David had taken full advantage of the delay that Hushai had counselled to Absalom, with large numbers of the people being gathered to David. Now the time comes for war with Absalom, who has considered himself strong with support of many of Israel also. David divides his men into three bands, well organized and ready for battle. Joab is in charge of one band, Abishai his brother in charge of a second, and Ittai over the third.
David's purpose to go out to battle also was however strongly opposed by his men, who knew that Absalom was most anxious that David should be killed (v.3). If his men should have to flee, David would be more likely to be caught and killed. At their insistence he agrees to remain behind (v.4). However, he urged all three leaders to deal gently with Absalom. Evidently he was confident that they would gain the victory, but was also concerned about his son who only wanted to kill his father. It is an instance where personal feelings were stronger than his sense of justice. His orders were heard by the people also (v.5).
The battle took place in the woods of Ephraim, so that evidently both opposing armies crossed back over the Jordan before the engagement took place (v.6).
The victory of David's men was swift and decisive, with 20,000 of Absalom's army killed in one day. The battle was scattered over the whole countryside, and rather than the woods being a protection for those who fled, we are told the woods devoured more than were killed by the sword. Clearly, it was God's intervention that caused this. If others were riding on animals, as Absalom was, the frightened animals might well have done the same as Absalom's mule, with riders striking their heads on branches etc., and being killed.
God's solemn judgment is clearly seen in the case of Absalom, whose mule, running under a terebinth tree, left him hanging by his head in the branches (v.9). Evidently a forked branch caught him around the neck. What shock and injury he had sustained would leave him too weak to extricate himself. Thus God saw fit to bring down the headstrong pride of the would-be king!
One of Joab's men informed him of his seeing Absalom caught in this way. Joab immediately censored the man for not killing Absalom, in fact telling him he would have give him ten shekels of silver and a belt if he had done so. The man strongly resisted this, saying he would not kill Absalom for 1000 shekels of silver, since David had plainly commanded Joab, Abishai and Ittai in the hearing of all the people not to touch Absalom. The man positively tells Joab also that Joab himself would take sides against him if he had killed Absalom. The man evidently knew something of Joab's character!
Joab impatiently set the man aside, and took three spears and thrust them into Absalom's heart in the tree. Then Joab's ten-man bodyguard made sure of completing the death of Absalom. Of course, Joab and all his men knew that Absalom was the one cause of this conspiracy against David, and that it was virtually imperative that Absalom should be killed if David was to be preserved.
Since Absalom was dead there was no longer need to pursue his followers. Joab blew a trumpet to signal a cessation of warfare. Absalom was given no honor whatever in his burial (v.16). The soldiers threw his body into a large pit in the woods and covered it with a very large heap of stones. Perhaps Absalom had expected that others would give him no honor in his death, for he had earlier set up a pillar with the object of perpetuating his name, since he had no son (v.18). He sought his own honor, as thousands of others have done both before and after him, and his monument was really only a reminder of his haughty, proud character and of his ignominious death. What an example he was of the Lord's warning words, "Whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased" (Luke 14:11). In contrast, let us follow the example of the Lord Jesus, of whom it was preeminently true, "He that humbleth himself shall be exalted."
News of the battle against Absalom must be sent to David. Ahimaaz the son of Zadok the priest was eager to bear the message, but Joab knew him to be a tender-hearted man, and that he would not want to tell David of the death of Absalom. Therefore Joab chose another man, the Cushite, to do so. He immediately began his long run. But Ahimaaz was anxious to give good news to David, and urged Joab to also let him run. 0 course this was not necessary, but at the persistence of Ahiumaaz, Joab gave him permission (v.23). Apparently the Cushite had taken a mountain trail, which would be rugged, though possibly shorter than by way of the plain, which Ahimaaz chose. This would at least be easier running, and the speed of Ahimaaz was such as to out-distance the Cushite.
David was waiting anxiously for news, sitting between the gates of the city. As the watchman saw a man running alone, David knew that he was bringing news. As he came nearer the watchman saw another following. Then the watchman discerned the first to be Ahimaaz, and David; knowing the man, expected him to bring good news.
Indeed, Ahimaaz was so anxious to set the king's mind at rest that he called out "All is well." Then he gives God the honor for having delivered up the man who had raised revolt against David. Of course, David would know by this that the victory was decisive. However, his greatest concern was for his son, and he asks, "Is the young man Absalom safe?" Ahimaaz knew he had been killed, but was afraid to tell David this, so he rather told him that he had seen a great tumult, but did not know anything of its outcome. In other words, the goodness of the character of Ahimaaz influenced him to compromise the faithfulness of the message.
The Cushite, closely following, also first gave David the good news of the victory of his armies, but at David's questioning as to Absalom, he told him, "May the enemies of my lord the king, and all that rise against you to do you harm, be as that young man is!" No doubt this way of speaking was just as considerate as can be expected in telling the truth of the matter.
David's appreciation of the victory was apparently completely overshadowed by his grief at the death of Absalom. No doubt if Absalom had shown any sign of faith in the living God, David may have had some consolation in the fact of his death, but it was sorrow unspeakable to think of Absalom's going out into the darkness of eternal judgment. David's sorrow for his son utterly overwhelmed him, and he wept with an anguish that keenly wished he had died in Absalom's place. If this had happened, Absalom would have had further time in which to repent, but Israel would have been subjected to the cruelty of his ruling them according to his own will, with God firmly ignored. But God knew Absalom would never repent: he had formed a determined self-righteous character. Though David was hurt deeply, yet to bow under God's hand would have been wiser than his loud mourning before the people, and a true evidence of faith.
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Grant, L. M. "Commentary on 2 Samuel 18". L.M. Grant's Commentary on the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week of Lent