Great Texts of the Bible
An Exceeding Bitter Cry
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 I would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!—2 Samuel 18:33.
1. The story of Absalom’s rebellion is one of the most exciting dramas in the Bible, and one of the guiltiest and saddest tragedies in human history. It is given to us in some of the most powerful word-pictures that have ever been painted. Clear, strong, and lifelike do the leading figures stand out. Absalom, with his stately form and flowing hair, his pride and courage, his sleek beauty and the cruel, tiger heart beneath it; Joab, the grim soldier, the man of blood and iron, to whom tears are weakness and pity unknown, who crushes his enemies with as little mercy and compunction as he would trample on a snake; and David, seen here at his best, recoiling from the unfeeling instrument which he is compelled to use, hardly caring for the throne which he must win back at such a price of blood, weary of life’s ambitions and awful agonies, willing to resign even life itself if he might win back an erring child, and falling down broken-hearted in his lonely chamber while all Jerusalem is ringing with wild rejoicings over his victory. Is there a scene in human story more pathetic? Throne and people, rebel and traitor, battle and trumpet, all are forgotten in the father’s pity for his boy. “O Absalom, my son, my son!”
2. So David mourned for Absalom, and somehow none of us wish to find fault with him. Is that because it happened so very long ago and matters nothing to us? For men found fault with David at the time; at least Joab did, and very sensibly too, for the people were as dejected as if they were a beaten army stealing home after battle, and yet this Absalom for whom the king made such a lamentation was one (says Joab) who, had he won, would now have been massacring the king’s sons and daughters and wives and loyal servants. And what a life, too, he had led all along! First he had murdered his own brother under the pledge of hospitality (no doubt in vengeance for a bitter wrong); he had turned traitor to his own father, and that by advantage of that father’s forgiveness. Now he was dead, and the world well rid of him, and honest folk might have their own again and sleep in peace. What folly to bemoan such an one; what weak, and, in a king, what culpable indulgence in the luxury of idle grief! But somehow we to-day forgive David for it, or if we think Joab’s remonstrance sensible, we forgive at any rate that first outburst in the chamber over the gate. Yet what was Absalom to deserve it? For in truth there is only one good thing we can discover to say of Absalom: and that one good thing we learn from David’s outburst. It is that once he had had David’s love, and such a love as could cry,” Would God I had died for thee.”
3. The dead son’s faults are all forgotten and obliterated by death’s “effacing fingers.” The headstrong, thankless rebel is, in David’s mind, a child again, and the happy old days of his innocence and love are all that remain in memory. The prodigal is still a son. The father’s love is immortal and cannot be turned away by any faults. The father is willing to die for the disobedient child. Such purity and depth of affection lives in human hearts. So self-forgetting and incapable of being provoked is an earthly father’s love. May we not see in this disclosure of David’s paternal love, stripping it of its faults and excesses, some dim shadow of the greater love of God for His prodigals—a love which cannot be dammed back or turned away by any sin, and which has found a way to fulfil David’s impossible wish, in that it has given Jesus Christ to die for His rebellious children, and so made them sharers of His own Kingdom?
Is it so far from thee
Thou canst no longer see,
In the Chamber over the Gate,
That old man desolate,
Weeping and wailing sore,
For his son, who is no more?
O Absalom, my son!
Is it so long ago
That cry of human woe
From the walled city came
Calling on his dear name,
That it has died away
In the distance of to-day?
O Absalom, my son!
There is no far or near,
There is neither there nor here,
There is neither soon nor late,
In that Chamber over the Gate,
Nor any long ago
To that cry of human woe,
O Absalom, my son!
For the ages that are past
The voice sounds like a blast
Over seas that wreck and drown,
Over tumult of traffic and town;
And from ages yet to be
Come the echoes back to me,
O Absalom, my son!
Somewhere at every hour
The watchman on the tower
Looks forth, and sees the fleet
Approach of the hurrying feet
Of messengers, that bear
The tidings of despair.
O Absalom, my son!
He goes forth from the door,
Who shall return no more.
With him our joy departs;
The light goes out in our hearts;
In the Chamber over the Gate
We sit disconsolate.
O Absalom, my son!
That ’tis a common grief
Bringeth but slight relief;
Ours is the bitterest loss,
Ours is the heaviest cross;
And for ever the cry will be
“Would God I had died for thee,
O Absalom, my son!”1 [Note: Longfellow.]
In David’s cry of anguish there was the torture of self-accusation. The sting of death is sin. The sting of that death to David was Absalom’s sin, and alas! his own sin too. If we recall the things which had happened in David’s life years before, we shall have no doubt that the remembrance of his own misdoings testified against him now, and that he saw in that tragedy, in part at least, the harvest for which he had done the sowing. Nathan the prophet had come to him in the hour of his transgression and predicted almost this very thing, that the sword would never depart from his house, and that out of his own household would come his torturing cross and shame. How could it be otherwise? He had violated the domestic sanctities, taken another man’s wife, and sent that man to his death. With the coming of Bathsheba there came into his home strife, hatred, and division. It is a terrible picture of family life; perpetual quarrels, and sometimes bloodshed. It is the old story of favouritism and jealousy. Bathsheba’s child, Solomon, was the favoured one, and seemed likely to be chosen David’s successor. Absalom plunged into rebellion, not merely through ambition, but because he feared that the succession was slipping away from him. We can see the whole plot working itself out. We can see the whole household rioting in sin, and David had no power to stop it. His hand was paralysed, for had not he himself been the first and chief transgressor? He had sowed the wind and now the whirlwind was upon him. And he knew and felt it when he cried, “O Absalom, my son! would God I had died for thee!”
“Good-bye,” I said, to my conscience—
“Good-bye for aye and aye,”
And I put her hands off harshly,
And turned my face away;
And conscience, smitten sorely,
Returned not from that day.
But a time came when my spirit
Grew weary of its pace;
And I cried: “Come back, my conscience,
I long to see thy face.”
But conscience cried, “I cannot,
Remorse sits in my place.”1 [Note: W. H. Birckhead.]
“The inconceivable evil of sensuality” was surely never more awfully burned in upon any sinful house than it was upon David’s house. David himself is a towering warning to all men, and especially to all godly men, against this master abomination. And he is so all the more that he sinned so terribly against such singular grace. David, to use his own words, was as white as snow as long as he was young, and poor, and struggling up, and oppressed and persecuted, and with Samuel’s horn of oil still sanctifying all the thoughts and all the imaginations of his heart. But no sooner had David sat down on the throne of Israel than his life of sin and shame began. And all the woe upon woe of his after-life, almost every single deadly drop of it, came down out of that day when he first introduced open and unblushing sensuality into his palace in Jerusalem. There was military success, and extended empire, and great wealth, and great and far-sounding glory in David’s day in Israel; but beneath it all the whole ground was mined and filled to the lip with gunpowder, and the Divine tinder all the time was surely burning its way to the Divine vengeance on David’s house. Our doctors, our lawyers, our ministers, and many of ourselves, will all subscribe to Newman’s strong words in one of his sermons—“The inconceivable evil of sensuality.”2 [Note: Alexander Whyte.]
I cannot help recalling the life of James Stirling, well-known as the first temperance missionary in Scotland. James was a drunkard up to his sixtieth year; but then he was, through the abstinence movement, rescued from his danger and “plucked as a brand out of the fire.” Out of gratitude for his deliverance, he gave himself for the next twenty years of his life to the advocacy of the temperance cause, travelling over the length and breadth of Scotland, helping to save men from the curse of strong drink. On one of those journeys, when he arrived at Aberdeen, he met with one of his sons, who, taking after his father’s early example, had become a drunkard, and was at that time a soldier. The two had a long and interesting talk in the evening, and old James thought the youth was doing better. But in the morning he was sent for in great haste; and, hurrying to the place, wondering much what the message meant, he was shown the body of his son, who had committed suicide during the night. Who may describe the anguish of that father’s heart as David’s wail was wrung out of him, while he appended this of his own: “Had I been a sober man all my life, this might never have occurred.”1 [Note: W. M. Taylor.]
Sensuality is a prolific cause of suicide. Impurity leads to melancholy, melancholy to despair, and despair to suicide. It is not only the woman who grows weary of breath and plunges into the swift flowing river. When young men from home fall into the ways of sin, they become callous and indifferent to the claims of affection. The brief, infrequent letter home finally ceases altogether. A young man was found drowned in the Clyde, and the newspapers said he was unknown. Within three days two hundred letters came from two hundred mothers asking for a description of the drowned youth. What a terribly suggestive fact is this, all too eloquent of wayward sons and aching hearts.2 [Note: D. Watson, The Heritage of Youth, 89.]
Of all the hours of agony in David’s life—of all hours of merely human agony in the history of the Bible—that was, beyond all doubt, the darkest. First, in the loud bitter cry, as he rushed from the awestruck crowd of soldiers and messengers and the townsmen of Mahanaim, then from that chamber of sorrow over the gateway, in the long protracted wailing of a broken heart did that agony find vent—“O my son, Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! would God I had died for thee; O Absalom, my son, my son!” Terrible was it to think that this was the end of that bright morning of beauty and joy in which his heart had exulted; more terrible still to feel that his own sins had wrought out that fearful retribution. Had his own life been purer, that son might have been free from the guilt of incest; had he done his duty as a father and a king, punishing at the right time, forgiving at the right time, all might still have been well. And now all was over. The doom of that great woe was irreparable. Of him also it was true, within the limits of man’s vision, that “he found no place for repentance, though he sought it carefully with tears.” And yet, not the less may we believe that, in that hour of shattered hopes, and agony beyond words, when there seemed to have fallen on him the horror of great darkness, the life of David, all unconscious as he was of it, was passing through the refiner’s fire, and becoming purer and brighter than it had ever been in the days of his most glowing victories, or the moments of his most ecstatic adoration. The darkest of all human sorrows brings him into contact with that which is superhuman.
Good Lord, to-day
I scarce find breath to say:
Scourge, but receive me.
For stripes are hard to bear, but worse
Thy intolerable curse;
So do not leave me.
Good Lord, lean down
In pity, tho’ Thou frown;
Smite, but retrieve me:
For so Thou hold me up to stand
And kiss Thy smiting hand,
It less will grieve me.1 [Note: C. G. Rossetti.]
We may take David’s sorrow for Absalom as a type or human picture of the Divine Fatherhood and of its unlimited forgiveness. And, again, we may take David’s cry, “Would God I had died for thee!” as a type or forecast of the atoning act of Christ.
1. The Fatherhood of God.—David is called the man after God’s own heart, and that word staggers us when we remember some of his doings. But the word does not come amiss here. We feel that it is true in such scenes as this. Kneeling in his chamber and uttering that impassioned cry of pity, burning love, and forgiveness, we can see indeed something of God’s own heart. In this great tribulation he is as one washed and made white, and his face is like the tearful Christ’s, Godlike. His love for this guilty hard-hearted son was passing strange; it was almost more than human. It was a love which gave a kiss for every blow, turned a forgiving face to every insult and stripe, and prayed for the criminal who was crucifying it. Through all the suffering and shame which Absalom’s revolt had brought upon him, through all the infamous treachery, he clung with fond affection to the boy, the man who was still his child in spite of all. Ugly in his cruelty, hateful in his falsehood, he was still beautiful in his father’s eyes. He had done every mean and dastardly thing, schemed and conspired like a very devil against his father, driven him from his house, robbed him of his friends, sought his life and would have trampled with fury on his corpse. Yet through all this, David’s one thought was to woo and win back his boy, to restore him to the old place, to heap forgiveness on his crimes and cover them all with great waters of love as the sea hides its secrets and its dead.
All this is what we rightly call Divine. It is a broken light of God. It is the image of His Fatherhood. All worthy fathers and mothers have something of it. What wrongs can entirely alienate and destroy a father’s love? What insults can turn a mother obstinately against her child? What shame resting on our children’s faces can make us hide our faces from theirs? From what wanderings would we not fetch them back? Into what pit would we not descend to bring them up and wash them clean? What iniquities would repel us if they returned with tears of penitence and asked us to take them into our arms again? And when do we ever cease hoping and striving to redeem them when they have fallen? Death itself can hardly stop us praying for them, though they have died in very sin.
Such a one is dead, gone (as we say) to his last account: it is a bad record which closes, a life vicious, reckless, false: the world sighs with relief to be well rid of him: the Joabs have struck their spears into him as he hung in calamity’s grip, and the multitude have cast each man his opprobrious stone to build up the monument of infamy over that disastrous life. But meanwhile the news of that shameful ending has been borne to the towers of Heaven. Is it relief, is it exultation, is it opprobrium that greets it there? I think not. Rather I think it is a Father, a Divine Father, mourning in His high place with a sorrow larger than the sorrow of man, over His son. True, He knows (for is He not Divine?), He knows better even than Joab and the multitude how bad a son this child has been; He knows his follies, perversities, rebellions, treacheries, violences—who so well as He? But it is something over which that infinite compassion, that unconquerable love, bends in sorrow. That Father is mourning not the fool, the rebel, the profligate, but the son whom He knew before these evil days: the child of His desires, His hopes; the man who might have been, who was not, and now can never be. In that chamber over the gate of Heaven there sits a Presence which we image often to ourselves as the just, unyielding Judge, impassively dealing out man’s due. But if there be joy among the angels over one sinner that repenteth, shall there not be sorrow among them for one sinner lost to repentance? And shall not the Lord of the Angels sorrow the most over the child whom He brought into the world, whom He made a living soul and on its birthday looked on it in love, and behold, then and there and thus at least, and as its Father had made it to be, behold, it was very good?1 [Note: J. H. Skrine.]
The Jewish Rabbis of a later time, in their strange legendary way, showed some sympathy with the yearnings of the father’s heart. For each time that the words “my son” came from the lips of David, one of the seven gates of Gehenna (so they fabled) rolled back, and with the last the spirit of Absalom passed into the peace of Paradise.2 [Note: Bartolocci, Biblioth. Rabbinica, ii. 128–162.] Augustine, on the contrary, here, as too often elsewhere, placing himself on the judgment-seat of God, passes sentence of condemnation, chiefly, it might almost seem, because he saw in Absalom’s guilt a parallel to the rebellion of the Donatists against the Catholic Church, and read their doom in his doom.
Explorers opened an Egyptian tomb, a tomb shut hard and fast by the iron silence of three thousand years. There stood an exquisitely carved sarcophagus of a little child, and over it this inscription: “Oh, my life, my love, my little one! Would God I had died for thee!” Instinctively the men uncovered their heads, and with dim eyes stepped silently out into the light. They replaced and sealed the portal, and left love and death to their eternal vigil. How old is love? Old as the human heart, old as God.1 [Note: J. H. Ecob.]
2. The Atonement of Christ.—Again, and in the truest and deepest sense, the life of David is a type of a higher life, his agony a foreshadowing of the agony of Gethsemane. That passionate cry, “Would God I had died for thee—died in thy stead, delivering, redeeming thee”; that wonderful union of a father’s righteous hatred of the evil, with a yearning, ever-deepening love for the poor wayward doer of the evil, were leading him through that living experience by which, and perhaps by which alone, the mystery of Atonement ceases to be a dogma of the Schools and becomes the most precious of all realities. So it had been before with Moses, when he cried in his intercession, “Blot me, I pray thee, out of thy book which thou hast written” (Exodus 32:32). So it was afterwards with St. Paul, when he wrote in his great heaviness, “I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh” (Romans 9:3). That craving of man’s spirit, when it is most after the likeness of Christ, to sacrifice its own peace, life, blessedness for the sake of others, helps us to understand, vain and fruitless as it may often seem to be (he who makes the sacrifice himself needing pardon), the perfect sacrifice of the Sinless One. “With men it is impossible, but not with God.” What kings and prophets desired to do and could not, that the Son of God did, taking away sin by the sacrifice of Himself.
I must tell you of a touching (and it struck me peculiarly Northumbrian) saying I heard the other day from a poor old woman who wished her paralytic husband to be allowed a seat near the pulpit on the Communion Sunday, as he is deaf and does not go to church, and is, indeed, a Deist (very common in Blandford), but she thought seeing the tables covered might do him good. “For eh!” she said in a faltering voice, almost in tears, “it is a lovely sight.” Poor body, I could have cried myself to think of all she has probably passed through for that man, praying, as she said, night and morning for him, and he now old and almost out of hail with his infirmities.2 [Note: Marcus Dods, in Early Letters of Marcus Dods, 111.]
By Thy long-drawn anguish to atone,
Jesus Christ, show mercy on Thine own:
Jesus Christ, show mercy and atone
Not for other sake except Thine own.
Thou who thirsting on the Cross didst see
All mankind and all I love and me,
Still from Heaven look down in love and see
All mankind and all I love and me.1 [Note: C. G. Rossetti.]
Belfrage (N.), Sacramental Addresses, 28.
Bosanquet (C.), The Man after God’s Own Heart, 364.
Greenhough (J. G.), Half-Hours in God’s Older Picture Gallery, 115.
Maclaren (A.), Expositions: 2 Samuel and Kings, 106.
Oosterzee (J. J. van), The Year of Salvation, ii. 465.
Pentecost (G. F.), Bible Studies: Mark and Jewish History, 345.
Skrine (J. H.), The Heart’s Counsel, 134.
Taylor (W. M.), David, King of Israel, 249.
British Weekly Pulpit, ii. 319.
Churchman’s Pulpit: Sixth Sunday after Trinity, x. 370 (Clark).
Homiletic Review, xxxi. 479.