II Samuel 14:21-33
21 The king said to Joab, “Very well, I will do it. Go, bring back the young man Absalom.” 22 Joab fell with his face to the ground to pay him honor, and he blessed the king. Joab said, “Today your servant knows that he has found favor in your eyes, my lord the king, because the king has granted his servant’s request.” 23 Then Joab went to Geshur and brought Absalom back to Jerusalem. 24 But the king said, “He must go to his own house; he must not see my face.” So Absalom went to his own house and did not see the face of the king. 25 In all Israel there was not a man so highly praised for his handsome appearance as Absalom. From the top of his head to the sole of his foot there was no blemish in him. 26 Whenever he cut the hair of his head—he used to cut his hair once a year because it became too heavy for him—he would weigh it, and its weight was two hundred shekels by the royal standard. 27 Three sons and a daughter were born to Absalom. His daughter’s name was Tamar, and she became a beautiful woman. 28 Absalom lived two years in Jerusalem without seeing the king’s face. 29 Then Absalom sent for Joab in order to send him to the king, but Joab refused to come to him. So he sent a second time, but he refused to come. 30 Then he said to his servants, “Look, Joab’s field is next to mine, and he has barley there. Go and set it on fire.” So Absalom’s servants set the field on fire. 31 Then Joab did go to Absalom’s house, and he said to him, “Why have your servants set my field on fire?” 32 Absalom said to Joab, “Look, I sent word to you and said, ‘Come here so I can send you to the king to ask, “Why have I come from Geshur? It would be better for me if I were still there!”’ Now then, I want to see the king’s face, and if I am guilty of anything, let him put me to death.” 33 So Joab went to the king and told him this. Then the king summoned Absalom, and he came in and bowed down with his face to the ground before the king. And the king kissed Absalom.
People are right to believe that certainly God must pardon, but are fatally wrong in not recognizing that the only kind of forgiveness He can give is also consistent with His justice. It means a great deal whether a man seeks to be good or bad. God’s pardon is not a mere good natured winking at transgression. If that were the case, the judge is condemned when the guilty is acquitted.
David, therefore, struck a fatal blow to his family and kingdom’s judicial system when he weakly let his son off without a penalty. And God too—if we could imagine this—would destroy the justice on which His kingdom is built were He to lightly forgive with a kind of weak love that indulged the sinner with no requirement of repentance. The story before us illustrates that not every act of mercy makes a man better.
David was influenced by parables. One was given by the Lord through Nathan, truthful and uncomplimentary, which produced repentance in David; the other by Joab, deceitful and complimentary, which produced a poor decision of leniency for Absalom. One brought great blessing; the other, brought great trouble in his family; one aroused him to do what he ought to do—repent of his sin with Bathsheba, the other gave the king an excuse to do what he wished to do—be lenient toward Absalom.
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. Absalom’s Conditional Restoration 21-24
Verse 20 recorded the end of David’s conversation with the woman from Tekoa and in the next verse we see a rather abrupt transition from speaking with her to speaking with Joab. David began this part of the conversation by saying, “Very well, I will do it. Go, bring back the young man Absalom” (21).
The woman was effective, efficacious and so successful that David right away gave the command to Joab to bring back his son. Joab had indeed read the situation correctly and the arguments of the woman simply served to release David to do what David wanted all along to do.
As an aside, what would the administration of the Christian Church be like today if every Christian leader had the discernment to know what people wanted to do—how people wanted to serve—as accurately as Joab did? Would God give that information to us if we asked Him or the people who want to serve in our churches? The operation of Christ’s church might go more smoothly if each person received the ministry assignment to serve in the opportunity, position or vacancy that that person really wants. Experience in church administration teaches us to try to connect tasks—jobs that need to be done—with people who have the skills needed to do that job In other words, put people in places of service in which their gifts and abilities can flourish.
Even so, Joab went through the motions—sincere or not we do not know—of thanking David profusely, “Joab fell with his face to the ground to pay him honor, and he blessed the king. Joab said, ‘Today your servant knows that he has found favor in your eyes, my lord the king, because the king has granted his servant’s request’” (22). Can we see in Joab, who now sought the banished son to restore him to his father, a picture of the Son of David who came to seek and save that which was lost? Certainly we recognize that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself; that Jesus is the great Mediator who interceded in our behalf bringing us from banishment to fellowship with the Father.
Joab took David’ words as a kindness to himself, and possibly an indication that David would never call him to an account for his murder of Abner. If that were true, Joab was mistaken because I Kings 2:5-6 tell us otherwise, “Now you yourself know what Joab son of Zeruiah did to me—what he did to the two commanders of Israel’s armies, Abner son of Ner and Amasa son of Jether. He killed them, shedding their blood in peacetime as if in battle, and with that blood he stained the belt around his waist and the sandals on his feet. Deal with him according to your wisdom, but do not let his gray head go down to the grave in peace.” Joab would finally be justly executed.
Joab brought Absalom to Jerusalem, on David’s condition: “Then Joab went to Geshur and brought Absalom back to Jerusalem. But the king said, ‘He must go to his own house; he must not see my face.’ So Absalom went to his own house and did not see the face of the king” (23-24). This may appear to be fair, but we do not understand why David, who claimed to love the law of God and consider it sweeter than honey from the honeycomb, allowed Absalom to escape the justice of Genesis 9:6 which says, “Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind.” Judges and kings were to administer justice even to their own families. We each need to decide whether or not we truly love God and His Word. Absalom would be a serious problem to David and all Israel as is evident soon enough when he attempted to become Israel’s next king.
David may have hoped that Absalom would on his own discover his sin himself and repent, but we will see that just the opposite occurred. The unrepentant Absalom continued on his ambitious path with too much success too rapidly. Galatians 6:7 says, “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows,” and this is amply demonstrated in the story of Absalom.
2. Absalom’s Physical Appearance 25-27
Absalom was a very handsome and evidently winsome man though nothing good can be said about his reverence for God. His father was devoted and godly, but not the son. Parents can give an education to their children—though we may well wonder if David even did this—but they cannot give them grace. We can pray for them, spend time with them, befriend and influence them—and we should do these things, particularly as Christian leaders to demonstrate the success of a Christian family—but only God can save them. So let us earnestly pray for them and do the other things as God enables us.
In all Israel there was none equal to him in good appearance and beauty. “In all Israel there was not a man so highly praised for his handsome appearance as Absalom. From the top of his head to the sole of his foot there was no blemish in him” (25). This is certainly a weak commendation if he had nothing else in him of worth. Many a corrupt soul lives in a handsome or beautiful body. His charming and pleasing body was polluted with blood. It had no blemish but in his mind were many damages and lacerations. Was his father distracted from his need to correct him because he was so pleased with his beauty? If so, let us learn not to be caught by that lovely and attractive snare. Let the man or woman of God focus on inner beauty which is of great price both in ourselves and our children.
Even his hair was an attractive aspect of his appearance. What color was it? Was it curly? Or with waves? Was it soft? “Whenever he cut the hair of his head—he used to cut his hair once a year because it became too heavy for him—he would weigh it, and its weight was two hundred shekels by the royal standard” (24). This long hair was not like the hair of the devoted Nazarite; it was the long hair of a beauty. It did not demonstrate his devotion; it illustrated his vanity. Numbers 6:5 says, “During the entire period of their Nazirite vow (of dedication to the Lord), no razor may be used on their head. They must be holy until the period of their dedication to the Lord is over; they must let their hair grow long.” Later in his last battle his beautiful long hair cost him his life.
Verse 27 says, “Three sons and a daughter were born to Absalom. His daughter’s name was Tamar, and she became a beautiful woman.” How are these three sons to be reconciled with II Sam. 18:18? “During his lifetime Absalom had taken a pillar and erected it in the King’s Valley as a monument to himself, for he thought, ‘I have no son to carry on the memory of my name.’ He named the pillar after himself, and it is called Absalom’s Monument to this day.” Maybe the sons were born after he set up the monument earlier in life. Or perhaps they died and then, having no living son, Absalom erected the monument. The fact that he erected a monument to himself tells us something of his vain character. When my ego wants so much to be appreciated, honored or remembered, I must recall that no monument is as important as having approval from our Heavenly Father. That is monument enough.
3. Absalom continues to Press His Case 28-32
Three years Absalom was in exile with his grandfather and for two years he was a prisoner at large in his own house restored to his country. Was he humbly grateful for this favor that he so little deserved? No. Rather than being grateful for his good advantage, he wanted to be restored to his place at the king’s court—very possibly with his long-range goal to become the king in mind. Instead of being thankful that his life was spared, he thinks himself sorely wronged that he is not restored to all his places at court. Had he truly repented of his sin, his distance from the parties and dinners at the court, and the solitude and withdrawal to his own house, especially in Jerusalem the holy city, would have been very agreeable to him. If a murderer must live, let him be forever alone and unattached. But Absalom could not bear this just and gentle mortification.
He longed to see the king’s face, pretending it was because he loved him, but really because he wanted a chance to overthrow him. He cannot injure him until he is reconciled to him. This is just another step in his plan; this snake cannot bite again until he is close to his father. Does he go about getting access to his father by kind means? No, just the opposite.
Twice Joab ignored Absalom’s invitation to talk and when those efforts failed he had his servants burn the field of Joab who we understand now to be, not only his cousin, but also his neighbor. If we don’t get anything else out of this entire lesson, this is worth our attention and will be ample reward for our effort to conduct this study. Verse 30 says, “Then he said to his servants, ‘Look, Joab’s field is next to mine, and he has barley there. Go and set it on fire.’” Some proud men and women have an entitlement mentality; no matter how much good you do for them, because they feel they are entitled to it, they cannot be thankful; rather they feel everyone owes them the favors they receive. This is the opposite of thankfulness and does not look good on a Christian leader. Any kindness our people show us derives more from their love for the God we serve than our deserving the blessings they are to us or the blessings they give to us. Absalom teaches us how to be ungrateful; we must do the opposite.
So Absalom’s servants set the field on fire. How is it that Absalom expected that by doing this unkind deed he can persuade Joab to do another kind one? Sampson set the fields of the Philistines on fire by tying torches to the tails of foxes and setting them free in their fields. Is that a way for godly people to win friends and influence people? You would think Absalom would rather send him a gift, a kind message or an invitation to dinner.
Whatever the reasoning on both sides, Joab complied and met Absalom who further pressed his case. Verse 32 says, “Absalom said to Joab, 'Look, I sent word to you and said, “Come here so I can send you to the king to ask, ‘Why have I come from Geshur? It would be better for me if I were still there! Now then, I want to see the king’s face, and if I am guilty of anything, let him put me to death.’” Maybe Joab was surprised by Absalom’ boldness. We don’t know, but we do know that he went on his errand to the king in Absalom’s behalf. The message to the king was essentially a complaint and a demand to be restored to the court. He said he wanted to see the king’s face, but Absalom’s subsequent actions make clear that there was another motive in his heart. Included in his complaint is this rhetoric question: “Why have I come from Geshur?” That, indeed, is a pertinent question. Why indeed? Absalom would never admit it anyone, especially the king. But he had his reason for wanting to return from Geshur. Perhaps his entitlement mentality had been strengthened by his experience at Geshur with his grandfather. His grandfather, Talmai, would have had servants coming and going at his beck and call. Absalom, who already felt he was a handsome and privileged prince, could easily have desired that kind of authority, power, recognition and honor more and more. And set himself to gain it in Israel.
4. A Very Superficial Restoration 33
Verse 33 says, “So Joab went to the king and told him this. Then the king summoned Absalom, and he came in and bowed down with his face to the ground before the king. And the king kissed Absalom.” David’s strong affection for Absalom colored his interpretation of his sons words and actions too nicely. Absalom’s was not a sincere desire out of respect; it was very different from that. Wise men, good-hearted fathers, can be the undoing of their own children if they are blinded by their charms. Absalom bowed low, but his posture was a deceit. David’s kiss was sincere and showed forgiveness and acceptance, but it was misplaced, for the son was not penitent. God who sees our hearts, forgives us freely and kisses us with many blessings can do that because He sees our repentance and contrition.
The Absalom who experienced shallow-grace came back unsoftened, without one touch of gratitude toward his father in his base heart, without the least gleam of a better nature dawning upon him, and went flaunting about the court until his viciousness culminated in his unnatural rebellion. The pardon we receive must entail an element which will change our wills and desires from evil—we call it “conversion”—or we will need the pardon again too soon. Superficial notions of our sins are contented with superficial remedies.
If once we feel ourselves struggling in the black flood of sin’s awful river, we need a firmer anchor on the bank than is given by some rootless tree or other. We must clutch something that will withstand a strong pull, if we are to be drawn from the muddy waters.
- There is a time for mercy. The Bible teaches us to be merciful and to treat people better than they deserve. Even to occasionally err on the side of mercy could be okay, but if there is never a place for correction and justice, when will we learn accountability, responsibility and obedience?
- There are times when mercy alone is inappropriate. Mercy alone allows for greater offenses, which is really unmerciful, since it releases one to advance to greater sin and guilt.
- It is difficult to discipline those you love. But love that is unjust with no accountability is weak and leads to further complications.
- David’s subsequent problems with Absalom were the result of David’s inappropriate use of mercy—his weakness.
- If Absalom had been held accountable and repented, all Israel would have benefited. The story could have been entirely different.
- Appropriate discipline: A. acts as a deterrent, B. acts as a corrective and C. upholds standards of justice. It is fair and teaches fairness.