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193

CHAPTER XVII.

ABSALOM AND AMNON.

2 Samuel xiii. 1-37.

A living sorrow, says the proverb, is worse than a dead. The dead sorrow had been very grievous to David; what the living sorrow, of which this chapter tells us, must have been, we cannot conceive. It is his own disorderly lusts, reappearing in his sons, that are the source of this new tragedy. It is often useful for parents to ask whether they would like to see their children doing what they allow in themselves; and in many cases the answer is an emphatic "No." David is now doomed to see his children following his own evil example, only with added circumstances of atrocity. Adultery and murder had been introduced by him into the palace; when he is done with them they remain to be handled by his sons.

It is a very repulsive picture of sensuality that this chapter presents. One would suppose that Amnon and Absalom had been accustomed to the wild orgies of pagan idolatry. Nathan had rebuked David because he had given occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme. He had afforded them a pretext for denying the work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration and sanctification, and for affirming that so-called holy men were just like the rest of mankind. This in God's eyes was a grievous offence. Amnon and Absalom are now194 guilty of the same offence in another form, because they afford a pretext for ungodly men to say that the families of holy men are no better—perhaps that they are worse—than other families. But as David himself in the matter of Uriah is an exception to the ordinary lives of godly men, so his home is an exception to the ordinary tone and spirit of religious households. Happily we are met with a very different ideal when we look behind the scenes into the better class of Christian homes, whether high or low. It is a beautiful picture of the Christian home, according to the Christian ideal, we find, for example, in Milton's Comus—pure brothers, admiring a dear sister's purity, and jealous lest, alone in the world, she should fall in the way of any of those bloated monsters that would drag an angel into their filthy sty. Commend us to those homes where brothers and sisters, sharing many a game, and with still greater intimacy pouring into each other's ears their inner thoughts and feelings, never utter a jest, or word, or allusion with the slightest taint of indelicacy, and love and honour each other with all the higher affection that none of them has ever been near the haunts of pollution. It is easy to ridicule innocence, to scoff at young men who "flee youthful lusts;" yet who will say that the youth who is steeped in fashionable sensuality is worthy to be the brother and companion of pure-minded maidens, or that his breath will not contaminate the atmosphere of their home? What easy victories Belial gains over many! How easily he persuades them that vice is manly, that impurity is grand, that the pig's sty is a delightful place to lie down in! How easily he induces them to lay snares for female chastity, and put the devil's mask on woman's soul! But "God is not mocked; whatsoever a man195 soweth, that shall he also reap; for he that soweth to the flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption, while he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting."

In Scripture some men have very short biographies; Amnon is one of these. And, like Cain, all that is recorded of him has the mark of infamy. We can easily understand that it was a great disaster to him to be a king's son. To have his position in life determined and all his wants supplied without an effort on his part; to be surrounded by such plenty that the wholesome necessity of denying himself was unknown, and whatever he fancied was at once obtained; to be so accustomed to indulge his legitimate feelings that when illegitimate desires rose up it seemed but natural that they too should be gratified; thus to be led on in the evil ways of sensual pleasure till his appetite became at once bloated and irrepressible; to be surrounded by parasites and flatterers, that would make a point of never crossing him nor uttering a disagreeable word, but constantly encouraging his tastes,—all this was extremely dangerous. And when his father had set him the example, it was hardly possible he would avoid the snare. There is every reason to believe that before he is presented to us in this chapter he was already steeped in sensuality. It was his misfortune to have a friend, Jonadab, the son of Shimeah, David's brother, "a very subtil man," who at heart must have been as great a profligate as himself. For if Jonadab had been anything but a profligate, Amnon would never have confided to him his odious desire with reference to his half-sister, and Jonadab would never have given him the advice that he did. What a blessing to Amnon, at this stage of the tragedy, would have been the faithful196 advice of an honest friend—one who would have had the courage to declare the infamy of his proposal, and who would have so placed it in the light of truth that it would have shocked and horrified even Amnon himself! In reality, the friend was more guilty than the culprit. The one was blinded by passion; the other was self-possessed and cool. The cool man encourages the heated; the sober man urges on the intoxicated. O ye sons of wealth and profligacy, it is sad enough that you are often so tempted by the lusts that rise up in your own bosoms, but it is worse to be exposed to the friendship of wretches who never study your real good, but encourage you to indulge the vilest of your appetites, and smooth for you the way to hell!

The plan which Jonadab proposes for Amnon to obtain the object of his desire is founded on a stratagem which he is to practise on his father. He is to pretend sickness, and under this pretext to get matters arranged by his father as he would like. To practise deceit on a father was a thing not unknown even among the founders of the nation; Jacob and Jacob's sons had resorted to it alike. But it had been handed down with the mark of disgrace attached to it by God Himself. In spite of this it was counted both by Jonadab and Amnon a suitable weapon for their purpose. And so, as every one knows, it is counted not only a suitable, but a smart and laughable, device, in stage plays without number, and by the class of persons whose morality is reflected by the popular stage. Who so suitable a person to be made a fool of as "the governor"? Who so little to be pitied when he becomes the dupe of his children's cunning? "Honour thy father and thy mother," was once proclaimed in thunder from Sinai, and not only men's hearts trembled, but the very earth197 shook at the voice. But these were old times and old-fashioned people. Treat your father and mother as useful and convenient tools, inasmuch as they have control of the purse, of which you are often in want. But as they are not likely to approve of the objects for which you would spend their money; as they are sure, on the other hand, to disapprove of them strongly, exercise your ingenuity in hoodwinking them as to your doings, and if your stratagem succeed, enjoy your chuckle at the blindness and simplicity of the poor old fools! If this be the course that commends itself to any son or daughter, it indicates a heart so perverted that it would be most difficult to bring it to any sense of sin. All we would say is, See what kind of comrades you have in this policy of deceiving parents. See this royal blackguard, Amnon, and his villainous adviser Jonadab, resorting to the very same method for hoodwinking King David; see them making use of this piece of machinery to compass an act of the grossest villainy that ever was heard of; and say whether you hold the device to be commended by their example, and whether you feel honoured in treading a course that has been marked before you by such footprints.

If anything more was needed to show the accomplished villainy of Amnon, it is his treatment of Tamar after he has violently compassed her ruin. It is the story so often repeated even at this day,—the ruined victim flung aside in dishonour, and left unpitied to her shame. There is no trace of any compunction on the part of Amnon at the moral murder he has committed, at the life he has ruined; no pity for the once blithe and happy maiden whom he has doomed to humiliation and woe. She has served his purpose, king's daughter though she is; let her crawl into the198 earth like a poor worm to live or to die, in want or in misery; it is nothing to him. The only thing about her that he cares for is, that she may never again trouble him with her existence, or disturb the easy flow of his life. We think of those men of the olden time as utter barbarians who confined their foes in dismal dungeons, making their lives a continual torture, and denying them the slightest solace to the miseries of captivity. But what shall we say of those, high-born and wealthy men, it may be, who doom their cast-off victims to an existence of wretchedness and degradation which has no gleam of enjoyment, compared with which the silence and loneliness of a prison would be a luxury? Can the selfishness of sin exhibit itself anywhere or anyhow more terribly? What kind of heart can be left to the seducer, so hardened as to smother the faintest touch of pity for the woman he has made wretched for ever; so savage as to drive from him with the roughest execrations the poor confiding creature without whom he used to vow, in the days of her unsuspecting innocence, that he knew not how to live!

In a single word, our attention is now turned to the father of both Amnon and Tamar. "When King David heard of all these things, he was very wroth." Little wonder! But was this all? Was no punishment found for Amnon? Was he allowed to remain in the palace, the oldest son of the king, with nothing to mark his father's displeasure, nothing to neutralise his influence with the other royal children, nothing to prevent the repetition of his wickedness? Tamar, of course, was a woman. Was it for this reason that nothing was done to punish her destroyer? It does not appear that his position was in any way changed. We cannot but be indignant at the inactivity of David. Yet when199 we think of the past, we need not be surprised. David was too much implicated in the same sins to be able to inflict suitable punishment for them. It is those whose hands are clean that can rebuke the offender. Let others try to administer reproof—their own hearts condemn them, and they shrink from the task. Even the king of Israel must wink at the offences of his son.

But if David winked, Absalom did nothing of the kind. Such treatment of his full sister, if the king chose to let it alone, could not be let alone by the proud, indignant brother. He nursed his wrath, and watched for his opportunity. Nothing short of the death of Amnon would suffice him. And that death must be compassed not in open fight but by assassination. At last, after two full years, his opportunity came. A sheepshearing at Baal-hazor gave occasion for a feast, to which the king and all his sons should be asked. His father excused himself on the ground of the expense. Absalom was most unwilling to receive the excuse, reckoning probably that the king's presence would more completely ward off any suspicion of his purpose, and utterly heedless of the anguish his father would have felt when he found that, while asked professedly to a feast, it was really to the murder of his eldest son. David, however, refuses firmly, but he gives Absalom his blessing. Whether this was meant in the sense in which Isaac blessed Jacob, or whether it was merely an ordinary occasion of commending Absalom to the grace of God, it was a touching act, and it might have arrested the arm that was preparing to deal such a fatal blow to Amnon. On the contrary, Absalom only availed himself of his father's expression of kindly feeling to beg that he would allow Amnon to be present. And he succeeded so well that200 permission was given, not to Amnon only, but to all the king's sons. To Absalom's farm at Baal-hazor accordingly they went, and we may be sure that nothing would be spared to make the banquet worthy of a royal family. And now, while the wine is flowing freely, and the buzz of jovial talk fills the apartment, and all power of action on the part of Amnon is arrested by the stupefying influence of wine, the signal is given for his murder. See how closely Absalom treads in the footsteps of his father when he summons intoxicating drink to his aid, as David did to Uriah, when trying to make a screen of him for his own guilt. Yes, from the beginning, drink, or some other stupefying agent, has been the ready ally of the worst criminals, either preparing the victim for the slaughter or maddening the murderer for the deed. But wherever it has been present it has only made the tragedy more awful and the aspect of the crime more hideous. Give a wide berth, ye servants of God, to an agent with which the devil has ever placed himself in such close and deadly alliance!

It is not easy to paint the blackness of the crime of Absalom. We have nothing to say for Amnon, who seems to have been a man singularly vile; but there is something very appalling in his being murdered by the order of his brother, something very cold-blooded in Absalom's appeal to the assassins not to flinch from their task, something very revolting in the flagrant violation of the laws of hospitality, and something not less daring in the deed being done in the midst of the feast, and in the presence of the guests. When Shakespeare would paint the murder of a royal guest, the deed is done in the dead of night, with no living eye to witness it, with no living arm at hand capable201 of arresting the murderous weapon. But here is a murderer of his guest who does not scruple to have the deed done in broad daylight in presence of all his guests, in presence of all the brothers of his victim, while the walls resound to the voice of mirth, and each face is radiant with festive excitement. Out from some place of concealment rush the assassins with their deadly weapons; next moment the life-blood of Amnon spurts on the table, and his lifeless body falls heavily to the ground. Before the excitement and horror of the assembled guests has subsided Absalom has made his escape, and before any step can be taken to pursue him he is beyond reach in Geshur in Syria.

Meanwhile an exaggerated report of the tragedy reaches King David's ears,—Absalom has slain all the king's sons, and there is not one of them left. Evil, at the bottom of his heart, must have been David's opinion of him when he believed the story, even in this exaggerated form. "The king arose and rent his clothes, and lay on the earth; and all his servants stood round with their clothes rent." Nor was it till Jonadab, his cousin, assured him that only Amnon could be dead, that the terrible impression of a wholesale massacre was removed from his mind. But who can fancy what the circumstances must have been, when it became a relief to David to know that Absalom had murdered but one of his brothers? Jonadab evidently thought that David did not need to be much surprised, inasmuch as this murder was a foregone conclusion with Absalom; it had been determined on ever since the day when Amnon forced Tamar. Here is a new light on the character of Jonadab. He knew that Absalom had determined that Amnon should die. It was no surprise to him202 to hear that this purpose was carried out with effect. Why did he not warn Amnon? Could it be that he had been bribed over to the side of Absalom? He knew the real state of the case before the king's sons arrived. For when they did appear he appealed to David whether his statement, previously given, was not correct.

And now the first part of the retribution denounced by Nathan begins to be fulfilled, and fulfilled very fearfully,—"the sword shall never depart from thy house." Ancient history abounds in frightful stories, stories of murder, incest, and revenge, the materials, real or fabulous, from which were formed the tragedies of the great Greek dramatists. But nothing in their dramas is more tragic than the crime of Amnon, the incest of Tamar, and the revenge of Absalom. What David's feelings must have been we can hardly conceive. What must he have felt as he thought of the death of Amnon, slain by his brother's command, in his brother's house, at his brother's table, and hurried to God's judgment while his brain was reeling with intoxication! What a pang must have been shot by the recollection how David had once tried, for his own base ends, to intoxicate Uriah as Absalom had intoxicated Amnon! It does not appear that David's grief over Amnon was of the passionate kind that he showed afterwards when Absalom was slain; but, though quieter, it must have been very bitter. How could he but be filled with anguish when he thought of his son, hurried, while drunk, by his brother's act, into the presence of God, to answer for the worse than murder of his sister, and for all the crimes and sins of an ill-spent life! What hope could he entertain for the welfare of his soul? What balm could he find for such a wound?

203

And it was not Amnon only he had to think of. These three of his children, Amnon, Tamar, Absalom, in one sense or another, were now total wrecks. From these three branches of his family tree no fruit could ever come. Nor could the dead now bury its dead. Neither the remembrance nor the effect of the past could ever be wiped out. It baffles us to think how David was able to carry such grief. "David mourned for his son every day." It was only the lapse of time that could blunt the edge of his distress.

But surely there must have been terrible faults in David's upbringing of his family before such results as these could come. Undoubtedly there were. First of all, there was the number of his wives. This could not fail to be a source of much jealousy and discord among them and their children, especially when he himself was absent, as he must often have been, for long periods at a time. Then there was his own example, so unguarded, so unhallowed, at a point where the utmost care and vigilance had need to be shown. Thirdly, there seems to have been an excessive tenderness of feeling towards his children, and towards some of them in particular. He could not bear to disappoint; his feelings got the better of his judgment; when the child insisted the father weakly gave way. He wanted the firmness and the faithfulness of Abraham, of whom God had said, "I know him that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the Lord to do justice and judgment." Perhaps, too, busy and often much pressed as he was with affairs of state, occupied with foreign wars, with internal improvements, and the daily administration of justice, he looked on his house as a place of simple relaxation and enjoyment, and forgot that there, too, he had a solemn204 charge and most important duty. Thus it was that David failed in his domestic management. It is easy to spy out his defects, and easy to condemn him. But let each of you who have a family to bring up look to himself. You have not all David's difficulties, but you may have some of them. The precept and the promise is, "Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it." It is not difficult to know the way he should go—the difficulty lies in the words, "Train up." To train up is not to force, nor is it merely to lay down the law, or to enforce the law. It is to get the whole nature of the child to move freely in the direction wished. To do this needs on the part of the parent a combination of firmness and love, of patience and decision, of consistent example and sympathetic encouragement. But it needs also, on the part of God, and therefore to be asked in earnest, believing prayer, that wondrous power which touches the springs of the heart, and draws it to Him and to His ways. Only by this combination of parental faithfulness and Divine grace can we look for the blessed result, "when he is old he will not depart from it."

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