II Samuel 14:1-20
1 Joab son of Zeruiah knew that the king’s heart longed for Absalom. 2 So Joab sent someone to Tekoa and had a wise woman brought from there. He said to her, “Pretend you are in mourning. Dress in mourning clothes, and don’t use any cosmetic lotions. Act like a woman who has spent many days grieving for the dead. 3 Then go to the king and speak these words to him.” And Joab put the words in her mouth. 4 When the woman from Tekoa went to the king, she fell with her face to the ground to pay him honor, and she said, “Help me, Your Majesty!” 5 The king asked her, “What is troubling you?” She said, “I am a widow; my husband is dead. 6 I your servant had two sons. They got into a fight with each other in the field, and no one was there to separate them. One struck the other and killed him. 7 Now the whole clan has risen up against your servant; they say, ‘Hand over the one who struck his brother down, so that we may put him to death for the life of his brother whom he killed; then we will get rid of the heir as well.’ They would put out the only burning coal I have left, leaving my husband neither name nor descendant on the face of the earth.” 8 The king said to the woman, “Go home, and I will issue an order in your behalf.” 9 But the woman from Tekoa said to him, “Let my lord the king pardon me and my family, and let the king and his throne be without guilt.” 10 The king replied, “If anyone says anything to you, bring them to me, and they will not bother you again.” 11 She said, “Then let the king invoke the Lord his God to prevent the avenger of blood from adding to the destruction, so that my son will not be destroyed.” “As surely as the Lord lives,” he said, “not one hair of your son’s head will fall to the ground.” 12 Then the woman said, “Let your servant speak a word to my lord the king.” “Speak,” he replied. 13 The woman said, “Why then have you devised a thing like this against the people of God? When the king says this, does he not convict himself, for the king has not brought back his banished son? 14 Like water spilled on the ground, which cannot be recovered, so we must die. But that is not what God desires; rather, he devises ways so that a banished person does not remain banished from him. 15 “And now I have come to say this to my lord the king because the people have made me afraid. Your servant thought, ‘I will speak to the king; perhaps he will grant his servant’s request. 16 Perhaps the king will agree to deliver his servant from the hand of the man who is trying to cut off both me and my son from God’s inheritance.’ 17 “And now your servant says, ‘May the word of my lord the king secure my inheritance, for my lord the king is like an angel of God in discerning good and evil. May the Lord your God be with you.’” 18 Then the king said to the woman, “Don’t keep from me the answer to what I am going to ask you.” “Let my lord the king speak,” the woman said. 19 The king asked, “Isn’t the hand of Joab with you in all this?” The woman answered, “As surely as you live, my lord the king, no one can turn to the right or to the left from anything my lord the king says. Yes, it was your servant Joab who instructed me to do this and who put all these words into the mouth of your servant. 20 Your servant Joab did this to change the present situation. My lord has wisdom like that of an angel of God—he knows everything that happens in the land.”
We are to “tell the truth in love,” “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ,” and obey scriptures’ teaching for when someone is overtaken in a fault. This emphasis suggests we are to be accountable to each other and help each other grow. But, in recent years we have almost exclusively emphasized comfort, mercy, tolerance, compassion, empathy, and sympathy. It is good to understand those softer virtues—but we have applied them inappropriately. According to scripture, we are to confront, hold people accountable, and help each other grow in character. Judgment “begins in the household of God.” We have produced a generation of comfortable Christians whose life- style and standards of behavior are not much different from the world’s. We have not grown in personal character as we could have.
The Bible interprets the Bible. Every text must be interpreted in view of what is said in the rest of the Bible. This helps us avoid extremes. Consider fasting in view of what the Bible says about feasting. Interpret mercy in view of what the Bible says about accountability, justice and the correction of each other. This lesson and the next one address accountability, not because mercy is not biblical, but because undue emphasis on mercy only minimizes the restraining power of the accountability we need to grow in personal character as God would have us.
1. The Plot of Joab and the woman from Tekoa 1-4
Joab designed to get Absalom recalled out of banishment with his crime pardoned. This was because Joab sensed that David wanted this. Verse 1 says, “Joab son of Zeruiah knew that the king’s heart longed for Absalom.” So Joab busied himself with an elaborate and effective plan. He felt the bitterness between David and Absalom had dissipated and that he, himself, would benefit by gaining more favor with both of them. Joab understood that Absalom was the darling of the people and a rising star and that David was more inclined to be merciful than to discipline his son.
We do not know if Joab had heard of Nathan’s parable and it’s effective use in bringing to David and awareness of his sin with Bathsheba or not. At any rate he designed to present to David, through a believable person with a believable story, a case sufficiently like David not bringing Absalom back to Jerusalem that the king could be trapped in his own words. The unnamed wise woman from Tekoa presented her story well enough that the king thought he was hearing about a real case and quickly pronounced his verdict which gave favor to the guilty one in the widow’s story. Joab knew that David could be moved emotionally by a sad story told effectively by a wise woman. So Joab and the woman undertook to bring Absalom back to Jerusalem through a guise. Verses 2-3 say, “So Joab sent someone to Tekoa and had a wise woman brought from there. He said to her, ‘Pretend you are in mourning. Dress in mourning clothes, and don’t use any cosmetic lotions. Act like a woman who has spent many days grieving for the dead. Then go to the king and speak these words to him.’ And Joab put the words in her mouth.” The woman not only spoke well, as we will shortly see, she also acted effectively. Verse 4 says, “When the woman from Tekoa went to the king, she fell with her face to the ground to pay him honor, and she said, ‘Help me, Your Majesty!’”
2. The Story the Woman Told 5-11
David knew that God was mindful of the needs of widows. Ps 68:5 says, “A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling.” We can be thankful that God’s ears and heart are more likely than a human judge or king to receive the cry of a widow. But David was nevertheless moved by her story. The woman’s story was an indirect appeal for compassion and even before she began her story the king already began to make it easy for her for verse 5 begins with “The king asked her, ‘What is troubling you?’”
She said her husband was dead and unfortunately one of her two sons killed the other one and that she was trying to protect the life of her last remaining son who was guilty of murder. Some of the other relatives wanted him dead. Years earlier Rebekah had faced a similar problem. Esau wanted to kill Jacob so she helped Jacob escape thereby avoiding Jacob being killed and Esau becoming a murderer. She asked Jacob, “Why should I lose both of you in one day?” The story the widow told David had a similarity with this even though Esau had not yet killed Jacob. We must stop the death of the last remaining son.
The king first said that he would issue a decree, which was lenient, but when she insisted that the avenger of blood not be able to destroy her remaining son, he still did not answer her according to the law, but took the initiative to promise that not even one hair of her son would be harmed. Verses 8-11 say “The king said to the woman, ‘Go home, and I will issue an order in your behalf.’ But the woman from Tekoa said to him, ‘Let my lord the king pardon me and my family, and let the king and his throne be without guilt.’ The king replied, ‘If anyone says anything to you, bring them to me, and they will not bother you again.’ She said, ‘Then let the king invoke the Lord his God to prevent the avenger of blood from adding to the destruction, so that my son will not be destroyed.’ ‘As surely as the Lord lives,’ he said, ‘not one hair of your son’s head will fall to the ground.’” At last the woman obtained what she wanted, not only protection from the avenger of blood but also that the king would invoke the Lord to that effect. When the king swore as she wanted him to, he was trapped.”
In verse 9 she had made a promise that was not her’s to make. She said if you will pardon my son, then let the king be without guilt: “Let my lord the king pardon me and my family, and let the king and his throne be without guilt.” “Let me bear the blame” is what she was claiming when she said, “Let the king and his throne be without guilt.” But what if the king were later to learn that she had misrepresented the story? Did she really have the authority to release the king from guilt?
Nathan’s parable served to bring awareness of guilt to the guilty David who was not until then willing to admit guilt. But Joab was not a righteous man of God with a message from God; his parable served to release the guilty son in the woman’s story and Absalom from guilt; not only the widow’s guilty son—if she really had one—but the guilty son of David, Absalom who most certainly was guilty, had not repented and never did repent of his murder of Amnon. One parable brought due guilt to the truly guilty and the other one released guilt from the truly guilty. Where is responsibility, justice and accountability? And for our purposes in our own efforts for self-development as ministers of God, where is development or improvement of character—or the possibility of those occurring—when the guilty are not held accountable?
An alternate interpretation of this conversation would be to say that David was right to be lenient with the widow’s son and with his own son. The woman might have argued for mercy with this line of thought, “Your Majesty, consider this good reason there is for a merciful sentence. Remember how gracious and merciful the Lord your God is. Remember how the Lord forgave you of the blood of Uriah. Let the king, that received mercy, now show mercy.”
Four things, however, seem to indicate that this was not a time for mercy, but rather a time for justice. First, Scripture itself says, “When justice is done, it brings joy to the righteous but terror to evildoers” (Proverbs 21:15) and Isaiah 26:9-10, which says, “My soul yearns for you in the night; in the morning my spirit longs for you. When your judgments come upon the earth, the people of the world learn righteousness. But when grace is shown to the wicked, they do not learn righteousness; even in a land of uprightness they go on doing evil and do not regard the majesty of the Lord.”
Secondly, David was weak not to have corrected his sons. He was responsible to correct them, but did not. Other verses demonstrate that David did not, by being lenient with them, serve his children well. For example, I Kings 1:6 speaking about says Adonijah, the younger brother of Absalom says, “(His father had never rebuked him by asking, “Why do you behave as you do?” He was also very handsome and was born next after Absalom.) Thirdly, cities of refuge were available and had a God-ordained protocol for handling murders. The young man in the widow’s story had been fighting. It was not an accidental death. Fourthly, as the story of Absalom’s restoration unfolds it reveals that David and all of Israel would have been saved much grief—a civil war—had David corrected Absalom firmly rather than being so “merciful.” Such “mercy” is not mercy; it is weakness and not only Absalom suffered because of it.
3. The Application of the Story 12-17
The woman received permission to speak more. “Then the woman said, ‘Let your servant speak a word to my lord the king.’ ‘Speak,’ he replied. So the woman proceeded with a mixture of truth and its misapplication. Verses 13-14 say, “The woman said, “Why then have you devised a thing like this against the people of God? When the king says this, does he not convict himself, for the king has not brought back his banished son? Like water spilled on the ground, which cannot be recovered, so we must die. But that is not what God desires; rather, he devises ways so that a banished person does not remain banished from him.” Joab knew how the land lay, that David is thinking of the brilliant, but good for nothing Absalom and devised a clever story sufficiently like the real situation and put it in the mouth of a widow who could receive pity from David. The woman had David in a trap—since he has promised to waive justice and absolve her guilty son.
The wise woman’s saying went deep into the heart of the king. She turned the king’s oath against him and required him to bring back his own guilty and unrepentant son; his "banished” son. She implied that human power is most noble when the guilty go unpunished, penalties are abandoned and wanderers are restored.
Now, for a moment, lay aside the metaphor of the widow’s “two sons” and Absalom as well. Who are the banished? This woman laid to heart the great, awful truth that sin results in separation from God. They are not necessarily glaring criminals, but the whole human race is included. As Cain was banished, and had taken flight, now Absalom had taken flight and was banished. So all of us in the human race generally, and from time to time each of us individually, are both banished and take flight from the presence of a holy God who loves righteousness and hates evil. We cannot be blessedly and peacefully close to God unless we are also far from sin.
God’s love will never abandon us, so He is always available, but our sin interferes. Two flat polished plates of metal can adhere, can be close, but if there is sand between, they are not comfortable together; they grate against each other. So our sin separates us from God. He resists our sin and we flee from his holiness. We are both at flight and banished, and both of these conditions are self-inflicted—they are our fault. The problem that separates needs to be solved before justified restoration can occur.
David’s dilemma: David was Absalom’s king and had to consider law and justice, but David was also Absalom’s father and his heart cried out for his son. A banished son is still a son for whom the loving father yearns. Only the redeemed are true “sons of God,” since only in a broader sense, the heavenly father—like David—yearns for fellowship with His banished sons and daughters and designed a way to satisfy His own sense of justice and restore them to himself—to make them true sons and daughters.
God’s love moves around the worst, the most unworthy, the most rebellious in the far-off land, and does not desire the death of the banished sinner, but rather that he would turn from his sin, repent, and live—not only have life, but life abundant. God wants to restore, but He wants to do it the right way.
In the woman’s parable, she says in verse 14 that “he (God) devises ways so that a banished person may not remain estranged from him.” God works to restore the banished, to heal the relationship. He not only brings the son geographically from one place to another, but psychologically, emotionally and relationally turns hearts toward, instead of away, from each other. And he deals effectively with the issue that originally produced the banishment. It was a major task that required God to “devise ways.” David restored the banished, but did it poorly. God did it and did it right—it cost’s Jesus’ life.
The widow’s case apparently accomplished what Joab and the widow wanted and the time came to apply it to Absalom. The king appeared to be surprised, but does not seem to be displeased that the mouth of the people—the story-teller—is actually making a case for his own beloved son. She wrongly assumed that Absalom’s was the same as her son’s. So if the king will protect my son, then He will also protect and restore his own son.
Apparently the king was pleased with her wit and conduct. But, Absalom’s case differed very much from her story. Absalom was not an only son. He killed his brother at a table before guests, maliciously and with long-term animosity. Absalom did not slay his brother upon a hasty passion, but upon an old grudge; not in the field, where there were no witnesses, but at the table, before all his guests. “We must all die.” was certainly an exaggeration. Yes, we will will die and Amnon would someday have died too, but that did not make Absalom’s murder excusable. Leaving Absalom in his self-imposed banishment does not bring Amnon back. Yes, but that is not a good defense. Murder is murder and demands accountability.
4. Joab’s Role Revealed 18-20
The king suspected that the hand of Joab was in the matter and the woman acknowledged this was so. Why would a woman—a plain citizen from Tekoa in the Judean countryside not far from Bethlehem—want to be involved in the political developments in the kingdom?
The woman immediately and openly admitted it. Verse 19b-20a say, “Yes, it was your servant Joab who instructed me to do this and who put all these words into the mouth of your servant. Your servant Joab did this to change the present situation.” Perhaps she was implying that if David thought it was a good idea, thank Joab, and if it was a bad idea, likewise let Joab be responsible. It is more likely, however, that she was giving Joab the credit for something that was agreeable to the king. It was therefore easy for her to tell the truth. Joab wanted to change the situation. Good! Then let Absalom repent.
But there is a problem—The whole drift of popular thinking today goes in the direction of a superficial and easy gospel—“Oh, of course, God forgives like David forgave. Isn’t God, love? Is not God, our Father?” People forget there are formidable obstacles to divine forgiveness. The gospel, which says “God will pardon, of course!” sounds very charitable, but at the bottom is unquestionably cruel. Such a Gospel reduces a sense of personal responsibility, abolishes accountability and leads people, like it led Absalom, to careless ambition. The possibility and potential for personal development is almost completely eliminated.