The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
And it came to pass after this, that Absalom prepared him chariots and horses, and fifty men to run before him.Absalom
2 Samuel 14-16
THESE chapters are full of men who reveal human nature in its best and its worst aspects. What plots and counterplots are here! What hypocrisy, and what unfeigned sorrow! The whole world is in these few chapters in miniature. What action, what colour, what passion, what cunning! But where the crowd is so great, discrimination is the more necessary. Let us, then, discriminate between those who serve God and those who serve him not.
In chapter 14 we have a picture of Absalom:—
"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. And when he polled his head, (for it was at every year's end that he polled it: because the hair was heavy on him, therefore he polled it:) he weighed the hair of his head at two hundred shekels after the king's weight" (2Samuel 14:25-26).
Absalom having been for a long time voluntarily or involuntarily exiled from the capital, came back again as the result of a very cunning intrigue on the part of Joab. But Joab would not come to see him. For two whole years Absalom was left to do what he could with his own society—he "saw not the king's face" (2Samuel 14:28). He sent for Joab, but Joab would not come. Then what did he do? Here he showed that if he was without wisdom, he was not without craft and sagacity of a certain narrow and penetrating kind:—
"Therefore he said unto his servants, See, Joab's field is near mine, and he hath barley there; go and set it on fire. And Absalom's servants set the field on fire. Then Joab arose, and came to Absalom unto his house, and said unto him, Wherefore have thy servants set my field on fire?" (2Samuel 14:30-31).
Thus we get a taste of the quality of men. For two whole years Joab paid no attention to the returned son of David, but the moment his barley-field was set on fire he paid Absalom a visit of inquiry. It was crafty on the part of Absalom. Perhaps he looked upon it as a last resort and thought the end would justify the means. But there is a spiritual use of this incident which is well worth considering. We do not strain the text when we get out of it such spiritual uses. Is it not so that when we will not go to God lovingly, voluntarily, he sets our barley-fields on fire, saying, Now they will pray? We desert his church, we abandon his book, we release ourselves from all religious responsibilities; God calls, and we will not hear; then he sets all the harvest in a blaze, and we become religious instantaneously. Or he sends the cold east wind to blow upon the earth day and night, week after week; then we begin to consider whether we had not better appeal to his mercy and beseech the exercise of his clemency. Though Absalom had no such gracious intent in view, yet it is lawful to learn a lesson even from an enemy and from a man who turns the events of life to practical purpose. We are the richer if we have lost a barley-field, and found the God of the harvest. He will make up the barley-field to us, if so be we accept the providence aright, and say, This is God's thought concerning us—severe outwardly, a temporary loss, but concealing wondrous solicitude, expressing a purpose of love in a flame of fire; let us arise, and go to our father, and say to him across the blazing field, "Father, we have sinned." Those who will not come at the voice of love may be constrained to come at the bidding of terror.
We wonder how a man so beautiful as Absalom will deport himself in the practical affairs of life; and we are not permitted to wonder long, for in chapter 2Samuel 15:1-6 the answer is given.
"And it came to pass after this, that Absalom prepared him chariots and horses, and fifty men to run before him " (2Samuel 15:1).
Where is personal beauty now? Mark the insidious progress. "Absalom prepared him chariots and horses," but we have seen that they were forbidden in Israel. Egyptians and Assyrians and the heathen nations might boast themselves of their iron chariots and their strong horses, but Israel was to have neither the one nor the other. This is the first time we read of chariots and horses in connection with Israel. This man is determined to make a very showy appeal to the public imagination. He will take that imagination captive. When the children of Israel see this innovation they will think it justified, because it was originated by the king's son; and there is something in men, including the children of Israel, that responds to great chariots, to rushing horses whose necks are clothed with thunder; and Absalom knows enough of human nature to know that this appeal will not be lost upon people who asked for a king that they might be like the other nations of the earth. They would have a king, and God says, You shall have enough of them! God sometimes over-answers the prayers of people. He says in effect: You want kings—or one king? The answer is: We want a king—one king. God says: You shall have a hundred kings; you shall have kings until you are surfeited with them; I will keep up the supply of kings, and ply you at every point. Verily, he gives men their desire and sends leanness into their souls.
"And Absalom rose up early" (2Samuel 15:2). Ambition is not a long sleeper. A man who has made up his mind to conquer the world can easily conquer himself—so far as to get up quite early in the morning. This was a bid for popularity, as well as an expression of energy. We admire this. He means it. He is no sluggard. He does not begin his day at twelve o'clock: he looks out for the sun, and almost chides that rising light, saying,—I have been watching for thee: how long thou hast tarried! If men can get up early in the morning to do that which is traitorous, unholy, and unworthy, are the servants of the living God to be sleeping away their opportunities? "I went by the field of the slothful, and by the vineyard of the man void of understanding; and, lo, it was all grown over with thorns, and nettles had covered the face thereof, and the stone wall thereof was broken down." Saith the sluggard, "Yet a little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep." Thus his poverty comes as one that travelleth, and his want as an armed man. We should be more energetic, more passionate; we should recall enthusiasm; for religion dead, is irreligion. Let the cunning and crafty man for a time have his way; his policy is worthy of him, and is a thing to be admired for its astuteness and adaptation of means to ends.
"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!" (2Samuel 15:2-4).
The eternal speech of the mere demagogue! Bad men have no originality; they are like their father, the devil, who has only one lie and keeps repeating it through all the ages: it is the same lame story; the same poor, earthly selfish appeal; the same base, narrow villainy; the same rag that is held out as if it were a purse that contained all earth's gold. And men run after it. Who has not misled the people by making them great promises which could never be redeemed? Have we not known man after man stand up as upon a pedestal and say, "Friends, what you want is------" and then came a glowing programme authorised only by the signature of the unknown speaker. He would divide the land, and apportion the gold, and settle the hours of labour, and create an earthly paradise, and open a public road to heaven. Falsehood is not scrupulous: it abounds in flattering promises, all of which are to be realised without any toil or labour on our part! That circumstance should at once doom such promises to contempt. There is no position upon earth worth having, except as the result of labour, the prize of training, the crown of honest capability or industry. Strait is the gate and narrow is the way that leadeth to any kingdom that is everlasting and blissful;—wide the gate, broad the road, leading to destruction—an infinite turnpike down to hell! Believe not those who come with paper programmes only: "Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits, whether they are of God," and the test is this: self-denial, payment for all you have, an honest quid pro quo, a fair commerce and barter, honest wages for honest toil. But people who have grievances or grudges or controversies are in a temper of mind which prepares them to hear the speeches of the Absaloms of the ages: they are in immediate necessity, and on the ground of the proverb "Any port in a storm," they may be glad to avail themselves of any promise that is large enough and reckless enough.
Then how he flattered his suitors and invested his affections:
"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" (2Samuel 15:5).
Now came the open revolt; now the king left his palace and became a wanderer. David saw the day was darkening, and he hastened away, saying,
"Arise, and let us flee; for we shall not else escape from Absalom; make speed to depart, lest he overtake us suddenly, and bring evil upon us, and smite the city with the edge of the sword.... And the king went forth, and all the people after him, and tarried in a place that was far off" (2Samuel 15:14-17).
See how David is beginning to suffer. He was told that the sword should never depart from his house because of the murdered man. The man was buried, but his grave reeked as a hidden furnace. We cannot bury murdered men, so that the soil shall lie quietly on their dead breasts and make no sign. It is well that the king should be thus punished. Banish him, strip him, smite him with rods of iron, O ye holy angels: for this is just. See what sin comes to:—
"And all the country wept with a loud voice; and all the people passed over: the king also himself passed over the brook Kidron, and all the people passed over, toward the way of the wilderness.... And David went up by the ascent of mount Olivet, and wept as he went up, and had his head covered, and he went barefoot: and all the people that was with him covered every man his head, and they went up weeping as they went up" (2Samuel 15:23-30).
This comes of murdering Uriah! "The way of transgressors is hard." When we have wept our sympathetic tears over banished king David, let us go down to the grave of the valiant Uriah—the honest and ill-used soldier—and cry still more copiously over his dishonoured body. It is right that David's harp should be broken, that David's throat should be choked, and that for songs he should have groaning and distress. God takes care of his law; man cannot sin against it without being made to feel the penalty of justice.
And David weeps as he goes up by mount Olivet. We cannot but pity David now and again. He was a noble soul—he was a poet When the devil gave him breathing space he said beautiful things, and purposed charitable actions. Perhaps we may never pity David more than when his punishment took the form of humiliation (2Samuel 16:5-14).
"And when king David came to Bahurim, behold, thence came out a man of the family of the house of Saul, whose name was Shimei, the son of Gera: he came forth, and cursed still as he came" (2Samuel 16:5).
There may be dignity in some cursing. There we do not pity king David. But in the sixth verse a new phase is revealed of the bitterness of his humiliation:—"And he [Shimei] cast stones at David, and at all the servants of king David: ... and thus said Shimei when he cursed, Come out, come out, thou bloody man, and thou man of Belial: the Lord hath returned upon thee all the blood of the house of Saul, in whose stead thou hast reigned" (2Samuel 16:7-8). This was right. Humble him still more; throw stones at him, spit upon him, mock him! It is right that society should thus take up the cause of dead men. David knew this. The people asked if they might not go over and take off the head of Shimei; but David said, "No; 'let him curse, because the Lord hath said unto him, Curse David;' wait: this is right: by-and-by 'it may be that the Lord will look on mine affliction, and that the Lord will requite me good for his cursing this day.'" A man knows his punishment is just. So "Shimei went along on the hill's side over against him, and cursed as he went, and threw stones at him, and cast dust;" and the object of all this violent derision was the darling of Israel! "The way of transgressors is hard." Do not tempt the living God; do not come within the sweep of his sword or within the rush of his thunder. "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God." This would be the end of sin upon the earth but for the great evangelical provision—but for the cross of Christ, the Saviour of the world. It is well to see what sin really comes to—to watch the black harvest grow, and to be made to go into the field with the sickle and begin to cut it down. But there is still mercy with God, but it is mercy through righteousness; there is compassion in heaven, but it is compassion that expresses law. God can now be just, yet the justifier of the ungodly. He can now forgive thieves, murderers, and the worst of men of every phase and type, but he can only do this because of the priesthood of his own Son. A mystery we cannot explain; but we feel our need of it when we feel the agony of sin and the justness of our punishment. This cross is not to be taken to pieces, and explained in literal words, and made easy to the common understanding: "Great is the mystery of godliness." Our intellectual eyes cannot see it, our vain imagination cannot bear the glory, but when we are stricken down because of sin, and penitent because we have felt its distress and abominableness in the sight of God, then something within us—yea, the very soul—catches a glimpse of the cross—the beginning of heaven, because beginning of pardon.
Whilst we must be severe upon David, and therefore upon ourselves—for David was bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh, only exceptionally sinful in the accident, not in the essence and reality of things—it is right also to turn in the other direction, and ask, Is there any pity in heaven? Is there any compassion in God? Is there any way of escaping the results of iniquity? And whilst we ask the question, a great voice, a voice as of many waters, sounds, and resounds, saying, "Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon;" so, though there is terrible law, there also is a gracious gospel.
Almighty God, we rejoice that thou hast promised to slay the prince of this world. We cannot understand his existence, but we can attest it. He is a murderer from the beginning, and a liar; but he is under thy control: for there is but one living and true God. We know nothing of time; we cannot tell what happened in the world's Yesterday; we dimly remember what happened in our own. We cannot tell what the world's To-morrow will be, except through thy gracious revelation: it is to be a Sabbath day, a day of the Son of man, a period cut out of the glory of heaven. This is enough to know. We are glad to know it, for the night is heavy upon us; there is no message from the darkness; our sight leads us but to despair. But through our faith thou dost send us gospels, pure as dew, radiant as light, glad as music The whole earth shall be filled with the glory of God. We wonder at the time it takes—long, long time; but then we cannot tell what time is: we go only by our mechanism and our own consciousness: we have yet to learn that there is neither thousand years nor one day to the Lord, that all such misleading definitions are unknown in the economy of heaven. Help us to rest in the Lord and wait patiently for him, knowing that he will give us our heart's desire, if that desire be that his kingdom should come, and his will be done on earth as it is done in heaven. For all religious comfort we bless thee. Other comfort fades and perishes in the using, but this tender solace reaches the whole life, subdues and delights the whole spirit: it is the very comfort of God—the very grace of the cross of Christ. We would open our hearts to receive it; we would be no longer disquieted and tossed to and fro as if living in an uncontrollable tumult: we would rest in the living God; we would say, The Lord reigneth: the Lord doeth all things well: all things work together for good to them that love God; and repeating these great assurances, our joy will return, and the peace of God will make us calm. Let thy mercies be daily multiplied towards us according to our need. May every heart feel the nearness of God and know the preciousness of Jesus Christ, and witness to the sanctifying energy of the Holy Spirit. Then, come what may—high hills, or deep, long, weary valleys—the road will all lead to one place—the city whose walls are jasper and whose streets are gold. Amen.
And on this manner did Absalom to all Israel that came to the king for judgment: so Absalom stole the hearts of the men of Israel."Handfuls of Purpose"
For All Gleaners
"Absalom stole the hearts of the men of Israel."—2Samuel 15:6.
The rogue has often greater opportunities than the honest man.—The way of falsehood is often smoother than the way of truth.—Honesty must pause, and take into consideration interests, possibilities, and responsibilities, which dishonesty at once ignores.—Absalom had set his heart upon a certain policy, and everything went down before his prosecution of it: he would do justice where others had been unjust; he would be beneficent where others had been selfish; he would see that every man had his rights.—He humbled himself so far, "that when any man came nigh to him to do him obeisance, he put forth his hand, and took him, and kissed him."—Falsehood, therefore, can be popular.—We must not infer that a cause is good simply because it is popular.—Take the case of Absalom as an illustration.—How possible it is to be saying kind things with the lips, and yet feeling cruelty in the heart! How awful is this possibility of self-contradiction, so that the man shall be two men, the heart shall be two hearts, the policy shall be two policies, and every word shall have two meanings.—In the case of Absalom we find the very refinement of selfishness.—Nothing is too mean for him to do; no appearance is too humiliating for him to assume; he studies what the people like, and he grants them all their preferences with rough-and-ready generosity.—We should distinguish carefully between initial processes and resulting policies.—Men can be very smooth before gaining their way, but having once secured it they show their real selves.—Knaves, however condescending, gracious, and conciliatory, should be treated in their native character, and driven away from the door of every honest household.—When good things are done by bad men they become bad.—The kiss of hollow friendship is a falsehood.—The promise that means self-promotion never can be fulfilled in the sense in which it is received by the dupe.—The cure for all this is a new heart.—In the absence of the new birth all other processes are superficial and futile.—They may look well, they may even be tempting and fascinating, but in the soul of them they are a lie and a treachery.—Let us take care who governs our hearts.—The heart should never be given away under its own value.—He only can give the heart full return for its confidence who redeemed that heart, and opened up to mankind all the prospects and allurements of a blessed immortality.—The Lord is king of the heart; Christ alone should occupy the throne of the affections; when our heart is in Christ's keeping and is continually under Christ's discipline, there is no fear of its straying away to false altars, or seeking fruit in forbidden paths.—Son, give me thine heart!