Absalom and Achitophel begins in the world of Old Testament history. The vague biblical past of the opening lines lets the narrative to be set from 2 Samuel in a wide historical frame that hopes to legitimize the king's promiscuity by associating the king as father of the land:
In pious times, e'r priestcraft did begin,
Before polygamy was made a sin;
When one man on many multiplied his kind,
Ere one to one was cursedly confined;
When nature prompted and no law denied
Promiscuous use of concubine and bride;
Then Israel's monarch after Heaven's own heart,
His vigorous warmth did variously impart
To wives and slaves; and, wide as his command,
Scattered his Maker's image through the land. (l. 1-10)
The association between God and David is made through the clever comparison of divine and human fertility. There is some irony in seeing God's abundant creation reflected in the king's sexual extravagances, but the irony doesn't reduce the status of the king. It serves, at the beginning of the poem, to separate the person of the king from the office of the king.
The opening scenes emphasize David as an indulgent father, not as head of the country. David's pleasure in Absalom parallels God's attitude toward Adam in the Garden. All of Absalom's motions are accompanied with grace, And paradise was opened in his face.
With secret joy indulgent David viewed His youthful image in his son renewed: To all his wishes nothing he denied; And made the charming Annabel his bride. (l. 29-34)
The easy going nature of Absalom, put together with the specific reference to paradise, help establish him as the figure from Eden that will be seen again in the temptation. The characterization of David emphasizes a combination of divine and human paternity. Like God, David takes great joy in his creation; like God, he supplies Absalom with a worthwhile bride. This serious presentation of David in his fatherly joy and indulgence, as compared to the divine model, cannot be taken as criticism of the king. It strengthens the casual relationship between God and David established at the opening of the poem. When attention is called to indulgence or weakness in David's character, it is in a context that shows David's indulgence to be a reflection of his paternal, rather than kingly, capacity:
What faults he had (for whom from faults if free?)
His father could not, or he would not see. (l. 35-36) The emphasis is on David's paternal indulgence. The initial presentation of David and Absalom closes with a declaration of the calm of David's reign:
Thus praised and lived the noble youth remained, While David, undisturbed, in Sion reigned. (l. 41-42)
In the temptation, Achitophel uses biblical language to persuade Absalom of the kingship to which he is destined:
Auspicious prince, at whose nativity Some royal planet ruled the southern sky; Thy longing country's darling and desire Their cloudy pillar and their guardian fire: Their second Moses, whose extended wand Divides the seas, and shows the promised land; Whose dawning day in every distant age Has exercised the sacred prophet's rage: The people's prayer, the glad diviners' theme, The young men's vision, and the old men's dream! Thee, savior, thee, the nation's vow's confess, And, never satisfied with seeing, bless. (l. 230-241)
The use of typology in the biblical context of the poem suggests a fine distinction between Absalom's response to the temptation, and to Achitophel's well-spoken words. By using types to persuade Absalom of his role as savior, Achitophel becomes an ironic Gospel prophet, and Absalom a false messiah. Achitophel is not slow to offer specific examples of his predictions. He first claims that Absalom's nativity was marked by some royal planet that ruled the southern sky - a favorable omen. The astronomical sign, which is one of the messianic allusions of the temptation scene, is not the correct nativity sign! The star of the real Messiah rises in the east, not the south (Matt. 2:2, 9-11).
Next, Achitophel calls Absalom the country's cloudy pillar, guardian fire, and second Moses (ll. 233-35). All three are familiar biblical signs; and the pillar and fire are promised in Isaiah as signs of god's renewed presence among the Israelites (Isaiah 4:5). The typical signs that Achitophel mentions have general biblical meaning and would have been persuasive for Absalom, the biblical prince.
In convincing Absalom of his messianic role, Achitophel portrays David as an old man with declining powers and as a fallen Lucifer:
Had thus old David, from whose loins you spring,
Not dared, when Fortune called him, to be king,
At Gath an exile he might still remain,
And heaven's anointing oil had been in vain.
Let his successful youth your hopes engage;
But shun the example of declining age;
Behold him setting in western skies,
The shadows lengthening as the vapors rise.
He is not now, as when on Jordan's sand
The joyful people thronged to see him land,
Covering the beach, and blackening all the strand;
But, like the Prince of Angels, from his height,
Comes tumbling downward with diminished light. (ll. 262-274)
There is a great deal of irony in this, warning of Achitophel's deceptive persuasion. Hoping to convince Absalom of the practicality of a "pleasing rape upon the crown" (l 474), Achitophel associates David's old age with his supposed political impotence. Achitophel attempts to remove the kingship and the question of secession from the authority of Heaven and the law of God by falsifying the account of David's return from exile. According to Achitophel, David was called from Gath by fortune; according to the Bible, he was called from exile by god and anointed by Heaven. Achitophel's argument makes the sanctity of heaven dependent on the arbitrary role of fortune's wheel, whose prizes must be grabbed. In the context of biblical history, that ethic obviously contradicts the moral code and world order implied by God's written law.
The end of Achitophel's description is the simile "like the Prince of Angels," used to epitomize David's decline. Achitophel chooses this image to contrast the descending, faltering light of David's kingship with the rising royal planet of Absalom's aspirations; but the use of this simile reveals more than the wordy resemblance. By identifying Godlike David with Satan, Achitophel joins forces with the devil himself as a defamer of God.
As the picture of David comes to a close, Achitophel characterizes David's impotance more subtly. Asserting that David is powerless to resist Absalom's claim to the throne, Achitophel asks, "What strength can he to your designs oppose, / Naked of friends, and round beset with foes?" (l. 279-80). The second line of the couplet alludes to Samson and suggests the description, from Milton, of Samson being blind among his enemies:
Betray'd, Captiv'd, and both my eyes put out,
Made of my enemies the scorn and gaze;
Blind among enemies, O worse than chains,
Dungeon, or beggary, or decrepit age! (Samson Agonisties ll. 33-34, 68-69)
There are two ways of reading this allusion back into Achitophel's portrait of David. The most obvious is that Achitophel unknowingly predicts the final triumph of David as a Samson figure who wreaks havoc on his enemies and asserts the force of God's law.
Especially Christ among enemies and false friends. That relationship also suggests the final victory of God over Satan and all antichrists. Moreover, David as paralleled with Samson, given the typical relationship that both Old Testament figures bear to Christ, plays off nicely against David's own reference to Absalom as a false Samson, a pretend Messiah:
If my young Samson will pretend a call To shake the column, let him share the fall. (l 955-56)
The couplet works in two ways, characterizing Absalom's revolt and messianic claim as a 'fall' and ironically opposing it to the true messianic 'call' and 'fall' to sacrifice and death which Samson, as type of Christ, exemplifies. The words of Achitophel and the drama of his temptation of Absalom characterize the two figures and confirm the original relationship that has been established between David and God. Throughout the poem that relationship is reconfirmed by association, by direct assertion, and by the fallen characters' version of what is asserted to be the true order of things. Those reconfirmations of David's relationship with God - especially the increasing emphasis on David's kingly role - work to transform David from private father to public king.
Once more the godlike David was restored, And willing nations knew their lawful lord. (l. 1030-31)