Joab the son of Zeruiah knew that the king’s heart went out to Absalom. (2 Samuel 14:1)
Please open your Bible at 2 Samuel 14. We are following the story of David in the last chapter of his life. These were the most troubled years in the life of this godly man. David had a son whose rebellion broke his heart. Today we are going to look at the story of how David tried to heal the division in his own family.
The name of David’s rebel son was Absalom. His sister Tamar had been horribly abused by their stepbrother Amnon. And Absalom set his heart on revenge.
We begin at chapter 13, where Absalom was shearing his sheep in a remote village. Absalom invited all the king’s sons (2 Samuel 13:23). Absalom invited the entire royal family including the king (2 Samuel 13:24). But David was cautious about this invitation. Perhaps he was already afraid of where his son’s rebellious heart might lead him.
So the king said, “No, my son, let us not all go, lest we be burdensome to you” (2 Samuel 13:25). So Absalom said, “If not, please let my brother Amnon go with us” (2 Samuel 13:26). To which David, perhaps now even more suspicious says, “Why [Amnon]?”(2 Samuel 13:26).
Then we read, “But Absalom pressed him until he let Amnon and all the king’s sons go with him” (2 Samuel 13:27). Absalom had a way of getting what he wanted from his father. And even though his father feared where his son’s rebellious heart was taking him, he gave him what he wanted in the end.
So all the king’s sons came to a remote place where Absalom was shearing his sheep. And while they were there, Absalom killed his brother Amnon. It was a cold, brutal, premeditated murder. “Then all the king’s sons arose, and each mounted his mule and fled” (2 Samuel 13:29). They all felt that Absalom had it in him to wipe out the entire royal family.
Then we are told that, “Absalom fled” (2 Samuel 13:34). He headed away from the Promised Land to a place called Geshur (2 Samuel 13:38). And as Absalom fled, the rest of the king’s sons returned to their father. “The king’s sons came and lifted up their voice and wept. And the king also and all his servants wept very bitterly” (2 Samuel 13:36).
David mourned over the death of Amnon, his oldest son. His death was a devastating loss to the king: “David mourned for his son day after day” (2 Samuel 13:37). He mourned over the way Amnon had lived his life and over the way that he had met his death. This went on over a period of three years, and then we are told that “the spirit of the king longed to go out to Absalom…” (2 Samuel 13:39).
Some of you know what this is like. You have a son or a daughter who is away from you, and away from God. There is a division in the family, and you wish it were not so. Absalom is a rebel son, but he is still David’s son. And David’s heart, like the heart of any father, goes out to his son.
What prevented David from bringing his son back? If his spirit longed to go out to Absalom, why did he not go to Geshur and bring him back home? The answer is simple: David was not only a father, he was also the king. And as king, he was the custodian of justice in the land. Absalom had committed an act of premeditated murder. The law demanded the death of David’s son. And as king, David’s job was to uphold the law.
So David was caught in a great dilemma. He is a father who longs to be reconciled to his son. He is the king, called to uphold a law that condemns his son. David is torn between these conflicting loyalties.
So Absalom remained a fugitive in another country, far from the Promised Land. That’s how it was for three years (2 Samuel 13:38), until we get to 2 Samuel chapter 14. What we have here is the story of three attempts at reconciliation:
Joab… knew that the king’s heart went out to Absalom. (2 Samuel 14:1)
The prime mover in this first attempt is Joab, the commander of David’s army. We are not told why Joab got involved here. It could be that he saw the king’s sadness and looked for a way to give him what he wanted.
Or perhaps Joab was positioning himself for the future. At this point in the story we are within about ten years of David’s death. Psalm 41 (that may have been written at this time) suggests that David was suffering from ill health. That may have prevented him from carrying out some of his duties.
When that happens, people start thinking about who will be the successor. Of all the king’s sons, Absalom was the most likely. “In all Israel there was no one so much to be praised for his handsome appearance as Absalom” (2 Samuel 14:25). The people loved him. Joab was David’s man, and I suspect he reckoned the time had come for him to win some favor with Absalom.
Joab finds a woman from the town of Tekoa, and sets her up to spin a story to the king. What she did looks very much like what Nathan did when God sent him to convict the king of his sin with Bathsheba. But the wise woman was not sent by God, she was sent by Joab who had his own agenda. The case that she presents of an accidental death is very different from the case of David’s son.
G. Blaikie says very helpfully, “Nathan’s parable was designed to rouse the king’s conscience as against his feelings; The woman of Tekoa’s… to rouse his feelings as against his conscience.”
David’s heart was moved by the woman’s story and he pronounced a pardon for the crime she described in her story. Then the woman turned on the king and said, “Why then have you planned such a thing against the people of God? For in giving this decision the king convicts himself, inasmuch as the king does not bring his banished one home again” (2 Samuel 14:13).
The point of the woman’s proposal is clear: Your son has been banished. Forget about justice! Act in love and bring him home! She gives two reasons, both of which prove completely false.
“Why have you planned such a thing against the people of God?” (2 Samuel 14:13)
Bringing Absalom back, she argues, is in the best interests of the people. She was wrong. Bringing Absalom back led the people to the brink of civil war.
God will not take away life, and he devises means so that the banished one will not remain an outcast. (2 Samuel 14:14)
She was saying, “God forgives, so why don’t you? Bring Absalom back home.” But David discerned the hand of his commander, Joab, behind all this. And so he goes to Joab and says, “Behold now, I grant this; go, bring back the young man Absalom” (2 Samuel 14:21). “So Joab arose and went to Geshur and brought Absalom to Jerusalem” (2 Samuel 14:23). Absalom comes home, and now there is another great injustice at the heart of David’s kingdom.
The problem for Absalom is that he is living under a suspended sentence. Absalom was home, but justice had not been done. The prospect of facing justice at some point in the future was always hanging over him.
Joab was in precisely the same position, and perhaps this is another reason for his interest in promoting restoration for Absalom. Joab had also committed a brutal murder when he killed Abner (2 Samuel 3:27). He had never faced justice for his crime. It was always hanging over him. Perhaps if David was willing to offer amnesty for Absalom, there would be hope of him doing the same for Joab.
Absalom came home. But he remained a rebel and his heart was not changed. This reminds us of something important: It is possible to be among the people of God, to be greatly loved by the people of God, and yet to have a heart that is hard towards the King.
And the king said, “Let him dwell apart in his own house; he is not to come into my presence.” So Absalom lived apart in his own house and did not come into the king’s presence. (2 Samuel 14:24)
This seems strange. David loves his son. His father’s heart has been longing for Absalom. But when Absalom returns, he lives in a house down the street and David does not even see him.
The question at the heart of this story is: What will David do when his rebel son returns? Will he punish or will he pardon? The answer is that he does neither.
David shows mercy to Absalom. He does not enforce the penalty of the law that condemned his son. But Absalom has no access to the father who loved him. He is not pardoned. There is no reconciliation. Why?
My guess is that David knew his son was not repentant, and as long as that was the case, he refused to pretend that all was well: “Son, we cannot pretend that all is well when your heart is far from God.”
Matthew Henry says that David had reason to think “[Absalom] was not truly penitent; he therefore put him under this mark of his displeasure, that he might be awakened to a sight of his sin and to sorrow for it, and might make his peace with God.” 
There’s a fascinating phrase in Romans 3 that speaks about what God did for his people until the coming of Jesus Christ into the world: “in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins” (Romans 3:25). God left the matter of justice for another time. That is what God had done with regard to David’s sin and that is what David did with regard to Absalom. He “passed over former sins.”
But there is this big difference: David cast himself on the mercy of God, and looked to the provision God would one day make through his Son. He humbled himself before God in repentance. Absalom showed no sign of repentance whatsoever.
Here is this man dearly loved by his father. He lives in comfort among the people of God but he is as estranged from his father as he was when he was in the far country. He lived in Jerusalem for two full years without coming into the king’s presence. There was no fellowship, no access, no peace, no joy.
Far from seeking repentance, Absalom seems to have spent his time cultivating celebrity status among the people. He had “Samson-like” hair, that he would grow for a whole year and then, when his hair was cut, he made a great occasion of weighing it (2 Samuel 14:26). The hair would have been oiled, perhaps powdered with gold dust  so that the weight of his hair became a matter of public speculation.
“In all Israel there was no one so much to be praised for his handsome appearance as Absalom. From the sole of his foot to the crown of his head there was no blemish in him” (2 Samuel 14:25). There were no blemishes on his body, but all kinds of ugliness in his soul. Absalom’s celebrity status continues to grow, but he is far from repentance and far from God.
Still Absalom lives under a suspended sentence. He is neither punished nor pardoned. He is neither banished nor reconciled. He has no communion with the king. He is in the worst of all positions and might as well have been in Geshur.
You might think Absalom would be grateful for the kindness that had been shown to him. Here is a man who by his own actions has forfeited his right to live. Yet he has a home. He is among the people of God. He has been saved from facing the full penalty of the law. But an unrepentant heart is never thankful. Unrepentant sinners feel that God owes them something better.
Absalom called on Joab to act as his intercessor and speak to the king of his behalf. Joab is reluctant. Perhaps he discerned Absalom’s heart and realized that Absalom was bad news.
So Absalom set Joab’s corn field on fire, which had the desired effect of bringing Joab to Absalom’s house, where the king’s son laid out his demand: “Behold, I sent word to you, ‘Come here, that I may send you to the king, to ask, “Why have I come from Geshur? It would be better for me to be there still.” Now therefore let me go into the presence of the king, and if there is guilt in me, let him put me to death’” (2 Samuel 14:32).
You see what he is saying: “I’ve done nothing wrong! I am the victim of a great injustice.” In Absalom’s eyes, he had been right to take the life of Amnon because of what he had done to his sister Tamar.
“Then Joab went to the king and told him, and he summoned Absalom. So he came to the king and bowed himself on his face to the ground before the king, and the king kissed Absalom” (2 Samuel 14:33). The king’s kiss was the sign of pardon. But what you have here is a pardon without repentance, a pardon that leaves Absalom plotting even more rebellion against the king.
There is a very striking contrast between the return of David’s unrepentant son and the return of the Prodigal Son in our Lord’s story. The Prodigal Son came back to his father with humble confession: “I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son” (Luke 15:21). There is nothing like that in the heart of David’s son.
When the Prodigal Son returns, the father rejoices, because he knows the heart of his rebel son has changed. “Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf… and let us eat and celebrate” (Luke 15:22-23). But David does not rejoice. The heart of his son has not changed.
David pardons his unrepentant son, but the division in the royal family remains. And as we will see in the coming chapters, it takes the country to the brink of civil war and leads, in the end, to Absalom’s destruction.
So this chapter raises a profoundly important question: How is reconciliation possible? Is there a place where love and justice can meet? David is caught in this awful dilemma. As a father, he loves his son. As the king, he must uphold justice. Love desires life for his son. Justice means death for his son.
David could not resolve this dilemma and so, in the end, he abandons justice. But giving up justice brought devastation to his kingdom, and ultimately destruction to his son. There is in this story no reconciliation whatsoever because reconciliation can only come about if that dilemma is solved.
Finally, I want to come back to the words of the woman from Tekoa who said so many things that were sadly misleading, but she also said one thing that was wonderfully true.
“God… devises means so that the banished one will not remain an outcast” (2 Samuel 14:14).
There she spoke a wonderful truth that points us forward to what God has done in Jesus Christ and the very heart of the gospel.
God, you see, is a loving Father, and yet God is also the King. God loves sinners, but the wages of sin is death, so God does what David could not do. He devises means to solve this great dilemma. And how does he do this?
This is what we celebrate around the Lord ’s Table today. God sent his Son into the world and his Son stood in our place. The justice that was due to us fell on him, so that the love of the Father could stream unhindered and unfettered into our lives and we should have access into his grace and presence forever and forever.
If you think about David’s pain and try and get inside what it was for David to live with this awful, awful dilemma, it gives us a shaft of light into the very heart of God himself. David loves his rebel son, and he will not let him see justice! You can understand that. David is saying, “He’s my son. I can’t do it. I cannot give him up!”
That is how God loves you at your worst. God says of his own people, “How can I give you up, O Ephraim?” (Hosea 11:8). I can’t give you up! I can’t give you up to justice; I can’t give you up to hell. So here’s what I’ll do. I’ll stand myself in the place of the justice that is due to you. I’ll take it in my own self; I’ll take it in the person of my own dearly loved Son.
And God gave his Son up for us all and he loved us and gave himself for us, so that in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, love and justice meet together. This is God’s love for us and this is God’s perfect justice. God did not abandon justice for the sake of love. And he did not withhold love for the sake of justice.
He brought them together at the cross where his own Son stood in our place. God was reconciling us to himself in Jesus Christ, and Jesus faced the justice so that we should enjoy the Father’s love. Jesus was shut outside, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34), so that we should have access into his grace and presence forever and forever.
Brother, sister, when God forgives you, he will not keep you at a distance. He will not have you living under a suspended sentence, wondering what final justice will look like for you. There is no probation and no exclusion for you. Justice has been satisfied, as far as you at your worst are concerned, at the cross.
God embraces you in his everlasting love. And to every person who is in Jesus Christ, to all who will come to him in faith and in repentance, he offers this amazing, full, and free forgiveness and reconciliation and access to grace.