Dealing With Grief

I think it’s accurate to say that the place where we experience our greatest joys and also our greatest heartaches is in our family.  Some of life’s greatest joys are things like watching our children and grandchildren grow up, spending decades with a spouse who loves you and is there for you no matter what, sharing milestones and celebrations, birthdays and graduations and Thanksgiving and Christmas.  These are some of the greatest joys that we will ever experience in life.

            But, on the other hand, some of the most painful experiences we go through in life are also found in the family.  Divorce, conflict, sickness and death in a family are among life’s most painful times.

            In our text this morning, we’re going to watch David go through one of the most painful times of his life.  For the third time, he has to experience the death of a son.  This time, it’s Absalom.

            After his sister was raped, Absalom became a bitter man. That bitterness and resentment led him to murder his brother Amnon and to develop a growing resentment toward his father, David.  He was angry that David didn’t avenge Tamar’s rape but instead did nothing. He was angry that his father left him in exile for three years.  He was angry that even after he had been brought back to Jerusalem, his father still wouldn’t meet with him for another two years!

            This growing resentment led Absalom to attempt a coup against his father’s regime.  And it probably would have been successful except that Absalom took some bad advice, just as God intended.  When we left off last week, Absalom had decided to gathered a huge army from all over Israel.  And then he led that army into battle to chase after David.

            But, of course, all of that took time, which gave David the time he needed to gather his forces and prepare for battle.  We pick up this morning in 2 Samuel, chapter 18.

            “David now mustered the men who were with him and appointed generals and captains to lead them.  He sent the troops out in three groups.” (2 Samuel 18:1-2)

            We see a few verses later that David gathered thousands of men for his army at this point.  He divided his army into three divisions, with a commander over each of them.

            David wanted to go out into battle himself, but his men talked him into staying somewhere safe until the battle was over.  They knew that if David died in battle, it was all over, so they wanted him to stay back where he’s protected so they don’t have to worry about him, and just let them fight the battle. 

            David agreed to this, but he gave his troops one very important instruction before they left.  He said, “‘For my sake, deal gently with young Absalom.’ And all the troops heard the king give this order to his commanders.” (2 Samuel 18:5)

            David tells his three commanders that he wants them to spare his son Absalom, to go easy on him, don’t kill him.  The narrator tells us that everyone heard what he said.  This wasn’t whispered in a private meeting.  It was understood by all the soldiers that David didn’t want Absalom killed.

            At this point in the story, I’m not sure how to feel about David.  On the one hand, I see a man who is filled with grace, who is willing to forgive his son, despite everything Absalom had done.  And I understand that any parent would want to reconcile with their wayward child. 

            But, on the other hand, I think David was a bit deluded regarding his son. He seemed to believe that somehow, some way there could still be a happy ending to this story, that somehow Absalom will change his mind and repent and they’ll be reconciled and everything will be wonderful.  And I think it’s impossible for David to see that that’s just not going to happen.

            The next three verses tell us about the battle.

            “So the battle began in the forest of Ephraim, and the Israelite troops were beaten back by David’s men.  There was a great slaughter that day, and 20,000 men laid down their lives.  The battle raged all across the countryside, and more men died because of the forest than were killed by the sword.” (2 Samuel 18:6-8)

            It’s interesting to me that there are only three verses here that tell us about the actual battle.  Imagine reading a book about the Persian Gulf War, and all it had to say about the battle was “The Iraqi forces were beaten back by the United States and their allies.  There was a great slaughter and 30,000 Iraqi soldiers were killed.” That leaves out a lot of important details!

            And that’s what the narrator of 2 Samuel does – he leaves out all the details.   Because, ultimately, this story is not about a war, it’s not about the battles, it’s about people.  Specifically, it’s a story about Absalom and David.  So, the battle itself only gets three verses.  

            We aren’t told much other than the forces of Absalom, even though they were much greater in number, were no match for David’s army.  David’s men had spent over a decade as guerilla fighters.  They knew exactly how to fight in the wilderness.  Absalom’s soldiers didn’t.   So, one day of fighting and the battle is over.

            Verse 9, “During the battle, Absalom happened to come upon some of David’s men. He tried to escape on his mule, but as he rode beneath the thick branches of a great tree, his hair got caught in the tree. His mule kept going and left him dangling in the air.” (2 Samuel 18:9)

            I think it’s safe to say that Absalom was not a very capable leader of his troops in battle.  I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that Absalom would fit in well in 21st century American politics.  He had the charisma; he had the good looks; he had the political savvy; he had the image.  But when it was time to actually lead the troops, Absalom was rather inept. 

            So here he is, somehow all by himself in the forest, riding a mule.  It may seem strange that he’s on a mule, but the mule was a symbol of a king.  Absalom was riding a mule to make it known that he was the new king.  But somehow, he got his head stuck in a tree.  His head.  Now, I realize we’ve always had these pictures of Absalom’s hair getting stuck in the tree, and that would make sense, because Absalom had long hair.  But that’s not what the Hebrew says here.  It says he got his head stuck in a tree.  Either way, though, it was quite a predicament.

            “One of David’s men saw what had happened and told Joab, ‘I saw Absalom dangling from a great tree.’  ‘What?’ Joab demanded. ‘You saw him there and didn’t kill him?  I would have rewarded you with ten pieces of silver and a hero’s belt!’” (2 Samuel 18:10-11)

            Some have suggested that perhaps Joab had put out a bounty on Absalom’s head, and this is how much the bounty was.  Whoever kills Absalom gets the reward.  And Joab says, “You could have claimed the reward.”

            But the soldier said, “I would not kill the king’s son for even a thousand pieces of silver…We all heard the king say…, ‘For my sake, please spare young Absalom.’  And if I had betrayed the king by killing his son — and the king would certainly find out who did it — you yourself would be the first to abandon me.’” (2 Samuel 18:12-13)

            This soldier says to Joab, “I don’t care how much you offer me.  I’m not about to kill Absalom.”  His reasoning is this — “That money is not going to do me any good if I’m dead.  And if the king finds out I’m the one who disobeyed his order and killed his son, I know exactly what’s going to happen to me.”

            And then, I love what he says next, “If the king finds out it was me who killed Absalom, and he wants to know why I did it, and I say, ‘Because my commander Joab told me to’, you’re going to say, ‘I don’t know what this man’s talking about.’  You’ll be the first to abandon me.”

            And that may have been Joab’s plan all along — to get somebody else to kill Absalom because he didn’t want to do it because of how the king might react and then when that person was brought before David, he could claim to be innocent.  And that sounds about right.  We’ve already seen how Joab was kind of a deceitful schemer, and that may have been what he was up to.

            “‘Enough of this nonsense,’ Joab said.  Then he took three daggers and plunged them into Absalom’s heart as he dangled, still alive, in the great tree.  Ten of Joab’s young armor bearers then surrounded Absalom and killed him.” (2 Samuel 18:14-15)

            Joab says, “If you’re not going to do it, then I’ll do it myself.”  He stabs Absalom with three daggers.  Then, ten other soldiers come up; they all put their spears into Absalom.  I think the reason for this is so that when the king says, “Which one of you killed my son?” it’s not just one person.  There’s a whole group of people, and nobody knows who actually delivered the killing blow.

            Now, Joab could have saved Absalom.  He didn’t have to kill him.  But Joab understood that Absalom was never going to repent.  He knew that Absalom would continue to undermine David’s administration as long as he was alive.  And if Absalom had been spared, just think about how many more thousands of people would die. So, Joab felt he had no choice, and he killed Absalom.

            After this, two messengers were sent to David to tell him what happened – to let him know the outcome of the battle, and to let him know that his son, Absalom was dead.

            “Then the man from Ethiopia arrived and said, ‘I have good news for my lord the king. Today the Lord has rescued you from all those who rebelled against you.’

            “‘What about young Absalom?’ the king demanded. ‘Is he all right?’

            “And the Ethiopian replied, ‘May all of your enemies, my lord the king, both now and in the future, share the fate of that young man!’”  (2 Samuel 18:31-33)

            Which was a roundabout way of saying, “Your son is dead.”

            “The king was overcome with emotion.  He went up to the room over the gateway and burst into tears.  And as he went, he cried, ‘O my son Absalom!  My son, my son Absalom!  If only I had died instead of you!  O Absalom, my son, my son.’” (2 Samuel 18:33)

            In this moment, David was absolutely devastated. When Saul and Jonathan died, David offered a wonderful tribute. When his own son through Bathsheba died, he offered words of wisdom.  But now, David is absolutely devastated and can say nothing other than to repeat, “My son, my son, my son.”

            I want to talk with you this morning about grief as we take a closer look at David’s response to Absalom’s death.  And I want to begin by saying this — Grief is a natural response to losing someone or something that is important to us.   It doesn’t have to be a death.  We may grieve because a loved one has died, or it may be because a relationship has ended, a friendship or marriage.  Or we may grieve because we’ve lost our job or had a major health setback.  Grief is a natural response to losing someone or something that is important to us.

            And that grief can feel overwhelming.  You may feel like the life is being sucked out of you.  You may experience a heaviness that feels like it’s going to absolutely smother you.  If you’ve ever had a significant loss in your life, you understand what I’m talking about.  And if you haven’t, I don’t know if there’s any way for you to really understand how overwhelming grief can be.

            The first reaction in our time of grief is numbness. We find it difficult to concentrate because we feel so overwhelmed.  Someone has suggested that the numbness that initially comes with grief is God’s gift to us.  It shields us from having to deal with the full implication of the loss all at once. That’s one of the reasons you need to be careful about drawing conclusions about how someone is doing after seeing them at a visitation or a funeral.  The numbness most likely hasn’t worn off yet.  It’s when the day-to-day nature of the loss hits home that grief may hit its hardest.

            It’s important to note that people grieve differently.  Grief doesn’t follow a predictable path or pace. There is no “normal” amount of time to grieve.  The grieving process will differ according to our personality, our age, our physical and mental health, our support network.  It’s also likely to be impacted by the type of loss we have experienced.

            We need to be very careful not to assume that we know how someone else is feeling in their time of loss.  Each person’s experience is different.  If you’ve gone through a similar loss, it will help you to empathize with someone else, but you will never be able to fully understand how someone else feels.

            We see this in King David.  In our study, we’ve seen David grieve over three different sons who died.  First, there was the death of the baby born to Bathsheba as a result of David’s adultery.  When the baby was sick, David pleaded with God for the baby to be healed, but then, when the child died, David got up and went on with his life.  He knew that he couldn’t bring the child back, and believed that he would someday be reunited with that child.

            When Amnon died, David tore his clothes and wept.  But the response to Absalom’s death is even more intense.  When David learns that his Absalom has died, he is inconsolable. Why is there such a big difference?

            Again, it’s because different people grieve in different ways.  In fact, different situations may bring about a different kind of grief in the same person.  There are a variety of emotions that are connected to any grief situation, and no situation is the same.  Think about what sort of emotions David must have been feeling when he heard the news that Absalom was dead.

  • Anger.  David may have been angry at Absalom for creating this whole situation.  He may have been angry at Joab for not protecting his son.  He may have been angry at God for allowing it to happen.  And he may have been angry at himself.  Whenever we suffer loss, anger is a natural response. 
  • Regret and remorse.  David knew that this whole situation was partially the result of his own actions. What if he had been a better example to his son?  What if he had never had that affair with Bathsheba?  What if he had been more compassionate with Tamar after she was raped?  What if he had refused to let all those years go by when he had no relationship with his son?  What if he had indulged his children less and taught them a deeper reverence for God and how to make wise choices in life?  Whenever we experience loss, it’s only natural that we look back with some degree of regret.
  • Spiritual Concern. When his baby died, David seemed confident that his baby was with the Lord.  He may not have been so sure about Absalom.  During the course of life, we sometimes don’t give a lot of thought to a person’s spiritual destiny.  But when you’re standing over a casket or a gravesite, that issue is of utmost importance.  Jesus promised that those who believe in him would live even though they die.  Paul tells us that death is swallowed up in victory. These are the kinds of truths that help comfort us in our times of loss.  Truths that allow us to grieve, but not like “others who have no hope”.
  • Loss.  Anytime we lose someone due to death, divorce or any other circumstance, our hopes and our dreams tend to die with them.  We think about the wedding that never take place, the grandchildren that will never be born, the vacation that will never be taken, the anniversary that will never be celebrated. There’s a loss of companionship.  Grief often brings a deep sense of loneliness because we miss that person’s company. Sometimes we don’t realize just how much we cherish someone’s companionship until they’re gone.

            One more thing that we learn from David’s reaction.  There is a danger that our grief can be consuming.  Grief is such an intense emotion that it can easily control your life.  You can spend your whole life focused on that loss.  And that was the direction that David was headed.

            We pick up in 2 Samuel 19.

            “Word soon reached Joab that the king was weeping and mourning for Absalom. As all the people heard of the king’s deep grief for his son, the joy of that day’s victory was turned into deep sadness. They crept back into the town that day as though they were ashamed and had deserted in battle. The king covered his face with his hands and kept on crying, ‘O my son Absalom! O Absalom, my son, my son!’

            “Then Joab went to the king’s room and said to him, ‘We saved your life today and the lives of your sons, your daughters, and your wives and concubines.  Yet you act like this, making us feel ashamed of ourselves.  You seem to love those who hate you and hate those who love you. 

            “‘You have made it clear today that your commanders and troops mean nothing to you.  It seems that if Absalom had lived and all of us had died, you would be pleased.  Now go out there and congratulate your troops, for I swear by the Lord that if you don’t go out, not a single one of them will remain here tonight.  Then you will be worse off than ever before.” (2 Samuel 19:1-7)

            We see here how David’s overwhelming grief was affecting the people around him.  His soldiers felt rejected.  These were men who chose to stand with David when his son opposed him.  These were men who went to war willing to give their lives in defense of their king.  They fought valiantly.  They gained the victory for their king.  But now, the king’s response made them feel like they’ve done something wrong. They felt like criminals rather than heroes.

            I think this was similar to how our American soldiers who fought in Vietnam felt when they returned home.  It was a horrible conflict.  It was a time of devastating losses and horrible memories (just like any war).  Sadly, when those soldiers returned from Vietnam, they weren’t given a heroes’ welcome with honor, applause, and gratitude.  Instead, they were scorned, vilified and spat upon.  Many Americans hated the war and they took it out on the soldiers. These men who served honorably and faithfully were treated like they did something wrong.

            This was one of our country’s most shameful times.  We can debate whether or not President Kennedy should have ever gotten us into the conflict but we should never have treated those who chose to serve their country in such a shameful manner.  Maybe many of the horrors of Vietnam would have been lessened if soldiers knew they were appreciated for their service.

            I think David’s men felt that same kind of rejection when they returned home from battle.  Their commander-in-chief didn’t give them a heroes’ welcome with honor, applause, and gratitude. All he could say was, “Why did you kill my son?” 

            Joab knew that something had to be done, so he told David to stop crying and go out and thank his men for what they accomplished.  David had lost a son but he was still the king.  The people of Israel needed him and David needed to step up.  He needed to encourage his soldiers.

            I said earlier that grief can be overwhelming, and there is a tendency for grief to be consuming.  But this is where we need to be careful.  When we become consumed with grief, we start to shut other people out.  Unintentionally, we can make them feel like they’re not very important to you.  

            This can happen when a child dies. One parent may become so inconsolable that they alienate the rest of the family.  The other children begin to think, “You may have lost a child, but you still have us.  Doesn’t that mean anything?”  Even the spouse can begin to feel neglected.  It’s a very common thing for couples to get a divorce after the death of a child for that very reason.

            In our time of grief, we need to remember that we’re not the only one who’s hurting.  Any time someone dies, a lot of people are affected.  We get through these times not by isolating ourselves, but by helping each other.

            Because when we withdraw from other people, we force them to deal with yet another loss . . . the loss of our friendship.  When we experience a loss, our spouse, our children, our parents, and friends still need us. They need us to celebrate their victories, to share with them in their lives, to comfort them in sorrow, and to give guidance. When we become consumed with our own grief, it can affect our relationship with others.

            Something else I think we can learn from Joab’s conversation with David is this — when we grieve, other people are watching.  In our times of loss, we show the true nature of our faith.  Now I’m not suggesting that we should act like our loss doesn’t hurt. I’m not suggesting that we tell everyone that things are fine (when they’re really not).  But what I am suggesting is that when we suffer loss, we have an opportunity to demonstrate our faith in Jesus Christ, and our trust in a God will keep all the promises that he has made to us.

            So, what do we learn about grief from David?  Each person’s experience of grief is unique, and different coping strategies will work for different people.  The most important thing is to allow yourself to experience the pain of loss. It’s natural and normal to grieve. It’s normal to feel overwhelmed and helpless at the idea of picking up your life and responsibilities on your own, without the support of that person you’ve depended and relied on for so long. 

            It’s normal to feel angry, toward the loved one who has left you behind, or toward life which has treated you so unfairly.  It’s normal to wonder if you’ll ever feel happy again.  Don’t feel guilty about that, and don’t be in a rush to “get over it”.  Don’t think you have to hide your grief and put on a brave face for others.  Allow yourself to grieve and fully experience the feelings of grief.

            Grief doesn’t follow a predictable path or pace. There is no ‘normal’ amount of time to grieve. We may feel the effects of grief every day for 18 months after a major loss.  At times it will feel like the pain is overwhelming, or that it will never end.  But over time, the intensity of grief will decrease.  It will be less often at the forefront of our mind, even if the ache is still there in the background. Waves of grief may come and go over months or years.  Reminders of loss, like the anniversary of a death or a familiar song, can trigger the return of grief.  Nevertheless, over time, we will find ways to adjust to life in the absence of the person we have lost.  We learn to integrate our memories and our sorrow into who we are in our new reality.

            There’s one more thing about David’s response to Absalom’s death that I want to look at as we close.  Remember what he said?  “My son, my son Absalom!  If only I had died instead of you.”  I think that’s a rather common response whenever any parent finds out that their child has died. “I wish that I had died instead of you.”

            David wished with all of his heart that he could give his own life in exchange for Absalom. What King David was unable to do, the perfect King would do a thousand years later.  He would actually die in our place.  You see, in this story, we are Absalom. We are the ones who wanted to be our own king.  We put ourselves on the throne.  We lived in rebellion.

            We wanted to do things our own way, and so we declared ourselves to be enemies of God.  But, while we were living at war with God, while we were putting ourselves on the throne, Christ died for us.  We were the rebellious ones but Jesus died in our place on the cross.  He did for us what David wanted to do for Absalom, so that we might experience salvation and forgiveness of our sins.

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