It is notorious that the sons of devout men sometimes prove a curse to their parents, and bring dishonour on the cause of God. When Eve rejoiced over her first-born, she little suspected that passions were sleeping within him which would impel him to slay his own brother; and the experience of the first mother has been repeated, though in different forms, in all lands and in all ages. Isaac's heart was rent by the deceit of Jacob, and by the self-will of Esau. Jacob lived to see his own sin repeated in his sons, and he who deceived his father when he was old and blind, suffered for years an agony of grief because he had been falsely told that Joseph, his favourite son, was dead.
Probably few men have known domestic sorrows, so many and so great, as those which befell David. He shared, in all its bitterness, the misery of a parent who sees his best hopes disappointed, and who is racked with anxiety as to what his wayward boy will do next, sometimes wishing that before such dishonour had befallen him his son had been laid to rest under the daisies, in the time of infant innocence. David's eldest son, Amnon, after committing a terrible crime, was assassinated by his brother Absalom. In his turn, Absalom, the fairest of the family, rebelled against his own father, and was killed by Joab, as he hung in the oak. Chiliah, or Daniel, died we know not how, and then Adonijah, the fourth son, the eldest of those surviving, followed in Absalom's footsteps.
Adonijah's sin appears at first sight so unnatural that, in justice to him as well as for our own instruction, we should try to discover the sources whence this stream of evil flowed which was so bitter and so desolating in its results.
This is not an easy task, because the full details of his life are not recorded. There are, however, no less than three evil influences hinted at in these words: "His father had not displeased him at any time, in saying, Why hast thou done so? and he also was a very goodly man, and his mother bare him after Absalom" (1 Kings i.6). Taking them in reverse order: Heritage, Adulation, and Lack of Discipline, were three sources of moral peril, and these would tend to the ruin of any man. Let us think of each of these, for they are not extinct by any means.
We know very little of Haggith, but she was probably a dancing girl who made her way to the front by her ambition and beauty. From her and from his father we may assume that Adonijah inherited a tendency to ambition and self-conceit such as Absalom inherited from the union of David with Bathsheba. It is one of the laws of life that "like produces like," Evidence of this constantly appears in the lower animals, in the speed of the racehorse, in the scent of the hound, and so forth. This asserts itself in men also. We often notice what we call a "family likeness." Tricks of manner, and various mental qualities such as heroism, statesmanship, mathematical or artistic talent, descend from parents to children, and sometimes reappear for generations in the same family. This cannot be due to example alone, because the phenomena is almost as frequent when the parents die during the child's infancy. Similarly, moral tendencies are transmitted, and the Bible gives us many examples of the fact. The luxury-loving Isaac, who must have his savoury food, just as his son, Esau, who would sell his birthright for a mess of pottage, Rebekah, who, like her brother Laban is shrewd and cunning, sees her tendency repeated in her son Jacob, who needed a life of discipline and prayer to set him free from it.
In more senses than one "the evil which men do lives after them." A drunkard's son, for example, is often conscious of an inbred craving which is a veritable disease, so that he is heavily weighted as he starts out on the race of life. This solemn and suggestive fact that the future well-being of children depends largely on the character of parents, should give emphasis to the adjuration in the wedding service -- marriage, therefore, is to be honourable in all, and ought not to be engaged in rashly, "thoughtlessly, or lightly, but advisedly, reverently, and in the fear of God." The law of moral heritage makes parental responsibility a solemn trust, while, in so far as it affects those who inherit bad or good tendencies, we are sure that the Judge of all the earth will do right. But it must never be forgotten that even a bad disposition need never become a dominant habit. It is something to be resisted and conquered, and, it may be, by the grace of Him who is faithful, and will not suffer any of us to be tempted above what we are able to bear. Our tendencies are Divine calls to us to recognise and guard certain weak places in the citadel of character, for it is against these that our enemy directs his most persistent and vigorous attacks.
Unhappily, Adonijah's natural bias was made the more dangerous by the atmosphere of the court, where flatterers naturally abounded -- for "he was a very goodly man," physically a repetition of Absalom, the Adonis of his time. We may also fairly surmise that his parents were guilty of partiality and indulgence in their treatment of him, for David would love him the more as one who revived the memory of his favourite Absalom, the idol of the people, distinguished for his noble mien and princely bearing. Courtiers, soldiers, and people all flattered Adonijah, and Joab, the greatest captain of his age, next only to the king, was his partisan, the more so because he neither forgot nor forgave David's reproaches after the death of Absalom. Even Abiathar, who represented the younger and more ambitious branch of the priesthood, joined in the general adulation, until Adonijah, intoxicated by vanity, set up his own court in rivalry to that of his father, and when he moved abroad was accompanied by a stately retinue of chariots and horsemen, and fifty foot attendants gorgeously apparelled.
No doubt every position in life has its own peculiar temptations. The ill-favoured lad, who is the butt at school and the scapegoat at home, is in serious danger of becoming bitter and revengeful, and of growing crooked in character, like a plant in a dark vault, which will have no beauty because it enjoys no sunshine. But, on the other hand, physical beauty, which attracts attention and wins admiration, especially if it is associated with brilliant conversational gifts, and great charm of manner, has befooled both men and women into sin and misery. Many a girl has been entrapped into an unhappy marriage; and many a lad, moved by a vaunting ambition which overleaped itself, has fallen never to rise: like Icarus, when his waxen wings melted in the sun.
There must have been sad laxity of discipline in the home of David. It is said of Adonijah that "his father had not displeased him at any time in saying, Why hast thou done so?" In other words, Adonijah had never been checked and rebuked as he ought to have been, and this foolish indulgence was as fatal to him as it had been to the sons of Eli. There are still such homes as David's, although their inmates do well to draw down the veil of secrecy over them with loyal hands, and never blazon abroad the grief and anxiety which rend their hearts. In one home a fair, bright girl mars the beauty of her early womanhood by a flippant disregard of her mother's wishes, and by an exaltation of her own pleasure-loving disposition as the one law of her life. In another, a mere child, hasty and uncontrolled in temper, is the dread of the whole household, and at last becomes its tyrant, because every wish is gratified rather than that a scene should be provoked. In yet another a grown-up son is callous about his mother's anxiety and his father's counsels; and gladly ignores his home associations as he drifts away upon the sea of vice, and there becomes a miserable wreck. With each of these it might have been otherwise. If authority had been asserted, and steadily maintained, before bad habits were formed; if firm resolution on the part of the parents had taken the place of indulgent laxity, if, instead of being left to chance, character had been moulded during the time when it was plastic -- these might, with God's blessing, have grown up to be wise, pure-hearted, courageous followers of Christ -- who would not only have sweetened the atmosphere of home, but would have done something to purify and illumine society, as the salt and the light of the world.
The sin of which Adonijah was guilty, whose sources we have tried to discover, was the assumption of unlawful authority and state, which involved rebellion against his own father.
Ambition is not always wrong. It is a common inspiration often nerving men to attempt daring and noble deeds. Desire for distinction, with capacity for it, may often be regarded as the voice of God summoning to high effort. The world would soon be stagnant without ambition. The scholar working for a prize, the writer or speaker resolving to make a name, the man of business pressing onward past the indolent and the ne'er-do-weel, are not to be condemned, so long as they seek lawful objects by lawful means. Those who strenuously and hopefully fulfil the duties of their present sphere will be called higher, either in this world or the next, for God means us to rise by our fidelity where we are, and not by discontent with what we are. Ambition may have conscience in it, and this will reveal itself in the steady and minute performance of small duties. Any who are content, with tireless hand, to make crooked things straight and rough places plain, will ultimately see glory revealed. But if ambition is not ruled by righteousness, if it is not modified by love and consideration for others, it becomes a sin, and will prove to be the herald of disobedience and death, for it is such ambition which has cursed the world by tyrannies and bloodshed, and dragged down angels from realms of light. This was the ambition which let Adonijah exalt himself, and say, "I will be king."
It may be said that his conduct was natural enough, although it was too precipitate, because he would legitimately succeed his father in due course, as his eldest surviving son. But this was not so. The law of primogeniture was not law for Israel. The invisible King expressly reserved to Himself the right of appointing the ruler of His people, as is evident from Deut. xvii.14 and 15. The government was theocratic, not monarchical nor democratic. David himself had been chosen and anointed in preference to Jonathan, Saul's son, and Solomon, David's younger son, had already been designated as his successor through the prophet Nathan, partly because he was best fitted to become the man of peace who should erect Jehovah's temple, and partly as a sign to David that his sin with Bathsheba was forgiven. It was not as the "leader of a court cabal," but as a prophet inspired by Jehovah, that Nathan had made this solemn appointment. Adonijah knew this perfectly well; he acknowledged it to Bathsheba in the fifteenth verse of the second chapter, and therefore, when he declared, "I will be king," he was deliberately and knowingly setting his will against God's, and this was a sin.
The divine choice often differs from the human, for "the Lord seeth not as man seeth." In his reply to the sons of Zebedee, Jesus declared that God is not swayed by favouritism, nor moved by arbitrary impulse, but assigns to each his position according to his fitness. This should give us contentment with our lot, and should emphasise the precept, "Seekest thou great things for thyself; seek them not." Though it is natural enough to wish for escape from the fret of poverty, or the weariness of pain, and to win for ourselves wealth or prominence, we must be on our guard against the indulgence of defiant self-will, like that of him who said, "I will be king."
Adonijah's motive in aspiring to the throne was not that he might the better care for the welfare of others, but that he might selfishly enjoy wealth and honour. He cared much for outward show, while he failed to cultivate inward worth, preparing for himself chariots, horsemen, and a retinue of servants, but never displaying a love of justice or ability in statesmanship. And such little motives as his never make greatness.
Adonijah was not the last to be attracted by glitter and tinsel, and to live for earthly things which perish in the using. The candidate who cares much for honour and nothing for learning, the professional man who will sacrifice reputation to win a fortune, and all who wrong others in order to better themselves, only gain what is transient and unsatisfying. It would be well for all to learn the lesson (not least he for whom the ceremony is primarily intended), which is symbolically taught when a Pope is crowned. The Master of the Ceremonies takes a lighted taper in one hand, and in the other a reed with a handful of flax fastened to it. The flax flares up for a moment, and then the flame dies away into thin, almost imperceptible, ashes, which fall at the Pontiff's feet, as the choir chant the refrain "Pater sanctus, sic transit gloria mundi." No earthly honour is worth having except it is the result or the reward of character. Even in Pagan Rome the Temple of Honour could only be reached through the Temple of Virtue. And over the gateway of the greatest of all kingdoms in which Christ Jesus is supreme, this motto is inscribed indelibly -- "He that humbleth himself shall be exalted, and he that exalteth himself shall be abased."
How often such ambition is accompanied by disregard of the rights of others! What did Adonijah care for his father's dignity, or his brother's claims? David was still on the throne, and Solomon's right to succeed him had been authoritatively proclaimed, and yet, with inbred selfishness, this ambitious prince declared, "I will be king!" The lawfulness of any ambition may often be tested by the amount of selfishness which inheres in it. If desire for distinction, or wealth, leads one to crush a competitor to the wall without ruth, or to refuse all help to others in a struggle where every man seems to fight for his own hand, its lawfulness may well be questioned. Our Lord taught us to love even our enemies, and surely competitors have a still stronger claim on our consideration, and certainly all who belong to a church which is based on sacrifice, and symbolised by a cross, should even in such matters deny themselves, and seek every man his neighbour's good.
All sin is the worse when it is committed, as Adonijah's was, in defiance of warning. He deliberately repeated his brother's offence. Yet he knew the tragic story of his death, and how his brilliant life had been ended by violence in a wood, where he perished without a friend; and he must often have seen his father brooding alone over the trouble thus caused, as if he was still whispering to himself: "O Absalom, my son, would God I had died for thee! O Absalom, my son, my son!" Yet the very sin of Absalom which had been so terribly punished, Adonijah boldly committed.
History is crowded with examples of ambitious men who died in disappointment and despair, -- Alexander, who conquered a world, and then wept because there were no more worlds to conquer, perished in a scene of debauchery, after setting fire to the city. Hannibal, who filled three bushel measures with the gold rings of fallen knights, at last, by poison self-administered, died unwept in a foreign land. Caesar, who had practically the whole world at his feet, was stabbed to the heart by so-called friends, even Brutus being among them. Napoleon, the scourge and conqueror of Europe, died, a heart-broken exile, in St Helena. Indeed, it is written in letters of blood on the pages of history, "The expectation of the wicked shall perish."
Happily, angels' voices are calling us to higher things. Conscience whispers to us of duty and love. Christ Himself, from the Cross, which was the stepping-stone to His throne, still cries to every one who will listen, "Follow me."
The false must be displaced by the true -- the world by the Christ -- the usurper by the Divinely-appointed King. It was thus that Adonijah's scheme was defeated. Bathsheba, Solomon's mother, and Nathan, the prophet, hurried in to tell David of Adonijah's revolt against his authority, and that at his coronation-festival, then begun, even Joab, the commander-in-chief, and Abiathar, the priest, were present. Then David's old decision and promptitude reasserted themselves once more. At his command, Solomon, his designated successor, was seated on the King's own mule, and rode in state to Gihon, where Zadok anointed him in Jehovah's name; and when the trumpet was blown all the people said, "God save King Solomon!"
It was the crowning of the new king which proved the dethronement of the false; and this fact enshrines a principle divine and permanent. False doctrine is overcome, not by abuse, but by the proclamation of the true. Evil, whether enthroned in the heart or in the world, is conquered by greater good. The strong man armed, only keeps his goods in peace, until One stronger than he comes to bind him and cast him out. Christ conquers the devil, be he where he may. "For this purpose the Son of God was manifested that He might destroy the works of the devil."
In the progress of Solomon, as he rode on his mule to Jerusalem, amid the acclamations of the people, we see the Old Testament counterpart to the New Testament narrative, which tells how Christ Jesus entered Jerusalem as its king, while the people met Him with welcomes, and with palms, and children sang His praises. And in both is a symbol of His advent to every heart, and, if He be but welcomed as rightful king, He will take to Himself His power, and reign.