18:1 Then David mustered the men who were with him, and set over them commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds. 2 And David divided the army into three groups: one third under the command of Joab, one third under the command of Abishai son of Zeruiah, Joab’s brother, and one third under the command of Ittai the Gittite. The king said to the men, “I myself will also go out with you.” 3 But the men said, “You shall not go out. For if we flee, they will not care about us. If half of us die, they will not care about us. But you are worth ten thousand of us;[b] therefore it is better that you send us help from the city.” 4 The king said to them, “Whatever seems best to you I will do.” So the king stood at the side of the gate, while all the army marched out by hundreds and by thousands. 5 The king ordered Joab and Abishai and Ittai, saying, “Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.” And all the people heard when the king gave orders to all the commanders concerning Absalom.
6 So the army went out into the field against Israel; and the battle was fought in the forest of Ephraim. 7 The men of Israel were defeated there by the servants of David, and the slaughter there was great on that day, twenty thousand men. 8 The battle spread over the face of all the country; and the forest claimed more victims that day than the sword.
9 Absalom happened to meet the servants of David. Absalom was riding on his mule, and the mule went under the thick branches of a great oak. His head caught fast in the oak, and he was left hanging between heaven and earth, while the mule that was under him went on. 10 A man saw it, and told Joab, “I saw Absalom hanging in an oak.” 11 Joab said to the man who told him, “What, you saw him! Why then did you not strike him there to the ground? I would have been glad to give you ten pieces of silver and a belt.” 12 But the man said to Joab, “Even if I felt in my hand the weight of a thousand pieces of silver, I would not raise my hand against the king’s son; for in our hearing the king commanded you and Abishai and Ittai, saying: For my sake protect the young man Absalom! 13 On the other hand, if I had dealt treacherously against his life (and there is nothing hidden from the king), then you yourself would have stood aloof.” 14 Joab said, “I will not waste time like this with you.” He took three spears in his hand, and thrust them into the heart of Absalom, while he was still alive in the oak. 15 And ten young men, Joab’s armor-bearers, surrounded Absalom and struck him, and killed him.
16 Then Joab sounded the trumpet, and the troops came back from pursuing Israel, for Joab restrained the troops. 17 They took Absalom, threw him into a great pit in the forest, and raised over him a very great heap of stones. Meanwhile all the Israelites fled to their homes. 18 Now Absalom in his lifetime had taken and set up for himself a pillar that is in the King’s Valley, for he said, “I have no son to keep my name in remembrance”; he called the pillar by his own name. It is called Absalom’s Monument to this day.
33 The king was deeply moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept; and as he went, he said, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”
19:1 It was told Joab, “The king is weeping and mourning for Absalom.” 2 So the victory that day was turned into mourning for all the troops; for the troops heard that day, “The king is grieving for his son.”
This is a really hard story to tell. I thought about skipping it, but its really important that when the people of Israel remember who they are by remembering who came before them, they don’t papier mâché over the memories that are embarrassing or sad. They remember who they are by telling their history in all its complexity. I think what that does for them is provide a reminder that ultimately their hope is in the Lord. There might be features of Abraham or Jacob or David’s lives that we find admirable, but at the end of the day they are just people like us, or sometimes worse. None of those “heroes” are above critique because their stories are really about how God uses them often in spite of themselves. So I think it’s worth paying attention to that this climactic moment of David’s life, when his story should be winding down, when we should be hearing about the great peace that he ushered in, in reality comes to this moment of tragedy.
How did we get here? It hasn’t been that long since we were reading about the little shepherd boy, the least among his brothers, whom God ordained to be a different kind of king, a king after God’s own heart. It doesn’t feel like it was that long ago that David seemed to become that king when he danced in the streets with the ark of the covenant and fed all the people in the land. But now here we are: David is in a full blown civil war with his own son, Absalom. This family feud spreads across the face of the land and the fighting takes the lives of 20,000 people in one day, including Absalom’s. The promise, the hope that David represented has devolved into nasty, bitter conflict, and we end up in this place, with David barely able to speak, weeping over his child. How did we get here, and is there anywhere to go from this place?
When we think about how this all happened, I can’t help but notice that Absalom is a lot like David. The storyteller could’ve made Absalom into this obviously evil character, but instead they make him the mirror of his father: he’s handsome and charismatic. He’s a warrior, clever and ruthless in battle. And he has a strong sense of justice. He’s a lot like his dad. We really start hearing about Absalom when another one of David’s sons, Amnon, rapes Absalom’s sister Tamar (another son repeating his father’s sin), and Absalom does not rest until he has plotted Amnon’s murder. So Absalom flees and lives on the run, just like David had to do when Saul was king, because Absalom is afraid that his own father will continue the cycle of violence by killing him. But when Absalom returns, David welcomes his prodigal son home with open arms. And that would have been the perfect end to his story. What a moment of grace and reconciliation…and he lived happily ever after. Except he didn’t.
David is getting older and weaker, and Absalom starts thinking, “I should be king. That throne, that should be mine.” We’re not really told why Absalom starts thinking this. The thought arises spontaneously, like it’s the most natural thing in the world. But maybe this is something else Absalom has learned from David, who also took a throne. Absalom’s story is like the dark inverse of David’s story. He does a lot of the same things that David did, has a lot of the same traits that David had. We’ve seen this impulse to say “Mine!” already, when David looks at Bathsheba and grabs.
Of course, that impulse isn’t unique to David or Absalom. That’s what God said that kings would be like, kind of grabby: your king will take your sons and daughters to do his work, he’ll take your money, he’ll take your time. That’s what kings do, that’s what people do when they can, unless communities make sure that they can’t. It’s an ancient and horrible tradition that has been passed down to Absalom and David, too through the generations: as when Pharaoh grasped for control over the Hebrews even when God was working to free them; like when Joseph’s brothers grabbed him and threw him into the pit to hold on to their father’s favor; like when Nimrod grasped for heaven by building the tower of Babel; like when Cain seized Abel’s throat because God rejected his offering; and it goes all the way back to when Adam grasped for the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, where he could not help but take the chance to be like God.
“Mine, mine, mine, I can have more, I can rise higher, I can control my world.” That is what has been passed down from generation to generation; pride opening up upon jealousy, so that I have to protect what’s mine from you. That’s how we got here. This story is about Absalom and David, but the conflict between the two of them opens up on much deeper rifts that exist in our hearts, our relationships, our communities, between heaven and earth. This is a story about the ways our devastation moves through time with tragedy following in its wake.
Our histories matter. And not just the shiny versions of our histories that make us feel good about ourselves. We don’t always pass down the things we intend to pass down and sometimes things we try not to pass down come back to us a generation later, especially when we pretend they don’t exist. David repents, but then Amnon rapes Tamar and Absalom tries to take the throne, and we see these facets of David’s personality showing up in his kids and wreaking havoc. David’s history, which is the history of the world, shapes the next generation. Our histories matter. We pass things down, virtues and conflicts, gifts and wounds.
Our histories shape us in ways we don’t always recognize or have control over. A group of scientists recently did a study on some mice—they stressed a group of mice to simulate some overwhelming, lifelong trauma—and then they studied the children of that group, and they found that the second generation exhibited basically the same levels of stress as the first, even without the stimulus; and the next seven generations showed elevated stress levels, even without the traumatic events. Psychologists have noticed similar effects in humans, like the generations of Jews after the Holocaust and African Americans after Jim Crow. Sometimes we say, “Oh those things were so long ago, why do people still make a big deal about racism or fascism” but we’re still within a generation or two of those events. Those histories are recent; they continue to shape our world and our hearts, too. We are ourselves but the selves who we are have been shaped by our histories. Our histories matter: what we don’t deal with today will always come back at us bigger and meaner later.
In Absalom’s conflict with David we see the tragedy of what happens when history repeats itself without intervention. Absalom ends up caught between his father’s charisma and ambition, which have become his own. He’s caught between his desire to lead his people for their own good and the blood he’ll have to shed to achieve that goal. Absalom is all caught up, entangled in his history just as his hair gets tangled in the terebinth. He’s suspended between noble desires and base appetites just as he’s suspended between heaven and earth at his death. And that’s why this is one of the darkest scenes in the whole Bible, Absalom’s most beautiful feature ensnaring him and bringing about his death, and then David, the Psalmist, the poet who always has a word, choking out, O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!
So that’s how we got here, by history repeating itself. But is there anywhere to go from this place? Can we move forward? David can’t. Absalom certainly can’t. Sometimes in our lives, we realize what’s happened only when it’s too late. There are words we can’t take back. Actions we can’t undo, abuses that can only be “forgiven” alongside leaving that person, there are kindnesses left undone that we can’t go back and do now. Our lives are littered with these moments, in our families, in friendships, in churches—most of the conflicts in our lives, the big conflicts, haven’t really been about the thing that sparks the conflict; whatever that thing is, and it’s usually small, it starts the conflict because it ignite some long dormant tension that’s been there all along—and that’s why this story is so painful for us to read 2,600 years later. Because we see the tensions in David’s life, the tensions in having a king, the tensions in taking the promised land from the Canaanites, we see those tensions rip apart and destroy Absalom and David and much of Israel, too.
But maybe we don’t have to let history continue repeating itself. Sometimes the hope in stories like this is not in the story itself but in the way it makes us resolve to live differently. When David is lamenting his son, he says to himself, “Would that I had died instead of you.” After the fact, David wishes that he could’ve stood in for his beloved child, that he could’ve taken off his crown, taken off his prestige, and just been a parent. He wishes that he would’ve humbled himself to the point of death, even death on a tree. This is the very opposite impulse as what he passed down to Absalom. This isn’t grabbing and taking, this is emptying, this is pouring out, this is loving. It’s too late and that’s the tragedy, that David realizes how things could have been different only by hindsight.
But this hindsight is also foresight. Because this is the very kind of life that David’s descendant Jesus of Nazareth will come to live; its the kind of life that Jesus invites his followers to live, too. There is no greater love than this, that one should lay down their life for their kindred. Would that I had died instead of you. Would that I had let go instead of grasping, would that I had taught you that letting go is something you’re going to have to practice every day of your life because grasping is so written into your soul.
We can practice a different way, but it will take practice. Practices like confession and lament, where we bare our souls honestly. Practices like charity, where we give of ourselves to remind ourselves that we are not in control of the world. Practices like asking forgiveness. Practices like reading these stories where we say even our biblical heroes weren’t always so great, so maybe my heroes (including myself) deserve some healthy skepticism, too. All of these are practices that teach us humility. They don’t undo the other habits we’ve received in our devastation. But they might let us make a start in God’s grace. Some of us have received many of the same habits that Absalom received from David, but we’ve received other gifts too that could let us pass on another way of life.
This is a really hard story to tell. But we’ve all got stories that are really hard to tell, moments that are like black holes in our lives and our communities, empty but dense, that we find ourselves circling around even as we avoid them. I hope you and we can acknowledge those histories in all their complexity, that we can tell and hear those stories with grace and humility, that we can practice a different way, learn new muscle memories, and let stories of devastation like this one move us to say, “Lord, let us live differently. Let us choose love. Let us lay down our lives for each other. Let us find you even in the deepest darkness, knowing that your mercies are renewed upon the rising of the sun. When we are ensnared, may we confess how we got here in humility, so that we can move forward along the path you have set for us.” Amen.
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