Not a Step

Read: 2 Samuel 18

Then the Cushite came; and the Cushite said, “Good tidings for my lord the king! For the LORD has vindicated you this day, delivering you from the power of all who rise up against you.” The king said to the Cushite, “Is it well with the young man Absalom?” The Cushite answered, “May the enemies of my lord the king, and all who rise up to do you harm, be like that young man.” The king was deeply moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept; and as he went, he said, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!” (2 Samuel 18:31-33, NRSV).

If you’ve ever used a stepladder, you’ll be familiar with the caution: “NOT A STEP.” In spite of the fact that these words are printed on what is clearly the top step, the warning serves as a reminder that ascending to that forbidden height is a very bad idea.

All three of the major characters in 2 Samuel 18 disregard this caution.

Absalom, of course, has been dancing a jig on the top step for a while now. Ever since he decided to “steal the hearts of the people of Israel” from his father back in chapter 15, he’s been climbing to forbidden heights. Now those metaphorical heights have become literal, as this chapter finds him caught by his famous hair in the branches of a great oak.

Enter General Joab who oversteps a direct order from King David to “Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.” From a military standpoint, this is a ridiculous directive, so he ignores it. When he gets word from a more cautious underling that Absalom is hanging defenseless from a tree, Joab takes three spears and thrusts them into Absalom’s heart. In what is surely overkill, ten of Joab’s armor-bearers then surround Absalom and strike him. This may be the only bit of caution Joab shows, since he can later argue that no one can know for sure which (or whose) blow finally killed Absalom.

Now there remains the problem of telling David the news. The good news is that Absalom is dead along with his dangerous insurrection. The bad news is that Absalom, the king’s favorite son, is dead and buried with a burial reserved for the accursed (see Josh. 7:25-26). Joab is not so naïve as to bring this news to the king himself. Perhaps he remembers David’s tendency to blame the messenger (see 2 Sam. 4). He even discourages the eager young man, Ahimaaz, from running to David with the news. Instead, he sends an expendable (!) Cushite to run and tell David the news. But Ahimaaz presses his case, and finally receives Joab’s unenthusiastic permission. So, off he goes, and in his enthusiasm, he actually outruns the Cushite.

When Ahimaaz arrives, he breathlessly announces that, “All is well!” Perhaps there is something in David’s tone or facial expression—or the fact that his first question has to do with the welfare of Absalom—but Ahimaaz seems to sense that all is NOT well with King David. So Ahimaaz suddenly steps down from his perch on the “NOT A STEP” step. Now he claims to know nothing of Absalom’s fate and leaves that news for the poor unsuspecting Cushite to deliver.

As it turns out, David is so stricken by the news of his son’s death, he can’t even be bothered to kill the messenger. In fact, he can’t even be bothered to acknowledge the fact that his loyal soldiers have risked their lives to put down a rebellion. His focus is not on the kingdom’s win, but on his personal loss. He makes his way weeping to the closest private space and sobs for his son.

It’s impossible not to sympathize with the sorrow of this grieving father. But as the next chapter will reveal, David’s failure to acknowledge the good news as well as the bad news is—well—a step too far.

Ponder: Why do you think people so often disregard cautionary warnings intended for their own safety? Have you ever done this? How did it work out for you?

Pray: Preserve us—individually and collectively—from the exceptionalism that says, “This warning does not apply to me.”