12. David's Exile from Jerusalem (2 Samuel 15:14-20:26)

Audio (58:33)

James J. Tissot, 'David Praying in the Night'(1896-1902), gouache on board, The Jewish Museum, New York.
James J. Tissot, 'David Praying in the Night' (1896-1902), gouache on board, The Jewish Museum, New York. Larger image.

 "A messenger came and told David, 'The hearts of the men of Israel are with Absalom.'" (15:13)

Absalom's coup in Hebron has been a success, and his support has spread up and down Israel "from Dan to Beersheba." The momentum has definitely shifted in Absalom's favor. David still has many supporters all over the land, but he can no longer rely on key elements of his strength outside Jerusalem.

This is a long lesson, but rich in learnings for us to ponder.

David Flees Jerusalem (15:14-17)

David's reaction to this news, however, seems strange.

"Come! We must flee, or none of us will escape from Absalom. We must leave immediately, or he will move quickly to overtake us and bring ruin upon us and put the city to the sword." (15:14)

David has just heard the report, but now calls for urgent evacuation. He doesn't have time to make preparations to hold Jerusalem. As it turns out, Absalom's forces seem to be entering the city from the south about the time the last of David's supporters are leaving to the east (15:37; 16:16). There is no time to waste.

Jerusalem was one of the strongest fortresses in the ancient Near East. It was designed to hold out against an army for many months or even years. Why would David be so quick to leave? David's immediate challenges are two-fold:

  1. Food and supplies. To survive a siege, a city must stock up with food and military supplies to last for many months. If they don't, they'll be starved out. David has had no advance notice of Absalom's coup. There is no stock of food, which means that it is inevitable that Jerusalem will fall to Absalom -- and soon! This assumes that Jerusalem's fortifications are not under construction or in disrepair. There hasn't been a military threat to the city in more than twenty years.
  2. Military weakness. David's professional mercenary troops -- Kerethites, Pelethites, and Gittites -- are with him in Jerusalem. And they are a fierce fighting force! But their numbers are very small compared to the national militia Absalom has access to, which can draw on tens of thousands of Israelites from all over the kingdom.

David is a military strategist of the first order. From his fugitive days he knows the value of a strategic retreat. That's what's called for here. If David stays to fight, he will inevitably lose and bloodshed will be great, since Absalom will "put the city to the sword" (15:14b). David has been self-absorbed for years, but suddenly this crisis forces him to look to the welfare of his people. David calls for an evacuation.

" 16 The king set out, with his entire household following him; but he left ten concubines to take care of the palace. 17 So the king set out, with all the people following him." (15:16-17a)

Why does he leave ten concubines? These aren't his official wives, but his harem, wives of secondary status. Absalom doesn't bring an invading foreign army; they are Israelites, after all, so rape isn't a danger. David expects to be back eventually. The palace needs looking after in his absence. He fully expects his concubines to be safe when his son's forces enter the city. As we'll see, David is wrong.

Ittai the Gittite Pledges David Loyalty (15:18-22)

Once outside the city, David stops by the side of the road to review his troops and others who are fleeing the city.

"The whole countryside wept aloud as all the people passed by." (15:23)

When Ittai the Gittite marches by with his army of 600 Gittite mercenaries, David gives him an opportunity to return to the city without any blame. "You've only joined me recently," says David. "You're a foreigner; this isn't your fight." But Ittai's reply probably reflects the sentiments of many of David's followers that day:

"As surely as the LORD lives, and as my lord the king lives, wherever my lord the king may be, whether it means life or death, there will your servant be." (15:21)

The Gittites and their families and hundreds of others march by on their way to exile and a very uncertain future.

The Ark and High Priests Remain in Jerusalem (15:23-29)

The priests, Zadok and Abiathar, come out of the city carrying the ark of the covenant. They pause where David is standing and are making sacrifices to Yahweh outside the city until all the people have evacuated the city. The company of exiles is headed toward the dry and foreboding Wilderness of Judea, towards the Jordan River and relative safety.

The ark represents the presence and blessing of God. We know how much David loves God and loves to worship in the tent that had enclosed the ark (Psalm 62:2). We also know how important it was to have Abiathar and the ephod with him on his previous wilderness exile so that he could inquire of the Lord for guidance. So we're very surprised when we hear David tell Zadok:

"25 Take the ark of God back into the city. If I find favor in the LORD's eyes, he will bring me back and let me see it and his dwelling place again. 26 But if he says, 'I am not pleased with you,'then I am ready; let him do to me whatever seems good to him." (15:25-26)

If we didn't know David better, we'd hear this as a kind of resigned fatalism. But it's not. David realizes that the current threat is the Lord's discipline for his sins, prophesied by Nathan some years before. David is in deep repentance mode, for shortly we read:

"David continued up the Mount of Olives, weeping as he went; his head was covered and he was barefoot." (15:30a)

Covering one's head is a sign of dismay and despair (Jeremiah 14:3-4; Esther 6:12; cf. Ezekiel 24:17, 23; Leviticus 10:6; 21:10), as is going barefoot (Micah 1:8). Is David just feeling sorry for himself? I don't think so. His attitude is clearly one of submission to Yahweh (15:25-26; 16:10-12). David knows that God is a merciful God, and if he humbles himself, God may change his mind and bring mercy instead of judgment. That's what motivated him to fast while his son by Bathsheba was dying (12:22), and that's what motivates him now. Just because God didn't answer his prayer on that occasion is no reason to doubt that God will hear his prayer now.

So when David says, "let him do to me whatever seems good to him," he means it. This is not weakness we're seeing, but strength. Faith! David knows that the Lord is with him, whether or not he has the ark of the covenant in his procession. It belongs, he believes, in the capital city. Yahweh is Israel's God. The ark is not David's personal shrine to take with him wherever he goes.

Through his tears and his mourning and his repentance, this is the faith-filled, obedient David we see.

But we also see David the consummate strategist, who is going to use the priests to set up an intelligence network inside of occupied Jerusalem. David asks Zadok to use his eyes[254] to observe what Absalom is doing, and then send a report to David via his son Ahimaaz and Abiathar's son Jonathan. David will wait at the west side of the ford over the Jordan near Gilgal until he receives word what to do next.

Q1. (2 Samuel 15:14-30) Why does David flee Jerusalem rather than stay and fight? What are David's emotions during this retreat? Why doesn't he take the ark with him into exile? Does this exhibit faith, fatalism, or submission? What does this tell us about his faith?

Hushai Remains to Oppose Ahithophel's Counsel (15:30-37)

Now David follows his people up the grade of the Mount of Olives to the summit east of Jerusalem where there is a final view of Zion. Then he is ready to begin the long trek down the mountains to the Jordan plain, well below sea level.

David has been seeking God to intervene. He is constantly in prayer now. When he hears that his wisest counselor Ahithophel had joined Absalom, he prays:

"O LORD, turn Ahithophel's counsel into foolishness." (15:31)

David is encouraged to see God answering already. As he comes to the summit he is met by Hushai the Arkite, in mourning, with "his robe torn and dust on his head". Elsewhere Hushai is known as "David's friend" (15:37; 16:16). It appears that "friend" (ʿeh) is probably used here in a technical sense as a "royal office of high standing,"[255] as it is in Solomon's court, where the NIV translates the word as "personal advisor to the king" (1 Kings 4:5).

Hushai is probably an old man like David. On the long road to exile, he would be a burden, but David has a sensitive job for him. He wants him to offer to be an advisor to Absalom -- and be the head of his palace intelligence network. He tells Hushai to say to Absalom:

"I will be your servant, O king; I was your father's servant in the past, but now I will be your servant." (15:34a)

Ziba Claims Mephibosheth Is Disloyal to David (16:1-4)

David is trying to get out of town, but there's another person who wants to see him -- Ziba, the steward of Mephibosheth, Jonathan's sole surviving son, to whom David had granted a permanent place at his table -- and all of Saul's property. Mephibosheth isn't present, but Ziba has come with "a string of donkeys saddled and loaded with two hundred loaves of bread, a hundred cakes of raisins, a hundred cakes of figs and a skin of wine" (16:1b). That's pretty welcome when you're fleeing unprepared into the wilderness. Ziba has been busy, probably putting together supplies from the harvest of Mephibosheth's lands that Ziba manages.

When David asks where Mephibosheth is, Ziba claims that he is disloyal, staying in Jerusalem in hopes of regaining his throne. David doesn't question further; he grants all of Mephibosheth's lands to Ziba and continues on his journey. As we'll see later, David may have acted prematurely; Ziba may well have slandered Mephibosheth for personal gain (19:24-30).

Shimei Curses David (16:5-14)

James J. Tissot, 'David Quits Jerusalem' (1898-1902), gouache on board, The Jewish Museum, New York.
James J. Tissot, 'David Quits Jerusalem' (1898-1902), gouache on board, The Jewish Museum, New York. Larger image.

Now, as David reaches the village of Bahurim on the outskirts of Jerusalem, he is suddenly assaulted by stones, dirt clods, and curses being thrown from a distance. It is Shimei, a Benjamite relative of Saul's, who blames David for the fall of Saul's dynasty. He shouts:

"Get out, get out, you man of blood, you scoundrel! 8 The LORD has repaid you for all the blood you shed in the household of Saul, in whose place you have reigned. The LORD has handed the kingdom over to your son Absalom. You have come to ruin because you are a man of blood!" (16:7-8)

Perhaps he is blaming David for aiding the Philistines in the battle in which Saul was killed (1 Samuel 27, 29) or for delivering some of Saul's sons and grandsons to settle a demand of the Gibeonites (21:1-14). Or for the murder of Abner (3:27) or Ish-Bosheth (4:7). We're not sure. David's hands are clean here, but Shimei can't be reasoned with and won't be silenced.

Abishai, Joab's brother and a mighty warrior in his own right, wants permission to "cut off his head," since it is a crime to curse the ruler of God's people (Exodus 22:28). But the king won't let him. David believes that perhaps the Lord has told Shimei to curse him as part of the Lord's judgment. In that case, David doesn't want to put himself in the place of opposing God. Notice again David's trust in God's mercy:

"It may be that the LORD will see my distress and repay me with good for the cursing I am receiving today." (16:12)

So Shimei keeps cursing and pelting him with rocks and dirt until David is too far away -- and David takes it with humility. He is in repentance; his arrogance is gone.

Finally, we read that,

"The king and all the people with him arrived at their destination exhausted. And there he refreshed himself." (16:14)

The exiles have pushed hard and reached the fords of the Jordan near Gilgal (15:28; 17:16), a descent of about 3,700 feet from Jerusalem to the Jordan River. It is a journey of 20 miles on foot (for most of the party) -- an exhausting trip, since all you could expect from such a travelling caravan of women and children, plus soldiers and courtiers and the old king might normally be ten miles a day. But they are running for their lives. They constitute the government in exile. If captured, most of them will be killed. They have pushed very hard, and now feel they can relax a bit.

Q2. (2 Samuel 16:5-14) Why doesn't David silence Shimei son of Gera from cursing him? Is this a political decision or a spiritual decision? What does it tell us about David's faith?

Hushai Offers His Services to Absalom (16:15-19)

While David's loyalists are leaving the city, Absalom and his army ("all the men of Israel") are entering it. Hushai, the "Friend of the King," is there to greet Absalom with the words, "Long live the king! Long live the king!" (though he neglects to clarify to which king he is wishing long life).

Absalom questions Hushai's quick turn-around. Hushai replies,

"No, the one chosen by the LORD, by these people, and by all the men of Israel -- his I will be, and I will remain with him. 19 Furthermore, whom should I serve? Should I not serve the son? Just as I served your father, so I will serve you." (16:18-19)

He serves the reigning, God-appointed king, that's Hushai's answer. Absalom isn't so sure. He is happy for the support, but he doesn't include Hushai in his war-council, and Hushai leaves the king's chambers.

Absalom Sleeps with David's Concubines (16:20-23)

Now that he is in the city, Absalom turns to Ahithophel for advice. The narrator explains,

"Now in those days the advice Ahithophel gave was like that of one who inquires of God. That was how both David and Absalom regarded all of Ahithophel's advice." (16:23)

Ahithophel's first piece of advice is designed to secure the unwavering commitment of his followers. They need to know, if they are to put their lives on the line for him, that Absalom is committed to his course with no turning back. So Ahithophel advises:

"Lie with your father's concubines whom he left to take care of the palace. Then all Israel will hear that you have made yourself a stench in your father's nostrils, and the hands of everyone with you will be strengthened." (16:21)

To us this sounds perverse! And it was, according to the Torah:

 "If a man sleeps with his father's wife, he has dishonored his father. Both the man and the woman must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads." (Leviticus 20:11; cf. 18:8)

Of course, the point is to dishonor the father! But this isn't just a gross violation of the Torah. It is a symbol that Absalom is asserting one of the prerogatives of kingship, that is, taking possession of everything belonging to the previous king -- including his harem. David had taken possession of the previous king's harem (12:8). Later, when a pretender to the throne seeks to marry the previous king's concubine it is interpreted as treason (1 Kings 2:22). It's one thing to possess the concubines of a previous dynasty, but to lie with your own father's concubines is over the top. It puts everyone on notice that Absalom will resist David to the death, and that's what it takes to get the support he needs.

"So they pitched a tent for Absalom on the roof, and he lay with his father's concubines in the sight of all Israel." (16:22)

I doubt that Absalom had time to have sex with all 10 concubines before pursuing David, but the tent was pitched publicly -- probably on the same rooftop from which David had ogled Bathsheba -- and word was spread as to its significance.

Of course, this is a direct fulfillment of Nathan's prophecy of judgment upon David:

"I will take your wives and give them to one who is close to you, and he will lie with your wives in broad daylight. You did it in secret, but I will do this thing in broad daylight before all Israel." (12:11b-12)

Hushai Frustrates Ahithophel's Counsel (17:1-14, 23)

The next order of business is to pursue David. Ahithophel advises immediate pursuit with the army of 12,000 men of Israel who had gathered to Absalom already.

"I would attack him while he is weary and weak. I would strike him with terror, and then all the people with him will flee. I would strike down only the king and bring all the people back to you. The death of the man you seek will mean the return of all; all the people will be unharmed." (17:2-3)

It is good advice -- and accepted as such by Absalom and his counselors. David and his band have traveled 20 miles and are exhausted. David is exposed and has no shelter or defensive position. Waiting to attack will allow David to find a fortified city where it will be much more difficult to attack him by himself. If David holes up in a fortress, there will be great bloodshed among his followers.

But now we see the hand of God at work. The narrator tells us:

"The LORD had determined to frustrate the good advice of Ahithophel in order to bring disaster on Absalom." (17:14b)

Absalom is new to governing. He isn't sure enough of himself to take Ahithophel's word only. To reassure himself, he wants to hear Hushai's opinion, so he sends for him. They tell Hushai what Ahithophel has advised and ask him to comment. He replies: "The advice Ahithophel has given is not good this time" (17: 7) and proceeds to critique it:

  1. Fanatic defense. David's men are fierce fighters and will defend David like "a wild bear robbed of her cubs."

  2. Inaccessibility. David won't be found with his troops, but will be hidden in some other place.
  3. Danger of ambush. If David attacks your troops on his terms it could result in a slaughter, your support will evaporate, "melt with fear."

You can say this for Hushai: he knows how to think on his feet! With each point, he introduces fear. He recites the legendary reputation of David and his mighty men as insurmountable fighters. If you don't win the first battle, Hushai warns, you'll lose all your support!

Now he offers an alternate plan -- one that will give David a chance to escape. Don't attack until you can gain huge superiority in numbers. That way you'll have the manpower to defeat him wherever you find him. Even if he finds refuge in some walled city, this many troops are enough to utterly destroy the city. David won't have a chance. And he says it with such striking visual images that his hearers can almost see their victory!

Ahithophel's counsel is straightforward. Hushai's counsel is laced with powerful images and emotive phrases.

  • "Fierce as a wild bear robbed of her cubs."

  • Brave soldiers with a "the heart of a lion, will melt with fear."

  • Troops "as numerous as the sand on the seashore."

  • Fall on David's troops "as dew settles on the ground."

  • Destroy any city by dragging it with ropes "down to the valley until not even a piece of it can be found."

Hushai creates a fear of attacking too soon and then inspires overconfidence in the value of waiting until they can vastly outnumber David's forces. It is a masterful speech.

Absalom and his men believe Hushai! His course seems safer to a new, unsure king. But the real reason is because "the LORD had determined to frustrate the good advice of Ahithophel" (17:14b). Hushai's presentation is flawless -- because the Lord is with him. He is an instrument in God's hands.

The result is also to deprive Absalom of any further wise counsel:

"When Ahithophel saw that his advice had not been followed, he saddled his donkey and set out for his house in his hometown. He put his house in order and then hanged himself." (17:23)

This isn't just "sour grapes." Ahithophel is wise enough to know that he will be executed as a traitor; it's just a matter of time. He knows David, the master strategist, well enough to know that with time to organize his army, there's no way Absalom can defeat him -- especially since Absalom can't recognize good advice when he hears it.

Hushai Warns David via the Priests'Sons (17:15-22)

Ahithophel's suicide takes place later. But now that Hushai knows the advice Ahithophel has given -- even before he knows what course Absalom will take -- he hurries to send word through his spy network:

"Do not spend the night at the fords[256] in the desert; cross over without fail, or the king and all the people with him will be swallowed up." (17:17)

What follows is an explanation of the intrigue that takes place to get the message out of Jerusalem and to David as quickly as possible. A servant girl goes to the spring at En Rogel, ostensibly to fetch water. But the priests' sons are seen there and are successfully hidden in a well by a loyalist in nearby Bahurim.

Map: The Rebellion of Absalom (2 Samuel 15-19).
Map: The Rebellion of Absalom (2 Samuel 15-19). Larger map.

When the searchers are gone, the two young men climb out of the well, and run twenty miles to warn David, who takes immediate action to undertake a dangerous night crossing of the Jordan.

"So David and all the people with him set out and crossed the Jordan. By daybreak,,[257] no one was left who had not crossed the Jordan." (17:22)

As it turns out, the precaution isn't needed. Absalom has taken Hushai's advice to wait to attack until he can muster a large enough army. It marks the beginning of Absalom's downfall.

David Flees to Mahanaim (17:24-29)

The next day, David and his band march north along the Arabah on the east side of the Jordan, then go up to Mahanaim,[258] near the Jabbok River (now known as the Zarqa River). They probably go there for the same reasons that Abner had taken Ish-Bosheth to Mahanaim after the devastating defeat of Saul's army to the Philistines a generation previously. It is somewhat remote, and difficult for a large army to reach quickly because of the deep canyon of the Jabbok.

Once he is relatively safe within the fortress city of Mahanaim, David can relax a bit. And here, some of his supporters from east of the Jordan come to his material aid:

"[They] brought bedding and bowls and articles of pottery. They also brought wheat and barley, flour and roasted grain, beans and lentils, honey and curds, sheep, and cheese from cows' milk for David and his people to eat. For they said, 'The people have become hungry and tired and thirsty in the desert.'" (17:28-29)

What a blessing! What welcome provisions in a time of need! One of these men is Shobi, an Ammonite vassal who remains true to his suzerain even when David can't enforce his obedience. The second is Makir from Lo Debar, who had previously hosted Mephibosheth, Jonathan's surviving son (2 Samuel 9:4-5). The third is Barzillai, a wealthy, 80-year-old friend from Rogelim in Gilead. Barzillai loves David so much that he makes the journey with David to cross the Jordan on his return to Jerusalem (19:30-39).

The Psalm of a Pursued King at Peace with His God (Psalm 3))

Psalm 3 bears the following ascription: "A psalm of David. When he fled from his son Absalom." Here we get a window into the faith of King David at this time in his life. Note: If your group or class is short of time, you might decide to skip Psalm 3.

"O LORD, how many are my foes!!
How many rise up against me!" (verse 1)

David's star had risen high, but has fallen. Many conclude that it is just a matter of time until David is captured. It is over for him.

'God will not deliver him.' Selah" [259] (verse 2)

David knows what people are saying, but the truth lies elsewhere. David knows his God. Yes, David has failed him, but at age sixty, David finds a wonderful peace in following his Lord on this journey into exile.

"But you are a shield around me, O LORD." (verse 3a)

David is being chased by armies, but Yahweh is his Shield (ṣinnâ), a "large shield (covering the whole body)."[260]] But Yahweh's shield is not just in front of him, but "around me." Hallelujah.

"You bestow glory on me and lift up my head." (verse 3b)

Men say that David's glory is past, but God is the One who will bestow glory on those whom he chooses. And Yahweh hasn't given up on David! The phrase "lift up my head" pictures a head bowed in humility and perhaps shame, but with God's encouragement and refreshing, he perks up and God exalts him.[261]

"To the LORD I cry aloud,
and he answers me from his holy hill. Selah" (verse 4)

There are times when David calls out to God in fear, but the Lord answers him immediately. David pictures God on "his holy hill," over the Ark of the Covenant in the tent David had pitched for it in Jerusalem (6:17).

Look at the peace this pursued warrior-king experiences. He was once young and strong. Now he is old and weak, but he is at peace.

"I lie down and sleep;
I wake again, because the LORD sustains me.
I will not fear the tens of thousands
   drawn up against me on every side." (verses 5-6)

Dear friend, what are you going through right now? Do you have a huge army pursuing you with the sole purpose of taking your life? David did, but he was able to find peace.

Now he calls on Yahweh to fight the battle for him. David has known for many, many years that "the battle is the Lord's" (1 Samuel 17:47). Just as it was in the field facing Goliath, so it is now. Yahweh has not changed!

"Arise, O LORD! Deliver me, O my God!
Strike all my enemies on the jaw;
break the teeth of the wicked." (verse 7)

Now he concludes with a statement of the faith that has carried through this season of exile. When he left Jerusalem in haste to begin his exile, you can see this simple submission to God's will:

let him do to me whatever seems good to him." (15:26)

God's will is sufficient for David. His future is God's hands. The psalm concludes with this assurance.

"From the LORD comes deliverance.
May your blessing be on your people. Selah. " (verse 8)

Absalom's Reign (17:24-26)

Back in Jerusalem, Absalom follows Hushai's counsel to gather all Israel before attempting to go after his father. Several events take place.

  1. Hushai becomes Absalom's chief counselor in place of Ahithophel, who has gone home and committed suicide. But Hushai, we know, is secretly loyal to David.
  2. Absalom is anointed king by all Israel in some kind of coronation ceremony (19:10), though perhaps this took place earlier in Hebron.
  3. Absalom erects a pillar as a monument to himself in the King's Valley,[262] an indication of his arrogance as well as his low self-confidence. By this time, his three sons have presumably died (14:27; 18:18).
  4. Absalom assembles a large army from all the tribes of Israel to confront David. The army is commanded by Amasa, who is a cousin of Joab and a nephew of David.[263] We know little about him, except that David admires him enough to make him commander of his army to replace Joab (19:13) -- who soon murders Amasa (20:8-10).

Absalom joins the army as they advance on David's position, moving his troops across the Jordan and camping in Gilead, east of the Jordan.

The Battle of the Forest of Ephraim (18:1-8)

But Amasa is relatively untried as a commander, compared to David's long experience and the expertise of his veteran generals -- Joab, Abishai, and Ittai the Gittite. David forms his army into three divisions, each under one of these commanders.

David wants to lead his troops into battle personally as Absalom is doing, but his men dissuade him.

"3 The men said, 'You shall not go out. For if we flee, they will not care about us. If half of us die, they will not care about us. But you are worth ten thousand of us; therefore it is better that you send us help from the city.'4 The king said to them, 'Whatever seems best to you I will do.'So the king stood at the side of the gate, while all the army marched out by hundreds and by thousands[264]." (18:3-4)

Apparently, while David has been in exile, many fighting men have come over to him, ready to join their old commander against Absalom's challenge. David is fielding a mighty army, but David gives a troubling command to his generals, in the hearing of all his troops:

"Be gentle with the young man Absalom for my sake." (18:5a)

Just as David is the target of Absalom's army, so Absalom should be the target of David's army. This command to spare Absalom makes the task much more difficult. To obey the king's command, now they must take care to capture Absalom alive -- a much riskier proposition.

The battle takes place on ground of David's own choosing, in the forest of Ephraim, in the mountainous country in Gilead, east of the Jordan, thickly wooded with oak, pine, cypress, and arbutus.[265] A large army has an advantage in the open, but heavily wooded terrain gives the advantage to the smaller force. David's experienced warriors, skilled in guerilla warfare, take full advantage. The narrator tells us,

"There the army of Israel was defeated by David's men, and the casualties that day were great -- twenty thousand men.  The battle spread out over the whole countryside, and the forest claimed more lives that day than the sword." (18:7-8)

In the thick woods, Absalom's soldiers tend to lose all sense of direction, wander aimlessly, and get hopelessly lost. Separated from the main force, they are extremely vulnerable to David's warriors hiding in the forest awaiting them.

Joab Slays Absalom (18:9-18)

Chief among those claimed by the forest is Absalom himself.

"He was riding his mule, and as the mule went under the thick branches of a large oak, Absalom's head got caught in the tree.[266] He was left hanging in midair, while the mule he was riding kept on going." (18:9b)

Josephus says, "He entangled his hair greatly in the large boughs of a knotty tree that spread a great way, and there he hung." It's probably ironic that Absalom's pride and glory, namely, his hair, brought about his humiliation and death.[267] The narrator hints at another irony: the Torah specifies that for capital offences, the body is to be hung on a tree (Deuteronomy 21:22; cf. Galatians 3:13).

The man who first sees Absalom reports at once to Joab, who asks: "If you saw him, why didn't you kill him already" (18:11). But the man had heard David's command, and wisely wouldn't think of disobeying it. Joab has no such scruples. Immediately, he goes to where Absalom is hanging and stabs him with three javelins, and has ten of his armor-bearers finish him off. Then Joab sounds the trumpet to stop pursuing Israel's army. Without Absalom, they are no longer a threat to David. They flee to their homes.

"They took Absalom, threw him into a big pit in the forest and piled up a large heap of rocks over him." (18:17)

This cairn of stones is Absalom's final monument,[268] not the pillar he erected for himself near Jerusalem (18:18).

 Why would Joab so blatantly disobey King David's explicit command? It comes down to character. Let's consider the characters of Absalom, David, and Joab.

  • Absalom will do whatever is necessary to get his own way. He has demonstrated it by killing his brother, torching Joab's field, and defiling his father's concubines. If he is allowed to continue, he will do anything to usurp David's throne.
  • David has many strong character qualities. He is a man of honor. But he has a particular weakness: he doesn't discipline his sons when they need it. Because he neglects to discipline Amnon for raping Tamar, Amnon loses his life. Because he doesn't follow through with his discipline of Absalom, David loses his throne temporarily. Joab knows that David will be soft on Absalom.
  • Joab is loyal to David -- usually. He has performed several sensitive tasks for David, including facilitating the death of Uriah, Bathsheba's husband. As a general, he has been consistently successful. But on occasion, he acts in his own interests. In the case of killing Absalom, I believe that Joab does what needs to be done to counteract David's own weakness for his sons. Shortly, he will save David's throne by rebuking David for not thanking his army (19:5-7). When Joab is finally executed by Solomon, it is not for killing Absalom, the king's son, but for murdering Abner and Amasa in cold blood (1 Kings 2:5, 28-33).

Joab, I believe, is right in killing David's enemy -- even against orders. Absalom has sought to kill the Lord's anointed -- his father -- and deserves to die, though David can't accept this. God's plan is for David's young son Solomon to succeed him.

News of Absalom's Death Reaches David (18:19-32)

Following Absalom's death, there's an argument about who should bring the news to David. Joab knows that David won't take the news well and may "shoot the messenger," so he tells a foreigner from Cush, south of Egypt, to be the messenger. But one of the spy couriers, Ahimaaz the priest's son, insists on carrying the message anyway.

It turns out that Ahimaaz takes the direct route and outruns the Cushite, but allows the Cushite to bring the crucial news that Absalom has been slain. It is anything but "good news" to David.

David Mourns for Absalom (18:33-19:8a)

David is devastated! He goes to his chamber and weeps.

"O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you -- O Absalom, my son, my son!" (18:33)

His mourning can be heard all over the city and puts a damper on what would normally be rejoicing over a great victory.

Joab realizes the danger, and rushes to David with a stern rebuke -- the kind of rebuke that only a loyal friend can give:

"5 Today you have humiliated all your men, who have just saved your life and the lives of your sons and daughters and the lives of your wives and concubines. 6 You love those who hate you and hate those who love you. You have made it clear today that the commanders and their men mean nothing to you. I see that you would be pleased if Absalom were alive today and all of us were dead.

7 Now go out and encourage your men. I swear by the LORD that if you don't go out, not a man will be left with you by nightfall. This will be worse for you than all the calamities that have come upon you from your youth till now." (19:5-7)

At this point, David's hold on the throne is tenuous at best. His core supporters are these men who have fought for him. He must keep his core and build upon it if he is to reestablish his throne.

The narrator records that David follows Joab's strong counsel. He goes and sits in the gateway to the city where the city elders would discuss civic matters. And while David doesn't show much enthusiasm, his men now come before their king and receive his thanks. By his quick action and courageous rebuke, Joab has saved David's kingdom.

Q3. (2 Samuel 18:1-19:8) Why does David command mercy for Absalom in the battle? Why does Joab kill him against David's orders? How does David's loud mourning threaten his kingdom? What does this say about his followers' loyalty? What does it say about David's faith? About his weaknesses?

Judah Recalls David to Be Its King (19:8b-15)

The huge Israelite militia called up by Absalom has been soundly defeated in the Forest of Ephraim and have fled for their homes. Absalom is dead. Now in villages, towns, and cities all over the country, they debate who should be king now? David?

"The king delivered us from the hand of our enemies; he is the one who rescued us from the hand of the Philistines. But now he has fled the country because of Absalom; and Absalom, whom we anointed to rule over us, has died in battle. So why do you say nothing about bringing the king back?" (19:9-10)

The nation seems paralyzed. They realize that they need a strong national leader. But, as yet, they don't seem to be of a common mind. Unity is coming gradually as people remember how David has delivered them from the Philistines -- and there aren't really any other options available.

David can't just march into Jerusalem proclaiming himself to be king, however. Judah and Israel had rejected him when they had anointed Absalom king. Of course, David has the military power to return to Jerusalem, but power is different from recognized authority. For David to regain his authority as king, Judah and Israel need to reaffirm David as their monarch.

Such a unified action is slow to materialize. People are talking about it, but no one is taking action to organize a formal recall of the king. Logically, support should begin with David's own tribe of Judah. To help jump-start the process, David undertakes a two-prong political strategy:

  1. David appeals to Judah's pride. David asks his supporters, the priests, to speak to the leaders of Judah in such a way as to appeal to their tribal pride and sense of shame at the same time:
  2. "Why should you be the last to bring the king back to his palace, since what is being said throughout Israel has reached the king at his quarters? You are my brothers, my own flesh and blood. So why should you be the last to bring back the king?" (19:11-12)

  3. David appoints a popular Judean commander. David's nephew Amasa had been the military commander under Absalom. To offer a concession to his fellow Judeans, David asks Amasa to be his military commander in place of Joab. David is angry at Joab for killing Absalom against his explicit orders. But, no doubt, Joab is furious over being demoted in favor of the defeated general, even though it was his actions that won the day. I have supported David all my life, he thinks. I've done what needs to be done to keep him in power. And now he rewards me like this? As we'll see, Joab refuses to tolerate David's slight and murders Amasa as soon as he gets the opportunity (20:10).

Nevertheless, the narrator records the success of David's strategies.

"He won over the hearts of all the men of Judah as though they were one man. They sent word to the king, 'Return, you and all your men.'" (19:14)

David Deals with Those Disloyal to Him (19:15-30)

Once David has received an official invitation to return as king -- if only from the tribe of Judah -- he leaves his fastness at Mahanaim and travels as far as the east bank of the Jordan River ford at Gilgal.

Now the pageantry begins. We may discard pomp and ceremony as an unworthy expression of pride, but this kind of pageantry is important to all to regain a sense of unity and national pride in their king.

"Now the men of Judah had come to Gilgal to go out and meet the king and bring him across the Jordan." (19:15)

Accompanying the tribe of Judah are 1,000 Benjamites. And with them are three Benjamites who need to "make nice" to the king -- Shimei, who had cursed him; Ziba, who had deceived him; and Mephibosheth, whose loyalty is in question.

When a leader falls from power, he tends to be shunned, but when he returns to power, everyone bends over backwards to honor and flatter him. No wonder leaders can feel distrustful and isolated!

"They crossed at the ford to take the king's household over and to do whatever he wished." (19:18a)

David Deals with Shimei (19:18-23)

Shimei, the Benjamite who had cursed and thrown stones at David a few months before, is now penitent. He falls prostrate before David, confesses his sin, and asks for mercy. Abishai wants to kill him for cursing the Lord's anointed, but David rebukes him. We see again the old David who is great enough to offer mercy, rather than exact strict retribution. That's one sterling quality that differentiates him from the brothers Joab and Abishai.

David Deals with Mephibosheth and Ziba (19:24-30)

Mephibosheth, Jonathan's son, whom David had honored by making him a permanent guest at the royal table, hadn't come with David when he fled Jerusalem. Ziba had told David that Mephibosheth had stayed in Jerusalem because he hoped to be set on the throne himself, as a grandson of Saul. Now David confronts him: "Why didn't you go with me, Mephibosheth?" (19:25). Mephibosheth replies that his servant Ziba had betrayed him by not preparing transportation for the invalid and by slandering him to the king. Mephibosheth appeals to David's mercy.

David can't be sure who is telling the truth, Ziba or Mephibosheth, so he orders the lands to be divided between them. Was this fair? We don't know -- any more than David knew -- who was telling the truth here, the opportunist Ziba or Saul's grandson Mephibosheth.

David Says Farewell to Barzillai (19:31-39)

Eighty-year-old Barzillai has made the long trek with David to the Jordan. He has provided for David in exile and now he has come to see him off. Barzillai, whose name means "iron-hearted," is a good friend!

David asks him to come to Jerusalem with him, but Barzillai demurs. He would rather spend his final days in his own home near the graves of his parents. However, Barzillai asks the king to show favor to his son[269] Kimham (Chimham) on his behalf, which David is pleased to do. From a reference in Jeremiah, it seems possible that David gave Kimham a land grant near Bethlehem (Jeremiah 41:17).

Israel and Judah Dispute Who Is Most Loyal to David (19:40-43)

David needs to catalyze the movement to have him return as king, but his overtures to Judah result in intertribal squabbles. The other tribes are jealous because troops from the tribe of Judah brought the king across Jordan, with only some of the troops of the rest of the tribes.

"All the troops of Judah and half the troops of Israel had taken the king over" (19:40b).

The men of Israel protest against the Judeans:

"We have ten shares in the king; and besides, we have a greater claim on David than you have. So why do you treat us with contempt? Were we not the first to speak of bringing back our king?" (19:43)

The 10 tribes are saying that they should have 10 times the opportunity to favor the king. Then they point out they were the first to mention the possibility of bringing back David. Of course, they didn't act on it, only talked about it. But hurt feelings are powerful motivators.

The rhetoric is ratcheting up. The northern tribes accuse Judah of treating them as if they were nothing.[270] The Judeans respond with their own accusations, as the situation spirals out of control.

"The men of Judah responded even more harshly[271] than the men of Israel." (19:43b)

The result is a fresh rebellion that begins to spread throughout the northern tribes. Baldwin faults David for this.

"By taunting Judah with the readiness of the other eleven tribes to receive him, David is driving a wedge between Judah and the rest, whereas he would have been wise to unify the kingdom by rising above tribal factions and loyalties."[272]

I think this is an example of "armchair quarterbacking." David did what he could to get the process of recalling the king started -- and succeeded. He couldn't have foreseen how poorly the elders of Judah would handle diplomacy with the northern tribes. Sometimes our leadership actions succeed completely, sometimes partially, and sometimes not at all. Leaders do the very best they can, knowing that the outcome is uncertain -- and that there will always be critics!

The Rebellion of Sheba the Benjamite (20:1-7)

The squabble between the elders of Israel and the leaders of the other tribes is interrupted by Sheba, a Benjamite, a man of action but also a scoundrel.[273] He sounds a trumpet to get people's attention and then shouts inflammatory words:

"We have no share in David, no part in Jesse's son! Every man to his tent, O Israel!" (20:1)

"Every man to his tent," means, "let's all go home."

"So all the men of Israel deserted David to follow Sheba son of Bicri. But the men of Judah stayed by their king all the way from the Jordan to Jerusalem." (20:2)

David's escort from the northern tribes of Israel evaporates and David has no choice but to return to Jerusalem escorted by his own tribe only. As you can imagine, the unity of his kingdom is in serious doubt.

Once in Jerusalem, David confines the ten concubines who remained behind for the rest of their lives, but no longer sleeps with them.

Then he moves quickly to put down Sheba's rebellion. He tells his new commander Amasa to "summon the men of Judah," that is, the militia from Judah, within three days. Given the slowness of communication in those days, that is asking for a "lightning response."

This is David's first assignment for Amasa, but Amasa doesn't meet the deadline with the troops from the tribe of Judah. David can't wait. The situation is dire. He turns to Abishai, another general, Joab's brother.

"Now Sheba son of Bicri will do us more harm than Absalom did. Take your master's men and pursue him, or he will find fortified cities and escape from us." (20:6)

 So David's personal army and the Philistine mercenary troops march north from Jerusalem to put down the rebellion under Abishai. Joab goes along, but apparently under Abishai's command.

Joab Murders Amasa (20:8-10a)

Map: The Rebellion of Sheba (2 Samuel 20).
Map: The Rebellion of Sheba (2 Samuel 20). Larger map.

By the time Abishai's troops get as far as Gibeon, about seven miles north of Jerusalem, Amasa's forces from Judah join them.

As soon as Joab sees Amasa, he greets him as might a friend. Amasa is his cousin, after all. But as he embraces him to give him the customary kiss of greeting, Joab grabs Amasa's beard with his right hand and stabs him in the belly with a dagger in his left hand, spilling his intestines upon the ground. Amasa dies on the spot!

 Without missing a beat, "Joab and his brother Abishai" lead the army north after Sheba. The chief commander lies wallowing in his blood and Abishai gives way to his impetuous brother's leadership. David's attempt to restructure the military is over.

Joab Pursues Sheba to Abel Beth Maacah (20:10b-26)

One of Joab's men shouts to the troops from Judah:

"Whoever favors Joab, and whoever is for David, let him follow Joab!" (20:11b)

Once Amasa's body is removed from the center of the road, the Judeans follow Joab north on the mission.

In the meantime, Sheba is travelling through all the tribal areas on his way, trying to gain support. He has no organization, so he is ineffective, but he does his best to turn people away from David to his own leadership.

 Sheba has had a three- to four-day head start, but Joab's troops are hot on his trail.[274] Finally, Sheba finds shelter in the walled city of Abel Beth Maacah in the far north of Israel's territory.

What David had feared, that Sheba would find refuge in a fortified city, has come to pass.

But Joab doesn't admit defeat. He begins a siege of the city, building a siege ramp so that he can bring a battering ram up to the walls and create a breach.

It is just a matter of time until the city is taken. If the city doesn't find a way to resolve the situation, they'll likely all be slain for harboring a traitor against the king.

The negotiator for the city of Abel Beth Maacah turns out to be a "wise woman." This gives us some indication of how women were sometimes able to function at a high level within the culture of the time.

"We are the peaceful and faithful in Israel. You are trying to destroy a city that is a mother in Israel. Why do you want to swallow up the LORD's inheritance?" (20:19)

Negotiations begin. Joab explains that they have nothing against the citizens of the city. It is Sheba only that they are seeking. If he is turned over to them, they will lift the siege and leave. The woman responds:

"His head will be thrown to you from the wall." (20:21c)

Within a short time the head is thrown out, the troops disperse, and Joab -- in full command of the army once again, returns to Jerusalem in victory. To regain the full loyalty of the 12 tribes will take years of careful diplomacy to accomplish, but for now, the rebellion is over. David is in charge once again in his capital city.

Q4. (2 Samuel 16-20) What does this passage teach us about David's character and faith? What does it reveal about Joab's character? What kind of faith do you see in Joab? What does this passage teach us about the importance of friends? Is Joab really David's friend?

Lessons for Disciples

The Apostle Paul learned a valuable spiritual insight when he was struggling with a difficult "thorn in the flesh, a messenger from Satan." He entreats God three times to remove it, but God finally says to him::

"My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness." (2 Corinthians 12:9)

And Paul concludes:

"Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong." (2 Corinthians 12:10)

Life of David, Discipleship Lessons in 1 and 2 Samuel, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Available as a book in paperback, Kindle, and PDF formats.

We hate suffering, but suffering while trusting in the Lord brings out our best, since hardship stimulates our faith much more than does comfort. God's goal is not our continued happiness, but our growth into maturity, "to the measure of the full stature of Christ" (Ephesians 4:13). Christ is being formed in us, and in that we can rejoice.

  1. Weakness and strength. When we are weak and struggling, we often turn afresh to the Lord and become stronger in him.

  2. Friends. Our true friends are those who rally around us when we're down and they have nothing to gain by the friendship. Friends show generosity in our times of trouble. Which friend of yours does God want to bless through you this week?
  3. Submission. In defeat, we can learn submission to the Lord's will, much better than when we're fresh from victory.
  4. Sovereignty of God. The battle is in the hands of the Lord.
  5. Emotions. If we're not careful, our emotions can sabotage God's will for our lives. David's love for his son and his grief at Absalom's death almost ruined what God intended -- victory and return. Sometimes, when we are overwrought, we need to listen to our friends'counsel and follow it.


Father, thank you for strengthening us when we are weak and struggling. Teach us well to follow you in the difficult times, so that we may also follow you in times of abundance and blessing. Give us hearts submitted to your will, so we can say, like David: "let Him do to me whatever seems good to Him." In Jesus' name, we pray. Amen.

Key Verses

But if he says, 'I am not pleased with you,'then I am ready; let him do to me whatever seems good to him." (2 Samuel 15:25-26)

"Let him alone, and let him curse; for the LORD has bidden him. It may be that the LORD will look on my distress, and the LORD will repay me with good for this cursing of me today." (2 Samuel 16:11b-12))

"When David came to Mahanaim, Shobi son of Nahash from Rabbah of the Ammonites, and Machir son of Ammiel from Lo-debar, and Barzillai the Gileadite from Rogelim, brought beds, basins, and earthen vessels, wheat, barley, meal, parched grain, beans and lentils, honey and curds, sheep, and cheese from the herd, for David and the people with him to eat; for they said, 'The troops are hungry and weary and thirsty in the wilderness.'" (2 Samuel 17:1-29)

"The king ordered Joab and Abishai and Ittai, saying, 'Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.' And all the people heard when the king gave orders to all the commanders concerning Absalom." (2 Samuel 18:5)

"The king was deeply moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept; and as he went, he said, 'O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!'" (2 Samuel 18:33))

"Shall anyone be put to death in Israel this day? For do I not know that I am this day king over Israel?" (2 Samuel 19:22)

[254] "Aren't you a seer?" (NIV, KJV, NASB) is the verb rāʾâ, "see look at, inspect" with an interrogative particle to indicate a question.  Anderson notes that "Aren't you a seer?" is only stating the obvious. He translates it, "Are you not an observant man?" (Anderson, 2 Samuel, p. 204). A couple of other possible translations are "Look," (NRSV), "Can you make good use of your eyes?" (New English Bible).

[255] Anderson, 2 Samuel, p. 205. "Friend" (NIV, NRSV), "companion" (KJV) in 1 Chronicles 27:33 is rēaʿ, "friend, neighbor, associate." A closely related word rēʿeh sometimes seems to be used in a technical sense of an office: "Friend of the King"(R. Laird Harris, rēaʿ, TWOT #2186a).

[256] "Fords" (NIV, NRSV), "plain" (KJV) here is ʿarābâ, "desert plain, steppe." It is probably referring to the Jordan-valley west of the river and adjacent plain, near ford (opposite Jericho). BDB 787. This is likely the same ford (maʿbārâ, "ford, pass, passage") that the two spies crossed near Jericho prior to Joshua's attack on the city (Joshua 2:7), and the ford near Gilgal (1 Samuel 13:7) across from Moab (Judges 3:28).

[257] No doubt the spies began their twenty mile run before David and his slower band had even reached the Jordan. They left just as soon as Hushai knew of the danger. That's the only way David could get across before daybreak.

[258] Mahanaim is a city in Gilead that lies somewhat east of the Jordan, perhaps on the north bank of the Jabbok River, in the territory of Gad, a city assigned to the Merarite clan of the Levites (Joshua 21:38). Two possible suggestions for its location are Tell edh-Dhahab el Gharbi or Tell Hajjaj, but we just don't know (W.D. Mounce, "Mahanaim," ISBE 3:222-223; Anderson, 2 Samuel, p. 33). For a discussion of pros and cons of various locations in William Paul Griffin, "Mahanaim Reconsidered," March 15, 1991, unpublished.
http://www.drbill.net/eu_website/otlit1/othandou/MAHANAIM.HTM Dr. Griffin is Professor of Old Testament at Evangel University, Springfield, MO.

[259] "Selah" seems to be a signal for an interlude or change of musical accompaniment, probably from the Hebrew root sll, "to lift up" or perhaps an Aramaic verb "to bend" (Derek Kidner, Psalms 1‐72 (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries; InterVarsity Press/Tyndale Press, 1973). pp. 36‐37).

[260] Ṣinnâ, BDB 857. A shield is used as a metaphor of God's protection a number of times in Scripture. For example, see Genesis 15:1; Deuteronomy 33:29; Psalm 28:7; 84:11; 91:4; 115:9‐11; 119:14.

[261] See Psalm 27:6; 110:7; Genesis 40:13; 2 Kings 25:27 KJV.

[262] The exact location of the King's Valley is unknown, though it is near Jerusalem, where Melchizedek met with Abraham (while still known as Abram) after the defeat of the Mesopotamian kings (Genesis 14:17) (Gary A. Lee, "King's Valley," ISBE 2:40).

[263] See Appendix 3. Genealogy of the House of David.

[264] "'Thousands' and 'hundreds' were military units, not necessarily indicative of their numerical strength" (Anderson, 2 Samuel, p. 224).

[265] The exact location of the Forest of Ephraim isn't certain. It is in the mountainous country in Gilead, east of the Jordan -- either north or south of the river Jabbok. Ya`ar can also mean open woodland or even scrub, the area was probably thickly wooded, with oak, pine, cypress, arbutus, etc., since there is rich soil from the Cenomanian limestone and plentiful winter rainfall (A. Denis Baly, "Ephraim, Forest of," ISBE 2:119-120). The Bible mentions the "oaks of Bashan" (Isaiah 2:13; Zechariah 11:2).

[266] Josephus (Antiquities 7.10.2).

[267] Anderson, 2 Samuel, p. 225, citing the Talmud, "Absalom gloried in his hair; therefore he was hanged by his hair" (Sotah 9b).

[268] He was given "the burial of an accursed man" (P.K. McCarter, 2 Samuel (Anchor Bible; Doubleday, 1984), p. 407, cited by Anderson, 2 Samuel, p. 225). The pile of stones was reminiscent of the burial of Achan (Joshua 7:26) and defeated kings during the Conquest (Joshua 8:29; 10:27).

[269] 1 Kings 2:7 suggests that Kimham was Barzillai's actual son.

[270] "Treat with contempt" (NIV), "despise" (NRSV, KJV) is qālal, "be slight, swift, trifling, of little account," or "curse." Here in the Hiphil stem it carries the idea "treat with contempt, bring contempt, dishonor" (BDB 886).

[271] "Harshly" (NIV), "fiercer" (NRSV, KJV) is qāshâ, "be hard, severe." The root apparently arose from an agricultural milieu, emphasizing the subjective effect exerted by an overly heavy yoke, which is hard to bear (Leonard J. Coppes, qāshâ,  TWOT #2085).

[272] Baldwin, 1 and 2 Samuel, p. 275.

[273] The narrator refers to him as a "troublemaker" (NIV), "scoundrel" (NRSV), literally, "a man of Belial (KJV). Belîyaʿal  means "worthlessness," from the verb bālâ, "become old, worn out" (Walter C. Kaiser, bālâ, TWOT #246g). "Belial" is rendered as a proper name by the KJV, because "in Jewish apocalyptic writing (Book of Jubilees, Ascension of Isaiah, Sibylline Oracles) the name was used to describe Satan or the antichrist," as in 2 Corinthians 6:15 (R.K. Harrison, "Belial," ISBE 1:454). However, that usage occurs nearly 1,000 years after the time 1 and 2 Samuel were written.

[274] Berites (NIV, KJV), Bichrites (NRSV) is bērîm. Bichri is the father of Sheba, a Benjamite. The word probably means "descendant of Becher" or "Beker", who was the second son of Benjamin (Genesis 46:21, 1 Chronicles 7:6, 8) (ISBE 1:509).

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