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.
Please mark my words: We have to guard against doing the right thing in the wrong way. I do not agree that David’s grief was “inordinate”. I would not wish to have Joab (or the author of the commentary I referred to) around to comfort me when I am bereaved. Joab joins the ranks of Job’s so-called friends, who, you’ll recall, turned on Job rather than offer comfort in his time of suffering. It was appropriate for David to need encouragement, just as it was necessary for him to offer encouragement to his army. He then needed to restore peace and unify the nation.
Did David’s troops really think he disapproved of their victory? I think anyone with an ounce of sensitivity would realize David’s mixed feelings. The rebellion was crushed, but at an awful cost. Warfare is waged when all other alternatives have been exhausted. David would have sought reconciliation through a negotiated peace, but Absalom only wanted the overthrow of David’s government. David prevailed, but not in the manner in which he’d have preferred. Now there is no hope left for reconciliation. Now at Joab’s insistence, David is prodded into action.
The author of the book of Hebrews states that a major reason to attend church is encouragement—we need one another, and we come here to bear one another’s burdens. For some, church is an impersonal place. Some people prefer to sit alone, and want to be left alone. The Catholic Church instituted the “passing of the peace” in the Mass, a few moments to greet one another. Delores Curran, a Catholic author remarked in a conference I attended that some Catholics would enjoy having a “passing of the peace section” and a “non-passing of the peace section”, kind of like “smoking” and “non-smoking”! Although some people resist encouragement, it’s something we all need. It’s been voiced that “more people have been brought into the church by the kindness of real Christian love than by all the theological arguments in the world” (William Barclay).