A Grief Observed
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A Grief Observed

2 Samuel 18:1–33  (ID: 3528)

King David’s son Absalom was also his enemy. So should love have set aside justice? Should justice have prevailed at love’s expense? David strategized to defeat his enemies while preserving his son’s life—yet the message of victory was accompanied by the announcement of Absalom’s death, and the king was consumed with guilt-laden grief. Examining God’s providential role in tragedy as well victory, Alistair Begg points us to the one place where perfect love and perfect justice meet: at the cross of Christ.

Series Containing This Sermon

A Study in 1 and 2 Samuel, Volume 8

God’s Unshakable Kingdom 2 Samuel 13:1–20:26 Series ID: 109018

Sermon Transcript: Print

Well, let me invite you to turn with me to 2 Samuel and to chapter 18 and follow along as I read this chapter.

Two Samuel 18 and from verse 1:

“Then David mustered the men who were with him and set over them commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds. And David sent out the army, one third under the command of Joab, one third under the command of Abishai the son of Zeruiah, Joab’s brother, and one third under the command of Ittai the Gittite. And the king said to the men, ‘I myself will also go out with you.’ But the men said, ‘You shall not go out. For if we flee, they will not care about us. If half of us die, they will not care about us. But you are worth ten thousand of us. Therefore it is better that you send us help from the city.’ The king said to them, ‘Whatever seems best to you I will do.’ So the king stood at the side of the gate, while all the army marched out by hundreds and by thousands. And the king ordered Joab and Abishai and Ittai, ‘Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.’ And all the people heard when the king gave orders to all the commanders about Absalom.

“So the army went out into the field against Israel, and the battle was fought in the forest of Ephraim. And the men of Israel were defeated there by the servants of David, and the loss there was great on that day, twenty thousand men. The battle spread over the face of all the country, and the forest devoured more people that day than the sword.

“And Absalom happened to meet the servants of David. Absalom was riding on his mule, and the mule went under the thick branches of a great oak, and his head caught fast in the oak, and he was suspended between heaven and earth, while the mule that was under him went on. And a certain man saw it and told Joab, ‘Behold, I saw Absalom hanging in an oak.’ Joab said to the man who told him, ‘What, you saw him! Why then did you not strike him there to the ground? I would have been glad to give you ten pieces of silver and a belt.’ But the man said to Joab, ‘Even if I felt in my hand the weight of a thousand pieces of silver, I would not reach out my hand against the king’s son, for in our hearing the king commanded you and Abishai and Ittai, “For my sake protect the young man Absalom.” On the other hand, if I had dealt treacherously against his life (and there is nothing hidden from the king), then you yourself would have stood aloof.’ Joab said, ‘I will not waste time like this with you.’ And he took three javelins in his hand and thrust them into the heart of Absalom while he was still alive in the oak. And ten young men, Joab’s armor-bearers, surrounded Absalom and struck him and killed him.

“Then Joab blew the trumpet, and the troops came back from pursuing Israel, for Joab restrained them. And they took Absalom and threw him into a great pit in the forest and raised over him a very great heap of stones. And all Israel fled every one to his own home. Now Absalom in his lifetime had taken and set up for himself the pillar that is in the King’s Valley, for he said, ‘I have no son to keep my name in remembrance.’ He called the pillar after his own name, and it is called Absalom’s monument to this day.

“Then Ahimaaz the son of Zadok said, ‘Let me run and carry [the] news to the king that the Lord has delivered him from the hand of his enemies.’ And Joab said to him, ‘You are not to carry news today. You may carry news another day, but today you shall carry no news, because the king’s son is dead.’ Then Joab said to the Cushite, ‘Go, tell the king what you have seen.’ The Cushite bowed before Joab, and ran. Then Ahimaaz the son of Zadok said again to Joab, ‘Come what may, let me also run after the Cushite.’ And Joab said, ‘Why will you run, my son, seeing that you will have no reward for the news?’ ‘Come what may,’ he said, ‘I will run.’ So he said to him, ‘Run.’ Then Ahimaaz ran by the way of the plain, and outran the Cushite.

“Now David was sitting between the two gates, and the watchman went up to the roof of the gate by the wall, and when he lifted up his eyes and looked, he saw a man running alone. The watchman called out and told the king. And the king said, ‘If he is alone, there is news in his mouth.’ And he drew nearer and nearer. The watchman saw another man running. And the watchman called to the gate and said, ‘See, another man running alone!’ The king said, ‘He also brings news.’ The watchman said, ‘I think the running of the first is like the running of Ahimaaz the son of Zadok.’ And the king said, ‘He is a good man and comes with good news.’

“Then Ahimaaz cried out to the king, ‘All is well.’ And he bowed before the king with his face to the earth and said, ‘Blessed be the Lord your God, who has delivered up the men who raised their hand against my lord the king.’ And the king said, ‘Is it well with the young man Absalom?’ Ahimaaz answered, ‘When Joab sent the king’s servant, your servant, I saw a great commotion, but I do not know what it was.’ And the king said, ‘Turn aside and stand here.’ So he turned aside and stood still.

“And behold, the Cushite came, and the Cushite said, ‘Good news for my lord the king! For the Lord has delivered you this day from the hand of all who rose up against you.’ The king said to the Cushite, ‘Is it well with the young man Absalom?’ And the Cushite answered, ‘May the enemies of my lord the king and all who rise up against you for evil be like that young man.’ And the king was deeply moved and went up to the chamber over the gate and wept. And as he went, he said, ‘O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!’”


Father, thank you that your Word is living and active, that it cuts to the very quick of our lives.[1] Thank you that you speak to us by the Holy Spirit in it and through it. And for your voice alone we listen now. In Christ’s name. Amen.

Well, we come this morning back to our studies in 2 Samuel on the heels of Reformation Sunday. I don’t know why it is, but I woke up in the early hours of this morning trying to remember whether there had been a Sunday since Reformation Sunday. That’s how long this week has felt. I don’t know why that is, and I didn’t feel able to waken my wife to ask, and so I didn’t really conclude until much later, I realized, “No, there’s only one week has gone by.” And so, here we are.

So, the reason for my concern is because there should be, I hope, for some of us at least, a freshness that comes out of what we studied last Sunday that does not get parked somewhere but flows through into our study of this Sunday, and particularly so as I studied chapter 18 this week. Because last week, our focus was largely on the way in which the love of God and the justice of God coalesce in the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ, and we considered this great dilemma: How can love be expressed and how can justice be executed except in the work of the gospel?

Now, that was last Sunday. Now we come to chapter 18, and as we’ve read it through, what we immediately are confronted with is an illustration of when love and justice do not meet. Here in this chapter, we have the great concern of the loving heart of David and yet, at the same time, his desire, and a justifiable desire, that justice might be exercised.

God is behind the death of Absalom as he is behind the deliverance of David.

So, the chapter begins with the strategy of David for defeating the rebel king, and then it ends with the agony of David on the back of that victory. It is a chapter in which it’s made perfectly clear to us that what David desired—namely, “Treat the young man gently”—and what God had ordained in 17:14b, those two factors are on a collision course. And reading through the chapter and allowing the story to unfold, we are left to find out: Will love set justice aside, or will justice prevail over love? And what makes this, of course, so poignant is the fact that the rebel who has conspired against David, who is the Lord’s anointed, this rebel is none other than his son.

And so, he has this dilemma. He wants a decisive victory, but without any damage to his son. That is a tall order. That is a difficult order. And so I just made a scribble in my notes: I said, “Surely chapter 18 is ‘a grief observed’”—which those of you who are C. S. Lewis fans will get, and those of you who don’t are now becoming C. S. Lewis fans. A grief observed. Here we observe it.

And what we have to realize is that 17:14b remains for us a control verse. You understand what I mean by that? It is a point that has been made in such a way that it exercises control on the way in which we interpret everything that flows from it. And you remember verse 14: “And Absalom and all the men of Israel said, ‘The counsel of Hushai the Archite is better than the counsel of Ahithophel.’” Here we go: “For the Lord had ordained to defeat the good counsel of Ahithophel, so that the Lord might bring harm upon Absalom.” God is behind the death of Absalom as he is behind the deliverance of David.

The Battle Strategy

Now, let’s just try and work our way through this story line. In verses 1–5, we have, essentially, the battle strategy. At the end of chapter 17, you remember they were having a picnic, as it were. The men of Israel were living in the light of Psalm 23:5. You remember Psalm 23:5: “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil.” Well, if you look back to the end of chapter 17, that is largely what they were enjoying there. You come into chapter 18, and David musters his army. He puts his commanders in place: Joab, his brother Abishai, and Ittai the Gittite, who, as we have seen previously, had commended himself to David by bringing many of his friends to join David’s forces.

So, David, having put the commanders in place, now finds that he himself is put in his place. And the people say to him, “You shall not go out.” He’s already announced that he’s going out: “I myself will … go out with you.” It’s quite fascinating, when you think about Ahithophel’s counsel that we noted before. Remember, Ahithophel said to Absalom, “Now, when I go out there, my strategy will be just to take the king out. All we need to do is to take him out. If we get him, then the rest of them will collapse like a broken deck chair. It will be over.”[2] That was Ahithophel’s counsel. And, of course, that was not accepted by Absalom.

And so, here it is that the people say to him, understanding what Ahithophel was actually saying, although not referencing it, “Listen, it’s far better that you stay and we receive help from you—guidance, strategy, whatever it might be, from headquarters.” And David acquiesces, and so he says to them, “Well, whatever you actually think is best, then I will do that.”

I paused in my thinking there for a moment, and you might pause with me too. Because remember, when we think about the incident, the rooftop incident, which begins with “At the time when kings go out to war, David remained in Jerusalem”[3]—and almost inevitably, our criticism of that goes along with most of the commentators: “You see, that was the problem: he should have been out there fighting, and instead of going out there fighting, look at where he was.” Well, this actually puts a little twist on it, doesn’t it? It at least raises the possibility that on that occasion back in 11, they were operating on the exact same principle—namely, “You’re worth ten thousand of us. They take you down, it’s all over. We’re largely dispensable.” Maybe that’s why he stayed. You say, “Well, you’re trying to justify the rooftop?” No, not for a moment. But if he stayed back for that reason, it was an entirely legitimate reason. What he did with the use of his time is another subject entirely.

He stays back. They will obey orders, and his order is very, very clear. In fact, we have the record of only one, verse 5: “And the king ordered Joab … Abishai and Ittai, ‘Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.’” And what we need to keep in mind here is that David is who he is. He is the king, he is the man after God’s own heart, he is the man with the history that we have been rehearsing now for weeks and months and into years, but he is also a father. And it is surely hard to imagine the turmoil that he knows in establishing his fighting force in this way. In fact, the nature of his grief is grounded in the extent of his love. It is because he loved so much that by the time we get to the end, he grieves so badly. He knows what is unfolding here. He knows that those who stand against the Lord’s anointed are to be destroyed. “Be wise, O kings of the earth. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry with you”[4]—Psalm 2. David knows that. “Now, go out and deal with that,” he says. “But let me say to you: deal gently with that lad Absalom.”

The Decisive Victory

Now that’s in verses 1–5. In verses 6–8, we have the record of the decisive victory. Both the buildup to the battle and the death of Absalom subsequent to it are covered, actually, extensively. In many ways, this whole thing has been leading up to this for a long, long time, and the way in which the whole section of all of these chapters is to be understood is in light, ultimately, of this. So it’s therefore quite interesting that you only really have three verses providing for us the summary of the battle itself.

And you will notice what it says: that they “went out,” that they “fought in the forest,” that “the men of Israel were defeated,” that there was “great” loss, that “the battle spread [all] over the face of … the country,” it actually took place “in the forest of Ephraim,” and fascinatingly, “the forest devoured more people that day than the sword.” If this is a video game or, you know, one of those things that children watch, you can do this graphically with the forest. The forest swallows them. The forest is eating them up. How did the forest do this?

It’s clever on David’s part, isn’t it? He has limited forces in comparison to the extensive numbers that are ranged against him under the control of Absalom. So if you’re out in a vast open space, it would mean dealing with it in one way. But when you’re in a context like this that provides unfamiliar territory to many of them, the chances are that they will collapse in ways beyond simply human interference, if we might put it that way.

And this, interestingly, is not without precedent. Those of you who know your Bibles remember that great story in Joshua (you’ll find it in chapter 10; read it for homework), where Israel is up against the Amorites. And in the course of the battle, you read this: “[And] the Lord threw down large stones from heaven”[5]—hailstones. And then this is what it says: “[And] there were more who died because of the hailstones than the sons of Israel killed [by] the sword.” Robert Gordon says, “We may see here a suggestion that nature was enlisted on the side of David”[6]—that a sovereign God, who is sovereign not only over the affairs of men and women, is actually sovereign over all of nature. Keep that in mind when you watch the lingering nonsense from Glasgow at the moment. The forest devoured them. And notice, the forest is going to play a very significant part in the end of Absalom.

It’s interesting, isn’t it, that what you really see here, just three verses: the hidden hand of God, the exercise of human ingenuity, and the one coalescing with the other. How are the mighty fallen![7]

Absalom’s Destiny

Now, what of Absalom? Well, verse 9 to verse 15, I wrote under the heading “Absalom’s Destiny.” “Absalom’s Destiny.”

God, who is sovereign not only over the affairs of men and women, is actually sovereign over all of nature.

Let’s keep in mind this Absalom fellow. He’s handsome beyond measure: no blemish from the sole of his feet to the tip of his head.[8] He had a hairstyle that was quite remarkable, enough for it to get mentioned in the local newspapers.[9] He had decided that having established himself in a position of erstwhile authority, that he would get a chariot for himself; that’s back in chapter 15. And along with that, he decided he would have fifty men that would ride in in front of the chariot, because an entourage is very, very important.[10] The president’s entourage through the city of Rome a couple of weeks ago apparently involved eighty-five cars. That’s an entourage. And Absalom fancied something along the same lines. He also, in dealing with the people, told them what they wanted to hear. He’s the consummate politician. And he then stole their hearts by telling them what they wanted to hear.[11]

Now, that is who this Absalom is that we find introduced now in verse 9: “And Absalom happened to meet the servants of David.” “Wow. You mean, like it wasn’t planned?” No, it wasn’t actually planned. “Well,” you say, “but I thought…” I know what you thought. Look at what the text says: he happened to meet him. He happened to meet him. It was a chance occurrence. “Well,” you say, “there are no chance occurrences.” Not from God’s perspective there aren’t, but from ours there are. Otherwise, there is no such thing as contingency. Did the putt go in by divine ordination, or did it go in by chance? Well, it went in by chance, but that chance was controlled by God’s divine ordination. “Oh,” you say, “you’re starting that three o’clock in the morning thing again, aren’t you?” That’s exactly right. That’s exactly right.

Absalom, Absalom. Look at him: he “happened to meet the servants of David.” He has himself set up. His father wishes him no harm. But the Lord has ordained the defeat of Ahithophel’s counsel so that he might bring harm upon Absalom, because God is the one who brings princes to nothing; scarcely has their stem taken root, scarcely are they sown, than the wind blows over them and they wither.[12]

And so what we have here in 9–15 is that the forest—we might put it this way—the forest is up to its tricks. The forest is up to its tricks. One minute he’s on his mule, and, if you remember, on a previous occasion, we’re told that all the sons of the king left on their mules.[13] So it was sort of like standard issue if you were a son of the king; you had a mule. Not everybody would have a mule, but you had a mule. And so it’s no surprise that he was riding on his mule.

At least one minute he was, and the next minute he wasn’t. Because in the next minute, the mule keeps going, and he is left dangling. Dangling: “His head caught fast in the oak.” Why is it we want it to be his hair that got tangled up in the oak? Well, there’s just something about it. Those of us whose hair is thinning, some whose hair has thinned completely, we want to say, “See? That’s what happens when you get stuck on your hair and your hairdo and everything. He deserved that: hanging from a tree by his hair. See? I told you that bald is beautiful. That’s ridiculous.”

Well, we don’t know if it was his hair or it wasn’t his hair. We know he had his hair. But the chances are, it would seem that… Let’s imagine that he happens upon the servants of David, he begins to make a run for it, he looks over his shoulder to see how close they are behind him, and he nails the branches of a tree, which close around his neck. And as they close around his neck and grab him, the mule leaves without him, and there he is, verse 9b, “suspended between heaven and earth.”

Quite a picture, isn’t it? Nothing his good looks can achieve now. No ability to influence the people by telling them what they want to hear. No, look at him there. The picture is clear: he hangs helpless, hopeless, and humiliated. Even his mule has gone. And meanwhile, back in the city, David is waiting, hoping that Abishai and Ittai and Joab will have obeyed his order to deal gently with the young man Absalom.

Now, just—and this is masterful in the way this story is told—just when we as the readers want resolution to this, the narrator then leaves us dangling in much the same way by recounting the incident which then follows. And in creating suspense in telling a story, you have to do that. It’s not invented. It happened. But you could have moved very quickly through this as well, couldn’t you? He has chosen to give us a summary of the vast battle in three verses; now he tells us that he is hanging in a tree, and then it says, “And a certain man…”

Oh, what’s this about? “And a certain man saw [this] and told Joab, ‘… I saw Absalom hanging in an oak.’” And I think the inference is pretty clear if we put it, as I tried to in the reading, “Joab said to the man who told him, ‘What, you saw him? You saw him? Why didn’t you strike him to the ground? This is no time to be asking for a selfie. This is the rebel pretender to the throne! We’re out here in order to make sure that David is delivered and he is destroyed. What do you mean, you saw him? I would have given you a reward. You could have gotten a belt of victory. You could have had money in your hand.”

But you will notice the man’s response reveals two things: one, that he is principled, and two, that he is a pragmatist. He’s principled. And he is brave, I think, at the same time, because Joab, as we know from past experience, doesn’t suffer fools gladly. “Well,” he says to him, “we heard what you were told, and that is to protect Absalom. Furthermore,” he says, “if I had killed him, I don’t see there’s any reason for me to believe that you would have protected me. And if you didn’t protect me, then I’d be left twisting in the breeze, just like Absalom himself.”

Well, it seems that he’s pretty persuasive in his response, because you will notice that Joab chooses not to take him on. Verse 14, Joab says, “I’m not gonna waste time with this. I’m not gonna argue.” That’s often the response of somebody up against a pretty good argument: “Well, we’re just not going to argue.” Okay, well then, that’s fine. But what he’s saying is this: “We’re not having a discussion about the morality of war here. We’re not gonna have an ethical discussion. Absalom is the enemy. We’re involved in a military exercise.” And despite David’s plea, it is clear that Joab, in keeping with his personality, is not about to go soft. And he doesn’t go soft. And so you will notice what happens then.

Incidentally, the word for “javelins” here could be translated equally “stick,” or it could be translated “a rod,” in much the same way that “thousands” and “hundreds” could be translated as, like, “regiments” or “platoons” or whatever it might be—so, just to keep that in mind. And so, what happens here is described for us: he took three sticks or three javelins in his hand. Why three? Well, there’s no reason. We don’t know why three.

I thought maybe it would be like this. Let’s say it’s a stick and not a javelin, or a pretty sharp stick. And he says to him—he’s up in the tree, and he goes, “Hey! This one is for Abishai, and this one is for Ittai, and this one is for me.” Or the three regiments are represented in this. Perhaps even in some way in his mind he wants to make it clear, this is not a one-man operation here, when the word finally gets back. Or, as I sat there thinking some more, I said, “Maybe he said, ‘This one is for Amnon, this one is for you being a pain in the neck, and this one is for burning my barley field’”—which, you remember, he did.[14] Whatever. Absalom hits the ground.

Incidentally, if Absalom had heeded Ahithophel’s counsel, he would not be here. He listened instead to Hushai’s counsel, because Hushai, remember, suggested that Absalom should be front and center, and Absalom likes the idea of being front and center. Well, now here he is. He hits the ground. And having been devoured by the forest, he is now destroyed by “ten young men.” A reminder to us that brutal violence is not a new thing. A reminder, too, of the word of Scripture: “Be not deceived; God is not mocked: … whatsoever a man sow[s], that shall he also reap.”[15] Of that there is no doubt.

This Is Vanity!

Now, in 16–18, I simply wrote in my notes, “This is vanity!” Vanity. I’m thinking vanity in terms of Ecclesiastes: “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.”[16] It is an unhappy business. Absalom’s life was really a striving after the wind.[17] Again, in Ecclesiastes, the writer says, “I saw vanity under the sun, a man all alone who had no one, neither son nor brother.”[18] And there you have it: “I have no son to keep my name in remembrance.” “Oh,” you say, “but didn’t we read earlier, a few weeks ago, about three boys and a daughter?”[19] Yes, we did. Well then, is that not a contradiction? It’s an apparent contradiction. I assume that by the time this incident takes place, that these three sons have died in infancy, and he has no son; he has no one now to whom he may entrust his legacy.

And Joab has blown the trumpet, he has restrained the troops, and Absalom is not ceremonially laid to rest, but he’s thrown “into a great pit,” and he is covered by a “great heap of stones,” and the wind blows over it, and its place knows it no more.

You see, Absalom had sought to make a name for himself. Remember, the word of God to Abraham was “I will give you a great name.”[20] You remember how we’ve seen in our studies that that promise to Abraham was then reinforced in the promise being made also to David—“And I will give you a great name”[21]—pointing forward to the name that is above every other name.[22] But everybody else, Absalom included, seeking to make a name for themselves is foolish—foolish in the extreme.

And so you will notice that he has, if you like, two gravesites. He has one in this great mound of stones, which exists as a testimony to his rebellion and to his ruinous end, and he has another, which he has already planned for himself, setting up a pillar in the Valley of the Kings so that whatever happened to him, people would be able to say, “You see, that is Absalom there. That is Absalom’s monument”—a great monument to himself that would almost inevitably mean that people would see that monument and say, “But wasn’t he buried in the forest under a heap of stones?” Yes! Yes.

The Runners’ Delivery

Well, the mission is accomplished, Absalom buried without ceremony. How grieved he would have been, wouldn’t he? The army’s gone. And in storytelling terms, again, you’re ready for the conclusion. What have we got? The story of the runners—the runners’ delivery from 19 all the way through, essentially, to verse 32. Actually, what I called it in my notes was “The Runners’ Delivery,” with the apostrophe after the s.

Now, I’m gonna have to leave you to deal with this on your own, because it will take me a long time, and it’s approximately two minutes to the ten o’clock hour. All right? You’re sensible people; I can trust you to do your homework.

The issue is pretty clear, isn’t it? Ahimaaz fancies the opportunity to be the fellow with the good news. Perhaps he wants to do it because he almost made a hash of it the previous time when, with his sidekick, they ended up down a well, remember?[23] So maybe he could have a good one to counteract the not-so-good one. He wants to be the deliverer of the news.

“Oh no,” he says, “it’s not for you to go and bring good news today, because after all, the king’s son is dead. Rather, what we’re gonna do is we’re gonna send the Cushite man. He’s got no skin in the game here. He’s a foreigner. There’s no emotion attaches to him. He can simply go and say what he wants to say.” “Oh, but,” Ahimaaz says, “no, no, I want to go. I want to go. Please, can I go?” And so eventually he goes, “Okay, go.”

And then what happens is Ahimaaz manages to get there before the Cushite. And then the watchman, who’s up on the roof… (And David, incidentally, is between the gates. I’ll leave that alone for now, but it is such a metaphor, isn’t it? He is between the gates. Absalom is between heaven and earth, and he’s between the gates. He’s neither here nor there. Emotionally, he’s between the gates. In many ways, he’s between the gates.) Anyway, the watchman says, “It looks like the first one is Ahimaaz,” to which David replies, “Oh, Ahimaaz is a good man. He’ll be bringing good news.” It almost makes me weep. Of course he says that. “Deal gently with the boy.” “Ahimaaz is coming.” “Oh, Ahimaaz! He’s good. He’ll be bringing good news.” Inside himself, he’s saying, “Won’t he? Won’t he?”

The messenger must bring the message—the good and the bad with it. For it is only the bad that makes the good good, and it is only the good that can deal with the bad.

Well, of course, Ahimaaz gets there. He outruns the Cushite. And David only has one question for him. (“You said you weren’t gonna do this part.” I know, but I have to do this part.) He has only one question for him—only one question: “Is it well with the young man Absalom?” “Is it well with the young man Absalom?” And at that point, Ahimaaz, who has said twice in the dialogue, “Come what may,” “Come what may,” or, “No matter what happens, I’m the guy to go.” Oh yeah, Mr. Come-What-May? How are you doing now, when the question comes that is the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question: “Is all well with the young man Absalom?”

What happens there is quite remarkable. He bottles it. He gets cold feet. He just rambles and mumbles. He is like a pastor who has lost confidence in the gospel. He’s like a pastor who is no longer able to actually tell the absolute truth, who is no longer prepared to say, “The reason the good news is the good news is because the bad news is that you are lost before God.” “Oh, no, please, don’t say that.” Oh, you see, he makes himself irrelevant. And that’s exactly what happens. And he says, “Well, he’s a good man with good news.” And he says in verse 30, “Hey, turn aside, and stand here.” “So he turned aside and stood still.” I mean, it’s fabulous, isn’t it? Frozen. Frozen. Oh, there’s many a frozen pastor. “Turn aside,” says God. “Turn aside and stand still. Either tell the truth or be done with the whole business. Who would ever think of you as a messenger?” No, the messenger must bring the message—the good and the bad with it. For it is only the bad that makes the good good, and it is only the good that can deal with the bad.

So the Cushite does it. The Cushite does it: “Good news for the king!” Same response: “Here’s my question: Is it well with the young man Absalom?” And masterfully, the Cushite manages to say, “No, it’s not, and he’s dead,” without ever actually using the phrase “He is dead” or even actually using the name Absalom. Very good, isn’t it? He’s not being duplicitous. “May the enemies of my lord the king and all who rise up against you for evil be like that young man.”

A Personal Tragedy

And so we have, then, in verse 33 what is a personal tragedy. Grief consumes the king. He doesn’t ask why his order has been set aside. He doesn’t answer how these things have transpired. He’s now made aware of the fact that the deliverance is his. The kingdom is safe, but he is sad. The picture is clear. He’s deeply moved. He’s overwhelmed. He moves away from that context, goes to the chamber over the gate, where he can be by himself and weep: “Oh, my son, my son,” he says, five times, “Oh, my son.”

Remember earlier, where we pondered that little phrase, and we said it was difficult to get our hands around, you know, that he “longed to go out to Absalom”?[24] He “longed to go out to Absalom.” And we said, “Does that mean he longed to go out and get him and punish him, or what was it?” I don’t know what it was there. But I’ll tell you what: in the sense that he longed to go out to Absalom now, we know exactly what it means, but he can’t. The agony of all that could have been, all that was, all the things he did but now regrets, all cascading in in that moment—how he allowed Joab to negotiate the deal to bring him back to Jerusalem, but then he said to him, “Yes, he can come back to Jerusalem, but he’s not coming in my house.”[25] And for two years he left his son separated from him[26]—whether legitimately, or illegitimately, or selfish, or whatever it was. But when that day dawns and when that person is taken from you, all those issues will come back and descend upon you. Be sure of it. He loved his son, but he loved justice, because the kings of the earth are to do justly. And justice had been done at the expense of his love.

But it’s actually more, you will see—and we’ll come back to this, perhaps—it was more than simply a display of affection. It really is a cry of dereliction: “Oh, I wish I had died in place of you.” Well, you see, David was painfully aware of the fact that it was his sin that had led to all of this. It was his sin. And so his guilt inflames, stirs up, his grief.

But David is obviously unable to do what he says he wishes he could do, thereby reminding us—and with this I finish. And I have a new Jewish friend who has begun to listen to these services, and he said to me a few weeks ago, he says, “I follow along,” he says, “and then you do the pivot.” Well, my friend, if you’re listening, here comes the pivot.

What David was unable to do his greater Son did—namely, the Lord Jesus, who died in the place of the sinner; who died so that we need not die; who—unlike David, who shed tears over his own sinful and guilty life—the man of sorrows came to bear our griefs and to carry our sorrows,[27] and he was able to do so because the Lord had laid on him the iniquity of us all.[28]

It’s just a simple reminder again that the Bible is a book about Jesus. If this study in 2 Samuel 18 and all the others do not bring you to Christ, then you’ve missed it. Oh, may there be none who miss it!

Let us pray:

Wounded for me, wounded for me,
There on the cross [Christ] was wounded for me,
[And] gone my transgressions, and now I am free,
All because Jesus was wounded for me.[29]

Lord, grant us grace to rest in Christ alone. Amen.

[1] See Hebrews 4:12.

[2] 2 Samuel 17:1–4 (paraphrased).

[3] 2 Samuel 11:1 (paraphrased).

[4] Psalm 2:10, 12 (paraphrased).

[5] Joshua 10:11 (ESV).

[6] Robert P. Gordon, 1 and 2 Samuel: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: Regency, 1988), 284.

[7] See 2 Samuel 1:27.

[8] See 2 Samuel 14:25.

[9] See 2 Samuel 14:26.

[10] See 2 Samuel 15:1.

[11] See 2 Samuel 15:6.

[12] See Isaiah 40:24.

[13] See 2 Samuel 13:29.

[14] See 2 Samuel 14:30.

[15] Galatians 6:7 (KJV).

[16] Ecclesiastes 1:2 (paraphrased)

[17] See Ecclesiastes 1:14.

[18] Ecclesiastes 4:8 (paraphrased).

[19] See 2 Samuel 14:27.

[20] Genesis 12:2 (paraphrased).

[21] 2 Samuel 7:9 (paraphrased).

[22] See Philippians 2:9.

[23] See 2 Samuel 17:17–18.

[24] 2 Samuel 13:39 (ESV).

[25] 2 Samuel 14:24 (paraphrased).

[26] See 2 Samuel 14:28.

[27] See Isaiah 53:4.

[28] See Isaiah 53:6.

[29] William G. J. Ovens, “Wounded for Me.”

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.