Wisdom in the Twilight

Samuel  •  Sermon  •  Submitted
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In real life things are not as clear as we would like them to be. No one can predict the future, so very often there are unintended consequences to our actions. The only safe path is to develop a wisdom that can discern between good and evil when the landscape is neither black nor white, but a disconserting shade of grey.

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I. David vs. the People - Unintended Consequences

Setting: David’s first task after settling down in his new headquarters in Mahanaim was to organize an army, which he did with his characteristic efficiency. He also mounts an offensive campaign. This is wise, as he wants the advantage of striking first.
David really doesn’t think too much of Joab and Abishai, the sons of his sister Zeruiah. Twice he rebuked them for being cold and all-too-quick to violence. However, they have become so politically powerful that David is not able to get rid of them. 2 Samuel 16:10; 2 Samuel 3:39.
2 Samuel 16:10 NKJV
But the king said, “What have I to do with you, you sons of Zeruiah? So let him curse, because the Lord has said to him, ‘Curse David.’ Who then shall say, ‘Why have you done so?’ ”
2 Samuel 3:39 NKJV
And I am weak today, though anointed king; and these men, the sons of Zeruiah, are too harsh for me. The Lord shall repay the evildoer according to his wickedness.”
However, though he must keep his Nephews in power, he shares power with his new favorite general, Ittai the Gittite. Ittai was entirely loyal, unlike the sons of Zeruiah, and would obey orders. Thus, he never caused David problems and we hear little about him.
The key question - are the people right?
On the face of it, they make a lot of practical sense. Their reasoning is that David himself is currently the only target. Absalom wants to rule over Israel, so he doesn’t actually want to kill them. He wants to get rid of David so he can rule in his place. This is the exact advice that Ahithophel had given 2 Samuel 17:1-3.
2 Samuel 17:1–3 NKJV
Moreover Ahithophel said to Absalom, “Now let me choose twelve thousand men, and I will arise and pursue David tonight. I will come upon him while he is weary and weak, and make him afraid. And all the people who are with him will flee, and I will strike only the king. Then I will bring back all the people to you. When all return except the man whom you seek, all the people will be at peace.”
further, one time when David battled the Philistines, he had worn out, possibly due to the reality that he was not as young as he used to be. Abishai had to come to his rescue, because David was too weak and no longer an asset in battle like he used to be 2 Samuel 21:15-17.
2 Samuel 21:15–17 NKJV
When the Philistines were at war again with Israel, David and his servants with him went down and fought against the Philistines; and David grew faint. Then Ishbi-Benob, who was one of the sons of the giant, the weight of whose bronze spear was three hundred shekels, who was bearing a new sword, thought he could kill David. But Abishai the son of Zeruiah came to his aid, and struck the Philistine and killed him. Then the men of David swore to him, saying, “You shall go out no more with us to battle, lest you quench the lamp of Israel.”
However, that isn’t the whole story. David had gotten in trouble with Bathsheba because he didn’t go to battle as was his job, back in Chapter 11. And David himself recognizes that it is really God who protects him 2 Samuel 15:25-26. The whole reason he is in this battle in the first place is because of God’s chastening hand of judgment. If God doesn’t want him dead, he’ll be fine. If he does, then nothing will save him anyway.
2 Samuel 15:25–26 NKJV
Then the king said to Zadok, “Carry the ark of God back into the city. If I find favor in the eyes of the Lord, He will bring me back and show me both it and His dwelling place. But if He says thus: ‘I have no delight in you,’ here I am, let Him do to me as seems good to Him.”
So the people have a legitimate point, but is it unbelieving? I’m not so sure. It’s not faithlessness to suggest that a man is too old to be of use on the battlefield, even if that man is the king. Yet perhaps this one battle ought to have been an exception. The text doesn’t say, and I’m not sure that’s the point of this little story.
the consequence of this action is that David is one step removed from the actions in battle. Without being physically present, he doesn’t have the same connection to events. Furthermore, he is less able to direct the battle as he sees fit. Had he been present, he might have been able to overrule his generals and save Absalom’s life. He is clearly worried about this eventuality, as he sternly commands his generals to go easy on Absalom. He has very good reason to worry, but gives in to the pressure from his men.
We see that David’s grasp on power is greatly diminished from where it was before his sin with Bathsheba. The earlier David would never have been challenged, the present David is still in charge, but is much weaker.
There’s no doubt that the people did not intend Absalom’s death, nor did they intend to weaken David’s authority. They were only trying to protect him, when they correctly judged that he was target number one. But they were a key to both of these things anyway.

II. Joab vs. Unnamed Soldier - Insubordination

Setting: God fights for David. At the time, there was apparently a forest there. Today, the Jordanian Government has established two national parks with forests directly north of Mahanaim, and most scholars believe that this is where the “forest of Ephraim” is located. Which is a little odd, as the Tribe of Ephraim was located on the other side of the Jordan. What likely happened is that Ephraim once extended farther to the east. When Joshua divided the land, the Ephraimites complained that they didn’t have enough land (Josh 17:14-18), so Joshua told them to go to the forest country and get more. Ephraim therefore settled here, which is located in Mannasseh’s territory. However Mannaseh was smaller than Ephraim and had larger land, so likely didn’t mind giving up the territory. After the Ephraimites were defeated by Jephtha (Josh 12:1-7), they no longer had this territory. But as often happens, the name “forest of Ephraim” still stuck.
However, the woods end up fighting for David even more than his men. Israelites from west of the Jordan, not being used to navigating in a wood, get themselves lost and die more from that than from the battle, and it is a tree that arrests Absalom and holds him for judgment. If you lose a fight with a tree, you know God isn’t helping you win.
This answers David’s statement from earlier. God really does delight in David, and really does want to bring him back to Jerusalem. Poor David’s extreme pain in this chapter doesn’t change the reality that God still loves David.
The man who reported Absalom’s capture by tree is respectful of the King’s command, and correctly notes that if he had disobeyed the King’s command, he would have forfeited his own life, and Joab certainly wouldn’t have stood up for a nameless grunt. He obeys the king’s authority.
Joab, in contrast, is so convinced that David’s command is wrong for Israel, he has Absalom killed immediately and angrily snaps to the soldier that he “has no time for this.” This is after Joab tried to bring David and Absalom together back. In 2 Samuel 14:20, the reason is to change the relationship between David and Absalom. Something has quite clearly changed, alright. Joab used to think that Absalom was the heir apparent and should be reinstated to ensure national stability, but now thinks that the young man is so dangerous that he needs to be executed pronto.
2 Samuel 14:20 NKJV
To bring about this change of affairs your servant Joab has done this thing; but my lord is wise, according to the wisdom of the angel of God, to know everything that is in the earth.”
No one imagines that Absalom deserves to live. In the Law a rebellious son could be stoned by the village. Deut 21:18-21 If there has ever been a rebellious son who deserved that punishment, Absalom was that guy. He tried to kill his own father just to seize the throne, and slept with his father’s concubines just to get back as his father. He started a war to seize that power that caused the deaths of 20,000 men. If anyone deserved death, it was him.
Deuteronomy 21:18–21 NKJV
“If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and who, when they have chastened him, will not heed them, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city, to the gate of his city. And they shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious; he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Then all the men of his city shall stone him to death with stones; so you shall put away the evil from among you, and all Israel shall hear and fear.
The soldier’s reason had nothing to do with what Absalom deserved, and everything to do with following orders
Joab doesn’t describe his reasoning, but he has consistently acted for Israel as he thought was best. He believes, correctly, that Absalom is a war criminal and deserves to die, and that he is dangerous.
When David later rehearses Joab’s crimes, he mentions two murders, but doesn’t mention this event 1 Kings 2:5. That’s because David’s keen sense of justice cannot be upset by his deep emotions here. In David’s grief later, he never suggests that Joab went too far or that Absalom’s death wasn’t fair. Joab is a cold and violent man, but this isn’t murder, it’s justice. David’s moral compass is so strong, that there is literally no possible emotion that can throw him off.
1 Kings 2:5 NKJV
“Moreover you know also what Joab the son of Zeruiah did to me, and what he did to the two commanders of the armies of Israel, to Abner the son of Ner and Amasa the son of Jether, whom he killed. And he shed the blood of war in peacetime, and put the blood of war on his belt that was around his waist, and on his sandals that were on his feet.
However, while Joab had good reason to do what he did, and may have been quite right, it wasn’t his place to make that decision. God had appointed David, and to be God’s man means being the person to choose between justice and mercy in just such situations as this. David’s order clearly doesn’t contravene anything in the law. The Law allows rebellious sons to be killed. But it always leaves room for mercy. Whether mercy or justice is the very sort of complex decision that takes wisdom to make, but David’s right is to make it and he has spoken. So Joab’s sin here isn’t murder. It’s rebellion against God’s duly appointed authority, David.
Joab’s choice robs us of knowing the consequences of David’s command, and did not allow God to work through David. It also has the unintended consequence of very nearly losing the very thing he was trying to protect. David’s reaction is understandably severe and very nearly causes the entire army to dissipate and the whole project to be lost. Only God’s clear support of David prevents Joab’s actions from doing the exact opposite of what he wanted and destroying Israel even further.
Going against authority, even when you are right and they are wrong can have consequences you cannot foresee. The most direct application is not to obeying government (though it does apply), but to obeying the more local and direct authorities in your life. If you are a child, your parents; if a wife, your husband; at your work, it’s your boss; at church, it is the leaders of the church. If any of these order you to do wrong, you must obey God rather then men and take the consequences calmly. But if not, you deny God the opportunity to work through their mistakes and you might bring about a situation you did not see coming.

III. Ahimaaz vs. the Unnamed Cushite - Speaking the truth in love

Setting: Ahimaaz along with Jonathan was responsible to get messages to David about what was happening at the Capital. He had experience as a messenger and was trusted. So Joab doesn’t choose him because of some fault in Ahimaaz. Possibly he worries about how David will interpret the messenger - David declares that Ahimaaz is a good man and brings good news - but for David, that isn’t the case. So Ahimaaz’ presence unintentionally results in making the shock of Absalom’s death all that more sudden.
Ahimaaz goes by the plain, while the Cushite goes through the forest (see map). His route is longer, but as it is less difficult, he travels faster and gets there just in front of the Cushite.
Ahimaaz, unlike Joab his boss, doesn’t disobey Joab’s authority. He pressures Joab a lot but doesn’t go until he gets permission. He knows that Joab’s insubordination doesn’t justify his own rebellion.
Ahimaaz apparently wants to be known as the one that tells the good news of victory for David’s men. He knows full well that Absalom is dead. Joab told him that (v.20). But when David asks, he claims not to have seen clearly what happened. That’s not what David asked. David asked if Absalom was safe, not if Ahimaaz was a witness to his death. Ahimaaz is clearly telling a “little white lie.” He is trying protect David’s feelings, so gives a classic avoidance-lie.
The Cushite, on the other hand, is a master-class in speaking the truth in love. He focuses on the victory, but when pressed he lets David down about as gently as it is possible to do. David gets that Absalom is dead, but the Cushite doesn’t say that directly at all. He instead wishes that all who oppose David be like “that young man.” not naming Absalom means trying to help the King distance himself from it as much as possible.
Now the King doesn’t take it well, but that’s not the Cushite’s fault. Ahimaaz’ little lie helped nothing. He didn’t actually succeed in protecting the King’s feelings, only making the shock worse when the truth came out. And just as Joab had said, he didn’t actually get any credit for all his work. You aren’t responsible for how people respond. You are responsible for what you say.
“little white lies” are harmful. They don’t actually protect the feelings of the people you are trying to protect in the long run, and they don’t make people like you better. Practice speaking the truth in love. Sometimes the truth hurts and there’s no way to avoid a bad reaction. But it’s better than you will get if you lie about it.

IV. Joab vs. the people - Confrontation

Setting: God is behind the successful resolution of the current situation. Most of the actors in this story are flawed in some way, however, the overall point is that David is still God’s anointed King and God will continue to support and defend him. Joab’s insubordination has the very real potential of undermining the entire victory and very nearly does so. But if it did, God’s overall salvation plan would be defeated.
David goes completely to pieces. He wasn’t able to be in the battle and so couldn’t direct decisions as he wanted. What he feared did happen. Now I completely understand why he grieves the death of his son, but I think there’s more there. He didn’t go this much to pieces when Bathsheba’s son died. There’s some evidence that son #2 died in childhood, and he didn’t go to pieces that much either. Other men also grieve the loss of their children - it’s natural to do so. But other men don’t always go to pieces like this either. So what is going on?
Remember that this isn’t just a natural tragedy. David had those with his family already and managed to retain his general composure. David feels guilty because he is guilty of sins that created the situation. It his sin with Bathsheba that brought God’s judgment that the sword would never depart from his house. It is his mishandling of his older sons that did not bring Absalom to emotional maturity, and thus Absalom’s emotional infancy reacted to David’s sin so negatively; and reacted in a flawed manner to the tragedy of his sister’s rape. His guilt is not the guilt of an active participant, but of a flawed character that unintentionally creates the circumstances making the present tragedy possible. This is still guilt, though one step removed from the actors.
Feelings of guilt are not equivalent to actual guilt. Actual guilt is whether or not you are objectively guilty of moral failure. Feelings of guilt are whether or not you believe yourself to be guilty. Your feelings of guilt can be right or wrong. You can feel guilty about things that aren’t actually wrong; You can not feel guilty about things you should feel guilty about. But with David, his keen sense of justice means that he correctly knows his own guilt and recognizes it. But since that does not exonerate him, I think his feelings make things worse for him. Still, it’s better to see things the way they are, even when they hurt.
Furthermore, David’s acquiles heel is his children. He lacks confidence about his own family, for good reason. He’s a lousy father. This lack of confidence means he doesn’t have the strength to withstand the present, rather extreme, tragedy.
Application: Joab’s response to David is correct, not in naming David’s intent, but in the effect of his actions. He makes four claims
David disgraced those who saved you and your family. True - Surely David wasn’t trying to do that, but look at the results.
You love your enemies and hate your friends. Again, surely David did in fact care about his men. He has led some of these men for decades, and cared for them. But in the present case, he has made them feel like he wants them dead and their enemies alive.
You would have preferred everyone died and Absalom lived. David wanted victory. Why else would he volunteer to lead the battle himself? But he did make people feel that way.
If you don’t go out and befriend the people, you will lose everything. Again quite right.
Joab’s confrontation to David is not the best approach, but it has to be done and he’s the only one who does it. The people don’t confront David, which is understandable, he’s the King. But he needs to be confronted, for despite his grief he has to pull himself together and do his job and thank his army for the victory.
On the other hand, Joab charges David with actually wanting the defeat of his army and loving his enemies. This is quite unfair and doesn’t help Joab’s case to influence David. Charging someone with motives that they know to be false is the quickest way to getting your words rejected.
Joab’s counsel, as we might expect, is quite devoid of empathy, and is quite practical. Pray that if someone needs to confront you, that they are better equipped than Joab. But if you need confrontation, you don’t get to choose who does it to you. You must be mature enough, as David was, to accept good counsel even when it isn’t nice. The scars from Joab’s brutal method of solving David’s depression will likely remain; but David’s maturity allows him to profit from it anyway.
If you find yourself needing to confront someone, then you will need courage. Confrontation is seldom if ever easy. Confronting an authority figure rightly, as the people should have done, is even more difficult. But if it is necessary practice Biblical confrontation - Go directly to that person first, make sure they clearly understand you. Keep a check on your own emotions and be more understanding than Joab, but don’t be a coward and fail to speak. Worse, don’t go and spread it to other people first. That’s the coward’s way out and creates far more harm than the original point that created the need for confrontation in the first place.
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