GRACE IN JUDGMENT

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Judgment always has this purpose: to turn people back to God, where they can find joy and grace.

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2 Samuel #22 . 2 Samuel Chapter 24

This is yet one more of those difficult passages in Samuel. Thankfully, it is the very last chapter of the book J. Even so, as with the other difficult parts, there are rich and grace-filled lessons to be learned here.

This same incident is also recorded in 1 Chronicles 21. I’ll be using both passages to help us understand. It says here that the Lord was angry at Israel, and stirred up David to take a census. In Chronicles, it says that Satan, plotting against Israel, incited David to sin by taking a census. Either way, we can see that the consequence of David’s sin was that all Israel suffered. I think one of the first questions should be, “Was it God or was it Satan?” As I have mentioned in previous messages, there are several other places in the Old Testament where the Lord used evil spirits to accomplish his purposes: Judges 9:23-24, 1 Kings 22:18-23 1 Samuel 16:14, and Job 1:6-12. In each case the picture we get is the Lord allowing an evil spirit to affect a particular person or group. In each case, the evil spirit wants to do the evil, but must get permission from God first. God’s permission seems to be limited to what will accomplish his purpose. In most of these cases, the purpose is to bring judgment, and if possible, repentance. [For a longer discussion of this issue please go to one of my previous sermons: Does God Send Evil Spirits?]

So it is entirely consistent to see God allowing a limited evil influence upon David in order to accomplish his purposes. It was Satan who tempted David, but it was ultimately God who allowed it. The answer to our first question then is: both. It was both God and the devil.

The next natural question is, “Why did God let this happen?” My most honest answer is, “I don’t know for sure.” I do have some ideas, however.

Clearly, the Lord felt that there was something not right in David’s heart – and also not right in the hearts of the people. Let’s start with an clear biblical understanding of sin and punishment and judgment. There is only one satisfactory and just punishment for sin. According to the Bible that one appropriate punishment is eternal separation from God. Since God is the source of all Life and all Good, that separation means death and unimaginable suffering. So if David and the people of Israel were not killed and sent away from God’s presence forever (that is, hell) then they were not being punished for doing wrong. They were being judged. There is a difference. In fact, it was God’s punishment for our sins that Jesus took upon himself.

In the Bible, God’s judgment establishes that his actions are right and good, and that ours are wrong and sinful. God uses judgment to try and get people to repent and turn to Him and receive life, hope and forgiveness in Jesus. Judgment always has this purpose: to turn people back to God. It isn’t vindictiveness or anger or even righteous punishment. It is an extreme measure of love. It is like amputating a limb to keep the deadly cancer from spreading, or taking the cars keys away from someone who drinks too much. It seems harsh, but it is intended for good, for love.

So God allowed the sin in the hearts of David and his people to be revealed through temptation, and then he brought judgment to turn them back to Himself.

When I was fifteen I tore open the back of my heel in accident, and had to have stitches. The wound became infected. It sealed up on the outside, but underneath, it was filled pus and infection. Left alone, it would have looked all right, but eventually it would have developed gangrene and rotted my foot and leg, finally killing me. My dad realized what was happening. He made me lie down, while he clamped my leg to hold it still. He squeezed around the wound and it was incredibly painful. The wound burst open and what came out was truly disgusting. For almost a week afterward I had a gaping hole in my heel. I still have a scar. But it was absolutely necessary that the infection be exposed and cleaned out.

So, the Lord exposed what was hidden in the hearts of David and of the people, and then cleaned the infection, though it was a painful, awful-seeming process. My dad inflicted pain upon me in order to bring about my healing. He didn’t cause the infection, but he did cause me pain in order to first expose it, and then eliminate it. So God did not cause the problem in the hearts of his people, but he loved them enough to engage in the painful process of exposing it and judging it, to bring them back to himself.

Now, another question that I have is, what was so bad about taking a census? Moses did it twice – because God told him to. So why shouldn’t David do it? How did the census expose the sin of David and of Israel? I think this is an important question to ask.

I want to admit, this part is speculative. Here are some possible reasons. Perhaps it was pride. Maybe David wanted to know how great his kingdom was. Or maybe he was contemplating a new conquest that was not sanctioned by the Lord, and he wanted to know if his army was big enough to do it. Another possibility is that he was afraid of another rebellion, and was using the census to ferret out any potential enemies. The men of Judah and those of the other tribes were recorded separately. So maybe David was afraid, and was trying to see if the men of Judah had enough soldiers to defeat the other tribes if it came to civil war again.

In any case, it did not arise from faith. Romans 14:23 says: “For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” We want a book of rules, so we can just take care of things on our own, and not make the effort of staying close to the Lord. Rule 447, paragraph 8, section c: “Do not ever take a census.” But living that way actually separates us from God, because it allows us to function “righteously” without really interacting with him. Even if we do the right thing, it needs to be because we are living in right relationship. Taking a census is not always wrong. But David was not walking in faith.

Here is one other possibility with this census. It could be that David ordered it to be conducted in a way that violated something the Lord said in Exodus 30:11-16.

The LORD spoke to Moses: “When you take a census of the Israelites to register them, each of the men must pay a ransom for himself to the LORD as they are registered. Then no plague will come on them as they are registered. Everyone who is registered must pay half a shekel according to the sanctuary shekel. This half shekel is a contribution to the LORD. Each man who is registered, 20 years old or more, must give this contribution to the LORD. The wealthy may not give more and the poor may not give less than half a shekel when giving the contribution to the LORD to atone for your lives. Take the atonement money from the Israelites and use it for the service of the tent of meeting. It will serve as a reminder for the Israelites before the LORD to atone for your lives.” (Exod 30:11-16, HCSB)

The point of this was to recognize that the Lord owns all of the people. They don’t own themselves – they owe their lives to the Lord. In the same way, no leader owns the people – they all belong to God. It may be that the people did not want to pay the census fee, nor did David want to require it of them. This exposed that in their hearts they were not serious about belonging to God as a people. This may be the sin in the hearts of the poeple that God was exposing.

With the sin exposed, God acted in judgment, to bring the people back to himself. Because David repented so quickly, the Lord gave David a choice about the form of judgment: three months more of rebellion and battle, or three years of famine, or three days of a plague. David chose the last one, as I would have. He trusted God’s mercy (in the form of the plague) more than the “mercy” of a human enemy.

As the plague was coming to Jerusalem, David apparently had a vision of God’s angel striking the people. He cried out for mercy for them, pleading with God to limit the judgment to himself, to strike him and save the people. God did not do that, but he did end the plague at that point. The angel in the vision stopped. David’s plea to be punished instead of the people echoes the heart of the ultimate chosen one, Jesus, whom God did strike in place of all sinful people.

What follows is very interesting. The Lord sent the prophet Gad, who told David to make sacrifices and offerings on the spot where he saw the angel stop. If you remember, Jerusalem in David’s time was fairly small, maybe ten or fifteen acres. It was on the tip of a ridge, with deep ravines to the east and west and south. Behind David’s city to the north, the ridge rose to the top of the mountain. It was there, at the top of that ridge or mountain, where David went to offer his sacrifices. This was about 1/3 of a mile from the south wall. The picture below gives you a rough sense of the geography, though it is not 100% accurate.

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He found the land was owned by a Jebusite, not an Israelite. Refusing to take it as a gift, David purchased the land, and made offerings and sacrifices there. This ridge-top was the very place where Abraham had taken his son Isaac, when he obeyed God’s call to sacrifice him. On that mountaintop, Isaac, not knowing what was to come, asked what they were going to use for a sacrifice. Abraham answered prophetically, saying, “God Himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” (Gen 22:8, HCSB). God stopped Abraham when he saw that he was willing to give up even his son. Instead, God planned to give his own son. And so on this same spot, almost eight hundred years later, the plague was stopped. On this same spot, David offered his life in exchange for his people, but again, the Lord refused that sacrifice, looking ahead to the time he would offer his own son. And this same spot, purchased by David, Solomon built the temple of the Lord, where for years they offered sacrifices that were all a shadow, pointing toward the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus to save people from their sins.

So David ended his reign, still being used by the Lord to point toward the ultimate messiah. 2 Samuel 23 records the last psalm he wrote:

These are the last words of David: The declaration of David son of Jesse, the declaration of the man raised on high, the one anointed by the God of Jacob, the favorite singer of Israel:

The Spirit of the LORD spoke through me, His word was on my tongue.

The God of Israel spoke; the Rock of Israel said to me, “The one who rules the people with justice, who rules in the fear of God, is like the morning light when the sun rises on a cloudless morning, the glisten of rain on sprouting grass.

Is it not true my house is with God? For He has established an everlasting covenant with me, ordered and secured in every detail.

Will He not bring about my whole salvation and my every desire? (2Sam 23:1-5, HCSB)

BAD KARMA

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Does this passage disturb you at all? I hope so. In such passages, we are meant to be shocked, horrified and put off. This is how bad sin is. This is how completely unattainable holiness is. This is how much we need Jesus.

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2 Samuel #21 . 2 Samuel Chapter 21

I’m very glad we’ve done this extended series on the Old Testament, because we have encountered many of the things that cause trouble for people when they think about the bible. The first part of 2 Samuel Chapter 21 is another one of those troublesome parts for me. Hopefully, however, as we have gone through these difficult passages, you have begun to learn (as I have) how to hear what the Holy Spirit is saying through them.

The New Testament tells us that everything in the Old Testament was written for our instruction; it is useful and helpful for Christians today. Another thing the New Testament teaches is that the Old Testament is about Jesus. So, first and foremost, we should ask, “What does this have to do with Jesus? How does it teach me about him?” Next, we can ask, “What does this have to do with my present day relationship with the Lord? What does it teach me about myself?”

Some Old Testament passages paint a picture, a foreshadowing of what Jesus was going to be like. People like David and Samuel and Uriah show us, through very limited parts of their lives, something of the attitude, life or teaching of Jesus. Theologians call these “types of Christ.”

There are other passages that are primarily about how people relate to Jesus – how they respond to him. We’ve had quite a bit of that lately, seeing how people responded to David when he forgave his enemies. There are lessons there for us in how we respond to Jesus.

Some of the most difficult passages, however, are there to show us how much we need Jesus. They show us the depths of our sin, the heights of God’s holiness, and the huge gap in between. They show us how it was between God and people before Jesus made it right. They show us what our situation would be without Jesus. I think this is one such passage.

It started with a famine. This is equivalent to a modern-day economic recession or depression. Times were tough, families were struggling. After three years of this, David began to wonder if there was a spiritual reason for the hardship. When he worshipped and inquired of the Lord (probably through the prophet Gad, and through the urim and thummim, the “holy dice”) he learned that the famine was because of something king Saul had done.

There was a group of people known as the Gibeonites. They were not Israelites, but when Israel invaded in the time of Joshua, the Gibeonites had tricked the leaders of Israel into swearing an oath that they would not destroy the Gibeonites. So they had lived for more than four hundred years in Israel’s territory. According to the old agreement, they were essentially a tribe of servant-class people for the Israelites. They kept their part of the agreement, working as laborers for the Israelites, and remaining peaceful. But at some point not recorded in the bible, Saul had tried to wipe them out. Essentially, he tried to commit genocide, similar to what Adolf Hitler did to the Jews in the 1930s and ‘40s. Apparently he slaughtered a great many of them, but obviously not all.

Stop for a moment here. The famine came along years later. Saul was dead. The whole nation had repudiated Saul’s family, and chosen David. David had never done anything like Saul’s slaughter. He had never hurt the Gibeonites. But the entire nation was still punished, years later, for what Saul did.

My first response to this is to think that it was not fair. Why should David’s kingdom pay for something David did not do? Why should the people suffer for a crime they had no part in?

But there is another question here also. Why should the Gibeonites suffer? Why should they be denied justice? Would it be right to ignore the crimes that were done to them?

When David heard what the problem was, he spoke to the Gibeonites directly.

He asked the Gibeonites, “What should I do for you? How can I make atonement so that you will bring a blessing on the LORD’s inheritance? ” (2Sam 21:3, HCSB)

There is a key concept here: atonement. The idea is that harm done must be made right; justice must be appeased. When you break a window, you atone for it pay paying for a new window. But how do you atone for something like genocide? It would appalling and offensive to simply suggest we should “just forget about it.”

The Gibeonites told David that they would like to execute seven of Saul’s descendants. David made sure to protect Mephibosheth, son of Jonathan. The seven who were executed were Armoni and Mephibosheth (a different one) – sons of Saul by his concubine Rizpah. The other five were sons of Merab, Saul’s oldest daughter, who was originally supposed to be David’s wife (thus they were Saul’s grandchildren). They were hanged, and their bodies were left exposed.

Does this disturb you at all? I hope so. In such passages, we are meant to be shocked, horrified and put off. This is how bad sin is. This is how completely unattainable holiness is.

In many areas of our lives, we accept that things must be made right. When we make our bank statement right, we call it, reconciling. The balance MUST equal deposits minus expenditures. That is the nature of a bank balance. If we refuse to accept that, our finances will be in a mess. All of our hurt will not change the basic facts of mathematics. Our ignorance will not make any difference either. 2+2 MUST equal 4. If you have a two, and then you have another two, what you have is four. It HAS to be four – that is simply how the universe works.

Too look at it another way, we sometimes say, “there is no such thing as a free lunch.” Someone pays for it, even if it isn’t you. The food had to come from somewhere. Someone had to work to harvest it and cook it.

But for some reason, we seem to think that in terms of moral actions, nothing must be paid for, and nothing has to add up. This passage shows us how horribly wrong that is. Sin MUST be accounted for. The balance must be reconciled. Deep down, we know this. It would be a permanent obscenity upon the human race if no one had tried to bring justice upon the perpetrators of Jewish holocaust. We know that. If the man who killed all those young children in Connecticut were still alive, it would be an insult to all humanity if we simply let him go free.

If sin isn’t atoned for, it lasts. There is no statute of limitation. In the case of the Gibeonites, the atonement required was gruesome and was itself full of tragedy.

This passage shows us the futility of what some religions call “karma.” If it is true that “what goes around, comes around,” then we are doomed. If we need to make up for all of our sins not only in this life, but also for past lives, we will never find rest for our souls. If the sins of previous generations are on our heads, there is no hope. If even just our own sins are accounted to us, there is no hope.

Now, if you read this passage, and you think about what I’m saying, there are two possible responses. One response is to say, “Wow! I really need to straighten out my act and get serious.” If that’s your response, you still don’t get it. If this makes you think you need to get it together, you still don’t understand how bad this is.

The only appropriate response to this passage is: “If this is the way things are, I’m screwed.”

We are screwed.

Saul’s sons and grandsons were screwed. There wasn’t anything they could do to avoid a shameful death. According to moral law – according to God, if we understand this passage correctly – they deserved it. Nothing would be right until they got what was coming to them.

This how it stands in the universe. The moral equation must add up. The only way to make it add up is for you to suffer and die. Too many Christians don’t take it seriously enough. When someone tries to straighten out her life and live morally, to be a good person for God, she isn’t taking this seriously.

Imagine a homeless bum who is stupid-drunk. In his intoxication, he kills a woman – someone else’s wife and mother. Now imagine he sobers up, and realizes he’s done something bad. In response, to try and make up for it, he offers the family all the money he has, which amounts to $3.35.

“I’ve given them everything I have,” he says. “It’ll just have to be enough.”

It’s an insult. It is offensive that he would even offer it, let alone that he would try to pretend that it would make up for what he did. That is just how ridiculous and offensive it is to suppose that we can be good enough to make up for the times when we sin. We are screwed.

That is what this passage is all about. You have no hope. You have no options. You deserve to die and your attempt to make up for things is so pathetic that it is offensive.

Thankfully, these are not the only verses in the bible. Thankfully, the Lord loves us too much to leave us without hope. But get this straight: there is no hope in your behavior. There is no hope in you straightening out and doing better next time. You can’t dig yourself out of this pit – the walls will come crashing in and bury you.

Too many churches give the impression that Christianity is about getting your act together. It isn’t. That’s entirely false. If you think you can get your act together enough to make a difference to God, you aren’t a Christian. Sometimes I think Christians don’t get excited about the “Good News” because they haven’t taken the bad news seriously enough.

The accounts of morality must be balanced. But we can’t do it. And that is why Jesus came to earth. Soon, we will be celebrating his birth. We often do that with a lot of vague feelings of peace and goodwill. But the most appropriate response should be profound gratefulness.

Jesus took our sins upon himself. The balance was paid out through his torturous death. Through faith in him, we were punished by his death. That is what we call atonement. There is no other hope of settling the score.

But in Jesus, that hope is real and true. There isn’t anything you can do. And so he did it all. Our part is merely to believe that, and accept it with gratitude. When we truly believe both the bad news and the good news, Jesus changes us from the inside out. When we know we truly don’t have to measure up, there is a tremendous freedom and joy that brings us even closer to God.

Pause now, and let the Holy Spirit speak to you today.

LOYALTY IS TESTED ONLY IN TIMES OF DISAGREEMENT OR TROUBLE

I understand the hurt feelings we can have sometimes when God doesn’t come through the way we think he ought to. I’ve had them myself, frequently. But he is the king. He can do what he wants to. He is wiser than us, and he sees things we don’t. It’s better to trust him and stay engaged.

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2 Samuel #20 . 2 Samuel Chapter 20

Last week we spoke of the political situation at this point in time in Ancient Israel. There are more politics here, but be patient, I think we’ll find some good stuff. After David returned, having reached out the leaders of the tribe of Judah, who were in shame, the leaders of the other tribes were offended. They had not provided the key support of Absalom’s rebellion, like Judah had; they had talked of bringing David back before Judah had. So they were offended that David reached out to Judah and gave them the honor of escorting him back to Jerusalem.

Apparently while David was returning to Jerusalem and all this was being discussed, a man named Sheba, from the tribe of Benjamin (Saul’s tribe), stepped up and said, essentially, “Fine then. If that’s how David wants it, let’s leave.”

He left, and most of the people of the other ten tribes followed him. Now, at this point, as I read this text, they were simply choosing not to escort David to Jerusalem. Most of the leaders of the tribes were willing to express their displeasure with Judah and with David’s forgiveness in this way. So they all went home and left the leaders of Judah to escort David.

But Sheba, the man who instigated the walk-out, wanted to take it one step further. He wanted to immediately start another rebellion. For David, this was one thing after another. However, Sheba was not like Absalom. This was not a carefully laid plot with long preparation. He was only able to get the Berites to join him. The “Berites” were probably citizens of the town of Beeroth in Benjamin; it was almost certainly Sheba’s hometown. So his influence was quite limited.

Even so, David thought it best to stamp out the small rebellion quickly. He didn’t want to give it a chance to spread. So he ordered his new military commander, Amasa, to gather the troops.

When Absalom rebelled, he had chosen Amasa to be his general. After the rebellion failed, one of the ways that David reached out to the tribe of Judah was by promising Amasa that he was forgiven, and that he would command the army in place of Joab. Joab had murdered Abner years before this, and at that point he had David’s tolerance, but never again did David approve of him. More recently, Joab murdered David’s own son, Absalom. Now, I know it was when they were at war with Absalom, but when Joab came upon him, the battle had already been won, and Absalom was alone, unarmed and helpless. Moreover, David had commanded Joab to capture and spare Absalom if he could. Instead, Joab killed him while he hung helpless and trapped in a tree. So Joab was in disgrace, and David wanted no more part of him.

Another reason David made Amasa the new general, was to try and mend the relationships he had with the leaders of the tribe of Judah. It was a peace offering to them, showing them he had forgiven them, restoring them to normal relations. In addition, Amasa, like Joab, was one of David’s nephews. In fact, he was Joab’s cousin.

Amasa took too long to gather the army, so in the meantime, David sent Abishai, Joab’s brother, after the rebel, with David’s personal force of elite warriors. Joab went along. Eventually, Amasa and the army he had raised, met up with David’s forces under Abishai. Joab went up to Amasa. He deliberately allowed his sword to fall out of its sheath as he approached his cousin. He bent down and picked it up, and then, still holding the sword, reached out as if to greet Amasa. Instead, he stabbed him, killing him. This was very similar to what he had done to Abner. Immediately, he took control of the whole army again. He had one his loyal followers cry out

“Whoever favors Joab and whoever is for David, follow Joab! ” (2Sam 20:11, HCSB)

The implication is that if you didn’t follow Joab you were against David and for the rebel that they were pursuing. Eventually, Joab’s flunky hid the body of Amasa, so it wouldn’t distract the soldiers as they marched by.

They pursued Sheba and his followers to the northern borders of Israel, where he took refuge in a walled city. There Joab negotiated with a woman with a reputation for wisdom. She begged Joab not to destroy the city. Joab made it clear that their war was against the rebel, not the city. So the citizens executed Sheba, and thus ended the rebellion, and saved their city from destruction.

Now, what do we make of this? It’s a petty, bloody and gruesome chapter in the history of Israel. What would the Lord say to us through it? Well, let’s remember that the whole bible is about Jesus. This chapter is here to show us something about Jesus, or something about ourselves and how we relate to him.

Let’s start with the people from the ten tribes. They began by insisting how much they wanted to honor David, but ended up snubbing him deliberately because they were offended and hurt by the way he forgave his enemies.

Sometimes we might be tempted to behave this way with Jesus. It’s easy to get disappointed with him when he behaves in ways we don’t expect. Sometimes it’s hard to accept that he loves our enemies as much as he loves us. Sometimes what he does or doesn’t do, or the things he allows to happen in our lives, are difficult to understand. Often we respond by withdrawing from him. Maybe we aren’t overtly rejecting him or rebelling, but we just “go home.” We back off. I understand the hurt feelings we can have sometimes when God doesn’t come through the way we think he ought to. I’ve had them myself, frequently. But he is the king. He can do what he wants to. He is wiser than us, and he sees things we don’t. It’s better to trust him and stay engaged.

Maybe it’s not even Jesus himself, but something he’s doing that he wanted us to be involved in. For example, suppose you feel called to help out with a ministry to the poor. You do, and you truly make a significant difference, but no one recognizes your efforts. In the meantime, they honor people who seem to deserve it less than you. So you back off. I understand backing off a situation like that. But the question is: did the Lord call you to back off, or are you just withdrawing because your feelings were hurt? That can be tough, but the way of maturity in Jesus is to listen to him more than your emotions.

What about Joab? Joab comes across as someone who was always loyal to David, even though David did things he didn’t like. But was it really loyalty? He was loyal when he agreed with David. But we see now, for at least the third time, that when Joab had different ideas, he chose his own way. He did what he wanted, no matter what the king commanded. Loyalty and submission to leadership are only really revealed in hardship and especially in disagreement. But whenever there was disagreement, Joab chose himself over David.

By and large, Joab looked like a loyal and faithful servant. And, throughout his life, he did a lot for David. But ultimately, he did not buy into who David was and what he was all about. He was offended by David’s compassion and forgiveness. He liked the part where they got to kill their enemies together. He didn’t like the forgiveness part, so he didn’t do that, and he did not let David’s will thwart his own designs. Joab was aligned with the right side. But his heart was all about Joab and what he felt and what he wanted. He did not actually accept David’s wisdom and judgment if it was different from his own.

Sometimes Christians can be that way with Jesus. Usually, these days, it is the reverse of Joab. We like the love and forgiveness stuff. But when it comes to giving up our favorite sins, we choose our own way. Or maybe we’re fine to go to church and sing songs. But when it comes to forgiving someone who has hurt us badly, we hold on to the right to nurse our grudges. We like to be perceived by others as believers, but we won’t listen to the Spirit’s call to be intimately involved in the lives of other believers, or to study the bible. Jesus said something very scary in Matthew chapter seven:

“Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord! ’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of My Father in heaven. On that day many will say to Me, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in Your name, drive out demons in Your name, and do many miracles in Your name? ’ Then I will announce to them, ‘I never knew you! Depart from Me, you lawbreakers!’” (Matt 7:21-23, HCSB)

You can look like a Christian, act like a Christian and talk like one, but not really allow Jesus to change your life. You can even do things for Jesus, but those things won’t count if you don’t really receive him as your savior and king. Joab looked like a friend, but his actions revealed him here as someone completely separated from David and his values. We see how terrible and ugly that was in Joab. We see that the fruit of it was pure evil. The same is true for us: the fruit of our own self-will when it is asserted as better than the will of Jesus, is never good.

Finally, consider the wise woman in the town of Abel. At first, they probably received Sheba into their town willingly. But when the realized the destruction he would bring and that there was no righteousness to his cause, they were willing to get rid of him in a very final way.

This also reminds me of something Jesus said:

If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of the parts of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of the parts of your body than for your whole body to go into hell! (Matt 5:29-30, HCSB)

The people of Abel realized that they had something in their midst that would lead to their downfall. They got rid of it with awful finality. Sometimes maybe we need to something similar. Maybe you have a habit of going out after work and having a few drinks before you head home. Maybe you fudge the numbers a little bit at work. Perhaps you have some activity or habit that seems OK at first, and you like it, but Jesus has made you aware that this is a problem in your life. The time to get rid of it is right now, with finality. The people of Abel were considered wise for choosing to get rid of the rebel rather than having their town destroyed. We too, sometimes need to make a wise choice that is hard, even drastic.

Let the Spirit speak to you through the text today.

OFFENSIVE FORGIVENESS

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Sometimes the love and grace of God is given to people who are so undeserving that it seems offensive. But Jesus’ love and forgiveness is given time and again to those who don’t deserve it – because no one deserves it. So, if you think you are unworthy, you are correct. But that doesn’t stop Jesus from giving you grace and forgiveness anyway. On the other hand, if his grace offends you, maybe you don’t yet know how much you yourself need it.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer:
Download 2 Samuel Part 19

The second half of chapter 19 appears to be mostly a detailed record of the political history of that time. This was valuable and significant to the ancient Israelites who lived not long after David’s time. It is still interesting today to historians, and bible-geeks like me. But what is the point of it really?

I know I’ve mentioned this before, but I think it is important to revisit it periodically. We all tend to forget. The Holy Spirit made sure first that this history was written; second, that it was preserved through the years; and third, that it was included in the bible. So there must be some reason for this. There must be some way the Lord wants to speak through it to Christians living today.

Sometimes, in order to hear what the Lord wants to say today, we first need to understand it better. So please bear with me. I think we’ll find some fruitful bible application here if we pay attention to details that might otherwise seem tedious.

Here’s the situation. David’s army has defeated and killed Absalom, who had rebelled against him and set himself up as king in David’s place. There were no computers or telephones or newspapers in those days, so it took a while for the news of David’s victory to spread. Meanwhile, David seems to have waited. This might seem a little bit strange. But remember who David is. He has many faults, to be sure, but he has never grasped at power. Instead, he always waited for the Lord, even refusing to take opportunities to gain the kingdom. So here, he once more waits until he is sure that Lord still wants him as king. He doesn’t want the civil war to continue, so he waits until he is sure he can return in peace. This David once more at his best, trusting the Lord.

The writer of Samuel often makes a distinction between the tribe of Judah and the other eleven tribes of Israel. Often when he writes “Israel” he appears to mean the tribes as distinct from the tribe of Judah. This shows us that there was some tension between those two factions even in the time of David. In the time of David’s grandson, the nation was split. Judah absorbed most of the tribe of Benjamin and became a separate nation named “Judah” (from which we get the word, “Jew”). The other ten tribes formed a kingdom to the north of Judah, which was called “Israel.”

After Absalom’s rebellion, people from the other tribes began talking about inviting David back officially, and officially receiving him once more as king.

Now Israel had fled every man to his own home.  9 And all the people were arguing throughout all the tribes of Israel, saying, “The king delivered us from the hand of our enemies and saved us from the hand of the Philistines, and now he has fled out of the land from Absalom.  10 But Absalom, whom we anointed over us, is dead in battle. Now therefore why do you say nothing about bringing the king back?”

Apparently, the people really had committed to Absalom. They said he was the one they had anointed to be king over them. This wasn’t as strange as it might seem. After all, he was the king’s son and heir. I’m sure many people assumed that sooner or later, Absalom would be king anyway, and why not have him in the full vigor of his youth? But now, he was gone. I would have thought that at this point it was a clear choice to go back to David, but the people still seemed at a loss. Even so, from most of the tribes, sentiment turned back toward David.

But the tribe of Judah did not seem to know what to do. At first, this seems strange, since David was from the tribe of Judah. But then, so was Absalom. Absalom’s rebellion was conceived and carried out in Hebron, the chief city of Judah. His military commander, Amasa, was a relative of his (and David’s) from the tribe. In fact, most of his inner circle were probably from Judah. In other words, although they were David’s people, they were also Absalom’s people, and they were probably chiefly responsible for the rebellion.

David reached out them. He sent a message to the leaders of the tribe of Judah, saying,

‘Why should you be the last to restore the king to his palace? The talk of all Israel has reached the king at his house. 12 You are my brothers, my flesh and blood. So why should you be the last to restore the king? ’ 13 And tell Amasa, ‘Aren’t you my flesh and blood? May God punish me and do so severely if you don’t become commander of the army from now on instead of Joab! ’ ” 14 So he won over all the men of Judah, and they sent word to the king: “Come back, you and all your servants.” (2Sam 19:11-14, HCSB)

As David makes his way back, he is met at the Jordan river by a host of people who want the honor of escorting him to Jerusalem. What follows is a slightly sickening display of sycophancy. People end up arguing amongst themselves about who gets to show David honor, and who is honoring him more (19:40-43).

Along with the leaders of the tribe of Judah, one of the first people to come meet him is Shimei. You may remember him from 2 Samuel 16:5-13. This was the man who cursed David and pelted him with rocks and dust as he fled from Absalom. When David was down, he piled on with insults and taunting. Shimei did not just screw up and make a mistake – what he did was clear and deliberate. Now that David is king again, he comes fawning to him like a disobedient dog, and begs forgiveness. I don’t know about you, but I think that Shimei was pond-scum. His behavior and attitude are despicable, detestable, the lowest and ugliest forms of hypocrisy and cowardice. He is a jerk, plain a simple, the kind of person I want nothing to do with.

And David forgives him.

Stop for a second, and think on that. Let it sink in.

Let’s be honest. David’s forgiveness and compassion are offensive. Abishai, brother of Joab suggests, as he did before, that Shimei would be a more attractive person if his head was removed. I tend to agree with Abishai. But David did not.

Does this remind you of anything? The love and compassion of Jesus were also offensive. The Pharisees were offended that he would eat with tax collectors and known sinners. He allowed a prostitute to kiss his feet in public, and wash them. It offended them.

I think once more, this text is a far-off picture of Jesus, the ultimate anointed savior of God’s people. It isn’t really about David, it is about Jesus, his wisdom and love, and how people respond to him. So let’s consider the rest of this text in that light.

We’ve been talking about Shimei. His sin was obvious and deliberate. There was no excuse for it. It wasn’t a momentary slip. It revealed an ugly character. Even so, David offers him forgiveness and redemption. Jesus does the same. That’s right, Jesus came to redeem and forgive class-A jerks, cowards and crawling hypocrites. It is offensive sometimes, to think Jesus would forgive someone that I want to hate so much. But he does.

Abishai was like me. Shimei’s character was clear to him. He was offended by David’s compassion and mercy. But David rebuked him. Sometimes we really are offended by the idea that Jesus would forgive certain people. Would he forgive a child-molester? Based on what I know of the bible, the answer is “yes.” Jesus is king, and he can forgive who he pleases. He does not answer to us.

But as an illustration, I do want to finish the story of Shimei, though it does not end for many years. When David was dying, he told Solomon to watch out for Shimei. So, even though David forgave him, he certainly saw the truth about what kind of person he was. Solomon made a just and fair ruling for Shimei, allowing him to live in peace if he would show his obedience and faithfulness by never leaving Jerusalem. Shimei ignored that when it became inconvenient, and Solomon had him executed. So in the end, forgiveness did Shimei no good, because he did not allow it to touch his heart and change the kind of person he was.

In the same way, the forgiveness of Jesus does not help those who don’t truly repent, who don’t allow him to work in their lives. Jesus sees all, let ultimate judgment rest with him.

Back to David, the next person to arrive was Ziba. At this point, Ziba was revealed as a trickster and manipulator, because right behind him was Mephibosheth, whom Ziba was supposed to serve. Mephibosheth revealed how Ziba took advantage of his disability, and took the donkey that was supposed to be for him, and told David that Mephibosheth rejoiced over David’s trouble. David does not seem to know who to believe, but he reverses his earlier decision that gave all of Mephibosheth’s land to Ziba. Now, instead, he tells Mephibosheth to divide the land between them. Even so, this amounts to forgiveness for the trickster and manipulator, Ziba. There it is again, that offensive forgiveness.

Mephibosheth’s response shows that his loyalty was always true. He doesn’t care about the land, as long as David is safe, and king again. I mentioned before that Mephibosheth is a great picture of God’s grace. Unlike Shimei, the grace he received through David changed him permanently. He doesn’t just want what David can give him. He wants the best for the king that saved him, and he wants fellowship with him, whether he has blessings from him or not. Mephibosheth rejoiced that David was back and safe, far more than he rejoiced about being vindicated in the dispute with Ziba.

This is an encouragement to me to have a similar attitude. It isn’t about what Jesus can do for me in this life. It isn’t about me getting what I think I deserve, or being proved right. It is about loving Jesus and being in relationship with him. You can’t manufacture that. It only comes when you love Jesus for who he is. If you feel like you lack that kind of love (as I often do), ask the Holy Spirit to give it to you.

One of the people who helped David in his exile was an old man named Barzillai. David blessed him and rewarded him, though again, Barzillai wanted no other reward than the safety of the king, and in fact, was too old to enjoy any of the blessings David wants to bestow. So too, I find it helpful to remember that even though Jesus sometimes offends me by his radical forgiveness of people whom I think are undeserving, he does also love his faithful servants. He does not forget them, or offer them less than anyone else. Maybe, like Barzillai, we don’t enjoy the blessings in the this life. Even so, Jesus offers us blessing and joy that can never spoil or fade.

Another group to consider is the leaders of the tribe of Judah. They made a deliberate choice to follow Absalom instead of David. But before they even repented, David was reaching out to them, forgiving them, restoring them to a relationship with him. So Paul writes about Jesus in Romans 5:

For while we were still helpless, at the appointed moment, Christ died for the ungodly. For rarely will someone die for a just person — though for a good person perhaps someone might even dare to die. But God proves His own love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us! (Rom 5:6-8, HCSB)

Jesus’ love and forgiveness is given time and again to those who don’t deserve it – because no one deserves it. So, if you think you are unworthy, you are correct. But that doesn’t stop Jesus from giving you grace and forgiveness anyway.

Abishai was not the only one who took offense at the mercy of God that David showed to all who would see. The ten other tribes of Israel were also offended that even though they were the ones who first talked of bringing David back, it was the tribes of Judah and Benjamin who got the honor of doing so.

In Jesus’ time, the Pharisees were also offended at Jesus’ grace. That was because they did not believe they had need of it themselves. I think that may be a key. If the forgiveness and mercy of God to others offends you, is it possible that perhaps you do not realize how much you yourself need that same grace?

Let the Spirit speak to you today.

Does God Hate Anyone?

absalom-death-granger

 

There are people who have turned their backs on God. God doesn’t hate them. There are people who mock God and rejoice at insulting and offending and even persecuting those who follow Him. God doesn’t hate them. People may set themselves up as enemies of God, but God does not see it that way. He does see the reality – that some people hate him and have rebelled against him, even as Absalom did to David. But he also looks at each one of them and sees a unique human being whom he loves deeply.

 

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

 

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download 2 Samuel Part 18

 

2 Samuel #18 . 2 Samuel Chapter 18

Second Samuel chapter eighteen records the end of Absalom’s rebellion, and of Absalom himself. If you remember, David fled for his life across the Jordan river and to the city of Mahanaim. This was about ten miles east of the Jordan river, up in the mountains, about halfway between the Dead Sea and the Sea of Galilee. It was within the nation Israel at the time (now it is part of Jordan) but a fair distance over rough country from Jerusalem, if you were traveling on foot.

 

Mahanaim1

There, David gathered an army of those who were still loyal to him. Six-hundred to one-thousand soldiers had fled with David. The bible doesn’t tell us how many more he found, but the Jewish historian Josephus says that he had four thousand men when he went to fight the army of his son Absalom (I don’t know where Josephus got his information). The bible doesn’t tell us how many men Absalom had either. David ordered his men, devised a battle plan, and prepared to go out. But his men convinced him to stay in the city while they fought on his behalf. This made sense. Absalom had to kill only one man – David – in order to win. David had the humility and wisdom to recognize this, and so he listened to his men and stayed behind. But he gave his three chief commanders clear orders to “deal gently, for my sake, with the young man, Absalom” (2 Samuel 18:5).

 

 

Many of those who fought for David were probably veterans of his earlier campaigns. They remain today some of the most famous warriors in history. Certainly David had most of the best military commanders of the nation on his side, even though he was at a disadvantage in numbers. Their strategy had been devised with the help of David himself. It is quite likely that David chose to go to the city of Mahanaim precisely because it was in the Forest of Ephraim. The area is not forested today, but it remains rugged and mountainous, as it was in those times also. In the rough terrain and the forest, the advantage of greater numbers that Absalom had might have been largely neutralized. David’s smaller, more experienced force had a better chance there than in a pitched battle in an open area.

Absalom’s army was out-maneuvered, out-led and out-fought. They were defeated. The scripture records that many men perished in the rough terrain. The text records that 20,000 men perished, more killed by forest than by the battle. In previous teachings I have explained the difficulties of numbers in Hebrew. If you think it would be more realistic if the number was 2,000 men, by all means, go with that. The Hebrew could read either way.

This rough terrain was forested in David’s time

In the defeat, Absalom fled on his mule. He went under the twisted, low-hanging branches of an oak tree, and his head was caught in the branches. The mule kept going, and left him hanging there, unable to touch the ground, and apparently unable to extricate himself from the tree. The text simply says that Absalom was caught by his head. It is the Jewish historian Josephus who claims it was, in particular, Absalom’s beautiful thick hair, about which he was so conceited, that trapped him.

Remember, David wanted his men to deal gently with Absalom. In a pitched battle, that could have been very difficult. If he was well and wielding weapons, and defended by others, it might have been impossible to take him prisoner without severely wounding him or even killing him. But here was the perfect opportunity to bring him back to David whole and unharmed. He was helpless and disarmed, a threat to no one. The first Israelite to discover this, found Joab, David’s chief general, and told him. But Joab, instead of seeing this a stroke of extreme good fortune to capture Absalom without anyone getting hurt, took advantage of his helplessness and attacked him as he hung there. No doubt not wanting to be the only guilty party, he recruited ten young soldiers to assist him, so that the blame was shared. Absalom was struck dead. Now I want to point out that there was probably some bad blood between Absalom and Joab. Joab had apparently had a soft spot for him. He helped Absalom get permission to return to Israel after he had murdered his brother. Joab helped David and Absalom reunite. But Absalom had been arrogant and high-handed with Joab, and it was doubtful he had ever thanked him. So I think it is quite likely that Joab bore special grudge against him, and that he killed him as much for his own sake as for David’s.

David first heard the news that the battle was won, and he was glad. But shortly after that, he heard that his son had been killed. He was overcome by grief and he lamented loudly. As a result, the victorious army marched into the city without the celebration and joy that were normal when the battle was won.

Joab, never deterred, rebuked David. He pointed out, probably correctly, that it was almost an insult to his men. Then Joab expresses what is really on his heart:

6 You love your enemies and hate those who love you! Today you have made it clear that the commanders and soldiers mean nothing to you. In fact, today I know that if Absalom were alive and all of us were dead, it would be fine with you!

Joab never understood David’s kindness and love toward those who tried to destroy him: Saul, Abner and Ish-bosheth, to name a few. The world was black and white to Joab – those with us, and those against us. But David was God’s chosen instrument because he had a heart that God could use to show the world what the coming savior was really like. David, expressing God’s heart, saw very few people that he truly hated or called enemies. Even so, David was not a blind idealist. He did what had to be done. So he fought when it was necessary. But he always wished for reconciliation, and the death of those who called themselves his enemies grieved him. In this case, although he still grieved for his son, he was humble enough to recognize that Joab was right, and he was shaming the men who had risked their lives for him. So he went out to them and congratulated them.

I really want us to hear the heart of God through this part of David’s life. There are people who have turned their backs on God. God doesn’t hate them. There are people who mock God and rejoice at insulting and offending and even persecuting those who follow Him. God doesn’t hate them. There are people who have twisted the truth about God into manipulative and evil false religions that oppress millions of people. God doesn’t hate them. People may set themselves up as enemies of God, but God does not see it that way. He does see the reality – that some people hate him and have rebelled against him, even as Absalom did to David. But he also looks at each one of them and sees a unique human being whom he loves deeply.

10 For if, while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, then how much more, having been reconciled, will we be saved by His life! (Rom 5:10, HCSB)

The bible is clear that some human beings can and do choose their own destruction rather than admit their need for God. God allows them to do that, or else love for God could never be real. But like David, he grieves deeply when people choose their own destruction. It happens, but he is never happy about it.

11 Tell them: As I live” — the declaration of the Lord GOD — “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked person should turn from his way and live. Repent, repent of your evil ways! Why will you die, house of Israel? (Ezek 33:11, HCSB)

Sometimes when we’ve been wandering away from God, we stay away because we think that God feels about us the way we deserve. Sometimes we think he feels about us the way we have felt against him. The prodigal son went home with a prepared speech, hoping he might be given a place among his father’s servants. But his father saw him from a distance and ran toward him, arms thrown open to welcome him back and to restore him to the family. That is how he is with us.

But while the son was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion. He ran, threw his arms around his neck, and kissed him. (Luke 15:20, HCSB)

While Jesus was being tortured to death, he prayed for the people who were killing him, saying, “Father, forgive them!” (Luke 24:34).

Peter betrayed Jesus in his darkest hour. Jesus forgave him and restored him. He welcomed him back into a relationship of trust, even after what Peter did. Paul persecuted those who trusted Jesus. He had them arrested and even executed. But Jesus welcomed him and forgave him when Paul repented. Jesus himself said:

7 I tell you, in the same way, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous people who don’t need repentance. (Luke 15:7, HCSB)

The plan, of course, is that the 99 righteous people, already living in God’s grace, rejoice along with Jesus and the angels of heaven.

David knew that he had been forgiven much. He had sinned horribly and yet, repented and received forgiveness. He hoped for the same thing for Absalom. This is a reflection of Jesus’ hope for us. Jesus sees us as we are, but he loves us anyway. He doesn’t hate you, and he never will. He wants the best for you, and he knows that comes only when you trust him. If you have already returned to him, why don’t you share the good news with others who also may not know

WHERE IS YOUR HOPE?

David, fleeing from Jerusalem, is cursed by Shimei.  William Hole, Old Testament History (Eyre and Spottiswoode, c 1925 )

Leaders and governments come and go. So do countries and nations. Israel’s hope was not in David’s leadership, but in God’s faithfulness and sovereignty. Our hope is the same. If we are shaken by an election, for good or for bad, then to that extent, our faith is not truly grounded in an eternal God who promises us an eternal hope. This isn’t just about elections. This is about anything in life that threatens to shake us.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download 2 Samuel Part 17

2 Samuel #17 . 2 Samuel Chapter 17

This is not a political sermon, so just bear with me through the first few paragraphs, and you’ll see that there is some rich spiritual application.

I think it is safe to say that the election in the United States this past week reveals that we often deeply divided as a nation. Although the electoral college victory for Barak Obama was clear and decisive, the margin int he popular vote was less than 3%. These division may cause us dismay. Sometimes it may seem that the atmosphere is far to bitter and partisan. Many people are dismayed by politicians themselves — so many of them seem willing to push the envelope of ethical behavior extremely far.

The scripture that we are looking at today is especially relevant in these times. David was good king; in fact, he was God’s choice for king. But Absalom sounded good, looked good and deceived enough good people, and recruited enough schemers, to take power and send his dad David running for his life. Politically, things looked bad for Israel. How could the country be so ignorant as to let this smooth-talking, charming megalomaniac come to power? Obviously, there were still many who supported David, and who felt that Absalom was a very bad choice for king. But they were defeated and silenced. God’s choice no longer mattered. Righteousness and right didn’t matter. Instead, power went to the one who was most ruthless and clever. Those who were wise and aware in Israel, who trusted the Lord, must have been deeply dismayed.

At the end of 2 Samuel chapter 15, we learn that when David fled from his son Absalom, he left behind a kind of spy network. Two priests who were loyal to David stayed in the city – Zadok and Abiathar. Their two sons – Ahimaaz and Jonathan stayed outside the city, ready to relay messages to David. David also had a friend and advisor named Hushai. Hushai stayed behind and pretended to betray David, and so became an false advisor to Absalom, a kind of double agent.

David had another close friend who was an advisor. This man was named Ahithophel. 2 Samuel 16:23 says this:

Now the advice Ahithophel gave in those days was like someone asking about a word from God — such was the regard that both David and Absalom had for Ahithophel’s advice. (2Sam 16:23, HCSB)

This man truly did betray David. He supported Absalom and threw his lot in entirely with him. It is quite likely that when David wrote psalm 55, it was primarily Ahithophel whom he had in mind. He said these things:

Now it is not an enemy who insults me — otherwise I could bear it; it is not a foe who rises up against me — otherwise I could hide from him. But it is you, a man who is my peer, my companion and good friend! We used to have close fellowship; we walked with the crowd into the house of God. (Ps 55:12-14, HCSB)

…My friend acts violently against those at peace with him; he violates his covenant. His buttery words are smooth, but war is in his heart. His words are softer than oil, but they are drawn swords. (Psalm 55:20-21)

When David first heard that Ahithophel had betrayed him, he prayed for the Lord to confound his advice and to defeat him. He says similar things in Psalm 55. There is something here that intrigues me. If you read the Psalms especially, David is never shy about praying for destruction to come upon evil and evil-doers. Whenever I read such things, I cringe a little bit. I think most modern Christians do. It sounds so simplistic to our sophisticated ears. These types of prayers seem to assume that we are good, not bad, and we have the ability to discern who the bad ones are. I don’t think I’ve ever heard modern Christians pray that way. Now, Jesus did say to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us. So I think we ought to do that. But have we ever considered that part of our prayers could be asking God to frustrate and confound the schemes of unrighteous and wicked people? Here’s another sample from David:

Let those who seek to take my life be disgraced and confounded. Let those who wish me harm be driven back and humiliated. Let those who say to me, “Aha, aha! ” be horrified because of their shame. (Ps 40:14-15, HCSB)

If we pray in faith, trusting that God knows who truly needs to be confounded frustrated, and who doesn’t I think it is appropriate at times to pray against the success of those who appear to be against God. I’m not saying that we get to judge who those people are – I’m just saying that we can appeal to God to restrain and defeat wickedness, trusting him to judge who is wicked and who is not.

Ahithophel certainly appeared to become a wicked person. His first advice to Absalom was that he publicly violate the women of David’s harem, who had been left behind when David fled. This was a symbolic cultural gesture, expressing contempt for David, and showing the people that he had completely cowed and defeated him. The possession of the King’s wives was a way of solidifying his own claim to be the new king.

Absalom took that advice, fulfilling Nathan’s prophecy that David’s wives would be treated publicly as David treated Uriah’s wife privately. The Hebrew leaves a little bit of room for interpretation. Absalom’s men pitched tents in public view – on the roof of the palace. The text says that Absalom “went in” to the women. It could mean that he raped them. But in the customs of those days, when a married woman was alone with a man who was not her husband, it was a disgrace. Whether or not anything happened, it was assumed that something had. So, whatever happened, from that time forth, those women were treated as if they had been raped. In those days, the custom (not biblical, just cultural) was that no other man would ever again be with them. They would have no place with their previous husband, nor any chance of a new one. However, after the rebellion was all over, David made sure that they were well cared for for the rest of their lives.

Ahithophel’s next advice was cunning and probably would have been effective. He told Absalom to pursue David quickly, to strike and kill him while he was still on the run, and end any doubt about who was king. But Absalom chose to also ask Hushai, David’s secret agent in the palace. Hushai gave advice that sounded excellent. He reminded Absalom that David was a cunning, fearsome old warrior, and that some of the Thirty were also with him. It would be no small thing to take such heroes on without enough preparation or force. David and Abishai (who was with him) had once killed six hundred men in a single battle, just between the two of them. Hushai suggested that Absalom could not risk bad news like a battle gone wrong, so early in his bid for power. The Lord heard David’s prayer, and Ahithophel’s scheme was frustrated.

Ahithophel’s reaction seems completely out of proportion. He goes and hangs himself. The text doesn’t really tell us why. I have a few theories, but they are only guesses. One thought is that Ahithophel reacted a little bit like Judas did one thousand years later, when he betrayed Jesus. Ahithophel may have realized that what he had done was wrong, and failed to believe that he could be forgiven and restored. So rather than repent and trust the mercy of God, he listened to lies of the devil that there was no forgiveness or hope, and destroyed himself.

The text does give us one clue. It says that Ahithophel did killed himself after he realized that his advice had not been followed. It could be that in his wisdom, he realized even at that early stage that if they didn’t kill David quickly, then they would inevitably lose. He may have seen right then that Absalom’s rebellion was doomed to failure. Rather than wait through all the turmoil and then be executed by David, he decided to put his affairs in order and deprive David the satisfaction of doing justice upon his body.

In any case, David’s prayer against evil was answered quite clearly.

Chapter 17 verses 17-29 read like an adventure novel. Hushai didn’t know at this point if Absalom would follow his advice or Ahithophel’s, and so he activated the spy network, warning David to flee across the Jordan river that very night. A servant girl went out from the palace bearing a message to the sons of the two priests. But the activity was noticed, and the two young men were pursued as they carried the message to the fleeing king. They took refuge in the courtyard of a friend, hiding in the well. The woman of the house spread canvas out over the well, and covered it with grain, so that no one even knew it was there. The soldiers of Absalom searched, but failed to discover the hidden well. Afterward, the young men continued on and successfully delivered their message, with the result that David and his household fled further on to safety.

So what do we do with all this? Let me be clear as I offer the first application. I am not saying that president Barak Obama is evil or unrighteous or that he is not God’s choice for president. I am not saying either that he is God’s first choice to be our president. But I know that whether or not he is God’s choice for president, many informed faithful Christians are very concerned that he has been reelected.

I want to point out that people have been following the Lord for thousands of years, and really only in the last three hundred years have human beings had consistent opportunities to choose their own government. Christian faith thrives in freedom. Christian faith thrives in oppression. God is not hindered by unrighteous rulers – if he were, Christianity would never have survived. So if you are thrilled that president Obama has been reelected, good. Just remember your hope should be in the Lord, not in a ruler. If you are dismayed, remember the same thing.

Leaders and governments come and go. So do countries and nations. Israel’s hope was not in David’s leadership, but in God’s faithfulness and sovereignty. Our hope is the same. If we are shaken by an election, for good or for bad, then to that extent, our faith is not truly grounded in an eternal God who promises us an eternal hope. David, as he fled from his murderous son, wrote this:

Cast your burden on the LORD, and He will sustain you; He will never allow the righteous to be shaken. (Psalm 55:22)

This isn’t just about elections. This is about anything in life that threatens to shake us. What does it mean, “he will never allow the righteous to be shaken?” When David wrote that, he had lost all that he had worked so hard for decades to attain. He was in danger of losing his life. His own son was trying to kill him. But he says, “the Lord will never allow the righteous to be shaken.” Obviously, he did not mean that things would never be hard. Obviously, he did not meant that the future on earth would never look bleak. What he meant is that our faith in the Lord looks beyond the here and now. You may wonder, “am I one of ‘the righteous’?” You are, if you trust Jesus. The promise of scripture is that Jesus imparts his own righteousness to us. This is not based upon what we have done, but rather on our faith in what he has done for us.

I think it is helpful to see David’s heart of faith in his extremely difficult and discouraging circumstance. Paul writes to the Philippians. He mentions people who are focused mainly on what is happening here and now:

They are focused on earthly things,but our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. (Philippians 3:20)

We are citizens of heaven. We have the same eternal king today that we had two weeks ago, the same leader that our predecessors in faith had two thousand years ago. Our best future is ahead of us, and nothing can take it away. It is difficult when life is unpleasant, or hard, or full of sorrow. But circumstances did not fundamentally shake David. They don’t have to shake your either. Set your hope fully in your eternal future with Jesus.

On the Road Again

Absalom's_rebellion_1334

 

 

 

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.