Technically True

Read: 2 Samuel 16:15-23

Now Absalom and all the Israelites came to Jerusalem; Ahithophel was with him. When Hushai the Archite, David’s friend, came to Absalom, Hushai said to Absalom, “Long live the king! Long live the king!” Absalom said to Hushai, “Is this your loyalty to your friend? Why did you not go with your friend?” (2 Samuel 16: 15-17, NRSV).

Everyone knows the legend about young George Washington, caught hatchet-in-hand next to his father’s fallen cherry tree. When confronted with the evidence, Washington is said to have responded, “I cannot tell a lie.”

Hushai the Archite can’t seem to tell one either. He does, however, have a gift for irony, and that’s what gives him the advantage over David’s rebellious son, Absalom. As readers, we know what Absalom doesn’t—namely, that Hushai is a “plant,” sent by David expressly to “defeat the counsel of Ahithophel” (see 2 Samuel 15:32-37). Nothing Hushai says to Absalom is technically a lie, but if your irony detector is up and running, Hushai’s words are off the charts in terms of deception.

Look carefully at everything Hushai says in this passage. From the moment he arrives, he proclaims, “Long live the king!” Which king would that be? Even Absalom is skeptical at first and raises questions about Hushai’s loyalty. Hushai must have come prepared for this, because his next statement is a masterpiece of misdirection: “No; but the one whom the LORD and this people and all the Israelites have chosen, his I will be, and with him I will remain.”

Absalom is just vain enough to fall for this. Clueless to the possibility that Hushai might be referring to David, Absalom begins to warm to the possibility that Hushai truly is a turncoat. Hushai’s next statement is designed to overcome all doubt: “Moreover, whom should I serve? Should it not be his son?” (Well, maybe it shouldn’t be….) “Just as I have served your father, so I will serve you.” (I’ll serve you, all right, and you’ll never suspect that I’m really serving David!) Absalom must be buying it, since Hushai is allowed to stick around.

Now Absalom turns to the true turncoat, Ahithophel, for advice. Formerly David’s counselor, Ahithophel is famous for his ability to give wise counsel in a crisis. In fact, “in those days the counsel that Ahithophel gave was as if one consulted the oracle of God” (v. 23). So, when Ahithophel tells Absalom to sleep with his father’s concubines as a sign that he’s burned all his bridges, Absalom pitches a tent on the roof of the palace and does so “in the sight of all Israel.”

Wait. What concubines?

Remember when David fled from Absalom back in chapter 15? David took his entire household with him—except for “ten concubines whom he left behind to look after the house.” (I guess it wouldn’t “do” to have the palace get dusty on the off chance of a triumphant return.) Now these unlucky women have become pawns in an unholy rivalry. Just how unholy may come as a surprise even to Ahithophel.

Back in the day, one sure way to claim a rival’s throne was to sleep with said rival’s wives. In this case, however, said wives are also Absalom’s step-mothers. I rather suspect that when David left them at the palace, he never dreamed Absalom would go that far. Be that as it may, Absalom has gone that far—and now there’s no going back. His—and Ahithophel’s—intention may have been to make Absalom “odious” to his father (16:21), but there’s a very real chance that he’s made himself odious to everyone else as well.

The biblical storyteller doesn’t tell us what Hushai’s reaction was to Ahithophel’s questionable advice, but it’s easy to imagine. Perhaps the wine he was drinking came spewing out of his nose. Perhaps Ahithophel slapped him on the back and asked, “Are you all right, old man?” And perhaps Hushai sputtered, “Yes, yes—I’m fine. Really—just fine! I cannot tell a lie….”

Ponder: The irony of Hushai’s words is lost on Absalom in this chapter. The irony of Absalom’s name should not be lost on us, however. Literally, “Absalom” means “father of peace.”

Pray: God grant me the serenity to think clearly in a crisis, the courage to be a true friend, and the wisdom to know the difference between good advice and bad.