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Pursue peace with all people…
looking carefully lest anyone fall short of the grace of God;
lest any root of bitterness springing up cause trouble,
and by this many become defiled; (Hebrews 12:14-15, NKJV)
A few weeks ago, as I was reading 2 Samuel 13-20, I was reminded of the Apostle Paul’s admonition to guard our hearts from bitterness and all the trouble it causes. King David’s son Absalom is a fantastic illustration of the damage that can result from unresolved conflict and bitterness.
It all started with a terrible miscarriage of justice. Absalom’s sister, Tamar, was a beautiful virgin daughter of King David. Her half-brother, Amnon, became so infatuated with her, he hatched a scheme to get her alone with him, and then forced her to have sex. If that wasn’t bad enough, he then became repulsed by the girl and kicked her out of his house. The poor young woman fled to her brother Absalom’s home in disgrace and lived in seclusion for the rest of her life. (2 Samuel 13:1-20)
King David heard about the incident and was angry with his son, but he did nothing to punish Amnon (v. 21). The Law of God required the death penalty for incest (Leviticus 18:6 & 9, 20:17). Anyone who raped a virgin had to become married to her for life (Deuteronomy 22:28-29). Yet neither of these consequences was applied to David’s firstborn.
In this leadership vacuum, Absalom determined to right the wrong in his own way. For two years, he waited for his father to act. Meanwhile, David’s second-born so hated his half-brother for violating his sister, that he wouldn’t even speak to Amnon (2 Sam. 13:22-23). Did David take notice and do the right thing? Not all. So when the opportunity presented itself, Absalom struck down his older brother to avenge the shaming of Tamar (vv. 23-29). Even when the king was told about the murder and the reason it was premeditated, again, David did nothing to confront Absalom for taking justice into his own hands (30-36).
Absalom fled in fear to the realm of his grandfather, Talmai, king of Geshur, and stayed there in exile for three years (37-38). Although David wanted to see his son, he would not summon Absalom back to Judah, until his general, Joab, convinced him through a wise woman’s story that it was the right thing to do (2 Sam. 13:39-14:22). Even then, David would not be reconciled with or rebuke Absalom; he called him back, but sent him home without an audience with the king (2 Sam. 14:23-24).
For two years, the young man lived in Jerusalem, but was not allowed access to King David (v. 28). He became ever more resentful of those in authority. So determined was Absalom for his father to acknowledge him—even if it meant being executed for murder—that he took drastic measures to arrange a meeting (29-32). Yet when the prince humbled himself before his father, David merely gave the perfunctory Middle-eastern kiss, and then dismissed him again (33).
Absalom began to criticize the administration of his father. He launched a four-year campaign to undermine David’s authority, by telling people they would get no satisfaction if they presented their case to the king. Absalom affirmed the value of each person’s claim and said, if he were in charge, they would be given justice. Thus, the handsome, beguiling prince “stole the hearts of the men of Israel” away from their rightful leader (2 Sam. 15:1-6).
This led to open rebellion against the established leadership. The younger man formed a conspiracy with other disgruntled and ambitious Israelites to overthrow David’s authority and establish Absalom as king in his place (vv. 7-12).
Because of his failure to act appropriately concerning the first, and then the second offense, David was forced to flee for his life (2 Sam. 15:13-16:14). Unfortunately, he was not the only one to suffer for his mistakes; many innocent bystanders were affected. At the advice of Ahithophel, whom David had earlier offended by committing adultery with his granddaughter, Absalom publicly raped ten of the king’s concubines (2 Sam. 16:20-22).
The conflict that began between David and his estranged son escalated to the point that his family was divided and the country was destabilized. Absalom amassed an army—including some of David’s own family members—to fight against him and those loyal to the shepherd king (2 Sam. 17:24-18:6).
Lives were lost. Not only were many soldiers killed, but Absalom himself was slain (2 Sam. 18:7-17).
Grief and regret plagued those who were left. When informed of his son’s death, David mourned deeply and wished he had died instead. His soldiers, though victorious, were sad because of the king’s grief. (2 Sam. 18:19-19:4)
After his army defeated and scattered Absalom’s forces, David worked to regain his throne. The “damage control” needed to restore order was harder than doing the right thing in the first place.
Having been rebuked by his general, David had to leave off his mourning and apologize for involving those who defended him and thank them for risking their lives in his behalf (2 Sam. 19:5-8).
As he made his way back to the capital, diplomacy was required to placate allies of the offended and reinstate his authority. David overlooked the offenses of those who fought against and abused him, in order to regain their allegiance (vv. 9-30).
Rewards and promotions were given to those who helped. Because of his assistance during David’s flight, Barzillai the Gileadite was offered a place of honor. The eighty-year-old asked that his son be allowed to take his place in King David’s court, instead. (31-40)
In spite of his best efforts, conflict and uprising broke out after David was reinstated to the throne. The men of Judah and Israel almost came to blows over their returning king. Another rebellion had to be put down. And Joab killed his cousin, Amasa, for taking his place as general of David’s army. (2 Sam. 19:41-20:22)
Because David did not rightfully address Amnon’s sin against his daughter, Tamar, Absalom resorted to violence, undermined authority, led an open rebellion and eventually caused the death and suffering of himself and many others. The unresolved conflict that festered between David and Absalom spread throughout the kingdom, causing the destabilization of an entire country. This “root of bitterness” became a weed that infested countless hearts and ruined a host of innocent lives.
Our society today is choking on the same volatile emotions. Riots throughout the United States—in Ferguson, Missouri; Baltimore, Maryland; and Seattle, Washington—are expressions of seething bitterness and frustration that is raging out of control. Wrongs have been committed on all sides, yet little has been done to rectify them. Injured parties have flung insults at one another and allowed tensions to build. In some places, people are afraid to leave their homes, for fear of violence. Law enforcement agencies are on high alert. Our country is like a powder keg ready to blow at any minute.
Scripture tells us it is always better to take care of a problem at its onset, rather than to let it grow to unmanageable proportions. Proverbs 17:14 says, “Starting a quarrel is like opening a floodgate, so stop before a dispute breaks out” (NLT). Interestingly enough, the very next verse tells us how much God hates it when we acquit the guilty or condemn the innocent. Often the seed of the deepest conflict is injustice.
Nevertheless, when we are the victims of wrong-doing, we have a choice of how we will react. Will we become angry, bitter, resentful and hard hearted? Or will we choose to forgive and respond in an opposite spirit, instead? Jesus told His disciples, “love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you” (Matthew 5:44, NKJV). He added,
“If someone slaps you on one cheek, offer the other cheek also. If someone demands your coat, offer your shirt also. Give to anyone who asks; and when things are taken away from you, don’t try to get them back. Do to others as you would like them to do to you.” (Luke 6:29-31, NLT)
Romans 12:14-21 warns against pride and “payback” and encourages believers to “overcome evil with good,” instead. The only way to fight bitterness is with mercy, love, kindness and forgiveness. How can we destroy the weed of bitterness? Uproot it and replace it with a heart that’s pure. Here’s the key: “Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men…so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men” (Romans 12:17-18, NASB).
Let’s be done with bitter consequences and choose the path of peace and blessing, instead!
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