The Justice of Absalom, the Mercy of God (Part 1)

Muerte de Absalón — Corrado Giaquinto (c. 1760)

The times are turbulent. The current regime was once heralded as revolutionary, and promised to address the shortcomings of the previous administration. But they’ve shown themselves to be no different. Just look at how the family drama plays out before the nation like a bad Soap Opera.

The family is at war with each other, publishing shocking “tell all” books. Have you heard some of the things his own children say about him? Some say that he’s cheated on his wife. That he tried to cover it up with murder.

Justice decays, and with it, society.

But now, his estranged son stands outside the city gate. Whenever he sees someone coming to the King for justice, he intercepts them. “Look, your claims are valid and proper, but there is no representative of the king to hear you. If only I were appointed judge in the land! Then everyone who has a complaint or case could come to me, and I would see that they receive justice.”

Of all of his children, his son is the most beautiful. Men are now coming up to him, and bowing to him. But he seizes them by the hand, pulls them into an embrace, and kisses them on the cheek. He has stolen the heart of the nation.

Those of you who know this story now recognize Absalom, David’s estranged son. I think this story serves as a perfect metaphor for today’s society and climate. Now, I took some liberties in my above hook. Absalom didn’t write a tell-all book about his father. But the family drama? That was real. While I don’t know if Israel was suffering from crumbling justice the way we are now, it doesn’t seem too far fetched.

Absalom promised justice for every man, and stole the heart of the nation. But when he rose to power through violent revolution, the results were disastrous. There were several warning signs that indicated Absalom was not really seeking justice, but was tickling the ears of people to gather their support. But there are also unanswered questions about the legitimate grievances Absalom had with his father’s application of justice.

It behooves us then, as Christians, to learn from history. I will let you judge for yourselves how relevant this story is to today’s situation in America.

Well your faith was strong, but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty in the moonlight overthrew you

David was known in the Bible as “a man after God’s own heart”. He was the young brave warrior who toppled Goliath, the musician who comforted King Saul, the friend closer than a brother of Jonathan. He was the shepherd, the warrior, the poet, the king, the architect, the adulterer, the murderer.

The story of David and Bathsheba is well known, and often used to illustrate the disastrous consequences of yielding to temptation, the way a man’s heart justifies his own sin, the contrition that David shows once his sins are pointed out, and the subsequent grace and mercy that God shows David. But less often told is the story that follows in the next chapter.

In 2 Samuel 13, Amnon, David’s oldest son, desired his half-sister Tamar. More than desired! He lusted for her to the point it made him physically ill. With the help of another sibling, he devised a clever plan to be alone to take advantage of her. But when Tamar resisted, he forced himself upon her. What Amnon thought would bring him satisfaction only brought him resentment. Disgusted, he had his sister physically thrown out of his house.

King David is recorded as being furious, but that’s it. No further response. Perhaps David could not bear to punish his son. Or, perhaps David couldn’t bring himself to pass judgement, as he was guilty of the same crime (and worse). But for whatever reason, David does nothing else.

Absalom, Tamar’s biological brother, brought his sister in to take care of her. Curiously, Absalom tells her to no longer discuss what happened to her. At first glance, this seems to be an attempt to help his sister to move on with her life… but the reality is far more sinister. Absalom cuts off contact with his brother, and starts devising his plan for vengeance.

Two years later, with the matter seemingly forgotten, Absalom takes matters into his own hands. He stages a dinner party for his brothers, flush with alcohol. He instructs his servants to kill Amnon once his is drunk — and treacherously encourages them to be “strong” and “brave”. Absalom’s servants murder Amnon, and all the siblings scatter. David is grieved even further, but the recorded response again stops there. Absalom flees the capitol.

If you read further, you will come to realize the war within David’s own heart. These are his children, and he loves them despite their faults. But what do you do when your children’s faults are too great to address? Do you put your sons to death? Do you banish them to exile forever?

A chapter later, Joab (the commander of David’s army) decides to intervene for David’s sake. He arranges for a wise woman to visit David, and she coaxes him to let Absalom return from exile. The woman adopts the guise of a widow, pleading for her exiled son. As the guise drops, David realizes the truth behind her plea for mercy, and allows his son to return.

Like water spilled on the ground, which cannot be recovered, so we must die. But that is not what God desires; rather, he devises ways so that a banished person does not remain banished from him. (2 Samuel 14:14)

But things are still difficult between David and Absalom. Although Absalom has lived in the city for two years, David refuses to see him face to face. Absalom demands that Joab arrange a visit with his father, but Joab refuses him twice. Feeling sidelined, Absalom again takes matters into his own hands and instructs his servants to burn Joab’s fields. Joab reluctantly gets him an audience with David — and the two seem to reconcile.

Absalom, however, is holding a knife behind his back.

Absalom steals the hearts of the people. Illustration by William Hole 1846–1917.

This brings us to the story in 2 Samuel 15. Absalom is outside the gate, grooming the people for a revolution. “There is no one to bring you justice. If only I were king, I would bring you justice! Your claims are valid!” While we don’t know the exact state of the kingdom, David was hearing the case of widows only a chapter earlier. Is there really no one to bring justice?

I’m inclined to believe that Absalom’s claims are exaggerated, and meant to slander his father. Especially, given how he treats the people he intercepts: validating their claims without hearing them, and promising “justice”. Whenever anyone tries to bow to him, he lifts them to their feet, and kisses them. Quickly, he steals the heart of the nation.

On top of all this, Absalom shows himself as a pious man. Feigning gratitude for having returned from exile, he makes plans to offer a sacrifice in worship in the town he was born. Getting King David’s blessing, he travels to Hebron. In verse 11, we learn there were about two hundred men who accompanied Absalom as guests, but didn’t realize his plans were to overthrow David.

Two hundred men from Jerusalem had accompanied Absalom. They had been invited as guests and went quite innocently, knowing nothing about the matter. While Absalom was offering sacrifices, he also sent for Ahithophel the Gilonite, David’s counselor, to come from Giloh, his hometown. And so the conspiracy gained strength, and Absalom’s following kept on increasing.

In four short years, the tides have turned, and it’s time for Absalom to take over. He sends secret messengers throughout the tribes of Israel to synchronize the revolution. When the trumpets are sounded, cry loudly in the streets: “Absalom is king in Hebron.”

The aging King David gets word that his son is planning a coup, and flees Jerusalem with his followers. While Absalom has no right to overthrow his father, it is interesting to contrast David’s since of justice with Absalom’s. Unlike Absalom, who needs deception to gain followers, the men who follow David out know his character. Even the elderly and the foreigner side with him, despite David’s requests that they not risk their lives for his sake.

The priests bring the Ark of the Covenant, and David takes the opportunity to make a sacrifice — but David tells them to return the Ark to Jerusalem. If God wants to choose a different leader for Israel, clinging to the Ark won’t help him, any more than it did the Israelites after their defeat at Ebenezer (1 Samuel 4). Unlike Absalom, David knows that God is not to be used as a prop. Ultimately, David trusts God’s sense of justice, and commits himself to whatever God’s plan may be.

Then the king said to Zadok, “Take the ark of God back into the city. If I find favor in the Lord’s eyes, he will bring me back and let me see it and his dwelling place again. But if he says, ‘I am not pleased with you,’ then I am ready; let him do to me whatever seems good to him.”

Absalom enters the vacant capitol, and quickly takes charge. Seeking advice on how to proceed, he asks David’s former counsel what to do.

Ahithophel answered, “Sleep with your father’s concubines whom he left to take care of the palace. Then all Israel will hear that you have made yourself obnoxious to your father, and the hands of everyone with you will be more resolute.” So they pitched a tent for Absalom on the roof, and he slept with his father’s concubines in the sight of all Israel.

Though Absalom plans to pursue and attack his father, David had setup a counterintelligence campaign that convinces Absalom to stay in the city and strengthen his numbers. Meanwhile, the spy network sends a message to David letting him know they bought him time to escape, and to make as much headway as they could.

David sets up his resistance party in a nearby city, and begins organizing his commanders and generals. Though David pledges to lead the battle from the front, his generals urge the aging king to stay in the city and provide logistics support from within the walls. The generals know he is too valuable a piece to have in play. As the army marches out of the city walls, David lingers at the gate, pleading with all who leave to treat his son gently as possible.

The battle is devastating, with twenty thousand dead. The Bible doesn’t record which side lost more — this is Israel at civil war. They are killing each other. In a strange turn of events, Absalom gets his hair caught in a tree branch, and is left hanging there when his donkey walks out from under him. When Joab — you remember him from earlier — gets word of Absalom’s predicament, he orders the soldiers to kill David’s son. Of course, the men well remember David’s plea, and refuse to kill Absalom. So Joab does “what needs to be done”, and plunges three spears through Absalom’s chest.

The tragedy of David hearing of his son’s demise is too great to write about here, but the story cannot be closed without mentioning it. David, seemingly having never left the city gate, runs to a room above it and openly weeps for his son. Despite the rebellion and strife, David still has a deep and unconditional love for his son.

Absalom’s brief reign came to a disastrous end, replete with tragedy. Of course, we have the image of David weeping above the gates of the city for his son, but we also have a divided nation left in the wake of death and destruction.

Let us not forget all of the people who put their trust and hope in Absalom for justice —most of all, Tamar. She was used twice by her brothers — once for sexual gratification, and again to nurture hatred to fuel an assassination. Absalom murdered her brother, divided her country, and then died on the battlefield of a failed revolution, leaving her to fend for herself. What sort of justice is that?

What can we learn about Absalom’s failures, so that we don’t repeat them? I have six points to demonstrate Absalom’s failure as a leader.

  • First (and ultimately), Absalom refused to wait for God’s justice. When it looked like there would be no justice for Tamar, Absalom took matters into his own hands, and murdered his brother. He failed to believe what God said in Deuteronomy: “I will take revenge; I will pay them back. In due time their feet will slip. Their day of disaster will arrive, and their destiny will overtake them.” The only way to seek vengeance is to first say: God has failed to bring about justice by my standards, and the justice I will obtain will be more satisfying than His.
  • Second, for Absalom, the ends justified the means. When Joab denied Absalom an audience with his father, Absalom lit his fields on fire. Remember, Joab was sympathetic to Absalom, and was responsible for helping him return from exile. But when Absalom didn’t get what he wanted, he resorted to destroying property in protest — even the property of his friends.
  • Third, Absalom preyed on those who needed justice, and used them as a stepping stone for power. He pretended to empathize with anyone who came to him with an issue, affirmed their cause without even paying attention to it, and smothered them with affection. This isn’t the behavior of a righteous and impartial judge. It’s the antics of a seedy slip and fall lawyer that runs obnoxious ads on TV. “No matter the case, I will fight to get you the money you deserve!” Absalom did not want justice for the public, he just wanted their support to obtain power. “Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.”
  • Fourth, Absalom deceived his followers with piety. Not only did Absalom use others as a stepping stone, Absalom used God as a stepping stone. He made a show of appearing religious, and lead many to worship God, but had shown that he put no trust in God. (See point one.) Absalom only used God to build his support.
  • Fifth, Absalom’s justice was based in retribution. The very first thing he did as king was to gather David’s concubines and sleep with them in public as a gigantic middle finger to his father. This did nothing for Tamar, she had already served her purpose, and was discarded. Absalom did not want to rectify the wrongdoing, he just wanted his revenge — and continued to extract it by targeting people who have done nothing wrong to him.
  • Sixth, Absalom lived and died on superficial appearances. His followers were captivated by his beauty, his promises for justice, and his piety towards God. However, his promises were fake, his piety was fake, and he was fake. When he got caught up in the tree, I can’t help but wonder why he didn’t cut his own hair to escape. A man riding into battle wouldn’t keep a knife on his person? But Absalom hid the ugly realities of his heart behind his beauty. He would rather die than let people see what lay behind the mask.

In effect, Absalom was the image of everything Paul warns Timothy about in the New Testament. Look at how many of these boxes Absalom ticked off:

But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God — having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people.

2 Timothy 3:1–5

Regrettably, our country has no David… but we are flush with Absalom’s. It seems that America is desperate for “justice”, on both sides of the political aisle. And who are we turning to? Vulgar, violent, slanderous, brutal, treacherous, rash, abusive, unforgiving people. People who quickly rush to support someone for their cause, and abandon them the moment they cease to be useful. People that appear to be godly, but have no love for God’s justice, no love for God’s mercy, and have no desire to walk humbly before Him.

It is easy to see this culture on the right — culminating in the death of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville. But make no mistake, this is the same culture that shot David Dorn to death in St. Louis, while chanting how “Black Lives Matter”. By and large, our political leaders have watched in silence — and we have joined them on the side lines. We might not be brazenly cheering for a side to win, but we take secret pleasure when we see the other side losing.

Or perhaps our support is a little more subtle. “I know it says, ‘have nothing to do with such people’, but they’re the only people we can turn to right now! Trump is really trying to restore Christian values to America! And if you look at the left, they read from the Bible all the time! Doesn’t God want us to care for the marginalized, and love our neighbors? Isn’t there godliness behind what these people want?”

No — just the appearance of it. And we’ve been deceived like the 200 men who went to worship with Absalom.

Who can forget Donald Trump driving protestors away with teargas for a photo op holding a Bible outside of St. John’s cathedral? But at the same time, who can forget the dozens of memes enthusiastically shared on Facebook, using Jesus flipping tables in the temple to justify the riots? Every time someone quoted Micah 6:8 at me, it seemed to stop at “seek justice”. “Love mercy? Why on earth would we do that? Mercy is only for the deserving! Racists do not deserve mercy, they must be driven out!” This isn’t done out of a desire to follow Jesus, it’s just using him as a prop for a cause. Talk about having an appearance of godliness, but denying it’s power.

But this message is a decade too late. We have invested in Absalom, and the fallacy of sunk cost is strong. Regardless of who wins the election tomorrow, Absalom has been elected into office. In a twisted turn of Micah 6:8, we have voted for the vengeful “justice” of Absalom, the ruthless lack of mercy of Absalom, and the arrogant pride of Absalom far before the election was ever on the horizon. If we are to survive this ordeal, we must understand what it means to seek the justice that God desires, understand why we are to love His mercy, and repent in humility before Him.

I need to take a break from writing for a bit. But keep an eye out for part two, after the election.

Tim builds circuit boards in Virginia Beach, and enjoys writing about current events, history, theology, and philosophy.

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