The Books of the Kings.

F. W. Grant.

Division 5. (2 Sam. 13 — 21:14.)

The Divine Throne vindicates itself

The public vindication of the divine throne now follows. It had, as we know, been already declared to David that evil should rise up to him out of his own house, and the sword never depart from it; the grace to himself personally did not alter this. The throne at Jerusalem was, as none other, responsible to be the expression of that higher one which belonged to Him who, while heaven and earth could not contain Him, was pleased to be known as dwelling between the cherubim. God's righteousness would be compromised indeed, if He went on with David without adequate vindication of His character against the sin of His representative. The prophetic word would therefore be carried out.

Chastening arises for David from his own house. The uncontrolled evil in his own character reflects itself in the passions of his sons, in whom the power of heredity unmistakably shows itself. Heredity, one of the cant words of the day, expresses nevertheless a truth of which the word of God is full, and human history, from Adam downward. "Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean?" was a question of Job's day, the statement of impossibility being only made the stronger by its form as a question. There is thus evil in our natures, but we are responsible to govern our natures, and grace and the power of God are stronger than these. Apart from the grace of God, therefore, or His restraining hand, nature will manifest itself, and here was the hound in leash ready to pursue David. We are now to see with what fatal effect.

1. With David himself the outbreak of lust, permitted in clear violation of the law of God, had led to murder. The king, the pattern of righteousness as he should have been, became thus the oppressor. In the recompense following here, as when a stone disturbs calm water the circle loses height as it widens, so now the lust and the murder are on different sides, but both within the ordained sphere of his own house. Two of his sons are reciprocally the injured and the injurer, and David is made to feel the pain on each side, his sympathy now with this and now with that. He is distracted, torn asunder, on both sides dishonored. The mockery of their names gives meaning to the whole, and proclaims it to all: Amnon, the "faithful," violating all fidelity; Absalom, the "father of peace," the slaughterer of his brother! With what other hopes had these names long since been given!

These too are his eldest, for the second son, Chileab, seems to have died, at least we read no more of him: they are those upon whom the hopes of his house most of all depended. They are the first, the leaders: what will be the history of those that come after them? — conflicting sons with the various interests of rival mothers, the awful confusion wrought by polygamy brought home to him!

Again, that the remembrance of his own sin has weakened his ability to execute judgment on it in others is plain by his conduct; or else that natural affection rendered him helpless. The effect was, in either case, the same: the unjudged evil worked on in family and kingdom, till they were filled with the leaven of it; Absalom recalled becomes a conspirator; and Ishbosheth's Mahanaim has soon a new tale to tell. The rebellion is stopped, and Absalom dies, smiting the father's heart with a new pang. David is recalled, but only to have revived the memory of the past in what proves by and by to be a prophecy of the future: the bond between Ephraim and Judah shows itself almost broken; and so at last, amid returning spasms of violence, the storm for the present passes away.

But who can tell when the effect of one sin ceases? Adam's, like David's, was one sin, — in outward seeming not so evil; — its effect is only multiplied today, by all the seed that it has ripened, sown again, and reaped, and again sown! As men have of late discovered disease and pestilence to be living germs that subsist upon corruption, and mature and multiply on the decay they bring, so is sin vital and prolific with the germs of bitter harvest. Blessed be God that He has provided a remedy for sin!

(1) It will not be expected that there should be much comment upon Amnon's sin. The first-born of a despotic king, this had doubtless helped to nurture in him the growth of unrestrained will; while the atmosphere of a polygamous household, loosening family ties, could not but at the same time encourage the rambling inclinations of a luxurious temper. The very fence not such but that it might be leaped — around the object of his pursuit might encourage it: prohibition broken through has its own charm with it, — "the pleasures of sin, for a season": "stolen waters are sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant; but he knoweth not that the dead are there; and that her guests are in the depths of hell."

Nor can it be doubted that the influence of his father's sin had, with one like Amnon, been without the check upon it of his father's repentance. Sin gathers its arguments at its will, and refuses what makes not for its purpose. The highest unreason, it finds in will its reason. Its subtlety is that of a maniac, with large gaps for self-deception. Nor has the natural man ability to estimate spiritual values, as of faith, or of repentance. Amnon would only see that his father had sinned, and had not suffered: he could not know that his own vices were to be the scourge upon his father's sins. There is a necessary blindness that must be theirs who reject divine wisdom, and which therefore excuses none. All this had worked together to make Amnon the coarse, sensual, cruel despot that he was, — a spectre that might well terrify the father of such a son, and who had done so much to make him what he was.

Amnon, too, has his "subtle" adviser, Jonadab, with his beautiful name, "Jehovah freely gives," and his satanic spirit. Everywhere here names are in opposition to things; the piety in David, spotted, alas, with the flesh, seems to have worked for the loss of piety in others.

Across this scene,with ashes on her head and her rent garment of divers colors, flees Tamar, a childlike figure of wronged innocence, to her refuge in her brother's house. A king's court is no refuge, no safeguard. The king may be wroth, but it avails not: has he not himself introduced this shadow of uncompensated wrong that now pursues him? Did he not work the first dishonor to his home, and dig through its wall with his own hands?

(2) So vengeance comes into Absalom's hands, and they are hands that spare not. The wrong is bitter, and the future has its possibilities of worse. Amnon, first-born and natural heir, may soon be lord both of Absalom and Tamar. Yet for two years he has to hide and nurse in secret the wrath that will be sure before it strikes. Then he finds his opportunity. You see his heart in its depths, as he prepares his feast and the daggers of his servants. Amnon shall be smitten in the pleasure that he loves, when his heart is merry with wine, unrepenting and unabsolved. And it is done! In the midst of a carouse, — in the midst of the circle of the king's sons, Amnon is smitten and slain. The sword is upon David's house, as was predicted. Who has brought it there? Who has opened the door for it? The hand is the hand of Absalom; the sword is the sword of Uriah the Hittite!

(3) But the story is not yet half told; and David's own moral weakness, which is soon apparent, produces a disaster which presages the ruin of the kingdom. This may be long delayed, — may even seem for a time to be entirely. averted, and the peace of Solomon's reign a greater triumph than David's victories: but this is no sooner closed than the long-threatened evil breaks out suddenly in a disruption of Israel's unity into hostile powers, working for mutual overthrow. And this they at last accomplish.

We have quite full detail here. The principles that work the evil are amply given us, the main actor being now the unscrupulous Joab. He knows well the weak side of David's nature, — knows enough of divine grace also, and of its power over a soul that has learned its debt to it, to use it with effect in behalf of what is not grace. Yet he has no evil design against David, and does not join, as we know, in the after revolt of Absalom. He seems even to mean well to the king, to give him justification for doing what he knows is in his heart to do: he makes what would be ordinarily considered but a well-intentioned blunder, — goes wrong because, alas, he has no divine wisdom, does not seek it. His is the misery of a soul at its best away from God, and thus of necessity leading others (even involuntarily) away from Him. David's is the misery of having a counselor like this, who has made himself after his fashion useful to him, and who, spite of the demur of conscience, has to be accepted as such. Joab is to David like an unjudged sin, against which he has, of course, no power, and who is always at hand to strengthen the worse and defeat the better nature. Let us earnestly pray and seek that we have no Joabs.

He hides himself behind his instrument, the woman of Tekoa, who will work more effectively upon the heart of the king. The appeal is all to the heart, and for this purpose the pity roused by the widow's tale will be the most powerful means that can be devised. He borrows, possibly, Nathan's method; but Nathan sought through the heart to reach and work upon the conscience; Joab seeks, on the contrary, to override and set it aside. He has hardened his own and prospered: he is no prophet, to foresee the end; the future does not trouble him: he cannot see why conscience should trouble another to this extent. Absalom has sinned; but so had Amnon; and the thing is done, — cannot now be recalled, — why keep up the remembrance?

The woman's story need not be too like the story of Absalom: that might be dangerous. The emotions have a storm-like impetuosity of action, which when roused does not respect the channels of sober judgment, mental any more than moral. David's affections, once acted on by the needful stimulus, will catch all the similarities of the case suggested, and let slip the rest. Thus the sudden strife in the field is better for his purpose than the two years' murder hidden in the heart which was the reality behind the picture, and the pitiful condition of the widow with her "coal that is left" ready to be quenched can be thrown in for the sake of the impression. When the king has pledged himself to the woman, it is assumed that he has judged his own case, and that he cannot draw back from his pledged word. The net is not spread in vain, though almost in sight of the bird.

In application, the justice of the case is cleverly made to be sin against the people of God: the king is guilty in not bringing home his banished. Nay, the grace of God, so signally proved as it had been by David, is urged against him: God Himself "deviseth plans that the banished be not [still] banished from Him." Thus he is walled off from the appeal of conscience, and hedged in on every side.

Two things are entirely ignored, however: the need of atonement to the broken law, and the guarantee as to the future of the forgiven sinner. God's plan whereby the banished are restored includes both these things, and therefore makes for righteousness, as it must do to be grace. Mercy to the merely impenitent is only license to sin, and the fruit of this David finds in the end; and to allow the law to be violated without reparation enfeebles all the power of government. It is not therefore grace according to God that the woman urges; it is only grace according to Joab; and he, like so many more, misunderstands and perverts it. Yet David himself accepts the perversion; but he is blinded by his affection for his son. He discerns the part of Joab in the matter, — knows that it is a plot, and knows well the plotter, who was as far as possible from being any representative of divine grace. He seems to catch at the idea that he has been made to do this without knowing what he had done, and that he really cannot go back; yet he cannot act consistently upon the idea of grace, he cannot receive Absalom as the penitent he was not, and dare not open his arms after the divine way with a returning prodigal. There is no ring nor fatted calf, nor sight even of his father's face, for the unhappy man whom the captain of the host brings back from Geshur. "Absalom returned to his own house, and the face of the king he saw not."

At this point we are told of the great beauty of Absalom. It is one of the miseries of a soul away from God, that every natural gift becomes evil instead of good; and among these there is none more ensnaring than that of personal beauty. Just as what is merely external, it is what is most surely appreciated both by its possessor and those around. Spite even of our better judgment also, it is hard to believe that this fair exterior does not represent aright the soul within. Absalom was conscious certainly of his power in this respect: who that has it is not? And if any, the exception would not be in this self-willed favorite of his father and of the people, whose vanity is shown in the long permitted growth and weight of his luxuriant hair.

One sees easily indeed in him the consciousness of this possession, to be yet so fatal to him, while for two years he is allowed to fret vainly at the restraint under which he is put. We know already how long he could nurse in secret a dangerous resolve. Here evidently was the beginning of resentment against his father, and of ambitious projects soon to work disaster to many beside himself. Finally he delivers himself from the restriction under which he lies in his own impetuous and imperious manner: forces Joab to come and see him, forces himself into his father's presence. There is the complete opposite of any confession of sin: if he has committed iniquity he is ready to suffer for it; and his father's kiss of peace becomes thus not even the mercy of the woman of Tekoa, but the seal upon his own claim that he has no need of mercy.

2. The conclusion of this story is natural from such a beginning. He is no sooner restored to his father's favor than he becomes a conspirator against his father. There is little doubt that he was now the eldest surviving son of David: for of Chileab, the son of Abigail, we hear no more. As the grandson of a king upon his mother's side, the idea of rule would have familiarized itself with him, while the deed which had placed him in the line of succession to his father had yet compromised such claim to a most serious extent. The throne in Israel was not like that of any of the nations round: it was Jehovah's throne, and he who sat on it was the anointed of Jehovah. But Bathsheba's son had already received his name as the "beloved of Jah"; and it was no long step from that to the kingdom. It is simple to see how all these things would influence the bold and arrogant son of Maachah to strike for the coveted prize,which his father's sin and demonstrated weakness had brought also so much nearer to his grasp.

(1) (a) Hence now we find the leaven working. Absalom begins by assuming state, and fixing men's eyes upon himself. And from his standpoint this was natural, and according to the world's principles it was wise: one must believe in one's self, act for one's self, there is no safe waiting upon others: this is the necessary alternative of waiting upon God. In the next step we can realize once more how David's sin must have weakened faith in the righteousness of all his government. To stop the mouth of friends, to open the mouth of the assailant, what an effectual argument was the case of Uriah the Hittite! And who could resist such charges of lax justice, when it was his own cause that was being pleaded by this brilliant and gracious son of the king with his readiness to do the right, and his kiss for every one that did him honor? So no wonder if the hearts of the Israelites were stolen, and the conspiracy gathered strength.

{*2 Sam. 15:7. "Forty" can hardly be the true reading, although the Hebrew and some principal versions have it. "Four" is found in the Syriac, Arabic, and some copies of the Latin versions, and in Josephus.}

The end is reached by an infamous piece of hypocritical falsehood. Absalom forsooth had dedicated himself to Jehovah in Geshur, conditionally upon His bringing him again to Jerusalem; and now he has a vow to be fulfilled in Hebron. The king, unsuspicious as ever, sends him away in peace, and the concerted cry is raised that "Absalom reigns in Hebron."

The place is chosen well, being full of associations of the most endearing character for every Israelite. There Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had lived and walked with God, and there they were buried. Thence the fruit of the land had been brought to the people in the wilderness, and Caleb the man of faith had driven out the Anakim. More suggestive, perhaps, than all this, at Hebron David had begun his reign; and the new kingdom, it might be hoped, was not other than a return to those principles of right and truth with which the throne had been then established.

The two hundred men that went with Absalom in ignorant simplicity are but a type of the many who can be swept into the track of a revolution in the train of some leader in whom they have confidence. How many, even among Christians today, follow men rather than principles! There is little individuality of faith anywhere, and thus sects are formed and maintained. It is startling to think how many follow the truth itself, at bottom because some one else is following it, or again is following some one else who follows it! And this has therefore again and again to be tested; and again and again a fresh putting forth of truth which has nothing but the authority of truth to commend it, sifts and breaks into these mere human followings.

Ahithophel the Gilonite was moved in a very different way. The father of Eliam and grandfather of Bathsheba,* we are left indeed to infer the personal animosity to David, which is easily recognized in his after-proposal himself to pursue and only to smite him. He has been David's counselor, listened to (we are told) as a divine oracle, yet according to his name, the "brother of folly." And such is ever the worldly wisdom which we find in him. But again we see how, in the government of God, David's sin is following him now. It is this that is the dissolution of kingdoms, and the disruption of all social bonds; and he who has not accepted this in faith must find it true in bitter experience.

{*It is not directly stated that Eliam the son of Ahithophel (2 Sam. 23:34) is the father of Bathsheba (2 Sam. 11:3), but the indirect evidence is of the strongest.}

Absalom offers his sacrifices at Hebron, and at the same time sends for Ahithophel. The conspiracy appeals to heaven, and forecasts its devices against the divinely constituted order, — in this mad world a thing not so uncommon as to need any special remark. It is here more grossly done than usual; that is all.

(b.) David has now to prove how his sin has disorganized his kingdom. That defection could have gone so far before he had any knowledge of it shows how widely the old attachment to him had given way: "there came one that told David, saying, The hearts of the men of Israel are after Absalom." How pitifully alone he must have been for news of this kind to break in on him after this manner! He finds quickly, — conscience, no doubt, depriving him also of his customary boldness, — that his only resource is flight. God is behind this, and resistance is in vain: to bow is the only hope. He immediately leaves the city with some well-proved followers, and his household, and the way is open for Absalom into Jerusalem.

But the hearts of men are now to be revealed; and there are still found those who have attachment for life or death to the fallen king. The first of these, the head and sample of others with him, is one who seems to come strangely here, Ittai the Gittite, or man of Gath. David, it seems, has done more than destroy the Philistine giant: he has captured, and in the most signal way, the men of the city. But a gleam of light flashes upon us with his name, Ittai, "with Jehovah." No wonder if one once abiding in the distance from God, a "child of wrath," now brought nigh, should follow the One who has been the Victor in the conflict which that in Elah represents; nor can we refuse a type which shines with its own light. Pass on, Ittai, with thy six hundred: who can doubt the faithful service thou wilt give to thy master? Stranger and exile, we know where thy heart is: thou art fit to bear witness to a rejected king.

(c.) And now Zadok and Abiathar appear with the ark of the covenant, ready to accompany David in his flight; but this David realizes to be impossible. He is under chastening for his sin, and he will bow to the chastening. The ark of old accompanied Israel in the wilderness, but they were then on their way to the land of their possession, which could not again be lost, but because God had in the mean time rejected them as His people. This was in fact the meaning of the Babylonish captivity: Lo-ammi was written upon the nation (Hosea 1:9). But the time had not come; nor, if it had, could the ark abide with them. The Philistine possession of it had marked the end of the priestly headship, and had not God raised up Samuel, all had then been ended. Now the king stood where the priesthood once had been, but a time of forbearance had been announced, and the continuance of David's house. This stroke was personal to himself, and the ark of the covenant of God must not leave its habitation. If he still find favor in Jehovah's eyes, He will bring him back to it; if not, how vain and foolish were resistance; or to claim the token of a favor which had in fact departed!

This is characteristic of David. Forget God, alas, he does; and great are the evils and miseries that result from this: but he is not a rebel, nor can he despair of the divine mercy. He cleaves to and justifies the hand that smites him; and that hand will not go on to smite the penitent and submissive man.

The ark returns, therefore, with its attending priesthood, and David gains a post of observation in the forsaken city. In this there was, of course, nothing but what was according to truth and righteousness. The priests of the Most High owed no allegiance to the usurper and willing parricide, while they did owe allegiance to the divinely sanctified king. But of the counterplots that follow one must judge very differently.

(d.) David goes up by the ascent of Olivet with all the external signs of penitential sorrow. He is told now of Ahithophel's accession to the conspiracy, and prays Jehovah to frustrate the counsel of Ahithophel, the acuteness of which he knew so well. Presently a help in this direction offers itself, of which he is not slow to avail himself. Hushai the Arkite comes to meet him with the usual manifestations of distress, but David represents to him that he will be but an additional burden upon the fugitive band, whereas if he attach himself to Absalom, with professions of service, he might for him defeat Ahithophel's counsel. Means of communication will be found by him in the sons of the priests.

David thus thinks that conspiracy can justify conspiracy, and, in the war that has begun, deceit may rightly counterwork deceit. Evil with a good end will thus become good; or at least we may do it that good may come: a conclusion which the apostle declares to subject to just judgment those who hold it. Yet it is still maintained under all the light of Christianity, and practically followed by how many in how many forms! This principle is one that David has himself acted on, as we remember, in the old days of Philistine refuge; and these things, if not judged, may easily revive after a long time of dormancy.

It is true that Absalom could have no rights to be respected in the position which he has taken. As far as he is concerned, treachery is his just due, and that is what gives its color to an immoral argument. If Absalom has ever so much forfeited his rights, God has not on that account forfeited His; and our lives are to be lived to Him. To leave out God is to bring confusion into all reasoning.

Hushai means "hasty," while (remarkably enough) his Gentile name, the Arkite, is from a word which speaks of lengthening, and so "protraction" and "delay." And indeed there is a haste which, because it overlooks God, can do nothing else but delay all divine help and blessing. It is the first word that is used there, where it is said, "he that believeth shall not make haste." (Isa. 28:16.) How beautifully, with what delicate precision, does Scripture stamp the unbelieving devices of even men of faith! It is that Jacob policy which so miserably disappointed the man who practiced it so long, and of which the dislocated thigh symbolized the end. Not till then did he become Israel, a "prince with God."

Next we have Ziba and his slander of Mephibosheth, and again we find David making saddest "haste." He judges in the absence of the accused, on the faith of a most improbable story, told by one who might naturally suppose the traducing of his master to be the stepping-stone to his own advantage. The help he brings to David is thus credited to himself, and he finds royal recompense for it at his master's cost.

In all this David is surely not with God. He is still protracting the discipline which he is under, has not listened aright to the divine Voice under it, even though he knows and owns it to be of God. Yet in the next case he acts beautifully. In the case of open enemies, like Shimei, he seems to be more upon his guard, more ready to see meaning; and so it is often that the worst troubles seem to test us least.

Shimei is the spectre of Saul's house, risen up against the one who has taken possession of its estate and honors. Shimei means "my fame," or "my reputation," and he is the son of Gera, which we have elsewhere taken as "rumination": he is from Bahurim also, "choice or chosen ones." All this helps to link him with the house which he represents. But from Saul and from his line David may seem to have nothing whatever to fear. What charge can be brought against him with regard to these? Shimei's accusation of the blood of the house of Saul" seems really the most senseless clamor. In the mind of an enemy only could the death of Abner or of Ishbosheth be attributed to him. Saul had justly forfeited the throne, and Ishbosheth had never any right claim to possess it. Shimei's curses were therefore empty noise, to which a magnanimous spirit could afford to give no heed.

But is this the whole account to be given of this attack? Are we to see in it merely the unrighteousness which would heap upon the great in their misfortune every inconsiderate calumny, and take delight in abasing further those whom God has already abased? Certainly, if we view it in this way, no one can forbid it to us. The thing is of every-day occurrence; the application so easy and obvious that it is scarce worth while to make it. The lesson is so elementary, it can scarcely be thought of as a lesson. And this is against it as any sufficient explanation of the place it occupies in the inspired history.

David also himself seems to recognize more than this in it. While the malice is plain, and as to Saul and his house personally he can easily justify himself, he still realizes that in some sense this rude Benjamite has his commission from Jehovah, "— Jehovah hath said to him, Curse David." Jehovah has permitted it, for a deeper purpose than Abishai in his resentment could possibly understand, or than Shimei could of course himself imagine.

David had not injured Saul or any of his house. But Saul's house had been removed to make way for David and his house, — that house already fallen into ruin. What, then, had been the value of this substitution? Saul had pursued David in his own intent to death, and David had actually caused Uriah to be slain, — not even in jealous fear of his own safety, but to cover the sin of his invasion of Uriah's house! Which was the better? Did it not seem as if for this David, the blood of Saul's house had been vainly, and so wrongly, shed?

True, Saul had not been really a theocratic king: he had disobeyed the command as to Amalek. But did not this even seem to make it worse, that this should be the theocratic king, now proved no better? Was not the judgment of God upon him now the proof that, after all, this was no help? The royal saint hunted as a criminal from his throne! Had he not, indeed, thus brought the blood of Saul's house, as it were, upon him?

And, in truth, if the remedy for man's ills be sought in this way, it is vain to exchange a Saul, even for a David. The hand of power is needed, and of absolute power, too: but where shall we find him to whom such power can be safely trusted? The answer of the world is being given today in the most decisive manner: the answer is, There is none: we can trust none! The constitutional king succeeds the despotic; democracy follows hard upon the constitutional kingdom: there must be a balance of wills and of interests; each separate interest must have its measure of control upon the ruling power: the clash of interests, the "struggle for life" goes on; but it is no sign of hope or confidence in man, but the reverse: rightly interpreted, it is the sign of the world's despair!

{*2 Sam. 16:14. Ajephim means "weary," and is so translated in the common version; but in this case no place would be named. The "Bible Commentary" suggests that it was a caravansary; for which the name would be appropriate.}

And well may the world despair! Were it not that the heart perverts the head, and we are slow indeed to look the inevitable in the face, the end would long since have been reached. As it is, the language is read backward, and men still hope! Nay, the spirit of hope which breathes in Christianity has formed strange alliance with the optimism of the world, and brought into it an air of piety and faith that makes despair of the world a heresy. But for this the spirit of hope, which is truly Christian, has been separated from its embodiment in Scripture, the true and glorious hope of the coming king! Were it not for this, David and David's house must indeed inevitably follow Saul's into the gulf of ruin. Not David, but David's Seed is the hope of men: and this is what Shimei's curse at bottom points to: truly all would be under it, only that in self-despair is faith found, and the divine remedy for this and every other ill.

(e.) The wheel of God's government still turns, bringing Absalom to the highest point of prosperity, and David to the lowest; but from that moment David begins again to rise, and Absalom to fall, and from this he never recovers.

First, we find Hushai at his meeting with Absalom entering upon the part prescribed for him with a subtlety which makes us understand David's confidence in him. His repeated salutation is met coldly enough by the new king, who, arch-traitor as he is himself, is surprised at another's desertion. But the "king's friend" had doubtless earned the title by acts that were unmistakable, and Absalom's surprise had ground much deeper than his after-confidence. Indeed all through this scene there is a certain ambiguity which seems to intimate to us how unwilling was even the appearance of this desertion with him. "Nay, but," he says, "whom Jehovah hath chosen, and this people, even. all the men of Israel, his will I be, and with him will I abide." And in the strict sense this was only true of David: his own counsel afterwards was founded on the assurance that not all the men of Israel (and much less Jehovah) had chosen Absalom. Again he says, "Whom should I serve? Should it not be in the presence of his son? As I have served in thy father's presence, so shall I be in thy presence." Now faithful service of the father would make one look for faithful service with the son certainly; but only if the father's days were at an end. So Absalom interpreted it, of course, and was meant to interpret it, as if for Hushai David's reign were at an end. But if this were not so for him, then even in the son's presence the faithful service would be to the father still. But Absalom's speedy success and abundant vanity make all this what he desires it. Treacherous himself, he has no reason for refusing treachery; and he had doubtless covered it with fine words enough, not to look too closely at the words of others. Thus the evil he has indulged works evil for him.

Ahithophel's advice, with all its wickedness, reminds us again that he is the grandfather of Bathsheba. David shall be himself dishonored in the way that he has dealt dishonor; and upon the very roof from which the lust of his eyes had carried him into open sin. But this was, as we know, the fulfilling of God's word as to him. Wherever man's sin may carry him, it cannot find the place where God shall not be governor. But what a state of things in Israel when the wisdom of an Ahithophel sees only advantage in wickedness so gross and open! Can he suppose that they have so forgotten God that they will forget the due of such things with Him? Or that they will see but the punishment of David's sin, as if it cancelled the enormity of sin in Absalom?

What he does see clearly is that the breach between father and son must not be healed, must be rendered irrevocable, for the safety of the conspirators; and thus they must use him for their purposes as he has used them for his. The power of evil thus augments by the irreversible law that what we have made our servant shall become our master: "he that committeth sin is the servant of sin." Through whatever door it enters, it becomes master of the house.

But Ahithophel is, after all, "brother of foolishness." He does not see that the wheel swung round so far will come up again for David. God has glorified Himself in view of his sin, and openly: He can now therefore-appear for him, as is soon manifest, and Ahithophel has to find. For his next counsel is that, with twelve thousand chosen men, he should be allowed to follow after David, scatter his attendants, and kill the king alone. All would then be assured: "the man whom thou seekest" being put to death, it is "as if all returned," speaking as if these had strayed from their allegiance, rather than the men of Absalom.

But the limit is reached, and the wise and heartless counsel, though at first approved, is finally defeated by the opposition of Hushai. Exactly adapted to the man he is addressing, his speech works upon the fears and upon the vanity of Absalom. Nothing indeed could be wiser than his recommendation, if only one thing were granted which the new king does not stay to question, that the will of the nation as a whole has placed him where he is. Ahithophel knows better: hence his despair when Hushai's counsel is preferred before his own. While the ready messengers start off, not without personal risk, to bring David the news, Ahithophel quietly returns to Giloh, puts his affairs in order, and hangs himself, — the first suicide of which we read in Scripture.

{*2 Sam. 17:25. "Israelite" probably, "Ishmaelite," as the Alex. text of the Septuagint here, and 1 Chron. 2:17.}

David passes over the fords of Jordan, and is in the mean time safe. His plan of defeating Ahithophel by Hushai has been completely successful; and, if success can do this, it is justified by it. How many, openly or secretly, scarcely perhaps allowing it to themselves, would accept such justification?

In this case there can be no real question. If deceit and treachery are evil, — if evil may not be done, that good may come, — if God therefore cannot lead his people in such a path, — then the success of a thing can be no sufficient test of fitness or expediency at any time. We have not to look the less carefully at the question of right because it can be demonstrated that a measure will be successful.

That David escaped by Hushai's means is certainly true. How much did he miss by it of seeing God's hand stretched out for him? How willingly do we deprive ourselves of many such glorious visions in the same way! By so much as we are richer in resources, by so much poorer do our lives become!

(2) Mahanaim once more answers to its name. Israel is again divided into "two camps." Absalom passes over Jordan and encamps in Gilead.

The benefit of delay to David's cause is soon realized in the rallying to him of many: so that his hundreds swell rapidly into thousands; and the quality of these adherents, as we may well believe, gives them rank beyond their number. We see in Shobi the Ammonite another example of that attractive power in David by which enemies by nature became his friends. With Shobi, Machir and Barzillai, Gileadites, contribute to his necessities at Mahanaim. Here he comes to a stand, and the forces on either side prepare for the conflict imminent.

David divides his army into three parts, under three tried leaders, the Gittite one. The tenderness and prudence of his followers restrain him from going forth with them to the battle. His love for the son that would have doomed him to death without remorse, is shown in his charge to the leaders in the hearing of all, for his sake to spare Absalom.

Of the battle itself there are no details; but of Absalom's men there are 20,000 slain, the wood of Ephraim entangling them after their defeat. Here Absalom meets his end in a way which speaks solemn judgment of the career it closes.

Caught in the branches of a terebinth, he is lifted by his head between earth and heaven; that which supported him passing away from under him. There he dies at the hand of Joab and the young men that follow him, and is flung into a pit in the wood, with a great heap of stones heaped over him as over an executed criminal, — in striking contrast with the monument he had prepared for himself elsewhere.

The conveyance of the news to David is described with unexpected detail: the two messengers, one of whom so persistently seeks the service while he withholds the distress of which he knows; the king's watch in the city; his pathetic tender inquiry after the "young man, Absalom"; then the burst of passionate grief, from which the people steal away abashed, as if they had suffered the defeat instead of having gained the victory; then the bold and effectual rebuke of Joab, which brings the king once more to the gate, where the people come again before him.

It is a touching history, with a general moral intent which is so obvious that it needs no special comment; but we leave it with a profound feeling that we have merely touched the surface, and that there are everywhere meanings that we have failed to reach. The typical significance which we have found through all the Old Testament history hitherto, here seems largely to fail us; but perhaps we ought not to wonder much at this. The history here is one of continuous sin and evil, on the part of the main actors in it, and of the government of God in view of this: and the very purport of it is to show the break-down of all hope for man, save in Christ Himself. David is here, therefore, not the likeness but the unlikeness to his Son and Lord. No doubt there may still be typical teaching; but if so, it will be incidental, partial, and supplementary to the general purport of the narrative. As yet we have not found this; but those who seek need not be discouraged on that account. The deeper meanings here have been yet but little sought: what has been yielded to the search as yet is only the beginning of what may be looked for by the patient inquirer.

(3.) We pass on then to the return of the king, — a fruitful subject, one would naturally deem it. David is now rising up out of his distresses; the government of God has vindicated itself, and is no longer against him; his rejection is over, and, except one brief revival of dangerous feeling, his throne is now to be established over a reunited people. It is natural to think here of Him who is soon to come in glory as the antitype of David in circumstances such as these; still, though types are often and variously repeated, it is well to remember that we have had already, much earlier in David's history, the types of Christ's rejection and His reign alike, and that we are here in a very different subdivision of the book. God loves to surprise and delight the ready heart with constant reminders of the glory of His Son; yet we may expect here probably a larger mingling of what is simply David's personal history, and what is unlikeness, as well as what is likeness.

Thus the opening sentences here show us the tribes of Israel at strife among themselves about bringing back the king. The king's own tribe holds back, and David sends to Zadok and Abiathar to urge them to press upon these the state of feeling of the other tribes, and his own kinship to themselves. Amasa, captain of the host so recently come against him, he urges similarly, promising him the same place as under Absalom, instead of Joab. Judah is thus gained, and with their usual impulsiveness, without seeking the co-operation of the rest of Israel, they send their message of recall to the king: "Return thou, and all thy servants." There is no confession or sorrow for the past; and the independence works for evil in the state of jealousy already subsisting between the tribes. In all this David shows little of the dignity of faith, and perhaps on this account is allowed to suffer at least what may convince him of his folly. Sheba's insurrection and the murder of Amasa — who seems little qualified for the position to which he is raised — both spring apparently out of David's unbelieving "haste" on this occasion.

Nor does his mercy to Shimei seem to have sustained sufficiently the righteousness that should characterize the throne. So evidently he believed afterwards, as we see by his recommendation to Solomon with regard to him. To relax the extreme penalty might well suit the day of David's restoration to the throne, especially in view of his professed repentance. But there seems to have been no reality such as would have harmonized with this fuller grace.

As to Mephibosheth, David's treatment of him is that of a man unable to resist conviction of his former rashness, and yet unwilling to face fully the injustice of which he had been guilty. Tricked by his servant and compelled to inactivity by his helpless condition, Mephibosheth has been plainly mourning for his benefactor and friend. David compromises with his conscience and his promise to Ziba, his irritable peremptoriness showing him to be ill at ease. The son of Jonathan manifests the spirit of his father, the affection which is not to be bought and cannot be changed by the undeserved change he experiences: "Let him even take all, since the king has come unto his house in peace." It would be good to think that the cloud could be lifted from David as to this matter, but the history leaves him under it, and we must. The "I have said" is meant to intimate finality; and we have no hint of its recall.

Barzillai's leave-taking we must pass over, simply as having nothing to add to the Scripture account. Save some natural analogies, there does not after all seem much to compare with the great event for which as Christians we are taught to look, while the whole narrative seems part of a history of human failure and governmental dealings of God in view of it, such as its place in the book would intimate. We go on, not to scenes of peace and prosperity, but of fresh strife and sorrow. The very aim and purport of it all seems to be, how little the world can find from king or government, short of Christ's own rule. Since then it has been making long experiment as to the truth of this, hoping to prove it false, but has not.

4. Not yet has the king reached Jerusalem before there appears the shadow of that which. little more than a generation later was to be the beginning of the end for Israel's independence. The strife between Israel and Judah breaks out in the very presence of the king; and Sheba the son of Bichri, a Benjamite, heads a fresh revolt against David. The men of Israel, gathered to do honor to David, follow him; and the spark of rebellion thus kindled threatens to grow into a speedy flame. The king calls Amasa to gather the tribe of Judah in pursuit of Sheba; but he is tardy, where everything depends on speed: David therefore entrusts Abishai with the commission to pursue Sheba at the head of his standing guard. The special troop of the dispossessed Joab goes with the rest, and Joab at the head of these. Here was at once material for discord again, and the murder of Amasa restores Joab to his old place at the head of the troops, where his success in the capture of Sheba keeps him. Politic and brave as he is unscrupulous, the figure of Joab dominates all this latter part of David's reign.

This section terminates with another list of the officials under David, such as we have had already in the eighth chapter in connection with the most brilliant period of his history. It is natural to see in this later list the record of David's later years, and in the differences between the two, those which the lapse of time has made. But the question for us is, supposing this to be correct, is it a sufficient account of the matter? Is there any practical use — any significance worthy of consideration — in the two lists being given us? Are they intended for comparison? In an inspired history, can it be vain to imagine that spiritual interests are subserved by their place in it? Upon the answer given to such questions depends much of the value of these records to us, and of the attention they will meet with at our hands. If they are simply facts of history, let them be ever so accurate as facts, they will assuredly be of very little value for the generality of readers. If, on the other hand, it be true here, as with Scripture everywhere, that they are "profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness," at once our interest in them will be excited, and we shall examine them with an earnestness corresponding to our expectation of such results. If we believe in verbal inspiration, — as it is most certain Christ our Master did, — then we shall think no investigation too minute, too microscopic. Such a claim will not allow in us a mere indolent acceptance of it. It will produce an intelligent activity in the pursuit of truth which will require much from an inspired writing, and will assuredly be bitterly disappointed if results are not found to justify the claim.

We have already — partly, at least — examined the first list in its place, connected as it is with the first and glorious portion of David's reign, the history of which we have spoken as in some sense idealized in order that it might the better represent the higher glories of the one perfect kingdom. As so connected, it speaks of the character of that government in which the divine and human meet for the first time in absolute harmony. The second list, connected as distinctly with David's failure and sin, would seem as if it must intimate, in contrast with this, the failure of what is merely human; not, of course, in its worse forms (or there would be no lesson), but in its better, — not Absalom's but David's reign.

Yet the lists, after all, are very much alike, — too much, we might think, to serve any such purpose. They are the same list, with (as has been already said) such changes as the lapse of a few years might make. To see the differences fully we must take into account, not merely those of the names but of their places also, — numbers counting, as we know, for much. We must believe, in short, in inspiration as to every "jot" and "tittle"; and so believing, we shall not be disappointed.

(1) The lists begin much alike: — "And Joab the son of Zeruiah was over the host"; "And Joab was over all the host of Israel." The significance of Joab, typically, lies in his name, as we have seen. Joab means "Jehovah is father"; and "son of Zeruiah" shows us this as the fruit of the cross. The one point of difference — most significant it is between the two lists here is that in the second this last is omitted: the cross as the foundation of all is removed.

Now we are familiar with the fact that where atonement is denied the "fatherhood of God" may be yet insisted on, and indeed widened in its application to all, upon the natural basis of creation, the fall and its consequences being denied. Grace, faith, and a peculiar relationship of these to one another are thus necessarily set aside also: and this is evidently the condition of the best human governments, which, as governments of the world, cannot act upon Christian rules or principles, which are for Christians only. The omission in the second list is therefore the expression of a simple fact by which all governments today, however much Christian in profession, are distinguished from Christ's coming one. Look at the judgment of sheep and goats (Matt. 25), the judgment of the living when that kingdom is set up on earth, — and note the difference. Christians may be kings, judges, governors, they cannot any the more, as such, act in character as Christians; nor can they find in the New Testament a single word addressed to such. "My kingdom is not of this world" is decisive for the followers of Him who spake after this manner.

(2) The second place in the second list is filled by "Benaiah the son of Jehoiada," who is "over the Cherethites, and over the Pelethites," that is, the "executioners and couriers." He is moved up from the fifth place on the first list to the second here: another important difference, though the name and office are the same; still more when we find "Jehoshaphat the son of Ahilud the recorder," (literally, "the remembrancer,") with all that is implied here, displaced to a fourth position. Judgment is God's strange, however necessary, work: the fifth place, that of governmental recompense, is what plainly belongs to it. It–is therefore here out of place, and in that of confirmation, help, salvation: it is an arm upon which the weakness of the kings of the earth has manifestly to support itself; and how often is judgment rendered merciless by this very weakness, — by the necessity of self-preservation. Divine government needs no such help.

(3) In the third place of the first list are found the priests, plainly again in their proper order. Here they are sixth, three places lower down, while the third place here (the number of manifestation and glory) is filled by an officer entirely unknown in the former list, and the cause of woeful disaster at a later day, "Adoram," who is "over the tribute." Who can fail to see the significance of the priest (the intercessor and mediator) giving way to the tax-collector? And who can but realize the burden of the best human governments in this respect, compared with the mercy of the divine? Here is a difference, central and pervasive.

Adoniram, "my lord is exalted," is here contracted, probably by the popular mouth, into Adoram, "their glorifying."

(4) Jehoshaphat the son of Ahilud is still "recorder" or "remembrancer," but now in the fourth place, that of weakness and failure; while —

(5) Instead of Seraiah, "Jah has dominion," Sheva is scribe: whose name is taken generally to mean "vanity." Because the world has, as far as possible, escaped from under the dominion of Jah, vanity is written upon it.

(6) Under the sixth head are found, with shorn honors, Zadok and Abiathar, the priests; the number that in which the uprise of evil is indicated, being the exact opposite of that which belongs to them of right. Priest, as we see, is far separate from king here, while in the perfect rule at last these shall be joined together. The one who is over shall be the one who is for his people, and nothing shall be able to separate these things any more forever.

(7) Lastly, under the number of rest, Ira the Jairite is named as a chief ruler; the names being suggestively significant of the opposite of rest, as "watcher, the enlightener." How clearly is indicated the disturbed condition of the world's kingdoms, with their constant restlessness and suspicion of change. This perfects the vivid picture: and yet it describes not a Saul's rule, but a David's!

Certainly, slight as has been the present sketch of it, we have no reason to doubt that the two official lists here are in designed and significant contrast with one another. Yet their meaning is not blazoned on their front, but indicated by slight touches, and left to be brought out by such inquiry as seems never to have been given them; one reason for this, however, being plainly neglect of that symbolism of numbers which, however it may be ignored, yet runs through Scripture and illumines it. If a worthy search were made, it would be found, I doubt not, that instead of exaggerating the importance of this, all that has been said in its behalf has been far too little.

The lists manifestly seal the interpretation of the several portions of this history of David, the typical and the natural, which it is according to the purpose of the book to put in contrast. It is, as we find, really a book of the "kingdoms," in which the higher is always in contrast with the lower, until He come who joins them together; and here David, greater than himself, bids us look on in faith to what has been in the mind of God from the beginning. Into this the kingdoms of the world will never grow: they will pass away, that the kingdom of the heavens may replace them. He shall come whose right it is, and God will give it Him.

5. The last section of this subdivision is an appendix to the previous history. When what is narrated here took place we are not informed, but the very vagueness of the specification, "in the days of David," implies that it is not in continuity with the things we have been looking at. It is classed with them because of its similar moral bearing, not because of its connection in time. Its theme, like theirs, is the government of God; and, as another "fifth," emphasizes responsibility as under this government, which the failure manifestly (and in very real connection thus with the preceding history) confirms very solemnly.

There is a famine for three years, year after year, which at last — for it takes three years to do it drives David to God to inquire the cause. He is answered that it is for Saul and for his bloody house, because he slew the Gibeonites." A deed of the past reign is thus charged against the present, the deed of a former king upon the whole people of Israel. They were responsible as the people of God for having suffered the iniquity, profited by it, perhaps, — gone on, at least, without any acknowledgment or repentance for it.

With the history of the Gibeonites we are well acquainted. They were of the original inhabitants of the land, and had gained, by deceit, exemption from the doom which these were under. An oath by Jehovah had been given them that they should live, and thus the name of the Lord was pledged for their preservation. Saul, however, "in his zeal for the children of Israel and Judah," had sought to destroy them, and had actually slain some.

The motive is given at its best, designedly. Without questioning the motives which might have been hidden under the ostensible one, nothing of this sort could avail to remove the dishonor from the Lord's name which they had permitted to remain there. The famine showed that, spite of the time that had elapsed, He had not forgotten nor could pass over this; and this should have instruction for us in the ways of God, and give us to realize our need of exercise with regard to them.

But here again David seems sadly to forget the privilege of which he has just availed himself; and having turned to the Lord for the cause of the judgment, he turns to the Gibeonites to learn the method of atonement. "David said unto the Gibeonites, What shall I do for you? and wherewith shall I make atonement, that ye may bless the inheritance of Jehovah?" Surely that was not, after all, the first consideration; and to put himself into the hands of those who had been wronged was not in reality the way of righting it. Was there then no law in Israel which would apply to such a case? And if there were none, how much more had they need to seek from the highest Wisdom for help in a matter so exceptional as this?

Instead of which he makes an absolute promise, "What ye shall say, that will I do for you," and then on hearing their demand for seven of Saul's sons to be hung up to Jehovah in Gibeah of Saul, he still answers, "I will give them." There is no sign of any fresh appeal to God in the matter; and indeed there is no need of it to refuse the Gibeonite request. It had been already distinctly announced in Israel's statute-book: "The fathers shall not be put to death for the children, neither shall the children be put to death for the fathers: every man shall be put to death for his own sin." (Deut. 24:16.) In Ezekiel 18, long after this, when the children of Israel were perverting similarly the utterances of the law itself, God solemnly reasserts the principle of Deuteronomy, in vindication of the righteousness of His ways: "As I live, saith the Lord God: ye shall not have occasion any more to use this proverb in Israel. Behold, all souls are mine: as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is mine: the soul that sinneth, it shall die."

It is impossible, therefore, to quote Numbers 35:33 against this, — a passage which in itself is as plain as need be. True, "the land cannot be cleansed of the blood that is shed therein, but by the blood of him that shed it"; but "the blood of him that shed it" means the very opposite of the blood of his descendants. The word of God does not so contradict itself; and the Spirit of God emphatically disowns the principle.

True, the actual shedder of this blood had passed from the reach of human judgment-seats, and there was a difficulty in this that only God could meet. The Gibeonites sought to meet it honestly, no doubt, but according to the common maxims of blood-revenge, as it obtained among the nations round about, and which the whole legislation as to the cities of refuge had replaced and shut out for the people of God. That these had admitted them again is more than probable, and as here, they would naturally seek to throw the solemn sanctions of the law around them. Scripture does not ordinarily comment upon such things, but leaves us with the word of God in our hands to disentangle the confusion, and pass judgment for ourselves according to God.

Some have thought that the first verse of the chapter here shows us Saul's "bloody house" as being really involved with him in the guilt of the Gibeonite slaughter. In a certain way this, no doubt, was true. As the blood-stain rested upon the whole nation until cleansed away, so especially did it rest upon the house of Saul. Upon them it rested specially to do what might be done in reparation, and by unmistakable manifestation of sorrow and humiliation for the crime before God. Individuals of Saul's house might have been really accessories to it; but then their guilt as that would be specific and individual: and we find no such charges brought. It is not likely that the children of Merab were such; it seems very certain that Mephibosheth was not; and yet he is spared, not in virtue of his innocence, but because of David's sworn covenant with Jonathan his friend. This shows that, as to the others, it was not a question of personal guilt. The Gibeonite requisition was "seven of Saul's sons," — no matter who. David looks round and selects out of those so indicated. The specification of number, like all else, shows what is in their mind. They all, and David most, follow their own thoughts, and neither go to God nor are governed by His word. As we must surely read it, it is again the failure of human government, even where recognizing the divine one, — blindness in the things of God, for which the causes are spiritual, and alas, deep as they are wide.

The pathetic action of Rizpah seems to have a place here beyond that which the ordinary interpretation of the whole matter can assign it. The bodies are left, contrary to the law with regard to those hanged, — the only law which we know in such a case (Deut. 21:22, 23), — hanging day and night before God. The reason that has been suggested for this (as by Keil and others) is that "this law had, however, no application whatever to the case before us, where the expiation of guilt that rested upon the whole land is concerned. In this instance the expiatory sacrifices were to remain exposed before Jehovah, till the cessation of the plague showed that His wrath had been appeased." This, as a human account of why they left them there, is no doubt the truth. That it had any ground in the law, or therefore in the right reason of things, is another matter. The tentative character of the whole proceeding, on the contrary, has no mark of God's dictation, as it is against the whole spirit of the law. God never ordains a way of approach to Him, and at the same time brands it as of doubtful efficacy. He never appointed a sacrifice, and bade the offerer wait until he found out if it were acceptable. How different the positiveness of His word from the uncertain speculations of the wisest of men!

The thought to which Keil gives expression is easily gathered from Rizpah's action, who "spread sackcloth for her upon the rock until water should be poured upon them out of the heavens." So I think we must translate the words, not as the record of fact but of expectation. The fact does not seem to have answered to the expectation; for it was after the bones were buried, with those of Saul and Jonathan, that "God was entreated for the land," or, in other words, that the drought ceased.

This, however, sets aside the efficacy of the act itself, and brings Rizpah into corresponding prominence: Rizpah, whose act with the whole force of the motherly instinct, refuses participation in the awful doom, and with her feeble womanly strength would shelter the victims. Strangely enough, while she protects them from the birds of prey, she is herself a daughter of Aiah, "vulture," or "kite," — in either case one of the keenest-eyed of these. And, while she refuses this sacrifice, her own name, Rizpah, is that of the "live coal," which, taken by the seraph from off the altar, purges the unclean lips of the prophet! (Isa. 6:6, 7.) Is this double reference to the matter in hand only a double accident? Rizpah does even prepare the way for blessing, touching the heart of David to do what poor justice can even yet be done to the dishonored dead, with whom Saul and Jonathan themselves come into remembrance also. The keen eye that sees things as they are, the glow of living righteousness, are with this stricken woman, not with king David or the Gibeonites in this matter; and not till things are set right here can God be entreated for the land!

What, then, is the lesson here but the failure, as already said, of human government, even when, aroused by the divine acts, it addresses itself to the settlement of the most fundamental questions? — the endeavor to fulfill righteousness ending in the most complete unrighteousness, and the blind effort to please God in the refusal of His plainest commandments, — a woman's heart seeing clearly, with instinctive wisdom, what the king of Israel, with his delight in the law of God, is utterly blind to. How more than ever it is plain that one hand alone can rightly wield the sceptre of the world! How it shows us the moral of the book to be in the cry, "Come, Lord Jesus!"