The U.S. midterm elections are later this year, and some are already considering turning off their social media feeds until its over. Jesus is not on any ballot for the elections, but this does not mean His people are without hope and comfort. It also doesn’t mean Christians should ignore it all. Last fall, I wrote a two–part series partly about not over-reacting to the threats of worldly kingdoms because “He who sits in the heavens laughs.” (Psalm 2:4) When recently reading Psalm 3, which is “A Psalm of David, when he fled from Absalom his son,” I saw that this Psalm may not have come after Psalm 2 by accident and may also comfort us in the face of political bad news.
The story of King David in the Bible is a very condensed version of his life but does not shy away from David’s serious failures and flaws. The story of his adulterous relationship with Bathsheba is not swept under the rug, and eventually, Absalom’s rebellion against his father David was justified in his mind by those flaws. Absalom harbored resentment for years after David’s lack of punishment for Absalom’s brother Amnon, who raped his sister Tamar. One can imagine Absalom thinking about his father: “You’re the king of Israel, so why didn’t you protect Tamar, or at least punish Amnon? If my sister and I don’t get justice, you don’t deserve to be king!”
David, on the other hand, was quite aware of the limits of being king. In Psalm 131:1, David wrote:
“O LORD, my heart is not lifted up;
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvelous for me.”
Even while writing as divinely selected king of Israel, David knew many things were “too great and too marvelous” even for him. Instead, David focused his heart on the God-given task before him, which did not include achieving perfection in this world. That task belonged elsewhere. Later, Psalm 131 was included in the Psalms of Ascent, which served as a liturgy for pilgrims traveling to Jerusalem for three annual festivals. In those Psalms are reminders of God’s provision for things the world can’t provide, including salvation for our souls and a way to perfect righteousness. The pilgrims did not go to Jerusalem to worship the earthly king, but to encounter God, and including Psalm 131 in that liturgy would always be a reminder that our worldly aims should always be rooted in humility.
When Absalom raised several hundred supporters and entered Jerusalem to violently overthrow his father David, “a messenger came to David, saying, ‘The hearts of the men of Israel have gone after Absalom.’ Then David said to all his servants who were with him at Jerusalem, ‘Arise, and let us flee, or else there will be no escape for us from Absalom. Go quickly, lest he overtake us quickly and bring down ruin on us and strike the city with the edge of the sword.’” (2 Samuel 15:13-14)
After surrendering the throne and fleeing, David wrote Psalm 3, “A Psalm of David, when he fled from Absalom his son,” which says in full:
“O LORD, how many are my foes!
Many are rising against me;
many are saying of my soul,
“There is no salvation for him in God.” Selah
But you, O LORD, are a shield about me,
my glory, and the lifter of my head.
I cried aloud to the LORD,
and he answered me from his holy hill. Selah
I lay down and slept;
I woke again, for the LORD sustained me.
I will not be afraid of many thousands of people
who have set themselves against me all around.
Arise, O LORD!
Save me, O my God!
For you strike all my enemies on the cheek;
you break the teeth of the wicked.
Salvation belongs to the LORD;
your blessing be on your people! Selah”
Knowing the background of this Psalm and its placement after Psalm 2 make it far more interesting. David had suffered a massive political defeat, being humiliated and tossed out of Jerusalem by his own son. Instead of despairing, he turned to God for his salvation because he knew even the king of Israel could not save the people. He was only a temporary and provincial authority. Even though God had promised David the throne, God was able to save David, and Israel, without David on the throne. With the murderous and vengeful Absalom on the throne, was God defeated? No, instead we have this Psalm as a reminder of God’s presence and provision of salvation in spite of whatever situation we find ourselves in.
David, having cultivated over years an awareness of his own limitations as king of Israel, and the limitless power of God, “lay down and slept,” then “woke again, for the LORD sustained me.” Surrounded by foes and removed from his throne, David slept soundly! In contrast, Absalom is shown as one who broods upon every imperfection, plotting ways to force justice as he sees it on others, even if he must dishonor God. You could say he is driven by the “utopian impulse,” belief in a government that can solve all of our problems and shouldn’t rest until it does.
Democracy and Tyranny
Jesus isn’t on the ballot this fall, but flawed candidates of many types will be. Some more like David, and some more like Absalom. A lesson from Psalm 3 is that we should be able to sleep at night in good conscience because no matter the world looks like, God says “I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill” (Psalm 2:6) even when king David was on the run for his life. The success of God’s plan does not rely on our political success. But a second lesson from the story of Absalom is that a ruler driven by achieving worldly perfection can be the worst kind, even if they seem to have good intentions.
Absalom’s story reminds me of this quote from C.S. Lewis:
“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under of robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber barons cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some points be satiated; but those who torment us for their own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to heaven yet at the same time likely to make a Hell of earth.”
How do we reconcile the two lessons?
Coming This Week
This week, I’m hoping to squeeze in a short series of posts on narratives, history, and (gasp!) politics. I’m very much figuring this out myself every day and learning how to engage without following my own utopian impulse to cut off Malchus’ ear but I also know that waiting for a perfect answer guarantees failure. This blog is part of that process for me. This week’s posts will lead up to the next “History Bits” post I have planned for April 9th and give some background on that series.
Hope you’ll join me and let me know what you think.
 I’m currently writing about those Psalms in a series, which began here.
 From “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment.” C.S. Lewis. God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics. (1970). P. 292.
 See John 18:10