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Whyte's Dictionary of Bible Characters
I AM not going to whitewash and rehabilitate Ahithophel. I am neither to extenuate nor am I to denounce Ahithophel. I shall put myself back into Ahithophel's place, and I shall speak of Ahithophel as I see and feel Ahithophel to have been. I shall do my best to put myself first into Ahithophel's place, and then into David's place, and then I shall tell you exactly and honestly what I see and what I feel, first as to Ahithophel, and then as to David. But, to begin with, who was Ahithophel, and what were the facts?
Well, Ahithophel was far and away the ablest and the most famous politician, as we would say, in that day. The counsel of Ahithophel was a proverb in Israel in David's day. There was no one fit to hold the candle to Ahithophel in that day, unless it was Hushai the Archite, another of David's astutest counsellors. 'For the counsel of Ahithophel,' says the sacred writer, 'which he counselled in those days, was as if a man had inquired at the oracle of God: so was all the counsel of Ahithophel both with David and with Absalom.'
Of those the false Ahithophel was first:
For close designs and crooked counsels fit,
Sagacious, bold, and turbulent of wit,
Restless, unfixed in principles and place,
In power unpleased, impatient of disgrace;
A fiery soul, which, working out its way,
Fretted the pigmy body to decay,
And o'er-informed the tenement of clay.
So Dryden describes Lord Chancellor Shaftesbury in his Absalom and Ahithophel, that very able but still more truculent and time-serving piece. Matthew Henry is always worth consulting. 'Ahithophel was a politic, thinking man, and one that had a clear head, and a great compass of thought,' and so on. If the traditional interpretation of the fifty-fifth and some other Ahithophel psalms is true and is to be taken, David and Ahithophel had been bosom friends from their boyhood up. Ahithophel may not have been exactly a Jonathan, and yet he may have been a very dear and well-deserving friend for all that. David and Ahithophel were such close companions, indeed, that had it not been for Jonathan, the proverb might have run thus-David and Ahithophel: so was the soul of David knit to the soul of Ahithophel. Jonathan strengthened David's hand in God, it is true; but this out of David and about Ahithophel is almost as good. 'A man, mine equal, my guide, and mine acquaintance. We took sweet counsel together, and walked unto the house of God in company.' Till, when David's time came to be lifted up of God into the throne of Israel, Ahithophel was proud to lay all his magnificent gifts of sound advice and incomparable counsel at David's feet. And Ahithophel continued to do that for all the best and most shining years of David's kingdom. David never made a law, nor gave a judgment, nor proclaimed a war, nor negotiated a truce, nor signed a peace, till Ahithophel had been heard, and till his advice had been taken. But the sacred writer has already given you all that, and far more than all that, in one of his incomparably strong and satisfying sentences; it was, he says, as if a man had inquired at the oracle of God.
All that Ahithophel was to David in the council-chamber, all that Eliam, Ahithophel's only son, was in the army. The father's splendid talents for counsel came out in the shape of soldierly service in the son; and the son was as devoted to David in the field as his father was in the chamber. Now, Eliam had a daughter at home, a beautiful woman-child, who was the one ewe-lamb of her father Eliam and her grandfather Ahithophel. And it so happened that Eliam had a very trusty under-officer among the captains of the mighty men, whose famous name was Uriah. This Uriah was not an Israelite-he was a Hittite; but he was as brave and as loyal to David as if he had been an Hebrew of the Hebrews. And his high talents and his great services had carried him to the very top of the six hundred, where he stood clothed with worth and with honour beside Eliam the son of Ahithophel. With his whole soul Uriah loved Eliam's daughter, and both Eliam and Ahithophel gave to young Uriah the desire of his heart. David's devoted bodyguard had their quarters built for them in the city of David, and just under the walls of David's palace; and when Uriah came home on furlough, he was the happiest man in all Jerusalem with such a wife, and with Eliam and with Ahithophel. As time went on, and as Ahithophel counselled for David, and as Eliam and Uriah fought for David, David's power increased till the King of Israel denied himself nothing on which he had once set his heart. And in an evil hour he set his heart on Uriah's wife, who was also Ahithophel's one grandchild. And it does not need an oracle of God to tell us how Ahithophel took the ruin of his grandchild and the murder of her husband. Ahithophel would have been Jesus Christ Himself to have continued after all that to take sweet counsel with David, and to walk with David unto the house of God in company. I do not like to listen to all the names you would have called Ahithophel and Eliam had they still remained in David's service, and had they still eaten David's bread, with Bathsheba in David's bed and with her husband in his grave. I do not know what all you would have called Eliam and Ahithophel had they winked in that way at David's adultery and blood-guiltiness.
It was all that Ahithophel could do: he shook the dust off his feet, and Ahithophel returned home out of the city of David to his own city of Giloh. And no sooner had Ahithophel left David than the Lord sent Nathan to David. And Nathan said to David, Thus saith the Lord God of Israel, I anointed thee king over Israel, and I delivered thee out of the hand of Saul. And I gave thee thy master's house, and gave thee the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would moreover have given unto thee such and such things. Wherefore hast thou despised the commandment of the Lord, to do evil in His sight? Thou hast killed Uriah the Hittite with the edge of the sword, and hast taken his wife, Ahithophel's granddaughter, to be thy wife, and hast slain Uriah with the sword of the children of Ammon. Now, therefore, the sword shall never depart from thy house. For thus saith the Lord, I will raise up evil against thee out of thine own house. For thou didst it secretly, but I will do this thing before all Israel and before the sun. And, after that, our hearts stand still as we watch how the vengeance of God came down on David's head, and how the vengeance of God travelled, as it always does, on stepping-stones which David laid for it with his own hands. As thus: And Amnon loved Absalom's sister.… But David did not trouble the spirit of Amnon, because he was his first-born.… And Absalom's servants did to Amnon as Absalom had commanded. And Absalom fled and went to Geshur, and was there three years.… And David said, Let him return to Jerusalem, but let him not see my face.… And Absalom stole the hearts of the men of Israel.… And Absalom sent for Ahithophel the Gilonite, David's counsellor, from his city, even from Giloh. And the conspiracy was strong, and the people increased continually with Absalom. For the counsel of Ahithophel, which he counselled in those days, was as if a man inquired at the oracle of God; so was all the counsel of Ahithophel with Absalom as it had been wont to be with David.
Absalom had no head of his own. But he had what was better than ten heads of his own, for he had a head to know those who had heads and to send to their cities for them. And with Ahithophel's head like the oracle of God, and with his heart rankling against David like hell, the conspiracy was strong, and the people increased continually with Absalom. Ahithophel was worth ten thousand men to Absalom, and no one knew that better than David. And one told David, saying, Ahithophel is among the conspirators with Absalom. And David said, O Lord, I pray thee, turn the counsel of Ahithophel into foolishness. And then David took Hushai, his next astutest counsellor to Ahithophel, and filled him with guile and sent him back to deceive Absalom and to counteract all the counsels of Ahithophel. Which he did. For at the end of all their cross-counsels we read this report and this reflection of the sacred writer on it all: And Absalom said, The counsel of Hushai the Archite is better than the counsel of Ahithophel. For the Lord had appointed to defeat the good counsel of Ahithophel, to the intent that He might bring evil upon Absalom. Ahithophel gave two of his deepest counsels to Absalom. Ahithophel has been called Judas, and all manner of evil names, for his first counsel that he gave to Absalom. And, no doubt, Ahithophel's first counsel sounds in our ears at this time of day abominable enough. But you will believe all things, and will hope all things even about Ahithophel. You will judge neither Ahithophel nor any other man, 'without necessity, nor without knowledge, nor without love.' For Absalom had said to Ahithophel, Give counsel among you what we shall do. And Ahithophel gave Absalom a counsel that you know already, or if you do not know it you will read it at home. Nothing, certainly, could sound worse. But, when I put myself in Ahithophel's place, for anything I know, the so subtle and so sorely injured Ahithophel may honestly enough have said something like this to himself. Something, possibly, like this: 'Has not David cast himself completely out of the throne? Has he not destroyed himself? Has he not thrown down the sceptre? Has not the Lord turned against him? And did not the Lord's righteous servant say that the Lord would do this same thing to David that David had done before all Israel and before the sun? I am only counselling Absalom to fulfil as the hand of the Lord what the Lord swore that He would do Himself to David.' Ahithophel's extraordinary and superhuman subtlety may honestly enough have led him to think that he saw in his counsel both prophecy, and policy, and payment back again into David's own bosom of all that David had done to other men, and to no man more than to Ahithophel himself. But whatever may be said about Ahithophel's first counsel, his second counsel to Absalom is pronounced to be good by the sacred writer; but, then, what of that, when the Lord had appointed to defeat it that the Lord might bring evil upon Absalom? When we are working upon Ahithophel in this way, and when our minds and our hearts are full of Ahithophel, we cannot but wish that we had been told some more about him, and especially about his latter end. But the sacred writer has to hasten on. He has David and Absalom so much on his mind and on his heart that he draws a black border round Ahithophel's deathbed in these terrible words, and then leaves him: And when Ahithophel saw that his counsel was not followed, he saddled his ass, and arose, and gat him home to his own house, to his city, and put his household in order, and hanged himself, and died, and was buried in the sepulchre of his father.
Now, as you know, Ahithophel, from that day to this, has been stoned in his grave at Giloh, and all manner of names called at him as he lies there: Deserter, traitor, apostate, Judas Iscariot, suicide, and all manner of evil names, because he left David and joined Absalom. And, no doubt, had Ahithophel seen to the end, as he should have seen; had Ahithophel known all that we know,-and if he had been a better man he would have known more than even he was let know,-had he known the half of what we know, Ahithophel would have held fast to David, let David do what he liked. But Ahithophel lived in the day of David and not yet in the day of Christ; and he suffered at the hand of David what neither you nor I have ever suffered at any man's hand. And if he did not live and die in David's service, and if you will never forgive him for that; then, if it will do you any good, you can go home casting stones all thy way at Bathsheba's broken-hearted grandfather. My business tonight is neither to whitewash Ahithophel nor blacken David, even were that possible, but to let you see yourselves in them both as in a glass. How, then, have you always acted toward those of your former friends who have injured you and yours? Did you shut your door this morning and pray in secret, saying, Forgive me my trespasses against God and man, as I forgive him-naming him-who has so trespassed against me? When you stood here praying tonight, did you forgive some enemy? Ahithophel should have conquered himself. Ahithophel was not a Hittite. Ahithophel was well read in all the law of Moses, if not yet in the law of Christ. Ahithophel should have gone on with his work in the city of David. He should have said-what, indeed, had he got his great head and his deep heart for but to say it with them?-Vengeance is not mine. I have eaten David's bread when he had plenty, Ahithophel should have said, and he shall come to Giloh now and eat my bread. Yes, Ahithophel, like the oracle of God he was, should have called to mind this psalm of David, and said: It shall be an excellent oil, which shall not break my head; for yet my prayer shall be for David in all his calamities.
And, then, on the other hand, though it is not written out, I for one shall continue to believe it, that David in his best moments took it all home to himself that Ahithophel was gone over to Absalom. David knew quite well all the time whose grandchild Uriah's wife was. As soon as David came to himself he must have foreseen all this. David was not so quick in the uptake as Ahithophel, but he was not a fool,-when he came to himself. David knew as well as all Jerusalem did what it was that had thrown Ahithophel over to Absalom's side. We see it every day in our own parties in the state, in our parties in the church, in our parties in the city, in our parties in our families. We have the gall and wormwood in ourselves that it was we ourselves that did it. It was our bad temper, our bad tongue, our want of thought, our want of love, our want of patience, our want of humility that threw this old ally and that old adviser, this able man and that rich man, into the opposite camp. We all know men who have, to all appearance, gone over for ever from truth and goodness, and from the winning to the losing side, because of us. Every time we meet them on the street, every time we hear their name spoken, every time we call them in any way to mind, something says within us-You did it. We ministers especially have our own very heavy hearts on this account. Our neglect of duty, our laziness and procrastination at a moment that went in a moment, and that we shall look back to with remorse all our days; our hot-headedness, our domineeringness, our indiscretions of speech, and our follies in conduct. Where is that family? Where is that former friend? Where is he who was once to us as the oracle of God? Where is that man, mine equal, my guide, and mine acquaintance? We took sweet counsel together, and walked unto the house of God in company. Why is he no longer here? Why is he where he now is?
And, then, what did David think when Ahithophel's terrible end was told him? And what did Bathsheba think? Did she curse David to his face when it was told her what her grandfather had done to himself? Did Uriah's wife fling David's psalms in his face in her agony of horror and self-disgust? Did she scream in her sleep till all Jerusalem heard her as she saw in her sleep her grandfather's gallows at Giloh? Or was this prophecy fulfilled before it was spoken: In that day there shall be a great mourning in Jerusalem, the house of David apart, and their wives apart, till there shall be a fountain opened to the house of David for sin and for uncleanness? And then did David go out to Giloh, and over the sepulchre of the suicide did David fall down and cry, past all consolation, O Ahithophel, the friend of my youth and my best counsellor, Ahithophel! Would God I had died for thee! O Ahithophel, mine equal, my guide, and mine acquaintance! If he did-then this would come in, The sacrifices of God are a broken heart. What did David think, and what did Bathsheba think? True. But what would you think if the first thing you saw tomorrow morning was the suicide of some one who has been the victim of your lust or your lies? Pray, man, pray. In God's name, pray. And though the poison may be bought, and the rope put up, God can do it. God can deliver you. With God all things are possible. Pray, you great sinner; pray, you great fool, pray. Pray, lest the newspaper run blood on your hands some morning, as the letters from Giloh ran Ahithophel's blood on David's hands. Pray for your Ahithophel without ceasing, and for all your Ahithophel's house. Give God no rest till He has remitted to you Ahithophel and all his injuries, and till He has repented of the evil He has reserved out of Ahithophel and out of his house against you. Every day you live, and till the day of your death, beseech the living God to make it all up to your Ahithophel and to set it all down to your account.
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Whyte, Alexander. Entry for 'Ahithophel'. Alexander Whyte's Dictionary of Bible Characters. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/wbc/a/ahithophel.html. 1901.