1 - 5 Preparing for Battle
1 Then David numbered the people who were with him and set over them commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds. 2 David sent the people out, one third under the command of Joab, one third under the command of Abishai the son of Zeruiah, Joab’s brother, and one third under the command of Ittai the Gittite. And the king said to the people, “I myself will surely go out with you also.” 3 But the people said, “You should not go out; for if we indeed flee, they will not care about us; even if half of us die, they will not care about us. But you are worth ten thousand of us; therefore now it is better that you [be ready] to help us from the city.” 4 Then the king said to them, “Whatever seems best to you I will do.” So the king stood beside the gate, and all the people went out by hundreds and thousands. 5 The king charged Joab and Abishai and Ittai, saying, “[Deal] gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.” And all the people heard when the king charged all the commanders concerning Absalom.
David divides the people who are with him into groups of a thousand men, which he further divides into groups of a hundred men. He has appointed commanders over all these groups. Then he divides the entire people into three large groups. Joab, Abishai and Ittai each get the supreme command over a group. David wants to go out at the head of the whole army.
When he proposes this, the love of the people for him comes to the surface. They know what Ahithophel also knew (2Sam 17:3), that it is that the enemy is only interested in David. They use the same argument as Ahithophel. They are aware that if he dies, it will be done to the people as a whole. David is the bond that binds all together. When it is eliminated, there is no bond anymore.
That also applies now. The Lord Jesus is the bond that unites believers. When other things drive Him away from the central place, when other things become important in personal life, the bond with the believers is no longer experienced. We are going to live for ourselves and thus become an easy prey for the enemy.
The people have another proposal and that is that David stays in the city and comes to their aid from the city. David accepts the advice of the people (verse 4). In the same way, the Lord Jesus would like to hear from us how we think about the battle. If we know Him, we will come up with plans that He can approve, as David does here. It is, of course, encouraging that we are not alone in our fight. The awareness that the Lord comes to our aid from ‘the city’ gives strength to the battle.
In verse 5 David asks his generals if they want to treat Absalom, “the young man”, with gentleness and that for his sake. This is the weakness of David. Here David is the weak father. His predilection for his rebellious son, who has played tricks on him so many times, has remained unabated. He asks to spare a rebel for his own protection. In the addition “for my sake” we might notice a little manipulation.
He knows his son deserves death, but he calls on their loyalty to him to spare the young man. By talking about Absalom as a “young man” David seems to put the great danger, that his son is certain, somewhat into perspective. He tries to reduce Absalom’s actions from rebellion against his father and God to the youthful overconfidence of a mischievous boy who you can’t entirely blame for his actions. David is looking for apologies.
His question does, however, mean that he does not doubt the outcome of the fight. He is certain that his army will win and that Absalom will fall into their hands. Therefore he asks the young man to be treated with gentleness and not to take the right into their own hands, but to leave the exercise of the right to him as king.
Our children are our greatest weakness. Absalom is no longer a young man. He already has grown up children. Here we hear the language of a father. Absalom wants to kill only David, David wants to save only Absalom. Someone has said: Never was an unnatural hatred toward a father stronger than in Absalom and never was unnatural affection for a child stronger than in David.
6 - 8 The Battle
6 Then the people went out into the field against Israel, and the battle took place in the forest of Ephraim. 7 The people of Israel were defeated there before the servants of David, and the slaughter there that day was great, 20,000 men. 8 For the battle there was spread over the whole countryside, and the forest devoured more people that day than the sword devoured.
The battle is a victory for David’s men, with the forest making more victims among the opponents than the sword. The LORD is fighting for David. He uses the forest for that purpose, thinking of potholes and marshes. Perhaps even wild animals have killed many Israelites. A total of 20,000 men are killed. On the one hand the victory is a blessing of the LORD, on the other hand it is also his discipline, for the victims are subjects of David’s kingdom. David does, as it were, “a slaughter” with himself. The loss of subjects means a weakening of its empire.
9 - 18 The Death of Absalom
9 Now Absalom happened to meet the servants of David. For Absalom was riding on [his] mule, and the mule went under the thick branches of a great oak. And his head caught fast in the oak, so he was left hanging between heaven and earth, while the mule that was under him kept going. 10 When a certain man saw [it], he told Joab and said, “Behold, I saw Absalom hanging in an oak.” 11 Then Joab said to the man who had told him, “Now behold, you saw [him]! Why then did you not strike him there to the ground? And I would have given you ten [pieces] of silver and a belt.” 12 The man said to Joab, “Even if I should receive a thousand [pieces of] silver in my hand, I would not put out my hand against the king’s son; for in our hearing the king charged you and Abishai and Ittai, saying, ‘Protect for me the young man Absalom!’ 13 Otherwise, if I had dealt treacherously against his life (and there is nothing hidden from the king), then you yourself would have stood aloof.” 14 Then Joab said, “I will not waste time here with you.” So he took three spears in his hand and thrust them through the heart of Absalom while he was yet alive in the midst of the oak. 15 And ten young men who carried Joab’s armor gathered around and struck Absalom and killed him. 16 Then Joab blew the trumpet, and the people returned from pursuing Israel, for Joab restrained the people. 17 They took Absalom and cast him into a deep pit in the forest and erected over him a very great heap of stones. And all Israel fled, each to his tent. 18 Now Absalom in his lifetime had taken and set up for himself a pillar which is in the King’s Valley, for he said, “I have no son to preserve my name.” So he named the pillar after his own name, and it is called Absalom’s Monument to this day.
In the next section that now comes before us is described in detail how Absalom flees and ends up in a hopeless position, caught by a tree, how Joab kills him and how David is informed of this.
When Absalom encounters the men of David, he flees. He looks for a good getaway, but drives towards his destruction. Absalom befalls the word: “The one who flees from the terror will fall into the pit, and the one who climbs up out of the pit will be caught in the snare” (Jer 48:44a). David tends to spare him, but the Divine righteousness exercises judgment on him as a traitor. God makes sure that he is captured alive by a tree. There was no human hand involved.
The large oak through which Absalom is caught is a picture of greatness. Absalom, who wanted to be great, is captured and brought down by his greatness. He hangs “between heaven and earth”, as if thereby it is said that it is unacceptable to both. The earth will not keep him, nor will heaven accept him. Therefore the realm of the dead opens its mouth to receive him.
Absalom comes to an extraordinary end because his crime is so monstrous. It would also have been possible, for example, that his donkey had thrown him off in his flight and left him half dead on the ground. The servants of David could then have killed him. Then the same goal would have been achieved. However, it would have been too common a death for such an extraordinary delinquent.
God wants to create something new here, as in the case of those other rebels, Korah, Dathan and Abiram (Num 16:29-30). He wants to make clear to everyone how much this man has taunted him. Absalom has thus come to an end to be a terrifying example for children to warn them what may happen to them if they disobey their parents (cf. Pro 30:17).
A man who sees Absalom hanging alive in a tree tells Joab. Joab blames the man for not killing him. Joab would have rewarded him richly for this, not only by an amount of money, but also by a proof of honor in the form of a belt. Perhaps it can be compared to a medal of merit. Jonathan, for example, also handed in his belt to David to pay tribute to David (1Sam 18:4). If someone’s belt was removed from him, it was an insulting treatment.
The man’s defense shows that he respects David’s desire not to kill his son. What the man says also shows that he has no respect for Joab. He knows that he would not have to expect any support from him if he had killed Absalom and king David had called him to account for his deed. Joab is known as a man who is always out to his own advantage, a man who always acts on selfish motives. This is also evident from Joab’s reaction to what the man says. He does not intend to exchange another word with this ‘royal-minded’ man. He thinks there has been enough chatter. It is time for deeds, that is to say for that one deed, the killing of Absalom.
Joab does not care about what David said. It is true that Absalom was not allowed to live and Joab acts correctly by killing the rebel. However, God does not only look at the correctness of the action, but also at the motive with which that action is done. Joab’s working method shows that he is looking for personal revenge. He would have been very capable of killing Absalom with one javelin stroke. He doesn’t, but he tortures him first and then lets ten of his servants, weapon carriers, men who know how to handle a weapon, kill him.
After Absalom is killed, he is despicable thrown into “a big pit” and buried under “a very great heap of stones”. This is the end of the man who during his life thought great of himself. He is a striking picture of the antichrist, both in his haughty existence and in his inglorious death. His end is at right angles to the pillar he had erected for himself to glorify himself.
To increase the defamation of his burial, the sacred historian points this out in verse 18. He speaks of “a pillar” that Absalom had set up “for himself” “in the King’s Valley”, which is in the valley of Kidron near Jerusalem. He did so considering that his name would then at least live on in this pillar, because he had no son. Absalom had three sons (2Sam 14:27), but they must have died already. His concern was to keep his name in remembrance. That is what happened, but to his eternal shame.
“The King’s Valley” is mentioned earlier. That is when Abraham meets the true king in the picture of Melchizedek (Gen 14:17). A valley indicates humiliation. That is the place where Absalom has erected a memorial for himself and his name.
19 - 33 David Hears About Absalom’s Death
19 Then Ahimaaz the son of Zadok said, “Please let me run and bring the king news that the LORD has freed him from the hand of his enemies.” 20 But Joab said to him, “You are not the man to carry news this day, but you shall carry news another day; however, you shall carry no news today because the king’s son is dead.” 21 Then Joab said to the Cushite, “Go, tell the king what you have seen.” So the Cushite bowed to Joab and ran. 22 Now Ahimaaz the son of Zadok said once more to Joab, “But whatever happens, please let me also run after the Cushite.” And Joab said, “Why would you run, my son, since you will have no reward for going?” 23 “But whatever happens,” [he said], “I will run.” So he said to him, “Run.” Then Ahimaaz ran by way of the plain and passed up the Cushite. 24 Now David was sitting between the two gates; and the watchman went up to the roof of the gate by the wall, and raised his eyes and looked, and behold, a man running by himself. 25 The watchman called and told the king. And the king said, “If he is by himself there is good news in his mouth.” And he came nearer and nearer. 26 Then the watchman saw another man running; and the watchman called to the gatekeeper and said, “Behold, [another] man running by himself.” And the king said, “This one also is bringing good news.” 27 The watchman said, “I think the running of the first one is like the running of Ahimaaz the son of Zadok.” And the king said, “This is a good man and comes with good news.” 28 Ahimaaz called and said to the king, “All is well.” And he prostrated himself before the king with his face to the ground. And he said, “Blessed is the LORD your God, who has delivered up the men who lifted their hands against my lord the king.” 29 The king said, “Is it well with the young man Absalom?” And Ahimaaz answered, “When Joab sent the king’s servant, and your servant, I saw a great tumult, but I did not know what [it was].” 30 Then the king said, “Turn aside and stand here.” So he turned aside and stood still. 31 Behold, the Cushite arrived, and the Cushite said, “Let my lord the king receive good news, for the LORD has freed you this day from the hand of all those who rose up against you.” 32 Then the king said to the Cushite, “Is it well with the young man Absalom?” And the Cushite answered, “Let the enemies of my lord the king, and all who rise up against you for evil, be as that young man!” 33 The king was deeply moved and went up to the chamber over the gate and wept. And thus he said as he walked, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”
From verse 19 follows a detailed account of the way in which David must be informed and receives a report about the death of his son Absalom and how he reacts to it. We can divide this part into four parts:
1. In verses 19-23 the messengers are sent to David to tell him about the death of Absalom.
2. In verses 24-27 we see how David waits anxiously for news about Absalom.
3. In verses 28-32 David receives the messengers and their message.
4. In verse 33 we read how David reacts to the news of the death of his son.
Ahimaaz would like to go to David to tell him that the rebellious son is dead and that he has been delivered from that danger. Joab, however, does not allow it. It seems that Ahimaaz is a man connected to bringing good news. Joab knows how David will react to the news of his son’s death. It will not be good news for David. Joab lets a Cushite go instead of Ahimaaz. Ahimaaz does not accept the refusal and insisted that Joab also send him. Finally, Joab admits.
In the meantime David waits anxiously for news about the course or outcome of the battle. His heart is only busy with one thing and that is Absalom. Although Ahimaaz left later, he is with the king earlier than the Cushite. He seems to have made a name for himself as a fast runner, with a style that makes him recognizable from a great distance. When David hears that Ahimaaz is coming, he concludes for himself that this man is bringing a good tidings (verse 27). David knows him as a good man, so his message will also be good (cf. 1Kgs 1:42). He wants to believe that too. The wish is the father of thought. He doesn’t want to think of another tidings.
From a distance Ahimaäz calls David that it is “peace”. When he comes to the king, he prostrates before him. Without waiting for a sign from David to speak, he immediately tells that the rebels are in the hand of David, an announcement he ushers in with a praise to “the LORD your God”. Instead of being happy about the victory, David asks only one question, the question after Absalom. Ahimaaz gives an evasive answer to this (verse 29). David doesn’t ask any further. Ahimaaz must make room for the second messenger, the Cushite.
The Cushite brings the message that the LORD has done justice to David and delivered him from the hand of all who revolted against him. It is as if David does not hear it. The only question he wants an answer to is how things are with Absalom. Without detour the Cushite tells what has happened to Absalom.
On hearing the news of his son’s death, David collapses completely (verse 33). As soon as he hears that Absalom is dead, he is no longer a king of his people, but only a father. He asks nothing more, but falls into a passionate weeping. He withdraws from the company and surrenders to his grief. Do we have to be hard at David about that? How would we react if we had such a son and received such a message?
Nevertheless, we should note a few things to learn from. His love for Absalom may be understandable, but is not acceptable. How can anyone have such a great love for such a wicked son? Absalom, however beautiful and clever he may have been, turned against God and God-given authority. No parent should be deceived in this. It is important that parents always take the side of God when it comes to the sin of children.
Was it not Augustine’s mother, who said to her son when he was still living a profligate life: “If God judges you for your sins, I will say ‘amen’ to His condemnation?” God does not want us to treat our children softly when He deals with them hard because of their sins. Nobody more then He Himself wants them to return to Him. But if they do not want to, He let him go and we must do so: “If your sons sinned against Him, then He delivered them into the power of their transgression” (Job 8:4; cf. Lk 10:1-7).
We may pray that the Lord will show us the reality of things, that is to say that we will see things, including the deeds of our children, as He sees them. We may also pray that we endure every tidings we receive, especially about our children, with Him. We do not have to hang out the strong man or woman and may give space to the genuineness of our feelings. But let us pray that this will happen without losing sight of Him.
David has lost sight of the LORD here. It’s not the first time he’s weeping about someone’s death. He has wept about the death of an opponent, Abner (2Sam 3:32). He has wept about the loss of an intimate friend and about the death of his son Amnon (2Sam 1:11-12; 13:33,35-36). At the death of Absalom, however, his grief knows no bounds.
The language he speaks is also unique. The poet-king, who in other cases express themselves in an eloquent lament, can only sob and stammer here: “My son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! ... , Absalom, my son, my son!” Eight times the words “my son” come up from the depths of his soul (verse 33; 2Sam 19:4). He doesn’t have other words to express the size of his grief. With this he says all. It is as if life no longer makes sense to him.