And it came to pass after this that Absalom prepared him chariots and horses, and fifty men to run before him.
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, . . . .
Oh that I were made judge in the land, . . . 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 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.
At last Absalom had been restored to official favor within the court of his father David and within the kingdom of Israel. It had taken much longer than he had anticipated when first he thought to slay his brother Amnon, and the time spent had had its effect upon him. Through it, Absalom had come to realize that his expectation to receive the place of Amnon in the line of royal succession would never be granted him by his father. As much as David loved Absalom, his sense of righteousness and justice was too keen to give the throne of Israel into the hands of one who was a murderer. David’s own experience of recent years had brought him to understand how very difficult and undesirable was such an arrangement. But Absalom was determined; and once he realized this fact, he resolved to obtain the kingship by his own power, even if he could rely upon the cooperation of no other. Being a clever man, he laid his plans carefully throughout; and, being now embittered, he did so in complete ruthlessness with feelings for no one but himself. Now he was ready to act.
Through the years, Absalom had noted that there was one thing that was most unusually missing in the reign of his father David—that was, all efforts toward personal ostentation. David simply had no interest in the ordinary pomp and ceremony which was to be expected of a king. No matter how great his accomplishment and how great the honor people sought to heap upon him, all through his life he remained pretty much the gentle shepherd who had lived for his sheep, and the warm-hearted comrade who had lived with his furtive band among the caves of the earth. Actually, Absalom knew the reason for it, too. In all of his great and tremendous accomplishments, David saw nothing whatever for which he could take the credit himself; to him it was all and completely the work of his God. To the mind of Absalom this may have made good religion and beyond question it did make his father a very warm and lovable person, but it was foolishness nonetheless. It was impractical. Absalom knew from his own keen observations in life that there are few things the people like more than all the pomp and ostentation which a king could possibly provide. It gives to them a feeling of pride and accomplishment. By identifying themselves with their king in all of his pomp and luxury, they feel themselves lifted up and proud, too, because they belong to him. In fact, Absalom was quite sure that through the years there had developed an undertow of dissatisfaction in Israel just exactly because David refused to have anything to do with this sort of thing. It was that which he determined to lay hold of and use to his own advantage.
The first thing that Absalom did, therefore, was to obtain for himself a most beautiful chariot with a fine team of horses to pull it. Here was a sight that could not help but gain attention in Jerusalem and in all of the land of Canaan. Few things could be more impressive than the sight of this most handsome man with his long flowing hair driving a beautifully decked chariot between a team of high-spirited horses, and particularly so because such a sight had never before been seen in this land. The fact was that the law of God directly forbade a king in Israel to multiply horses to himself. It was a symbol of reliance upon earthly strength which Israel might never do. The result was thus inevitably that there would be those who, holding close to the law of God, would be deeply offended by the sight. Absalom realized this; but he was also a clever enough judge of human nature to know that by far the majority of the people would be thrilled and impressed by the daring which he showed in his willingness to challenge even the law of God. And they would be pleased just to know that there was one willing to bring to them some of the show and spectacle which all other nations enjoyed in their kings. And then to make his appearance even more impressive still, Absalom took to himself no fewer than fifty of his father’s servants and appointed them to run before him, announcing his approach whenever he passed through the city. It brought his presence to the attention of everyone in the finest of royal style, identifying him as part of the family of the king.
This, moreover, was far from the end of Absalom’s cleverness in dealing with people. He recognized the fact, that even though David had failed to please the people as he might have with the use of personal, outward show, he nevertheless had drawn them very close to him through the use of warmth and friendliness. If ever he was going to work himself in between his father and the favor of the people, he would have to counteract this; and the ingenuity of Absalom was sufficient unto this also. Going through the city as he did with his beautiful chariot and fifty runners, it was inevitable that some would soon approach him and seek to pay to him obeisance such as was usually given a king. It was here that Absalom’s opportunity afforded itself, and few in an occasion such as that have ever been able to handle it with the mastery that Absalom did. The natural reaction to the proffered obeisance would have been to accept it with all of its heady contributions to one’s sense of pride. But Absalom knew better. When anyone offered such worship to him, he refused it, and instead took the man into his arms and kissed him with all the warmth of an eastern greeting. It was a devastating combination. First he established himself as someone great and important in the minds of the people through all of his pomp and grandeur; and then with the warmth of a dear friend he took these same people to himself as though more than ready to share all of his greatness with them. In a very short time, Absalom was the man to talk about through the length and breadth of the land.
One begins to wonder, however, how it was that David allowed all of this to go on within his own nation and his own city by a member of his own family, and a member at that of whom he had reason to suspect the worse. But here is where something else had happened which seemed to work right along together with Absalom’s fondest dream. David had fallen sick, desperately sick. We read of this from his own pen in Psalm 38:5-8. “My wounds stink and are corrupt because of my foolishness. I am troubled; I am bowed down greatly; I go mourning all the day long. For my loins are filled with a loathsome disease: and there is no soundness in my flesh. I am feeble and sore broken; I have roared by reason of the disquietness of my heart.”
For Absalom this provided many opportunities which ordinarily he would never have received. David in his weakened condition was, of course, in no position to be concerned with the behavior of his grown children or even to be aware of what they were doing. But even more important than this was the fact that it served to keep Joab occupied so that he was unable to become concerned about Absalom either. Joab was, after all, a much more shrewd judge of people than David ever had been. It was because David found it almost impossible to be suspicious of people, particularly if they were members of God’s chosen nation, Israel. He wanted to think the best of them if he possibly could. It was this that made him the warm, compassionate person that he was, but it also limited him in certain respects. On the other hand, Joab could often be much more realistic. With him there was one strong, driving commitment—that was a burning loyalty to David as friend and as king. He was always alive to anything that threatened the well-being of his king. He was the one who had seen that the banishment of Absalom was troubling the heart of the king and had urged that he be restored. But he had also seen that the restoration had been a mistake and had done what he could to keep him from gaining undue influence, Now, however, with David sick, he had to take over many of the burdens of the kingdom and had no time to concern himself with the activities of David’s son even if he did observe them.
Above all, however, what the sickness of David did for Absalom was to provide him the opportunity to establish relationships directly with the people. He did this by offering himself to serve as adviser and judge for the people during the period of incapacity on the part of his father.
From the very beginning of Israel’s existence as a nation, one of the prime functions of every leader and ruler among them was to judge and advise the people in whatever difficulties that arose. This is what Moses did in the wilderness, and later the men which at the suggestion of Jethro he appointed to serve as judges under him. This is what the Judges did in that period when Israel as yet had no king. And when Israel finally did receive a king, this is what he was expected to do, too.
No doubt David had done this, too, as faithfully and as wisely as a man ever could, for he was a man with a deep sense of sympathy for everyone in spiritual need, while maintaining a strong sense of righteous indignation against all kinds of sin. But now David was incapacitated and there was no one to take his place. Ordinarily, perhaps, Joab as David’s foremost assistant should have taken his place; but Joab was not a sympathetic man and he had no patience for people with all kinds of petty grievances. And neither was he about to appoint anyone else to take David’s place. His burning loyalty to the king would not allow for someone else to take over the royal functions. Better they go undone. And they did, with the result that soon many a troubled person found himself turned away from the royal palace to return bitter and disillusioned to their homes.
Here Absalom saw his opportunity. Quietly and without ceremony he set himself up in the gate of the city, the customary site for judgment in the ages that had passed. One by one he called to him the people returning in their disappointment from the palace, or intercepted them before they went there if he could. With every appearance of patient consideration he explained to them, each one, that his father could not hear them and that no one had been appointed to take his place, but that he would be happy to serve that function should they like.
Handsome man that Absalom was, with his royal apparel, his chariot, horses, and servants standing by, few were able to resist him. To each he listened with patience and sympathy, willing to compromise justice itself if it would serve to please and gain favor. Pleased and grateful people they were who returned from that gate to their homes scattered throughout the land. Absalom was very effectively stealing the hearts of the people. That was exactly his intent and plan.