Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Deepest Grief

I find Sunday’s reading from 2 Samuel to be one of the most moving passages of scripture. It is the story of Absalom’s death and his father David’s grief. I usually complain about how the lectionary butchers a long passage, giving us the basic narrative but leaving out the real essence of the entire passage, but this time they do a pretty good job. Still, I urge you to read the whole of 2 Samuel 18. If you read the whole thing, you get a better sense of the grief and agony that David experiences when he hears of his son’s death.

First, a little background from 2 Samuel 13-17. Absalom was David’s son. He had a sister whose name was Tamar, with whom his half-brother Amnon fell in love. Amnon was obsessed with Tamar, but, of course, he could not have her because such a thing was an abomination. So Amnon concocted a scheme by which he pretended to be ill, asked his father David to send Tamar to nurse him back to health, and, when they were alone, he seized her and raped her. Then, disgusted with her and with himself for his misdeed, Amnon sent Tamar away in shame.

Tamar’s brother Absalom was furious. For two years, he plotted his revenge. One night at a sheep-shearing festival, Absalom killed Amnon and then fled away. For two more years, he lived in exile until he got word that David, although angry, would not harm him. He returned to Jerusalem where, for two more years, he lived but was not allowed to see his father, the king. After two more years, David called Absalom into his presence, and it seemed as if they were reconciled. Over the following four years, Absalom would sit at the gate and serve as a surrogate judge for the people, helping them solve their problems and endearing himself to them.

During that time, it became clear to Absalom and David that the people’s heart belonged to Absalom. The son plotted against the father, and, under the guise of offering a sacrifice in Hebron, Absalom went out and sent messengers through the people, telling them to proclaim “Absalom is king” when the trumpets blew. The conspiracy grew until it became clear that David and his loyal followers were vastly outnumbered. They fled Jerusalem, and Absalom took over the throne.

Skip ahead to Sunday’s reading. The king sent his troops out into battle, urging them not to harm Absalom. By chance, while riding through the deadly forest, Absalom got stuck in a tree with his feet dangling down toward the ground. News of his predicament reached the general, who asked why Absalom was not killed, and the soldier replied, “Even if I felt the weight of a thousand pieces of silver in my hand, I would not have hurt the king’s son because he ordered us not to harm him.” The general, knowing the necessity of the conspirator’s death, ordered his troops to surround him and kill him. News of his death was sent to David by two different messengers, only one of whom we read about in Sunday’s lesson. The first was Ahimaaz, son of Zadok, who gave news of the victory but withheld news of Absalom’s death. As we read that part of 2 Samuel 18, the suspense grows. We know the awful tidings that are on their way, and we know that David will be devastated, but we must wait along with the king.

Then, when the news comes, David is despondent. “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would that I had died instead of you!” And he went up to his room over the gate and wept.

The bitterness of his tears. The magnitude of his loss. His wish to have taken his son’s place. The confusing and conflicting feelings of anger, resentment, and betrayal along with relief, security, and victory. We hear that collision in David’s words. They are the hollow, longing, empty words of a parent who has lost a child. Even if we have not experienced a loss like that, even if we cannot imagine a grief that deep, David’s words help us see it, even if from a distance. Eric Whitacre composed a choral piece around David’s words, which makes me weep every time I hear it. And that’s what I’m supposed to do. We are supposed to weep with David because a victory like this one comes with an incredible cost, and the people of God are supposed to bear it.

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