Today’s Bible reading is quite wonderfully told. It has drama, heightening tension, tragedy and pathos. If anyone asks you why people still read the collection of ancient documents we call the Bible, point them to this masterpiece.
It’s a bleak tale of old age. King David’s now an elderly man, almost 70 at a time when people died young and 70 was as much as the luckiest man or woman could hope to reach. But luck seems to have deserted David. The king’s favorite son, Absalom, has risen in revolt against him, determined to wrest the kingdom from his father. David has fled his capital of Jerusalem, the revolt has all but succeeded, but his followers have regrouped for a decisive battle. Before it takes place, David begs his leading men to spare his son. They don’t. David stays back at base camp, waiting for news of the battle and of his son. And when it comes to him, he dissolves into grief: “O Absalom, my son, my son!”
The story acknowledges the old king’s agony. Thirty centuries later, we can still be deeply moved by the rawness of his anguish. But the king isn’t the hero of this story; indeed, he’s almost the villain and, in order to understand that, we have to go back a few years and look at David’s private life.
David was never any good at close relationships. He was so obsessed with himself and his own image, he had little time to spare for others. He was too interested in himself to be that interested in others. He could love well, but never wisely.
And he loved Absalom, his third son, best of all. Absalom was the mirror image of what David had been, forty years before, in every way except for what really counts. He was the handsomest man in the kingdom, and David doted on him. Not just David was captivated; Absalom was a charmer, so everyone loved him. But nobody loved him as much as he loved himself. So he came to think that he could get away with anything.
Even with killing a half-brother, called Amnon. The man deserved it, all right. He raped his own half-sister who was Absalom’s full sister. David did nothing, maybe because Amnon was his eldest son and heir. Absalom’s wanted revenge because his honor was touched but he bided his time for two years, pretending that everything was hunky-dory. Then he got Amnon drunk at a party, and had his servants kill him. Absalom went into exile for two years but then came back, forgiven by the indulgent and self-indulgent king.
David’s family was a mess. He was absent when he should have been present, easy-going when he should have been firm, forgiving when he should have punished. No wonder then that Absalom discounted and disdained him. He was a vain peacock, flattered and fawned over by many. Absalom declared himself king, slept with his father’s concubines to show his contempt for the old man, and then set off to defeat and kill his dad.
All went well, to begin with. David had to flee for his life. Yet in the end David was saved by two things. Some of his old comrades stood by him, stiffening his sinews when he thought of giving up. And, just as important, Absalom’s style wasn’t matched by any substance, and he blew it. He was only a pretty boy, puffed up, quite without any real qualities when all the outward gloss melted away.
And so our story begins with David, once almost out for the count, now in with a fighting chance of saving his kingdom. But, and here’s a tragic thing: others had to save it for him; he was too old, too full of misery and self-pity to take the lead in saving himself and others.
When David tells his men that he’ll lead them into battle, they tactfully reply that it’s better that the king stays at base camp. What they really mean is that he’s a hindrance, befuddled with grief and fear and anger, a shadow of his former self, all glory departed. The old or should I say young David would have damned them to hell, and led the charge, anyway. Now, he gives way and agrees to stay out of the way, without any protest at all.
David’s men knew that only he or Absalom could survive the battle, not both, or else the kingdom would fall into devastating and prolonged civil war. So when the old king begged his generals to save his son, their silence spoke volumes. The passage makes it quite clear that all the people heard the king’s plea: it would’ve been shocking to them that he made it, and then that his highest officials disobeyed him. David looked like an old fool, to everyone. In the end, Absalom died a death worthy of his life, fleeing on a mule; his long hair, symbol of his vanity, got caught up in a tree. The mule trotted on, leaving him swinging in the wind. General Joab wounded him with three spear thrusts, then his men finished him off.
Joab and his men let a foreigner, a Cushite, tell the news of his Absalom’s death to David, in case his famous temper lashed out, striking to death the bearer of unwanted tidings. In the event, David simply gives way to weeping and wailing. Instead of riding out to greet and thank the men who’d been willing to give their lives for him, the old man takes to his bed. The king should be the father of his people, but he can’t see past his own grief.
When General Joab pitches up, he’s furious. He says to David:
“Today you have covered with shame the faces of all your officers who have saved your life today, and the lives of your sons and your daughters, and the lives of your wives and your concubines… You have made it clear today that commanders and officers are nothing to you; for I perceive that if Absalom were alive and all of us were dead today, then you would be pleased. So go out at once and speak kindly to your servants; for I swear by the Lord, if you do not go, not a man will stay with you this night; and this will be worse for you than any disaster that has come upon you from your youth until now.”
This devastating speech makes David see sense. He controls himself, goes out to his men, and offers them his thanks. But he was bitterly angry at Joab’s truth-telling. A few years later, David, on his deathbed, ordered the execution of Joab: a last, final flare up of an exhausted old man’s temper.
For the larger part, after the death of Absalom, David was a busted flush. His followers began maneuvering for prime positions under whoever they bet would soon take over from the old man, and David no longer had the strength or the desire to impose his will on them.
This is the story of a man in decline. The Old Testament has a number of things to say about old age. About Moses, for example, the Good Book says that “[he] was an hundred and twenty years old when he died: his eye was not dim, nor was his natural force abated.” Well, bully for him, think I, as I squint at my Kindle and take my umpteenth pill of the day. There are other pious scriptural words about older age conferring wisdom, which I would like to believe but mostly don’t. Actually, the greatest biblical passage about old age is in the Book of Ecclesiastes and is truly terrifying. It goes like this:
“Remember your creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come, and the years draw near when you will say, “I have no pleasure in them” ;… in the day when the … strong men are bent, and the women who grind cease working because they are few, and those who look through the windows see dimly; when one … rises up at the sound of a bird, …; when one is afraid of heights, and terrors lie in the road; … and desire fails; because all must go to their eternal home, … the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to God who gave it. Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher; all is vanity.”
This chilling portrayal of physical, emotional and mental breakdown isn’t far from David’s experience. He was once Israel’s greatest idol, somewhere between a jock and a rock star. Now, he’s a sentimental old man, confused by what’s happened to him, scared for himself as much as for his son, unwilling to attend to the duties demanded of a king, lost in his memories. That it should have come to this: Israel’s greatest king, from whose descendants the messiah was to come, waiting for others to decide his future, and all but despised as a maudlin ‘has been’ by his own generals.
Old age is cruel, treating some well and others, not so much. It sometimes has a habit of revealing who we truly are. A friend of mine in old age, whom I loved dearly for over 40 years, became almost saint-like as he grew more frail, all his early youthful boastfulness falling away to produce a real mensch, as my Jewish friends say: a person of integrity and honor. Other friends of my youth haven’t produced a harvest worthy of their talent, because some flaw kept them from all they could be.
So I read this story from David’s declining years with enormous admiration for the Bible writer, who didn’t spare this once-great king from the searching light of truth. But I also read it with some compassion for this very flawed, but still quite remarkable man.
And I’m given to think that: we don’t judge Iris Murdoch by her closing days lost in dementia, but by her acute novels that raise issues that matter. We don’t picture Muhammad Ali as a shaky old man felled by Parkinson’s disease but as the graceful, dancing athlete who took out Sonny Liston with humor and grace. We think of David, and look beyond today’s portrait of him as a passive, broken old man used by others for their own advancement, and instead see the courageous young boy who, against all the odds, slew the giant Goliath and put steel back in the spines of the Israelite troops. Each human is not just her finest moment, but neither are we our worst moments, or even some sort of composite of them.
What we truly are is known only to God. What we hope for, for David and for all of us who are fortunate enough to meet and greet old age, is that God can make sense of our tangled lives, the good, the bad and the indifferent, and bring out of them: meaning and fulfillment, a miracle of grace.