Passage: 2 Samuel 19:9–43
On April 9, 1865, in the small Virginia village of Appomattox Court House, General Robert E. Lee surrendered his Confederate army to Union Commander Ulysses S. Grant. It was a quiet end to what had been a tumultuous conflict. For four long years, the United States had been torn apart in civil war, but with Lee’s signature on that April afternoon, the Civil War officially came to an end.
And yet, the official end of the Civil War also marked the beginning of what could be called the most difficult era in U.S. history – the era of Reconstruction, that decades-long work to rebuild a fractured nation. Winning a battle is one thing; it takes strategy, strength, and endurance. But rebuilding a nation? Where do you even start? Infrastructure, local economies, schools, hospitals, homes – everything has to be rebuilt, not to mention public trust and national unity. The Civil War may have ended in Appomattox, but in many ways, the hard work was only beginning.
As we come 2 Samuel 19, we find a similar dynamic at work in David’s kingdom. Israel’s civil war may have ended in the forest of Ephraim, but in many ways, the hard work is only beginning. Absalom’s rebellion revealed serious divisions within the kingdom, and repairing those divisions will prove as difficult for David as defeating Absalom’s army. In fact, the division within the kingdom is the most striking feature of this passage. It frames the author’s presentation. You probably noticed it when we read, but look again with me at the text. The passage begins in vv9-15 with the tribes of Israel bickering among themselves, and the passage ends in vv40-43 with the tribes again sniping at one another. Like a pair of bookends, division frames the passage. All of that to say, David still has some difficult terrain ahead of him. The civil war is over, but the hard work is only beginning.
In the midst of this division, King David embarks again for Jerusalem. Vv16-39 tell this part of the story, and in his journey home, David encounters three individuals whom we have met before – Shimei, Mephibosheth, and Barzillai. Each man speaks with the king as he returns home, and through those speeches, we get these different perspectives on the work that David has ahead of him. How will David deal with his enemies? How will he treat his friends? Those are the questions confronting David on the road to Jerusalem. Again, the point we need to see is that there is work left for King David to do. The fighting is over, but the hard work is only beginning.
So, that’s the chapter in summary form. It begins and ends with the problem of division, and in the middle, there is a series of personal encounters that detail the work David has to do. We can say, then, that the passage gives us three scenes – a Kingdom Dilemma in vv9-15; Kingdom Characters in vv16-39; and finally Kingdom Fracture in vv40-43. Let’s look more closely now at each scene.
First of all, we find a Kingdom Dilemma in vv9-15. You don’t have to read very far before you encounter division within Israel. Notice how v9 opens with the problem – “And all the people were arguing throughout all the tribes of Israel.” It’s a national controversy, and there doesn’t appear to be much unity among the people. But what makes this so serious is the subject of the controversy – the question of who will lead the kingdom. Vv9-10 present the dilemma in clear terms. On the one hand, there is David who has delivered the people many times before. But David has fled Jerusalem, so it remains to be seen if he will rise again to lead.
But on the other hand, there is Absalom, whose claim on the throne ended with his death. So, where does that leave Israel? Well, in short, it leaves them divided. Notice the last line of v10, where we hear a snippet of this nation-wide argument – “Now therefore why do you say nothing about bringing the king back?” Factions are developing – with one side calling for David, but the other side hesitant to do so. Put it all together, and there’s a dilemma in the kingdom. Who will fill the vacuum created by Absalom’s rebellion?
Well, in v11, we find our answer, and it’s not a surprise. King David rises to resolve this dilemma. And his plan focuses on the tribe of Judah. You’ll remember that David is from the tribe of Judah, so it would be natural for him to begin with his own flesh and blood. In fact, David himself stresses this very connection in v12 – “You are my brothers; you are my bone and flesh. Why then should you be the last to bring back the king?” So, you can hear David’s strategy – start with your base, the tribe you belong to, and then build outward from there.
But David doesn’t stop with his appeal. In v13, David doubles-down, so to speak, on his Judah-first strategy by replacing Joab with Amasa. Now, Amasa, you may remember, was Absalom’s commander. Amasa was the one leading the rebel army. So, this is a rather shocking decision. Imagine if, after Appomattox, President Lincoln had replaced Grant with Lee. It would have stunned the nation, and I’m sure this stunned Israel in David’s day. The victorious commander is replaced by the defeated rebel.
And that raises the necessary question – What, exactly, is David doing? Well, there are two ways you can read his strategy. One way is to see David as the master politician who pulls all the right levers and swings all the right deals. The other way is to see David as the clear-eyed leader who addresses the most pressing roadblock standing in the way of the throne. So, one way – just politics – and the other way – good leadership. Which reading is correct?
Well, it’s a mixture of both, isn’t it? Certainly, there is some element of politics at work in David’s decision – that seems clear enough. But we shouldn’t overlook the leadership on display here as well. Let me explain what I mean. Judah is the main roadblock for David at this point. Think about it.. Where did Absalom’s rebellion begin? In Hebron, one of the leading cities of Judah. Who directed Absalom’s rebellion? Ahithophel, also of the tribe of Judah. And who led Absalom’s army? Amasa, again from the tribe of Judah. Absalom’s rebellion had a distinctly Judean theme. So, if David is going to return, he has to have at least some assurance that Judah is with him. That strategy may have political notes, but it rings out with good leadership as well.
And v14 confirms David’s strategy. Notice again what the text says in v14, and listen for the small but significant contrast between David and Absalom – “And [David] swayed the heart of all the men of Judah as one man, so that they sent word to the king, ‘Return, both you and all your servants.’” Did you catch the contrast? How did Absalom foster his rebellion? Ch15, he stole the hearts of Israel with lies and deceit. But how has David initiated his return? V14, he swayed the hearts of the people with a persuasive display of leadership.
And so, v15, Judah prepares to greet the king after he crosses the Jordan. But notice where this meeting will take place – in the city of Gilgal. If you remember Israel’s history, then you’ll remember Gilgal was Israel’s basecamp during the conquest of the promised land. It was at Gilgal that the people set up the twelve stones to commemorate God bringing them into the land, and it was at Gilgal that the nation renewed the covenant through circumcision and the Passover. Gilgal was something of a spiritual focal point for the nation. It reminded the people of God’s work on their behalf, and just as importantly, it called the people to renewal in covenant with the Lord God.
So, by meeting Judah at Gilgal, David signals a new beginning for the kingdom, but a new beginning that highlights their need for the Lord. This is the takeaway for us. The kingdom is being rebuilt, and David shows the necessary leadership to do that. But at all times, the great hope of God’s people is not their leaders or their strategy, but their God.
The church in our day would do well to remember this, wouldn’t we? Pastors would do well to remember this. We absolutely need to exhibit good leadership, and we certainly need wise strategies. And yet, we should recognize that good leaders can never replace dependence on God, and wise strategy is no substitute for humility before the Lord. At the end of the day, what we need most is God’s hand working among us, doing for his people today what he has done for his people in the past.
I take it that’s why David went to Gilgal – in order to say to the nation, “If we’re going to resolve this dilemma, then we need the Lord’s help most of all. We need the Lord’s hand to do great things once again.” That, it seems, is David’s strategy for this kingdom dilemma, and the church in our day would do well to take David’s example to heart.
The second scene that deserves our attention begins in v16, where we find this series of Kingdom Characters. As we noted at the outset, the three individuals who approach David are Shimei, Mephibosheth, and Barzillai. We’ve met these men before in David’s story, but they return at this point to give us a glimpse of the kind of work David will have to do in order to rebuild the kingdom. He’ll have to deal with the whole spectrum of people – from enemies to allies. So, let’s zero in on each character and examine his interaction with the king. How does each man approach David? And as we do that, we might be surprised to find that each of these three individuals has something helpful to say to us as believers in the Lord Jesus Christ.
It begins with Shimei, who displays submission without love. I’m sure you remember Shimei. He’s honestly hard to forget. Shimei is the man who cursed David and pelted him with stones all the way down to the Jordan River. Well, now that David is returning, Shimei recognizes he’s in trouble, so in v16, he races to meet David at the Jordan River. But importantly, Shimei is not alone. Notice in v17 that he brings a thousand men of Benjamin with him. That’s significant, and we’ll see why in just a moment.
Upon meeting David, Shimei wastes no time displaying his submission. V18, he falls on his face and begs for David’s pardon. In fact, listen to his plea, v19 and into v20 – “Let not my lord hold me guilty or remember how your servant did wrong on the day my lord the king left Jerusalem. Do not let the king take it to heart. For your servant knows that I have sinned.” Well, that sounds like a good confession, doesn’t it? I mean, Shimei acknowledges that he sinned. He admits that he was wrong. It seems he’s truly humbled himself before the king!
But not so fast. There’s more to Shimei, and it’s not love for the king. Notice the rest of v20 – “Therefore, behold, I have come this day, the first of all the house of Joseph to come down to meet my lord the king.” Now we see why Shimei has brought a thousand men from Benjamin with him. He’s trying to show David how valuable he can be. So far, David has the tribe of Judah on his side, but what about the other tribes? “I can help with that,” Shimei says. “Look at all the men I brought.” Shimei is interested only in protecting himself. He’s driven by self-interest, self-perseveration, and not by love.
So, what will David do? Well, he doesn’t take vengeance. Notice v22. David rejects Abishai’s suggestion to execute Shimei on the spot. In David’s mind, today is a day for mercy, not punishment. So, that’s what David gives Shimei, v23 – he extends mercy by not putting him to death. Now later, in 1 Kings 2, David will instruct Solomon to execute Shimei, so this isn’t a full pardon. It’s more of a partial reprieve. For now, David extends some level of mercy to the man who cursed him.
For our purpose, it is Shimei’s approach to David that is instructive for us. His life is a warning – submitting to the Lord merely out of self-interest is not true submission. Many people, I’m afraid, profess Christ or attend church simply because they believe it will benefit them in the end. In their heart, they have no true affection for Christ, no true love for his gospel, no lasting allegiance to his church – they simply see an opportunity to avoid something unpleasant, or to get ahead in life. That kind of approach to Christ is no example of faith. Like Shimei, it’s merely self-interest masquerading as submission.
And therefore, we would be foolish if we didn’t take some time here to examine our lives and ask ourselves, “What is at the core of my allegiance to Christ? Is it true faith, rooted in love for Christ, or is simply self-interest?” Shimei displays submission without love, and we do well to listen to his warning.
Next, David meets Mephibosheth, who displays loyalty without fear. We’ve been waiting to hear about Mephibosheth for a few chapters now. If you remember back to chapter 16, Ziba claimed that Mephibosheth turned on David. It was a shocking report, considering how kind the king had been to Jonathan’s crippled son. So for the last few chapters, we’ve been left to wonder, “Is Mephibosheth really a traitor?”
But right away in v24, we get the first hint that Ziba has lied. V24 describes Mephibosheth’s appearance, and it’s not pretty – “[Mephibosheth] had neither taken care of his feet nor trimmed his beard nor washed his clothes, from the day the king departed until the day he came back in safety.” Literally, Mephibosheth hasn’t bathed or cut his toenails since David left. You can imagine how rough he looked, and he probably smelled worse. But why is this significant? Well, it indicates that from the day David left, Mephibosheth has been in mourning for the king. Mephibosheth didn’t physically go with David, but his ragged appearance was a symbol of solidarity with the king. If David is deprived of comfort, then Mephibosheth will be deprived of comfort too. Mephibosheth is loyal. His heart is with the king.
But what about Ziba’s story, you ask? Well, that’s David’s question also. Notice v25 – he asks Mephibosheth straightaway – “Why did you not go with me, Mephibosheth?” And Mephibosheth’s explanation is reasonable – v26, Ziba deceived him, and then v27, Ziba slandered him to the king. That’s Mephibosheth’s explanation – he was deceived and slandered by his servant, and it seems reasonable enough.
But ultimately, Mephibosheth’s hope is not his reasonable explanation. This is the key. Ultimately, Mephibosheth entrusts himself to the king’s judgment. Notice the end of v27 – “But my lord the king is like the angel of God; do therefore what seems good to you.” That’s pretty incredible. Remember, Mephibosheth is helpless, and this situation does look bad for him. And yet, he’s not afraid. Why? Because Mephibosheth knows something of David’s kindness, and he is willing to entrust himself to David’s care.
Now, I think Mephibosheth has already proven his loyalty by this point. You may disagree, and that’s ok. Scholars are divided over who is telling the truth – Mephibosheth or Ziba. In my view, Mephibosheth has already proven his loyalty, but if you have any doubt, vv29-30 provide a final piece of evidence. Notice what happens. V29 – David decides to split the land between Ziba and Mephibosheth, and you might expect Mephibosheth to object. That’s what I would do – why should I have to give up my land to a scoundrel like Ziba? But that’s not how Mephibosheth responds. Notice v30 – Mephibosheth says, “Oh, let him take it all, since my lord the king has come home safely.” Mephibosheth doesn’t care about the land. The land is nothing compared to the king who shows him kindness. This is Mephibosheth’s portion – his life is found with the Lord’s anointed, and Mephibosheth will gladly lose all that he owns if he still has the king.
What a contrast, then, between Mephibosheth and Shimei? Shimei came to David out of self-interest, looking to gain something for himself. Mephibosheth comes to David because, quite literally, where else can he go? The king is the one who has sustained his life. Where else will a lame, helpless man like Mephibosheth go? Mephibosheth illustrates a truth the Lord Jesus would teach some centuries later – following the King will come at a cost, but that cost is nothing when compared to the King himself and the kindness he bestows. Oh, how thankful we should be for Mephibosheth’s testimony. He shows us loyalty without fear, and in doing so, he urges us to bear the cost, for knowing the King is certainly worth it.
Well, David meets one more character on the road to Jerusalem. This time, it’s Barzillai, who shows faithfulness without complaint. You may remember Barzillai from chapter 17. He’s the wealthy, elderly man who provided David with food and supplies as the king ran from Absalom. Here in chapter 19, David wants to repay Barzillai’s faithfulness. Notice v33. David says, “Come over with me, and I will provide for you with me in Jerusalem.” Now, that’s quite the offer. In David’s kingdom, there’s no greater reward. Barzillai has a place in the king’s presence!
And yet, Barzillai declines. V34, he doesn’t have long to live, and v35, his age would prevent him from being able to enjoy the richness of the king’s presence. So, instead, Barzillai asks that his servant is given the privilege of going with David, and the king, in v38, agrees.
But there is something compelling about Barzillai that we might easily overlook. Notice v37. Barzillai says, “Please let your servant return, that I may die in my own city near the grave of my father and my mother.” Barzillai doesn’t need a parade to celebrate his service. He doesn’t require a banquet honoring his accomplishments. No newspaper headlines, no royal decrees. No, for Barzillai, faithfulness is enough. He has used his gifts well to serve the king, and that is enough for him. Barzillai is content. He is satisfied having served the Lord’s anointed, and I like to picture him returning home quite happy simply for the privilege of having been faithful.
When we devote our lives to King Jesus, the service itself is satisfying. When we use our gifts and our position to serve the Lord’s anointed, one of the great rewards is knowing we’ve been faithful. That’s a good reminder for me, and I hope it is for you too. Faithfulness is hard, isn’t it? Whether it’s in your home or your workplace or your ministry as a Christian, faithfulness is hard. What’s more, in our social media age, it’s easy to believe that publicity is actually the means to happiness, and it’s even easier to believe that everybody else has more happiness than you. But then we remember old Barzillai, whose heart was satisfied with the simplicity of faithfulness. Serve where the Lord has planted you, brothers and sisters. Be faithful with the gifts you’ve received, and don’t worry about the gifts you haven’t. Keep your head down, and do what the Lord has given you to do. That’s the Barzillai way – the way of faithfulness. It’s not easy, and it doesn’t often get noticed. But it does give a sense of satisfaction, a sense of contentment knowing that you’ve played your part in service to King Jesus.
Well, what a cast of characters David meets on his road to Jerusalem. Shimei and his submission without love. Mephibosheth and his loyalty without fear. And Barzillai and his faithfulness without complaint. Each in his own way teaches us a little more about what it means to follow the King.
And so, we come to the final section, vv40-43, where we find a Kingdom Fracture. The theme of division that began the passage returns here at the end. V40, the tribe of Judah is united in bringing David across the Jordan, but before their boots can even dry, conflict erupts again. V41, Israel, which means the ten northern tribes at this point – the northern tribes accuse Judah of stealing the king. That’s not actually what happened, but the men of Israel are angry. They accuse Judah of stealing the king.
But the men of Judah don’t make things any better. V42 – they throw their kinship back in face of the northern tribes – “Because the king is our close relative,” they shout. You can feel this conversation spiraling out of control. Tempers are flaring up, and the northern tribes punch back. V43 – “the men of Israel answered the men of Judah, ‘We have ten shares in the king, and in David also we have more than you.’” Do you see how quickly old wounds are opening up afresh? Do you see how easily God’s people slip into assuming motives and hurling accusations? All it takes is a moment, one careless word, and things are raw and ugly.
And in this particular throwdown, the tribe of Judah wins out. Notice the end of v43 – “But the words of the men of Judah were fiercer than the words of the men of Israel.”The war may be over, but the division is still there. The northern tribes assume the worst about their brothers in Judah, and the men of Judah berate and belittle their brothers in the north. Unity is such a fragile thing. That’s one of the takeaways here, actually. There’s a reason why nearly every church covenant I’ve read, including ours, has a call to unity as the first commitment for God’s people. It’s because unity is fragile, and words, which often seem so small, can be like bombs that shatter unity in an instant. Let’s work for it, brothers and sisters. Let’s thank God for the unity we have, and let’s resolve, right now, to faithfully do our part to preserve and deepen the unity we share.
But in terms of 2 Samuel, why does the passage end with this note of division? Well, one reason is that the author is preparing us for what will happen in 1 Kings 12 – when the kingdom of Israel splits in two, north and south. Our passage is the seed that will bear that bitter fruit decades later in Israel’s history. This is the first fracture leading to Israel’s division.
But on another level, the fracture here in 2 Samuel 19 is a reminder that David’s kingdom, for all of its greatness, is not the kingdom of God, and David himself is not the Messiah. Aren’t you thankful, brothers and sisters, that Christ’s kingdom is not of this world? I’m thankful for that. I’m thankful that God hasn’t left his people to themselves, for if Israel’s history is any indication, we surely would have made a mess of things.
So, brothers and sisters, let’s appreciate God’s work in David’s kingdom, but even more, let’s be thankful there’s a new covenant, inaugurated by a better King. And let’s rejoice this morning that in Christ’s kingdom, God has reconciled us to himself, so that even now we can enjoy peace with God and peace with one another in Christ. Amen.
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