The Tyranny of Natural Affection

2 Samuel

When a person is without “natural affection,” his condition is virtually at the lowest point of degradation. Such a person’s depravity has been manifest in a descent of perversions involving deviant sexuality and an increasing propensity to nurse absolutely private pursuit of pleasure and power (Romans 1:26-32). Verse 31 mentions those who are “without understanding, not disposed to keep trust, without natural affection, and destitute of mercy.’ “Astorgous” which the KJV translates “without natural affection” also is translated as “callous” and “heartless.”  It means that they have lost the most basic bond of affection that naturally exists within families and between friends who share common interests. On the other hand, one cannot allow natural affection to overshadow loyalty to the kingdom of God and to one’s calling to follow Christ even at the sacrifice of his own life (Matthew 16:24, 25). The sword of truth often divides “father against son and son against father” (Luke 12:53). The one who loves “son or daughter more than [Christ] is not worthy” of him (Matthew 10:37). This narrative shows us a time when the natural affection of David almost cost him his kingdom, ruined his judgment, and interrupted his understanding of his covenanted place in the redemptive plan of God.

I. The Success of Hushai’s counsel to Absalom allowed David to refresh his people, received more loyal followers, and organize his fighting men, and strategize for the coming conflict. (2 Samuel 17:24 – 18:4). Had the advice of Ahithophel been followed, David would have been unprepared, exhausted, and still in flight. Friends came to him and provided a wide selection of foods for his displaced people. Elijah was fed by a destitute widow (1 Kings 17:12, 13) and also by angels (1 Kings 19:5-8). Jesus was ministered to by angels after his forty-day fast and his confrontation with Satan (Matthew 4:11). Paul told the Philippians upon receiving their generous and sacrificial gift from them, “And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. To our God and Father be glory forever and ever. Amen.” (Philippians 4:17-20).

II. The Termination of Absalom

A. David gave specific instruction for the safety of Absalom (18:5).

  1. This instruction given by David, set the stage for the deep lamentation exhibited later. Immediately to the three leaders of the reconstituted army, and in the hearing of all David charged them “Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.”
  2. This appears an absolute incongruity with David’s knowledge of the seriousness of the circumstance. In 15:14, he concluded that all must escape for none would escape from Absalom and if provoked he would “strike the city with the edge of the sword.”
  3. The history of Absalom’s deceit, his ambition, his cunning, and his murderous and destructive treachery made this request virtually impossible to keep and certainly would make one question the wisdom of David in issuing it.

B. David’s forces routed the forces of Israel following Absalom (18:6-8). The army had shown their concern for David and his value by insisting that he not go out into the battle (18:3). Over 20,000 men were slain in the battle that ensued including men of Judah and men of Israel. Fight in the forest probably broke down the strategy of both sides but favored the troops of David.

C. Absalom was killed (18:9-15). The disorganization caused by the forest is captured in the phrase, “Now Absalom happened to meet the servants of David.” (9).

  1. In an attempt to escape, he rode his mule carelessly under a low hanging branch of an oak tree and got caught in it. Unable to extract himself, Absalom was “left hanging between heaven and earth.”
  2. This was reported to Joab by one of the men who saw this happen. Joab asked if the man had killed Absalom. When told “No,” Joab upbraided the man.
  3. A heated conversation ensued in which the man reminded Joab of the words of David (12) and also reflected on the character of Joab who, he believed, would have abandoned him to the wrath of David if he had indeed taken the life of Absalom (13).
  4. Bested in the discussion, Joab dropped the issue and with his armor bearers went to Absalom and killed him brutally, cast him into a pit and erected over him a heap of stones.

D. David received the news of victory and of Absalom’s death. Two messengers are dispatched to give David the news of victory. The messengers used this opportunity of running as an athletic contest in their excitement to be the first with the news.

  1. Ahimaaz, son of Zadok the priest, outran the Cushite, even though he started later. He did not tell David that Absalom was dead, although he clearly knew that such was the case (verse 20). He knew that would not be good news.
  2. The Cushite arrived with the same news of victory. When David asked about Absalom (David has referred to him regularly as “the young man” seemingly in an exculpatory manner), the Cushite announced in a celebratory manner, “Let the enemies of my lord the king, and all who rise up against you for evil, be as that young man!”
  3. David did not care about the news of victory or of the well-being of his loyal followers but only about the report of what happened to Absalom.


III. The Response of David

A. David’s deep grief (18:33-19:4).

  1. David’s natural affection became disconnected from his sense of justice and rational understanding. His total concentration was on his son Absalom as shown by the incessant sobbing and repeating of his name.
  • He expressed a desire for his own death rather than the death of a rebel who would destroy the covenantal status of Israel as well as the life of his own father.
  • He ignored the loyalty and sacrifice of those who fought to preserve his life and the continuance of his kingdom.
  1. The writer’s description of the deportment of the army shows that the narrative is presenting David as delinquent in his God-appointed office. Victory was turned to mourning; the people went into the city “by stealth” as those who were “humiliated” rather victorious. A major catastrophe has been avoided by the loyalty and bravery of these followers of David, and they must turn to mourning because of David’s release of himself to his familial affection for the one who sought his destruction.

B. Joab’s remonstration (19:5-8). Though Joab was impulsive and often violent, he saw situations plainly and was not afraid to tell David clearly what his conduct said to his people. He gave David a stern but proper warning. When we indulge our private loves and nurse our flesh at the expense of the larger concerns of the kingdom and the advance in personal holiness, we need the godly rebuke of God-called ministers and sanctified friends. “Therefore, rebuke them sharply that they may be sound in the faith” (Titus 1:13). “Reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Timothy 4:2).

  1. Instead of congratulating and expressing his commendation of those who had fought for him and won, he had made them feel ashamed for their victory. They had saved his life and all that he had and now must feel as if they had destroyed him.
  2. His conduct expressed precisely the opposite of what it should. He showed contempt for those who loved him and obeyed him, and favor toward the one who sought to usurp his throne through deceit, treachery, arrogance, and execution. David’s pleasure was focused solely on Absalom and all else was nothing to him.
  3. If David did not change his orientation immediately and go and speak kindly to his people, he would find that by morning none of them would remain with him. Should that happen, an even worse evil would come on David than the one they had averted; yes, even worse than that posed by any of the troubles he had experienced up to that time. David needed to be shaken out of his irrational slumber of sorrow for Absalom and look to his calling as king.
  4. David’s expression of ultimate interest in this private sphere of concern instead of the well-being of the larger community should warn us of how often our concerns are isolated to a private sphere while self-surrendering love for God, his will, his decrees, his glory, his gospel, and his people are subjugated to an inferior place in our affections.
  5. David responded to the reprimand of Joab, went and sat in the gate of Mahanaim, and all the people came before him.


IV. The Return of the King. With the death of Absalom, Israel returned to its tents, that is, they disbanded and went back to their lives as private citizens. Now, however, the nation was fragmented and they were without a king.

A. Israel reconsidered its allegiance. Absalom was dead. Israel recalled David’s history of fighting for the glory and safety of Israel and put pressure on the leadership of the tribes to reunite with David. They must not be slack to bring the king back.

B. David appealed to Judah. He commissioned Zadok and Abiathar to appeal to the leadership of Judah.

  1. He reminded the elders of Judah that he was of their tribe, their very flesh and bone. Israel had already responded to the failed coup by showing the desire to find unity with Judah under the leadership of David.
  2. Even to Amasa, the son of David’s niece, a man who led the forces of Absalom, David gave the promise of replacing Joab as commander of the army. Joab had killed Abner, had killed Absalom and had a spirit of independence that was grievous to David. David unwittingly sealed the death of Amasa by this public display of preference of him over Joab (20:8-12). At the same time, however, David won over the people of Judah by this display of trustful restitution.

C. The king crosses Jordan.

  1. Shemei- An enemy becomes submissive. Shemei came with a thousand men of Benjamin to apologize and pledge their loyalty to David. The cursing of Shemei was accompanied by throwing rock and dust as well as the hurling of grotesque insults at David (16:6-8). How quickly compliance comes when power has shifted! Spiteful opportunism replaced by quivering and sobbing fear feigning a change of heart is one of the most insulting features of fallen human nature.
  2. Mephibosheth – A protégé is restored.
  • Mephibosheth is able to tell the whole story (cf. 16:1-4), pledge his continued allegiance to the reign of David, and receive half of his land restored.
  • He does not ask for vengeance but only recognizes that he has been the recipient of gracious treatment. He is even willing for Ziba to retain all the land for David’s kindness already has met all of his needs.
  1. Barzillai – A caretaker is honored.
  • Barzillai befriended David and provided abundantly for his loyal followers in a time of desperate need ( (17:27-29). He continued to show his love for and support of David by crossing the Jordan with him, but he wanted to remain in his own home for the final few years of his life.
  • He transferred the honor that David would give him to another, Chimham.
  • Even so, the Lord Jesus Christ transfers all the honors that he has gained from the Father’s hands for his perfect obedience to the covenant of redemption to the ones for whom he died. The treasures and riches of Christ are given to us for Jesus’ sake (Ephesians 2:4-8; Colossians 2:9-15).
  1. Another rebellion is set up by the hostile posturing between Judah and the rest of Israel (40-43). In this life, no battle ever completely seals off the opposition of the world, the flesh and the devil. Those who endure to the end shall be saved (Matthew 24:13); if by the Spirit we keep mortifying the deeds of the flesh, we will live (Romans 8:13). We must take the full armor of God to be able to stand in the evil day, and having done all, still stand and keep alert with all perseverance (Ephesians 6: 13, 18).
Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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