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CHAPTER XIX.

ABSALOM'S REVOLT.

2 Samuel xv. 1-12.

When Absalom obtained from his father the position he had so eagerly desired at Jerusalem, he did not allow the grass to grow under his feet. The terms on which he was now with the king evidently gave him a command of money to a very ample degree. By this means he was able to set up an equipage such as had not previously been seen at Jerusalem. "He prepared him a chariot and horses, and fifty men to run before him." To multiply horses to himself was one of the things forbidden by the law of Moses to the king that should be chosen (Deut. xvii. 16), mainly, we suppose, because it was a prominent feature of the royal state of the kings of Egypt, and because it would have indicated a tendency to place the glory of the kingdom in magnificent surroundings rather than in the protection and blessing of the heavenly King. The style of David's living appears to have been quiet and unpretending, notwithstanding the vast treasures he had amassed; for the love of pomp or display was none of his failings. Anything in the shape of elaborate arrangement that he devised seems to have been in connection with the public service of God—for instance, his choir of singers and players (1 Chron. xxiii. 5); his218 own personal tastes appear to have been simple and inexpensive. And this style undoubtedly befitted a royalty which rested on a basis so peculiar as that of the nation of Israel, when the king, though he used that title, was only the viceroy of the true King of the nation, and where it was the will of God that a different spirit should prevail from that prevalent among the surrounding nations. A modest establishment was evidently suited to one who recognised his true position as a subordinate lieutenant, not an absolute ruler.

But Absalom's tastes were widely different, and he was not the man to be restrained from gratifying them by any considerations of that sort. The moment he had the power, though he was not even king, he set up his imposing equipage, and became the observed of all observers in Jerusalem. And no doubt there were many of the people who sympathised with him, and regarded it as right and proper that, now that Israel was so renowned and prosperous a kingdom, its court should shine forth in corresponding splendour. The plain equipage of David would seem to them paltry and unimposing, in no way fitted to gratify the pride or elevate the dignity of the kingdom. Absalom's, on the other hand, would seem to supply all that David's wanted. The prancing steeds, with their gay caparisons, the troop of outrunners in glittering uniform, the handsome face and figure of the prince, would create a sensation wherever he went; There, men would say emphatically, is the proper state and bearing of a king; had we such a monarch as that, surrounding nations would everywhere acknowledge our superiority, and feel that we were entitled to the first place among the kingdoms of the East.

But Absalom was far too shrewd a man to base his219 popularity merely on outward show. For the daring game which he was about to play it was necessary to have much firmer support than that. He understood the remarkable power of personal interest and sympathy in winning the hearts of men, and drawing them to one's side. He rose up early, and stood beside the way of the gate, where in Eastern cities judgment was usually administered, but where, for some unknown reason, little seems to have been done by the king or the king's servants at that time. To all who came to the gate he addressed himself with winsome affability, and to those who had "a suit that should come to the king for judgment" (R.V.) he was especially encouraging. Well did he know that when a man has a lawsuit it usually engrosses his whole attention, and that he is very impatient of delays and hindrances in the way of his case. Very adroitly did he take advantage of this feeling,—sympathising with the litigant, agreeing with him of course that he had right on his side, but much concerned that there was no one appointed of the king to attend to his business, and devoutly and fervently wishing that he were made judge in the land, that every one that had any suit or cause might come to him, and he would do him justice. And with regard to others, when they came to do him homage he seemed unwilling to recognise this token of superiority, but, as if they were just brothers, he put forth his hand, took hold of them, and kissed them. If it were not for what we know now of the hollowness of it, this would be a pretty picture—an ear so ready to listen to the tale of wrong, a heart so full of sympathy, an active temperament that in the early hours of the morning sent him forth to meet the people and exchange kindly greetings with them; a form and220 figure that graced the finest procession; a manner that could be alike dignified when dignity was becoming, and humility itself when it was right to be humble. But alas for the hollow-heartedness of the picture! It is like the fabled apples of Sodom, outside all fair and attractive, but dust within.

But hollow though it was, the policy succeeded—he became exceedingly popular; he secured the affections of the people. It is a remarkable expression that is used to denote this result—"He stole the hearts of the men of Israel." It was not an honest transaction. It was swindling in high life. He was appropriating valuable property on false pretences. To constitute a man a thief or a swindler it is not necessary that he forge a rich man's name, or that he put his hand into the pocket of his neighbour. To gain a heart by hypocritical means, to secure the confidence of another by lying promises, is equally low and wicked; nay, in God's sight is a greater crime. It may be that man's law has difficulty in reaching it, and in many cases cannot reach it at all. But it cannot be supposed that those who are guilty of it will in the end escape God's righteous judgment. And if the punishments of the future life are fitted to indicate the due character of the sins for which they are sent, we can think of nothing more appropriate than that those who have stolen hearts in this way, high in this world's rank though they have often been, should be made to rank with the thieves and thimbleriggers and other knaves who are the habitués of our prisons, and are scorned universally as the meanest of mankind. With all his fine face and figure and manner, his chariot and horses, his outrunners and other attendants, Absalom after all was but a black-hearted thief.

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All this crooked and cunning policy of his Absalom carried on with unwearied vigour till his plot was ripe. There is reason to apprehend an error of some kind in the text when it is said (ver. 7) that it was "at the end of forty years" that Absalom struck the final blow. The reading of some manuscripts is more likely to be correct,—"at the end of four years," that is, four years after he was allowed to assume the position of prince. During that space of time much might be quietly done by one who had such an advantage of manner, and was so resolutely devoted to his work. For he seems to have laboured at his task without interruption all that time. The dissembling which he had to practise, to impress the people with the idea of his kindly interest in them, must have required a very considerable strain. But he was sustained in it by the belief that in the end he would succeed, and success was worth an infinity of labour. What a power of persistence is often shown by the children of this world, and how much wiser are they in their generation than the children of light as to the means that will achieve their ends! With what wonderful application and perseverance do many men labour to build up a business, to accumulate a fortune, to gain a distinction! I have heard of a young man who, being informed that an advertisement had appeared in a newspaper to the effect that if his family would apply to some one they would hear of something to their advantage, set himself to discover that advertisement, went over the advertisements for several years, column by column, first of one paper, then of another and another, till he became so absorbed in the task that he lost first his reason and then his life. Thank God, there are instances not a few of very noble application222 and perseverance in the spiritual field; but is it not true that the mass even of good men are sadly remiss in the efforts they make for spiritual ends? Does not the energy of the racer who ran for the corruptible crown often put to shame the languor of those who seek for an incorruptible? And does not the manifold secular activity of which we see so much in the world around us sound a loud summons in the ears of all who are at ease in Zion—"Now it is high time to awake out of sleep"?

The copestone which Absalom put on his plot when all was ripe for execution was of a piece with the whole undertaking. It was an act of religious hypocrisy amounting to profanity. It shows how well he must have succeeded in deceiving his father when he could venture on such a finishing stroke. Hypocrite though he was himself, he well knew the depth and sincerity of his father's religion. He knew too that nothing could gratify him more than to find in his son the evidence of a similar state of heart. It is difficult to comprehend the villainy that could frame such a statement as this:—"I pray thee, let me go and pay my vow, which I have vowed unto the Lord, in Hebron. For thy servant vowed a vow, while I abode at Geshur in Syria, saying, If the Lord shall indeed bring me again to Jerusalem, then I will serve" (marg. R.V., worship) "the Lord." We have already remarked that it is not very clear from this whether up to this time Absalom had been a worshipper of the God of Israel. The purport of his pretended vow (that is, what he wished his father to believe) must have been either that, renouncing the idolatry of Geshur, he would now become a worshipper of Israel's God, or (what seems more likely) that in token of his purpose for the future223 he would present a special offering to the God of Israel. This vow he now wished to redeem by making his offerings to the Lord, and for this purpose he desired to go to Hebron. But why go to Hebron? Might he not have redeemed it at Jerusalem? It was the custom, however, when a vow was taken, to specify the place where it was to be fulfilled, and in this instance Hebron was alleged to be the place. But what are we to think of the effrontery and wickedness of this pretence? To drag sacred things into a scheme of villainy, to pretend to have a desire to do honour to God simply for the purpose of carrying out deception and gaining a worldly end, is a frightful prostitution of all that ought to be held most sacred. It seems to indicate one who had no belief in God or in anything holy, to whom truth and falsehood, right and wrong, honour and shame, were all essentially alike, although, when it suited him, he might pretend to have a profound regard to the honour of God and a cordial purpose to render that honour. We are reminded of Charles II. taking the Covenant to please the Scots, and get their help towards obtaining the crown. But indeed the same great sin is involved in every act of religious hypocrisy, in every instance in which pretended reverence is paid to God in order to secure a selfish end.

The place was cunningly selected. It enjoyed a sanctity which had been gathering round it for centuries; whereas Jerusalem, as the capital of the nation, was but of yesterday. Hebron was the place where David himself had begun his reign, and while it was far enough from Jerusalem to allow Absalom to work unobserved by David, it was near enough to allow him to carry out the schemes which had been set on foot224 there. So little suspicion had the old king of what was brewing that, when Absalom asked leave to go to Hebron, he dismissed him with a blessing—"Go in peace."

What Joab was thinking of all this we have no means of knowing. That a man who looked after his own interests so well as Joab did, should have stuck to David when his fortunes appeared to be desperate, is somewhat surprising. But the truth seems to be that Absalom never felt very cordial towards Joab after his refusal to meet him on his return from Geshur. It does not appear that Joab was much impressed by regard to God's will in the matter of the succession; his being engaged afterwards in the insurrection in favour of Adonijah when Solomon was divinely marked out for the succession shows that he was not. His adherence to David on this occasion was probably the result of necessity rather than choice. But what are we to say of his want of vigilance in allowing Absalom's conspiracy to advance as it did either without suspecting its existence, or at least without making provision for defending the king's cause? Either he was very blind or he was very careless. As for the king himself, we have seen what cause he had, after his great trespass, for courting solitude and avoiding contact with the people. That he should be ignorant of all that was going on need not surprise us. And moreover, from allusions in some of the Psalms (xxxviii., xxxix., xli.) to a loathsome and all but fatal illness of David's, and to treachery practised on him when ill, some have supposed that this was the time chosen by Absalom for consummating his plot. When Absalom said to the men applying for justice, whom he met at the gate of the city, "There225 is no man deputed of the king to hear thee," his words implied that there was something hindering the king from being there in person, and for some reason he had not appointed a deputy. A protracted illness, unfitting David for his personal duties and for superintending the machinery of government, might have furnished Absalom with the pretext for his lamentation over this want. It gives us a harder impression of his villainy and hardness of heart if he chose a time when his father was enfeebled by disease to inflict a crushing blow on his government and a crowning humiliation on himself.

Three other steps were taken by Absalom before bringing the revolt to a crisis. First, he sent spies or secret emissaries to all the tribes, calling them, on hearing the sound of a trumpet, to acknowledge him as king at Hebron. Evidently he had all the talent for administration that was so conspicuous in his nation and in his house,—if only it had been put to a better use. Secondly, he took with him to Hebron a band of two hundred men, of whom it is said "they went in their simplicity, and they knew not anything"—so admirably was the secret kept. Thirdly, Absalom sent for Ahithophel the Gilonite, David's counsellor, from his city, having reason to believe that Ahithophel was on his side, and knowing that his counsel would be valuable to him in the present emergency. And every arrangement seemed to succeed admirably. The tide ran strongly in his favour—"the conspiracy was strong, for the people increased continually with Absalom." Everything seemed to fall out precisely as he wished; it looked as if the revolt would not only succeed, but that it would succeed without serious opposition. Absalom must have been full of expectation226 that in a few days or weeks he would be reigning unopposed at Jerusalem.

This extraordinary success is difficult to understand. For what could have made David so unpopular? In his earliest years he had been singularly popular; his victories brought him unbounded éclat; and when Ishbosheth died it was the remembrance of these early services that disposed the people to call him to the throne. Since that time he had increased his services in an eminent degree. He had freed his country from all the surrounding tribes that were constantly attacking it; he had conquered those distant but powerful enemies the Syrians; and he had brought to the country a great accumulation of wealth. Add to this that he was fond of music and a poet, and had written many of the very finest of their sacred songs. Why should not such a king be popular? The answer to this question will embrace a variety of reasons. In the first place, a generation was growing up who had not been alive at the time of his early services, and on whom therefore they would make a very slender impression. For service done to the public is very soon forgotten unless it be constantly repeated in other forms, unless, in fact, there be a perpetual round of it. So it is found by many a minister of the gospel. Though he may have built up his congregation from the very beginning, ministered among them with unceasing assiduity, and taken the lead in many important and permanent undertakings, yet in a few years after he goes away all is forgotten, and his very name comes to be unknown to many. In the second place, David was turning old, and old men are prone to adhere to their old ways; his government had become old-fashioned, and he showed no longer the life and vigour227 of former days. A new, fresh, lively administration was eagerly desired by the younger spirits of the nation. Further, there can be no doubt that David's fervent piety was disliked by many, and his puritan methods of governing the kingdom. The spirit of the world is sure to be found in every community, and it is always offended by the government of holy men. Finally, his fall in the matter of Uriah had greatly impaired the respect and affection even of the better part of the community. If to all this there was added a period of feeble health, during which many departments of government were neglected, we shall have, beyond doubt, the principal grounds of the king's unpopularity. The ardent lovers of godliness were no doubt a minority, and thus even David, who had done so much for Israel, was ready to be sacrificed in the time of old age.

But had he not something better to fall back on? Was he not promised the protection and the aid of the Most High? Might he not cast himself on Him who had been his refuge and his strength in every time of need, and of whom he had sung so serenely that He is near to them that call on Him in sincerity and in truth? Undoubtedly he might, and undoubtedly he did. And the final result of Absalom's rebellion, the wonderful way in which its back was broken and David rescued and restored, showed that though cast down he was not forsaken. But now, we must remember, the second element of the chastisement of which Nathan testified, had come upon him. "Behold, I will raise up evil against thee out of thine own house." That chastisement was now falling, and while it lasted the joy and comfort of God's gracious presence must have been interrupted. But all the same God was228 still with him, even though He was carrying him through the valley of the shadow of death. Like the Apostle Peter, he was brought to the very verge of destruction; but at the critical moment an unseen hand was stretched out to save him, and in after-years he was able to sing, "He brought me up also out of a fearful pit, and out of the miry clay; and He set my feet upon a rock and established my goings; and He hath put a new song in my mouth, even praise unto our God; many shall see it and shall fear, and shall trust in the Lord."

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