Facing Absalom’s betrayal, David and his company fled Jerusalem and ascended the Mount of Olives. Alistair Begg explains how David’s suffering and exile anticipate and illuminate the later anguish and steps of Christ. There’s one key difference, though: David’s hardship was a result of his own sin, while Jesus, who never sinned, suffered for our transgressions to reconcile us to God.
Sermon Transcript: Print
I’d like to read two passages of Scripture: first of all, the Third Psalm, and then from the Gospel of Mark and chapter 14.
Psalm 3, “A Psalm of David, when he fled from Absalom his son”:
O Lord, how many are my foes!
Many are rising against me;
many are saying of my soul,
“There is no salvation for him in God.”
But you, O Lord, are a shield about me,
my glory, and the lifter of my head.
I cried aloud to the Lord,
and he answered me from his holy hill.
I lay down and slept;
I woke again, for the Lord sustained me.
I will not be afraid of many thousands of people
who have set themselves against me all around.
Arise, O Lord!
Save me, O my God!
For you strike all my enemies on the cheek;
you break the teeth of the wicked.
Salvation belongs to the Lord;
your blessing be [up]on your people!
And then in Mark 14:22:
“And as they were eating, he took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to them, and said, ‘Take; this is my body.’ And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, and they all drank of it. And he said to them, ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly, I say to you, I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.’
“And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. And Jesus said to them, ‘You will all fall away, for it is written, “I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.” But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.’ Peter said to him, ‘Even though they all fall away, I will not.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Truly, I tell you, this very night, before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times.’ But [Peter] said emphatically, ‘If I must die with you, I will not deny you.’ And they all said the same.”
Well, I invite you to turn to 2 Samuel 15 and to follow along with me as we seek to conclude this chapter. I set out this morning with every good intention of being able to get all the way through, but that was a goal unachieved, and so we reached the twenty-second verse, where “David said to Ittai, ‘Go then, pass on.’” And this amazing commitment on the part of this gentleman is then accepted by David, despite the fact that he has said to him previously twice, “Why don’t you go back?” But the devotion of this man to David and to his cause is so strong that he says, “Well then, you better come with us.”
And so, there you have this wonderful little picture there in verse 22: “So Ittai the Gittite passed on with all his men,” and then, notice, “and all the little ones who were with him.” A picture of the company. It’s possible for us to read an event like this and somehow or another only see it, as it were, in terms of the main characters in this story. But of course, if we think about it at all, we would realize that it would go all the way across the genders and down through the ages and so on, and that is brought for us there as the people pass on. And they’re not going on to a carnival, but they’re passing on in the company of the king toward the wilderness. And such is the circumstance that “all [of] the land wept aloud as all the people passed by.”
It’s quite a picture there. I’m sure it really means that all of the countryside—the people that were aware of it, not only the ones who were participating in this procession but all who looked on—saw that this is a sorry sight, that King David of all people should be leading this company of people and in this direction. It really is a picture that is duplicated all too frequently and quite sadly in pictures that come to us from around the world: a picture of a sorry procession of refugees who, for one reason or another, are leaving behind their homes and their possessions, and they are proceeding—hopefully, in those occasions—to somewhere that will be better for them.
There is no such prospect here. These individuals are following their king. And you will notice that we’re told that “the king crossed the brook Kidron, and all the people passed on toward[s] the wilderness.” He went across the Kidron Valley, over the Mount of Olives, and into the wilderness—the wilderness that was made memorable for a number of reasons when we read the New Testament, not least of all for the story of the Good Samaritan. Remember? “A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell among thieves, who stripped him of his raiment and departed, leaving him half dead.” That is the place. That is the wilderness to which these individuals were moving—an inhospitable region, and a region to which, approximately a thousand years later, the Lord Jesus Christ would come and cross that same brook and make his way up the same Mount of Olives, facing humiliation and shame and abandonment and darkness.
And surely when the New Testament writers recorded the events concerning Christ and his followers—events such as we’ve just read from Mark chapter 14—they couldn’t fail to recognize that the story of David, the sufferings of David both anticipated and illuminated the sufferings of he who is the Son of David. It’s all there.
And then, in verse 24, we are introduced to Abiathar and to Zadok. Interestingly, and I think helpfully, the NIV translates the twenty-fourth verse differently from the ESV. And it actually—I’ll read it to you the way the NIV has it. I found it helpful, because I didn’t know what to do with “And Abiathar came up.” Came up from where? I thought he was in Jerusalem. And so, the more I looked at it and the more I researched it, I thought that the NIV probably has it right. This is how the NIV translates the verse: “Zadok”—and it leads with Zadok, not Abiathar—“Zadok was there, too, and all the Levites who were with him were carrying the ark of the covenant of God. They set down the ark of God, and Abiathar offered sacrifices until all the people had finished leaving the city.” So, obviously, the Hebrew there for what is translated in the ESV “came up” is clearly a variable reading and may be translated, instead of “Abiathar came up,” “Abiathar offered sacrifice.”
Be that as it may, the circumstances are as described for us. The sacrifices that were being offered were understandable. They were routine. In some ways, we might imagine that Abiathar had a kind of traveling kit, if you like, because they weren’t in their normal location. And he was able to bring with him, if you like, a small ability to create fire and grain offerings. And as the people are making their procession on their way, he’s able to offer prayers for their protection.
And then, of course, you see that they came, and “they set down the ark of God until the people had all passed out of the city.” Now, we’re not going to go back and rehearse everything about the ark of God. We have seen that in the past, way back in 1 Samuel, there were occasions where people really misunderstood what they were doing with the ark of God and what the ark of God represented. It is a precious symbol of the presence of God. But it carries with it, as do all religious symbols, the danger of more significance being attached to the symbol than to the reality which is represented by the symbol. Some of you have come out of a kind of religious background that understands exactly that, because you have been made aware of the fact that things, symbols—perhaps crosses, perhaps different things—to which you attach great significance only had significance insofar as they represented a reality, a reality that was not in them.
And it would seem to me—and I say it in that way because that’s all I could say—it would seem to me that David, in giving this direction here in verse 25, is wanting to make sure that neither he nor any of them run the risk of, if you like, relying on the ark. Now, we could go back and rehearse occasions when they came close to this. He didn’t even want to give the impression of kind of, like, “Have ark, have God.” In fact, Ralph Davis, he wonderfully camps on that, and he says David was concerned that there would be “no gimmicks, no superstitions, no rabbit foot religion, no conning God by pilfering the ark.”
Now, what you want to make of that is entirely up to you, but I think probably we’re on track. What he’s doing here by saying to them “I want you to take the ark back into the city” is making the point, at least visibly, that he is not all concerned to depend upon Yahweh’s furniture, but he is wanting to depend upon Yahweh’s favor. And in the danger of that being misinterpreted, I think it is for that reason that he dispatches the ark back to the city.
I do feel a little sorry for Zadok and Abiathar. I don’t know if you do too. After all, they have carried this all the way. They believe that this is a very excellent thing to be doing, and it’s certainly not a bad thing to be doing. And just when they perhaps would expect that David would say, “I thank you so much for doing that, that is terrific, I’m so glad you did,” he says, “Could you take that thing and just take it back into the city for me, please?” It’s a dreadful letdown. They’re looking at one another and saying, “Oh dear. This was not what we thought.”
No. No: “If I find favor in the eyes of the Lord, it’s not gonna be about whether we have the ark here or not.” That’s what he’s saying. “If I find favor in the eyes of the Lord, he will bring me back [to the city,] and [he will] let me see both it”—i.e., the ark of the Lord—“and [also] his dwelling place. [However,] if he says, ‘I have no pleasure in you,’ behold, here I am, let him do to me what seems good to him.”
Do you catch an echo there as well? You fast-forward to Jesus: he went up into the Mount of Olives and into the garden of Gethsemane; he said, “Father, if you’re willing, let this cup pass from me. Nevertheless, not what I want, but I want your will to be done.” That’s exactly what David is saying here: “If he determines to show me his pleasure, then so be it. But if he doesn’t, then that will be fine as well.”
Now, you will notice, too, that he is very, very clear and speaks to Zadok the priest, saying to him, “Are you not a seer, a prophet? Don’t you see things? Well, I’m glad you do, because I want you to use your eyes. I want you now to go back to the city in peace with your two sons, Ahimaaz and Jonathan.” And what he’s actually doing is putting in place a plan of his own. Absalom has instituted a subversive plot, and David now is responding with a strategic plan.
His strategic plan, you will see, involves four players: two fathers and two sons. They’re going to provide vital information to him and his company. That information, he says, will be conveyed to him—verse 28—“at the fords of the wilderness” (“I will wait for you”), presumably places in the wilderness where there were crossing points at the river Jordan. “And I will wait for the information that comes to me there.” And so we’re told that “Zadok and Abiathar carried the ark of God back to Jerusalem, and they remained there.”
So they go back, and David goes up. And once again, the scene is described for us. He “went up the ascent of the Mount of Olives, weeping as he went, barefoot and his with head covered. And all the people who were with him covered their heads, and they went up, weeping as they went.”
What we’re to see here is essentially a funeral cortege. You don’t often see a significant funeral cortege anymore. Some of us are of the vintage where we can remember those scenes, as striking as they were. As strange as it may seem to you, in my earliest days in conducting funerals in the West of Scotland, the funeral undertaker, wearing a top hat and tails, walked for the first 150 or 200 yards in front of the funeral procession. Men who happened to be bystanders in the street—nothing to do with the funeral—would stop and remove their hats when the cortege went past.
There is something of that that is helpful to a community. There is something lost when that is absent in a culture. And here, we ought to look at this and see it in those terms. Even though it looks as though it can’t get any worse, it is in exactly this context that the news that we already know about Ahithophel is then conveyed to David himself. In that context, they came to him, and they said, “Ahithophel is among the conspirators with Absalom.” What a thought, huh?
All week, I’ve had—we’ll sing it next week, but I have had it in my mind all this week: “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” And you come to the line. It says, “Do your friends despise, forsake you? Is there trouble anywhere?” Well, David, if we could produce him, he’d say, “Oh yes, absolutely.” And surely Psalm 41:9, which I think I mentioned earlier—surely Psalm 41:9 fits the Ahithophel scene, even if it is not directly tied to it. Psalm 41:9 reads:
Even my close friend in whom I trusted,
who ate my bread, has lifted his heel against me.
But you, O Lord, be gracious to me,
and raise me up.
Do you get the echo again? Well, you should. Because Psalm 41 is what Jesus is quoting in relationship to Judas: “Even my friend has risen up against me, the one who ate the bread with me.” That’s the context here.
But “we should never be discouraged”; we should “take it to the Lord in prayer”—which, you will notice at the end of verse 31, is exactly what David does: “And David,” on hearing the news of the abandonment of his chief counsel, “said, ‘O Lord, please turn the counsel of Ahithophel into foolishness.’” And then, just when Ahithophel is fading into the background, along the road comes Hushai the Archite. And I wrote in the heading in my notes, just for my own help, “What a friend we have in Hushai.” Because that is exactly what David would be singing: “What a friend I have in Hushai.”
Now, I want you to notice something that we mentioned this morning and just briefly return to it. David has prayed that the counsel of Ahithophel will be turned to foolishness or will be turned upside down. But that is not the end of the matter. Because having prayed, all of a sudden, into his company comes the answer to his prayer. The answer to his prayer comes in the person of Hushai himself. He has asked the Lord for something to happen, and you will notice now, with the arrival of Hushai, that he develops a strategy to make it happen. So he doesn’t say, “O Lord, do something with Ahithophel,” and that’s the end of the story. No! The sovereignty of God’s dealing with Ahithophel is not in question. In fact, if you turn forward, just in 17:14, there in that section, it says, “And Absalom and all the men of Israel said, ‘The counsel of Hushai the Archite is better than the counsel of Ahithophel.’ For the Lord”—notice this—“had ordained to defeat the good counsel of Ahithophel, so that the Lord might bring harm upon Absalom.”
How did he ordain to do that? Not only does God ordain the end, but he ordains the means to the end. And the means to the end in this case involves this man, Hushai, and the strategy that David is able to develop on the strength of that. He determines that Hushai will be a burden to him if he comes along with him. For what reason we don’t know. Maybe he was old. Maybe he talked all the time. I don’t know. But “If you go on with me, you’ll be a burden to me.” That’s talking pretty straight. “But if you return to the city, and you say this to Absalom, then you will defeat—you will defeat for me—the counsel of Ahithophel.”
“Oh, but,” you say, “it was God who defeated the counsel of Ahithophel.” Yes, but it was Hushai who defeated the counsel. Of course it was! It’s a double causation, isn’t it? Ultimately, it’s God, but not God in a vacuum. It’s Nehemiah, isn’t it? And they came rising against him. They said, “We’ll break down your wall. We’ll destroy your operation.” And remember what it says? “And we prayed to God, and we posted a guard.” “We prayed to God, and we posted a guard.”
This happens to us all the time. At a very trivial level, I can give you out of my own life an observation that thrills me every day I live my life. When I was sixteen, I said, “Dear God, I want to marry that American girl.” And then I wrote letters for seven solid years. She’s my wife, I guess by his appointing—but not in a vacuum. He ordained not only the end, but he ordained the means to the end. The sovereignty of God does not denude the responsibility and the activity of men and women.
And that’s why David establishes what is essentially an intelligence network. He reminds Hushai, or he lets Hushai know, that if he goes back and does this… Incidentally, Hushai does an Ahithophel on Ahithophel, doesn’t he? Because look at what it says: “If you go back to the city and say, ‘I will be your servant, O king; as I have been your father’s servant in time past, so now I will be your servant’…” That’s exactly what Ahithophel had done! That’s exactly what Ahithophel had done—only he had done it. He meant it. But when Hushai goes back and says this, he doesn’t mean it! He’s not gonna be his servant. He’s gonna be a spy. And he’s part of a spy ring. And the people that are gonna be involved with him are the four fellows that have already been put in place. The two sons are there. And Ahithophel, his counsel is going to appear as foolishness.
Well, we must finish.
At the risk of undue repetition, I think it is perfectly reasonable for us just to conclude in this way, especially in light of following Jesus over the brook Kidron and up the Mount of Olives as we share in Communion. I think it’s perfectly reasonable to conclude by noting that the experience of David on this dark day anticipates the experience of Jesus that is to come, not only geographically, which it does, and socially, which it does in terms of friendship, but in different ways—but also with the most vital and significant distinction, being this: that David’s sufferings were tied to his sin, the sufferings of Christ tied to our sin. David suffered in part as a consequence of the things that he had done. Christ suffered on account of what we have done.
You remember, some of you who are of a certain vintage, you remember the old song, you know,
There were ninety and nine that safely lay
In the shelter of the fold,
[And] one was out on the hills away,
Far off from the gates of gold.
It’s got that amazing verse that comes somewhere along the line:
But none of the ransomed ever knew
How deep were the waters crossed,
Nor how dark was the night that the Lord passed through
[When] he found the sheep that was lost.
The dark day of the ascent of David brings us to the dark day which now we look back to in order that we might thank God for forgiveness, in order that we might then look forward to a new day when all that he has accomplished on that day will be brought to a magnificent, continued reality—and the prophecy with which we began in Isaiah chapter 2 will be evident for us all to see.
 Luke 10:30 (paraphrased).
 Dale Ralph Davis, 2 Samuel: Out of Every Adversity, Focus on the Bible (Fearn, UK: Christian Focus, 2018), 194.
 Matthew 26:39, 42; Mark 14:36; Luke 22:42 (paraphrased).
 Joseph Medlicott Scriven, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” (1855). Lyrics lightly altered.
 John 13:18 (paraphrased).
 Scriven, “What a Friend.”
 Nehemiah 4:9 (paraphrased).
 Elizabeth Cecilia Clephane, “There Were Ninety and Nine” (1868).
Copyright © 2022, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.