Whenever I hear that a husband and wife are getting a divorce, it’s always sad. But it’s especially disturbing for me to hear that a couple is getting a divorce because of “irreconcilable differences”. I never know quite what to make of that. Does that mean that she likes to squeeze the toothpaste tube from the bottom and he likes to squeeze it right in the middle? Or, are their disagreements more serious than that?
More importantly, why is it that their differences are irreconcilable? As a minister, I’ve spent a lot of time helping couples to reconcile their differences. But it’s not just couples. Sometimes, entire families need to be reconciled because of something that has happened. Sometimes, even churches need to be reconciled. But when the pain runs deep, reconciliation can be a difficult thing to bring about.
But it’s our responsibility as Christians to do that. Paul wrote, “[God] through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.” (2 Corinthians 5:18-19)
This morning, as we continue to take a look at the life of King David, we find a story that’s about reconciliation. Reconciliation that was needed because of some terrible sins that were committed in this family.
Last week, we looked at the tragic story of King Davd’s daughter, Tamar, who was raped by her half-brother, Amnon. She was abused by someone she should have been able to trust, and then after it happened, when she turned to others for help, her brother Absalom told her to keep quiet and David just ignored it.
This was a family in crisis. David had children who absolutely broke his heart and tore this family apart. This morning, we’re going to see how David tried to heal the division in his family, to bring about reconciliation.
After Tamar was abused by her stepbrother Amnon and after David did absolutely nothing to discipline him for it, her brother Absalom decided to take things into his own hands and get revenge.
We pick up in 2 Samuel chapter 13. In verse 23, Absalom was shearing his sheep in a remote village. As I’ve mentioned before, sheep shearing was a big deal in that day. It was like a harvest day, and a big party was usually thrown to celebrate.
So, Absalom threw a big party and he invited all the king’s sons, all of his brothers and half-brothers. In fact, Absalom invited the entire royal family including his father, King David. But David was hesitant to go.
He said, “No, my son. If we all came, we would be too much of a burden on you.” (2 Samuel 13:25). Absalom said, “Well, then, if you can’t come, how about sending my brother Amnon with us?” (2 Samuel 13:26). To which David said with suspicion, “Why Amnon?” (2 Samuel 13:26).
But we’re told that “Absalom kept on pressing the king until he finally agreed to let all his sons attend, including Amnon.” (2 Samuel 13:27). It appears that Absalom had a way of getting what he wanted from his father. And one of David’s biggest faults was his tendency to give his children whatever they wanted.
So, all the king’s sons came to this remote place where Absalom was shearing his sheep. And while they were there, Absalom killed his brother Amnon to revenge his sister. It was a cold, brutal, premeditated murder. In verse 29, “Then the other sons of the king jumped on their mules and fled.” (2 Samuel 13:29). They wanted out of there in case Absalom decided to wipe out the entire royal family.
But Absalom had no plans to kill anyone else. And since he had done something that deserved the death penalty, he ran away. He left Israel and went to another kingdom, Geshur, where his grandfather ruled. While Absalom was running away, the rest of the king’s sons returned to their father. “They soon arrived, weeping and sobbing, and the king and all his servants wept bitterly with them. David mourned many days for his son Amnon.” (2 Samuel 13:36).
Amnon’s death was a devastating loss to the king. This was his oldest son. I think David mourned over the way Amnon had lived his life and he mourned over the way that he had met his death. And now, with Absalom running away, it’s like he’s lost another son. So, we’re not surprised to read that David “longed to be reunited with his son Absalom.” (2 Samuel 13:39).
Some of you may know what that’s like. You have a son or a daughter who has turned away from you, and turned away from God. There’s a division in the family, and you wish it wasn’t that way. Absalom was a son who committed a terrible sin, but he was still David’s son. And David’s heart, like the heart of any father, goes out to his son.
You may wonder what prevented David from bringing his son back. If David wanted to be reunited with Absalom, why didn’t he just go to Geshur and bring him back home? I think the answer is this — David wasn’t just a father, he was also the king. And as king, he was the one responsible for justice in the land. Absalom had committed an act of premeditated murder. The law demanded that he die for that crime. And as king, David’s job was to uphold the law.
So, David was caught in a dilemma. He was a father who desperately wanted to be reconciled with his son. But he was also the king, who was expected to uphold a law that condemned his son. David was torn between these two conflicting loyalties.
So, Absalom remained a fugitive in another country for three years. We come now to chapter 14, and what we have in this chapter is the story of three failed attempts at reconciliation:
Attempt #1: Love without Justice
Verse 1, “Joab realized how much the king longed to see Absalom.” (2 Samuel 14:1)
The person who made the first attempt to try to fix this situation was Joab, who was the commander of David’s army. Joab could tell that David desperately wanted to have his son back. But he’s not doing anything to make that happen. We’re not told why Joab got involved. Maybe he saw how sad the king was and he just wanted to find a way to make him happy.
Or perhaps, more likely, Joab was planning ahead for his future. At this point in the story, we’re about ten years from David’s death. People may have started thinking about who’s going to be the successor to the throne. Of all the king’s sons, Absalom was the most likely. So, Joab may have thought that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to try to win a little favor with Absalom. People tend to look for ways to get what they want. So maybe that’s what Joab was doing.
Whatever his motivation was, Joab had a plan. You remember when David sinned with Bathsheba and then he killed Uriah. Remember that Nathan the prophet came and approached David. And the way he got David’s attention was by telling a story, a parable about a sheep.
And so, Joab knows this about David — if you want to get a message across to David, David loves to listen to a good story. He’ll get engaged in it. And then the person who is telling the story can bring David right into the middle of that story, like Nathan did, by saying, “You’re the man I’m talking about.”
So, that’s what his plan was. Joab found a woman who could help him. “He said to her, ‘Pretend you are in mourning; wear mourning clothes and don’t put on lotions. Act like a woman who has been mourning for the dead for a long time. Then go to the king and tell him the story I am about to tell you.” Then Joab told her what to say.” (2 Samuel 14:2-3)
So, she went to David and she told him a story. She said, “I’m a widow with two sons, but they got in a fight. One son killed the other son. I know that in Israel, the surviving son deserves the death penalty and that he should be put to death. But if they put him to death, I won’t have anyone left. My husband won’t have his name carried on, and I won’t have anyone to love or to protect me.
David had compassion on her and he said, “Leave it to me…I’ll see to it that no one touches him.” (2 Samuel 14:8). Don’t worry about people who are hassling you or demanding justice. Send them to me. I’ve got you covered
She said, “Please swear to me by the Lord your God that you won’t let anyone take vengeance against my son. I want no more bloodshed.” (2 Samuel 14:11), and David said, “I promise. Nobody will hurt your son.”
Then the woman said, “One more thing. It seems to me, king, that you’re being a hypocrite. You’re willing to forgive my imaginary son whom you’ve never met. But you’re not willing to bring home your banished son whom you love. Why is that?” She said, “You have convicted yourself in making this decision, because you have refused to bring home your own banished son.” (2 Samuel 14:13).
Her point was this – You’re obviously somebody who is willing to overlook justice, so why do you feel the need to show justice regarding your son Absalom. You need to forget about justice, demonstrate your love for your son and bring him home! Then she said, “That’s what God would do.” “God does not just sweep life away; instead, he devises ways to bring us back when we have been separated from him.” (2 Samuel 14:14).
Now what she said about God is mostly true, but not completely true. It is true that God diligently tries to find a way to bring his wayward children back to him. But, it’s not true that God just sweeps what we’ve done under the rug and pretends like nothing ever happened.
But what the woman said was enough to convince David that he should bring Absalom home. “So the king sent for Joab and told him, ‘All right, go and bring back the young man Absalom’…Then Joab went to Geshur and brought Absalom back to Jerusalem.” (2 Samuel 14:21,23). Absalom comes home, which seems to be a good thing, but this is just one more great injustice at the heart of David’s kingdom.
Because David loved his son, Absalom was home, but justice hadn’t been done. If you remember, Joab was in the same position, and maybe that’s another reason for his interest in bringing Absalom back. Joab had also committed a brutal murder when he killed Abner back in chapter 3, and he had never faced justice for that crime. It was always hanging over his head. Maybe he thought that if David was willing to offer amnesty to Absalom, there might be hope of him doing the same thing for Joab.
David showed love without justice, but we can’t do that. You can’t just say, “I love you, so I’m just going to ignore what you did, and pretend like it never happened.” We can’t do that. That’s not the way to reconcile things in our family, it’s not the way to reconcile things in the church. We can’t just sweep things under the rug and pretend like nothing ever happened.
I grew up in a family like that. We didn’t talk about anything bad that might have happened. We just ignored it. And while that may result in a façade of peace, there can be no closeness, because there’s no true reconciliation. We can’t just have love without justice.
Attempt #2: Mercy without Fellowship
After Absalom was brought back to Jerusalem, we read this: “The king gave this order: ‘Absalom may go to his own house, but he must never come into my presence.’ So Absalom did not see the king.” (2 Samuel 14:24)
This seems rather strange. David loved his son. As a father, his heart had been longing to get Absalom back. But when Absalom returns to Jerusalem, he lives in a house down the street and David doesn’t even see him.
So, the question at the heart of this story is this: What is David going to do when his sinful son returns? Will he punish him or will he pardon him? The answer is that he doesn’t do either one of those things.
David shows mercy to Absalom. He doesn’t enforce the penalty of the law that condemned his son. But Absalom didn’t have any fellowship with the father who loved him. He’s not pardoned. There’s no reconciliation. So, why is that?
My guess is that David knew his son wasn’t sorry for what he had done, and as long as that was the case, he couldn’t pretend that everything was fine and dandy.
In his commentary, Matthew Henry says that David had reason to think “[Absalom] was not truly penitent; he therefore put him under this mark of his displeasure, that he might be awakened to ….his sin and to sorrow for it, and might make his peace with God.”
There’s an interesting phrase in Romans 3 that speaks about what God did for his people until the coming of Jesus Christ. Paul said, “in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins” (Romans 3:25). In the Old Testament, God often left the matter of justice for another time. That’s basically what God did with David when he sinned and that’s what David does here with regard to Absalom. He “passed over [or ignored] former sins.”
But there’s one big difference: After David sinned, he humbled himself before God in repentance. He cast himself on the mercy of God. Absalom, on the other hand, showed no sign of repentance whatsoever.
So, as a result, Absalom lives in Jerusalem among the people of God, but he is as separated from his father as he was when he was in another country. We’re told that Absalom lived in Jerusalem for two years without ever coming into his father’s presence. There was no fellowship, no access, no peace, no joy.
And during that time, Absalom wasn’t seeking repentance. Instead, he seems to have spent his time cultivating celebrity status among the people. He had “Samson-like” hair, that he would grow for a whole year and then, when his hair was cut, he made a big deal of weighing it.
We’re told that “Absalom was praised as the most handsome man in all Israel. He was flawless from head to foot.” (2 Samuel 14:25). His body may have been flawless, but there was all kinds of ugliness in his soul. Absalom’s celebrity status continued to grow, but he refused to repent and, as a result, he had no fellowship with his father and no fellowship with God.
For two years, Absalom lived under a suspended sentence. He was basically on probation. He wasn’t punished, but neither was he pardoned. He was no longer banished, but he wasn’t reconciled with his father. He had no association with King David. For all intents and purposes, he might as well have still been in Geshur.
Attempt #3: Pardon without Repentance
You would think that Absalom would be grateful for the kindness that had been shown to him. Here’s a man who by his actions had forfeited his right to live. But he has a home in Jerusalem. He gets to live among the people of God. He didn’t have to face the full penalty of the law.
But Absalom wasn’t happy. As long as King David had nothing to do with him, there was a cloud hanging over his head. There was something for people to gossip about and whisper about. So, Absalom wanted to get rid of that cloud.
Absalom called on Joab to act as his intercessor and speak to the king on his behalf. Joab was reluctant to do so. I think he had seen enough of Absalom’s heart at this point to realize that Absalom was bad news.
“So Absalom said to his servants, ‘Go and set fire to Joab’s barley field, the field next to mine.’ So they set his field on fire, as Absalom had commanded.” (2 Samuel 14:30)
Apparently, Absalom didn’t just look like Samson. He’s starting to act like Samson. Joab won’t pay attention to him, so he sets his fields on fire. Then he says, “Now I’ve got your attention.”
“Then Joab came to Absalom at his house and demanded, ‘Why did your servants set my field on fire?’ And Absalom replied, ‘Because I wanted you to ask the king why he brought me back from Geshur if he didn’t intend to see me. I might as well have stayed there. Let me see the king; if he finds me guilty of anything, then let him kill me.’” (2 Samuel 14:31-32)
Notice what Absalom said to Joab. “If he finds me guilty of anything, then let him kill me.’” In other words, Absalom is saying, “I haven’t done anything wrong! I’ve been mistreated. I am the victim of a great injustice.” In Absalom’s eyes, he had the right to murder Amnon because of what he had done to his sister Tamar.
“So Joab told the king what Absalom had said. Then at last David summoned Absalom, who came and bowed low before the king, and the king kissed him.” (2 Samuel 14:33). The king’s kiss was the sign of pardon. But what we have here is a pardon without repentance, a pardon that is going to leave Absalom plotting even more rebellion against the king.
It’s hard not to think of Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son when you read this story. But there’s a big difference between the return of David’s unrepentant son and the return of the prodigal son. The prodigal son came back to his father with a humble confession: “I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son” (Luke 15:21). There’s nothing like that in the heart of David’s son, Absalom.
When the prodigal son returned home, the father rejoiced, because he knew that the heart of his rebellious son has changed. “Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf… and let us eat and celebrate” (Luke 15:22-23). But David doesn’t rejoice or celebrate. Because the heart of his son hasn’t changed.
David pardoned his unrepentant son, but the division in the royal family remained. And as we’re going to see in the coming chapters, it will take the nation of Israel to the brink of civil war and will lead, in the end, to Absalom’s destruction.
God’s Way of Reconciliation
So, this chapter raises an important question: How is reconciliation possible? Is there a place where love and justice can meet? David is caught in this terrible dilemma. As a father, he loves his son. But, as the king, he must uphold justice. Love wants his son to live. Justice means his son must die.
David couldn’t resolve this dilemma and so, in the end, he abandoned justice. But giving up justice brought devastation to his kingdom, and ultimately destruction to his son. There is no reconciliation in this story because reconciliation can only come about if that dilemma is solved.
I want to go back to the words of that woman from Tekoa who said a number of things that were not true, but she said one thing that was absolutely true.
She said, “[God] devises ways to bring us back when we have been separated from him.” (2 Samuel 14:14).
What she said was a wonderful truth that points us forward to what God has done in Jesus Christ and it’s at the very heart of the gospel.
You see, God, like David, is a loving Father, and yet God is also our King. God loves sinners, but the wages of sin is death, so God does what David couldn’t do. He figured out a way to solve this great dilemma.
This is what we celebrate as we gather around the Lord’s Table. God sent his Son into the world and his Son stood in our place. The justice that was due to us fell on him, so that the love of the Father could flow unhindered into our lives and we can have access to his grace and presence forever and ever.
If you think about David’s pain and what it must have been like for David to live with this awful dilemma, it gives us just a glimpse into the very heart of God. David loves his sinful son, and he refused to bring him to justice! It was as if David was saying, “He’s my son. I can’t do it. I can’t give him up!”
That’s how God loves you even when you are at your worst. God said of his own people, “How can I give you up, O Ephraim?” (Hosea 11:8). I can’t give you up! I can’t give you up to justice; I can’t give you up to hell. So here’s what I’ll do. I’ll stand myself in the place of the justice that you deserve. You deserve to die because of your sins, but I’ll take that on myself; I’ll take it in the person of my own dearly beloved Son.
And so, God gave up his Son for all of us, and he loved us and gave himself for us, so that in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, love and justice meet together. The cross shows us God’s love for us and it also shows us God’s perfect justice. Unlike David, God did not abandon justice for the sake of love. And he didn’t withhold love for the sake of justice.
He brought them together at the cross where his own Son stood in our place. “For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ.” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
Jesus faced the justice we deserve so that we should enjoy the Father’s love. Like Absalom, Jesus was shut out from the presence of his Father. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34), so that we could have access to his grace and his presence forever and ever.
But, it’s important for you to understand that when God forgives you, he will not keep you at a distance. He will not have you living under a suspended sentence, wondering what final justice is going to look like for you. There is no probation for you. Justice has been satisfied in full at the cross.
And all that’s left is for God to embrace you in his everlasting love. And to every person who is in Jesus Christ, to all who will come to him in faith and in repentance, he offers this amazing, full, and free forgiveness and reconciliation and access to grace.
“[God] devises ways to bring us back when we have been separated from him.” (2 Samuel 14:14).