It’s in your family where you will usually experience your greatest joys and also your greatest heartaches. Watching our children grow, knowing the love of a spouse that is steady and sure, and sharing milestones and celebrations are certainly among life’s greatest joys. On the other side, divorce, conflict, disease and death in a family are among life’s most painful times.
In our text this morning we will watch David go through one of the most painful times of his life. David has to face the loss of a third son, Absalom.
After the rape of his sister, Absalom became a bitter man. That bitterness and resentment changed him. It led him to murder his brother Amnon (the rapist) and to develop a growing resentment toward his father, David. He was angry that David did not avenge Tamar’s rape but instead did nothing. He was angry that his father left him in exile for three years. He was angry that even after he had been brought back to Jerusalem his dad still wouldn’t meet with him for another two years!
This growing resentment led Absalom to attempt a coup against his father’s regime. It probably would have been successful except Absalom’s inexperience led him to take some bad advice which ended up costing him his advantage.
Absalom finally went out to fight against his father’s armies. David’s sent his troops out with a simple request: “Bring Absalom back alive.” We are told what happened next
Now Absalom happened to meet David’s men. He was riding his mule and as the mule went under the thick branches of a large oak, Absalom’s head (or hair) got caught in the tree. He was left hanging in midair, while the mule he was riding kept going. (18:9)
It’s an amusing picture. Absalom, who took great pride in his head of hair, (2 Samuel 14:26) was left dangling in a tree because his hair had gotten caught up in the branches. When David’s men saw him they did nothing. One of the men told Joab (David’s military leader). “I just saw Absalom hanging around an oak tree!”
Joab was livid that they did not kill Absalom while they had the chance. The soldiers defended themselves by saying they weren’t going to be the ones to kill the son of the King. Joab had no qualms about doing what was necessary for military peace. He took three javelins and drove them through Absalom’s heart himself. His armor bearers also struck him (this way no one person killed him). They then buried his dead body.
Joab could have saved Absalom. But Joab understood that you have to deal aggressively with cancer. He recognized that there were no half-way measures with Absalom. He would continue to undermine David’s administration as long as he was alive. As we pick up the story in 2 Samuel 18:33 I want to make two observations.
The Devastating Nature of Grief
When David learned that the battle was over and Absalom had been killed, we are told,
The king was shaken. He went up to the room over the gateway and wept. As he went, he said: ”O my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you—O Absalom, my son, my son!” (18:33).
Note first that Grief is a natural response to a devastating loss. To grieve is to feel the life withdrawn from you. Grief is a heaviness that can smother our lives. In times of grief we find it difficult to concentrate because our minds are stuck on the loss much like the old vinyl records would sometimes get stuck. If you have ever had a significant loss you understand grief. If you have never had a significant loss, there is no way to help you understand the power of grief.
It’s important to note here that the emotion of grief is not only associated with a death of a loved one. We experience grief at any loss.
- The ending of a marriage
- A child moving away
- A home that is lost through tragedy of financial stress
- The loss of a cherished job or position
- The death of a pet
- The loss of some treasured object (even if it only meant something to you)
- The loss of our health
The numbness that initially comes with grief is God’s gift to us. It shields us from having to deal with the full implication of the loss all at once. This is one of the reasons that you need to be careful about drawing conclusions about how someone is doing after seeing them at a visitation or funeral. The numbness most likely hasn’t worn off yet. It is as the day to day nature of the loss hits home that grief may hit its hardest.
Second, note that People Grieve differently. In our study over the last several weeks we have seen David grieve over three sons who died. In the death of the baby born to Bathsheba as a result of David’s adultery, David pleaded with God for the baby’s healing. When the child died David got up and went on with his life. David was very philosophical. He rested in God’s will, he knew that he could not bring the child back, and he believed he would someday be reunited with his child. When Amnon died David tore his clothes and wept.
The response to Absalom’s death is more intense. David pled for mercy for his son as the troops went to battle. When David learns that his son has died, he is inconsolable. Why the difference?
Different people grieve in different ways. Different situations (and people) bring about a different kind of grief in the same person. There are a variety of emotions tied into any grief situation….no situation is the same. Consider the emotional tide David may have faced.
- Anger. David may have been angry at Absalom for creating this situation. He may have been angry at Joab for not protecting his son. He may have been angry at God. And he may very well have been angry at himself. When we suffer loss we can be angry about the relationship, about choices that were made or the circumstances in which the loss occurred.
- Regret and remorse. David surely understood that this situation was partially the result of his own actions. What if he had been a better example to his son in regard to Bathsheba and Uriah? What if he had been more compassionate with Tamar after her disgrace? What if he had been less petty and refused to let all those years go by when he had no relationship with his son? What if he had indulged his children less and taught them a deeper reverence for God and how to make wise choices in life? Whenever there is loss it is natural to look back with some regret.
- Spiritual Concern. David seemed confident that his baby was with the Lord. He may not have been so sure about Absalom. During the course of life we may give little thought to a person’s spiritual destiny. However, when you are standing before a casket or gravesite that issue is of utmost importance. Jesus promised that those who believe in Him would live even though they die. Paul tells us that death is swallowed up in victory. These are truths that mitigate the depth of loss. These are the truths that allow us to grieve but not like “the rest of men who have no hope”.
- Loss. Anytime we lose someone due to death, divorce or some other circumstances, hopes and dreams die with them. There is the wedding that never takes place, the Grandchildren that are never born, the vacation that is never taken, the anniversary that is never celebrated. There is a loss of companionship. Grief often brings a deep sense of loneliness because even though we may not have appreciated the fact, we miss the person’s company. Sometimes we don’t realize how much we cherished their companionship until later.
Third, notice that Grief Can Be Consuming. Grief is such an intense emotion that it can easily control your life. You can spend all your life focusing on the loss. This is the direction David was heading. We’ll address this in our next point. Before we move on let me draw some simple lessons.
- We must be very careful not to assume that we know how someone else feels in the time of loss. Each person’s experience is different. Our similar experiences can help us better empathize with someone’s loss but we will not fully understand.
- Grieving people need to talk through their grief. One of the best things we can do is listen. Grieving people don’t need trite platitudes, they need a friend who will listen to them.
- Grief doesn’t go away as must as it is just managed. We just learn to live with the loss. Those feelings remain close and sneak up on us at odd times.
- The best way to deal with loss is to make the most of life right now. Tell people how much they mean to you. Forgive the offenses that separate you. Work hard to share your faith with those you love. Do your best to live as a godly person now so that you have no regrets later.
The Reality of Ongoing Life
As we move into 2 Samuel 19 the author’s focus changes. Instead of focusing on the heartbreak of the King, we see the sense of rejection felt by David’s soldiers. These were people who chose to stand with David when his son opposed him. These men went to war willing to give their lives in defense of their king. They fought valiantly. They gained the victory for their king. Yet, the King’s response made them feel like they had done something wrong. They felt like criminals rather than allies.
I suspect it was a similar feeling to those American soldiers who fought in Vietnam. It was a horrible conflict. It was a time of devastating losses and horrible memories (just like any war). Sadly, when these soldiers returned from Vietnam they were not welcomed with honor, applause, and gratitude. They were scorned, vilified and spat upon. Many hated the war and took it out on the soldiers. These men who served honorably and faithfully were treated like they did something wrong.
I think this was one of our countries most shameful times. We can debate whether or not President Kennedy should have ever gotten us into the conflict but we should never have treated those who chose to serve their country in such a shameful manner. I am sure there are many veterans who became bitter. Maybe many of the horrors of Vietnam would have been lessened if soldiers knew they were appreciated for their service.
David’s men felt this same kind of rejection from their Commander in Chief. David’s response to Absalom’s death creates a crisis. In this crisis Joab once against steps forward. He told David to stop crying and go out and lead and thank his men. From this we can draw two practical lessons.
First, even in times of loss we still have responsibilities. David had lost a son but he was still the King. He remained in exile. The people of Israel were without a leader and David needed to step up. He needed to encourage his soldiers. The battle was not over.
When we become consumed with grief we start to shut other people out. We make them feel like they are not as important to you. This happens sometimes when a child dies. One parent becomes so inconsolable that they alienate the rest of the family. Often the couple ends up in divorce. One (or both) becomes so focused on their loss, that others feel cast aside. The same thing can happen to children when their parents divorce. They start to feel invisible.
In times of loss. We need to remember a few things.
1. We do not hurt in isolation. Any time someone dies the loss is far-reaching. No one grieves exactly like you do but that doesn’t mean they don’t grieve. Some people grieve for the one who is grieving! We get through these times not by isolating ourselves, but by helping each other.
2. Others need us. When we withdraw from others we force them to deal with yet another loss . . . the loss of our friendship, and this compounds our own loss. Spouses, Children, Parents, and friends still need us. They need us to celebrate their victories, to share and enrich their lives, to comfort them in sorrow, and to give guidance. When we become consumed with our grief we are creating reasons for bitterness and regret for the future.
3. People are watching us. In the times of loss we show the true nature of our faith. I’m not for a minute suggesting that we act like loss does not hurt. I’m not suggesting we tell everyone things are fine (when they are not). What I am suggesting is that we grab hold of the Lord and step by step seek to live in trust that God has a plan that is more profound than we can grasp. We show our faith by moving forward.
But there is a second principle, A Fact Remains: there is still a life to be lived. David said he wished he had died instead of his son. That is a pretty natural sentiment between a parent and child. But David was not the one who died! Absalom’s life was over (on this side of eternity), David’s was not.
It is easy to think that our loss (again, this is not always from a death) is the end of our life. If that is true then you have a problem. If your life is over because someone else died it must mean that this person, position, or object was the sum, source or focus of your life. The Bible calls this idolatry. The Lord alone is to be our sum, source and focus.
When we think this way we are really questioning the wisdom, plan, and purpose of God. He is the one who has numbered our days. He is the one who has a purpose for the circumstances of our lives. When we throw up our hands in defeat in these circumstances we are concluding that God either does not know what He is doing, or is incapable of doing what He desires. Neither is true.
Solomon reminds us that times of grief can be very valuable in our lives,.
“It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of every man; the living should take this to heart. Sorrow is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure.(Ecclesiastes 7:2-4)
Solomon rightly observes that at the parties and fun gatherings of life people act like everything is a joke and all that matters is having a good time. That’s why the place of feasting is not valuable. On the other hand, in the place of loss and mourning life takes on a different perspective. Times of loss remind us that life is about much more than having fun. We are reminded that what is truly important are the very things we often take for granted. In the place of mourning we are reminded that this life is short and the most important matter of this life needs to be our relationship with Jesus Christ.
Our challenge is to live our lives with the insight that comes from the times of loss. These are very painful times but they can also be very valuable times.
As we look at the life of our blessed Lord we see what it means to grieve appropriately. Jesus cried at the tomb of Lazarus, He wept over Jerusalem, He was heartbroken when he was sold out by Judas and when Peter denied him. He sweat drops of blood as he faced the agony of the cross and the profound darkness of the Father’s wrath in our stead. Jesus knew what it was like to grieve. He understands our pain.
However, in the pain and agony of His life Jesus kept going. He continued to teach even though people didn’t seem to “get it”. He continued to love even when beaten and nailed to a tree. Jesus saw the bigger picture. He faithfully served the Father until that last moment when he could say, “It is finished”.
The times of sadness are hard. We need to help each other. We need to comfort each other in times of loss and we need to help each other get back on our feet with the assurance that God still has work for us to do. We need to remind each other that this is not the end of the story. Someday when the King returns, it will all make sense. We need to remind each other that until that time we must continue to serve Him faithfully. And we should do all of this because that’s what families do.