Summary: We extend compassion as wounded healers. But before we can help others, we have to learn how to weep. The word compassion means “to suffer with others”.
Pastor Bob Leroe, Cliftondale Congregational Church, Saugus, Massachusetts
King David is faced with a bittersweet victory. His son Absalom turned against him, raised up an army to overthrow his father, and in battle against David’s forces he met a violent death. In the previous chapter, David cries out in anguish (vs 33): “O my son Absalom! If only I could have died instead of you!” David’s words of mourning rank among the saddest, most heart-wrenching words ever spoken. The death of Absalom was the death of David’s hopes. In David’s mind, it was the loss of his future. He could not imagine a future apart from his son; he could not see ahead to his descendents, which would have a Messianic culmination in Jesus.
We see David in two roles: king, and father...but in this moment, we see him primarily as a grief-stricken father. David gives himself to his grief, absorbed and isolated in his loss. He holds nothing back. He is not thinking of his role as king of Israel.
David was in the toughest, the most agonizing of situations. He was needing comfort, yet also in the position of having to encourage others. His Army was beginning to question their victory. Morale should have been high, but seeing their King in tears made things difficult for the troops. They needed David to stand before them to reassure them and praise their victory.
When parents lose a child, both need comfort, and both are often unable to give comfort. It’s hard to lean on someone for support when that person is in just as much need as you.
David’s grief is interrupted by his commanding General Joab, who unceremoniously jerks David back into being king. This is not how to do grief counseling. Joab is unfeeling, business-like, and abrupt (like some generals I’ve known). He is unconcerned for David’s loss. He invades David’s sorrow and scolds him to make a public appearance. Joab is right, but in the wrong way. Joab takes the reins of responsibility to push David back into functioning as king. In Joab’s mind, there is no time for the luxury of remorse—the army needs its leader. David has put down Absalom’s rebellion but has not yet recovered his kingdom.
I can somewhat identify with David—-as an Army Chaplain I was often regarded as a “combat multiplier”. Commanders looked to me to improve unit morale. Part of my job was appraising the command climate, looking for indicators of poor morale, which could negatively impact combat effectiveness. Through training, worship, recreation, and ministry of presence, I was expected to raise the spirits of soldiers...even when I didn’t “feel like it”.
You may (I hope) agree with my assessment of David, but I want you to know that one scholar’s commentary on this passage states that David’s grief was “inordinate”—i.e. excessive and inappropriate, because of his duties and his unworthy son. The commentator claims, “this was no time for David to give in to private sorrows…his conduct displeased the Lord” Joab (who personally killed Absalom) is credited for getting David back on track.