The Letter brings death…the Spirit gives Life!

In by Ethan McCardell

Bible Text: 2 Samuel 18: 33 | Preacher: Ethan McCardell | Then the king was deeply moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate and wept.  And as he went, he said thus: “O my son Absalom-my son, my son Absalom-if only I had died in your place!  (2 Samuel 18:33)

Absalom or Avshalom (“Father/Leader of/peace”), in the Word, is the third son of David, king of Israel. He was deemed the handsomest man in the kingdom.  His sister Tamar had been raped by David’s eldest son, Amnon, who was in love with her.  Absalom, after waiting two years, revenged by sending his servants to murder Amnon at a feast to which he had invited all the king’s sons. After this deed he fled to Talmai, “king” of Geshur, his maternal grandfather, and it was not until five years later that he was fully reinstated in his father’s favor.

Four years after this he raised a revolt at Hebron, the former capital. Absalom was now the eldest surviving son of David, and at the present position of the story after the birth of Solomon and before the struggle between Solomon and Adonijah—you could say that the thought he might not be the destined heir of his father’s throne inspired him to rebel.

All Israel and Judah came to his side, and David, attended only by the Cherethites and Pelethites and some recent recruits from Gath, found it was time to flee. The priests remained behind in Jerusalem, and their sons Jonathan and Ahimaaz served as his spies. Absalom reached the capital and took counsel with the renowned Ahithophel. The pursuit was continued and David took refuge beyond the Jordan River.

A battle was fought in the “wood of Ephraim” (west of the Jordan) and Absalom’s army was completely routed. He himself, having long hair, was caught by his hair in the boughs of an oak-tree, and as David had strictly charged his men to deal gently with the young man, Joab was informed. What a common soldier refused to do even for a thousand shekels of silver, the king’s general did at once. Joab thrust three spears through the heart of Absalom as he struggled in the branches and his ten armor-bearers came around and slew him. Despite the revolt, David was overwhelmed with grief and ordered a great heap of stones to be erected where he fell.  (Revised Wikipedia History)

This is seems like a sad story in many respects, but there is a message of hope and even (I think) a message of peace (notice Absalom’s name and its translation).  This is really a story about relationships – how essential and how complex they are.  We experience the heartbreak in David’s life because of Absalom.  Their relationship was so broken and the love so deep, that he  spends the entire last verse of the story grieving it.  We are told that he was so moved by news of Absalom’s death that he broke down and wept.  

All through the Word we are told that tears and weeping signify mercy.  Mercy is an expression of love in the internal sense.  It is compassion for lives in distress.  This is why we’re told that the Divine Love is mercy  itself, because the whole human race is in distress as we work to move from the selfish loves we’re inclined to the heavenly love of the Lord and others.

In this case, David’s tears are an expression of mercy’s grief over loss of truth.  Let me explain.  In the Teachings for the New Church we learn that David, a king, represents Divine Truth.  The first time he grieves is when Absalom kills Amnon, and he tears his clothes.  In the internal sense, this is about grief that the truth has been lost and his tears at the end of Absalom’s story bring that grief full circle.  Why this representation, and where’s the hope in it?

The story of Absalom and David is a story of every relationship we will ever have in life.  I think its also the story of our relationship with God, and our willingness to look below the surface for confirmation of the Lord’s leadership of our life.  Its about our ability to tell the truth to each other, and what gets in the way of it.  Every time Absalom could have responded by consulting David, engaging an open and honest dialog and then making a decision, you could say he reacts from impulse.  He reacts either from zeal (which underneath is love), or fear.  And every time David responds impulsively, he is reinforcing the same pattern.       

Absolom’s name means leader of the peace.  Interesting considering the rebellion of his life’s story.  He’s also a great example of mindset that we most often see in the teenage years (ref. “Ishmael rational.”)  That developing rational perspective on what the truth is that leads us to debate, challenge, confront, and at times even fight for our perception of it in the moment that is an essential part of our evolving spiritual and natural world view.  Mark Twain talked about this: “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around.  But when I got to be twenty one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.”  That vulnerable state (and in some ways that innocence) also needs to be tempered and protected by boundaries.  Boundaries shaped by considerable life experience coupled with an understanding, reasoned approach to “not making the same mistake” twice.  This is why an adult needs to set them.  Absalom opposes David (the truth) throughout the story.  In death though, we see the people of Israel and the king himself arise to new life through the struggle and how it leads them to reprioritise, for the sake of their God and each other.  It is in death that Absalom lives up to his name.

We are also taught that Absalom actually represents the letter of the Word and how it can, if we get caught in it, have us rebel against the spiritual message it holds for our lives.  If you only ever see “thou shalt not kill” as applying to physical murder, you are enabled to continue character assault, assumption of spiritual motive and internal state, and all sorts of other terribly destructive human behaviours.  On the other hand, if you see it also as a statement of spiritual reality warning you not slander or murder another’s reputation, then you are honouring the spirit of the law and not just the letter.  If you only ever consider “not worshipping other gods” as making sure that you don’t carve statues of images you bow down to three times a day, rather than all the destructive thoughts and behaviors that turn you from God thousands of times a day, you’re missing the point.

That the Lord as to His human essence is called a “branch and root of Jesse” [Is. 11:1] and a “son of David” [Matt. 1:1], is a portrayal-just as faith also can be called a son of the Word of the Lord or of its letter, insofar as it is born through the higher knowledge [there], even though its letter is dead and rebels, like Absalom the son of David.  (SE 2658)

If we become literalists with each other, we become rebels rather than leaders of the peace.  There’s an old adage about taking someone at “face value”.  What about their heart?  In the New Church, we are encouraged to read the Scriptures more deeply.  To see the Word as a Divine Allegory, holding a deeper level of meaning for our personal spiritual journey.  The question is not just “what are the words?”  It’s “what do they mean?”  This is a faith AND charity exercise.  It comes from the heart, through the mind, into the life.  And if we are going to do it effectively, we have to move away from summary statements or pre-emptive strikes.

The same thing applies to our reading of the Word.  Our single most important reason to go to it is that it is where we encounter the Lord Jesus Christ.  Full stop.  We go to it because it is where God speaks with us.  We experience enlightenment when we seek that Divine connection free from our own agenda or to calculate a specific solution to a particular natural problem.  When we don’t try to meld its message with self-help or pop-psychology.  We go there simply because we trust the Lord to “message us” there, connect us with heaven, and gently lead us to understand how our experiences of life in this world (even the most difficult) are helping to prepare us for it.  Just as the internal sense in this story points to the healing quality of love, so does every story there.  Our human spiritual rebirth requires the recognition that the purpose of our creation is that there be a heaven from the human race (a heaven made up of people who have become and who are becoming angels).

  So, this rebel is named “leader of the peace” because his rebellion is teaching us all something.  We resist the help we actually need, we resist the healing that is already offered, and we resist the relationship that would restore every heart in humanity.  We need this story as a reminder that “the Letter brings death, but the Spirit gives life.”  (2 Corinthians 3: 6)  Absalom’s life was not meaningless.  And as David picked up this message, in a sense he was able to resume the leadership of his kingdom.  Able to the see the truth of peace on the other side of his son’s life.

This is the Lord’s hope for all of us.  That we’ll see beyond the harsh appearances of the Letter (which can kill hope for spiritual rebirth) to the deep and enduring promise of a loving and useful heavenly life. The story also calls us to read “below the surface” with one another.  What if we encountered one another the way we are encouraged to encounter Scripture – not just reading the words themselves but seeking what they might mean?  This would make us “ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter brings death, but the Spirit gives life.”  (2 Corinthians 3: 6).  AMEN.


2 Samuel 18, Isaiah 11, John 3, SE 2658