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The Purpose of Suffering: David and Absalom

21 May

Why do we have to suffer? What is the purpose of suffering? Why does a good and merciful God allow suffering?

These questions are significant for many people, believers and non-believers alike, for they could easily lead believers astray and they are often used by non-believers as core objections to an all-powerful, merciful, and good God.

I was reading the story of David, Bathsheba, and Absalom in 2 Samuel. That David had sinned greatly, in the eyes of both God and men, as a result of sleeping with Bathsheba and killing her husband Uriah the Hittite to cover up his crime, is unquestionable. Nathan fumed with indignation at David: “Why did you despise the word of the Lord by doing what is evil in his eyes?…” (2 Samuel 12:9) God promised that David would pay for his gross transgressions: “…out of your own household I am going to bring calamity on you…” (2 Samuel 12:11) Interestingly, and as an aside, I saw a clear distinction between crime and sin here. David’s crimes were rape (of Bathsheba) and pre-meditated murder (of Uriah). Yes, he was clearly guilty of both and would have been tried and convicted for these crimes in the court of men. But in 2 Samuel 12, both through Nathan’s parable and through God’s own indictment, it was clear that David’s sins were that of greed (i.e. not satisfied with the abundance that God had provided for him) and disobedience to God (i.e. by abusing those whom God had entrusted him), neither of which would’ve been enough even to open a case in a court of law. So while crimes are judged by men, sins are judged by God. And even though no man was able to punish David for his heinous crimes (because he had absolute power), God made sure that David would be punished for his wilful sins.

So David had it coming and he knew it. He knew he would suffer greatly and he even knew the source whence his suffering would come: his own household. Perhaps being able to anticipate his suffering would’ve taken the edge off for David a bit. Perhaps, but probably not much. Knowing when or how suffering will arise doesn’t ease one’s mind as much as knowing when or how suffering will end.

So what happened next? David’s firstborn son with Bathsheba died in infancy and he was overwhelmed with grief. Later, one of David’s sons, Amnon, raped his half-sister Tamar. As a result, Tamar’s blood-brother Absalom killed Amnon and then fled Jerusalem in order to hide from David. At this point of the story, one can only imagine the bitter brew of shock, disgust, anger, shame, and grief that was roiling inside David. And although I haven’t finished the rest of the story yet, I know that incest and fratricide were not the worst of it – more tragedy would befall the House of David.

But it was from this part of the story of David and Absalom that I had gained some insights about suffering.

A Play within a Play

At this point, David seemed to have had no choice: for the sake of upholding justice, he must punish Absalom for his transgression, even though “the king’s heart longed for Absalom.” (2 Samuel 14:1) Joab, one of David’s trusted generals, knowing how tormented the king must have been, came up with a plan to remedy the situation. He stole a plotline from the future – more than a thousand years before Shakespeare popularized it. As Hamlet would do, Joab staged a play for the king and “the play is the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.” (Hamlet Act 2, scene 2, 604–605) Joab sent for a “wise woman” and told her to pretend to be in mourning, utterly overwhelmed by grief. He then told this woman to appear before David and to relate to him a fictitious account of her family saga. Her made-up story was in many ways a carbon-copy of what had just happened in the House of David: fratricide, an angry and bereaved parent, an enraged populace that demanded justice, i.e. that the guilty son must die. The woman pleaded with David to grant his remaining son an amnesty, despite his obvious guilt; she was seeking the king’s mercy for her son’s transgression.

Does this sound familiar?

It does because the implication of the judgment that David was about to make resonates with us on two different levels. The obvious implication, one that David should have recognized right away (but didn’t), is that if he pardoned the woman’s son who committed fratricide, he would be setting a precedent that would lead to a pardon for his own son. Equal justice for all. Absalom would then be reconciled with David; case closed. That was what Joab had hoped for by staging the play-within-the-play for the king.

There is a less obvious implication of David’s decision which requires us to take a deeper look at the situation and at the Bible: Here we have before us an all-powerful lord whose subject has committed a capital offense. Despite an irreparable transgression (an unpardonable sin), he needed to show mercy so that his subjects can be reconciled with each other (through a categorical pardon) and with the parent and he can only show his mercy by foregoing (or sacrificing) one of his own subject, a murdered son. And if David were to ultimately forgive Absalom, he would have, in effect, agreed to sacrifice his own murdered son (Amnon) in order to put things to right in his kingdom. Framed this way, does the situation sound familiar?

Isn’t this what God (the all-powerful Lord) would ultimately do (sacrifice His own son) in order to reconcile us (His sinful subjects) with each other and with the “Parent” (God Himself)? And when Jesus was crucified, didn’t we all, like Absalom, commit fratricide (along with regicide to boot) since Jesus is the “firstborn of all creation” (and so we are his younger siblings)?

If he were to show mercy to his own fratricidal son, David would in effect be previewing to the world at large what God had planned to do to reconcile fallen humanity with Himself!

Marc Chagall: David and Absalom, 1956

Lest you think this is a stretch, a mere flight of fancy, here is what the wise woman actually said to David as she was revealing to him the purpose of her act: “Like water spilled on the ground, which cannot be recovered, so we must die. But that is not what God desires; rather, he devises ways so that a banished person does not remain banished from him.” (2 Samuel 14:14)

She said to David:

  1. “Like water spilled on the ground, which cannot be recovered, so we must die.”: The deed was done – Absalom had killed his own brother; Adam had sinned; humanity had fallen; we are all convicted and condemned to die.
  2. “But that is not what God desires”: God, because of the love and mercy for His subjects, did not want us to perish.
  3. “…he devises ways so that a banished person does not remain banished from him”: God would come up with a way to reconcile us with Him.

In essence, she was telling David this: “The tragedy had happened. What’s done is done. You are in agony and torment. But if you do this David: if you show Absalom mercy and grant him amnesty, then despite your pain, despite your loss, despite your anguish, despite your grief, despite your torment, you will have revealed the character of God to the world.”

Amidst all his personal loss and suffering, God gave David a prime opportunity to reveal His character and His planned rescue operation for the world!  It’s no coincidence that the Chinese characters for crisis (危机) also contains the word for opportunity (机).

The Purpose of Suffering

That’s when it occurred to me: God allows us to suffer so that we would have a chance to reveal His character to us. This answered many questions I had about suffering: Why do we have to suffer? What is the purpose of suffering? Why does a good and merciful God allow suffering?

For all of us who have ever lost a loved one, or our livelihood, our home, our life saving, relationship, identity; have suffered prolonged illnesses, or debilitating accidents; have been swindled, abused, mocked, it is very comforting to know that we never suffer in vain – that God does have a purpose for our suffering: to reveal His character to us. Take an extreme example and the logic would become more apparent: think of the suffering of Christian martyrs. Whether they succeeded or not in reaching their goals, God was there in every case, using their trials and tribulations, to reveal His character to us: Dr Martin Luther King, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Oscar Romero. God gave these men a unique opportunity to reveal His character to us as they “carried their crosses” faithfully and heroically. And the result? God was able to use their suffering and pain to show Himself through the barriers of time, language, and culture; to erect a beacon of hope for our darkest hours; to reflect His glory through His creation.

We were made in the image of God to do things that glorify Him, day and night, in good times and in bad. But even the most stalwart among us sometimes get discouraged because we can’t possibly see how God is using our suffering to His glory. It’s natural for us under duress to focus inward on ourselves, rather than to look outward at the big picture. But the more we do that, the more we’ll feel distanced from God’s purpose and the less we’ll be able to figure out the reason for our suffering.

Of course, the frustrating part is that even if we do look at the big picture, we might still not see which part of God’s character He wants to show us with our suffering until later; perhaps much later; or in some cases, never. For example, even if David had granted an amnesty to Absalom, he would still not have known in his lifetime that God would use his suffering to give the world a glimpse of His plan for the salvation of the fallen world. For that to happen, David would have had to know about the work of Jesus. Be that as it may, bear in mind that we are not entitled to an answer to this question in the first place: If we accepted God as our Lord, the only one who knows the answer to that question or who even has the rights to know, is God.

So in the pit of our suffering, when we feel the most vulnerable, trapped, helpless, or lost, when we’re tempted to ask the proverbial: “Why God, why?”, try asking instead: “God, which part of You am I suppose to see in this?” For when we choose to ask the latter question, we are already getting away from ourselves (the flesh) and getting closer to Him. And although we might not get an answer right away, we are at least heading in the right direction: the direction that leads to a destination, His purpose. And, ultimately, whichever path that leads us closer to Him will also lead us closer to restoration: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28)

A Stark Reminder

So did David seize the opportunity-of-a-lifetime to reveal God’s character amidst his pain and suffering? Did he pardon his son Absalom? Yes and no.

David said to Joab grudgingly: “Very well, I will do it. Go bring back the young man Absalom.” (2 Samuel 14:21) And so, he seemed to have pardoned Absalom. But David placed two stringent conditions on Absalom’s pardon – he said that Absalom “must go to his own house; he must not see my face.” (2 Samuel 14:24) In other words, even though Absalom was allowed to come back, he would be put under semi-house arrest and wouldn’t be able to see his own father. Was this the kind of pardon that God intended to show? Is this a true amnesty (which contains the root word amnesia – i.e. not only to forgive but also to forget)? Or would God rather want to show, through his beloved servant David, the “man after His own heart”, a categorical pardon and the resultant reconciliation, a foretaste of the Atonement and Justification?

And why did David specifically say that “he must not see my face”? Perhaps he felt ashamed – by pardoning Absalom, David was probably concerned that he was showing nepotism rather than mercy. Instead of a display of absolute power and royal retribution, David had shown a soft spot for one of his own. We can infer, more or less, that David felt he had “lost face” by pardoning Absalom. For David, fear and wrath befit a king more than love and mercy. Again, is this consistent with a display of God’s character? If so, would there ever be the Atonement? And how many times in our lives (especially for men and for Asians) do we fail to show God’s character just because we don’t want to “lose face”?

Amidst his suffering, David was given a prime opportunity to reveal God’s character and he blew it. Imagine what would have happened if David did absolve Absalom unconditionally? Not only would David have been able to preview God’s character to the world, Absalom would probably not have held a grudge against his own father and so most likely would not have conspired against him later: further disasters in the House of David could have been averted.

The story of David and Absalom is a stark reminder that we should always be on the lookout for an opportunity to reveal God’s character, especially in the midst of our suffering. For if we are diligent and obedient, even during our “dark night of the soul”, we can help to fulfill God’s purpose for our suffering and in the process, we might very well be made whole again.

Future article: The Gifts of Suffering

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6 Responses to “The Purpose of Suffering: David and Absalom”

  1. musiqdragonfly June 10, 2012 at 12:00 pm #

    wonder how justice should play as a role in this story?

    • wubr2000 June 10, 2012 at 2:20 pm #

      What do you mean? Could you elaborate?

      • musiqdragonfly June 10, 2012 at 3:00 pm #

        I think of forgiveness versus sin and understand why king David forgave his son Absalom; however I couldn’t come to term that king David did not exercise justice in this issue (family affair though), at the contrary he forgave Absalom who did not appear to me shamed of his sin nor seeking pardon. In my mind, God prefers justice to be exercised, while king David preferred mercy.

        • wubr2000 June 10, 2012 at 3:37 pm #

          If God preferred justice over mercy, we’d all be in trouble. “He saved us, not because of the righteous things we had done but because of his mercy.” Titus 3:5

          In my opinion, David didn’t really forgive Absalom – he only said he did. My point is that out of his suffering, David was given a chance to show genuine mercy – the kind of mercy that God wanted to demonstrate (and eventually did) to his own people. If David did show true mercy to Absalom, it might have ended the family feud and prevented further catastrophes.

          True mercy arises from love, whereas justice has a vengeance element to it (an eye for an eye) and so arises from hate.

          • musiqdragonfly June 10, 2012 at 7:20 pm #

            I have to keep my head above the water, I still have mix feeling on this story.

  2. larry December 1, 2014 at 12:13 am #

    awesome!

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