Absalom & The Cursed Tree

In the beginning, God planted a garden. And in the very center of that garden, he planted a tree: The Tree of Life. The Book of Revelation tells us that the leaves if this life-giving tree have the power to heal the nations. The fruit of this tree grants eternal life to all who eat of it.

But this was not the only tree God planted.

In midst of that Garden of Eden was a second tree: The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. This second tree would bring not life, but the curse of death upon all who eat of it, for God said, “The day you eat of the fruit of that tree you will surely die.”

When the time came to choose, Adam and Eve took and ate the fruit of that cursed tree. It’s a tree that still stands in our midst bringing the curse of death on all mankind.

The Reluctant War

In 2 Samuel 18, Absalom, the young man who reached out and stole the throne of Israel from his father David, receives the curse of that forbidden fruit. And yet, as we look on at his gruesome end, we cannot help but see our redemption at the Cursed Tree.

Let’s get us up to speed on the story. David the King had to flee his castle when his son Absalom stormed into the capital demanding royal power. Absalom had been plotting a revolution for a decade, winning all the people of Israel away from David by planting seeds of distrust and discontentment in their hearts day by day at the city gates. When Absalom victoriously paraded in Jerusalem, his first official act as king was to violate all ten of David’s concubines.

Nevertheless, as chapter 18 unfolds, the first thing we see is reluctant war. Even after Absalom’s sinister betrayal, his gross violation of David’s wives, his fratricidal murder of David’s son Amnon, still David remains hesitant to enter the battle.

“Then David mustered the men who were with him and set over them commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds…So the army went out into the field against Israel…”

2 Samuel 18:1, 6

David has to assemble his men for battle against his own people—the people he is supposed to shepherd!—and his own son—the son whom he loves! And this reluctant war is not going to end until either Absalom—or David—is dead. David’s men know that:

“But the men said, ‘You shall not go out. For if we flee, they will not care about us. If half of us die, they will not care about us. But you are worth ten thousand of us. Therefore it is better that you send us help from the city.'”

2 Samuel 18:3

Absalom is at war with his father—and him alone. This isn’t about the people. This isn’t about two armies. This is about a son who is hell-bent on killing his own father.

David abandoned his city. He left Absalom to it. He fled across the Jordan River to the furthest outskirts of the kingdom, but Absalom and all Israel have even pursued him there. Absalom has left his father with no choice.

We often hear the tired trope that the God of the Old Testament is a God of wrath. But this story reveals the truth. Whatever war exists between God and man, it is a reluctant one. When Moses encounters the Lord at Mt. Sinai, God himself passes by proclaiming his own name:

“The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”

Exodus 36:6-7

Do you hear the reluctance? The Lord lists his mercy, grace, his slow anger, his abounding steadfast love and faithfulness, his willingness to forgive every iniquity and transgression and sin…but if mankind still insists on rebellion, refuses to be forgiven—he will enter into war against the guilty.

Or what about the Lord’s treatment of Israel? How many times did the people of God deserve his wrath, but he relented? Or they disobeyed, and he forgave? How long did he put up with gross idolatry and sin and injustice in his land before he finally, reluctantly, put them out of the kingdom?

“All the officers of the priests and the people likewise were exceedingly unfaithful, following all the abominations of the nations. And they polluted the house of the Lord that he had made holy in Jerusalem. The Lord, the God of their fathers, sent persistently to them by his messengers, because he had compassion on his people and on his dwelling place. But they kept mocking the messengers of God, despising his words and scoffing at his prophets, until the wrath of the Lord rose against his people, until there was no remedy.”

2 Chronicles 36:14-16

He finally, as a last resort to defend his own honor and for the sake of his divine justice, entered into war. But he did it after exhausting every other possibility. When there was no remedy, he made reluctant war.

Absalom and David remind us that in our sin we are all at war with our Heavenly Father. In this war, we are not content to kill one another. We are not satisfied to destroy even half of creation. We will not be satisfied until we have killed God.

That is the objective of Sin: Kill God–because I want to be God. I want to sit on the throne. Absalom will never truly be king until his father David is dead. And you will never truly rule your own life until God is dead. Friends, God did not want to pour out his wrath on us. We have pushed him to it. We have waged war on him—his own sons and daughters. God save us from the reluctant war of heaven we have brought on ourselves!

The Father’s Heart

Secondly, in David we see the Father’s Heart. His men wisely encourage him not to go to the fight in person but to direct re-enforcements from the city. As the ranks file out to battle, we see the anxious father standing at the gates, and we hear his desperate plea, not for his own life—but for the life of his son:

“And the king ordered Joab and Abishai and Ittai, ‘Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.’ And all the people heard when the king gave orders to all the commanders about Absalom.”

2 SAmuel 18:5

This is what we mean when we say David was a man after God’s own heart. Even after everything, even as his own son seeks to kill him, his heart pleads, “Be gentle! Spare his life! Have mercy! Not for his sake, but for mine. For my heart...” Why has the Heavenly Father chosen to bestow so much of his love on us, that he would care about us wretched, ungrateful, rebellious sinners after all we’ve done?

Every man who passed through the city gates that day heard the father’s heart. They all saw the compassionate anguish gushing forth as with tears, they all heard the desperate plea of the Father, “Be gentle…” Joab heard it. Abishai heart it. Ittai heard it. All the commanders heard it. All the people heard it.

Do you hear the Father’s heart for you today?

After entering a reluctant war with mankind, a war that we started, the Father sent his most trusted General, not one like Joab who would disobey orders, but One who was a man after the Father’s Heart. God sent his own Son into battle. And as his Son left the gates of heaven, the Father pleaded, “Deal gently, for my sake…”

Psalm 103 reminds us,

“He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;  [12]  as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us. As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.”

Psalm 103:10-13

I wonder whether you have the Father’s heart? David was able to plead for mercy on behalf of Absalom—even after everything he’d done. Even as Absalom had snipers combing the countryside for David’s head.

Is this your heart for your enemies?

Could you plead deal, “Deal gently with this man—a murderer, a rapist—for my sake…?” Or are Joab’s words closer to your heart? When it was reported to him that men had found Absalom dangling by his hair from a tree, he cried out for vengeance:

“Joab said to the man who told him, ‘What, you saw him! Why then did you not strike him there to the ground? I would have been glad to give you ten pieces of silver and a belt.’”

2 Samuel 18:11

Notice how little Joab values Absalom’s life and how little he values obedience to his king. Joab’s command is the opposite of David’s: Don’t deal gently. Give him what he deserves. Go end the life of that worthless scumbag.

Joab’s heart refuses to forgive. It shows no mercy. It is unmoved by compassion—not even for his King’s sake.

It is treachery against your own soul to bear a grudge against a fellow sinner. To refuse to forgive is to guarantee that you will not be forgiven—

“For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

Matthew 6:14-15

Heavenly Father, forgive us for so often being like Joab. Give us your heart for sinners!

The Cursed Tree

Looming at the center of this story are the branches of an ancient tree:

“And Absalom happened to meet the servants of David. Absalom was riding on his mule, and the mule went under the thick branches of a great oak, and his head caught fast in the oak, and he was suspended between heaven and earth, while the mule that was under him went on.”

2 Samuel 18:9

Hanging midair, his fate suspended between heaven and earth, what proved to be Absalom’s downfall? That hair. Those luxurious, flowing locks. Absalom: hanged by his own pride. Defenseless, he awaits his doom.

A soldier spots him, but dares not touch him because of David’s order. However, Joab has no qualms:

“Joab said, ‘I will not waste time like this with you.’ And he took three javelins in his hand and thrust them into the heart of Absalom while he was still alive in the oak. And ten young men, Joab’s armor-bearers, surrounded Absalom and struck him and killed him.” 

2 Samuel 18:14-15

As Absalom in his radiant pride went riding through the forest, the tree in the midst of the garden ensnared him. The fingers of divine justice reached down and snatched the son of David from upon his mule.

Lest we think this was some novel occurrence, as though this only happened to Absalom, it would never happen to anyone else–certainly I’ve got nothing to worry about–verse 8 would have us to believe that this very fate befell all the men of Israel:

“The battle spread over the face of all the country, and the forest devoured more people that day than the sword.”

2 Samuel 18:8

Trees devouring men. Sounds likes something out of a Lord of the Rings fantasy novel. Our story reminds us, it’s not the sword you have to fear, it’s the tree! The cursed tree.

There is one waiting for you. Every man, every woman, every young man, every young woman running headlong, insistent in their pride on refusing God, pursuing sin, waging war on their Creator, will one day find themselves caught up into their own cursed tree, your fate hanging between heaven and earth.

There were two thieves hanging on their cursed trees next to Jesus on that fateful day. One cried out for mercy. The other cursed Jesus with his final breath. Which one are you?

Because the cursed tree didn’t just find Absalom. All those who followed Absalom and raged against King David found themselves consumed in the forest. Absalom’s fate is the fate of all who rebel against God’s chosen king. In this war on God, someone has to hang from the tree. The law calls for Death, and God cannot mock his own justice. It’s either you or…who?

Perhaps we just need one more chance? Just a little more patience? Perhaps our heavenly Father needs to give a little more ground and surely we will cease our war against him. The Gospels tell us that given one last chance to repent and plead for mercy, our voices would join in defiance with Absalom and the rest, “His blood be on us and on our children! Crucify him!”

The Gospel is the story of how the God the Son willingly came down from his throne and entered into the battle personally so that we might have the satisfaction that Absalom and his men did not get. We have killed the Son of David, the Son of God. We have hung him on the cursed tree. We have run our spears through his heart.

As we behold Absalom’s frame hanging on that doomed oak, it evokes the words of the Law in Deuteronomy 21: “for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs upon a tree.’”

The Law is preached from this tree: You who murdered the Son of God—this is the death you yourself deserve.

The Gospel is preached from the very same cursed tree: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13).

Absalom’s death on the cursed tree foreshadows the death that awaits all sinners and rebels against the Father. Absalom’s death on the cursed tree also prophesies Jesus Christ suffering in our place.

“Then Joab blew the trumpet, and the troops came back from pursuing Israel, for Joab restrained them. And they took Absalom and threw him into a great pit in the forest and raised over him a very great heap of stones. And all Israel fled every one to his own home.”

2 Samuel 18:16-17

As we hear the trumpet blast, we are reminded that the battle will not cease until a son has died. Not until the spear pierces your heart and every last drop of life-blood is drained. Only when you have died will God’s reluctant war against your sin be satisfied.

That is, unless someone else has already died this horrible death in your place. That is, unless someone else’s heart has been speared through for you. That is, unless some other man has hung on the cursed tree for your crimes. That is, unless some other Son of God has hung between heaven and earth for the forgiveness of your sins.

Verse 18 tells us that Absalom had already dug his own grave. He had already erected his own monument, a gravestone, in the King’s Valley. Brothers and sisters, this does not have to be you. Do not be so hardened in your sins! Repent of your war on God! See how reluctantly he brings wrath upon you? Even today he is patient with you, giving you one more day to turn back from your sins to trust in him. Because the Father’s heart is anxious to have you, desperate to spare you, eager to receive you back. He says, “Be gentle…for my sake!” And the man he has sent to wage war with you is Christ the Captain, the Son of God who hung on the cursed tree in the place of sinners.

Friends, come to the Cursed Tree. Come to the Cross, and find there that it has been transformed into the Tree of Life.

(photo credit)

Published by Chad C. Ashby

Instructor of Literature, Math, and Theology at Greenville Classical Academy Greenville, SC