David turns the other cheek and often refuses to be political to his own disadvantage. Now he is a vagabond again – Israel’s king, wandering about the countryside trying to survive, while being usurped by his own son Absalom. We get some quite telling portraits of the two men in this chapter, which are great examples of the grace filled life – and its opposite.
He meets Ziba, his enemy Saul’s old servant who he left serving Jonathan’s lame surviving son, Saul’s grandson Mephibosheth. Most Kings would have had them killed long ago, but David has been kind to these former enemies who were definitely in the anti-David camp during the civil war, in memory of his love for Jonathan and his respect for the god given position of Saul, as his anointed king.
Ziba is there with a loving cart of goodies for the troops. During this low time Ziba is repaying David’s decency.
Mephibosheth? Back in Jerusalem on the side of the usurper, pining for the end of David and new glory days. He has completely despised David’s kindness and turned on him at the first opportunity.
Was David wrong to show him mercy? In earthly terms, yes, he doesn’t deserve it and from a practical point of view he’s a rallying point for opposition. But David views himself as accountable to God for his ethics, not man. David does grant Ziba all the property he gave to Mephibosheth for his kind loyalty.
Next they meet another supporter of Saul, part of his extended family, who single handedly and continually rains down curses, rocks and dirt on David and his men. What he says is in some senses quite fair, if showing a pro-Saul spin. He calls David a man of bloodshed, which he really is, and says his current usurped situation, a parallel of what he did to Saul, is God’s punishment for all the bloodshed in Saul’s house when David took the throne. That’s a little unfair, given how many opportunities to pro-actively seize the throne from Saul David ignored. But there was much bloodshed.
One of Saul’s men wants to quickly dispatch this man, Shimei by cutting off his head, but David defends him saying this is what the Lord has told him to do: “The lord has spoken to him”.
So as they continue along the road, bedraggled and tired, probably hungry again, Shimei goes along with them shouting abuse and throwing rocks and dirt the whole way. David cops it – after all he says, his own flesh and blood is doing the same. David showed an absurd – in practical terms – amount of loyalty to Saul who was unjustly violent towards him at every opportunity, and now extends the same to Saul’s old supporter.
He does it because of God, and perceives this man as a kind of prophet, telling God’s truth. Talk about love thine enemies and turn the other cheek…
Meanwhile in Jerusalem, a different kind of behaviour is being modelled. When David evacuated he left 10 concubines to look after the palace. His son, Absalom very publicly enters sexual relations with the women. This is a means of politically signalling an irreconcilable break with David. There can be no going back after that, everyone must choose to be on David’s side or Absalom’s. And all the cards are in Absalom’s hand at the moment.
Absalom did this on the advice of Ahithophel, who is an interesting character who we’ll return to next chapter. He’s a bit of a Samson type. God gave him a great gift of insight and wisdom, and both David and Absalom desire his advice. But like Samson Ahithophel abuses and wastes the extraordinary gift God has given him.
This advice, about the concubines, is an astute political power play to consolidate the moment, but ethically corrupt before God. Last chapter ended with a kiss between father and son after David reached out to Absalom with a very painful process of forgiveness. Now the son is taking his father’s throne, his women, his palace, his people’s hearts.
Should David have left Absalom in exile? His return is a disaster. But forgiveness is its own reward, before God. David is working on the struggle with his own sinful nature to live a grace filled life.
And yes, that is the thing to do.
And before I go, spare a thought for concubines. The second class citizens of a polygamous system.
Their situation seems to range from what we would traditionally think of as mistresses – long term, possibly quite loved, non-wives – to total sex slaves. They can’t attain the status of wife, I think, because they are foreign. They are generally captives of war, though there were also some traditions of them being free to leave if they chose. If allowed to be free, they would abandon any children and a life of luxury and privilege if they did – a classic asymmetric “freedom” of the disempowered.
Sometimes they would be female circumcised and/or sterilised. So, worst case scenario, they were merely another object of plunder along with gold and livestock: the best looking women of the enemy forced into a brutal, mutilated life of sex slavery. I don’t think this was completely true of the biblical Israelite concubines because they keep producing children in these stories.
I don’t know if the fact that David left 10 behind to mind the palace shows a certain level of trust and genuine relationship between him and them.
Whether or not David was good to them, they certainly would have been reminded of their vulnerable position when Absalom took over and claimed them for himself.
Sorry, long entry, quiet Saturday morning. Lots to think and pray about grace and being accountable to God.
That concept of “God sees everything” is one of the most hated and parodied by atheists and God haters. They portray us as living in paralysing fear of an invisible and capricious bogeyman, a pathetic life.
But I’m convinced that God’s laws are good – love your neighbour as yourself even when your neighbour is not watching or there is no obvious benefit to you. Because love is an end in itself. That’s right and the best of humankind, not pathetic.
Atheists call it ethics and so do I. They also, in the end, think its good, give or take an argument about state recognition of same sex marriage (which I personally am not against in any event).
I’m not always good at it. There is a great wisdom in this chapter about how to love your enemies, which is being prepared to hear the truth in what they say. I pray that like David I will struggle to be always getting better at it.