Julian Lopez, considered by many as bullfighting’s hottest prospect in decades, was in a televised bullfight in Spain’s Las Ventas stadium. He had fought three bulls already that night, to the wide acclaim of the crowd. But on this third bullfight he took a wrong step, and he was caught!
The bull’s horn cut a gash eight inches deep in his left leg and flipped him high into the air. The bull swung Julian through the air and slammed him onto the ground, still butting into the matador.
Along with the televised audience, his father was watching the whole thing. Later his father was shown crying in the stadium as his son was carried off the field with blood dripping from the wound. Fortunately, the horn missed his vital arteries and the bullfighter was in stable condition afterward.
Julian, the bullfighter, experienced literally what David experienced figuratively. David was caught on the horns of a dilemma.
In our text for today, David is found struggling between the two roles of king and father, his public self and his private self. In his public life as king, he has been immensely successful. Even today, he reign is still considered the greatest period in the history of Israel. But in his private life he knew disaster after disaster. Ever since his sordid affair with Uriah and Bathsheba, he has suffered the consequences in his family.
A great deal has transpired in the life of King David since last week’s lesson in this series, and almost all of it bad. In last week’s passage, Nathan proclaimed on behalf of the Lord, “The sword will never depart from your house…. I will raise up evil against you out of your own house.”
And in the very next chapter (13), David’s oldest son, Amnon, becomes infatuated with his half-sister Tamar. He tricks her into being alone with him while he pretended to be sick, and then he raped her.
In spite of the terrible nature of the crime, David was unable to bring himself to punish his oldest son. Notice that 2 Samuel 13:21 says, “When King David heard of all these things, he was very angry.” but he failed to punish Amnon, because he loved him.
We can only guess at David’s mental state at this point. David, the mighty warrior and decisive king, is found hesitant to punish his own son for a terrible crime against his sister, “because he loved him.” This is classic enabling behavior.
David is like many parents today who find “tough love” just too difficult to administer. But David’s failure to act only led to further disintegration of his family.
Tamar’s full-brother is Absalom. He waits two years to avenge this mistreatment of his sister. At the end of chapter thirteen, he has Amnon killed. Afterwards, Absalom runs for his life fearing the anger of David. He stays gone for two years, but through Joab’s intervention he is brought back to Jerusalem.
David has allowed Absalom to return, but he still won’t let him into the king’s presence. For two years, David would not speak to his son. But finally, at the end of chapter 14, David is reconciled to Absalom. But the reconciliation was only skin deep. Though he was next in line for the throne, Absalom could not wait, so he began to plot a rebellion against his father.
This son Absalom was a beautiful man and ambitious. 2 Samuel 14:25-26 says, “Now in all Israel there was none to be so much praised as Absalom for his beauty: from the sole of his foot even to the crown of his head there was no blemish in him. When he cut the hair of his head (now it was at every year’s end that he cut it; because it was heavy on him, therefore he cut it); he weighed the hair of his head at two hundred shekels, after the king’s weight.”
In chapter 15, we find Absalom plotting against David and doing everything he can to win the support of the people. 2 Samuel 15:6 says, “So Absalom stole the hearts of the men of Israel.” As soon as Absalom’s troops threatened David, rather than fight, he packed up everything and left Jerusalem to Absalom.
Finally, here in chapter 18, Absalom is found leading troops with the expressed purpose of killing David. Absalom wanted nothing but to kill David and take his throne. He had already taken ten of his concubines on the roof of the palace in public view of everyone.
But David has experienced warriors protecting him. David gives clear instructions for his warriors to fight the battle, but to “deal gently with the young man, Absalom.” Notice the irony here. Absalom didn’t want to kill the warriors but only his father, David. But David wanted to kill the warriors, but not his son, Absalom.
When the battle ensues in the forest of Ephraim, Absalom’s troops are routed. Verse 8 says, “For the battle was there spread over the surface of all the country; and the forest devoured more people that day than the sword devoured.”
Then we read, “Absalom happened to meet the servants of David. Absalom was riding on his mule, and the mule went under the thick boughs of a great oak, and his head caught hold of the oak, and he was taken up between the sky and earth; and the mule that was under him went on.”
Absalom is caught figuratively and literally. He is caught in the limbs of the tree. But he is also caught in his excessive pride and ambition. If he had just waited patiently, he could have been the king. But his pride has led him to this insurrection and will now lead to his death.
Many scholars suggest that Absalom was actually caught by his heavy hair, and that his source of great pride was the very thing that led to his downfall. At any rate, a servant sees Absalom hanging there and reports it to Joab. Joab returns to the scene and stabs Absalom with three spears. And shortly after that, Joab’s servants finish the job of killing Absalom. Joab never thought twice about whether Absalom the traitor should be killed. He wastes no time in dispensing with Absalom’s life.
As often happens, the central part of the story is told in a very few verses. Then a surprising number of verses are devoted to the two people who go to tell David about the battle. A priest named Ahimaaz leaves last and arrives first. He reports on the success of the battle, but he doesn’t have the heart to tell David that his son, Absalom, was killed. Then the Cushite who left first arrives last, and reports once again on the great victory of David’s armies. David asks about his son saying something like, “Is he safe?” And the Cushite replies in effect, “Yes, he is safe in his grave.”
The drama of this passage is the bringing of news. In fact, the word ‘news’ appears in seven times in this passage. It is news of a death. And the dramatic question is whether this death is good news or bad news. Will David be cheered or saddened? Should David rejoice or weep?
Verse 33 records the deeply moving response of David to this news, “The king was much moved, and went up to the room over the gate, and wept. As he went, he said, ‘My son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! I wish I had died for you, Absalom, my son, my son!'”
Never have I read words that more effectively carry the pathos of the moment. Those words have the power to make us feel the pain that every parent has when their child dies. What an awful experience! And David cries with us, “My son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! I wish I had died for you, Absalom, my son, my son!”
But let us stop and ask a difficult question. Should David have been so broken up about the death of Absalom?
Of course, your first response as a parent is that he was certainly right to respond this way. Any parent would grieve beyond words for the loss of a son. This is a father’s love speaking. This is that unconditional love that comes from being “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” Yes, there are no words to describe the pain that he felt.
But look deeper at this situation for I remind you that David was caught between two roles. He was not only a father; he was a king. In his public life, he had great responsibilities for the people of Israel and was the commander in chief of the thousands who had just fought bravely in battle.
This young man, Absalom, was a traitor, pure and simple. He had defied the king. He had raised an army. He had driven the God-ordained king from Jerusalem and vowed to kill him. As a public man, there is only one thing right for a traitor. Justice demanded that he be punished, and death was the only appropriate sentence.
And that Joab knew well. David had said to “Deal gently for my sake with the young man, even with Absalom.” But Joab knew that as long as this traitor lived, the kingdom would be in turmoil and in grave danger. When the opportunity came, Joab killed Absalom without hesitation.
Poor David is so much a father that he forgets he is a king, and therefore he cannot rejoice in the news of a victory for the sake of the news of the death of his son. It is a father’s grief we see, not that of a king.
David was caught! He is caught between his public role and his private role. He is caught between the demands of justice and the effects of love. He is caught on the horns of a tragic dilemma!
So now I want to make you the judge and jury. I want to force you to deal with this decision. Which was right? Was it right to execute the demands of justice and see that traitor received the death penalty he deserved? Or was it right for the loving father to forgive this son even though he had long ago passed any reasonable stretch of a father’s patience?
Did Absalom deserve to die? Or did he deserve to be forgiven? Which carries more weight – the demands of justice or the effects of love? Which horn of this dilemma would you choose? And perhaps more importantly, which horn of this dilemma would God choose?
You see, the story of Absalom is, in a way, our story as well. We are the rebellious children of a heavenly Father.
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The Apostle Paul describes salvation in terms that fit very closely with this story of a rebellious son. Romans 3 says, “There is no one righteous; no, not one. There is no one who understands. There is no one who seeks after God. They have all turned aside. They have together become unprofitable. There is no one who does good, no, not, so much as one…. For there is no distinction, for all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God.”
The Bible makes it very clear that we are all sinners; we are all rebellious children. The difference between us and Absalom may only be one of degree. Absalom turned against his loving father. In our sin, we are acting in rebellion against our loving Father.
And what does justice demand? Romans 6:23 says “For the wages of sin is death….” Classic Christian theology has long taught that we deserve the penalty of death because of our sin, because of our rebellion against God. That is the demand of justice!
But our God is a Father like David was a father. Our God is defined by love, as it says in 1 John, “God is love!” God loves us more than David could ever love his son. God’s compassion and grief for us multiplies a thousand times those words of David, “My son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! I wish I had died for you, Absalom, my son, my son!”
And did you catch that phrase, “I wish I had died for you?” Surely that is a foreshadowing of the love of Jesus for us.
Romans 5:8 says, “But God commends his own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”
In Mark 10:45, Jesus says, “For the Son of Man also came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
1 Peter 3:18 sums up the gospel of the love of God in Christ, “Because Christ also suffered for sins once, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring you to God.”
The tragic pathos of David caught on the horns of a dilemma – between the demands of justice and the effects of love – is resolved in Jesus Christ. Only in Jesus are both the demands of justice and the effects of love brought together. When the right time finally came, Christ died for us.
Jesus Christ, the descendant of David 1,000 years later, would bring together once and for all the demands of justice and the effects of love.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2006, Dr. Mickey Anders. Used by permission.