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IV. A Son’s Rebellion and Its Consequences (2 Samuel 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.

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).

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