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Verses 1-14




2 Samuel 16:15-23; 2 Samuel 17:1-14; 2 Samuel 17:23.

WE must now return to Jerusalem, and trace the course of events there on that memorable day when David left it, to flee toward the wilderness, just a few hours before Absalom entered it from Hebron.

When Absalom came to the city, there was no trace of an enemy to oppose him. His supporters in Jerusalem would no doubt go out to meet him, and conduct him to the palace with great demonstrations of delight. Eastern nations are so easily roused to enthusiasm that we can easily believe that, even for Absalom, there would be an overpowering demonstration of loyalty. Once within the palace, he would receive the adherence and congratulations of his friends.

Among these, Hushai the Archite presents himself, having returned to Jerusalem at David’s request, and it is to Hushai’s honour that Absalom was surprised to see him. He knew him to be too good a man, too congenial with David "his friend," to be likely to follow such a standard as his. There is much to be read between the lines here. Hushai was not only a counselor, but a friend, of David’s. They were probably of kindred feeling in religious matters, earnest in serving God. A man of this sort did not seem to be in his own place among the supporters of Absalom. It was a silent confession by Absalom that his supporters were a godless crew, among whom a man of godliness must be out of his element. The sight of Hushai impressed Absalom as the sight of an earnest Christian in a gambling saloon or on a racecourse would impress the greater part of worldly men. For even the world has a certain faith in godliness, - to this extent, at least, that it ought to be consistent. You may stretch a point here and there in order to gain favour with worldly men; you may accommodate yourselves to their ways, go to this and to that place of amusement, adopt their tone of conversation, join with them in ridiculing the excesses of this or that godly man or woman; but you are not to expect that by such approaches you will rise in their esteem. On the contrary, you may expect that in their secret hearts they will despise you. A man that acts according to his convictions and in the spirit of what he professes they may very cordially hate, but they are constrained to respect. A man that does violence to the spirit of his religion, in his desire to be on friendly terms with the world and further his interests, and that does many things to please them, they may not hate so strongly, but they will not respect. There is a fitness of things to which the world is sometimes more alive than Christians themselves. Jehoshaphat is not in his own place making a league with Ahab, and going up with him against Ramoth-gilead; he lays himself open to the rebuke of the seer - "Shouldest thou help the ungodly, and love them that hate the Lord? therefore is wrath upon thee from before the Lord." There is no New Testament precept needing to be more pondered than this - "Be ye not unequally yoked with unbelievers; for what communion hath light with darkness? or what fellowship hath Christ with Belial? or what communion hath he that believeth with an infidel?"

But Hushai was not content with putting in a silent appearance for Absalom. When his consistency is challenged, he must repudiate the idea that he has any preference for David; he is a loyal man in this sense, that he attaches himself to the reigning monarch, and as Absalom has received overwhelming tokens in his favour from every quarter, Hushai is resolved to stand by him. But can we justify these professions of Hushai? It is plain enough he went on the principle of fighting Absalom with his own weapons, of paying him with his own coin; Absalom had dissembled so profoundly, he had made treachery, so to speak, so much the current coin of the kingdom, that Hushai determined to use it for his own purposes. Yet, even in these circumstances, the deliberate dissembling of Hushai grates against every tender conscience, and more especially his introduction of the name of Jehovah - "Nay, but whom the Lord, and this people, and all the men of Israel choose, his will I be, and with him will I abide." Was not this taking the name of the Lord his God in vain? The stratagem had been suggested by David; it was not condemned by the voice of the age; and we are not prepared to say that stratagem is always to be condemned; but surely, in our time, the claims of truth and fair dealing would stamp it as a disreputable device, not sanctified by the end for which it was resorted to, and not worthy the followers of Him "who did no sin, neither was guile found in His mouth."

Having established himself in the confidence of Absalom, Hushai gained a right to be consulted in the deliberations of the day. He enters the room where the new king’s counselors are met, but he finds it a godless assemblage. In planning the most awful wickedness, a cool deliberation prevails that shows how familiar the counselors are with the ways of sin. "Give counsel among you," says the royal president, "what we shall do." How different from David’s way of opening the business - "Bring hither the ephod, and enquire of the Lord." In Absalom’s council help of that kind is neither asked nor desired.

The first to propose a course is Ahithophel, and there is something so revolting in the first scheme which he proposed that we wonder much that such a man should ever have been a counselor of David. His first piece of advice, that Absalom should publicly take possession of his father’s concubines, was designed to put an end to any wavering among the people; it was, according to Eastern ideas, the grossest insult that could be offered to a king, and that king a father, and it would prove that the breach between David and Absalom was irreparable, that it was vain to hope for any reconciliation. They must all make up their minds to take a side, and as Absalom’s cause was so popular, it was far the most likely they would side with him. Without hesitation Absalom complied with the advice. It is a proof how hard his heart had become, that he did not hesitate to mock his father by an act which was as disgusting as it was insulting. And what a picture we get of the position of women even in the court of King David! They were slaves in the worst sense of the term, with no right even to guard their virtue, or to protect their persons from the very worst of men; for the custom of the country, when it gave him the throne, gave him likewise the bodies and souls of the women of the harem to do with as he pleased!

The next piece of Ahithophel’s counsel was a masterpiece alike of sagacity and of wickedness. He proposed to take a select body of twelve thousand out of the troops that had already flocked to Absalom’s standard, and follow the fugitive king. That very night he would set out; and in a few hours they would overtake the king and his handful of defenders; they would destroy no life but the king’s only; and thus, by an almost bloodless revolution, they would place Absalom peacefully on the throne. The advantages of the plan were obvious. It was prompt, it seemed certain of success, and it would avoid an unpopular slaughter. So strongly was Ahithophel impressed with the advantages that it seemed impossible that it could be opposed, far less rejected. One element only he left out of his reckoning - that "as the mountains are round about Jerusalem, so the Lord God is round about His people from henceforth even forever." He forgot how many methods of protecting David God had already employed From the lion and the bear He had delivered him in his youth, by giving strength to his arm and courage to his heart; from the uncircumcised Philistine He had delivered him by guiding the stone projected from his sling to the forehead of the giant; from Saul, at one time through Michal letting him down from a window; at another, through Jonathan taking his side, at a third, by an invasion of the Philistines calling Saul away; and now He was preparing to deliver him from Absalom by a still different method: by causing the shallow proposal of Hushai to find more favour than the sagacious counsel of Ahithophel.

It must have been a moment of great anxiety to Hushai when the man whose counsel was as the oracle of God sat down amid universal approval, after having propounded the very advice of which he was most afraid. But he shows great coolness and skill in recommending his own course, and in trying to make the worse appear the better reason. He opens with an implied compliment to Ahithophel - his counsel is not good at this time. It may have been excellent on all other occasions, but the present is an exception. Then he dwells on the warlike character of David and his men, and on the exasperated state of mind in which they might be supposed to be; probably they were at that moment in some cave, where no idea of their numbers could be got, and from which they might make a sudden sally on Absalom’s troops; and if, on occasion of an encounter between the two armies, some of Absalom’s were to fall, people would take it as a defeat; a panic might seize the army, and his followers might disperse as quickly as they had assembled.

But the concluding stroke was the masterpiece. He knew that vanity was Absalom’s besetting sin. The young man that had prepared chariots and horses, and fifty men to run before him, that had been accustomed to poll his head from year to year and weigh it with so much care, and whose praise was throughout all Israel for beauty, must be flattered by a picture of the whole host of Israel marshaled around him, and going forth in proud array, with him at its head. "Therefore I counsel that all Israel be generally gathered unto thee, from Dan even to Beersheba, as the sand that is by the sea for multitude, and that thou go to battle in thine own person. So shall we come upon him in some place where he may be found, and we will light upon him as the dew falleth on the ground; and of him and of all the men that are with him there shall not be left so much as one. Moreover, if he be gotten into a city, then shall all Israel bring ropes to that city, and we will draw it into the river until there shall not be one small stone left there."

It is with counsel as with many other things: what pleases best is thought best; solid merit gives way to superficial plausibility. The counsel of Hushai pleased better than that of Ahithophel, and so it was preferred. Satan had outwitted himself. He had nursed in Absalom an overweening vanity, intending by its means to overturn the throne of David; and now that very vanity becomes the means of defeating the scheme, and laying the foundation of Absalom’s ruin. The turning-point in Absalom’s mind seems to have been the magnificent spectacle of the whole of Israel mustered for battle, and Absalom at their head. He was fascinated by the brilliant imagination. How easily may God, when He pleases, defeat the most able schemes of His enemies! He does not need to create weapons to oppose them; He has only to turn their own weapons against themselves. What an encouragement to faith even when the fortunes of the Church are at their lowest ebb! "The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together against the Lord, and against His anointed, saying, Let us break their bonds asunder, and cast away their cords from us. lie that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh; the Lord shall have them in derision. Then shall He speak to them in wrath, and vex them in His sore displeasure. Yet have I set my king upon my holy hill of Zion."

The council is over; Hushai, unspeakably relieved, hastens to communicate with the priests, and through them send messengers to David; Absalom withdraws to delight himself with the thought of the great military muster that is to flock to his standard; while Ahithophel, in high dudgeon, retires to his house. The character of Ahithophel was a singular combination. To deep natural sagacity he united great spiritual blindness and lack of true manliness. He saw at once the danger to the cause of Absalom in the plan that had been preferred to his own; but it was not that consideration, it was the gross affront to himself that preyed on him, and drove him to commit suicide. "When Ahithophel saw that his counsel was not followed, he saddled his ass and arose and gat him home to his house, to his city, and put his household in order, and hanged himself and died, and was buried in the sepulcher of his father." In his own way he was as much the victim of vanity as Absalom. The one was vain of his person, the other of his wisdom. In each case it was the man’s vanity that was the cause of his death. What a contrast Ahithophel was to David in his power of bearing disgrace! - David, though with bowed head, bearing up so bravely, and even restraining his followers from chastising some of those who were so vehemently affronting him; Ahithophel unable to endure life because for once another man’s counsel had been preferred to his. Men of the richest gifts have often shown themselves babes in self-control. Ahithophel is the Judas of the New Testament, lays plans for the destruction of his master, and, like Judas, falls almost immediately, by his own hand. "What a mixture," says Bishop Hall, "do we find here of wisdom and madness! Ahithophel will needs hang himself, there is madness; he will yet set his house in order, there is wisdom. And could it be possible that he that was so wise as to set his house in order was so mad as to hang himself? that he should be so careful to order his house who had no care to order his unruly passions? that he should care for his house who cared not for his body or his soul? How vain is it for man to be wise if he is not wise in God. How preposterous are the cares of idle worldlings, that prefer all other things to themselves, and while they look at what they have in their coffers forget what they have in their breasts."

This council-chamber of Absalom is full of material for profitable reflection. The manner in which he was turned aside from the way of wisdom and safety is a remarkable illustration of our Lord’s principle- "If thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light." We are accustomed to view this principle chiefly in its relation to moral and spiritual life; but it is applicable likewise even to worldly affairs. Absalom’s eye was not single. Success, no doubt, was the chief object at which he aimed, but another object was the gratification of his vanity. This inferior object was allowed to come in and disturb his judgment. If Absalom had had a single eye, even in a worldly sense, he would have felt profoundly that the one thing to be considered was, how to get rid of David and establish himself firmly on the throne. But instead of studying this one thing with firm and immovable purpose, he allowed the vision of a great muster of troops commanded by himself to come in, and so to distract his judgment that he gave his decision for the latter course. No doubt he thought that his position was so secure that he could afford the few days’ delay which this scheme involved. All the same, it was this disturbing element of personal vanity that gave a twist to his vision, and led him to the conclusion which lost him everything.

For even in worldly things, singleness of eye is a great help towards a sound conclusion. "To the upright there ariseth light in the darkness." And if this rule hold true in the worldly sphere, much more in the moral and spiritual. It is when you have the profoundest desire to do what is right that you are in the best way to know what is wise. In the service of God you are grievously liable to be distracted by private feelings and interests of your own. It is when these private interests assert themselves that you are most liable to lose the clear line of duty and of wisdom. You wish to do God’s will, but at the same time you are very unwilling to sacrifice this interest, or expose yourself to that trouble. Thus your own feeling becomes a screen that dims your vision, and prevents you from seeing the path of duty and wisdom alike. You have not a clear sight of the right path. You live in an atmosphere of perplexity; whereas men of more single purpose, and more regardless of their own interests, see clearly and act wisely. Was there anything more remarkable in the Apostle Paul than the clearness of his vision, the decisive yet admirable way in which he solved perplexing questions, and the high practical wisdom that guided him throughout? And is not this to be connected with his singleness of eye, his utter disregard of personal interests in his public life - his entire devotion to the will and to the service of his Master? From that memorable hour on the way to Damascus, when he put the question, "Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?" onward to the day when he laid his head on the block in imperial Rome, the one interest of his heart, the one thought of his mind, was to do the will of Christ. Never was an eye more single, and never was a body more full of light.

But again, from that council-chamber of Absalom and its results we learn how all projects founded on godlessness and selfishness carry in their bosom the elements of dissolution. They have no true principle of coherence, no firm, binding element, to secure them against disturbing influences arising from further manifestations of selfishness on the part of those engaged in them. Men may be united by selfish interest in some undertaking up to a certain point, but, like a rocket in the air, selfishness is liable to burst up in a thousand different directions, and then the bond of union is destroyed. The only bond of union that can resist distracting tendencies is an immovable regard to the will of God, and, in subordination thereto, to the welfare of men. In our fallen world it is seldom - rather, it is never - that any great enterprise is undertaken and carried forward on grounds where selfishness has no place whatever. But we may say this very confidently, that the more an undertaking is based on regard to God’s will and the good of men, the more stability and true prosperity will it enjoy; whereas every element of selfishness or self-seeking that may be introduced into it is an element of weakness, and tends to its dissolution. The remark is true of Churches and religious societies, of religious movements and political movements too.

Men that are not overawed, as it were, by a supreme regard to the will of God; men to whom the consideration of that will is not strong enough at once to smite down every selfish feeling that may arise in their minds, will always be liable to desire some object of their own rather than the good of the whole. They will begin to complain if they are not sufficiently considered and honoured. They will allow jealousies and suspicions towards those who have most influence to arise in their hearts. They will get into caves to air their discontent with those like-minded. All this tends to weakness and dissolution. Selfishness is the serpent that comes crawling into many a hopeful garden, and brings with it division and desolation. In private life, it should be watched and thwarted as the grievous foe of all that is good and right. The same course should be taken with regard to it in all the associations of Christians. And it is Christian men only that are capable of uniting on grounds so high and pure as to give some hope that this evil spirit will not succeed in disuniting them - that is to say, men who feel and act on the obligations under which the Lord Jesus Christ has placed them; men that feel that their own redemption, and every blessing they have or hope to have, come through the wonderful self-denial of the Son of God, and that if they have the faintest right to His holy name they must not shrink from the like self- denial. It is a happy thing to be able to adopt as our rule - "None of us liveth to himself; for whether we live, we live unto the Lord, or whether we die, we die unto the Lord; whether we live therefore or die, we are the Lord’s." The more this rule prevails in Churches and Christian societies, the more will there be of union and stability too; but with its neglect, all kinds of evil and trouble will come in, and very probably, disruption and dissolution in the end.

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