II Samuel 16:15–18:13. The Painful Victory.
Key Notes: Bathsheba's grandfather wanted David dead. His scheme would have won the battle. Joab's pragmatic approach. David's grief.
We can follow Absalom’s defeat in detail. His vanity and pride were cultivated by Hushai to his downfall in war. As in the first civil war between Ishbosheth and David, David stood on the sidelines and waited, but his elite troups won the war.
16:15–23 Absalom came into Jerusalem with all the men of Israel and Ahithophel. The ability of Absalom to capture the kingdom at Hebron, including David’s key advisor, suggests that David had already lost a great deal of support.
To have Ahithophel’s advice was practically a guarantee of success. “Now in those days the counsel which Ahithophel gave was as if one consulted the oracle of God.” (16:23). Hushai was already there to greet the new king and he was conspicuous enough to get Absalom's attention. Absalom asked why he was not with "his friend". Hushai said he was with the king, whoever that was.
For Absalom to call his father David “Hushai’s ‘friend’” is detached, perhaps even sarcastic, but Hushai was known as David’s friend (II Sam.15:37; I Chron. 27:33), and an advisor along with Ahithophel. So Absalom has the advantage of David’s two experts.
Ahithophel first advised Absalom to have intercourse on the roof of the palace with the ten concubines left to keep the house, so as to make himself hateful to David, cutting himself off forever from his father, and making himself stronger to his supporters.
Ahithophel advised Absalom to commit a disgusting sexual crime—public adultery with ten women--his father’s secondary wives. It was political rape of defenseless women. It would surely have a demoralizing effect on all law-abiding citizens of Israel. Absalom now will appear recklessly immoral—even amoral. Who would be his supporters except those who were like him? He has indeed made himself odious.
17:1–23 That accomplished, Ahithophel asked Absalom for 12,000 men to chase David down at once and kill him, leaving the rest of the people alone.
Ahithophel plainly hated David. Since he was Bathsheba’s grandfather, he may have been seeking revenge for his Bathsheba’s disgrace.[ Eliam was her father (11:3); Ahithophel was Eliam’s father (23:34)].
But Absalom wanted to hear the advice of Hushai as well, and Hushai counseled waiting until a massive army could be assembled, led by Absalom. (The commentators point out that Hushai's speech was flowery and exaggerated.) When Hushai's advice was followed, he sent word to David by his spies, Jonathan and Ahimaaz. They had to be hidden in a well by an anonymous woman when their espionage was seen and reported.
Why was Ahithophel's counsel superior to Hushai's?
A. He would attack while David was still disorganized and in retreat with all of his family, women and children, before he could get across the Jordan and before he could mobilize his armies.
Hushai gave David time to regroup.
B. Absalom should stay home where he would not be harmed.
Hushai got Absalom out into the field where he could be killed.
Why did Absalom choose Hushai’s advice? If Ahithophel were to capture and kill David with a swift blow, Ahithophel would be a hero. If Absalom led the warriors against David, he would get the applause.
Ahithophel did not debate Hushai. He went home in despair, put his house in order and hung himself. He knew that Absalom would lose and that David might have him executed for treason.
17:24–29 David went on to Mahanaim across the Jordan where Ishbosheth had been crowned. David was provisioned by Shobi, son of Nahash of Ammon (he still has friends in Ammon), Machir from Lo Debar where Mephibosheth stayed, and Barzillai of Gilead, a wealthy older man. They brought food and drink, beds and basins.
Psalm 55 reflects David’s distress. He speaks of flying away to be at rest, seeking shelter in the desert, away from strife in the city, and of betrayal by his close friend with his smooth words. But he casts his burden on the Lord and will be sustained.
18:1–15 David did not wait for Absalom to collect a massive army, but mustered his men and put them under three commanders: Joab, Abishai, and Ittai of Gath. They told David to stay out of the battle, so he stood by the gate as they went out. David's parting words were that the army should be kind to Absalom; all the people heard it.
We do not know how Absalom and Amasa assembled their troops, but they were not an experienced armed force such as David had. The battle was fought in the woods of Ephraim. Israel was defeated and lost 20,000 men. The battle spread out and many died in the woods, in pits or quagmires, hit by tree limbs or caught in thickets and briars.
17:9–15 In the general disorder, Absalom was racing alone on his mule and got his head caught in a low-hanging oak, an example of the forest devouring the violent. He was left dangling “between heaven and earth”. Joab was told and declared his independence from David’s orders. He went after Absalom and hit him with three darts, like target-practice for Joab. There was no thought of letting Absalom down so they could make a fair fight of it. Then ten of Joab's armor-bearers finished the job, against David's orders.
17:16–18 Joab called retreat and the war was over. They threw Absalom's body in a pit in the forest and covered it with a heap of stones. Absalom had made a memorial pillar for himself at a time when he had no sons, but a pile of stones was his grave-marker. (His memorial is not known. There is a monument in the Kidron Valley called “Absalom’s tomb” to this day but it was built much later and the architecture shows Greek influence.)
18:19–35 A peculiar episode followed. David's messenger, Ahimaaz, wanted to go back with the word to David. Joab told him not to because Absalom was dead, and sent the Cushite (an Ethiopian) instead. Then Ahimaaz begged to run, too, and Joab let him go. Ahimaaz got to David first, but when David asked about Absalom, he dodged. Perhaps he balked when he saw the anxiety in David’s face. When the Cushite came he gave David the real message in guarded language. David cried aloud and wept for his son.
Why David was so upset is hard to understand in view of his previous diffidence toward Absalom and Absalom’s obvious hatred of his father. Was this a father’s love, mixed with guilt that his death was due to David's own failures as a father? It was the last of a series of family tragedies.
One answer can be gathered by David’s previous behavior when those close to him died.
When Saul and Jonathan were killed by the Philistines, David grieved and wrote a poem of lamentation even though Saul had tried to kill him many times. II Sam.1:17–27
He was angry with Joab for killing Abner, David’s opponent in the war over Ishbosheth. He wept at his funeral and published a lament. II Sam. 3:33
He was indignant with the murderers of Ishbosheth although he did not weep. II Sam. 4:10–12
He fasted and wept over his dying baby boy. IISam.12:21
He was shocked at the death of Uzza and angry at God. II Sam. 6:8
He was inconsolable over the death of his son Absalom, even though his mortal enemy. II Sam.33:1–4
David wept easily and freely when people died, whether they loved him or not. How much more when the tragedy is of your own making and your crown-prince. a son unreconciled, is killed in spite of your firm command?
Keeping a stiff upper lip, being stoical, indifferent to suffering, is not being Christian. Weep with those in sorrow.
“O that my head were waters, and my eyes a fountain of tears,
That I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people!” (Jer.9:1)
“Did not I weep for him whose day was hard? Was not my soul grieved for the poor?” (Job.30:25)
“Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” (Rom.12:15)