Then David mustered the men who were with him and set over them commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds. And David sent out the army, 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 men, “I myself will also go out with you.” But the men said, “You shall not go out. For if we flee, they will not care about us. If half of us die, they will not care about us. But you are worth ten thousand of us. Therefore it is better that you send us help from the city.” The king said to them, “Whatever seems best to you I will do.” So the king stood at the side of the gate, while all the army marched out by hundreds and by thousands. And the king ordered Joab and Abishai and Ittai, “Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.” And all the people heard when the king gave orders to all the commanders about Absalom.
So the army went out into the field against Israel, and the battle was fought in the forest of Ephraim. And the men of Israel were defeated there by the servants of David, and the loss there was great on that day, twenty thousand men. The battle spread over the face of all the country, and the forest devoured more people that day than the sword.
And Absalom happened to meet the servants of David. 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, and he was suspended between heaven and earth, while the mule that was under him went on. And a certain man saw it and told Joab, “Behold, I saw Absalom hanging in an oak.” Joab said to the man who told him, “What, you saw him! Why then did you not strike him there to the ground? I would have been glad to give you ten pieces of silver and a belt.” But the man said to Joab, “Even if I felt in my hand the weight of a thousand pieces of silver, I would not reach out my hand against the king’s son, for in our hearing the king commanded you and Abishai and Ittai, ‘For my sake protect the young man Absalom.’ On the other hand, if I had dealt treacherously against his life (and there is nothing hidden from the king), then you yourself would have stood aloof.” Joab said, “I will not waste time like this with you.” And he took three javelins in his hand and thrust them into the heart of Absalom while he was still alive in the oak. And ten young men, Joab’s armor-bearers, surrounded Absalom and struck him and killed him.
Then Joab blew the trumpet, and the troops came back from pursuing Israel, for Joab restrained them. And they took Absalom and threw him into a great pit in the forest and raised over him a very great heap of stones. And all Israel fled every one to his own home. Now Absalom in his lifetime had taken and set up for himself the pillar that is in the King’s Valley, for he said, “I have no son to keep my name in remembrance.” He called the pillar after his own name, and it is called Absalom’s monument to this day. – 2 Samuel 18:1-18 ESV
Like a modern-day soap opera, there are so many plots and sub-plots going on in this passage that it is difficult to know exactly what the main point may be. You have the battle between the forces of David and those of Absalom. There is Joab mortally wounding Absalom, providing what would appear to be a well-justified sentence for his rebellion. But what Joab did was against the direct orders of David. Which brings up another intriguing sub-plot. Why was David, yet again, unwilling to enact justice against a rebellious son? He had failed to punish Amnon for his rape of Tamar. He had also failed to enact judgment on Absalom for his murder of Amnon, which had eventually led to Absalom’s loss of respect for David and his overthrow of his kingdom.
And finally, we see the interesting side note that tells of Absalom having erected a monument to himself. That part shouldn’t surprise us, because we have seen ample evidence of Absalom’s pride. But what is significant is the statement, “I have no son to carry on my name” (2 Samuel 18:18 NLT). How could that be? According to 2 Samuel 14:27, Absalom had three sons and a daughter. What would possess him to say that he had no son to carry on his name? Perhaps his sons had refused to follow in their father’s footsteps. There is the possibility that they had all died. Or it could be that Absalom had erected the monument before his sons had been born. But whatever the case, Absalom left a lasting memorial to himself by erecting a monument that bore his own name.
Nothing ever seems to be tidy and neat when it comes to the life of David. This section is no different that any of the others we have read. There are so many complications and conflicts going on it can be difficult to keep up. The battle between David’s forces and those of Absalom, as significant as it was, is nothing compared to all the mini-conflicts taking place behind the scenes. David had specifically commanded that Absalom be spared. Yet Joab, the commander of his army and the one who had convinced David to allow Absalom to return to Jerusalem in the first place (2 Samuel 14), would disobey those orders. Easily overlooked in all of this is the fact that more than 20,000 Israelites lost their lives that day. This had been a civil war, an internecine conflict between brothers. David lost a son, but as a result of his failure to deal with Absalom’s original sin against Amnon, David had caused many Israelites to lose their fathers, sons and brothers. There would be 20,000 other graves dug that day. There would be countless mothers, father, wives, brothers and sisters, mourning the loss of someone they loved. And all of this can be traced back to David’s sin with Bathsheba. Absalom would be the third son David would lose as a result of his moral indiscretion.
In Psalm 63, written while he was hiding in the wilderness, David penned the following words:
But those plotting to destroy me will come to ruin.
They will go down into the depths of the earth.
They will die by the sword
and become the food of jackals.
But the king will rejoice in God.
All who swear to tell the truth will praise him,
while liars will be silenced. – Psalm 63:9-11 NLT
David believed in the vengeance of God, but it seems he had a hard time seeing it apply to one of his own. David’s command that the life of Absalom be spared does not reflect well on David’s leadership. It speaks of his regret and recognition that all of this was his own fault. He is reticent to punish Absalom. But his unwillingness to deal with the rebellion of Absalom would have set a dangerous precedence. He needed to reestablish his authority and nip this thing in the bud. But it took Joab, disobeying a direct order of the king, to do what needed to be done. Joab was forced to go against the king’s wishes and risk his retribution, but he did the right thing. The rebellion had been ended and its leader, eliminated. David’s reign over Israel had been restored. And it is important to note, that David played no part in any of it. On the advice of Joab, David remained behind, safe and sound and out of any danger. Perhaps Joab had known that, had David gone into battle, he would have spared the life of Absalom. So he had recommended that David stay behind and David had readily agreed.
With all that happened in this passage, we must lose sight of the fact that God was in control. The events recorded in these verses are an expression of God’s divine will concerning Absalom and David. From God’s perspective, Absalom was a usurper to the throne. He had no right to claim the kingship of Israel. David was still the Lord’s anointed. All of this was part of God’s plan to deal with Absalom’s sin against Amnon. David may have been willing to overlook and forget what Absalom had done, but God was not. The rebellion of Absalom should have been a wake-up call to David just how dangerous it can be to turn a blind eye toward sin. Absalom’s rebellion, while apparently successful, was destined to be short-lived, because it did not have God’s backing. It was simply a means by which God was going to repay Absalom while teaching David yet another vital lesson in justice.
As the story unfolds, we will see David weep over the loss of Absalom. But we will not see him shed a single tear for the unnecessary loss of life that came as result of Absalom’s rebellion. There will be no mention of the 10 concubines violated by Absalom on the palace rooftop. David would return to power, but over a fractured and divided nation. And his continual mourning over the loss of his son would send a confusing message to those who had fought for him and helped restore his kingdom to him. Absalom was dead, but the difficulties were far from over. David had his work cut out for him, and it was going to take Joab, once again, to help David do the right thing. God would use this faithful friend to speak truth into David’s life, convicting and forcing him to do what God would have him do.
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.