Introduction: 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-styles 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. Consider mercy in view of what the Bible says about accountability, justice and the correction of each other. Here we will address accountability, not because mercy is not biblical, but because undue emphasis on only mercy reduces the sense of responsibility we need to grow in personal character as God would have us.
Second Samuel chapters 13 – 19 discuss very interesting history full of ethical lessons for believers. David’s son, Amnon, raped Tamar, David’s daughter by another wife by whom he also bore Absalom—Absalom and Tamar were siblings; Absalom then killed Amnon and feared to return to Jerusalem. Absalom, did, however, return to the capitol, stole the hearts of Israel, and marched against his father’s armies, whereupon David nobly fled rather than see bloodshed in Jerusalem; David humbly loved his rebellious son right up to Absalom’s death; David was eventually restored to Jerusalem. We pick up the story in chapter 14 where a pivotal tactical error occurs—David does not hold his son accountable, but is soft on crime.
II Samuel 14
14 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[a] 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.” 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[b] 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.
Joab knew how the land lay, that David was 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 widow pled that the “only burning coal” in her hand would not be “put out” (v 7). The king’s sympathy was aroused, as a merciful king, who gave his word and then his oath that the offender should be safe. The woman had David in a trap—since he had 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. She implied that human power is most noble when penalties are abandoned and wanderers are restored.
Now, 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.
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 all whose sins have removed them from His presence.
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 did it, but did it poorly. God did it and did it right—it cost’s Jesus’ life.
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. Isn’t God, love? Is not God, our Father?' People forget that there are formidable obstacles to even divine forgiveness. The gospel, which says 'God will pardon, of course!' sounds very charitable, but at the bottom is very cruel. Why?
People are right in believing 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 just laws. 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.
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.
God had to “devise ways.” Even God cannot—especially God cannot—by an arbitrary act pardon a sinful man. His nature and law forbid it. Even God had to devise means—and the very one who was alone qualified to take vengeance, took it not, but found a remedy. “Love found a way to redeem my soul, Love found a way that could make me whole; Love sent my Lord to the cross of shame, Love found a way, O praise his holy name.” Love did not just forgive; it found a way to justly forgive. Payment of the penalty was made by Jesus and if we only repent we receive our pardon. David’s problem was not that he forgave, but that he forgave without requiring repentance.
It appears that Joab—also a murderer—may have had a wrong motive for seeking favor with Absalom. If Absalom owed Joab a favor, Joab would stand a chance of remaining commander of the armies were Abaslom to rule instead of David. Both Joab and Absalom were rascals. Motives to be merciful can be ulterior. The rascal, Joab, seized an opportunity to give undue mercy because he wanted eventually to receive undue mercy. True biblical mercy, however, has elements of penalty paid, repentance, conversion, and genuine restoration. Absalom’s restoration had none of those elements.
There is a similarity in the tactic of Joab and that of Nathan who both told David a parable. Both times, when David pronounced judgment, he was caught in his own words.
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.
But notice the dissimilarities between the son in the story and the real son, Absalom. Her son did it without malice or intent, in hasty passion in a field. Absalom had held a grudge, had his men kill his brother maliciously in his home as his brothers sat at the table together with many witnesses. She had only one son. David had many. Furthermore, she claims that “We must die” (v 14). But this was not true. David had other sons including recently born Jedidiah, a name God gave Solomon, which means loved of God. Yet David was persuaded by her faulty logic.
Three years in exile was followed by two years of house arrest without seeing the king. In both the three and the two-year periods, Absalom was treated better than he deserved. Yet his spirit was not humbled, his pride not mortified and instead of being thankful that his life was spared, he thought himself sorely wronged that he was not restored to the grandeurs of the King’s court.
In vs. 25 & 26 Absalom is described as handsome, but we read nothing of his devotion, wisdom, or having a heart toward God. To be handsome is poor commendation for a person with nothing else commending him. Many a polluted, deformed soul dwells in a good-looking, well built, and handsome body. Handsome Absalom’s was polluted with blood and deformed with desire for his brother’s life and his father’s throne. In his body was no blemish, but his mind and spirit were bruised, twisted, wounded, and ambitious. Pity the parent who raises handsome sons and beautiful daughters who know nothing of virtue, honesty, work, courtesy, and character. These are virtues that are truly handsome and beautiful.
The ancients were accustomed to give much care to hair. Curiously, David promised the widow that, “not one hair of your son’s head will fall to the ground.” By interesting contrast to the fictitious son in the widow’s parable, Absalom, David’s own son, had rich luxurious hair that was cut annually, and weighed about three pounds each time. So luxurious was Absalom’s hair that when doing battle against his father’s army riding his mule through the forest, that luxurious hair was caught in a tree and, in contrast to David’s promise that the widow’s son’s hair would not fall to the ground, would not let Absalom down to the ground in safety, but rather hung him up. Absalom was caught by his lovely hair and Joab thrust three javelins into his heart as he hung on the oak tree. Cursed beautiful hair! Outward appearance has no comparison with inward character.
A fair body is also a gift of God, but what does physical beauty help, if there is no fair soul living on the inside? On the other hand, a deformed and ugly man who has beauty of soul is worth much in the sight of God. The Lord looks at the heart.
V WEAKNESS (THAT LOOKED LIKE MERCY)
Absalom pretended to love and want to see the king’s face, but actually he wanted to supplant him. He cannot do his father mischief until he is restored to him. This snake cannot sting again until he is close enough to strike.
Absalom’s character is shown in that, instead of treating Joab kindly, he forces Joab’s attention by burning his fields. Sampson could think of no worse thing to do to his enemies than to burn their fields and Absalom does this to the very one who had helped him return from banishment. Absalom’s character of haughty revenge was shown in setting the field on fire.
Notice verse 32 where Absalom’s speech had words that sounded good to the loving, dotting, and forgiving father. “I want to see the king’s face and if I am guilty of anything let him put me to death.” In fact, the opposite was true. See how easily wise and good men may be imposed upon by their own children that design ill, especially when they are blindly fond of them. Absalom’s words and bowing (v 33) testifies to his sincerity, but his heart was far from it. Absalom was unrepentant and with savage defiance challenged his father to either kill him or release him.
David, at first, did not grant a full pardon. He still remembered Absalom’s murder of his brother Amnon and Absalom had given no hint of repentance. Yet David was already guilty of (1) weakness in not punishing Amnon for raping Tamar and then (2) not punishing Absalom for killing Amnon and (3) allowing an unrepentant Absalom to return to Jesusalem. Next, a greater weakness is shown in (4) allowing an emboldened defiant son greater liberties in Jerusalem! David was soon to taste the bitter fruits of his faulty weakness towards Absalom.
David sinned against the Lord in receiving Absalom into favor without penitence and again failing to punish him. When forgiving, neither truth nor justice are to be set aside. To forgive is right, but there is a condition—humble repentance. He who in unholy, weak love confounds the correct attitude of willingness to forgive with the actual act of forgiveness itself, and pardons even when the condition is not complied with, sins not only against God’s holy ordination of love, but also against his neighbor. The hard impenitent heart is the more hardened by such weak love, and drawn into further evil as Absalom’s example shows.
It is easily done to let loose an outrageous offender and a murderer, but not so easily is it excused before God. In excusing the unrepentant offender, blood-guiltiness is brought on the family, church, institution, or land and other great misfortunes are the result.
David, by his weakness towards Absalom, became guilty of causing the further breakdown of his family, which, in turn, produced the cause and beginning of the break up of the kingdom by Absalom’s revolt.
Chastisement without love is an outrage. No father is at liberty to plague or torture his child; but a love that cannot lovingly and firmly chastise is no love, and reaps a poor reward. A child that is not appropriately punished by parents, at last, punishes parents.
- There is a time for mercy. The Bible teaches us to be merciful and to treat people better than they deserve.
- 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.
Not because we are unmerciful, but because we are merciful in the highest sense by requiring growth, we will show mercy when there is repentance and also make ourselves accountable to each other. Care enough about other’s growth to confront. Care enough about your own growth that you are willing to receive confrontation. Accountability is a key to personal character development—that all may see our good works and glorify our father in heaven and that the beauty of Jesus will be seen in us.
- In family—hold the line for the sake of character-growth in our children.
- In society—support accountability on the job, marketplace, and social relationships.
- In church—whether our children, their teachers, or our pastors, we should hold each other accountable. Otherwise, our ease on sin will spiritually infect the whole body.