II Samuel 18:1-18
18 David mustered the men who were with him and appointed over them commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds. 2 David sent out his troops, a third under the command of Joab, a third under Joab’s brother Abishai son of Zeruiah, and a third under Ittai the Gittite. The king told the troops, “I myself will surely march out with you.” 3 But the men said, “You must not go out; if we are forced to flee, they won’t care about us. Even if half of us die, they won’t care; but you are worth ten thousand of us. It would be better now for you to give us support from the city.” 4 The king answered, “I will do whatever seems best to you.” So the king stood beside the gate while all his men marched out in units of hundreds and of thousands. 5 The king commanded Joab, Abishai and Ittai, “Be gentle with the young man Absalom for my sake.” And all the troops heard the king giving orders concerning Absalom to each of the commanders. 6 David’s army marched out of the city to fight Israel, and the battle took place in the forest of Ephraim. 7 There Israel’s troops were routed by David’s men, and the casualties that day were great—twenty thousand men. 8 The battle spread out over the whole countryside, and the forest swallowed up more men that day than the sword. 9 Now Absalom happened to meet David’s men. He was riding his mule, and as the mule went under the thick branches of a large oak, Absalom’s hair got caught in the tree. He was left hanging in midair, while the mule he was riding kept on going. 10 When one of the men saw what had happened, he told Joab, “I just saw Absalom hanging in an oak tree.” 11 Joab said to the man who had told him this, “What! You saw him? Why didn’t you strike him to the ground right there? Then I would have had to give you ten shekels of silver and a warrior’s belt.” 12 But the man replied, “Even if a thousand shekels were weighed out into my hands, I would not lay a hand on the king’s son. In our hearing the king commanded you and Abishai and Ittai, ‘Protect the young man Absalom for my sake.’ 13 And if I had put my life in jeopardy—and nothing is hidden from the king—you would have kept your distance from me.” 14 Joab said, “I’m not going to wait like this for you.” So he took three javelins in his hand and plunged them into Absalom’s heart while Absalom was still alive in the oak tree. 15 And ten of Joab’s armor-bearers surrounded Absalom, struck him and killed him. 16 Then Joab sounded the trumpet, and the troops stopped pursuing Israel, for Joab halted them. 17 They took Absalom, threw him into a big pit in the forest and piled up a large heap of rocks over him. Meanwhile, all the Israelites fled to their homes. 18 During his lifetime Absalom had taken a pillar and erected it in the King’s Valley as a monument to himself, for he thought, “I have no son to carry on the memory of my name.” He named the pillar after himself, and it is called Absalom’s Monument to this day.
Proud Absalom received justice at the hand of Joab his neighbor and partner in crime. Joab had arranged for Absalom to return from Geshur and three years later, with no evidence from Absalom of any repentance, then further helped Absalom be reestablished in the kingdom. Absalom’s long series of prideful and ambitious actions culminate in II Sam 18 when he is eventually killed by the same man, Joab, who had helped him from time to time.
1. David’s Troops Prepare for Battle 1-5
David raised an army here and though Scripture does not record what reinforcements were sent him, we can imagine that many came from every corner of Israel in support of the king they loved. Undoubtedly he had asked God for help. Not only did God send food stuff and bedding, but here we see God sent him men, several thousand. Verses 1-2 say, “David mustered the men who were with him and appointed over them commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds. David sent out his troops, a third under the command of Joab, a third under Joab’s brother Abishai son of Zeruiah, and a third under Ittai the Gittite. The king told the troops, ‘I myself will surely march out with you.’” Two of his generals were trusted and experienced nephews and the third was his new friend Ittai. This seems to have been a normal tactic for Joab and Abishai. David showed his affection for his troops by being willing to venture with them and they showed theirs for him by opposing it. Though David intended to go with the troops, his true friends would not let him. Perhaps they remembered what Ahithophel had advised, “Strike down only the king.” Shepherds should give themselves for the sheep and it is also appropriate for the sheep to honor their shepherds. They said that he was worth 10,000 of them. That may have been true, for a selfless and generous leader is, indeed, worth many. Some pastors strive for respect, but to be affectionately loved, contributes much more to church-wide teamwork.
David was willing to yield. He was not as eager for ego-satisfaction in the public spotlight as he was for cooperation, unity and team-work. Verse 4 says, “The king answered, ‘I will do whatever seems best to you.’” It is no piece of great wisdom to be rigid in our resolutions, but better to be willing to hear reason, even from inferiors, and to be overruled by their advice when it appears to be for the common good.
The people probably did not intend this, but it was better for David to not be present to see Absalom hanging from the tree and to have intervened for the safety of one whom God intended should die for his sins. David doubly honored his troops by accepting their advice and then stood respectfully in the gate as they passed by on their way to battle. “So the king stood beside the gate while all his men marched out in units of hundreds and of thousands” (v 4). David was courteous.
We can well imagine that David prayed for this troops and sent them out. What David does next is consistent with David’s affections toward his son, Absalom, but it is not consistent with normal warfare; we do not usually single out the chief rebel to be treated with special preservation like David did. Verse 5 says, “The king commanded Joab, Abishai and Ittai, ‘Be gentle with the young man Absalom for my sake.’” How does David return good for evil? Absalom wanted only David to be killed and David only wanted Absalom saved.
Was ever unnatural hatred to a father stronger than in Absalom or was ever natural affection to a child stronger than in David? Absalom shows us how bad a child can be and David shows us how loving—even to a fault—a father can be to the worst of children. Is this an intentional resemblance in Scripture to man’s wickedness towards God and God’s mercy towards man? Jeremiah (in 10:24) asked for God to be merciful—be gentle—to him in correcting him. He said, “Discipline me, Lord, but only in due measure—not in your anger, or you will reduce me to nothing.” Jeremiah knew that God could discipline him justly and at the same time deal gently with him. David, probably incorrectly, thought too mercifully—inappropriately mercifully—along these lines: he is a young man, rash and heady, and his age must excuse him; he is mine, whom I love; if you love me do not be severe with him. David’s loving nature led him to the fault of being an unjust king.
What is the meaning of this ill-placed love? This is unjust mercy. Are we to deal gently with a traitor? And this traitor a son? Of all your sons, David, with Absalom? For your sake, David, whose crown he wants and whose blood he hunts? How a wise God can satisfy His self-imposed internal demand for both mercy and justice is beyond us many times. While David and Absalom’s relationship is not a good example of justice, it does serve as a demonstration of the immeasurable mercy of the true King and Redeemer of Israel, who prayed for his persecutors and murderers, “Father, forgive them. Deal gently with them for my sake.” When God sends afflictions to correct his children, it may be with this charge, “Deal gently with them for my sake;” for He knows our weaknesses.
2. God is at Work in the Battle 6-10
David’s army won a complete victory over Absalom’s. “David’s army marched out of the city to fight Israel, and the battle took place in the forest of Ephraim” (v 6). David may have intentionally had his men march out of and away from Mahanaim so as to protect that city. In the battle the rebels were driven back and 20,000 of them were killed. Verse 7 says, “There Israel’s troops were routed by David’s men, and the casualties that day were great—twenty thousand men.” We might be temped to think that this was a rather sever treatment for one Israeli army to give another Israeli army in a civil war except the narrative lets us know that God killed more than David’s army killed. Verse 8 says, “The battle spread out over the whole countryside, and the forest swallowed up more men that day than the sword.”
This is their reward for treason. They had a lawful and divinely appointed king, but they choose a usurper who won their hearts with kisses, caresses and hand shakes. They had a good government, but hoped for promotions, honors, rewards and golden days under the administration of an arrogant fool. Psalm 2:1-6 say, “Why do the nations conspire and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the Lord and against his anointed, saying, ‘Let us break their chains and throw off their shackles.’ The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them. He rebukes them in his anger and terrifies them in his wrath, saying, ‘I have installed my king on Zion, my holy mountain.’”
Both armies have an opportunity to see God use a forrest to fight a battle. “. . . the forest swallowed up more men that day than the sword.” What soldiers did God use? The pits, bogs, stumps, thickets and maybe also the wild beasts in those woods. No side wins in a civil war. The Romans had a policy of not celebrating any victory in a civil war. Overall, Israel was weaker after this battle than before it.
Absalom is at a loss, at his wit’s end and then at his life’s end. He that began the fight was betrayed by his own beautiful flowing hair. Obviously God orchestrated this event. Verse 9 says “Now Absalom happened to meet David’s men. He was riding his mule, and as the mule went under the thick branches of a large oak, Absalom’s hair got caught in the tree. He was left hanging in midair, while the mule he was riding kept on going.” From time to time throughout the Bible, we encounter humorous situations. This is one of them. Absalom met David’s men and perhaps out of fear propelled his mule recklessly through a place and under a branch where he would not have traveled had he been at his leisure. So he drove himself headlong to his own destruction.
Jer. 48:44 speaks of this kind of folly. It says, “Whoever flees from the terror will fall into a pit, whoever climbs out of the pit will be caught in a snare.” David wanted to spare him, but a just God, knew better. He was not only caught and killed, but caught and killed in a most disgraceful manner. He was hung by the hair of which he had been so proud, hanging alive in mid-air with soldiers all around witnessing this event. Some of them would have been laughing. Others cheering. This was not a good day for Absalom.
God can use even a tree to bring justice. A twisted branch, a forked bough of the oak which hug low caught his hair which had been his pride, and there he hung, so astonished or so entangled that he could not use his hands to help himself. The more he struggled the more he was embarrassed and terrorized. Even his mule deserted him, glad to be free of this wicked burden. Rom 8:21-22 say, “that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.” God alone knows how many times He has used nature to fulfill His purposes. Surely we know of only a very small fraction of them.
There he hung between heaven and earth, unworthy of either, abandoned by both; earth did not want him and heaven would not receive him.
So hell opened wide her mouth to accommodate him. An unusually violent and monstrous criminal was killed by a most unusual means as though to give testimony that this unusual man deserved an especially unusual and violent execution. Numbers 16:29-30 tells what Moses said at a time when a disobedient group of men were about to be killed by a just God, “If these men die a natural death and suffer the fate of all mankind, then the Lord has not sent me. But if the Lord brings about something totally new, and the earth opens its mouth and swallows them, with everything that belongs to them, and they go down alive into the realm of the dead, then you will know that these men have treated the Lord with contempt.” Absalom’s unusual death may be a sign.
Hanging from a tree branch, Absalom is caught alive by one of the servants of David, who immediately told Joab. Verse 10 says, “When one of the men saw what had happened, he told Joab, ‘I just saw Absalom hanging in an oak tree.’” I would not want to be numbered among the fools like Absalom and those like him of whom Ps 52:6 speaks. I would try to do the opposite. “The righteous will see and fear; they will laugh at you, saying, ‘Here now is the man who did not make God his stronghold but trusted in his great wealth and grew strong by destroying others!'” No one there could or would disentangle Absalom from that knotty problem. All the kings horses and all the kings men couldn’t put Humpty together again.
3. Joab Gave Absalom Justice 11-18
Joab understandably chided the man for not slaying him. He told the man that if he had given that bold stroke, Joab would have rewarded him. Verse 11 says, “Joab said to the man who had told him this, ‘What! You saw him? Why didn’t you strike him to the ground right there? Then I would have had to give you ten shekels of silver and a warrior’s belt.’” However, David had instructed Joab, Abishai and Ittai in front of all the soldiers to deal gently with Absalom. If I really had killed Absalom, you would have been against me. Verses 12-13 say, “But the man replied, ‘Even if a thousand shekels were weighed out into my hands, I would not lay a hand on the king’s son. In our hearing the king commanded you and Abishai and Ittai, “Protect the young man Absalom for my sake.” And if I had put my life in jeopardy—and nothing is hidden from the king—you would have kept your distance from me.’”
Joab knew that the young man was right, so instead of continuing that conversation pretended that it was urgent to kill Absalom and proceeded in that direction. Verses 14-15 say, “Joab said, ‘I’m not going to wait like this for you.’ So he took three javelins in his hand and plunged them into Absalom’s heart while Absalom was still alive in the oak tree. And ten of Joab’s armor-bearers surrounded Absalom, struck him and killed him.”
We could debate the question of whether or not Joab did the right thing to disobey his king in this instance. Three darts in his heart. It would have taken some courage or beyond courage some strong desire to torment or torture to do what these soldiers did. And yet, it was just, because of what Absalom had intended and tried to do. This was not dealing gently with Absalom and, furthermore, if David had been there, he would not have allowed the execution, but Joab did a service to his king and country. Both would have been further endangered if Joab had not done the deed. Ten men finished the execution.
With the sound of the trumpet everyone knew the battle was over. Verse 16, says, “Then Joab sounded the trumpet, and the troops stopped pursuing Israel, for Joab halted them.” The danger was past now that Absalom is slain; the people will soon return to their loyalty to David. Let everyone on both sides return to their homes. No more blood shall be spilt; no prisoners are taken, to be tried as traitors and made examples; let every man return to his home; they are all the king’s subjects, all his good subjects again.
With no royal pomp or dignity Absalom is buried. Verse 17 says, “They took Absalom, threw him into a big pit in the forest and piled up a large heap of rocks over him. Meanwhile, all the Israelites fled to their homes.” To bring the mangled, bloody and disfigured body of Absalom to his father would serve no good purpose; it would only have added to David’s grief. Absalom’s beauty, plans, projects and ambitions are buried with him in a pit in the forest. Perhaps the pile of stones over the body of Absalom was intended to remind people that rebellious sons were to be stoned.
Absalom’s dead body was stoned. Deut. 21:20-21 say, “They shall say to the elders, ‘This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Then all the men of his town are to stone him to death. You must purge the evil from among you. All Israel will hear of it and be afraid.” Justice and stoning is a purifying process and God wanted His people to be obedient; not disobedient and rebellious. This sin is not to be taken lightly. Even a small inkling of this sin can ruin the ministry of a Man or woman of God. Absalom’s story can be a sobering warning to us all. God uses humble and obedient people.
In contrast to the heap of stones in the forest that rightly dishonors Absalom’s memory the writer mentioned another monument—this one erected by Absalom himself. Verse 18 says, “During his lifetime Absalom had taken a pillar and erected it in the King’s Valley as a monument to himself, for he thought, ‘I have no son to carry on the memory of my name.’ He named the pillar after himself, and it is called Absalom’s Monument to this day.” Absalom’s monument is located at the base of the Mount of Olives in the Kidron Valley just east of Jerusalem and facing the Temple Mount. It is visible and visited today. What foolish and seemingly important yet insignificant projects occupy the heads of proud men. What care we take about the disposal of our bodies, when our focus should be on what will become of our precious souls. Absalom wanted a monument that would be an everlasting honor to him, but God left him with an everlasting memorial to his dishonor that through the pride, arrogance and ambition of Absalom, we might all be warned.
Absalom could not be content in obscurity such as David’s other sons who have no record of their achievements, but wanted to be famous. He is rather made infamous. A pillar and a pile both bear his name, but do not testify either of his honor or glory, but to his folly. Few if any Christian preachers today are as proud, arrogant and ambitious as Absalom, but to entertain even a small bit of those qualities is a horrible thing. May the gracious Holy Spirit point out to each of us in our heart of hearts any resemblance there to Absalom’s ambition. We serve the King as loyal, humble and obedient servants. This is honorable.