Read: 2 Samuel 13:21-39

 Absalom made a feast like a king’s feast. Then Absalom commanded his servants, “Watch when Amnon’s heart is merry with wine, and when I say to you, ‘Strike Amnon,’ then kill him. Do not be afraid; have I not myself commanded you? Be courageous and valiant.” So the servants of Absalom did to Amnon as Absalom had commanded. Then all the king’s sons rose, and each mounted his mule and fled (2 Samuel 13:27b, 28-29, NRSV).

On the one hand this is a story about revenge. On the other hand, it’s a story about succession. If I had another hand, I’d say it’s also about a father who is unwilling or unable to discipline his own children. Or one could call it a complete cluster****, and that would be true too.

For those of you who are just joining us, Absalom has been biding his time. Second in line for the throne, he is seething with anger against his half-brother, Amnon, who is first in line. Absalom has good reason for his rage: Amnon had raped their sister Tamar. Thus far, that crime had gone unpunished, and the biblical narrator is quite candid about why. “When King David heard of all these things,” the narrator says, “he became very angry, but he would not punish his son Amnon, because he loved him, for he was his firstborn.”

Two years go by, during which the dust presumably settles. Still, one has to wonder why King David isn’t a bit suspicious when Absalom presses him to allow Amnon to attend his party. The fact that he has to ask permission suggests that they are not, in fact, one big happy family. At first David is reluctant, but eventually, he bows to pressure and agrees to let Amnon attend.

The trap is set. On Absalom’s orders, his servants wait until Amnon is “merry with wine” and then strike him dead. If our focus were only on the family, this would read like a straightforward story of fratricide. However, the storyteller sprinkles in some additional details that are designed to remind us that this is more than a murder. It’s treason. “Absalom made a feast like a king’s feast,” the narrator tells us. And Absalom’s encouragement to his servants—who must have quailed at his command to kill the heir apparent—sound like the words of a man who has already moved up the line of succession in his own mind. “Do not be afraid,” he reassures them. “Have I not myself commanded you? Be courageous and valiant.”

No story about politics would be complete without a self-serving opportunist. Remember the wily Jonadab? He was the guy who came up with the plot by which Amnon lured his half-sister, Tamar, into his house (13:3-5). Now he’s on hand when a false rumor reaches David that “Absalom had killed all the king’s sons, and not one of them was left.” “Let not my lord the king take it to heart,” he says (compare v. 20). They’re not all dead—just Amnon! And sure enough, “as soon as he had finished speaking the king’s sons arrived, and raised their voices and wept; and the king and all his servants also wept very bitterly.”

Absalom wisely leaves town. In fact, he flees all the way to Geshur, a semi-independent city-state in the far north and the home of his maternal grandfather. But note the ambiguity of the storyteller’s observation that “David mourned for his son day after day.” Which son is he mourning? Probably Amnon, but perhaps also Absalom.

In short, it’s complicated. The chapter ends with David finally being “consoled over the death of Amon,” but still uncertain about how to deal with Absalom, the new heir apparent. It’s been three years, after all. One way of reading verse 39 suggests that David’s heart went out, “yearning for Absalom.” Another way of reading it suggests that he just grew tired of “going out after him.” In other words, he gives up the search. Either way, he—and the monarchy—are in a mess.

One can’t help but think of the skepticism with which the monarchy was greeted when it was first proposed. Oh, some passages are all for it, but others portray God as being really reluctant about the whole affair (see 1 Samuel 8:4-22). Humans are famously fallible, after all, and it’s dangerous to put too much power into human hands. This whole story illustrates just how quickly one flawed family can throw an entire nation into a tailspin.

But we wouldn’t know anything about that….

Ponder this quote from Winston Churchill: “Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…”

Pray: Gracious God, raise up leaders who are honest, humble, and sane—and who care more about the common good than their own political ambitions.