A Conspiracy of Bitterness

Text: 2 Samuel 15:1-12

Our text this morning tells the story of Absalom’s revolt against David. Most people know Absalom because of fabulous hair, weighing between 2 and 6 pounds, depending on which commentaries you read. Tradition says that this glorious hair eventually became his downfall, as it got caught in the limbs of a terebinth tree. But he had a significant life story before all of that. Chapters 13-18 of 2 Samuel are concerned with Absalom, and he did briefly manage to win over the hearts of Israel. He led a major revolution and forced David to flee Jerusalem, providing the context for at least two of the psalms. So we should know a little more about him, as well as how he was able to start his insurrection.

Absalom

Absalom was David’s third son and the likely heir to the throne, at least for a while. He had killed his older half-brother, Amnon, and as no mention is ever made of David’s second son (David had quite a lot of sons, as it turns out, see 1 Chronicles 3:1-9 for the 19 who are mentioned by name.), it seems likely that the succession would have naturally fallen to Absalom. His good looks and popularity also signify that he was an important figure in the political life of Israel, and 2 Samuel 8:18 says that David’s sons were leading political ministers. His father-in-law was also the king of Geshur, and so he would have been an obvious political star.

But Absalom turns against King David. In the opening verses of chapter 15 we see him acting like the king already. He multiplies horses and chariots, typically things seen as instruments of war, and he appoints heralds to run before him. “After this it happened that Absalom provided himself with chariots and horses, and fifty men to run before him” (vs. 1) He even intercepts people on their way to David’s court in order to subvert the normal order of law:

Now Absalom would rise early and stand beside the way to the gate. So it was, whenever anyone who had a lawsuit came to the king for a decision, that Absalom would call to him and say, “What city are you from?” And he would say, “Your servant is from such and such a tribe of Israel.” Then Absalom would say to him, “Look, your case is good and right; but there is no deputy of the king to hear you.”Moreover Absalom would say, “Oh, that I were made judge in the land, and everyone who has any suit or cause would come to me; then I would give him justice.” And so it was, whenever anyone came near to bow down to him, that he would put out his hand and take him and kiss him. In this manner Absalom acted toward all Israel who came to the king for judgment. So Absalom stole the hearts of the men of Israel. (vs. 2-6)

In doing all of this, Absalom clearly and intentionally undermines the people’s confidence in the king. He is effectively replacing David. But why?

Absalom actually has an important backstory in chapters 13 and 14. He was (understandably) very upset about what happened to his sister Tamar, when Amnon forced himself upon her. This is his driving motivation for the rest of his life. We can see this in several ways. The text portrays Absalom and Tamar as being very close. Tamar is consistently described as Absalom’s sister (and not just David’s daughter). Absalom even names his daughter Tamar (2 Sam. 14:27). 

Now, David gets angry about the Tamar incident, but he doesn’t take decisive action. Perhaps he couldn’t jeopardize the succession by exiling Amnon. Perhaps he was just soft towards his children. This is certainly how he appears throughout 2 Samuel. Or perhaps the guilt of his own sin with Bathsheba prevented him from being able to act justly against such a similar sin. Amnon was, after all, imitating his father. There’s an important lesson to be learned here. Sin has a way of paralyzing you. When you feel your own guilt, you are unable to boldly and confidently do what’s right, especially when your conscience is weighed down. And other sinners know this, and they know that they can take advantage of you in these situations. Another lesson is that our children almost always grow up to be like us. Make your life choices very carefully parents, because you are never just choosing for you. You are always choosing for your family.

Whatever the reason for David’s inaction, Absalom cannot tolerate it. He takes vengeance by killing Amnon, and thus falls out of favor with David for a season. When he returns, it seems, he already has his plot in mind. It doesn’t take him long to get to work.

Notice Absalom’s rhetoric in vs. 3-4: “’Look, your case is good and right; but there is no deputy of the king to hear you.’ Moreover Absalom would say, ‘Oh, that I were made judge in the land, and everyone who has any suit or cause would come to me; then I would give him justice.’” He is essentially saying “There is no one from the king who can help you. If I were in charge, I could do things the right way.” It all comes to the final implication, “Trust me instead of David!”

Ahithophel

In verse 12 we read that Absalom “sent for Ahithophel” in order to strengthen his forces. This might not mean much to us at first. Ahithophel is hardly known at all. But the text assumes that he is an important person (see 2 Sam. 15:12, 34). As it turns out, he too has a backstory. We know that he had been David’s counselor (2 Sam. 15:12, 1 Chron. 27:33), but if we pay attention to the genealogies, then we can also see an important piece of information: He was the grandfather of Bathsheba (2 Sam. 11:3, 23:34). This conspiracy is not made up of random malcontents, but rather very specific political actors who have a personal history together.

This relationship to Bathsheba explains his motivation. Ahithophel had seen David sin in a sexual manner and act unjustly towards his granddaughter’s husband. He had had to live with this grief for many years. He had also seen David fail to act against Amnon’s sexual sin, thus also behaving unjustly against Absalom. Ahithophel had lost confidence in David, and he has essentially the same cause for complaint as Absalom— David does not secure justice!

Bitterness and Wrath

Both men, Absalom and Ahithophel, had a shared complaint against David. They were truly a brotherhood of grievances, a conspiracy of bitterness. They both sat on their anger for years. They likely undermined the king in thought and word long before they decided to act, and when they finally got together, they made a powerful combination. They allowed their bitterness to lead to revolt.

We find ourselves in situations like this frequently in life. We feel that we have been done wrong and that those above us are failing us. The temptation is to take matters into our own hands, to jump the gun. Indeed, vigilantes quickly become brigands. Rather than considering proper jurisdiction, the complications involved in the situation, or the providence of God, they turn into traitors. At the times that we find ourselves tempted in this way we should remember the teaching of James, “So then, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath; for the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:19-20).

Also, contrast Absalom and Ahithophel’s reactions against David’s various personal examples. Even though he was destined to be the true king, already consecrated by Samuel, David never revolted against Saul (1 Sam. 24). He declined every opportunity to lead a revolution and attack Saul. He waited for his time. David was even merciful towards Absalom (2 Sam. 14), perhaps too much so. And after Absalom’s death, David mourned (2 Sam. 18). He had requested that Joab deal mercifully with Absalom, thus showing that, even in times of war and rebellion, David was a man slow to wrath and full of compassion. Perhaps it was due to his own sense of failings or his paternal love, but by this point in his life David desires mercy.

In this life, we must patiently bear imperfect situations and injustice (though we must try to be as just as we can!). We will often find ourselves in difficult dilemmas, where we have to put up with others sinning against us. We can certainly make use of the law, police, courts, and all earthly means, but we must understand that these are necessarily limited. We must look to God for our true and final justice.

This brings us to another teaching of the New Testament, first taught by Our Lord himself in the Sermon on the Mount and then by the Apostle Paul in Romans 12:

Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men. If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men. Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,”says the Lord. Therefore: If your enemy is hungry, feed him; If he is thirsty, give him a drink; For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:17-21)

But how can we do this? Doesn’t justice cry out? Aren’t we compelled to make sure the right thing is done?

While we must desire justice, we must also follow law and order. We must not rebel against our authorities, who have been given their authority by God. And we must not let our sense of pride turn into bitterness. Absalom is the product of a dangerous combination: genuine grievance with pride. He was not wrong to upset. He was wrong to refuse to bear with the situation. He was wrong in thinking that his personal interest justified revolution and law-breaking.

Putting up with injustice ultimately requires faith. You have to believe that God will sort it all out. You have to believe that he will take care of it. And as you wait for him to act, you have to put to death your own pride and personal demands. You have to value mercy over vengeance. And you have to wait upon the Lord.

Let us pray. Almighty God, grant us a sense of our own sinfulness and of your mercies, so that we may patiently bear with injustice in this life as we look to your hand for all protection and vindication. May we never cease to hunger and thirst for righteousness, but may we also never avenge ourselves. Vengeance is yours alone. Will not the judge of all the Earth do right? Sustain us in such trials, grant us patience, and act swiftly. And most of all, use these occasions to point us to the cross, the place where your Son satisfied all justice for us sinners, the place where your mercy and justice kissed, for our salvation and your glory. Amen.  

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