What Does Premodern Exegesis Sound Like from the Pulpit?

Premodern exegesis is sometimes summarized as the fourfold method of interpretation. This means my preaching…

…is a slave to the text (Literal)

…delights in the canonical context (Allegorical)

…drives at the transformation of the soul (Tropological)

…speaks of the Eternal (Anagogical)

It’s important to realize that the premodern exegete doesn’t siphon his sermon (although I guess some might) into four tidy bins of interpretation. Trying to neatly separate these senses would be like trying to dissect a peach cobbler.

In this past Sunday’s sermon, all four senses are baked in, so to speak. You won’t hear me use any of these terms, but here’s a taste of what premodern exegesis sounds like from the pulpit:

Read the Manuscript:

2 SAMUEL 15:1-12–ENEMY AT THE GATES

It was a privilege this past week to listen to sermons from Nathan Wolfe and his father Joe Wolfe who were so kind as to fill this pulpit while I was away with my family on vacation. We’ll make sure to get those posted to the church website this week on the Sermons Tab. If you weren’t here the past two weeks, I would encourage you to go back and listen to Nathan and Joe if for no other reason than to hear a testimony to God’s faithfulness in the Wolfe family as the faith is passed from one generation to the next. Perhaps in a few more years, the Lord will allow Joe and Nathan to sit under the preaching of one of Nathan’s sons. Wouldn’t that be something.

This morning, we return to 2 Samuel and to Absalom’s unfolding sinister plot in chapter 15. If you have a Bible with you, go ahead and turn there. 2 Samuel 15.

John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress depicts the journey of a man named Christian who is on a journey to be freed from a great burden that weighs upon his back. A man named Evangelist tells him to head for a narrow gate, and through that gate he will find relief from his heavy load. As he approaches the gate, he is waylaid by a sly fox named Worldly Wiseman who asks him where he comes from, where he is headed, and for what purpose. Christian explains that he is headed toward the narrow gate in order to be free of his burden. Worldly Wiseman shakes his head at the naivety of Christian, “Don’t you know you can be free of your burden without going through that treacherous gate? There are all kinds of dangers and enemies along this path. Turn aside. Go to the city nearby called Morality where a man named Legality and his beautiful son Civility live. They will give you what you want at half the cost to you.

Bunyan’s story is an allegorical rendering of Genesis 4:7—“Sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.” There is an enemy at the gates who would turn you away from the city of God. There is an enemy at the gates who would prevent you from finding wholeness at the cross. There is an enemy at the gates who would turn you aside from making Jesus Christ your king—he would be your king instead. He is patient, he is proud, and he is a thief. He goes by various names—you may call him the Worldly Wiseman, you may call him Absalom, but this enemy at the gates is not an enemy without, he is an enemy within.

If you’ve found 2 Samuel 15, let’s stand together as we read the Word of God:

After this Absalom got himself a chariot and horses, and fifty men to run before him. And Absalom used to rise early and stand beside the way of the gate. And when any man had a dispute to come before the king for judgment, Absalom would call to him and say, “From what city are you?” And when he said, “Your servant is of such and such a tribe in Israel,” Absalom would say to him, “See, your claims are good and right, but there is no man designated by the king to hear you.” Then Absalom would say, “Oh that I were judge in the land! Then every man with a dispute or cause might come to me, and I would give him justice.” And whenever a man came near to pay homage to him, he would put out his hand and take hold of him and kiss him. Thus Absalom did to all of Israel who came to the king for judgment. So Absalom stole the hearts of the men of Israel. And at the end of four years Absalom said to the king, “Please let me go and pay my vow, which I have vowed to the LORD, in Hebron. For your servant vowed a vow while I lived at Geshur in Aram, saying, ‘If the LORD will indeed bring me back to Jerusalem, then I will offer worship to the LORD.'” The king said to him, “Go in peace.” So he arose and went to Hebron. But Absalom sent secret messengers throughout all the tribes of Israel, saying, “As soon as you hear the sound of the trumpet, then say, ‘Absalom is king at Hebron!'” With Absalom went two hundred men from Jerusalem who were invited guests, and they went in their innocence and knew nothing. And while Absalom was offering the sacrifices, he sent for Ahithophel the Gilonite, David’s counselor, from his city Giloh. And the conspiracy grew strong, and the people with Absalom kept increasing.

2 Samuel 15:1-12

After years of brooding, in 2 Samuel 15, Absalom finally makes his move. Absalom, the disarmingly beautiful son of David, the most handsome man in Israel is the enemy at the gates. And nobody seems to realize it until it’s too late.

Three things characterize Absalom in this passage: his patience, his pride, and his theft. As we survey Absalom, we need to realize that Absalom is a picture of a Sinful Man, a Sinful Woman, who crouches at the gate of our own hearts.

First, this morning, we see (1) The Patience of Absalom. Normally we think of patience as a virtue, which is what makes Absalom an all the more dangerous enemy. He is calm, collected, patience, intentional, biding his time, waiting for the right moment. This is the man who back in chapter 13 after the humiliation of his sister Tamar said nothing for 2 years. And for 2 years waited patiently for the opportunity to get revenge on Amnon his brother for what he had done. This is the man who endured 3 years of exile with his grandparents at Geshur. This is the man who patiently abided humiliating house arrest for two years in Jerusalem. And here we see in verse 7 that Absalom put in another 4 patient years before making his move.

 And see what patient diligence Absalom goes about his work in verse 2: “And Absalom used to rise early and stand beside the way of the gate.” He got up early every morning. He stood by the gate all day. Patiently, diligently, daily, working to win the people one man, one woman at a time. This is no overnight revolution. This is a takeover 9 years in the making. A quiet, patient work.

Ernest Hemingway once said, “How do you go bankrupt? Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.” We often imagine sin as being a sudden impulse, an immediate temptation, but there is a patience to the plots of Satan. Luke 4:13 tells us—“And when the devil had ended every temptation [of Jesus], he departed from him until an opportune time.” Satan studies his victims. He learns their weaknesses. He ponders patiently. He waits for the opportune time.

We see signs of Absalom’s patience all over this plot. Nothing about Absalom’s move is hasty. He is methodical. And each step is purposeful. His complaint to each man about a lack of justice in verse 4 is a veiled reference to the way David mishandled Tamar’s assault. His deception in verse 7 is a three-pronged barb: ““Please let me go and pay my vow, which I have vowed to the LORD, in Hebron. For your servant vowed a vow while I lived at Geshur in Aram, saying, ‘If the LORD will indeed bring me back to Jerusalem, then I will offer worship to the LORD.'” Barb #1: Absalom is deceiving his father with a trick out of David’s own playbook. David used this same excuse to deceive Saul in 1 Samuel. Barb #2: Absalom’s vow is brings up a sore spot—the 3 year exile David imposed on Absalom. Barb #3: Absalom plans to launch his revolution at Hebron. There is a poetic justice to Absalom’s patient plot. He will rob his father of the kingdom at Hebron—the very place where David’s kingdom began.

 “How do you go spiritually bankrupt? Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.” The enemy is patient. Adultery doesn’t happen suddenly. It happens patiently, it could be 9 years in the making. Little weaknesses here and there, a look, one little temptation after another, until it happens all of the sudden. Corporate fraud doesn’t happen suddenly. It happens patiently. It might start in school, being a bit dishonest about how much of the reading you actually completed. A little plagiarism, a few lies on a college application. Satan plots with the patience of Absalom. Absalom’s revolt is the result of years of patient plotting, seething anger, seeking to make his blow as lethal as possible. When the opportune time comes, your downfall will be just as tailor-made.

Secondly, we must spend a few minutes looking at (2) The Pride of Absalom. There is a reason why verse 1 opens this story. It colors everything we see and hear in the story, “After this Absalom got himself a chariot and horses, and fifty men to run before him.” Even without help, you can sense what Absalom is angling for. What kind of a man rides in a chariot with an entourage of horses? What sort of character has fifty men running before him? And in case we might have any doubts about Absalom’s intentions, we read about Absalom’s younger brother in 1 Kings 1:5—“Now Adonijah the son of Haggith exalted himself, saying, “I will be king.” And he prepared for himself chariots and horsemen, and fifty men to run before him.” I will be king. This is the pride of Absalom.

Then we find this man who would be king standing at the gates, pulling every man of Israel aside and implying that he could do his father’s job better, verse 3: “Absalom would say to him, “See, your claims are good and right, but there is no man designated by the king to hear you.” Then Absalom would say, “Oh that I were judge in the land! Then every man with a dispute or cause might come to me, and I would give him justice…” Then we find this man who would be king inviting men to bow before him in verse 5: “And whenever a man came near to pay homage to him, he would put out his hand and take hold of him and kiss him.”

Absalom was David’s second son, his heir apparent, and like the prodigal son, he wasn’t willing to wait for his father’s death to get what was coming, he wanted his inheritance now. He would be king–now. Verse 10: “But Absalom sent secret messengers throughout all the tribes of Israel, saying, “As soon as you hear the sound of the trumpet, then say, ‘Absalom is king at Hebron!'”

What is it in Absalom’s heart that lead him to make this move? It’s what Thomas Aquinas describes as “inordinate self-love”—pride. Aquinas writes that the root of pride is lack of submission to God, and therefore is “the beginning of all sin.” So in wanting to be king, Absalom is not merely rebelling against his earthly father David; he is rebelling against his Heavenly Father, God himself. In verse 12, we find Absalom coordinating his overthrow from his iPhone while he’s at church: “And while Absalom was offering the sacrifices, he sent for Ahithophel the Gilonite, David’s counselor, from his city Giloh. And the conspiracy grew strong, and the people with Absalom kept increasing.” His sacrifices, his religion, his church attendance, his giving, his offerings, all just a cover, a distraction, a smokescreen for his revolution. All just an effort to dethrone every power—including God himself—and make himself king.

Karen Swallow Prior writes in her book On Reading Well, “The paradox of humility is that through it we are exalted (Matthew 23:12). And the paradox of pride is that through it we fall…” (232) 2 Samuel 15 is the beginning of Absalom’s exaltation. It is the beginning of David’s humiliation. Jesus said, “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” (Matthew 23:12).

The Pride of Absalom says, “I could do better! I am just! I am right…always! I never sin! I am always just and righteous! My dad doesn’t know best. My teacher doesn’t know. My mom. My pastor. My boss. My friends. Not even God. I deserve to be king!” Absalom is certain that if he were in his father’s shoes, he would have done better. He would not have failed to bring about justice for his sister Tamar. He would never have banished his own son and treated him like the family pariah given the chance. He would never be like his father. Never!

Brothers and sisters, to believe in original sin is to believe that the pride of Absalom is pent up in each of our own hearts, too. We all want to steal away to Hebron and make ourselves king. And the only way to be rid of self-exalting pride like Absalom’s is to walk the road David is about to tread. It’s a road that leads through the Mount of Olives. It’s a road that Jesus himself walked, one that says, “Not my will but Yours be done.” It’s a road of suffering. Humility is not gained without humiliation. This is why Jesus himself invited his followers, “Take up your cross, and follow me.”

But in his patient and his pride, Absalom had a goal. There was a prize for his patience. There was a trophy that his pride demanded. Thirdly, we see (3) The Theft of Absalom. Verse 1 begins with two words we skipped over quickly. “After this…” But these are connecting words that intentionally tie what comes after to what lies before. “After this…” What is “this”? Look just above in verse 33 of Chapter 14: “…and the king kissed Absalom.” After the king kissed Absalom. The king thinks their relationship is healed. King David believes his son is back into the fold. He does not realize that he has kissed his betrayer. And as each man passes through the gate, Absalom plants the seeds of revolution with what? Verse 5: “And whenever a man came near to pay homage to him, he would put out his hand and take hold of him and kiss him.” The kingdom betrayed by a kiss. With affection, false sympathy, false love, false brotherhood, Absalom commits the ultimate theft, verse 6: “Thus Absalom did to all of Israel who came to the king for judgment. So Absalom stole the hearts of the men of Israel.” (3) The theft of Absalom. Absalom stole their hearts.

The people were robbed blind. On the day of Absalom’s revolt, the people didn’t even realize what was happening. Sometime, when they were busy attending to urgent matters, seeking their own purposes, quietly in the darkness, their hearts were stolen.

Brothers and sisters, a conspiracy is afoot. The swindling of hearts in the darkness. The powers of darkness do not care about money, possessions, or even politics. Those things are not eternal. They care about hearts. They care about human souls. And while you are playing politics, fighting tooth and claw for money or success or grades or toys or homes or political points or likes on Instagram, your heart has been stolen and you didn’t even know it. Because this is where the King of the Universe ultimately reigns. Not on thrones made of gold and silver, but on the throne of human hearts. All the people, David himself were taken in by Absalom’s kiss.

There is one man who was not swindled, whose heart was never stolen by the betrayer’s kiss. John 10:18, Jesus Christ, the Son of David says, ““No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.” Repeatedly in the Gospels, Jesus tell his disciples that he knows he will be betrayed. He may be walking the path of King David, but he KNOWS where he treads. He is not taken unawares: “And as they were eating, he said, “Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.” (Matthew 26:21). Luke 22:47-48—“While he was still speaking, there came a crowd, and the man called Judas, one of the twelve, was leading them. He drew near to Jesus to kiss him, but Jesus said to him, “Judas, would you betray the Son of Man with a kiss?”

What took place with Absalom is the patient, proud work that Satan has been working since the Garden of Eden. The Theft of Human Hearts. The highest throne in heaven and on earth is the human heart.

I wonder who is enthroned in your heart this morning? Satan comes with charm and deceit. He tells you what you want to hear. “You are good and right. You deserve better! God is holding out on you! Turn aside to me, and I will give you the kingdoms of this world!” Jesus Christ the son of David patiently walked the path of 2 Samuel 15 and following. The footsteps of his father David that lead out of Jerusalem, into humiliation, rejection, and affliction. He patiently waited on God the Father to vindicate him before the eyes of the world. He humbled himself and submitted to the humiliation of the cross, setting aside the throne that was rightfully his, and winning the hearts of men not by flattering words or false kisses, but by shedding the blood of his own heart for his brothers.

This Jesus who suffered outside the gate calls to you: “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few. Beware of false prophets…” (Matt. 7:13-15) Beware the enemy at the gates. Beware the Worldly Wiseman. Beware the Absaloms. Most of all, beware the sinful man inside who would turn you aside to another kingdom. In your heart, honor Christ the Lord as king. Let us pray.

(photo credit)

Published by Chad Ashby

Pastor at College Street Baptist Church Newberry, SC

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