When we expect all our hopes to be fulfilled within this life alone, we set ourselves up for disappointment, stress and fear. David’s hope went beyond this life, and he shows us how to have grace under pressure.
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2 Samuel #16 . 2 Samuel Chapters 15 & 16
Some weeks we get into details about a text. This week, we’re going to fly through two chapters. Even so, we’re only going to cover one part of a much larger story concerning David’s son Absalom. There is kind of smorgasbord of spiritual truths here. Feast on whatever the Lord has to say to you through this today.
After David restored Absalom to his official position as prince, Absalom began laying the groundwork for a coup. He starts by running a popularity contest with David – a contest David didn’t even know was going on.
Absalom was good looking. Once he was “official” again, he began to charming also. He spent time with the people. He appeared to sympathize with their problems. Very subtly, he planted doubts in their minds about David. When they tried to honor him as their prince, he forestalled them, and treated them as equals and good friends. By doing this, Absalom won the hearts of a great many people.
David was a worshipper of God and a warrior. Though he failed at times, he rarely compromised his principles. Almost always, David cared much more about what God thought of him, than what the people thought. It wasn’t that he didn’t care about his people – it’s just that his way of caring and leading was oriented toward seeking the Lord, and leading the nation based upon what God wanted. For David, it wasn’t about being popular or satisfying the desires of the people. He felt, rightly, that if he was right with the Lord, then the Lord could use him to do his will for the nation of Israel.
However, the people were not as concerned with God as they were with themselves. So they were susceptible to someone like Absalom, who also appeared to be concerned with their desires. Absalom made sure he looked good. He always appeared sympathetic and engaging.
David was old school. He wasn’t a friend to the people – he was a leader. He stuck to his guns, because he believed right was right.
The people loved Absalom because they loved themselves more than God. If it was a choice between someone who followed God or someone who made them feel good, they wanted the one who made them feel good. We’ve already seen some things about Absalom’s character. He is ambitious for himself. He is arrogant. He wants his own way, and works to get it, regardless of the cost to others. But the people saw only the engaging, personable, friendly guy. They were too concerned with outward appearances.
There is no record of Absalom ever consulting the Lord about anything. And ultimately, he was not the Lord’s choice for king. But the people didn’t think about such things. They were already ready to repeat the mistake they made with Saul.
There is a classic scene in J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings. The four hobbits have met a tall, stern, grim looking man. He tells them that he was sent by their friend, the wizard Gandalf to help them. They discuss whether or not they can trust him. Finally, Frodo, leader of the hobbits says something like this:
“I think one of the enemy’s spies would – well, seem fairer and feel fouler, if you understand.”
In other words appearances are often deceiving. So it was with Absalom. He seemed fairer and better than David. But on the inside he was already rotten. He looked and seemed like the better leader. But it was the grim, steadfast old David who was the best king the people could have had, in fact, as history showed, one of the best kings Israel ever had.
I spend time on all this because I think we are often like the people who were duped by Absalom. It’s so easy to judge by external things like looks and charm. It’s so easy to fall for a leader or lover who looks good and makes you feel good about yourself and himself – at least superficially. The Indigo Girls have an old song with line that goes like this:
Darkness has a hunger that’s insatiable; And lightness has a call that’s hard to hear.
I want to encourage the people of God to not judge by shallow things like appearance or personal charm, or even by feelings. Sometimes it takes some hard work to realize that goodness doesn’t always immediately feel good.
In any case, Absalom was able to win over enough people to attempt a coup to dethrone David (and probably kill him). It is interesting to see David’s attitude toward his son. He had no illusions about Absalom. As soon as he heard the news, he knew that his son would kill him if he could. Even so, that never changed David’s love for him. Later we’ll see that when it came to battle, David tried to protect Absalom, and he was deeply grieved when his son was killed. David did what he had to, to protect himself and take care of the kingdom God has given him – but he never wavered in his love for his son.
That is sometimes how it is with us and the Lord. The Lord has no illusions about us. He knows who we truly are – the good, and also the bad. And yet, God loves us with an unwavering love anyway. He’s always hoping we can be saved from destroying ourselves. He’s always hoping we will reconcile with him rather than be killed.
In the meantime, David has to run for his life. This had to be tough for him. When David was a young man, for more than a decade he had lived on the run in the wilderness. Life was physically difficult in those days. He was not respected or honored for who God made him to be. He was not recognized for his gifts. God’s promises did not seem to be fulfilled. Finally, he came through all of that and became king. A few years later, he ended up back in one of his old hide-outs, eluding the Philistine invaders. He came through that. And now, well into middle age – perhaps almost sixty years old, he’s back again, running for his life, not respected, not living out what God had promised him. In some ways, this might have been even harder. He isn’t on his own any more. When he was young, he didn’t know exactly how it would feel to be king. But now, he has tasted what he has lost. And now too, he has a family to take care of. He brought his wives with him. Solomon might have been a little boy at this point. There were other children also.
But David did not turn away from the Lord. This would have been a time when it would be very easy to be bitter. David followed God faithfully for most of his life. True, he had failed at times, but he certainly had more than his share of trouble. Following God did not spare him from trouble and hardship. But he had a better hope than just a comfortable life on earth. And so as he goes, you can see the grace oozing out of him. When people insult him, he is not angry. He doesn’t demand help from anyone. He goes out in humility and trust.
The people seemed to have had three basic reactions to David during this period of his life. The first is shown to us in the person of Ziba. If you remember, Ziba was the man who was to be the manager of the estate of Mephibosheth, son of Saul, whom David had treated so kindly. Ziba gathered some much needed supplies and brought them to David. This was a welcome thing, and a great help to David. But it turns out that Ziba did this deceptively, for his own gain. He claimed that Mephibosheth was overjoyed that David has to flee, and that he, Ziba, has taken it upon himself to help David. But we learn in chapter 19 that in fact, Mephibosheth went into mourning the day David left. The whole time David was in jeopardy, he had not taken care of his feet, his hair and beard, or his clothes. You might make a false claim about your sorrow, but you can’t fake a long beard or toenails. This proves that Ziba lied about Mephibosheth, hoping that if David triumphed over Abasalom, he would be rewarded with Mephibosheth’s estate. Mephibosheth, if you remember, was lame, and Ziba took advantage of that to come see David, not allowing his master to come. So Ziba supports David, but with the purpose of gaining something in the end. On the other hand he likely has very little to lose by doing what he did, if David never comes back. There were others who doubtless supported David by way of hedging their bets, hoping to gain his favor if he triumphed, and having little to lose if he didn’t.
There was second common reaction to David in all of this. Shimei was a relative of Saul’s, and he cursed David, throwing dust and stones at him as he left Jerusalem. David’s response reveals that he is once more a man whose heart belongs entirely to God. David’s nephew Abishai, one his great warriors, offers to go relieve Shimei of his head. But David restrains him. Nathan had told David (2 Samuel 12:10-12) that one of the consequences of his sin would be rebellion from within his own family. David is back to his good place in his relationship with God. His circumstances are a mess, but once more, his heart is fixed entirely on the Lord. So when Shimei curses him, David humbly accepts whatever the Lord is doing. He trusts the Lord to straighten things out, if Shimei is wrong. There were others, obviously, who sided with Absalom and rebelled against David. David’s personal advisor, Ahithophel was one prominent one. It may be that David wrote Psalm 55 at this point. The close friend that David refers to in that Psalm was very likely Ahithophel.
Finally, a third group of people remained steadfastly with David, come what may. Ittai was a Philistine warrior who had left his home; he led a battalion of six hundred Philistines who had pledged allegiance to David. David released them from their pledge and urged them to return to their homeland, but they refused. For them it was not about being blessed or having good times. They were in it for forever, for good or for bad, no matter what. The two priests, Zadok and Abiathar, were like that, as was one of David’s advisors, Hushai. David sent them back to Jerusalem as spies, and they remained loyal to him.
Remember how David is a “type of Christ?” It shows up again here. Jesus did not return the curses and insults of those who reviled him. I think it is helpful for us to look at how people responded to David, and see ourselves, in how we respond to Jesus.
There are some people who follow Jesus, or at least, who are sympathetic to him, because even though they aren’t sure about him, they want to keep their options open. Maybe they want something from him. So they hedge their bets. They come to church. The try to manipulate him into blessing them, in case he is in a position to do so. But they aren’t following him because he is the chosen one of God. They are doing it in hope for their own gain.
Others simply reject Jesus, particularly when it seems like he’s not a winner. These folks may seem to go along with the Lord for a while. But when something comes along that seems more attractive, or that makes them feel better about themselves, they desert the Lord and go along with the new thing. Sometimes they may reject Jesus because they mistakenly thought that the main thing he was supposed to do was make their lives on earth better, and when trouble came, they weren’t spiritually prepared.
And finally, there are those who remain faithful through everything. Sometimes their faithfulness costs them a great deal of suffering and hardship. Sometimes it brings peace or joy. But they follow in the certain hope that this life could never hold everything they want or desire. They are seeking their heavenly home. The book of Hebrews talks about them, and people like those loyal to David:
These all died in faith without having received the promises, but they saw them from a distance, greeted them, and confessed that they were foreigners and temporary residents on the earth. Now those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they were thinking about where they came from, they would have had an opportunity to return. But they now desire a better place — a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them. (Heb 11:13-16, HCSB)
Let the Holy Spirit speak to you today. Maybe you need correction because your focus is on external things. Perhaps you are swayed but what looks good or what makes you feel good. Or maybe you need to be reminded that the life of faith always has ups and downs; that real saints throughout the ages have had many struggles in their lives. The trick is not to avoid struggles, but to let God’s grace come out when you are in them. Or perhaps you are being challenged about the way you follow Jesus. Maybe you have been focusing more on your own personal gain. Perhaps you are susceptible, because of pain or struggle, to rejecting Jesus all together. Hear God’s gracious invitation to faith today.