The Fall of Absalom
2 Sam. 18:1-19:8
The Bible gives a legitimate place to anger in a person's life. Paul actually commands us to be angry (Eph. 4:26). In fact, at times it is sinful if a person does not get angry. The man who does not get angry when either his wife or child is abused is really no man at all. Anger many times will motivate us to do the right thing when nothing else will.
The Bible, however, does put restrictions on anger. After Paul commands us to be angry, he then tells us not to sin in our anger. The OT does the same whenever it says: ďAn eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.Ē Moses does not give us this instruction so that we will automatically knock out somebody's tooth after theyíve knocked out ours; he gives it so that we donít go and knock out a whole row of a personís teeth after that person has knocked out just one of our teeth. Iíve heard people say, ďI donít get even; I nuke the person who hurt me.Ē Thatís the kind of attitude the Bible is dealing with.
Unfortunately, many times people go overboard when they express legitimate anger. When that happens, the person who crosses the line receives discipline from the Lord. For example, in 586 BC God used the Babylonians to discipline the Jews because they had continued to worship idols. The Babylonians, though, crossed the line after they conquered the Jews. Itís one thing to conquer a people and yet quite another to deport them to another country, to rape their women, and to abuse radically the older people and younger children. Because the Babylonians had gone too far, God raised up the Persians to destroy their empire.
The same thing is occurring here. Absalom has every right to be angry at his father for mishandling the sordid affair between Amnon and Tamar; however, when Absalom decided to depose his father and try to kill him, he had gone too far. As a result, Absalom will suffer Godís discipline by the end of this episode.
PREPARATION FOR BATTLE (18:1-5)
Before we look at the present passage, we need to refresh our memories about certain events which happened last week. After Absalom had taken Jerusalem, he consulted with 2 of his advisers to determine what to do next. Ahithophel who was loyal to Absalom advised him to attack David immediately while David and his army were still in flight. Hushai, though, who was still loyal to David, advised against this. Hoping to buy David time so that he might be able to reorganize his army, Hushai advises Absalom to assemble a massive army from every quarter of Israel. Moreover, he advises Absalom to lead the army personally into battle. Hushai knows that this army of freshly-recruited conscripts will be no match for the well-trained killing machine David and Joab have assembled. Also, he is hoping that if Absalom leads his own army into battle, a stray arrow might just happen to find its way to Absalomís heart. Absalom follows Hushaiís advice.
Meanwhile, David is at Mahanaim just south-southeast of the Sea of Galilee. Apparently, he has assembled his army numbering at least 10,000 men. He divides them into groups of 100's and then into groups of 1,000's, placing a leader over each group.
Meanwhile, David is at Mahanaim just south-southeast of the Sea of Galilee. Apparently, he has assembled his army numbering at least 10,000 men. He divides them into groups of 100's and then into groups of 1,000's, placing a leader over each group. Then he divides the army into 3 major units, headed by Joab, Abishai (Joabís brother), and Ittai the Gittite. He then prepares himself to lead them personally into battle just like Absalom is personally leading his army into battle. The men, though, argue against this. David needs to be safe and secure because this whole battle is going to be about David and his resuming the throne. If one of the soldiers is killed, the cause goes on; however, once David is dead, the cause is dead too. Instead, they urge him to remain at Mahanaim so that he might be able to send them reinforcements if they are needed. David acquiesces to their desires.
Before sending the troops off into battle, David in the presence of all the men instructs Joab, Abishai, and Ittai to deal kindly with his son Absalom. By this he means that if possible, they are to spare his life and not kill him. This command was given not to just a few but to all the soldiers in Davidís army, including Joab. Having instructed them about the welfare of his son, David sends them into battle.
THE BATTLE IN FOREST OF EPHRAIM (18:6-8)
Although the battle most likely starts to the east of the Jordan River, it soon spreads throughout the countryside, especially to the forest of Ephraim which was located just to the west of the Jordan River. (Although there are no forests now in Israel, there used to be forests until the Turks cut them down in order to avoid paying taxes on the land; the Turks taxed the land based upon the # of trees upon it.) Although Davidís fighting force most likely was smaller than Absalomís, it nevertheless was superior to Absalomís in its fighting skills.
What even made it worse for Absalomís army was the terrain on which the battle was fought. The author of 2 Samuel claims that the forest itself killed more people than the sword. By this, he may mean that the raw recruits of Absalomís army were falling off cliffs into the deep gorges below, tripping over large tree roots which enabled Davidís army to pick them off easily, etc. At least 20,000 of Absalomís troops are killed that day. It is a stunning victory of the 3 generals of Davidís army.
THE DEATH OF ABSALOM (18:9-18)
When Absalom realizes that the tide has turned against him, he begins to hightail it back to Jerusalem, riding on a mule which was considered a royal mount in the ancient world. As he is riding through the forest with his long hair flowing behind him, his hair gets caught in the branches of an oak tree. With his hair caught in the branches over head and his mule still running, Absalom finds himself dangling in midair, an easy prey to any of Davidís soldiers.
A certain soldier from Davidís army sees Absalom suspended in midair and rushes to Joab to inform him. Joab asks the man why he has not already killed Absalom. Joab tells him that he would have honored him with 10 silver coins and a trophy belt if he had killed Absalom. The soldier replies that by no means would he do such a thing since David had explicitly ordered them to spare the life of his son. Moreover, the truth is that if he had killed Absalom and David had gotten angry at him, Joab would have stepped back and let he man take the punishment David would have dispensed. Joab says, though, that he is not going to waste any more time with him and rushes off with 3 javelins (or spears) in his hand.
Before we go any further, we need to observe that this is the second time Joab has been told to spare Absalomís life. First, he had heard David directly order him not to harm Absalom. Now he has heard it again from this soldier. When Joab kills Absalom, he is not doing so because of a lapse of judgment or because he was in the heat of the battle. His cold-blooded murder of Absalom is nothing less than an blatant act of insubordination. When he comes up to Absalom still hanging in the tree, he thrusts the spears into Absalomís heart. After he is through, 10 of his fellow soldiers finish off Absalom by hacking him to pieces. They then take the body, throw it into a pit, and cover it with stones.
The author of 2 Samuel then remarks that previously Absalom had had built for him a monument in Jerusalem because either he had no son to build him one after his death or none of his sons cared enough to want to build a monument for him. Either situation would be considered pitiable in Absalomís day; however, after he died, he was not even buried in his own self-made tomb. Instead, he was thrown into a grave of no honor or glory. He has met an ignoble end.
DAVID RECEIVES NEW OF THE BATTLE (18:19-33)
At this point, Ahimaaz, the son of Zadok the priest, approaches Joab and asks for permission to relay the news to David that Absalom's forces have been defeated. Joab refuses him this request because he is afraid what will happen to him once David receives the bad news about his son. David did not normally receive bad news well. When the messenger informed David about the death of Saul and Jonathan, he had him put to death. The same fate met the 2 men who brought news of the death of Ishbosheth. When Ahimaaz asks for a second time for the honor to relay this news, Joab refuses. (Now although Joab knew that Absalom was dead, it is by no means certain that Ahimaaz knew. There probably needs to be parentheses around the clause ďhe is dead.Ē)
Whereas Joab does not want Ahimaaz to relay the news of the outcome to David, apparently he has no qualms about sending a Cushite to David with the news. (Cush is most likely the land now known as Ethiopia, although it could be also modern-day southern Iraq.) In Joabís mind, the Cushite was probably dispensable because he was neither the son of the priest nor an Israelite. He sends off the Cushite with the news of the defeat of Absalomís army and the death of Absalom.
Ahimaaz, though, persists in wanting to bring the news to David. Finally, Joab relents, probably because he thought the Cushite would be the first to arrive and receive the consequences for bringing the bad news to David. If he thought that, he was mistaken because Ahimaaz was a swift runner. He eventually passes the Cushite as he runs to Mahanaim.
While the 2 messengers are approaching the city, David is waiting outside the city walls to hear any news about the outcome of the battle and the fate of his son. The watchman on the walls shouts down to David that he sees a man running towards the city. David is encouraged by the news because if thousands were running towards the city, they would be most likely running in a retreat. The approach of one meant that he not only was a messenger but was also a messenger of good tidings. Then the watchman espies the approach of the second runner. Again, David takes this as good news because 2 do not thousands make.
Ahimaaz reaches the city first and proclaims the good news that Davidís army has won the day. When David asks him about the welfare of his son, Ahimaaz claims that he knows nothing about Absalomís fate. All he knows, though, is that when he left, there was a commotion going on. When the Cushite arrives, he too announces the victory Davidís forces have achieved. When David quizzes him about the fate of Absalom, he euphemistically informs David that Absalom has been killed.
What follows next is one of the saddest verses in the entire Bible. Normally, whenever somebody close to David died, he would utter some of the most beautiful eulogies recorded in the Bible. When Saul and Jonathan his best friend died, he wrote: ďHow the mighty have fallen!Ē The death of Abner elicited from him the clause that a prince of Israel had been killed. When he receives news of Absalomís death though, he collapses into great sorrow and incoherence. All he can say is ďAbsalom, my son, my son. My son, Absalom; would I had died instead of you. Absalom, my son, etc.Ē Over and over again he repeats, ďMy son, my son!Ē
At this moment David is most likely feeling the full weight of Godís discipline. At that moment the chickens have all come home to roost. In his mind, he must have regretted not being more alert o Absalom undermining him at the entrance to Jerusalem; however, he must have wished he would not have rejected Absalom for 5 years after he had killed Amnon. How he must have desired to go back and discipline Amnon after he had raped Tamar. How he hated himself for killing Uriah. How he wished he had never slept with Bathsheba in the first place.
Whatever else we glean from this, we need to see this episode as nothing less than Davidís failure as a father. Although fathers need to be firm as they raise their children, they also need to express that firmness through gentleness. We can discipline our children without crushing their spirits. I blow it as a father sometimes, and when I do, I have to go ask forgiveness from Nathan and Molly. I donít wait a few days either to do that. Delay in asking forgiveness can result in developing bitterness in their hearts.
One of the primary injunctions to fathers is ďFathers, do not irritate or embitter your childrenĒ (Col. 3:21). Sometimes when I tell my children, ďNo,Ē I have to tell them why I said, ďNo!Ē The response ďjust because I said soĒ sometimes just isnít good enough. ďBecause Iím the head of the houseĒ many times isnít good enough either. Why not tell your children that God is going to hold you accountable for the way you raise them and that you feel that God does not want your children to do these things? Many times we donít say this because it is not true. Weíre raising them the way we want to raise them and not necessarily the way God wants us to. Iíve seen fathers discipline and raise their children properly so that they grew into viable younger Christian adults. Iíve seen fathers actually threaten their children with their own lives thereby causing great problems in the lives of these children. Sometimes our children turn out just the way we raised them.
JOAB REBUKES DAVID (19:1-8)
When the men returning from battle discover that David is weeping over the death of his son, they feel ashamed because they feel like they have brought great sorrow into the life of their king. Instead of marching proudly back into Mahanaim, they sneak back into the city as if they have been defeated in battle.
Joab, upon hearing news of the kingís conduct, approaches the king to upbraid him. (With all due respect, Joab has got a lot of gall to address the king on this matter since he is the reason David is in such a state. Although the words he speaks to David are true, he should have been the last person to utter them.) Joab criticizes David for acting like he hated those who actually loved him, while acting like he loves those who hated him. The men returning have just risked their live to reestablish Davidís throne and save his hide, and yet he had not acknowledged with gratitude what they had done. Instead he had been moaning and groaning over the fact that his murderous little son was dead. Moreover, if David does not change his tone, the men are going to go from sorrowful to resentful and rebel against David. If David thought he had problems before this, he was really going to experience problems with his own men.
To Davidís credit, he accepts Joabís advice and goes down to thank the men. David, though, is not finished with Joab. Joab has blatantly disobeyed him in a matter which greatly touched him. Joab will pay for his insubordination. The wheels of justice have just finished turning against David; they will soon turn against Joab.