Rebellions do not happen overnight. After years, there is always a tipping point in either an event or a moment that precipitates them. We talk about the beginnings of the American Revolution and we know it was not simply the Boston Tea Party or the Boston Massacre, but the years of resentment over the taxes Britain imposed to maintain their troops after the French-Indian War and to increase revenue for a Parliament strapped for cash by an exploding national debt.
There was a twelve-year buildup to the American Revolution.
It is true for David’s son, Absalom’s rebellion as well. Look at the numbers:
- After the rape of his sister Tamar by Amnon, he spent two years waiting and planning for his revenge.
- He spent three years in exile in his grandfather’s house in Geshur after executing Amnon.
- Brought back to Jerusalem through the intrigue and deception of David’s general, Joab, he spent two years in isolation. In that time, he had a child he named Tamar. That should have been a clue.
- He spent four years sitting at the gate of the city positioning himself as an advocate for the people.
That’s a total of eleven years that Absalom prepared for what became a revolt against his father, David.
At some point along the way Absalom reached a tipping point in his desire to punish his father for his abdicating his duty to deal with Amnon for raping Tamar.
But David began abdicating his responsibilities long before that. Our first indication is his remaining in Jerusalem while his men were in battle against the Ammonites. Armies need leadership, and David was either bored or distracted.
Something happens to David’s heart and spirit after the adultery with Bathsheba. There is a sense of fatalism and resignation we never saw in the young David. There is something going on in David’s soul. He has lost his taste for leading, resigning himself to the consequences of his sin. Even in his response to the rape of Tamar, there are no teeth in his anger.
While David may not have seen it coming because either it was hidden from him by those around him or he refused to acknowledge it, the worst events of his life are on the horizon. He is about to be overthrown and forced to flee for his life.
In the course of time, Absalom provided himself with a chariot and horses and with fifty men to run ahead of him. He would get up early and stand by the side of the road leading to the city gate. Whenever anyone came with a complaint to be placed before the king for a decision, Absalom would call out to him, “What town are you from?” He would answer, “Your servant is from one of the tribes of Israel.” Then Absalom would say to him, “Look, your claims are valid and proper, but there is no representative of the king to hear you.” And Absalom would add, “If only I were appointed judge in the land! Then everyone who has a complaint or case could come to me and I would see that they receive justice.” Also, whenever anyone approached him to bow down before him, Absalom would reach out his hand, take hold of him and kiss him. Absalom behaved in this way toward all the Israelites who came to the king asking for justice, and so he stole the hearts of the people of Israel.
How do you steal the hearts of an entire people?
- You begin with a particular set of circumstances. Clearly, the courts are clogged and people are bringing their cases to be tried and getting no response from David or his judges.
- You let that pot simmer for a few years until there is a general atmosphere of resentment and, like the beginnings of the American Revolution, the dissatisfaction of not being heard or respected. People no longer believe in the system. They don’t believe it is fair. They don’t believe their leaders are interested in their lives.
- There is typically an individual who steps into this bubbling resentment and takes advantage of the mistrust and grievance. Normally, it is someone with a well-developed sense of grievance themselves. It is someone like Absalom who has been nursing this cold anger for years and waiting for the right moment. They do not simply describe or understand what people feel; they give people a vocabulary for their grudges and resentments, which only fires them up further. They justify the rage and direct it toward an enemy. Sometimes the enemy has a face, but it is often just “those people.”
- This self-announced leader creates a presence and aura that makes people notice them and give them credibility. They are not openly rebellious, but they are ostentatious about their growing influence. Absalom’s chariot and fifty men were a bold way of declaring himself a prince and causing people to notice him. It gave him a platform and an image that was indelible. Absalom was determined to be recognized for who he thought himself to be.
- The new leader has the answer, a solution. “If only I were appointed judge in the land! Then everyone who has a complaint or case could come to me and I would see that he gets justice.” Almost always, justice means at the expense of someone who is increasingly perceived as the enemy. First, you have to encourage their sense of being deprived of justice, and then you have to identify those who are keeping it from them. Lastly, you propose a simple solution that, of course, gives ultimate power to the new leader. In How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt we read, “Populists tend to deny the legitimacy of established parties, attacking them as undemocratic and even unpatriotic. They tell voters that the existing system is not really a democracy but instead has been hijacked, corrupted, or rigged by the elite. And they promise to bury that elite and return power to ‘the people.’”
- They insinuate themselves into the trust of the people and make them think, He speaks for me. He understands me. He is not treating me like the elites do. He is one of us. Absalom did not seize the reins of power. He stood between the people and the rightful but declining king and listened to them while convincing them he was the only one who could treat them fairly and make certain they received justice. In spite of the wealth, chariots, uncontrollable anger, narcissism, scores of pleasers around him, and vanity, they believed he was their savior.
How do kings lose power? How do autocrats steal the hearts of people and take over? How do democracies die? People lose their faith in them. They abdicate their responsibilities. They become unresponsive and tired. So, people look for someone to take care of them and to follow. They look for certainty and someone who will be one of them to protect their interests. And, in the end, they become sheep. Absalom won their hearts, but while the wheel of justice moves slowly it grinds exceedingly fine.
This is an excerpt from “The Edge of the Inside” now available on Amazon.