IV. A Son’s Rebellion and Its Consequences (2 Samuel 15:1–20:26)
IV. A Son’s Rebellion and Its Consequences (15:1–20:26)
15:1-6 Absalom, still disgruntled, knew exactly how to begin his plot to take his father’s throne. He didn’t need an army. He had charm and good looks—traits any good politician knows how to use to advantage. He also had a shrewd political strategy: identify the shortcomings of the current administration and make promises of better days under his own leadership.
Absalom would get up early and stand beside the road leading to the city gate, intercepting anyone coming to Jerusalem to get a hearing on some grievance to bring before the king for settlement (15:2). Absalom would sympathize with the people and lament that, though their claims were just, the king [did] not have anyone to listen to [them] (15:3). Perhaps the royal courts were jammed or no one cared. Regardless, Absalom showed so much concern that he stole the hearts of the men of Israel (15:6). Little did David know that his son was slowly winning the loyalty of the king’s subjects.
15:7-10 After four years of conniving, Absalom felt confident about moving forward in his rebellion. He asked David for permission to go to Hebron (where David had been anointed king of Judah; see 2:1-4) so that he might fulfill a vow (15:7-8). Absalom went with David’s blessing, and his plot unfolded quickly (15:9-10). Absalom had arranged for his agents to go throughout the tribes of Israel announcing, Absalom has become king in Hebron! (15:10). The insurrection had begun.
15:11-12 To make matters worse, two hundred men from Jerusalem had gone to Hebron with Absalom innocently, not knowing about the plot (15:11). But evidently, they quickly went over to Absalom’s side, as did David’s adviser Ahithophel. From that point, things snowballed: The conspiracy grew strong, and the people supporting Absalom continued to increase (15:12).
15:13-16 Word of the rebellion reached David, and he instantly realized that this was no minor incident (15:13-14). He ordered an evacuation of his entire household from Jerusalem—to avoid bloodshed and to spare Jerusalem from certain destruction (15:14). David left behind ten concubines to take care of the palace (15:16), a note that is sadly important because it would become part of God’s judgment on David for his sins. As Nathan the prophet had foretold, David’s wives would be taken from him and given to one who would lie with them in broad daylight (see 12:11-12). Absalom would soon fulfill this prophecy to humiliate David (see 16:20-22).
15:17-23 Even in his agony of soul, David was concerned about a faithful soldier, Ittai of Gath, a foreigner and exile (15:19). David urged Ittai to return, but Ittai swore his undying loyalty to David, whether it meant life or death (15:20-21). The sight of the king, his household, and troops on the run from Absalom caused all the people in the countryside to weep loudly (15:23). The king of Israel was going into exile.
15:24-29 The priest Zadok was there, too. All the Levites with him were carrying the ark of the covenant of God. Then, the priest Abiathar offered sacrifices (15:24). But, David insisted that they return the ark of God to the city. Though the king was going on the run, he was firmly convinced that God’s throne should not. If I find favor with the Lord, David said, he will bring me back and allow me to see both it and its dwelling place (15:25). David was leaving his fate in the hands of his sovereign God (15:26). And, rather than having them flee with him, David asked that Zadok and Abiathar serve him as informers (15:27-29).
15:30-31 David continued his flight, going up the Mount of Olives, weeping as he ascended. His head was covered, and he was walking barefoot in grief (15:30). When he learned that his advisor Ahithophel had defected to Absalom, David pleaded with God that he would thwart Ahithophel’s counsel and turn his words into foolishness (15:31). Actually, God would go one better than that.
15:32-37 When David reached the top of the Mount of Olives, he found Hushai the Archite waiting for him, grieving for his king (15:32). He was another personal adviser of David (15:37). The king realized that Hushai would be the perfect person to send back to Jerusalem under the guise of joining the conspiracy and offering his counsel to Absalom. He could counteract Ahithophel and also gather valuable intelligence to send to David through the priests (15:33-36). David now had the eyes and ears he desperately needed in Jerusalem to find out what Absalom’s plans were. God was answering David’s prayer (15:31).
16:1-2 As David continued his flight east away from Jerusalem and toward the Jordan River, he encountered Ziba, the former servant of Saul whom David had appointed to be servant to Jonathan’s son Mephibosheth (16:1; see 9:1-13). Ziba’s arrival was unexpected, so David questioned him about his presence and the many provisions he had brought (16:2). The king had apparently expected to see Mephibosheth himself.
16:3-4 Ziba explained that Mephibosheth was staying in Jerusalem, hoping that his grandfather Saul’s kingdom would be restored to him (16:3). That was disturbing news to David because it meant Ziba was accusing Mephibosheth of treason. David believed Ziba and reversed the decision he’d made earlier concerning Saul’s estate (see 9:9). He gave Ziba all that had belonged to Mephibosheth (16:4). Later, Mephibosheth would testify that Ziba had slandered him to the king (see 19:24-30).
16:5-8 Another character David encountered was a man from the family of . . . Saul named Shimei, who was yelling curses and throwing stones at David and his entourage (16:5-6). Shimei called the fleeing king a man of bloodshed and a wicked man (16:7). Though David had done no violence to Saul or his family, Shimei falsely accused him of being responsible for all the blood of the house of Saul (16:8).
16:9 One would think that Shimei would have been a little more cautious, considering that David could have had him executed in a heartbeat. In fact, this is exactly what Abishai suggested: Why should this dead dog curse my lord the king? Let me go over and remove his head! But David refused Abishai, and this wasn’t the first time. Years ago, Abishai had urged David to kill King Saul when he had the opportunity (see 1 Sam 26:7-11).
16:10-14 David took Shimei’s cursing as a rebuke from God, which he needed to hear (16:10). After all, though he was not guilty of Saul’s blood, David was indeed guilty of sinful bloodshed (see 11:14-27). Besides, David reasoned, his own son had dethroned him and was seeking his life, which meant he had much bigger issues to worry about than this man yelling curses at him (16:11). After a long, exhausting march, David and his party rested (16:14).
16:15-23 Back in Jerusalem, Absalom and all the Israelites arrived in what must have been for him a smug, triumphant parade (16:15). David’s former trusted adviser and now traitor Ahithophel was at Absalom’s side. Getting Ahithophel to switch off of David was a big coup as far as Absalom was concerned because the advice Ahithophel gave . . . was like someone asking about a word from God—such was the regard that both David and Absalom had for Ahithophel’s advice (16:23). But, God was going to thwart his counsel and use it against Absalom.
David had a few loyal friends who were working undercover in Absalom’s court, including Hushai (16:18; see 15:31-37), whose devotion to David was such that Absalom was suspicious of him (16:16-17). Therefore, Hushai had to convince Absalom that he was siding with the new king (16:18-19).
When it came time for advice on his next step, Absalom turned to Ahithophel who recommended that Absalom publicly take the king’s harem as his own (16:20-21). This would do two things. First, it would demonstrate to all that Absalom was claiming the throne. Second, it would humiliate David, ending any possibility of a reconciliation between father and son. So, Absalom followed Ahithophel’s advice to the letter (16:22).
17:1-4 The next question was what to do about David and his loyal followers, who were on the run. Ahithophel had a plan for that, too. He asked Absalom for twelve thousand men to pursue David that night, while he was weary and discouraged, so that he and everyone with him might be thrown into a panic and scatter. Then, Ahithophel would strike down David and bring all the people back to Absalom (17:2-3). Absalom and all the elders of Israel liked the plan (17:4), which meant David and his weary followers were in trouble.
17:5-10 In God’s providence, Absalom asked to hear Hushai’s counsel, too (17:5-6). Hushai no doubt agreed that Ahithophel’s advice was sound. That’s why, as David’s friend, he immediately declared that it was not good and sought to undo it (17:7). Hushai’s reasons for rejecting Ahithophel’s plan for an immediate attack were a stroke of storytelling genius (17:7-12). David and his men had impeccable reputations as warriors (17:8). Few, if any, men in Israel would want to face David on the battlefield—especially when his back was against the wall. He and his elite troops were probably hiding in caves, ready to pounce on Absalom’s soldiers (17:9). If this happened, the hearts of even the bravest of Absalom’s men would melt like butter (17:10). Hushai did a masterful job of instilling fear.
17:11-14 Having undermined Ahithophel’s counsel, Hushai presented an alternate idea. If Absalom would wait until he gathered a large enough army, he could simply overwhelm David with massive numbers and gain a decisive victory. And, appealing to Absalom’s ego, Hushai also suggested that the new king personally lead his troops into battle (17:11). Absalom took the bait. He didn’t know that the Lord had decreed that Ahithophel’s good advice be undermined in order to bring about Absalom’s ruin (17:14). This brings to mind the truth that “A king’s heart is like channeled water in the Lord’s hand: He directs it wherever he chooses” (Prov 21:1).
17:15-20 Even though Hushai had undercut Ahithophel’s counsel, Absalom was still a threat. So, Hushai told the loyal priests in Jerusalem, Zadok and Abiathar, to tell David not to spend the night at the Jordan River, but to cross over and keep going. Otherwise, they would be devoured by Absalom and his forces (17:15-16). Using their espionage system, the priests got word to their sons Jonathan and Ahimaaz, who were staying at En-rogel south of Jerusalem, so that they could carry the message to David (17:17). This was incredibly dangerous business, and sure enough, Jonathan and Ahimaaz were spotted by someone who informed Absalom (17:18). Yet, because they were hidden by a faithful woman and God spared them, they lived to do their job (17:18-20).
17:21-23 The two brave men delivered the message to David, and his party crossed the Jordan to safety (17:21-22). The opportunity that Ahithophel had sought was gone (17:2-3). The counselor became distraught when he realized that his advice had not been followed. As a result, he committed suicide (17:23). This was no overreaction to having his advice rebuffed. Ahithophel could see the writing on the wall. He knew that Absalom was a fool for preferring Hushai’s plan. It would only be a matter of time before David regained the throne. And, when that happened, Ahithophel would be executed for rebellion. He preferred to die in his own way.
17:24-29 David arrived at Mahanaim, on the east side of the Jordan, just as Absalom crossed the river with his army and its new commander Amasa, who was related to David and his commander Joab (17:24-25). David had friends near Mahanaim who refreshed and resupplied his hungry, exhausted, and thirsty people (17:27-29).
18:1-4 David and his troops regrouped after their refreshment, and he organized them for the coming battle with Absalom and the forces of Israel (18:1-2). Being the leader that he was, David announced, I must also march out with you (18:2). But that brought an immediate gasp from everyone. They pleaded with David, reasoning that if David died their whole cause would be lost (18:3). So the king relented: I will do whatever you think is best (18:4). Thus, David would not be on the battlefield when Absalom faced the inevitable consequences of his actions.
18:5 David’s rebel son was forefront in his mind. Even on the verge of a battle that would determine his future and the future of his kingdom, David told his three commanders, Treat the young man Absalom gently. And, the author makes it clear to the reader that all the people heard the king’s orders to all the commanders about Absalom.
18:6-9 The battle went well for David’s army, with the harsh terrain of the forest of Ephraim claiming as many Israelite soldiers as David’s troops did (18:6-8). The treacherous nature of the forest, in fact, played a significant role in the battle when Absalom’s head—perhaps because of his long hair—became caught in the tangled branches of a large oak tree, leaving him suspended in midair (18:9).
18:10-15 One of David’s soldiers saw Absalom hanging in the tree and informed Joab, who was stunned that the soldier hadn’t killed him (18:10-11). When the man confessed his fear of harming Absalom given David’s clear instructions (see 18:5), Joab reacted with disgust (18:12-13). He pushed the soldier aside and ran Absalom through with three spears, then allowing his ten armor-bearers to finish Absalom off (18:14-15).
18:16-18 Once the leader of the rebellion was dead, Joab blew the ram’s horn to call his soldiers back from the battle (18:16). He knew that news of Absalom’s death would take the steam out of Israel’s troops. Joab buried Absalom in a pit and raised a huge mound of stones over him, but Absalom already had a memorial prepared for himself back in Jerusalem (18:17-18).
18:19-23 Next came the unenviable task of telling David that his son was dead. Ahimaaz son of Zadok, one of David’s faithful spies who risked his life for the king, asked Joab for permission to take David what he thought would be good news (18:19). But, Ahimaaz was too young to know what happened to messengers who brought David that kind of “good” news (see 1:1-16; 4:5-12). The veteran Joab thus said in effect, “Son, you don’t know what you’re asking. This is not good news for David. Let this Cushite go instead” (18:20-21). But, Ahim-aaz insisted, so Joab relented, and Ahimaaz outran the other messenger (18:22-23).
18:24-29 When the watchman saw him coming and told the king, David was encouraged at first (18:24-27). Ahimaaz informed him that the rebellion had been stopped, and David asked the fateful question: Is the young man Absalom all right? (18:28-29). Clearly, Ahimaaz knew the answer (see 18:19-20), but he pulled back and blew smoke instead: I saw a big disturbance, but I don’t know what it was (18:29). Whether he’d planned all along to let the Cushite be the bearer of the bad news or just lost his nerve when King David looked him in the eye, the hanging question would soon be answered.
18:30-33 The Cushite delivered the message that Ahimaaz was unwilling to deliver. Undoubtedly, given the manner in which he announced the news, he assumed that David would be overjoyed at what had happened to this young man who rose up against the king with evil intent (18:32). He was wrong. David went to his chamber and wept, overwhelmed with grief. He cried, My son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you (18:33). David’s kingdom had been spared, but his rebel son had not.
19:1-4 When he learned that the king was weeping and mourning over Absalom, Joab knew he had to do something (19:1). Because of the king’s grief, the troops felt as if they had been humiliated in defeat and could not rejoice in the victory (19:2-3). Thousands of brave men had just put their lives on the line to save David, his family, and his throne. Likely many had died. Although a parent’s grief over the death of a child—even an estranged one—is understandable, David was on the verge of communicating the wrong message to his supporters.
19:5-8 Joab wasn’t bashful about speaking his mind to the king. He laid out the facts with no sugarcoating. Joab chastised him: Today you have shamed all your soldiers . . . by loving your enemies and hating those who love you (19:5-6). In other words, David would have a serious morale and loyalty problem on his hands if he didn’t pull himself together. Joab warned, Go out and encourage your soldiers. . . . If you don’t go out, not a man will remain with you tonight. This would be a turn of events worse than all the previous trouble (19:7). Realizing that Joab was right, David ended his mourning and made an appearance in the city gate (19:8).
19:9-10 With Absalom dead, the northern tribes of Israel faced a dilemma. They had rallied behind Absalom, but with the throne now empty, they had to ask whether they should invite David to return. Opinions were divided. Some of the people argued that David had been an effective leader in the past and should be restored. But, others were hesitant, possibly because they had backed Absalom and worried about reprisals.
19:11-12 David sensed that the place to start in recovering his throne was with Judah. If any tribe was going to restore the king, it should be his own (19:11). If Judah delayed, it would send the wrong message to the nation. So, David chided the elders of Judah through his representatives, Zadok and Abiathar, saying that all Israel was talking about bringing him back to Jerusalem (19:11-12). David’s own tribe, then, shouldn’t be in the embarrassing position of being the last to restore the king (19:12).
19:13 David vowed to make Amasa the commander of the army in place of Joab. Because Absalom had appointed Amasa over his army, David was demonstrating that he bore no animosity toward those who had sided with Absalom. Furthermore, the demotion of Joab was no doubt a response to Joab’s execution of Absalom—something he’d done against the king’s order. Though David obviously didn’t intend to kill Joab for his actions, neither did he intend to let him retain his position.
19:14-15 This gesture won over all the men of Judah, and they unanimously sent word to David to come back and resume the throne (19:14). Then, Judah came out in force to escort David as he came to the Jordan River to cross over on his way back to Jerusalem (19:15).
19:16-23 On his return, David was met by a variety of characters. The first mentioned is Shimei, the descendant of Saul who had cursed David so violently on his retreat that Abishai wanted to cut off his head (see 16:5-9). In fact, when Shimei begged for forgiveness, Abishai once again asked the king if he could slay Shimei (19:16, 19-21). But, David granted him a stay of execution (19:23; but see 1 Kgs 2:8-9). There would be no killing on that day.
Shimei had a thousand men from Benjamin with him, showing that Saul’s tribe was attempting to link itself with Judah now that David was fully in control of the throne again (19:17). Shimei said he was the first one of the entire house of Joseph to come and welcome David back (19:20). This was a reference to the large tribe of Ephraim, Joseph’s son, standing for the northern tribes of Israel as a whole.
19:24-30 Another familiar face who showed up was Mephibosheth’s servant Ziba, who crossed the Jordan with his family and servants to meet David’s needs (see 19:17-18). Later, came Mephibosheth himself, who pleaded his case with David, telling him that he had not sought the kingship when David fled but that Ziba had slandered him (19:24-28). Given the competing claims between Mephibosheth and Ziba, David divided the estate between them (19:29).
19:31-39 Barzillai the Gileadite had also come with David to the Jordan River to say goodbye (19:31). A very wealthy man, he had provided for the needs of the king during his brief exile (19:32). David wanted Barzillai to go to Jerusalem with him so he could take care of him, but aged Barzillai wanted to live out his remaining years at home (19:33-37). Nevertheless, Barzillai asked that David take Chimham, possibly Barzillai’s son, with him and let him enjoy whatever reward David would have given to Barzillai (19:37). David readily agreed (19:38-39).
19:40-43 Still more trouble was brewing. The men of Israel accused Judah of sneaking down to the Jordan to bring David back without telling them (19:41). The men of Judah shot back that David was one of their own (19:42). But, Israel responded that because they had ten tribes, they had ten shares in the king—and thus a greater claim to David than Judah did. Moreover, Israel had been the first to speak of restoring the king (19:43). Old wounds were being re-opened, and another revolt was brewing. Again, the author of Samuel shows his readers the roots of the nation’s coming bitter division.
20:1-3 A leader was needed to set ablaze the fire of rebellion. Enter a wicked man, a Benjaminite named Sheba, who blew the ram’s horn and called Israel to war against Judah (20:1). Thus, the battle lines were drawn (20:2). But, David’s first act upon arriving at his palace in Jerusalem was reclaiming his harem of ten concubines by whom Absalom had publicly humiliated his father. These poor women lived as well-provided-for widows the rest of their lives (20:3).
20:4-7 David turned to the urgent business of putting down Sheba’s revolt. But, Joab would insert his cold-hearted brutality in the war preparations. David ordered Amasa, his new army commander, to rally Judah’s troops and meet David within three days (20:4). But, for whatever reason, Amasa failed to make his deadline (20:5). So, David turned to Joab’s brother Abishai and ordered him to pursue Sheba before his revolt got out of hand (20:6-7).
20:8-13 Abishai and his forces met Amasa at Gibeon, where Joab was also present (20:8). Joab had long been known as a violent man, but it was at this point that he showed his true treachery. He pretended to greet Amasa with a kiss of brotherly kindness and then gutted him like an animal (20:9-10). Then, Joab went on after Sheba as if nothing had happened. At least the troops of Judah had regard for Amasa, because they had to move his body out of sight before the army would go on (20:11-13).
20:14-22 Once back in his old job as army commander, Joab pursued Sheba to far northern Israel, to the city of Abel of Beth-maacah; it was about twenty-five miles north of the Sea of Galilee (20:14). Joab and his army built a siege ramp against the outer wall of the city and began battering the wall to make it collapse (20:15). A wise woman of the city called out to Joab (20:16), horrified that Joab was trying to destroy a prominent city of Israel (20:18-19). When she learned the reason for Joab’s assault and the conditions for his withdrawal, she informed the people of the city, and they threw Sheba’s head down to his enemies (20:20-22). The fact that they so readily agreed to give up Sheba shows that not everyone in Israel had the stomach for another rebellion.
20:23-26 Despite his murder of Amasa, Joab commanded the whole army of Israel (20:23). Given all of the rebellion, killing, and intrigue of the past days, perhaps David had decided that enough was enough and therefore kept Joab in his position as a key administrator over the nation. Eventually, however, Joab’s murderous spirit would cost him his life (see 1 Kgs 2:28-35).