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265

CHAPTER XXIII.

2 Samuel xviii. 1-18.

ABSALOM'S DEFEAT AND DEATH.

Whatever fears of defeat and destruction might occasionally flit across David's soul between his flight from Jerusalem and the battle in the wood of Ephraim, it is plain both from his actions and from his songs that his habitual frame was one of serenity and trust. The number of psalms ascribed to this period of his life may be in excess of the truth; but that his heart was in near communion with God all the time we cannot doubt. Situated as his present refuge was not far from Peniel, where Jacob had wrestled with the angel, we may believe that there were wrestlings again in the neighbourhood not unworthy to be classed with that from which Peniel derived its memorable name.

In the present emergency the answer to prayer consisted, first, in the breathing-time secured by the success of Hushai's counsel; second, in the countenance and support of the friends raised up to David near Mahanaim; and last, not least, in the spirit of wisdom and harmony with which all the arrangements were made for the inevitable encounter. Every step was taken with prudence, while every movement of his opponents seems to have been a blunder. It was wise in David, as we have already seen, to cross the Jordan266 and retire into Gilead; it was wise in him to make Mahanaim his headquarters; it was wise to divide his army into three parts, for a reason that will presently be seen; and it was wise to have a wood in the neighbourhood of the battlefield, though it could not have been foreseen how this was to bear on the individual on whose behalf the insurrection had taken place.

By this time the followers of David had grown to the dimensions of an army. We are furnished with no means of knowing its actual number. Josephus puts it at four thousand, but, judging from some casual expressions ("David set captains of hundreds and captains of thousands over them," ver. 1; "Now thou art worth ten thousand of us," ver. 3; "The people came by thousands," ver. 4), we should infer that David's force amounted to a good many thousands. The division of the army into three parts, however, reminding us, as it does, of Gideon's division of his little force into three, would seem to imply that David's force was far inferior in number to Absalom's. The insurrectionary army must have been very large, and stretching over a great breadth of country, would have presented far too wide a line to be effectually dealt with by a single body of troops, comparatively small. Gideon had divided his handful into three that he might make a simultaneous impression on three different parts of the Midianite host, and thus contribute the better to the defeat of the whole. So David divided his army into three, that, meeting Absalom's at three different points, he might prevent a concentration of the enemy that would have swallowed up his whole force. David had the advantage of choosing his ground, and his military instinct and long experience would doubtless enable him to do this with great effect. His three generals were able267 and valuable leaders. The aged king was prepared to take part in the battle, believing that his presence would be helpful to his men; but the people would not allow him to run the risk. Aged and somewhat infirm as he seems to have been, wearied with his flight, and weakened with the anxieties of so distressing an occasion, the excitement of the battle might have proved too much for him, even if he had escaped the enemy's sword. Besides, everything depended on him; if his place were discovered by the enemy, their hottest assault would be directed to it; and if he should fall, there would be left no cause to fight for. "It is better," they said to him, "that thou succour us out of the city." What kind of succour could he render there? Only the succour that Moses and his two attendants rendered to Israel in the fight with Amalek in the wilderness, when Moses held up his hands, and Aaron and Hur propped them up. He might pray for them; he could do no more.

By this time Absalom had probably obtained the great object of his ambition; he had mustered Israel from Dan to Beersheba, and found himself at the head of an array very magnificent in appearance, but, like most Oriental gatherings of the kind, somewhat unwieldy and unworkable. This great conglomeration was now in the immediate neighbourhood of Mahanaim, and must have seemed as if by sheer weight of material it would crush any force that could be brought against it. We read that the battle took place "in the wood of Ephraim." This could not be a wood in the tribe of Ephraim, for that was on the other side of Jordan, but a wood in Gilead, that for some reason unknown to us had been called by that name. The whole region is still richly wooded, and among its prominent trees is one268 called the prickly oak. A dense wood would obviously be unsuitable for battle, but a wooded district, with clumps here and there, especially on the hill-sides, and occasional trees and brushwood scattered over the plains, would present many advantages to a smaller force opposing the onset of a larger. In the American war of 1755 some of the best troops of England were nearly annihilated in a wood near Pittsburg in Pennsylvania, the Indians levelling their rifles unseen from behind the trees, and discharging them with yells that were even more terrible than their weapons. We may fancy the three battalions of David making a vigorous onslaught on Absalom's troops as they advanced into the wooded country, and when they began to retreat through the woods, and got entangled in brushwood, or jammed together by thickset trees, discharging arrows at them, or falling on them with the sword, with most disastrous effect. "There was a great slaughter that day of twenty thousand men. For the battle there was scattered over the face of all the country, and the wood devoured more people that day than the sword devoured." Many of David's men were probably natives of the country, and in their many encounters with the neighbouring nations had become familiar with the warfare of "the bush." Here was one benefit of the choice of Mahanaim by David as his rallying-ground. The people that joined him from that quarter knew the ground, and knew how to adapt it to fighting purposes; the most of Absalom's forces had been accustomed to the bare wadies and limestone rocks of Western Palestine, and, when caught in the thickets, could neither use their weapons nor save themselves by flight.

Very touching, if not very business-like, had been269 David's instructions to his generals about Absalom: "The king commanded Joab and Abishai and Ittai saying, Deal gently for my sake with the young man, even with Absalom. And all the people heard when the king gave all the captains charge concerning Absalom." It is interesting to observe that David fully expects to win. There is no hint of any alternative, as if Absalom would not fall into their hands. David knows that he is going to conquer, as well as he knew it when he went against the giant. The confidence which is breathed in the third Psalm is apparent here. Faith saw his enemies already defeated. "Thou hast smitten all mine enemies upon the cheekbone; Thou hast broken the teeth of the ungodly. Salvation belongeth unto the Lord; Thy blessing is upon Thy people." In a pitched battle, God could not give success to a godless crew, whose whole enterprise was undertaken to drive God's anointed one from his throne. Temporary and partial successes they might have, but final success it was morally impossible for God to accord. It was not the spirit of his own troops, nor the undisciplined condition of the opposing host, that inspired this confidence, but the knowledge that there was a God in Israel, who would not suffer His anointed to perish, nor the impious usurper to triumph over him.

We cannot tell whether Absalom was visited with any misgivings as to the result before the battle began. Very probably he was not. Having no faith in God, he would make no account whatever of what David regarded as the Divine palladium of his cause. But if he entered on the battle confident of success, his anguish is not to be conceived when he saw his troops yield to panic, and, in wild disorder, try to dash through270 the wood. Dreadful miseries must have overwhelmed him. He does not appear to have made any attempt to rally his troops. Riding on a mule, in his haste to escape, he probably plunged into some thick part of the wood, where his head came in contact with a mass of prickly oak; struggling to make a way through it, he only entangled his hair more hopelessly in the thicket; then, raising himself in the saddle to attack it with his hands, his mule went from under him, and left him hanging between heaven and earth, maddened by pain, enraged at the absurdity of his plight, and storming against his attendants, none of whom was near him in his time of need. Nor was this the worst of it. Absalom was probably among the foremost of the fugitives, and we can hardly suppose but that many of his own people fled that way after him. Could it be that all of them were so eager to escape that not one of them would stop to help their king? What a contrast the condition of Absalom when fortune turned against him to that of his father! Dark though David's trials had been, and seemingly desperate his position, he had not been left alone in its sudden horrors; the devotion of strangers, as well as the fidelity of a few attached friends, had cheered him, and had the worst disaster befallen him, had his troops been routed and his cause ruined, there were warm and bold hearts that would not have deserted him in his extremity, that would have formed a wall around him, and with their lives defended his grey hairs. But when the hour of calamity came to Absalom it found him alone. Even Saul had his armour-bearer at his side when he fled over Gilboa; but neither armour-bearer nor friend attended Absalom as he fled from the battle of the wood of Ephraim. It would have271 been well for him if he had really gained a few of the many hearts he stole. Much though moralists tell us of the heartlessness of the world in the hour of adversity, we should not have expected to light on so extreme a case of it. We can hardly withhold a tear at the sight of the unhappy youth, an hour ago with thousands eager to obey him, and a throne before him, apparently secure from danger; now hanging helpless between earth and heaven, with no companion but an evil conscience, and no prospect but the judgment of an offended God.

A recent writer, in his "History of the English People" (Green), when narrating the fall of Cardinal Wolsey, powerfully describes the way of Providence in suffering a career of unexampled wickedness and ambition to go on from one degree of prosperity to another, till the moment of doom arrives, when all is shattered by a single blow. There was long delay, but "the hour of reckoning at length arrived. Slowly the hand had crawled along the dial-plate, slowly as if the event would never come; and wrong was heaped on wrong, and oppression cried, and it seemed as if no ear had heard its voice, till the measure of the wickedness was at length fulfilled. The finger touched the hour; and as the strokes of the great hammer rang out above the nation, in an instant the whole fabric of iniquity was shivered to ruins."

This hour had now come to Absalom. He had often been reproved, but had hardened his heart, and was now to be destroyed, and that without remedy. In the person of Joab, God found a fitting instrument for carrying His purpose into effect. The character of Joab is something of a riddle. We cannot say that he was altogether a bad man, or altogether without the272 fear of God. Though David bitterly complained of him in some things, he must have valued him on the whole, for during the whole of his reign Joab had been his principal general. That he wanted all tenderness of heart seems very plain. That he was subject to vehement and uncontrollable impulses, in the heat of which fearful deeds of blood were done by him, but done in what seemed to him the interest of the public, is also clear. There is no evidence that he was habitually savage or grossly selfish. When David charged him and the other generals to deal tenderly with the young man Absalom, it is quite possible that he was minded to do so. But in the excitement of the battle, that uncontrollable impulse seized him which urged him to the slaughter of Amasa and Abner. The chance of executing judgment on the arch-rebel who had caused all this misery, and been guilty of crimes never before heard of in Israel, and thus ending for ever an insurrection that might have dragged its slow length along for harassing years to come, was too much for him. "How could you see Absalom hanging in an oak and not put an end to his mischievous life?" he asks the man that tells him he had seen him in that plight. And he has no patience with the man's elaborate apology. Seizing three darts, he rushes to the place, and thrusts them through Absalom's heart. And his ten armour-bearers finish the business with their swords. We need not suppose that he was altogether indifferent to the feelings of David; but he may have been seized by an overwhelming conviction that Absalom's death was the only effectual way of ending this most guilty and pernicious insurrection, and so preserving the country from ruin. Absalom living, whether banished or imprisoned, would be a constant and fearful danger. Absalom dead,273 great though the king's distress for the time might be, would be the very salvation of the country. Under the influence of this conviction he thrust the three darts through his heart, and he allowed his attendants to hew that comely body to pieces, till the fair form that all had admired so much became a mere mass of hacked and bleeding flesh. But whatever may have been the process by which Joab found himself constrained to disregard the king's order respecting Absalom, it is plain that to his dying day David never forgave him.

The mode of Absalom's death, and also the mode of his burial, were very significant. It had probably never happened to any warrior, or to any prince, to die from a similar cause. And but for the vanity that made him think so much of his bodily appearance, and especially of his hair, death would never have come to him in such a form. Vanity of one's personal appearance is indeed a weakness rather than a crime. It would be somewhat hard to punish it directly, but it is just the right way of treating it, to make it punish itself. And so it was in the case of Absalom. His bitterest enemy could have desired nothing more ludicrously tragical than to see those beautiful locks fastening him as with a chain of gold to the arm of the scaffold, and leaving him dangling there like the most abject malefactor. And what of the beautiful face and handsome figure that often, doubtless, led his admirers to pronounce him every inch a king? So slashed and mutilated under the swords of Joab's ten men, that no one could have told that it was Absalom that lay there. This was God's judgment on the young man's vanity.

The mode of his burial is particularly specified. "They took Absalom and cast him into a great pit in274 the wood, and laid a very great heap of stones upon him; and all Israel fled every one to his tent." The purpose of this seems to have been to show that Absalom was deemed worthy of the punishment of the rebellious son, as appointed by Moses; and a more significant expression of opinion could not have been given. The punishment for the son who remained incorrigibly rebellious was to be taken beyond the walls of the city, and stoned to death. It is said by Jewish writers that this punishment was never actually inflicted, but the mode of Absalom's burial was fitted to show that he at least was counted as deserving of it. The ignominious treatment of that graceful body, which he adorned and set off with such care, did not cease even after it was gashed by the weapons of the young men; no place was found for it in the venerable cave of Machpelah; it was not even laid in the family sepulchre at Jerusalem, but cast ignominiously into a pit in the wood; it was bruised and pounded by stones, and left to rot there, like the memory of its possessor, and entail eternal infamy on the place. What a lesson to all who disown the authority of parents! What a warning to all who cast away the cords of self-restraint! It is said by Jewish writers that every by-passer was accustomed to throw a stone on the heap that covered the remains of Absalom, and as he threw it to say, "Cursed be the memory of rebellious Absalom; and cursed for ever be all wicked children that rise up in rebellion against their parents!"

And here it may be well to say a word to children. You all see the lesson that is taught by the doom of Absalom, and you all feel that in that doom, terrible though it was, he just reaped what he had sowed. You see the seed of his offence, disobedience to parents,275 bringing forth the most hideous fruit, and receiving in God's providence a most frightful punishment. You see it without excuse and without palliation; for David had been a kind father, and had treated Absalom better than he deserved. Mark, then, that this is the final fruit of that spirit of disobedience to parents which often begins with very little offences. These little offences are big enough to show that you prefer your own will to the will of your parents. If you had a just and true respect for their authority, you would guard against little transgressions—you would make conscience of obeying in all things great and small. Then remember that every evil habit must have a beginning, and very often it is a small beginning. By imperceptible stages it may grow and grow, till it becomes a hideous vice, like this rebellion of Absalom. Nip it in the bud; if you don't, who can tell whether it may not grow to something terrible, and at last brand you with the brand of Absalom?

If this be the lesson to children from the doom of Absalom, the lesson to parents is not less manifest from the case of David. The early battle between the child's will and the parent's is often very difficult and trying; but God is on the parent's side, and will give him the victory if he seeks it aright. It certainly needs great vigilance, wisdom, patience, firmness, and affection. If you are careless and unwatchful, the child's will will speedily assert itself. If you are foolish, and carry discipline too far, if you thwart the child at every point, instead of insisting on one thing, or perhaps a few things, at a time, you will weary him and weary yourself without success. If you are fitful, insisting at one time and taking no heed at another, you will convey the impression of a very elastic law,276 not entitled to much respect. If you lose your temper, and speak unadvisedly, instead of mildly and lovingly, you will most effectually set the child's temper up against the very thing you wish him to do. If you forget that you are not independent agents, but have got the care of your beloved child from God, and ought to bring him up as in God's stead, and in the most humble and careful dependence on God's grace, you may look for blunder upon blunder in sad succession, with results in the end that will greatly disappoint you. How close every Christian needs to lie to God in the exercise of this sacred trust! And how much, when conscious of weakness and fearing the consequences, ought he to prize the promise—"My grace is sufficient for thee!"

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