Bringing Back the Banished
In Tekoa, just south of Bethlehem, there lived a woman known for her shrewdness (2Sam 14). It was this wise woman who was enlisted by Joab to convince King David to bring his alienated son, Absalom, back to him.
Carefully instructed (and probably well paid) by Joab, she approached the place where the king sat in judgment, seeking his help with a fictitious family problem. In her contrived story, she told of a quarrel between her two sons, ending in the death of one of them. Now, it seems, the rest of the family was threatening to take the remaining son and put him to death. (Perhaps he was supposed to be safe in Hebron, a city of refuge.) Her lament was that, if her other son were to die, she and her husband would have no one left to perpetuate their name.
Here was a second parable about a problem in David’s own family. This story, like Nathan’s story about the ewe lamb, which pricked the king’s conscience concerning Bathsheba and Uriah (2Sam 12), was sufficiently disguised so as to arouse no initial suspicions.
The woman’s argument is summarized in verse 14:
"Like water spilled on the ground, which cannot be recovered, so we must die. But God does not take away life; instead, he devises ways so that a banished person may not remain estranged from him."
The woman persisted in her pleas until David consented that her other son would come to no harm. Having achieved this promise, she could now move forward to make her real point. Once again it was, "You are the man!" The two sons in the story were actually Amnon and Absalom, and — from his own lips — the king had given an emphatic ruling that no harm should come to the manslayer.
"The words were lightly spoken and there was a vein of insincerity running through them, in that Joab, who had thought them out, was speaking to David’s heart but not from his own. [Nevertheless] David was moved, moved by his inner memories, his recollections of how God had restored him and brought him home rather than banish him to death and destruction [2Sam 12:13]. Now he could see his own son exiled far away, and the realization of his own inaction came upon him" (Harry Tennant, The Man David).
Although David had "devised" one thing (v 13), that is, to banish his son, God "devises" something very much different (v 14): a means of bringing back the banished person. The Hebrew word is the same in each case, "chashav"; it refers to carefully worked-out plans or schemes, schemes that may be either for good or ill. Plainly, in this case and as she tells it, the king’s "device" is bad, and God’s is good. And it is far, far better to bring back the banished than to abandon him in his punishment and despair.
Whether it worked out for good or ill to bring Absalom back to his father and family is probably more than we can say for certain. His return led, eventually, to a rebellion and a short-lived war, with difficult times for David, including the betrayal by one of his closest advisers. However, we know that, in the providence of Almighty God, even the severest trials may work for good to God’s elect, the ones He has chosen (Rom 8:28).
In this incident, the wise woman speaks of much more than one father and one son. The reconciliation between David and Absalom does not appear to have had the desired effect in changing the heart and mind of the young man, either before or after his return. But that is easier for us to say in retrospect than if we had been there at the time. Nevertheless, it is not necessarily wrong to attempt such reconciliation, even if the final results turn out to be very disappointing.
The old Scottish preacher Alexander Maclaren points out that the truest and best reconciliation comes through the redemptive and mediatorial work of the Lord Jesus Christ. For the sake of comparison, that work may be set alongside the work of ‘reconciliation’ attempted by Joab. Maclaren writes: "If there are to be forgiveness and restoration at all, they must be such as will turn away the heart of the pardoned man from his evil. The very story before us [about Joab, the wise woman, and Absalom] shows that it is not every kind of pardon which makes a man better. If there are to be forgiveness and restoration at all, they must come in such a fashion as that there shall be no doubt whatsoever of their reality and power. The work of Jesus Christ, and the work of Jesus Christ alone, meets all the requirements. That work of Christ is the only way by which it is made absolutely certain that sins forgiven shall be sins abhorred; and that a man once restored shall cleave to his Restorer as to his life. God has devised a means. None else could have done so. We are all exiles from God unless we have been brought nigh by the blood of Christ. In him, and in him alone, can God restore His banished ones. In him, and in him alone, can we find a pardon which cleanses the heart, and ensures the removal of the sin which it forgives. In him, and in him alone, can we find, not a peradventure, not a subjective certainty, but an external fact which proclaims that verily, there is forgiveness for us all."
In this, the truest sense, God alone can devise — and has devised — the means by which the banished can be brought back to him. From the coverings of skins in the garden of Eden, and the cherubim with the flaming sword, keeping the way to the tree of life (Gen 3:21, 24), all the way to the One who is "the way, the truth, and the life" — or more particularly, "the true way to life" (John 14:6) — God has been "devising" His perfect plan. From the One who hung on the tree of death, but in his resurrection became "the tree of life", of which we may all partake (Rev 2:7; 22:2, 14, 19), to the same One who sits on the Father’s right hand as our Mediator, and will return again to gather us all to himself and to his Father, our LORD God has been carrying out that plan.
Along the way, through this valley of the shadow of death, we are all like "water spilled on the ground"; we all must die. But in Christ the "way of death" becomes "a way of life", and the water spilled on the ground may be regathered into God’s eternal vessels, if we hold close to His Son. The Father stands waiting for us, and He extends His arms to accept us when, like the prodigal son, we return home again. We see Christ in those outstretched arms, too. His hands, and arms, were stretched out to heal, and to teach, and finally on the cross where he suffered and died. His hands, and arms, are stretched out still: "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest" (Matt 11:28).
The further application of the lesson should be this: let each of us devise means for bringing back to Christ those "banished" ones who are around him. We must, as a body of believers, be tireless and resourceful in seeking out the Lord’s expelled and banished ones who live near us, or those who once belonged to the Lord, but have "banished" themselves by bad choices or indifference.
Here is the reason that the Bible speaks so favorably of the "peacemakers": "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God" (Matt 5:9). "Go and be reconciled to your brother" (v 24). "If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone" (Rom 12:18). "Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness" (James 3:18). "Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins" (James 5:20).
Every day, we should be asking ourselves, ‘Where, in my own circle, and where, in the larger circle around me — my family, my ecclesia, or the brotherhood — can I help do the work of God, who gathers up the spilled waters, brings home the wanderer, breaks down the walls of division, and reconciles in Christ those who are estranged?’
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