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Leaving Bitterness Behind, 2 Samuel 17-18

Leaving Bitterness Behind

2 Samuel 16-17


For 43 years Zinaida Bragantsova had been telling people there was a World War II bomb buried under her bed.


The story began in 1941 when the Germans advanced toward the Ukrainian city of Berdyansk. One night at the very start of the war, she was sitting by the window and sewing on her machine. Suddenly she heard a noise, a whistling close by. She got up when she did she was struck by a blast of wind. When she came to, the sewing machine was gone and there was a hole in the floor as well as in the ceiling.


She couldn’t get any officials to check out her story, so she just moved her bed over the hole and lived with it for the next 40 years. Finally, her problem was uncovered. As phone cable was being laid in the area, demolition experts were called in to probe for buried explosives left over from the war, and the finally stopped by to check out her story, fully expecting to find nothing but the tales of a crazy old lady. “Where’s your bomb, grandma?” asked the smiling army lieutenant sent to talk to Mrs. Bragantsova. “No doubt, under your bed?”


“Under my bed,” Mrs. Bragantsova answered dryly.


And sure enough, there they found a 500-pound bomb. When it was dropped, it had gone through her roof and her floor, but for some reason hadn’t exploded. After evacuating 2,000 people from surrounding buildings, the bomb squad detonated the bomb. According to the report, “The grandmother, freed of her bomb, will soon receive a new apartment.”


Many people live like that grandmother, with a bomb under the bed – a great hurt, a seething anger, and the bitterness that comes from it, and it lays there for years while everyone goes on about their business. But no one is safe until it’s removed.[i]


Bitterness is destructive, no matter how long it lays there buried.


Our primary text for today comes from the Old Testament book of 2 Samuel. For most of us, our experience with the Old Testament historical books goes about as far as the story of David and Goliath. Aside from that, we pay little if any attention to the Old Testament historical books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles. But you should know that the books of 1 and 2 Samuel together are a beautiful literary masterpiece.


It begins with the miraculous birth of the prophet and political advisor Samuel to a mother who had not been able to have children. From there the books of 1 and 2 Samuel chronicle Israel’s transition from a loose confederation of tribal states to a nation under the rule of a single, central monarchy. And woven masterfully through this story of the early history of Israel, behind Israel’s military entanglements with bordering nations, behind the political intrigue and power-seeking in King David’s court, is the truth that God is at work behind the scenes, behind the plans of men seeking power, behind the military exploits of David and his military, behind David’s successes … and his failures, God was at work guiding and protecting his people. We’re going to see that today.


Another theme running through our text for today is David’s failure with Bathsheba, a woman who was not his wife. She was married though, to Uriah, a soldier in Israel’s army. And while Uriah was away fighting for Israel, David saw Bathsheba, wanted Bathsheba, had her brought to him, slept with her, and got her pregnant. And then, in an attempt to cover up his sin, he had her husband killed on the battlefield.


Now, with the skill of a masterful artist, the writer of Samuel, near the end of his book, gives a listing of David’s mighty men. He does this so that future generations will know that this wasn’t just about David. He had help, and that perhaps their own ancestors played a key role as instruments in the hand of God building the nation the Israel. And the writer ends his listing of the mighty men with these words: “Uriah the Hittite” (2 Sam. 23:39).


No other words about Uriah are mentioned, but we know who he is. He isn’t trying to cover up David’s failure. If he were going to do that, he would have left the story out altogether. Instead, he allows these three chilling words, “Uriah the Hittite,” to haunt us. Prior to these words we have no indication of the role Uriah played in Israel’s army. Was he a foot soldier? A common grunt? No. He one of David’s best soldiers, one of David’s “mighty men,” as Scripture calls them. He was a member of an elite group of fighting men, David’s version of Seal team 6 or the Secret Service. He was one of his best soldiers, a man who likely had acted as body guard for David on more than one occasion. David had betrayed one of his closest and best, a man who had fought valiantly for Israel and protected David with his life.


But Uriah wasn’t the only one who David betrayed when he took Bathsheba to be his own. Another one of his mighty men was a man named “Eliam the son of Ahithophel” (2 Sam. 23:34). Eliam appears in the story of David and Bathsheba too. Look at 2 Samuel 11:3. David had caught sight of Bathsheba privately bathing and inquired about her, and he was told “Is not this Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite.” Not only was Bathsheba the wife of one of David’s strongest and best, she was the daughter of another one. And she was the granddaughter of Ahithophel, Eliam’s father. Ahithophel was David’s wisest and most trusted military advisor. In fact, people in the royal palace and military leadership said that when Ahithophel spoke, “it was as if he consulted the word of God.” Bathsheba was the wife of Uriah the Hittite, and she was the daughter of Eliam, two of David’s mighty men, his best, most trusted warriors and bodyguard. Men he chatted with and joked with and fought beside. Men who protected David with their lives. AND she was the granddaughter of Ahithophel, who was Eliam’s father and David’s closest, most trusted advisor.


Ahithophel had every reason to be bitter with David. The husband of his granddaughter was dead, and she was now a part of David’s harem. His son was dealing with the betrayal of his son-in-law and comrade-at-arms, a man he had fought alongside. Ahithophel had every reason to be bitter, angry, and consumed with hatred. So when one of David’s sons, Absalom – fearing that David would one day pass the kingdom on to his younger brother, Bathsheba’s son Solomon – rebelled against his father and tried to take the kingdom by force, Ahithophel joined in the rebellion. Let’s pick up the story in 2 Samuel 16:20, as Absalom, with Ahithophel at his side, enters Jerusalem and David flees. Turn with me to 2 Sam. 16:20-23.


Now in typical Ahithophel fashion this is shrewd and wise advice for Absalom. Ahithophel knows how to manipulate public power. He knows that if Absalom does this in the light of day, in front of everyone living in Jerusalem, he is openly defying his fleeing father and burning every bridge between the two of them. He knows that this will convince the hearts and minds of the people that Absalom is in charge now, and it will force Absalom and his men to act with shrewd cunning and fight with desperation, for now there is no going back.


Ahithophel knows well the cunning and military prowess of David. He knows Absalom is in for a real fight if things don’t go perfectly, and following Ahithophel’s advice and openly breaking with his father forces Absalom into an all-or-nothing mentality, for now there is no going back. Absalom, and Ahithophel, have just burned every bridge. That’s what happens when bitterness and hatred settle in our hearts. We burn bridges.


In his book Finishing Strong, Steve Farrar sums up the terrible price of sin: “Sin (including bitterness) will take you farther than you want to go, keep you longer than you want to stay, and cost you more than you’re willing to pay.” In his anger and with bitterness in his heart, Ahithophel has gone beyond the point of no return. He cannot turn back. His advice is on record and has been followed. Bitterness, if allowed to run unchecked, can have a permanent impact on our lives.


What Ahithophel doesn’t understand is that God is even now, behind the scenes, dealing with David for his own sin with Bathsheba. When the prophet Nathan confronted David about Bathsheba, and David repented, David learned a hard lesson about the consequences of sin in this life. Yes, when we repent we are forgiven by God in Christ, but that does not mean that our sin no longer has consequences.


I’ve seen so many people have affairs and repent in tears. Are they forgiven? Of course they are. Christ died for that sin. But can the marriage be saved? Sometimes yes! I’ve watched it happen. But sometimes it cannot. The unfaithful spouse must live with the consequences of a poor decision even though he or she is forgiven. It is then the job of the church to come alongside that person and help them restore their life, to provide comfort, never to condemn. But the price was paid by Christ and the person has experienced the loss of a relationship in this life and may continue to struggle to maintain relationships with children. Our job isn’t to punch people when they’re down. Our job is to lift them up.


And David must learn this lesson too. Sin does have consequences, even though we are forgiven. Through Nathan God told him “Behold, I will raise up evil against you out of your own house. And I will take your wives before your eyes and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of the sun. For you did it secretly, but I will do this thing before all Israel and before the sun” (2 Samuel 12:11-12). Remember that theme in Samuel … that God is always at work behind the scenes.? God was even then at work dealing with David, whom he had forgiven. David would pay a heavy price in his life. But Ahithophel couldn’t see that. He wouldn’t see that. He wanted David to suffer more. It was becoming personal. Look at 2 Samuel 17:1.


Again, this is really good advice. David and those faithful to him had fled in haste. They were exhausted and backed up against the Jordan River. There was no way they could manage a river crossing while trying to fight off an immediate attack by Absalom’s men. Fortunately for David, God was at work. Absalom had another advisor who happened to be a spy sent by David to try to thwart Ahithophel’s advice, and by appealing the Absalom’s pride and ego, he was able to win Absalom over to his plan, and the second part of Ahithophel’s plan was not followed. He wanted to strike while the iron was hot, to finish David off immediately while he was disorganized and exhausted. But Absalom listened to David’s spy and decided to wait.


But notice this. Look at what Ahithophel said. “Let ME choose 12,000 men, and I will arise and pursue David tonight … I will strike down the king.” He said, “David is mine.” It’s personal. He wants to personally destroy David, to kill him himself. He wants David’s life snuffed out like David had snuffed out the life of his granddaughter’s husband Uriah. But again, Ahithophel had no idea that God was at work behind the scenes. Look at verse 14.


This is the pivotal point of the entire text. The writer of Samuel peels back the curtain and reveals God’s hand at work in this mess, protecting David’s life and honoring his covenant with David, even though David had sinned, and punishing those who sought, of their own free will, to seek to destroy David. At the same time God was able to use this episode to remind David that sin does have consequences. “Your house is a mess David because of what you have done. I love you, am faithful to my covenant, and will protect you but your life is now forever changed. You will have to live with the consequences of your actions.” Ahithophel has no idea that God is fully capable of dealing with David’s injustice and sin without him. And so he tries to take matters into his own hands. And honestly, if he had been permitted to do so, it is likely David would have died in the attack. But God was dealing with David, so Ahithophel didn’t need to get involved. But he did.


Hearts full of bitterness and hatred refuse to allow God to be God. They try to take matters into their own hands. Now, this isn’t to say that if real wrong has been done, if laws have been broken or if people have been criminally negligent that we shouldn’t allow law enforcement and the judicial system to do its job. That’s fine. That’s one way people realize that actions have consequences. But it is not our role to take matters into our own hands. God can fully handle what needs to happen, and he often brings about his justice, as Samuel reminds us, by working behind the scenes.


God had already pronounced judgment on David through the prophet Nathan. Ahithophel, David’s closest and most trusted advisor, would have heard about it, may have even been there when Nathan spoke. In Psalm 55, as David wrote about this time in his life, he said “For it is not an enemy who taunts me – then I could bear it; it is not an adversary who deals insolently with me – then I could hide from him. But it is you, a man, my equal, my companion, my familiar friend. We used to take sweet counsel together; within God’s house we walked in the throng” (Vv. 12-14). They had walked together and talked together often. David considered Ahithophel not just his closest and best advisor but a friend.


Ahithophel and his family were legitimately wronged by David. But instead of turning justice over to God’s working, which was already being carried out, Ahithophel decided to join in the action and become an advisor to Absalom and allowed bitterness and hatred to run unchecked in his heart, allowing it to overflow to the point where he was willing to lead the strike on David and deal with David himself.


It is normal and fine to feel anger when you or someone you love has been legitimately wronged. Anger itself is not sinful. In fact sometimes anger is righteous, it would be wrong NOT to feel angry in some situations. Ephesians 4 says “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil. It is ok to be angry, but it is not ok to store it, to allow it to fester and burn, because eventually it will consume you and spill over into words and actions that permanently burn bridges, seek to take matters into our own hands, and ultimately, it can destroy and others. Look at verse 23.


Ahithophel likely knew two things. First, if his advice was not followed David would eventually win. And second, he had gone too far. In siding with Absalom and allowing his anger and bitterness to well up into full-blown hatred, he had crossed the line and burned bridges. In his mind, he was a dead man anyway and would likely be executed by David when he triumphed. Although Scripture reminds us time and again of David’s ability – at times – to forgive those who had hurt and betrayed him. In his mind, he’s failed, and so he takes his own life.


David’s actions did not destroy Ahithophel. They destroyed David’s own family and the life of Uriah. But they did not destroy Ahithophel. What did? Bitterness and anger left unchecked, welling up inside him like a raging storm.


On August 11, 2017, the world’s oldest man passed away, just a month short of his 114th birthday – making him one of the 10 longest lived men since modern record keeping began. If you knew nothing else about him than this, you might expect to discover that he had led a peaceful life, free of fear, grief, and danger.


The truth is the opposite. His name was Yisrael Krystal, and he was a Holocaust survivor. Born in Poland in 1903, he survived for years in the Lodz Ghetto, and was then transported to Auschwitz. In this ghetto, his two children died. In Auschwitz, his wife was killed. When Auschwitz was liberated, he was a walking skeleton weighing a mere 82 pounds. He was the only member of his family to survive.


He was raised as a religious Jew and stayed so all his life. When the war was over, with his entire world destroyed, he married again, this time to another holocaust survivor. They had children. They moved to Israel and centered in Haifa, there he began again, setting up in the confectionary business, as he had done in Poland before the war. He made sweets and chocolate. He became an innovator. If you have ever had Israeli orange peel covered in chocolate, liqueur chocolates shaped like little bottles, and covered with silver foil, you are enjoying one of the products he originated. Those who knew him said he was a man with no bitterness in his soul. He wanted people to taste sweetness.[ii]


Forgiveness, like every other aspect of following Jesus, involves a long journey. As we consistently receive Jesus’ forgiveness for our sins, it will soften our hearts towards those who have wounded us. Then, as we continue to trust and grow in Christ, slowly, by God’s grace, we’ll find more freedom to forgive than we ever imagined. If we can’t, the bitterness in our hearts with destroy us. Let’s pray.

[i] Associated Press (November 1984)

[ii] Jonathan Sacks, Morality (Basic Books, 2020), p. 195