The Prodigal Who Didn't Come HomeErwin W. Lutzer | March 27, 2007
Selected highlights from this sermon
King David’s family was surprisingly dysfunctional. Fueled by David’s sinfulness and passivity, Absalom epitomizes a prodigal as he runs and rebels against his father. He is a prodigal who never returns.
In most families, prodigals persist. Are you one of them? The voice of the Spirit is calling prodigals to return and repent from their past. Do not turn away from the Voice who is drawing you to Jesus. “Today, if you hear His voice, do not harden your heart!”
Something that should always fascinate us is human nature. I think I’ve been a student of human nature for many years, trying to understand why people do what they do, and what fascinates me is first of all on the one hand, the potential good that each person has, but also the potential for evil.
Have you ever noticed that sometimes two children from the very same home with the same parents go in different directions? One grows up and loves God and the other has nothing to do with God and goes in a different direction. And you say to yourself, “Same parents, same home – why?” It’s the mystery of human nature but it is also the mystery of God’s providence. “Jacob have I loved and Esau have I hated.” The providence of God in all of this gives an answer to our question.
Today I’m speaking on prodigals. I’m preaching just two messages. This is the first and then there will be a second. And the word prodigal has to do with wastefulness. We say about somebody, “He got wasted.”
There’s a good side to that word prodigal. It also can mean very extravagant and giving, but seldom do we use it that way. When we talk about the prodigal son in Luke 15, which is the basis for the second message in this series, it says that he wasted his life with riotous living, and that’s where the word prodigal comes from – wastefulness of your life.
Prodigals intrigue me because, as you know, we have been praying for prodigals here at The Moody Church. As a matter of fact, some time ago I said that I wanted all the POPS in prayer meeting, POPS meaning parents of prodigals, and many of you came to prayer meeting, and we have prayer lists and we’re going to continue to pray for prodigals. And today I’m going to speak to you about a prodigal who didn’t come home. We’re going to look into his life. We’re going to look into human nature. We’re going to look into the Word, and we’re going to leave here today utterly transformed by God.
His name is Absalom. Absalom had many advantages, and some of those advantages were also disadvantages. Absalom was the king’s son – King David’s son. How would you like to have as your father the king of Israel and the man who wrote all the Psalms about how his heart burst for God like a deer pants for water brooks, and all of those wonderful things that have become a part of Scripture? How would you like to have him for a dad?
Well, it wasn’t exactly everything that you think it might be. As a matter of fact, Absalom had to struggle with who he was, which is always true of children who have famous parents, and also the expectations. So that which was a positive was really a negative too.
The other thing about Absalom that he had going for him is that he was drop dead good looking – striking in his appearance. The Bible says in 2 Samuel 14 that Absalom was more handsome than any man in Israel, and when he cut his hair, which he did once a year, it weighed 200 shekels, which is approximately five pounds. He was drop dead gorgeous. Was that a plus? Well, it seemed to be. Those of you who are striking in your appearance, those of you who are good looking, you have many advantages that the rest of us do not have. However, in the end it can turn out to be a terrible, terrible disadvantage. Today in our culture to be handsome and to be strikingly beautiful means that people with needs will pursue you sexually. The temptations are going to be greater and the tendency to coast through life is going to be there. I have often been at airports watching people walk by and I think to myself of the wisdom of God making most people strikingly ordinary. (laughter) Absalom could never have done what he ended up doing if he had not been filled with charisma and charm and good looks.
Well, those are the pluses and the minuses. Actually there’s a minus that I forgot to mention, and that is he had no emotional connection with his father. If you would, take your Bible and turn to 2 Samuel 11 and 12 and following, and I’m going to walk you through a number of chapters. In 2 Samuel 11 and 12 David commits adultery and murder, and probably because of that he had no control over his children, no emotional connection and no involvement. He was a totally passive father, and we can understand why. He sees his sons rebel, he sees them kill one another, and the Bible says he became angry and didn’t do anything. He was a terrible father.
For example, Adonijah, one of his sons, who tried to rebel, and I’ll mention him in a moment, and did rebel, the Bible says that even though he did evil his father never crossed him or asked him, “What are you doing?” or “Why are you doing it?” He was a typical absentee father – probably because of his moral failure in adultery and murder. If he were to go to his kids and get involved, they’d say, “Well, Dad, who are you to talk?” So what do fathers like that do? They back out of the family and they just let all the dysfunction move ahead. So that was Absalom.
Now at prayer meeting as we were talking about prodigals the way in which it went was that everyone who had a prodigal would come to the microphone (or come to me) and they would tell us about their prodigal, and we’d get a little bit of background so that we could pray more intelligently. What we learned is there are two different kinds of prodigals. There are those who are lured by the world. They come from good homes. That’s the prodigal son that we will talk about next time. A good home but rejects it! And then there are prodigals who feel pushed out of the home because of the dysfunction. They simply can no longer stand what’s happening within the home and so they get out and they say to themselves, “I hate my parents and I hate their God,” and that’s the kind of prodigal that Absalom was. But what both kinds of prodigals do is they kick over the traces. They go through the fences. They go on a wrong road and then they stay on that road because it is too difficult to return to the point of origin. They all do.
What about Absalom? Absalom did two things. First of all he had a revenge killing. Now, you have to understand this. It says in 2 Samuel 13:1 that Absalom, David’s son, had a beautiful sister whose name was Tamar. Tamar and Absalom were full brother and sister. They were the only two of that particular wife. David had a number of wives, which really increased the dysfunction. I can assure you of that. So Absalom was beautiful and so was his sister. The confluence of genes! Their mother was actually named Maacah and when she and David came together the confluence of genes produced beauty.
But Amnon, another son of David, a half brother to this young woman, Tamar, sexually assaulted her in the worst possible way. I won’t tell you the story. You can read it there. Now Absalom wanted revenge to his half brother for doing this to his full sister. They shared the same parents and Absalom harbored this in his heart over a long period of time. And then what did he do? He said to his father, “I’m going to be meeting with the various brothers. I want all the brothers of the king to come. Let’s have a party.” And Amnon goes there after doing this despicable deed and when he’s there Absalom says to his servants, “Kill him. I’ve given you permission to do that,” and that’s exactly what happens. Amnon is killed.
By the way what happened when there was incest in the home? You know it says in 2 Samuel 13:21 (this is after that terrible incident) that when King David heard of all these things he was very angry.
Well, thank you, David. Will you do something? Would you get involved and would you help Absalom work through his grief? Would you go visit Tamar and do something and try to bring out some kind of reconciliation after the mess? “No, I’m just very angry.” He will not act. What a bondage to families to have fathers who do not act. There’s no emotional connection.
Mike Singletary, who used to play for the Chicago Bears, visits prisons, and he keeps asking the question, “How many of you had a good connection with your father?” and he is still waiting for the first hand to be raised. Wow!
King David here gets angry but he does nothing. Amnon is murdered. Absalom flees because you see once you do evil against someone else you’re not only disconnected from God. You have to be disconnected from others and so Absalom flees into isolation where he stays for three years. All right! That’s the first thing – a revenge killing which deadened his conscience, you see, and now that he was on that path he had to follow it wherever it would lead.
Secondly, you have the revenge stealing. This passage is so remarkable. What insight this gives us about charmers. Charmers can sometimes be very nice people. They are the kind of men that all the women in the church wish they had married. And then you discover that there are charmers who are the real deal but then there are also charmers who are abusers, and behind their charm they use charm to kill. That’s Absalom.
Oh, let’s read the text. 2 Samuel 15 says, “After this Absalom got himself a chariot and horses, and fifty men to run before him. And Absalom used to rise early and stand beside the way of the gate. And when any man had a dispute to come before the king for judgment (that’s his father, David), Absalom would call to him and say, ‘From what city are you?’ And when he said, ‘Your servant is of such and such a tribe in Israel,’ Absalom would say to him, ‘See, your claims are good and right, but there is no man designated by the king to hear you.’ Then Absalom would say, ‘Oh that I were judge in the land! Then every man with a dispute or cause might come to me, and I would give him justice.’ And whenever a man came near to pay homage to him, he would put out his hand and take hold of him and kiss him. Thus Absalom did to all of Israel who came to the king for judgment. So Absalom stole the hearts of the men of Israel.”
Why was this kid so mad at his dad that he wanted to kill his dad and take over the kinship? Well, you know Absalom, after he fled to Geshur because of the crime against Amnon, was reconciled to his dad. It’s a story you need to read but there was no resolution of the issue. He didn’t have to confess to anything. His father eventually brought him back because of some information and wisdom that supposedly was imparted to him, and they just pretended. This is the way dysfunctional families work. They pretend that everything is okay. Let’s smooth it over. Let’s not deal with it. And there’s no doubt that Absalom was angry with his detached father, the great and wonderful King of Israel. Is it possible for a man to write the Psalms and be a bad dad? I guess so, because David was.
All right, now here he is. He steals the heart of the people. He could not have done that unless he had attractiveness, unless he had charisma, unless he was very naturally gifted, and so he uses charm to kill, and he has a rebellion against his father. It’s a long story that you can read on your own. Remember, we are on our way to some life-changing lessons. I’m only increasing your interest and curiosity so that you read the story on your own.
All right, now Absalom is rebelling. David has to go up the Mount of Olives. He has to leave Jerusalem. Absalom takes David’s harem and has a relationship with them sexually right on the rooftop for all of Israel to see so that people will know that Absalom absolutely can never be reconciled to his dad, and so that those who are in the insurgency will bond with Absalom and know that there is no hope of reconciliation here.
And then Absalom goes riding and eventually he is killed. The Bible says in 2 Samuel 18:9, “And Absalom 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, and his head caught fast in the oak, and he was suspended between heaven and earth, while the mule that was under him went on.” Wow! And then Joab comes along and takes three arrows and finishes him off.
Joab was David’s military commander. Joab had disobeyed David because David kept giving orders and saying, “Whatever you do, don’t touch Absalom.” He was unrealistic. What do you mean don’t touch Absalom? You’ve got a civil war going here. You have to kill the leader because he’s trying to kill you.
David hears the news and I want you now to feel the pathos. Would you enter into David’s sandals for just a moment? It’s at the end of chapter 18. I’m reading at verse 33. David gets the news that Absalom had been killed. “And the 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 I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!’”
Of course he loved him but he didn’t know how to show it and he didn’t know how to get involved in the life of his family. Later on he had to be jerked back to his senses. Joab went to him and said, “You know, you are crying. You should be rejoicing. We were willing to lay down our lives for you. Some of our people were killed in this civil war.” Wow! What a story!
There are five lessons now that I want you to write down. I want you to keep them and put them on your refrigerator until you know them all by memory. You’re dying in a hospital some day and the doctor says, “Now what were those five lessons that Pastor Lutzer taught you about Absalom?” and you spit them out one right after another. Now we get to pay dirt – now the transformation happens. What are the five lessons?
Number one, although a father might repent of his sin, children might not. David bounced back from murder and adultery. He was back in fellowship with God. You read Psalm 51. I mean he was pouring out his soul. He was admitting to everything, and God even restored the joy of his salvation, but he lost his family. And after he committed adultery and murder God said to David, “You are going to pay for this sin fourfold,” and four of his sons died. First off you have the baby that Bathsheba bore die. And you remember that David wept and prayed that God would heal the child, but when the baby died he washed his face and they said, “That’s unusual. Why are you not mourning now?” David said, “I will go to him even though he will not come back to me.” David said, “I expect to see my baby again. We will be reunited,” and I am sure that they have been.
But when it comes to the other sons you have Amnon who was murdered by Absalom. You have Absalom who was caught in an oak tree and murdered by Joab, and then you have Adonijah. Adonijah rebelled after David died. He wanted the kingdom but David had given it to Solomon so they had to kill Adonijah too. And when David wept over those sons he could not be comforted because he knew right well that he would never see those sons again. They parted their ways not only in life but also in death and forever because there is no evidence that Absalom ever received God’s grace or forgiveness or help or reconciliation. He went his own way, and I’m sure that was true of rebellious Amnon and Adonijah too. Parents separated from their children forever! No wonder David would not stop weeping. You see, we as parents might bounce back. We’ve walked with God many years. We fall into sin. We confess our sin but when we lose moral authority in our family the kids might not bounce back to God. It’s sobering.
The second lesson to be learned is that unresolved sin leads to further sin. Unresolved sin leads to other sins. It always increases because sin basically comes in clusters. Now here’s what happened. Absalom commits murder, trying to bring justice to a situation that his father ignored. So Absalom commits murder and now his conscience is hardened.
In my book Hitler’s Cross I talk about the fact that Hitler had a procedure by which the consciences of young German soldiers would be hardened so that they could murder without conscience. This is very important – the deadening of the conscience. And what deadens the conscience is sin that is unresolved, that is unforgiven, that is not dealt with, that is kind of just stuffed in the soul and it stays there, and in the case of Absalom, he went from revenge killing Amnon to being willing to kill his father. That’s what sin does. It always goes farther than you thought it would.
And the Bible talks about those who add sin to sin. You know you are in sin, you’ve learned to manage it and so you keep on going because you know that for every mile you go you’ve got a mile to return, and so what you do is you keep going in the same direction. And you say, “I don’t care. This is the direction I have chosen.” You add sin to sin.
Many years ago when I was the pastor of another church here in Chicago, and that was many, many, many years ago, I was asked to visit a man who was dying in the hospital. I explained the Gospel to him but he wouldn’t believe, and it’s not as if he had some intellectual doubts. He just kind of shook his head and said, “I can’t.” Well why can’t you? Well later on I discovered that that man, I was told on good authority, had been guilty of murder and had never been charged many, many years before that. So here’s a man who had learned to stuff it in his soul.
You learn to live with your sin. You learn to live with a guilty conscience until in some way you deaden it, and then you come for God’s forgiveness and think one of two things. Either A, you think God isn’t gracious enough to forgive me, which would be wrong because God forgives murderers and adulterers and all kinds of sinners. Thank God, and thank you for saying amen. Praise God (applause) because we are all sinners. You remember that college retreat where the kids put up a banner over the door of the auditorium that said, “For sinners only,” and some of the college kids said, “Where do we go?” Well, you need a little lesson in theology, I think, and you need a little bit more honesty. So we’re all sinners, and God could have forgiven him.
But I think also in retrospect that what that man was thinking maybe was this. “If I receive God’s forgiveness freely, God is going to require me to deal with issues of lying and deceit that I have stuffed into my soul and I just don’t want to touch it.” I don’t know, but you add sin to sin. Hard conscience leads to other hardness of heart.
There’s a third lesson and that is that there’s a lesson in judgment. I have no doubt that some of you who are here are struggling with God because in some sense you see yourself in Absalom, not in detail but in principle. And you are struggling with it and you say to yourself, “Well, I have time; before I die I hope that I’m going to get all this right,” but like somebody once told me, “Regarding God I’m just pushing that out to the circumference for now, and I’ll deal with it later.”
Well, you can say that you heard it here but you don’t know that there’s going to be a later. You know, that morning when Absalom woke up thinking that the battle was going his direction and he was riding his mule and he was on his way, he had no idea that he’d be dead by evening. The Bible says in Proverbs 29:1 that the person that is often reproved who hardens and stiffens his neck will be cut off without remedy. God will just go zap! And it will be over. Absalom did not have time to repent. He did not have time to get right with his father. He didn’t have time. He simply died!
You know those of you who are struggling with God today are saying, “Why am I struggling? I am pushing God off.” You do not know that you’ll even have tomorrow, or that maybe even tonight God will require your soul.
So that’s the third lesson. The fourth lesson is this. Today it is easier to repent than it will be tomorrow because you’ll be a little harder. That’s why the Bible says, “Today if you have heard His voice don’t harden your heart.”
Look at Absalom. When would it have been easiest for him to repent? Well, first of all, he should have repented before he even killed Amnon, and figured out a different way to resolve that situation. But after he had killed Amnon the least thing he could have done is go to his father and say, “I have sinned against heaven and against God. I want this resolved. You have to understand that I want to be back in the good graces of the family, and I want to receive God’s forgiveness.” That would have been much easier.
My! After he stole the kingdom and stole people’s hearts through his charm, and after he committed adultery with David’s harem, there was no chance that he could repent then because the hardness of his heart was so great. It was like flint. There was no way then he would change. “Today if you hear His voice, don’t harden your heart.”
I woke up at four o’clock this morning thinking about this sermon and I thought about why I was preaching it, and I thought to myself, “Well, I want to explain to people the nature of prodigals.” That seems to be a good reason, and it was as if something impressed itself mightily upon me as if to say, “That is not the reason you are to preach this sermon. You are to preach this sermon with one intention and that is that prodigals come to God for forgiveness, and to believe that because of this message some of those who are on the fringes and have never believed in Jesus, or those who have backslidden will come back today to God.” That’s why I preach. (applause)
You know every once in a while when you say something to somebody you say, “Well now don’t take this personally.” Well, today I want you to take what I am saying very personally, okay? It’s for you and not the person who is sitting next to you. “When you hear His voice, do not harden your heart.” Today it is going to be easier. It’s going to be easier after this service.
When I was pastor of the other church that I mentioned earlier I remember some teenagers sitting in the balcony. I don’t know where our teenagers are seated today but I know that we used to have teenagers who, for some inexplicable reason that we’ve never been able to investigate, loved the balcony. I should do some research on that. But I remember one time they told me, “When you are preaching, before you pronounce the benediction, we are already out of here. We are in our cars and we turn up loud music to stifle the work of the Holy Spirit.” The Bible says, “If you hear His voice, don’t harden your heart.” Don’t you dare stifle the work of the Spirit. It’s easier today to repent than it will be tomorrow.
Finally, we’re at number five, are we not? People repent not because of judgment. They could care less about judgment. They repent because of grace and because of the work of the Holy Spirit in their hearts. If God were to withdraw His Holy Spirit from you, you would not feel even the slightest desire to come to God through Jesus and be reconciled to God. Not even the slightest desire!
There’s a passage in the book of Revelation that just astounds me. Now Revelation has all of these judgments. I mean hailstones are coming out of heaven. Scorpions are coming over the whole earth and you know it’s just one awful judgment after another, and this is what is says. “But the rest of mankind that were not killed by these plagues did not repent of the works of their hands, nor give up worshiping demons and idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood which cannot see or walk, nor did they repent of their murders, their sorceries (which is basically the New Age movement), or their sexual immoralities or the thefts.”
After all that they still don’t repent, and a little later it says in chapter 16 that the people gnawed their tongues in anguish and cursed the God of heaven for their pain and their sores, but they did not repent. You can’t repent unless God, by His Spirit, moves you and shows you His love and shows you His grace. It is His grace ultimately that causes people to repent. Just think of the fact that you, of all people, could be saved and forgiven. Just think of you. Even as I think of me and that we could be forgiven, that motivates me. I say, “My goodness, if God can forgive me He’s got me for the rest of my life.” We are motivated by the work of the Holy Spirit. Jesus said, “No man can come except the Spirit draw him.”
Even today the work of the Spirit is happening in your heart to draw you to Jesus who died for sinners, who was crucified on the cross, who was raised again so that we might be forgiven, so that we might be reconciled. But we come with our need. We come and bring nothing except our need to receive His love and His grace.
Absalom perhaps didn’t know that. I’m not sure exactly what he knew but he should have seen that his own father understood God and had a connection with God based on the coming Messiah who would eventually come and die.
You know, there’s that old story about a miser who lived in a cabin, and he would hide some of his money in the floor, and every once in a while he took the money out and counted it. Maybe he thought it just felt good. He should have known how much was there. What he didn’t know was that two thieves were watching him do it through the window. So he put the money away under the floor as he always did, and then he took a drink and he fell asleep. In the middle of the night his dog began to bark. He tried to get the dog to shush and be quiet. The dog was quiet for a little bit but then continued to bark. In his stupor the man got so angry he took his gun and he shot the dog. Well you know the rest of the story, don’t you? The thieves came and stole his money. He shot the voice that warned him, that could have saved him.
Don’t you dare turn away from the voice that is drawing you to Jesus. As one who knows Jesus but you’ve decided to go a different direction, or if you have never connected with God or you are unsure if you have, don’t you dare stifle that voice. “Today if you will hear his voice don’t harden your heart.” Don’t be like Absalom. Be like the prodigal who came all the way home to the father.
Would you join me as we pray?
And now before I pray I want you to pray. I want you to talk to God based on what you have heard today. If you’ve never received Christ as Savior say, “Lord Jesus, save me. I’m coming home.” If you know Him but you have walked far behind Him, and you know that there is a whole backlog of things, would you come back to Him right now? This is your opportunity. God is listening to your heart and listening to your prayer. What about you? Are you struggling? Are you stifling the voice that spoke to you? Today if you’ve heard His voice don’t harden your heart.
Father, for those who are struggling may they continue to struggle until they say, “Okay, Jesus is calling me. I’m coming home.”