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Sermon preached on 2 Samuel 18:1-19:8 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 5/15/2016 in Novato, CA.
2 Samuel 18:1-19:8
“You Love Your Enemies and Hate Your Friends”
We know from the book of Ecclesiastes that life is full of different times. To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven. There is a time to show mercy; there is a time to administer justice. There is a time for war, and a time for peace. There is a time weep and mourn, and time to laugh and dance. There is a time to love and a time to hate. And yet this is what David struggles with here. King David is confronted by Joab, that he loves those who hate him, and hates those who love him, verse 19:6. And yet though Joab rightly critiqued David there, Joab himself is someone who has his own struggles with righteousness here. David in many ways shows himself showing unjust mercy in this passage, yet Joab’s harshness stands in contrast as having its own issues of morality. And yet we might note that Joab’s harshness gets the job done where David’s unjust mercy doesn’t. And so in this passage, David’s unjust mercy and Joab’s effective harshness are put into contrast. Let’s consider these both and then ultimately look at what God is doing through all of this.
Let’s begin with David’s unjust mercy. That language may be a bit hard to grasp. We tend to use the word mercy in only a positive way. But here David’s desires for mercy toward Absalom are not ultimately positive. Because of the fact that David is Absalom’s father, we can appreciate his desire for mercy. Because of the fact that David himself struggled with some of the sorts of sins that Absalom committed, we can also appreciate his desire for mercy. But at the end of the day, David wants to show a mercy to Absalom here that is frankly not warranted, and thus not righteous, given the circumstances.
We see his unjust mercy first in verse 5. Verse 5, “Now the king had commanded Joab, Abishai, and Ittai, saying, ‘Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.’ And all the people heard when the king gave all the captains orders concerning Absalom.” Realize that in general this was an out of the ordinary request. Here it is a wartime situation. David’s soldiers’ lives will be at risk as they try to defend David and try to stop the incoming threat. Surely the easiest way this civil war will end is frankly if either Absalom or David die. Obviously, if you are on David’s side, you will want that to happen to Absalom and not David. But now there is this extra request of David. A favor he asks, you might say. He wants, if at all possible, amidst this battle, for them to somehow capture Absalom instead of killing him. From a military strategy point of view, I would think that would complicate their tactics at least a little! But David asks for this as a special favor for himself.
But what is the value of such a request, apart from David wanting to somehow show pity and mercy to his son Absalom and keep him from meeting justice? You see, that is what Absalom deserves now. He has broken so many commandments that are worthy of death. He murdered his half-brother. He has dishonored his father. He has publically committed adultery and incest with his father’s concubines. He has committed treason. Before that, he lied to countless people as they came to Jerusalem, slandering his father to them, as he stole their hearts. Not to mention he even burned down some of Joab’s fields for no good reason. For so many laws in the Torah, Absalom deserved the death penalty. It’s kind of like how in our justice system people can be guilty of multiple counts of murder. Well, here if you put Absalom on trial, he would be guilty of breaking so many laws that deserve death. So many of these crimes were clearly known by all. Not to mention that now in his treason he has assembled an army of Israelites to go fight against their brothers so he can try to kill his Dad for no reason. Absalom would lead 20,000 of these Israelites to their death per 18:7; those deaths are also on Absalom’s head. Absalom does not deserve mercy here, and there is no good reason why David should show it in this situation.
Now let me step back and clarify that a little bit here. Surely we know mercy is a good thing. There is even a time and place for both kings and fathers to show mercy. But the job of kings and fathers is not first and foremost to show mercy. A primary task that God has given kings is to enforce justice. A primary task that God has given fathers it to chasten their children. Yes, there can and should be an element of mercy and grace that operates in that. But it nonetheless means that a king must ultimately make sure justice is served, and a father must make sure a wayward son is disciplined. This is especially the case when there is absolutely zero signs of remorse or repentance on the part of the individual. Absalom both needs and deserved punishment here. David’s pity for his son is understandable, but this is not the time for it. He only further endangers his troops with this special request. And it doesn’t serve Absalom ultimately in it either.
We see more of this same problem with David at the end of this passage. Starting in 18:33, and into chapter 19, we see David’s great mourning for his son. Without any sign of gratitude for his faithful men who risked their lives for him, David goes into this grand weeping for his son, and everyone is hearing it. Now, again, it is appropriate for David to have sorrow for his dead son. Surely, a father would not want his son to have done all these evils and reaped the result of them. There is a way that David could have mourned for Absalom that would have been right and good. But as he goes on and on like this, without any appreciation for his troops, he shames them, and shows an undue mercy and undue mourning for Absalom given how terribly wicked and evil Absalom had become.
And so in both David’s mourning and in his desire to have his troops deal kindly with Absalom, what would be the basis for such mercy? How could David show such mercy to Absalom that would in any way be just? This was David’s same problem with Amnon; after Amnon violated his half-sister, David wouldn’t execute justice because it was his beloved son. But that was wrong of David then, and it’s wrong of David now to show such mercy to Absalom who had committed so many more horrible crimes. You see justice had to be served in this situation. Interesting, David said in verse 33 if only he had died in Absalom’s place. That’s an interesting sentiment if we think of such a statement in the sense of David bearing Absalom’s punishment, but it’s a little late at this point for him to say something like that.
I am reminded of the many imprecatory psalms that David himself wrote. Such psalms are ones that specifically call out God’s judgment upon hardened wicked people. Those songs are right, albeit difficult to hear sometimes. Yes, there is a time and a place for mercy. But in other cases, there is certainly a time and a place for judgment. For Absalom, that time and place had come, but David didn’t want to recognize it. He wanted the rules not to apply to his son, despite the fact that Absalom so repeatedly spurned God’s law.
Surely an application comes from all of this. How often today are we tempted to want to make exceptions to rules for people who are close to us? How often today are we tempted to make exceptions for people in places of privilege? How often we can pander to people with inappropriate displays of mercy when often what is most needed for such people is to be confronted and disciplined. Parents, your children need you to lovingly and justly discipline them, and teach them through that discipline. Another example, pastors and elders need to lovingly and justly discipline members when that is required, not overlook such if it is to the biggest doner, or the most loyal family, etc, etc. (Not that I know what people donate, but hopefully you understand the analogy). I think of a similar example in our civil government, in the name of mercy and compassion we make all kinds of strange allowances for people’s weird ideas, instead of confronting people when they need to be confronted with their wrong behavior. I could go on, but hopefully these words of application can help you think further along these lines.
I want to now turn to Joab. If David wants to show excessive mercy where it is not due, Joab is quite the opposite. Back in 2 Samuel 3:39, David had referred to Joab as too harsh. Joab lives consistent to that description here. We see his harshness in how he kills Absalom. This might sound hypocritical of me here, but it was wrong of Joab to kill Absalom like this. Yes, Absalom deserved death. But it was not Joab’s place to kill him like this. Joab is breaking the clear order of his king. Even this nameless man of verse 10 reminds Joab of this. Joab ignores the order of David and essentially takes the law into his own hands at this point. But that wasn’t for Joab to do. In fact, he had a situation where it would have been very easy to have captured Absalom and brought to David as David ordered. But Joab would not do that. In his typical harshness be puts three spears through Absalom and has his men finish him off. As I read this, I think of those movies when someone is shooting the bad guy, and keeps shooting and shooting until finally you want to just yell out, “He’s dead already!”
Now let me say this about Joab’s harshness in terms of killing Absalom. From the pragmatic standpoint of what is best for the kingdom, Absalom needed to die here. Surely Joab knew that David was too weak to do what needed to be done. Joab does what needs to be done, because he knows David wouldn’t be able to do it. From a pragmatic standpoint, this is what is best for the kingdom. That’s why I’m talking here about how effective Joab’s harshness is in this passage. It’s very effective for the good of the kingdom. And so on the one hand, this is technically wrong for Joab to do this. But on the other hand, it is actually what needed to happen. But this is so typical for Joab. Joab in one way looks so loyal to King David. In 19:6 Joab basically tells David that he loves him. I am sure in one sense Joab does love David and is loyal to him. But in the pragmatic harshness of Joab’s character, he’s willing to disregard David’s wishes for what Joab thinks best.
The other big role of Joab here is in chapter 19. Here too he comes across as harsh but effective. And this time, I think it’s a harshness that David needed to hear. I’m talking about how he confronts David that he needs to stop his mourning and go out and speak kindly to his troops. Joab effectively threatens David in verse 7 too. That’s more harshness of Joab. Surely he could have been a little more respecting the difficult emotions that would come for David in this. But at the end of the day, what Joab said to David is what David needed to hear. David needed to get his emotions in check and go and show gratitude to his men who just risked their lives for his sake. He needed to show love to those who had loved him. And so Joab’s rebuke to David is effective. He goes out to the city gates and his men are encouraged.
Joab is such an interesting character. In one sense here, he gets the job done that David wasn’t willing to do. And yet that alone doesn’t justify Joab. Joab’s harsh pragmatism may be helpful to the kingdom in many ways, but the ends don’t necessarily justify the means. It’s interesting that when Joab takes matters into his own hands with Absalom, he actually looks a lot like Absalom in doing that. Remember, Absalom was the one to kill his guilty half-brother Amnon when David wouldn’t punish him like he should have. Joab acts similarly here.
So again there is another point of application here. We should not evaluate the righteousness of our actions by whether they succeed or not. That’s the temptation. We do something that arrives at a good outcome and we think that makes it right whatever we did to get there. Sometimes we even think that’s a sign of God’s favor on our actions. But that’s not biblical thinking. Of course, the opposite is true too. Our actions might be moral and just, but the outcome we seek might not happen. That doesn’t mean we weren’t doing the right thing. We just can’t judge the merit of our actions by the outcome. Each action we do must be in line with the Word of God, regardless of the outcome.
Well, in our last point for today I want to turn to think about what God was doing throughout this passage. We saw David and Joab’s actions. Now let’s think about God’s. I’ve titled this point God’s prevailing providence, because behind everything that happens here, God is working out his plans, and he ultimately prevails in accomplishing his perfect will. So, just think of how God’s hand of providence is seen here. I’ll point to a number of things. You have the victory of David’s army in verse 8 because of the woods. In God’s providence, the battle is fought in the woods and it seems that this was a major factor in allowing David’s presumably smaller army to have victory over the vastly larger army of Absalom. Surely that’s God’s providence at work to give David the victory here. Similarly, you have Absalom getting his head caught in a tree. That sounds like a pretty crazy situation. I can’t imagine it is very common for something like that to happen, but then again maybe it’s part of the danger of fighting a battle in a forest. But in that providential circumstance of Absalom getting caught in a tree, God provides Absalom the death penalty that he had earned. God brought justice in that situation.
In the same way, all of this passage served for God to restore David’s kingdom, which was part of God’s plan. And yet at the same time, God uses all of this to chasten David, as we’ve been talking about the last few weeks. I think we see some of the effects of God growing David in that the passage starts and ends with David at the city gates. Remember that the city gates are where the elders of the people would sit and give justice to those looking for it. Absalom got his support from doing that, but David wasn’t out there doing it at that time. Now, we see David acting more like the humble king, sitting with his people at the city gates. And if God did all this, then surely that means that God even used Joab’s actions and even David’s inactions to bring about his purposes. God was working in all the complexity of these events to bring about restoration to David’s kingdom, justice to Absalom, growth for David, and surely even blessing for the people of God.
Our God is an awesome God and his providence prevails even through the complexity of humans doing things that are either evil, good, or even good mixed with evil. And of course this is what God did in our salvation with Jesus. I am reminded of how the Jewish religious leaders debated about what to do with Jesus. They were evidently concerned that more and more people would flock to him. They were afraid that in the conflict regarding him, that the Romans might come down hard on them. And so in John 11:50 the high priest argued “that it is expedient for us that one man should die for the people, and not that the whole nation should perish.” There’s more of that harsh pragmatism. Let’s kill this man to protect the rest of us. But in God’s amazing providence he used the complexity of the situation to actually bring about a salvation much like what the high priest described. Of course, it wasn’t what he had in mind. But God did use the death of Jesus to bring salvation for all God’s people.
And think about Jesus’ sacrifice in terms of what we’ve talked about today. He’s shown love not just for those who loved him, but even for us who have hated him. Jesus has loved his enemies. But he’s able to do it in a way that David couldn’t. Jesus was able to bring that mercy that David wanted to show while also bringing the justice that Joab brought. In other words, God brought them both mercy and justice together in Jesus. He even did what David said he wished for himself, but of course didn’t actually do. Jesus actually did give up his life, so that others could live. By sacrificing his life for us, Jesus is able to show mercy while simultaneously satisfying justice. The result is that Jesus can give us a just mercy.
And in doing this, Jesus actually accomplishes the very goals that Joab seemed be after. Joab always seems so driven by politics and power in order to secure the kingdom. Well, Jesus secured a greater kingdom! Jesus in his death and subsequent resurrection is exalted by God as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. In that, he is established over an eternal kingdom where righteousness dwells. God is able to raise up Jesus as king in all of this, while simultaneous saving us, but also chastening us.
Isn’t that amazing to think about. God’s providence in our salvation is amazing. God’s providence prevailed through Jesus and the cross to accomplish all these great purposes of God. God was working in all the complexity of these events with Jesus to bring about the establishment of his kingdom, justice to sin, and salvation and growth and blessing for us. Of course when I say “us,” I am speaking about those who are God’s people by faith in Jesus Christ. If that does not describe you, I would give to you today the offer of the gospel. Jesus calls you to come to him with your sins and find mercy and grace. Jesus can offer this because he died on the cross to pay the penalty for the sin of God’s people. Trust in him today. Repent of your sins and be baptized. Know his great salvation!
And for all of us who have known this. Be encouraged today that God’s plan to save you, and all his people, has prevailed. And he will complete his plans and ultimately bring us to glory in his perfect time. Let us wait in faith for his coming. Amen!
Copyright © 2016 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.