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Bible Commentaries
2 Samuel 18

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries



Absalom had crossed the Jordan River with an immense force of more than forty thousand men, referred to as “all Israel” in the text. He was riding at the forefront of this great army in royal style on a mule, probably the favorite mule that belonged to David. He had abandoned the chariot with fifty young men running before him and was riding in state anticipating the approaching overthrow of David, whom he supposed to be hiding in terror within the walls of Mahanaim. Strung out behind him for many miles were his soldiers. Absalom had probably rushed on ahead in order to find a good camping place not too far from Mahanaim, where his great army would pause and get ready for the final and fatal assault upon David’s headquarters. It is simply incredible how much of this procedure was an enactment of the fanciful vision of Hushai who had filled Absalom’s mind with this “victorious scenario,” which was as utterly unrealistic as anything ever imagined!.

Amasa, the general whom Absalom had placed in control of so vast a force, made no effort whatever to guard against a surprise attack. Neither he nor Absalom had supposed for a moment that David would dare to attack such a tremendous military force as Absalom had brought together.

And what kind of military support had gathered around David? Josephus has this comment on that. “But when David had numbered his men and found them to be about four thousand, he resolved not to wait until Absalom attacked him”;(F1) but he organized his forces under three commanders and launched a devastating attack upon Absalom’s army in such a manner that Absalom’s forces were taken by surprise and slaughtered with a great slaughter.

Verses 1-5


“Then David mustered the men who were with him, and set over them commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds. And David sent forth the army, one-third under the command of Joab, one-third under the command of Abishai the son of Zeruiah, Joab’s brother, and one-third under the command of Ittai the Gitate. And the king said to the men, “I myself will also go out with you.” But the men said, “You shall not go out. For if we flee, they will not care about us. If half of us die, they will not care about us. But you are worth ten thousand of us; therefore it is better that you send us help from the city.” The king said to them, “Whatever seems best to you I will do.” So the king stood at the side of the gate, while all the army marched out by hundreds and by thousands. And the king ordered Joab and Abishai and Ittai, “Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.” And all the people heard when the king gave orders to all the commanders about Absalom.”

“One third under the command of Joab, one third under the command of Abishai… and one third under the command of Ittai” “It was common war strategy in ancient times to divide the army into three bodies (Judges 7:16; Judges 9:43; 1 Samuel 11:11; 1 Samuel 13:17; and 2 Kings 9:5-6).”(F2) In this particular case, however, there was another good reason. “Ittai had brought his clan of foreigners with him, and they would have been reluctant to fight under an Israelite commander, so David placed the foreigners under Ittai and the native troops under his nephews Joab and Abishai.”(F3)

“It is better that you send us help from the city” The men of David persuaded him not to go into battle for fear that his life might be taken away, but Absalom’s men had taken no such precaution upon his behalf. In fact, it was Absalom’s secret enemy Hushai who persuaded him to lead the army, “Thus serving Absalom’s pride better than his prudence.”(F4) The argument of David’s men here was that in case reinforcements were needed, David should remain behind at Mahanaim in order to send them if the situation required it.

“Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom” “Apparently, David still looked upon Absalom as merely a bad boy, and treated his rebellion as a youthful escape which he could forgive rather easily.”(F5) David seems not to have been able to understand that nothing on earth could resolve the conflict except either his own death, or that of Absalom. “This order of David put his military men in an impossible dilemma. How could they win the victory for David, and at the same time deal gently with Absalom”?(F6)

Verses 6-8


“So the army went out into the field against Israel; and the battle was fought in the forest of Ephraim. And the men of Israel were defeated there by the servants of David, and the slaughter was great on that day, twenty thousand men. The battle spread over the face of all the country; and the forest devoured more people that day than the sword.”

“The forest of Ephraim” “This place is not otherwise known to us.”(F7) Keil was certain that `the forest of Ephraim’ was west of the Jordan river;(F8) Willis located it east of Jordan,(F9) and there are excellent arguments that may be advanced supporting either view. My own opinion favors an east of Jordan site, because Absalom had crossed the Jordan with all those men (2 Samuel 17:24). And furthermore, David’s men returned to Mahanaim that day after the battle ended; and that was east of Jordan.

If we may hazard a guess as to how the `forest of Ephraim’ received its name and yet lay outside of Ephraim’s territory (which was west of Jordan), it was from that disastrous defeat of Ephraim in that very forest by the troops of Jephthah, which slew forty-two thousand Ephraimites there (Judges 12:1-6).

“The slaughter there was great… twenty thousand men” It is not difficult to account for this awful butchery of Absalom’s men. They were surprised by the three detachments of David’s army which fell upon them as they were marching, their weapons perhaps still in wagons for their conveyance, and David’s hardened veterans simply butchered them by the thousands.

“The battle spread over the face of all the country” The panic which seized Absalom’s forces scattered them for miles in all directions, but David’s well-organized and disciplined men merely pursued them and executed them by the sword.

“The forest devoured more people that day than the sword” It is difficult to know how this verse should be understood. It may mean that another twenty thousand men were destroyed by the forest in addition to the twenty thousand men destroyed by the sword. Another possible understanding of it is that the forest destroyed so many because of the advantages it gave to David’s men. “Because of the pits, precipices, and unevenness of the ground, more were slain in the pursuit through the forest than were slain in the battle itself.”(F10) Bennett understood the passage as meaning that, “Many fugitives lost their lives by falling headlong in the broken rocky country; and some, perhaps many of the wounded, died of hunger, thirst, and exhaustion.”(F11) Matthew Henry placed the total number of deaths at “More than 40,000; as the Chaldee paraphrast understands it, `the wild beasts of the forest were probably the death of multitudes of the dispersed and distracted Israelites.’“(F12) However, one reads the place, the slaughter that day was indeed great.

Verses 9-15


“And Absalom chanced to meet the servants of David. Absalom was riding upon his mule, and the mule went under the thick branches of a great oak, and his head caught fast in the oak, and he was left hanging between heaven and earth, while the mule that was under him went on.. And a certain man saw it and told Joab, “Behold, I saw Absalom hanging in an oak.” Joab said to the man who told him, “What, you saw him! Why then, did you not strike him there to the ground? I would have been glad to give you ten pieces of silver and a girdle.” But the man said to Joab, “Even if I held in my hand the weight of a thousand pieces of silver, I would not put forth my hand against the king’s son; for in our hearing the king commanded you and Abishai and Ittai, `For my sake, protect the young man Absalom.’ On the other hand, if I had dealt treacherously against his life (and there is nothing hidden from the king), then you yourself would have stood aloof.” Joab said, “I will not waste time like this with you.” And he took three darts in his hand, and thrust them into the heart of Absalom, while he was still alive in the oak. And ten young men, Joab’s armor bearers, surrounded Absalom and struck him and killed him.”

“His head caught fast in the oak” We are indebted to Josephus for the tradition that Absalom’s hair was a factor in this episode. He wrote that, “He entangled his hair greatly in the large boughs of a knotty oak tree, but the beast went swiftly on; and there he hung after a surprising manner.”(F13) The sacred text does not support Josephus’ account of what happened. Absalom was caught, not by his hair, but by his head. “Absalom, riding headlong on uneven ground, was carried with force into an oak tree, so that his head stuck in a fork between two branches, and he perhaps lost consciousness.”(F14) This is likely true, because there is no account of his trying to dislodge himself. Of course, the mule went on, leaving his rider suspended between heaven and earth.

“Thus the most notable victim of the forest was Absalom himself.”(F15) Matthew Henry noted that for especially notorious rebels against God’s will, the Lord often provided some SPECTACULAR manner of taking them from the face of the earth, as in the rebellion of Korah, and here in the case of Absalom.

“If I had dealt treacherously against his life… then you yourself would have stood aloof” “The man who thus answered Joab was not only loyal to King David, but he also thoroughly understood the unscrupulous character of Joab.”(F16)

“And he (Joab) took three darts… and thrust them into the heart of Absalom, while he was still alive” The last clause here shows that the darts did not kill Absalom. “These weapons were inferior, being merely wooden stakes sharpened and hardened in the fire.”(F17) Joab evidently used these since they were the only weapons immediately at hand. “Absalom’s heart, mentioned here, is not a reference to the blood pump, but refers to the midst of Absalom’s body.”(F18) That this is indeed true appears from the fact that. “The word “heart” occurs in 2 Samuel 18:14, which in the KJV is rendered, while he was still alive in the midst of the oak.”(F19) Therefore, if heart means “midst of the oak” in this same passage, it has to mean in the midst of Absalom’s body in the previous verse.

Was it right for Joab to kill Absalom? No! However, his action is understandable in the light of his knowledge that, in all probability, David would have spared Absalom’s life, if he had been captured. Joab should have captured him and have carried him to David for the decision. Joab was not king and did not have the right to take a decision of this kind into his own hands.

Verses 16-19


“Then Joab blew the trumpet, and the troops came back from pursuing Israel; for Joab restrained them. And they took Absalom, and threw him into a great pit in the forest, and raised over him a very great heap of stones; and all Israel fled every one to his own home. Now Absalom in his lifetime had taken and set up for himself the pillar which is in the King’s Valley, for he said, “I have no son to keep my name in remembrance”; he called the pillar after his own name, and it is called Absalom’s monument to this day.”

“They threw him… into a great pit in the forest” The use of the definite article here (`THE’ great pit, as in the Masoretic Text ) seems to indicate that it was well known.”(F20)

“The King’s Valley” (the King’s Dale in the KJV) “This is the same as the Vale of Shaveh (Genesis 24:17 ASV). Here the king of Sodom met Abraham, but the exact location of the place is unknown.”(F21) Young also pointed out that, “Absalom’s Tomb which is today pointed out in the valley of the Kidron is of Roman manufacture and probably resulted from a later tradition.”(F22) Bennett thought that the purpose of introducing this word about the monument in this passage was that of showing the contrast between the monument Absalom wanted and the one he actually received.(F23) Payne conjectured that, “Absalom had erected that monument in the King’s Valley upon the occasion of the death of his three sons (1 Samuel 14:27).”(F24)


By Joab’s having taken charge of the line of communications with David, it is evident that he was the supreme commander of the three divisions of David’s Army.

Verses 20-23

“Then said Ahimaaz the son of Zadok, “Let me run and carry tidings to the king that the Lord has delivered him from the power of his enemies.” And Joab said to him, “You are not to carry tidings today; you may carry tidings another day, but today you shall carry no tidings, because the king’s son is dead.” Then Joab said to the Cushite, “Go tell the king what you have seen.” The Cushite bowed before Joab and ran. Then Ahimaaz the son of Zadok said again to Joab, “Come what may, let me also run after the Cushite.” And Joab said to him, “Why will you run, my son, seeing you have no reward for the tidings”? “Come what may,” he said, “I will run.” So he said to him. “Run.” Then Ahimaaz ran by way of the plain, and outran the Cushite.”

David had executed the messenger who brought him the news of Saul’s death, and also the ones who brought him the news of the death of Ishbosheth (2 Samuel 1:15-16; 2 Samuel 4:5-12), and Joab wanted to spare Ahimaaz the danger he would encounter if he brought David the news of the death of his son Absalom. For that reason, he sent a negro slave, called here “The Cushite” with the news that he knew would break the king’s heart. “Cushite was not the man’s personal name, but signifies that he was an Ethiopian, that is, a negro slave in the service of Joab.”(F25)

Verses 24-27


“Now David was sitting between the two gates; and the watchman went up to the roof of the gate by the wall, and when he lifted up his eyes and looked, he saw a man running alone. And the watchman called out and told the king. And the king said, `If he is alone, there are tidings in his mouth.’ And he came again and drew near. And the watchman saw another man running; and the watchman called to the gate and said, `See, another man running alone!’ The king said, `He also brings tidings.’ And the watchman said, `I think the running of the foremost is like the running of Ahimaaz the son of Zadok.’ And the king said, `He is a good man, and comes with good tidings.’“

“This passage is superb literature, intensely dramatic, and so unmistakably the account of an eye-witness that some have concluded from this that Ahimaaz himself might have been the author of this account as well as the author of 2 Samuel 9-20 also.”(F26)

Verses 28-30


“The Ahimaaz cried out to the king, “All is well.” And he bowed before the king with his face to the earth, and said, “Blessed be the Lord your God, who has delivered up the men who raised their hand against my lord the king.” And the king said, “Is it well with the young man Absalom?” And Ahimaaz answered, “When Joab sent your servant, I saw a great tumult, but I do not know what it was.” And the king said, “Turn aside, and stand here.” So he turned aside, and stood still.”

“I do not know what it was” Of course, Ahimaaz lied about this, because Joab had plainly told him that Absalom was dead (2 Samuel 18:20). “He realized that the king might kill him for bringing that kind of news.”(F27)

Verses 31-33


“And behold, the Cushite came; and the Cushite said, `Good tidings for my lord the king! For the Lord has delivered you this day from the power of all who rose up against you.’ The king said to the Cushite, `Is it well with the young man Absalom?’ And the Cushite answered, `May the enemies of my lord the king, and all who rise up against you for evil, be like that young man.’ And the king was deeply moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate and wept; and as he went, he said, `O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son.’“

There is no more pitiful a picture of David in the whole Bible than this one! Tatum called this passage, “One of the saddest in the Bible.”(F28) But the sadness pertains not so much to David’s love for Absalom as it does to David’s agonizing grief over his own sins which he surely recognized as having precipitated all of the evil that had come upon him in such a dreadful fulfillment of God’s warning to him through Nathan (1 Samuel 12:10).

“Would I had died instead of you” Here David takes upon himself the blame (because of his sins) for the outrageous crimes of Absalom, and the simple truth is that David might have fully expected that God would execute upon him the death which his sins most certainly deserved. Therefore, bound up with his willingness to forgive Absalom was the hope that God would also forgive him. “David’s lamentation is deeply pathetic, and the sincerity of it is beyond any doubt. To such a state had his own sins brought him.”(F29)

“It was David’s conscience which smote him here, for his own sin `had found him out.’ In Psalms 38 and Psalms 40 he made the confession that it was his own iniquity that was now surging over his head.”(F30)

“To understand this passionate utterance of David’s anguish, we should bear in mind, not only David’s excessive tenderness and weakness toward his son, but also his anger that Joab should have paid so little attention to his command to deal TENDERLY with the young man Absalom.”(F31)

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on 2 Samuel 18". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/2-samuel-18.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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