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The Darkest Days of David’s Life (2 Samuel 16:20 — 19:8)
Study By: Bob Deffinbaugh
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The first paragraphs of our text sound like the introductory scene of the old television series, “Mission Impossible.” In “Mission Impossible,” Mr. Phelps was always given a vitally important task — one which seemed virtually impossible to accomplish. Our text starts out almost the same way. Absalom is finally about to declare himself King of Israel, in place of his father. When David gets word of this impending revolution, he chooses to flee from Jerusalem, along with a number of his faithful followers. The preceding paragraphs are filled with tears as David must leave Jerusalem behind and flee toward the wilderness. He leaves Hushai, his faithful friend, and Zadok and Abiathar the priests (along with the ark), to remain in Jerusalem where they will be of more service to him. Zadok is a prophet, so he can give David an accurate (inspired) assessment of what Absalom is doing. The sons of Zadok and Abiathar, Ahimaaz and Jonathan, can serve as messengers to relay word from Zadok to David. David will wait for word from Zakok “at the fords of the wilderness,” just west of the Jordan, until he learns what Absalom has in mind.
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Absalom has arrived at Jerusalem and taken possession of this royal city. He then calls Ahithophel and asks for his counsel about how he may best establish himself as king. Ahithophel’s counsel comes in two parts, unfortunately separated (artificially) by the chapter division (chapter 17). The first part of Ahithophel’s advice is that he should possess the throne symbolically by publicly sleeping with the ten wives David left behind to keep house in Jerusalem. This will send a very clear message to all Israel about his relationship to his father and to his throne.
The second part of Ahithophel’s counsel is recorded in verses 1-3 of chapter 17. Ahithophel counsels Absalom to quickly pursue David, isolate him, and kill him, thus demoralizing David’s followers and insuring his reign as king in David’s place. The idea sounds good to Absalom and to all the elders of Israel, but Absalom decides to ask Hushai’s advice as well. Hushai is summoned, and upon his arrival is told what counsel Ahithophel has already given.
How would you like to be in Hushai’s sandals? He knows Absalom doubts his loyalty, because he has been David’s friend (16:16-19). He must know that Absalom and all the elders have already given their approval to Ahithophel’s plan. In addition, he knows Absalom’s confidence in Ahithophel is great, for his counsel is as though one had “inquired of the word of God” (16:23). Hushai also is David’s friend, and he knows David’s life may depend on the response he gives to Absalom. Would you not agree that this is certainly a predicament fittingly called “mission impossible”?
There is a bit of a danger here because you and I know something else. David has already prayed that God would somehow nullify the counsel of Ahithophel (15:31). We will also be told in our text, “the LORD ordained to thwart the good counsel of Ahithophel, in order that the LORD might bring calamity on Absalom” (17:14). We might be inclined to minimize the difficulty of Hushai’s task, as though Absalom and the elders of Israel must embrace Hushai’s counsel no matter how foolish it might be. We are therefore inclined to think of Hushai’s counsel as groundless and foolish, but accepted by Absalom and his servants because their eyes are blinded to the truth of the matter.
I would like to suggest that Hushai is given great wisdom by God, and that his plan makes perfect sense, when viewed from Absalom’s point of view. We should also be careful about thinking of Ahithophel’s counsel as “good” in a moral sense. It is a good plan in that, if followed, it seems it would result in David’s death and in the consolidation of Absalom’s rule over Israel. It is not “good” in any moral sense, for it sanctions — no, it recommends — the killing of God’s anointed king. It is not “good” in that it urges Absalom to commit adultery by sleeping with his father’s wives. Neither, I think, is it good in that Ahithophel has his own sinful ambitions and agenda which prompt him to give his counsel to Absalom.
This passage is filled with intrigue and all the elements needed for excellent drama. It is also a passage that describes David in the darkest hours of his life. I do not think David has ever been so overwhelmed by sorrow and suffering and grief as he is here. Let us look to God’s dealings with David in such times, for we have all known in some measure the sorrow and sadness David experiences here. If there is deliverance and hope for David in these dark hours, then there is hope for us as well when we pass through the “valley of the shadow of death.”
16:20 Then Absalom said to Ahithophel, “Give your advice. What shall we do?” 21 Ahithophel said to Absalom, “Go in to your father’s concubines, whom he has left to keep the house; then all Israel will hear that you have made yourself odious to your father. The hands of all who are with you will also be strengthened.” 22 So they pitched a tent for Absalom on the roof, and Absalom went in to his father’s concubines in the sight of all Israel. 23 The advice of Ahithophel, which he gave in those days, was as if one inquired of the word of God; so was all the advice of Ahithophel regarded by both David and Absalom. 17:1 Furthermore, Ahithophel said to Absalom, “Please let me choose 12,000 men that I may arise and pursue David tonight. 2 “I will come upon him while he is weary and exhausted and terrify him, so that all the people who are with him will flee. Then I will strike down the king alone, 3 and I will bring back all the people to you. The return of everyone depends on the man you seek; then all the people will be at peace.” 4 So the plan pleased Absalom and all the elders of Israel.
It has taken me a good while to get a feel for this text. At first I was too inclined to separate in time the first part of Ahithophel’s counsel from the second. I assumed Absalom sought Ahithophel’s counsel and got it, as it relates to the “possession” of David’s wives left in Jerusalem. I somehow managed to believe for a day or two that Absalom “possessed” David’s wives, in the sight of all. Then, I thought, Absalom came back to Ahithophel for a second word of counsel, followed by a second opinion by Hushai. This can hardly be so.
First, let us think of the events of our chapter only in terms of timing. David learns Absalom is about to possess the throne and flees Jerusalem. He has with him his wives and children, some who are older which means he can hardly march double-time. The whole account is written in a way that underscores the urgency of haste. Absalom and his men are virtually hours behind David. If word is not sent to David immediately, and if he does not vanish into the wilderness quickly, Absalom will overtake David and those with him.
David flees from Jerusalem while Absalom is not far behind, ready to occupy Jerusalem and the throne. Absalom asks for Ahithophel’s counsel after he arrives in Jerusalem, and Ahithophel gives it — in two parts. The first part is his recommendation to Absalom as to what he should do — possess David’s wives. The second part pertains to what Ahithophel personally proposes to do for Absalom — take command of 12,000 men immediately, set out in pursuit of David this very night, and then overtake him in a way that terrifies David and his followers. Ahithophel volunteers to personally kill David alone, thus minimizing bloodshed, and then consolidate the kingdom in short order.
If we take note of the pronouns in the text above, we will see that Ahithophel has a recommended course of action for Absalom and a recommended course of action for himself. I believe Ahithophel intends for these to be undertaken simultaneously, and not sequentially. The plan Ahithophel recommends is thus: (1) Absalom will devote himself to the task of possessing David’s wives, in the sight of all Israel. (2) While Absalom is thus occupied, Ahithophel will take command of 12,000 men and set out in hot pursuit of David, whom they will overtake, and he will personally kill David, thus making the possession of the kingdom complete, in very short order.
Ahithophel’s counsel is exceedingly “shrewd” in several ways. First, it would have worked, barring the direct intervention of God. Second, it offered an appealing course of action to Absalom. He, not unlike his father David, can stay home from the battle and “make love” while Ahithophel and his army are making war with David. Absalom can quickly enter into his possession of the throne, yet without the dangers or discomforts of going into battle. As an added incentive, he can indulge himself with David’s wives in a way that gets back at David and hurts and humiliates his father. Only David will be killed, who is Absalom’s real enemy.
When we are told that Absalom takes Ahithophel’s counsel regarding David’s wives, I believe he carries this out while all Israel is being assembled to do battle, rather than while Ahithophel leads the 12,000 in pursuit of David. If this is the case — and it seems necessary to see it so — then we are given a slightly different perspective of the possession of David’s wives by Absalom. It does fulfill the words of Nathan the prophet. It is a symbolic statement by Absalom which is most painful for David. But at the same time it is a part of God’s bigger plan to delay the pursuit of David so that he can escape, retrench, and defeat Absalom, and then return as Israel’s king. Some of the most painful events in our life may also be some of the most fruitful in producing the good God wants for us. Ahithophel and Absalom mean this for evil (and for their own satisfaction), but God means it for good (see Genesis 50:20).
Ahithophel proposes a quick, easy victory for Absalom, won by Ahithophel while the “king” remains behind in Jerusalem. It is almost too good to be true. The fact is it would have worked, but God had other plans for David and for Absalom. Those plans are brought to pass through David’s friends: Hushai, Zadok and Abiathar the priests, their sons Ahimaaz and Jonathan, a farmer’s wife in Bahurim, and a number of other faithful friends and supporters of David. It is the story of David’s deliverance we are now about to consider.
5 Then Absalom said, “Now call Hushai the Archite also, and let us hear what he has to say.” 6 When Hushai had come to Absalom, Absalom said to him, “Ahithophel has spoken thus. Shall we carry out his plan? If not, you speak.” 7 So Hushai said to Absalom, “This time the advice that Ahithophel has given is not good.” 8 Moreover, Hushai said, “You know your father and his men, that they are mighty men and they are fierce, like a bear robbed of her cubs in the field. And your father is an expert in warfare, and will not spend the night with the people. 9 “Behold, he has now hidden himself in one of the caves or in another place; and it will be when he falls on them at the first attack, that whoever hears it will say, ‘There has been a slaughter among the people who follow Absalom.’ 10 “And even the one who is valiant, whose heart is like the heart of a lion, will completely lose heart; for all Israel knows that your father is a mighty man and those who are with him are valiant men. 11 “But I counsel that all Israel be surely gathered to you, from Dan even to Beersheba, as the sand that is by the sea in abundance, and that you personally go into battle. 12 “So we shall come to him in one of the places where he can be found, and we will fall on him as the dew falls on the ground; and of him and of all the men who are with him, not even one will be left. 13 “If he withdraws into a city, then all Israel shall bring ropes to that city, and we will drag it into the valley until not even a small stone is found there.” 14 Then Absalom and all the men of Israel said, “The counsel of Hushai the Archite is better than the counsel of Ahithophel.” For the LORD had ordained to thwart the good counsel of Ahithophel, so that the LORD might bring calamity on Absalom.
We are not told why Absalom seeks a second opinion from Hushai. Is it a kind of test of Hushai’s loyalty? You may remember that he does not have time to reflect on what he should say. He was brought into Absalom’s presence, told what Ahithophel had advised, and then asked to respond. Hushai’s response is brilliant. He begins by acknowledging Ahithophel’s great wisdom and skill as an advisor, but then goes on to state that his counsel is not good this time. No one is perfect. No one is right all the time. Ahithophel is nearly always right, but not this time.
Hushai has one great handicap: Absalom and everyone else in Israel knows he is David’s friend. How can Absalom trust a man who has been David’s friend for so long? His counsel must be suspect. Rather than try to avoid this issue, Hushai uses his friendship. It is as though he says to Absalom,
“Am I David’s friend? I have been for years, it is true. And it is this very friendship which gives me great insight into this man, David. I know him better than any of you. And therefore I know how he will respond to Absalom’s revolt. Let me give you a plan which is based upon the David I knew, and the David which you know is true to history.”
The attractiveness of Ahithophel’s plan is that David can be defeated quickly and relatively easily, with a minimal loss of life and a nominal expenditure of energy. Absalom doesn’t need to go to battle at all. He can stay in Jerusalem with David’s wives. Ahithophel will immediately set out with 12,000 soldiers and hunt David down, kill him alone, and bring David’s followers to Absalom. The plan is also predicated upon certain assumptions. The assumption is that David is weary and defeated in spirit, that David has no will to fight and can be easily overcome. If this assumption is in error, the whole scheme Ahithophel proposes will collapse like a house of cards.
Hushai challenges the assumptions on which Ahithophel’s plans are based, and thus the plans as well. He proposes a very different David, and thus a very different plan. Hushai insists that Ahithophel has dangerously underestimated David and his ability to defend himself and his kingdom. Hushai reminds Absalom and the elders of Israel about the kind of man David is. David is no mental weakling; he is a tough and seasoned warrior. Absalom’s rebellion will not break David’s spirit; it will antagonize him. He will be like a she-bear, deprived of her cubs. David will be fighting mad and fighting ready. If Ahithophel comes into the wilderness to attack David, they will fight him on his turf. After all, David has spent years hiding from Saul in the wilderness. Does Ahithophel really think David can easily be found sitting among the rest of the people? He will be hiding out, and when Ahithophel and his small army arrive, David will pounce on them, giving them a humiliating defeat. It will be Absalom’s soldiers who will lose heart and run, not David or his men.
If this assumption is right (and all of David’s past fighting experience would seem to bear it out), then a completely different battle plan is required. This will not be a quick and easy matter. It will require much more than the death of David, and thus a much larger army will be necessary to attack and defeat David and his followers. This army will take a little more time to assemble, but it will be necessary to wait. (And while Absalom waits in Jerusalem, he can possess David’s wives. This is the only time he can do so.) It will also take a great military leader, rather than someone like Ahithophel. It will take Absalom himself to lead this army. It will be a great battle, with a great leader, and a great victory will be the outcome. Now this is the kind of plan that appeals to a man who rides about in a chariot, preceded by 50 runners. Absalom loves ostentation, and Hushai’s plan reeks of it. And thus Hushai’s plan prevails. It is not a carelessly proposed plan, but extremely insightful, and extremely appealing. It was a plan God assured would be adopted. It is also a plan that Absalom finds attractive.
Hushai’s plan brings about a bigger battle, so that not only will many of Absalom’s supporters die, but Absalom himself will be killed, thus ending the revolution.85 Hushai’s plan gives David the time he needs to get to his kind of battle — guerrilla warfare. It lets him fight on his turf, so that the forest will kill more than his soldiers (18:8). Hushai’s plan makes Ahithophel’s counsel seem foolish, which is exactly what David has prayed for (15:31). It brings about the deliverance of David and the defeat of his enemies.
David’s Escape to Mahanaim
15 Then Hushai said to Zadok and to Abiathar the priests, “This is what Ahithophel counseled Absalom and the elders of Israel, and this is what I have counseled. 16 “Now therefore, send quickly and tell David, saying, ‘Do not spend the night at the fords of the wilderness, but by all means cross over, or else the king and all the people who are with him will be destroyed.”’ 17 Now Jonathan and Ahimaaz were staying at En-rogel, and a maidservant would go and tell them, and they would go and tell King David, for they could not be seen entering the city. 18 But a lad did see them and told Absalom; so the two of them departed quickly and came to the house of a man in Bahurim, who had a well in his courtyard, and they went down into it. 19 And the woman took a covering and spread it over the well’s mouth and scattered grain on it, so that nothing was known. 20 Then Absalom’s servants came to the woman at the house and said, “Where are Ahimaaz and Jonathan?” And the woman said to them, “They have crossed the brook of water.” And when they searched and could not find them, they returned to Jerusalem. 21 It came about after they had departed that they came up out of the well and went and told King David; and they said to David, “Arise and cross over the water quickly for thus Ahithophel has counseled against you.” 22 Then David and all the people who were with him arose and crossed the Jordan; and by dawn not even one remained who had not crossed the Jordan. 23 Now when Ahithophel saw that his counsel was not followed, he saddled his donkey and arose and went to his home, to his city, and set his house in order, and strangled himself; thus he died and was buried in the grave of his father. 24 Then David came to Mahanaim. And Absalom crossed the Jordan, he and all the men of Israel with him. 25 Absalom set Amasa over the army in place of Joab. Now Amasa was the son of a man whose name was Ithra the Israelite, who went in to Abigail the daughter of Nahash, sister of Zeruiah, Joab’s mother. 26 And Israel and Absalom camped in the land of Gilead. 27 Now when David had come to Mahanaim, Shobi the son of Nahash from Rabbah of the sons of Ammon, Machir the son of Ammiel from Lo-debar, and Barzillai the Gileadite from Rogelim, 28 brought beds, basins, pottery, wheat, barley, flour, parched grain, beans, lentils, parched seeds, 29 honey, curds, sheep, and cheese of the herd, for David and for the people who were with him, to eat; for they said, “The people are hungry and weary and thirsty in the wilderness.”
For the moment at least, Absalom has chosen the counsel of Hushai over that of Ahithophel. While Hushai’s plan buys David a little time, it also results in an attack by a much larger army, led by Absalom. It is now a matter of great urgency to inform David about what has transpired. David needs to escape beyond the Jordan to establish a camp that will offer him protection and which will also give him the military position from which to defend himself against the coming attack of Absalom and his followers.
Hushai sends word to Zadok and Abiathar, the priests, informing them concerning his counsel and that of Ahithophel, and instructing them to send word to David by way of Jonathan and Ahimaaz. Jonathan and Ahimaaz are staying at En-rogel, a small village (it seems) located in the valley below the city of Jerusalem. It was apparently a water source just outside Jerusalem, and so women would frequent this place to obtain water. It was probably on this pretext that the maidservant went to inform the two messengers.
Unfortunately, one of Absalom’s supporters spotted Jonathan and Ahimaaz, who seem to be known to be loyal to David. This precipitates a search for the two, since it must be apparent they are on their way to report to David. The two men hastily depart and come to the house of another supporter of David, who lives in Bahurim.86 There, the wife of David’s supporter hides the two men in the well, covering it and then placing grain over the covering, so no hint of the well is seen. Absalom’s servants arrive and demand to know where the two men are, and the woman tells them the two have crossed the brook and fled. They are “long gone.” When the servants of Absalom search and find no one, they leave and return to Jerusalem. The two priests’ sons quickly run to David’s camp to tell them what happened. They urge him to cross the Jordan quickly to find a safe refuge. By dawn, David and all those with him have crossed the river. (Had Ahithophel set out for David the evening before, it would have been a very different story.)
Ahithophel remains in Jerusalem only long enough to be convinced that his counsel is not going to be heeded by Absalom. Once it is clear that Hushai’s counsel has prevailed, he knows he is finished. He has gambled everything on the assumption that Absalom will prevail over David. Now he knows that Absalom is destined to be defeated. He makes his way to his own home, sets his business in order, and kills himself. What a tragic end for a man with such great potential.
As Absalom crosses the Jordan in hot pursuit of David, David enters the gates of Mahanaim. This is indeed a city with a history. It was Jacob who gave this city its name. As he was returning to the land of promise, fearful of what would happen when he met his brother Esau, Jacob was met by angels, prompting Jacob to say, “This is God’s camp.” And so it was that Jacob named that place Mahanaim (meaning “two camps” — see the marginal note in the NASB). Was David fearful about meeting up with his son Absalom? He should have remembered that God always protects His people, His promises, His purposes, even by the use of angels, if needed. Mahanaim served briefly as the capital of Ish-bosheth, when Abner set him up in place of his father Saul for a short period of time (2 Samuel 2:8, 12, 29).
God provided for David at Mahanaim in more tangible and visible ways as well. When he and his faithful followers arrived, there were those ready and willing to help. The first named is Shobi, the son of Nahash, and now King of the Ammonites. This is a most amazing thing. David and Nahash had been on relatively friendly terms, but when he died and his son Nahash took the throne, he foolishly humiliated the official delegation David sent to mourn Nahash’s death (2 Samuel 10:1ff.). This led to war between Israel and the Ammonites. In fact it was this war with the Ammonites (and specifically the besieging of Rabbah) which David decided to avoid, leaving the battle to the Israelites under Joab’s command (2 Samuel 11:1ff.). The Ammonites were finally defeated by David (2 Samuel 12:26-31). And now Shobi is on the throne and eager to come to David’s aid when he is opposed by Absalom. What a surprise!
The second supporter to come to David’s aid at Mahanaim is Machir the son of Ammiel from Lo-debar (17:27). This is the man who took in Mephibosheth after the death of King Saul and of Jonathan (2 Samuel 9:4-5). Finally Barzillai the Gileadite, an elderly man of great wealth, brought supplies for David and those with him. We learn even more about this fellow in chapter 19, verses 31-40. What an encouragement these men and their assistance must be to David.
The Defeat and the Death of Absalom
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. 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. 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.
It is inevitable. David has probably denied its necessity for a long time, but now it is obvious that he cannot run any more; he will have to fight the army of his own son. David divides his army into three divisions. We are not sure how many men fight for David, but we do know the number is in the thousands because the text tells us his men are in groups that have commanders of thousands and hundreds. Joab and Abishai are over two of the divisions, while Ittai the Gittite is over the third division. David assures his men that he is going with them, but the people insist that he stay behind in Mahanaim. If they are to flee, it will be of no importance to Absalom, but if David is among them, they will not stop until they have captured and killed him. It is better for him to be somewhere else.
But as the troops are about to go to war on behalf of their king, David, has some final words for them. It is not the usual pep talk, with all the hype and focus on victory. Neither is it at all like Joab’s words, uttered just before the attack waged on the Syrians and the Ammonites:
11 He said, “If the Arameans are too strong for me, then you shall help me, but if the sons of Ammon are too strong for you, then I will come to help you. 12 “Be strong, and let us show ourselves courageous for the sake of our people and for the cities of our God; and may the LORD do what is good in His sight” (2 Samuel 10:11-12).
David’s “charge” is very different: “Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom” (18:5). Everyone hears these words. How different from the advice of Ahithophel, who intends to kill David alone, and let the rest of the people live. David allows his men to kill any other Israelite, but not his son, the leader of the revolution. He commands those who are risking their lives for him to fight, but not to fight to win. It must have been a pathetic sight.
In spite of this, the army fights courageously for David, and Absalom’s forces suffer a great defeat, not only at the hand of David’s men, but even from the forest itself. Absalom’s men are not cut out for this kind of warfare. A total of 20,000 men die in this slaughter, which spreads out over the whole countryside, as Absalom’s men begin to turn and run for their lives. It is a great victory for David and a devastating defeat for Absalom.
We do not know whether Absalom is running for his life or not, but he does seem to be alone at the time his mule runs under the branches of a great oak tree, and somehow Absalom’s head is wedged in the branches.87 None of Absalom’s men seem to be around to attempt a rescue. (They may have been fleeing for their lives.) One of Joab’s men comes upon Absalom and mentions it to his commander. Joab is incensed that this young man has not killed Absalom on the spot. Would he not have been rewarded for doing so? The young man is not taken back by Joab’s rebuke. He reminds Joab that David, their commander-in-chief, has specifically forbidden anyone to harm his son Absalom. No matter what Joab may promise to do for him, this soldier knows that when David learns he has killed his son, there will be no protection for him. He also knows that while Joab seems to talk tough, when David’s wrath is directed toward him for killing Absalom, Joab will quietly stand by and let him take all the blame. There is no way this fellow is going to be directed to disobey the king’s orders by killing the king’s son.
Joab has had just about enough of this fellow’s submission to the king’s orders. He will take care of the matter personally. And so Joab goes and finds Absalom, just as the young man has described. He takes three spears in his hand and thrusts them through Absalom’s chest. His armor bearers follow suit, finishing Absalom off. David’s enemy is dead.
It is ironic, is it not, that it would be Joab who would kill Absalom? It was Joab who had orchestrated amnesty for Absalom and brought him back to Jerusalem. It was Joab who obtained greater freedom for Absalom and brought him into the king’s presence. And yet, for all Joab had done for Absalom, this man set out to take the throne away from his father, and to set another as commander over Israel’s forces. It was likewise Joab who, under orders from David, had Uriah killed in battle, without raising a word of protest. And now, this military commander who would kill a righteous man at David’s request would kill David’s own son in direct violation to his orders. There is a saying: “What goes around, comes around.” Somehow that seems fitting here. David, who abused his almost absolute authority to take Uriah’s wife and then his life is powerless to save his own son from death at the hand of Joab (or anyone else).
The text adds a kind of epitaph to the account of Absalom’s death. The author informs us that at one time Absalom had no sons, and fearing that he would be forgotten, built a pillar for himself in the valley of the kings. By this, he thought, he would preserve his name. As it turned out, Absalom did have sons, but in his desire to possess his father’s throne, he was able to be king but for a few days, and now he will be remembered as the traitor who died, hanging from a tree, the most ignoble death of all. His pillar in the valley of the kings would never erase the memory of his folly and death.
Proclaiming the Good News
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!”
It is all over. Ahithophel knows that if David is killed, all opposition to Absalom will be crushed. It works the same way in reverse. Many of Absalom’s men are killed, and his army suffers a massive defeat, but when Absalom himself dies, the revolution itself is dead. And so it is that Absalom’s forces flee the scene of battle to their own tents. It is all over! David has won! It is a great day of victory.
The scene of this victorious army returning to Mahanaim must have been jubilant. It would have been something like the Dallas Cowboys returning home after a Super Bowl Victory. There would be shouting and celebration. What a great day this is, a day of victory. But King David is not with his army. He is back in the city, waiting for news of the outcome of the battle. The returning soldiers are triumphant, until they realize that their king is not there at the gate to greet them. This is because he has heard of his son’s death.
It all started with the defeat of Absalom’s army, followed by the death of Absalom. Ahimaaz begs Joab to be the one who will carry the “good news” to David. Joab knows that it will not be “good news” to the king, though it will be for everyone else. For this reason, Joab forbids Ahimaaz to run to Mahanaim. He sends a Cushite instead. Ahimaaz persists and finally Joab reluctantly lets him run to carry the news to David as well. Highly motivated (being a good runner and choosing the faster route helped, too), Ahimaaz actually manages to arrive at Mahanaim before the Cushite. Between the two messengers, David learns that his son Absalom has been killed. His grief is great indeed.
Before we go on with this story, I should point out that there is more space devoted to the messengers who report to David than there is about the war between the two opposing armies, including the account of the death of Absalom. Why would this be? Why would the author make so much of Ahimaaz’s desire to carry the message of the victory of David’s army to the king? The answer is a significant key to our understanding of the message the author wishes to convey to his readers.
I have already observed the emphasis (in terms of space) to this matter of the messengers. Let me also point out the repetition of an important expression: good news. In the NASB, it occurs four times in verses 25-31, but there are a number of other references to news which, in the context, is expected to be good. The term good news is a rendering of the Hebrew term which means (as you would expect) “good news.” When the translators of the Septuagint rendered this term in Greek, they used the term which we often find in the New Testament in reference to the proclamation of the gospel. The good news which Ahimaaz wanted to proclaim to David was that God had given him the victory by defeating the army of Absalom and by Absalom’s death.
The problem is that David is not inclined to accept this report as good news. Notice that when each of the two messengers approach David, they indicate to him that they have good news for him. David does not ask about the outcome of the battle, but only about the well-being of his son, Absalom. Good news for David would be that Absalom is still alive. Good news for every other man involved in the war with Absalom and his men that day would be that his army has been defeated, and the trouble-maker has been removed.
Joab knows his king well. He knows that David will not take the news of Absalom’s death well. That is why he is reluctant to send Ahimaaz to David with the news of his death. That is also why Ahimaaz hedges his answer to David’s specific question about Absalom’s well-being. And so it is that when the triumphant soldiers return to Mahanaim, they do not find their king at the gate to greet them and to express his appreciation. Instead, they learn that David is grieving over the death of his son. Now, instead of feeling proud of what they have done, David’s men feel ashamed.
Joab Rebukes His King
1 Then it was told Joab, “Behold, the king is weeping and mourns for Absalom.” 2 The victory that day was turned to mourning for all the people, for the people heard it said that day, “The king is grieved for his son.” 3 So the people went by stealth into the city that day, as people who are humiliated steal away when they flee in battle. 4 The king covered his face and cried out with a loud voice, “O my son Absalom, O Absalom, my son, my son!” 5 Then Joab came into the house to the king and said, “Today you have covered with shame the faces of all your servants, who today have saved your life and the lives of your sons and daughters, the lives of your wives, and the lives of your concubines, 6 by loving those who hate you, and by hating those who love you. For you have shown today that princes and servants are nothing to you; for I know this day that if Absalom were alive and all of us were dead today, then you would be pleased. 7 “Now therefore arise, go out and speak kindly to your servants, for I swear by the LORD, if you do not go out, surely not a man will pass the night with you, and this will be worse for you than all the evil that has come upon you from your youth until now.” 8 So the king arose and sat in the gate. When they told all the people, saying, “Behold, the king is sitting in the gate,” then all the people came before the king. Now Israel had fled, each to his tent.
David’s warriors, who risked their necks to save their king, now hang their heads in shame. A day of victory suddenly is transformed into a day of mourning. The soldiers begin to sneak into the city, as though they have done something wrong. They are like a field goal kicker who has a chance to kick a 20-yard field goal and win the game, but misses. They are ashamed to go back to their side of the field, to approach the bench, and to look at the coach. This is the way David’s soldiers feel.
The king is weeping and mourning over the death of Absalom. Over and over he repeats, “O my son Absalom, O Absalom, my son, my son!” Joab is not inclined to join with David in his mourning. In fact, Joab is not inclined to put up with David’s mourning. Joab goes into the house. He does not deal gently with David. In Joab’s mind, David is making the greatest mistake of his life, and he is about to suffer consequences far greater than any he has yet experienced.
Joab rebukes David for putting everyone who has come with him from Jerusalem to shame, not just his soldiers, but his wives and children, and his concubines as well. By his response to the day’s events, David reveals that he loved his enemy more than his friends and family. He loved those who hated him more than those who loved him. He had shown a total disregard for those who were willing to give their all for their king. Joab puts it as bluntly as it could be said: David would rather have heard that his entire army was slaughtered and that his son Absalom was alive than to learn that his army had prevailed, but that Absalom was dead.
Joab virtually commands David what he should do next. He should get up, stop his mourning, and go out to the gate to greet the victorious warriors who are still returning from the battle. If he does not do so immediately, Joab assures him that by daybreak there will not be a soldier left with him. The king does what Joab tells him to do. He goes down to the gate, and it is not long before everyone knows he is there and comes before the king. Meanwhile, the Israelites who had joined with Absalom flee to their tents. The war is over. David is once again King of Israel.
This passage has a great deal for us to learn. I believe there is something to learn from each of the key characters of this drama. Let me call your attention to some of these lessons.
First, we can learn from the two villains of our text, Absalom and Ahithophel. Both of these men had been close to David earlier in their lives. Both chose to rebel against David and to seek his overthrow. Neither man seems to be godly or to view their circumstances from God’s point of view. Neither seems disturbed that they sought to kill God’s anointed king. Both men have their lives end tragically, in death. Both must have seen God’s hand at work in David’s life and in his rule as king. Both are willing to cast David aside in an attempt to build some kind of “kingdom” of their own. Both men are like Satan, and like Adam and Eve, in that they are unwilling to play a subordinate role. They seem to think that under David’s rule they are being prohibited from something better, which they can obtain by pursuing their own interests.
These two men, Absalom and Ahithophel, fail to correctly answer the most important question any person will ever answer in their lifetime: “Who will I serve as king?” Absalom and Ahithophel do not want David for their king. Both, in effect, want to be king of their own lives. But in rejecting David as their king, they are rejecting God’s king, and thus they are rebelling against God Himself. Both of thesemen have great ability, but in the end, their talents are of no eternal profit.
This question has never really changed. It was the question before there ever was a human king over Israel, and it has been the question ever since. Adam and Eve rejected God as their ultimate authority and sought to set themselves above Him. The Israelites rejected God as their King when they demanded to have a king like all the other nations (see 1 Samuel 8:7). Absalom and Ahithophel and the others who followed in the rebellion against David rejected God’s king as their king. When our Lord Jesus Christ came to the earth, He came as the One who would sit on the throne of his father, David. He came as God’s anointed King, and yet the crowds replied that they had no king but Caesar. The Lord Jesus Christ came the first time to be rejected as Israel’s King, so that he might bear the guilt of our sin and provide the means for us to enter into His kingdom. All who receive His gift of the forgiveness of sins and eternal life will reign with Him for all eternity. He is coming again, to defeat all His enemies and to establish His throne upon the earth. All those who have received Him as God’s provision for their salvation have also received Him as their King. All those who have rejected His gift of salvation have rejected Him as King. When He comes again, all men will bow before Him as God’s King, but only those who have received Him as Savior will enter into His kingdom. Who is your king? That is the most important question you will ever answer.
Second, we can learn from Joab. One may argue whether Joab should have killed Absalom, against David’s orders. It may be that Absalom would have died on his own. I think we can see that Joab was right to rebuke the king for his response to his victory and the death of Absalom. Joab was David’s subordinate, but he was right to rebuke him. Biblical admonition is sometimes required in response to the sin of those in authority over us. We will need to do this prayerfully and carefully, but rebuke may nonetheless be in order.
Further, we should learn from this text that we may be corrected by those who are not only our subordinates, but who are also less than mentors to us. There are many things to criticize about Joab, but the fact is that here he is right in what he says to David. There is a lot of talk these days of “mentoring” and “accountability.” The assumption seems to be that every one of us needs someone to whom we are accountable, some “mentor” who will mentor us. There is an element of truth in this, and much that needs clarification and correction. But my point here is that we should not restrict who we will learn from to our list of who we would have mentor us. Our enemy may be our best critic. He does not care about losing our respect or our friendship. He does not worry about offending us. He (or she) may tell us things that our “friends” never will. Joab rebukes David. David listens, and David learns. Let us learn to learn from those we do not like, from those who may not like us either.
Third, we can learn from David’s loss of perspective. Joab rightly rebukes David because his values have gotten entirely messed up. In Joab’s words, David has come to love his enemies and hate his friends. He cares more about the well-being of his arch enemy than he does the nation whom he is supposed to shepherd under God. David came to care more about one member of his family than everyone else. In this, David is wrong, and Joab is right.
David is wrong to instruct his commanders not to harm Absalom. Absalom should have died several times over. He should have died for the premeditated murder of Amnon, against the law. He should have died for his rebellion against his father (prior to this text). And he should have died for high treason, in seeking to kill God’s anointed king and appoint himself as king. How can David expect his army to fight against Absalom’s army and not fight against Absalom? As David once used his authority to condemn a righteous man (Uriah) to death, he now seeks to use his authority as king to keep a revolutionary from the death penalty he deserves. David’s perspective is completely messed up. It takes Joab’s sharp rebuke to bring him out of his mental stupor.
I would like to suggest that just as David lost his perspective in our text, we often lose our perspective, without even being aware of it. For example, we know that this world and all that is in it will perish in the twinkling of an eye. And yet we persist in our efforts to accumulate things. We lay up treasure on earth, rather than laying up treasure in heaven. We know (intellectually) that the lost are going to spend eternity in hell, separated from God. And yet we fail to get to know our neighbors, or to share the gospel (the “good news”) with them. Is our perspective not as badly warped as David’s was?
We see David placing the well-being of his son Absalom over the well-being of the rest of his family and over the rest of David’s kingdom. In this case, has David not put “family” above more important things? As David refused to deal with his son as his sin deserved, seeking to “spare” him, do we not refuse to deal with the disobedience and rebellion of our children, fearing we might lose them? Do we not refuse to discipline a willfully sinning saint because we can’t bear the thought of losing them or what they do for us? Let us learn from David that we can all lose our perspective quickly, without ever knowing it. The only way we can maintain a proper perspective is to continually saturate our minds with the Word of God. It is in the Bible that we gain a biblical perspective. Let us be men and women of the Word so that we see life from God’s perspective.
Finally, we can learn much from David’s depression. These were the darkest days of David’s life. It is hard for me to describe David’s state of mind with any other word than depression. It has taken me a long time to be able to say this, but I believe that a Christian can be depressed. To press this matter further, I believe a Christian can be depressed and not be “in sin” for experiencing depression. Some depression is the result of sin (that is certainly a part of David’s depression). Some depression may, itself, be sin. That is, we may willfully choose to be depressed, even though we know our depression is rooted in sin. But I am not willing any longer to categorize all depression as sinful, in and of itself.
Years ago a very godly older man stood up in a worship service and read a text about our Lord in the Garden of Gethsemane. He commented (actually he read a modern translation that said) that our Lord was depressed. To my shame I must say that I stood and corrected that man, insisting that depression is sin and thus our Lord could not have been depressed. We can be depressed and not be in sin. David, I believe, was depressed. His depression may well have played a part in his warped perspective and priorities.
The thing I wish you to notice in our text is that God spared David from death and gave him the victory over Absalom in spite of the fact that he was depressed, in spite of the fact that David commanded his men not to harm Absalom. God’s purposes and promises are not frustrated by our sin, and most certainly not by our depression. These were days when David’s faith and hope had to be at an all time low. Did this keep God from achieving His purposes? Not for one moment!
I point this out for a very important reason. There is a great deal of evangelical teaching and thinking which would suggest that God cannot work in the midst of our depression. The teaching of PMA (positive mental attitude) abounds today. If we have a positive outlook, good things are bound to come. If we are prone to “stinkin’ thinking” we are headed for trouble. That is what some folks teach. It has its own Christian form. If we but have enough faith, God will accomplish great things for us. If we lack faith, we deserve the suffering and sorrow that results.
There are many things wrong with this viewpoint. We give ourselves far too much credit for God’s blessings. We attribute God’s blessings to our faith, our obedience, our positive mental attitude. But when depression comes (as it undoubtedly will), we have no hope from the PMA school of thought. We believe that God is limited to working when we are optimistic, full of faith and joy. Very often Christians hypocritically go around faking the presence of peace, joy, and faith, because they are expected to have it. At this point in his life, David did not have peace, joy, or great faith. David was at the lowest point in his life. And yet God fulfilled his purposes and promises in spite of David’s mental state. God provided many friends who stood with David in this difficult time. God used Hushai to frustrate the counsel of Ahithophel. He used Joab to eliminate Absalom and to rebuke David. God worked in David’s life, not because he was full of faith, joy, and hope at the moment, but because He was faithful to fulfill His promises.
I want to take this matter of depression one step further. Many times when one is depressed, their perspective is warped — they do not see life accurately. But there is also a sense in which depression may help us to see life more clearly. Are we overly confident in our own efforts, our own righteousness, our own faith? Depression will wipe out all such self-confidence. Many of those who are most confident, most joyful and happy, most successful are deceived about the source of their abilities and of their successes. David saw life less clearly at the pinnacle of his success than he did at the depths of his humiliation. David did not trust in himself in his despair. All he could do was to cast himself upon God, resting and hoping in Him.
I have said that God was very much at work in David’s life in the midst of his depression. Now let me go on to say that God was very much at work through David in the midst of his depression. I cannot prove this conclusively, but I would imagine that a number of David’s psalms were written from the “slough of despond.” Many of David’s psalms are written in a time of despair. As David expresses his fears, his despair, his depression to God, he finds hope and help in remembering the God to whom he speaks. And in the process of writing these psalms, David has also ministered to many others from his despair. It is often from our times of mourning and sorrow that we begin to see life more clearly, to trust in God more completely. If this is the case, then suffering and sorrows and even depression may be our friend, and not our enemy. Anything which draws us more closely to God is our friend.
I am certain that as I speak and write these words I am speaking and writing to those who may be depressed. Some of you may not even know it, and you may be very reluctant to admit it. This may be because some, like myself, have called depression a sin, and you don’t wish to be guilty of sinning in this way. But many of you are depressed and know that you are. Many of you are depressed and are ashamed to tell anyone else about it. Let me simply say to you that God worked in David’s life, in spite of his depression. God also worked through David’s life because of his depression.
Let me close with these words from our Lord Himself:
1 When Jesus saw the crowds, He went up on the mountain; and after He sat down, His disciples came to Him. 2 He opened His mouth and began to teach them, saying, 3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:1-4).
28 “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. 29 “Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and YOU WILL FIND REST FOR YOUR SOULS. 30 “For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).
85 I cannot help but think that the increased size of Absalom’s army greatly hindered his cause. Many of those with David were mighty men of valor who had fought with him in many difficult situations, many like the one they would face here. They were at home with their commander and with the field of battle. The large “volunteer army” that followed Absalom was not so skilled, not so accustomed to war, not so disciplined. They had a new commander in chief, and little experience. It was something like a brand new franchise facing the Dallas Cowboys, with all rookie players, a new coach, and no time to practice.
86 Bahurim was also not far from Jerusalem. This is as far as Phaltiel, the second husband of Michal, was allowed to accompany his wife as she was being brought back to David (2 Samuel 3:14-16). It is also the home of Shimei, the man who cursed David as he fled from Jerusalem.
87 In spite of the popular view that Absalom was caught by his hair, the text tells us that it was his head that caught fast. His hair, of course, might have been involved in this dilemma. It would seem to be obvious that Absalom was not able to release himself from his attachment to that giant oak tree, which would suggest that if he were but left to himself he would be yet another one of those whose life was claimed by the forest, rather than by the sword of one of David’s men.
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