II Samuel 15 – Absalom Rebels (how to respond to a trial)

One of the great things about studying the life of David is seeing his extreme humanness.  He’s a man after God’s own heart but he’s also a man who sometimes forgets that as he follows his own.  Depending on the chapter, the reader of II Samuel sees David at his best and worst.  In our study we’ve seen him ascend to the throne with humility and trust, commit adultery and murder as a bored king, respond perfectly to the resulting condemnation from that adultery and murder, and then do nothing in the face of his sons committing rape and murder.  We’ve seen humble and godly David along with selfish and oblivious David.  In a word, we’ve seen a human.  And from an application perspective, we’ve seen ourselves.  David represents all of us as a man who serves God imperfectly and sometimes not at all.  And there’s encouragement in that.

In this chapter we see good David return.  He is faced with the sternest and most heartbreaking test of his life and he responds with humility, wisdom, and complete faith in God.  He shows what it means to trust God and act shrewdly; to not assume God’s favor but to fully depend on His faithfulness; and to humbly accept God’s discipline while mourning its existence.  As David faces truly the worst consequence of his sin with Bathsheba he shows us what it means to live with the perspective of, “Though He slay me, I will hope in Him” (Job 13:15).

1-6
When Absalom fled Jerusalem after executing his brother, he lived for three years with his grandparents in Geshur.  At the end of three years, Joab convinced David to allow Absalom to return home.  Absalom returned but David did not allow him to see David for another two years.  Absalom finally forced an audience with his father and the two essentially ‘hugged it out’.  It is sometime after this reconciliation that our story in Chapter 15 takes place.

It is important to remember as we study these events that Absalom is now first in line for the throne.  With the death of Amnon (and the mysterious disappearance of the second-born, Chileab), Absalom moves into the top spot as the oldest son.  This makes his actions here somewhat hard to understand.  Why not just wait for his father’s death and know that he’ll someday be king?  Perhaps he worries that his execution of Amnon disqualifies him in his father’s eyes and the throne in fact won’t be his.  Or maybe his ambition is so strong that he simply can’t wait.

Regardless of the reason, Absalom starts laying the groundwork for a coup.  He provides for himself fifty men to run before his chariot – just like a king would do.  He rises early every morning (he’s ambitious and willing to work hard for that ambition) and meets people either coming to see his father for judgment or coming from seeing his father for judgment (as king David is essentially the Supreme Court of Israel), and commiserates with them and tells them if he were judge – if he were king, in other words – he would be sympathetic to their case and give them the justice David won’t.  Josephus says that he actually targets people who lose their case before David and tells them if he were judge they would’ve won.  Since there’s no reason to think David doesn’t hear his people or judge fairly (the events in Chapter 14 show that people have access to him), Josephus’ telling may be accurate.  The last thing Absalom does is to treat people as equals at all times.  When a man comes to him and bows (in his office as the king’s son and heir to the throne), Absalom grabs him and raises him up and kisses him – essentially putting himself on equal ground with the man.  It’s a shirtsleeves, “I’m just an everyman like you” political move.

Absalom follows this strategy for four years (Absalom is nothing if not patient; he waited two years to confront Amnon, he stayed in exile for three years and waited in Jerusalem another two before seeing his father, and here he slowly cultivates favor with the country over four years) and it’s effective.  Over time he steals away the hearts of the people.  The approval rating for David goes down while Absalom’s polling numbers go up.

We can wonder if there’s more to this change in the affections of the people than just Absalom’s underhanded actions.  Would Absalom be able to do this if David were still the king he was before Bathsheba?  Did the incident with Bathsheba – even though David presumably got away with it publicly – cause those who watched it to lose some faith in their king?  Or did the events that transpired around Amnon, Tamar, and Absalom cause some rot within the kingdom?  Or is David himself perhaps not so engaged in a job that’s caused so much pain over the last several years?  There is no way to know the answers to these questions, but it makes sense that perhaps a weakened king makes Absalom’s job a little easier.    

7-12
At the end of the four years Absalom goes to his father and asks his leave to go to Hebron and fulfill a vow to the Lord.  It’s interesting to consider David’s perspective on Absalom at this point.  Surely he knows what Absalom’s been up to.  Someone as steeped in war and the military as David is surely has the intelligence network to tell him that Absalom is acting like a king at the city gates (the chariot and retinue would presumably be hard to keep quiet).  Yet he apparently takes no action against Absalom at all (perhaps continuing his hands-off approach that he had in the Amnon/Tamar and Absalom/Amnon incidents) and willingly accedes to Absalom’s request to leave town.

When Absalom leaves, he sends spies throughout the country with instructions to foment rebellion when the signal is given that he’s been crowned king in Hebron.  He also invites 200 men from Jerusalem (presumably VIPs) to lend legitimacy to his claim to the throne.  The 200 go without any knowledge of what he plans.  He then invites one other person whose response is very interesting.  He calls one of his father’s counselors – Ahithophel – who seems to immediately agree to join the revolt.   Nothing in the text explains why Ahithophel joins with Absalom, but one possibility exists.  If Ahithophel is in fact the grandfather of Bathsheba (his son is Eliam whose name matches the name of the father of Bathsheba – II Sam 11:3, 23:34), perhaps he hasn’t forgiven David for what he did and now welcomes the opportunity to take his revenge.  He comes to Absalom in Hebron along with many others.  The conspiracy begins to grow and become stronger and stronger.

13-23
It’s at this point that a messenger comes to David with news of what’s going on in Hebron.  The messenger delivers a simple and brief message – “The hearts of the men of Israel are with Absalom.”  Here is where we see David perhaps showing both his knowledge of Absalom (note that he’s not surprised at all – there’s no “My son wouldn’t do such a thing” or any disbelief of the messenger in any way) and his understanding of political winds.  We also see his military training.  He doesn’t hesitate – he instantly sizes up the situation and tells his household it’s time to flee.  If they don’t get out of Jerusalem Absalom will destroy the city and kill every one of them.  They all have to leave and they all have to leave now.  David understands how dangerous Absalom is if he has the people behind him.

As bad as the situation is, the response of David’s household has to encourage him.  Those closest to him show amazing loyalty.  His servants stand by him (“Behold, your servants are ready to do whatever my lord the king chooses”); 600 men who presumably have been with him since his time in Gath before he was king (I Sam 27:2) go out with him; and his royal bodyguard (the Cherethites and Pelethites) stays true to him.  The people who are closest to David stay with him.  Not all is lost.

We’re not sure how to interpret verse 23 when it says all the country was weeping with a loud voice since we know that most of the country’s hearts have gone to Absalom.  It could be that this refers to David’s people in and around Jerusalem.  There is a huge hoard of people in Hebron celebrating Absalom as the new king, but for the people in the Jerusalem area it’s sad and frightening to see their beloved local son deposed.

These verses speak to David’s character as a leader.  It may be that his kingdom has slipped and its weakness has allowed Absalom to rebel, but David’s status as leader of those who’ve been with him the longest and the loyalty he’s engendered over years of serving God and treating people well are intact.  These people love him and they love him because of the man he is and has been.

24-29
Two other notable men join in David’s exile.  The two priests in Jerusalem – Zadok and Abiathar – come to David along with a group of Levites carrying the Ark of the Covenant (remember that the ark is in Jerusalem in a tent specially erected for it (II Sam 6:17) while the tabernacle itself is in Gibeon (I Chron 16:39)).  It’s here that we see David’s humble perspective on God’s discipline in his life.  He instructs the priests to take the ark back to Jerusalem and to stay there themselves.  He says the ark doesn’t need to go with him as he’s not sure what God’s plan is for him.  If God wants to restore the kingdom to him, then he’ll come back to Jerusalem and worship where the ark is.  If God doesn’t want him restored to the throne, then the ark should be with God’s anointed king.  The ark is bigger than David and he won’t use it as a good luck charm and he won’t presume that where he is the ark should be too. 

He also instructs the priests to go back so they can act as his eyes and ears in Jerusalem.  If they go back they can report on Absalom’s actions by sending messages to David via their sons.  He needs spies on the ground and who better to do it than priests who Absalom won’t suspect?  It’s a shrewd and canny move and shows that David isn’t giving up even in the face of his son’s crushing betrayal.

30-31
Once David establishes that the right people are coming and going, he allows the full weight of the disaster to hit him.  He walks forlornly up the Mount of Olives and adopts a mourning posture.  He walks barefoot, he covers his head, and he weeps.  The people who accompany him do the same.  It’s an awful site – a king and his most loyal subjects all mourning the loss of the kingdom.

It’s at this point that an awful situation becomes even worse.  David finds out that not only is his son in open rebellion against him, but his counselor – Ahithophel – has joined as well.  Two people essentially from his family (see Ps 41:4-9 for David’s perspective on these events) turn against him and want him dead.  It’s an enormously awful development in an already enormously awful day.

When David hears about Ahithophel, he prays.  He asks God to make the counsel of Ahithophel foolishness.  Right on cue, David runs into another of his advisors – Hushai the Archite.  Hushai has also adopted a mourning posture and is ready to loyally follow David.  David has other plans.  He orders Hushai back to Jerusalem and tells him to offer his services to Absalom and thwart the counsel of Ahithophel.  He is also to pass along to Zadok and Abiathar anything he hears in the palace that David should know.

It’s hard to see Hushai as anything other than an instant answer to David’s prayer.  It’s not the answer David expected – he prayed that God would make Ahithophel’s counsel foolishness – but it’s God’s direct answer nonetheless.  God won’t change Ahithophel’s advice – as we’ll find out – but He’ll provide the means by which Absalom will foolishly disregard it.  Hushai is a walking, talking, merciful answer to David’s plea.  At David’s lowest point, God steps in to encourage him.  A loving God knows exactly what His servant needs and when he needs it.

Hushai leaves David and heads back to Jerusalem.  He arrives in the city at the same time Absalom does.  The rebellion is now in full bloom.  Absalom has the throne while David flees for his life.

Thoughts
It’s interesting to note what’s not in this passage.  There’s nothing about David becoming bitter over what transpires.  We see him weep and mourn as he leaves Jerusalem, but he doesn’t question how these things could happen or curse God for allowing them.  David knows why Absalom rebels and he humbly accepts it and puts himself in God’s hands.  He knows he brought this on himself and it’s what God said would happen so he both accepts it and trusts that God will go with him through it.  He’s able to see the rebellion as more than just his son’s betrayal; it’s God’s punishment and so God is ultimately behind it.  Since it’s from God, David can accept it.

We can see this, by the way, in David’s actions.  He doesn’t shut down; he doesn’t become despondent and lose hope.  He uses his years of experience as both king and successful military leader to assess the situation and take steps to address it.  He instructs Zadok and Abiathar to be his spies in the city.  He tells them to use their sons as messengers.  He sends Hushai back to be a false advisor to Absalom.  David doesn’t know if God will restore his kingdom but he does know that God is the author of the events and so he can continue to lead his people and act.  If God’s not behind this, there’s no hope.  Since He is, there’s reason to act and trust.

And that’s how we should respond to trial – whether it’s a trial we bring on ourselves through sin or something God sends to refine us.  Either way, the key is to remember WHO is behind it.  To bitterly rebel against our circumstances is to forget who authors them.  God doesn’t randomly or spitefully bring difficulties into our lives.  He acts to make us more like His son (Rom 8:28-29).  Though He slay me, I will hope in Him.  This is the response of the man who understands God’s sovereignty and love and fully trusts in both.

We must also remember that God never deserts us.  He punishes David but He doesn’t abandon him.  When David needs Him most God appears (through Hushai).  A loving Father doesn’t abandon His children.  God will never put us through a trial alone (Matt 28:20b, Heb 13:5-6).

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