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Sticks and Stones

There’s an old saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” In a Lano and Woodley sketch, Frank says “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will cause permanent psychological damage!” I think back on the times that people have said that to me as a child, and it’s not really been that helpful. Sometimes bullies start with names and move on to sticks and stones. It’s also not very true that words don’t hurt. The Bible tells us that they can cause damage, which is why gossip, slander and angry words should be tamed.

In 2 Samuel 16, David got pelted with both words AND stones! It’s a remarkable moment, not because someone was hurling abuse at David, but because of his reaction. Surely a powerful king, a skilled warrior, and a man backed by an army would have no problem squashing the rants of an individual, but David is both strategic and humble in his response. In contrast, his loyal supporter and chief warrior, Abishai, is quickly offended and ready to shoot from the hip. It’s a significant discipline that David employs at that moment. There are so many times in my life that someone has said something witty and insulting to me, where I’ve wished for a good comeback. A day later, I might think of something stinging and smart, but the moment has passed. That’s probably a good thing – a stinging remark is very satisfying but doesn’t actually achieve anything in terms of the relationship or even our social standing with onlookers.

Trying for a mike-drop or a good “burn” is dramatic and works will in scripted movies, but might not actually achieve much.

The background to this interaction is important, otherwise the man hurling insults seems very random. David had been anointed king, while Saul was still leading the nation as king. David served Saul until Saul became jealous and vindictive, and David had to run and go into hiding from Saul. During this time he gathered a following, people who were ready to crown David king. When Saul and his heir, Jonathan, were killed in battle by the foreign enemy, David mourned them, but then was crowned king by his followers. However, this was not the whole nation, and it took some convincing for the Northern tribes to submit to him as king and unite. When David’s son Absalom decided to make a grab for the throne, he built his followers with his charming charisma, and aimed to divide the nation again by garnering the support of the North – those who were originally devoted to Saul. Absalom was operating on the idea that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”, hoping that the resentment from seeing Saul’s dynasty lose control of the throne would translate into anger at David. The strategy was working.

When David is fleeing Absalom in Jerusalem, one old man starts hurling rocks and calling him a murderer. From Abishai’s perspective, this shouldn’t be tolerated. It’s insulting, it’s terrible PR for anyone trying to make up their mind whether to follow David, and it’s demoralising for David’s followers. He presents a convincing argument as to why he should just lop the man’s head off and shut him up:

  • The man is a “dead dog” – he has no power, and doesn’t matter. Killing him is a simple and easy solution to get him to shut up.

  • The man has no authority to speak to the king this way. He should be punished for his lack of respect.

  • The accusations are false. David never murdered Saul or anyone in his family, in fact he mourned their deaths and refused to lift a hand against them whenever there was an opportunity.

Abishai gives us the reasonable response when we are hurt: if it’s just to retaliate and it won’t cost us further grief, then why not hit back?

David sees this another way. Possibly he understands the hurt that this man has experienced seeing his hero’s demise. Possibly actions and policies that David has initiated have disadvantaged the man in some way. This guy is furious at David’s leadership, enough to attack his army on his own. So David considers the situation:

  • While he didn’t kill Saul and Jonathan himself, he knows that his loyal follower Abishai did have something to do with Saul’s son’s death. David still benefitted from these deaths, so he’s not completely innocent. It’s not that long a bow to draw. He also knows that he has been a murderer (remember Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband), even if he had other people do his dirty work for him.

  • This man is calling down a curse from God. It’s possible that God will hear him and judge in his favour. David isn’t prepared to strike down someone who may be speaking God’s judgment. It’s a coin toss as to whether the man is just angry-crazy or whether he is inspired. He is prepared to leave that in God’s hands, and hopes for God’s mercy.

  • This kind of behaviour is to be expected. There is a serious fight for the kingdom going on and people’s tempers are inflamed. It would be unusual for David, as he ventures through the country, not to have opposition. He knew that lots of people were not on his side.

  • The cost of retaliation is greater than Abishai estimates. He sees this person as one “dead dog”, but David understands that striking at him would become symbolic and turn the people who were devoted to Saul against David and straight to Absalom’s side. This one man’s protest was insignificant if left alone, but could be the tipping point for civil war if David reacted. He would become the Archduke Ferdinand of World War 1, the George Floyd of USA 2020 riots. Putting up with some insults was small potatoes compared to the unfolding chaos and conflict that this interaction could spark.

All of these considerations point to the difference in character between Abishai and David. Abishai thinks that David is the ultimate. David knows that God is greater. Abishai wants action. David would rather peace. Abishai is easily insulted. David has endured many insults and doesn’t care how he is regarded. Abishai opts for violence. David bears the hits of the stones pelted at him.

David has learnt to be humble. He is prepared to give the benefit of the doubt, and consider the possibility that he Is in the wrong. He leaves judgment and punishment in God’s hands, and prays that God has mercy on him, believing that God is capable of mercy. If God can be merciful to David, then David knows he should be merciful to this attacker.

None of these humble actions and calculations are easy. The result of David’s humility was a bruising. By the time it’s over and they reach their destination they’re exhausted. We also need to be prepared for conflict to bruise our hearts a little and for it to tire us. David refreshed himself when he was in a safe place, and we need to do this too.

When we are facing opposition, insult or ridicule, finding our safe spaces and the people and things that will refresh us are crucial. How is kindness built into your life so that you can maintain humility and wisdom?

The big chat with a wise friend, the things that make us laugh, the physical activity that releases tension, the person who will be kind, the fun activity that will distract us so that we don’t become consumed, are all important to keep our equilibrium so that we can continue to respond humbly and constructively to challenges we face.

Hopefully, the stones pelted at us and the curses called down on us in our lives are few, and less intense than David did. I pray that we all can be people who choose David’s responses over Abishai’s responses, and trust God enough to leave the judgment up to him.

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