…A guilty man is less independent and less confident in making a stand in terms of his rightful authority and responsibility. —Rousas J. Rushdoony, Foundations of Social Order (1972)
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all. —William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 3, scene 1
A Story of Adultery and Murder
Almost everyone knows the story of David and Bathsheba, at least in its broad outlines. David, the man after God’s own heart, committed adultery with his friend’s wife, and then had that friend sacrificed on the battlefield (2 Sam. 11). When David was at last confronted with his sins, he repented. He wrote Psalm 51 to express his grief and revulsion at his sins.
There is more to the story, however—much more. The details are sordid, revolting, and violent. Listen: every sin has consequences. And when the sinner is king, a prophet, a shepherd to God’s people, and an image of Christ Himself, those consequences may be unimaginable in their depth and horror. Before we consider the consequences that overtook David, we should understand the nature of his sin more clearly.
One Ewe Lamb: Bathsheba
When David committed his crimes, he had already reigned as king of Israel for some twenty years; he was about fifty. Bathsheba was a much younger woman. Her grandfather, Ahithophel, was David’s senior advisor. She had grown up in and about the palace and married Uriah, another of David’s “mighty men.” David was her king and her hero. When David sent for her, she was undoubtedly overwhelmed and confused. David must have assured her that everything would be all right; that there was no evil in this, that he knew what he was doing, and that she should trust him.
Bathsheba was certainly responsible for her sin. But by far the greater fault lay with David. From the throne, he committed adultery and murder, both capital crimes. Worse, he used his role as the Lord’s anointed to seduce a young woman whom he should have guarded like a daughter. He defiled his office and gave Yahweh’s enemies “great occasion to blaspheme” (12:14). Nathan the prophet compared David’s sin against Bathsheba to killing and devouring one little ewe lamb owned by a poor neighbor (12:1-4).
The Consequences Begin
When Nathan pointed his finger in David’s face and said, “Thou art the man,” David immediately confessed his sins. God, in his mercy, waived the death penalty for David himself, but He still required restitution. Nathan told him, “The sword shall never depart from your house” (12:10). The baby Bathsheba had conceived died within a week. And it’s at this point that things really fall apart.
Within a short time, David’s oldest son, Amnon, raped his half-sister, Tamar. David got angry, but did nothing. Tamar had a brother, however, who wouldn’t let matters rest. His name was Absalom. He was David’s third son. He was handsome and charismatic and had a head of long, beautiful hair. Absalom bided his time for two years and then, at a carefully contrived feast, slew Amnon. Absalom fled to Geshur where his grandfather was king. He stayed there in exile for three years. “And David mourned for his son every day” (13:37). He mourned, but he did nothing else.
Joab, David’s general, decided to intervene. Through an elaborate charade, he provoked David to show mercy to his son (ch. 14). David agreed to recall Absalom to Jerusalem, but he refused to see him face to face. This exile at home wasn’t at all what Absalom wanted. He tried to get Joab to intercede further, but Joab wasn’t interested. Finally, Absalom burned down Joab’s barley field to get his attention. He got it. Joab agreed to intercede with David once more. He succeeded: David received his son with a kiss—but without further comment (14:33).
Absalom, however, had learned to despise his father. He had set his sites on the throne and on his father’s destruction. Absalom began a long-term program to undermine David’s authority. He positioned himself outside his father’s judgment hall. Any time a man from Israel came to present a case, Absalom would greet him courteously, draw him aside, and ask about his affairs. Once he had heard the details, Absalom would pronounce the man’s concerns good and just and would then bemoan the fact that there was no one deputed by the king to deal with such matters. “Oh, that I were made judge in the land!” he would say. Little by little, Absalom stole away the hearts of the men of Israel (15:6).
After a few years, Absalom was ready to move. He told David he needed to go to the Levitical city of Hebron to pay a vow he had made while he was in exile. This was the city where David had begun his reign. Once Absalom was there, he sent spies throughout Israel to ignite revolution when the signal came. Meanwhile, Absalom extended his conspiracy. He drew Ahithophel into its net. Apparently, Ahithophel had never forgiven David for his sin against his granddaughter and her husband. Ahithophel was a major catch. His counsel was always incredibly shrewd—“as if a man had enquired at the oracle of God” (16:23). With his supporters and preparations in place, Absalom blew the trumpet and announced his reign. Across Israel, his supporters echoed trumpet blast.
Word reached Jerusalem that Absalom had declared himself king and would shortly be on his way to Jerusalem. David was faced with a huge decision: Should he stay put and make Jerusalem his base for waging a defensive battle? Or should he flee the city to spare its people the destruction and desolation of war?
David chose to leave (ch. 15). He left behind ten of his concubines as household guardians, a decision he would later regret. David accepted the support of his Philistine bodyguard, the Cherethites and the Pelethites, but he rejected the priests’ plan to have the Ark of the Covenant accompany him into exile. He sent back his friend Hushai to infiltrate Absalom’s new cabinet, and he arranged that the priests and their sons would serve as a skeleton spy network on his behalf. And then David left Jerusalem behind and went into exile. David seemed to do some of his best work in exile and as a guerrilla fighter. It was a strategy he felt very comfortable with.
Absalom in Jerusalem
When Absalom entered Jerusalem, Hushai managed to ingratiate himself to the new king. Over Absalom’s suspicions, he said, “Nay; but whom the LORD, and this people, and all the men of Israel, choose, his will I be, and with him will I abide” (17:18). Absalom took Hushai’s words and piety to be as shallow as his own and inquired no further.
So far Absalom’s planning had been faultless. But now he stumbled. Absalom needed counsel. Ahithophel gave it. He told Absalom to pitch a tent atop the royal palace and violate his father’s concubines “in the sight of all Israel” (16:22). Then everyone would know that no reconciliation was possible. Next Ahithophel asked for 12,000 men so that he could immediately pursue David. He would perform a surgical strike and take out David. That would be that. The civil war would be over.
Hushai offered an alternate plan. Absalom should gather all Israel. He should lead the attack himself. He and his army should lay waste to any opposition. After all, David was no fool: he was already hidden in some pit. Ahithophel would never find him. And the soldiers with him were seasoned veterans, mighty men indeed. Absalom dare not risk a loss on what ought to be the first and last engagement.
Absalom and his supporters chose Hushai’s plan. It appealed to Absalom’s ego and bloodthirsty nature. Hushai immediately sent a warning through the priests to David, and David fled over Jordan. Ahithophel, on the other hand, went home and hanged himself. He knew that Absalom’s cause was doomed.
The End of Absalom
David divided command of his forces among three generals. Joab was one. David firmly ordered his generals to “show kindness” to Absalom (ch.18). When David’s armies met Absalom’s, the result was a rout: “the people of Israel were slain before the servants of David, and there was there a great slaughter that day of twenty thousand men” (18:7). But God didn’t leave the results to David’s warriors: “the wood devoured more people that day than the sword devoured” (v. 8).
Absalom himself was one of the victims of the trees. As he fled from David’s men, his mule carried him beneath the thick boughs of a great oak. One of the tree’s bough’s caught hold of his head and lifted him up into the air. The mule scurried away from beneath him. Word reached Joab. He found the hapless young man suspended in midair and thrust three war darts through his heart. He let his armor bearers finish the work. Then Joab blew a trumpet: the war was over.
When David learned of Absalom’s death, his heart broke.
And the king was much moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept: and as he went, thus he said, O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son! (18:33)
Some Observations on Guilt and Mercy
Sin is a terribly destructive thing. So is guilt. Even pardoned guilt can destroy the man who won’t embrace the pardon and live in terms of its requirements.
David’s sins of adultery and murder were reflected and magnified in the lives of his children. And though David saw the destruction unfolding, he never exerted himself to stop it. He never confronted his sons with either his spiritual or judicial authority. He never said, “This ends here!” He let his sons do as they pleased. Probably he was too ashamed of his own sins to face his children with boldness, honesty, and godly firmness. He couldn’t say, “Yes, I have done this wickedness, and you’re not going to.” It is hard to say. It’s easier to feel sorry for oneself and make excuses. It’s easier to blame the judgment and providence of God. But the consequences can be horrific.
David lost three sons: the baby, Amnon, and Absalom. He would lose one more before he went to his grave (1 Kings 1-2)—four sons, a four-fold restitution to the justice of God (cf. 2 Sam. 12:5-6). Beyond that, his virgin daughter was violated; so were his concubines, and that publicly. Tens of thousands died in the civil war, and the kingdom was torn in pieces. All this was worse than if God had sentenced David to death. All of this was the outworking of David’s sin.
It’s hard to find a ray of hope in this long and violent story. But there is one. When David sent back the Ark of the Covenant, he did something profound. He accepted exile from his heavenly Father for something that wasn’t his fault. He submitted to such an exile rather than take God’s presence away from His covenant people. And as he passed over the brook Kidron and looked back at Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, he foreshadowed even further another King who would accept that same sort of exile but on an unimaginably greater scale.
When David started acting like God’s chosen leader, everything began to turn around. But the turn was slow and not without its costs. In the end, peace, shalom, returned to Israel only when the king’s son hung on a tree suspended between heaven and earth. The gospel image is shocking and powerful, and the price David had paid to see it was incalculable. Sin has its consequences, and judgment always begins at the house of God (1 Pet. 4:17).