Rock Star—The David Saga, VIII: David the Father
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!” —II Samuel 18:33
Great biographies can never be hagiographies, right? Unless you’re writing about the Catholic saints, a great biography can never be hero worship.
Great biographers must tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, with light and shadow, success and failure, virtue and flaw, until we have a truly human, blood-and-bone-and-sinew subject.
For example, in his biographies of Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson shows us that the very qualities that make you a great scientist or inventor can trip you up at home. Dr. Einstein was cruel to his first wife and unfaithful to his second. He never saw his troubled, schizophrenic son for the last 30 years of his life.
When his girlfriend gave birth to a daughter named Lisa, Mr. Jobs denied that he was the father even after a paternity test proved that he was. He named a computer after her, but even when Apple made him rich, he paid Lisa’s mother $500 a month in child support.
The Hebrew Historian who crafted the David Saga is a great biographer, because he never flinches from David’s flaws and failures. He wants to give us a blood-and-bone-and-sinew protagonist, the brew of false and true that David really lived.
As with Einstein and Jobs, the very qualities that made David a brave giant-slayer, a Top 40 rock star, a successful king, and a daring empire builder, also made him a flawed father. Before he hooked up with Bathsheba, David had six sons with six different women. He seems to have been a bit indifferent to their existence.
David also had a daughter named Tamar. He probably had other daughters too, but Tamar is the only one who gets a name. Tamar is a half-sister to David’s oldest son Amnon, and a full sister to David’s third son Absalom.
David’s oldest son Amnon falls in hopeless lust with his half-sister Tamar and tricks her into being alone with him and forces himself upon her. Powerful men taking advantage of vulnerable women did not start with Charlie Rose and Matt Lauer.
This enrages Tamar’s full brother Absalom, who traps Amnon in a corner like Amnon trapped Tamar and kills him. Father David is furious with Absalom. The Bible does not bother to tell us what he felt about the rape of his daughter. David is so furious he banishes Absalom from the palace for three years. Absalom is unfathered for three years.
As soon as his exile is over and he comes back to Jerusalem, Absalom plants himself at the town square to receive the kingdom’s malcontents, just like his father before him, and begins to collect a sizable retinue with the intention of seizing the throne from his father. His attempted usurpation becomes so dangerous that King David has to flee Jerusalem with a few of his most loyal soldiers.
So one way this story might be God’s word for us today is the gentle reminder that clichés become clichés because they are true: “like father, like son;” “the apple never falls far from the tree;” “History repeats itself;” “Our chickens always come home to roost;” “garbage in, garbage out.”
Because David’s sons are “chips off the old block.” If Amnon wants a woman, he takes her, even if it is shameful, like his father before him.
Absalom too is just like his father. He is handsome, like his father, dangerously handsome, too handsome for his own good. The Bible tells us he was very proud of his luxuriant hair; when he cut it once a year, the trimmings weighed four pounds.
Absalom is charming, like his father; Absalom could sell ice cubes to Eskimos or coals in New Castle or bacon to an Orthodox Jew or Jack Daniels to a Saudi Muslim.
He is ambitious and impatient; when he wants the throne, he goes after it, with a vengeance, legal succession be damned, just like his father before him. Like father, like son. History repeats itself.
So, if you are a mother or a father, be careful. Watch yourself, because they are watching you. Their surveillance is more vigilant than the CIA. Even if we don’t notice it, and even if they don’t know it, they are copying us. Nothing shapes character like a mother or father, not even a best friend, not even a smartphone.
Well, you know the rest of the story. Father and son both muster vast, menacing armies and face off in a thick forest. David stays home from the battlefield. He tells Joab, his commander-in-chief, to deal gently with his son.
Absalom’s untrained, inexperienced troops are no match for David’s tough, weathered veterans of a hundred military skirmishes. In the thick of the battle, Absalom’s mule gallops beneath a low-hanging branch and he is undone by his pride and joy, his famously luxuriant hair, so there he hangs, helpless, suspended between heaven and earth.
General Joab ignores David’s instructions and stabs him to death. It would have been so easy to take him alive as a prisoner-of-war, but in Joab’s opinion Absalom has committed treason against his father and his fatherland.
A messenger brings David the good news of this definitive, glorious victory, but David doesn’t even care. “How does it go with the young man Absalom?” he asks. The messenger says, “May Absalom’s visit face every last one of your enemies, my king.”
And then the words which have echoed down the corridors of time for 3,000 years: “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would that I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!” Five times. My son. Five times.
David’s desolation is so comprehensive and crippling that he can’t even congratulate his victorious soldiers. He hides in his royal bedroom. General Joab is furious. He scolds David: “Snap out of it, Your Majesty! Do you value the traitor over the loyalists? It looks to me that if Absalom were alive and all of us were dead, then you would be happy. Now get out there and salute the triumphant troops!”
General Joab has a point, but he also illustrates a common reality in human commerce, then and now: the world does not know how to deal with the grief-stricken.
I don’t know how many times grieving parishioners have told me that it feels as if even their fast friends are avoiding them. It’s not that they are unwilling to share the sorrow, if they knew how, but no one knows what to say.
Kay Redfield Jamison is a psychologist at Johns Hopkins University and a renowned expert on bipolar disorder. Three months after her husband died, a colleague asked her to contribute an article to a scholarly journal. Dr. Jamison said, “My husband died.” The colleague was exasperated: “It’s been three months,” he said.
The world does not know what to do with the grief-stricken. This is especially true if the grief is ‘complicated.’ Did you know that was a thing? It is an official diagnosis in the world of psychology: complicated grief.
Simple grief might come upon you when you lose someone who is dearer to you than life itself, and that death ended a wonderful relationship, and it hurts so terribly for exactly that reason, but months go by, and one day you discover that it’s not the first thing you think about when you wake up every morning, and then you stop making coffee for two, and then you start to laugh more often, and you mean it, and one day after a year or two or three or ten there are more smiles over the happy memories than tears over the loss.
I know it doesn’t seem simple when you’re in the middle of it, but it’s more straightforward than complicated grief, which might follow a sudden, unexpected death; or a long, lingering, difficult death; or a young death, or a death that left unfinished business, or ended a fractured relationship; or—and here is why I bring it up in the middle of David’s story if you or someone else were partly responsible for the death.
What if someone is killed by a drunk driver, or in any auto accident, for that matter? What if your child dies of an overdose and it turns out his best friend gave him the drugs?
This is an old film, but it’s set on Lake Michigan around the corner from here, so I can bring it up. Do you remember the characters from Ordinary People (1980, Robert Redford’s first film as a director)? The Mary Tyler Moore and Donald Sutherland characters? That’s complicated grief.
The grief of the Timothy Hutton character is so complicated he tries to end his own life. Complicated grief lasts longer, digs deeper, hurts harder, and unhinges your existence more thoroughly, than simple grief.
And David’s grief is anything but simple, because he had a role to play in his son’s death. His unscrupulous use of the sword to serve his own selfish purposes; his political intrigues and military machinations; his vaulting, irrepressible ambition; his indifference to his own children, and his flawed modeling for them of what it means to be a person of honor and integrity—all of this set the stage for Absalom’s short, sad, errant life.
So maybe when David weeps for Absalom, he weeps too for himself—for all the fatherly neglect, all the missed chances to be a better example to his children, all the self-centeredness of a royal. “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would that I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”
We believe David when he says that. We know he would have died for his child. We know it because there’s not a father or mother here who wouldn’t say the same thing if faced with the same horrible situation. Some of us have said it ourselves, have had to say it ourselves. David’s love for Absalom is very real. It is not false; it is just late.
So maybe I’ll just end with some advice and a story. The advice: Love them now while you can. Love them before it’s too late.
The story: I am so stricken by this deranged hatred in Pittsburgh yesterday that I have no words to share with you. It just seems as if we’re going backwards. It’s as if someone or something has unchained the demons of malice that have long lain hidden and quiet and dormant within us. It brought back some tough memories for me.
Every night at bedtime, Scarlett Lewis would cuddle up in bed with her 6-year-old son, Jesse. She’d slip her hand beneath his pajama top and feel his heartbeat, and every night, she would say the same prayer: “Dear Jesus, thank you for this warm body, this heartbeat. He’s such a gift. I know you could take him from me at any time, but please don’t.”
“I used to say it every single night,” says Scarlett Lewis, “and now I know why.” On December 14, 2012, Adam Lanza shot Jesse Lewis dead in his classroom at Sandy Hook Elementary School, which should have been a safe and sacred sanctuary for him.
Scarlett Lewis says, “I remember seeing Jesse sleeping in his bed every night, and I would think, ‘I have to make a phone call,’ but then I would remind myself not to pass up this opportunity to kiss that cheek. And I wouldn’t. I would always kiss that cheek. Never pass up an opportunity like that. Those moments are gifts. And you never know when you won’t get another opportunity to kiss that cheek.”
Scarlett Lewis reaches into a plastic bag and pulls out a little piece of glass. It looks like a quartz crystal. On Christmas Day, 2012, she’d retrieved it from Jesse’s classroom; it’s a shard from the shattered windows in Jessie’s classroom, and it is now a holy relic.
It reminds her of her son. “His light is so strong,” she says. “He’s still here. He’s in both places: he’s in heaven, and he’s still with me.” So, love them now.
Frederick Buechner, as usual, puts it best: “David meant it, of course. If he could have done the boy’s dying for him, he would have done it. If he could have paid the price for the boy’s betrayal, he would have paid it. If he could have given his own life to make the boy alive again, he would have given it. But even a king can’t do things like that. As later history would prove, it takes a God.”
Meghan O’Rourke, “Good Grief: Is There a Better Way to Be Bereaved?” The New Yorker, February 1, 2010, p. 70.
Brian Koonz, “Mom Grateful for Time with Son Killed in Shooting,” The News-Times of Danbury, January 6, 2013.
Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979), p. 6.