O My Son, Absalom
Text: II Samuel 18
Young Absalom lay dead beneath a makeshift grave of stones. “Deal gently” were the last orders from King David mouth, but General Joab heard only the pathetic uttering of a desperate father. Joab would do many things to a rebellious soldier, but “deal gently” with him was not on his list.
Joab does just the opposite of David’s plea. He deals brutally with Absalom, the traitor and insurrectionist. Then, Joab tries to manage how King David will hear the news. But news of the death of a child, no matter how rebellious, simply cannot be “managed.” Messengers arrive with glad tidings of military victory to announce to the King. They shout that the battle is won and the insurrection crushed, but David only hears that his son, Absalom, is dead. “O my son, Absalom, my son, my son, Absalom.”
From the world wars to Korea to Vietnam, from Iraq to Afghanistan, how many fathers and mothers have wept when a messenger knocked on their doors to tell them that their child was dead? From the gun wars on our city streets and in our schools and at the home of a federal judge, how many mothers and fathers have wept when a messenger knocked on their doors to tell them that their child was dead? From pediatric cancer wards to pediatric Covid wards, how many fathers and mothers have wept when a messenger knocked on their doors to tell them that their child was dead? “O my son, my son.” “O my daughter, my daughter.”
The story of the rebellion and then death of Absalom has inspired some of the finest literature ever written. Two celebrated uses of this story of a son’s rebellion and a father’s grief” are William Faulkner’s, Absalom, Absalom! and Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country. “Both find . . . parallels to the story of Absalom and David,” writes Birch. “In both novels . . . sons are brought to grief by the injustices their fathers first put in place and the sons inevitably imitate. Too late the fathers must recognize the price their sons have paid for their father’s sins as well as their own . . . There are stories in which the prodigal son does not come home and the waiting father’s embrace is empty” (New Interpreter’s Bible).
In his 20th century American tragedy, All My Sons, playwright Arthur Miller captures the pathos of the death of a son and the complicity of a flawed father. The play is based on a true story of how a woman informed on her father who had sold faulty parts to the U.S. military during World War II.
Set at the close of the that war, we soon learn that Joe Keller’s son, Larry, a military pilot, has crashed and is presumed dead, though his body has not yet been found. We also learn that Larry’s father, Joe, has sold faulty plane parts on the cheap to the military and some of those faulty parts contributed to the crash of Larry’s plane.
Time passes in the play and Larry’s brother, Chris, wants to move on with his life. He insists that his mother finally accept the death of his brother. And, in what could be the most powerful lines spoken in American Theater, the mother responds:
Your brother’s alive, darling, because if he’s dead, your father killed him. Do you understand me now? As long as you live that boy is alive. God does not let a son be killed by his father.
In this story, Absalom is not just another casualty of war; he is a casualty of his father’s failings. When David weeps, he is weeping not just for his fallen son, but for himself. “O Absalom, my son, my son.” In this painstakingly intimate moment, David’s grief lies naked before us. It is grief not just for the death of Absalom, but grief for how he failed Absalom as a father, failed to deal with his other son, Amnon when he raped Tamar, how he orchestrated the death of Uriah and treated Bathsheba like a piece of property to be stolen, how he failed to show Absalom what it would look like to rule with integrity and to live in humility. David weeps as the weight of his own sin piles upon him as the stones that now cover his dead son.
Some people are satisfied that this collapse of David into tears is the rightful end of this sad and tragic story. In Greek tragedy, sin require punishment; a price needs to be paid. In this story, the flawed protagonist has now paid the price for his flawed behavior and the moral universe can spin again on its proper axis. For some, this tragic story is as simple as that. David collapsing into a pool of tears is the rightful end of the story.
Well, as a flawed pastor, a flawed father, a flawed husband, a flawed friend, I am grateful that for at least Matthew and Luke, the weeping of David over the rebellion and death of Absalom is not even close to the end of the story.
In the family tree of Jesus, Matthew identifies Jesse as David’s father and then adds this searing line: “David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah” (Matthew 1:6). Matthew does not clean up the ancient story to say “David was the father of Solomon by Bathsheba, his wife.” No, in precious few words, Matthew reminds us that the only way David had the child, Solomon, was by seeing to the murder of Bathsheba’s husband and taking her into his bed by no choice of her own. And, yet, as these Gospel writers insist somehow with inscrutable mercy, the story does not end with the death of Absalom and the weeping of David.
Some years ago, William Sloane Coffin stood in the pulpit of the Riverside Church in New York City two Sundays after his son, Alex, had crashed into Boston Harbor and drowned.
At the close of the most remarkable sermon I have ever read, Coffin says, “Finally, I know that when Alex beat me to the grave, the finish line was not Boston Harbor in the middle of the night. If a week ago last Monday, a lamp went out, it was because, for him at least, the Dawn had come. So, I shall - so let us all - seek consolation in that love which never dies, and find peace in the dazzling grace that always is.”
All four Gospels tell the story of a parent experiencing the death of a child. The child in the Gospel story is no renegade prodigal or rebellious soldier and the parent is no morally crippled soul. From the child’s birth in Bethlehem until Easter dawns on an empty tomb, the parent is known by the name “Emmanuel,” “God with us.” That same God was with David when he cried out in grief, “O Absalom, my son, my son.” That same God was with Jesus, when in a moment of desolation, he cried out, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me.” That same God was with Alex when he crashed into Boston Harbor and was with his dad, William, and with every parent who has ever grieved the death of a child.
“Emmanuel.” “God with us.” That, my friends, is the real end of the story, as even on the darkest night of the soul, you and I “seek consolation in that love which never dies, and find peace in the dazzling grace that always is.”
*The etching above, "David Weeps for Absalom" is by Marc Chagall.