Last night at our house we watched The Lion King. It is the story of Simba, a little lion cub who is heir to the throne as king of the jungle at Pride Rock. The story tells how he grows into, comes to terms with, and eventually receives his kingdom. It is full of all the expected twists and turns of intrigue, romance, tragedy, and a terrible coup, alongside snappy songs and comic character breaks.
Near the beginning Simba sings:
I’m gonna be the mane event like no king was before
I’m brushing up on looking down and working on my ROAR!
Oh, I just can’t wait to be king!
No one saying do this, no one saying be there
No one saying stop that, no one saying see here
Free to run around all day
Free to do it all my way!
Oh, I just can’t wait to be king!
Which really…I mean that about sums it up. It’s an incredibly singable song. And don’t we all want to be king?
Tonight we read about a king and his kingdom: David’s kingdom. Israel has asked God for a king. God tries to warn them what they are getting into, that where God had given—given descendants and salvation and protection, given bread from heaven and a place in the world—a human king will take—take their sons and daughters, take the best of their fields and harvest and flocks, take their freedom (1 Sam 8:9-22). But the people won’t listen to God; they know what they want. The people want a king. God, ever faithful, hears and answers their prayer.
David’s road to his throne is long and meandering, full of intrigue, plotting, and betrayal. (The bible reads like The Lion King reads like Game of Thrones and there are no new stories…) Finally, after much contention, David takes his seat over Israel. God gives king David rest from his enemies. But kingdoms aren’t much for rest…
The story of David’s kingdom is fraught, to say the least. It is unsettling to read the story of his reign chapter by chapter, given all the church knows of David. We know David as the “man after God’s own heart,” the worshipper who dances before the Lord (1 Sam 13:14; 2 Sam 6:12-15). David is the chosen, the anointed, the one on whom the Spirit comes in power (1 Sam 16:13). David is an author of the Word of God; half of our psalms are attributed to David. Our Jesus is heir to David’s throne. Traditionally, we talk about David as “the just and righteous king.” Sinner, yes, but repentant and faithful and beloved of God.
And still, apparently, a king.
A king, in every sense of the word which God warned the people a king would be. King David does what kings do; David takes, steals, subdues, enslaves—other nations and his own people. He establishes garrisons to increase dominance over indigenous populations (2 Sam 8:15). He dedicates plunder to the Lord (8:11). There is lots and lots of war. As Kate talked about with such clarity a couple weeks ago, our bible clearly records how king David takes, assaults, discards, executes (cf esp. 2 Sam 11). When 2 Samuel tells the story of David’s kingdom it doesn’t paint one of those rosy-cheeked-holding-a-harp-Renaissance portraits; the story of David’s kingdom here is bloody and confusing, marching from one battle to the next and then falling apart.
That is where we find the kingdom tonight—falling apart. David’s kingdom has suffered a coup. His son Absalom has taken his father’s throne, forcing David and the troops loyal to him to flee Jerusalem. David leads his followers across the Kidron valley, away from the city of God, “mov[ing back] toward the wilderness” like Moses in reverse (2 Sam 15:23). David and his people, heads covered and barefoot, climb the Mount of Olives “where,” the text says so poignantly, “people used to worship God” (15:32). Here David prays for help.
Later, plans are drawn up, spies are planted, plots are set in motion, for the kingdom must be salvaged. David musters his men, appoints commanders, and sends them out to war. He stands by the gate and tells them clearly, so that all the thousands of troops can hear his command, “Protect the young man Absalom. For my sake” (2 Sam 18:5).
“Absalom, the usurper,” he tells them, “the one who has taken my throne and threatened our lives, the one who would have me killed, the one who is putting the whole project of our kingdom in jeopardy, the one I am sending you to fight—your enemy, my enemy—he is a ‘young man.’ Protect him. Spare him. For he is my son…”
And so “David’s army marched out of the city to fight Israel” (2 Sam 18:6).
“David’s army marched out of the city to fight Israel.” It is a terrible sentence in Scripture, a sentence that was never meant to be enscribed and copied and handed down generation to generation, read as Word of God. Our Bible is full of terrible sentences. “David’s army marched out…to fight Israel” is a drastic perversion of God’s promised provision and love. The kingdom of God’s people has collapsed, inverted on itself; the king’s army marches out by thousands and hundreds against…the people of God.
The planned battle, stealing 20,000 lives, spreads out “over the whole countryside, and the forest swallow[s] up more men that day than the sword” (2 Sam 18:8). Even creation joins in, co-opted into the destruction. That land promised to flow with milk and honey—to nourish and sustain and give great delight to God’s children—that same land is now swallowing them, tearing them to pieces. Tucked into this straight-up battle narrative we find apocalyptic language (cf. Jer 4); the forest, the very trees of the field meant to clap their hands (Isa 55:12), is wielding swords over the people of God.
The battle proceeds. David’s troops win. Despite the king’s clear orders, Joab, David’s ruthless commander, brutally kills Absalom. News is brought back to David of his army’s victory and of his son’s death.
David’s place in the story is muddled. King David is dis-placed. The narrator makes this clear even in the location of David’s body. In ancient times the city gate was an important and imposing structure, designed for defense and protection. The gate symbolized strength, power, and impregnability. The gate had an open square which kings used for speeches and proclamations; during a national emergency the king’s place was at the gate.
And here in the chaos of civil war, David is not at the gate. He is near the gate, he moves around the gate, moves all around this symbol of power. He stands next to the gate (v.4), between in the inner and outer gates (v.24), flees to a small storehouse for extra food and weapons above the gate (v.33). But he’s not in the gate, not situated in the seat of power, not commanding and in control.
David doesn’t speak much either. The narrator doesn’t absolve David of responsibility—David is clearly the one who musters the men, gives orders, directs the action of war; David is responsible for the deaths of thousands of children, including his own. But there is little direct speech. When David does speak, his words are subservient. “I will do whatever seems best to you,” he tells his men (2 Sam 18:4). In the scene where he waits for news of the battle, it sounds like he is wringing his hands, nervously muttering to himself, trying to convince himself that he will receive good news. The scene is almost comical in its impotence, the two different messengers approaching the city, the clumsy back-and-forth between David and the watchman, David’s commentary.
David: “If [the man running to bring news] is alone, he must have good news…[If the other man is coming and also running,] he must be bringing good news, too…If the running man is Ahimaaz, he is good man. [So] he comes with good news…” (18:25-27)
The messengers are full of gracious words about the “vindication of the Lord.” “[God] has delivered up those who lifted their hands against my king!” (2 Sam18:28) David brushes their gracious words aside and gets to the point; he only has one question on his mind. He asks about his child. Most of David’s words here are about his child, even as he oversees and orchestrates the deaths of the children of others.
David: “Is the young man Absalom safe?”
When the first messenger fails to answer him, the whole scenario is repeated. Again, David asks, skipping past the news that his kingdom is secure, God be praised…
David: “But is Absalom safe?”
The second messenger finally replies: Absalom is not safe. Absalom is dead.
Absalom is not the first son David has lost. Bathsheba’s child, never named, also died. Though David fasts and weeps before the child’s death, he has no verbal response after. Later, David’s son Amnon also dies, killed by his brother. Though this time David tears his clothes and lays on the ground in mourning, we do not hear words of grief from the king. With the death of David’s other sons we see David’s actions, but we do not hear his voice.
With Absalom it is different. With Absalom we hear David.
We hear him cry, we hear him groan. I have been with parents as they receive news of their children’s deaths in my work at the hospital, and there is a near-universal, terrible sound in the death wail of mothers and fathers. It is deep and agonal, it rings across different personalities and cultures and languages. Scripture records this death wail, records it on the lips of the king.
David: “O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you—O Absalom, my son, my son.”
When I read these words in 2 Samuel I recognize them, I can hear them ringing in the halls. It is a horribly common experience, these words: “If only I had died instead of you!” “Mi hija, mi hija!…ma fille, ma fille!…beta!…mwana!… my child!” This is the speech of grief, a resounding “No!” in the face of death.
Why it is different with Absalom? Why is David different this time?
We are not told. We are told, “the king is shaken” (2 Sam 18:33). “Shaken,” like an earthquake, “shaken” like the heavens parting, “shaken” like the world at the coming of the Son of Man (cf.Isa 24:19; Matt 24:29). David goes up to the storeroom over the gate and he weeps.
David’s commander, Joab, finds the king lying prostrate in the kingdom’s broom closet, boxes of ammunition falling on his head. Joab picks him up, brushes him off, threatens him, sets him back in his chair at the gate to perform his official duties and keep order. Approve of war. Restore confidence.
What happens to David here? While he follows Joab’s commands and the kingdom does hold together (for now…), the king remains silent. What did David think in the days following Absalom’s death? What did he say, and chose not to say? The story doesn’t tell us, though it leaves us to wonder. We have only David’s words of mourning, of raw and wretched grief.
We don’t hear anymore from David for a while. Eventually he begins to send messages and wins over the hearts of his people again. Eventually he re-crosses the Jordan, returns to Jerusalem.
The rest of the story of David’s kingdom is mixed. There are fewer quickly punctuated stories of war, fewer lists of things the king takes for himself and his kingdom. David makes awkward amends with individuals and nations, even speaks at times with a humility which echoes his time in the wilderness.
But war and plotting roll on. There is a chilling list of David’s officials near the end of the book: cruel, manipulative Joab still commands the army. And Adoniram, causally listed as the one “in charge of forced labor” (2 Sam 20:24), in case we were unsure: David’s kingdom still looks a lot like Egypt.
And “once again” there is a battle with the Philistines. You know—the Philistines (remember Goliath?), the ones whose defeat garnered David all his initial fame so many years ago? Apparently the Philistines aren’t as vanquished as we thought, apparently David isn’t as victorious in battle as we had hoped. In fact, 2 Samuel draws toward a close listing four separate battles with those same old Philistines (21:15-22). Endless war…
In telling the story of a kingdom, it is commonplace to craft a highpoint, a moment of victory and hope for the future. The Lion King feels that way—last night Michael, Joe, Ian and I laughed and cried and cheered in all the right places. But when I read the story of David’s kingdom I am confused. I don’t see a high point, a climax. If anything I see a series of griefs. I see it all unraveling.
Is that the point? Perhaps there is something here in this story, balanced at a tipping point of expectation, pain, and resolution? Perhaps we find it in David’s words, the words that come so clearly, directly in the moment he is shaken.
[holding up a bible]
We carry Scripture around in our hands full of David’s speech to God, Psalms we read to each other week after week, David’s words of praise and lament, prayers for protection and mercy. David’s words are frequently our words, the words of the church. Whatever we think of this man, great or wretched king, his words are ours.
David: “To the pure you show yourself pure but to the devious you show yourself shrewd. You save the humble, but your eyes are on the haughty to bring them low,” David prays (2 Sam 22:27; Ps 18: 26-7). And we pray with him.
David: “Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in the miry depths, where there is no foothold… I am worn out calling for help,” David prays (Ps 69:1-3). And we pray with him.
David: “My heart leaps for joy, and with my song I praise [the Lord],” prays David (Ps 28:7). And we pray with him.
David: “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be pleasing in your sight, Lord, my rock and my redeemer,” prays David (Ps 19:14). And we pray with him.
David: “O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you—O Absalom, my son, my son” (2 Sam 18:33).
What would happen if we took David’s words to our lips?
When David asks a second time whether Absalom is safe, the messenger replies, “May the enemies of my lord the king and all who rise up against him be like that young man” (2 Sam 18:32). And the king is shaken. And the king speaks.
The messenger thinks the good news he brings is, “the enemy of my lord is vanquished.” But there is another meaning here: In this apocalyptic moment, the moment when the victory of men and death dissolves in the grief of a parent—when “for the whole army the victory…is turned into mourning” (2 Sam 19:2) as the story goes on to say—when the kingdom shakes—what if David’s enemies in that moment become like “that young man?” Like Absalom to the king? Grieved, and beloved.
What if our enemies become “like that young man?”
What if our enemies, and others in the world, become like Absalom to us, like our own sons and daughters? What if we dare to pray with David, “O my child Absalom! My child, my child Absalom! If only I had died instead of you—O Absalom, my child, my child.”
Traditional readings of king David will tell us he was great, chosen and beloved of God. That he was a sinner, and that he was forgiven. They read David as triumphant—beleaguered, but triumphant in the end.
But maybe David’s triumph is not so much in his (questionable) victories in battle—which are legion. Not so much in the expansion of his kingdom—which ultimately falls, and whose fall God foretells from the beginning (cf 1 Sam 8). Not so much in even in the steadfastness of David’s lineage, for though it culminates in Jesus, Jesus becomes Lord only by refusing to rule as king, no matter how the people beg him (cf. John 6:14-15).
The triumph of David’s kingdom, rather, is manifest here, in his words of grief.
So tonight we pray: “May our enemies and all who rise up to harm us be like that young man”—“be like that young man”—grieved, mourned, loved.
Deeply, agonizingly loved.