A Sad but Instructive History
ABSALOM was the eldest son of David, whose mother was the daughter of a king. His name signifies “the father of peace” or “the peace of a father.” It was not given him by prophecy, but only expressed the hopes entertained of him. He was probably a favorite with his father, was not well governed and became a spoiled child. Many a parent is preparing wormwood and gall for his old age.
When he was yet a young man, with much hypocrisy, malice and cunning, Absalom perpetrated the death of his wicked brother Amnon. Stained with his brother’s blood and fearing his father’s displeasure, he fled to his grandfather, Talmai, king of Geshur, who gave him refuge. But David loved Absalom and longed after him. In three years he yielded to an artful stratagem laid by the bloody Joab and executed by a woman of Tekoah for Absalom’s return. He was not, indeed, admitted into his father’s presence for two years. Ambition is ever restless, and Absalom professed a willingness to die rather than live without seeing his father. Joab was again employed to effect Absalom’s wishes, and he fully succeeded. David received and kissed his murderous son, and thus let loose on society and on himself a man who in his day seemed to be the scourge of God.
No sooner was Absalom free from legal restraint and regal displeasure than his ambition began to show itself. His first aim was to secure popularity. He had some great advantages. “There was not in all Israel a man to be so much praised for his beauty as Absalom.” He had also a rising family, thus assuring the people of his permanent interest in Israel. He had also wealth and appeared in chariots with a splendid retinue. Thus many were dazzled. He also practiced the arts of politicians–he fomented discontent; was loud in his professions of love to the people; complained of the absence or tardiness of justice; and courted the basest of the people by kissing and flattering them. He pursued this course for a long time with untiring industry. He thus succeeded in stealing away the hearts of many of the people.
At length Absalom resolved to bring matters to a crisis. To this end he professed to be very pious, and by permission went to Hebron to pay a vow. He took with him two hundred citizens of Jerusalem who were not in his counsels; he sent messengers throughout the land to proclaim him king as soon as the signal should be given; he also secured in his interests the wisest counselor in the land, Ahithophel. Soon the signal was given, and all over the land the cry was heard: “Absalom reigns in Hebron.” The people flocked in multitudes around his standard, even as his heart wished. The news soon reached David, who saw no safety but in flight, and at once he forsook Jerusalem.
Absalom now had a majority on his side; he held Jerusalem; the ark of God was still there; Ahithophel was in the conspiracy; David’s adherents were few and fearful. The king was at his wits’ end; he still loved his son and feared God.
God gave David wisdom to send Hushai to Jerusalem to thwart the plans of Ahithophel. The first aim of the wily Ahithophel was to make the breach as wide as possible and cut off all hope of reconciliation. This device succeeded. His next plan was speedy and spirited pursuit of the royal fugitive. Had this advice been taken, it must have been fatal to the king, but God made use of Hushai to defeat it, and David made good his flight. Cut to the quick by seeing himself surrounded by fools who would not take good advice, Ahithophel committed suicide, and thus Absalom was left without a wise counselor. He determined on one great, decisive battle; if in that he should succeed, his dreams of glory and power and pleasure would be realized. He seems to have had no relentings, no compunctions, no fears. On he went as “an ox goes to the slaughter, or as a fool to the correction of the stocks.”
The day of decision came. Absalom and his host were encamped in Gilead; David and his host, in Mahanaim. On one side Absalom commanded in person; on the other, Joab, Abishai and Ittai commanded for the king. By persuasion David was removed far from the theater of the contest. The battle was in a piece of wood in Ephraim. One army relied on numbers; the other, on the Lord. Absalom was thirsting for David’s blood, while David was giving orders not to kill Absalom.
The battle being pitched, it was soon seen on which side Jehovah was, for “the men of Israel were slain before the servants of David.” In the midst of the battle, Absalom, riding on a mule, met a body of David’s men; in an affray with them he was caught by his head in the boughs of an oak, and his mule, going on, left him hanging by the hair. Thus suspended, Joab and his men made him a target and pierced him with their arrows and smote him with their weapons. Thus this murderer, conspirator and unnatural child passed from the uncertainties of time to the realities of eternity. In that day perished all his thoughts of war and power and equipage and splendor. Absalom’s death was the signal for the disbanding of his army; all fled. David’s men cast the body of the guilty man into a deep pit and laid a great heap of stones upon it, leaving it there to rot until the trump of God shall awake the dead. The news of his death was borne to David, who was exceedingly affected thereby. In a moment a thousand tender recollections rushed upon his mind. He thought of the promise of the boy, the beauty of the man and his ignominious and fatal end. It was too much for him; it quite overcame him. The joy of victory was lost in the grief of so sad an end to a favorite son. This brief story is full of instruction:
1. The worst men often have good names; some of them the best of names. Instead of being the peace of his father, Absalom was the plague of his father; instead of being the father of peace, he was the father of strife and tumult. Many were called Jews who were inwardly heathen. If you have a good name, do you deserve it?
2. Personal beauty is itself a good, but easily abused. It was one means of Absalom’s ruin; it made him vain. Sarah’s beauty led both herself and her husband into trouble. Bathsheba’s beauty was the occasion of Uriah’s death and David’s crimes. Beauty is a good thing easily abused.
3. Absalom’s murder of his brother was doubtless as capable of plausible defense as most of the duels, assassinations and murders of our times, and yet it was a wicked and a bloody affair. David greatly erred in not treating it as a murder, to be deservedly punished.
4. When parents and grandparents protect their offspring in crime, they are showing no real kindness to the guilty and are laying up stores of wretchedness for themselves. The murderer countenanced by his father became his rival and sought his life.
5. But David was a magistrate also. He was bound to be “a terror to evil-doers.” He was not at liberty to “bear the sword in vain.” Magistrates are as much bound to punish murder capitally as they are to rule in mercy.
6. Absalom is one of thousands of instances of the danger of high places. His elevation made his head giddy; had he been in a humbler walk in life, it might have been different. The higher he rose, the more giddy he became, until, tottering on the brink of ruin, his feet slipped and he sunk to rise no more. Lowly places in life are commonly the safest.
7. To all right moral feeling, ambition is a deadly foe, and yet some make it the mainspring of all their actions. To it constant appeals are made, rivalships are encouraged, competitions are commended. “Do you seek great things unto yourself? seek them not!” Woe to him who makes himself his god and sacrifices thereto!
8. The world is no wiser than it was three thousand years ago. The wicked are as proud, guileful, covetous and ambitious as they ever were. The arts of politicians are all old and hackneyed; the world is cursed with them. An upright, able statesman is a real blessing; a trading politician is a curse and a vexation. Profane history never reforms men.
9. Human friendships not based in Christian love are vain. Joab and Absalom’s friendship was hollow. “Human friendships, much like Venice glasses, easily broken, or like Jonah’s gourd, short-lived.” “When I see withered leaves drop from the trees in autumn, just such, it seems to me, is the friendship of the world; while the sap of maintenance lasts, friends swarm in abundance.” But let the frosts of adversity come, and see how they will fall off. He is a fool who puts his happiness in the power of the wicked.
10. There is nothing more dangerous than to despise parental tenderness, unless it be to despise the God of our fathers. It is only fools who throw away a father’s estate, but it is only madmen who renounce a father’s God.
11. “The memory of the wicked shall rot.” From his death to this time no one has discovered any sweet-smelling savor from the sepulcher or history of Absalom. So shall it be with all the enemies of truth and peace and God; we see it so continually. Who cares for Caesar or Voltaire or Paine?
12. Good counselors are no security against fatal errors. Unless the Lord is on our side, we shall, like Absalom, reject the wisest counsel. The Lord takes the wise in their own craftiness. He knows the thoughts of the wise that they are vain. Left to himself, man is a stark fool. If God be against us, who can be for us?
13. As in old time, so now, the race is not to the swift nor the battle to the strong. The Lord directs all the javelins of death. His strength nerves the weak; his power emboldens the timid. It is by God’s help that the worm Jacob shall thrash the mountains and make the hills as chaff. If God be for us, who can be against us?
14. Great is the sin of disobedience to parents. “Honor your father and mother.” “He who curses his father or his mother, his lamp shall be put out in obscure darkness.” That is a species of wickedness that “common sinners dare not meddle with.” It brings fearful guilt and fearful woes.
15. Nor is it less clearly a sin to rebel against a just and good government, such as David’s was. “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers.” To all officers give their dues in tribute, custom, fear or honor.
16. Parents, take heed how you bring up your children. “As a man must ask his wife whether he is to be a rich man or a beggar, so a child must ask his parents whether he is to be a wise man or a fool.”
“A parent’s heart may prove a snare;
The child she loves so well
Her hand may lead, with gentlest care,
Down the smooth road to hell.”
Beware how you teach and guide and act and speak in regard to your child, lest by God’s judgment he die in his sins, and you, like David, cry when it is too late: “O my son Absalom! my son, my son Absalom! Would God I had died for you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”