It doesn’t have to be this way: the Gospel of 2 Samuel 18 (a sermon)

Today, I preached my farewell sermon at Jacks Creek Church of Christ in Jacks Creek, TN. Wednesday the wife and I leave for California to begin our next adventure. In this sermon, I read the story of Absalom’s coup in 2 Samuel 18 through the lenses of James 4.1-10. Gratitude to Stanley Hauerwas and Mark Van Steenwyk for providing a couple of perfect quotes for the sermon, and sharpening my thoughts to say certain things the way they came out.

2 Sam 18

“The old man had it coming,” was the only thought on King David’s son Absalom’s mind after having his way with all ten of the concubines in his father’s royal harem. In broad daylight, no less. And you know what? He was fair near right. David did have it coming. Some time back, David had gotten Bathsheba—who was married to his general Uriah—in a family way. To make matters worse, he had Uriah assassinated on the battlefield so that he could marry Bathsheba and pretend that the child was rightfully his. Apparently David believed he had diplomatic immunity. But a disturbing visit from the prophet Nathan let David know that there would be serious repercussions. Usually we focus on the most gruesome news Nathan delivered that day: the child born to David and Bathsheba would die. But Nathan also told David something we might overlook. In 2 Sam. 12.11, Nathan gives David this word from God. Before your very eyes, I will take your wives away and give them to your friend, and he will have sex with your wives in broad daylight. So when Absalom defiled the royal harem, the old man really did have it coming. The boy was simply fulfilling prophecy.

How had it come to this? Absalom wasn’t storming the palace and pillaging the harem for nothing. And let me tell you, how it came to that is a juicy tale indeed. I challenge you to find anything more sensational on daytime television. Turns out that several years previous, Absalom’s sister Tamar had been raped by their lecherous half-brother Amnon. Absalom was rightfully outraged, and told the old man to go do something about it. But David did nothing. That’s right, David—the giant killer. The one the girls used to sing about, “David has killed tens of thousands.” That David did nothing about it. Absalom was beside himself. When he saw that the old man was just going to let Amnon get away with it, he decided to take matters into his own hands. Absalom did what he had to do to defend his sister’s honor and purge the royal family of iniquity. He got Amnon good and drunk at a sheep-shearing party and had him killed. Then he hid out with some cousins in a nearby kingdom for a few years.

Eventually, David softened enough to let Absalom come back home, but he would not reconcile with the boy. Absalom did what neglected children often will—he began to act out to get his father’s attention. He grew his hair long and pretty. One day he even set fire to the estate of Joab, David’s chief advisor. David finally agreed to let Absalom come visit him. Once. But it was too little, too late. The photogenic Absalom began a relentless smear campaign against his aging father. And once he had won the hearts and minds of the people of Israel, he staged an outright coup. Now it was the king who was on the lam. 1 Sam. 15.16 describes it like this: So the king left, with his entire household following him, but he left ten secondary wives behind to take care of the palace. How chivalrous of David. His rotten boy is storming the palace, and he takes everybody to safety except the second-string wives. Those he left behind to clean house. And so there was Absalom, squatting in David’s palace, eating his food, and violating his wives in front of everybody.

David and his advisors met to discuss strategy for taking back the throne. And that’s where our word for today, from 2 Samuel 18, picks up:

 The king gave orders to 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.

 So the army went out into the field against Israel; and the battle was fought in the forest of Ephraim. The men of Israel were defeated there by the servants of David, and the slaughter there was great on that day, twenty thousand men. The battle spread over the face of all the country; and the forest claimed more victims that day than the sword.

 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.

 And ten young men, Joab’s armor-bearers, surrounded Absalom and struck him, and killed him.

 Then Joab said to a Cushite, ‘Go, tell the king what you have seen.’ The Cushite bowed before Joab, and ran.

 Then the Cushite came; and the Cushite said, ‘Good tidings for my lord the king! For the Lord has vindicated you this day, delivering you from the power of all who rose up against you.’ The king said to the Cushite, ‘Is it well with the young man Absalom?’ The Cushite answered, ‘May the enemies of my lord the king, and all who rise up to do you harm, be like that young man.’

 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 that I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!’  (2 Sam. 18.5-9, 15, 21, 31-33)

 There are no victors here—only victims. There are no winners. Everyone has lost. Absalom is dead by Joab’s command. Twenty thousand Israelites have perished in this battle. Tamar remains shut up, a broken woman. The ten concubines defiled by Abasalom will likewise be locked away. And oh the king! There he goes, the giant slayer. That sexy warrior all the women sang about: “David has killed his tens of thousands.” That David. Staggering up the stairs, weeping for his son: Oh, my son Absalom! Oh, my son! My son Absalom! There is nothing to celebrate. There is nothing but tragedy and shame.  As 2 Samuel 18 gives way to 2 Samuel 19, we are told that the victory that day was turned into mourning for all the troops . . . So . . .  the troops crept back into the city like soldiers creep back ashamed after they’ve fled from battle. Everyone skulks on home, leaving the king alone with his grief.

Or maybe it wasn’t that simple. Maybe things are even worse than they seem. Perhaps David’s outward display of grief is no more than a sham. Is it cynical to suggest that David was posing for the camera? Putting on the airs of being a virtuous family man in mourning, while inside he was really just relieved that the rebellion has been put down? Otherwise, why didn’t he tear out Joab’s liver with his bare hands for disobeying the order to deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom? But if you think about it, “deal gently with him” could mean more than one thing. It could mean “capture him alive”; or it could mean, “kill him quickly.” Both David and Joab have plausible deniability here. Moreover, this would not have been the first time Joab had done David’s dirty work. After all, when David needed Uriah’s death to look like a simple war casualty, it was Joab who took care of that. David and Joab had an understanding. They always did. In the situation room, David spoke about the young man Absalom. When the cameras were rolling, he was suddenly my son Absalom again.

Whatever the case, we are left with a grisly story. Is there any way at all to coax any gospel from this terrible text? Is there any redemption to be found at all?

There is if we can learn from it. When you come to a text in the Bible as ugly as this one, the gospel—the good news from God—is that it doesn’t have to be this way. For you and I, things don’t have to go on like this. But this good news cannot come to us until we confess that we are in this story, too. We must learn to own this story. We often have difficulty understanding how these old stories serve as warnings to us because we do not see ourselves in them. But I assure you—you are in this story. And so am I. Absalom did crazy things because he wanted his father’s attention. Then he did even more destructive things because he wanted his father’s power. Likewise, I suspect that Joab’s carelessness with Absalom’s life had more than a little to do with Absalom burning down his fields. Joab probably wanted revenge. And I also suppose that David just wanted it all to be over so he could be back in control—like he was used to. When we confess that this story is about us, it serves as a warning. And a warning is an opportunity to choose another way.

The story we have heard from 2 Samuel 18 warns us—and the stories that led to that story warn us as well—that when we desire wrongly, people get hurt. Sometimes people even die. When Absalom burns down Joab’s estate to get David’s attention, or Joab orders his soldiers to run spears through Absalom—that’s a warning to us. We can also be led to do such things if we desire the wrong things, or are willing to do whatever it takes to get what we want. The New Testament letter of James diagnoses this problem of wrongful desire rather acutely. James 4.1-3 reads:

 What is the source of conflict among you? What is the source of your disputes? Don’t they come from your cravings that are at war in your own lives? You long for something you don’t have, so you commit murder. You are jealous for something you can’t get, so you struggle and fight. You don’t have because you don’t ask. You ask and don’t have because you ask with evil intentions, to waste it on your own cravings.

 It is easy to see how this passage from James applies to adulterers, rapists, and killers like Absalom and David. It is not so easy to hear it speak to us. We do not want to believe that we are like David or Absalom or Joab or Amnon. For surely our desires are benevolent, or at least benign. Moreover, we secretly suspect that James’ words do not apply to us. Maybe we do long for what we can’t have. But we’re not willing to kill over it, are we? Surely there is more to war than wrong desires. We do not want to believe that our desires can kill. We do not want to be reminded that, at the very least, someone else pays for what we pay to avoid. The cost of our desires may very well include human lives. If you don’t believe that, I invite you to find out what country your clothes are made in and tell me if you would be willing to live like the person who sewed them. So Stanley Hauerwas comments on this passage:

 Surely this is wrong. I desire not war. But the uncompromising, simple answer comes back: “Of course you do not desire war, but what you desire makes war inevitable.” Do you desire fame or security or just a little control over someone else? And we wonder why there is fighting among us. (Unleashing the Scripture: Freeing the Bible from Captivity to America. Nashville: Abingdon, 1993. 115)

Small wonder there is not more fighting among us. So long as we crave recognition, security, and control over others, we can only live as David and Absalom did. Do we suppose they actually desired twenty thousand dead Israelites? No, but the things they wanted and craved and imagined they could not live without left them no other option but to try and destroy one another. What’s more, they could not help hurting others as they fought out their desires. Absalom raped David’s concubines to hurt David—but he hurt them worse. Moreover, the text tells us that the slaughter there was great on that day, twenty thousand men . . . and the forest claimed more victims . . . than the sword. The Bible does not usually speak of soldiers as victims. But these soldiers were devoured by Absalom’s desires, and David’s. So long as we desire fame or power or even just a little more security, we cannot help but fight over them. Others will inevitably be hurt by our desires.

Again, the good news from God is that things don’t have to continue on like that. When the fourth chapter of James picks up again, he writes:

 You unfaithful people! Don’t you know that friendship with the world makes you an enemy of God? Or do you suppose that scripture is meaningless? Doesn’t God long for our faithfulness in the life he has given to us? But he gives us more grace. This is why it says, God stands against the proud, but favors the humble. Therefore, submit to God. Resist the devil, and he will run away from you. Come near to God, and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners. Purify your hearts, you double-minded. Cry out in sorrow, mourn, and weep! Let your laughter become mourning and your joy become sadness. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up. (James 4.4-10)

 Probably we do not experience these words as good news. We do not like to be called unfaithful people, enemies of God, and double-minded sinners. Moreover, good news does not typically invite us to turn our laughter into mourning and our joy into sadness. But Christians of all people should understand that there’s some news you have to lean into before you can experience it as good news. For instance, the Gospels tell us that Jesus’ good news was, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” Now if you were already the king of something—if you were Caesar or Herod or the rich young ruler—this was terrible news. It meant that your days were numbered. But if you were a leper or poor person or one of the people named in the Beatitudes, it was the best news you’d ever heard. These verses are good news for those who want their hands cleansed and their hearts purified.

I suspect another reason that we do not encounter these words as good news is that we don’t really believe them. We do not believe, for instance, that our repentance has anything to do with making the world the sort of place where Absaloms no longer rape and pillage, and Joabs no longer run spears through Absaloms. We have forgotten that the only way that a world of Davids and Absaloms and Joabs and Amnons will ever know that they don’t have to keep on killing each other is to see a people who do things differently.

Moreover, we do not really believe that being friends with the world makes us enemies of God. In fact, we might even go so far as to protest, “I am not really friends with the world. I simply do what I have to do to stay on the world’s good side. After all, God—the world is full of Absaloms and Joabs. I need to think about my safety in such a world.”  Perhaps the devil will run away when we resist him; but Joab will surely run a spear through us while Absalom rapes our wife. In other words, we understand that friendship with God might make us enemies in the world, and that scares us.

What’s more, we do not really believe that our hands need washing or that our hearts need to be purified. I suspect that this is because we are not willing to confess to the charge of James 4.1-3: that the wars and violence and devastation in our world are due to our desires, our covetousness, and our jealousy. We refuse to have that laid on us. We are not like David or Amnon or Absalom or Joab; we cannot even aspire to such spectacular feats of sinfulness. In our refusals and denials and justifications, we cannot experience these words as good news. It’s not even news at all to us. It’s just slander, or at best, browbeating.

The saddest part is that as long as we persist in our illusions of innocence, we cannot see this passage for what it is: an invitation for us to accept God’s friendship. Or perhaps we do hear God calling us to become his friends, but we can’t fathom what friendship with God might look like. Then again, maybe we have met people who told us that they were God’s friends, and they were so smug about it that we’d rather be friends with the world if being friends with God does that to you.

I am afraid, frankly, that these days we have forgotten what friendship means. Being friends with God does not mean that God clicks the “Like” button when you post dumb things on Facebook. We do not understand that friendship shapes our character and our values; that it reorders our priorities; that friendship changes not only how we behave, but motivates how we feel about what we’re doing. Friendship gives us different desires.

I am also afraid that we don’t know how to befriend God because we think that this means trying to learn how to love an abstraction. We forget that we are being called into friendship with a very particular God—a wild God we encounter as Father, Son, and Spirit. This God who invites us to humble ourselves and become his friends has already humbled himself to become our friend. This God who made the world and who mends it. This God who speaks to us through the Cross. The Father who calls to us through the Son we have murdered to come be reconciled to him. The Spirit who hovered over the deep in the beginning, and who drove Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted. We are invited to become friends with that particular God. And this will cultivate attitudes and behaviors in us that are quite at odds with those who remain friends with the world. For instance, we may cultivate dangerous and foolish beliefs, such as: “the belief that everyone should be able to live in a home or the belief that coins are just shiny toys or that the boundaries drawn on maps are just pretend.”[1] Believing such things, moreover, might even transform our desires. Instead of desiring what others have, we might desire only that others have what they need. Perhaps that doesn’t impress you, or you think it impossible. If so, I can only offer that as dangerous as it may sound to live as though everyone should have a home, or that coins are just shiny toys, or that the borders on maps are make-believe, it cannot be any more destructive than the way many people do, in fact, live. We tend to forget that living friendly with the world makes us enemies not only of God, but with each other. Think of it this way—the war of Absalom and David is the alternative to living as friends of God.

God confronts us in the story of David and Absalom to deliver the good news that things don’t need to be this way. He tells us that our wrong desires are making us kill each other, and that we need to repent. This God invites us to friendship with him—a friendship that will teach us new desires so that we will no longer be at war with one another. God has given us a choice: we can remain friends with the world, which requires nothing except that we desire things that make us kill each other. Or we can become friends of the God who speaks to us through Jesus—the God who humbled himself to death on a cross so that we could stop killing each other. Brothers and sisters, let us repent—let us cleanse our hands and purify our hearts. It may very well be that the Davids and Absaloms of this world are depending on us for salvation—longing to stop their old war, and looking for a people to show them how to live in peace.


[1] Mark Van Steenwyk, The UnKingdom of God: Embracing the Subversive Power of Repentance (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2013), 84.

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