II Samuel 16-18, Psalm 95, Acts 10
A tragedy as well told as the greatest literature
II Samuel 16-18
In 2 Samuel 16, Mephibosheth has reportedly confided to his servant Ziba saying, “Today the house of Israel will give me back my grandfather’s kingdom.” Soon after, Ziba brought 200 loaves of bread, 100 summer fruits and a skin of wine to King David. When David asked of the whereabouts of Mephibosheth, Ziba shared what his master reportedly said. David declared that all that previously belonged to Mephibosheth will now belong to Ziba, and the servant rejoiced in his new wealth.
A Benjaminite named Shimei, whose name means “God has heard,” cursed David and cast stones and threw dirt at David and his entourage of warriors. Shimei’s anger reflected the anger felt by Benjaminites towards David for provoking the downfall and death of King Saul, a fellow Benjaminite. “Out! Out! Murderer! Scoundrel!,” shouted Shimei. “The Lord has avenged on all of you the blood of the house of Saul, in whose place you have reigned; and the Lord has given the kingdom into the hand of your son Absalom. See, disaster has overtaken you; for you are a man of blood.” (2 Sam. 16:7-8)
Despite Abishai’s desire to lop off Shimei’s head, David commanded that nothing be done to the heckling Benjaminite, for perhaps God had ordained Shimei to curse him and by restraining himself from killing Shimei, God might have pity on David and reverse his fortunes. The author of 2 Samuel is far less obvious about God’s activity than the writer(s) of the books of Genesis, Exodus and Deuteronomy, Joshua and Judges. Yet, the thread of God’s masterful leadership appears as a subtext and is quietly woven underneath the more visible military and political action of 1 & 2 Samuel.
After Absalom’s revolt failed, Shimei will later gather a thousand Benjaminites to welcome David back to Jerusalem and will beg David to forgive him for cursing him. David will publically absolve Shimei, but later on his deathbed David will urge his son Solomon to exterminate Shimei and all other threats to the throne, which Solomon will do. The interaction between David and Shimei embodied David’s public face of clemency and his private act of vengeance.
During a significant portion of World War II, Erwin Rommel was Hitler’s favorite general. Rommel gained notoriety while commanding a panzer division that smashed through French forces in 1940. Hitler put Rommel in command of the Afrika Corps, where his military genius and ability to make the most of his limited forces led Hitler to promote him to the rank of Field Marshall.
In 1943, when it became evident that the Allies would try to invade the European continent, Hitler put Rommel in charge of fortifying the “Atlantic Wall,” a coastal defense system intended to repel the invasion of Europe. Rommel, however, was losing faith in the ability of Germany to win the war and his estimation of Hitler was ebbing. He learned of the death camps, slave labor and extermination of the Jews and became convinced that prolonging the war would only lead to the destruction of Germany’s homeland. Rommel also came into contact with members of the conspiracy to kill Hitler and establish a separate peace with the western allies.
On July 17, 1944, a British fighter plan strafed Rommel’s staff car, nearly killing Hitler’s famous general. Rommel was sent to his home in Germany to convalesce. Three days later a bomb set off by conspirators nearly killed the Fuhrer. Although he may not have been involved in the plot, Rommel’s opponents linked him with the attempt on Hitler’s life. The challenge for Hitler became how to remove Rommel without upsetting the German people that he had ordered the death of the country’s most famous general. A decision was made to command Rommel to commit suicide and then announce to the public that the great hero had died from his wounds.
Two generals came to visit Rommel and gave him a choice. He could appear before a People’s Court and be convicted of treason and his family would be imprisoned and killed or he could take two cyanide pills and die within a matter of seconds. Rommel met with his wife and then confided to his son, Manfred, age 15, what had transpired. “It’s better for one to die than for all of us to be killed,” Rommel told him. Shortly after Hitler’s great general took his own life to spare others from dying.
In 2 Samuel 16 and 17 a similar military power struggle occurs. We read, “Now in those days the counsel that Ahithophel gave was as if one consulted the oracle of God; so all the counsel of Ahithophel was esteemed, both by David and by Absalom.” (2 Sam. 16:23) Hence, Ahithophel approaches Absalom with a military plan. He now moves from being advisor to the king to offering to serve as a general and lead 12,000 men to kill David and spare any other casualties among the Israelites. The plan seemed sound, but Absalom decided to run the idea by Hushai the Archite, whom King David had asked to return to Jerusalem and serve as a mole in his son’s government.
Hushai informed David that this time Ahithophel’s advice was bad, as it might have led to David’s swift death and the unification of the kingdom under Absalom, the very thing that Hushai sought to prevent. Hushai offered a different plan, calling for all of Israel to be summoned for battle and Absalom to lead them forth. Absalom and the leaders of Israel preferred Hushai’s plan and set to put it into motion. Meanwhile, Ahithophel, upset that his plan has been approved, returned to his home city and like Rommel and took his own life. He was buried in the tomb of his father. The author writes, “For the Lord had ordained to defeat the good counsel of Ahithophel, so that the Lord might bring ruin on Absalom.” (2 Sam. 17:14b) Clearly, God is the hidden architect between David’s rising to power and his continued success despite his ruinous decisions from time to time.
In 2 Samuel 18, King David regained some of his form and offered to go out in battle with his troops, but they refused to allow him. “You are worth ten thousand of us; therefore it is better that you send us help from the city,” they argued. (2 Sam. 18:3) So, David remained by the city gate as the troops marched into battle. He told Joab, Abishai and Ittai, “Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.” David struggled to separate his role as father and king. Perhaps this was why his troops wanted him to remain behind in Jerusalem.
What took place stretches the imagination. While retreating in battle, Absalom was caught in the branches of an oak tree while riding a mule, the king’s animal and was left hanging. The mule, designated as the king’s mount, deserted the would-be-king and left him hanging on a tree, by his head and not by his fabled long hair as is commonly supposed. This condition in which Absalom was left was a condition for one cursed by God according to Deuteronomy 21:23, which says, “…for anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse.”
When an unnamed soldier, who had heard King David order that Absalom should be spared death, saw him hanging, he reported this to Joab, who quickly disobeyed David and plunged three spears into David’s rebellious son, bringing an end to Absalom’s short-lived but threatening uprising.
When news of Absalom’s death reached David, he cried out, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!” (2 Sam. 18:33) We can sympathize with David, while also noting his inability to address effectively his son’s rebellion that stemmed from the king’s unwillingness to punish Amnon for raping his daughter Tamar.
David’s famous words inspired William Faulkner’s famous novel Absalom, Absalom!, which a panel of judges declared the most famous southern novel of all time. The novel chronicles the life of Thomas Sutpen and mirrors the rise and fall of Southern plantation culture. Sutpen reflects the weakness of the idealistic South and sets up his own destruction. The novel plays out a struggle of dynasty, downfall and potential incest, drawing parallels to 2 Samuel. Along with The Sound and Fury, it helped Faulkner win the Nobel Prize in Literature and it contained the longest sentence in history, containing 1,288 words, according to the Guinness Book of World Records.
Psalm 95 is one of the finest psalms of praise in the Psalter. Those who recite Morning Prayer each day recite this psalm, which is known as the Venite in Latin for its first word “Come,” or Psalm 100, which is known as the Jubilate for its opening words “Make a joyful noise.” Both upbeat psalms lift the spirits of those who pray them daily. They are a great antidote to the doldrums.
Too often, we wake up ungrateful, muttering under our breath that the coffee maker is working right or the sky is overcast or we must trudge off to work once again. The Venite and the Jubilate call us to rejoice, even when we don’t feel like rejoicing or prefer to grumble. Like all good prayers, they turn us inside out and set about a Copernican spiritual revolution within us, moving us from our self-consumed focus to one of praise and thanksgiving. These are great psalms to memorize, and those who recite Morning Prayer each day will indeed gradually come to learn these psalms by heart. When they do, gratitude becomes a deep part of who they are.
O come, let us sing to the Lord;
let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!
Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving;
let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!
For the Lord is a great God,
and a great King above all gods. (Ps. 95:1-3)
The psalm also reminds of us God as creator. The Psalmist was focused on the stewardship of creation or ecology thousands of years before the word “conservation” was coined by Gifford Pinchot, who served as the first Director of the Department of Forestry in the United States and a pioneer in the environmental movement. The Psalmist writes,
In his hand are the depths of the earth;
the heights of the mountains are his also.
The sea is his, for he made it,
and the dry land, which his hands have formed. (Ps 95:4-5)
The psalm ends by recalling Israel’s grumbling while wandering through the wilderness and crying out for Moses for basic necessities such as food and water. It was at Meribah that the Lord ordered Moses to strike the rock with his staff, and water miraculously poured out to quench the people’s thirst. Despite instructing Moses to do this, Yahweh held this action against Moses and the Israelites, ensuring that Israel wandered around in circles for 40 years until the generation that had doubted the Yahweh’s fidelity had died out and a new, more trusting generation would be allowed to enter the Promised Land.
For forty years I loathed that generation
and said, “They are people whose hearts go astray,
and they do not regard my ways.”
Therefore in my anger I swore,
They shall not enter my rest. (Ps. 95:10-11)
In Acts 10 Peter has a vision while praying on a rooftop in the coastal city of Joppa, now known as Jaffa. Peter went on the roof to pray. He was hungry, and while food was being prepared for him, he fell into a trance. In his vision, he saw a sheet being lowered from heaven full of all sorts of animals that were not kosher, and he was instructed to “kill and eat.” (Acts 10:13) Peter resisted the message, but was told, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” (Acts 10:15)
This became a major turning point in the development of Christianity. It signified to Peter and later to the leadership of the Early Church that God was allowing Christianity to be shared with the Gentiles. Had the spread of Christianity been limited only to Jews, it might have remained a small offshoot sect of Judaism and would never have grown into the world’s largest religion. This was a great turning point.
Summoned by Cornelius’s messengers, Peter traveled to Caesarea, where he was invited to address the devout Roman centurion and members of the Italian cohort. Cornelius was thus the first Gentile to become a Christian. Peter laid out the kerygma or the essential Christian message about Jesus’ life, death and resurrection and the meaning of God’s atoning work accomplished through Jesus.
While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit came upon Cornelius and his fellow listeners, and they began speaking in tongues, just as the disciples and their followers had done on the Day of Pentecost. (Acts 10:46) Then Peter said, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (Acts 10:47) The Holy Spirit is here given before baptism, whereas it will traditionally be associated as something given at the time of baptism.
O come, let us sing to the Lord; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation! Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise! For the Lord is a great God, and a great King above all gods. (Ps. 95:1-3)
The sea is his, for he made it, and the dry land, which his hands have formed. (Ps 95:5)
O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker! For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand. (Ps. 95:6-7)
In what ways do you struggle to separate your roles as a parent and as a Christian and as a professional person? Do you have a practice of praising God each morning? How do you see God expanding the Church to others? Is God’s salvation limited or open to all? How has God spoken to you in dreams?
How and All Loving God, we praise you and we thank you for this new day. All that shall occur this day is a gift given from you. Help us to see your hand at work in every word that is said and deed that is done. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania