Absalom Steals The Hearts of Israel

Rebellions do not happen overnight.  After years, there is always a tipping point in either an event or a moment that precipitates them.  We talk about the beginnings of the American Revolution and we know it was not simply the Boston Tea Party or the Boston Massacre, but the years of resentment over the taxes Britain imposed to maintain their troops after the French-Indian War and to increase revenue for a Parliament strapped for cash by an exploding national debt.

When the British imposed new laws and a tax on tea several patriots boarded ships and dumped the tea. They were incensed by taxation without representation. Only two years later after their protests and boycotts were ignored, the first shots of the Revolution were fired in Lexington, Massachusetts.

There was a twelve-year buildup to the American Revolution.

It is true for Absalom’s rebellion as well.  Look at the numbers:

After the rape of his sister Tamar he spent two years waiting and planning for his revenge on Amnon.

He spent three years in exile in his grandfather’s house in Geshur after executing Amnon.

Brought back to Jerusalem through the intrigue and deception of Joab he spent two years in isolation.  In that time, he had a child he named Tamar.  That should have been a clue.

He spent four years sitting at the gate of the city positioning himself as an advocate for the people.

That’s a total of 11 years that Absalom prepared for what became a revolt against his father.

At some point along the way Absalom reached a tipping point in his desire to punish his father for his abdicating his duty to deal with Amnon for raping Tamar.

But, David began abdicating his responsibilities long before that.  Our first indication is in 2 Samuel 11 by his remaining in Jerusalem while his men were in battle against the Ammonites.  Armies need leadership and David was either bored or distracted.

Something happens to David’s heart and spirit after the adultery with Bathsheba.  God through Nathan assures him he will not die but the child will and “the sword will never depart from your house, because you despised me and took the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your own.”  You can hear David’s resignation in his response to the death of the child.  “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept.  I thought, “Who knows? The Lord may be gracious to me and let the child live.  But now that he is dead, why should I fast?  Can I bring him back again?  I will go to him, but he will not return to me.”  There is a sense of fatalism and resignation we never saw in the young David.

After that, we read in 2 Samuel 12 that Joab fights the Ammonites without David.  Joab captures the royal citadel of Rabbah and sends messengers to David, saying, “I have fought against Rabbah and taken its water supply.  Now muster the rest of the troops and besiege the city and capture it.  Otherwise, I will take the city, and it will be named after me.”  So, only by Joab’s urging does David come at the end to finish the easiest part of the battle.

You can imagine the frustration of David’s generals and men.  What is going on with David?  Why is he so reluctant to lead?  What has happened to the hero we knew?  What happened to the young man who killed a thousand Philistines to win a bride?  What happened to the shepherd boy who said to us, “Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?..You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied.  This day the Lord will hand you over to me, and I’ll strike you down and cut off your head.”

It’s not just age, is it?  There is something else going on in David’s soul.  He has lost his taste for leading.  He has resigned himself to the consequences of his sin.  Even in his response to the rape of Tamar there are no teeth in his anger.

It reminds me of the first lines in the play “King Lear”.  Lear is aging and has had a long reign.  He is looking to be relieved of the responsibilities but not the privileges and benefits of royalty.

“Meantime we shall express our darker purpose.

Give me the map there. Know that we have divided

In three our kingdom: and ’tis our fast intent

To shake all cares and business from our age;

Conferring them on younger strengths, while we

Unburthen’d crawl toward death.”

There could not have been a worse time for David to shake all cares and business from himself and begin to crawl toward death.  While he may not have seen it coming because either it was hidden from him by those around him or he refused to acknowledge it, the worst events of his life are on the horizon.  He is about to be overthrown and forced to flee for his life.

In the course of time, Absalom provided himself with a chariot and horses and with fifty men to run ahead of him. He would get up early and stand by the side of the road leading to the city gate. Whenever anyone came with a complaint to be placed before the king for a decision, Absalom would call out to him, “What town are you from?” He would answer, “Your servant is from one of the tribes of Israel.” Then Absalom would say to him, “Look, your claims are valid and proper, but there is no representative of the king to hear you.” And Absalom would add, “If only I were appointed judge in the land! Then everyone who has a complaint or case could come to me and I would see that they receive justice.”

Also, whenever anyone approached him to bow down before him, Absalom would reach out his hand, take hold of him and kiss him. Absalom behaved in this way toward all the Israelites who came to the king asking for justice, and so he stole the hearts of the people of Israel.”

How do you steal the hearts of an entire people?  How can you deceive so many so completely?

First, you begin with a particular set of circumstances.  Clearly, the courts are clogged and people are bringing their cases to be tried and getting no response from David or his judges.  Some few with influence, like Joab, can arrange for someone to be seen by David but otherwise David is removed from the people.  He is unresponsive.

Second, you let that pot simmer for a few years until there is a general atmosphere of resentment and, like the beginnings of the American Revolution, the dissatisfaction of not being heard or respected.  People were coming with their complaints, controversies, disputes and suits and nothing was being done.  There was gridlock.  The authors of “How Democracy Dies” write, “The abdication of political responsibility by existing leaders often marks a nation’s first step toward authoritarianism and resentment fuels polarization.”  People no longer believe in the system.  They don’t believe it is fair.  They don’t believe their leaders are interested in their lives.

Third, there is typically an individual who steps into this bubbling resentment and takes advantage of the mistrust and grievance.  Normally, it is someone with a well-developed sense of grievance themselves.  It is someone like Absalom who has been nursing this cold anger for years and waiting for the right moment. They embody what people are feeling.  They can articulate what the masses can only murmur.  Erik Erikson in his biography of Martin Luther, “Young Man Luther” writes, “Ideological leaders, so it seems, are subject to excessive fears which they can master only by reshaping the thoughts of their contemporaries; while those contemporaries are always glad to have their thoughts shaped by those who so desperately care to do so. Born leaders seem to fear only more consciously what in some form everybody fears in the depths of his inner life; and they convincingly have an answer.”

They can put words to inarticulate feelings in such a way to fire them up even further.  They do not simply describe or understand what people feel.  They give people a vocabulary for their grudges and resentments.  They give them permission to become even angrier because they have been abandoned and betrayed by the elites who do not respond to them.  They justify the rage and direct it toward an enemy.  Sometimes the enemy has a face but it is often just “those people”.

“Then Absalom would say to him, “Look, your claims are valued and proper, but there is no representative of the king to hear you.”

Fourth, they create a presence and aura that makes people notice them and give them credibility.  They are not openly rebellious but they are ostentatious about their growing influence.  Absalom provided himself with a chariot and with fifty men to run ahead of him.  The chariot was a bold way of declaring himself a prince and cause people to notice him.  It gave him a platform and an image that was indelible. He had fifty press agents and security people as his advance team.

David’s tastes were plain.  He did not ride in chariots with fifty men running before him. A house of cedar for himself was more than enough.

”But Absalom’s tastes were widely different, and he was not the man to be restrained from gratifying them by any considerations of that sort. The moment he had the power, though he was not even king, he set up his imposing equipage, and became the observed of all observers in Jerusalem. And no doubt there were many of the people who sympathized with him, and regarded it as right and proper that, now that Israel was so renowned and prosperous a kingdom, its court should shine forth in corresponding splendour. The plain equipage of David would seem to them paltry and unimposing, in no way fitted to gratify the pride or elevate the dignity of the kingdom. Absalom’s, on the other hand, would seem to supply all that David’s wanted. The prancing steeds, with their gay caparisons, the troop of out-runners in glittering uniform, the handsome face and figure of the prince, would create a sensation wherever he went; There, men would say emphatically, is the proper state and bearing of a king; had we such a monarch as that, surrounding nations would everywhere acknowledge our superiority, and feel that we were entitled to the first place among the kingdoms of the East.” W.G. Blaikie

Absalom was determined to be noticed and recognized for who he thought himself to be.

Fifth, as Erikson wrote, they have an answer.  They offer a solution.  “If only I were appointed judge in the land!  Then everyone who has a complaint or case could come to me and I would see that he gets justice.”

Almost always, justice means at the expense of someone who is increasingly perceived as the enemy.  Someone or some group of powerful people who are keeping us from getting what we rightfully deserve.  First, you have to encourage their sense of being deprived of justice and then you have to identify those who are keeping it from them.  Lastly, you propose a simple solution that, of course, gives ultimate power to the new leader.  “If I had power I would not abuse it.  I would not abandon you.  I would not become one of the elites.  I would drain the swamp and throw out the people who are letting all those outsiders break into line ahead of you.  I would get you what you deserve but it can only be me.  There can only be one judge to do all this for you.  Everyone else is out to get you.”

Again, in “How Democracy Dies” we read, “Populists tend to deny the legitimacy of established parties, attacking them as undemocratic and even unpatriotic. They tell voters that the existing system is not really a democracy but instead has been hijacked, corrupted, or rigged by the elite. And they promise to bury that elite and return power to “the people.”

Sixth, they insinuate themselves into the trust of the people and make them think, “He speaks for me.  He understands me.  He is not treating me like the elites do.  He is one of us.”  How did Absalom do this?

“Also, whenever anyone approached him to bow down before him, Absalom would reach out his hand, take hold of him and kiss him.  Absalom behaved in this way toward all the Israelites who came to the king asking for justice, and so he stole the hearts of the men of Israel.”

He did not seize the reins of power.  He stood between the people and the rightful but declining king and listened to them while convincing them he was the only one who could treat them fairly and make certain they received justice.  Every other institution of the society was against them but he would get them justice because he was one of them – in spite of the wealth, chariots, uncontrollable anger, narcissism, scores of pleasers around him and vanity.  He was their savior.

The movie that made Andy Griffith famous was “A Face in The Crowd”.  It is the story of a small-town drifter discovered in the drunk tank by a producer who guides him to develop a radio audience following and then landing a television show in Memphis. His irreverent behavior and ability to stir up an audience to revolt actually increases mattress sales and “Lonesome” Rhodes becomes a national media star with a new awareness of his power of persuasion.  He is hired to be the television marketer for Senator Fuller, a Presidential hopeful, because his appeal to the people is so strong.  His fame, ego and influence balloon and he becomes a caricature of what those will do to a person with no character.  Ultimately, those who created him turn on him and while visiting the set of his television show they leave a microphone on as he rants about the stupidity of his audience:

Lonesome Rhodes: This whole country’s just like my flock of sheep!

Marcia Jeffries: Sheep?

Lonesome Rhodes: Rednecks, crackers, hillbillies, hausfraus, shut-ins, pea-pickers – everybody that’s got to jump when somebody else blows the whistle. They don’t know it yet, but they’re all gonna be ‘Fighters for Fuller’. They’re mine! I own ’em! They think like I do. Only they’re even more stupid than I am, so I gotta think for ’em. Marcia, you just wait and see. I’m gonna be the power behind the president – and you’ll be the power behind me!

How do kings lose power? How do autocrats steal the hearts of people and take over? How do democracies die?  People lose their faith in them.  They abdicate their responsibilities.  They become unresponsive and tired. So, people look for someone to take care of them and to follow.  They look for certainty and someone who will be one of them to protect their interests.  And, in the end, they become sheep.  Absalom won their hearts but, as we said last week, the wheel of justice moves slowly but grinds exceedingly fine.

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