A Sermonic Reflection
The last big story about King David helps us understand
… why some people see a different God than we do.
… and how the future of the church may depend on
our making one important choice.
Near the end of King David’s life, his son Absalom incites a rebellion designed to depose his father and assume the crown of his kingdom. Below is a condensed version of the end of his rebellion, marked by Absalom’s death, from 2 Samuel 18:
[King David] ordered Joab and [the other two generals], “Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.” And all the people heard when the king gave orders to the commanders concerning Absalom.
So the army went out into the field against Israel; and the battle was fought in the forest. …
Absalom happened to encounter the servants of David. Absalom was riding on his mule, and the mule went under the thick branches of a great oak. His head caught fast in the oak, and he was left hanging between heaven and earth, while the mule that was under him went on. A soldier saw it, and told Joab, “I saw Absalom hanging in an oak.”
Joab said, “What, you saw him! Why then did you not strike him there to the ground? I would have been glad to give you ten pieces of silver and a belt.”
But the soldier said to Joab, “Even if I felt in my hand the weight of a thousand pieces of silver, I would not raise my hand against the king’s son; for in our hearing the king commanded you and the others: ‘For my sake protect the young man Absalom!’ On the other hand, if I had dealt treacherously against his life … then you yourself would have stood aloof.”
Joab said, “I will not waste my time like this with you.” He took three spears in his hand, and [went and] thrust them into the heart of Absalom, while he was still alive in the oak. And ten young men, Joab’s armor-bearers,[all] surrounded Absalom and struck him, and killed him. … They took Absalom, threw him into a great pit in the forest, and raised over him a very great heap of stones. Meanwhile all the Israelites fled ….
Later [a messenger] ran [to the palace] and said, “Good tidings for my lord the king! For the Lord has vindicated you this day, delivering you from the power of all who rose up against you.”
The king said to the [messenger], “Is it well with the young man Absalom?” The [messenger] answered, “May the enemies of my lord the king, and all who rise up to do you harm, be like that young man.”
The king was in anguish, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept; and as he went, he said, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!” (2 Samuel 18:5-6, 9-17, 31-33)
King David is someone that many of us learned about and thrilled to as children. I can remember hearing about the young boy chosen king instead of his strong older brothers. Because I had an older brother who intimidated me physically and verbally, I loved the outcome of this text.
David’s story tells about a young adolescent who nurtures dreams of greatness while still assigned to boring shepherding duties. It tells about the pipsqueak of the brothers who amuses the soldiers of Israel before toppling the terrifying Goliath with a stone. We admire the young adult who commands armies, writes songs, composes heavenly music, and wins the admiration of women and men alike.
But as David matures, we remember how his life takes a terrible turn. His hubris leads him to assault a younger woman, Bathsheba, and to arrange the murder of her husband to cover up the consequences. He is confronted and condemned by the “court chaplain” Nathan, and David confesses his sin. Even though his repentance is deeply sincere, his kingdom goes downhill from there. His child with Bathsheba dies, and a general melancholy sets over him. David’s general has to provoke him to action, and when his son Amnon attacks and rapes his half-sister, David can’t bestir himself to punish him. (Perhaps Amnon’s transgression is too much like David’s.) Years of inaction go by. David is not “kinging.” The kingdom seems adrift.
If we let David’s story fade away at this point, as most of tend to do, we risk overlooking perhaps the most critical period in David’s life: the rebellion of his son Absalom against him and his kingship.
Consider the amount of space given to these episodes. The stories of his anointing, his confrontation with Goliath, his early court years, and the story of Uriah and Bathsheba all together comprise a little more than sixty verses. But the Absalom narrative itself, from the onset of Absalom’s anger to David’s return as unchallenged king, comprises six long chapters, roughly 200 verses.
It’s perhaps the major story in David’s life.
Among other things, this saga invites us to reflect not only on David’s nature but also the very nature of God. In so doing, we learn more of what God wants from us in our relationships with God and with each other.
So let’s take a look at this momentous story.
David’s Unclear Command
Absalom is David’s third-born son. He is handsome, ambitious, devious and hot-tempered. When his older brother Amnon rapes their half-sister and David does nothing, his anger festers for years. Over a decade of frustration, ill-treatment from his father, exile and pretense combines to fuel Absalom’s determination to depose his father. By this reading the rebellion is in full swing and the decisive battle has arrived. David has to end it here and now. His officers and troops are ready. David convenes them and gives his three generals an ambiguous order:
“Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.”
David’s ambivalence, and therefore his dilemma, is summed up in this very phrase. “Deal gently.” The words carry different meanings and have different implications. Trouble sets in from the battle’s beginning.
The first word – Deal – is what David most needs politically. Absalom is a threat to nation of Israel. The state requires order and stability, so the head of state properly commands his security forces, “Fix this. Handle it. Deal with him.” David must know that if he gives this order to military leaders in wartime, he shouldn’t be surprised at what they will do to obey their king’s command.
A side note: Commands and directions in principle require three things:
- A goal
The goal answers the question What’s most important here? What’s at stake?
Consequences address What happens if I don’t meet that goal?
Methods answers the question What will you do to enforce my achieving the goal?
An example is the weekly assignment that many of us men had as adolescents: Mow the lawn.
- The goal is an attractive front lawn. We might debate the importance of that priority, but it usually wasn’t up for debate. We accepted that as a worthy goal and undertook the assignment.
- The consequences of not meeting the goal varied. In most households there were consequences, but they weren’t a clear “If you don’t mow the lawn, your punishment will be x.” The consequences were usually flexible and fit the situation.
- The methods used to reinforce the importance of a regularly mowed lawn might be a docked allowance, a short period of grounding, extra chores, or having to do it again at an inconvenient time. These were lighter methods than more serious infractions would require.
With that in mind, let’s return to David’s charge to his generals. The first word he speaks, “Deal,” implies these three dimensions:
- David’s goal is clear: the survival of his kingdom.
- The consequences were strict and uniform. There was no half-yes and half-no. It was a win-or-lose, life-or-death proposition.
- The methods were force and violence. Force and violence were both methods of achieving David’s goal and methods used against those who failed or refused to fight.
In a nutshell, DEAL simply meant “End the rebellion.” Dead or alive is secondary.
But the second word muddies the first, because “GENTLY” is what David most needs parentally. Absalom isn’t just any revolutionary, he’s David’s son, his own flesh-and-blood boy. His fatherly love of even his devious and adversarial child is so strong that it tempers and confuses his political need. Consider:
- What’s the goal of gently? The life & dignity of Absalom.
- The consequences of not doing gently? Certainly the unarticulated displeasure of the king. David didn’t announce consequences, but the protesting soldier makes clear to Joab that they knew David would be devastated and likely punitive if Absalom were not spared.
- The methods of gently? They are rarely violent, most often they are loving and compassionate. Absalom’s readiness to violence should not be returned in kind. The absurdity of promoting peace by violence here would be akin to spanking one’s child and saying, “I’ve told you not to hit your sister! Hitting is wrong.” “Gently” was not permission to kill.
In a nutshell, GENTLY meant “Keep my boy safe and bring him home to me.”
So the phrase “Deal gently” captures the dilemma of keeping both sides together. What exactly does David want? Is it even possible to obey him? In a sense, that’s what’s at stake in the story. Can David’s order be kept, and his kingdom and family both preserved, by those who love him deeply and serve him faithfully? How?
The Challenge of Balance
This “deal gently” phrase begins to invite us to reflect for ourselves. Can I be both firm and gentle? Can I “do what has to be done” and honor everyone’s dignity? How do I balance the challenges in life that call for both handling some crisis and being kind and loving at the same time?
Notice that Joab and his soldiers couldn’t balance that ambiguous order. Each side heard a different emphasis.
General Joab heard “Deal.” So when the unnamed soldier says, “I saw Absalom hanging in an oak,” Joab sputters, “You saw him! Why then didn’t you kill him?!” The soldier explains, but Joab barks, “I won’t waste my time like this!” He shoves him aside, hurries to Absalom’s dangling body and spears him three times. Joab’s armor guard is of the same mindset, and they join Joab in a killing frenzy, stabbing Absalom repeatedly. They dump his lifeless bloody body in a hole and cover it with stones.
That’s “Dealing With” Absalom!
The bulk of David’s soldiers, however, heard the second word. “Gently” is clearly in the soldier’s mind who defends himself to Joab in saying, “For no amount of money would I raise my hand against the king’s son!” He adds, in essence, “We all heard what David said to you: ‘Protect the young man Absalom!’” The unnamed soldier chose Gently and refused to kill the king’s son.
But clearly, “Gently” loses. Absalom’s end is anything but gentle, which we see first-hand through the narrator. We hear it again in the final scene of the messenger’s report. Absalom has clearly been dealt with, but not gently.
David’s grief is raw and elemental. His words are often quoted as the most heart-wrenching in the Bible:
“O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”
Five times he calls him “my son,” three times by his name, “Absalom.” The final scene shows where David’s emphasis really was.
What’s God Got to Do With It?
I want to make an interpretive leap here. I want to leap beyond Joab, David and Absalom to explore some implications of seeing through these “Deal Gently” lenses. The two approaches that these words represent can help us clarify both who God is and how we act. Since who we believe God to be shapes the values we live by, clarifying the nature of God can cause us to make important changes to our behavior.
What is the impact of viewing God through these lenses?
The Lens of DEALING
Many people look at God primarily through the DEAL lens. They tend to be more conservative, let’s say, more Evangelical in their Christian outlook. Maybe our words need adjusting, but you’ll recognize the viewpoint. These Christians emphasize the God who deals with humankind, whose focus is to right the wrongs.
What might be the primary principle they elevate? I suggest it’s holiness. God’s nature is holiness. Scripture confirms that and urges us to imitate the nature of God: Be holy, as I am holy. (Leviticus 19:2; 21:8; 1 Peter 1:16) Our goal, then, is to be holy. To that end God gives us rules to follow, commandments to keep, decrees to obey, a Sinless One to imitate, and a Holy Spirit to help us.
What are consequences of not living a holy life? (We all, of course, fall short. Paul reminds us in Romans 3, None of us is righteous, no, not one.) The consequences of disobedience are exclusion and/or punishment. Holiness can’t embrace contamination and remain holy. Jesus tells a lot of stories of poorly behaved people whose destiny was either “the outer darkness, with weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth” – or the punishment of fire.
And God’s dealing with sin is absolutely consistent across the board. You can’t expect God to say, “That’s a little bit sinful, but that’s okay.” Anything and everything is either right or wrong. Rules are rules. Even if we have good intentions, we know where the proverbial road paved with good intentions leads. The consequences are not flexible.
What are the methods? As we noted, they are exclusion and punishment. Jesus is of critical importance because he deals with an offended God. He appeases God by making his life the blood sacrifice that pays the debt we never could. This is what theologians call the “satisfaction theory” of atonement. Only Jesus can balance the scales, so to speak, so that the wrath of God is quelled, and we may live in peace.
This is the general structure of people who believe that how God deals with disobedience is the heart of the Christian faith. They see God as heavily invested in obedience, holiness and punishment. And while this to me is sadly distorted, it’s not wholly untrue. God doesn’t just wink at everything that’s wrong. God doesn’t “have a personal agreement” with us to let our sins slip by. The rules, laws and commandments that God gives – and the Savior fulfills – are to shape our behavior to create a life that’s pleasing and fulfilling.
The Lens of GENTLY
There is of course another lens that can bring us into the presence of God, and that’s what we’ve been calling the GENTLY lens. I believe this is more typical of what we might call mainline Christianity today. These Christians emphasize the God who is loving and gentle, who demonstrates for us the gentle love of a parent, say, or a friend.
What goal or principle do we mainline Christians focus on? I suggest it’s love. God’s very nature is love, more important than holiness. How frequently we affirm, “God is love.” The key command is from Jesus himself: Love one another, as I have loved you. (John 13:34-35; also Romans 13:8; 1 Peter 1:22; 1 John 3:23; etc.) The conduct we are to emulate is not sinless obedience but loving kindness. Our goal is to be like Christ in love. We’re given the gift of the Holy Spirit to help us grow more loving.
What are consequences of not loving? It’s not punishment so much as pain – the pain of being less than human and treating others coldly and unfairly. When love is not at its fullest, we damage ourselves, our neighbors, even God’s creation itself. Lovelessness puts our deepest humanity at risk. God will work around us, and God can work through us despite our resistance, doing everything possible to awaken our souls to a life of love. In the interim, though, we hurt each other in multiple ways and to multiple degrees.
What is the method that these consequences entail? In a sense, it is … nothing. Rather than sending us to places of exclusion or punishment, the loving God who cannot reach us simply lets us be. We are left alone to suffer our own poor choices. (Psalm 81:12; Romans 1:24-28; Acts 7:42)
The importance of Jesus is in his eternal initiative to us and for us. He exemplifies the forgiveness of the prodigal son’s father. He lifts the condemnation of the woman caught in adultery. He widens the meaning of love to include strangers, outcasts, even enemies. He forgives the very ones nailing him to the cross. The triumph of his loving kindness comes in God’s raising him from the dead, proving that no power is greater than love.
I suggest that this is the general structure of people who believe that how God transforms us with love is the heart of the Christian faith. When the status quo is challenged, it could be God testing our obedience; more likely it may be the love of God actively widening our circle of love, confronting us with other people to love and treat justly.
The challenging truth to these two perspectives is that we have both faces of God in Scriptures. One is not right and the other wrong. We, like King David’s soldiers that crucial day, hear and struggle with the tall order of balancing them.
The Church Divides
To the extent that this much is right, it says to me that the roots of our denominational split are right here. In the issue of human sexuality and same-sex marriage, we’ve tilted to different sides; we’ve chosen opposite lenses; we’ve set our priorities differently. Neither side is un-Christian, despite accusations easily flung in frustration. But we’ve resolved the ambiguity, as David’s forces did, by hearing one command resonate more deeply in our ears than the other.
One side sees holiness as the issue. Their principle is that sinful behavior of homosexuals cannot be ignored or explained away; nor can the holiness of the church be “contaminated” by simultaneously condemning and embracing such behavior. The consequences are punishment or exclusion, and we have seen the methods. Clergy who defied the United Methodist Book of Discipline were brought up on charges and put on trial; if found guilty, their credentials were taken. As this process did not stop the rebellious bishops and clergy, plans to disassociate from the United Methodist Church were begun. Appeals to inclusion and unity were ignored.
This is the beginning and the foundation of the new Global Methodist Church.
The other side sees love as the primary issue. Jesus Christ, Love Incarnate, never condemned homosexual people or behavior. Their principle – our principle – is that all persons deserve to be treated lovingly, kindly and justly. The United Methodist Church does not find in this particular issue justification for excluding gay people from full participation in the church.
The General Conferences of the Church – the every-four-years global gatherings of United Methodists – have for years seen and heard the pain of people punished and excluded by the church. The time is now, and has been for years, for mainline Christians to accept the challenge to love God by loving people who differ from conventional heterosexuality. Grace surpasses punishment. Love surpasses holiness. Welcome trumps exclusion.
This is the foundation of United Methodist Church.
And while it may be simplistic – it is not untrue.
The Challenge of Imbalance
At the last, though, the difficulty in finding balance in “Deal” and “Gently” may be intentional. For David and for us, the two sides, the two lenses, are not equal to each other. God puts a metaphorical thumb on the scale and tips it a bit. God has a preference. God has a priority. And the foreshadowing of that priority is in the Absalom story itself.
The writer tells us that David says, “Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.” David speaks Hebrew, and the book is written in Hebrew, so what David commands is לאטלי לנערלאבשׁלום. Phonetically it is read lu-at Ab-So-LO-OM. Lu-AT means gently.
Notice that there is no word there for “deal.” David wants to remain king, but he says nothing about DEALING with Absalom that should confuse Joab. His command to General Joab is simply, “… with the young man Absalom … for my sake … gently.”
By the end it’s clear that LOVE is what drives David. LOVE for his son pushes forth his tears. David would have preferred to be a kingless father than a fatherless king. He unfortunately never made that clear to Joab – and maybe it wasn’t possible for a monarch to even consider such a thing, much less speak it.
But this much is clear. It was not David’s holiness or his sinlessness that made him a Biblical hero. His life story makes that clear. It was the priority David placed on love, love above all else, that made him “a man after God’s own heart.”
That’s good news for those of us weighed down by the responsibility of having to please God by being good. Do you have “Do the right thing” always whispering in your ear? Perfectionism is a heavy weight to carry, and sinlessness for us is impossible. But God doesn’t ask that. God simply wants our love and for us to love others. God is happy to lift that burden of perfectionism and give you instead “a burden that is light” – the opportunity to love.
Where is Satisfaction?
Fast forward now a thousand years. Early Palestine, generations later. Look! We can see another son of David hanging from a tree. This young man is also both condemned for being a rebel and loved for being a son. Some citizens label him “enemy” and a threat to Israel; others address him as “Savior” and see in him the kingdom of Israel as it ought to be.
But to both sides there he hangs now from wood, as did Absalom, literally suspended between heaven and earth. He too is vulnerable and exposed, and he is surrounded by soldiers. This Son of David is speared and killed, pulled down and dumped in a grave covered over with a rock. The soldiers, finished with that day’s killing, walk away.
In some theories of the atonement, where Jesus dies for our un-holiness, this event is called the “Satisfaction Theory.” But there’s clearly no satisfaction here at all. We’re told that in the Father’s cosmic grief, light fades. The skies turn dark. The Temple curtain is shred in half. Rocks split. Graves are shaken loose. The earth itself shudders, trembles and quakes. There is no satisfaction here.
Reliving this now, we can only remember and wait. We remember the Son’s words from his sacred days of preaching, “Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth.” We remember.
And we wait. We wait for word from the messengers, because we know that quickly they will arrive with the news that has brought tears of joy and freedom to millions worldwide:
“The Lord is risen! Alleluia!”