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DAVID’S GRIEF FOR ABSALOM.
2 Samuel 18:19-33; 2 Samuel 19:1-4.
’’NEXT to the calamity of losing a battle," a great general used to say, "is that of gaining a victory." The battle in the wood of Ephraim left twenty thousand of King David’s subjects dead or dying on the field. It is remarkable how little is made of this dismal fact. Men’s lives count for little in time of war, and death, even with its worst horrors, is just the common fate of warriors. Yet surely David and his friends could not think lightly of a calamity that cut down more of the sons of Israel than any battle since the fatal day of Mount Gilboa. Nor could they form a light estimate of the guilt of the man whose inordinate vanity and ambition had cost the nation such a fearful loss.
But all thoughts of this kind were for the moment brushed aside by the crowning fact that Absalom himself was dead. And this fact, as well as the tidings of the victory, must at once be carried to David. Mahanaim, where David was, was probably but a little distance from the field of battle. A friend offered to Joab to carry the news - Ahimaaz, the son of Zadok the priest. He had formerly been engaged in the same way, for he was one of those that had brought word to David of the result of Absalom’s council, and of other things that were going on in Jerusalem. But Joab did not wish that Ahimaaz should be the bearer of the news. He would not deprive him of the character of king’s messenger, but he would employ him as such another time. Meanwhile the matter was entrusted to another man, called in the Authorized Version Cushi, but in the Revised Version the Cushite. Whoever this may have been, he was a simple official, not like Ahimaaz, a personal friend of David. And this seems to have been Joab’s reason for employing him. It is evident that physically he was not better adapted to the task than Ahimaaz, for when the latter at last got leave to go he overran the Cushite. But Joab appears to have felt that it would be better that David should receive his first news from a mere official than from a personal friend. The personal friend would be likely to enter into details that the other would not give. It is clear that Joab was ill at ease in reference to his own share in the death of Absalom. He would fain keep that back from David, at least for a time; it would be enough for him at the first to know that the battle had been gained, and that Absalom was dead.
But Ahimaaz was persistent, and after the Cushite had been despatched he carried his point, and was allowed to go. Very graphic is the description of the running of the two men and of their arrival at Mahanaim. The king had taken his place at the gate of the city, and stationed a watchman on the wall above to look out eagerly lest anyone should come bringing news of the battle. In those primitive times there was no more rapid way of dispatching important news than by a swift well-trained runner on foot. In the clear atmosphere of the East first one man, then another, was seen running alone. By-and-bye, the watchman surmised that the foremost of the two was Ahimaaz; and when the king heard it, remembering his former message, he concluded that such a man must be the bearer of good tidings. As soon as he came within hearing of the king, he shouted out, "All is well." Coming close, he fell on his face and blessed God for delivering the rebels into David’s hands. Before thanking him or thanking God, the king showed what was uppermost in his heart by asking, "Is the young man Absalom safe?" And here the moral courage of Ahimaaz failed him, and he gave an evasive answer: "When Joab sent the king’s servant, and me thy servant, I saw a great tumult, but I knew not what it was." When he heard this the king bade him stand aside, till he should hear what the other messenger had to say. And the official messenger was more frank than the personal friend. For when the king repeated the question about Absalom, the answer was, "The enemies of my lord the king, and all that rise against thee to do thee hurt, be as that young man is." The answer was couched in skilful words. It suggested the enormity of Absalom’s guilt, and of the danger to the king and the state which he had plotted, and the magnitude of the deliverance, seeing that he was now beyond the power of doing further evil.
But such soothing expressions were lost upon the king. The worst fears of his heart were realized - Absalom was dead. Gone from earth forever, beyond reach of the yearnings of his heart; gone to answer for crimes that were revolting in the sight of God and man. "The king was much moved; and he 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!"
He had been a man of war, a man of the sword; he had been familiar with death, and had seen it once and again in his own family; but the tidings of Absalom’s death fell upon him with all the force of a first bereavement. Not more piercing is the wail of the young widow when suddenly the corpse of her beloved is borne into the house, not more overwhelming is her sensation, as if the solid earth were giving way beneath her, than the emotion that now prostrated King David.
Grief for the dead is always sacred; and however unworthy we may regard the object of it, we cannot but respect it in King David. Viewed simply as an expression of his unquenched affection for his son, and separated from its bearing on the interests of the kingdom, and from the air of repining it seemed to carry against the dispensation of God, it showed a marvelously tender and forgiving heart. In the midst of an odious and disgusting rebellion, and with the one object of seeking out his father and putting him to death, the heartless youth had been arrested and had met his deserved fate. Yet so far from showing satisfaction that the arm that had been raised to crush him was laid low in death, David could express no feelings but those of love and longing. Was it not a very wonderful love, coming very near to the feeling of Him who prayed, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do," like that "love Divine, all love excelling," that follows the sinner through all his wanderings, and clings to him amid all his rebellions; the love of Him that not merely wished in a moment of excitement that He could die for His guilty children but did die for them, and in dying bore their guilt and took it away, and of which the brief but matchless record is that "having once loved His own that were with Him in the world, He loved them even unto the end?"
The elements of David’s intense agony, when he heard of Absalom’s death, were mainly three. In the first place, there was the loss of his son, of whom he could say that, with all his faults, he loved him still. A dear object had been plucked from his heart, and left it sick, vacant, desolate. A face he had often gazed on with delight lay cold in death. He had not been a good son, he had been very wicked; but affection has always its visions of a better future, and is ready to forgive unto seventy times seven. And then death is so dreadful when it fastens on the young. It seems so cruel to fell to the ground a bright young form; to extinguish by one blow his every joy, every hope, every dream; to reduce him to nothingness, so far as this life is concerned. An infinite pathos, in a father’s experience, surrounds a young man’s death. The regret, the longing, the conflict with the inevitable, seem to drain him of all energy, and leave him helpless in his sorrow.
Secondly, there was the terrible fact that Absalom had died in rebellion, without expressing one word of regret, without one request for forgiveness, without one act or word that it would be pleasant to recall in time to come, as a foil to the bitterness caused by his unnatural rebellion. Oh, if he had had but an hour to think of his position, to realize the lesson of his defeat, to ask his father’s forgiveness, to curse the infatuation of the last few years! How would one such word have softened the sting of his rebellion in his father’s breast! What a change it would have given to the aspect of his evil life! But not even the faint vestige of such a thing was ever shown; the unmitigated glare of that evil life must haunt his father evermore!
Thirdly, there was the fact that in this rebellious condition he had passed to the judgment of God. What hope could there be for such a man, living and dying as he had done? Where could he be now? Was not ’’the great pit in the wood," into which his unhonoured carcase had been flung, a type of another pit, the receptacle of his soul? What agony to the Christian heart is like that of thinking of the misery of dear ones who have died impenitent and unpardoned?
To these and similar elements of grief David appears to have abandoned himself without a struggle. But was this right? Ought he not to have made some acknowledgment of the Divine hand in his trial, as he did when Bathsheba’s child died? Ought he not to have acted as he did on another occasion, when he said, "I was dumb with silence, I opened not my mouth, because Thou didst it"? We have seen that in domestic matters he was not accustomed to place himself so thoroughly under the control of the Divine will as in the more public business of his life; and now we see that, when his parental feelings are crushed, he is left without the steadying influence of submission to the will of God. And in the agony of his private grief he forgets the public welfare of the nation. Noble and generous though the wish be, "Would God I had died for thee," it was on public grounds out of the question. Let us imagine for one moment the wish realized. David has fallen and Absalom survives. What sort of kingdom would it have been? What would have been the fate of the gallant men who had defended David? What would have been the condition of God’s servants throughout the kingdom? What would have been the influence of so godless a monarch upon the interests of truth and the cause of God? It was a rash and unadvised utterance of affection. But for the rough faithfulness of Joab, the consequences would have been disastrous. "The victory that day was turned into mourning, for the people heard say that day how the king was grieved for his son." Everyone was discouraged. The man for whom they had risked their lives had not a word of thanks to any of them, and could think of no one but that vile son of his, who was now dead. In the evening Joab came to him, and in his blunt way swore to him that if he was not more affable to the people they would not remain a night longer in his service. Roused by the reproaches and threatenings of his general, the king did now present himself among them. The people responded and came before him, and the effort he made to show himself agreeable kept them to their allegiance, and led on to the steps for his restoration that soon took place.
But it must have been an effort to abstract his attention from Absalom, and fix it on the brighter results of the battle. And not only that night, in the silence of his chamber, but for many a night, and perhaps many a day, during the rest of his life, the thought of that battle and its crowning catastrophe must have haunted David like an ugly dream. We seem to see him in some still hour of reverie recalling early days; - happy scenes rise around him; lovely children gambol at his side; he hears again the merry laugh of little Tamar, and smiles as he recalls some childish saying of Absalom; he is beginning, as of old, to forecast the future and shape out for them careers of honour and happiness; when, horror of horrors! the spell breaks; the bright vision gives way to dismal realities - Tamar’s dishonour, Amnon’s murder, Absalom’s insurrection, and, last not least, Absalom’s death, glare in the field of memory! Who will venture to say that David did not smart for his sins? Who that reflects would be willing to take the cup of sinful indulgence from his hands, sweet though it was in his mouth, when he sees it so bitter in the belly?
Two remarks may appropriately conclude this chapter, one with reference to grief from bereavements in general, the other with reference to the grief that may arise to Christians in connection with the spiritual condition of departed children.
1. With reference to grief from bereavements in general, it is to be observed that they will prove either a blessing or an evil according to the use to which they are turned. All grief in itself is a weakening thing - weakening both to the body and the mind, and it were a great error to suppose that it must do good in the end. There are some who seem to think that to resign themselves to overwhelming grief is a token of regard to the memory of the departed, and they take no pains to counteract the depressing influence. It is a painful thing to say, yet it is true, that a long-continued manifestation of overwhelming grief, instead of exciting sympathy, is more apt to cause annoyance. Not only does it depress the mourner himself, and unfit him for his duties to the living, but it depresses those that come in contact with him, and makes them think of him with a measure of impatience. And this suggests another remark. It is not right to obtrude our grief overmuch on others, especially if we are in a public position. Let us take example in this respect from our blessed Lord. Was any sorrow like unto His sorrow? Yet how little did He obtrude it even on the notice of His disciples! It was towards the end of His ministry before He even began to tell them of the dark scenes through which He was to pass; and even when He did tell them how He was to be betrayed and crucified, it was not to court their sympathy, but to prepare them for their part of the trial. And when the overwhelming agony of Gethsemane drew on, it was only three of the twelve that were permitted to be with Him. All such considerations show that it is a more Christian thing to conceal our griefs than to make others uncomfortable by obtruding them upon their notice. David was on the very eve of losing the affections of those who had risked everything for him, by abandoning himself to anguish for his private loss, and letting his distress for the dead interfere with his duty to the living.
And how many things are there to a Christian mind fitted to abate the first sharpness even of a great bereavement. Is it not the doing of a Father, infinitely kind? Is it not the doing of Him "who spared not His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all"? You say you can see no light through it, - it is dark, all dark, fearfully dark. Then you ought to fall back on the inscrutability of God. Hear Him saying, "What I do, thou knowest not now, but thou shalt know hereafter." Resign yourself patiently to His hands, till He make the needed revelation, and rest assured that when it is made it will be worthy of God. "Ye have heard of the patience of Job, and have seen the end of the Lord, that the Lord is very pitiful and of tender mercy." Meanwhile, be impressed with the vanity of this life, and the infinite need of a higher portion. "Set your affection on things above, and not on the things on the earth. For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your Life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with Him in glory."
2. The other remark that falls to be made here concerns the grief that may arise to Christians in connection with the spiritual condition of departed children.
When the parent is either in doubt as to the happiness of a beloved one, or has cause to apprehend that the portion of that child is with the unbelievers, the pang which he experiences is one of the most acute which the human heart can know. Now here is a species of suffering which, if not peculiar to believers, falls on them far the most heavily, and is, in many cases, a haunting spectre of misery. The question naturally arises. Is it not strange that their very beliefs, as Christians, subject them to such acute sufferings? If one were a careless, unbelieving man, and one’s child died without evidence of grace, one would probably think nothing of it, because the things that are unseen and eternal are never in one’s thoughts. But just because one believes the testimony of God on this great subject, one becomes liable to a peculiar agony. Is this not strange indeed?
Yes, there is a mystery in it which we cannot wholly solve. But we must remember that it is in thorough accordance with a great law of Providence, the operation of which, in other matters, we cannot overlook. That law is, that the cultivation and refinement of any organ or faculty, while it greatly increases your capacity of enjoyment, increases at the same time your capacity, and it may be your occasions, of suffering. Let us take, for example, the habit of cleanliness. Where this habit prevails, there is much more enjoyment in life; but let a person of great cleanliness be surrounded by filth, his suffering is infinitely greater. Or take the cultivation of taste, and let us say of musical taste. It adds to life an immense capacity of enjoyment, but also a great capacity and often much occasion of suffering, because bad music or tasteless music, such as one may often have to endure, creates a misery unknown to the man of no musical culture. To a man of classical taste, bad writing or bad speaking, such as is met with every day, is likewise a source of irritation and suffering. If we advance to a moral and spiritual region, we may see that the cultivation of one’s ordinary affections, apart from religion, while on the whole it increases enjoyment, does also increase sorrow. If I lived and felt as a Stoic, I should enjoy family life much less than if I were tender-hearted and affectionate; but when I suffered a family bereavement I should suffer much less. These are simply illustrations of the great law of Providence that culture, while it increases happiness, increases suffering too. It is a higher application of the same law, that gracious culture, the culture of our spiritual affections under the power of the Spirit of God, in increasing our enjoyment does also increase our capacity of suffering. In reference to that great problem of natural religion, Why should a God of infinite benevolence have created creatures capable of suffering? one answer that has often been given is, that if they had not been capable of suffering they might not have been capable of enjoyment. But in pursuing these inquiries we get into an obscure region, in reference to which it is surely our duty patiently to wait for that increase of light which is promised to us in the second stage of our existence.
Yet still it remains to be asked. What comfort can there possibly be for Christian parents in such a cast as David’s? What possible consideration can ever reconcile them to the thought that their beloved ones have gone to the world of woe? Are not their children parts of themselves, and how is it possible for them to be completely saved if those who are so identified with them are lost? How can they ever be happy in a future life if eternally separated from those who were their nearest and dearest on earth? On such matters it has pleased God to allow a great cloud to rest which our eyes cannot pierce. We cannot solve this problem. We cannot reconcile perfect personal happiness, even in heaven, with the knowledge I hat beloved ones are lost. But God must have some way, worthy of Himself, of solving the problem. And we must just wait for His time of revelation. "God is His own interpreter, and He will make it plain." The Judge of all the earth must act justly. And the song which will express the deepest feelings of the redeemed, when from the sea of glass, mingled with fire, they look back on the ways of Providence toward them, will be this: "Great and marvelous are Thy works. Lord God Almighty; just and true are all Thy ways, Thou King of saints. Who would not fear Thee and glorify Thy name, for Thou only art holy?"
2 Samuel 19:5-30.
O rouse one’s self from the prostration of grief, and grapple anew with the cares of life, is hard indeed. Among the poorer classes of society, it is hardly possible to let grief have its swing; amid suppressed and struggling emotions the poor man must return to his daily toil. The warrior, too, in the heat of conflict has hardly time to drop a tear over the tomb of his comrade or his brother. But where leisure is possible, the bereaved heart does crave a time of silence and solitude; and it seems reasonable, in order that its fever may subside a little, before the burden of daily work is resumed. It was somewhat hard upon David, then, that his grief could not get a single evening to flow undisturbed. A rough voice called him to rouse himself, and speak comfortably to his people, otherwise they would disband before morning, and all that he had gained would be lost to him again. In the main, Joab was no doubt right; but in his manner there was a sad lack of consideration for the feelings of the king. He might have remembered that, though he had gained a battle David had lost a son, and that, too, under circumstances peculiarly heart-breaking. Faithful in the main and shrewd as Joab was, he was no doubt a useful officer; but his harshness and want of feeling went far to neutralize the benefit of his services. It ought surely to be one of the benefits of civilization and culture that, where painful duties have to be done, they should be done with much consideration and tenderness. For the real business of life is not so much to get right things done in any way, as to diffuse a right spirit among men, and get them to do things well. Men of enlightened goodness will always aim at purifying the springs of conduct, at increasing virtue, and deepening faith and holiness. The call to the royal bridegroom in the forty-fifth Psalm is to "gird his sword on his thigh, and ride forth prosperously, because of truth, and meekness, and righteousness." To increase these three things is to increase the true wealth of nations and advance the true prosperity of kingdoms. In his eagerness to get a certain thing done, Joab showed little or no regard for those higher interests to which outward acts should ever be subordinate.
But David felt the call of duty - "He arose and sat in the gate. And they told unto all the people saying, Behold, the king doth sit in the gate. And all the people came before the king: for Israel had fled every man to his tent." And very touching it must have been to look on the sad, pale, wasted face of the king, and mark his humble, chastened bearing, and yet to receive from him words of winning kindness that showed him still caring for them and loving them, as a shepherd among his sheep; in no wise exasperated by the insurrection, not breathing forth threatenings and slaughter on those who had taken part against him; but concerned as ever for the welfare of the whole kingdom, and praying for Jerusalem, for his brethren and companions’ sakes, "Peace be within thee."
It was now open to him to follow either of two courses: either to march to Jerusalem at the head of his victorious army, take military possession of the capital, and deal with the remains of the insurrection in the stern fashion common among kings; or to wait till he should be invited back to the throne from which he had been driven, and then magnanimously proclaim an amnesty to all the rebels. We are not surprised that he preferred the latter alternative. It is more agreeable to any man to be offered what is justly due to him by those who have deprived him of it than to have to claim it as his right. It was far more like him to return in peace than in that vengeful spirit that must have hecatombs of rebels slain to satisfy it. The people knew that David was in no bloodthirsty mood. And it was natural for him to expect that an advance would be made to him, after the frightful wrong which he had suffered from the people. He was therefore in no haste to leave his quarters at Mahanaim.
The movement that he looked for did take place, but it did not originate with those who might have been expected to take the lead. It was among the ten tribes of Israel that the proposal to bring him back was first discussed, and his own tribe, the tribe of Judah, held back after the rest were astir. He was much chagrined at this backwardness on the part of Judah. It was hard that his own tribe should be the last to stir, that those who might have been expected to head the movement should lag behind. But in this David was only experiencing the same thing as the Son of David a thousand years after, when the people of Nazareth, His own city, not only refused to listen to Him, but were about to hurl Him over the edge of a precipice. So important, however, did he see it to be for the general welfare that Judah should share the movement, that he sent Zadok and Abiathar the priests to stir them up to their duty. He would not have taken this step but for his jealousy for the honour of Judah; it was the fact that the movement was now going on in some places and not in all that induced him to interfere. He dreaded disunion in any case, especially a disunion between Judah and Israel. For the jealousy between these two sections of the people that afterwards broke the kingdom into two under Jeroboam was now beginning to show itself, and, indeed, led soon after to the revolt of Sheba. Another step was taken by David, of very doubtful expediency, in order to secure the more cordial support of the rebels. He superseded Joab, and gave the command of his army to Amasa, who had been general of the rebels. In more ways than one this was a strong measure. To supersede Joab was to make for himself a very powerful enemy, to rouse a man whose passions, when thoroughly excited, were capable of any crime. But on the other hand, David could not but be highly offended with Joab for his conduct to Absalom, and he must have looked on him as a very unsuitable coadjutor to himself in that policy of clemency that he had determined to pursue. This was significantly brought out by the appointment of Amasa in room of Joab. Both were David’s nephews, and both were of the tribe of Judah; but Amasa had been at the head of the insurgents, and therefore in close alliance with the insurgents of Judah. Most probably the reason why the men of Judah hung back was that they were afraid lest, if David were restored to Jerusalem, he would make an example of them; for it was at Hebron, in the tribe of Judah, that Absalom had been first proclaimed, and the people of Jerusalem who had favoured him were mostly of that tribe But when it became known that the leader of the rebel forces was not only not to be punished, but actually promoted to the highest office in the king’s service, all fears of that sort were completely scattered. It was an act of wonderful clemency. It was such a contrast to the usual treatment of rebels! But this king was not like other kings; he gave gifts even to the rebellious. There was no limit to his generosity. Where sin abounded grace did much more abound. Accordingly a new sense of the goodness and generosity of their ill-treated but noble king took possession of the people. "He bowed the heart of the men of Judah, even as the heart of one man, so that they sent this word unto the king. Return thou, and all thy servants." From the extreme of backwardness they started to the extreme of forwardness; the last to speak for David, they were the first to act for him; and such was their vehemence in his cause that the evil of national disunion which David dreaded from their indifference actually sprang from their over-impetuous zeal.
Thus at length David bade farewell to Mahanaim, and began his journey to Jerusalem. His route in returning was the reverse of that followed in his flight. First he descends the eastern bank of the Jordan as far as opposite Gilgal; then he strikes up through the wilderness the steep ascent to Jerusalem. At Gilgal several events of interest took place.
The first of these was the meeting with the representatives of Judah, who came to conduct the king over Jordan, and to offer him their congratulations and loyal assurances. This step was taken by the men of Judah alone, and without consultation or co-operation with the other tribes. A ferry-boat to convey the household over the river, and whatever else might be required to make the passage comfortable, these men of Judah provided. Some have blamed the king for accepting these attentions from Judah, instead of inviting the attendance of all the tribes. But surely, as the king had to pass the Jordan, and found the means of transit provided for him, he was right to accept what was offered. Nevertheless, this act of Judah and its acceptance by David gave serious offence, as we shall presently see, to the other tribes.
Neither Judah nor Israel comes out well in this little incident. We get an instructive glimpse of the hotheadedness of the tribes, and the childishness of their quarrels. It is members of the same nation a thousand years afterwards that on the very eve of the Crucifixion we see disputing among themselves which of them should be the greatest. Men never appear in a dignified attitude when they are contending that on some occasion or other they have been treated with too little consideration. And yet how many of the quarrels of the world, both public and private, have arisen from this, that someone did not receive the attention which he deserved! Pride lies at the bottom of it all. And quarrels of this kind will sometimes, nay often, be found even among men calling themselves the followers of Christ. If the blessed Lord Himself had acted on this principle, what a different life He would have led! If He had taken offence at every want of etiquette, at every want of the honour due to the Son of God, when would our redemption ever have been accomplished? Was His mother treated with due consideration when forced into the stable, because there was no room for her in the inn? Was Jesus Himself treated with due houour when the people of Nazareth took Him to the brow of the hill, or when the foxes had holes, and the birds of the air had nests, but the Son of Man had not where to lay His head? What if He had resented the denial of Peter, the treachery of Judas, and the forsaking of Him by all the apostles? How admirable was the humility that made Himself of no reputation, so that when He was reviled He reviled not again, when He suffered He threatened not, but committed Himself to Him that judgeth righteously! Yet how utterly opposite is the bearing of many, who are ever ready to take offence if anything is omitted to which they have a claim - standing upon their rights, claiming precedence over this one and the other, maintaining that it would never do to allow themselves to be trampled on, thinking it spirited to contend for their honours! It is because this tendency is so deeply seated in human nature that you need to be so watchful against it. It breaks out at the most unseasonable times. Could any time have been more unsuitable for it on the part of the men of Israel and Judah than when the king was giving them such a memorable example of humility, pardoning every one, great and small, that had offended him, even though their offence was as deadly as could be conceived? Or could any time have been more unsuitable for it on the part of the disciples of our Lord than when He was about to surrender His very life, and submit to the most shameful form of death that could be devised? Why do men not see that the servant is not above his lord, nor the disciple above his master? "Is not the heart deceitful above all things and desperately wicked"? Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall.
The next incident at Gilgal was the cringing entreaty of Shimei, the Benjamite, to be pardoned the insult which he had offered the king when he left Jerusalem. The conduct of Shimei had been such an outrage on all decency that we wonder how he could have dared to present himself at all before David, even though, as a sort of screen, he was accompanied by a thousand Benjamites. His prostration of himself on the ground before David, his confession of his sin and abject deprecation of the king’s anger, are not fitted to raise him in our estimation; they were the fruits of a base nature that can insult the fallen, but lick the dust off the feet of men in power. It was not till David had made it known that his policy was to be one of clemency that Shimei took this course; and even then he must have a thousand Benjamites at his back before he could trust himself to his mercy. Abishai, Joab’s brother, would have had him slain; but his proposal was rejected by David with warmth and even indignation. He knew that his restoration was an accomplished fact, and he would not spoil a policy of forgiveness by shedding the blood of this wicked man. Not content with passing his word to Shimei, "he sware unto him." But he afterwards found that he had carried clemency too far, and in his dying charge to Solomon he had to warn him against this dangerous enemy, and instruct him to bring down his hoar head with blood. But this needs not to make us undervalue the singular quality of heart which led David to show such forbearance to one utterly unworthy. It was a strange thing in the annals of Eastern kingdoms, where all rebellion was usually punished with the most fearful severity. It brings to mind the gentle clemency of the great Son of David in His dealings, a thousand years after, with another Benjamite as he was travelling, on that very route, on the way to Damascus; breathing out threatenings and slaughter against His disciples. Was there ever such clemency as that which met the persecutor with the words, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me? Only in this case the clemency accomplished its object; in Shimei’s case it did not. In the one case the persecutor became the chief of Apostles; in the other he acted more like the evil spirit in the parable, whose last end was worse than the first.
The next incident in the king’s return was his meeting with Mephibosheth. He came down to meet the king, "and had neither dressed his feet, nor trimmed his beard, nor washed his clothes from the day the king departed unto the day when he came again in peace." Naturally, the king’s first question was an inquiry why he had not left Jerusalem with him. And Mephibosheth’s reply was simply, that he had wished to do so, but, owing to his lameness, had not been able. And, moreover, Ziba had slandered him to the king when he said that Mephibosheth hoped to receive back the kingdom of his grandfather. The words of this poor man had all the appearance of an honest narrative. The ass which he intended to saddle for his own use was probably one of those which Ziba took away to present to David, so that Mephibosheth was left helpless in Jerusalem. If the narrative commends itself by its transparent truthfulness, it shows also how utterly improbable was the story of Ziba, that he had expectations of being made king. For he seems to have been as feeble in mind as he was frail in body, and he undoubtedly carried his compliments to David to a ridiculous pitch when he said, "All my father’s house were but dead men before my lord the king." Was that a fit way to speak of his father Jonathan?
We cannot greatly admire one who would depreciate his family to such a degree because he desired to obtain David’s favour. And for some reason David was somewhat sharp to him. No man is perfect, and we cannot but wonder that the king who was so gentle to Shimei should have been so sharp to Mephibosheth. "Why speakest thou any more of thy matters? I have said, Thou and Ziba divide the land." David appears to have been irritated at discovering his mistake in believing Ziba, and hastily transferring Mephibosheth’s property to him. Nothing is more common than such irritation, when men discover that through false information they have made a blunder, and gone into some arrangement that must be undone. But why did not the king restore all his property to Mephibosheth? Why say that he and Ziba were to divide it? Some have supposed (as we remarked before) that this meant simply that the old arrangement was to be continued - Ziba to till the ground, and Mephibosheth to receive as his share half the produce. But in that case Mephibosheth would not have added, "Yea, let him take all, forasmuch as my lord the king is come again in peace unto his own house." Our verdict would have been the very opposite, - Let Mephibosheth take all. But David was in a difficulty. The temper of the Benjamites was very irritable; they had never been very cordial to David, and Ziba was an important man among them. There he was, with his fifteen sons and twenty servants, a man not to be hastily set aside. For once the king appeared to prefer the rule of expediency to that of justice. To make some amends for his wrong to Mephibosheth, and at the same time not to turn Ziba into a foe, he resorted to this rough-and-ready method of dividing the land between them. But surely it was an unworthy arrangement. Mephibosheth had been loyal, and should never have lost his land. He had been slandered by Ziba, and therefore deserved some solace for his wrong. David restores but half his land, and has no soothing word for the wrong he has done him. Strange that when so keenly sensible of the wrong done to himself when he lost his kingdom unrighteously, he should not have seen the wrong he had done to Mephibosheth. And strange that when his whole kingdom had been restored to himself, he should have given back but half to Jonathan’s son.
The incident connected with the meeting with Barzillai we reserve for separate consideration.
Amid the greatest possible diversity of circumstance, we are constantly finding parallels in the life of David to that of Him who was his Son according to the flesh. Our Lord can hardly be said to have ever been driven from His kingdom. The hosannahs of to-day were indeed very speedily exchanged into the ’’Away with Him! away with Him! Crucify Him! crucify Him!" of to-morrow. But what we may remark of our Lord is rather that He has been kept out of His kingdom than driven from it. He who came to redeem the world, and of whom the Father said, "Yet have I set My King upon My holy hill of Zion," has never been suffered to exercise His sovereignty, at least in a conspicuous manner and on a universal scale. Here is a truth that ought to be a constant source of humiliation and sorrow to every Christian. Are you to be content that the rightful Sovereign should be kept in the background, and the great ruling forces of the world should be selfishness, and mammon, and pleasure, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eye, and the pride of life? Why speak ye not of bringing the King back to His house? You say you can do so little. But every subject of King David might have said the same. The question is, not whether you are doing much or little, but whether you are doing what you can. Is the exaltation of Jesus Christ to the supreme rule of the world an object dear to you? Is it matter of humiliation and concern to you that He does not occupy that place? Do you humbly try to give it to Him in your own heart and life? Do you try to give it to Him in the Church, in the State, in the world? The supremacy of Jesus Christ must be the great rallying cry of the members of the Christian Church, whatever their denomination. It is a point on which surely all ought to be agreed, and agreement there might bring about agreement in other things. Let us give our minds and hearts to realize in our spheres that glorious plan of which we read in the first chapter of Ephesians: ’’That, in the dispensation of the fullness of time, God might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth, even in Him, in whom also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestinated according to the purpose of Him who worketh all things according to the counsel of His own will, that we should be to the praise of His glory, who first trusted in Christ."
DAVID AND BARZILLAI.
2 Samuel 19:31-40.
IT is very refreshing to fall in with a man like Barzillai in a record which is so full of wickedness, and without many features of a redeeming character. He is a sample of humanity at its best - one of those men who diffuse radiance and happiness wherever their influence extends. Long before St. Peter wrote his epistle, he had been taught by the one Master to "put away all wickedness, and all guile, and hypocrisies, and envies, and evil-speakings;" and he had adopted St. Paul’s rule for rich men, "that they do good, that they be rich in good works, that they be ready to distribute, willing to communicate." We cannot well conceive a greater contrast than that between Barzillai and another rich farmer with whom David came in contact at an earlier period of his life - Nabal of Carmel: the one niggardly, beggarly, and bitter, not able even to acknowledge an obligation, far less to devise anything liberal, adding insult to injury when David modestly stated his claim, humiliating him before his messengers, and meeting his request with a flat refusal of everything great or small; the other hastening from his home when he heard of David’s distress, carrying with him whatever he could give for the use of the king and his followers, continuing to send supplies while he was at Mahanaim, and now returning to meet him on his way to Jerusalem, conduct him over Jordan, and show his loyalty and goodwill in every available way. While we grieve that there are still so many Nabals let us bless God that there are Barzillais too.
Of Barzillai’s previous history we know nothing. We do not even know where Rogelim, his place of abode, was, except that it was among the mountains of Gilead. The facts stated regarding him are few, but suggestive.
1. He was "a very great man." The expression seems to imply that he was both rich and influential. Dwelling among the hills of Gilead, his only occupation, and main way of becoming rich, must have been as a farmer. The two and a half tribes that settled on the east of the Jordan, while they had a smaller share of national and spiritual privileges, were probably better provided in a temporal sense. That part of the country was richer in pasturage, and therefore better adapted for cattle. It is probable, too, that the allotments were much larger. The kingdoms of Sihon and Og, especially the latter, were of wide extent. If the two and a half tribes had been able thoroughly to subdue the original inhabitants, they would have had possessions of great extent and value. Barzillai’s ancestors had probably received a valuable and extensive allotment, and had been strong enough and courageous enough to keep it for themselves. Consequently, when their flocks and herds multiplied, they were not restrained within narrow dimensions, but could spread over the mountains round about. But however his riches may have been acquired, Barzillai was evidently a man of very large means. He was rich apparently both in flocks and servants, a kind of chief or sheikh, not only with a large establishment of his own, but enjoying the respect, and in some degree able to command the services, of many of the humble people around him.
2. His generosity was equal to his wealth. The catalogue of the articles which he and another friend of David’s brought him in his extremity (2 Samuel 17:28-29) is instructive from its minuteness and its length. Like all men liberal in heart, he devised liberal things. He did not ask to see a subscription list, or inquire what other people were giving. He did not consider what was the smallest amount that he could give without appearing to be shabby. His only thought seems to have been, what there was he had to give that could be of use to the king. It is this large inborn generosity manifested to David that gives one the assurance that he was a kind, generous helper wherever there was a case deserving and needing his aid. We class him with the patriarch of Uz, with whom no doubt he could have said, "When the eye saw me, then it blessed me, and when the ear heard me, it bare witness unto me; the blessing of him that was ready to perish came upon me, and I made the widow’s heart to leap for joy."
3. His loyalty was not less thorough than his generosity. When he heard of the king’s troubles, he seems never to have hesitated one instant as to throwing in his lot with him. It mattered not that the king was in great trouble, and apparently in a desperate case. Neighbours, or even members of his own family, might have whispered to him that it would be better not to commit himself, seeing the rebellion was so strong. He was living in a sequestered part of the country; there was no call on him to declare himself at that particular moment; and if Absalom got the upper hand, he would be sure to punish severely those who had been active on his father’s side. But none of these things moved him. Barzillai was no sunshine courtier, willing to enjoy the good things of the court in days of prosperity, but ready in darker days to run off and leave his friends in the midst of danger. He was one of those true men that are ready to risk their all in the cause of loyalty when persuaded that it is the cause of truth and right. We cannot but ask. What could have given him a feeling so strong? We are not expressly told that he was a man deeply moved by the fear of God, but we have every reason to believe it. If so, the consideration that would move him most forcibly in favour of David must have been that he was God’s anointed. God had called him to the throne, and had never declared, as in the case of Saul, that he had forfeited it; the attempt to drive him from it was of the devil, and therefore to be resisted to the last farthing of his property, and if he had been a younger man, to the last drop of his blood. Risk? Can you frighten a man like this by telling him of the risk he runs by supporting David in the hour of adversity? Why, he is ready not only to risk all, but to lose all, if necessary, in a cause which appears so obviously to be Divine, all the more because he sees so well what a blessing David has been to the country. Why, he has actually made the kingdom. Not only has he expelled all its internal foes, but he has cowed those troublesome neighbours that were constantly pouncing upon the tribes, and especially the tribes situated in Gilead and Bashan. Moreover, he has given unity and stability to all the internal arrangements of the kingdom. See what a grand capital he has made for it at Jerusalem. Look how he has planted the ark on the strongest citadel of the country, safe from every invading foe. Consider how he has perfected the arrangements for the service of the Levites, what a delightful service of song he has instituted, and what beautiful songs he has composed for the use of the sanctuary. Doubtless it was considerations of this kind that roused Barzillai to such a pitch of loyalty. And is not a country happy that has such citizens, men who place their personal interest far below the public weal, and are ready to make any sacrifice, of person or of property, when the highest interests of their country are concerned? We do not plead for the kind of loyalty that clings to a monarch simply because he is king, apart from all considerations, personal and public, bearing on his worthiness or unworthiness of the office. We plead rather for the spirit that makes duty to country stand first, and personal or family interest a long way below. We deprecate the spirit that sneers at the very idea of putting one’s self to loss or trouble of any kind for the sake of public interests. We long for a generation of men and women that, like many in this country in former days, are willing to give "all for the Church and a little less for the State." And surely in these days, when no deadly risk is incurred, the demand is not so very severe. Let Christian men lay it on their consciences to pay regard to the claims under which they lie to serve their country. Whether it be in the way of serving on some public board, or fighting against some national vice, or advancing some great public interest, let it be considered even by busy men that their country, and must add, their Church, have true claims upon them. Even heathens and unbelievers have said, "It is sweet and glorious to die for one’s country." It is a poor state of things when in a Christian community men are so sunk in indolence and selfishness that they will not stir a finger on its behalf.
4. Barzillai was evidently a man of attractive personal qualities. The king was so attracted by him, that he wished him to come with him to Jerusalem, and promised to sustain him at court. The heart of King David was not too old to form new attachments. And towards Barzillai he was evidently drawn. We can hardly suppose but that there were deeper qualities to attract the king than even his loyalty and generosity. It looks as if David perceived a spiritual congeniality that would make Barzillai, not only a pleasant inmate, but a profitable friend. For indeed in many ways Barzillai and David seem to have been like one another. God had given them both a warm, sunny nature. He had prospered them in the world. He had given them a deep regard for Himself and delight in His fellowship. David must have found in Barzillai a friend whose views on the deepest subjects were similar to his own. At Jerusalem the men who were of his mind were by no means too many. To have Barzillai beside him, refreshing him with his experiences of God’s ways and joining with him in songs of praise and thanksgiving, would be delightful. "Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!" But however pleasant the prospect may have been to David, it was not one destined to be realized.
5. For Barzillai was not dazzled even by the highest offers of the king, because he felt that the proposal was unsuitable for his years. He was already eighty, and every day was adding to his burden, and bringing him sensibly nearer the grave. Even though he might be enjoying a hale old age, he could not be sure that he would not break down suddenly, and thus become an utter burden to the king. David had made the offer as a compliment to Barzillai, although it might also be a favour to himself, and as a compliment the aged Gileadite was entitled to view it. And viewing it in that light, he respectfully declined it. He was a home-loving man, his habits had been formed for a quiet domestic sphere, and it was too late to change them. His faculties were losing their sharpness; his taste had become dulled, his ear blunted, so that both savoury dishes and elaborate music would be comparatively thrown away on him. The substance of his answer was, I am an old man, and it would be unsuitable in me to begin a courtier’s life. In a word, he understood what was suitable for old age. Many a man and woman too, perhaps, even of Barzillai’s years, would have jumped at King David’s offer, and rejoiced to share the dazzling honours of a court, and would have affected youthful feelings and habits in order to enjoy the exhilaration and the excitement of a courtier’s life. In Barzillai’s choice, we see the predominance of a sanctified common sense, alive to the proprieties of things, and able to see how the enjoyment most suitable to an advanced period of life might best be had. It was not by aping youth or grasping pleasures for which the relish had gone. Some may think this a painful view of old age. Is it so that as years multiply the taste for youthful enjoyments passes away, and one must resign one’s self to the thought that life itself is near its end? Undoubtedly it is. But even a heathen could show that this is by no means an evil. The purpose of Cicero’s beautiful treatise on old age, written when he was sixty-two, but regarded as spoken by Cato at the age of eighty-four, was to show that the objections commonly brought against old age were not really valid. These objections were - that old age unfits men for active business, that it renders the body feeble, that it deprives them of the enjoyment of almost all pleasures, and that it heralds the approach of death. Let it be granted, is the substance of Cicero’s argument; nevertheless, old age brings enjoyments of a new order that compensate for those which it withdraws. If we have wisdom to adapt ourselves to our position, and to lay ourselves out for those compensatory pleasures, we shall find old age not a burden, but a joy. Now, if even a heathen could argue in that way, how much more a Christian! If he cannot personally be so lively as before, he may enjoy the young life of his children and grandchildren or other young friends, and delight to see them enjoying what he cannot now engage in. If active pleasures are not to be had, there are passive enjoyments - the conversation of friends, reading, meditation, and the like - of which all the more should be made. If one world is gliding from him, another is moving towards him. As the outward man perisheth, let the inward man be renewed day by day.
There are few more jarring scenes in English history than the last days of Queen Elizabeth. As life was passing away, a historian of England says, "she clung to it with a fierce tenacity. She hunted, she danced, she jested with her young favourites, she coquetted, and frolicked, and scolded at sixty-seven as she had done at thirty." "The Queen," wrote a courtier, "a few months before her death was never so gallant these many years, nor so set upon jollity." She persisted, in spite of opposition, in her gorgeous progresses from country house to country house. She clung to business as of old, and rated in her usual fashion one "who minded not to giving up some matter of account." And then a strange melancholy settled on her. Her mind gave way, and food and rest became alike distasteful. Clever woman, yet very foolish in not discerning how vain it was to attempt to carry the brisk habits of youth into old age, and most profoundly foolish in not having taken pains to provide for old age the enjoyments appropriate to itself! How differently it has fared with those who have been wise in time and made the best provision for old age! "I have waited for Thy salvation, O my God," says the dying Jacob, relieved and happy to think that the object for which he had waited had come at last. "I am now ready to be offered," says St. Paul, "and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought the good fight; I have finished my course; I have kept the faith: henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give me at that day, and not to me only, but unto all them also that love His appearing." Which is the better portion - he whose old age is spent in bitter lamentation over the departed joys and brightness of his youth? or he whose sun goes down with the sweetness and serenity of an autumn sunset, but only to rise in a brighter world, and shine forth in the glory of immortal youth?
6. Holding such views of old age, it was quite natural and suitable for Barzillai to ask for his son Chimham what he respectfully declined for himself. For his declinature was not a rude rejection of an honour deemed essentially false and vain. Barzillai did not tell the king that he had lived to see the folly and the sin of those pleasures which in the days of youth and inexperience men are so greedy to enjoy. That would have been an affront to David, especially as he was now getting to be an old man himself. He recognized that a livelier mode of life than befitted the old was suitable for the young. The advantages of residence at the court of David were not to be thought little of by one beginning life, especially where the head of the court was such a man as David, himself so affectionate and attractive, and so deeply imbued with the fear and love of God. The narrative is so short that not a word is added as to how it fared with Chimham when he came to Jerusalem. Only one thing is known of him: it is said that, after the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar, when Johanan conducted to Egypt a remnant of Jews that he had saved from the murderous hand of Ishmael, "they departed and dwelt in the habitation of Chimham, which is by Bethlehem, to go into Egypt." We infer that David bestowed on Chimham some part of his paternal inheritance at Bethlehem. The vast riches which he had amassed would enable him to make ample provision for his sons; but we might naturally have expected that the whole of the paternal inheritance would have remained in the family. For some reason unknown to us, Chimham seems to have got a part of it. We cannot but believe that David would desire to have a good man there, and it is much in favour of Chimham that he should have got a settlement at Bethlehem. And there is another circumstance that tells in his favour: during the five centuries that elapsed between David’s time and the Captivity, the name of Chimham remained in connection with that property, and even so late as the time of Jeremiah it was called ’’Chimham’s habitation." Men do not thus keep alive dishonoured names, and the fact that Chimham’s was thus preserved would seem to indicate that he was one of those of whom it is said, "The memory of the just is blessed."
Plans for life were speedily formed in those countries; and as Rebekah wished no delay in accompanying Abraham’s servant to be the wife of Isaac, nor Ruth in going forth with Naomi to the land of Judah, so Chimham at once went with the king. The interview between David and Barzillai was ended in the way that in those countries was the most expressive sign of regard and affection: "David kissed Barzillai," but "Chimham went on with him."
The meeting with Barzillai and the finding of a new son in Chimham must have been looked back on by David with highly pleasant feelings. In every sense of the term, he had lost a son in Absalom; he seems now to find one in Chimham. We dare not say that the one was compensation for the other. Such a blank as the death of Absalom left in the heart of David could never be filled up from any earthly source whatever. Blanks of that nature can be filled only when God gives a larger measure of His own presence and His own love. But besides feeling very keenly the blank of Absalom’s death, David must have felt distressed at the loss as it seemed, of power, to secure the affections of the younger generation of his people, many of whom, there is every reason to believe, had followed Absalom. The ready way in which Chimham accepted of the proposal in regard to him would therefore be a pleasant incident in his experience; and the remembrance of his father’s fast attachment and most useful friendship would ever be in David’s memory like an oasis in the desert.
We return for a moment to the great lesson of this passage. Aged men, it is a lesson for you. Titus was instructed to exhort the aged men of Crete to be "sober, grave, temperate, sound in faith, in charity, in patience." It is a grievous thing to see grey hairs dishonoured. It is a humiliating sight when Noah excites either the shame or the derision of his sons. But "the hoary head is a crown of glory if it is found in the way of uprightness." And the crown is described in the six particulars of the exhortation to Titus. It is a crown of six jewels. Jewel the first is "sobriety," meaning here self-command, self-control, ability to stand erect before temptation, and calmness under provocation and trial. Jewel the second is "gravity," not sternness, nor sullenness, nor censoriousness, but the bearing of one who knows that ’’life is real, life is earnest," in opposition to the frivolous tone of those who act as if there were no life to come. Jewel the third is "temperance," especially in respect of bodily indulgence, keeping under the body, never letting it be master, but in all respects a servant. Jewel the fourth, "soundness in faith," holding the true doctrine of eternal life, and looking forward with hope and expectation to the inheritance of the future. Jewel the fifth, "soundness in charity," the charity of the thirteenth chapter of I Corinthians, itself a coruscation of the brightest gem in the Christian cabinet. Jewel the sixth, "soundness in patience," that grace so needful, but so often neglected, that grace that gives an air of serenity to one’s character, that allies it to heaven, that gives it sublimity, that bears the unbearable, and hopes and rejoices on the very edge of despair.
Onward, then, ye aged men, in this glorious path! By God’s grace, gather round your head these incorruptible jewels, which shine with the lustre of God’s holiness, and which are the priceless gems of heaven. Happy are ye, if indeed you have these jewels for your crown; and happy is your Church where the aged men are crowned with glory like the four-and-twenty elders before the throne!
But what of those who dishonour God, and their own grey hairs, and the Church of Christ by stormy tempers, profane tongues, drunken orgies, and disorderly lives? "O my soul, come not thou into their secret! To their assembly, mine honour, be not thou united!"
THE INSURRECTION OF SHEBA.
2 Samuel 19:41-43; 2 Samuel 20:1-26.
DAVID was now virtually restored to his kingdom; but he had not even left Gilgal when fresh troubles began. The jealousy between Judah and Israel broke out in spite of him. The cause of complaint was on the part of the ten tribes; they were offended at not having been waited for to take part in escorting the king to Jerusalem. First, the men of Israel, in harsh language, accused the men of Judah of having stolen the king away, because they had transported him over the Jordan. To this the men of Judah replied that the king was of their kin; therefore they had taken the lead, but they had received no special reward or honour in consequence. The men of Israel, however, had an argument in reply to this: they were ten tribes, and therefore had so much more right to the king; and Judah had treated them with contempt in not consulting or co-operating with them in bringing him back. It is added that the words of the men of Judah were fiercer than the words of the men of Israel.
It is in a poor and paltry light that both sides appear in this inglorious dispute. There was no solid grievance whatever, nothing that might not have been easily settled if the soft answer that turneth away wrath had been resorted to instead of fierce and exasperating words. Alas I that miserable tendency of our nature to take offence when we think we have been overlooked, - what mischief and misery has it bred in the world! The men of Israel were foolish to take offence; but the men of Judah were neither magnanimous nor forbearing in dealing with their unreasonable humour. The noble spirit of clemency that David had shown awakened but little permanent response. The men of Judah, who were foremost in Absalom’s rebellion, were like the man in the parable that had been forgiven ten thousand talents, but had not the generosity to forgive the trifling offence committed against them, as they thought, by their brethren of Israel. So they seized their fellow-servant by the throat and demanded that he should pay them the uttermost farthing. Judah played false to his national character; for he was not "he whom his brethren should praise."
What was the result? Any one acquainted with human nature might have foretold it with tolerable certainty. Given on one side a proneness to take offence, a readiness to think that one has been overlooked, and on the other a want of forbearance, a readiness to retaliate, - it is easy to see that the result will be a serious breach. It is just what we witness so often in children. One is apt to be dissatisfied, and complains of ill-treatment; another has no forbearance, and retorts angrily: the result is a quarrel, with this difference, that while the quarrels of children pass quickly away, the quarrels of nations or of factions last miserably long.
Much inflammable material being thus provided, a casual spark speedily set it on fire, Sheba, an artful Benjamite, raised the standard of revolt against David, and the excited ten tribes, smarting with the fierce words of the men of Judah, flocked to his standard. Most miserable proceeding! The quarrel had begun about a mere point of etiquette, and now they cast off God’s anointed king, and that, too, after the most signal token of God’s anger had fallen on Absalom and his rebellious crew. There are many wretched enough slaveries in this world, but the slavery of pride is perhaps the most mischievous and humiliating of all.
And here it cannot be amiss to call attention to the very great neglect of the rules and spirit of Christianity that is apt, even at the present day, to show itself among professing Christians in connection with their disputes. This is so very apparent that one is apt to think that the settlement of quarrels is the very last matter to which Christ’s followers learn to apply the example and instructions of their Master. When men begin in earnest to follow Christ, they usually pay considerable attention to certain of His precepts; they turn away from scandalous sins, they observe prayer, they show some interest in Christian objects, and they abandon some of the more frivolous ways of the world. But alas! when they fall into differences, they are prone in dealing with them to leave all Christ’s precepts behind them. See in what an unlovely and unloving spirit the controversies of Christians have usually been conducted; how much of bitterness and personal animosity they show, how little forbearance and generosity; how readily they seem to abandon themselves to the impulses of their own hearts. Controversy rouses temper, and temper creates a tempest through which you cannot see clearly. And how many are the quarrels in Churches or congregations that are carried on with all the heat and bitterness of unsanctified men! How much offence is taken at trifling neglects or mistakes! Who remembers, even in its spirit, the precept in the Sermon on the Mount, "If any man smite thee on the right cheek, turn to him the other also"? Who remembers the beatitude, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God"? Who bears in mind the Apostle’s horror at the unseemly spectacle of saints carrying their quarrels to heathen tribunals, instead of settling them as Christians quietly among themselves? Who weighs the earnest counsel, "Endeavour to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace"? Who prizes our gracious Lord’s most blessed legacy, ’’Peace I leave with you, My peace I give unto you; not as the world giveth give I unto you"? Do not all such texts show that it is incumbent on Christians to be most careful and watchful, when any difference arises, to guard against carnal feeling of every kind, and strive to the very utmost to manifest the spirit of Christ? Yet is it not at such times that they are most apt to leave all their Christianity behind them, and engage in unseemly wrangles with one another? Does not the devil very often get it all his own way, whoever may be in the right, and whoever in the wrong? And is not frequent occasion given thereby to the enemy to blaspheme, and, in the very circumstances that should bring out in clear and strong light the true spirit of Christianity, is there not often, in place of that, an exhibition of rudeness and bitterness that makes the world ask, What better are Christians than other men?
But let us return to King David and his people. The author of the insurrection was "a man of Belial, whose name was Sheba." He is called "the son of Bichri, a Benjamite." Benjamin had a son whose name was Becher, and the adjective formed from that would be Bichrite; some have thought that Bichri denotes not his father, but his family. Saul appears to have been of the same family (see Speaker’s Commentary in loco). It is thus quite possible that Sheba was a relation of Saul, and that he had always cherished a grudge against David for taking the throne which he had filled. Here, we may remark in passing, would have been a real temptation to Mephibosheth to join an insurrection, for if this had succeeded he was the man who would naturally have become king. But there is no reason to believe that Mephibosheth favoured Sheba, and therefore no reason to doubt the truth of the account he gave of himself to David. The war-cry of Sheba was an artful one - "We have no part in David, neither have we inheritance in the son of Jesse." It was a scornful and exaggerated mockery of the claim that Judah had asserted as being of the same tribe with the king, whereas the other tribes stood in no such relation to him. "Very well," was virtually the cry of Sheba - "if we have no part in David, neither any inheritance in the son of Jesse, let us get home as fast as possible, and leave his friends, the tribe of Judah, to make of him what they can." It was not so much a setting up of a new rebellion as a scornful repudiation of all interest in the existing king. Instead of going with David from Gilgal to Jerusalem, they went up every man to his tent or to his home. It is not said that they intended actively to oppose David, and from this part of the narrative we should suppose that all that they intended was to make a public protest against the unworthy treatment which they held that they had received. It must have greatly disturbed the pleasure of David’s return to Jerusalem that this unseemly secession occurred by the way. A chill must have fallen upon his heart just as it was beginning to recover its elasticity. And much anxiety must have haunted him as to the issue - whether or not the movement would go on to another insurrection like Absalom’s; or whether, having discharged their dissatisfied feeling, the people of Israel would return sullenly to their allegiance.
Nor could the feelings of King David be much soothed when he re-entered his home. The greater part of his family had been with him in his exile, and when he returned his house was occupied by the ten women whom he had left to keep it, and with whom Absalom had behaved dishonourably. And here was another trouble resulting from the rebellion that could not be adjusted in a satisfactory way. The only way of disposing of them was to put them in ward, to shut them up in confinement, to wear out the rest of their lives in a dreary, joyless widowhood. All joy and brightness was thus taken out of their lives, and personal freedom was denied them. They were doomed, for no fault of theirs, to the weary lot of captives, cursing the day, probably, when their beauty had brought them to the palace, and wishing that they could exchange lots with the humblest of their sisters that breathed the air of freedom. Strange that, with all his spiritual instincts, David could not see that a system which led to such miserable results must lie under the curse of God!
As events proceeded, it appeared that active mischief was likely to arise from Sheba’s movement. He was accompanied by a body of followers, and the king was afraid lest he should get into some fenced city, and escape the correction which his wickedness deserved. He accordingly sent Amasa to assemble the men of Judah, and return within three days. This was Amasa’s first commission after his being appointed general of the troops. Whether he found the people unwilling to go out again immediately to war, or whether they were unwilling to accept him as their general, we are not told, but certainly he tarried longer than the time appointed. Thereupon the king, who was evidently alarmed at the serious dimensions which the insurrection of Sheba was assuming, sent for Abishai, Joab’s brother, and ordered him to take what troops were ready and start immediately to punish Sheba. Abishai took "Joab’s men, and the Cherethites and the Pelethites, and all the mighty men." With these he went out from Jerusalem to pursue after Sheba. How Joab conducted himself on this occasion is a strange but characteristic chapter of his history. It does not appear that he had any dealings with David, or that David had any dealings with him. He simply went out with his brother, and, being a man of the strongest will and greatest daring, he seems to have resolved on some fit occasion to resume his command in spite of all the king’s arrangements.
They had not gone farther from Jerusalem than the Pool of Gibeon when they were overtaken by Amasa, followed doubtless by his troops. When Joab and Amasa met, Joab, actuated by jealousy towards him as having superseded him in the command of the army, treacherously slew him, leaving his dead body on the ground, and, along with Abishai, prepared to give pursuit after Sheba. An officer of Joab’s was stationed beside Amasa’s dead body, to call on the soldiers, when they saw that their chief was dead, to follow Joab as the friend of David. But the sight of the dead body of Amasa only made them stand still - horrified, most probably, at the crime of Joab, and unwilling to place themselves under one who had been guilty of such a crime. The body of Amasa was accordingly removed from the highway into the field, and his soldiers were then ready enough to follow Joab. Joab was now in undisturbed command of the whole force, having set aside all David’s arrangements as completely as if they had never been made. Little did David thus gain by superseding Joab and appointing Amasa in his room. The son of Zeruiah proved himself again too strong for him. The hideous crime by which he got rid of his rival was nothing to him. How he could reconcile all this with his duty to his king we are unable to see. No doubt he trusted to the principle that "success succeeds," and believed firmly that if he were able entirely to suppress Sheba’s insurrection and return to Jerusalem with the news that every trace of the movement was obliterated, David would say nothing of the past, and silently restore the general who, with all his faults, did so well in the field.
Sheba was quite unable to offer opposition to the force that was thus led against him. He retreated northwards from station to station, passing in succession through the different tribes, until he came to the extreme northern border of the land. There, in a town called Abel-beth-Maachah, he took refuge, till Joab and his forces, accompanied by the Berites, a people of whom we know nothing, having overtaken him at Abel, besieged the town. Works were raised for the purpose of capturing Abel, and an assault was made on the wall for the purpose of throwing it down. Then a woman, gifted with the wisdom for which the place was proverbial, came to Joab to remonstrate against the siege. The ground of her remonstrance was that the people of Abel had done nothing on account of which their city should be destroyed. Joab, she said, was trying to destroy "a city and a mother in Israel," and thereby to swallow up the inheritance of the Lord. In what sense was Joab seeking to destroy a mother in Israel? The word seems to be used to denote a mother-city or district capital, on which other places were depending. What you are trying to destroy is not a mere city of Israel, but a city which has its family of dependent villages, all of which must share in the ruin if we are destroyed. But Joab assured the woman that he had no such desire. All that he wished was to get at Sheba, who had taken refuge within the city. If that be all, said the woman, I will engage to throw his head to thee over the wall. It was the interest of the people of the city to get rid of the man who was bringing them into so serious a danger. It was not difficult for them to get Sheba decapitated, and to throw his head over the wall to Joab. By this means the conspiracy was ended. As in Absalom’s case, the death of the leader was the ruin of the cause. No further stand was made by any one. Indeed, it is probable that the great body of Sheba’s followers had fallen away from him in the course of his northern flight, and that only a handful were with him in Abel. So "Joab blew a trumpet, and they retired from the city, every man to his tent. And Joab returned unto Jerusalem, to the king."
Thus, once again, the land had rest from war. At the close of the chapter we have a list of the chief officers of the kingdom, similar to that given in chapter 8 at the close of David’s foreign wars. It would appear that, peace being again restored, pains were taken by the king to improve and perfect the arrangements for the administration of the kingdom. The changes on the former list are not very numerous. Joab was again at the head of the army; Benaiah, as before, commanded the Cherethites and the Pelethites; Jehoshaphat was still recorder; Sheva (same as Seraiah) was scribe; and Zadok and Abiathar were priests. In two cases there was a change. A new office had been instituted - "Adoram was over the tribute;" the subjugation of so many foreign states which had to pay a yearly tribute to David called for this change. In the earlier list it is said that the king’s sons were chief rulers. No mention is made of king’s sons now; the chief ruler is Ira the Jairite. On the whole, there was little change; at the close of this war the kingdom was administered in the same manner and almost by the same men as before.
There is nothing to indicate that the kingdom was weakened in its external relations by the two insurrections that had taken place against David. It is to be observed that both of them were of very short duration. Between Absalom’s proclamation of himself at Hebron and his death in the wood of Ephraim there must have been a very short interval, not more than a fortnight. The insurrection of Sheba was probably all over in a week. Foreign powers could scarcely have heard of the beginning of the revolts before they heard of the close of them. There would be nothing therefore to give them any encouragement to rebel against David, and they do not appear to have made any such attempt. But in another and higher sense these revolts left painful consequences behind them. The chastening to which David was exposed in connection with them was very humbling. His glory as king was seriously impaired. It was humiliating that he should have had to fly from before his own son. It was hardly less humiliating that he was seen to lie so much at the mercy of Joab. He is unable to depose Joab, and when he tries to do so, Joab not only kills his successor, but takes possession by his own authority of the vacant place. And David can say nothing. In this relation of David to Joab we have a sample of the trials of kings. Nominally supreme, they are often the servants of their ministers and officers. Certainly David was not always his own master. Joab was really above him; frustrated, doubtless, some excellent plans; did great service by his rough patriotism and ready valour, but injured the good name of David and the reputation of his government by his daring crimes. The retrospect of this period of his reign could have given little satisfaction to the king, since he had to trace it, with all its calamities and sorrows, to his own evil conduct. And yet what David suffered, and what the nation suffered, was not, strictly speaking, the punishment of his sin. God had forgiven him his sin. David had sung, "Blessed is the man whose iniquity is forgiven, whose sin is covered." What he now suffered was not the visitation of God’s wrath, but a fatherly chastening, designed to deepen his contrition and quicken his vigilance. And surely we may say. If the fatherly chastening was so severe, what would the Divine retribution have been? If these things were done in the green tree, what would have been done in the dry? If David, even though forgiven, could not but shudder at all the terrible results of that course of sin which began with his allowing himself to lust after Bathsheba, what must be the feeling of many a lost soul, in the world of woe, recalling its first step in open rebellion against God, and thinking of all the woes, innumerable and unutterable, that have sprung therefrom? Oh, sin, how terrible a curse thou bringest! What serpents spring up from the dragon’s teeth! And how awful the fate of those who awake all too late to a sense of what thou art! Grant, O God, of Thine infinite mercy, that we all may be wise in time; that we may ponder the solemn truth, that "the wages of sin is death"; and that, without a day’s delay, we may flee for refuge to lay hold of the hope set before us, and find peace in believing on Him who came to take sin away by the sacrifice of Himself!
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Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on 2 Samuel 19". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 21 / Ordinary 26