THE CONSEQUENCES OF DAVID'S SIN.
The king covered his face, and the king cried with a loud voice, O my son Absalom, O Absalom, my son, my son!
2 Samuel xix. 4. Fourth Sunday after Easter, 1878.
On Sunday afternoon last, I took for my subject the interview between Nathan and David. I asked you to consider the circumstances of David's life at the moment when the incident occurs. Attention was called to the successes of his administration at home and the triumph of his arms abroad. This crisis was the culmination of his good fortune. No Israelite before or after achieved such great things as he achieved. In strong contrast to this unexampled career stands his sin and his humiliation. It is no comfort, no compensation to him that he has succeeded in everything to which he has put his hand. The one painfully bitter thought absorbs him, 'I have sinned against the Lord.' Without seeking excuses, without calculating consequences, without any afterthought of any kind, he concentrates his whole soul on the sin of the deed. Thus his contrition is complete.
And not less complete is his pardon. This immediate confronting with God, this absolute abasement of self, this piercing cry for forgiveness, is not unheeded. The answer is prompt, and it is unreserved. The same prophetic voice, which had denounced the offence, absolves the offender,'The Lord hath put away thy sin.' A clean heart is made, and a right spirit renewed within him.
But the lesson of David's fall would not be complete without the sequel. Though the sin was put away, the consequences of the sin remained. Though the guilt was pardoned, the penalty was not foregone. Let this be the subject of our meditations this afternoon. We will consider the culminating sorrow of David's after-life—the revolt and death of Absalom —as the retribution which by an inevitable moral law his crime had brought upon him.
The narrative is in every way very striking. There is a deep pathos in it which is scarcely surpassed elsewhere even in the Bible, the most pathetic of all books. It appeals to our hearts with a freshness, which no repetition can blunt. The record moreover is singularly minute in this portion. The flight of David is told with a circumstantiality of detail which has no parallel elsewhere. There is no single day in Jewish history—it has been truly said—of which so full an account is preserved. We have vividly before our eyes the long train of exiles following the king, as he turned his back on the Holy City, the scene of his greatest exploits, and crossed the brook Kidron and ascended the slopes of Olivet. 'All the country wept with a loud voice, and all the people passed over.' 'David wept as he went up, and had his head covered, and he went barefoot: and all the people that was with him covered every man his head, and they went up, weeping as they went up.' And so we follow him on his mournful way, till the pathos of the story and the awe of the lesson reach their climax in the fierce execrations and brutal insults of Shimei, who seizes this opportunity of trampling on the conscience-stricken broken-hearted king, 'Come out, come out, thou man of blood and thou man of Belial.' 'Behold, thou art taken in thy mischief, because thou art a man of blood.' Then it is that the depth of the king's contrition reveals itself. Alas! it was only too true—it was truer even than Shimei S. P. s. 3
knew—that he was a man of blood. With a noble forbearance he restrains his followers from punishing this savage miscreant. Let him curse, and throw stones, and cast dust to his heart's content. How can he add to a grief, which already surpasses all griefs? How can he deepen a humiliation, than which no humiliation could be lower ?' Behold, my son seeketh my life: how much more now may this Benjamite do it?' These curses—are they not after all God's judgment denounced against the sin? These outrages —are they not after all God's discipline sent to chasten the penitent ?' Let him alone' therefore: 'let him alone, and let him curse; for the Lord hath bidden him. It may be that the Lord will requite me good for his cursing this day.'
The tide of events turns. The rebellion is crushed; the rebel is slain; the exiles retrace their steps homeward. Now at length, we might have supposed, all would be joy and thanksgiving for the great deliverance wrought. Nay, the return is sadder than the departure; the triumph is more depressing than the humiliation. 'The victory that day was turned into mourning unto all the people; for the people heard say that day how the king was grieved for his son. And the people gat them by stealth that day into the city, as people being ashamed steal away when they flee in battle.'
Of the intense horrors of a civil war or of intestine revolution we Englishmen have been spared the cruel lesson. While the powerful nation, which is separated from ourselves only by a narrow strip of sea, has passed through a succession of such bloody conflicts within our recollection; while the great transatlantic people, who are bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh, was torn asunder by a mighty civil war within very recent memory, England's experience is buried in a remote and forgotten past . But if it be true, as our own great general said, that next to a defeat a victory is the saddest sight which a man can witness, what must not be the case, when to the ordinary calamities of war new and unwonted horrors are added, when the only way to triumph leads over the slaughtered bodies of fellow-countrymen, perhaps even of relations and friends, and when each successful blow recoils on him who aims it! In such a conflict it must ever be the case that 'the victory that day is turned into mourning.'
Not less sad—far sadder—than this was the short, sharp struggle, of which the narrative is brought to a close in the words of the text . It was civil war in its most terrible form. It was a combat, not only between fellow-countrymen, but between fellow-citizens. And the hostile chiefs were father and son.
The crime of Absalom is not isolated. It has had not a few parallels in the history of great dynasties, where the natural heir to the throne, impatient of delay, has anticipated the slow course of events, and snatched at the power which in due time would have been his own by inherited right. It has had its sad counterpart too in not a few private homes. Many a father and many a mother can tell of a child, whose winning ways have wound themselves round their affections, whose personal charms have shed a radiance of joy on their homes, and who yet has wrung their, hearts by dark ingratitude or cruel selfishness. The sacred writer dwells with fondness on the endowments of Absalom, his faultless beauty, his attractive graces. It is clear that he himself is not proof against those fascinations which others found irresistible. There is a terrible irony in Absalom's career which consciously or unconsciously each fresh stroke of the narrative brings out more strongly—the contrast between the outward charms and the worthless character of the man, the contrast between the bright hopes of the outset and the deep gloom of the close, the contrast between his rich endowments and his hapless fate. He unto whom ' the soul of king David longed to go forth' in the midst of his sorest displeasure, he of whom it is said that 'in all Israel there was none so much praised for his beauty,' in whom 'there was no blemish from the sole of his foot even to the crown of his head,' who by his winning courtesy 'stole the hearts of the men of Israel,' would, we feel sure, have stolen our hearts also.
Outside the walls of Jerusalem over the brook Kidron stands an ancient monument traditionally reputed to be the tomb of Absalom. Its sides, we are told, are 'buried deep with the stones which' the Jews' throw against it in execration.' It is a religious duty with the modern Israelites to curse the memory of this prince who stole the hearts of their forefathers. Let the contrast speak for itself.
The lesson is one of common and very painful experience—dark treachery underlying an easy gaiety of manner, intense selfishness veiled by a graceful courtesy of demeanour, a worthless heart set in a beautiful frame. Are there any, whom God has endowed with gifts resembling these, who are conscious of possessing a certain power which secures them an easy victory over the hearts and minds of others— whether personal graces or conversational fluency or ready tact? Let them be ever on their guard against themselves. These are precious endowments, if used rightly. They force a way, where a way is barred to others; they smooth the path of life through its roughest obstructions; they light up the journey of life through its darkest and dreariest wastes. But they have their special dangers also. The very ease, with which such persons pass through life, removes the most valuable trials of life. When ascendency over others is gained without an effort by the attraction of personal graces, the heart will stagnate, because it receives no discipline and learns no lessons of selfdenial. And hence, unless he keeps constant watch over himself, the possessor must become unfeeling and selfish. So too with the possession of natural tact— an equally valuable and equally dangerous gift. It tempts men to trust to the management, rather than to the goodness, of their cause, to match versatility against truth; and thus, though they began perhaps by being not less single or upright than their neighbours, they fall imperceptibly into disingenuousness and fraud. We forebode ill of the spoilt child of a household; but these are the spoilt children of a neighbourhood, of a people, of society at large.
Such, we may imagine, were Absalom's temptations; such certainly was Absalom's fall. But in choosing the subject I did not intend to dwell so much on the faults of the son, as on the sorrows of the father. I wished to consider the sequel of David's life as the consequence of David's sin.
God has not so willed that the laws of His spiritual interference shall supersede the laws of natural sequence. The 'water spilt on the ground''cannot be gathered up again.' The sinful deed is an accomplished fact; it is done and it cannot be undone; the pardon is granted, but the consequences are not evaded. Thus expositors have pointed out (and the lesson is eminently instructive) how each one of the calamities, which overwhelmed the repentant king, flowed from some source of guilt. They have bidden us observe that the shameful deed of Amnon, which aroused Absalom's bloodthirsty revenge, and thus led to his banishment, his estrangement from his father, his rebellion and his death, grew out of the irregularities which must prevail in a household where polygamy is the rule. They have noticed that Ahithophel, the cunning and treacherous counsellor of Absalom, appears incidentally to have been the grandfather of Bathsheba, and that therefore his desertion and hostility may have been provoked by David's crime. They have observed also that the increased power and ascendency of Joab (to which the king's sorrows and perplexities henceforth were mainly due) must be traced to his possession of the fatal secret, to his virtual complicity in the murder of Uriah. They have suggested, moreover, that some rumours of David's guilt, having spread, would relax his hold on the affections of his people, and thus prepare the way for the revolt. They might have added (if they have not added), that the sins of the father must have lowered the moral tone of the household, and encouraged (if they did not suggest) the sins of the sons; for it is the very nature of such crimes to spread by contagion. At all events, he who himself had done a deed of shame could not reprobate Am non for a deed of shame; he who himself had committed a virtual murder from guilty passion could not punish Absalom for a murder committed in revenge and under exasperation, with the crushing moral force, the lofty freedom, of conscious innocence.
But indeed this is no arbitrary inference from the facts of the history, no subtle but unwarranted theory of modern expositors. The very prophet, who declared the pardon, foretold at the same time the consequences of the sin. 'Now therefore the sword shall never depart from thy house.' 'Thus saith the Lord, Behold I will raise up evil against thee out of thine own house.' 'Thou didst it secretly; but I will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun.' God's law of cause and consequence cannot be suspended. 'Be not deceived.' 'Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.' Such as the seed is, such will also be the harvest.
'There are some,' said the great Augustine, 'for whom it is good to fall.' He who thus spoke had himself sinned deeply in youth, had himself fallen, and had risen from his fall. In him, as in the repentant king, God had created a clean heart and renewed a right spirit. Thus cleansed and regenerated, he was permitted to pass behind the veil and to declare the hidden things of God with a spiritual insight rarely equalled since Apostolic times. And yet our moral instinct, not less than David's example, forbids us to accept this unguarded saying. It cannot be good for any one to fall.
Not good to fall. For what in common language we understand by the fall, is not the fall itself. The fall itself has been accomplished long before. The one startling act, the one concentrated sin, whether of thought or of word or of deed, is only the indication of an evil state of mind, fostered, encouraged, developed by a slow growth, only the consummation of a gradual decline. The entertaining and the cherishing of the propensity to evil (whatever form this propensity may take) the ever advancing deterioration of the soul—this is the true fall. The other is only the outward symbol, the concrete embodiment, of the fall. It is good for a man to find out that he has fallen; but it never can be good for him to fall.
Not good to fall. For though God may create a clean heart and renew a right spirit in a man, his sin has left behind a bitter heritage of trial, a heavy burden of suffering, which he can only lay down with his life. So at least it was with David. Is there any one, who, dissatisfied with his insensibility to sin and wearied with the deadness of his heart, is tempted to escape from this moral torpor by some overt act of evil, who in despair would embrace penitence as a spiritual luxury, would in the Apostle's language 'sin that grace may abound'? Is not David's history enough to banish such a perilous thought? If he is too weak to shake.off the burden of spiritual sloth, is he strong enough to bear the intolerable load which his sin will lay on him in its consequences? We can well imagine that David's heaviest sorrows, as he mourned over the troubles of his household, over the desertion of his friends, over the rebellion and death of his favourite son, was the thought that all these trials were the legitimate consequences of his own fall; and that with a bitter pang of self-reproach he would see, as many a father has seen, in the sins of his children the reflection and the legacy of his own sins. His guilt had indeed been cleansed by the copious streams of God's mercy; but the consequences of his guilt he must bathe in his own tears, without hoping to wash them away in this life.
With such tears—the tears of mingled sorrow and self-reproach—he bade farewell to his own new capital^ his beautiful Zion, when the rebellion broke out. 'And David went up by the ascent of mount Olivet, and wept as he went up, and had his head covered.'
We are reminded by these words of a later scene where another, resting on the slope of this same hill, shed tears over this same Jerusalem. 'And when He was come near,' says the Evangelist, 'He beheld the city and wept over it, saying, If thou hadst known, even thou, at least in this thy day, the things which belong unto thy peace. But now they are hid from thine eyes.'
The place and the incident are the same; and yet what a contrast is there in the situation and the feelings of the two mourners! A great moral gulf separates the one from the other; and this gulf is the consciousness of past sin. David's Son, like David himself, shed tears over a rebellious city, bewailed the abuse of rich opportunities, the eclipse of bright hopes. But in His grief there mingled no bitter aftertaste of remorse, no shame, and self-reproach for the past. It was the pure, calm sorrow, which can be felt only by one looking down from the lofty heights of innocence on a people infatuated in its sin and hastening to its ruin. He shed tears, but He did not cover His head.
With still more bitter tears and with still keener self-reproach, now that the rebellion is crushed, the broken-hearted king abandons himself to his grief. He would give anything now—his wealth, his kingdom, his life—to have his son back. And yet he himself (he cannot shut out the thought) he himself must bear the blame—at least in part—for the crimes, the rebellion, the death, of his handsome, winning, wayward boy. Ah! was he not indeed taken in his mischief? Was he not indeed 'a man of blood'?
Soon or late each man will have his sorrows in life. It is not good for any one that he should escape them. By suffering even the Son of Man was made perfect; by suffering we must be taught, as He was taught. Well then will it be for us, if, when the hour of trial comes, we meet the struggle, not like David with accumulated agony and shame as those reaping the harvest of seeds they themselves have sown, but in the likeness, however faint, of David's greater descendant with a saintly heroic sorrow as those mourning over sins from which they are free, and bearing calamities which they did not cause.
But if, when the trial comes, it should find us otherwise; if the type of our sorrow must be sought in the son of Jesse, not in the Son of Man; if we have sinned by some violation of God's laws, whether of honesty or of truth or of purity or of mercy or of love, so that our sufferings may be directly traced to our sin; if, like another rude Shimei, our conscience from its vantage-ground above hurl stones and cast dust and heap curses on us, as we pass mournfully through the valley of our humiliation, reproaching us with being taken in our own mischief; yet nevertheless even so it is good for us; even so let us take heart. God's blessing is wrapped up in Shimei's curses, as the fertilising rain is held in the black thunder-cloud. 'Let him alone, and let him curse: it may be that the Lord will look on mine affliction. It is no sign to us this, that God's arm is shortened, that God's pardon is qualified. It is the very token of His presence; it is the very message of His love. It is His discipline, assuring us that He has not overlooked our needs. It confirms to ourselves individually the joyful tidings which the Church proclaims to all at this season, and which nature herself with her fresh awakening glories enforces by type; for it speaks of resurrection, of renewal, of life.