2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33
The context for this story goes back to the time when David committed adultery with Bathsheba and murdered Uriah, her husband. The Lord (through Nathan the prophet) reminded David of all that the Lord had done for David. Then he said, “Now therefore the sword will never depart from your house, because you have despised me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife” (2 Samuel 12:10).
David’s children ended up paying the price for his sin. The sword devoured “one as well as another” (see 11:25) within his own family. Bathsheba’s child died (12:15b-23). David’s son, Amnon, raped his sister, Tamar (13:1-22), and Absalom avenged Tamar by killing Amnon (13:23-38). Then Absalom rebelled against David (15:1-12). Now we have the story of Absalom’s death at the hands of Joab, David’s army commander (18:1-18). Later, David’s son, Adonijah will vie with Solomon for the throne, and Solomon will have him killed (1 Kings 1-2, esp. 2:24-25).
2 SAMUEL 18:1-4. THE DAVID MUSTERED THE MEN WHO WERE WITH HIM
These verses aren’t in the lectionary reading, but the preacher needs to be aware of them. David organized his army and divided it into three groups; one-third each under the commands of Joab, Abishai (Joab’s brother), and Ittai the Gittite. David proposed to lead his army, but his men dissuaded him, saying that he was too valuable to the nation to risk his life on the battlefield. Uncharacteristically, David bent to their counsel, saying, “I will do what seems best to you” (v. 4a). “The king stood beside the gate, and all the people went out by hundreds and by thousands” (v. 4b).
That turned out to be a mistake. If David had been leading his soldiers, he might have saved his son. But, then, if Absalom’s death is part of the Lord’s judgment on David (which is the case according to 12:10), David could not have saved Absalom.
2 SAMUEL 18:5. DEAL GENTLY WITH THE YOUNG MAN ABSALOM
5The king commanded Joab and Abishai and Ittai, saying, “Deal gently for my sake with the young man, even with Absalom.” All the people heard when the king commanded all the captains concerning Absalom.
“The king commanded Joab and Abishai and Ittai“ (v. 5a). As noted above, David divided his army into three parts. These three men are commanders of the respective units.
“Deal gently for my sake with the young man, even with Absalom“ (v. 5b). David could not be clearer. This is an order issued by the king to his military commanders. They are to deal gently with Absalom for David’s sake. While “deal gently” might be open to interpretation, there is no question about David’s desire to preserve Absalom’s life.
“All the people heard when the king commanded all the captains concerning Absalom“ (v. 5c). David gives this order to his commanders in the presence of “all the people.” If anything untoward happens to Absalom, nobody can claim that they didn’t understand. From the generals down to the privates, everyone knows that David wants to spare Absalom. He has made it a personal plea—”for my sake.” At this point, he is less concerned with military strategy than with the fate of his son.
2 SAMUEL 18:6-8. A GREAT SLAUGHTER
6So the people went out into the field against Israel: and the battle was in the forest of Ephraim. 7The people of Israel were struck there before the servants of David, and there was a great slaughter there that day of twenty thousand men. 8For the battle was there spread over the surface of all the country; and the forest devoured more people that day than the sword devoured.
“So the people went out into the field against Israel: and the battle was in the forest of Ephraim“(v. 6). Israel is the rebellious force led by Absalom. We aren’t sure where the forest of Ephraim was located. The tribe of Ephraim is located in hill country north of Jerusalem and west of the Jordan. However, some scholars think that the battle took place in the vicinity of Mahanaim (see 17:24, 27), east of the Jordan.
David’s soldiers are highly trained professionals, while Absalom has mustered a large but less well-trained force. The more difficult the terrain, the more it favors a well trained army. Fighting in forests can be a real challenge, so this terrain favors David’s army.
“The people of Israel were struck there before the servants of David, and there was a great slaughter there that day of twenty thousand men“ (v. 7). David’s army defeats Absalom’s army decisively. We assume that the note about twenty thousand men dying refers to Absalom’s army, but the text doesn’t specify that.
“For the battle was there spread over the surface of all the country“ (v. 8a). David has divided his army into three mobile forces that can take maximum advantage of the terrain and can attack Absalom’s army from different directions. It seems likely that the battle spreads so widely because the losing army (Absalom’s force) breaks and runs.
“and the forest devoured more people that day than the sword devoured“ (v. 8b). Perhaps this means that the terrain so favored David’s professional army that it played a decisive role in David’s victory. Perhaps it refers to Absalom being entrapped by a tree with the result that his army loses its leader.
2 SAMUEL 18:9. ABSALOM’S HEAD CAUGHT HOLD OF THE OAK
9Absalom happened to meet the servants of David. Absalom was riding on his mule (Hebrew: pe·red), 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 sky and earth; and the mule that was under him went on.
“Absalom happened to meet the servants of David“ (v. 9a). The Septuagint (LXX) is the Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures—translated prior to Jesus’ birth. The Masoretic Text (MT) is the Hebrew version of the Hebrew Scriptures—translated by the Masoretes about 600-950 A.D.
In the LXX version, Absalom is running far ahead of David’s soldiers when he becomes entrapped by the tree—perhaps suggesting that he is running from them. In the MT, Absalom happens to encounter David’s soldiers in the forest (Cartledge, 598).
“Absalom was riding on his mule (pe·red), and the mule went under the thick boughs of a great oak“ (v. 9b). A mule is the offspring of a donkey and a horse. Known for endurance and surefootedness, mules were often used as royal mounts.
“and his head caught hold of the oak, and he was taken up between the sky and earth“ (v. 9c). We read earlier that Absalom had a luxurious head of hair (14:26), so artists usually portray Absalom dangling by his hair, which is caught in a tree branch. However, this verse doesn’t say that his hair was caught in a branch, but that “and his head caught hold of the oak.” It seems likely that his hair was caught in the oak, but the wording allows for other possibilities.
Absalom was known for his beauty, and especially for his luxuriant hair. If he was, indeed, entrapped by his hair, he would be neither the first nor the last to be tripped up by one of his best attributes.
“and the mule that was under him went on“ (v. 9d). It is easy to picture the mule, freed from its burden, running freely—stranding Absalom below the tree.
2 SAMUEL 18:10-14. A MAN SAW IT AND TOLD JOAB
These verses are not part of the lectionary reading, but the preacher needs to be aware of them. A soldier sees Absalom hanging from the tree and tells Joab, David’s general, what he has seen. Joab, who earlier received a direct order from David to deal gently with Absalom (v. 5), asks the soldier why he didn’t kill Absalom. Joab even says that he will pay a reward of ten pieces of silver and a belt to the person who kills Absalom. However, the soldier, knowing of David’s order, refuses to kill Absalom. He even states his conviction that Joab would fail to protect him from David if he were to kill Absalom. Joab then takes matters into his own hands, thrusting three spears into Absalom’s heart.
2 SAMUEL 18:15. TEN YOUNG MEN STRUCK ABSALOM AND KILLED HIM
15Ten young men who bore Joab’s armor surrounded and struck Absalom, and killed him.
After Absalom thrusts three spears into Absalom’s heart, ten of Joab’s soldiers strike Absalom. This verse says that they killed Absalom, but if Absalom’s spears penetrated Absalom’s heart, Absalom was surely dead before these soldiers struck him. Joab might think it expedient to involve these soldiers in Absalom’s death to make it impossible for David to know who struck the death blow.
2 SAMUEL 18:16-30: THEY THREW ABSALOM INTO A PIT
These verses are not in the lectionary reading, but the preacher needs to be aware of them. Having killed Absalom, Joab brings an end to the battle. He and his soldiers then throw Absalom’s body in a pit and cover his body with a large mound of stones. While this might seem to be a crude means of disposing of Absalom’s body, rock cairns of this sort were an acceptable form of burial in that day—although a king’s son would usually receive a better burial.
The rock monument protects Absalom’s body from scavengers. This quick burial serves other purposes as well. Joab wants to get this unpleasantness with Absalom behind him. He does not want David to see his sons’ body. And he wants to rule out the possibility of a grand funeral for David’s rebellious son.
Ahimaaz, son of Zadok the priest, volunteers to tell David of Absalom’s death. At first Joab forbids him to go to David, perhaps because Ahimaaz is the son of the high priest and Joab is concerned that David might kill the messenger who brings news of Absalom’s death. Joab assigns a Cushite to take the bad tidings to David. Cush is located south of Egypt in modern day Ethiopia. The Cushites are a black people. Perhaps Joab considers this Cushite expendable.
However, Ahimaaz persists and Joab finally gives him permission to go to David. Ahimaaz reaches David first, but is unable to tell David about Absalom’s death, even when questioned directly by David on that matter.
2 SAMUEL 18:31-32. MAY THE ENEMIES OF MY KING BE LIKE AS YOUNG MAN
31Behold, the Cushite came. The Cushite said, “News for my lord the king; for Yahweh has avenged you this day of all those who rose up against you.” 32The king said to the Cushite, “Is it well with the young man Absalom?”
The Cushite answered, “May the enemies of my lord the king, and all who rise up against you to do you harm, be as that young man is.”
“Behold, the Cushite came. The Cushite said, ‘News for my lord the king; for Yahweh has avenged you this day of all those who rose up against you‘” (v. 31). The Cushite, who surely understands the danger of confronting David with news of Absalom’s death, couches his assessment of the battle in glowing terms. The Lord has vindicated David. The Lord has delivered David from “all those who rose up against you.” While he does not mention Absalom’s name, Absalom is chief among those who rose up against David.
“The king said to the Cushite, ‘Is it well with the young man Absalom?‘” (v. 32a). David has two concerns, and the general course of the battle is his lesser concern. His greater concern is the fate of “the young man Absalom.” He ordered his army to deal gently with “the young man Absalom,” and now he wants reassurance that “the young man Absalom” is alive and well. He won’t refer to Absalom as his son until he learns of Absalom’s death.
“The Cushite answered, ‘May the enemies of my lord the king, and all who rise up against you to do you harm, be as that young man is'” (v. 32b). Once again, the Cushite couches his response positively. Instead of telling David that Absalom is dead, he invokes a prayer that all David’s enemies might “be as that young man is.” The message, although indirect, is clear. Absalom is dead.
2 SAMUEL 18:33. O MY SON ABSALOM! MY SON, MY SON ABSALOM!
33The king was much moved, and went up to the room over the gate, and wept. As he went, he said, “My son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! I wish I had died for you, Absalom, my son, my son!”
“The king was much moved, and went up to the room over the gate, and wept. As he went, he said, ‘My son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! I wish I had died for you, Absalom, my son, my son‘” (v. 33). David is a passionate man, and we have seen his passion exhibited in various situations. He grieved over the deaths of Saul and Jonathan (chapter 1)—and Abner (3:31-39). He danced wildly when returning the ark to Jerusalem (chapter 6). He fell in love with Bathsheba and committed adultery with her—and murdered her husband to cover up his son—and married Bathsheba after Uriah’s death—and grieved when his son by Bathsheba died (chapters 11-12). He grieved again when Absalom killed David’s son, Amnon (13:23-33).
But nothing in David’s passionate life can touch the depth of his grief at the news that Absalom is dead. Apart from Jesus’ cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” no verse of scripture is as poignant as this one. The “young man Absalom” now becomes “my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom.”
David continues to grieve publicly after his soldiers return from their victory, so that “the people sneaked into the city that day, as people who are ashamed steal away when they flee in battle” (19:3). Joab rebukes David and warns him that he is in danger of losing the support of his army unless he thanks his soldiers. David docilely follows Joab’s advice.
The surprise is that David does not have Joab killed for his failure to honor David’s order to deal gently with Absalom. Earlier, when Rechab and Baanah killed Ish-bosheth, Saul’s son, David had them killed and their hands and feet cut off. But now, faced with the death of his own son, David is uncharacteristically docile. Perhaps he does not understand how directly and intentionally Joab disregarded his order. Perhaps he does not know that Joab thrust three spears through Absalom’s heart while Absalom hung defenseless from a tree. Perhaps David’s profound grief has paralyzed him.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Bergin, Robert D., The New American Commentary: 1, 2 Samuel, Vol. 7 (Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996)
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Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, B (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1993)
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Evans, Mary J., New International Biblical Commentary: 1 and 2 Samuel (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2000)
Gehrke, Ralph David, Concordia Commentary: 1 and 2 Samuel (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1968)
Newsome, James D., in Brueggemann, Walter; Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV—Year B (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993)
Peterson, Eugene H., Westminster Bible Companion: First and Second Samuel (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999)
Copyright 2008, 2010, Richard Niell Donovan