18 Death of Absalom

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“Then said Joab, I may not tarry thus with thee. And he took three darts in his hand, and thrust them through the heart of Absalom, while he was yet alive in the midst of the oak, and ten young men that bare Joab’s armour compassed about and smote Absalom, and slew him.”–2 SAM. xviii. 14, 15.

THE moment we have accepted the grand principle that David was the type of the Lord Jesus in his combats with, and victories over the powers of darkness, first in the universe in general as our Redeemer, and then in each soul as its Redeemer, we have received a principle fertile in the power of opening the Word of God. It may well be called the Key of David. The eldest son, Absalom, we then may see represents piety in the external man, the way in which religion first appears in a man, very beautiful, very attractive, and obedient for a time, but sometimes when religion stops at that, made in to an idol, and turning the hearts of the people from the Lord, His Word, and His government, as Absalom turned many of the Israelites against his king and father.

Worship is a beautiful thing. It springs from the veneration which is the offspring of love. It is universal. Men always have worshipped, and always will worship, The atheist is a self-worshipper, and he worships himself as devoutly and as constantly as the Christian worships Him in whom we live and move and have our being. To worship is the deference which a sense of weakness inspires for the Omnipotent who can help. Worship is adoration which gratitude for past mercies awakens and the utterance of loving trust for the future.

But worship always requires truth to guide it. Without truth, worship will attach itself to superstition and strange habits, which lead from heaven as much as they are supposed to lead to heaven.

To be without truth is to pass life in a dense fog. It is to make no progress; for nothing grows in the dark. Who can doubt that many nations continue in their darkness and their evils, because their consciences are benumbed by an imposing formulary, which they conceive to be satisfactory to God. They have a name that they live, and so they are satisfied. The bandit goes to church, and believes he has appeased God. The murderer makes up for his crimes by many prayers, and some gifts. Religiousness is an enemy to religion when it consists of reverence without enlightenment. They think they do God service by injuring His children. Persecutors are generally very religious in their way, but they are without truth and without charity. The stronghold of error and unspeakable mischiefs is the bigotry which is engendered by worship with no desire fur enlightenment. No obstinacy is so difficult to break through as that which arises from fanaticism, in which all old abuses are sustained under the notion of doing God service, as if God could possibly be pleased, by the rejection of that truth which is the brightness of His own nature; that truth which in its essence is Himself .

Worship combined with evil is thus designated in the Divine Word: “When ye come to appear before me, who hath required this at your hand, to tread my courts? Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination unto me : the new moons and sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot away with: IT IS INIQUITY THE SOLEMN MEETING.” It is strange that the worship of God can be made unpleasing to God, yet so it is. Never have atrocities been so awful as those which have been done in the name of God, and been sanctified by Te Deums. Many a carnival of villainy has been hallowed by religious ceremonies, as if anything could make a whited sepulchre other than abhorred in the sight of the All-Pure and All-Merciful One, who sees it full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness.

The Lord desires us to have mercy and truth, goodness and truth, integrity and truth, light and truth, worship and truth. Worship without these inner virtues is an opiate, which benumbs the conscience, the gilding of rotten wood, a Dead Sea apple, fair to look upon, but putrid at the core.

Such a state of formal religion, worshipping without light and love, is that represented by Absalom in his war against his father David, and in the chapter before us its character, condemnation, and overthrow are depicted.

The whole Jewish Church had become such an Absalom before the Lord’s coming into the world, and often it is addressed in language very similar to the tender expressions of David respecting Absalom. Thus we read, “Is EphraIm my dear son? is he a pleasant child? for since I spake against him, I do earnestly remember him still: therefore my bowels are troubled for him: I will surely have mercy upon him, saith the Lord” (Jer. xxxi. 20). “When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and called my son out of Egypt.” (Hos. xi. I).

Absalom with his host represents perverted worship as we have described, with all the ideas, sentiments, and arguments which support such a frame of mind, David represents the Lord in the soul, with supporting truths in abundance, especially such as relate to charity, faith, and good works. The army of David was divided into three parts, each under its appropriate leader.

The wood of Ephraim, where the conflict took place, was a few miles from the Jordan, in the district of Gad.

The battle which took place there represents the struggle in the mind between goodness and truth, on the one side; and evil and falsity on the other. The two hosts marshalled against each other, represent the opposing principles in full antagonism in the soul: mere barren ceremonials on the one side, and Divine Truth, sustaining charity, righteousness, and wisdom on the other. David having retired into the tribe of Gad, outside the Jordan represents Divine Truth resting upon the necessity of a good and virtuous life, both for earth and for heaven.

Gad being strictly out of the land of Canaan represents good work, or the life of love in the world. David’s being in the tribe of Gad represents to the mind the Divine Truth, saying, “All religion has relation to life, and the life of religion is to do good.” The wood of Ephraim represents all the perceptions of the natural mind in perfect harmony with the teachings of the Word, and all shewing the importance of religion to life, and of life to religion. Trees grow up from seeds, and they signify the perceptions of the mind which grow up from knowledge, by meditation and reflection. The interior perceptions respecting the grander principles of innocence, love, faith, and the inner states of the soul, are represented by the more valuable trees, the olive, the vine, the palm, and others. The plainer and commoner views of rational, moral, social, and civil life are represented by the timber trees, the cedar, the oak, and others. Respecting these; we read, “I will set In the desert of the richest ritual, the magnificence of the proudest decorations of a church, if the Word of God is not there, and its errand principles of charity, justice, integrity, usefulness, and real daily purity and virtue unfolded and enforced, are only the meritricious adornments of spiritual witchery, by which the lust of power in priests soothes its dupes and gains its ends. Bandits can listen to the soft strains of holy music, and go again to murder, The sensual can flock in crowds to grand displays of sacred show, and bow and kneel, and return to their vile debasements well satisfied that they have patronized the Deity and done the right thing.

But where, in such scenes of mere ceremonial worship, is the enlightened mind, the purified heart, the life improved, the self-denial which would not pain the affections of another by a harsh word, or the property of another by the slightest injustice? The greatest persecutors in the world, the men who have laid provines waste by fire and sword, and destroyed the salt of the earth by thousands, have been the most punctilious in religious services, which, being the ceremonials of superstition, have soothed their consciences and fanned their pride.

The religion which opposes progress, which does not perpetually promote regeneration, which does not enlighten the mind, soften and widen the sympathies of the heart and lead to integrity of life, is useless to man and dishonourino to God; not a blessing but a curse. This is what is meant by Absalom being suspended by the branches of the oak, between earth and heaven-useless to both.

The Christ-like man, who seeks to exalt and spread the Word of God, who leads the erring to his Saviour, who urges all men to think, to action principle, to use their judgments to find the truth in all things, and when they have found it to love and practise it; but, above all, who remembers to put on charity as the bond of perfectness (Col. iii. 14), as the very end of the commandment, out of a pure heart, a good conscience, and a faith unfeigned (1 Tim, 1. 5), such a one whether minister or layman, is a city set upon a hill that cannot be hid; he is a ministering angel among men, a helper of the helpless, and a hope and a blessing to all around him. But the man or the system which, without Christian virtues, usurps the Christian name, is worldly with the worldly; as selfish and as vile as they; satisfied if with holy mutterings there can be the husk of religion where all is dead and unholy within; this is indeed an Absalom suspended between earth and heaven.

A religion of mere ceremony, without a living earnest use of the Word of God, an outside religion which does not insist upon love and wisdom, the spirit and life of religion, the kingdom of God within–an Absalom which opposes David–is the upholder of every abuse, the sanctifier of every stupid notion, the source of unending bickerings, the infuser of jealous divisions between men and men, the impeder of education, the drag upon the chariot wheels of progress, a dark, dull, stupefying cloud that shuts out the bright beams of the Sun of Righteousness.

And what relation does it hold to heaven? It hinders where it should help; it revolts where it should attract. The tree with an abundance of leaves but no fruit was the symbol of Judaism when it had become such a system, and evoked the withering condemnation of our Lord, “Let no fruit grow upon thee henceforward for ever.” When the Supreme Owner of the vineyard, the church, sees that religion has become such a tree, and has come to it for the mystical three years without finding any thing: but barrenness and corruption, He says, “cut it down, why cumbereth it the ground.”

Piety is not promoted, virtue is not strengthened, God is not honoured, by such a system. It puts itself in the place of God, and therefore the Lord says of it, “Thine heart was lifted up, because of thy beauty, thou hast corrupted thy wisdom by reason of thy brightness: I will cast thee to the ground; I will lay thee before. kings, that they may behold thee ,” (Ezek. xxviii. 17). Such is the state of things symbolized by Absalom, seized and suspended in the branches of the oak between heaven and earth.

By word being brought to Joab of Absalom being thus caught and thus helpless, is represented the convictions of the mind by many evidences of the worthlessness of such worship, combined with fearfulness and hesitation in weak minds lest harm should be done by its abolition.

The Lord desires worship, that He may bless us again and again. But, when, instead of this, we are only gratifying selfishness in a more subtle form, and turning the externals of worship to be instruments of the lust of power, self, and hypocrisy, then He suffers Joab to marshal the army and go out against it.

Joab represents the rational faculty on the side of true religion opposing, condemning, and destroying superstition. Joab had no hesitation, he took three arrows, which signifies a three-fold condemnation. Of the Lord, it is said, “Thine arrows shall be sharp in the heart of the King’s enemies” (Psa. xlv. 5). True religion is a message of glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, good-will towards men, but superstitious worship inaugurates war to mankind: it hates and despises them: therefore a rational view of Divine Truth condemns it. This is the first arrow. The arrows of the evil are bitter words against the good. They shoot their arrows, even bitter words (Psa. lxiv.). But the Divine condemnation of them are bitter too, and are felt by them as arrows. “God shall shoot at them, with an arrow, suddenly shall they be wounded. And all men shall fear, and shall declare the work of God: for they shall wisely consider of His doing” (Psa. Lxiv. 7-9).

True religion instructs, enlightens, and elevates the mind. It is light in our dwellings. Superstitious worship shuts out the light as an owl flies from brightness. The dark places of the earth are full of cruelty, therefore a rational view of religion condemns it. This is Joab’s second arrow.

True religion leads to virtuous works, It lets its light so shine before men that they may see its good works, and glorify its Father who is in heaven. Worship without truth winks at evil. Its devotees love darkness rather than light, because their deeds are evil. The corrupt tree brings forth corrupt fruit. Tear it up by the roots. Lay the axe to the root. Cast it from the garden of the Lord. This is Joab’s third arrow: the third condemnation. The piercing of the heart signifies that the very essence of superstition is altogether opposed to Divine Truth.

The ten young men who bare Joab’s armour, and compassed about and smote Absalom, and slew him, represent all the truths of the letter of the Word, which condemn and reject a system which, under pretense of serving God, destroys the very pith of all religion, for love to Cod and love to man are the very soul of all Divine precepts. “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Let us avoid the fate of Absalom; let us ever shun the form of worship filled with the spirit of evil, as the deadliest rebellion against our Heavenly King and Father the Lord Jesus Christ.” Let us never forget His divine words, “Why call ye me Lord, Lord and do not the things which I say?”

Author: Jonathan Bayley— The Divine Wisdom of the Word of God (1892)