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TWO ROYAL PRINCES—A CONTRAST
‘The young man Absalom.’
2 Samuel 18:1-2
‘Jonathan, the son of Saul.’
1 Samuel 19:1
It may impress the lesson of warning from the story of Absalom if we contrast it with that of Jonathan, all the more that in things outward the two were so much alike, while in character they were wide as the poles asunder. Looking, then, at the life of Absalom, we notice:—
I. His advantages.—As a prince of the royal house he had the highest position in the land next to the king; and though he had been banished for a time for a criminal offence, he had been pardoned and restored, and was in the full enjoyment of his father’s favour and affection at the time our story begins. Like Jonathan, he was princely in appearance, of such charm indeed that it was said that ‘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.’ Add to this those winning manners which made it so easy for him to steal the hearts of the people, and that ability which was afterwards so conspicuous in the skilful organising of the conspiracy. Think what a young man of this kind might have made of his life if only he had been a man of character! And think how all this made his ruin the greater in the end. Let us learn from this to make comparatively little of that which is outward, however showy and attractive, and everything of that ‘hidden man of the heart,’ which is in the sight of God, and ought to be in our sight, of great price.
II. His sin.—The root of it all was selfish ambition. In Jonathan we have a most beautiful example of unselfishness. Instead of envying David, and hating him as a rival, he loved him as his own soul, and did all he could to keep him safe in time of peril, and help him in time of need, and that once and again at the risk of his own life; and though his father treated him at times with great cruelty he remained faithful to him to the last. How different the heart of Absalom! He had no regard whatever for the feelings of his father, thought only of furthering his own ambitious projects. Instead of using the gifts which had been so lavishly bestowed upon him in the service of God and for the good of his fellow-men, he used them solely for his own selfish advantage. He made a great show of interest in the grievances of the people, not to help them, or to relieve his father, but again for his own selfish ends. And he stooped even so low as to kiss those who came to him, for no other purpose than to steal their hearts. See the meanness and hatefulness of all this, especially as contrasted with the noble conduct of Jonathan, which so lately filled us with admiration. See, too, how, one sin leading on to another, he descended to the meanest kind of hypocrisy—the pretence of religious earnestness. It is most pathetic to see how unsuspicious his father was while all this was going on, and how readily he believed his son when he pretended to have the very highest motives in that contemplated journey to Hebron by which he consummated his treason.
III. His fate.—At first the wicked designs of Absalom seemed greatly to prosper. He was clever enough to carry the dark plot through to a successful issue, to rally a strong army round him in Hebron, and with it to advance with such threatening force on the capital as to compel his father to flee for his life. But when wickedness is successful, it is only for a time; it always fails in the end; and, accordingly, in the next lesson, we shall find the cause of Absalom ruined, his army defeated, and himself ignominously slain. (See Psalms 37, a powerful application of this Lesson.)
IV. The main practical lessons.—
(1) The hatefulness of selfishness.—Recall the picture of Absalom; make a photograph of him in your fancy; see how noble he looks; what a splendid specimen of humanity! Yet what a wreck, what a ruin, what a waste of vitality and power, what a hateful memory! All because he was so selfish, all because he had not love as the controlling motive of his life. Therefore flee selfishness as the plague; follow after love as a star, as the sun!
(2) The misery which is sure to follow on the track of sin.—We see this in the case of Absalom; we see it also in the case of the father. If you follow his family history, you can trace all this trouble which came upon him back to the great sin against Uriah, a sin against family purity and peace. Nathan the prophet had given him faithful warning: ‘Thus saith the Lord, Behold I will raise up evil against thee out of thine own house.’ The sin had been forgiven; but the forgiveness of sin does not necessarily set aside the consequences which follow in this life. David felt that he deserved it all, and could expect nothing else, as is evident from the way in which he bore himself during his flight, as for example, when Abishai wished to put Shimei to death for his shameless insolence to the aged king. Our one great enemy is sin; let us hate it and fear it, and give it no foothold in our life, no harbour in our hearts.
(1) ‘There is danger in a fine outward appearance entirely dissociated from good principles. Beauty of person is very attractive; and all the more so when conjoined with courtly manners. But when the fair outside covers a rotten heart, it is doubly dangerous.’
(2) ‘At a meeting of the American Prison Discipline Society it was stated, as the result of the examinations made by that institution into the history and career of the various criminals confined in the prisons of the United States, that in almost all cases their course of ruin began in being rebellious to parents. The statement was made by the secretary of the society, the Rev. Louis Dwight, whose opportunity for observation has certainly been very great.’
(3) ‘What a pathos there is, and what a tragedy, in the death of Absalom! His sun went down at noonday. His glory was suddenly quenched in night! The sinner ruins himself. For him there is no life of virtue and usefulness here. For him there is no brightness or peace in the hour when “the pulse beats low and the eyes wax dim.” For him there is no abundant entrance into the everlasting Kingdom. He has sown the wind, and he reaps the whirlwind. And the sinner destroys many others beside himself. In Absalom’s folly Israel was tempted to share, and in Absalom’s fall Israel suffered. No man lives to himself alone. And the sinner defrauds and cheats his God. He was made to glorify Him. He was intended to help His kingdom, and to commend His grace, and to win new subjects to His sceptre. And, instead, he runs counter to His purposes, and wounds His heart, and filches from Him that which is His due.’
‘THE CHAMBER OVER THE GATE.’
‘The king was much moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate and wept.’
2 Samuel 18:33
We cannot enlarge upon this scene without injuring its matchless pathos. Let us leave David in ‘the chamber over the gate,’ to a sorrow too sacred for mere words.
I. The father is more than the king.—‘The victory that day was turned into mourning.’ Not even Absalom’s rebellion, and the deep sense that his own fondness wakened no response in the son’s heart, could crush that love out.
II. Still more affecting is it to notice how natural, when love is thus deeply stirred, is the desire to take the dead man’s place.—So Moses pleaded for Israel: ‘If Thou wilt forgive their sin blot me, I pray Thee, out of Thy book. So Paul was willing to be cut off from Christ if only his brethren might be saved. This is no mere outburst of passion. It is the deep-seated longing for substitution, and only Christ, the Sinless One, can satisfy it. To die the just for the unjust is not unreasonable, but in the Holy Son of God alone has it been possible. For David, alas! the lament over the winning and beautiful creature whose charm outlived the shock even of ungrateful, ungenerous, and unsuccessful rebellion, was accompanied by the terrible remembrance that to his own sin was due all the family misery of which the revolt of Absalom was only one illustration. Remorse and anguish were busy at the heart-strings of the poor father weeping all the way up to the chamber over the gate, and there, in that lonely room, giving way to a sorrow for which it was hard to find one alleviating touch. The sobs of a broken heart cannot be analysed; and this wail of almost inarticulate grief, with its infinite pathetic reiteration, is too sacred for many words. Grief, even if passionate, is not forbidden by religion; and David’s sensitive poet-nature felt all emotions keenly. We are meant to weep; else wherefore is there calamity?
III. But there were elements in David’s agony which were not good.—It blinded him to blessings and to duties. His son was dead; but his rebellion was dead with him, and that should have been more present to his mind. His soldiers had fought well, and his first task should have been to honour and to thank them. He had no right to sink the king in the father, and Joab’s unfeeling remonstrance which followed was wise and true in substance, though rough almost to brutality in tone. Sorrow which hides all the blue because of one cloud, however heavy and thunderous, is sinful. Sorrow which sits with folded hands, like the sisters of Lazarus, and lets duties drift that it may indulge in the luxury of unrestrained tears, is sinful. There is no tone of ‘It is the Lord; let Him do what seemeth Him good,’ in this passionate plaint; and so there is no soothing for the grief. The one consolation lies in submission. Submissive tears wash the heart clean; rebellious ones blister it.
(1) ‘ “I well remember,” says a present-day writer, “the effect produced on my mind on being told by a servant, soon after I recovered from a dangerous illness, that during the crisis of the malady my father was often seen to shed tears. He was not an emotional man.” ’
(2) ‘When Bramwell Brontë died, Charlotte wept “for the wreck of talent, the ruin of promise, the untimely, dreary extinction of what might have been a burning and a shining light.” Her father’s grief was still more poignant. “Much and long as he had suffered on his (Bramwell’s) account, he cried out for his loss like David for that of Absalom—‘My son! my son!’—and refused at first to be comforted.” Fondest love makes heaviest mourning. It must be every true son’s earnest desire and prayer that he may spare his father and his mother the anguish of having to say of him, lying dishonoured in death, “Would God I had died for thee, O my son, my son.” ’
3 ‘A distinguished man, speaking at the opening of a reformatory institution for boys, remarked that if only one boy was saved from ruin it would repay all the cost. Afterwards a friend asked the speaker if he had not put it a little too strongly, when he said that all the cost would be repaid if only one boy were saved. “Not if that were my boy,” was the reply.’
(4) ‘James IV. of Scotland, while yet a lad, took part with the rebels who drove his father, James III., from the throne. The rebel forces were successful; the father was killed; the son mounted the throne. But the young king was seized with sudden remorse. His reign had commenced in parricide, his throne was built over the remains of his murdered father, and the plea of youth and inexperience was insufficient to still within his soul the upbraidings of remorse. He retired to Stirling Castle, spent his nights in prayer and penance, and wore an iron belt or chain round his waist under his clothing, to which he added a certain number of links every year till the day of his death, as a self-punishment and expiation for the part he had taken as a youth in breaking his father’s heart.’
(5) ‘David had let Absalom flaunt and swagger and live in luxury, and put no curb on; and here was the end of his foolish softness. How many fathers and mothers are the destroyers of their children to-day by the very same thing? That grave in the wood might teach parents how their fatal fondness may end. Children, too, may learn from David’s grief what an unworthy son can do to stuff his father’s pillow with thorns, and to break his heart at last.’
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Nisbet, James. "Commentary on 2 Samuel 18". The Church Pulpit Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 8 / Ordinary 13