The horrible crimes described here cry out for justice. But how can we reconcile justice and love?

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2 SAMUEL PART 14 (Chapter 13)

This is surely one of the most difficult passages in the entire bible. There are a few others like it, but that doesn’t make it any better. The first twenty verses describe a rape. The detail of the actual sin is not graphic, but the writer takes time to describe the premeditation that went before it. It is all the more awful because it is also incestuous. David’s son Amnon assaults his half-sister, Tamar.

Leviticus 18:9 and 20:17 expressly forbid sexual relationships between brother and sister – even half-siblings. In fact, it is forbidden, even between adopted siblings. And of course rape – of any person – is always forbidden. But this is one of the cases where even the most non-religious do not need have to be told that this was a vile, despicable, evil act. Even without the bible, the vast majority of human beings still know that this is wrong at every level.

Amnon, the one who committed the crime, was the firstborn son of David, and heir to the throne. He was the crown prince. Chileab, David’s second son, is not mentioned anywhere here, so it is probable that he died when he was younger. Therefore, the next in line is Absalom, David’s third’s son, full brother of Tamar.

This had to be hard for David. Amnon followed in his father’s footsteps. He sees a woman he wants, and he takes her. Only it is even worse than David, because it is rape and it is his half-sister. So David’s sin has been multiplied and is worse in the second generation.

Then comes the murder – also mirroring David’s crime. Absalom, furious with his half-brother, and probably ambitious also, bides his time, and then invites Amnon to a feast, where he has him murdered.

If you pay attention, there is something troubling that stands out in this text. I think if we pay it some attention, it may be rewarding. The troubling thing is this: David, apparently, did not do anything about the rape. Why is this? It seemed to frustrate Absalom, and lead him to the sin of murder, and later on, rebellion. So what do we make of David’s inaction?

There are several possible explanations, of course, but I want to focus on three main ones.

First, in all fairness, the text doesn’t actually say when David learned of the crime. It just says that he was furious when he found out. So there is the possibility that he found out only shortly before Absalom held his murderous feast. David hesitates when Absalom wants to invite Amnon, perhaps thinking of the crime, and wondering if there would be strife. In that case, Absalom took matters into his own hands before David could do anything.

A second way to look at it is this: Amnon has committed a terrible crime. But David did something similar, himself. Thus he finds it too difficult to be a hypocrite and judge his son harshly for doing something like what he himself did. What David did was lust. Lust is not merely sexual – lust means demanding that we have what we want, on our own terms, no matter what. So you can lust after food, power, money, success, the perfect body – anything that you demand to have and work to get, regardless of the consequence. So the root sin – lust was the same in both David and his son Amnon, though it took different outward forms. Therefore, David’s own sin may have cost him the moral fortitude to be a just and righteous ruler of his own family and kingdom. I see this quite often in our own culture. There is so much sin going around, that everyone is afraid to call any of it wrong, because people might point the finger back and say, “what about you?”

But if we have accepted God’s judgment of our sin, repented and received forgiveness, we should not feel bad calling sin the evil that it is. If we can agree that it is evil in us, it shouldn’t be a problem saying it is evil everywhere.

But there is a third possibility, and this is the one I favor, because I think it is true to the character of David, and to the overall message of scripture. I think David did not hold Amnon accountable, because he was trying (though failing) to reconcile justice and mercy; truth and forgiveness. The crime was real, and heinous. It had to be punished. And yet the punishment, at the very least, (according to Leviticus 18:29) was that Amnon should be stripped of all rights and exiled for life. Some interpretations of the law might have meant the death penalty. So to bring justice meant that David would be separated forever from his first born son. David clearly loved Amnon, as shown by the fact that he grieved for him for three years after his death. David, manifesting the heart of God, had a deep commitment to justice. David, manifesting the heart of God, had a deep love for his children. But that justice and that love could not be reconciled. To follow love would mean justice would not be satisfied. To follow justice meant love would be forsaken.

And here, once again, is Jesus. God faced the same dilemma as David, only on a much larger scale. All of his children – all of us – have harbored sin and wickedness in our hearts. We have all fallen. We may not have sinned as heinously as Amnon, but the thing in Amnon’s heart that made him sin is also in our hearts. Amnon manifests what it in every human heart, and show us the deep need for justice. The law says we should be punished by eternal separation from our heavenly king and father. God will not violate that law. But he also loves us with an everlasting, deep, wild, love. David could not reconcile love and justice, so he did nothing. But God did something to reconcile the two. He sent Jesus. Justice for all of our sins was done – upon Jesus. Our unrighteousness was severely punished. It was punished – in the person of Jesus Christ. Justice was done upon his body and soul. Jesus became a human precisely so that he could take that punishment upon himself. But because he was pure and remained God, that punishment did not destroy him like would have destroyed us. And so, because of Jesus, justice was done. And because of Jesus, God can show his love to us, with no barrier.

We are made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ. And this is true for everyone who believes, no matter who we are.

For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. Yet God, with undeserved kindness, declares that we are righteous. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins. For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood. This sacrifice shows that God was being fair when he held back and did not punish those who sinned in times past, for he was looking ahead and including them in what he would do in this present time. God did this to demonstrate his righteousness, for he himself is fair and just, and he declares sinners to be right in his sight when they believe in Jesus. Romans 3:22-26 (New Living Translation)

As I said last time, we do need to receive, through faith, the justice and love offered by God. It has been accomplished for us, but if we do not believe we need it, or if we do not trust we have it, or if we don’t want it – it does us no good.

Unfortunately for him, Absalom shows us that this is true. He did not seek justice from his father. He did not trust the king to satisfy the demands of justice. Instead, he took matters into his own hands. In the next chapter, we see that when Absalom wanted something from David he knew how to get it. When he wanted to be pardoned, and later restored, he was persistent and cunning and until David responded. But in the case of Amnon and Tamar, Absalom never even tried to get David to do anything. In fact, from the start, he pretended that incident meant nothing to him.

Perhaps he didn’t trust David to be both loving and just. I think also, he didn’t trust his father, the king to take care of him.

It may also be that Absalom realized he might be able to kill Amnon and become the crown prince himself, the next king of Israel. Tamar’s rape gave him an excuse to remove Amnon, the one person ahead of him in the succession, so that it would not look like ambition, but rather an attempt at justice. The reason Absalom had for murdering his brother might just make David and the people sympathetic enough so that when it was all over, they would still accept Absalom as the next heir to the throne. I think is I likely that at some point, Absalom decided to do this for both revenge and in order to become the next king.

Absalom did not seek justice from David for his sister. But even if he had, and David refused, it did not give him the right to commit a sin himself. We might do this with God in lesser ways and in lesser situations, and some ways, it is worse for all that. David was king. He had the right to deal with Amnon however he saw fit, even it if didn’t meet Absalom’s expectations. As it turned out, David gave Absalom himself mercy rather than justice. He hardly had the right to demand that David withhold mercy from someone else.

God is our king. He has the right to deal with his creations however he sees fit. When it comes down to it, at great cost to himself God offers us mercy rather than justice. Do we have the right to demand justice for some person or situation, even while we depend upon his mercy for ourselves?

Sometimes we try to take matters into our own hands because God doesn’t seem to be doing anything. I think when we do that, it can lead us down a path toward rebellion, just as it did with Absalom.

What Amnon did demands justice. Justice was given, through Jesus. That allows love to also be given. Let the Holy Spirit speak to you today about the need for both, and about accepting both things from the Lord.