A messenger came and told David, “The hearts of the people of Israel are with Absalom.” Then David said to all his officials who were with him in Jerusalem, “Come! We must flee, or none of us will escape from Absalom. We must leave immediately, or he will move quickly to overtake us and bring ruin on us and put the city to the sword.” The king’s officials answered him, “Your servants are ready to do whatever our lord the king chooses.” The king set out, with his entire household following him; but he left ten concubines to take care of the palace. So the king set out, with all the people following him, and they halted at the edge of the city. All his men marched past him, along with all the Kerethites and Pelethites; and all the six hundred Gittites who had accompanied him from Gath marched before the king. The king said to Ittai the Gittite, “Why should you come along with us? Go back and stay with King Absalom. You are a foreigner, an exile from your homeland. You came only yesterday. And today shall I make you wander about with us, when I do not know where I am going? Go back, and take your people with you. May the Lord show you kindness and faithfulness.”
But Ittai replied to the king, “As surely as the Lord lives, and as my lord the king lives, wherever my lord the king may be, whether it means life or death, there will your servant be.” David said to Ittai, “Go ahead, march on.” So Ittai the Gittite marched on with all his men and the families that were with him. The whole countryside wept aloud as all the people passed by. The king also crossed the Kidron Valley, and all the people moved on toward the wilderness. Zadok was there, too, and all the Levites who were with him were carrying the ark of the covenant of God. They set down the ark of God, and Abiathar offered sacrifices until all the people had finished leaving the city. Then the king said to Zadok, “Take the ark of God back into the city. If I find favour in the Lord’s eyes, he will bring me back and let me see it and his dwelling place again. But if he says, ‘I am not pleased with you,’ then I am ready; let him do to me whatever seems good to him.” The king also said to Zadok the priest, “Do you understand? Go back to the city with my blessing. Take your son Ahimaaz with you, and also Abiathar’s son Jonathan. You and Abiathar return with your two sons. I will wait at the fords in the wilderness until word comes from you to inform me.” So Zadok and Abiathar took the ark of God back to Jerusalem and stayed there. But David continued up the Mount of Olives, weeping as he went; his head was covered and he was barefoot. All the people with him covered their heads too and were weeping as they went up. Now David had been told, “Ahithophel is among the conspirators with Absalom.” So David prayed, “Lord, turn Ahithophel’s counsel into foolishness.” When David arrived at the summit, where people used to worship God, Hushai the Arkite was there to meet him, his robe torn and dust on his head. David said to him, “If you go with me, you will be a burden to me. But if you return to the city and say to Absalom, ‘Your Majesty, I will be your servant; I was your father’s servant in the past, but now I will be your servant,’ then you can help me by frustrating Ahithophel’s advice. Won’t the priests Zadok and Abiathar be there with you? Tell them anything you hear in the king’s palace. Their two sons, Ahimaaz son of Zadok and Jonathan son of Abiathar, are there with them. Send them to me with anything you hear.” So Hushai, David’s confidant, arrived at Jerusalem as Absalom was entering the city.
According to the fourth gospel, Jesus followed in David’s footsteps on the night of his own betrayal. John alone identifies the garden where he met with his betrayers after supper as being in the Kidron Valley. But where was the equivalent of Ittai the Gittite that night?
Jesus had already spoken about loyalty: “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also” (John 12.26). It’s almost the same words as Ittai’s protestation, “Wherever my lord the king may be, whether for death or life, there also your servant will be.”
In both stories we encounter the same dynamics of a near-fatally weakened leader not just learning who is ready to betray him, but also discovering who is ready to run away rather than remain with him to the end. We know the later story and its outcomes well enough. The brave words of Peter change quickly to outraged denial; and only the women (and in John’s account one disciple) will be found standing at the Cross.
But in this story we meet with characters we’ve had less opportunity to come to know and scrutinise. Which is how things usually are in life, so that the person who reckons themselves to be a good judge of character can often be badly mistaken. David had thought Ahithophel to be someone he could rely on– the kind of ally one might need in cabinet meetings, or even elders’ meetings. I wonder how much thought he’d given to the reliability of Ittai, the sojourner-cum-refugee who appears in the story out of nowhere. But unlike those later disciples who fled in all directions, Ittai is true to his promise of loyalty, and keeps his whole company loyal and together. They march on across the Kidron, into the dark and the wilderness.
Gracious God keep me faithful to the promises I’ve made and may my loyalty to you be a strengthening and encouragement to others wherever life’s way may lead us. Amen
The Rev’d John Durell is a retired minister and member of Waddington Street URC, Durham