March 2, 2020

​Ethics and The Sons of David

When will they ever learn—Solomon included?

Lael Caesar

Perhaps David, son of Jesse, deserves more than the plaudits he already gets—giant slayer, sweet singer in Israel, Messiah’s royal ancestor, celebrated in Messiah’s own word and that of throngs who hail Him as David’s Son (Matt. 1:1; 21:9; Mark 10:46-52; 12:35-37). So here’s to one more cheer for David: through five centuries of unbroken reign in Israel-Judah, only he and Josiah father three sons who attain to kingship.1

King Absalom

Solomon was David’s third son to become king of Israel. His older siblings who preceded him as king gave him good opportunity to learn crucial lessons in ethical decency. The first to reign was Absalom, remembered for his GQ status: “In all Israel there was not a man so highly praised for his handsome appearance as Absalom. From the top of his head to the sole of his foot there was no blemish in him” (2 Sam. 14:25). He cut his hair but once a year and made a show if it—both the hair and the annual haircut (verse 26). If charities like Locks of Love or Wigs for Kids had existed in his time, he may have donated his hair to the benefit of children who lose theirs to cancer treatment—all pronounced with blazing bulbs and flashing photography.

Much of Absalom’s life, including his ascent to the throne of Israel, seems to have been a performance. Becoming king was a painstaking production, a careful contrivance, a pompous patience of pretended interest in people’s lives: “He would get up early and stand by the side of the road leading to the city gate” (2 Sam. 15:2). The city gate was the place where people came to make their case and hear the judgments and rulings that guided the nation. People came by to lodge their complaints to the king himself. Whenever they came, Absalom would capture their attention and communicate concern: “What town are you from?” And: “Look, your claims are valid and proper,” though nobody’s listening to you. Then his punch line: “If only I were appointed judge in the land! Then everyone who has a complaint or case could come to me and I would see that they receive justice” (verses 2-4).

Absalom’s well-controlled deceit gave deep-tissue massages to economically and emotionally vulnerable people. His way of winning hearts undermined the norms of moral conduct. But it charmed multitudes of mindless stooges into supporting his protracted program of national seduction. In process of time they came to believe in the pied piper of Jerusalem promising them justice. Their need and his ambition, their gullibility and his grand deceit, his kindling vanity and their fire stick responses, sparked a raging national blaze whose fury drove his reigning father from his throne, his home, and his city. It was a forest fire that came close to consuming both royalty and nation.

Absalom’s high-quality showtime eventually yielded its craved result: his special chariot, elegant horses, and glittering retinue of guards, including 50 outriders ahead of him (verse 1), with others likely around and after him as well, powerfully persuaded the public. They thought, This must be something. His obvious importance and solicitude for their causes, his posture of disinterested meekness, his public pretense of enlightened care for his father’s citizens, his longing for them to get the justice they deserved, all this stole their hearts (verse 6). When they elevated him to the status of an object of worship—all part of his plan—his focus on the ultimate goal taught him to downplay the very adoration he consciously cultivated. So that “whenever anyone approached him to bow down before him, Absalom would reach out his hand, take hold of him and kiss him” (verse 5).

For years his dedicated hypocrisy nurtured public faith in his grand potential. Absalom could be patient. After Amnon raped his sister, Tamar, Absalom simply told her, “Don’t take this thing to heart” (2 Sam. 13:20). To rapist Amnon he never said a word (verse 22). Two years later2 he scheduled a party his father could not attend, then begged him to come (verses 23-25). When King David said he couldn’t attend, the master schemer had another suggestion: “If not, please let my brother Amnon come with us” (verse 26). Thus, by apparent afterthought, and with the king’s support, Amnon the rapist of two years before, arrived, invited, at Absalom’s party so Absalom’s servants could hack him to death (verses 23-29). Absalom was handsome, ambitious, cold, calculating, and disconcertingly patient in executing evil. To murder a prince, he needed two years.

Gaining the throne in a palace coup took more. Four years of skillful political charade went by
(2 Sam. 15:7) before he determined that the nation was ready for the climax. Two hundred carefully selected lackeys, chosen for the strength of their loyalty, followed him out of the capital city. They were people he could always count on. At his cue they would run or stop, applaud or demonstrate, be silent or shout as trumpets blared, “Absalom is king in Hebron” (verse 10).

They “had been invited as guests and went quite innocently, knowing nothing of the matter” (verse 11). The word translated “invited” is the standard Hebrew verb for “call.” The value of the call, whether the Lord to Adam (Gen. 3:9), Moses to his elders (Ex. 19:7), or seraphim to each other (Isa. 6:3), depends on the hearer’s ear. Absalom’s followers heard his call to lead a revolution and give their all in support and loyalty, even at the expense of their intelligence or integrity.

Solomon received a double coronation without having to fight his father.

Interestingly, the adverbial phrase “quite innocently” translates the Hebrew word “integrity.” There is integrity in innocence. But all innocence is not created equal: there is ethical innocence in childlike spiritual purity and innocence God longs for in all of us (Matt. 18:3). And to be fair, Absalom’s 200 may have been simply naive. Some innocence, though, is an elected posture, a corruption of free will, a choice not to know, a contrivance sometimes labeled plausible deniability. God loves both integrity and innocence. But His curse is upon whoever exploits the latter because they lack the former. Those who cause any of His little innocents to stumble await a horrible fate: “better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea” (verse 6).

The abuse of children’s trust is not the only abuse of innocence that God despises. The righteous God who will avenge the exploitation of innocents also promises stern damnation upon those who claim innocence because they have chosen willing ignorance. We pay the price of rebellion when our ignorance is because we will not see what God is showing us (Rom. 1:20).

Absalom and Adonijah, Kings Undone

Absalom would not come to a beautiful end. His public posturing, undergirded with personal conceit, his contempt for the very ones whose loyalty helped him up to the throne, were varied expressions of one thing: pride. Solomon saw how pride preceded his brother’s accession and, equally so, prepared his destruction and shameful death at the hands of Joab and friends (2 Sam. 18:9-15).

Sadly enough, Israel would relive Absalom’s pathetic show before Solomon ascended to his father’s throne. This time it was Adonijah, also famously handsome, applying Absalom’s rules, but substituting transparency and abruptness for his older brother’s hypocrisy and calculating patience. Where Absalom pretended to care about others, Adonijah was explicitly self-centered. He announced, “I will be king” (1 Kings 1:5). Like Absalom, he attracted some of the very best to his team. Absalom had Ahithophel, whose counsel “was like that of one who inquires of God” (2 Sam. 16:23). Adonijah snared Joab, David’s greatest general, and Abiathar, David’s priest.

Adonijah’s reign ended the day it started. Prophet Nathan, Solomon’s mother Bathsheba, and drunken shouts of “Long live King Adonijah!” helped advise David of the coup and bring a swift end to it.

Solomon, King

By contrast with his brothers’ selfish scheming, Solomon received double coronation without having to fight his father (1 Kings 1:32-40; 1 Chron. 29:22). Once he was enthroned his only desire was wisdom to judge God’s people right (2 Chron. 1:10). God honored his focused humility, promising him what he asked as well as wealth and fame unprecedented and never to be repeated (verses 11, 12). In prophetic fulfillment we are still celebrating Solomon’s wisdom, and respecting it as divine—scholarship preserved for us in God’s holy Word.

But Solomon’s writings and the work of contemporary royal archivists remind of disconcertingly more than Solomon’s early humility. They remind of the vastness of his harem; the splendor of his court; the paganism of his political alliances; his abuse of certain elements of the populace, cementing them in second-class status; his exploitation of human beings to accomplish his grand architectural schemes; his self-indulgence; his disobedience to instructions divinely established a half millennium before his day.

Solomon, King Undone

Solomon’s atrocities defy God’s directives for royal behavior. When Israel’s rebellion against divine rule brought them to announce their desire for a king “such as all the other nations have” (1 Sam. 8:5), their gracious God had instructions prepared to help them with their inferior option for government. Solomon contradicted those instructions to the finest of degrees: according to Deuteronomy, when Israel decided on kingship their monarch was not to acquire lots of horses (Deut. 17:16); but Solomon’s stable numbers—1,400 horses—are part of his fame (1 Kings 10:26). God warned that the people were not to go back to Egypt to get horses (Deut. 17:16); but Egypt was Solomon’s equine supply source (1 Kings 10:28). The king was not to multiply wives (Deut. 17:17). Solomon had 700 (1 Kings 11:3). The king was not to accumulate large amounts of silver and gold (Deut. 17:17). Solomon “made silver as common in Jerusalem as stones” (1 Kings 10:27).

Solomon’s proverbs state principles that instructed his sane and youthful years.

His famed architectural projects were consistently dependent on royal abuse. The harshness that advanced their construction eventually helped undo the national unity that he inherited from his father. He failed to pass on to his son King Rehoboam the United States of Israel that he received from his father. Perpetually simmering social tensions (2 Sam. 19:40-43; 20:1, 2, 4-22) erupted after Solomon’s death. Ten of Israel’s 12 tribes broke away from the original kingdom, never to return. A gifted servant of his whom Solomon appointed to enforce his abusive labor policies became the rebels’ chief spokesperson and first king (1 Kings 11:28): Jeroboam was both a great soldier and a disciplined team leader, or driver, perhaps. King Solomon utilized him as a virtual slave-master who helped to drive his royal ambitions as grandeur replaced humility in Solomon’s vision. A prophetic word announced that God would enthrone Solomon’s enforcer over 10 of the 12 tribes Solomon ruled. For the king, it meant that Jeroboam should be eliminated (verse 40). He fled and found refuge with Egypt’s King Shishak. Court life taught him statecraft that enhanced and refined his brilliance. After Solomon’s death, Jeroboam, the runaway Israelite, and Shishak, his mentor, inflicted powerful military and political blows on his son and successor Rehoboam (1 Kings 14:25, 26). The nation never recovered.

Solomon’s precepts and three princes’ examples have left us history lessons on what not to do. Solomon’s proverbs state principles that instructed his sane and youthful years. Ecclesiastes is his retrospective, full of explicit and intimate reflections. Neither its sermon nor Proverbs’ precepts ever mention Solomon’s brothers, a fact that may help us find Solomon’s true target: us; we who need to know that as with Lucifer and Absalom, so with us: “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall” (Prov. 16:18); we who must ever remember, for the sake of our own ascent, to “trust in the Lord with all [our] heart and lean not on [our] own understanding” (Prov. 3:5). Still, he must surely have been comparing coronations when he stated, “Let someone else praise you, and not your own mouth” (Prov. 27:2). It is wisdom that befits the commoner as much as it does the king.

  1. Josiah’s three were Jehoahaz—enthroned by the people of the land (2 Kings 23:28-30); Eliakim—renamed Jehoiakim by Pharaoh Necho, king of Egypt, who appointed him to replace Jehoahaz (Necho then took Hehoahaz to Egypt, where he died (verses 31-34); and Judah’s last, set up by Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, who had him called Zedekiah instead of Mattaniah (2 Kings 24:17).
  2. The Hebrew narrative reaches for emphasis: “a full two years later.”

Lael Caesar, associate editor at Adventist Review Ministries, ever welcomes Solomon’s reminder: “Remember your Creator.”