Today in the Divine Office we read of the tragic loss of Absalom, the Son of King David. And yet it remains true that too many of our own children today are lost, if not in death, surely in many other social ills and a lack of faith. What went wrong with Absalom and How was David to blame? What can we learn from this tragic tale?
First some back ground.
Of all the great Patriarchs of the Old Testament, David is among the greatest. Warrior and King, composer and conqueror, unifier and organizer, a man after God’s own heart. He united not only the 12 often fractured Tribes of Israel, but, as a kind if priest-king, stitched together the religious faith of Israel with its governance. King among them, he also collected and disseminated the great prayer-book of Israel, the Book of Psalms, composing many of them himself. So great was David, that among the most well known titles of Jesus would be, “Son of David.”
And yet, like almost all the great figures of the Bible, David was a man who struggled and was flawed. His demons would lead him even to murder as he amassed power and wives. And though he brought unity and governance to 12 contentious tribes, his own family was in a ruinous condition: afflicted by a murderous internecine conflict which had David for its much of its sinful source, and which he seemed powerless to stop.
In the end his family intrigues would cause the delicate union of the Israel he had woven, to come unraveled. And in David’s flaws are important lessons for our times as well.
Let’s recall a few details of King David’s life and domestic difficulties and see where things unravel.
David was the youngest son of Jesse, of whom God said, I have provided a king for myself among [Jesse’s] sons (1 Sam 16:1). Of David it is clear that he was chosen especially by God, for the Lord instructed Samuel to look for him saying, Do not consider his appearance or his height, ….The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart ( 1 Sam 16:7).
Yes, there was something about David’s heart that God loved. Whatever his later flaws, David had a heart for God, and God a heart for David. Upon Samuel’s anointing of David, the Scripture says: And from that day on the Spirit of the LORD came upon David in power. ( 1 Sam 16:13)
Unifier – Upon the death of Saul, Ten Tribes from Israel in the north divided against Judah in the South, and war ensued. But through military action, and other more diplomatic efforts, David was successful in reuniting the Kingdom in 1000 BC. He drove out the Hittites to establish Jerusalem as the Capital. He also wove the kingship together with Israel’s faith in order to establish deeper ties among the Israelites. Thus Jerusalem also became the place of the Temple of God, and the Ark. It was during this time that David both collected, and probably wrote, a good number of the Psalms.
Yes here was the great man of whom God said I have found David the son of Jesse, a man after My own heart, who will do all My will (Acts 13:22; 1 Sam 13:14). But God only seldom (such as with Mary) uses sinless humanity. We carry the treasure of God’s love in earthen vessels (cf 2 Cor 4:7). David’s strength was admixed with weakness and flaws, flaws which cascaded down through the lives of others, and gravely affected the Kingdom he was privileged to set forth.
Trouble begins with the fact that David had eight wives whose names we know: Ahinoam, Abigail, Maacah, Haggith, Abital, and Eglah; later Michal and Bathsheba. The Biblical text suggests he had other wives as well, upon settling in Jerusalem. From these David had 19 sons. Let the internecine intrigue and blood-letting begin.
Disclaimer – It is true that, as many will hasten to point out, that polygamy was common among the ancient patriarchs. Yes, it was. But that it was common does not shield from the fact that, as the Scriptures consistently show, Polygamy always brings terrible results: infighting, rivalries, and often murderous intrigue. I have written more in this problem here: Don’t Do Polygamy.
God in setting forth marriage in Genesis 1 & 2 prescribed one man for one woman in a stable and fruitful relationship. God created for Adam, only Eve, and not also Jane and Sue and Mary and Ellen and Samantha. And God said that a man (singular) shall leaven his father and mother (singular) and cling to his wife (singular) the TWO (not three or more) of the them shall become one (Gen 2:24).
Diversions from this God-given model bring only sadness and even death. David’s many marriages and sons by different mothers, is no exception, and the flawed family structure will bring real devastation not only to David’s family, but to all Israel.
First Degree Murder – David, already with many wives and competing sons, deepens the trouble when he has Uriah the Hittite killed, and takes his wife Bathsheba. The remarkably wicked act of murder rooted in lust and fear, shows a deep flaw in King David for which he is repentant, writing Psalm 51, the Miserere. But Bathsheba’s inclusion into the royal family only adds to the intrigue in the family, and the royal court. For she later advances the cause of her son, Solomon, against David’s older sons.
Rape – Even prior to that pot boiling over, tragedy had struck elsewhere in David’s family, among his sons. His eldest Son and likely heir, Amnon grew desirous of, and eventually raped his half sister Tamar daughter of David by his wife Maacah. “Blended families” have a higher degree of sexual abuse for the rather obvious reason that step-relations include less sexual reserve than full-blooded ones.
Weak Father – After the rape, according to Scripture, And when king David heard of these things he was exceedingly grieved: but he would not afflict the spirit of his son Amnon, for he loved him, because he was his firstborn (2 Sam 13:21). This was a mistaken understanding of love. For the love of a Father for his son must include discipline, and insistence on what is right. Amnon had seriously sinned and owed restitution. David remained quiet when he should have spoke and acted.
Resentful Son – Hence, due to David’s inaction, one of David’s other sons (and full brother of Tamar), Absalom, grew furious at what was done to his sister. He thus plotted, and eventually killed Amnon, and then fled to the Land of Geshur. David now had lost two sons and had a daughter who had been raped.
For indeed, though eventually pardoned by his father, King David, Absalom had grown bitter against David and raised an effective rebellion against him. In the war that ensued, Absalom and his rebellion were put down, and Absalom killed.
David seemed well aware of his role in Abasolom’s rebellion and demise. He had said earlier, when one of Absolom’s followers came cursing him: If he is cursing because the Lord said to him, ‘Curse David,’ who can ask, ‘Why do you do this?’” David then said to Abishai and all his officials, “My son, who is of my own flesh, is trying to take my life. How much more, then, this Benjamite! Leave him alone; let him curse, for the Lord has told him to. It may be that the Lord will see my distress and repay me with good for the cursing I am receiving today.” (2 Sam 16:10-12) Upon Absalom’s death David cried: O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you–O Absalom, my son, my son!” (2 Sam 18:33).
Court and family intrigue continues right up to David’s death. The now oldest, and likely successor and son of David, Adonijah, was ousted from succession by David’s wife Bathsheba who, working with Nathan, promoted her son Solomon, while David lay feeble and largely forgetful. Claiming she had earlier secured a private vow from David regarding Solomon’s succession, she set loose a power struggle between Adonijah and Solomon. In the end Solomon prevailed over Adonijah, and, after David’s death Solomon had his half-brother (Adonijah) killed.
Like Father Like Son – Solomon, though a great king in his own right, inherited some of his father’s foibles. He ended with having 1000 wives and as Scripture says of him: King Solomon, however, loved many foreign women…As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the Lord his God, as the heart of David his father had been. He followed Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and Molech the detestable god of the Ammonites. So Solomon did evil in the eyes of the Lord; he did not follow the Lord completely, as David his father had done. (1 Kings 11:4-6).
The End of the Kingdom – So unraveled did Solomon become, and so disconcerting were his family and foreign intrigues, that shortly after his death, during the reign of his polygamous and expansionist son, Rehoboam. Israel again broke apart into the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah. They would never reunite.
How remarkable that King David, so highly regarded, not only by humanity, but by God himself, would have such deep flaws. And how remarkable too that, being as gifted as he was, David also brought such pain and sorrow to his family and, by extension to Israel.
What are the lessons for us? Let’s begin with the negative.
The first lesson is that allowing the family to decay and drift from God’s intended structure and form brings great harm. David’s polygamy, his unlawful and sinful acquisition of Bathsheba, his playing of favorites, and his refusal to correct and punish Amnon for the rape of Tamar, all contributed to serious and deadly consequences. And these deadly consequences expanded far beyond David’s own family, and rippled through all Israel leading ultimately to its break down and demise.
Some may argue that norms for marriage and family were less clear at this early stage of Israelite history, and that we ought not project later norms back on these times. I beg to differ. For Genesis 1 and 2 clearly set for the norms of Marriage as God intends: one man for one woman in a stable fruit-bearing relationship till death do them part. One man clinging to one woman, being fruitful and multiplying through their children. This is God’s plan as set forth in Genesis 2.
The first lesson for us is that our family struggles and modern departure from biblical norms regarding the family also have grave effects that extend beyond merely our own families. As divorce and remarriage, single parenthood, homosexual unions, and (coming soon) polygamy, proliferate in our culture, increasingly grave effects befall us as our children. There is often lack of proper discipline and supervision, and a lack of proper role models, and often gravely dysfunctional settings. As a result, our whole society grows weaker and more dysfunctional.
As the soil of the family grows ever thinner, we cannot expect to find the taller growths. And when the family is not strong, neither is the community, Church or nation. Birthrates fall and test scores fall, abortion, teenage pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, single motherhood and divorce all rise.
Our children are in the balance, and we like David, seem to have little will or ability to change our ways. And though we see destruction, even death all around us, there seems little collective will to repent, live chastely and exemplify biblical marriage. In so doing we act not only sinfully, but also unjustly to our children, our community, our Church and nation.
And, as with ancient Israel, our future is tied to our decisions regarding our families. As our families go, so will the nation go. The Church will ultimately remain, but she is sorely weakened by our collective lack of resolve to restore our families.
This is lesson one.
Lesson two – Despite David’s committing of some pretty serious sins, to include premeditated murder; despite also his flaws and weakness, Scripture clearly attests God’s love for David. God’s himself says of that he is a man after My own heart (Acts 13:22; 1 Sam 13:14). Yes, God had a heart for David, a special place in His heart.
And to be fair, David also had a great heart for God. It is true David was a sinner, and in several ways a very serious sinner. But he knew that, and was repentant (cf: 2 Sam 16:10-12; Psalm 51; 2 Samuel 12:11ff, inter al). He was a great King, to be sure, but also a humble man. In his final words near the end of his life, he advised: He that ruleth over men, must be just, ruling in the fear of God (2 Samuel 23:3). And though David sinned, he had a reverential fear for God rooted in love. He was a man after God’s own heart.
And herein lies the crux of this second lesson: God loves sinners, God uses sinners and flawed men and women. God can write straight with crooked lines, and make a way out of no way. Perhaps God should not have to, but he seems more than willing to use us, even in our brokenness.
Are there consequences to sin? Yes. But does God withdraw his love? Never. Even for those who finally refuse his Kingdom and it values, somehow his love reaches even into Hell. For how else could the souls there live without his sustaining love.
We should never doubt God’s love for us, no matter how deep our flaws or serious our sins. God will never forsake us. He may allow us to experience the consequences of our sins, as he did with David, and seems to be doing with us now, but God never withdraws his love or fails to shepherd us rightly. Whatever our sins, we have but to seek his mercy, like David, and accept his love. We are men and women after God’s own heart.
We ought to learn the terrible lessons of the family of David and repent of any of the ways we in the modern setting too often repeat these sins. But in the end we must never forget God’s love for us, and acting out of the power of that Love, we must strive to bring healing to our often broken and dysfunctional families.
Painting above: David Repents from Wiki Commons
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