32 David Attacked by Absalom
Attacked by Absalom
2 Samuel 17:1–18:18
Absalom was not content with obtaining Jerusalem and the palace and the concubines and many other things that went with the monarchy. No, he must go after David and destroy him. It is hard for decent people to imagine the condition of Absalom’s mind which moved him to diligently pursue his father to kill him. One can understand someone outside the family usurping the throne and going after the blood of the one who had been on the throne. But a son with blood in his eye for his father is hard for one to understand apart from the knowledge that when once a man is given up to sin, nothing is sacred, nothing is off limits, nothing is too gross. Those so given up to sin will, however, have to reckon with God about their great sin; and judgment is at the end of the road for the unrepentant. Absalom learned this fact very forcefully when he was abruptly and ignominiously introduced to judgment in his attack upon David.
To examine this attack by Absalom upon his father David, we will consider the counsel for the attack (2 Samuel 17:1–23), the camps in the attack (2 Samuel 17:24–18:5), and the conquest over the attack (2 Samuel 18:6–18).
A. THE COUNSEL FOR THE ATTACK
Both Absalom and David received counsel regarding the attack by Absalom upon David. The counsel for Absalom plotted the offense of the attack while the counsel for David prepared for the defense against the attack. One man, Hushai, gave counsel to both Absalom and David. We will be instructed in some important lessons as we look at the counsel these two men received regarding the attack by Absalom upon David.
1. The Counsel for Absalom
Absalom received counsel regarding his attacking David from both Ahithophel, the traitor of David who had given his support to Absalom, and Hushai, the friend of David disguised as a loyalist of Absalom. Here we look at the differing counsel of these two men and the surprising choice Absalom made regarding which counsel to follow.
The counsel from Ahithophel. The first to give counsel to Absalom was Ahithophel. We note the selfishness in his counsel, the speed in his counsel, the slaying in his counsel, the serenity in his counsel, and the support for his counsel.
First, the selfishness in his counsel. “Ahithophel said unto Absalom, Let me now choose out twelve thousand men, and I will arise and pursue after David this night” (2 Samuel 17:1). Ahithophel was thinking of himself and how he could gain personally when he gave this counsel about attacking David. This self-centeredness in his counsel is seen in “me . . . I . . . I . . . I . . . I” (2 Samuel 17:1–3). In contrast, Hushai’s advice given later about attacking David was “we . . . we . . . all Israel . . . we” (2 Samuel 17:12,13). Ahithophel wanted to be the hero! “Like other kingmakers, Ahithophel had put himself too forward. He asked for twelve thousand men to be placed under his command that he might smite David, and so be not only Absalom’s counsellor but also his commander-in-chief” (R. P. Smith). Vain men attract vain men. Absalom was full of vanity and so attracted Ahithophel who was likewise full of vanity. Not long after this counselling session, both of these men were dead; and vanity played a large part in their deaths. Pride slays, but humility gives life.
Second, the speed in his counsel. “I will arise and pursue after David this night . . . while he is weary and weak handed” (2 Samuel 17:1,2). Ahithophel did not want to delay the attack upon David. He wanted to pursue the attack that very night while David was unprepared. While his counsel to attack David was very wicked (David should not be attacked but honored), yet the advice for a speedy attack shows wisdom regarding opportunity. Ahithophel knew one cannot delay in regards to opportunity. David was very vulnerable to attack at first, and Ahithophel knew that. David needed time to get prepared. That first night he would indeed be “weary and weak.” Therefore, Ahithophel counseled to strike while the iron is hot. Opportunity passes by quickly; if you do not speedily capitalize on it, you will lose it.
Third, the slaying in his counsel. “I will smite the king only” (2 Samuel 17:2). Ahithophel’s counsel promised to avoid an unpopular slaughter of soldiers. He knew that David was the chief target. Kill him and the opposition is finished, for they no longer could rally around David. The principle of Ahithophel’s counsel was not evil in itself, just the application was. The principle says to attack the source of the problem if you want to end the problem. Nations need to practice this principle regarding crime. As an example, they need to attack alcohol; for it is a major source of much crime. Failure to attack and stop alcohol has resulted in a continuous problem with alcohol-inspired crime. Churches need to practice this principle, too; especially in regards to church dissidents. Vote out a few dissident persons from the church membership, and things will be a lot better at church.
Fourth, the serenity in his counsel. “So all the people shall be in peace” (2 Samuel 17:3). Ahithophel’s counsel promised serenity for society. But it was a false promise, for killing God’s Anointed One was definitely not the way to peace! The one that needed to be killed to bring peace to Israel was Absalom, for he was the disturber of peace. Mankind has devised many peace plans that have left out God and His Anointed One Jesus Christ, and such plans will never bring true peace. The wicked are forever saying, “Peace, peace; when there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6:14).
Fifth, the support for his counsel. “And the saying pleased Absalom well, and all the elders of Israel” (2 Samuel 17:4). Ahithophel’s advice met with much support. In the record given in our text of this support for Ahithophel’s counsel, we learn of the accord, the animosity, and the associates in the support.
The accord in support. Support for Ahithophel’s counsel was unanimous. Both Absalom and the elders approved. Accord of men does not mean approval with God, however. Attacking God’s Anointed One will never meet with Divine approval no matter how great is the accord of man. Be careful that you do not base your decisions upon what man approves rather than what God approves. “Though hand join in hand, the wicked shall not be unpunished” (Proverbs 11:21).
The animosity in the support. The support for Ahithophel’s counsel revealed great animosity for David. It especially shows Absalom’s animosity for David. The statement, “the saying [about killing David] pleased Absalom well,” indicates how great Absalom’s animosity was for David. Absalom was so wicked that he rejoiced in a plan aimed at killing his father.
The associates in the support. Absalom’s associates were revealed in the support of Ahithophel’s counsel. That “all the elders of Israel” supported Ahithophel’s counsel revealed how far reaching was Absalom’s conspiracy against David. Also it shows how foolish these men were who followed Absalom. They followed an untried and unproven man instead of David who had proven time and again his gallantry in warfare and his skills in administration. We expect the lowly person to be taken in by the gushy, hugging and kissing politician; but we would hope for better judgment from the “elders.” But, unfortunately, age and position do not guarantee wisdom. Only a right relationship with God does.
The counsel from Hushai. “Then said Absalom, Call now Hushai the Archite also, and let us hear likewise what he saith” (2 Samuel 17:5). Though there was accord in the support for Ahithophel’s counsel, yet Absalom still called for Hushai to give counsel. This seems strange to natural thinking, but the explanation is that God’s hand is in all of this, as we will see more about later. To examine Hushai’s counsel, we note the aim of the counsel, the assessment in the counsel, the army in the counsel, the appeal of the counsel, and the acceptance of the counsel.
First, the aim of the counsel. “And Hushai said unto Absalom, The counsel that Ahithophel hath given is not good at this time” (2 Samuel 17:7) Since Hushai was David’s friend (he was only masquerading as Absalom’s friend), the aim of his counsel was to defeat Ahithophel’s counsel and protect David. Ahithophel’s counsel presented great peril for David; so to counter this peril, Hushai first condemned Ahithophel’s counsel; then, as we will see next, he counselled Absalom to delay his attack on David. Counsel to delay needed action is also used by Satan to ensnare many folk just as Hushai used it to ensnare Absalom. When opportunity is before us, we should not delay using it especially when it is a spiritual opportunity.
Second, the assessment in the counsel. Hushai makes a much different assessment of David’s situation than Ahithophel did. Ahithophel said David and his men were weary and weak handed—which David was at that time. But Hushai misleadingly says David and his men are vexed, valiant, and vengeful.
They were vexed. Hushai said David and his men were “chafed in their minds, as a bear robbed of her whelps [cubs] in the field” (2 Samuel 17:8) because of the conspiracy. This condition would not encourage Absalom to quickly attack David. It would cause Absalom to be cautious thus giving David time to escape.
They were valiant. Hushai reminded Absalom, “thou knowest thy father and his men, that they be mighty men . . . and thy father is a man of war . . . all Israel knoweth that thy father is a mighty man, and they which be with him are valiant men” (2 Samuel 17:8, 10). Here Hushai added more reason for Absalom to fear attacking David; namely, David and his men are valiant men. To attack such a group quickly, as Ahithophel wanted to do, would be unwise. This misleading assessment also slowed Absalom’s attack so David and his men would have more time to escape.
They were vengeful. Hushai told Absalom a quick attack could result in disaster, for David “is hid now in some pit, or in some other place” (2 Samuel 17:9) ready to take vengeance on any attackers. And he said when this happens, “it will come to pass, when some of them [of Absalom’s troops] be overthrown at the first, that whosoever heareth it will say, There is a slaughter among the people that follow Absalom. And he also that is valiant, whose heart is as the heart of a lion, shall utterly melt” (2 Samuel 17:9,10). Hushai describes David and his men as hiding in caves and pits ready to pounce with vengeance upon the first troops of Absalom’s that pass by them. Such an assault, he said, would cause panic in Absalom’s followers; for they knew David’s history of success in war. This thought would give Absalom more to fear and prepare him to be more receptive to Hushai’s next advice about the gathering of an army. That Absalom did not see through this false assessment of David at that time is testimony to the fact that sinners do not discern the evil of their ways. When men give themselves to sin, they become blinded to the subtlety and dangers of sin.
Third, the army in the counsel. “Therefore I counsel that all Israel be generally gathered unto thee, from Dan even to Beersheba, as the sand that is by the sea for multitude” (2 Samuel 17:11). In view of the supposed danger for Absalom in David and his men which Hushai had earnestly and deceitfully described, Absalom is counselled to gather an army of great size which will, according to Hushai, give him the ability to conquer forcefully and completely (2 Samuel 17:13). This seems like sage advice; but, of course, it would take Absalom many days to recruit soldiers from all over Israel and gather them in Jerusalem. This delay in attacking David would give David needed time to get out of the area and to assemble his own defenders and prepare them for battle. A prepared David will be a very tough foe for Absalom; in fact, it was too tough a foe for Absalom. But Absalom took this baited advice from Hushai, and in the end the hook in the bait caught Absalom and finished him. Sin, like Hushai’s advice looks so wise and certain, but the wise and certain appearance is nothing but clever bait to beguile a person into sinning.
Fourth, the appeal of the counsel. “I counsel . . . that thou go to battle in thine own person” (2 Samuel 17:11). Ahithophel wanted to lead the battle and said so when he counselled Absalom. But Hushai appeals to the vanity of Absalom by counselling Absalom to lead the battle himself. Leading a huge army brings much glory. Absalom loves vanity (we saw that in his pompous parading), and so this counsel will appeal to him, but it will lead to his downfall. In this fact “Satan had outwitted himself. He had nursed in Absalom an overweening vanity, intending by its means to overturn the throne of David; and now that very vanity becomes the means of defeating the scheme, and laying the foundation of Absalom’s ruin” (Blaikie). Pride destroys; and Absalom, like so many others, was destroyed by pride.
Fifth, the acceptance of the counsel. “And Absalom and all the men of Israel said, The counsel of Hushai the Archite is better than the counsel of Ahithophel” (2 Samuel 17:14). We note both the reason for the acceptance and the reaction to the acceptance.
The reason for the acceptance is clearly stated in Scripture. “The Lord had appointed to defeat the good counsel of Ahithophel, to the intent that the Lord might bring evil upon Absalom” (2 Samuel 17:14). It was surprising that Absalom would reject counsel he was pleased with which came from a trusted friend (Ahithophel) to accept counsel from a man (Hushai) whose loyalty he had doubted (2 Samuel 16:17). But when God is working, these surprises happen. God is still on the throne. “The most High ruleth in the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whomsoever he will” (Daniel 4:17,25,32). So God worked to defeat the counsel of Ahithophel even though it had been unanimously received. Absalom learned the hard way about the destruction that comes to those who oppose God’s Anointed One be it David or Jesus Christ. You fight vainly when you fight God’s Anointed One as Absalom did.
The reaction to the acceptance of Hushai’s counsel was suicide for Ahithophel. “When Ahithophel saw that his counsel was not followed, he saddled his ass, and arose, and gat him home to his house, to his city, and put his household in order, and hanged himself, and died” (2 Samuel 17:23). We note both the causes and contradiction in Ahithophel’s suicide. The causes for the suicide were at least twofold. One was vanity. Ahithophel had a great reputation for superior counsel (2 Samuel 16:23); hence, rejection at this critical time was too much for Ahithophel’s pride and also for his vain ambition for high position in Absalom’s new government. A second cause was vulnerability. Ahithophel knew that Hushai’s counsel would make David the favorite to win. With David winning, Ahithophel knew he was very vulnerable to being killed by David and his men because he had deserted to Absalom and even worse had advised Absalom to defile David’s concubines. But these causes did not justify suicide. No cause does. Ahithophel was still a fool to commit suicide. “Nothing indicates so much folly as self-murder” (Henry).
The contradiction in the suicide is in the mixture of wisdom and madness in it. Ahithophel setting his house in order was wisdom, but hanging himself was madness. This contradictory mixture of wisdom and madness is seen all over our society. Men have great wisdom in technology but are fools in theology. They are wise in earthly matters but dunces in heavenly matters. They respect and obey the laws of the material universe but scorn and reject the laws about the spiritual area of life.
2. The Counsel for David
“Then said Hushai unto Zadok and to Abiathar the priests, Thus and thus did Ahithophel counsel Absalom and the elders of Israel; and thus and thus have I counselled. Now therefore send quickly, and tell David saying, Lodge not this night in the plains of the wilderness, but speedily pass over; lest the king be swallowed up, and all the people that are with him” (2 Samuel 17:15,16). Shortly after Hushai had given counsel to Absalom, he then counselled David. We note the precepts in the counsel, the problems in conveying the counsel, the prudence in heeding the counsel, and the pondering about the time of the counsel.
The precepts in the counsel. “Lodge not this night in the plains of the wilderness, but speedily pass over; lest the king be swallowed up, and all the people that are with him” (2 Samuel 17:16). Hushai’s counsel for David was an urgent warning. Though Absalom’s acceptance of Hushai’s counsel would give David plenty of time to cross over Jordan, Hushai still warned David to speedily cross the Jordan; for Hushai could not be sure that Absalom would not change his mind once again. Absalom had already quickly switched from Ahithophel’s counsel to Hushai’s. Hushai could, therefore, easily fear that Absalom might switch again. If Absalom switched back to Ahithophel’s counsel, David would be in great peril. So in view of this possibility, Hushai would not take any chances. He wisely and urgently told David to hurry and cross the Jordan.
In like manner, souls must not take chances regarding their salvation. They may argue that they have plenty of time to take care of the matter of salvation, but in reality they do not know if they have even a minute left in their life. Therefore, they must take care of their soul’s need immediately. As Hushai exhorted David, so Paul exhorted souls, “Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, how is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:2).
The problems in conveying the counsel. Hushai’s counsel had to be conveyed to David without Absalom knowing about it. David had made arrangements earlier with Hushai on how to convey important information to him. (2 Samuel 15:34–36). Hushai was to tell the priests Zadok and Abiathar who would then send word to their two sons Jonathan and Ahimaaz who were camped at Enrogel just outside of Jerusalem. These two sons would then run to David with the information. But in the process of carrying Hushai’s counsel to David, these two sons of the priests ran into a problem—their actions were observed and reported to Absalom (2 Samuel 17:18). This forced the two sons to hide for a time to escape Absalom’s men (2 Samuel 17:18–21). They found sympathizers in Bahurim who helped them hide from Absalom’s men.
It is instructive that the two messengers were befriended and hidden by people in Bahurim (2 Samuel 17:18), for this place was also the home of Shimei who had so vehemently cursed and harassed David when David passed by the place earlier (2 Samuel 16:5–13). This finding of friends of David in Bahurim reminds and encourages God’s people that God can raise up help for His people from the very place that is hostile to them. This truth is also illustrated regarding Moses and Pharaoh. Pharaoh decreed the death of all male Israelite babies, but it was Pharaoh’s daughter who saved the very baby (Moses) that would deliver Israel from Egypt. God is not mocked! Our Bahurims may burden, but count on them to also befriend. God can balance the scales very easily, and often He does it in a way to especially spite the devil.
The prudence in heeding the counsel. “And said unto David, Arise, and pass quickly over the water . . . Then David arose, and all the people that were with him, and they passed over Jordan; by the morning light there lacked not one of them that was not gone over Jordan” (2 Samuel 17:21,22). David did not delay in following Hushai’s counsel. He immediately proceeded to move his group over the Jordan. The passing over Jordan was conducted so successfully that by dawn the next day, everyone of David’s group was safe on the other side of Jordan.
God works to protect us, but that is not to make us delinquent and lazy. If you want God to work on your behalf, you must be diligent in using your opportunities. Spending all night crossing the Jordan emphasizes that earnest effort and great sacrifice are often necessary to capitalize on opportunity. Those who achieve little in life, be it in the secular or spiritual life, need to seriously ponder David’s example here. Underachievers often blame everything from race to poverty to luck for their failures. But all such excuses are only disguises to cover up their laziness and lack of dedication. Divine advantage is not a blessing of the slothful and those lacking industry.
The pondering about the time of the counsel. Various Psalms of David (such as Psalm 41, 42, and 43) are felt by Bible scholars to have been written during this struggle with Absalom. But of all the Psalms thought to have been written at that time, only one has an actual heading to it which indicates it was written during those trying days for David. It is Psalm 3 whose heading says, “A Psalm of David, when he fled from Absalom his son.” The heading of this Psalm makes it fitting to study in this part of the narrative of David’s conflict with Absalom. To study the pondering of David as recorded in Psalm 3, we divide it into six parts. They are the plenitude of his foes (v. 1), the prediction by his foes (v. 2), the protector from his foes (v. 3), the prayer about his foes (v. 4), the peace in spite of his foes (vv. 5,6), the power over his foes (vv. 7, 8).
First, the plenitude of his foes. “Lord, how are they increased that trouble me! Many are they that rise up against me” (v. 1). David was not exaggerating! We read earlier in Scripture that “the conspiracy was strong; for the people increased continually with Absalom” (2 Samuel 15:12). Later we will be told that “twenty thousand” (2 Samuel 18:7) of his foes were slain in battle which certainly indicates his foes were many in number. How like David’s foes are our troubles, for they are indeed many. “Troubles come in flocks. Sorrow hath a numerous family” (Spurgeon). And all troubles and sorrows need to be taken to the Lord, as David did here, if we are to survive them.
Second, the prediction by his foes. “Many there be which say of my soul, There is no help for him in God” (v. 2). It is bad enough to be surrounded by troubles, but for others to say we are in a hopeless case only adds to our troubles. Especially is it a difficult trial when the critics tell us that even God cannot help us. But the critics do not know God well. They view God as weak and disinterested. But God’s help is not limited. No difficulty is too great for His help. Let not trouble cause you to think like the critics and doubt God’s help, but count on God to help in time of trouble like David did which we note next.
Third, the protector from his foes. “Thou, O Lord, art a shield for me; my glory, and the lifter up of mine head” (v. 3). The enemy may mock the idea of God helping us, but the believer knows better. David knew, as we should, that God is the shield to ward off the missiles of the enemy (such as Ahithophel’s counsel). He also is the one Who will restore “my glory,” Who will once again lift up David’s head as king. Absalom had obtained his glory from man. It would not last. David had obtained his glory from God. It is still David’s possession. If you want lasting honor and glory, seek the glory and honor God can give, not what man can give.
Fourth, the prayer about his foes. “I cried unto the Lord with my voice, and he heard me out of his holy hill” (v. 4). When troubles come, we need to pray. Meeting your troubles without prayer is to multiply your troubles. Sinful men mock the validity of prayer, but that does not negate the value of prayer. Though finite that we are, our infinite God hears us when we pray. Note that our verse said David prayed aloud. David was not afraid or ashamed to pray aloud as many folks are today. But God could hear him whether he prayed aloud or only silently from the heart, for God has ears that can hear our inmost thoughts and concerns.
Fifth, the peace in spite of his foes. “I laid me down and slept; I awaked; for the Lord sustained me. I will not be afraid of ten thousands of people, that have set themselves against me round about” (vv. 5, 5). When God strengthened him, David could sleep in spite of his foes and also not be scared of his foes. Such is the great peace that God gives to His own. Note that David’s sleep was not a lazy man’s sleep, for it is said that “I awaked” (v. 5). Sleep is not an end in itself but a means of refreshing and strengthening us when we awake.
Sixth, the power over his foes. “Arise, O Lord; save me, O my God; for thou hast smitten all mine enemies upon the cheek bone; thou hast broken the teeth of the ungodly. Salvation belongeth unto the Lord; thy blessing is upon thy people” (vv. 7, 8). One of the great encouragements to pray is the power of God. Here David praises God for His power to bring the blessing of salvation from his troubles. In speaking of his deliverance, David especially mentions the smiting of his foes’ mouth by the power of God. They had spoken much evil against David (such as the vilification spoken by Shimei), but when God gets done with the evil speakers, they will not be able to speak. Broken cheek bones and broken teeth will stop evil words quickly!
B. THE CAMPS IN THE ATTACK
Scripture gives us a view of both the camp of Absalom and the camp of David just prior to the attack. To gain helpful instruction, we will to look at both camps to see their actions in readying themselves for combating each other.
1. The Camp of Absalom
Much less is said about Absalom’s camp than David’s camp as they prepare for the attack. But we can glean from Scripture three factors about Absalom’s camp. They include the designation of Absalom’s army, the administration of Absalom’s army, and the location of Absalom’s army.
The designation of Absalom’s army. “So Israel and Absalom pitched in the land of Gilead” (2 Samuel 17:26). Absalom’s army is called “Israel” in Scripture during this attack against David (see also 2 Samuel 17:24; 18:6, 7, 16, 17). David’s army was never called “Israel” in this attack. They were called “the servants of David” (2 Samuel 18:7,9). The “Israel” designation of Absalom’s army shows the population of his army and the popularity of his revolt.
First, the population of his army. The “Israel” designation says Absalom’s army was very large. David had “thousands” (2 Samuel 18:1), but they were obviously much less than Absalom’s thousands, for later twenty thousand (2 Samuel 18:7) of Absalom’s army were slain in battle and he still had an army left. Absalom’s large army in its eventual defeat illustrates that quality and quantity do not necessarily go together. Absalom had quantity, but not quality. This problem shows up in many areas of life. It even shows up in churches. As an example, large church attendances do not indicate quality faith. They simply indicate big crowds.
Second, the popularity of his revolt. The “Israel” designation of Absalom’s army also shows the popularity of his revolt. It was so popular that most of Israel followed him. Though evil, Absalom’s conspiracy had the popular support of the land. Evil men often gain the popular support of a country, but much to the country’s great loss as was the case with Absalom’s popularity.
The administration of Absalom’s army. “And Absalom made Amasa captain of the host instead of Joab: which Amasa was a man’s son, whose name was Ithra an Israelite, that went in to Abigail the daughter of Nahash, sister to Zeruiah Joab’s mother” (2 Samuel 17:25). Since Joab had remained with David, Absalom needed a new commander-in-chief for Israel’s army. He chose Amasa, who was a cousin of Joab, and like Joab, also a nephew of David. Amasa did not distinguish himself in the battle against David, but shortly after David’s forces defeated Absalom’s forces, David still appointed Amasa to replace Joab (2 Samuel 19:13), for David was upset over Joab’s killing of Absalom as we will note later. The appointment only resulted in Amasa being murdered by Joab (2 Samuel 20:10). Amasa had his moment of fame in following Absalom, but he was soon cut down. Many people in every age gain fame by following others instead of God’s Anointed. But it is a short-lived fame that costs them eternal fame.
The location of Absalom’s army. “So Israel and Absalom pitched in the land of Gilead” (2 Samuel 17:26). Gilead is the name often given to the land east of the Jordan which Moses conquered from the Amorites shortly before he died. It was a rough area with many hills and ravines and also some large forests which (as we will see later) would especially play a big part in this particular battle. The location favored David’s troops, for many of David’s troops came from the Gilead area. The Gilead area did not help Absalom, however. He had to fight David on the opponent’s field. Absalom had been able to manipulate circumstances earlier in his conspiracy; but in Gilead, the circumstances will manipulate him to his destruction. Man thinks he can control his circumstances, but it is so easy for God to put man in a place where the circumstances control him.
2. The Camp of David
“Then David came to Mahanaim. And Absalom passed over Jordan, he and all the men of Israel with him” (2 Samuel 17:24). David and his group set up their camp in Mahanaim from where they were able to get ready for Absalom’s attack. Since Hushai’s crafty, misleading advice was followed by Absalom, David had ample time to make the fifty mile trip north and east of Jerusalem up to Mahanaim. Mahanaim was a walled city. This afforded David some protection to set up his army and also protection for the safety and lodging of the families and little ones of those who were in David’s group. So while Absalom was setting up his camp, David was doing likewise. We note the obtaining of supplies, the organizing of the soldiers, the overruling of the sovereign, and the order about the son which occurred in David’s camp just prior to the attack of Absalom upon David.
The obtaining of supplies. “And it came to pass, when David was come to Mahanaim, that Shobi the son of Nahash of Rabbah of the children of Ammon, and Machir the son of Ammiel of Lo-debar, and Barzillai the Gileadite of Rogelim” (2 Samuel 17:27) brought many supplies for David and his troops; “for they said, The people is hungry, and weary, and thirsty, and in the wilderness” (2 Samuel 17:29). We note the source of the supplies and the specifics about the supplies.
First, the source of the supplies. Three men are especially mentioned as the source of these supplies. They were Shobi the Ammonite, Machir the altruist (2 Samuel 9:4), and Barzillai the aged (2 Samuel 19:32).
Shobi the Ammonite is the most surprising supporter of the three. It was his brother Hanun that had mistreated David’s servants so despicably which caused a war between Israel and the Ammonites and a devastating defeat for Ammon (2 Samuel 10). Shobi obviously did not support his brother’s unsavory behavior. He was more like his father Nahash who was a friend of David (2 Samuel 10:2). Hanun and Shobi were brothers in the flesh but not in the spirit as is the case with many brothers in every age.
Machir the altruist had demonstrated altruism for Mephibosheth by being his benevolent caretaker. Then David, in another show of altruism, had in kindness taken on the care of Mephibosheth (2 Samuel 9) from Machir. Appreciation for David’s caring for Mephibosheth would encourage Machir to bring supplies to David. He would be returning a favor for a favor. Kindness of years past was now bearing fruit for David.
Barzillai the aged is an unknown up to this point in Scripture, but the old gentlemen knew which side to support. Later, we will see more about him, and it will be very commendable. David attracted good men for his supporters. The same cannot be said for Absalom. It is not the size of the crowd that follows you that matters but the character of the crowd. A follower like Barzillai is worth hundreds of the riffraff that makes up the big crowds in the world.
Second, the specifics about the supplies. These men coming to aid David “brought beds, and basins, and earthen vessels, and wheat, and barley, and flour, and parched corn, and beans, and lentiles, and parched pulse, and honey, and butter, and sheep, and cheese of kine” (2 Samuel 17:28,29). These men brought some essential supplies for David and his group. They consisted of bedding and food. The beds were “scarcely more than rugs and small carpets” (R. P. Smith) but helpful and practical considering the circumstances of David’s group. The basins and earthern vessels would provide containers in which to cook the food and also vessels from which to eat the food. These gifts were practical and helpful. Blessed are those who know what to give! We could use more of this kind at church, for some gifts received at church for the pastor, the missionary cupboard, or other projects are neither practical or needed. These gifts too often reflect the fact that someone has cleaned out their house and instead of throwing something in the junk (where it belongs) they decide to denote it to the church. But those whose heart is in the work will see to it that their gifts are practical and needed.
The organizing of the soldiers. “And David numbered the people that were with him, and set captains of thousands and captains of hundreds over them. And David sent forth a third part of the people under the hand of Joab, and a third part under the hand of Abishai . . . and a third part under the hand of Ittai the Gittite” (2 Samuel 18:1,2). David was a master at organizing armies. His skill in this matter had evidenced itself before David was even king. Absalom, who had never demonstrated any skill in this area, was going against a veteran who “knew his stuff.” David knew the value of good organization. Good order and delegation can often make up for lack of numbers. Efficiency can make up for many deficiencies.
Note that David divided his troops into three main divisions with Joab, Abishai the brother of Joab, and Ittai the Gittite each being given one division. David would met Absalom’s attack with three different fronts. Gideon did the same with the Midianites (Judges 7:16). Such an arrangement is better than having all the forces bunched together in one place. David was a good strategist and knew how to locate his troops to their best advantage. He did not waste his resources. With fewer resources, he must use them very wisely. Those who financially have few resources and have trouble making ends meet will find good help in David’s good stewardship of his limited resources.‑Money troubles are often a stewardship problem not a salary problem.
The overruling of the sovereign. “And the king said unto the people, I will surely go forth with you myself also. But the people answered, Thou shalt not go forth; for if we flee away, they will not care for us; neither if half of us die, will they care for us; but now thou art worth ten thousand of us; therefore now it is better that thou succor [help] us out of the city” (2 Samuel 18:2,3). David was zealous here to be out in battle with the troops (too bad he had not been this way some years earlier when he tarried in Jerusalem and got in trouble with Bathsheba, for he would not be fighting the battle he was fighting here). But it was too precarious for him. He would be the chief target of the foe. His followers wisely advised him to stay at Mahanaim and “succor [help] us out of the city” instead of going to battle. He wisely followed their advice. Though David could not help them from the front lines, he could still help them from the city.
Many of those who help win the battles are not on the front lines. Much work behind the lines is also essential for victory. We need the soldiers who carry the guns, but we also need those who manufacture the guns. In like manner, we need both the diver and those who attend the support lines which bring vital oxygen to the diver. In church we need prayer warriors as well as preachers; and we need givers (people who can support missionaries) as well as goers (the actual missionaries). There is work for all to do, and wisdom will put the workers where they can best contribute to the cause.
The order about the son. “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 18:5). Two camps confront each other with vastly different goals regarding the leader of the other camp. Absalom’s camp wanted to kill their opponents’ leader (David)—this goal was emphasized in Ahithophel’s counsel. David’s camp, in contrast, is ordered here to spare their opponents’ leader (Absalom). David’s order to deal gently with Absalom may look compassionate to some, but it was a very bad order. Absalom is the cause of the trouble, and yet David orders his men to deal gently with him. While David’s order is unwise and irrational, yet it is practiced again and again in situation after situation. We note some examples.
Dealing gently with Absalom is seen in the chastisement of children when parents do not discipline their children as severely as they ought.
Dealing gently with Absalom is seen in the courts when criminals are let off easily for their crimes.
Dealing gently with Absalom is seen in the classroom when disruptive students seem to have all the rights while the teachers seem to have none.
Dealing gently with Absalom is seen in some of the conflicts our nation has had with belligerent nations when we have not been willing to fight earnestly enough to render a sound defeat on the enemy (e.g. Korea and Viet Nam).
Dealing gently with Absalom is seen in many churches when they refuse to do much of anything about church dissidents who greatly hinder the work of the church, and when they tolerate unholy music in their services.
Dealing gently with Absalom is seen in the complaint of carnal Christians when they cry against preachers who preach forcefully against sin.
Dealing gently with Absalom is seen in the compromise of people with false doctrine when they do not strongly oppose false doctrine or the associating with those who proclaim false doctrine.
Dealing gently with Absalom is what brought about this conspiracy against David. Had David dealt firmly with Absalom and applied the law to him properly, Absalom would not be leading any conspiracy. You cannot treat sin gently and defeat it, for treating sin gently gives it opportunity to turn on you.
C. THE CONQUEST OVER THE ATTACK
After David’s troops had been given their final charge (2 Samuel 18:5), they “went out into the field against Israel” (2 Samuel 18:6). This battle between Absalom’s army and David’s army did not last long, for Absalom’s troops were no match for the superior performance of David’s warriors. Though outnumbered, David’s troops were not outmaneuvered or outclassed. They fought with skill and quickly brought an end to Absalom’s attack against David. To further examine the conquest by David’s army over Absalom’s army, we note the situation on the battlefield, the scattering in the fighting, the slaughter of the Israelites, and the slaying of the usurper.
1. The Situation on the Battlefield
“The battle was in the wood of Ephraim . . . and the wood devoured more people that day than the sword devoured” (2 Samuel 18:6,8). While the tribe of Ephraim settled on the west side of Jordan, a forest on the east side, for some unknown reason, bore their name. It was a rugged forest and was a big factor in the outcome of the battle. We especially note the disadvantage and the deadliness this forest was to Absalom’s army which aided David’s forces in conquering Absalom’s forces.
The disadvantage. Earlier we noted the disadvantage for Absalom’s troops in the location of the war between Absalom and David. Here in the problem of the woods, we see it again. Absalom’s troops came mostly from the west side of the Jordan. David’s army was made up of many men from the east side of Jordan—from the territory of Israel known as Gilead (earlier we saw some of these gallant, eastside men coming to aid David as he crossed over Jordan). Gilead was a rugged area that produced rugged men. They would be better able to cope with this thick forest than Absalom’s troops. It was their “home field” as we say in sports. The forest would help cancel out the advantage Absalom had with numbers and become a great disadvantage to them. Those who oppose God’s Anointed One will eventually find they are on a field of battle which will work to their great disadvantage. It often looks like the enemy of God’s Anointed has the advantage, but time will always prove otherwise.
The deadliness. “The wood devoured more people that day than the sword devoured” (2 Samuel 18:8). The forest was obviously a perilous place to be, especially if you were unacquainted with it. Besides the many trees whose low branches presented great peril (as will be seen in Absalom’s death), the forest was “full of gorges and bogs and step defiles leading down to the Jordan” (R. P. Smith) which could present many deadly situations for men not acquainted with the terrain. Also wild beasts in the forest could be a problem, too. The woods thus greatly multiplied the casualties for Absalom’s army. His army not only had the problem in fighting David’s excellent troops, but they also had the added problem of fighting the woods. And they lost to both. But more casualties came from the forest than from the fighters. God used both the woods and warriors to defeat Absalom. God is not limited in fighting the enemy. He can use anything at hand to defeat evil. Wind, rain, snow, floods, insects, woods, and many other means have been used by God to bring down the mighty of the world so “that no flesh should glory in his presence” (1 Corinthians 1:29).
2. The Scattering in the Fighting
“The battle was there scattered over the face of all the country” (2 Samuel 18:8). The scattering in this battle between Absalom and David can refer to two aspects of the fighting of David’s troops. It can refer to both the strategy and success of David’s troops.
The strategy. David had divided up his army into three groups (2 Samuel 18:2) as we noted earlier. This would lend itself to breaking up a united front of Absalom’s troops. In view of the territory in which the battle was fought, it would be very conducive for David’s troops to divide and scatter Israel’s troops over the area. This was good strategy. Dividing the opposition greatly weakened the opposition. David’s army had a big advantage over Absalom’s army not only because they knew the terrain better but also because they had a much better leader. David was a very sagacious military man with much experience in fighting whereas Absalom had little if any skills and experience in warfare. Spiritually we need to follow God’s Anointed One, for He knows how to defeat the enemy. As an example, Christ’s defeat of the enemy during the great temptation scene shows us the great strategy for defeating our spiritual enemies.
The success. The scattering of the Absalom’s army also speaks of the success of David’s army, for the “scattering” term is used at times to indicate the dissolution and defeat of the enemy. As an example, David says in one of his Psalms, “Let God arise, let his enemies be scattered [same Hebrew word as in our text]” (Psalm 68:1). To be scattered here means to be broken up. Hence, for an army it means to be defeated. Absalom’s army had been broken up into ineffectual groups. It did not take long for David’s men to scatter Absalom’s army all over the countryside. The army of Absalom was quickly disorganized and in retreat. Evil looks so great and overwhelming at times, but God can easily scatter them in devastation.
3. The Slaughter of the Israelites
“The people of Israel were slain before the servants of David, and there was there a great slaughter that day of twenty thousand men” (2 Samuel 18:7). This was a bloody war. The casualties were many on Absalom’s side as we have already seen. Our text here specifies that twenty thousand died in the battle. From this great slaughter we learn about the punishment of Israel, the performance of Amasa, and the peril of civil war.
The punishment of Israel. Israel had rejected David and followed Absalom. It was a terrible choice which revealed a great deficiency of character in Israel. They sowed some very evil conduct in following Absalom, and in the slaughter they reaped some justified tragic results. “Now they smarted justly for their treason against their lawful prince, their uneasiness under so good a government, and their base ingratitude to so good a governor; and they found what it was to take up arms for a usurper, who with his kisses and caresses had wheedled them into their own ruin. Now where are the rewards, the preferments, the golden days they promised themselves from him?” (Henry). Countless sinners have suffered the same fate as Israel suffered here. They, like Israel, chased after the glitter of sin and found out it was only a mirage. Furthermore, to reach their goals, the sinners, like the Israelites here, had to turn against God’s Anointed One. They had to reject Christ in order to pursue their evil. But Israel could not reject David without deadly results, and neither can men reject Christ without deadly results.
The performance of Amasa. The great slaughter of Absalom’s army reveals that Amasa, Absalom’s commander-in-chief, certainly did not give a good performance. Having an advantage in number did not help him. He seemed to be totally helpless to counter anything that David’s forces did to Absalom’s army. Commenting on the poor performance of Amasa, R. P. Smith said in The Pulpit Commentary, “Where was Amasa, and what was he doing? He had led his troops miserably, had taken no precautions against surprise, and did nothing to rally them . . . [he] proved himself quite incompetent to his duties of a command-in-chief, and no match for the sagacious Joab.” Yet, later David tried to replace Joab with Amasa (2 Samuel 19:13). This unwarranted appointment was David’s ill-fated and unwise attempt to bring together warring factions. Trying to replace Joab with Amasa showed that David still was not the David of old. Sin left David with some terrible scars—one of those scars was a lack of consistent good discernment.
The peril of civil war. The slaughter was a tragic slaughter for the nation of Israel because it was their own people. The war between David and Absalom was a civil war which meant that every casualty hurt the nation of Israel. “God herein fought for David, and yet fought against him; for all these that were slain were his own subjects, and the common interest of his kingdom was weakened by the slaughter. The Romans allowed no triumph for a victory in the civil war” (Henry). Absaloms are no help to the nation though they pose as the panacea to all the nation’s problems. Neither are Absalom-type dissidents any help to the church. They only cause problems, the loss of many members, and the hindrance of the testimony of Christ.
4. The Slaying of the Usurper
Absalom, the despicable usurper of David’s throne, was eventually slain in this battle. Thus this battle proved to be the “Waterloo” of his notorious career. We note the circumstances of his slaying, the curse about his slaying, the control of his slaying, the contempt in his slaying, the cruelty in his slaying, the consequences of his slaying, and the cairn of his slaying.
The circumstances of his slaying. “And Absalom met the servants of David. And Absalom rode upon a 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 the heaven and the earth; and the mule that was under him went away” (2 Samuel 18:9). The circumstances of Absalom’s death are quite unique. When he met up with some of David’s troops, he endeavored to escape from them in the woods of Ephraim but got his head caught in a tree and was left hanging when the mule upon which he was riding kept going. Some think it was Absalom’s long hair that caught him in the tree, but nothing is said in Scripture about his hair being a problem. Absalom simply rammed his head into a fork of a low tree branch with such force that he stuck there while his mule kept going thus leaving Absalom hanging. That Absalom did not free himself indicates that he was either knocked unconscious in ramming his head into the tree or more likely had broken his neck through the collision and the broken neck had paralyzed him. His two arms were free, and if he had not been unconscious or paralyzed he could have freed himself. But the injury in the ramming of his head into the tree rendered him utterly helpless and made him an easy victim of Joab who administered the coup de grace on Absalom.
The curse about his slaying. There is a twofold curse in Absalom’s slaying which comes from his hanging—the curse of retribution from God and the curse of reproach from man. The curse of retribution speaks of the indictment in the hanging; the curse of reproach speaks of the ignominy in the hanging.
First, the retribution from God. Moses’ law indicates that “he that is hanged is accursed of God” (Deuteronomy 21:23). The Apostle Paul refers to this curse when speaking of Christ’s death on Calvary. “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us; for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree” (Galatians 3:13). Absalom hanging from this tree in the forest of Ephraim portrays the curse God put upon Absalom for his opposition to the Anointed of God. The providential hanging was Divine retribution upon Absalom’s evil. The hanging indicted Absalom for his evil ways. Absalom’s insurrection was not under the blessing of God. It may have had the blessing of a vast multitude of Israelites, but it did not have the blessing of God. Rather, it had the curse of God on it as his death emphasizes. Be sure your endeavors have God’s blessing and not His curse. Check with the Word of God, not the world, to see if your endeavors have God’s blessing or curse.
Second, the reproach from man. There is considerable ignominy in the way in which Absalom died. He would look ridiculous hanging from the tree. If someone had taken a video of Absalom’s end with him riding on the mule and suddenly being snatched away by the tree while the mule continues on his way, it would be a very comic though tragic scene. He who paraded earlier in Jerusalem in all the pomp and grandeur does not look very pompous hanging so ignominiously from a tree. This ignominy of Absalom hanging from the tree is a symbolic way of showing what a fool Absalom was to live his life the way he did. God has a way of bringing proud man down low. God can quickly change the praise of men to reproach. He can change the glory of the arrogantly, sinful man into a ludicrous laughingstock. He who sought the respect of man over the respect of God will eventually end up with the reproach of both God and man. How often in history God has made a spectacle of the great ones of evil. Arrogant Haman hanging from his own gallows, proud Jezebel being trodden under foot by horses and eaten by dogs, and other egotistical world leaders having their dead bodies drug through the streets or brutally mutilated by the crowds are examples of how God can put down those who arrogantly turn against God. Fail to respect God and God will see to it that you will eventually suffer great reproach.
The control of his slaying. Divine providence will dog the evil man and catch him in the most interesting of ways. Absalom hanging in the tree reminds us that God is still on the throne. It looked for awhile like Absalom was running the show when he forced God’s Anointed king to abandon Jerusalem, but man never runs the show. When an Absalom seems to run away with power, it is only God giving him more rope to hang himself. Often men are able to dodge the law of men, but they can never dodge the law of God. Absalom was able to push David around, but he was not able to push God around. “The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord, and against his anointed, saying, Let us break their bands asunder, and cast away their cords from us. [But] He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh; the Lord shall have them in derision. Then shall he speak unto them in his wrath, and vex them [such as hang them on a tree Absalom fashion] in his sore displeasure” (Psalm 2:2–5). Absalom thought he was in control, but he was was not. God was in control. And for sinful Absalom this meant the doom of his wicked ambitions.
The contempt in his slaying. “A certain man saw it, and told Joab” (2 Samuel 18:10). The discovery of Absalom’s body hanging ignominiously from a tree revealed a threefold contempt. There was contempt for David, for evil reward, and for Joab. Tragedies always reveal what people’s character is.
First, the contempt for David. “And Joab said unto the man that told him . . . why didst thou not smite him there to the ground? And I would have given thee ten shekels of silver, and a girdle [warrior belt which some believe to be symbolic of promotion in rank]” (2 Samuel 18:11). The man who reported to Joab that he had seen Absalom hanging from a tree did not touch Absalom when he discovered him. Joab thought that incredulous saying that he would have rewarded the man had he finished off Absalom. Joab’s reaction showed his utter contempt for David. David had strictly charged his generals to “Deal gently for my sake with the young man, even with Absalom” (2 Samuel 18:5). This certainly was not a good command, but Joab was under David’s orders and obligated to obey the command. Joab, however, had no respect for David’s orders. Though Joab is to be condemned for this contempt, David had this contempt coming to him. He had made Joab an accomplice of Uriah’s murder and ever since then Joab acted very independently of David. There was an inward scorn of David in Joab’s heart which came out in critical situations and was a constant burden and problem and embarrassment to David. This contempt for David reminds us that if you want true respect, keep your life clean. David failed to keep himself pure morally, and it cost him much respect.
Second, the contempt for evil reward. “And the man said unto Joab, Though I should receive a thousand shekels of silver in mine hand, yet would I not put forth mine hand against the king’s son; for in our hearing the king charged thee and Abishai and Ittai, saying, Beware that none touch the young man Absalom” (2 Samuel 18:12). The name of the man who discovered Absalom’s body hanging from a tree is not recorded in Scripture, but his character is recorded. And an excellent character it was. Better to have character and not have anyone know your name than have a well-known name without character. The character of the man showed in his contempt for evil reward. This man would not disobey though great reward was offered. Unfortunately, there are few who are like him. Too many people are easily bribed to do evil. They will quickly sell their character for earthly reward.
Third, the contempt for Joab. “Thou thyself wouldest have set thyself against me” (2 Samuel 18:13). What a condemning revelation of Joab’s habits is in this statement. This unnamed soldier revealed that Joab could not be trusted. Joab promised reward here, but the unnamed soldier knew there would have been no reward if he had killed Absalom. To the contrary, he knew that though Joab would be glad that someone had broken the king’s command and killed Absalom, yet he would have been the first to take action against the man (to make a show before the king and others that he was for the king). This text reveals the contempt which the rank and file soldier in David’s army had for Joab. Joab had not endeared his heart to the troops. They knew him as a schemer, as a “wheeler-dealer,” as a shrewd operator who looked out for himself regardless of his soldiers or his superior. Evil men only fool themselves if they think they have fooled those around them. The support they get from others is generally the same kind of support they render to others—it is all false and done for ulterior reasons.
The cruelty in his slaying. “Then said Joab, I may not tarry thus with thee. And he took three darts 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 that bare Joab’s armor . . . smote Absalom, and slew him” (2 Samuel 18:14,15). Joab was guilty of brutal overkill here. The “darts” were not darts as we know today in the game of darts. Rather, they were small spears, more similar to arrows in size. The word “heart” and the word “midst” in this verse are translated from the same Hebrew word. Hence, Joab drove the spears into Absalom’s midsection rather than into his biological heart or Absalom would not have needed to be finished off by Joab’s armor bearers. It was a gruesome, bloody scene; and the brutality reflected Joab’s hostility towards Absalom. Absalom made the mistake of crossing Joab by burning Joab’s barley field. Joab was not someone you wanted to cross if you valued your life. Absalom had played the fool, not only in the way he treated God, but also in the way he had treated man. Thus, in his end, it is no surprise that he reaped bloody rewards.
The consequences of his slaying. “And Joab blew the trumpet, and the people returned from pursuing after Israel; for Joab held back the people” (2 Samuel 18:16). The key death in the war was the death of Absalom, for his death ended the tragic war between Absalom and David. It gave David’s troops victory over Absalom’s troops. Once the head is cut off, the body dies. Absalom was the head of the conspiracy against David, so once he was killed the conspiracy came to a quick end. While Joab’s deed in killing Absalom is not to be commended, yet Absalom’s death does emphasize the truth that when evil men are removed from society, crime and war will diminish. Our courts have not learned this lesson well. They have not learned that we cannot let criminals run on the street without loss of tranquility in society. Neither can evil rulers remain in power without disturbing world peace.
The cairn of his slaying. “And they took Absalom, and cast him into a great pit in the wood, and laid a very great heap of stones upon him; and all Israel fled every one to his tent” (2 Samuel 18:17). Absalom’s monument did not turn out the way he had hoped. He had built his own monument earlier, for he had “reared up for himself a 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” (2 Samuel 18:18). Absalom was very concerned about having a memorial to honor his name. But because he was not interested in having character, he got a memorial that dishonored his name. He gained fame but it was notorious fame, not nice fame. The monument that depicted Absalom correctly was the one in the woods of Ephraim. It was a cairn—a pile of stones signifying a memorial, not necessarily a good one, and in Absalom’s case a bad one. His memorial was like the one given Achan in Joshua’s day, for Achan also had a cairn over his dead body (Joshua 7:26). Like Absalom’s cairn, it was a cairn of disgrace. Absalom wanted a pillar to remember him, but a pile was what really remembered him. Defeat not victory was Absalom’s legacy.