Living on a Prayer — Part Two
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Living on a Prayer — Part Two

2 Samuel 16:13-23  (ID: 3522)

God uses all things for His glory—even as He used Absalom’s insurrection against His anointed king, David. In this sermon from 2 Samuel 16, Alistair Begg explains how Hushai the Archite, David’s loyal friend and spy, and Ahithophel, a traitor to the king, both acted under God’s sovereign hand. A thousand years later, Jesus would face a similar betrayal, and in His death, God’s ultimate plan—our redemption—would be fulfilled.


Sermon Transcript:

And let’s turn to the passage that we left partway through this morning. We’ll read from verse 2 Samuel 16:15 through to the end of the chapter. Second Samuel 16, and actually, let’s read from verse 13. From 13.

Two Samuel 16:13:

“So David and his men went on the road, while Shimei went along on the hillside opposite him and cursed as he went and threw stones at him and flung dust. And the king, and all the people who were with him, arrived weary at the Jordan. And there he refreshed himself.

“Now Absalom and all the people, the men of Israel, came to Jerusalem, and Ahithophel with him. And when Hushai the Archite, David’s friend, came to Absalom, Hushai said to Absalom, ‘Long live the king! Long live the king!’ And Absalom said to Hushai, ‘Is this your loyalty to your friend? Why did you not go with your friend?’ And Hushai said to Absalom, ‘No, for whom the Lord and [his] people and all the men of Israel have chosen, his I will be, and with him I will remain. And again, whom should I serve? Should it not be his son? As I have served your father, so I will serve you.’

“Then Absalom said to Ahithophel, ‘Give your counsel. What shall we do?’ Ahithophel said to Absalom, ‘Go in to your father’s concubines, whom he has left to keep the house, and all Israel will hear that you have made yourself a stench to your father, and the hands of all who are with you will be strengthened.’ So they pitched a tent for Absalom on the roof. And Absalom went in to his father’s concubines in the sight of all Israel. Now in those days the counsel that Ahithophel gave was as if one consulted the word of God; so was all the counsel of Ahithophel esteemed, both by David and by Absalom.”

Father, what we know not, teach us. What we have not, give us. What we are not, make us. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Well, we ended this morning at something of a point of resolution, where, in the words of David, he was prepared to accept that although the words of Shimei were not entirely true, there was a relevance to them. And he was aware of the fact that even though this evil had come upon him, that God was such a God of unguessable grace that he would perhaps—he says, “It may be that he will turn all of these curses to my good.”

Now, although that was a moment, if you like, of resolution, which is there in verse 12, that response on the part of David did not bring an end to the cursing. It’s not a big point, but I think it is important for us to notice. Sometimes I think when we say, you know, “Once we get everything resolved, once we are prepared to acknowledge that God is in control and so on and let him know, then we’ll be able to proceed accordingly, and all will be well.” So I just want us to make sure we notice that in verse 13, it says that “David and his men went on,” and as they went on, Shimei kept up the same old stuff, throwing the rocks and cursing him out and flinging dust in the air.

And so we’re told that having gone on, having continued to receive this abuse, they then arrived weary (no surprise), and they were refreshed: arriving weary at the Jordan River, “and there he”—that is, David—“refreshed himself.” Presumably he said, “Well, since Ziba brought all that stuff, we might as well enjoy it.” And I assume that that at least was part of the refreshment.

Then the scene switches to “Meanwhile, back in Jerusalem…” Because remember, while this has been going on, Absalom has made his way to Jerusalem, and the way in which his entry there is described gives to us the notion—and it is an accurate notion—that all the balance of power was on his side: “Absalom and all the people, the men of Israel, came to Jerusalem.”

Supported by Hushai

And so David, having been deceived by Ziba, having been cursed by Shimei, we’re now going to find him supported by his friend Hushai and, of course, opposed by his onetime counselor Ahithophel. Actually, we could call this second study quite easily, “The Spy and the Traitor.” The Spy and the Traitor is actually a wonderful book written by a British fellow called Ben Macintyre. I commend it to you. I don’t often recommend books—certainly not spy stories—in my sermon, but it’s the name of the book, and that’s why I chose it. It is actually the greatest espionage story of the Cold War that has actually been written. It is a quite amazing story, if you like spy stories at all. It is entirely factual, but it reads like a novel. Anyway, it’s the story of the spy and the traitor, which is the story that we have here.

Now, as we come to this, we have to remind ourselves—as I said this morning, we have to keep our bearings all the time. We’ve gotta see where we’re headed and where we fit on the GPS, as it were. David, remember, has been unsettled by the news of Ahithophel’s defection, and as a result of that, he has then prayed to God that God would overturn, turn upside down, the kind of guidance that Ahithophel would offer.

He has at the same time dispatched Hushai the Archite, to whom we are reintroduced now; he has sent him back to Jerusalem as a kind of double agent. It’s really quite exciting. And he’s sent him back as a double agent in the hope that he will be able to become the answer to David’s prayer—that somehow or another, through the ministrations of Hushai, the counsel of Ahithophel will be defeated: “O God, defeat the counsel of Ahithophel.”[1] “Hushai, go up to Jerusalem and fulfill the role of a spy.”[2]

Now, as we said this morning, it is almost obvious from this vantage point that all of the balance of power and significance and influence and potentiality for reigning from the throne is to be found on the side, at this point, of Absalom. And indeed, if Hushai is not successful in fulfilling this mission—if, then, the prayer of David is not answered—then it’s hard to see that David’s kingdom can continue any further at all. So, what we have is the weary group in the country in need of refreshment; Absalom, Ahithophel, and his company duly installed in Jerusalem, with the odds of victory on Absalom’s side.

But Hushai the Archite was “David’s friend,” verse 16, and he knew what his part was to play. It’s important as we read this to remind ourselves that Absalom knows nothing of the conversation that has taken place between David and Hushai. That has taken place without Absalom’s knowledge. Therefore, when Hushai shows up and encounters Absalom in this setting, Absalom has no background to it at all, and it is not surprising that he presses him in the way that he does. The presumption that is part and parcel of Absalom’s psyche—remember, we said he’s pretty well stuck on himself—makes it possible, makes it distinctly possible, for Hushai to be able to con him. All right? If Absalom was different from what he is, it wouldn’t be as easy as it turns out to be.

So, for example, he says, “Long live the king! Long live the king!” And immediately Absalom says, “Well, that’s jolly nice.” Because he assumes that it is a reference to himself. Part one of the subterfuge is now in place. After all, he knows that the trumpet had declared him king in Hebron—15:10. He knows that the people that he had set out throughout the kingdoms and the tribes had done their job of gossiping the news so that when the trumpet sounded, he would be declared the king in Hebron. And he must have been saying to himself, “Well, it’s very wonderful, isn’t it, now, to hear this declaration of my kingship coming even on the lips of Hushai,” especially given his friendship with David.

And then he says, “Well, let me just ask you about this, though. Is this how you show loyalty to your friend? Why are you here with me rather than there with him?” Well, “Hushai said to Absalom, ‘No, for whom the Lord and this people and all the men of Israel have chosen, his I will be, and with him I will remain.’” He’s doing a very good job, right? ’Cause he hasn’t used anybody’s name yet. He hasn’t attributed it to David. He has not assigned it to Absalom. No, he says, “The one that the Lord has chosen, I will be with him, and with him I will remain.” Well, once again, in Absalom’s mind, this is clearly a reference to his good self. And so apparently, he is beginning to convince himself that Hushai will actually be loyal to him.

Now, the reason this is very, very important, of course, is because Hushai is gonna be used, all being well, to overturn the counsel of Ahithophel. But it is for Ahithophel that Absalom is going to look for counsel in just a moment or two—a counsel that he is about to receive and with which Hushai has absolutely nothing to do and nothing to say. So it’s really quite exciting. If you’re reading it to your grandchildren or to your children, don’t mess it up. Don’t finish the story, all right? The ambiguity of Hushai’s words allow Absalom to conclude one thing while we actually know as the readers that he is declaring something else. And, of course, the wonderful thing is that Hushai is David’s friend, that Hushai is actually the friend of the king.

Now, there was a reason we sang this morning “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” Because it emerged from my study during the week and thinking about this amazing truth, that we become friends of the King. And in a brief sidebar, let me remind you of this in relationship to Jesus and his disciples in John chapter 15, where Jesus, speaking to his followers, says to them,

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.[3]

Now, this insight comes from my Old Testament professor, Woodhouse, but it is so good that it mustn’t be missed, and therefore, I gladly pass it on to you. Woodhouse makes the point—and does so briefly but with great clarity—that to be a friend of the king, as Hushai was, was not a symmetrical thing. The relationship between king and whoever was the friend of the king was a relationship that was disproportionate, so that it was entirely legitimate, if you like, for David to say, “Hushai is my friend,” but not actually for Hushai to say, “And King David is my friend.”[4]

The fact that Jesus calls us friends is a miracle of his grace and is not in any case a mechanism for presumption on our part when we address him with a sense of intimacy.

“Well,” you say, “what do you mean?” Or actually, “What does he mean?” He means this: that while we were very happy to sing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”—and we are glad to sing it, and we chose to sing it, and sang it with some magnificence, I would say—the fact of the matter is, Jesus looks upon us and says, “Sarah, Mary, Colin, Michael, you are my friend,” and Sarah, Mary, Colin, and Michael respond, “And Jesus, you are my King.” The relationship is not symmetrical. “Jesus is King, and I will extol him.”[5] The fact that he calls us friends is a miracle of his grace and is not in any case a mechanism for presumption on our part when we address him with a sense of intimacy.

You can thank Woodhouse for that, and you can pray hard that he will be allowed out of Australia soon so that he can come and help us in the first person.

Now, the reason that all of this is so important is because it is paving the way for the fact that in verse 5—and I’m going to allow you just to let your eye look down—in verse 5, Absalom says, completely out of the blue, “Call Hushai the Archite …, and let us hear what he has to say.”[6] This is a pivotal moment. And that would not have happened if the dialogue that we’ve just considered had not unfolded in the way that it did—that the ambiguity of it on the part of Absalom, the ambiguous way in which he received this information, created within him at least a sense of the loyalty of Hushai. Unbeknownst to him, he was actually acting as a spy. And of course, there are parts of the advice that is coming his way that will change things entirely.

Opposed by Ahithophel

Now, that then gives us enough on the matter of the work or the advice of the spy, and now we turn, finally, to the traitor. Ahithophel is the traitor. I said this morning that he is the Old Testament equivalent of Judas Iscariot. Even as he was a traitor to Jesus the King, so Ahithophel is a traitor to King David.

Fascinatingly, Absalom says to Ahithophel, “Give your counsel. What shall we do?” You’ve gotta be careful who you ask advice from. It’s not unusual for David to have inquired, but I think when you go back through 2 Samuel, you will find that the recurring phrase: “And David inquired of the Lord.” And here he inquires of Ahithophel.

We know, of course, that his counsel, “the counsel that Ahithophel gave was as if one consulted the word of God.” Now, there’s something very dangerous about that, and I’ll show you in a moment or two, as we conclude, that there’s something very wonderful about it too. The danger in it is that going to people who give counsel who are so definitive in the things that they say that they pass themselves off as if they were actually counseling you on the Word of God. Make sure when you go and ask advice of anybody that they do it with an open Bible. Make sure that they’re counseling you out of the clear instruction of Scripture—not out of their wisdom in relationship to Scripture, but Scripture itself. Because there are Ahithophels around. There are a number of them around. You’ve gotta make sure to whom you go for guidance.

And, of course, Ahithophel is as clear as he is concise: “‘What shall we do?’ Ahithophel said to Absalom, ‘Go in to your father’s concubines, whom he has left to keep the house.’” Remember, we said in our previous study that David had decided, when they fled from Jerusalem, that he would leave these ten concubines behind. We said in passing that it was going to prove a significant decision on his part, and here is the answer.

“Sleep with the king’s concubines in the sight of all Israel.” Or, if you like, to contemporize it, “Sleep with the king’s concubines, and I’ll make sure that it goes on Facebook.” It doesn’t mean that everybody in Israel is going to watch this sorry spectacle. It means that it will be public knowledge. And he says, “If you do this, it will be really foundational for your future kingship, because it will be obvious to everybody that you have entirely burned your bridges with any possibility of reconciliation with your father—that it will be clear that you have taken over his territory.” Because in the Ancient East at that time, when there was a transition from one king to another, all of the material and physical and, actually, social dimensions of that kingdom then transferred into the hands of the new king. And so, in one sense, Absalom is simply doing what would normally be done. But what is being described here as being done is something beyond the realm of the ordinary.

And Ahithophel—what a character!—essentially says to him, “Well, we’ll get things organized for you. Why don’t we—since we want to make clear that everybody understands this—why don’t we pitch a tent for you on the roof?” Well, for those of you who have been studying, we know “on the roof.” Yes, on the very same roof! The same roof that David had been lounging on and, we’re told, stood up on and gazed out to find Bathsheba bathing. What then followed in that incident was hidden from public view. What follows now is unashamedly displayed for public knowledge.

What a sorry word it is, isn’t it? “And Absalom went in.” And he went in.

You see, we said again, didn’t we, that the great danger that there is in the gifts of God to us… You say, “How can there be danger in them?” Well, unless they’re sanctified, they can be a real problem. Because “from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head there was no blemish in him.”[7] Now, we’re talking here about his physical appearance. We’re not talking about his character. His persona was such that he was admired by all. He was coveted, surely, by the female population. But his character was something else.

You can shine your shoes and wear a suit,
You can comb your hair and look quite cute,
You can hide your face behind a smile,
But one thing you can’t hide
Is when you’re crippled inside.[8]

Who wrote that? John Lennon, 1971, the Imagine album. Yeah.

And that’s exactly what has happened here. Ahithophel, so powerful. Hushai—who’s to know what will happen from here? But in actual fact, what we’re then told to conclude the incident is actually key. Remember, we said it is a dangerous word, but it is a wonderful word:
“Now in those days the counsel that Ahithophel gave was as if one consulted the word of God.”

Now, think about that for just a moment. What was the word of God? Two Samuel 12:11: “Thus says the Lord, ‘Behold, I will raise up evil against you out of your own house. And I will take your wives before your eyes and give them to your neighbor, and he shall [live] with your wives in the sight of [the] sun.’” Remarkable, isn’t it? So in other words, the evil that Ahithophel conveyed and the activity in which Absalom engaged was under the proviso of a sovereign God—that Absalom by his own volition did what Ahithophel in such a contemptible and wicked way, advised. And the mystery is this: that the evil act was at the same time the Lord’s doing.

I said this morning—and we finish again, really, in the same place—here is the mystery: Evil never thwarts God’s good purpose. It doesn’t. It can’t. Neither is evil ever justified because it is used by God for good. There’s no situation ethics in this. It doesn’t transmute evil into a good. Evil is evil. Lies are lies. They do not become something else. But here, in the mystery of it all, in the words of Ahithophel, unbeknownst to him, he is actually setting forward what God had said through his prophet before.

Evil never thwarts God’s good purpose. It doesn’t. It can’t. Neither is evil ever justified because it is used by God for good.

Our good friend Sinclair Ferguson advises us always, when we say something like this, to make sure that such an assertion can be proved true in relationship to the Lord Jesus himself. In other words, he always says to me, “Hey, Alistair, if it doesn’t work for Jesus, it doesn’t work. Just be clear about that.” So here’s the question: Does this work, then, in relationship to Jesus?

Well, here’s Peter at Pentecost: “Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know—this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.”[9] That there, at the very cross of Christ, at the very central point at which the Evil One himself says, “See, we will have victory in and over this King now”—and Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit and given a grasp and an insight that had not marked him previously, is able to preach so magnificently and make the point that is actually being made here at the end of chapter 16.


[1] 2 Samuel 15:31 (paraphrased).

[2] 2 Samuel 15:34 (paraphrased).

[3] John 15:12–15 (ESV).

[4] John Woodhouse, 2 Samuel: Your Kingdom Come, Preaching the Word, ed. R. Kent Hughes (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015), 414.

[5] Wendy Churchill, “Jesus Is King” (1982).

[6] 2 Samuel 17:5 (ESV).

[7] 2 Samuel 14:25 (ESV).

[8] John Lennon, “Crippled Inside” (1971).

[9] Acts 2:22–23 (ESV).

Copyright © 2021, 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.