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The Sickness of Absalom

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Sermon for the seventh Sunday after Trinity

You see the rebellious Absalom dangling helpless from the tree. Are you going to be the one who puts him to death?

King David says, “deal gently with him!” but General Joab says, “kill him!” Whom do you obey? King or General?


There are times when justice and mercy almost seem to be opposites.

Absalom has rebelled against his own father, who has sought to divide the kingdom against him and turned the people of Israel against their king. The fact is that Absalom is a handsome, persuasive man who manages to lead the people astray. If he lives then he becomes a figurehead for further rebellion and dissent against the lawful King David. Justice dictates that Absalom be punished and removed from being a threat against Israel.

And yet, Absalom has seen his own sister Tamar raped by their half-brother Amnon. He has seen his father, the lawful King David, gloss over this treatment of Tamar. Certainly no punishment of Amnon by David is recorded. Absalom is filled with wrath and indignation at David’s weakness and love of Amnon. Mercy dictates that the reason for Absalom’s wrath be taken into account and allow him the chance to reconcile with David.

Justice and Mercy seem to be opposites.


Those of us who are partial to soap operas will be used to the convoluted histories of their characters and there is something of the pantomime in it all when we long to see the villain punished and the hero kiss the heroine and live happily ever after.

The fact is, there is no happily ever after, neither in soap operas nor in this life. Whether you see Joab’s destruction of Absalom as necessary for the good of Israel or a sin against David, there is not going to be a satisfactory conclusion to this whole affair. We can see the sins of the fathers influence the sins of the children at every stage.

Of course, Joab is being pragmatic and has noble views of the good of all in Israel. He kills Absalom realising that he is a constant threat, and he also convinces David to leave his mourning for his son to rule Israel properly. We might perceive that there is a lot of good sense in Joab.

Yet King David realises that he is the cause of Absalom’s rebellion and seeks to preserve the young man’s life in order to reconcile him with his family and rejoin him at court. We might perceive that there are a lot of good intentions in King David.

So which is the right course of action.


What we can’t get away from is the fact that every act, even lawful acts, have the potential for sin somewhere along the line. Joab seeks to protect Israel, but disobeys his king. The King seeks to protect his son, but risks ruining his country.

What is also notable in this story is the lack of mention of God except in thanksgiving for the end of the battle on the lips of Ahimaaz. There is no prayer to God for Absalom on the lips of the king. There is no prayer for the correct course of action on the lips of Joab. God does not appear to be consulted, so we don’t know what God might say.

Only in God are Justice and Mercy the same thing because they have their meaning only in Him. Given that we face tough decisions every day in our nation, in our community and in our own personal lives, we really must seek first the Kingdom of God and His Righteousness.

We can see that for Absalom, David and Joab, the law is not enough for both Justice and Mercy to have their place. Maybe we, too, see justice too much as an expression of the law and mercy too much as the holding back of the law. Maybe we see sin too much in legal terms of crime and punishment rather than of sickness inherent in Man’s very nature – a sickness that can only be cured by living in the fulness of God.

Many divisions within Christianity are due to interpretations of Scripture in legal terms in which chapter and verse are pitted against chapter and verse. Many influential theologians have been trained lawyers.

We must realise that law and the lawyers are of vital importance to the stability of any community, especially one that is under the influence of sin. The law gives us the backbone and the lawyers help us interpret by putting flesh on the backbone, but they cannot give life to the body: they can only provide structure and framework. The more we try to apply the law indiscriminately and dispassionately relying on blanket application and sweeping statement, the more we will fail to understand either Justice or Mercy.


If we see sin as sickness, then we see Joab trying to quarantine a sickness from his people. We see David seek the health of his son and yet lose him to that sickness. And we see Christ not only as the doctor but also the cure of that sickness in His very self. We know that it is right for Joab to quarantine his people. We know that it is right for David to care for a son in the grip of a mortal disease. And we, with our benefit of a glorious hindsight, know that even for Absalom things are not lost in Christ.

When faced with indecision, we too must remember that our sickness and sins are being healed in Christ. We must make the best decision we can through prayer and listening, and then trust Him fully even when things seem dark.


Would God have spared Absalom?

He may have done so already.

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