News of a death

2 Samuel 18:1-33

9 August 2009

St Mary's, White Waltham

Morning Prayer

Acknowledgement: I am indebted to my friend Christopher Ash for much of the form and theme of this sermon. But I've tried to make it my own...


How do you respond when you hear news of a death? Is it good news or bad news when you hear someone has died?

News of the death of a child is always heart-rending, but what about the death of a terrorist? There are reports in the news this week of the death of the leader of the Taliban in Pakistan. Did anyone here weep for him?

What about when you and I die: will the host of heaven be weeping or rejoicing over us?

In chapter 18 of Second Samuel we learn of the death of Absalom, David's son. And the question the passage poses us is this: is the death of Absalom a good thing or a bad thing? Is it good news or bad news?

The story so far...

But before we get into our text, we've got a bit of catching up to do.

Since chapter 11 that you looked at last week, David's family has fallen apart. The prophet Nathan warned David that, as a consequence of his adultery with Bathsheba and the killing of her husband, the sword shall never depart from your houseref. And that's exactly what has happened.

Back in chapter 13, David had two sons, Absalom and Amnon, who were half-brothers. However, Amnon raped Absalom's sister, Tamar, and two years later Absalom exacted revenge on Amnon by having him killed.

After that Absalom went into hiding for three years. But eventually Joab, the Commander-in-chief of all Israel, brings him back to Jerusalem to be reconciled with his father, David. But the reconciliation is botched, and Absalom decides that he will usurp the throne and remove his father.

So Absalom begins to gather support in Israel. He is handsome and attractive and charismatic and cunning. Little by little he wins the hearts of a good number of the people. After four years of building support he finally feels he is strong enough to mount a coup, and he persuades the people to declare him king. So in chapter 15 we hear this, A messenger came and told David, "The hearts of the men of Israel are with Absalom".ref

Now it's David's turn to run. He abandons Jerusalem along with what's left of his army and flees to the desert.

Meanwhile, Absalom moves into the king's palace. To show his contempt for the old regime, and to seal his position as David's replacement, he sleeps with all the palace concubines in a tent on the roof, in full view of the people.

And now Absalom has set out with his whole army in pursuit of David and his men. He has decided that he will utterly destroy his father and anyone loyal to him. Absalom want to have absolute power.

These are the events that bring us to the start of chapter 18. The tension has been building, and now we're poised for battle. Obviously, I've missed out all the detail, but it's a thrilling story of spies and deceit and betrayal and counter-betrayal. It would make a great summer-reading blockbuster. Do read chapters 13 onwards sometime. Not now: after the service.

Justice or Love

So, we come to our text, and there's a surprise: the focus is not on the great battle at all. This horrific civil war in Israel, with 20 thousand deaths, barely gets a mention: just three verses.

Instead, the focus is entirely on the relationship between David and Absalom. What will become of Absalom, and how will David react?

Throughout this chapter, and into the next, the writer creates a tension for us. In telling the story, the writer builds an irreconcilable tension between the demands of justice on the one hand and the longings of love on the other.

Skillfully, the story is brought to a climax in verse 9. Absalom is hanging by his long hair, caught in a tree. If it were a television series, this would be the cliff-hanger ending — or, rather, the tree-hanger ending. At this point, the writer wants us wondering which will triumph for Absalom: the demands of justice or the longings of love.

Which side would you be on? When I was a boy I had story books where you could choose how the story develops — at the bottom of each page was a decision: if you want to climb into the snake infested pit turn to page 72; if you want to run away screaming turn to page 94. That sort of thing. Well, what would you decide for Absalom? Justice demands death; love demands mercy. What would you choose for him?

The longings of love

Well, we know what David would have chosen. Despite everything that has happened, David still longs with love for his son.

We see it in verse 5, The king commanded Joab, Abishai and Ittai, "Be gentle with the young man Absalom for my sake". And all the troops heard the king giving orders concerning Absalom to each of the commanders.ref Be gentle with my son he pleads. What kind of order is that under the circumstances? Has David lost his mind?

But David has already lost two sons: the baby born to Bathsheba, and Amnon, killed by Absalom himself. He doesn't want to lose a third, whatever that son has done to him. However horrible his rebellion, David cannot give up on Absalom.

We see it again when the messengers reach him. In each case, David's first question about the battle was not "how many died?" but, extraordinarily, "Is the young man Absalom safe?"

We see it again in David's anguished cry at the end of the chapter, The king was shaken. He went up to the room over the gateway and wept. As he went, he said: "O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you — O Absalom, my son, my son!"ref

Perhaps David feels a sense of responsibility, or of guilt. The prophet Nathan had made it quite clear that it was David's sin that had brought the sword into his family. But, in any case, he longs for his son; he loves his son.

The demands of justice

Joab, however, knows that Absalom must die. Joab will put him to death despite David's plea, despite being reminded of David's order in verse 12 by the young man who found him.

No, Joab knows that Absalom must die. Absalom is a rebel. He has committed treason in Israel. Until 1998, even in this country, treason carried a mandatory death sentence. How much more in such a strongly monarchic society as ancient Israel did treason need to be punished.

And Absalom has gone to great lengths deliberately and systematically to assert his claim to the throne of Israel. He has decisively rejected his father as king. He has driven his father out and installed himself as king over God's people.

As a consequence, he has brought twenty thousand of those people to their deaths. Nine years earlier he had murdered his half-brother. Now he is responsible for a vast river of blood and misery: families and friends divided against themselves in bloody civil war.

Absalom deserves to die. Justice demands it: a rebel like this cannot be let off the hook. This is no time for mercy. Justice must be done.

And Joab doesn't hesitate to deliver that justice. Verse 14, Joab said, "I am not going to wait like this for you". So he took three javelins in his hand and plunged them into Absalom's heart while Absalom was still alive in the oak tree.ref

Joab knows that Absalom's death is the only way to secure Israel's future.

So, which would you have chosen to follow: the longings of love, or the demands of justice? Are you with David or Joab?

Good news or Bad news

The same tension is played out again, starting at verse 19, with all this business about the messengers.

Ahimaaz was a loyal member of David's men. He desperately wanted to be the first to tell David about the defeat of the rebellion. But Joab wouldn't let him. Joab knew that David did not always treat messengers well when they brought bad news. And Joab knew that as far as David was concerned, the news about Absalom was exceedingly bad.

Instead, Joab sends an unnamed Cushite to take the message: a foreigner to Israel; presumably considered disposable in case the king was enraged.

But Ahimaaz continues to beg to take the news. Joab again tells him you don't have any news that will bring you a rewardref. But he lets him go, expecting that the Cushite will have got there first anyway. But Ahimaaz takes a different route and manages to overtake the Cushite.

Then the scene changes to David and his watchman. They are looking out for news, desperately trying to anticipate: will it be good news or bad news. Clutching at straws: verse 25, The king said, "if he is alone, he must have good news"ref; and after the watchman identifies Ahimaaz, verse 27, "He's a good man," the king said. "He comes with good news".ref

Like waiting for exam results or the outcome of a job interview, or a medical test: you look for omens; you grasp at any clue. Is the envelope heavy or light? Did it arrive quickly or late? Is it good news or bad news?

Once again, we're challenged to think for ourselves: is the death of Absalom good news or bad news? Is Absalom's death a glorious victory over a rebel who deserves justice, or the tragic death of a son who is loved?

Well, the messengers know what they think. Ahimaaz arrives first, but he refuses to share the news about Absalom. When David questions him directly he dissembles: verse 29, Ahimaaz answered, I saw great confusion just as Joab was about to send the king's servant and me, your servant, but I don't know what it was.ref

The Cushite is not so reticent. As far he he is concerned, Absalom's death is the best possible news: verse 32, The Cushite replied, May the enemies of my lord the king and all who rise up to harm you be like that young man.ref Victory for the king had to mean death for the rebel. Absalom is gone, and jolly good riddance.

But for king David this was the news that he had dreaded. Verse 33, The king was shaken. He went up to the room over the gateway and wept. As he went, he said: O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you — O Absalom, my son, my son!ref

So, at the end of the story, the tension remains unresolved. What should have happened to Absalom? Was it right that he suffered the demands of justice, or should the longings of love have prevailed?

In the end, was the news of his death good news or bad news?

Resolving the tension

Up to this point, I've been encouraging us to sit in judgement on Absalom: to put ourselves in the places of Joab and of David. Should he have lived or died?

But if we read this account wisely, we will understand that we are not David or Joab. You and I are not Absalom's judges, we are Absalom.

I am Absalom in the story, and so are you. I am in rebellion against God. I do not want him to be king; I want to be king myself. I don't want to pray to him, I don't want to hear from him; I don't want to do his will. I want to do my will, day after day after day. As long as I live I am a rebel against the king. I deserve to die. And so do you. That's the demand of justice. Heaven and earth ought to rejoice when news of our deaths is announced.

But news of our deaths would break God's heart: God longs with love for the world. God has made each one of us in his own image. He wants to be reconciled with us, guilty as we are. He longs to adopt us again as his children, to put the past behind us and mend our relationship with him.

But how can that happen? Justice demands that you and I die for our rebellion; love makes an equal demand that we be spared.

Well, David spoke a truer word than he knew when he cried out If only I had died instead of youref.

For David it was an unrealistic cry of grief. But a thousand years later, great David's greater Son did exactly that. He lived a perfect life, never once rebelling against his Father, yet he died instead of me and you so that the demands of justice against us could be met. And in doing so he made possible the fulfilment of God's longings of love towards us.

The death of Jesus finally resolves the tension of 2 Samuel 18, and the tension in our lives. When he died on the cross Jesus was able to satisfy both the demands of justice against us and the longings of love for us. Now, if we will, you and I can come to our Father and rebuild our relationship with him.