Some of you will know that a long time back, I broke off an engagement. It was my fault, I should never have got engaged, and I had to face the fact that I'd been very unwise and made a huge mistake. And it plunged me into the worst time of my life, when I felt massively guilty at having hurt someone so badly, and massively humbled at having got things so wrong. But most of all I remember wondering, 'What is God doing in all this? Why did he let this happen? And does the mess I'm now in mean he's given up on me?' Many of us will be able to relate to that. Because either in the past, or right now, we know what it's like to be living inside the consequences of anything from bad decisions to outright, serious sin. And that's exactly where we find King David, in the part of the Bible we're looking at, these Sunday nights.
Now, if you don't know, David lived 1,000 years before Jesus. And he was a crucial part of the build-up towards Jesus' coming, because if God had just sent his Son into the world with no Old Testament build-up, we'd never have understood what he came to do. But as it is, the Old Testament explained that he was coming to bring us back into living under God's rule – rather than saying to God, 'I don't want you running my life; I want to do what I want.' So, one part of the build-up was that God chose a people – Israel – and then gave them a king. And the idea was that the king would lead them in living under God's rule, so that his kingdom would be a visual aid of what Jesus was coming to do.
So, God made David king of his people. And yet in tonight's part of the Bible, we find that David's son Absalom has conspired against David, to take his throne – so that David had to run for his life, which on the surface of it makes you think, 'Hold on… If David is the one God wanted to be king, why is this happening? Why's he in a mess? Is God not in control? Or has he given up on David?' And the answer is that in fact David is living inside the consequences of a whole string of serious sins and bad decisions.
So at one level, through tonight's Bible passage, God is going to be speaking to us about how to understand what he's doing in our lives at times like that. But at another level, he's going to be using David's kingdom as a visual aid to teach us about Jesus' kingdom and what it means to live under Jesus's rule today. So would you turn in the Bible to 2 Samuel 7, because the only way to understand what God is doing in David's life is to go back to the promise God made him in 2 Samuel 7. So look down to 2 Samuel 7.12-13 – where God promises David:
"When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers [in other words, when you die], I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom for ever."
And verse 12 is where this promise points forward all the way to Jesus. Because ultimately, if you're going to have a kingdom that lasts forever and is never threatened by sin and evil, then you need a king who lives forever and who's put an end to sin and evil. So down the tracks, this promise was pointing forward to the first and second comings of Jesus. But in the Old Testament build-up to that, God chose to use this line of human kings as a visual aid of Jesus' kingdom. So look onto verse 14, where God promises his kings:
"I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son."
In other words, 'I will be committed to him – like a perfect father.' But God knew that these kings he'd chosen to use as a visual aid were merely human and would be as sinful as you or me. So look what he says next. Verses 14-15:
"When he commits iniquity [in other words, when the king sins], I will discipline him with the rod of men, with the stripes of the sons of men, but my steadfast love will not depart from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you."
So you see what God is saying there? He's saying, 'I'm committed to this line of kings. But when they sin, they'll know my discipline.' And in the section of 2 Samuel we're looking at right now, David has sinned and is being disciplined: he's committed adultery with a woman called Bathsheba – and then tried to cover up by conspiring to have her husband Uriah killed in battle. So look on to chapter 12 – headed 'Nathan rebukes David' in the ESV translation that we use. So here, God sent this prophet Nathan to convict David of what he'd done, and to tell him the discipline that was coming as a result. So look down to 2 Samuel 12.9-12, where God says to David:
"Why have you despised the word of the LORD, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and have taken his wife to be your wife and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. Now therefore [so this is the discipline that's coming:] the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised me and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife.' Thus says the LORD, 'Behold, I will raise up evil against you out of your own house. And I will take your wives before your eyes and give them to your neighbour, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this sun. For you did it secretly, but I will do this thing before all Israel and before the sun.'"
In other words, 'David, you've committed sexual sin against someone else, and conspired the evil of getting rid of him and taking his life. So as a discipline, I'm going to let you feel what it's like to be on the receiving end of that. I'm going to let someone sin against you sexually. And I'm going to let someone conspire evil against you and your life.' And that someone turned out to be David's son, Absalom.
So turn over to chapter 15 which (in the ESV) is headed, 'Absalom's conspiracy.' That's where Absalom stages a coup against David. And that's why the next (ESV) heading is 'David flees Jerusalem' – he runs for his life. So now turn over to remind yourself where we left David last week at the end of chapter 17. Look down at the last three words of chapter 17:
"…in the wilderness."
So that's where David literally is. The question is: is he also metaphorically in the wilderness? Is that it for David? Has God given up on him? Is God just going to leave him in this mess of his own making and say, 'Well, you had your chance – in fact, your chances – and you've blown it'? To a Christian, and even more to God's Old Testament chosen king David, the answer is: no. Because remember God's promise in chapter 7, which was basically, 'I will be committed to you. But when you sin, I'll discipline you.' And remember that discipline isn't the opposite of commitment, of love. It's part of love. They're two sides of the same coin.
So take for example the times when I discipline my children by confiscating the felt tip pens that they've brought into the sitting room – which they shouldn't, because they know the sitting room is a felt-tip-pen-free-zone and not to be mucked up like the playroom. Now they don't think I'm loving them when I discipline them like that (as opposed to when I'm buying them an ice-cream). But I am. Because I'm lovingly teaching them respect – for me, and for property. So I confiscate the pens for a while – but once the discipline is over, I give them back.
And God here has confiscated David's throne for a while – that's the discipline. But now in chapter 18, God is going to give it back, and is going to underline that he's been committed to David all along – even when it hasn't looked or felt like it (which sometimes it doesn't, does it, in your life as a believer?). So finally we get to tonight's chapter – chapter 18 – which is a bit of a monster. So look down to verse 1:
"Then David mustered the men who were with him and set over them commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds."
So there's a first sign that God remains committed to him. He still has many, many loyal servants. And – skip to verse 3 – David says to them, 'I'll go out with you to fight to get the throne back.'
"But 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.""
So, skip to verse 5 – David agrees with what they've said…
"And the king ordered Joab and Abishai and Ittai, "Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom." And all the people heard when the king gave orders to all the commanders about Absalom."
So in verse 3, the men value David uppermost – because he's God's king, king of the kingdom of God, the most important kingdom there is. But in verse 5, David values Absalom uppermost – because he's his son. But Absalom is also an enemy of God and of God's kingdom and of the wellbeing of God's people. So telling Joab & co. to deal gently with him is a bit like being operated on for cancer and telling the surgeon to deal gently with the tumour. No, the tumour has to go. And throughout this chapter David is utterly torn between a father's feelings and the sometimes hard reality of God and his kingdom. Read on into verses 6-7:
"So the army went out into the field against Israel, and the battle was fought in the forest of Ephraim. And the men of Israel were defeated there by the servants of David"
So that's another sign that God is still committed to David. Now skip to verses 9-15:
"And Absalom 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, and his head caught fast in the oak, and he was suspended between heaven and earth, while the mule that was under him went on. And a certain man saw it and told Joab, "Behold, I saw Absalom hanging in an oak." Joab 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." But the man said to Joab, "Even if I felt in my hand the weight of a thousand pieces of silver, I would not reach out my hand against the king's son, for in our hearing the king commanded you and Abishai and Ittai, 'For my sake protect the young man Absalom.' On 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 [in other words, you wouldn't have protected me]." Joab said, "I will not waste time like this with you." And he took three javelins in his hand and thrust them into the heart of Absalom while he was still alive in the oak. And ten young men, Joab's armour bearers, surrounded Absalom and struck him and killed him."
Now apart from thinking, 'That's too much detail for me, thank you', you're probably thinking, 'Wasn't Joab wrong to do that?' And in these Old Testament narratives, God didn't inspire the writers every few verses to put in brackets, 'Oh, by the way, that was right,' or, 'That was wrong,' or, 'That was dubious.' Instead, he expects us to think it out. And not by asking first about what the human characters are doing, but by asking first, 'What is God doing here?' Because this is part of God's unfolding salvation plan, God's build-up towards Jesus' coming. And the number one question to ask an Old Testament narrative is, 'What is God doing here?' And once you've learned to read about the kings in the light of the promise in 2 Samuel 7, you know the answer. The answer is: God is being committed to his kingdom, and bringing judgement on anyone that stands against his kingdom (which, down the tracks, may even include the king himself, if he turns against God).
So, before you get on your high horse about Joab (remembering to duck for any trees), it's worth asking, 'Who actually did for Absalom?' Because Joab only finished the job off, didn't he? But who set it up? Who hung Absalom on that tree? The ultimate answer is: God did – through his sovereignty over everything that happens – including what we call 'accidents' and 'coincidences' (neither of which is a word that appears in God's dictionary). Now clearly, Joab finished the job. So let's think it through: did he disobey David? Yes. But was what David commanded wise – or even possible? No. So was Joab being disloyal to David and God's kingdom? No. He disobeyed David out of loyalty to David and God's kingdom and the wellbeing of God's people – knowing that Absalom was a threat to all of them. Now I know your gut reaction might be that Joab is just a bloodthirsty killer. But look on to verse 16:
"Then Joab blew the trumpet, and the troops came back from pursuing Israel, for Joab restrained them."
So as soon as Absalom – who was the problem – was dealt with, Joab stopped the fighting, because he didn't want any more unnecessary bloodshed between fellow-Israelites. Now don't get me wrong: Joab wasn't wearing a pure white hat. But then neither is anyone in this narrative – certainly not David. And neither is anyone in this building. This side of heaven, everything we do, every decision we make (even at our best, even in ministry), is tainted with sin and wrong motives. But thankfully, God is sovereign and works in and through us nonetheless. So Absalom is dealt with. And next, David needs to be told. So skip to verses 19-20:
"Then Ahimaaz the son of Zadok said, "Let me run and carry news to the king that the LORD has delivered him from the hand of his enemies." And Joab said to him, "You are not to carry news today. You may carry news another day, but today you shall carry no news, because the king's son is dead.""
So Joab is a hard-headed realist: he's seen the way David can treat people who bring bad news – and this is the worst of all possible news from David's point of view as a father. So to protect Ahimaaz from any reaction, he plans to send an expendable Cushite instead. (Like I told you, there are no pure white hats in this story.) So verse 21:
"Then Joab said to the Cushite, "Go, tell the king what you have seen." The Cushite bowed before Joab, and ran."
But Ahimaaz insists on going, too – and he outruns the Cushite. So now skip to verse 24:
"Now David was sitting between the two gates, and the watchman went up to the roof of the gate…"
And he sees the two runners coming – and, skipping to verses 27-28,
"The watchman said, "I think the running of the first is like the running of Ahimaaz the son of Zadok." And the king said, "He is a good man and comes with good news." Then Ahimaaz cried out to the king, "All is well.""
Which of course it was – if what you valued uppermost was God's kingdom. Read on in verse 28…
"And he bowed before the king with his face to the earth and said, "Blessed be the LORD your God, who has delivered up the men who raised their hand against my lord the king."
But like I said earlier, David is torn between a father's feelings and the sometimes hard reality of God and his kingdom – so, verse 29:
"And the king said, "Is it well with the young man Absalom?" Ahimaaz answered, "When Joab sent the king's servant, your servant, I saw a great commotion, but I do not know what it was.""
Which is a lie - but remember, no-one is wearing a white hat. Verses 30-32:
"And the king said, "Turn aside and stand here." So he turned aside and stood still. And behold, the Cushite came, and the Cushite said, "Good news for my lord the king! For the LORD has delivered you this day from the hand of all who rose up against you. The king said to the Cushite, "Is it well with the young man Absalom?" And the Cushite answered, "May the enemies of my lord the king and all who rise up against you for evil be like that young man.""
Now the word 'news' comes nine times in those verses, and it's exactly the same as the word 'gospel' in the New Testament – which is often translated 'good news', but strictly speaking, it just means 'news' – specifically, news of a victory. And in the New Testament, the gospel – the news – is that Jesus, by his death and resurrection, has won the victory for us against the enemies of our sin and the judgement it deserves, which means we can be forgiven back into living under his rule now. And it means that, beyond this life, we can finally be made free of sin and welcomed into his kingdom.
But whether that's good news or bad news to you depends on which side of the victory you're on. If you're on Jesus' side, it's great news. But if you're not, it's not. Because if in this life you keep saying, 'No' to Jesus –'I don't want you running my life', then at the end of the day, he'll have to say 'No' to you – 'I can't have you in my heaven.' Because you can't be part of a kingdom if you won't accept the King.
That's why David was so torn. Because in his head, he knew the victory that day was great news for God's kingdom. But in his heart, as he thought about his son, it felt like very bad news – so much so that part of him probably wished it wasn't true. And as the only Christian in my family, I know how that feels. And if you have parents or grandparents or children or siblings who are currently not believers, you'll know how that feels. Or you'll know how that feels if you've had loved ones who've died without professing any faith in Jesus – as my father died, two years ago. Now we mustn't pretend to know what finally went on in the heart of someone like that, between them and the Lord – we don't. But equally, we have no assurance about them, either.
And, as with David, having people close to us who are on the wrong side of God's kingdom is maybe the number one thing that make us sometimes wish the gospel wasn't true. But it is. Because Jesus' death-and-resurrection victory really happened. And things that have really happened in history are true for everyone, which means that one day, at the end of history, we really will all meet him as our rightful King and Judge. Look on to verse 33:
"And the 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 that I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!""
And I wonder if that was just grief at losing his son – partly because it's so extreme, and partly because of those words,
"Would that I had died instead of you."
Grief can be complicated by many things. And here I guess it was complicated by guilt. Because David knew that, in God's law, his acts of adultery and murder deserved the death penalty – but that back in chapter 12, God had spared him that. And he must often have thought, 'If I'd not been spared, and not been around to add yet more to this mess, how much of this would have happened?' And he must often have thought, 'If I'd never committed adultery and murder in the first place, Absalom would still be here and be a very different person indeed.'
Well, hands up the parents here who have no regrets, who'd do nothing different if they had their time again. We've all inflicted our sinfulness and weaknesses and mistakes on our children. And that has shaped them, to some degree – for which we have to take appropriate responsibility. But we haven't made them the people they are, and made them make the choices they've made – they're ultimately responsible for themselves – and we mustn't take inappropriate responsibility. There is such a thing as false guilt. And David would ultimately have to accept that Absalom was responsible for himself, and to leave him in God's hands.
Let me go for broke in the sermon over-run stakes, and take you briefly into chapter 19. And if I was using headings, my last one would be: 'How not to do bereavement counselling with the average person.' Look on to 2 Samuel 19.1-8:
"It was told Joab, "Behold, the king is weeping and mourning for Absalom." So the victory that day was turned into mourning for all the people, for the people heard that day, "The king is grieving for his son." And the people stole into the city that day as people steal in who are ashamed when they flee in battle. The king covered his face, and the king cried with a loud voice, "O my son Absalom, O Absalom, my son, my son!" Then Joab came into the house to the king and said, "You have today covered with shame the faces of all your servants, who have this day saved your life and the lives of your sons and your daughters and the lives of your wives and your concubines, because you love those who hate you and hate those who love you. For you have made it clear today that commanders and servants are nothing to you, for today I know that if Absalom were alive and all of us were dead today, then you would be pleased. Now therefore arise, go out and speak kindly to your servants, for I swear by the LORD, if you do not go, not a man will stay with you this night, and this will be worse for you than all the evil that has come upon you from your youth until now." Then the king arose and took his seat in the gate. And the people were all told, "Behold, the king is sitting in the gate." And all the people came before the king."
So that's 'How not to do bereavement counselling with the average person.' It's the most extraordinary blast of criticism, overstatement, sarcasm – the works. But David needed it because he was not the average person. He was the king of God's kingdom. And he needed to resolve what had been tearing him apart ever since Absalom turned against him. Namely the question: 'Which is more important, which should I value uppermost, which must I ultimately side with? My son – or God and his kingdom?'
And that's the question which becoming a Christian faces you with (and you may be near that point right now) – and it's the question the Christian life throws at you every day, isn't it? 'Which is more important, which should I value uppermost, which must I ultimately side with? My family, my friends, my coursemates, my teammates, my housemates, my teachers, my colleagues, my culture, my country – or God and his kingdom?'