David Cries For Absalom

The ‘Big Idea’ today was about delivering bad news.  As children reporting to parents, in workplaces, in healthcare, in the course of price bargaining, or dispute resolution, we have all done it.  As parents, bosses, caregivers, selling goods or services, we have all done it.  I’ve got good news and bad news:  which do you want to hear first?   

In our relentlessly optimistic culture, we are assured that everything is getting better every day in every way for everybody.  That ‘myth of meritocracy’, blind faith in market forces, confuses providence with progress, amid cults of consumption and success.  Yet we know that our stories, at church, at home, or at work, are complex, not blithe ‘happily ever after’ fairy tales.  

Ours are harder stories to tell, and harder for others to hear. Who’s ‘normal’, and who is to blame, living out stories that won’t fit our cultural tropes?  Not everything different is a problem to fix, or a challenge to do better, but mystery to celebrate, savour, suffer, sorrow, mourn, or lament.  So David’s response to the bad news of his charismatic and rebellious son’s death echoes still: 

‘O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom!  
Would that I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!’ 

The real story is that God knows and loves us mortal, fallible folks better than we know and love ourselves, in real religious communities and traditions revealing real human nature and destiny, not idealistic distortions of progressive optimism.  So we might join George Grant’s “Lament for a Nation” (1964): 

As Canadians we attempted a ridiculous task in trying to build a conservative nation in the age of progress, on a continent we share with the most dynamic nation on earth. The current of modern history was against us… Those who loved the older traditions of Canada may be allowed to lament what has been lost, even though they do not know where or not that loss will lead to some greater political good. But lamentation falls easily into the vice of self-pity. To live with courage is a virtue, whatever one may think of the dominant assumptions of one’s age… 

David’s son Absalom did not die a natural death.  He did not suffer some disease, or fall victim to strangers. Absalom was leading an insurrection, a civil war against his father David.  He usurped his father’s throne, claimed David’s concubines.  He dies in a humiliating way: losing his mule, symbol of royal ambition lost, hung from the beautiful hair of vanity, as traitor, like Ahitophel. 

David was vulnerable to tensions among the tribes. He’d ruled Judah for years before Israel bought in. The last ones into the fragile alliance would be the first ones out of it.  David’s son, Absalom, the eldest and heir apparent, betrays his father, his people, himself.  He was not the first in the family to mess up, nor would he be the last.  David had lots of wives and children! 

Since the stories of Uriah and Bathsheba and Nathan in the past two Sundays, David’s son Amnon raped his half sister Tamar. Tamar’s brother Absalom invited Amnon to a party, assassinated him, and fled David’s fury.  General Joab got David to relent and permit Absalom back in town, but things were not the same between them.  Ahitophel goads Absalom to rebel. Hushai acts as double agent.  

If you’re looking for progress, with cowboys vanquishing villains, these bible tales won’t satisfy your tastes for success. On the other hand if you are looking for a mirror, an echo, to frame and make sense of real life, reassurance that God’s beloved suffer, in a world of people like you who are neither pure villains nor saintly heroes – this saga of the ‘Latter Prophets’ is worth reading! 

As Solzhenitsyn put it, the line between good and evil runs through each person and each moment.  It’s a false narrative to ‘get the bad guys with guns’ (but leave the good guys with theirs).  It’s distorting reality to ‘secure the homeland at all costs’ (including the souls of torturers, or the lives of refugees).  Yes, that was partisan politics – but I won’t demonize my opponents or beatify my allies. 

William Faulkner reflecting on the aftermath of the American civil war from a southern perspective, turned to this scripture for ‘Absalom, Absalom’. The novel plumbs a family tragedy in more than one voice.  That’s how this original version works.  What if we are not simply winners or losers?  What if our children are not our vindication? What if the next generation rejects a heritage?  

Have you ever despaired of your children? Have your elders ever despaired of you? Have you ever seen another family’s pain and wondered how to name it with compassion. Have you felt shivers of schadenfreude? God knows you have.  We all have. That’s what it is to be mortal, human, fallible, in relationships with other mortal, human, fallible humans.    

David musters troops for this civil war against his beloved son Absalom. The army is led in 3 parts by Joab, Abishai and Ittai. This is his starting line in hockey game… who’s missing?  The generals refuse to let David come along, knowing morale risks if David is killed or captured. His role is iconic, remaining in Jerusalem. He asks his soldiers to deal gently with young Absalom. 

 The campaign is brief and brutal. East of Jordan, in Ephraim’s woods in Gilead, David’s Judahites routed Absalom’s Israelites. The forest claimed more lives than the sword. Veterans will tell you that war is more about long waits, panics, then suffering combat nasty, brutish, short – campaigns long. Lives are claimed by attrition, field conditions, disease, collateral damage, not weapons. 

 Absalom’s humiliation is like that. Riding a mule, his neck or hair caught in the tree limb, the mule leaves him hanging between heaven and earth. A soldier declines to kill him, but reports to Joab the general. Why take the risk of ignoring David’s plea for mercy? Why take the chance Joab wouldn’t back him?  

Any soldier knows – never volunteer –  respect the chain of command. 

Joab may say he would have rewarded murder – who knows – is initiative really ever invited? Let Joab exercise his discretion to disobey David’s command.  That’s above a regular soldier’s pay grade: 3 darts to heart for 3 leaders’ complicity, then 10 elite bodyguards delivering the coup de grace like every senator stabbing Julius Caesar to share responsibility. 

What do you do, when another’s tragedy unfolds? What’s your response if your enemy is vulnerable? Do you go for the throat? Joab does the deed, with his 10 elite bodyguards. With Absalom dead, the civil war is over, and clemency can be offered to Israel’s armies to go home in peace. Despite what David asked,  

Joab won’t risk Absalom as a rallying point for the rebels. 

 Remember, the Big Idea for today: how do you deliver bad news, or receive it?  When a crisis is resolved, the news is also loss realized and grief felt. Young Ahimaaz, son of Zadok the priest, wants to tell David of the resolution and victory. He’s not as smart as a foot soldier. Joab, the wily old general, mentors Ahimaaz to be ambassador later. Send a Cushite, a North African mercenary. 
When Ahimaaz insists on telling David, Joab warns him: what’s the payoff?  Ahimaaz outruns the Cushite, ‘All is well! God has delivered you!’ But when David asks after Absalom, the penny drops for Ahimaaz, who shows he was shrewd enough to learn: ‘there was a big tumult, I don’t know what happened’.  

The Cushite delivers artfully: ‘may all enemies of the king get the same fate!’ 

David can’t celebrate victory over a prodigal son. David wept for Absalom, his dead rebel son. Absalom was not a problem solved, or a price paid, but a mystery to be celebrated,  and suffered, with sorrow, grief, loss, lament, grief: 

‘O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! 
Would that I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!’ 

Joab resents the slight to his troops, and forces David to review the troops.  David does, but Joab will back the next insurrection by another son, Abijah seeking succession rather than Solomon. Stay tuned next week for the end of this summer’s soap opera!  Who would you cast in your mental movie of all this – how would each role be played?  

 How do you make sense of tragedy? What side do you choose? What message do you bring? What side do you take in the next chapter?  Our ‘Son of David’ came 1000 years later.  People still expected vindication, success, victory - and got crucifixion, tragedy, suffering shared.  As I’ve said throughout this summer, “if you don’t know David, you don’t know Jesus.” 

Our movement has had great innings: Christendom, empire, power and glory.  But read the fiction and non-fiction of Russian Christians in the past couple of centuries, or Graham Greene’s tale of the humiliated whiskey priest in central America, ‘The Power and the Glory’. Imagine stories of our own near future! 

Our families, and our denomination, live out tales as tragic, sordid, petty, and trivial, as the cautionary tales of David in Samuel.  

So let’s deal gently with our would-be successors, take care not to demonize opponents in our civil and fraternal conflicts – including our own discernment of priorities among Trinity’s ministries, and what people are lost or lamented.   

Go with the incompetence theory before the conspiracy theory.  Hesitate to go for the throat, pause to reframe your message, learning with Ahimaaz that it often shows a fine command of language to say nothing, and it is permissible  to have an unexpressed thought.  

For a change of pace, we ended with the poetry of the repeated chorus of “Distant Early Warning” by Rush, from 1984’s  “Grace Under Pressure” album: 

The world weighs on my shoulders, but what am I to do? 
You sometimes drive me crazy, but I worry about you
I know it makes no difference, to what you're going through
But I see the tip of the iceberg and I worry about you