Absalom, O Absalom

And the king covered his head, and cried with a loud voice: O my son Absalom, O Absalom my son, O my son.

2 Kings 19:4

King David had nineteen sons and one daughter by his legitimate wives, and their family life was not without its fair share of drama and intrigue. It’s difficult to really name all of his sons to everyone’s recognition as they’re different in various sources. But here they are:

  • Amnon – Achinoam the Jezrahelite
  • Daniel – Abigail of Carmel
  • Absalom – Maacha
  • Adonias – Aggith 
  • Saphatias – Abital
  • Jethraham – Michal 
  • Simmaa/Shimea – “Treasure” – [probably] Bathsheba
  • Sobab/Shobab – “Returned, turned back, a spark” – Bathsheba
  • Nathan – “he gave” – Bathsheba
  • Solomon –“peace” – Bathsheba
  • Jebaar/Ibhar – “chosen”
  • Elisama/Elishua
  • Elipheleth
  • Noge/Nogah
  • Nepheg
  • Japhia
  • Elisama/Elishama
  • Eliada
  • Elipheleth

He had others by his concubines.

The most famous of these sons are no doubt Absalom and Solomon. Solomon is famous because he became the king after David. And Absalom is famous because of his ghastly death at the hands of Joab, after mysteriously usurping his father’s throne.

In the Scriptures there’s no real reason given for Absalom’s actions. There’s none of the “he was given over to evil”, or “the Lord allowed an evil mood to come over him” type of things. The Scriptures do want us to know though, that he was without a doubt the best looking man in all of the land.

Absalom grew up in the household of the king and wanted for nothing, really. He was popular. Everyone loved him, including King David. He experienced a personal tragedy after his older brother Amnon – the firstborn son of the king – fell in love with his sister Tamar. Tamar, like Absalom, was gifted with a rare beauty.

Amnon, after pining away mercilessly then consulting with the local evil overlord, schemed to have Tamar visit him at home, then made his demand for sexual relations with her. She refused his advances honorably. Then he raped her and put her out of his house, now disgusted by her presence.

Absalom took her in, and was no doubt surprised when King David did not punish Amnon. Instead, after two years Absalom had Amnon killed on his own, seeking justice and vengeance for his sister.

Here is where Absalom differs from his father David.

King David almost never veers from his reliance on the Lord, in good times and in bad. His famous indiscretion with Bathsheba and the sending off of her husband to a planned death is an obvious exception. But he is always allowing the Lord to guide him. Absalom here takes vengeance into his own hands. And no doubt from there his heart is simply further hardened.

David doesn’t punish Absalom for this murder, except for not allowing him into Jerusalem. But after several years he is convinced to allow Absalom to move back to Jerusalem, and Absalom takes up a place at the gates of the city, greeting everyone coming and going.

Absalom is extraordinarily good looking. He has a huge head of beautiful hair that grows so abundantly the Bible even says “This Absalom was a man of good presence and famed for his beauty, none like him in all Israel; from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head was no blemish to be found; and when he cut his hair, as each year he must for the heavy burden it was, the locks that were cut weighed two hundred sicles by common weight.” Two hundred sickles is about six pounds.

His good looks and charm won many people over to him – but it’s all a part of his nefarious scheme to take the throne from his father.

The plan works for a time and Absalom is “king” of the land. However, in pursuit of David who has fled into exile, a massive battle is planned and David wins, as he always does in battles. He once again does not want to punish Absalom. He is always merciful to his children.

But Absalom is murdered after his abundant hair, a symbol of his pride, becomes entangled in a low lying oak tree, where he hangs futilely awaiting a rescue that will never arrive. Joab, who had his own beef Absalom, strikes him through the heart with three darts and has his head cut off. This doesn’t go over well with King David, who mourns the loss of his son greatly.

In the meantime one of the great wise men of Israel, Ahitophel, had taken sides with Absalom over David. Being one of the most sage in the land, one is given to wonder why he would be won over by mere beauty and charm. When Absalom is routed and suffers misfortune, Ahitophel goes home, puts his affair in order, and hangs himself.

David, upon learning of Absalom’s death, utters those famous lines “Absalom, O Absalom, my son O my son.”

What Can We Learn from This Sordid Drama?

The more things change, the more they remain the same.

Many see in the betrayal of David by Ahitopel an image of Judas Iscariot and the betrayal of Jesus. Ahitopel commits the first recorded suicide in biblical history; Judas betrays Jesus and then commits suicide himself. Ahipotel was considered extremely wise, and yet he was taken in as a fool. Stay on guard and never rest on your laurels when it comes to wisdom.

There’s also no reference – ever – of Absalom speaking with the Lord God almighty, relying on him, or otherwise invoking the Divine Presence. King David does this constantly (except of course as noted above when he falls in lust with Bathseba.) Absalom relies on his smooth talking, good looks and charm to manipulate people into doing what he wants them to do. It’s the classic reliance on self rather than upon God. Vengeance is mine, says the Lord, and Absalom is making vengeance his own – which backfires. He conspires against Amnon after Amnon rapes his sister Tamar. And he conspires against David after David doesn’t punish Amnon. Maybe leaving things in the hands of the Lord and trying a different route would have been a better bet.

There’s no eucatastrophe here, (eucatastrophe being a sudden turn of events for the better.) Sometimes tragedies just happen.

David the Merciful

Through it all, King David is a picture of justice and mercy. David sinned in a major way. So when others did he was understanding, and his love for them won over his desire for punishment. Maybe he should have considered harsher punishment and Absalom would have been a bit more hesitant to usurp the throne?

As David is merciful toward his family, so our Heavenly Father is merciful toward us. And then we, as Absalom, are quite capable of going astray, relying on self and the gifts God has given us to manipulate our lives into a goodness.

Evil always starts seeming simple, easy and beautiful. Absalom, with his good looks and winning ways, seemed like the sure and certain bet instead of the old king up in the palace, even though that old king had been proven by the Lord many times over. And even though that old king had taken a small nation on the verge of ruin and turned it into a major powerhouse in the ancient world. And for Absalom, it seemed simple to win everyone over and take the place of his father in their hearts. The Lord had given him good looks, why not use them?

So when things present themselves to us in life, the good the bad and the ugly, we have to remember the call of the Lord upon our lives. What is our own purpose and work? What are the gifts he has given which we could coast upon and take the easy way to a position of our own choosing, versus the gifts we have that He would like for us to use for a greater good of service to Him and to our neighbor?

Poor Absalom. He had it all. And he threw it all away.

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