“Why did you not go with me, Mephibosheth?” (2 Samuel 19:25). The weary king stood looking sternly at the disheveled disabled man sitting in front of him.
David had just been through the most terrible experience of his life. He was grieving deeply the recent death of his son, Absalom, who had died trying to kill his father and seize the throne for himself (2 Samuel 15–18). The coup had failed and the rebels were dead or scattered.
For many who had stayed loyal to David, this was a time of celebration. David, however, had to force every smile. His grief went deeper than witnessing a tragic end to a prodigal child. He knew just how responsible he was for his son’s death.
The Complexity of Life
God’s words through the prophet Nathan still burned in David’s ears as they were unfolding before him:
“Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and have taken his wife to be your wife and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised me and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife.” Thus says the Lord, “Behold, I will raise up evil against you out of your own house. And I will take your wives before your eyes and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this sun. For you did it secretly, but I will do this thing before all Israel and before the sun.” (2 Samuel 12:9–12)
He could hardly bear it: his beloved son had been that neighbor. “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you” (2 Samuel 18:33). David had stopped saying this out loud, so he wouldn’t keep demoralizing his people (2 Samuel 19:5–7), but he was still saying it in the deep places of his soul.
This tragedy, not only of his son, but all who were swayed by him — some of whom now lay in fresh graves with wailing mothers and wives beside them — was shot through with complexity. Real evil was inscrutably woven together with God’s righteous judgment. This was one of the reasons David was so merciful to those who had abandoned and even cursed him as he fled Absalom’s ascendant forces. He knew they had been swept up in this raging, complex current that he, to one degree or another, had brought upon them all.
Whom Could He Trust Now?
The complexity also made returning to Jerusalem confusing for the great, sad king. Whom could he trust now? Were the unfaithful words of those who had not joined him mere words for the wind, spoken in the fear and confusing tumult of war? Were these people, who were now singing a different song as he returned, showing their true colors — or simply trying to save their skin? “All mankind are liars” (Psalm 116:11). David included himself in that “all.”
And now here was Mephibosheth. His betrayal, in particular, had hurt.
Mephibosheth was Jonathan’s son. He had become disabled as a child in the fear and confusing tumult of another grievous, inscrutable weave of evil and righteous judgment (2 Samuel 4:4). David, out of his profound love for and covenant with his closest friend (1 Samuel 20:42), had sought out Mephibosheth, and given him back his royal grandfather’s land, along with a crew of paid employees — Ziba, his fifteen sons, and his twenty servants. David also gave Mephibosheth an honored spot at the king’s table, treating him as if he were one of his own sons (2 Samuel 9:7–8, 11).
But it was Ziba, not Mephibosheth, who had joined David as the king escaped Jerusalem just as the munity moved in. And from what Ziba had reported to David, Mephibosheth appeared to be just another treacherous “son” gunning for his throne (2 Samuel 16:3–4). David had immediately rewarded Ziba’s loyalty by granting him all of Mephibosheth’s property.
But as the now-victorious David was reentering Jerusalem, Mephibosheth was there to greet him — and he was a scraggly, smelly mess. An aide had informed David that Mephibosheth claimed to have not shaved or bathed or cared for his lame limbs the entire time David was in exile (2 Samuel 19:24). And there were tears in Mephibosheth’s eyes. This cast some serious shade on Ziba’s story. More ambiguity.
“Why did you not go with me, Mephibosheth?” David asked. The disheveled disabled man replied,
My lord, O king, my servant deceived me, for your servant said to him, “I will saddle a donkey for myself, that I may ride on it and go with the king.” For your servant is lame. He has slandered your servant to my lord the king. But my lord the king is like the angel of God; do therefore what seems good to you. For all my father’s house were but men doomed to death before my lord the king, but you set your servant among those who eat at your table. What further right have I, then, to cry to the king? (2 Samuel 19:26–28)
Mephibosheth’s earnestness was convincing. He certainly looked like he was telling the truth. But then again, that’s how the Gibeonites pulled one over on Joshua (Joshua 9:3–6). And Ziba had showed loyalty by risking his neck to align with David at the king’s weakest moment. But then again, David himself had instructed Hushai to risk his neck to feign loyalty to Absalom (2 Samuel 15:32–37). Ziba’s risking his neck might have been nothing more than betting on an experienced king rather than an overconfident prince. Who was telling the truth?
The Best He Could Do
So, David issued a new ruling: Saul’s former property would be divided between Mephibosheth and Ziba (2 Samuel 19:29). One of them would receive less than he deserved, the other more, because someone was obviously lying. David, however, could not peer into the hearts of these two men. Nor, given the urgent circumstances, could he prioritize an investigation into this. He had a kingdom, a family, and a heart to try to piece back together. Besides, this was no time to make new enemies.
Both men had apparently demonstrated loyalty to him, and David could think of no other way to communicate to both of them that he was choosing to assume the best of each of them. He would have to leave full justice to God.
The Best We Can Do — Sometimes
Sometimes, that’s the best we can do too in complex situations. Sometimes — in families, in friendships, in pastoral and employment situations — sufficient evidence is lacking, or circumstances are too ambiguous, or time is too limited to ensure that full justice, as we understand it, is done. Sometimes the best decision, all things considered, is to be as generous as we can with all parties concerned and trust God to bring about full justice in time — which he will.
God knows. And “all his ways are justice” (Deuteronomy 32:4). He has ways of working out justice that are simply inscrutable to us. He can, like no one else, weave what people and devils mean for evil into his perfectly just and righteous ways, and end up working them all to bring about good beyond our wildest dreams (Genesis 50:20; Romans 8:28). And he will use our imperfect judgments — and the injustices we receive in this age — to bring his good to pass.
On our part, we are called to make our imperfect judgments in good — and real — faith, to the best of our limited abilities. But let us never hide behind “limited abilities” because secretly it’s easier to appease evil than to “do justice” (Micah 6:8).