How could any man unseat King David and chase him from his throne in Jerusalem? Knowing the character of that fierce warrior and mighty man of God, we would think that such a thing must be impossible. David was so loved, respected, and feared that it must have taken a truly mighty warrior to remove him from the throne, right? Wrong. All it took to send David into retreat was some emotional manipulation by his estranged son, Absalom.
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, 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.
David's son Absalom accomplished his treachery against his father, the king, by lying to the people, by telling them what they wanted to hear, by setting himself up as the only one who could help them, and by disingenuous physical contact that tricked the people into thinking that this evil rebel really loved them and had their best interests at heart. This strategy may at once seem very familiar to most of us - it has been used by almost every politician from that time onward.
My own concern in meditating on this passage, though, is how it intersects with the way that church leaders build their own support in their congregations. Do these kinds of deceitful methods work in the church? If so, should they then be used to arrest the hearts of the congregation, since it would seem to be a good thing to secure the love and support of the people? The apostle Paul certainly doesn't think so:
Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s Word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. (2 Corinthians 4:1-2)
In the ways that ministers of the Gospel deal with their flocks, there should be no deceit, no cunning, no disgraceful, underhanded ways. Instead, there should be only an open statement of the truth.
What is so sad, though, is how many in the church - just like in ancient Israel - can be turned aside from the truth by shysters who scratch itching ears and who are quick to give hugs and kisses, all while directing their path toward ruin and destruction. Wolves always come to do their work in sheep's clothing. If they didn't, then their prey would bolt at the first sight of them. What God's sheep need to learn to do is to look for the seams in the costume and to smell the predator beneath.
One way you can tell a wolf is by looking at his I's - no, not his eyes, his 'I's'! How much does he talk about himself? Does he tell story after story about what he has done, or does he spend his time talking about what Christ has done? Speaking of 'eyes', though, they can be important too. True sheep keep their eyes on the shepherd. Wolves watch the sheep. Is he man-centered or God-centered? When he prays, does he spend a lot of time praising God for His greatness and seeking His will and His kingdom, or does he 'keep his eyes down' and focus only on human concerns?
Perhaps the best way you can identify a wolf, though, is by his voice. How does the man handle the Word of God when he 'preaches' it? Paul told Timothy to "Preach the Word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching" (2 Timothy 4:2). In the passage I quoted above from 2 Corinthians, Paul says that the true man of God does not "tamper with God's Word".
So how does the man under examination handle the Word? Does he open the Bible at all, or does he just tell stories and jokes and talk about statistics and steps to solve this or that problem in your life? If he does open the Word, does he preach it - explain the intricacies of it and apply them - or does he just get the reading of it out of the way so that he can spend the rest of the time saying whatever he wants to say? A true shepherd of the sheep - a true 'pastor' - should be able to say, "Thus says the Lord" after every sentence and paragraph that he utters. And you should be able to test him in that way. Take something he said and ask, "Did the Lord say this in his Word?" If you can look back at the passage being preached, or a supplemental text referenced by the preacher, and see it there, then the man is doing his job. If he's just saying a lot of things that have no basis in the text - regardless of whether they may sound good or not - then he is not "preaching the Word", he is saying what he wants to say.
And all of this is so important because, as Paul says in the verses following those cited earlier from 2 Timothy, "For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths" (2 Timothy 4:3-4). That way leads to destruction. The wolf in the funny outfit wants to eat you, not be your friend - no matter how many times he gives you hugs and grips your shoulder while he shakes your hand. Beware those who would try to destroy your faith with their deceit, and love and hold in high honor those who would renounce disgraceful, underhanded ways and refuse to tamper with God's Word, but who would commend themselves to your consciences by the open statement of the truth.