Summary: David’s emergence from grief over Absalom was marked by his "sitting in the gate" -- a sign of healthy recovery in that he had begun to care for others more than for his own wounds, he had returned to the work of justice, he faced vulnerability, he resumed leadership, he could face his own grief.
This day the noise of battle, the next the victory’s won. Or so the king hoped. Much was at stake. His own future was uncertain; the nation’s stability was shaky; the confidence of those around him was low; and, most of all, his relationship with his son was in jeopardy. There had been a terrible and bloody rebellion, which would have been awful in and of itself. But it had been made all the more horrible because it had been led by the king’s own son. His own child, whom he had loved and cherished, had spit in his face; his own son, whom he had carried in a father’s tender arms, now took up arms against him. How was the king to grasp and to deal with so profound a slap? How was he to act toward his son? Should he try to placate him and win him over? Or should he be harsh, and punish this wayward child? Just what should a king do to bring his son back?
All such questions were now just idle speculation, for things had gone too far. The rebellion was full-scale, and the whole countryside had taken sides. David had organized three armies to go out and find the young rebel. Wisely, David had stayed behind. His captains knew that no father is rational at a time like that; they urged him to wait back in the city. David agreed, but on one condition: “Whatever you do, deal gently with the young man Absalom.” My son is only a boy. He doesn’t understand what he is doing. Be careful with him. I love him. The kinds of things any father would say about any son, no matter how rebellious.
Now, picture the king standing on the city walls. He is waiting and watching for some news. He sees, out on the horizon, a runner. Someone is coming! And not far behind, a second runner. News and more news. He can scarcely wait. To the city gates he rushes, there to meet the first runner: “What has happened? Tell me the news.” And the messenger, breathlessly, pushes out the word: “The battle is won. My king, you have been delivered from the power of all those who rose up against you.” David, however, ignores that word and presses for more: “But what of Absalom? What has happened with the young man Absalom?” The messenger’s word is disappointing, “I do not know. There was a great disturbance as I was leaving, but I do not know what it was.”
David waits with mounting impatience while the second messenger hurries to the city. He can scarcely contain his anxiety. Why was he not out there, looking after his son? Why did he entrust Absalom’s safety to others? Before the second runner can catch his breath, David is asking, “Is it well with the young man Absalom?” An eternity passes while the runner fills his lungs and gathers his wits: “May the enemies of my lord the king, and all who rise up to do you harm, be like that young man.”
No one had to explain that to David. He knew. He knew that the worst had befallen his son. Absalom was dead. Despite David’s orders, they had killed him. Despite David’s love, the young man’s rebellion had taken him too far afield. Despite the promise that someday this young prince of Israel might aspire to higher things, he had grasped the wheel of history, and it had turned and crushed him. David knew. And David grieved. Is there anyone even today so hard of heart that you cannot feel it as this devastated father cries out, "O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!"?
Do you know what it is like to be unable to stop someone who is bent toward wrong? Do you have a feel for David’s frustration? I talked this week with one of you who has a friend who is talking about suicide. What to do and how to do it?! Frightening, anxious, awesome. There is no grief quite like that; there is no grief quite like the grief of frustration. A whole lot of us know about that, whether we are parents trying to understand our children, or spouses trying to bring our partners back home, or pastors struggling to hang on to defiant church members. We know a little about David’s grief.
And so when it is clear that Absalom has died, what does David do? What is David’s response? He withdraws. He goes into isolation. He turns inward and sees nothing else but his own misery. He forgets all about the people who are depending on him. David becomes an island, bounded on the north, south, east, and west, by his grief. Over and over again, the same plaintive cry, thrown out into the winds, for all to hear and for none to hear, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!" David has withdrawn; he is stuck in his grief.