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Good Grief and Bad

by Stephen Davey Scripture Reference: 2 Samuel 19

Grief is a natural and appropriate response to loss. Yet if it keeps us from ever focusing on the future, it can be debilitating. With Joab’s help, David realized this and began to direct his thoughts and efforts toward others as he reestablished his kingship.  


You have probably discovered by now that grief is unavoidable. One author wrote that you simply “cannot live without experiencing [grief] in a thousand different ways.” Perhaps you have suffered the loss of a loved one, and you are discovering what it means to be ambushed by grief. There are times when it just comes out of nowhere when you least expect it.

There is nothing wrong with experiencing feelings of grief. Ecclesiastes 3:4 tells us there is “a time to mourn”—that is, there’s a time to weep and grieve and then to put the pieces of your heart and life back together with the Lord’s help.

This is what we could call good grief—you are moving forward as you continue trusting in the wisdom of God. But as we come to 2 Samuel chapter 19, I want to show you an example of bad grief—grief that doesn’t move forward like it should.

David’s traitorous son Absalom tried to overthrow David’s kingdom and seize the throne. But in our last study, in 2 Samuel chapter 18, we saw that Absalom died in the attempt. And with that tragic loss of his son, David slips into grieving in an unhealthy manner.

Here in chapter 19, we are told in verse 2:

The victory that day was turned into mourning for all the people, for the people heard that day, “The king is grieving for his son.”

Grief is contagious. The people had a great victory, but their joy is now turned to mourning. Verse 3 says they “stole into the city that day as people steal in who are ashamed when they flee in battle.”

A big part of this was because David did not give them any word of appreciation or commendation for their loyalty and courage. He is consumed with his own personal grief, and he isolates himself from everyone else. Here in verse 4, we read, “The king covered his face and . . . cried with a loud voice, ‘O my son Absalom, O Absalom, my son, my son!’”

We would expect these bitter tears of grief, but the problem is, David refuses to see anybody or hear anybody. He pulls away from those who care about him.

Now don’t misunderstand; there is nothing wrong with wanting to be alone at certain points in your grief. That is a natural stage in grieving. Just don’t stay there. God never intended you to become a hermit, physically or emotionally. In fact, God’s solution—His therapy, so to speak—is for those who are grieving to be involved in the lives of other people.

What makes David’s grief so crippling to him is that it’s combined with guilt. In the last few years of Absalom’s life, David had been very disappointed in Absalom, but instead of dealing with the issue, David refused to meet with his son for five full years. And even when David allowed Absalom back into the city, he would not allow Absalom back into his home. Deep resentment had developed, and David knew it was his fault. So, David is grieving, not just the death of his son, but also his own failure as a father. 

Now General Joab takes it upon himself to confront David. He points out that David is overlooking other people, as well as God’s blessing. Joab says in verse 5:

“You have today covered with shame the faces of all your servants, who have this day saved your life and the lives of your sons and your daughters.”

When we become consumed with our loss and grief, we all could use somebody like Joab, who comes along to challenge us and remind us of what God has done for us and has given to us.

Joab challenges David here in verse 7: “Arise, go out and speak kindly to your [people].” In other words, “You might not feel like it, but you need to go out and congratulate your troops and thank all the people who risked their lives for you.” David follows Joab’s advice, and verse 8 says, “All the people came before the king.” They are reunited at last.

Now let us learn from this account that grief is a God-given way to respond to loss. But there is good grief and bad grief. Good grief refuses the temptation to isolate yourself from people and hide from the future and forget what God has done in your life. Good grief gets around to refocusing on living. And that is exactly what David does here as he begins to lead his divided nation back together.

Reunifying the nation is going to require David to forgive a lot of people who sided with Absalom. Rather than seek revenge, David humbly urges the leaders of Judah to join the rest of the people in bringing him back to Jerusalem (verse 12). He even forgives Amasa, Absalom’s general, and in verse 13 he replaces Joab as commander of the army with Amasa. This might seem strange, but David is not only being gracious to Amasa but also demoting Joab for disobeying his direct order to keep Absalom alive. You might remember that Joab personally killed Absalom.

Perhaps David’s most gracious moment takes place now as he crosses back over the Jordan River. He is met by Shimei, the man who had come out and cursed David and thrown stones at him as David was fleeing from Jerusalem.

Well, now Shimei comes to ask forgiveness, saying here in verses 19-20:

“Let not my lord hold me guilty or remember how your servant did wrong on the day my lord the king left Jerusalem . . . for [I know] that I have sinned.”

Even though David is counseled to put Shimei to death, he allows him to live.

We are also told in verse 17 that Ziba rushes out to the Jordan to affirm his allegiance to David. He wanted to get there ahead of Mephibosheth, no doubt. Remember that as David was fleeing Jerusalem, Ziba had told David that Mephibosheth had sided with Absalom. Well, that was a lie—Ziba just wanted all that property back that David had given to Mephibosheth.

Well, Mephibosheth then comes to David to tell his side of the story here in verse 27:

“[Ziba] has slandered your servant to my lord the king. But my lord the king is like the angel of God; do therefore what seems good to you.”

What David does is gracious to both men; he divides the land between Ziba and Mephibosheth. This decision probably comes from the fact that he is unable to determine which man is telling the truth, so he simply divides the land between them.

Another man who welcomes David back to his throne is Barzillai. This faithful warrior had provided David and his men with food and supplies while they were hiding out in Gilead, east of the Jordan. David invites this man to join him, saying, “Come over with me, and I will provide for you with me in Jerusalem” (verse 33). But Barzillai turns down this gracious offer. He is old, and he is just not interested in moving to Jerusalem.

David’s reactions to these various people as he returns to Jerusalem demonstrate a godly spirit of generosity and forgiveness. He is still grieving, by the way—that will never entirely go away—but he is refocused on serving other people.

Now not everybody is happy with how things are turning out here. Chapter 19 ends with the northern tribes getting upset over the fact that the southern tribes seem to be favored by the king. They are like a bunch of squabbling children trying to be first in line. And this is going to set the stage for more problems to come.




[1] Granger Westberg, Good Grief, updated and expanded edition (Fortress, 2018), 2.

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