Between Heaven and Earth
Scripture: 2 Samuel 18
If you were expecting a traditional Easter sermon this morning, I want to apologize. That’s not the plan today. Instead, we are going to read about a great battle, a grizzly death, and a grieving king. We are in 2 Samuel – chapter 18.
Let me try and setup the story for our visitors. David has been king in Jerusalem for many years. David has repented of his adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband, but the consequences of those sins continue. David’s son Absalom has captured Jerusalem. Most of the Israelites support Absalom, because he is young, handsome, and popular.
And now, Absalom is leading an army to find and kill his own father. This is where we begin.
1 Then David mustered the men who were with him and set over them commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds. 2 And David sent out the army, one third under the command of Joab, one third under the command of Abishai the son of Zeruiah, Joab’s brother, and one third under the command of Ittai the Gittite. And the king said to the men, “I myself will also go out with you.”
3 But the men said, “You shall not go out. For if we flee, they will not care about us. If half of us die, they will not care about us. But you are worth ten thousand of us. Therefore it is better that you send us help from the city.” 4 The king said to them, “Whatever seems best to you I will do.” So the king stood at the side of the gate, while all the army marched out by hundreds and by thousands.
God is a master storyteller. I love that he tells us this detail. David wants to fight with his men, but they won’t let him. He’s too valuable. And already we have our first hint of the Gospel.
The many were willing to sacrifice their lives for the one. He was worth ten thousand men, they said. But King Jesus, whose value is worth more than all creation, was willing to sacrifice his life for the many. We stood by the gate while Jesus marched to His death.
But that’s just a taste. This story is only beginning.
5 And the king ordered Joab and Abishai and Ittai, “Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.” And all the people heard when the king gave orders to all the commanders about Absalom.
This is incredibly merciful of David. Absalom organized a rebellion. He slept with his father’s wives. And now he’s leading an army to kill David. But David orders his men to be merciful.
6 So the army went out into the field against Israel, and the battle was fought in the forest of Ephraim. 7 And the men of Israel were defeated there by the servants of David, and the loss there was great on that day, twenty thousand men. 8 The battle spread over the face of all the country, and the forest devoured more people that day than the sword.
We don’t actually know what that means, that the forest devoured the people, but it sounds like something out of the Lord of the Rings. And now we come to my favorite part of the story.
9 And Absalom happened to meet the servants of David. Absalom was riding on his mule, and the mule went under the thick branches of a great oak, and his head caught fast in the oak, and he was suspended between heaven and earth, while the mule that was under him went on.
Before I go any further, I have a confession to make. A few weeks ago, I intentionally skipped a verse in chapter 14. I saved it for today.
26 And when Absalom cut the hair of his head (for at the end of every year he used to cut it; when it was heavy on him, he cut it), he weighed the hair of his head, two hundred shekels by the king’s weight.
That’s roughly five or six pounds of hair. That’s a lot of hair. And Absalom was known for this. It was his trademark. It was also his downfall, because most commentaries assume it was his hair that got caught in the oak tree.
Let me put a picture of this up so you can get a good visual. That’s right, it is very likely that David’s men found Absalom hanging by his hair. And it’s not a coincidence. This is the judgment of God. The writer wants us to know that this man is hanging from a tree, suspended between heaven and earth.
When the men found Absalom, they disobeyed David’s orders and killed him.
Joab took three javelins in his hand and thrust them into the heart of Absalom while he was still alive in the oak. 15 And ten young men, Joab’s armor-bearers, surrounded Absalom and struck him and killed him.
No mercy. None at all.
16 Then Joab blew the trumpet, and the troops came back from pursuing Israel, for Joab restrained them. 17 And they took Absalom and threw him into a great pit in the forest and raised over him a very great heap of stones. And all Israel fled every one to his own home.
I don’t have to work very hard to show you that Absalom is basically an anti-type of Christ Jesus.
Absalom was a son of the king. He died hanging on a tree. He was shown no mercy. They buried him in a pit and covered his body with stones. His story is a crude foreshadow of the death and burial of Jesus.
The obvious difference, of course, is that Absalom got what he deserved. He turned on his own father. But Jesus had done nothing wrong. He had completely obeyed His father. And yet, both of these men died hanging on a tree. Both men were laid to rest in tombs covered with stone.
Absalom’s death is a picture of what we deserve – the curse of sin and death. The death of Jesus was a substitutionary death, and Galatians 3:13 says it clearly:
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”.
This is a really obvious connection. But back in 2 Samuel 18, the focus of the story is not the death of Absalom. Instead, the writer wants us to focus on the grief of David. Two men race back to camp to tell David the news. And this was David’s response:
33 And 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!” 1 It was told Joab, “Behold, the king is weeping and mourning for Absalom.”
2 So the victory that day was turned into mourning for all the people, for the people heard that day, “The king is grieving for his son.” 3 And the people stole into the city that day as people steal in who are ashamed when they flee in battle. 4 The king covered his face, and the king cried with a loud voice, “O my son Absalom, O Absalom, my son, my son!”
5 Then Joab came into the house to the king and said, “You have today covered with shame the faces of all your servants, who have this day saved your life and the lives of your sons and your daughters and the lives of your wives and your concubines, 6 because you love those who hate you and hate those who love you.
For you have made it clear today that commanders and servants are nothing to you, for today I know that if Absalom were alive and all of us were dead today, then you would be pleased.
Joab doesn’t understand David’s grief. Why is David grieving the death of His enemy? The people should be celebrating. The kingdom is safe, but the king is sad.
Why was David so merciful to Absalom in life and then so grieved at his death? The easy answer is because he loved his son. The honest answer is guilt.
David has now lost three sons because of his own sin! He’s still suffering the consequences of his own choices. And it’s not only affecting David. It’s affecting the entire nation. The shame of the king is the shame of the people.
But embedded in this tragedy are the seeds of a much greater story. The entire episode cries out for a better King who will bear the curse of our sin, the guilt we feel, and the shameful death we deserve.
That is the place of the cross in human history. Christians believe that on a Friday afternoon outside the gates of Jerusalem, our Savior hung suspended between heaven and earth, physically and metaphorically. God and man.
The curse of sin met the mercy of God at the cross. They put a crown of thorns on his head. They pierced his side with a spear. Jesus cried out for His Father just as David cried out for his son.
David wanted to show Absalom mercy, but Joab knew the man had to die. God wanted to show us mercy, but someone had to die. And not just anyone… it had to be the Son of God.
There’s a tension with the cross. It was both a tragedy and a victory. It was the only way for David’s guilt and our own guilt to be dealt with. The judgment of God had to fall somewhere.
Truth be told, most preachers are going to avoid talking about sin, death, and judgment today, because it doesn’t sell. They will skip to the resurrection and talk about God’s redeeming love, His resurrection power, and our hope for the future.
But none of that really matters if you don’t believe in judgment. Not really. And if we are honest, that is the most difficult obstacle for most people considering Christianity. Is God really going to send people to hell? Is that really what humans deserve? Are we really all that bad?
Rebecca McLaughlin has an interesting way of dealing with that question in her book Confronting Christianity. She writes:
“It has been said that no friendship in the world would last a day if we could see each other’s thoughts. Run that test on yourself between now and tomorrow. Think of everyone you spend time with and ask, would I let them see a transcript of my thoughts? My marriage would die. My children would be crushed. My friends would leave.”
Of course, not all of our thoughts are bad. Many are good. But all of us are hiding a lot of things from other people that only God sees. There’s a thin line running between good and evil in the human heart. Sometimes those thoughts become actions and sometime those actions are wicked.
All of us feel anger when we hear about violence and abuses committed by other people, but all of those actions are born in the human heart and all of us are guilty according to God.
That’s the most difficult thing about Christianity. That’s the hard part. Before you can accept God’s love for sinners, you have to believe you are one.
Rachael Den-holland-er was the first woman to file abuse charges against gymnastics coach Larry Nassar. She was given an opportunity to speak during his trial and she used the opportunity to share the Gospel with the man who took her innocence. This is what she said:
“The Bible carries a final judgment where all of God’s wrath and eternal terror is poured out on men like you. Should you ever reach the point of truly facing what you have done, the guilt will be crushing. And that is what makes the Gospel of Christ so sweet. Because it extends grace and hope and mercy where none should be found. And it will be there for you.”
Do you see what this is? This is a victim telling her abuser what to do with his sin and guilt. But in doing so, do you realize that she’s putting herself in the same position as her abuser! And that is God’s answer to our strongest objection. We struggle to believe that most people really deserve hell. Some people, maybe. Not everyone… But the real mystery is this: why does God offer mercy where none should be found?
Why would God give up His only Son for rebels? For sinners? For guilty people? For any of us? His value is far greater than our souls. In the spirit of Joab, should be asking – why would God show us that kind of mercy?
No one in this room has the moral high ground. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been in church your whole life, or if this is the first time you’ve ever stepped foot inside a church building. It doesn’t matter if you’re the worst criminal in the room, or if you’ve done an excellent job hiding the evil thoughts in your heart.
You’re being offered the free gift of God’s grace purchased by the blood of His only Son. But it’s not just a get out of hell free card. It has the power to change things even now. It has the power to transform even the most difficult relationships, and we see this in the story of David and Absalom. In the kingdom of God, even the victims are able to forgive their victimizers.
Joab could not understand why David wanted to show mercy to Absalom. It was because David had already received mercy from God. The grace of God was alive in the heart of David and the evidence of that grace and forgiveness spilled over into David’s relationships – even with his worst enemies.
Consider the words of Jesus:
32 If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same… 36 Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.
Showing mercy to someone else will always cost us far more than the person receiving it. God’s mercy cost us nothing and it cost God everything.
But this is the heart of God for His people. This is the evidence of a life being transformed by grace. This is what our world desperately needs. This is why Jesus hung on a cross. And this is how God will turn tragedy into victory.
We don’t have to be stuck between the judgment of God and the mercy of God. On a hill called Calvary stands an endless mercy tree. Repent and believe in the Lord Jesus.