Athithophel and Absalom

There are a few figures in Scripture who grow on you with age. Perhaps we understand them or their circumstances more or we have more in common as we grow older or we have experiences that explain their behavior.  That is the case for me with Ahithophel. I had one response to his story when I first read it and that was, “Oh, the bad man who committed suicide.” Yes, he did but he was far more than that and it’s the “far more” that I want us to look at this morning.

We first meet him toward the end of Absalom’s four-year plan to overthrow David.  Absalom goes to Hebron – where David was first crowned King – to fulfill a phony vow. “Then Absalom sent secret messengers throughout the tribes of Israel to say, “As soon as you hear the sound of the trumpets, then say, ‘Absalom is king in Hebron.’”  While Absalom was offering sacrifices, he also sent for Ahithophel the Gilonite, David’s counselor, to come from Giloh, his home town. And so, the conspiracy gained strength, and Absalom’s following kept on increasing.”

Ahithophel was not in Jerusalem. He was not part of the court and was not distracted by all the intrigues and incessant plots. He did not live inside the Beltway, in other words.  He lived outside the zone of reality distortion and, I suspect, that is how he remained such a wise counselor.  He was not in the Inner Ring and his thinking and perspective were independent of everything going on in the palace and city. There is something to be said for being on the outside. There is certainly something to be said for living in a small town away from the siren voices of power.

In a panic, David flees the city and when he arrives weeping at the top of the Mount of Olives he is told that Ahithophel is among the conspirators. That is the final blow – even more, it seems, than his own son turning on him. But, David knows he cannot win by killing Ahithophel but only by turning Ahithophel’s own reputation and wisdom against him. He charges Hushai with frustrating Ahithophel’s advice.  That is quite an assignment given ‘in those days the advice Ahithophel gave was like that of one who inquires of God. That was how both David and Absalom regarded all of Ahithophel’s advice. He is not just a wise man but almost considered a priest or a prophet. Almost, but as we will see, not quite and that is important

What is Ahithophel’s advice to Absalom?

First, have sex with David’s concubines – but not his wives – in open view of everyone in the city. It’s interesting how the writer puts it.  “Lie with your father’s concubines whom he left to take care of the palace. Then all Israel will hear that you have made yourself a stench in your father’s nostrils, and the hands of everyone with you will be strengthened.”

That makes two things certain.

First, David’s most intimate and sacred relationships have been violated. What was his to protect and to protect him has been desecrated. He is not able to take care of his own and everyone will witness his weakness and shame.

Second, it irrevocably commits Absalom to the course he has chosen. There is no turning back once he has defiled the concubines. It reminds me of the story of the conquest of the Aztec’s by the Spaniard Hernan Cortes in 1519. He ordered his ships to be burned so his men would have to conquer or die. Two years later they conquered the Aztec’s.

Ahithophel did not trust Absalom’s commitment to kill David without having no way to turn back. But, it also means that Ahithophel cannot turn back either. Absalom wins or Ahithophel dies. They all go down together. Absalom is a pawn in his game.

What was Ahithophel’s second piece of advice?

“I would choose twelve thousand men and set out tonight in pursuit of David. I would attack him when he is weary and weak.  I would strike him with terror, and then all the people with him will flee. I would strike down only the king and bring all the people back to you, like a bride returning to her husband.  The death of the man you seek will mean the return of all; all the people will be unharmed. This plan seemed good to Absalom and to all the elder of Israel.”

No one dies but David. There is no collateral damage or civil war. Just David. Take out the one man and everyone will return like a bride returning to her husband.  What an interesting way of putting it and we’ll see later why he says it this way. It’s ironic that was exactly David’s response to Goliath many years ago. Take out the giant and everyone will be disheartened and run.

How would Ahithophel know that David would be weary and weak? How would he know David was terror stricken? David tells us in Psalm 55:

”My heart is in anguish within me;
the terrors of death have fallen on me.
Fear and trembling have beset me;
horror has overwhelmed me.”

Those are the same words Ahithophel uses. No one is as close to David as Ahithophel. No one knows him so well that he can finish his sentences and use the same words. Ahithophel knows the real David.

“If an enemy were insulting me,
I could endure it;
if a foe were rising against me,
I could hide.
But it is you, a man like myself,
my companion, my close friend,
with whom I once enjoyed sweet fellowship
at the house of God,
as we walked about
among the worshipers.”

He knows the David who lived in Hebron before he became King and moved to Jerusalem. He knows the David who was still a man after God’s own heart before he became corrupted by power and the privileges of ruling. He knows the David who says about Hebron:

I said, “Oh, that I had the wings of a dove!
I would fly away and be at rest.
I would flee far away
and stay in the desert;
I would hurry to my place of shelter,
far from the tempest and storm.”

I know that feeling. We all do. We want to go back to either a time or a place before everything went to pieces. But, we can’t and David cannot. Hebron and the life he had there are gone forever. The whole world has changed.

So, if he cannot fly away what are his options?

Lord, confuse the wicked, confound their words,
for I see violence and strife in the city.
Day and night they prowl about on its walls;
malice and abuse are within it.
Destructive forces are at work in the city;
threats and lies never leave its streets.

Ahithophel knows David but Hushai understands Absalom. So, his advice is just the opposite. Don’t settle for the death of one man. Do something big and flashy that will show everyone how powerful you are – even at the cost of thousands of your own people. He appeals to his ego and need to appear powerful. You will be in front and everyone will see you. You on your chariot and fifty men running in front.

“Let all Israel, from Dan to Beersheba – as numerous as the sand on the seashore – be gathered to you, with you yourself leading them into battle.  Then we will attack him wherever he may be found, and we will fall on him as dew settles on the ground.  Neither he nor any of his men will be left alive.”

Henry Kissinger, thousands of years later, might have had Hushai’s advice in mind when he said, “And history teaches this iron law of revolutions: the more extensive the eradication of existing authority, the more its successors must rely on naked power to establish themselves. For, in the end, legitimacy involves an acceptance of authority without compulsion; its absence turns every contest into a test of strength.”

The more damage you do to the existing authority (David and his army and officials) the less you can count on the people accepting your new authority without being compelled by force and naked power. Hushai’s advice was sure to lead to that if Absalom was successful. Ahithophel knew a better way but Absalom was a fool.

“Absalom and all the men of Israel said, “The advice of Hushai the Arkite is better than that of Ahithophel.” For the Lord had determined to frustrate the good advice of Ahithophel in order to bring disaster on Absalom.”

God confounds the wisdom of the wise, doesn’t he? Even those whose wisdom is seen as almost coming from God Himself.  It reminds me of the passage in “Pilgrim’s Progress” where Christian encounters Mr. Worldly Wiseman. He represents those who have made terms with the world in a good way. There is nothing mean or self-seeking about Mr. Wiseman. He is generous and always ready to help others get rid of their burdens, as he is in advising Christian to go to the village of Morality and there consult with Mr. Legality. The people in Morality are pleasant folk, God-fearing, and law-abiding, and lead a quiet, comfortable life.”  But, their wisdom is not spiritual. It is the best of the world’s wisdom.

I was following a popular and highly successful church leadership conference this week and here are some of the quotes by the leaders and speakers:

“Only YOU can be YOU the way that YOU can be YOU”

“Dream something so big and so amazing that it scares you and brings you out of your comfort zone.”

“Eagles don’t learn to fly by flying, they learn to fly by falling.”

“If everyone believes in your vision it’s not big enough”

“Your freedom is on the other side of your fears. Your greatness is on the other side of your pain.”

“Fear has no place in your success equation!”

Mr. Worldly Wiseman means well and I agree with the statement that “all truth is God’s truth” but building a ministry or a kingdom on think and grow rich principles is not genuine wisdom. It will build crowds and self-esteem but it is the kind of wisdom that God eventually confounds – with consequences to everyone. It is a foundation of sand.

Hushai’s advice only gave David time to get away and reorganize his troops. He was far more comfortable with this kind of desert war than was Absalom and his army.  This was David’s strength and no one could outthink or outfight him here.  Something else happens that is remarkable. David not only takes personal command of organizing the army but then says, “I myself will surely march out with you.” The David we knew is back and even though his men do not allow him to lead they recognize his return as well. “You must no go out; if we are forced to flee, they won’t care about us. Even if half of us die, they won’t care; but you are worth ten thousand of us.”  What an extraordinary change from the man we saw earlier staying in the palace during the battle or being coerced by his general into finishing up a battle that had already been won.

The end of the story is vivid and ironic. It is Ahithophel’s great strength of wisdom and advice that traps him and leads him to his only option: suicide. It is not emotional. Just the opposite. He puts his house in order and then hangs himself. He knows his life is worthless now but long before the battle he realizes even God is against him and has made a fool out of him. He cannot take that after being known as the wisest counselor in all of Israel. Hatred of one man had consumed his life. In a way, he lives on or at least his wisdom does through his grandson, Solomon, the wisest man in Israel. As for Absalom, that for which he is most proud and famous, his hair, is the cause of his death. He is trapped like an animal and killed – contrary to David’s direct orders. He dies without his chariot and fifty men but riding a donkey alone in a forest. Not the leader of the army he had been led to believe.

It seems so neat but there is still the lingering question of why did Ahithophel hate David so much that not only did he turn on him but his advice was to kill only one man – David? Ahithophel had no interest in ruling or power. He had no interest in a battle between armies and a civil war. He would likely go back to Giloh if Absalom had won. We can see the rest of the story if we skip ahead and turn back at the same time.

Look at 2 Samuel 23:34 in the list of David’s thirty great men.  “Eliam son of Athithophel the Gilonite.”  Ahithophel’s son is one of David’s champions.  His son is a close friend of Uriah. Let’s skip back to 2 Samuel 11:3.  “The man said, “Isn’t this Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam and the wife of Uriah the Hittite?”

Bathsheba is Ahithophel’s granddaughter. Now we understand his hatred for David, don’t we? David dishonored Ahithophel’s family and murdered his granddaughter’s husband, the friend of his son.

Why else would he see the opportunity to use David’s own son against him?

Why else would he focus on David alone and try to spare the people?

Why else would he tell Absalom to defile David’s concubines but not his wives?  He would have defiled Bathsheba as well.

Why else would he say the return of the people would be like a bride returning to her husband? David had deceived the people like he had deceived Bathsheba. He had stolen her from her husband.

Why else would he choose to die by his own hand instead of being executed as a traitor by the friend he had come to despise?

It is a tragedy of betrayal, revenge, dishonor and rebellion. The only redemptive feature of the whole story is what we could call “the return of the king.” David finds himself in the worst of circumstances and that brings him to himself after all these years. He recovers his strength, his leadership and his heart for a righteous cause. But at an enormous cost. The ripple effect of a single sin is more than anyone could have imagined.

There is so much more to this story than we can talk about now but, fortunately, it is not over.

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