When King David heard of all these things, he was very angry. But Absalom spoke to Amnon neither good nor bad, for Absalom hated Amnon, because he had violated his sister Tamar. After two full years Absalom had sheepshearers at Baal-hazor, which is near Ephraim, and Absalom invited all the king's sons. (2 Samuel 13:21-23) So Absalom fled and went to Geshur, and was there three years. And the spirit of the king longed to go out to Absalom, because he was comforted about Amnon, since he was dead. (2 Samuel 13:38-39) So Absalom lived two full years in Jerusalem, without coming into the king's presence. Then Absalom sent for Joab, to send him to the king, but Joab would not come to him. And he sent a second time, but Joab would not come. (2 Samuel 14:28-29) And at the end of four years Absalom said to the king, “Please let me go and pay my vow, which I have vowed to the Lord, in Hebron. (2 Samuel 15:7)
An old saying tells us that revenge is a dish best served cold. And the story of Absalom’s revenge on his brother for the rape of his sister certainly seems to bear that out. But while that advice may be popular, it is by no means biblical.
Sadly, the whole tragic story of 2 Samuel 13-15 has more to teach us about the dangers of passivity than it does about how and when to take revenge. Let’s look at the events that take place, and the time it took to deal with them.
Scene 1: Amnon rapes Tamar, his half sister (2 Samuel 13:1-14). In verse 21, we read that David is “very angry” about this. But crucially, the king does nothing. He doesn’t punish Amnon. He doesn’t warn Absalom not to take matters into his own hands. And after two years, Absalom takes his revenge and has his brother killed. Time since Amnon raped Tamar: Two years
Scene 2: Absalom flees to Geshur (2 Samuel 13:34-39). Geshur, in modern day Syria, was across the Jordan, about 50 miles northeast of Jerusalem. Absalom stays there for three years as a fugitive. Verse 39 is curious. It says that the spirit of King David “longed to go out to Absalom, because he was comforted about Amnon, since he was dead.” Does this mean that David saw the killing of Amnon as just, so he was prepared to forgive Absalom? If so, why didn’t he go to him to restore him? Maybe he was waiting for the public furor to die down. Or maybe he just didn’t want to deal with it. Whatever the reason, once again David does nothing. For three years. Time since Amnon raped Tamar: Five years
Scene Three: Absalom returns to Jerusalem (2 Samuel 14:1-28). After much drama, Joab gets the king to allow Absalom to come back to Jerusalem, with the stipulation that Absalom was not permitted to see King David (verse 24). So he was kinda-sorta restored, but not really. Even though David allowed him back in town, for two full years, David does nothing to even acknowledge his son is back home. Time since Amnon raped Tamar: Seven years
Scene Four: Absalom burns Joab’s crops (2 Samuel 14:29-33). Frustrated that his father won’t see him, and believing that Joab is the bouncer denying him access, Absalom sets Joab’s field on fire. This gets Joab’s attention, David finally grants Absalom an audience, and David seems to restore his son. Problem solved, right? Not so fast. There is no confronting. There’s no discussion about mistakes made. There’s superficial reconciliation, but no one is dealing with the issues. This leads us to…
Scene Five: Absalom Attempts a Coup (2 Samuel 15:1-12) For the next four years, Absalom stations himself at the city gate, and whenever someone comes into town for an audience with the king, Absalom convinces him that if Absalom were king, he would get justice, but that he shouldn’t expect much from old, weak, King David. And after four years, Absalom makes his move. Believing that he has fully “stolen the hearts of the men of Israel” (verse 6), he launches his rebellion against his father. Total time since Amnon raped Tamar: Eleven Years.
Eleven years of inaction and passivity. Eleven years of failure to address a problem. Eleven years of a leader kicking a can down the road and hoping a family crisis would blow over.
How might the history of Israel have been different if David had dealt with the issue quickly? If he had punished Amnon, perhaps Absalom would not have taken matters into his own hands. We will never know. What we do know is that strong leadership is not passive. Strong leadership resolves conflict quickly. David’s inaction brought ruin to his house, and it was only God’s faithfulness to His own promise that kept a son of David on the throne in Jerusalem for the next four hundred years.
What about you? How often do you hope conflict will blow over? How willing are you to sweep things under the rug, hoping that offended parties will patch things up on their own? If you are a leader on any level, you can’t afford to be passive in confronting conflict. If a confrontation is inevitable, then you need to work to make it immediate. Do it with all the grace and prudence and discernment God gives you, but don’t delay doing it.
Because while revenge might be best served cold, nobody likes warmed-over resolution.