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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible
2 Samuel 18

 

 

Introduction

David’s Great Sins And Their Consequences (11:1-20:26).

We now come to a crucially significant aspect of David’s reign which explains the dark side of that reign. Up to this point all has been pictured as success, and YHWH has been portrayed as with David in all that he has done (even though some of it came after this incident). But from this point on in the narrative we are faced with another aspect of David’s life, and it does not make pleasant reading, for it deals with a period of complacency in David’s life which resulted in heinous sins, and the great problems that then resulted from them. We are not to gather from this that YHWH ceased to bless David. Indeed some of the incidents previously described undoubtedly occurred after what happened here (e.g. his being granted a palace of cedar), and it is made clear in the narrative that YHWH is still active on David’s behalf (2 Samuel 17:14). But there is a deliberate attempt in the following narratives to draw out how David did fail, and the consequences of that failure for at least some of what followed in the latter part of his reign. And what is even more significant is that the narratives appear to have come from records maintained under the authority of David himself (2 Samuel 9 onwards have reasonably been seen as being selections from ‘The Court History Of David’).

This in itself is unusual in that reigning monarchs usually tended to ensure that all indications of failure in their reign were omitted from their records, or at least were altered in order to take the sting out of them. It is therefore an indication of David’s genuineness of heart before God, and of the writer’s intention of writing only to the glory of God, that they did not do the same.

Some have seen chapter 11 onwards as intended to explain how it was that Solomon came to the succession. That is certainly a very important aspect of these chapters, and was possibly in the writer’s mind. But had that been their sole main purpose much that was derogatory to David could have been omitted. So we must certainly add the fact that the writer was equally concerned to bring out how what followed was the result of David’s own weakness and failure as revealed in his adultery with Bathsheba and his cold-blooded murder of Uriah the Hittite. Together with the description of the consequences to the realm of David’s arrogant numbering of Israel (chapter 24), it was intended to bring out that even David was flawed. It was a deliberate reminder that we are to look forward to the coming of the righteous everlasting King of the everlasting kingdom (2 Samuel 7:13; 2 Samuel 7:16; 1 Samuel 2:10; Genesis 49:8-12; Psalms 2:7-12; Numbers 24:17-19; Isaiah 9:6-7; Isaiah 11:1-4) who would be even greater than David.

In some ways David’s life story is very similar to that of Saul, for we saw how Saul’s story began with his success during his rise to power (1 Samuel 10-11), continued with success, even when accompanied by failings (1 Samuel 13-14), and culminated with a description of his success over all his enemies, because YHWH was with him (1 Samuel 14 47-48). This was then followed by a description of Saul’s great sin, and his resulting downfall (1 Samuel 15 on). What follows indicates that there was something similar in the pattern of David’s life. He too began with great success (1 Samuel 17-18), continued with success even when accompanied by failings, and was triumphant over all his enemies (3-10), only to find himself involved in sins so dire that it is almost beyond belief. For what now follows is a story of flagrant disobedience in respect of God’s Law, and despicable betrayal of those who trusted him, and both on a huge scale, although it must be admitted that they were in fact totally ‘out of character’ with the David usually portrayed to us. It is a reminder that such failure can happen even in those who seem most above it.

There are, of course, a number of differences between Saul and David which explain why Saul finished up in the shame of rejection, while David moved on from his sin to greater things. The first difference is that Saul’s sins were comprised of blatant disobedience to YHWH’s direct commands which had been made on him as YHWH’s Anointed, and were in fact in character in that they arose from his casual attitude towards crucial religious requirements concerning which he felt he could compromise (even though he was actually scrupulous concerning more minor ritual), while David’s sins, for all their enormity, were not a result of disobedience to YHWH’s direct commands given to him as YHWH’s Anointed, but were the consequence of failing in his general responsibility and (temporarily) in his response to God’s Law during a period of spiritual declension.

The second difference was that Saul sought to brush his failures off, and did not treat them seriously enough to fling himself down before YHWH crying for forgiveness, while David knew how to repent, and did precisely that. When David was faced with having failed and grieved YHWH he was distraught, and came directly to YHWH in humble repentance, seeking forgiveness (see Psalms 51).

This section could also equally be headed ‘The Consequences of Forgiven Sin’, for it reveals that even though David was forgiven, the consequences of his sins for others went on and on. Thus it commences with David committing adultery and murder (2 Samuel 11), something which results in YHWH indicating what punishment will follow (2 Samuel 12:10-14), and goes on to describe how that punishment actually came about (chapters 13-20). And yet that punishment is not simply to be seen as the arbitrary result of God carrying out His prophecy, for the sins of David’s sons are clearly to be seen as directly resulting from David’s progeny voluntarily following their father’s own example of sexual misbehaviour and betrayal. David was thus to learn through bitter experience that what we sow we reap, and we undoubtedly see the outworking of that process in the following chapters. And it all arose because David had become complacent and arrogant, and had slumped into a state of spiritual lethargy, thereby ceasing to fulfil his spiritual responsibilities towards YHWH This was brought out by the fact that, unlike the old David, he preferred to linger in Jerusalem in a state of boredom and spiritual emptiness rather than be out on the front line.

We must not be deceived. What David did with Bathsheba was not the momentary failure of a strongly tempted man. It was the direct result of his spiritual lethargy and growing royal arrogance. And the whole incident reveals what a sad condition he had fallen into, for it reveals the picture of a man who was saying to himself, ‘I am now the king. I can do what I like. Nothing can be withheld from me. I am master of all I survey.’ That indeed was why he was still in Jerusalem. It was because he no longer felt it necessary to fulfil his obligations towards YHWH and towards his people. That could now be left to others as he himself enjoyed a life of lazy indolence. After all, he no doubt argued to himself, he had earned it. But like Moses when he arrogantly and disobediently struck the rock in the Wilderness of Sin (Numbers 20:6-12), David too had become arrogant and disobedient, and like Moses would have to suffer the consequences of forgiven sin.

The Direct Consequences Resulting From David’s Sins (13:1-20:22).

Having confirmed YHWH’s acceptance of David as a forgiven sinner following on his great sins, an acceptance which was confirmed by YHWH’s naming of Solomon and by David’s victory over the Ammonites, the writer will now go into some depths to make clear what the consequences nevertheless were of David’s sins. For what David had done inevitably affected his sons, who were vividly aware of his sin while at the same time not sharing with him in his repentance. David’s sad period of arrogance bred in them a similar royal arrogance and an inevitable carelessness in respect of sexual matters and of violence towards others, which they began to see as a royal prerogative. ‘After all,’ they would say, ‘we are only behaving like our father did, and what other role model do we have? He is the only royal example that we know.’ Thus while David still had authority over his kingdom, he had lost his personal parental authority over his own sons because of his own bad example. It was one of the great disadvantages of polygamy that the children tended to receive their personal training from their mothers, and from servants, with their father being a distant father figure, so that what they learned from him was usually conveyed by his outward behaviour generally, something which was of crucial importance as an example to his children. (It is a reminder to all parents that they should keep in mind that what they are speaks far louder than what they say).

Sadly the next eight chapters in Samuel will deal with the direct consequences of David’s sins, and is an illustration of how the sins of the fathers can affect their offspring. The chapters cover a period of sexual misbehaviour and violence that will now plague the house of David, presented in the most vivid form:

· The sexual misbehaviour of David’s firstborn, Amnon, because of his royal arrogance, the ravishing of David’s beautiful daughter (2 Samuel 13:1-22).

· The subsequent death of Amnon at the hands of Absalom, David’s third son (2 Samuel 13:23-39).

· The subsequent estrangement of Absalom from his father (2 Samuel 14:1-20).

· Absalom’s partial restoration and his successful plotting against David with the intention of seizing the throne (2 Samuel 14:21 to 2 Samuel 15:6).

· Absalom’s rebellion against his father and his sexual misbehaviour with David’s concubines (2 Samuel 15:7 to 2 Samuel 16:23).

· The subsequent warfare that resulted finally in the death of Absalom at the hands of David’s servants, to the great grief of his father (2 Samuel 17:1 to 2 Samuel 18:33).

This will then be followed by:

· The re-establishing of David’s kingship and his mercy shown or rewards given to those who had behaved ill or well towards him (2 Samuel 19:1-39).

· The disenchantment of a part of Israel because they considered that David had favoured Judah during the restoration of the kingship, and the subsequent further rebellion which was in the end defeated (2 Samuel 19:40 to 2 Samuel 20:22).

But even with these consequences the overall picture given is one of YHWH’s faithfulness to David. Because he had truly repented He would see him through it all and bring him through triumphantly.

SECTION 9. The Course Of The Civil Wars Resulting From Absalom’s Rebellion (15:13-20:22).

Absalom’s rebellion blossomed and the result was that David had to flee from Jerusalem. But he was soon to discover that he was not without friends as first Ittai the Gittite affirmed his loyalty along with his Philistine mercenaries, then the priests brought the Ark of God which ‘supervised’ the departure from Jerusalem as an indication that God was with him, and this was followed by the arrival of Hushai the Archite, who would counter the wisdom of Ahithophel, and Ziba the servant of Mephibosheth who provided provisions for the journey. On the darker side he was cursed and wished good riddance by Shimei the Benjaminite, but took even that as a good omen because the curse was based on false premises.

Following on this the course of the war is described, and it is made clear that in every way YHWH was acting on David’s behalf and confounding all the efforts of Absalom, with the final result that Absalom himself was killed and his forces suffered a humiliating defeat. Unfortunately, as a result of subsequent events, this would lead on to a second rebellion among the many disaffected people in Israel, a rebellion which would finally be crushed by Joab.

Analysis Of The Section.

a Absalom raises rebellion against David and enlists the services of the wise Ahithophel (2 Samuel 15:13-31).

b The ancient Hushai the Archite comes to David and is called on to counter the wisdom of Ahithopel (2 Samuel 15:32-37).

c Ziba, the servant of Mephibosheth, meets David with provisions and traduces Mephibosheth (2 Samuel 16:1-4).

d David is cursed by Shimei as a man of blood and Abishai wishes to execute him (2 Samuel 16:5-14).

e Conflicting advice on how to ensure that David’s power will be broken among the people (2 Samuel 16:15 to 2 Samuel 17:14).

f Hushai warns David that he must flee over the Jordan to escape the people (2 Samuel 17:15-23).

g The opposing armies prepare for battle and David pleads for mercy for his son (2 Samuel 17:24 to 2 Samuel 18:5).

h The final battle (2 Samuel 18:6-17).

g David receives tidings of the course of the battle and mourns for Absalom (2 Samuel 18:18-33).

f Joab warns David of the consequences of his behaviour with regard to his people (2 Samuel 19:1-8 a)

e David calls for the restoration of his power among the people (2 Samuel 19:8-15).

d Shimei meets David and pleads for forgiveness while Abishai wishes to execute him (2 Samuel 19:16-23).

c Mephibosheth meets David and David learns of Ziba’s treachery (2 Samuel 19:24-30).

b The ancient Barzillai conducts David back over the Jordan (2 Samuel 19:31-40).

a Sheba raises a rebellion against David and is betrayed by the wise woman of Abel (2 Samuel 19:41 to 2 Samuel 20:22).

Note that in ‘a’ Absalom rebels against David and is assisted by a wise man, and in the parallel Sheba rebels against David and is betrayed by a wise woman. In ‘b’ the ancient Hushai the Archite comes to David’s support, and in the parallel the ancient Barzillai conducts David back across the Jordan. In ‘c’ Ziba, the servant of Mephibosheth traduces his master while bringing provisions to David in order to obtain favour, and in the parallel Mephibosheth exposes his servant’s villainy. In ‘d’ Shimei curses David and is threatened by Abishai, and in the parallel he begs forgiveness and is threatened by Abishai. In ‘e’ Absalom receives advice on how he can break the power of David, and in the parallel David calls on Judah to restore his power. In ‘f’ Hushai warns David to flee over the Jordan to escape the people, and in the parallel Joab warns David of the consequences of disaffecting his people. In ‘g’ the armies prepare for battle, and in the parallel David receives tidings about the result of the battle. Centrally in ‘h’ the final battle is described.


Verses 4-17

The Final Battle (2 Samuel 18:4-17). (4b-17)

Some time would by now necessarily have passed since the rebellion began, even if only in order to give Absalom the time to gather together ‘all Israel’, and in fact, of course, many loyal men in Israel would have slipped away to join David. Not all were disaffected or dazzled. Meanwhile we have been told nothing of the initial skirmishing between the opposing forces, nor of the gathering of people in general to both sides. The concentration is now all to be on the final, decisive encounter, and Absalom’s defeat and death. Thus the whole process which began when David’s forces marched out of Mahanaim (2 Samuel 18:2-5) and went out into the countryside against Israel (2 Samuel 18:6), will come to its conclusion in the forest of Ephraim. We are, as so often, told nothing of what happened in between.

The site of this final battle was the forest of Ephraim. If this was fought in Gilead, and not far from Mahanaim, the forest of Ephraim may have been so named after earlier activities in Gilead by the Ephraimites whose land was in the main on the west of the Jordan rift valley (the Arabah). It may, for example have been named ‘the forest of Ephraim’ because it was the place where the Ephraimites had been decisively defeated by Jephthah (Judges 12:1-5). Or it may have arisen as the result of a jibe whereby the Ephraimites looked on parts of Gilead as in a sense belonging to them. Note the close connection of Ephraim/Manasseh with Gilead as indicated by the very jibe ‘you fugitives of Ephraim’ in Judges 12:4, where they are then called ‘Gileadites in the midst of Ephraim and of Manasseh’. Thus Gilead had in different ways Ephraimitic associations in men’s minds, and names are regularly decided in men’s minds rather than by geographical association. Furthermore parts of Gilead were thickly forested.

Some have, however, argued for ‘the forest of Ephraim’ as being in the hill country of Ephraim on the west side of Jordan (where there were certainly thick forests - Joshua 17:17-18), and as simply being the place where the final action took place after earlier action had taken place in Gilead east of Jordan and then on the west side of Jordan. But in those days both sides of the Jordan were well forested, so that from that point of view either could be possible. In the end it is a question of little importance, apart from the geographical implications, for what is seen as mattering is what happened, and Who brought it about. Where it happened is considered to be secondary.

Analysis.

a And the king stood by the gate-side, and all the people went out by hundreds and by thousands. And the king commanded Joab and Abishai and Ittai, saying, “Deal gently for my sake with the young man, even with Absalom.” And all the people heard when the king gave all the captains charge concerning Absalom (2 Samuel 18:4-5).

b So the people went out into the field against Israel, and the battle was in the forest of Ephraim, and the people of Israel were smitten there before the servants of David, and there was a great slaughter there that day of twenty units (thousands) of men, for the battle was there spread over the face of all the country, and the forest devoured more people that day than the sword devoured. (2 Samuel 18:6-8).

c And Absalom chanced to meet the servants of David. And Absalom was riding on his mule, and the mule went under the thick boughs of a great oak, and his head caught hold of the oak, and he was taken up between heaven and earth, and the mule which was under him went on (2 Samuel 18:9).

d And a certain man saw it, and told Joab, and said, “Look, I saw Absalom hanging in an oak.” And Joab said to the man who told him, “And, behold, you saw it, and why did you not smite him there to the ground? And I would have given you ten pieces of silver, and a girdle” (2 Samuel 18:10-11).’

e And the man said to Joab, “Though I should receive a thousand pieces of silver in my hand, yet would I not put forth my hand against the king’s son, for in our hearing the king charged you and Abishai and Ittai, saying, ‘Beware that none touch the young man Absalom’ ” (2 Samuel 18:12).

d “Otherwise if I had dealt falsely against his life (and there is no matter hidden from the king), then you yourself would have set yourself against me” (2 Samuel 18:13).

c Then Joab said, “I may not dally thus with you.” And he took three javelins in his hand, and thrust them through the heart of Absalom, while he was yet alive in the midst of the oak, and ten young men who bore Joab’s armour gathered round about and smote Absalom, and slew him (2 Samuel 18:14-15).

b And Joab blew the ram’s horn, and the people returned from pursuing after Israel, for Joab held back the people (2 Samuel 18:16).

a And they took Absalom, and cast him into the great pit in the forest, and raised over him a very great heap of stones, and all Israel fled every one to his tent (2 Samuel 18:17).

Note that in ‘a’, David’s forces went out to battle and David pleaded that during the battle his generals would ensure that Absalom was treated gently, and in the parallel, far from being treated gently, Absalom was hurled into a great pit in the forest which was covered with stones, while the rebels fled each to his home. In ‘b’ the great slaughter of the Israelites is described, and in the parallel Joab, once he was sure that Absalom was dead, called an end to that slaughter and held his men back from it. In ‘c’ Absalom’s head and hair were caught up in the branches of an oak tree so that, as his mule continued on, he was left there hanging by his head or hair, and in the parallel Joab and his men slew him while he was still entangled and alive in the oak. In ‘d’ a man brought to Joab the news of Absalom’s entanglement in the oak, and was asked why he had not slain him, and in the parallel he points out that had he done so he doubted whether Joab would have been very stout in defending him. Centrally in ‘e’ the man declared that in view of the king’s command he would not have slain the king’s son for even a thousand pieces of silver.

2 Samuel 18:4 b (e-Sword Note: For commentary on 18:4b, see the commentary on 2 Samuel 18:3)

‘And the king stood by the gate-side, and all the people went out by hundreds and by thousands.’

Having been advised by his people not to go with his troops because of his importance to them, the king stood by the gate in order to see them off to battle, and no doubt saluted them as they marched by in their units ready for what lay ahead. They would be a magnificent sight, and while possibly not as numerous as Absalom’s forces, were undoubtedly more experienced and skilled in the arts of war. They would be a fearsome sight, for David’s army included not only his own highly trained troops, ‘his men’ (experienced in forest warfare), and the unique band described as his ‘mighty men’ (23:8-39), but also the Gittite mercenaries who had come from Philistia with Ittai. These were all used to fighting in all conditions and circumstances. unlike Absalom’s troops who were mainly farmers called up for active service.

2 Samuel 18:5

And the king commanded Joab and Abishai and Ittai, saying, “Deal gently for my sake with the young man, even with Absalom.” And all the people heard when the king gave all the captains charge concerning Absalom.’

As the army marched forth David made a plea to his generals. Absalom was his son, and in spite of what he had done he loved him still. So he begged them to treat him gently when and if they came across him, for his sake. This plea must have been openly shouted out to them, for we are specifically informed that all the people heard this charge which he gave to his commanders. We are told of this partly in order to explain why later in the passage a soldier was aware of the command. But as Joab knew well, if Absalom survived he would always be a danger to the stability of Israel/Judah.

2 Samuel 18:6

So the people went out into the countryside against Israel, and the battle was in the forest of Ephraim.’

The people then went out into the countryside to meet the host of Israel gathered by Absalom, and eventually the battle either commenced in or moved into the forest of Ephraim. Such a circumstance would favour David’s experienced soldiers, for they were used to coping with such conditions, whereas in the forest the Israelite farmers probably felt somewhat lost and out of their depth. It was one thing to make one’s way through a forest on recognised paths, and quite another to fight one’s way through one.

As mentioned above, the forest of Ephraim may have been in Gilead and have been so named because of its connection with some past event connected with Ephraim, or even with a sizeable group of Ephraimite foresters who had come to live there. This siting in Gilead could be seen as supported by the fact that:

1). Absalom had brought his army into Gilead, and there is no mention of his again crossing the Jordan (2 Samuel 17:26).

2). David was to stay in Mahanaim with the reserve troops ready to help any part of his army which got into difficulties, which he could only do from Mahanaim if the fighting took place fairly close by (2 Samuel 18:3).

3). The victorious army returned to Mahanaim, where the king remained until he was assured that he would receive a friendly welcome from Judah and Israel.

4). There would be many forested parts around Mahanaim.

5). We can understand why Absalom and his forces might fight in a forest when he was in an area comparatively unknown to him over the Jordan, but it is difficult to see why, if he was west of the Jordan and enjoyed an advantage in numbers and was in an area with which he was familiar, he did not arrange for the battle to be fought in the open where numbers would count for more.

On the other side of the argument considerations should be given to the fact that:

1). ‘The forest of Ephraim’ most naturally signifies the forested mountainous parts of Ephraim, to which Absalom may well have withdrawn if there had been a number of initial skirmishes in which his forces had been worsted (we are only told of the final battle that decided events).

2). The messenger who was sent with information about the victory had to reach David in Mahanaim by crossing the ‘plain’ (kikkar = ‘round’). This most obviously signifies the Jordan rift valley, ‘the plain (kikkar) of Jordan’ (Genesis 13:10-12; Genesis 19:17 etc; Deuteronomy 34:3; 1 Kings 7:46). On the other hand a kikkar is not necessarily limited to the Jordan valley, for we have ‘the plain (kikkar) around Jerusalem’ mentioned in Nehemiah 12:28, . Furthermore if Absalom’s fleeing forces had been driven across the Jordan valley (as they would have been) the messengers may well have commenced their run from there, with the Cushite heading back through the forest, and finding the going tough, and Ahimaaz skirting the forest by using the plain of Jordan and taking a longer but easier route.

The important thing, however, arising from the narrative is that the forest, in which they were not used to fighting, proved a total handicap to Absalom’s forces precisely because it was the intention of YHWH. We do not know who chose the site of the battle. Indeed if Absalom and his men did not know Gilead very well they may well have advanced through the forest because that was what they found facing them on crossing the Jordan and climbing up the other side. Alternatively, of course, Mahanaim may have been surrounded by forests leaving little alternative. Or it is possible that he and his men may have withdrawn to the forest in order to hide themselves from David’s forces. Whatever the case it was a bad day and a bad choice for Absalom (and one that would probably not have been made by Ahimelech).

2 Samuel 18:7-8

And the people of Israel were smitten there before the servants of David, and there was a great slaughter there that day of twenty units (thousands) of men. For the battle was there spread over the face of all the country, and the forest devoured more people that day than the sword devoured.’

The result of these conditions was that the disorganised people of Israel, struggling desperately to cope in unfamiliar conditions, were ‘smitten before the servants of David’. As a consequence there was a great slaughter which resulted in the loss of twenty military units in different parts of the battle line, as the battle spread all over the country. One major reason for this is then described as being because they were unable to cope with the forest which resulted in more deaths than the actual fighting. So much for their ‘coming on him in some place where he shall be found, and lighting upon him as the dew falls on the ground’, so that ‘of him and of all the men who are with him we will not leave so much as one’ (2 Samuel 17:12). Hushai’s ‘advice’ was coming home to roost, as he had known it would.

“The forest devoured more people that day than the sword devoured.” The point is simply that more were killed because of the difficulties caused by the thick, untamed forest than by actual, face to face combat. In other words they were the victims of the Creator. This may have been as a result of:

· Falling into ravines and hidden gorges, especially as they fled in terror from David’s men.

· Coming unexpectedly across wild beasts such as lions, bears and wild oxen in a disturbed mood, or even forest outlaws.

· Being caught up in the tangle of thick bushes, briars and undergrowth as they struggled through the forest so that they became easy targets for David’s more experienced warriors.

· Being hindered from fleeing by the roughness and tangled nature of the ground so that they were struck down from behind by David’s fitter and better trained soldiers.

In the last analysis it was because they were unable to cope with the conditions and were thus rendered helpless. But undoubtedly the writer wants us to see in this that YHWH had made even the forest itself fight against Absalom.

“There was a great slaughter there that day of twenty units (thousands) of men.” Twenty units of Absalom’s army were cut to pieces as they first fought and then fled.

2 Samuel 18:9

And Absalom chanced to meet the servants of David. And Absalom was riding on his mule, and the mule went under the thick boughs of a great oak, and his head caught hold of the oak, and he was taken up between heaven and earth, and the mule which was under him went on.’

Spurred on by Hushai’s ‘guidance’ Absalom had himself ventured into the forest with his troops, riding on his mule. He had wanted the glory of being with his men when they enjoyed their anticipated victory. But in their inexperience neither Absalom nor his troops had considered the folly of his doing so.

As a king he had clearly not felt that he could be expected to go on foot, struggling through the forest like a common soldier (he was no trained warrior, especially in these conditions which would have been meat and drink to his father). Thus he had chosen to ride on a royal mule. But the forest had undoubtedly made it difficult for him to maintain contact with all his troops, and the mule would not have made things any easier, both in enabling his men to stay with him, and because of the rough and unfriendly ground. The result was (as a more experienced warrior would have anticipated) that he had few if any men with him when he encountered the enemy. Moreover the presence of the mule also drew attention to who he was so that when he accidentally came face to face with a group of David’s veterans he would be recognised immediately. Presumably he then turned his mule and fled. But YHWH wanted it to be recognised that it was He, not David’s men, Who had brought down this one who had dared to raise his hand against YHWH’s Anointed, God’s chosen one (2 Samuel 7:17-17; 2 Samuel 12:7, compare 1 Samuel 2:10; 1 Samuel 16:13). The consequence was that Absalom was trapped by God’s forest, and became caught up in the low branches of an oak, entangled in some way by his hair. Compare ‘the stars in their courses fought against Sisera’ (Judges 5:20). Here it was the trees and their branches that fought against Absalom. The scared mule, however, was not stopping for anything, and the result was that Absalom was left ignominiously hanging by his hair, or by his head, from the branches of the tree. (We are reminded again of the end of Judas).

2 Samuel 18:10

And a certain man saw it, and told Joab, and said, “Look, I saw Absalom hanging in an oak.” ’

Inevitably he was soon spotted by Joab’s men and one reported back to Joab that Absalom had been found hanging from an oak by his head. He may well have thought that it was a great joke. Whether in fact Absalom was actually hanging from his hair which had become entangled in the branches, or whether his head had become caught in the branches in such a way that his entangled hair then held him fast, we are not told, but we are undoubtedly intended to see that the hair of which he was so proud and vain had contributed to his downfall. None of the men who found him did anything further to him because they remembered David’s words to his generals that Absalom should be handled gently. No doubt also the battle was still being waged so strongly that there was no time to find some way of climbing up in order to cut him down (even if it had been possible). It did not really matter, for he was YHWH’s prisoner.

2 Samuel 18:11

And Joab said to the man who told him, “And, behold, you saw it, and why did you not smite him there to the ground? And I would have given you ten pieces of silver, and a girdle.” ’

Joab immediately asked the soldier why he had not slain Absalom. Did he not realise that with Absalom dead the rebellion would to all intents and purposes have been over, whilst if he was still alive he could possibly be rescued? He thus informed him that had he smitten him to the ground he would have received from Joab ten pieces of silver and the equivalent of a medal, a girdle of merit.

2 Samuel 18:12

And the man said to Joab, “Though I should have weighed in my hand a thousand pieces of silver in my hand, yet would I not put forth my hand against the king’s son, for in our hearing the king charged you and Abishai and Ittai, saying, ‘Beware that none touch the young man Absalom.’ ”

The man, however, declared stoutly that in view of the king’s command to his generals, overheard by all, that Absalom should not be hurt, he would not have smitten ‘the king’s son’, even had he had ‘a thousand pieces of silver’ to weigh in his hand. In his view it was more than his life was worth.

2 Samuel 18:13

Otherwise if I had dealt falsely against his life (and there is no matter hidden from the king), then you yourself would have set yourself against me.”

And he added that his view was that had he done so even Joab himself would not have stood by him when the matter was reported to the king (which may have been true). Nor did he consider it likely that David would not find out who had done it, because his spy system was such that he was reputed to know everything. David clearly had a reputation for having a good intelligence system.

2 Samuel 18:14

Then Joab said, “I may not dally thus with you.” And he took three javelins in his hand, and thrust them through the heart of Absalom, while he was yet alive in the midst of the oak.’

Joab reaction was to dismiss the man from his presence and immediately seek Absalom out. And when he found him still alive, he thrust three javelins (or three spiked sticks) straight through his heart. Joab was no sentimentalist and he was fully aware that while Absalom was alive David’s throne could never be secure. We should recognise in this that in his own way Joab was being totally loyal to David. (We should also note that Absalom had not been officially taken prisoner, but rather, like many men in his army, could be seen as technically having been overtaken by the enemy while still in the battle, while being hindered by the obstacles in the forest. He was thus, by military rules, still fair game. He was after all probably still armed).

2 Samuel 18:15

And ten young men who bore Joab’s armour gathered round about and smote Absalom, and slew him.’

As Absalom’s body still showed signs of twitching in the tree after Joab’s treatment, Joab’s ten aide’s then joined with him in finishing Absalom off. This combination of a number of men was wise because when David learned that a number of men had been involved in Absalom’s death, and that in the midst of the battle, he would not feel able to target any single person, and in fact he was probably not made aware until much later of the full truth concerning everything that had happened. In this case it was probably not Joab’s intention that he should be. Note that the ten young men were all ‘armour-bearers’, that is, young men who attended to Joab’s needs (literally, they ‘carried his things’). The fact that he had ten such ‘armour-bearers’ demonstrates that they did not each personally bear his armour.

2 Samuel 18:16

And Joab blew the ram’s horn, and the people returned from pursuing after Israel, for Joab held back the people.’

Absalom being dead Joab blew his ram’s horn and called a cessation to the fighting. He knew that there was no point in further killing when the rebellion was virtually over with the death of Absalom. Thus he held back David’s army from further killing. He was not, in spite of his reputation, someone who delighted in blood being shed for its own sake, and he possibly remembered again the words of Abner in 2 Samuel 2:26. He knew that it was best, for David’s sake, to incur as little bitterness as possible

2 Samuel 18:17

And they took Absalom, and cast him into the great pit in the forest, and raised over him a very great heap of stones, and all Israel fled every one to his tent.’

The battle over, Absalom’s body was taken and cast into a ravine or great pit in the forest. Then a great pile of stones were piled on his body as a monument to the death of a traitor. Compare the similar treatment of Achan in Joshua 7:26 and the king of Ai in Joshua 8:29. No name was to be preserved for him. He was to be seen as an outcast and accursed. (There may also have been in mind the punishment to be meted out to a rebellious son as contained in Deuteronomy 21:20-21). We can have little doubt that this was on Joab’s orders, although being a hot country it would always be necessary that any bodies be disposed of rapidly, and it at least prevented his body from being openly exposed to the scavengers who lived in the forest. But Joab wanted no mourning or lasting memorial for Absalom. Wisely he wanted him to be remembered as a traitor.

Meanwhile ‘all Israel fled every one to his tent.’ The rebellion was over and the defeated army dispersed rapidly as the men made their way to their homes hoping that vengeance would not overtake them. ‘To his tent’ was a popular way of describing returning home (besides they would not have had a settled camp), probably being a hangover from wilderness days (compare Deuteronomy 16:7; Deuteronomy 33:18; Judges 7:8; Judges 20:8; 1 Samuel 4:10; 1 Samuel 13:2; 1 Kings 8:66; 1 Kings 12:16).


Verses 18-33

The Tidings Of Victory, And Of The Death Of Absalom, Reach David Who Falls Into A Fit Of Mourning (2 Samuel 18:18-33).

This passage is placed within an inclusio which commences with Absalom having built a pillar for himself in order to preserve his name, and ends with David mourning the death of His son, and repeating his name three times (a complete number of time). He needed no pillar to remind him of his son.

The passage as a whole describes the sending off and arrival of two messengers, the first bringing the news of victory and the second the news of Absalom’s death. Ahimaaz was forbidden by Joab to mention the death of Absalom, and as he had seemingly not seen it himself it was only hearsay for him anyway. Thus he was justified in simply describing the victory and the general tumult that there had been around Absalom. The Cushite may well actually have witnessed Absalom’s death, but he was in no danger of death. We are not justified in assuming that all messengers who brought bad news to David were in danger of being killed. 1:15-16 and 4:10-11 were both very special cases, one where the messenger had falsely claimed to have slain YHWH’s anointed, and the other where the messengers had actually done so. The Cushite was simply carrying a message from Joab.

Analysis.

a Now Absalom in his lifetime had taken and reared up for himself the pillar, which is in the king’s dale, for he said, “I have no son to keep my name in remembrance,” and he called the pillar after his own name, and it is called ‘Absalom’s monument’ to this day’ (2 Samuel 18:18).

b Then Ahimaaz the son of Zadok said, “Let me now run, and bear the king tidings, how that YHWH has avenged him of his enemies”. And Joab said to him, “You will not be the bearer of tidings this day, but you will bear tidings another day. But this day you will bear no tidings, because the king’s son is dead” (2 Samuel 18:19-20).

c Then Joab said to the Cushite, “Go, tell the king what you have seen.” And the Cushite bowed himself to Joab, and ran” (2 Samuel 18:21).

d Then Ahimaaz the son of Zadok said yet again to Joab, “But come what may, let me, I pray you, also run after the Cushite.” And Joab said, “Why will you run, my son, seeing that you will have no reward for the tidings?” (2 Samuel 18:22).

e “But come what may,” he said, “I will run.” And he said to him, “Run.” Then Ahimaaz ran by the way of the Plain, and outran the Cushite (2 Samuel 18:23).

f Now David was sitting between the two gates, and the watchman went up to the roof of the gate to the wall, and lifted up his eyes, and looked, and, behold, a man running alone (2 Samuel 18:24).

g And the watchman cried, and told the king. And the king said, “If he is alone, there is tidings in his mouth.” And he came quickly, and drew near (2 Samuel 18:25).

f And the watchman saw another man running; and the watchman called to the porter, and said, “Look, another man running alone.” And the king said, “He also brings tidings.” ’ (2 Samuel 18:26).

e 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” (2 Samuel 18:27).

d And Ahimaaz called, and said to the king, “All is well.” And he bowed himself before the king with his face to the earth, and said, “Blessed be YHWH your God, who has delivered up the men who lifted up 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 the king’s servant, even me your servant, I saw a great tumult, but I knew not what it was.” And the king said, “Turn aside, and stand here.” And he turned aside, and stood still.’ (2 Samuel 18:28-30).

c And, behold, the Cushite came, and the Cushite said, “Tidings for my lord the king, for YHWH has avenged you this day of all those who rose up against you” (2 Samuel 18:31).

b And the king said to the Cushite, “Is it well with the young man Absalom?” And the Cushite answered, “The enemies of my lord the king, and all who rise up against you to do you hurt, be as that young man is” (2 Samuel 18:32).

a And the king was much moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept, and as he went, he said thus, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! would I had died for you, O Absalom, my son, my son!” (2 Samuel 18:33).

Note that in ‘a’ Absalom had built a monument so that his name would be remembered, and in the parallel the king remembered Absalom threefold. In ‘b’ Ahimaaz was forbidden to go because the king’s son was dead, and in the parallel the Cushite announces the death of the king’s son. In ‘c’ the Cushite is sent with tidings of victory and in the parallel he arrives with the tidings. In ‘d’ Ahimaaz insists on running after the Cushite with the good tidings, and in the parallel he announces to the king the good tidings. In ‘e’ Ahimaaz outran the Cushite, and in the parallel the watchman saw two men running, the foremost of whom was Ahimaaz. In ‘f’ the watchman announces that he had seen a man running alone, and in the parallel he announces that he has seen another man running alone. Centrally in ‘g’ the messenger draws near to the king with his tidings.

2 Samuel 18:18

Now Absalom in his lifetime had taken and reared up for himself the pillar, which is in the king’s dale, for he said, “I have no son to keep my name in remembrance,” and he called the pillar after his own name, and it is called ‘Absalom’s monument’ to this day.’

The thought in this verse was suggested by the pile of stones erected over Absalom’s body in the previous verse, with the thought that his inglorious end was far different from the glorious end that he had expected, but it undoubtedly also forms an inclusio with David’s threefold act of bewailing the death of his son in 2 Samuel 18:33. For there the king three times commemorates the name of Absalom. He would certainly be remembered, but not honourably.

The raising of memorial pillars and obelisks was a regular custom with ancient kings, for they pandered to their vanity. They longed to be remembered. It is thus being made clear that, unlike David, but like Saul, Absalom had been a king ‘like all the nations’ (see 1 Samuel 9:5), and had died in the same way. The pillar was raised by Absalom in order to perpetuate his memory after his death, because sadly he had no sons to carry on his name. Clearly his three sons had died in infancy (a not uncommon occurrence in those days), which explains why 2 Samuel 14:27 names Absalom’s daughters but not his sons. Thus at this stage he was sonless.

The king’s dale, or valley, is probably the one mentioned in Genesis 14:17 which was not far from Jerusalem, (although it is not certain and others have suggested differed identifications). It has been identified with the Kidron Valley. The monument was still known in the writer’s day (‘to this day’). There is there today a monument called Absalom’s pillar but it is of Hellenistic construction from around 1st century and therefore not the genuine Absalom’s pillar.

2 Samuel 18:19

Then Ahimaaz the son of Zadok said, “Let me now run, and bear the king tidings, how that YHWH has avenged him of his enemies.” ’

Along with his brother Ahimaaz, the son of Zadok the high priest, had constantly been David’s messenger, running between Jerusalem and David with the news of what was happening, and nearly being caught in the process (2 Samuel 15:36; 2 Samuel 17:17-21). He may well have seen himself as ‘the king’s messenger’. So now he asked Joab’s permission to run to the king with the tidings of how YHWH had avenged him on his enemies. Very often a messenger who brought good news was rewarded for his efforts.

2 Samuel 18:20

And Joab said to him, “You will not be the bearer of tidings this day, but you will bear tidings another day. But this day you will bear no tidings, because the king’s son is dead.” ’

But Joab demurred, pointing out that the news that had to be taken was not all good, because the king’s son was dead. It would be better to leave it to someone else. No one quite knew how the king would respond.

2 Samuel 18:21

Then Joab said to the Cushite, “Go, tell the king what you have seen.” And the Cushite bowed himself to Joab, and ran.” ’

So instead Joab called on a Cushite, of North African descent, to take the news to David. (There is no reason at all for thinking that Joab considered that his life might be in danger, otherwise he would no doubt have instructed the messenger on how he should present the news. He had presumably had no part in the killing of Absalom). The Cushite politely bowed, and then ran off to convey the news. It would appear that he took the direct route through the forest.

2 Samuel 18:22

Then Ahimaaz the son of Zadok said yet again to Joab, “But come what may, let me, I pray you, also run after the Cushite.” And Joab said, “Why will you run, my son, seeing that you will have no reward for the tidings?” ’

But Ahimaaz was persistent. He wanted to be the first to take the good news of the victory to David. So he asked permission to run after the Cushite. Joab, however, pointed out in a fatherly way that there would be no reward for the one who took to the king the tidings of his son’s death.

2 Samuel 18:23

But come what may,” he said, “I will run.” And he said to him, “Run.” Then Ahimaaz ran by the way of the Plain, and outran the Cushite.’

Ahimaaz was still persistent in spite of Joab’s arguments, and in the end Joab gave his permission. He was probably confident that the Cushite, who was no doubt noted for being a swift messenger, would now arrive first. But what he had not reckoned on was that Ahimaaz knew his way around, and instead of attempting to make his way through the tangle of the forest, ran along the Jordan rift valley (the plain of Jordan) and then up the canyon of the River Jabbok which enabled him to make easier progress. The result was that he outran the Cushite.

2 Samuel 18:24

Now David was sitting between the two gates, and the watchman went up to the roof of the gate to the wall, and lifted up his eyes, and looked, and, behold, a man running alone.’

David was meanwhile eagerly awaiting news of the outcome of the battle, and especially of the safety of his son, and was therefore sitting in the courtyard of the gate-tower to which any news would inevitably first come, and from there he sent a watchman to the wall on the roof of the gate-tower to report anything that he saw. The watchman stood there constantly surveying the horizon and after a while he spotted a man on his own, running towards the city.

2 Samuel 18:25

And the watchman cried, and told the king. And the king said, “If he is alone, there is tidings in his mouth.” And he came quickly, and drew near.’

So the watchman shouted the news down to the king about the running man, and the king declared, ‘If he is alone it must be because he brings news of what has happened’. The runner meanwhile continued to make speedy progress towards Mahanaim.

It should be noted that from here to 19:11 David is simply spoken of as ‘the king’ (over twenty times) without mention of his name. This was possibly in order to emphasise that it was David who was the true and sole king of Israel.

2 Samuel 18:26

And the watchman saw another man running; and the watchman called to the porter, and said, “Look, another man running alone.” And the king said, “He also brings tidings.” ’

The watchman then spotted another runner some way behind the first one. And he called to the gate-keeper, who informed the king. The king’s response was, ‘he must also be bringing tidings’.

2 Samuel 18:27

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.” ’

As the first runner drew closer the watchman recognised him from his method of running, and called down to the king that it looked as though it must be Ahimaaz. That gladdened David’s heart because he knew Ahimaaz for a good man, and he realised that a messenger like Ahimaaz would only have been sent by Joab with good news.

2 Samuel 18:28

And Ahimaaz called, and said to the king, “All is well.” And he bowed himself before the king with his face to the earth, and said, “Blessed be YHWH your God, who has delivered up the men who lifted up their hand against my lord the king.” ’

The king then presumably went to the outer gate in readiness to receive the messenger, and when Ahimaaz saw him he called out, “All is well”. And once he had reached the gate he bowed low to the king and informed him that YHWH had given him victory. Those who had rebelled against him had been suitably dealt with by YHWH his God.

2 Samuel 18:29

And the king said, “Is it well with the young man Absalom?” And Ahimaaz answered, “When Joab sent the king’s servant, even me your servant, I saw a great tumult, but I knew not what it was.” ’

The king then put the question that was tearing at his heart. “Is it well with the young man Absalom?” Having been forbidden by Joab to inform the king of what had happened to Absalom, and not having seen it for himself, Ahimaaz prevaricated and declared that he had seen a great tumult but had not known what it was. We must remember that he was acting under military orders. His mission had only been to declare the victory, not to report on hearsay.

2 Samuel 18:30

And the king said, “Turn aside, and stand here.” And he turned aside, and stood still.’

The king then told him to stand by him while the second messenger arrived, which he accordingly obediently did.

2 Samuel 18:31

And, behold, the Cushite came, and the Cushite said, “Tidings for my lord the king, for YHWH has avenged you this day of all those who rose up against you.”’

The Cushite then ran up and cried out, “Tidings for my lord the king, for YHWH has avenged you this day of all those who rose up against you.” He may well not have been aware that Ahimaaz had already brought the good news. They may well have come in different directions.

2 Samuel 18:32

And the king said to the Cushite, “Is it well with the young man Absalom?” And the Cushite answered, “The enemies of my lord the king, and all who rise up against you to do you hurt, be as that young man is.” ’

The king then asked the question that was eating at his heart. “Is it well with the young man Absalom?” The Cushite replied discreetly, reminding the king that Absalom had been his enemy and had risen up to do him hurt. He had probably been well coached by Joab. Then indirectly he indicated that Absalom was indeed dead, along with his other enemies. It is presumably deliberate that the messenger of grief is identified by his origin rather than his name, as with the Amalekite who had brought the news of the deaths of Saul and Jonathan. Messengers who bring bad news concerning death in battle are always anonymous. (Some, however, consider that the word Cushi indicated the messenger’s name rather than his nationality).

2 Samuel 18:33

And the king was much moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept, and as he went, he said thus, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! would I had died for you, O Absalom, my son, my son!” ’

The king was deeply upset by the news and went up to a room in the gate-tower, weeping as he went and crying out “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died for you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”

The heart-rending words were a reminder of a father’s love for his son. They were fairly similar in intent to his words when he heard of the death of Saul and Jonathan and issued his lament. There too he had mourned and wept (2 Samuel 1:11-12; 2 Samuel 1:17-27) and cried out in his distress. But it is worth noting that he published no lament here. That would have been too much of an insult to his people. The threefold mention of his son’s name emphasises the completeness and depth of his grief. It was a better memorial of Absalom than any monument could ever be.

We can probably, however, see in this depth of grief for a treacherous son David’s own stark awareness of why it had happened. He was being made to face up to the fact that it was because of his own great sins that Absalom was dead. Because of those sins YHWH had not allowed Absalom to live, any more than He had allowed the infant son born to Bathsheba, or Amnon, to live. Here was a further fulfilment of YHWH’s words through Nathan, ‘now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house’ (2 Samuel 12:10). While already forgiven David was reaping the consequences of his own sins.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on 2 Samuel 18:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/2-samuel-18.html. 2013.

Lectionary Calendar
Monday, October 21st, 2019
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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