II Samuel 18
George Bernard Shaw wrote, “No one shall ever write a better tragedy than King Lear.” While I would dare not argue with Shaw, the relationship between Lear and Cordelia is certainly rivaled by the story of Absalom and David. We all know Absalom as the fair haired son of David whose death drove the king to the brink of insanity. Yet my previous sermons on this text have failed to capture real tragedy of this story. Recently I reread the masterpiece William Faulkner spawned from this Biblical narrative. Despite Shaw’s love of Shakespeare, many a good Southerner would rate Absalom, Absalom! ahead of King Lear. Regardless of your linage, the story of Thomas Sutpen and his son Henry cast a dark shroud upon David. This morning I would like to amend my past mistakes by suggesting David is responsible for the death and sins of his sons.
A casual reading of the story portrays David as a loving father captured by a tragic moment. This is because a casual reading ignores the storm brooding within the family. A deeper reading begins five chapters earlier and includes Joab, Amnon, and Tamor to the list of characters.
Joab was the royal fixer. He was the guy David went to when the problem required the king to dirty his hands. If you remember the story of David and Bathsheba, you will remember that Joab arranged the convenient death of Urriah. In Absalom’s revolt against David, Joab was the only one with both the courage and anger to kill the boy.
Amnon was the oldest son of David. Before Bathsheba, David had six sons by six different wives. Then David had four sons with Bathsheba. The last was Solomon. David eventually had 19 sons born to 15 of his wives. The Bible mentions additional sons born to concubines. Then there was a daughter named Tamor. She was Absalom’s sister.
Why all those wives and children? The art of remaining king in the days of David depended on relationships with foreign neighbors and internal foes. David’s first wife was the daughter of Saul. They didn’t love each other. In fact they hardly knew each other. It was a marriage arranged to insure Saul and David would not kill each other. Once David was king, he took wives to insure allegiance from those who sought his crown. But those marriages also insured the children who would became rivals. Amnon was the first born. This gave him the right to the throne. But Absalom, the third born, possessed the charisma of his father. All we can say of Amnon is that he inherited David’s sexual appetite.
Imagine the example David gave his children. One spring, when armies go to war, David stayed home. Was he too old to fight? Was he too valuable to be lost in war? We are not given a reason. We only know David, full of energy, full of craving, stayed behind. His eyes fall upon Bathsheba. Her husband was an officer in David’s Army. He was off protecting his nation’s borders, leaving no one to stand between David and his desires. So he rapes her. As king, David had the power to do anything he desired. Who dared stand against him? You don’t think his first born knew what had happened? More importantly, don’t you think the first born remembered what happened?
A few years later, Amnon decided to act like his father. Worse than that, he even enlisted the king in his plans. Pretending to be ill, Amnon asked David to send Tamar to his bedroom that she might give him something to eat. Do you really believe for one moment David thought his son was ill? David had to know Tamar was in danger. All David had to do was look into a mirror and see the reflection of a past tragedy. He knew what was on Amnon’s mind, but he still sent Tamar to the room. There Amnon sexually forced himself upon her. She fought but was not strong enough. When the deed was done, all she had left was her voice, and she used it.
Some might argue Tamor was the originator of the METOO movement. She let everyone know what had happened. David claimed to be angry but did nothing to punish his first born. Absalom, the brother of Tamar, was sickened by the rape but he took no immediate action. Instead he raged silently, waiting for the moment he could avenge his sister.
For two long years Absalom planned his revenge. A party was arranged and Absalom invited his father and his brother. The invitation read, “Let’s forget the past and start all over.” Amnon had already forgotten. He was ready to renew his relationship with his brother. The family came together, the wine was poured, and the party went deep into the night. But before the sun came up Amnon’s throat had been slit. David, grief stricken over the loss of his first born, called on Joab to throw Absalom out of the palace. Joab banned Absalom from Jerusalem setting in motion the revolt that would eventually lead to the execution of Absalom. A daughter was raped and abandoned. Two sons were killed. And David was left to wonder how such a tragedy could have happened in his household.
Our story ends with David locked up in his room mourning the death of another son. Can’t you hear him lamenting, “What did I do to deserve this pain?” (stop)
Had David forgotten he had demanded Bathsheba be quiet because her cries were too painful for him to hear? Had David forgotten Amnon demanded the same of Tamar? Had David forgotten Absalom was also quiet, but with a rage that burned to the core of his soul and an anger that eventually led to murder and revolt.
Tradition tells us that Psalm 51 was David’s prayer after Nathan revealed that the rape of Bathsheba was an abomination. It is a powerful prayer that almost says everything that needs to be said.
Have mercy on me, O God.
Wash me of my iniquity.
Make me whiter than snow.
Create in me a clean heart.
Restore me to the joy of my salvation.
My sacrifice to You is a broken spirit,
And contrite heart.
It seems to be the perfect confession. What could be missing? Allow me to share verse three and four.
You know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before You. Against You, and You alone, I have sinned.
Nowhere in Psalm 51 or II Samuel does the king ask forgiveness from Bathsheba or the parents of Uriah. Nowhere in Psalm 51 or II Samuel does David apologize to his wives. Nowhere in Psalm 51 or II Samuel does David explain to his six sons and one daughter that his actions were inexcusable, driven by lust and power. Except to God, David is silent, and that is simply not good enough. Deb and I recently visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture. One display told the story of African women mournfully crying as they pushed into the hull of a slave ship. The captain threatened to whip them if they didn’t stop singing. He cried out, “Be quiet! Your songs are too painful for my feelings.”
Because of David’s silence, Amnon assumed if you are soon to be king, women have no voice.
Because of David’s silence, Absalom assumed if you desire to be king, murder is your privilege.
Because of David’s silence, his heart was broken.
We are mistaken when we believe silence can heal. We risk relationships when we believe memories will dissolve. No one has the right to abuse power. No one has the consent to take another’s life. Both are sins, not just against God, but against another. And when sin is excused, or overlooked, or concealed, or even justified, silence and memories divide us, not just for a moment but for generations to come.
Absalom war against his king imitated the violence he had learned from his father. This vicious cycle is not unknown to parents and children of every generation. Have we not modeled behaviors and values that our children’s children have imitated? Have we not been silent too long?
Jesus shares the glorious tale of a son who takes his inheritance prematurely and runs off to the city to have a grand time. He soon spends all the money, ends up sloping hogs and finally a broken man, comes home to the waiting arms of the forgiving father. This is not the David and Absalom story. In this case the prodigal does not come home and the waiting father’s embrace is empty. Which story really reflects life as we know it?
Many of us are grandmothers and grandfathers. Our grandchildren adore us because we are not the rule makers. They have this mistaken conception that we are perfect. Perhaps the greatest gift we can give a grandchild is to break the silence and share an experience when we wished we had acted differently. Imagine our grief if they someday make the same mistake because of our silence.
To God be the glory. Amen.