His Son Absalom
2 Samuel 15
"And it came to pass after this, that Absalom prepared him chariots and horses, and fifty men to run before him" (2 Sam. 15:1). The "after this" refers to what now followed upon David’s receiving back into his favor the son who had murdered a brother (14:33). If a spark of gratitude had burned in his breast, Absalom would now have sought to do all in his power toward forwarding the interests of his indulgent father. But alas, so far from strengthening the hands of his royal parent, he sets to work to dethrone him. Absalom was now in the position to develop his vile plan of deposing David. The methods he followed thoroughly revealed what a godless and unscrupulous scoundrel he was. The first thing here recorded of him at once intimated his utter contempt of God and manifested his affinity with the heathen.
Jehovah requires His people to conduct themselves differently from the idolatrous nations surrounding them, and therefore He gave, among others, this law for the regulation of Israel’s king: But he shall not multiply horses to himself" (Deut. 17:16). It was in accord with this, that, when the King of kings formally presented Himself to Israel, He appeared "meek and sitting upon an ass" (Matthew 21:5), so perfectly did He honor the Law in every detail. But Absalom was of a totally different type: arrogant, proud, self-willed. All the other sons of David rode upon mules (2 Sam. 13:19), but nothing less than "chariots and horses" would satisfy this wicked aspirant to the kingdom.
The "fifty men to run before him" was a symbol of royalty: see 1 Samuel 8:11; 1 Kings 1:5. In acting thus, Absalom took advantage of his father’s fond attachment and basely traded upon his weakness. Unauthorized by the king, yet not forbidden by him, he prepared an imposing retinue, which gave him a commanding status before the nation. Finding himself unchecked by the king, he made the most of his position to seduce the hearts of the people. By means of underhand methods, Absalom now sought to turn toward himself the affection of his father’s subjects. From the employment of force (2 Sam. 14:30), he resorted to craftiness. As we have said before, these two are the leading characteristics of the devil: the violence of the "lion" and the guile of the "serpent," and thus it ever is with those whom he fully possesses.
"And Absalom rose up early, and stood beside the way of the gate: and it was so, that when any man that had a controversy came to the king for judgment, then Absalom called unto him, and said, Of what city art thou? And he said, Thy servant is of one of the tribes of Israel. And Absalom said unto him, See, thy matters are good and right; but there is no man deputed of the king to hear thee. Absalom said moreover, Oh that I were made judge in the land, that every man which hath any suit or cause might come unto me, and I would do him justice! And it was so, that when any man came nigh to him to do him obeisance, he put forth his hand, and took him, and kissed him. And in this manner did Absalom to all Israel that came to the king for judgment: so Absalom stole the hearts of the men of Israel" (2 Sam. 15:2-6).
A few explanatory comments are required upon some of the terms in the above verses. First, the "way of the gate" was the place of judgment, that is, of judicial assize (see Gen. 19:1; 23:10, 18; 34:20; Ruth 4:1). "Thy matters" in verse 3 signifies "thy suit or cause" as in verse 4. The obvious intention of Absalom in stationing himself at this important center was to ingratiate himself with the people. His "thy matters are good and right" to all and sundry alike, showed his determination to win them regardless of the requirements of justice or the claims of mercy. His "there is no one deputed of the king to hear thee" was a dastardly attempt to create prejudice and lower the sovereign in their eyes. His "O that I were made judge in the land" revealed the lusting of his heart; neither pleasure nor pomp contented him—he must have power too. His embracing of the common people (v. 5) was a display of (pretended) humility and geniality.
"So Absalom stole the hearts of the men of Israel," upon which Thomas Scott well said, "He did not gain their hearts by eminent services, or by a wise and virtuous conduct. But he affected to look great, as heir to the crown, and yet to be very condescending and affable to his inferiors: he pretended a great regard to their interests, and threw out artful insinuations against David’s administration; he flattered every one who had a cause to be tried, with the assurance that he had right on his side; that, if it went against him, he might be led to accuse David and the magistrates of injustice. Though Absalom knew not how to obey, and deserves to die for his atrocious crime, yet he expressed a vehement desire to be judge over all the land, and suggested that suits should not then be so tedious, expensive, and partially decided as they were. This he confirmed by rising early and by apparent application; though it was other people’s business, and not his own duty: and by such sinister arts, united with his personal attractions and address, he imposed upon multitudes all over the land to prefer so worthless a character to the wise, righteous, and pious David."
Ere proceeding further let us pause and ask the question, What is there here for our own souls? This should ever be the principal concern of our minds as we read the Word of God. Its historical sections are full of important practical teaching: many valuable lessons may be learned therefrom if only we have hearts to receive them. Ah, that is the point on which so much turns. There must be a readiness and willingness on my part if I am to profit spiritually from what I peruse; and for that, there must be humility. Only a lowly heart will perceive that I am likely to be attracted by the same baits which led to the downfall of others; that I am liable to the same temptations they met with, and that unless I guard the particular gate at which the enemy succeeded in gaining an entrance into their souls, he will just as surely prevail over me. O for grace to heed the solemn warnings which are found in every incident we ponder.
Now look again at what is recorded here. "Absalom stole the hearts of the men of Israel." Surely that is the sentence which should speak most loudly to us. It was not the open enemies of David that he wrought upon, but his subjects. It was not the Philistines whom he enlisted but the people of God whom he seduced. Absalom sought to sow the seeds of discontent in their minds, to alienate their affections from David, to render them disloyal to their king. Ah, is not the lesson plain? Is there not one who is ever seeking to seduce the subjects of Christ? tempting them to revolt from allegiance to His sceptre, endeavoring to allure them into his service. Learn, then, dear friend, to look beneath the surface as you read the Holy Scriptures, to see through the historical details to the underlying principles that are therein illustrated, to observe the motives which prompted to action; and then apply the whole to yourself.
What had you done had you been one of those "men of Israel" whose hearts Absalom was seeking to divorce from David? The answer to that question would have turned entirely on one thing: was your heart satisfied with David? Of this tempter we read, "But 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" (2 Sam. 14:25), thus there was everything about his person to appeal to "the lust of the flesh." And as we have seen, "Absalom prepared him chariots and horses, and fifty men to run before him," thus there was an appeal to "the lust of the eyes." Moreover, he promised to further the temporal interests of all who had "a controversy," that is, of all who considered they had a grievance and were being hardly dealt with: thus there was an appeal to "the pride of life" (1 John 2:16). Were those things more than sufficient to counterbalance the excellencies which David possessed?
Again we say, Look beneath the historical characters and discern those whom they typified! When Satan comes to tempt the subjects of the antitypical David he assumes his most alluring character and dangles before us that which appeals either to the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eye, or the pride of life. But mark it well, dear reader, that Satan’s baits have no attraction for those who are in communion with and finding their joy in the Lord. And he knows that full well, and therefore does he seek to stir up enmity against Him. He knows he cannot cause a regenerate soul to dislike the person of the Lord, so he endeavors to create dissatisfaction with His government over us. It was so in the type: "there is no man deputed of the king to hear thee." Ah, it is here we most need to be on guard: to resist every effort of Satan’s to bring us to murmur at the Lord’s providences. But we must turn from the spiritual application back again to the historical.
And what of David during this time? He could hardly have been totally ignorant of the perfidy of his son: some tidings must have reached him of the treacherous plot now on foot to dispose him. Yet there is no hint that he took any steps to thwart Absalom. How, then, shall we account for his apathy? At the close of our last chapter we dwelt upon the strange passiveness which characterized David during this stage of his checkered career, suggesting that the explanation proffered by Alexander Maclaren was a most likely one and apparently confirmed by the Scriptures, namely, that during this period the king suffered from a severe and protracted sickness. That helpful writer called attention to the fact that many of the best commentators regard Psalms 41 and 55 as being composed by David at this time. Having already given his brief remarks upon the former, we will now reproduce those upon the latter; suggesting that Psalm 55 be read through at this point.
"The fifty-fifth psalm gives some very pathetic additional particulars. It is in three parts: a plaintive prayer and portraiture of the psalmist’s mental distress (vv. 1-8); a vehement supplication against his foes, and indignant recounting of their treachery (vv. 9-16); and, finally a prophecy of the retribution that is to fall upon them (vv. 17-23). In the first and second portions we have some points which help to complete our picture of the man. For instance, his heart is ‘sore pained’ within him, the ‘terrors of death’ are on him, ‘fear and trembling’ are come to him, and ‘horror" has covered him. All this points, like subsequent verses, to his knowledge of the conspiracy before it came to a head.
"The state of the city, which is practically in the hands of Absalom and his tools, is described with bold imagery. Violence and strife in possession of it, spies prowling about the walls day and night, evil and trouble in its midst, and destruction, oppression, and deceit—a goodly company—flaunting in its open spaces. And the spirit, the brain of the whole, is the trusted friend whom he had made his own equal, who had shared his secretest thoughts in private, who had walked next him in solemn processions to the temple. Seeing all this, what does the king do, who was once so fertile in resource, so decisive in counsel, so prompt in action? Nothing. His only weapon is prayer: ‘As for me, I will call upon God; and the Lord will save me. Evening and morning, and at noon, will I pray, and cry aloud; and He shall hear my voice.
"He lets it all grow as it list, and only longs to be out of all the weary coil of troubles. ‘O that I had wings like a dove, then would I fly away and be at rest. Lo, I would flee far off, I would lodge in the wilderness. I would swiftly fly to my refuge from the raging wind, from the tempest.’ The languor of his disease, love for his worthless son, consciousness of sin, and submission to the chastisement through ‘one of his own house,’ which Nathan had foretold, kept him quiet, though he saw the plot winding its meshes round him. And in this submission patient confidence is not wanting, though subdued and saddened, which finds expression in the last words of this psalm of the heavy laden, "Cast thy burden upon the Lord, and He shall sustain thee . . . I will trust in Thee.’"
Much of what Absalom said to those whose hearts he stole had, no doubt, a measure of truth in it. The disorders and sorrows of David’s house had borne heavily on the king: his energy flagged, his health was broken, and the influence of his throne proportionately weakened. Absalom saw the defects of his father’s government, and perceived that others saw them too, and quickly and meanly he took advantage of the situation, deprecating David and extolling himself. Yet David idolized Absalom, indeed, this was one of his chief failures, and bitterly was he now made to smart for cherishing such a viper in his bosom. He knew that Absalom was exalting himself. He knew that the calling of God was not with him, but with Solomon (2 Sam. 7:12; 12:25). He knew that Absalom was godless, that the flesh ruled him in all his ways; and yet, knowing all this, he interfered not to restrain him.
"And it came to pass after forty years, that Absalom said unto the king, I pray thee, let me go and pay my vow, which I have vowed unto the Lord, in Hebron" (15:7). We are not sure from what point these forty years date, but certainly not from the time of David’s coronation, for in such a case we would now have arrived at the closing year of his reign, which is obviously not the case—see 2 Samuel 21:1. Possibly it is to be dated from the time of his first anointing (1 Sam. 16:13). At any rate, that which is most germane to our present line of meditation is, Absalom considered that his wicked plot was ripe for execution, hence he now proceeded to put the finishing touches to it. Nothing less than the kingdom itself was what he determined to seize.
"For thy servant vowed a vow while I abode at Geshur in Syria, saying, If the Lord shall bring me again indeed to Jerusalem, then I will serve the Lord. And the king said unto him, Go in peace. So he arose, and went to Hebron" (vv. 8, 9). Absalom’s duplicity and hypocrisy appear in all their hideousness. He cloaked his insurrection under the guise of offering sacrifice unto Jehovah (Deut. 23:21-23) in performance of a vow which he pretended to have made. He had no love for his parent and no fear for his God, for he dared now to mock His worship with a deliberate lie. He cunningly imposed upon his poor father’s hopes that at last his wayward son was becoming pious. No doubt David had often prayed for him, and now he supposed that his supplications were beginning to be answered. How delighted he would be to hear that Absalom desired to "serve the Lord," and therefore he readily gave his consent for him to go to Hebron.
"But Absalom sent spies throughout all the tribes of Israel, saying, As soon as ye hear the sound of the trumpet, then ye shall say, Absalom reigneth in Hebron" (v. 10). Let this be a warning to parents not to assume too readily that their children have experienced the new birth, but wait to see the fruits of the same. Instead of journeying to Hebron in order to worship Jehovah, Absalom’s purpose was to be acclaimed monarch over Israel. "Hebron" was not only the place where he was born (2 Sam. 3:2,3) but it was also where David had commenced his reign (2 Sam. 5: 1-3). These "spies" that he sent forth were either his own trusted "servants" (14:30) or those whose hearts he had stolen from David and on whom he could now rely to further his evil scheme. Those who would hear this proclamation "Absalom reigneth" might draw whatever conclusion they pleased—that David was dead, or that he had relinquished the reins of government, or that the Nation at large preferred his attractive son.
"And with Absalom went two hundred men out of Jerusalem, that were called, and they went in their simplicity, and they knew not any thing" (v. 11). No doubt these "two hundred men were persons of rank and prominence, being summoned to accompany the king’s son to a sacred feast. Absalom’s object was to awe the common people and give them the impression that David’s cause was now being deserted at headquarters. Thus these men unwittingly countenanced Absalom’s evil devices, for their presence signified that they supported his treason. This is a fair sample of the methods employed by unprincipled politicians to further their selfish ends, getting many to join their ranks or party under a complete misconception of the leader’s real policy.
"And Absalom sent for Ahithophel, the Gilonite, David’s counsellor, from his city, even from Giloh, while he offered sacrifices. And the conspiracy was strong, for the people increased continually with Absalom" (v. 12). The man whose aid Absalom now sought was a renowned statesman, apparently no longer on friendly terms with David. He was a fit tool for the insurrectionist, though in the end God turned his counsel into foolishness. The sovereignty which God displays in His providences is as patent as it is awe-inspiring. As He graciously raises up those to befriend His people in the hour of their need, so He has appointed those who are ready to help the wicked in the furthering of their evil plans. As there was an Ittai loyal to David, so there was an Ahithophel to counsel Absalom.