Date: August 19, 2018
Speaker: Jeff Breeding
Series: A King for God's Kingdom
Scripture: 2 Samuel 17:24–19:8
So ends the life of Absalom the Traitor. What a heavy and difficult passage we have before us today in God’s Word. There are many questions to answer, but few easy answers to give. We’ve been in the midst of Absalom’s rebellion for some weeks now. Since chapter 13, we’ve watched, at times with horror, as Absalom plots and maneuvers his way to the throne. He used his grieving sister as cover for his anger. He murdered his brother in cold blood. He slandered his father. He stole the hearts of the people. And he instigated an armed rebellion against God’s chosen king. Few men in history have a track record as sinister and wicked as Absalom. Methodically, this man has schemed to gain power, and he was willing to do whatever was necessary to get what he wanted.
But now the Traitor dies. Make no mistake, the author of 2 Samuel aims to give you a wide-eyed picture of Absalom’s demise. He wants you to see, with grizzly detail, where Absalom’s plot ends. Notice in chapter 18 how the actual battle between the two armies is recounted in only three verses, vv6-8, but Absalom’s death and burial take up ten verses, vv9-18. The length reveals the emphasis.. Yes, this is the climactic battle that will restore David to the throne, but perhaps even more importantly, this is the dramatic end of Absalom’s wickedness. You see, the text won’t allow us to look away. This is where the wicked meet their end – not in a blaze of glory, but under a heap of stones, crushed by God’s justice. So ends the life of Absalom the Traitor.
But at the same time, our passage also reminds us that Absalom the Traitor is still Absalom the Son. And that makes Absalom’s demise a difficult moment for David, who mourns greatly for his son. This is a very true-to-life passage. Life is rarely ever neat, and neither is this text. It’s heavy and complicated. There are reasons to praise God, and there are reasons to grieve sin’s devastation. There are rash decisions and wise rebukes, with both coming from the same person. There’s the joy of a kingdom restored mixed with the sadness of a king dejected. You see, it’s very true-to-life. It’s not neat and tidy. Absalom the Traitor is also Absalom the Son.
So, where do we go from here? Well, it helps to follow how the events of the passage unfold. While the interpersonal details are complicated, the action is actually straightforward. Look there in your Bibles, and I’ll show you what I mean. There are three broad sections to the passage. The first is 17.24 down to 18.8 – this is the preparation for and summary of the battle. The second is 18.9 to 18.18 – this is the detail of Absalom’s death. And finally, 18.19 to 19.8 gives us the response to Absalom’s death, focusing primarily on David. You see, the action moves ahead pretty clearly – summary of the battle, detail on Absalom’s death, and focus on David’s response.
So, that’s how we’ll proceed – with the unfolding action of the passage guiding our time together. From those three sections, I’d like to highlight for us three truths. Each truth is rooted in the context of the passage, but with each truth, we’ll also seek to build a bridge to our lives as NT believers in the Lord Jesus Christ.
God’s Promise Protected
The first truth comes in that opening section – 17.24 down to 18.8. Here we see God’s Promise Protected. You’ll remember that David has already crossed the Jordan River, and he’s encamped now at Mahanaim, a city in Gilead that apparently remains loyal to David. But even among allies, David’s relief is short-lived. Absalom is relentless, and in v24 of chapter 17, he crosses the river and encamps in Gilead as well. So, the stage is set for a winner-take-all showdown. This is, without a doubt, the battle of David’s life. Goliath may be more memorable, but this battle will be more consequential, not only for David personally but for the kingdom as well.
But as David approaches this consequential battle, we find that the Lord is already at work. Through a series of seemingly small encounters, God prepares the situation so that David receives the protection he needs. Notice how it plays out in the passage. First of all, David receives provision from friends. Look at vv27-29 of chapter 17. Three friends arrive at David’s camp, and they bring supplies. There are beds to sleep on, basins to wash in, and all kinds of food for preparing meals. Think of how timely this is. Remember, David and his people fled Jerusalem in a rush. It wasn’t a well-prepared, pre-packed excursion out into the country. No, it was a mad dash for safety! They didn’t have supplies for living out in the elements.
But the Lord does not leave them alone. In his kindness, God sends three friends, and those friends bring life-giving provision. And understand, these are unlikely friends. Shobi is an Ammonite, so he’s a pagan Gentile. Machir is a former servant to Saul, so he used to be on the wrong team. And Barzillai is old, so old, in fact, that we learn in chapter 19 it’s hard for him to travel. These aren’t the friends you would pick on the eve of your biggest battle, but they are precisely the friends God uses. In his kindness, the Lord sends David some much-needed provision.
Along with this provision, David also benefits from the prudence of his commanders. Look at vv1-2 of chapter 18. David organizes his army and then announces that he will go into battle as well. That’s not a good idea, and David’s commanders know it. Notice v3 – they prudently tell David to stay behind where he’ll be out of danger. And David, for his part, listens. He agrees to stay in the city, but not without issuing a final command. Notice v5 – “And the king ordered Joab and Abishai and Ittai, ‘Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.’” Now we see just how prudent this counsel is. We have the first hint that David is not thinking clearly. And that’s understandable, on some level. Absalom is David’s son.
But that’s just it. You’ve got to think about this like a king, like a commander in chief. Imagine the devastation that might happen on the battlefield if David’s sentiment were to cloud his judgment. Imagine how his men might be harmed, or even how the battle could be lost. You see, the Lord is at work here. He protects David, from himself even, and he does so through the prudent counsel of David’s commanders.
And so, all the preparations are made, and we come to the battle in vv6-8. But even here, we find the Lord is already at work, as David’s army benefits from the providence of God. Notice in v6 where the battle is fought – in the forest of Ephraim. This was apparently a densely wooded area, which makes it the perfect setting for David’s more experienced but smaller band of soldiers. Remember, Absalom has the advantage on paper. He has a larger force with better supply lines. On paper, Absalom should win this battle. But having to fight in an overgrown forest levels the playing field, so to speak, and David’s seasoned soldiers can inflict heavy casualties on Absalom’s larger army.
And indeed, that is exactly what happens. Divine providence sets the stage for a great victory for David. Notice v7 – “And the men of Israel were defeated there by the servants of David, and the loss there was great on that day, twenty thousand men.” And just like that, the rebellion is over. What took Absalom years to build, God smashes in just three verses. Provision, prudence, providence – at every step of the way, the Lord has been at work, protecting King David.
But you’ll remember I entitled this point God’s Promise Protected, rather than God’s king protected. Why talk about promise when the focus is on David? Well, it’s because the language of promise helps us make the application from David’s life to ours. Think about who David is. He is the king of Israel – yes – but he’s more than the king. David is also the bearer of God’s promise. Think back to the covenant in 2 Samuel 7. In that covenant, the Lord made it clear – his promise to bless his people would come through David’s royal line. It’s not an overstatement, then, to say that all God promised Abraham, and all God promised to do through Israel – all of that is now connected with David, with a son of David to be precise.
And that’s where the bridge is built from David to us. As we watch the Lord protect David’s life, we’re not simply watching an episode in Israelite history. We’re seeing a snapshot of redemptive history. God protects David, and in doing so, God protects the promise he has made to his people. Let me put it like this – If Absalom could not tear the kingdom away from David, then nothing will tear God’s promise away from those who belong to David’s Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. You see, the connection here is not that you and I will receive the same personal protection as David. No, the connection is actually much greater than that. It’s that you and I belong to David’s promised Son, the Lord Jesus, and therefore, what God did in David’s life, God will do for those whose lives are bound to King Jesus by faith.
That’s what this battle is saying to us, brothers and sisters. God will not let his promise fail. Listen, I know simply saying that doesn’t make life’s troubles go away, but perhaps today, hearing it will be enough. Perhaps hearing again that God’s promise will not fail will be enough, just for today, to strengthen you to hold fast to the gospel. If Absalom could not tear the kingdom away from David, then nothing will tear God’s promise away from those who belong to Christ Jesus. That’s our first truth, and I pray it strengthens you – the truth of God’s Promise Protected.
God’s Enemy Cursed
The second section of the chapter focuses on Absalom’s death, and the truth here is quite different from the first. Here we see God’s Enemy Cursed. The emphasis on divine providence continues in v9. Notice what the text says – “And Absalom happened to meet the servants of David.” You shouldn’t read that without thinking of what we saw last week, chapter 17, v14 – “For the Lord had ordained to defeat the good counsel of Ahithophel, so that the Lord might bring harm upon Absalom.” That’s the truth at work here. This isn’t happenstance. This is the Lord is working out his purposes. And that is important. When evaluating Absalom, we have to remember that by rebelling against David, Absalom has also rebelled against God. David is the Lord’s anointed, the chosen king. To oppose David’s position is to defy the God who put him there. You see, Absalom’s earthly rebellion is also an act of cosmic treason. He’s raised his hand against the Lord and against his anointed. Therefore, what Absalom deserves is the wrath and justice of God.
And strikingly, that’s what Absalom receives. In fact, the details of Absalom’s demise reinforce this sobering truth – Absalom is a man under the curse of God. And by curse, I mean cut off from the Lord and, therefore, destined for destruction. Both in the way he dies and the way he is buried, Absalom is a man under God’s curse.
Notice the way Absalom dies, v9 – his head gets stuck in a tangle of tree limbs, and he’s suspended between heaven and earth. Most likely, it’s Absalom’s beloved hair that’s the culprit here. Remember, he only cut his hair once a year, and when he did, it was quite the show. He seemed rather proud of his hair, but now, look where Absalom’s pride leaves him – hanging helplessly, with death soon to follow. We cite it often, but Proverbs 16.18 is perilously true – “Pride goes before destruction.”
And destruction soon finds Absalom, hanging in the tree. At first, though, it seems like he might escape. Notice v10. One of David’s men sees Absalom, but instead of killing the king’s son, the soldier chooses instead to tell Joab. Unsurprisingly, Joab is incensed. He doesn’t care what the king commanded, and in keeping with his character, Joab jumps into action. He grabs three spears, jams them into Absalom’s heart, and then leaves the mop-up work for his armor-bearers. It’s a gruesome end, isn’t it? Absalom the man who the most handsome in Israel, the man who stole everyone’s heart, the man who had such visions of grandeur and glory for himself – that Absalom dies helplessly, even shamefully, hanging in a tree. His pride, in more ways than one, proves to be his downfall.
But it’s Absalom’s burial that so forcefully highlights the curse of God on his life. After Joab’s men finish their dirty work, Absalom’s body is unceremoniously thrown into a pit. Notice v17 – “And they took Absalom and threw him into a great pit in the forest and raised over him a very great heap of stones.” Now, that’s not how you would typically bury a person, especially a son of the king. So, why do David’s men do this? Why dig a pit and cover Absalom with a great heap of stones? Well, the answer comes from Israel’s past, the book of Joshua to be precise. Do you remember the man Achan, who kept some of the treasure from Jericho, even though the Lord had specifically commanded the people not to take anything? Do you remember Achan? His sin brought trouble on Israel. They were defeated at the battle of Ai. But do you remember how Achan was buried? Listen to how Joshua 7 describes it – “And they raised over [Achan] a great heap of stones that remains to this day.”
You see, that’s the reason behind Absalom’s burial. Like Achan before him, Absalom has brought trouble on God’s people. And like Achan before him, Absalom is under the curse and judgment of God. That great heap of stones is a physical picture of a spiritual reality. Absalom’s physical body is crushed under stones, just as his sinful rebellion has now been crushed by divine wrath.
It’s unsettling, isn’t it? It’s sobering. But as we consider this sobering scene, I do want to pause here and stress two specific takeaways for us Christians. I know it’s an unsettling picture, but there is both a reason for hope and a reason for humility. The reason for hope is this – Absalom’s demise reminds us that the kingdom of God stands forever. Absalom is the latest installment in a long line of wicked opponents who have sought to derail the purpose of God. Absalom’s lineage stretches back to the serpent of Genesis 3, and his line stretches forward to the anti-Christ of Revelation 13.
So, when the sovereign God finally crushes Absalom’s rebellion, the Lord is saying to his people, “This is where all rebellions will end. This is what happens to the enemies of God. They may have their day in the sun, and they may prosper for a time, but eventually, they end up crushed under the judgment of God.” Brothers and sisters, this is central to our hope. I know God’s judgment is not a popular topic, but if we minimize this truth, then we minimize our hope. There are enemies of God in this world. They are wicked people who follow in Absalom’s footsteps and oppose the rule of Christ. And at times, it seems as though those wicked enemies are winning. Where do we go in those times? Where do we go when it appears God’s kingdom may not come, that his will may not be done? We go to the history of God’s people, and we see in passages like this one the truth that God’s people need to hear down through the ages, the truth that Absalom’s demise so clearly proclaims – the truth that God’s kingdom stands forever. And that truth, brothers and sisters, should give us hope.
And at the same time, there is also reason for humility here. Absalom’s death reminds me of what I deserved. I too was a rebel against God. I too was opposed to God’s anointed one. I too was under the curse and deserved to be crushed under the wrath of God. But in his sovereign grace and with unfathomable mercy, the Holy God determined to save rebels like me. I can’t read of Absalom’s death without thinking of Galatians 3.13 – “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.” This passage humbles me with the thought that on my own, I have no reason to stand in the presence of the holy God. It humbles me that on my own, I deserve to be in that pit, crushed under a great heap of stones. It humbles me with the realization that I need the gospel far more than I tend to think I do.
Perhaps that is what will strike you this morning. Perhaps the vivid end of Absalom’s life and the sober picture of God’s judgment will awaken in you a deeper gratitude for the gospel of Christ. Or, maybe this scene from the OT will be what God uses to convict you that perhaps you don’t know Christ by faith, that you haven’t truly embraced his death and resurrection as your only hope to stand before God. Whatever the case may be, I do pray we’re humbled here, and I pray that humility might lead us to savor the gospel in a way that brings glory to Christ.
God’s King Grieved
And so, we come to the final truth of the passage. We’ve seen God’s Promise Protected, and God’s Enemy Cursed. Now in 18.19 until 19.8, we see God’s King Grieved. The focus of this section is David’s response to Absalom’s death, so that’s where our focus will be as well. You’ll notice that vv19-32 describe this tense and dramatic process of bringing word to David. Two messengers are dispatched – Ahimaaz, the son of Zadok the priest, and a foreigner, a Cushite. It’s a detailed description, but the point is straightforward. Both men give David the good news that God has delivered him, but both times, David ignores their report to ask about Absalom. You see, David’s perception is a bit clouded at this point. His heart is heavy, and he can’t seem to see the good news of God’s deliverance. And so, when he finally learns of Absalom’s death, David’s grief erupts in the memorable words of v33 – “And the king was deeply moved and went up to the chambers 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!”
But then something unexpected happens. Joab – that scoundrel who often makes trouble and who just ignored David’s command to spare Absalom – Joab, of all people, delivers a necessary and truthful rebuke. You see, David’s grief, which is understandable for a father, is out of place for the king. David’s grief is causing shame for his men. Look at vv2-3 of chapter 19 – “So the victory that day was turned into mourning for all the people, for the people heard that day, ‘The king is grieving for his son.’ And the people stole into the city that day as people steal in who are ashamed when they flee in battle.” Do you see the problem? This should have been a victory parade, a day for celebrating the Lord’s deliverance. But instead, it turns into a mournful retreat, a march of shame for all those men who risked their lives for David. That’s why I say Joab’s rebuke is needed – because David has lost sight of his responsibility as king.
Even so, Joab pulls no punches. He holds nothing back. V5 – he tells David he has covered with shame the faces of his men. V6 – he rebukes David for showing more loyalty to the enemy than he does for his faithful servants. It’s rough, but it’s exactly the kind of rebuke you would expect from Joab. He’s hard and direct, but he’s also right. The king needs to think about his men.
And so, in v7, Joab delivers his final blow – David needs to get up and express gratitude to his men, or else he’ll have another rebellion on his hands, and this time, it will be the worst of all. And that final rebuke, that final blow seems to shake David up. V8 – the king gathers himself and heads out to greet and thank his men. The crisis is averted, and it happens through the most unexpected means – the scoundrel Joab, who brings a hard but necessary rebuke.
Why is David so grieved? That’s the question that grips me in this section. Absalom has acted hatefully toward David, and their relationship has been less than healthy for some time. So, why the outburst of grief? Well, there are no easy answers. Of course, we can be sure that part of it was simply natural. Absalom is David’s son, and as any parent will tell you, no matter how far your children go, your heart still goes out to them. So, David’s grief is surely due to the affection he maintains as a father.
And yet, there is something else at work here, isn’t there? Where did this horrible chain of events start? Back in chapter 11, with David’s sin with Bathsheba. Now, that’s not to say that everything here is David’s fault, or that God is punishing David’s children because of David’s sin. That’s not my point at all. Rather, my point is that David’s sin, just like every sin, has consequences, and sometimes, those consequences are bitter. I’ll contend that’s what stirs David to say in vv33 of chapter 18 – “Would that I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!” David is grieved for his son, yes, but he’s also grieved over the bitter fruit of what his sin has done. And that’s where the passage ends. There is no neat, tidy resolution. The passage ends with David’s throne safe but David’s heart broken.
I’m not sure how you can read this grief-stricken moment in David’s life without thinking of the promise in Isaiah 53. It’s the promise that David needs in his grief, and it’s the promise that you and I need as well. It’s the promise of a Savior; the Son of David who would be greater than David; the King who would never taste the bitterness of his own sin but would instead drink the bitter cup of God’s wrath that our sin deserved. David needs that Promised Savior, and so do you and I.
So, as we watch Israel’s king weeping in his grief, and perhaps as we feel the weight of grief for our own sin, let’s remember this promise from Isaiah 53 – “He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief…Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows…He was pierced for our transgressions; he crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.”
2 Samuel 18 is a very true-to-life passage, and there are no easy answers. But there is a faithful Savior, a King greater than David. His name is Jesus Christ, and he has taken our grief that we may receive his joy. I point you to him today, for there is no sorrow too deep for his gospel. Amen.