Text: 2 Samuel 18:33, King James Version of the Bible Tune: William Billings (1746-1800)
David the king was grieved and moved He went to his chamber, and wept; And as he went he wept, and said, “Oh my son! Would to God I had died For thee, Oh Absalom, my son.”
Hardly anything in Scripture is as poignant as King David’s lament on hearing Absalom, his rebel son, has died, contrary to his explicit instructions. Most parents know this emotion all too well. When a child is ill or suffering some sorrow, we all say we would gladly take the illness or consequences on our shoulders. But we cannot. All we can do is pray and give as much comfort as we can.
We all know the story. David had a quiver full of sons by several wives. Absalom is not the heir apparent, but he wants to be. The whole sordid story is told in 2 Samuel 13-18. Scripture notes how handsome and attractive he was, and his cunning against his father as he was trying to usurp the throne. He had been outraged at the rape of his sister by his older brother Amnon and had finally gotten revenge and had him killed. David grieves for Amnon, and Absalom flees. They are reunited after a woman comes and tells a story that causes David to call Absalom back to Jerusalem, but not in David’s sight. After some time Absalom begins to foment a rebellion against his father, winning the hearts of the people for his clever treatment of them. He forms an army to fight David. Finally David has to flee Jerusalem over the river Kidron. As he climbs the Mount of Olives weeping one has forebodings of Jesus doing so many years later.
To make a long and complicated story short, after Absalom takes Jerusalem, David musters an army and prepares to go to battle with his son’s army. His own men plead with him not to fight as he is more valuable to them than thousands, they say. During the battle Absalom is caught in the branches of an oak. Joab, David’s loyal servant, kills him. David is sitting between the gates and waiting to hear the results. He sees two runners and assumes the news is good, but also fears for his son.
As one of the runners, the Cushite, tells him they have won David asks after Absalom. The Cushite says, “May the enemies of my lord the king and all who rise up against you for evil be like that young man.” At this, David retires to his chamber and weeps.
It is a heartrending lament. We all know it deep in our hearts. While David is upbraided by his general for casting shame on his victorious troops, which David understands and changes his behavior, we see in his grief, the trials of the king, a father and ruler.
I am fretting about the children in our society who have been told they should be careful not to make grandma sick. Or kept out of school because the teachers are afraid. We have frightened our children and made them responsible in ways they can't comprehend. An editor of Germany’s most read newspaper, Das Bild, printed an apology to Germany's children for the way they were treated during the pandemic. They should have been in school and continuing their normal activities. Even the World Health Organization (WHO) has said children should be in school and do not have to wear masks until they are teenagers. The messages are so mixed and contradictory we should probably let each person decide what they will do to protect themselves, or their kids. Children very rarely contract the virus, if they do, it is almost undetectable.
This virus is bad for the elderly and we should take precautions, but to hurt our children’s lives because we are afraid is irrational. Dominated by fear, we have become panicky about our own survival. Fear makes people irrational. Be not be afraid! is what the angels say and what Jesus says on meeting people. FDR’s great sentence during his first inaugural was perfect: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” He knew a free people could flourish even in very hard times if they were not afraid, even with many reasons to be afraid. One of the things the parents of the Depression tried not do was make their children suffer, the children came first. They, like David, would cry out, looking at their hungry children who needed better clothes, who maybe even were dying from poverty, "Would to God I had died in your place." David's cry of dereliction is a cry of many parents through the ages.
Most of us in our 70s and 80s would say it with David, I hope. Let us pray for the young around us who are still suffering this strange time. They need us, our love, our concern and our continuing to provide for them so that they will have a future even better than ours. Fear not!
William Billings is considered the first great American composer. Born to a tanner in Boston, he supported himself in his father’s vocation as he began composing music. Untrained, but a quick study, he learned to compose very early, producing a collection of hymns in 1770, The New England Psalm Singer. Good friends with Samuel Adams and Paul Revere, who engraved his music, he supported their efforts in the American Revolution and wrote several songs such as Chester that became something of a national anthem in its time. He wrote most of his own texts and took them directly from the Bible, for example, as he did with this text. His works were fairly popular in his time, but the last decade of his life his popularity faded and he and his large family were reduced to extreme poverty. He suffered from several disabilities—his one leg was shorter than the other, and one arm was lame. Today his work is appreciated especially by those who love the Sacred Harp tradition. One can hear that sound in several links provided here. It is deeply part of the American tradition of song.
Paul Hillier and His Majesties Clerkes
Cork Sacred Harp Convention—the way it sounded and looked
Christopher Wren Singers
Gerubach—watch the music scrolling along and sing along
Another setting of the story by Elam Rotem in Hebrew with the Profeti della Quinta