There comes a time in the lives of individuals and societies when reality has to hit hard. Chapter 15 of 2 Samuel, that we are to study tonight and Absalom's conspiracy, records such a time in the life of King David from which you need to learn. For David is hugely significant in salvation history. By comparison, Abraham, the father of the faith, has 14 chapters of the Bible recording his life and experiences. David, however, has 62! However, without further introduction let us look now at 2 Samuel 15; and my headings are: first, What is Happening? Secondly, Why is it Happening? and, thirdly, Lessons for Today.
So, first, What is Happening?
Look at chapter 15 verse 1:
"After this Absalom [the son of King David, the great ancestor of Jesus Christ] got himself a chariot and horses, and fifty men to run before him."
A few words of immediate context for that statement. Chapter 13 of 2 Samuel details the rape of Tamar, Absalom's sister, by her half-brother Amnon. It details how so often immoral sexual activity means lies and deviousness for a moment's pleasure that is followed by a life-time of pain or, in Amnon's case, death. For Absalom, Tamar's brother, now took the law into his own hands and by more deceit murdered Amnon. He invited him to a party, got him drunk and then had his servants kill him. Absalom then fled to his grandfather, Talmai, the King of the sheikdom of Geshur, some way to the North West, on the edge of the desert along the road to Damascus. He there spends three years in self-imposed exile, probably realizing that he deserved and could expect the death penalty if he went back to Jerusalem. But then, as we learnt last week, David allows him to come back to Jerusalem without threat of execution, but in a state of half-exile. So David says in chapter 14.24:
"Let him dwell apart in his own house; he is not to come into my presence."
And we are told he lived like this for two years. But then Absalom forced Joab, one of David's military commanders, to get him an audience with the King, his father, by the ruthless move of setting on fire Joab's field. So we read in verse 33 of chapter 14:
"he came to the king and bowed himself with his face to the ground before the king, and the king kissed Absalom."
Without, therefore, any rebuke or punishment for his murdering his brother, David just turns a blind eye to what has happened. Well, that is where we start with chapter 15, verse 1 and which is given without any explanation: "After this Absalom got himself a chariot and horses, and fifty men to run before him." 50 men are more than a gang – it is a mini-fighting force. Absalom, in fact, is now doing his own active plotting and scheming under the very eyes of the King. For chapter 15, verses 2-4 tell us that …
" … Absalom used to rise early and stand beside the way of the gate. And when any man had a dispute to come before the king for judgement, Absalom would call to him and say, 'From what city are you?' And when he said, 'Your servant is of such and such a tribe in Israel', Absalom would say to him, 'See, your claims are good and right, but there is no man designated by the king to hear you.'"
So at one and the same time he disloyally criticizes his father's government: "there is no man designated by the king to hear you." But then he tells everyone they have a jolly good case to bring and it's a great pity that no one is there to sort things out: for, yes, "your claims are good and right". So what is the solution? Of course, according to Absalom, it is 'me being in charge of things, including the administration of justice. And all will be well'. Verse 4:
"Oh that I were judge in the land! Then every man with a dispute or cause might come to me, and I would give him justice."
And then, as they say, Absalom 'presses the flesh' – he gives everyone a great hug – verse 5:
"And whenever a man came near to pay homage to him, he would put out his hand and take hold of him and kiss him. Thus Absalom did to all of Israel who came to the king for judgement. So Absalom stole the hearts of the men of Israel [that great phrase]."
So like a modern politician standing for office, you somehow make things out to be awful as a result of someone else's leadership, while you, if in power, will bring health, wealth and happiness to all. But it can take some time to persuade enough people. It took Absalom four years, at the end of which he thought he'd done enough for a coup-d'état, and to get rid of his father, David. But it needed one final, really big, lie. Look at verse 7:
"at the end of four years Absalom said to the king, 'Please let me go and pay my vow, which I have vowed to the Lord, in Hebron. For your servant vowed a vow while I lived at Geshur in Aram, saying, "If the Lord will indeed bring me back to Jerusalem, then I will offer worship to the Lord."' The king said to him, 'Go in peace.' So he arose and went to Hebron."
And David is duped, since Absalom was doing anything but 'offer worship'. He was forming a revolutionary army. For, verse 10 says:
"Absalom sent secret messengers throughout all the tribes of Israel, saying, 'As soon as you hear the sound of the trumpet, then say, "Absalom is king at Hebron!"' With Absalom went two hundred men from Jerusalem who were invited guests, and they went in their innocence and knew nothing. And while Absalom was offering the sacrifices, he sent for Ahithophel the Gilonite, David's counsellor, from his city Giloh. And the conspiracy grew strong, and the people with Absalom kept increasing."
Then, and only then, do you get that sad verse 13 with the truth seen at last by David:
"a messenger came to David, saying, 'The hearts of the men of Israel have gone after Absalom.'"
But that did the trick. David starts now to face the situation that Absalom is conspiring probably to kill David, and take over as King. And the rest of the chapter shows something of the old David coming back. He starts to think rationally. He knew Hebron and Absalom were only a few miles away – like Corbridge or Morpeth – we are not talking about York or Edinburgh. So how to survive, was his problem. He would be trapped if he stayed in Jerusalem. But the wilderness meant security as he had proved himself in the past. Going West were the Philistines. In the South was Absalom. But going East was down to the Jordan valley and the cave networks for concealment. So as you read on in chapter 15 you hear how David's little army going East, crossed the Kidron and via the Mount of Olives went towards the wilderness. Look at verses 14-17:
"Then David said to all his servants who were with him at Jerusalem, 'Arise, and let us flee, or else there will be no escape for us from Absalom. Go quickly, lest he overtake us quickly and bring down ruin on us and strike the city with the edge of the sword.' And the king's servants said to the king, 'Behold, your servants are ready to do whatever my lord the king decides.' So the king went out, and all his household after him. And the king left ten concubines to keep the house. And the king went out, and all the people after him. And they halted at the last house."
So this little group – a little army - made its escape. We read later in this chapter it also consisted of faithful mercenaries. Some of them were Philistines, like the Cherethites and the men from Gath. One of them was Ittai, a Gittite, who seems to have recognized a new spirit in David. Then there were the chief priests, Abiathar and Zadok. But they were sent back with the Ark which David didn't want to be moved from its authorized place. He also wanted them (and their sons) to act as spies. But, then came that really big shock for David. When he reached the Mount of Olives, he was devasted to hear that his old adviser, Ahithophel, whom he rated highly, was not among this band of followers but with Absalom. Look at verse 30:
"But David went up the ascent of the Mount of Olives, weeping as he went, barefoot and with his head covered. And all the people who were with him covered their heads, and they went up, weeping as they went. And it was told David, 'Ahithophel is among the conspirators with Absalom.' And David said, 'O Lord, please turn the counsel of Ahithophel into foolishness.'"
That prayer can be seen as something of a turning point in world history. For read on from verse 32:
"While David was coming to the summit, where God was worshipped, behold, Hushai the Archite came to meet him with his coat torn and dirt on his head. David said to him, 'If you go on with me, you will be a burden to me. But if you return to the city and say to Absalom, "I will be your servant, O king; as I have been your father's servant in time past, so now I will be your servant", then you will defeat for me the counsel of Ahithophel.'"
David then explained how Hushai, as an informer, could liase with Abiathar and Zadok. Verse 37:
"So Hushai, David's friend, came into the city, just as Absalom was entering Jerusalem."
And, God willing, next year when we continue with the life of David, we will hear how Hushai made Absalom ignore Ahithopel's strategic advice which would have meant David's immediate defeat. Instead Absalom believed Hushai's alternative plan. This gave David time to reach a secure base and muster more support. So God amazingly answered David's prayer of verse 31, "O Lord, please turn the counsel of Ahithophel into foolishness," by providing, seemingly out of the blue, Hushai! And all that is what is happening.
So, secondly, Why is it Happening?
There are many causative factors. There are political factors – David was probably getting politically careless. Maybe David was just politically bored or weary – hence the carelessness. But first and foremost was the issue of David's family and sex life. Deuteronomy is clear: a king, although he had the power to, was (Deut 17.17) …
"not [to] acquire many wives for himself, lest his heart turn away".
When earlier David was at Hebron, his first born - Amnon, his second - Ahinoam, his third - Absalom, his fourth - Adonijah, his fifth - Shephatiah, and his sixth son - Ithream were all born from different women. Polygamy, or course, was never said to be right. But gradually, in the Bible, people saw how wrong it was, with Jesus' teaching on divorce and remarriage finally ruling it out by what he implied. The Church of England bishops in 1991 put it well, when they said:
"There is in Scripture an evolving convergence on the ideal of lifelong, monogamous, heterosexual union as the setting intended by God for the proper development of men and women as sexual beings. Sexual activity of any kind outside marriage comes to be seen as sinful, and homosexual practice as especially dishonourable. It is also recognised that God may call some to celibacy for particular service in his cause. Only by living within these boundaries are Christians to achieve that holiness which is pleasing to God."
And now social science confirms that God's way, as the Bible outlines it, is for human flourishing. So negatively, in families with the non-involvement of the birth father, the consequences, on average, are bad, as David discovered. Professor A.H. Halsey of Oxford, in his introduction to the ground-breaking study, Families without Fatherhood, by Norman Dennis, the social scientist from Newcastle University, and George Eardos, said this:
"No one can deny that divorce, separation, birth outside marriage and one-parent families as well as cohabitation [and we can add same-sex unions] and extra-marital sexual intercourse have increased rapidly. Many applaud these freedoms. But what should be universally acknowledged is that the children of parents who do not follow the traditional norm (i.e. taking on personal active and long-term responsibility for the social upbringing of the children they generate) are thereby disadvantaged in many major aspects of their chances of living a successful life. On the evidence available such children tend to die earlier, to have more illness, to do less well at school, to exist at a lower level of nutrition, comfort and conviviality, to suffer more unemployment, to be more prone to deviance and crime, and finally to repeat the cycle of unstable parenting from which they themselves have suffered."
Of course, these are just averages. And there are many parents in such disrupted families through no fault of their own, who do a fantastic job. And God helps them. Some of them will be here tonight. And there are perfect families with bad outcomes for their children. However, reality has to be faced. And David was having to face the reality of being a bad father. Certainly he spoilt his sons, probably as compensation for not giving them the attention they should have had. Just turn on to 1 Kings 1 when Adonijah wickedly, after the death of Absalom, is trying to wrest the throne from Soloman. There is this throwaway sentence in verse 6:
"His father [that is, David] had never at any time displeased him [Adonijah] by asking, 'Why have you done thus and so?' He was also a very handsome man."
And there are more than hints that Absalom was similarly spoilt. David's problem, of course, was compounded in the case of Bathsheba. From that first look at Bathsheba naked, there was then deceit, covetousness (of another man's wife), adultery and murder – the murder of an innocent man, Bathsheba's husband Uriah. So David broke at least four of the Ten Commandments. And Absalom's conspiracy and all David had to suffer as a result was present judgment for these sins. Nathan, the prophet, made God's verdict clear – 2 Samuel 12.10-14:
"'Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised me and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife.' Thus says the Lord, 'Behold, I will raise up evil against you out of your own house … For you did it secretly, but I will do this thing before all Israel and before the sun.' David said to Nathan, 'I have sinned against the Lord.' And Nathan said to David, 'The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die. Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child who is born to you shall die.'"
So David had to face reality. Forgiven, yes, and spiritually David's relationship with God was restored. But there would still be social consequences in this life. And, yes, God would use these to teach David lessons which he could teach others through his Psalms. But Absalom would still conspire against David and fulfil that prophecy.
So, thirdly, and finally and very briefly, Lessons For Today.
First, these sad and sordid events in the Old Testament, the New Testament says (1 Corinthians 10.6) "took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did." So be warned by David (and Absalom). The problems behind 1 Corinthians 10 were from Moses' time, but also sexual immorality and "grumbling" (a form, often, of disloyalty) – exactly what we have had to consider tonight in 2 Samuel. And they are still today's temptations. For sexual temptation is now made so easy. And it has always been easy to be disloyal in the family, at work, or anywhere. But what happens when you are tempted? Well, listen to 1 Corinthians 10.11-13:
"Now these things happened to them [in Old Testament times] as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore, let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it."
Never think you are too good to be tempted. Perhaps some here tonight know how relevant the case of David is for them? So on this Palm Sunday, as we look ahead to Good Friday and the possibility of forgiveness through Christ's Cross and Easter Day and Christ's Resurrection and new life by his Holy Spirit, let me leave you some words that can never be repeated too often. They are from Hebrews 4.14-16, and with them I conclude:
"Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need."
Who needs to do that right now?