Does David get a sense of this? Did he realize that the Ark was being treated as a talisman and an idol? This had happened once before during the time of the judges, when Hophni and Phinehas, the corrupt sons of Eli, brought the Ark into the presence of the Israelite army as they were being threatened by and were fearful of the army of the Philistines. What happened to the Ark in that instance? It was captured by the Philistines. Israel fell to the Philistines in battle, Hophni and Phinehas were killed, Eli fell over and broke his neck when he heard the news of the Ark’s capture, and Phinehas’ wife gave birth to a son and named him Ichabod, saying that “The glory has departed from Israel, because the Ark of God has been captured” (1 Samuel 4:22).
Understandably then, David did not want to be on any side of that issue. He did not want to treat the Ark as an idol. He did not want to leave the people in a vulnerable position without the presence of their God, and thereby effectively in exile. He did not want to be thought of as somebody who had captured the Ark and therefore caused the glory of the Lord to depart from Israel, nor did he want to experience the exile-like curses that came upon the Philistines because they presumed to possess the Ark of the Covenant God. So “the king said to Zadok, ‘Take the Ark of God back to the city. If I find favor in the Lord’s sight He will bring me back and enable me to see both it and His dwelling place again. However, if He should say, “I do not take pleasure in you,” then He will deal with me in a way that He considers appropriate’.” (15:25-26) This represents a turning of the tide for David. Once he actively recognizes the Lord God of Israel’s hand in all of these things, matters begin to turn out better for him and worse for Absalom.
Later on in Israel’s history, the book of Jeremiah will inform a people that are nearing a time of exile and foreign subjugation to not lose heart or forget the covenant faithfulness of their God. Their God has delivered a solemn promise, saying “When the time for them to be rescued comes… I will rescue you from foreign subjugation. I will deliver you from captivity. Foreigners will then no longer subjugate them. But they will be subject to the Lord their God and to the Davidic ruler whom I will raise up as king over them” (30:8-9). Ironically, it is King David---the very one to whom is made reference by the term “Davidic ruler”---that is himself going into exile. He is, in a way, undergoing a foreign subjugation. Why? Because, like Israel itself, he had taken his eyes off of his God. Because, like Israel itself, he had forgotten his purpose. He had begun to treat the people of Israel as if they were there for him, rather than remembering his role and that he was there to be a servant to the covenant people of the covenant God.
How could he serve them best? By being a testimony of what it looked like to be a light to the surrounding nations and so reflect the glory, into the world, of the God Who had anointed him and delivered him a kingdom. How could he do that if he was oppressing his own people, taking their wives, and killing them? How could he do that if he was showing favoritism to his own son and not executing what justice demanded? How could he do that if he allowed the relationship with another son to deteriorate to the point that that son could feel the need to turn the people against his father and take the kingdom for himself? David had become a king for himself and for his own glory, rather than for his people, for the world, and for the glory of Israel’s God. This was David’s idolatry, and it had earned him an exile.