The Judge and the King

By James Cornwell

A Reading from 2 Samuel 15:1-18

1 After this Absalom got himself a chariot and horses, and fifty men to run ahead of him. 2 Absalom used to rise early and stand beside the road into the gate; and when anyone brought a suit before the king for judgement, Absalom would call out and say, “From what city are you?” When the person said, “Your servant is of such and such a tribe in Israel,” 3 Absalom would say, “See, your claims are good and right; but there is no one deputed by the king to hear you.” 4 Absalom said moreover, “If only I were judge in the land! Then all who had a suit or cause might come to me, and I would give them justice.” 5 Whenever people came near to do obeisance to him, he would put out his hand and take hold of them, and kiss them. 6 Thus Absalom did to every Israelite who came to the king for judgment; so Absalom stole the hearts of the people of Israel.

7 At the end of four years Absalom said to the king, “Please let me go to Hebron and pay the vow that I have made to the Lord. 8 For your servant made a vow while I lived at Geshur in Aram: If the Lord will indeed bring me back to Jerusalem, then I will worship the Lord in Hebron.” 9 The king said to him, “Go in peace.” So he got up, and went to Hebron. 10 But Absalom sent secret messengers throughout all the tribes of Israel, saying, “As soon as you hear the sound of the trumpet, then shout: Absalom has become king at Hebron!” 11 Two hundred men from Jerusalem went with Absalom; they were invited guests, and they went in their innocence, knowing nothing of the matter. 12 While Absalom was offering the sacrifices, he sent for Ahithophel the Gilonite, David’s counsellor, from his city Giloh. The conspiracy grew in strength, and the people with Absalom kept increasing.

13 A messenger came to David, saying, “The hearts of the Israelites have gone after Absalom.” 14 Then David said to all his officials who were with him at Jerusalem, “Get up! Let us flee, or there will be no escape for us from Absalom. Hurry, or he will soon overtake us, and bring disaster down upon us, and attack the city with the edge of the sword.” 15 The king’s officials said to the king, “Your servants are ready to do whatever our lord the king decides.” 16 So the king left, followed by all his household, except ten concubines whom he left behind to look after the house. 17 The king left, followed by all the people; and they stopped at the last house. 18 All his officials passed by him; and all the Cherethites, and all the Pelethites, and all the six hundred Gittites who had followed him from Gath, passed on before the king.


In today’s Old Testament reading, the conspiratorial actions of Absalom, the son of David, come to fruition. Patiently across the span of 40 years, Absalom gradually wins over the hearts of those who hear him, so that when he seeks to gain absolute power, many hearts turn toward him. He “stands beside the way of the gate,” flattering and affirming them that come: he tells them that they are correct, that their grievances well-founded, that their unhappiness is due to others, that justice must be done on their behalf, and that he’s just the man to do it.

In the image of Israel turned aside from her king, we see here an image of how easily we may be turned aside from our King. We come to the King with our troubles, hoping to see justice done. Sometimes justice doesn’t turn out to be what we think it ought to be. But there is always someone by the way of the gate, telling us that our cause, whatever it is, is “good and right,” telling us that if only we would make him judge instead of the King, he would finally see our justice done.

Who wouldn’t be tempted by this? We all see the grave injustices in the world, and rulers are given provisional judgment to right wrongs within society. But we can also be blinded by thinking that our cause is just, not because it is truly just — which it may be — but because it is ours, and thus we deserve the result we ask for, when we ask for it. In this way, we can be seduced by a snake-oil flatterer who promises to put things to rights as we wish — provided we give him all the power.

While we do our best to discern the causes that are just, let us not forget the King will ultimately be judge over all, and if we place anyone else on his throne, then we invite war amongst his people.

James Cornwell lives and teaches in the Hudson Valley with his wife Sarah and their six children.

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The Diocese of Virginia
The Diocese of Durgapur (Church of North India)


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