Chastisements

XIV.—CHASTISEMENTS.

THE chastisements, which were the natural fruits of David's sin, soon began to show themselves, though apparently ten years at least passed before Absalom's revolt, at which time he was probably a man of sixty. But these ten years were very weary and sad. There is no more joyous activity, no more conquering energy, no more consciousness of his people's love. Disasters thicken round him, and may all be traced to his great sin. His children learned the lesson it had taught them, and lust and fratricide desolated his family. A parent can have no sharper pang than the sight of his own sins reappearing in his child. David saw the ghastly reflection of his unbridled passion in his eldest son's foul crime (and even a gleam of it in his unhappy daughter), and of his murderous craft in his second son's bloody revenge. Whilst all this hell of crime is boiling round him, a strange passiveness seems to have crept over the king, and to have continued till his flight before Absalom. The narrative is singularly silent about him. He seems paralysed by the consciousness of his past sin; he originates nothing. He dares not punish Amnion; he can only weep when he hears of Absalom's crime. He weakly longs for the return of the latter from his exile, but cannot nerve himself to send for him till Joab urges it. A flash of his old kingliness blazes out for a moment in his refusal to see his son; but even that slight satisfaction to justice vanishes as soon as Joab chooses to insist that Absalom shall return to court. He seems to have no will of his own. He has become a mere tool in the hands of his fierce general—and Joab's hold upon him was his complicity in Uriah's murder. Thus at every step he was dogged by the consequences of his crime, even though it was pardoned sin. And if, as is probable, Ahithophel was Bathsheba's grandfather, the most formidable person in Absalom's conspiracy, whose defection wounded him so deeply, was no doubt driven to the usurper's side out of revenge for the insult to his house in her person. Thus "of our pleasant vices doth heaven make whips to scourge us." "Be not deceived ; whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap."

It is not probable that many psalms were made in those dreary days. But the forty-first and fifty-fifth are, with reasonable probability, referred to this period by many commentators. They give a very touching picture of the old king during the four years in which Absalom's conspiracy was being hatched. It seems, from the forty-first, that the pain and sorrow of his heart had brought on some serious illness, which his enemies had used for their own purposes, and embittered by hypocritical condolences and and ill-concealed glee. The sensitive nature of the psalmist winces under their heartless desertion of him, and pours out its plaint in this pathetic lament. He begins with a blessing on those who "consider the afflicted"—having reference, perhaps, to the few who were faithful to him in his languishing sickness. He passes thence to his own case, and, after humble confession of his sin,—almost in the words of the fifty-first psalm,—he tells how his sickbed had been surrounded by very different visitors. His disease drew no pity, but only fierce impatience that he lingered in life so long. "Mine enemies speak evil of me—when will he die, and his name have perished?" One of them, in especial, who must have been a man in high position to gain access to the sick chamber, has been conspicuous by his lying words of condolence: "If he come to see me he speaketh vanity." The sight of the sick king touched no chord of affection, but only increased the traitor's animosity—"his heart gathereth evil to itself"—and then, having watched his pale face for wished-for unfavourable symptoms, the false friend hurries from the bedside to talk of his hopeless illness—"he goeth abroad, he telleth it." The tidings spread, and are stealthily passed from one conspirator to another. "All that hate me whisper together against me." They exaggerate the gravity of his condition, and are glad because, making the wish the father to the thought, they believe him dying. "A thing of Belial" (ie., a destructive disease), "say they, is poured out upon him, and now that he lieth, he shall rise up no more." And, sharpest pang of all, that among these traitors, and probably the same person as he whose heartless presence in the sick chamber was so hard to bear, should be Ahithophel, whose counsel had been like an oracle from God. Even he, "the man of my friendship, in whom I trusted, which did eat of my bread "— he, like an ignoble, vicious mule—"has lifted high his heel " against the sick lion.

We should be disposed to refer the thirty-ninth psalm also to this period. It, too, is the meditation of one in sickness, which he knows to be a Divine judgment for his sin. There is little trace of enemies in it; but his attitude is that of silent submission, while wicked men are disquieted around him—which is precisely the characteristic peculiarity of his conduct at this period. It consists of two parts (vers. 1—6 and 7—13), in both of which the subjects of his meditations are the same, but the tone of them different. His own sickness and mortality, and man's fleeting, shadowy life, are his themes. The former has led him to think of the latter. The first effect of his sorrow was to close his lips in a silence that was not altogether submission. "I held my peace, even from good, and my sorrow was stirred." As in his sin, when he kept silence, his "bones waxed old," so now in his sorrow and sickness the pain that could not find expression raged the more violently. The tearless eyes were hot and aching; but he conquered the dumb spirit, and could carry his heavy thoughts to God. They are very heavy at first . He only desires that the sad truth may be driven deeper into his soul. With the engrossment so characteristic of melancholy, he asks, what might have been thought the thing he needed least, "Make me to know mine end ;" and then he dilates on the gloomy reflections which he had been cherishing in silence. Not only he himself, with his handbreadth of days, that shrink into absolute nothingness when brought into contrast with the life of God, but "every man," even when apparently "standing" most "firm, is only a breath." As a shadow every man moves spectral among shadows. The tumult that fills their lives is madness; "only for a breath are they disquieted." So bitterly, with an anticipation of the sad, cleareyed pity and scorn of "The Preacher," does the sick and wearied king speak, in tones very unlike the joyous music of his earlier utterances. But, true and wholesome as such thoughts are, they are not all the truth. So the prayer changes in tone, even while its substance is the same. He rises from the shows of earth to his true home, driven thither by their hollowness. "My hope is in Thee." The conviction of earth's vanity is all different when it has "tossed him to Thy breast." The pardoned sinner, who never thereafter forgot his grievous fall, asks for deliverance "from all his trangressions." The sullen silence has changed into full acquiescence: "I opened not my mouth, because Thou didst it,"—a silence differing from the other as the calm after the storm, when all the winds sleep and the sun shines out on a freshened world, differs from the boding stillness while the slow thunder-clouds grow lurid on the horizon. He cries for healing, for he knows his sickness to be the buffet and assault of God's hand; and its bitterness is assuaged, even while its force continues, by the conviction that it is God's fatherly chastisement for sin which gnaws away his manly vigour as the moth frets his kingly robe. The very thought which had been so bitter—that every man is vanity—reappears in a new connection as the basis of the prayer that God would hear, and is modified so as to become infinitely blessed and hopeful. "I am a stranger with Thee, and a sojourner, as all my fathers were." A wanderer indeed, and a transient guest on earth; but what of that, if he be God's guest? All that is sorrowful is drawn off from the thought when we realise our connection with God. We are in God's house; the host, not the guest, is responsible for the housekeeping. We need not feel life lonely if He be with us, nor its shortness sad. It is not a shadow, a dream, a breath, if it be rooted in Him. And thus the sick man has conquered his gloomy thoughts, even though he sees little before him but the end; and he is not cast down even though his desires are all summed up in one for a little respite and healing, ere the brief trouble of earth be done with: "O spare me, that I may recover strength before I go hence, and be no more."

It may be observed that this supposition of a protracted illness, which is based upon these psalms, throws light upon the singular passiveness of David during the maturing of Absalom's conspiracy, and may naturally be supposed to have favoured his schemes, an essential part of which was to ingratiate himself with suitors who came to the king for judgment by affecting great regret that no man was deputed of the king to hear them. The accumulation of untried causes, and the apparent disorganization of the judicial machinery, are well accounted for by David's sickness.

The fifty-fifth psalm gives some very pathetic additional particulars. It is in three parts—a plaintive prayer and portraiture of the psalmist's mental distress (vers. 1—8); a vehement supplication against his foes, and indignant recounting of their treachery (vers. 9—16); and, finally, a prophecy of the retribution that is to fall upon them (vers. 17—23). In the first and second portions we have some points which help to complete our picture of the man. For instance, his heart "writhes" within him, the "terrors of death " are on him, "fear and trembling" are come on him, and "horror" has covered him. All this points, like subsequent verses, to his knowledge of the conspiracy before it came to a head. The state of the city, which is practically in the hands of Absalom and his tools, is described with bold imagery. Violence and Strife in possession of it, spies prowling about the walls day and night, Evil and Trouble in its midst, and Destruction, Oppression, and Deceit—a goodly company—flaunting in its open spaces. And the spirit, the brain of the whole, is the trusted friend whom he had made his own equal, who had shared his secretest thoughts in private, who had walked next him in solemn processions to the temple. Seeing all this, what does the king do, who was once so fertile in resource, so decisive in counsel so prompt in action? Nothing. His only weapon is prayer. "As for me, I will call upon God . and the Lord will save me. Evening, and morning, and at noon, will I pray, and cry aloud: and He shall hear my voice." He lets it all grow as it list, and only longs to be out of all the weary coil of troubles. "Oh that I had wings like a dove, then would I fly away and be at rest. Lo, I would flee far off, I would lodge in the wilderness. I would swiftly fly to my refuge from the raging wind, from the tempest." The langour of his disease, love for his worthless son, consciousness of sin, and submission to the chastisement through "one of his own house" which Nathan had foretold, kept him quiet, though he saw the plot winding its meshes round him. And in this submission patient confidence is not wanting, though subdued and saddened, which finds expression in the last words of this psalm of the heavy laden, "Cast thy burden upon Jehovah.

He, He will sustain thee. ... I will trust in Thee."

When the blow at last fell, the same passive acquiescence in what he felt to be God's chastisement is very noticeable. Absalom escapes to Hebron, and sets up the standard of revolt . When the news comes to Jerusalem the king's only thought is immediate flight. He is almost cowardly in his eagerness to escape, and is prepared to give up everything without a blow. It seems as if only a touch was needed to overthrow his throne. He hurries on the preparations for flight with nervous haste. He forms no plans beyond those of his earlier wish to fly away and be at rest . He tries to denude himself of followers. When the six hundred men of Gath—who had been with him ever since his early days in Philistia, and had grown grey in his service—make themselves the van of his little army, he urges the heroic Ittai, their leader, to leave him a fugitive, and to worship the rising sun, "Return to thy place, and abide with the king"—so thoroughly does he regard the crown as passed already from his brows. The priests with the ark are sent back; he is not worthy to have the symbol of the Divine presence identified with his doubtful cause, and is prepared to submit without a murmur if God "thus say, I have no delight in thee." With covered head and naked feet he goes up the slope of Olivet, and turning perhaps at that same bend in the rocky mountain path where the true King, coming to the city, wept as he saw its shining walls and soaring pinnacles across the narrow valley, the discrowned king and all his followers broke into passionate weeping as they gazed their last on the lost capital, and then with choking sobs rounded the shoulder of the hill and set their faces to their forlorn flight. Passing through the territory of Saul's tribe— dangerous ground for him to tread—the rank hatred of Shimei's heart blossoms into speech. With Eastern vehemence, he curses and flings stones and dust in the transports of his fury, stumbling along among the rocks high up on the side of the glen, as he keeps abreast of the little band below. Did David remember how the husband from whom he had torn Michal had followed her to this very place, and there had turned back weeping to his lonely home? The remembrance, at any rate, of later and more evil deeds prompted his meek answer, "Let him curse, for the Lord hath bidden him."

The first force of the disaster spent itself, and by the time he was safe across Jordan, on the free uplands of Bashan, his spirit rises. He makes a stand at Mahanaim, the place where his great ancestor, in circumstances somewhat analogous to his own, had seen the vision of "bright-harnessed angels" ranked in battle array for the defence of himself and his own little band, and called the name of the place the "two camps." Perhaps that old story helped to hearten him, as the defection of Ahithophel from the conspiracy certainly would do. As the time went on, too, it became increasingly obvious that the leaders of the rebellion were "infirm of purpose," and that every day of respite from actual fighting diminished their chances of success, as that politic adviser saw so plainly. Whatever may have been the reason, it is clear that by the time David had reached Mahanaim he had resolved not to yield without a struggle. He girds on his sword once more with some of the animation of early days, and the light of trustful valour blazes again in his old eyes.