O Absalom, My Son, My Son!
Based on Series of Sermons on the Repetition of Name and Titles
Preached in PCC Worship Service, 29 September 2013
Part 2 of 3

We continue with our study of 2 Samuel 18:1-19:8, which contains a repetition of Absalom’s name. In the previous article, we saw how David’s army defeated Absalom’s army. In this article, we will look at the death of the rebel – Absalom. 

The Rebel is killed (18:9-18)

Verse 9 tells us that in the midst of the chaos on the battlefield, Absalom unexpectedly ran into some of David’s men. It was unplanned. Most probably Absalom, who was riding his mule, turned around and tried to flee, but as he was fleeing, he and his mule went under a large oak tree, and somehow, his head got caught in some of the low branches. Perhaps he was looking behind to see where David’s men were and didn’t see what was in front of him when he slammed into the tree. 

The Jewish historian Josephus suggests that it was his hair that got entangled in the tree. This is very possible since we are told in chapter 14 verse 26 that Absalom had nice thick and long hair, which he was very proud of. So if it was his hair that got caught in the tree, then in an ironic twist of fate, the source of his pride became the cause of his downfall.

But in any case, Absalom got stuck in the tree while his mule kept on going. Verse 9 says that he was taken up between the heaven and the earth. Now according to Deuteronomy 21:23, we are told that anyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse. Absalom was caught in a position that was symbolic of God’s curse. He was hung up between heaven and earth. Heaven rejects him and earth does not want him either.

One of the soldiers from the 1st Division saw Absalom dangling from the tree in that crude and unsightly manner. He reported it to his division commander general Joab.When Joab heard that the soldier had done nothing to Absalom, he rebuked him saying, “What, you saw him and you didn’t strike him to the ground right there! What were you thinking? I would have given you ten pieces of silver and a belt.”

The soldier essentially replied his commander, “Even if you gave me 100 times that amount, I would not lift up my hand against the king’s son for the king himself had commanded you and generals Abishai and Ittai not to harm Absalom for his sake. Furthermore, if I had killed him myself, I would have put my life in jeopardy for the king would find out and you, my general, would keep your distance from me and leave me to suffer the consequences alone. So forget about the monetary incentive, I am not going to do it.”

Joab had no patience to carry on this conversation. He said to his man in verse 14, “I will not waste time like this with you.” And he took three darts or javelins in his hand, went to the dangling Absalom, and thrust them into Absalom’s heart while he was still alive.

Apparently, Absalom was mortally wounded but he didn’t die. The final blow was left to his ten armour bearers who surrounded Absalom and struck him dead. The entire narrative is described in a rather clinical way. Absalom must have been fully conscious when Joab and his ten armour bearers surrounded him but no mention is made of him pleading for mercy or trying to negotiate. Instead, just the brutal act of execution is recorded.

They then took Absalom’s body and threw it into a great pit in the forest and raised a very great heap of stones over it. Verse 18 goes on to say that during his lifetime, Absalom had reared up a pillar in the king’s valley as a monument to himself, for he thought, “I have no son to keep my name in remembrance” and he named the pillar after himself, and it is called Absalom’s place. Why does the author tell us that Absalom had a pillar reared up in his remembrance during his lifetime? I think his purpose is to contrast this memorial pillar with Absalom’s actual grave, which was an unmarked heap of rock in the woods. Absalom wanted people to have good memories of him, but in the end, he came to an ignominious and shameful death. So this is the terrible end of Absalom. And this is the same end of all who seek to fight against the LORD’s anointed.

So after the death of Absalom, we read in verse 16 that Joab blew the trumpet and instructed his men to stop pursuing the army of Israel. The death of Absalom marked the end of the war. There was no need for any further bloodshed among God’s people. The enemy had been killed. The conflict was effectively over.

The question we must ask is this – was Joab right in doing what he did? The answer is both yes and no. On the one hand, he was wrong to defy the express command of the king. His was nothing less than an act of insubordination and rebellion against the king.

But on the other hand, Joab’s action, from a human point of view, probably saved Israel from another bloody civil war in her history. Joab saw that if Absalom had been spared and brought back to Jerusalem, David would not have punished him and eventually, Absalom would lead another rebellion against the king, and everything would be back to square one or worse.

What was needed was drastic and not half-hearted measures. Like a malignant growth or tumour, one must go in and cut it out completely and not leave some of it in the body or the cancer will return. Absalom had to die if the nation of Israel was to be preserved from destroying herself again.     

And so we come back to the question of whether what Joab did was right or wrong. The Biblical writer allows Joab to remain an enigma. He reports but does not evaluate his action. But overall, I think we would have to say that Joab was right to disobey the king in this particular instance since the king’s command was both foolish and unlawful. After all, Absalom did deserve to die for his capital crimes of treason and murder and adultery.  

We move on now to the third section of the text, where the messengers are sent from the battle field to King David.

The Messengers are Sent

In verse 19, Ahimaaz the son of Zadok the priest eagerly requested Joab to send him to the king with the good news that the LORD had avenged him of his enemies. Joab turned down his request and the reason he gave was that the king’s son was dead.

What this probably means is that there was no good news for the king and he didn’t want the son of the priest, who was a priest himself, to deliver the bad news to David. Instead, he called Cushi, who was a non-Israelite, to go and tell the king what he had seen that day. Cushi or the Cushite accordingly bowed down before Joab and ran off. Meanwhile, Ahimaaz kept badgering Joab to allow him to bring tidings to David and eventually, Joab gave in and allowed him to go.

Ahimaaz ran by a much longer but easier trail along the Jordan Plain and up the course of the Jabbok river, and so he arrived at David’s headquarters at Mahanaim before the Cushite.

In verse 24, the narrative shifts to David who sat at the city gates eagerly awaiting news from the front line. The watchman saw a man running and told the king. The king said, “If he be alone, there is tidings in his mouth.” This means that a man running alone would be a messenger whereas a whole company of men running would probably be soldiers fleeing in defeat, which would not be a good thing. The watchman then saw another man running and reported to the king and the king said, “He also brings tidings.”

Then as the runners came closer, the watchman identified the first runner as Ahimaaz the son of Zadok and David said, “He is a good man, and comes with good news.”

So when Ahimaaz was nearing, he called out to the king, “All is well” or “Shalom” and then when he arrived, he fell down to the ground upon his face before the king and said, “Blessed be the LORD thy God, which hath delivered up the men that lifted up their hand against my Lord the king.” This was a statement of victory but it said nothing about the state of Absalom.

David did not seem to be delighted with the news of victory because for him, there was no Shalom or wellness unless his son was alright. And so he further questioned Ahimaaz in verse 29, “Is the young man Absalom safe?” Ahimaaz replied saying that when Joab sent him, he saw a great confusion but did not know what it was. Quite clearly, he was evading the question since, according to verse 20, he already knew that Absalom was dead. Ahimaaz couldn’t bring himself to tell David the bad news. He told David the truth but not the whole truth.

Next up was Cushi, who told the king that the LORD had avenged him that day of all them that rose up against him. Again this was a general statement of victory over the enemies. But what David was really concerned about was whether his son Absalom was safe and sound.

Cushi then said, “The enemies of my lord the king, and all that rise against thee to do thee hurt, be as that young man is.” This was a roundabout way of breaking the news but at least he told the truth, the whole truth, and in the process, he teaches us an important truth, namely, that the deliverance and preservation of God’s people involves the destruction and perishing of God’s enemies. Or to put it in another way – the advancement of God’s kingdom always involves the defeat of Satan’s kingdom.

This is a beautiful theological truth. But sadly, David was not in the right frame of mind to appreciate deep theology at that moment, especially not when his own son had died fighting on Satan’s side.

… to be continued

—Linus Chua