Holy Week 2024 Part 6: Good Friday – The Passion of Our Lord and Absalom’s Rebellion


Holy Week 2024 Part 6: Good Friday – The Passion of Our Lord and Absalom’s Rebellion

Published: 3rd April, 2024

1. Absalom’s Rebellion

A reading from the Second Book of Samuel

Absalom said to the king, “Please let me go to Hebron and pay the vow that I have made to the Lord. For your servant made a vow while I lived at Geshur in Aram: If the Lord will indeed bring me back to Jerusalem, then I will serve the Lord in Hebron.” The king said to him, “Go in peace.” So he got up and went to Hebron. But Absalom sent secret messengers throughout all the tribes of Israel, saying, “As soon as you hear the sound of the trumpet, then shout: Absalom has become king at Hebron!” Two hundred men from Jerusalem went with Absalom; they were invited guests, and they went in innocence, knowing nothing of the matter. While Absalom was offering the sacrifices, he sent for Ahithophel the Gilonite, David’s counselor, from his city Giloh. The conspiracy grew in strength, and the people with Absalom kept increasing.

A messenger came to David, saying, “The hearts of the Israelites have gone after Absalom.” Then David said to all his officials who were with him at Jerusalem, “Get up! Let us flee, or there will be no escape for us from Absalom. Hurry, or he will soon overtake us, and bring disaster down upon us, and attack the city with the edge of the sword.” The king’s officials said to the king, “Your servants are ready to do whatever our lord the king decides.” So the king left, followed by all his household, except ten concubines whom he left behind to look after the house. The king left, followed by all the people, and they stopped at the last house. All his officials passed by him, and all the Cherethites, and all the Pelethites, and all the six hundred Gittites who had followed him from Gath passed on before the king.

Then the king said to Ittai the Gittite, “Why are you also coming with us? Go back, and stay with the king, for you are a foreigner and also an exile from your home. You came only yesterday, and shall I today make you wander about with us while I go wherever I can? Go back, and take your kinsfolk with you, and may the Lord show steadfast love and faithfulness to you.” But Ittai answered the king, “As the Lord lives and as my lord the king lives, wherever my lord the king may be, whether for death or for life, there also your servant will be.” David said to Ittai, “Go then, march on.” So Ittai the Gittite marched on, with all his men and all the little ones who were with him. The whole country wept aloud as all the people passed by; the king crossed the Wadi Kidron, and all the people moved on toward the wilderness.

Abiathar came up, and Zadok also, with all the Levites, carrying the ark of the covenant of God. They set down the ark of God until the people had all passed out of the city. Then the king said to Zadok, “Carry the ark of God back into the city. If I find favour in the eyes of the Lord, he will bring me back and let me see both it and the place where it stays. But if he says, ‘I take no pleasure in you,’ here I am, let him do to me what seems good to him.” The king also said to the priest Zadok, “Look, go back to the city in peace, you and Abiathar, with your two sons, Ahimaaz your son and Jonathan son of Abiathar. See, I will wait at the fords of the wilderness until word comes from you to inform me.” So Zadok and Abiathar carried the ark of God back to Jerusalem, and they remained there.

But David went up the ascent of the Mount of Olives, weeping as he went, with his head covered and walking barefoot, and all the people who were with him covered their heads and went up, weeping as they went. David was told that Ahithophel was among the conspirators with Absalom. And David said, “O Lord, I pray you, turn the counsel of Ahithophel into foolishness.” [2 Samuel 15.1-31]

In the name of the +Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit

During this Holy Week we have been reflecting on some of the connections between the stories of David and the life and death of Jesus. Our focus today will be on the rebellion of Absalom, David’s son.

The narrative you have just heard tells the story of the beginning of Absalom’s rebellion. Absalom gathers a conspiracy around himself, drawing many of the people to him, and also Ahithophel, David’s trusted advisor. David and those who remain loyal to him are forced to flee Jerusalem ahead of the expected arrival of Absalom.

This story perhaps above all the other stories of King David has had an important place in Christian tradition through its connections with the story of Jesus’ arrest, passion and death. Let’s spend a little time reflecting on the connections in the passage we have just heard.

First, let’s notice the geography of David’s flight from Absalom. We are told that David and his followers leave Jerusalem and cross the Wadi Kidron to the Mount of Olives. You may remember that Jesus is described as making exactly the same journey on the night of His arrest: John’s gospel explicitly describes Jesus crossing the Wadi Kidron, and He makes His way to the garden of Gethsemane, on the slopes of the Mount of Olives.

Second, we might notice the role of Ahithophel. He is David’s trusted advisor, and yet he goes over to the Absalom camp, and gives his advice to the king’s rebellious son. In the psalms, David is portrayed raging against a betrayal in Psalm 55: My companion laid hands on a friend, and violated a covenant with me, with speech smoother than butter, but with a heart set on war, with words that were softer than oil but in fact were drawn swords. These words, and the character of Ahithophel, are associated in Christian thought with Judas who betrays Jesus.

Third, it is the story of a rebellion against a king. We tend to think of Jesus’ crucifixion from the perspective of Jesus as a potential rebel. That is very likely how He was seen to both the Jewish religious authorities and to the Romans as well. If they hadn’t believed Him to be a threat to the established order, it is hard to understand why they would have gone to the trouble of killing Him. But there is another angle that we can take: Jesus is in fact the King, and it is the religious and military authorities who are in rebellion again Him. They refuse to accept His authority, they take up arms against Him, they violently remove Him from the city of His ancestor David and kill Him outside the city walls. In the eyes of the Romans and the religious leaders, Jesus is a potential or perhaps even an actual rebel; from God’s perspective, it is rather they who are in rebellion against their rightful Lord and King, to whom with the Father and the Holy Spirit be all praise and glory, now and unto ages of ages. Amen.

2. Absalom and Christ

A reading from the Second Book of Samuel

Then David mustered the men who were with him and set over them commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds. And David sent forth the army: one third under the command of Joab; one third under the command of Abishai son of Zeruiah, Joab’s brother; and one third under the command of Ittai the Gittite. The king said to the men, “I myself will also go out with you.” But the men said, “You shall not go out. For if we flee, they will not care about us. If half of us die, they will not care about us. But you are worth ten thousand of us; therefore it is better that you send us help from the city.” The king said to them, “Whatever seems best to you I will do.” So the king stood at the side of the gate, while all the army marched out by hundreds and by thousands. The king ordered Joab and Abishai and Ittai, saying, “Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.” And all the people heard when the king gave orders to all the commanders concerning Absalom.

So the army went out into the field against Israel, and the battle was fought in the forest of Ephraim. The men of Israel were defeated there by the servants of David, and the slaughter there was great on that day, twenty thousand men. The battle spread over the face of all the country, and the forest claimed more victims that day than the sword.

Absalom happened to meet the servants of David. Absalom was riding on his mule, and the mule went under the thick branches of a great oak. His head caught fast in the oak, and he was left hanging between heaven and earth, while the mule that was under him went on. A man saw it and told Joab, “I saw Absalom hanging in an oak.” Joab said to the man who told him, “What, you saw him! Why then did you not strike him there to the ground? I would have been glad to give you ten pieces of silver and a belt.” But the man said to Joab, “Even if I felt in my hand the weight of a thousand pieces of silver, I would not raise my hand against the king’s son, for in our hearing the king commanded you and Abishai and Ittai, saying, ‘For my sake protect the young man Absalom!’ On the other hand, if I had dealt treacherously against his life (and there is nothing hidden from the king), then you yourself would have stood aloof.” Joab said, “I will not waste time like this with you.” He took three spears in his hand and thrust them into the heart of Absalom while he was still alive in the oak. And ten young men, Joab’s armour-bearers, surrounded Absalom and struck him and killed him. [1 Samuel 18.1-15]

In the name of the +Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

So far in our reflections on the significance of the stories of King David, both today and in the previous addresses this week, we have been thinking mostly along the lines of seeing Jesus in the place of David. We have been seeking to understand David not only as one who prophesied in words about the coming Christ, but who also in the episodes of his life prefigured aspects of the life of Christ.

But now we need to step out of that frame for a moment, and think about this story from a different perspective.

The idea of Absolom as Christ is one that we instinctively recoil from. What can this arrogant and rebellious son have in common with Jesus, who in His humility became obedient even unto death on a Cross?

Nevertheless, the parallels with Jesus are inescapable.

There are the details of his death. Absalom is left hanging from a tree, suspended between heaven and earth. We are of course reminded immediately of the Tree of the Cross, on which hung the Saviour of the World. And then Absalom is pierced by Joab with a spear, and again we cannot help but be reminded of the spear that pierced Jesus’ side, and the blood and water that flowed out.

And then there is the significance of Absalom’s death. David does not want Absalom to die, but Joab understands what David as a Father refuses to see, that the dynamics of rebellion are such that the only way to end the chaos and violence is for Absalom to die. A defeated, angry, sulking Absalom would always be a threat to order and peace. Joab calculates that it is better for one man to die for the people, than to accept the potential for further rebellion, violence and death that Absalom will always represent as long as he lives.  And we are reminded immediately of the words of Caiaphas the High Priest in John’s gospel, words spoken about Jesus before His arrest: “it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish”. The death of Absalom allows peace and order to be restored; similarly, the death of Jesus also makes possible a restoration of peace and order but on a cosmic scale, reconciling us to God by means of His death on the Cross, and putting to death our hostility toward each other.

We might initially recoil from the idea of this sort of connection between Absalom and Jesus. But once again we are reminded that Jesus in His humility takes the place of sinners. He is numbered among the transgressors. Cursed is the one who hangs on a tree; Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us. To Him be all praise and glory, with the +Father and the Holy Spirit, now and for ever. Amen.

3. David weeps for Absalom

A reading from the Second Book of Samuel

Now David was sitting between the two gates. The sentinel went up to the roof of the gate by the wall, and when he looked up he saw a man running alone. The sentinel shouted and told the king. The king said, “If he is alone, there are tidings in his mouth.” He kept coming and drew near. Then the sentinel saw another man running, and the sentinel called to the gatekeeper and said, “See, another man running alone!” The king said, “He also is bringing tidings.” The sentinel said, “I think the first one runs like Ahimaaz son of Zadok.” The king said, “He is a good man and comes with good tidings.”

Then Ahimaaz cried out to the king, “All is well!” He prostrated himself before the king with his face to the ground and said, “Blessed be the Lord your God, who has delivered up the men who raised their hand against my lord the king.” The king said, “Is it well with the young man Absalom?” Ahimaaz answered, “I saw a great tumult when the king’s servant Joab sent your servant, but I do not know what it was.” The king said, “Turn aside, and stand here.” So he turned aside and stood still.

Then the Cushite came, and the Cushite said, “Good tidings for my lord the king! For the Lord has vindicated you this day, delivering you from the power of all who rose up against you.” The king said to the Cushite, “Is it well with the young man Absalom?” The Cushite answered, “May the enemies of my lord the king and all who rise up to do you harm be like that young man.”

The king was deeply moved and went up to the chamber over the gate and wept, and as he went he said, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!” [2 Samuel 18.24-33]

In the name of the +Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

This is one of the most moving passages in the whole of the bible, and one that has inspired some really incredible choral music. The horror of David’s position is made clear: the rebellion of his son has put him in an intolerable position, and the triumph of his armies leads him to an unbearable grief. “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”

We see here a merciful and compassionate side to David once again. He is not consumed with anger against his son. We know that David is more than capable of anger and violence, and yet this is not his response to his son’s bloody rebellion and his outrageous acts. David has the compassionate heart of a father; it is plain that despite everything he cares deeply for his son, and his anxiety is painfully apparent in his urgent question, “Is it well with the young man Absalom?”

And we may well be reminded of the compassion and mercy of Jesus. Jesus weeping over Jerusalem before His triumphal entry. Jesus weeping at the grave of Lazarus. Jesus praying for His executioners: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”. Jesus tenderly rehabilitating and commissioning Peter following his denial.

And then there are those extraordinary words. David, having been saved from likely death at the hands of his son by Joab and his loyal army cries out: “Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!” Joab is furious with David, perhaps understandably so, having put his life and the lives of his soldiers on the line to save his king. But David is both a king and a parent, and as a parent his reaction to Absalom’s death is natural and right. “Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”

Again we are drawn back to the Cross. Would I had died instead of you. David unwittingly speaks of what is to come. God the Father, loving His rebellious children as David loved Absalom, seeks to redeem fallen humanity. In Jesus Christ divinity is united with humanity, the gap between God and humanity is closed, and Jesus’ redeemed humanity experiences death so that we may have life. Jesus speaks in David: “Would I had died instead of you”. He speaks these words to each of us. He puts Himself in our place, so that we may come to be in His place, to whom with the Father and the Holy Spirit be all praise and glory now and for ever. Amen.

Let us pray

O kind and loving Jesus,
We are gathered here before you,
Asking you fervently to put into our hearts
The virtues of faith, hope and charity,
With true contrition for our sins
And a firm purpose of amendment.
Help us to contemplate with sorrow
Your five precious wounds,
While we remember David’s prophecy:
They have pierced my hands and my feet;
They have counted all my bones.