When family fails…

Posted by on Dec 13, 2016 in Blog | 1 comment

At Carey we recently finished a preaching series on the life of David – author of so many of the Psalms, and Israel’s most successful king. One of my topics was the family life of David – notable largely for its failure. As a fair few people found my reflections on the topic helpful, I decided to post my sermon notes on the blog. Perhaps the messiness of David’s situation might, in some round about way, be helpful for you…

Don’t know if you had any imaginative dreams during your childhood. In my fantasy moments I would imagine that I had been born a prince – and that through some mishap I had been saddled with the family I had and that one day the King and Queen would find me and proclaim me their long lost son. While a pleasing way to pass idle moments, I don’t think I realised that for most of history, having that dream come true would have been extraordinary dangerous…. Indeed, to be born the son of the king was the most dangerous of birth rights.

It all had to do with succession to the throne…

If you were the first born, you were the successor – except that the King, in spite of being your father, might think that like the prodigal son you could want your inheritance prematurely – and that you might try to assassinate him. Consequently many ruthless kings in the past had their early offspring killed, judging that they might want the throne long before they were ready to relinquish it. Indeed, as Christmas approaches we remember the despotic King Herod who tried to have the Christ child killed, and might be reminded that he had so many of his sons killed that it was said that it ‘was safer to be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son’.

It wasn’t just your father you had to worry about. If you had a younger brother, after you, he would be next in line to the throne… but what if you were no more? Ah, then he would be the heir. Many younger princes killed their older brothers so they could get the throne. And it worked the other way around – if you were the older brother and saw your younger brother looking at you askance, you might well have him executed – just in case. Throughout history, it has been dangerous to be a prince – someone who might become king but had not yet got there.

You might well think that King David’s family would be exempt from these stresses – and you would be completely wrong… indeed, David’s family perhaps more than any other royal family, demonstrated these tensions and risks.

A trivial pursuit question – who succeeded David to the throne? His son Solomon.

And where in birth order did Solomon stand? Answer – a fair way back – Amnon, Kileab, Absalom and Adonijah all ahead of him. That says it all. The first three brothers eliminated beforehand, and Adonijah killed shortly after Solomon gets the throne…

For David, crassly put, it meant three dead sons… (Adonijah is killed after David’s death)

What happens?

His firstborn, Amnon, was killed by the third born, Absalom. The story is really ugly…

Amnon is the oldest son in the blended family that results from David’s many marriages. He falls in love (or more accurately, in lust) with his half-sister Tamar – 2 Sam 13 records the tragic account of his raping his sister, and then despising her as though she were to blame. David is furious, but does nothing.

Absalom, originally 3rd in line to the throne – but now second due to the early death of second in line Kileab – is genuinely furious at the rape of his sister and offers her protection, but also realises that an opportunity has opened for him. If he bides his time carefully, he can kill Amnon, claiming that he is simply avenging his sister’s rape – and be next in line for the throne. He waits two years, and then kills Amnon. He knows that it will not be viewed as an ordinary murder, but an avenging of a rape. While he has to escape into hiding for 3 years, he is confident that it is a matter of time until the throne will be his.

And indeed, it looked as though it would turn out that way… After three years Absalom is welcomed back into his father David’s court – Amnon is forgotten about, and Absalom is next in line for the throne. Except – except he gets impatient. His father is living too long… so Absalom ferments a civil war against David – slowly winning over the hearts of the Israelites until the day comes when Absalom proclaims himself king, and David his father has to flee as a fugitive. From start to finish the crisis lasts about 11 years, and eventually leads to the death of Absalom and the way being clear for Solomon – to be the heir to the throne… and this time things go smoothly.

I don’t know if you have ever sat back and paused to think about the chaos within David’s family life. We sometimes say, ‘David reigned for 40 years and was Israel’s most successful king’, but we often forget the heartache he suffered.

It is suffering that is largely associated with the death of his children and the complete failure of his family life.

Pause for a moment and ask, ‘How did David feel about the death of Amnon – or Kileab (we don’t know how he died, but as the legend goes that he died sinless, it is likely he died in childhood) – and then Absalom? And how did he feel that his one son raped his daughter? And how did he feel that his son Absalom tried to usurp the throne from him and succeeded for a period. The instability after the rape of Tamar and the death of Absalom went on for over a decade. How would your family life cope if that emotional stress was played out year after year?

And then there is another haunting question.

How does David feel when he knows deep within, that a fair part of the blame is his?

After all, he had married many women (and while the OT does not explicitly condemn polygamy, almost every record of it is linked to the pain it causes); had an adulterous affair that left him seriously compromised when he wanted to confront his son Amnon about his behaviour; and he was completely ineffective in dealing with tensions in his household.

Was David a model father? No he was not.

It’s a crucial point for us. In reality we are often in that position as well. When work goes wrong, or family fails, or health collapses – at some point we ask, ‘what did I do wrong?’  There might be many areas for self-reproach which quickly bubble to the surface. And we then think – well God comes through for people in their time of need, but not if it’s their fault. This account reminds us that God does not abandon us, even when some (or all) of the fault is ours…

Was David a father who cared? No doubt about the answer – yes… 2 Sam 18:33 tells us of David weeping on hearing the news of Absalom’s death – not with joy that the threat to his kingship was over, but with deep distress. He was only able to sob out again and again, ‘Absalom my son, my son, my son, my son….’ But being a parent who cares (and there are very few who don’t) is not the same as being an effective parent.

So here’s the question – given that David’s family life failed – how did he get by? And what does his story have to say to us – when perhaps our own family life fails?

Remember – it is just one story. It is David’s testimony. It is how things worked out for him. Your story might take a different pathway – but in the end I suspect that the big picture points will hold…. That no matter what – God sees us through, even when family, or work, or health or whatever, fails.

Psalm 3 as the key…

If we want to understand what is going on inside of David, I’d suggest we use Psalm 3 as the key. It was written with David on the run from his son Absalom. The sense of betrayal is enormous, and the danger David faces is real. When it comes to low points, you don’t get much lower than this one. And the key thing is that it was written in the midst of the crisis. We know that in the end David won the kingdom back. But when this was written, his chances were seen as dismal.

So what does David say?

God as shield

When our kids were young, I remember us buying a sofa bed. We often had people to stay, and needed something that could double as both sofa and bed. Trouble was that the sofa was in the rumpus room – and we allowed the kids free reign there. Consequently we though that in no time the sofa bed would look like a wreck, and that we wouldn’t be able to use it. But before we purchased it, the salesperson had encouraged us to have it sprayed with some special substance which he assured us would make it stain, spill and child proof. It cost a fair amount extra, and we had very little money at the time, so hummed and ha’ed at length before we said yes.

Got to say – it really worked! Nothing impacted that sofa bed. You could spill coke on it, have cake dropped on it, or leave pizza slices on it – It always looked in good condition. It was shielded by that substance.

And I guess when David writes in Ps 3:3 ‘But you are a shield around me’ it is that kind of image he has in mind. It is not that stuff doesn’t happen – it is that it doesn’t do great harm. There is protection offered.

2 Sam 16:5-14 recounts that when David was fleeing for his life, Shemei, delighted at David’s fall, comes out and starts yelling, ‘Get out, get out, you man of blood, you scoundrel’. He then started throwing stones and hurling dirt at David and his men. They want to kill him, but David says no. His answer is interesting ‘leave him alone. Let him curse, for the Lord has told him to’ v11. Somehow David believes that no matter what, God is involved. It is a shield for him. It protects him. It keeps him going.

And the question that must always be asked is ‘if our life were to collapse as dramatically as his did, what would shield us? I suspect David would say, ‘well, I can’t speak for you – but I can only say – at that time, God was like a shield to me. I had to go through everything, but somehow I was shielded…’

It is actually more than just a shield. David goes on and speaks of God saying: You bestow glory on me and lift up my head. (Ps 3:3). Given that the Psalm is written with David in the midst of his trials, you could well ask: ‘Really? Aren’t you getting a little delusional?’ But we must trust the testimony that is being given. David is able to think – “You know what. Shemei acted terribly towards me. How did I respond? I saved his life. I might have been the one having dirt thrown at me, but actually, I am the one who can hold my head high! I did the right thing in that impossible situation.’

The bottom line is that David doesn’t view trouble as being calamitous or a sign that God is out of control. He rather views it as a time for deep trust – a time to see if what he had always believed holds… and it does.

God as the sleep giver

V 5 of Psalm 3 is beautiful. ‘I lie down and sleep. I wake again because the Lord sustains me.’  David is thanking God for the gift of sleep. Often in crisis the first thing to go is sleep. We toss and turn, our minds going back and forth over each resentment. But David simply drops off to sleep. He sees it as a special gift from God. The stakes were too high for him to wake up not rested. Trusting in God, he is able to sleep as per usual.

A very practical point here… If you face a crisis, and were to ask David what to ask God for, he might well say: ‘Well didn’t you see it there – in Ps 3:5? Ask God to help you to sleep well. Make it a specific request.’

Actually sleep is often a special gift from God. Perhaps you remember Act 12:6-9. Peter is in prison and is almost certain to be executed the next day (James had just been beheaded). An angel comes to rescue him and Acts 12:7 tells us that Peter was sleeping so deeply that the angel has to kick him in the side to get him to wake up – and even then Peter still thinks he is dreaming. Wow – that’s some deep sleeper. About to be executed, but sleeping soundly. How – sleep has been given to him as a gift from God.

I guess the bottom line is that both David and Peter’s testimony is, ‘when you really trust God, nothing is worth losing sleep over… God is in control, and that is that. So sleep in peace – for God is awake, and that is more than enough…

God my confidence

Is Ps 3:6 simple bravado: I will not fear the tens of thousands drawn up against me on every side.

Let’s remind ourselves. This was written when the 10’s of thousands were drawn up against David – not after it was all sorted.

I suspect that as David looks at the long odds against him, his hope soared… only God could rescue him now… and sometimes that is the safest place of all… not trusting in our strength, but quietly saying – God, if you don’t come through, this is all over…

God in messy places

Those who know the story know that David’s kingship is restored. But his son Absalom is killed. What a sad life Absalom’s had been. His name meant Ab (father) – salom (shalom – peace) meant, father of peace. And when he had been born David’s hope had been that this would be a child who would bring peace. Oh my… did ever any name sound less appropriate.

How can you sum up David’s family life? Seriously messy… seriously messy. Children who were rapists, murderers, traitors… wow – he sure couldn’t brag about his kids at dinner parties.

And yet, there was another son that David had… Solomon, who went on to succeed David and who turned out to be one of the wisest kings Israel ever had. David got lots of things wrong – but he also got some right. In the end it was simply – messy.

And that’s why his story is told in such full detail… because God knows that for most of us, things don’t run to plan… But he wants us to know… I saw David through, and I can see you through. You might instinctively object, ‘but it’s my fault’ and if you do you will probably hear God reply… of course, there is no human being without sin. It’s why I sent Jesus… so that there could be hope and forgiveness for you… and for you… and for you…

As always, nice chatting…

One Comment

  1. A great meditation on Psalm 3. Very practical. Thanks, Brian.

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