Expositor's Bible Commentary
Now Joab the son of Zeruiah perceived that the king's heart was toward Absalom.9CHAPTER XVIII.
ABSALOM BANISHED AND BROUGHT BACK
2 Samuel 13:38-39 - 2 Samuel 14:1-33.
GESHUR, to which Absalom fled after the murder of Amnon, accompanied in all likelihood by the men who had slain him, was a small kingdom in Syria, lying between Mount Hermon and Damascus. Maacah, Absalom's mother, was the daughter of Talmai, king of Geshur, so that Absalom was there among his own relations. There is no reason to believe that Talmai and his people had renounced the idolatrous worship that prevailed in Syria. For David to ally himself in marriage with an idolatrous people was not in accordance with the law. In law, Absalom must have been a Hebrew, circumcised the eighth day; but in spirit he would probably have no little sympathy with his mother's religion. His utter alienation in heart from his father; the unconcern with which he sought to drive from the throne the man who had been so solemnly called to it by God; the vow which he pretended to have taken, when away in Syria, that if he were invited back to Jerusalem he would "serve the Lord," all point to a man infected in no small degree with the spirit, if not addicted to the practice, of idolatry. And the tenor of his life, so full of cold-blooded wickedness, exemplified well the influence of idolatry, which bred neither fear of God nor love of man.
We have seen that Amnon had not that profound hold on David's heart which Absalom had; and therefore it is little wonder that when time had subdued the keen sensation of horror, the king "was comforted concerning Amnon, seeing he was dead." There was no great blank left in his heart, no irrepressible craving of the soul for the return of the departed. But it was otherwise in the case of Absalom, - "the king's heart was towards him." David was in a painful dilemma, placed between two opposite impulses, the judicial and the paternal; the judicial calling for the punishment of Absalom, the paternal craving his restoration. Absalom in the most flagrant way had broken a law older even than the Sinai legislation, for it had been given to Noah after the flood - "Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed." But the deep affection of David for Absalom not only caused him to shrink from executing that law, but made him most desirous to have him near him again, pardoned, penitent as he no doubt hoped, and enjoying all the rights and privileges of the king's son. The first part of the chapter now before us records the manner in which David, hi great weakness, sacrificed the judicial to the paternal, sacrificed his judgment to his feelings, and the welfare of the kingdom for the gratification of his affection. For it was too evident that Absalom was not a fit man to succeed David on the throne. If Saul was unfit to rule over God's people, and as God's vicegerent, much more was Absalom. Not only was he not the right kind of man, but, as his actions had showed, he was the very opposite. By his own wicked deed he was now an outlaw and an exile; he was out of sight and likely to pass out of mind; and it was most undesirable that any step should be taken to bring him back among the people, and give him every chance of the succession. Yet in spite of all this the king in his secret heart desired to get Absalom back. And Joab, not studying the welfare of the kingdom, but having regard only to the strong wishes of the king and of the heir-apparent, devised a scheme for fulfilling their desire.
That collision of the paternal and the judicial, which David removed by sacrificing the judicial, brings to our mind a discord of the same kind on a much greater scale, which received a solution of a very different kind. The sin of man created the same difficulty in the government of God. The judicial spirit, demanding man's punishment, came into collision with the paternal, desiring his happiness. How were they to be reconciled? This is the great question on which the priests of the world, when unacquainted with Divine revelation, have perplexed themselves since the world began. When we study the world's religions, we see very clearly that it has never been held satisfactory to solve the problem as David solved his difficulty, by simply sacrificing the judicial. The human conscience refuses to accept of such a settlement. It demands that some satisfaction shall be made to that law of which the Divine Judge is the administrator. It cannot bear to see God abandoning His judgment-seat in order that He may show indiscriminate mercy. Fantastic and foolish in the last degree, grim and repulsive too, in many cases, have been the devices by which it has been sought to supply the necessary satisfaction. The awful sacrifices of Moloch, the mutilations of Juggernaut, the penances of popery, are most repulsive solutions, while they all testify to the intuitive conviction of mankind that something in the form of atonement is indispensable. But if these solutions repel us, not less satisfactory is the opposite view, now so current, that nothing in the shape of sin-offering is necessary, that no consideration needs to be taken of the judicial, that the infinite clemency of God is adequate to deal with the case, and that a true belief in His most loving fatherhood is all that is required for the forgiveness and acceptance of His erring children. In reality this is no solution at all; it is just David's method of sacrificing the judicial; it satisfies no healthy conscience, it brings solid peace to no troubled soul. The true and only solution, by which due regard is shown both to the judicial and the paternal, is that which is so fully unfolded and enforced in the Epistles of St. Paul. "God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself, not imputing unto men their trespasses. . . . For He hath made Him to be sin for us, who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him."
Returning to the narrative, we have next to examine the stratagem of Joab, designed to commit the king unwittingly to the recall of Absalom. The idea of the method may quite possibly have been derived from Nathan's parable of the ewe lamb. The design was to get the king to give judgment in an imaginary case, and thus commit him to a similar judgment in the case of Absalom. But there was a world-wide difference between the purpose of the parable of Nathan and that of the wise woman of Tekoah. Nathan's parable was designed to rouse the king's conscience as against his feelings; the woman of Tekoah's, as prompted by Joab, to rouse his feelings as against his conscience. Joab found a fitting tool for his purpose in a wise woman of Tekoah, a small town in the south of Judah. She was evidently an accommodating and unscrupulous person; but there is no reason to compare her to the woman of Endor, whose services Saul had resorted to. She seems to have been a woman of dramatic faculty, clever at personating another, and at acting a part. Her skill in this way becoming known to Joab, he arranged with her to go to the king with a fictitious story, and induce him now to bring back Absalom. Her story bore that she was a widow who had been left with two sons, one of whom in a quarrel killed his brother in the field. All the family were risen against her to constrain her to give up the murderer to death, but if she did so her remaining coal would be quenched, and neither name nor remainder left to her husband on the face of the earth. On hearing the case, the king seems to have been impressed in the woman's favour, and promised to give an order accordingly. Further conversation obtained clearer assurances from him that he would protect her from the avenger of blood. Then, dropping so far her disguise, she ventured to remonstrate with the king, inasmuch as he had not dealt with his own son as he was prepared to deal with hers. "Wherefore then hast thou devised such a thing against the people of God? for in speaking this word, the king is as one that is guilty, in that the king doth not fetch home again his banished one. For we must needs die, and are as water spilt upon the ground which cannot be gathered up again; neither doth God take away life, but deviseth means that he that is banished be not an outcast from Him." We cannot but be struck, though not favourably, with the pious tone which the woman here assumed to David. She represents that the continued banishment of Absalom is against the people of God, - it is not for the nation's interest that the heir-apparent should be forever banished. It is against the example of God, who, in administering His providence, does not launch His arrows at once against the destroyer of life, but rather shows him mercy, and allows him to return to his former condition. Clemency is a divine-like attribute. The king who can disentangle difficulties, and give such prominence to mercy, is like an angel of God. It is a divine-like work he undertakes when he recalls his banished. She can pray, when he is about to undertake such a business, "The Lord thy God be with thee" (R.V.). She knew that any difficulties the king might have in recalling his son would arise from his fears that he would be acting against God's will. The clever woman fills his eye with considerations on one side - the mercy and forbearance of God, the pathos of human life, the duty of not making things worse than they necessarily are. She knew he would be startled when she named Absalom. She knew that though he had given judgment on the general principle as involved in the imaginary case she had put before him, he might demur to the application of that principle to the case of Absalom. Her instructions from Joab were to get the king to sanction Absalom's return. The king has a surmise that the hand of Joab is in the whole transaction, and the woman acknowledges that it is so. After the interview with the woman, David sends for Joab, and gives him leave to fetch back Absalom. Joab goes to Geshur and brings Absalom to Jerusalem.
But David's treatment of Absalom when he returns does not bear out the character for unerring wisdom which the woman had given him. The king refuses to see his son, and for two years Absalom lives in his own house, without enjoying any of the privileges of the king's son. By this means David took away all the grace of the transaction, and irritated Absalom. He was afraid to exercise his royal prerogative in pardoning him out-and-out. His conscience told him it ought not to be done. To restore at once one who had sinned so flagrantly to all his dignity and power was against the grain. Though therefore he had given his consent to Absalom returning to Jerusalem, for all practical purposes he might as well have been at Geshur. And Absalom was not the man to bear this quietly. How would his proud spirit like to hear of royal festivals at which all were present but he? How would he like to hear of distinguished visitors to the king from the surrounding countries, and he alone excluded from their society? His spirit would be chafed like that of a wild beast in its cage. Now it was, we cannot doubt, that he felt a new estrangement from his father, and conceived the project of seizing upon his throne. Now too it probably was that he began to gather around him the party that ultimately gave him his short-lived triumph. There would be sympathy for him in some quarters as an ill-used man; while there would rally to him all who were discontented with David's government, whether on personal or on public grounds. The enemies of his godliness, emboldened by his conduct towards Uriah, finding there what Daniel's enemies in a future age tried in vain to find ill his conduct, would begin to think seriously of the possibility of a change. Probably Joab began to apprehend the coming danger when he refused once and again to speak to Absalom. It seemed to be the impression both of David and of Joab that there would be danger to the state in his complete restoration. Two years of this state of things had passed, and the patience of Absalom was exhausted. He sent for Joab to negotiate for a change of arrangements. But Joab would not see him. A second time he sent, and a second time Joab declined. Joab was really in a great difficulty. He seems to have seen that he had made a mistake in bringing Absalom to Jerusalem, but it was a mistake out of which he could not extricate himself He was unwilling to go back, and he was afraid to go forward. He had not courage to undo the mistake he had made in inviting Absalom to return by banishing him again. If he should meet Absalom he knew he would be unable to meet the arguments by which he would press him to complete what he had begun when he invited him back. Therefore he studiously avoided him. But Absalom was not to be outdone in this way. He fell on a rude stratagem for bringing Joab to his presence. Their fields being adjacent to each other, Absalom sent his servants to set Joab's barley on fire. The irritation of such an unprovoked injury overcame Joab's unwillingness to meet Absalom; he went to him in a rage and demanded why this had been done. The matter of the barley would be easy to arrange; but now that lie had met Joab he showed him that there were just two modes of treatment open to David, - either really to pardon, or really to punish him. This probably was just what Joab felt. There was no good, but much harm in the half-and-half policy which the king was pursuing. If Absalom was pardoned, let him be on friendly terms with the king. If he was not pardoned, let him be put to death for the crime he had committed.
Joab was unable to refute Absalom's reasoning. And when he went to the king he would press that view on him likewise. And now, after two years of a half-and-half measure, the king sees no alternative but to yield. "When he had called for Absalom, he came to the king, and bowed himself to his face on the ground before the king; and the king kissed Absalom." This was the token of reconciliation and friendship. But it would not be with a clear conscience or an easy mind that David saw the murderer of his brother in full possession of the honours of the king's son.
In all this conduct of King David we can trace only the infatuation of one left to the guidance of his own mind. It is blunder after blunder. Like many good but mistaken men, he erred both in inflicting punishments and in bestowing favours. Much that ought to be punished such persons pass over; what they do select for punishment is probably something trivial; and when they punish it is in a way so injudicious as to defeat its ends. And some, like David, keep oscillating between punishment and favour so as at once to destroy the effect of the one and the grace of the other. His example may well show all of you who have to do with such things the need of great carefulness in this important matter. Penalties, to be effectual, should be for marked offences, but when incurred should be firmly maintained. Only when the purpose of the punishment is attained ought reconciliation to take place, and when that comes it should be full-hearted and complete, restoring the offender to the full benefit of his place and privilege, both in the home and in the hearts of his parents.
So David lets Absalom loose, as it were, on the people of Jerusalem. He is a young man of fine appearance and fascinating manners. "In all Israel there was none to be so much praised as Absalom for his beauty; from the sole of the foot even to the crown of the head there was no blemish in him. And when he polled his head (for it was at every year's end that he polled it; because his hair was heavy on him, therefore he polled it) the weight of the hair of his head was two hundred shekels after the king's weight." No doubt this had something to do with David's great liking for him. He could not but look on him with pride, and think with pleasure how much he was admired by others. The affection which owed so much to a cause of this sort was not likely to be of the highest or purest quality. What then are we to say of David's fondness for Absalom? Was it wrong for a father to be attached to his child? Was it wrong for him to love even a wicked child? No one can for a moment think so who remembers that "God commended His love towards us, in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us." There is a sense in which loving emotions may warrantably be more powerfully excited in the breast of a godly parent toward an erring child than toward a wise and good one. The very thought that a child is in the thraldom of sin creates a feeling of almost infinite pathos with reference to his condition. The loving desire for his good and his happiness becomes more intense from the very sense of the disorder and misery in which he lies. The sheep that has strayed from the fold is the object of a more profound emotion than the ninety- and-nine that are safe within it. In this sense a parent cannot love his child, even his sinful and erring child, too well. The love that seeks another's highest good can never be too intense, for it is the very counterpart and image of God's love for sinful men.
But, as far as we can gather, David's love for Absalom was not exclusively of this kind. It was a fondness that led him to wink at his faults even when they became flagrant, and that desired to see him occupying a place of honour and responsibility for which he certainly was far from qualified. This was more than the love of benevolence. The love of benevolence has, in the Christian bosom, an unlimited sphere- It may be given to the most unworthy. But the love of complacency, of delight in any one, of desire for his company, desire for close relations with him, confidence in him, as one to whom our own interests and the interests of others may be safely entrusted, is a quite different feeling. This kind of love must ever be regulated by the degree of true excellence, of genuine worth, possessed by the person loved. The fault in David's love to Absalom was not that he was too benevolait, not that he wished his son too well. It was that he had too much complacency or delight in him, delight resting on very superficial ground, and that he was too willing to have him entrusted with the most vital interests of the nation. This fondness for Absalom was a sort of infatuation, to which David never could have yielded if he had remembered the hundred and first Psalm, and if he had thought of the kind of men whom alone when he wrote that psalm he determined to promote to influence in the kingdom.
And on this we found a general lesson of no small importance. Young persons, let us say emphatically young women, and perhaps Christian young women, are apt to be captivated by superficial qualities, qualities like those of Absalom, and in some cases are not only ready but eager to marry those who possess them. In their blindness they are willing to commit not only their own interests but the interests of their children, if they should have any, to men who are not Christians, perhaps barely moral, and who are therefore not worthy of their trust. Here it is that affection should be watched and restrained. Christians should never allow their affections to be engaged by any whom, on Christian grounds, they do not thoroughly esteem. All honour to those who, at great sacrifice, have honoured this rule! All honour to Christian parents who bring up their children to feel that, if they are Christians themselves, they can marry only in the Lord! Alas for those who deem accidental and superficial qualities sufficient grounds for a union which involves the deepest interests of souls for time and for eternity! In David's ill- founded complacency in Absalom, and the woeful disasters which flowed from it, let them see a beacon to warn them against any union which has not mutual esteem for its foundation, and does not recognize those higher interests in reference to which the memorable words were spoken by our Lord, "What is a man profited if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?"