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David, part 20

The Defeat and Death of Absalom.

2 Samuel 18

The relation of parent and child, and the sympathy and love that naturally exist between them, are convincing evidences of the wisdom and beneficence of the Creator. All creatures are inspired with the love of their offspring. We can see a reason for it, since it would be impossible for the animal kingdom in general and for the human race in particular to exist without it. But can we not trace or assign it to some cause? Is it a natural development, or is it the result or design, or does it originate in the attributes of the Creator Himself? Is there not in the Divine nature something answering to this most essential element of human nature? The teaching of the New Church traces it to the Divine Love itself, in which creation had its origin. There are three things that constitute the essence of Divine Love, to love others who are out of, or without Himself, to desire to be one with them, and to make them happy from Himself. As man was created from this Love, so also was he created for it. The sphere emanating from this Love pervades the universe, and affects every one according to his state. This sphere more immediately affects parents, inspiring them with a tender love towards their offspring, and with a desire to be one with them, and to make them happy. It affects also the evil as well as the good. This universal sphere affects in a peculiar manner those who receive the love of God, as all do who believe in God and love their neighbour, the charity which reigns with them being an image of that love. The love of children for their parents is the reflex of parental love. For it may be said of human paternal love as it is of Divine Fatherly Love, "Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us." The love of children for their parents is as necessary as the love of parents for their children. Without love there can be no true honour, without honour there can be no true obedience, and without obedience there can be no order and improvement, and without all there can be no domestic happiness. Parents are seldom deficient in love, however much they may be in wisdom to direct it. Children are more liable to come short, partly, no doubt, from injudicious training, of which we find some very serious cases in Scripture, and partly from the general imperfection of fallen human nature, and the impatience of restraint which is natural to the young. In the Scriptures, therefore, we find the inculcation of filial, much more than of parental duty; while one of the ten commandments is, "Honour your father and your mother." One of the acts which St. Paul enumerates as the sign of a reprobate mind is disobedience to parents (Rom 1:30). When we consider the origin of parental and of filial love, we must see that persistent opposition to a parent's will, and, as in the case of Absalom, open rebellion against a parent's personal and kingly authority, is to disregard the dictates, not only of the best natural affection, but of the highest spiritual affection also. Such conduct is not only rebellion against the authority and government of the earthly father, but of the heavenly Father also; not only against the temporal but of the eternal King. The lesser evil contains the greater. For the Divine command, to honour father and mother, comprehends the higher command to honour the Lord and His kingdom. And the violation of this higher command is the spiritual evil which the rebellion of Absalom represented.

When David found himself compelled to meet his rebellious son in deadly strife, he numbered the people that were with him, and set captains of thousands and captains of hundreds over them. Moreover he formed the whole army into three divisions, which he placed under the command of Joab, Abishai, and Ittai the Gittite. This spiritually means a Divine arrangement in heavenly order of all the principles of goodness and truth in the spiritual mind, to meet the opposing principles of evil and falsity in the natural mind. All spiritual conflict resolves itself into this. We can indeed consider the opposite principles as existing separately in different minds, or either of them as predominating over the other in the same mind. But all spiritual conflict is mental conflict, and the final result is the judgement of truth for or against a man, according as he has acted in agreement with or in opposition to its laws and teaching.

When David had appointed the leaders of his army, he said to the people, "I will surely go forth with you myself also. But the people answered, You shall not go forth: for if we flee away, they will not care for us; neither if half of us die, will they care for us: but now you are worth ten thousand of us: therefore now it is better that you succour us out of the city." It was the great object in ancient warfare to kill or capture the king in battle. But there is another reason for us why it was expedient for David not to go forth personally into the conflict. It is better in certain circumstances that the ruling principle should not come out into open conflict with that which is opposed to it. Moses determined the fate, and even the progress of the battle which Israel fought with Amalek, not by going out with the army, but by standing on the top of a hill, and holding up the rod of God in his hands. David, it is true, proposed himself to go with the people, and such is the will of the Lord, and of the Truth, in which He is present with us in our spiritual conflicts. And He is with us, even when He does not go forth into the battle. The people's request showed the value they placed on the king's life. And their estimation of the value of the king's life, in comparison of the value of their own, is expressive of that state of mind when, the leading and governing principle of religion is esteemed as above all price, compared with its subordinate and common truths. In religion men often contend about matters of secondary importance, and seem little concerned for essential principles; nay, they sometimes sacrifice the essential to the secondary, or even to the formal, either by magnifying the worth of secondary things, or contending for matters of faith to the destruction of charity, or exalting ritual to the degradation of piety. The people, when they went forth to battle, did not think that, by denying themselves of the king's presence, they were depriving themselves of his aid. They expected he would succour them out of the city. It is not always by the outward and open, but by the inward and hidden operation of the ruling principle that the victory is gained. David's spirit went forth with the people. And yet although it was the spirit of victory, it was also the spirit of salvation, even of him whom his army had gone to oppose. For his command to the three commanders was, "Deal gently for my sake with the young man, even with Absalom."

The battle that took place between the two contending armies in this unnatural civil war is, like Scripture battles generally, very briefly related, for, with the exception of the main incident, we cannot say it is described. "The people went out into the field against Israel: and the battle was in the wood of Ephraim." We may conclude from this that it was chiefly the men of the tribes of Israel who had adhered to the house of Saul that joined Absalom, while those who remained faithful to David were chiefly of the tribe of Judah. The wood of Ephraim, in which the battle took place, was not in the territory of the tribe of Ephraim, which was in the centre of Palestine, but was near Mahanaim, thus on the other side of Jordan. Appropriately it was in that region of Israel's inheritance which represented the external man, where man's evils reside and where conflict with them takes place. The wood of Ephraim also is characteristically representative of the immediate scene of the battle. For although the wood of Ephraim was not in the territory of the tribe of that name, it has the same meaning as if it had, with this difference, that in the Holy Land means in the inner man, and out of the Holy Land means in the outer man. Ephraim signifies the intellectual principle of the natural or sensual part of the mind.

In this wood "the people of Israel were slain before the servants of David, and there was there a great slaughter that day of twenty thousand men. For the battle was there scattered over the face of all the country: and the wood devoured more people that day than the sword devoured." The number slain is expressive of the nature rather than the extent of destruction. A great slaughter means a destruction of good rather than of truth; and the number slain implies that the result of the conflict was, on the side of the vanquished, the extinction of spiritual life, even to the remains of goodness and truth. This is especially the result of the evil of profanation, which the sin of Absalom represented, and which, we shall see, is further indicated by the singular cause and manner of his death.

" Absalom rode upon a mule, and the mule went under the thick boughs of a great oak, and his head caught hold of the oak, and he was taken up between the heaven and the earth; and the mule that was under him went away."

Under the Israelitish and Jewish dispensation, kings and their sons rode upon mules, and judges and their sons rode upon asses; and indeed kings rode upon she-mules, and their sons upon he-mules; and judges rode upon she-asses, and their sons upon he-asses. And this was for the sake of the inner sense of Divine inspiration. For as animals signify affections, the female signifies the affection of goodness and the male the affection of truth: and this is the distinction which exists actually and representatively between a father and a son. But taking animals in the general sense as denoting affections, the mule signifies the affection of rational truth, and the ass the affection of natural or scientific truth.

There are three animals useful to man which are frequently mentioned in the Scriptures: the horse, the mule, and the ass; and they correspond to the three kinds or degrees of the affections and perception of truth: spiritual, rational, and natural; or what may be called intelligence, reason, and knowledge. From this also the mule derives its signification; because the rational perception of truth is produced from the union of the spiritual and natural perception of truth: the rational faculty being itself the result of the conjunction of inward discernment and outward knowledge.

In the Scriptures the horse, the mule, and the ass are frequently mentioned in such a way as to show that they have a meaning beyond that of the letter. The armies of heaven, and even the Lord Himself, are described in the Book of Revelation as riding on white horses, where it must be plain that a spiritual meaning must be contained in that of the letter. And when we regard the horse as the symbol of intelligence, or understanding, the description becomes truly significant; since it is by the understanding of the pure or spiritual truths of the Word that the Lord and His kingdom are brought near to us: and this sense of the passage is rendered still more evident when we reflect that the Lord is there called "the Word of God."

The Lord also when He was in the world rode into Jerusalem on an ass and the colt the foal of an ass, to represent that He had obtained dominion over all the natural and rational principles of the human nature He assumed in the world; and by means of which He comes to His Church, as the Judge and King. And to show His judicial and regal authority, He entered the temple and cast out the moneychangers and all who bought and sold within its sacred precincts.

But the mule upon which Absalom rode is not to be regarded as representing the rational faculty and its affection and perception in a state of order and of useful activity, but perverted and applied to an evil purpose. In the abstract sense the mule represents rational truth, which can be either used or abused, preserved or perverted. And when that which is in itself good and true and useful is perverted, it becomes evil and false and injurious. And what faculty is more easily perverted than reason—what power may be more perversely employed? Is not the rejection of religion and of revelation, and even the denial of God Himself, done in every instance in the name of reason? And not only is religion denied, but falsified, under the authority of the same plastic faculty. Whenever indeed the natural will is allowed to lead, the reason is easily made to follow; for there are always abundant reasons for the confirmation of what any one has a desire to believe or an interest in believing. Nor is the agency of this faculty employed only in matters of faith or of opinion. Whatever we ardently desire to do or to possess, we employ our reason to accomplish or acquire; and so far is this the case, reason may be made the instrument of unscrupulously ministering to the blind impulses of the will.

When the rational faculty becomes thus perverse, it leads into and confirms what is opposite to goodness and truth; and involves the mind in the mazes of error, and leads away into all evil. The tendency of perverse rationality to the errors and evils that destroy, is described in the succeeding incidents—the mule's carrying Absalom under the thick boughs of a great oak, and his head being caught in the branches. In Scripture a wood or forest signifies the natural mind, especially when it is in a comparatively uncultivated state; as a garden signifies the rational mind, highly cultivated and adorned with the graces of love and truth. The battle between the armies of David and Absalom was in the wood of Ephraim; for Ephraim signifies the intellectual principle of the Church, and the wood of Ephraim denotes the understanding of the natural mind, or the natural understanding. Therefore it was that more of Absalom's army were destroyed by the wood than by the sword; denoting that, in corresponding circumstances, the greatest destruction is the result of the fallacies in the natural understanding itself. Absalom himself was also therefore overcome and led to destruction by the same means; and in his case the particular cause is mentioned: "he was carried under the thick boughs of a great oak." The oak-tree signifies the most general kind of the perception of truth which the natural understanding acquires. The thick boughs mentioned here and in other instances, include the idea of what is intertwisted or tangled; and this is always expressive of the spiritual idea of what is involved or obscure, such as is all knowledge when seen only through the fallacious eye of sense. When spiritual things are apprehended only by the senses, or when they are believed only so far as they can be apprehended sensuously, they become entangled in the appearances which arise from the fallacies of the senses; and these fallacies are properly signified by the thick boughs or entangled branches of the oak. In this sense they are frequently mentioned in Scripture. In Isaiah 9:18: "Wickedness burns as the fire: it shall devour the briers and thorns, and shall kindle in the thickets [or intertwistings] of the forest, and they shall mount up like the lifting up of smoke." Fire which catches at thorns and kindles in the entangled branches of the forest is self-love; for errors and fallacies are ever ready to favour evil affections. In the 31st of Ezekiel the meaning of thick or intertwisted boughs is still more obvious: "Behold, the Assyrian was a cedar in Lebanon with fair branches, and with a shadowing shroud, and of an high stature; and his top was among the thick [or intertwisted] boughs.... Therefore his height was exalted above all the trees of the field, and his boughs were multiplied.... Therefore thus says the Lord God; Because you have lifted up yourself in height, and he has shot up his top among the thick boughs, and his heart is lifted up in his height; I have therefore delivered him into the hand of the mighty one of the heathen."

Throughout the Word Assyria signifies the rational mind; and in the present case that mind perverted: the Assyrian is therefore described as a tree having intertwisted branches, to indicate the tendency of natural reason to become entangled in the delusive appearances which the senses present, when they alone are consulted on the nature of spiritual things. When any one follows the teachings of his senses, and pursues only sensual pleasures and worldly dominion, he is like Absalom in the wood of Ephraim, overshadowed and bewildered, and is carried he knows not whither to his own destruction. Absalom was caught by the head in the thick boughs of the oak. The head of the body signifies the interiors of the mind; and the mind becomes interiorly under the influence and power of sensuous reasonings, when these are directed by an evil heart. But we are to understand that Absalom, was caught by the hair, and thus by the head. And the hair signifies what is external. The hair of the head signifies the ultimate of man's will and understanding. It was from this that Samson's strength lay in his hair; for spiritual power is in the outward manifestation of inward principles. Absalom's hair is particularly mentioned, as we have seen, in chapter 14; and besides his abundant locks, his person is said to have been more praised for beauty than any other in Israel. Considered simply as a king's son, Absalom represented one of the primary truths which are derived from, and have respect to, the Divine Truth in heaven and the Church; and the beauty of his person and the abundance of his hair have respect to the beauty and gracefulness which are the natural attributes of such truths in their own proper form. But when spiritual principles are perverted, and applied to evil purposes, the outward beauty may indeed be retained and cultivated, because it is a means of deceiving those who look only upon, and judge by, the outward appearance; but it is no longer a true index of the inward state of the mind. The same evil may exist in spiritual as in natural life, and in the things of the mind as in those of the body. Personal beauty and gracefulness of manners must always command admiration, as everything beautiful and graceful deservedly does with those who are right minded; but no right-minded person will accept the outward forms of grace and beauty for those higher qualities— the grace and beauty of the mind, which they were designed by the Creator to embody and represent. When the outward beauty of holiness is all that exists in any one, it may indeed deceive the ignorant or unguarded into an unwise admiration of the man, as many of the Israelitish people no doubt were deceived and seduced by the beauty and blandishments of Absalom; but there is one part of their conduct which the true Israelite will never imitate—their being led by their fascination into an act of rebellion. One of the points of his personal beauty was the immediate cause of Absalom's destruction. That hair which grew so luxuriantly was the immediate occasion of his death. Absalom, when his head caught hold of the oak, being "taken up between the heaven and the earth," and the mule that was under him going away, presents a singularly striking example of that state of profanation which his conduct represented. This state and its consequences are minutely described in the Writings. There are several degrees of profanation. We will speak only of two.

Those who practically separate faith from charity divide the mind into two parts. By the truths of the Word they turn themselves to heaven, and by evils of life they turn themselves towards hell, so that they halt between them. By means of thought concerning God, and concerning heaven and eternal life, they have some degree of conjunction with heaven, but only by obscure thought, and not by the affection of charity, for this they have not: wherefore by the affection of self-love and the love of the world, they are conjoined to hell. Hence it may appear that they are between heaven and hell, inasmuch as they look with their eyes towards heaven, while with their hearts they are inclined towards hell. To do this is to profane, and the lot of pro-faners in the other life is of all others the worst.

Those who have been guilty of profanation are signified by the lukewarm, who are neither cold nor hot (Rev 3:6), and their separation from the Lord is meant by their being spewed out of His mouth. And to be thus separated from the Lord is to be neither in heaven nor in hell, but in a place apart, deprived of human life, where there are mere phantasies. The reason of this is that they mixed truths with falsities and goods with evils, thus holy things with things profane, to such an extent that they cannot be separated. And as the profaner cannot be prepared either for heaven or for hell, the whole of his rational life is rooted out, and only the ultimates of life remain, which when separated from the inward life are mere phantasies.

But Absalom, though suspended between heaven and earth, was yet alive. A certain man told Joab that he saw Absalom hanged in an oak. And Joab "took three darts in his hand, and thrust them through the heart of Absalom, while he was yet alive in the midst of the oak. And ten young men that bare Joab's armour compassed about and smote Absalom, and slew him." In this Joab acted in opposition to the injunction of the king, not in forgetfulness, for the man who told him repeated the king's command, as a reason for not killing Absalom himself. The king's wish and Joab's act, as contrary to each other, exemplifies, or at least represents, two opposite principles of judgement, the principles of good and truth. Good raises all to heaven; truth condemns all to hell. This finds its expression in the theological doctrine of a conflict in the Divine mind between mercy and justice, on which is grounded the tenet of substitutional satisfaction. The opposite tendency and judgement of goodness and truth are not in the Divine but in the human mind. Goodness and truth are one in God and ever act in perfect unity. In the human mind they may be divided. Good may exist without truth, and truth may exist without good. All who are in good, even if it be without truth, are saved, but all who are in truth without good are lost. The truth which men have condemns them. Truth may be called the knowledge of goodness. The Lord, as the Truth, is the great Teacher, all whose lessons have goodness for their end. But if the lessons of truth do not terminate in goodness, but are neglected, and especially if they are perverted, as all knowledge may be, to an evil end, then truth condemns the soul to hell. In all such cases it is not the Lord who condemns, but the words which He has spoken. The evil are, therefore, practically their own judges; they carry the law of their condemnation in themselves. Yet while the Lord's truth as a judge condemns, His love as a father yearns for the safety, and mourns over the loss of His children. The royal father's passionate grief over the death of his rebellious son, was but an imperfect type of the sorrowing love of Him who wept over the profligate city while He pronounced its doom, and who sent up in His agony a prayer for those who were nailing Him to the cross. "O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! would God I had died for you, O Absalom, my son, my son!" What David desired to have done, David's Lord did. He died for His rebellious children. Not in their stead did the Lord die for them, but not the less to save them from death. Moses and Paul expressed a desire to die for their rebellious brethren, as David did for his rebellious son; and this was the only way in which they could express it. But this is not the Divine way, nor is it consistent with Divine order. When Moses prayed to be blotted out of the Lord's book rather than that his people should not be forgiven, the Lord gave this answer to his prayer, "Whosoever has sinned against Me, him will I blot out of My book." Infinite love and mercy cannot save the guilty, but infinite wisdom has found out a way by which sinners may turn from their wickedness and live.

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