4 The king covered his face and cried out with a loud voice, “O my son Absalom, O Absalom, my son, my son!” 5 Then Joab came into the house to the king and said, “Today you have covered with shame the faces of all your servants, who today have saved your life and the lives of your sons and daughters, the lives of your wives, and the lives of your concubines, 6 by loving those who hate you, and by hating those who love you.
2 Samuel 19:4-6
18 I will get up and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me as one of your hired men.”’ 20 So he got up and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. 21 And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet; 23 and bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’ And they began to celebrate.
I have been through some experiences of late with one of my sons which has made me almost endlessly sad. I have four handsome brilliant talented sons, and the one in question has taught me this lesson. Sometimes the deepest breakthrough insights come at a heavy cost. This is such an insight.
Here is King David, whose son Absalom was incredibly handsome, driven, and promising. Greatly so. In fact he so terribly dishonored his father that he managed to take over the country and drove his own father out into exile, and planned to kill him. At the ensuing battle, Absalom was caught in a tree as he rode his horse through the forest, and when David’s forces encountered him, they killed him. Instead of celebrating his victory, David falls into an almost violent grief which seems to have lasted for days. Finally his war leader has to shake him and say, stop this nonsense! We won! Go congratulate everyone!
Here is the thing: Absalom was David’s beautiful son. He loved him dearly. All of this tremendous evil he had done specifically towards David could not dislodge David’s deep affection for his boy. This is the affection a father has for his son. He may not be an ideal father, but he can’t help but love him greatly. It is beyond him. It is deep. “O my son Absalom, O Absalom, my son, my son!” He can’t let go of his grief. Perhaps David should have rejoiced that his enemy was defeated, but his love for his son overrode everything. This was a love which was greater than the circumstances, which was bigger than the offense, which endured even his son’s death. It was a love which had gripped David and a grief of which he could not let go.
We have another father in scripture with a similar situation. The father of the prodigal has been so rejected that his son could not wait for him to die before he could demand his inheritance. The son took it and left. Yet here the father is, helpless for the love of the boy, watching over the horizon for him daily, and when he arrives broke and broken, he does not lecture him. He does not chastise him. He does not discipline him. He rejoices! He runs! He cries! He clothes him in the best and restores him to his full place. He calls for a celebration! Like David, he had considered his son dead. He had grieved his loss. He was not angry or upset with him. He was grieving him. In the face of all, he was helpless for the love of the boy.
I think this is almost universally true for all fathers. I know people who have been rightly estranged from their children, and although it may look like they don’t care, when you talk to them, it is really a constant obsession. It is their big failure. This is also a regular theme in movies: the failed dad who still loves his son or daughter but cannot overcome their rejection. It is indeed common.
When we read the story of the prodigal son, we often wonder if we should identify with the son, or if we should identify with the elder brother, or perhaps if we should even identify with the father. There are wonderful insights to be had all around. But here is another question: who can we identify God with, in a way that connects with out experience? We often think that it might be good to think of God as our father, if perhaps our father is worthy of the comparison. But who has a father that is truly worthy of the comparison? I have seen another side to this now. As a father who in many ways has failed, I have seen a shadow of the greatness of the love a father has for his son. I cannot shake it. My son, like Absalom, may turn completely against me and say every hateful thing and push me away and despise me, but for my part I cannot stop loving him. I walk around in stores and I see things and think, “he would love that!” And I am so very full of grief. And I am angry at the circumstance, because I love him.
So, I can connect my experience as a father to God as my father. His love for me is not fragile. It is enduring. It grieves from love when I stray. It is quite constant. His love for me is bigger than my fragile loyalty. I see it now. I see how He is undone in His affection for me. I understand a little more that I am very greatly loved.
12 But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. – John 1:12-13 NASB