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Location: Greensboro, NC, United States

Saturday, April 10, 2010

But the King Knew Her Not

Now King David was old and advanced in years. And although they covered him with clothes, he could not get warm.
Therefore his servants said to him, "Let a young woman be sought for my lord the king, and let her wait on the king and be in his service. Let her lie in your arms, that my lord the king may be warm."
So they sought for a beautiful young woman throughout all the territory of Israel, and found Abishag the Shunammite, and brought her to the king.
The young woman was very beautiful, and she was of service to the king and attended to him, but the king knew her not.

(1 Kings 1:1-4)

This passage is one that has intrigued me for a long time. Here, in the opening of 1 Kings, we see King David, the mighty warrior-king of Yahweh, in the twilight of his years. The one who once wrote that he could leap over a wall by the strength of the LORD (Psalm 18:29) now finds himself a frail old man, unable to even keep his own body warm. And so his servants find for him a beautiful young woman to lie in his arms and to serve him. Most importantly, we are told he "knew her not", or did not have sex with her.

So why are we told of this seemingly minor incident in David's life? All Scripture certainly has a purpose (2 Timothy 3:16), so this story isn't included without a reason. And while there may be a few reasons, I think it's primarily in order to show us that David repented of his earlier sins, and learned from them.

David had taken the wife of Urriah the Hittite and slept with her. When she became pregnant, he brought Urriah home from battle and tried to arrange circumstances so that he would sleep with her in order to cover up David's sin. And when that failed, David had Urriah put in a place in battle such that it would be impossible for him to live. Once Urriah was dead, David took Bathsheba as his own wife (2 Samuel 11).

But David paid no small consequences for his actions. First, the child of David that Bathsheba was carrying died after a few days (2 Sam. 12:15-23). Then, David's son Amnon violated his sister Tamar (2 Sam. 13:1-22). In vengeance for this, David's son Absalom killed Amnon (2 Sam. 13:23-39), and then took David's kingdom from him for a period of time (2 Sam. 15-18), which included sleeping with David's concubines in a tent on the roof of the king's palace, a public display designed to humiliate and discredit the king (2 Sam. 16:20-23). David eventually regained his kingdom, but only after his son Absalom was killed in battle, specifically against David's wishes (2 Sam. 18).

His daughter's purity taken, and three of his children killed. David was certainly left with no small measure of grief for his sin. In one sense, this was the LORD's doing, as Nathan the prophet had said it would be (2 Sam. 12:14). And yet in another sense, this is the natural outcome of failed leadership. Those in authority who fail to act according to the revealed will of God reap terrible consequences later on, and bring destruction upon those under their care. And a person always reaps what they sow. If one sows the seeds of sexual immorality, then sexual immorality is what will be harvested. For those who are called to lead others, this will be true not only in their own lives, but in the lives of those they lead. Leaders are not only to strive to be an example; they inevitably are an example. "Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it" (Proverbs 22:6). Likewise, train up a child in the way he shouldn't go, and he will go that way, with little variance.

That this is to be our point of reflection when considering this passage should be of no doubt. Following after verse four, we see that another of David's sons, Adonijah the son of Haggith, sought to take the kingship from David as well. David's rebellion toward God set a pattern to be followed, and created a house of rebellious children. And yet, in a strange turn of Providence, it is Bathsheba and Solomon, along with Nathan the prophet, who had confronted David about his sin with Bathsheba, who work together to save David from losing the kingdom to Adonijah (1 Kings 1). God indeed makes beauty from ashes.

Yet the ashes are real. There are real consequences for sin. In the average believer, sin and its consequences are terrifying enough. But for those called to lead others, the seriousness is on a different level altogether. One can only imagine the weight David carried on his shoulders for the rest of his life. Pierce Pettis sought to capture David's sorrow over the death of Absalom, in his song entitled "Absalom":


Come and smear me with the branches of that tree
Hyssop dipped in innocent blood to make me clean
Let an old man's broken bones once more rejoice
Oh Absalom, you were my little boy

Absalom, Absalom
My son, my son, my son
Caught in the tangles of deceit
Hanging lifeless from that tree

Absalom, Absalom
My son, my son, my son
Caught in the tangles of your hair
Fruit of my own sins to bear
Oh Absalom

You were the laughing boy who danced upon my knee
You learned to play the harp and use the shepherd's sling
Always watching, my impressionable son
Oh, Absalom, what have I done?

You were watching when I took a good man's wife
Gave the order for his murder just to cover up the crime
All the vanity, cruel arrogance and greed
Oh Absalom, you learned it all from me

Absalom, Absalom
My son, my son, my son
Caught in the tangles of deceit
Hanging lifeless from that tree

Absalom, Absalom
My son, my son, my son
Caught in the tangles of your hair
Fruit of my own sins to bear
Oh Absalom


Absalom by a strange twist becomes a picture of Christ. Caught by his hair in a tree, he is put to death against David's wishes. Yet by the law he was cursed - "Cursed is everyone who hangs upon a tree" (Deut. 21:22-23; Gal. 3:13). Absalom was cursed for his sins, and put to death. But Christ, of whom Absalom was a type, was cursed for sins that were not his, and died in our place.

Yet Absalom was not the last of David's children to die as a result of rebellion against God. Though Adonijah was pardoned at first for seeking to take the kingdom, Solomon later had him killed for seeking the hand of Abishag the Shunammite in marriage, which Solomon no doubt saw as an act of usurpation, such as was done by Absalom in sleeping with David's concubines (1 Kings 2:19-27).

The death of Adonijah occurred after David's death. But it wasn't the end of consequences for David's sins. Solomon himself walked in the ways of his father, multiplying wives and concubines, even from pagan nations, and allowed them to turn his heart after false gods. The kingdom split apart because of this after Solomon's death, and never returned to the state it was in during the days of David (1 Kings 11:1-13).

And this all occurred because David, rather than being with his troops in battle during the time of year that kings were at war, decided to take a leisurely walk upon his roof, and failed to turn away his eyes when he saw a woman bathing (2 Sam. 11:1-2).

David didn't live to see all the consequences of his sin. Others were left to deal with them long after he was gone. And yet he saw enough sorrow in his own life as a result of what he had done, that he did not have any sexual involvement with Abishag the Shunammite.

It is said that it is better to learn from mistakes than not to learn from them. But the best mistakes to learn from are someone else's. David learned the hard way. We are given in his life an example, both to follow, and not to follow. In a time when the church has grown casual in its approach to holiness, we have a great need to return to Scripture, and to meditate on both its explicit teachings and its examples, of which David is one. May we, like David, repent of our sins. And may we, unlike David, prize holiness above all, so that we need not walk in the steps of his sorrow.

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