Absalom’s death / Stephen’s Speech to the Sanhedrin: June 11th 2021

2 Samuel 16:15-18:18

David had sent his friend, Hushai, to give poor advice to Absalom (David’s treacherous son who was intent on taking over the country). Absalom suspected Hushai’s motives as he knew he was a good friend of David’s (2 Sam.16:17).

Absalom first of all asked the renowned wise man Ahithophel how to progress his coup. Ahithophel told him to publicly lie with all of David’s ten concubines. This would declare to the whole of Israel that he had formerly set himself against his father. Absalom did this because Ahithophel had a great reputation for giving wise advice (2 Sam.16:23).

Ahithophel then wisely recommended that Absalom should assassinate his father David and bring all the other Israelites back to him. Absalom would have gained the throne if he had done this but God had made him resistant to good advice.

This gave Hushai the chance to propose an alternative strategy. Hushai recommended gathering an enormous army and killing not only David but also all his supporters. He managed to get Absalom to sign up to this plan (2 Sam.17:14). Hushai then sent David a secret message telling him to cross the river Jordan to get away from Absalom’s army.

Aphithophel was so upset that his wise advice had been ignored that he went and hanged himself (2 Sam.17:23). It would have been better for him to stay loyal to King David and to have left Jerusalem with him.

David had travelled to Mahanaim and was treated hospitably by people in the region. They brought him and his army bedding and food.

David mustered his men for battle and wanted to fight with them but they would not allow it. He was too valuable. He stood at the gate of the city in support but begged his soldiers to be gentle with his disloyal son (2 Sam.18:5). It is incredible that David should still want to protect someone who had disrespected his reign and was leading a massive army to kill him.

In the ensuing battle, David’s army killed twenty thousand Israelite soldiers. They probably had far more motivation in that they were fighting for their lives whereas the Israelites were just trying to swap one satisfactory king with another. There is the intriguing statement: ‘the forest claimed more lives that day than the sword’ (2 Sam.18:8), which implies that God was fighting for David in unusual ways. Perhaps the enemy troops ran into the forest in panic and fell into concealed ravines / large pits. They might have been attacked by wild animals or God may even have mobilised the trees to entangle the troops and drop branches on them. I suspect this verse was the inspiration for Tolkien’s Fangorn forest in ‘The Lord of the Rings’.

Absalom himself fell victim to one of the trees in the forest. His head got caught in the branches of a large oak as he was trying to ride under it and he was left swinging there. One of David’s soldiers saw his predicament but did nothing because of David’s command to be gentle with him. Joab, David’s army commander, thought this was nonsense and he and his men went and executed Absalom as if he were a piñata. Joab buried him in a large pit in the forest.

Absalom had earlier vainly set up a stone pillar as a monument to himself in the King’s Valley (see photo). It is difficult what to make of Absalom’s life. He had stood up for justice by avenging the rape of his sister Tamar but he had been extremely disrespectful and disloyal to his father, King David – possibly out of frustration that David hadn’t disciplined his rapist son, Amnon. David had welcomed Absalom back from exile and still wanted to protect him even after he had slept with his women and assembled a massive army to hunt him down. Absalom was a victim of his own good looks, charisma and vanity, lusting for power and thinking that he could do better than his father, who was loved by God. Absalom would have done better to emulate David’s patience, tolerance, love and humility.

Acts 7:20-43

Stephen continued to give the seventy one members of the Sanhedrin a potted history of the Jewish nation. At first glance, this would appear to be like me narrating the Nativity story to the Pope. I am sure they intimately knew the Old Testament storylines already but they had missed the vital point. All the Jewish Old Testament scriptures pointed to Jesus. Even today, many Jews aren’t taught the whole of Isaiah as it so obviously prophesies all about the life of Jesus (Isaiah 53:4-5).

However, Stephen would skilfully be building his later statements on the firm foundations of the Old Testament. Our faith in Jesus Christ is rooted upon the prophesies of the Old Testament. Jesus is referred to throughout the Old Testament and he often personally appeared and interacted with key characters, this is known as a Christophany,

Stephen reminded the Jewish elders that Moses had told the Israelites: ‘God will send you a prophet like me from your own people’ (Acts 7:37). This ‘prophet’ was Jesus, whom they had just killed. In fact, the Jews had killed virtually all of God’s messengers that had been sent to them. Jesus’ life had multiple similarities to that of Moses but Jesus was far greater. Moses delivered his people from oppression and slavery and led them to freedom. Jesus rescued the whole world from the oppression of the devil and the slavery of sin and death.

Stephen repeatedly demonstrated that God throughout history did not just dwell in the Jewish temple. God met people wherever they travelled from the burning bush in the desert, in Gentile territory, to the wonders he performed in Egypt. The Jewish religious elite did not accept that God had become incarnate in the form of Jesus and had performed miracles outside the temple. Many Christians these days tick off their religious obligations by monotonously attending a fixed-format service in a certain church each Sunday as if Jesus is confined to the four walls of that building. However, we carry God inside each one of us. He is fully portable. He is God of the whole world, there is nowhere we can hide from him, and we should be taking him with us each day to meet the needs of suffering people throughout the secular world.

Stephen would became the first Christian martyr and his evangelistic speech is a powerful example for all of us to follow. Stephen’s name mean ‘victor’s crown’ and, even though he was stoned to death, he delivered a timeless ‘victory speech’.

This event would be the official Jewish rejection of the renewed offer of the kingdom, paving the way for salvation to be eventually offered to all the Gentiles.

It would have intimidated an average person to give witness in front of 71 members of the Sanhedrin but Stephen was empowered by the Holy Spirit. He was meant to be defending himself but he went on the attack and prosecuted the Jewish elders. Stephen was innocent, yet he would be punished. The Sanhedrin were guilty yet would escape punishment until God meted out his eternal justice.

Religious leaders have a history of rejecting God’s truth and his messengers. The Israelites had rejected God in the desert and so God turned away from them (Acts 7:42). The Jewish leaders were now rejecting God again with their beloved temple now becoming a worthless idol following the death of Christ.

Psalm 71:1-20

We should pray for our rulers to be people of justice and righteousness.

Queen Elizabeth II has had a spectacularly long reign because we all pray for her when we sing the National Anthem: ‘God save our gracious Queen. Long live our noble Queen’. Prayers really do work.

Our politicians should deliver the needy who cry out and the afflicted who have no-one to help, particularly our most vulnerable citizens, unborn children (Psalm 72:12). They should take pity on the weak and the needy, to save them from death.

We lose over 200,000 unborn children a year in the UK because we no not rescue them from oppression and violence. Their blood is precious in God’s sights (Psalm 72:14).

God alone does marvellous needs and we should praise his glorious name for ever.

Jesus created the world and he will be with us until the end of time. He will endure for ever and his words will feed us and water us so that we flourish (Psalm 72:5-7).

Image: Absalom’s monument: Alien is, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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