Seward United Methodist Church
Thursday, May 24, 2018
Search this site.View the site map.

Suffering

2nd Samuel 13-19

One of the things that I mentioned last week, as we talked about David’s sins with Bathsheeba and Uriah, is that they would have long-lasting effects on his life. Today we’ll talk about some of those effects, as they played out on an intergenerational stage. Sin can often have a generation-to-generation component. We tend to repeat the patterns that we became accustomed to as we grew up. Children whose parents struggle with addiction often struggle with it themselves. Children who are abused are more likely to become abusive themselves, and so on. Here in chapters 13 to 19 of 2nd Samuel, we see this intergenerational pattern played out in David’s life.

It is also the story of the greatest suffering of David’s life. I’ve been saying all along that David lived a God-filled life. And that’s true, though there were certainly moments when he became empty of God. But even a God-filled life will not exempt us from suffering, in spite of what some say to the contrary.

And those voices are out there right now. We have this idea in our society called the “Health and Wealth Gospel” which basically says that if you have enough faith, if you are obedient enough to God, then God will protect you from suffering. And if you do suffer, then it means you didn’t have enough faith or you didn’t obey closely enough. Well, that’s just not true, and it’s not biblical. Jesus said in John 16 that, even though he gives us peace, and even though he has overcome the world, still we will have trials and sorrows in this life.

Suffering is inevitable. But suffering also has a history. Suffering is seldom a completely arbitrary thing. It’s not so simple as to say that suffering is completely random. Nor is it so simple as to say that everything is cause and effect; that we sin and then we suffer because of our sins. We are caught up in a complex web of sin and suffering. Sometimes we suffer for our own choices. Sometimes we suffer for the choices of others. And sometimes, it just doesn’t seem to have any rhyme or reason that we can see.

The history of David’s suffering begins with his oldest son, Amnon. Amnon became infatuated with his half-sister Tamar. David was father to both of them, but they had different mothers. Amnon, knowing that he could not marry her, for rather obvious reasons, came up with a scheme to get her alone so that he could rape her. She pleaded with him that such a thing would bring deep dishonor to both of them. He would disqualify himself from receiving the crown, and she would be unable to marry, because in that culture, no man would have her as a wife. But her pleas went unheeded, and afterward, Amnon’s infatuation quickly turned to hatred, and he sent her away. The whole story is eerily similar to David, having his way with Bathsheeba, and then sending her away.

David was furious with Amnon. But in spite of his anger, he didn’t do anything. Maybe it was too embarrassing to his family for his own son to do such a thing. Perhaps he thought it would threaten the peaceful transition of power. Or maybe it was all too similar to his own sin with Bathsheeba. Regardless of the reason, he did nothing.

But Tamar’s brother Absalom did do something. For two years he plotted and schemed about how to exact revenge on Amnon. Finally, the opportunity presented itself and he murdered his half-brother. Then he ran away to the kingdom of his father-in-law, a place called Geshur, which was located east of the Jordan, in what is today the Golan Heights, and he stayed there for three years.

David, though angry over Amnon’s death, desperately missed his son. But he was unwilling to do anything to bring him home. Finally, David’s commander Joab devised a scheme to convince David to bring him home. He hired a wise woman to tell a story to David to help him see the hard-heartedness of his attitude. The key line to the story was verse 14 in chapter 14: “All of us must die eventually. Our lives are like water spilled on the ground. That is why God tries to bring us back when we have been separated from him.” David of all people should have known that. “God does not sweep away the lives of those he cares about, and neither should you.”

David relented and allowed Absalom to come home, but he was forbidden to come into David’s presence. It was an impersonal forgiveness, if it could even be called forgiveness.

Absalom have felt rejected. His father did nothing to right the wrong of Amnon’s actions, and now he refused to be a father to Absalom. The story begs the question, “What if David had acted like the prodigal father of Jesus’ famous parable? What if he had welcomed his wayward son home with open arms, as God welcomes us home?” Perhaps the end of the story would have been quite differently.

Instead, David withheld grace. In his book, “Leap over a Wall,” Eugene Peterson says that his ongoing rejection of Absalom was the worst sin of David’s life. Really? That was worst sin of David’s life? Worse than his adultery with Bathsheeba? Worse than the murder of Uriah? Yes, worse. It was worse because those sins were done in moments of hasty decision making. But his decision to continue to reject Absalom took place steadily over the course of five years. For five years, David withheld grace from his own son.

After five long years, Absalom was finally allowed to see David. But it appears that by then, it was too little, too late. Absalom had gone back to his old habit: Plotting revenge. If David had excluded Absalom from his life for five years, then Absalom would exclude David from his own kingdom by overthrowing him.

With Amnon gone, Absalom was now the oldest son, and he looked the part of a king. He was tall and strong and handsome. His most notable feature was his glorious head of hair. In that ancient Near East culture, hair was seen as a representation of a person’s life force. The more hair you had, the stronger and more virile you were. That’s the reason the young men taunted the prophet Elisha by saying, “Go on up, you old baldhead!”

Since he looked the part, Absalom started to act the part. He bought a chariot and some horses to take him around the countryside. He hired 50 body guards to run ahead of him everywhere he went. When people came to see David, he headed them off at the city gate and said, “Oh, I’m sorry. He won’t see you. If only I were calling the shots, I’d take care of you.” And when people tried to bow to him, he played the part of the humble everyman and refused to accept such an honor.

It worked. After several years, he had enough support that he went to Hebron and proclaimed himself king. David could see the writing on the wall. He had to leave Jerusalem in a hurry, or he was dead meat. More than twenty years after he left the wilderness, David was forced to flee there again.

But in going back to the wilderness, David also recovered his God-filled identity. Suffering can do that. It can turn us back to God. It doesn’t always do that, but it can.

David had been living a life estranged from God for years by now. How do we know that? Because he’d been living estranged from his own son for years, and it’s impossible to be at peace with God when we are willfully estranged from a human being, made in the image of God.

David recovers his God-filled identity. First, he recovers his humility. As he leaves Jerusalem, a relative of Saul named Shimei comes out to curse him and throw stones at him, crying out, “Murderer!” David’s men want to go cut off Shimei’s head, but David stops them. He knows Shimei is telling the truth. He finally remembers that more than a king, he is first and foremost a sinner before God, just like all of us.

David also recovers the life of prayer. As part of his rebellion, Absalom convinced David’s most trusted advisor, a man named Ahithophel, who by the way, was also the grandfather of Bathsheeba, to turn against David. For years, David had trusted every word that came out of Ahithophel’s mouth. His betrayal hurt David deeply. Psalm 55, which we recited part of earlier was written about Ahithophel’s betrayal. Without Ahithophel to trust, David finally remembers to trust God. And he turns to God in prayer again. Suffering doesn’t always turn us back to a life of prayer. Some people turn away from God in their moments of despair,

but many find prayer again. As the old saying goes, there are no atheists in foxholes, or at least there aren’t many.

Finally, maybe most importantly, David recovers compassion in his suffering. More than anger at his son Absalom, David feels love again. His anger is more at himself for his failure in his relationship with his son. He feels sorry for Absalom. And he begs his loyal followers not to harm Absalom, for his sake.

Unfortunately, the man who finds Absalom on the battlefield as David’s loyalists confront Absalom’s army is David’s own captain, Joab. As we’ve talked about before, Joab was one of those people who was so committed to his ideas that he thought nothing of killing those who thought otherwise. Joab kills a defenseless Absalom.

David’s response is found in 2nd Samuel 18:33: “Oh, my son, Absalom. If only I could have died instead of you.” It was perhaps the most bitter moment of David’s life. He is restored to the throne, and the rebellion is put down. But that means little in the light of losing his son, and knowing that it was his own failures as a king and a father that brought it about. The best thing we can say about the story is that David is restored to God in the midst of his greatest suffering.

There’s a strange twist to the story, one that means something to us as followers of Jesus. When David fled from Jerusalem, he fled by the road that went down to Jericho and crossed the Jordan River. It’s the same road that 1000 years later, Jesus used as he went up from Jericho to Jerusalem on his journey to the cross. There’s a strange parallel there. David lamenting over the death of his disobedient son provides a counterpoint to God’s suffering, as his obedient son died on the cross willingly, each of them having walked the same road in opposite directions.

God is no stranger to suffering. When we suffer, God suffers as well. And he loves us in our suffering. And we are never alone in our suffering.

Verse of the Day...