Absalom and David, Part 1
This is the 23rd year that I have written a series of Advent poems. They are a kind of Christmas gift to the church, but I have to admit that I am sure I benefit more than anyone else, because when I write I see so much more than when I only read. Each poem gives biblical focus to one of the four advent candles that we light. Today we light candle one. The poem is about David and his son Absalom. You may recall that Absalom was the son of David’s wife Maacah, the daughter of Talmai, king of Geshur. Absalom killed his half-brother Amnon for raping his sister Tamar. He fled to Geshur and lived with his Grandfather Talmai for three years, and then returned, only to lead a rebellion against David. We find David in this poem driven from Jerusalem by his own son.
Maacah, David’s wife, who bore
Him Absalom, and now before
The treachery of her own child
Has fled Jerusalem, exiled
Across the Jordan here and past
The hills of Gilead, downcast,
Almost despairing, lifts her shroud
Of misery and speaks aloud:
“You should have never married me.
It was a sin. We thought that we
Had gotten us a child of peace.
You said that night, ‘He will increase
The quiet on the borders of
Geshur.’ You said, ‘This little dove
Of peace, this quiet child, will be
For us a great tranquility.’
And so you named him Absalom.
It was a handsome name. And some
Have mocked you as a man of war
And said, ‘This baby will restore
The noble peace that David’s sword
Has drenched with foreign blood.’ The Lord
We serve, it seems, has found a way
For Absalom to reign this day
Without the shedding of a drop
Maacah touched the top
Of David’s gown and let her hand
Lay soft against his neck, the band
About her finger cool, where he
Sat bowed at dusk, and silently
Stared southward and across the vale
Of Jordan to the west.
Of tears through Gilead that I
Have marched will shortly make for my
Son Absalom a muddy route.
And though I hope, you’re right, I doubt,
Maacah, that my son will tear
The crown of David off, and wear
It, without shedding blood. I know
Amnon was not your son, but oh,
Maacah, feel with me that he
Was mine, and that he’s dead. I see
In this a portent: if my son,
A man of peace, could be the one
Who puts his brother Amnon to
The sword, I ask, would he not do
The same to me? To this I give
Reply: Lord, let it be. Long live
King Absalom! If I might be
The one who dies, O Lord, not he.”
“You should have never married me,
King David, and there would not be
A rebel son born to the king
Of Israel, the mortal sting
Of marrying Maacah, seed
Of Ammihud, the king of greed,
And of his son, Talmai, who hates
You, as your vassal king, and waits
Now in Geshur to see your son
Remove your crown and be the one
To give my father back his reign
From underneath your gentle chain,
And thus restore his sovereignty,
Which you obtained in wedding me.”
“I do not blame you for the hate
Your father has for me. My gate
Was ever open to the king
And ruler of Geshur. One thing
He offered me for peace, and I
Was glad to spare the blood, and by
My marriage make, I thought, a friend,
And have you for my wife. The end
Was very different than I thought.
The heart of this revolt was wrought
Not in the failure of your love
For Absalom. The counsels of
Rebellion, like the noxious breath
Of Abaddon, were breathed like death
Into the mind of Absalom
When Talmai sent and bade him come
For three years in Geshur when he
Had killed his brother. Treachery
Against the crown was kindled in
The tents of Talmai. Blood had been
Poured out, and brother’s blood begets
A callous feast of pow’r, and whets
The thirst to take a father’s crown.”
King David wrapped his common gown
Around his neck and stared away
And as the day
Gave way to night, Maacah said,
“My lord, you never wished him dead.
I’ve seen you weeping in his room.
And I remember your deep gloom
When you decreed that Absalom
With all his treachery could come
Back to Jerusalem, but not
Within the palace walls. The plot
My lord could see like light’ning from
A distant storm that soon would come
And split Jerusalem in two.
‘The king is like the angel who
Beholds the face of God and knows
The heart and mind of all his foes.’
Did not the wise old woman from
Tekoa speak these words, and sum
Them up with this: ‘There’s nothing kept
From God’s anointed king.’ You wept
And let the boy return. Two years
Went by, and not for all the tears,
Did you once see his face—so rent
Between your grief and what it meant
To harbor treason in your gate.
And then, your heart gave way, and late
One night, Joab brought Absalom
To you. Five years he hadn’t come.
And there I saw you hold your son,
And weep with joy as if he’d done
No wrong. And then I saw you kiss
His tearless face, and then dismiss
Him, knowing he would steal the hearts
Of Israel. “The boy departs,”
You turned to me and said. And then:
“I’ll never see his face again.”
The darkness deepened now the calm
And quiet night. “Your words are balm
To my bruised heart,” he said. “It’s true,
It was a sin to marry you.
But you knew nothing in those days
About the Word of God, his ways,
And laws, and statutes Moses gave
To us. ’Tis kings who should engrave
Them on their hearts, and guard these things,
And heed, when Scripture says, ‘Your kings
Will multiply their wives and take
Them from a pagan tribe to make
The peace of Israel. Beware.’
The sin was mine, Maacah. Spare
Yourself this charge, I bear the guilt.
O so much guilt! Should peace be built
By multiplying wives? Should I
Secure the land through sin, and by
Alliances with foreign kings
Build Zion with forbidden things?
Maacah, you could not have known.
’Tis I who reap what I have sown.”
Maacah waited now to see
If David might more hopefully
Complete his deep lament, then said,
“What will become of us? I dread
These words, my lord. They are not done.
I know they are not done. For one,
My lord, is missing from your grief.
The one sweet word for my relief
That I have often heard you sing
Through many tears. O David, bring
Forth now this word, for I have found
In your sweet songs the only ground
Where I, a Geshurite, can stand
With any hope beneath the hand
Of your all holy God. O speak
This word, my husband, I am weak
And cannot live without your song
In silence now a long
Sweet hour passed. Then David tuned
His lyre, and placed it on the wound
And sorrow of his heart, and set
His eyes toward Zion’s hill, and let
His spirit sing.
“O Lord, O Lord,
How many are my foes! The sword
Of thousands rise against my soul,
And mock my crown, ‘We now control
Jerusalem,’ they say. ‘The ark
Of God is in our midst. Now mark
This victory, O king!’ they cry,
‘Despair of rescue now, and die!’
But you, O Lord, are still my shield,
Whatever weapon they may wield
No blow will fall but by your choice.
In this my heart and soul rejoice.
You are the peace beneath my dread
You are the lifter of my head.
All this the miracle of grace,
That we should see your smiling face.”
Then David turned to see his wife,
And said, “By mercy all my life
I have been spared the wrath of God,
And every blow has been the rod
Of love. This is the covenant
And oath by which I live, and hunt
With hope for hidden grace when I
Am struck. And this I testify:
Pure love, and ev’ry sin somehow
Turned ’round, and like a broken bough
From off the tree of righteousness
Does pierce my sinful soul, and bless.
How else can I explain that you,
My foreign wife, embrace as true
My God? The pagan that I knew
Now puts me in remembrance of
My Lord. Perhaps by this same love
And grace the miracle will come
And change the heart of Absalom.”
It is a question, Candle One:
Have you an answer now, or none?
When you are lit, we now inquire,
Tell us, Will you be light or fire?
Will you consume with this small spark?
Or will you drive away the dark?
Or must we learn from David’s oath:
For now, each candle must be both?