better for me to be there still." Now therefore let me go into the presence of the king, and if there is guilt in me, let him put me to death.'"

Absalom doesn't think he is guilty. David had not punished Amnon for raping Tamar, so Absalom killed him. Absalom was confident that he had done the right thing and he wants to get a message to the king. Joab won't help, so he burns Joab's field and the barley in it. He gets what he wants in the end and in the process shows us that the man with the beautiful hair is not without blemish after all. He would not make a godly King! Joab is bullied into agreeing to do what he's asked and takes Absalom's message to David: 'Make up your mind Dad! What is the point of me being here? Either I am guilty - in which case kill me. Or else let me come into your presence!' Ah, that tension again. Justice or love? What will it be? Verse 33:

"Then Joab went to the king and told him, and he summoned Absalom. So he came to the king and bowed himself with his face to the ground before the king, and the king kissed Absalom."

David agrees to Absalom's request and publicly there appears to be reconciliation. But this is an official meeting, not a family reunion. There are no tears, no apologies, no warmth. Just a formal, ceremonial bowing before the King and a sign that the King has accepted him back home. But at what cost? The issues have not been resolved, merely swept under the table. They did not forgive. There was no real unity. And soon Absalom would start to plot against David. And that is 2 Samuel 14! So, what are we to make of it?

1. Sin is incredibly serious and has horrendous consequences.

The author of the book makes clear to us that evil behaviour deserves death and causes suffering for others too. So how do we respond? It's a real sadness that so many today reject Jesus without really understanding what it looks like to follow him. Many would expect Christians to look down on those described in these chapters with a self-righteous attitude. Nothing can be further from the truth! Every one of us needs to recognise that there is no sin we would not be capable of doing. Every one of us rejects God and his word. We are no better than them. We too face the consequences of our sin - not least the separation it brings between us and a Holy God who cannot and will not tolerate sin. Christians are not those who are better than the likes of Absalom and company. They are those who realise they are in exactly the same deep trouble, so say sorry to God for rejecting him and accept the offer of forgiveness through Jesus' death on the cross instead of us.

2. God is in control and will do what he has promised.

We've seen both those who make cunning plans to try and become the next king and others who do not do what they should do. Over both, God is in charge and nothing stops his plans from taking place. Jesus was the descendant of David who would be king forever. God promised he would rescue us from sin and its consequences and he did. And he has promised that he will grow his church and so we can trust him to do that - in his time and in his way. So it is right that we do plan and work hard towards growing our church. But we must do so with real humility. We do not know what tomorrow will bring, but that is ok. He does, and he's in charge. "Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labour in vain" (Psalm 127.1).

3. What then, finally, about the tension between the demands of justice and the demands of love?

The answer is perhaps not explicitly given yet, but becomes more and more apparent as the events unfold. God's character demands both. It is not one or the other, but both. God is holy and so demands justice. God will not simply sweep our sin under the table. God is also loving and without compromising on justice will, in the words of the woman from Tekoa, "devise means so that the banished one will not remain an outcast". In David's Kingdom this tension was never finally solved. The solution came centuries later with the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ - Emmanuel, God with us. He was perfect, sinless and he died instead of us on the cross, taking on himself the punishment we deserved for our rebellion against him. This is the profound beauty of the cross - love and justice in perfect harmony. It is in the Cross of Christ where love and justice meet. God showed his love for us by giving His only Son as a sacrifice for our sins. John 3.16:

"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life."

At the same time, God's justice is satisfied, in that His indignation against sin was borne by the Lord Jesus. 2 Cor 5.21:

"For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God."

As the song that we sometimes sings puts it:

"Here is love vast as the ocean,
Loving kindness as the flood,
When the Prince of life,
our ransom
Shed for us his precious blood.
Who his love will not remember?
Who can cease to sing his praise?
He can never be forgotten
Throughout heaven's eternal days.

On the Mount of Crucifixion
Fountains opened deep and wide;
Through the floodgates of God's mercy
Flowed a vast and gracious tide.
Grace and love, like mighty rivers,
Poured incessant from above,
And heaven's peace and perfect justice
Kissed a guilty world in love."

How wonderful that God did, actually, as verse 14 says, devise means so that the banished ones will not remain as outcasts!

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