Now Absalom happened to meet David’s men. He was riding his mule, and as the mule went under the thick branches of a large oak, Absalom’s head got caught in the tree. He was left hanging in midair, while the mule he was riding kept on going. (2 Samuel 18.9)
A Regrettable Mistake
Nowhere in Scripture is a father’s grief more heartbreaking than when David wails, “O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you—O Absalom, my son, my son!” (2 Samuel 18.33) Word that his third son has been killed in a freak accident crushes Israel’s greatest king and warrior on such a profound level he never fully recovers from the loss. In the tragedy’s immediate context, David’s gut-wrenching sorrow comes as something of a surprise. The son he mourns is his arch-nemesis. At the time of his death, Absalom is leading a full-scale revolt against his father in his ultimate ploy to usurp the throne. This isn’t a political coup. It’s an extremely personal vendetta and Absalom’s sole objective in mounting an insurgency is assassinating his father. Were Absalom not David's son, news of his demise would be cause for rejoicing. But hearing his child died before they could reconcile their differences—and in such an undignified manner, getting himself tangled in the branches of an oak tree—is, for David, a fate worse than death.
David’s charisma on the battlefield and throne don’t surface at home. He’s a terrible father. Although he’ll correct this with his youngest son, Solomon, rampant neglect of his older children deals him disastrous results. His eldest son, Amnon, rapes his half-sister, Tamar. When David learns of it, he’s furious. But he does nothing to avenge Tamar and his irresponsibility provokes Absalom, her full brother, to take action. He kills Amnon. Absalom sees David’s grief as a sign the king cares nothing about Tamar and him. Fearing for his life, he flees the country, putting himself out of reach. It’s a regrettable mistake that results in a regrettable life. Once David recovers from his loss, 2 Samuel 13.39 tells us, “The spirit of the king longed to go to Absalom, for he was consoled concerning Amnon’s death.”
An Extraordinarily Charismatic Guy
Five years separate Amnon’s murder and Absalom’s reunion with David, with the son’s hatred for his father festering by the day. By the time he returns, Absalom is eaten up with venom and paranoia. His raison d’être focuses exclusively on David’s downfall. He never realizes he craves revenge for a crime David doesn’t commit. It’s he, Absalom, who severs their ties and wedges distance between them. He projects his own weaknesses on his father and judges him guilty before the fact, giving David no benefit of the doubt or chance to offer love and forgiveness to his son. Staying out of reach and remaining aloof after his return denies Absalom any glimpse into David’s change of heart. He’s stuck in the past, which deceives his sight at present, and feeds delusions about the future.
Absalom has no problem rallying allies, as he’s an extraordinarily charismatic guy, a master politician with incredibly good looks. We read in 2 Samuel 14.25: “In all Israel there was not a man so highly praised for his handsome appearance as Absalom. From the top of his head to the sole of his foot there was no blemish in him.” Long, thick hair is his defining feature; when it grows too heavy, he cuts it and the sheared weight totals five pounds. People support him to be seen with him. They’re the biblical equivalent of groupies, hangers-on eager to experience what sociologists call “the halo effect.” While he knows this, hatred goads Absalom to trade on their vanity. He tries to resolve his internal conflicts by waging actual war. Other than he, no one on either side has any gripes to settle. This is Absalom’s battle. One gasps to imagine the carnage and heartache that would have come of his engaging hundreds of troops to play it out. In one of the Bible’s most just reversals, however, Absalom’s crowning asset becomes a deadly liability. As he advances toward David’s troops, his hair twists around an oak’s branches. His mule rides out from under him and he’s left hanging. One of David’s captains finds him and finishes him off with three javelins. When the king hears of Absalom’s end, he’s overwrought—as any parent would be—by a sense of failure. What more could he have done to save his son?
A Tragedy We Can Avoid
When we look at Absalom, we ask a related question: how could someone so rightly outraged by abuse and neglect go so horribly wrong? Since he’s infamous for his bizarre death, it’s nigh unto impossible to view him sympathetically. Yet, for a moment, let’s forget how the tale ends and step into his place. (Otherwise, the story has no point.) Imagine David is our father—the most revered, best loved man in the land, God’s handpicked, anointed surrogate, and the greatest sacred poet of all time. Now let’s see him at home, when the crown comes off and the crowds go away. He’s an inveterate womanizer with kids by several wives, none of whom he pays much attention to. He only seems to care about our oldest half-brother, the heir, and when the scoundrel rapes our sister, all Dad does is get mad. He doesn’t punish him, nor does he show any concern for our sister. Basically, he ignores the problem to make it go away. Would we hate him? Absolutely. Could we resist the urge to retaliate? Absolutely not.
Absalom goes wrong where so many with deep-seated resentments go wrong. He removes himself, refuses to forgive, and rules out hope things will change. How often do we this? How often are we so obsessed with our side of the story we forget it’s not the whole story? We forget it doesn’t end when we decide we’re through. Other players continue to wrestle with it, for better or worse, while we’re stuck in the past, blind to the present, and deluded about the future. Instead of seeking peace, we fuel conflict, trading on our gifts to persuade people to rally to our cause. In growing bolder and more self-righteousness, we also grow more venomous and paranoid. We marshal troops and hoist flags, anticipating a decisive showdown when we’ll finally be vindicated. But confrontations seldom play out in life like in theory. As a rule, they deepen rifts and wound many innocents dragged into the fray. The very talents we employ to mount our campaigns serve our undoing. Our greatest pride gets tangled up in God’s mercy for those we’ll harm. The confidence we ride on vanishes beneath us. We’re left hanging, vulnerable for our enemies to finish off. Had Absalom let go his hatred and sought grace for healing, his relationship with David would have been restored and he likely would have reached the throne he tried to seize. His is a tragedy we can avoid.
Absalom teaches when we allow resentments—even those we can justify—to overtake our lives, gifts we use to fuel conflict may very well destroy us. (Albert Weisgerber: Absalom.)