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The Politics of Scripture

Pyrrhic Victories and the Bread of Life—2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33; Psalm 130; Psalm 34:1-8; John 1:43-51

Victories can be devastating when they come at bitter cost. Yet both our losses and our costly victories are put into a new perspective when we take refuge in and receive the bread of God.

2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33
5The king gave orders to Joab and Abishai and Ittai, saying, ‘Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.’ And all the people heard when the king gave orders to all the commanders concerning Absalom.

6So the army went out into the field against Israel; and the battle was fought in the forest of Ephraim. 7The men of Israel were defeated there by the servants of David, and the slaughter there was great on that day, twenty thousand men. 8The battle spread over the face of all the country; and the forest claimed more victims that day than the sword.

9Absalom happened to meet the servants of David. Absalom was riding on his mule, and the mule went under the thick branches of a great oak. His head caught fast in the oak, and he was left hanging between heaven and earth, while the mule that was under him went on. 15And ten young men, Joab’s armour-bearers, surrounded Absalom and struck him, and killed him.

31Then the Cushite came; and the Cushite said, ‘Good tidings for my lord the king! For the Lord has vindicated you this day, delivering you from the power of all who rose up against you.’ 32The king said to the Cushite, ‘Is it well with the young man Absalom?’ The Cushite answered, ‘May the enemies of my lord the king, and all who rise up to do you harm, be like that young man.’

33The king was deeply moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept; and as he went, he said, ‘O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would that I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!’

Though having won several times against the Romans, King Pyrrhus of Epirus said “…that one other such victory would utterly undo him” (Plutarch, Life of Pyrrhus). He had come to the end of his military resources. Military history has a long list of such battles. These were battles that afflicted the victors with “the winner’s curse.”

King David had commanded (tsavah, I give charge) his military leaders to not harm Absalom. This word “command” is related to a noun which is still common in Judaism, mitzvah. Rabbi Simlai noted, as have other rabbis, that the Torah contains 613 commands, mitzvot (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Makkot, 23b). In fact, the word has come to mean in many contexts the doing of a moral deed, a righteous duty.

This was not a suggestion. It was not a recommendation. King David’s instruction concerning Absalom was clear. His instruction was clear because his words had the force of duty in them and “all the people heard” it.

Off to battle David’s army went in pursuit of Absalom and his armies. Their defeat of the opposing army was “great.” The armies of King David had the advantage in several ways and the results showed. Absalom’s army was scattered. Many of his men retreated into the forest and it is likely that confusion followed them. At the end of the day the triumph of David’s army was complete.

But then a twist. It was not, however, a twist of fate. It was a breaking of David’s command to not harm Absalom. Joab and his soldiers found Absalom helplessly hanging from a tree. Like a hunter finding a live prey in a trap, Joab aimed to bring his intention to completion.

David had hoped that his armies would win and his errant son, defeated in battle, would return to him and be restored. The messengers brought both good news and bad news to the king. The bad news was wordsmithed in such a way as to soften the blow of it, but to David it outweighed the good news regardless. It was to him a pyrrhic victory.

Most of us do not serve in the military or live in war-time conditions, but the Lord has wisdom for us in this scene. What should we do when met with results that are a mixture of the good, the bad and the ugly? What should when we feel backed into a corner, when we feel trapped in a zugzwang, or when, even though the situation could be called a win, it comes at the most devastating cost? How should we respond so that we do not compound the grief with imprudent action?

Psalm 130
1 Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord
2   Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
   to the voice of my supplications! 

3 If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities,
   Lord, who could stand? 
4 But there is forgiveness with you,
   so that you may be revered. 

5 I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
   and in his word I hope; 
6 my soul waits for the Lord
   more than those who watch for the morning,
   more than those who watch for the morning. 

7 O Israel, hope in the Lord!
   For with the Lord there is steadfast love,
   and with him is great power to redeem. 
8 It is he who will redeem Israel
   from all its iniquities.

We cannot fault David for his deep sorrow. It was his son he lost that day. Yet, his response leaves us thinking that he failed to show appreciation to all those saved his kingdom that day. Many sacrificed to keep the house of David from collapsing into a reign of rebellion. Where was his gratitude to those who were loyal to him?

In Psalm 130 we hear the lament of those who were most surely trapped in a zugzwang. The only options open to them were all unpleasant. We are told that this psalm was written as a result of the Babylonian captivity. It is called a song of ascents. This makes the opening line all the more ironic: “Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD.”

The most prudent action we can take, the most salutary direction we can pursue is to run to the Lord. Though David won the battle in the forest of Ephraim, the fact that he and his armies had to fight it was the result of a series of iniquities, his own iniquities. Yet, YHWH is ready to forgive, ready to restore. The consequences of our efforts, both the wins and the losses, having accumulated, we can at last be brought to an hour when we will feel that we are empty.

It is in that hour that YHWH waits for us to wait—to long—for him. The imagery in the psalmist’s poetic expressions here is vividly anticipatory. In particular, the words “wait” (qavah) and “watch” (shamar) each repeating and echoing each other’s meanings.

The word qavah, though not usually used this way, can speak of “gathering” as when God created the water and “gathered” it in the sky (Genesis 1:9). In a sense, waiting is to collect oneself as if ever ready to see, to receive, to hear, to learn.

A good example of shamar is when the priest Eli observed Hannah when she was praying. Was she drunk he wondered? His observing her was more than a glance. He was watching her. The psalmist wants us to sense his active anticipation for YHWH.

What is the psalmist waiting for? Is he calling from the depth of his bewilderment in hopes of some trace of the mystical? The psalmist concludes with a statement of YHWH’s “steadfast love.” This “steadfast love” is the Hebrew word hesed. The hesed of YHWH is not only his “steadfast love.” This concept is God’s covenantal bond to his people, his loyal care promised and secured in him for those who are his.

That hesed is the object of our waiting and watching, which leads us to long for YHWH, who “will redeem” us from the “winner’s curse.” He will redeem the losses in our wins as no one else can.

Psalm 34:1-8
1 I will bless the Lord at all times;
   his praise shall continually be in my mouth. 
2 My soul makes its boast in the Lord;
   let the humble hear and be glad. 
3 O magnify the Lord with me,
   and let us exalt his name together. 

4 I sought the Lord, and he answered me,
   and delivered me from all my fears. 
5 Look to him, and be radiant;
   so your faces shall never be ashamed. 
6 This poor soul cried, and was heard by the Lord,
   and was saved from every trouble. 
7 The angel of the Lord encamps
   around those who fear him, and delivers them. 
8 O taste and see that the Lord is good;
   happy are those who take refuge in him.

When David was leaving Gath, that restless refuge he had with the Philistines, he wrote these words. The anticipation in these poetic lines is greater, for we sense that it has reached its home. In the previous psalm we hear the writer telling of what God will do. Here we see his words telling of what God has done and is doing. He has tasted and seen that the LORD is good and thus he invites us to “taste and see” as well.

John 6:35, 41-51
35Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

41Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven.’ 42They were saying, ‘Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, “I have come down from heaven”?’ 43Jesus answered them, ‘Do not complain among yourselves. 44No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. 45It is written in the prophets, “And they shall all be taught by God.” Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. 46Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. 47Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life.48I am the bread of life. 49Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’

What more fitting words can there be to draw us in to “taste and see that the LORD is good” than to be invited to take of the Bread of Life. Was it not King David who wrote, “You prepare a table before me…” But this was no ordinary provision for that table was set out “…in the presence of my enemies” (Psalm 23:5).

Yet, in 2 Samuel 18 we find that King David’s inadequate response to his pyrrhic victory escalated the tension and confusion which had so tainted the latter years of his kingdom. We have a better way to go. In the wilderness of our political wins and loses, in the wilderness of our career wins and loses, in the wilderness of our community wins and loses we have the Bread of Life.

W. H. Auden said, “Art is our chief means of breaking bread with the dead.” In Christ we have more, for, in the Word and sacrament, we can break bread with him who lives and abides forever. No win nor loss or “winner’s curse” can diminish this.

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