And the king was much moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept: and as he went, thus he said, O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!
We sing from the Psalter, “The tender love a father has for all his children dear,” and few things bring out more emphatically the strength of this love than the attitude which King David maintained toward his child Absalom. In a way it was not a good love. Absalom had proved himself a very wicked man through his sins, not just against David, and his own family, but against the whole nation. That under all the misuse that. David experienced at the hand of Absalom he should not have become bitter and hateful is something which only one who has been the father of a prodigal son can ever appreciate. It seemed that the more he suffered the more David only yearned with heart-rending prayers in hope that somehow, someday this his child might yet come to repentance and salvation. It was much like his fasting for Bathsheba’s first child, “While the child was yet alive, I fasted and wept: for I said, Who can tell whether God will be gracious to me, that the child may live?” only this was more intense. Before Bathsheba’s child lay the grave, while before Absalom there loomed the anguish of hell. It was too terrible for David to be able to contemplate.
This attitude of David toward Absalom could be detected throughout the dreadful history. When Absalom took justice into his own hand and slew his brother Ammon, it was more than was his right to do, and he should have paid with his life in turn; but he was allowed to flee to Geshur and live there with his grandparents in peace. When the woman of Tekoah stood before David to plead his cause, the king knew that it was not right, but he followed the inclination of his heart and allowed the murderer to be restored to the royal city. And again when Joab pleaded in his behalf, Absalom was even restored to the rights and privileges of the royal court. Meanwhile he was .allowed full freedom to surround himself with all kinds of luxurious symbols of royalty and to woo the people to himself without restraint. The result was his revolt, and even then David was not ready to press down upon him too severely. It was simply that each move of the young man called for the penalty of death, and before the thought of this the father hesitated and trembled. In the case of anyone else, David, regardless of his age and circumstances, might well have fortified the city as best he could and defended it against any invader trusting the Lord to deliver him; but before Absalom he chose rather to turn in flight lest an open confrontation should prove to be too conclusive.
The time for confrontation had to come, however. For Absalom, the continued life of his father only meant that he was not really established as king yet even if he had taken to himself all of the royal presumptions. David had been anointed of the Lord and the people knew it. He simply had to get his father out of the way before the excitement of his own ascendancy began to wane and the hearts of the people turned back to his father once again. The only thing that he could do was, as Hushai had suggested, to gather as large an army as he could possibly call behind him and to march against the defenses which David had set up in the wood outside of Mahanaim. It turn, David was left with no choice but to prepare his own men for the battle which had to result.
As a good soldier should, David went through all of the preparations he knew so well to make his army ready to meet the impending battle. Even more, he expressed to them his intentions of going along with them into the battle, a thing he no doubt would have done if the men themselves had not persuaded him not to. And yet through it all there was one great fear that weighed more and more heavily upon his heart; it was the fear that this battle might cost the life of his son while he remained still hardened and unrepentant in his way of sin. It finally came out in that last hour when all of the army was passing by in review before him as they left the city. There in the presence of all, David instructed the three captains of the army, “Deal gently for my sake with the young man, even with Absalom.”
As it was, however, the time of God’s longsuffering with the wickedness of Absalom had come to its end. This has often been God’s way of dealing with the outstanding men of sin. For a time he will let them go and accomplish their heart’s fondest desires. Along the way God may warn them from time to time, but being the men they are, they are completely insensitive to such warning and at most become bitter because of them. Pressing on with all of the strength of their wicked characters, they go from prosperity to prosperity while all the time nourishing within themselves the growing confidence that it is their own strength which has accomplished it and which will make them finally invincible before all opposition. But the time comes inevitably when God will endure their boast no longer. In a moment He turns his judgment upon them to cut them down and destroy them, as the heat of the sun withers the new mown grass.
The time of climax came soon after the battle began. Absalom’s forces began to disintegrate almost immediately. Although a large force in number, the men were untrained and untouched by any true sense of dedication, while David’s men in contrast were men who loved their master and who were dedicated to his God in a believing faith. Moreover, among the army of the rebels, no one was more unprepared for battle than was Absalom himself. His driving force was pride and ambition, not courage. Raised as he was in the sheltered life of the royal court, he may well have dreamed of himself as a great hero in battle, but he had never really tasted the hardship and anguish of actual fighting. To be suddenly engulfed in the din of struggling, screeching, bleeding and dying men was more than he was prepared to take.
And so it happened that Absalom himself was one of the first of his own to turn and flee from the battle. Perhaps he felt almost immediately that the battle was turning against him, and perhaps he simply lacked the courage to be able to endure such life and death engagement. He had come into the battle with unwavering confidence, dressed in all of his royal regalia; but now he turned his donkey about and fled along one of the obscure and wandering paths of the wood. It was the end of the battle. At stake was only one question, who should be king, David or Absalom. With Absalom gone, no one knew where, all reason for continued strife was taken away. The rebel army could only turn in confusion and flee for its life.
But this time Absalom was not about to escape so easily. The time for judgment had come, and it was to be in all of the shamefulness which he deserved. Not even the honor of death on the field of battle was to be given him—only the shame of a fleeing coward.
As Absalom rode through the woods, the long flowing hair of which he was so vainly proud blew out in the breeze beyond him. It was handsome hair in the city and had served to attract many; but on the field of battle it was an incongruity. Any experienced warrior could have told him that it would have to be dispensed with for practical reasons. Absalom, however, had taken it proudly with him into the battle, quite confident that his own aura of greatness would somehow protect him. Now as he rode through the wood, it was this very badge of vanity which was his undoing. Along the twisting path his animal dashed, weaving around bushes and beneath low hanging trees. For a time Absalom was able in a wild and reckless sort of way to evade all serious damage; but soon they came beneath the sturdy branches of a huge oak tree which reached down to grasp the head of Absalom with its limbs. Meanwhile the beast upon which he rode, having taken unto itself the terror of his master, dashed furiously on, leaving Absalom suspended between the ground below and the heavy vegetation of the woods above. It was a strange and freakish situation, one into which only a man with a vain crop of hair such as Absalom’s could become ensnared. His long locks of hair were caught up far higher than his arms could possibly reach while his legs could only kick helplessly beneath him. Dangling foolishly like a puppet, he could only hang and scream with anguished shame and wait for someone to come along and cut his prized locks to let him free.
But that was not how it went. To be sure, soon the wood was ringing with the sounds of many men, men fleeing just as he had with only concern for their own lives. As they swept past, if in their wild haste they recognized him at all, there was no love for him any more, only bitter hatred and a passing curse. It was actually the pursuing soldiers of David, when they came, that showed him the greatest respect. They did not free him, but they didn’t harm him either. They remembered the warning of their master. They only waited while one of the soldiers ran to Joab and reported to him of their finding.
Through the course of Absalom’s rebellion, Joab had done some serious thinking. In earlier years, realizing David’s love for his son, he had often pleaded Absalom’s cause. He had thought that whatever would make David happy would be best for him and for the kingdom. But now he had come to see how foolish he had been. Neither was he about to repeat his error.
To be sure, Joab had heard David’s parting commandment. Yet, when the report of Absalom’s predicament was brought to him he flung back at the man, “And behold, thou sawest him, and why didst thou not smite him there to the ground? and I would have given thee ten shekels of silver, and a girdle.”
The man was shocked and thought perhaps that. Joab was testing him. Quickly he answered, “Though I should receive a thousand shekels of silver in mine hand, yet would I not put forth mine hand against the king’s son: for in our hearing the king charged thee and Abishai and Ittai, saying, Beware that none touch the young man Absalom. Otherwise I should have wrought falsehood against mine own life: for there is no matter hid from the king, and thou wouldest have set thyself against me.”
But Joab knew just exactly what he wanted done, and he was not one to wait to do it. Answering the man curtly,” I may not tarry thus with thee,” he took three darts and hurried to the place where Absalom hung. By this time quite a crowd had gathered about the spot, no one being quite sure how this thing was to be handled. But there was decisiveness in his steps as Joab approached. Taking the three darts he thrust them through Absalom’s heart until he was dead. To David’s captain it was as simple as that. Absalom deserved to die and ought to die for the good of David and the nation. It was not to him a-matter of what David would think or do to him for it. He was determined to do what had to be for the sake of his master.
Even that was not enough, however. Next Joab commanded that ten of the young men who formed his own company should set upon Absalom and cut his body into ribbons. Then he had it cast into a deep pit and all who stood about were commanded to cast stones upon it until the pit was filled and a great heap was built up upon it. There was an old law in Israel that any child who disgraced his parents should be stoned in shame. This Absalom had done and Joab was determined that all should know the shame of that which he had committed.
Through the army of David there went a great sigh of relief when they heard of what had been done. Absalom had brought shame to Israel and now justice had been satisfied. It was only David who could not appreciate what had been done. He looked at the whole thing from the point of view of a father, and when the message was finally brought to him, there was only one cry that went up from his soul: it was this, O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!”—the cry of a bereaved father, a father whose son had died in his sin.