This scripture reading picks up the story of king David at least eleven years after the events we read about last week; a lot has happened during that time; it’s a plot worthy of a Netflix original film: crimes of passion, and of revenge, and flight, and scheming, and deception, and in all of it, we don’t hear much from David: no reprovals, no discipline, no consequences, almost as if none of this has anything to do with him. But now, Absalom’s long, clever plot to gain popular support for a run at the throne has gotten David’s attention, and David is fighting for his throne, and probably his life – although not directly, because his men convince him he should stay behind the front lines – so this is where we pick up the story in 2 Samuel 18, verses 5-9 – David is speaking to three of his generals, his two nephews Joab and Abishai, and Ittai, another loyalist:
SCRIPTURE READING – 2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33
18:5 The king ordered Joab and Abishai and Ittai, saying, “Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.” And all the people heard when the king gave orders to all the commanders concerning Absalom.
18:6 So the army went out into the field against Israel; and the battle was fought in the forest of Ephraim.
18:7 The men of Israel were defeated there by the servants of David, and the slaughter there was great on that day, twenty thousand men.
18:8 The battle spread over the face of all the country; and the forest claimed more victims that day than the sword.
18:9 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. His head caught fast in the oak, and he was left dangling between heaven and earth, while the mule that was under him went on.
[Then, there’s an argument about what ought to be done here; Joab – characteristically – strikes the first blow, and then orders his closest attendants to finish the job.]
18:15 And ten young men, Joab’s armor-bearers, surrounded Absalom and struck him, and killed him.
[Then, there’s another argument about who’s going to take this news to king David … two men end up running back with the message …]
18:31 Then the Cushite [messenger] came [to David]; and the Cushite said, “Good tidings for my lord the king! For the LORD has vindicated you this day, delivering you from the power of all who rose up against you.”
18:32 The king said to the Cushite, “Is it well with the young man Absalom?” The Cushite answered, “May the enemies of my lord the king, and all who rise up to do you harm, be like that young man.”
18:33 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 I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”
We’ve been reading some dismal stories about King David during these past several weeks, and at least one person here may be saying “I’ll be glad when we get out of the Old Testament” – because people say that in Bible study, sometimes, too! And this story illustrates some of the reasons why some people feel this way:
It has names that are unfamiliar and hard to pronounce – like Abishai, Ittai, Absalom – which, ironically, means “father peace.”
It’s violent – this is a war story – and a lot of people die.
There’s no happy ending. It ends in a tragic lament, David mourning for his lost son, Absalom.
But there’s a painful “I told you so” hanging over David’s real, deep grief, because if we’ve been following the story since chapter 12, we will know that David has been on the road to this disaster for a long time. He’s been coming to it both by what he has done – which we’ve heard about in church for the past couple of weeks – and by what he has left undone. We’ve skipped over those chapters, that show us David’s children re-enacting his history of abuse and violence, and David doing nothing about it, providing no guidance or discipline. So even our empathy for David is a complicated, horrified kind of empathy.
No one in this story sets an obvious good example.
And that may be another reason some people complain about the Old Testament – maybe even the main reason, if we’re honest. Because it hardly ever tells us the kind of story we think the Bible is “supposed” to tell.
We have probably been told somewhere along the line that the Bible is “like an instruction manual,” or “like a road map.” We have probably heard that many times, in children’s messages and in sermons and in devotions. And the main thing about instruction manuals and road maps, the thing that makes them useful, is that they are SIMPLE. They do not require us to think much. They are not ambiguous – unless they are not very good instruction manuals or very clear road maps.
But the Bible is not like that.
The Bible is NOT simple. The Bible is full of stories, like this one, that tell us the truth about human beings and the history they have created. Those stories are complicated, and messy, and deep – because people are complicated, and messy, and deep; those stories definitely do require us to think, a lot. The Bible is LITERATURE – great literature, in fact. Like the kind we studied in school, whether we enjoyed it, or said to ourselves “I’ll be glad when we get out of English class.”
And literature, famously, is the realm of “more than one right answer.” There’s not just one simple lesson to be learned from great literature, or human history, there are always many, many lessons. We could come back to this story over and over again and keep learning something new.
A beautiful commentary by Julian DeShazier in The Christian Century this week pointed out that in this story we can see at least 5 tragic lessons:
- The consequences for David of being a man who viewed his identity as king as more important than his identity as father
- Two people (Absalom and David) who allow their ambition and desire for revenge to overtake their faithful judgment
- How thousands of lives are swept up in the bickering of a powerful few
- How grief is about loss and what we lost long beforehand to bring this loss about
- The danger of “dangling between heaven and earth” – that is, what happens when we want all that the world has for us and all that God wants for us
These are all powerful lessons in what not to do.
And so, precisely because this is a Bible story, is a complicated, and messy, and deep story about complex, messy, deep human beings, and is a story about the history these people made by living the way they lived and making the choices they made, it concerns us.
It concerns us as human beings. We are bound to see ways this story is similar to our own, or different from them. We are bound to see some ways we ourselves have acted like David, or Absalom, or Joab. Or like those hapless soldiers, who are loyal to one side or another in this completely preventable political war. Those soldiers who are out there in a forest of confusion losing their lives, in a battle with no obvious “right side.”
This ancient world is closer to our own world, and our own families, than we might like to think.
And then, too, this story concerns us as children of God and followers of Jesus Christ. This is a story from the history of Israel, Jesus’s people; it’s one Jesus woulde have grown up with, known, learned from – knowing it and learning from it brings us that much closer to Jesus, to having the mind of Christ.
It is part of an even larger story: Jesus’s story, and all that Jesus’s story leads to. Jesus’s story continues this history, but also changes it.
And because this story is part of an even larger story, and because this is literature, we might remember some things we learned in school about what to notice in literature. Like foreshadowing. That’s where something happens in the story that is like something that is going to happen later. A hint.
So here we have a story about a king, and a father, whose child has turned on him and is fighting him to the death. But this king, and father, loves his child, doesn’t want his child’s death. He wants that child to live. He says “would that I could have died in your place.”
Now in this story the king, and father, is David, with all his human flaws and contradictions. But his story is probably going to remind us of another story. A story about a HEAVENLY king whose beloved human children have gone badly astray. Who are trying to be a law unto themselves. Who are getting everything wrong and are facing death. A story about a HEAVENLY king who actually does die in their place, and then who rises to new life, and who offers humanity a new way of life in the present. A new way of life that points towards the promise of an entirely redeemed and recreated new heavens and new earth.
Hopefully everyone recognizes that as the story of Jesus, of Christ. The resemblance is probably no coincidence, because we Christians believe Jesus’s story is the ultimate point of the human story we read this morning. We Christians believe it’s the ultimate point of the whole human story, in fact, of all of human history.
We believe that God’s desire for humanity is the ultimate and complete redemption of history, of the whole human story, including this one, with all its debris: all its dead ends, mistakes, woeful legacies, dilemmas, dysfunction – all that complicated historical human mess we are still living with, still working on clearing out, and in some cases, tragically, still adding to, if we’re honest. And we believe that the end of the story is: God wins.
But we are not out of this story of human history yet; we are not out of life in the world, day after day, with its choices and consequences, yet. We’re called to remember that we are still part of this story; we’re called to remember it and to learn from it. And then we’re called not to get out of it, and not to repeat it, but to continue living it, differently, with Christ, in Christ’s way. We’re called to be part of Christ’s mission in this story, to live our lives in ways that twist the plot of this larger human story in the direction of God’s love. We’re called to bring Christ’s compassion to this complicated, messy, deep, human world with all its history – to this present world we live in. We’re called to be part of the ongoing life of the body of Christ, the ongoing work of Christ, which is writing the bigger story, the story of redemption, the story that ends in the light of a new heaven and a new earth.
Let’s make this one of the many lessons we learn from this story.