Title: Absalom, Absalom
Texts: 2 Sam 18:5-9, 15, 31-33
Date: August 9, 2009
Author: Isaac S. Villegas
“O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would that I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son” (2 Sam 18:33). With these words David is at his end. It’s too much for him. His own men disobeyed orders and killed his son, Absalom.
If you don’t know the story, let me give you a quick summary. Absalom secretly organized a revolt against his father, David. As Absalom amassed troops and made his way to Jerusalem, King David knew that he couldn’t stand against his son’s forces so he fled into the wilderness. And that’s where our passage for tonight starts. Absalom’s forces follow David into the wilderness for a battle. David sends his troops to fight. But before they go, David tells them to “deal gently…with Absalom” (v. 5)—which I take to mean that they shouldn’t kill him. David doesn’t want a dead son. Despite everything Absalom has done, David wants to protect his son’s life. But Joab, David’s general, ignores David’s orders and does what any man of war would do: Joab kills the enemy; he kills David’s son. While Absalom is caught in the trees, Joab stabs him in the heart with three spears. Those spears might as well have gone through David’s heart too. When messengers bring news from the battlefront, all David can think about is his son. He doesn’t care about the victory. He doesn’t care that his soldiers have returned to him the throne of Israel. His mind is on his son. David asks the messengers, “Is it well with the young man Absalom?” (v. 32) The messenger responds, “May the enemies of my lord the king, and all who rise up to do you harm, be like that young man” (v. 32). That’s not the news David wants. His heart breaks. He weeps. His mind is a fog of sadness. He wanders about, weeping, mourning, oblivious of the world, forgetful of his faithful troops who sacrificed their lives. All he can say, all he can do, is remember his son who is no more: “O my son Absalom! O Absalom, my son, my son!” (19:4).
David has lost it. He has lost any sense of control. He can’t function as a king. He can’t hide his emotions. He can’t put on a smile and pretend like everything is OK. He can’t hide his loss of power from the people. David isn’t an all-powerful king. His general and troops don’t listen to him—even they are outside of his power. He gives orders that don’t do anything. What kind of king doesn’t have power over his own armies? What kind of commander can’t control those under his command? What kind of warrior weeps over the death of an enemy in combat?
“O my son Absalom! O Absalom, my son, my son!” (19:4). Tears come like a flood and wash away David’s claims to control and power. His kingly power disintegrates. He can no longer pretend to be sovereign over life, to exercise power over life.
Power over life—that’s basically the plot of David’s story. It’s a rags to riches story, from the humble life of a shepherd boy to the throne of Israel, the seat of power. He started out under the power of a father and seven older brothers. David was the youngest, at the bottom of the pecking order, the weakest. But he soon gets his chance at power over others, at power over life. He kills Goliath. To kill someone is power, power over life. David decides to take away Goliath’s life. This is only the beginning of David’s induction into power. David soon becomes the most successful and popular warrior of Israel. When he returns from battles, the women line the streets and sing, “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands” (I Sam 18:7). David exercises power over more life than Saul. That’s the essence of sovereignty: power to decide when to take someone’s life away, to hold someone’s life in your hands, to control their destiny, whether they will have a chance to take another breath. As a warrior, David has power to decide when to take life away, but he also has power to decide when someone should live. There’s that story where king Saul wanders around the wilderness trying to find and kill David. Saul goes into a cave to relieve himself, and he happens choose the cave where David and his men are hiding out. Instead of killing him then and there, David sneaks up behind Saul and cuts out a corner of his robe (24:4). When Saul and his troops start moving out, David calls out to Saul, while waving a piece of his robe. That’s power. Power to let someone live when you should have killed him. Even before he takes the throne of Israel, David exercises sovereignty over the sovereign.
His power over life only grows when he becomes king. He takes whomever he wants of the beautiful women of Israel to be his wives. With these women he has a bunch of children—that’s power over fertility, power to create life. And when he can’t have what he wants, as in the case of Bathsheba, David won’t let God’s laws, God’s limits on power, stand in the way. He commits adultery and murders Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband—that’s power over life, to take what you can’t have, and to kill in order to get what you want. There is no limit to David’s power over life. There is no limit to his sovereignty. He doesn’t even let God get in the way.
But what happens when king David cries? What happens with the powerful mourn? What does it mean when the one who has claimed power over life finally breaks down and weeps? I did a quick reading of 1 and 2 Samuel this week and noticed three places where it says that David cries. He cries when his beloved Jonathan is killed (2 Sam 1). David cries when he hears the news that his son Amnon is killed (2 Sam 13:36). Finally, we hear his cries when Absalom dies. David weeps when he is confronted with his own powerlessness. His tears expose the cracks in his quest for power. David can’t control these three lives. He doesn’t have power over their lives and deaths. His love for them, his desire for them, isn’t powerful enough. All he can do is weep: it’s a sign of weakness, a response to tragedy; it’s what you do when you can’t do anything else.
Crying is a funny thing. It’s not really something I can prepare for. It just happens. It sneaks up on me, out of nowhere. Sometimes it starts in the throat; and my voice cracks. Sometimes it starts the eyes; and my vision gets blurry. Sometimes it’s just a quiver in my upper lip. Most of the time I have some control—but it’s always after the fact. I notice when my eyes start to water or I hear my own voice crack, so I stop myself; I take a long pause or clear my throat. I stop myself because, for some reason, it’s embarrassing. And it’s a sign of not being in control, a sign of a certain loss of power over my self, of what happens to my body—my eyes, my voice, my lips, my bodily self.
I remember one man who cried a lot. His name is Mr. O’Hair. He was one of the teachers at my Christian high school. John taught a class called Christian Perspectives. And he choked up about once a week. But he just kept on teaching right through it, his face wet with tears. It happened to him every time he got going on talking about God’s grace. I thought it was pretty silly at the time. These days I’m thinking differently about John’s tears. It’s no mistake that he cried when he talked about God’s grace. It seems appropriate that grace and tears go together. I wonder if crying is a good way to think through what grace is all about. Let me explain.
A cry just happens. It washes over you. It’s almost like some hidden power starts messing with your eyes or your throat or your chin—you tear up, your chin quivers, you choke up. And all that stuff seems to happen without your consent. Some force takes a hold of you. Only after a cry happens do you have any choice about what to do with it. You can only react to the cry. Once your voice cracks, you can choose whether or not you should keep on speaking or if you should wait it out. Mr. O’Hair, my teacher, just kept on going, and seemed even to draw strength from his tears.
I think that’s what grace looks like in our lives. We can’t control the way God works in us and on us. God just happens to us in countless and mysterious ways. Anywhere we see love, we know that God is up to something. Anywhere we see life, we know that God is at work. You can’t do anything to make grace happen. It doesn’t matter how much you believe in it or not. Your belief won’t make God more graceful than God already is. Your belief won’t make God work harder than he already does.
The question for us is, what are you going to do when God sneaks up on you? What will you do when grace happens? Like I said, grace takes all sorts of forms in our lives—anywhere that love happens, anywhere that new life happens. That’s where you can find God’s grace sneaking up on you.
But I wonder if a cry might be more than just a good image for the way grace happens in our lives. I know that people have different ways of showing emotions—so you shouldn’t feel bad for not crying. I really don’t think of myself as a big crier; it doesn’t happen to me very often. But there seems to be something about a cry that makes room for us to see that we aren’t in control, that we are powerless, that we need God. A cry is a taste of our powerlessness, a moment of grace-filled weakness. A cry is a way for us to see that we aren’t in possession of our selves, that we don’t really control our bodies, that we don’t have power over our life or our world. A cry overwhelmed Mr. O’Hair when he experienced the way God works. It was a cry of joy flowing from the reality that God gives us life all the time, so often unacknowledged.
Some people cry when things are so good, so beautiful, so unexpectedly wonderful. This kind of cry is about being overwhelmed with goodness, and it’s a way for us to be grateful, thankful for God’s unceasing life, for God’s sustaining grace.
But there’s also David’s cry. “O my son Absalom! O Absalom, my son, my son!” He is overwhelmed with the fact that he doesn’t have power over life. Despite his efforts throughout his life to get what he wants, David can’t keep his son alive. His troops disobey his orders; his commander doesn’t follow his commands; and his son is killed. Life is out of his control; life is beyond his power. But this kind of cry is also how grace sneaks up on us. David’s cry is evidence of the stirrings of God’s grace. Once David can see that he doesn’t have power over life, then he might come to see that life belongs to God—the life of Absalom, the life of Israel, and his very own life. This cry is the undoing of his power, of his sovereignty, and for that reason it may be the cry that begins his intimacy with God’s grace. For we know God in our weakness. And there’s nothing weaker than someone overwhelmed with a cry. That is what it may look like for God to sneak up on us. A cry is a moment of grace-filled weakness.