We see in this passage a stark contrast between the shrewdness of Joab and the sentimentof David. Joab was not a godly man, but he was often clear-headed about the politics of the thing. David was a godly man, but he was at times muddled by his own sense of mingled love and guilt. This is one of those times. We also see a striking example of what might be called a reverse type of Jesus, the Messiah.
“And David numbered the people that were with him, and set captains of thousands and captains of hundreds over them. . .” (2 Sam. 18:1-33).
Summary of the Text
So David set his troops in order (v. 1). He placed a third of them under Joab, a third under Abishai, Joab’s brother, and the remaining third under Ittai, the warrior from Gath who had just joined David (v. 2). When the elderly king set out to go to battle with them, he was diplomatically dissuaded (v. 3). The king reviewed the troops as they went out (v. 4). Everyone heard the order that David gave his three commanders concerning Absalom (v. 5). So they went out, and the battle was joined in the forest wilderness of Ephraim (v. 6). And Israel fell before the servants of David (v. 7). In the aftermath, the wilderness devoured more than the sword did (v. 8).
Absalom himself encountered some of David’s soldiers, and as he was fleeing from them on his mule, his head got caught in the branches of a tree (v. 9). A soldier saw this and reported it to Joab (v. 10), only to have Joab rebuke him for not killing the rebel leader (v. 11). The man replied that he wouldn’t have killed Absalom for a million bucks, not after what David had said about it (v. 12). He would have taken his own life in his hands, and Joab wouldn’t have said a word to defend him (v. 13). Then Joab said he didn’t have time to argue like this, and took three sticks and thrust them into Absalom’s heart (v. 14). His ten armor bearers followed suit, and killed him (v. 15). So Joab blew the trumpet, and the pursuit of Israel ceased (v. 16). They then buried Absalom ignominiously (v. 17), he who had erected a pillar in his own honor during his lifetime (v. 18).
Ahimaaz, son of Zadok, wanted to be the courier (v. 19). Joab said no, because the news (for the king personally) was not good (v. 20). So Joab sent an African runner, a Cushite (v. 21). Ahimaaz still wanted to run, and Joab gave permission. Ahimaaz took a better route and outran the Cushite (vv. 22-23). David was between the inner and outer gate when a lookout spotted the approach of Ahimaaz (v. 24). The king said a solitary runner would be a courier (v. 25). Then the lookout saw another courier (v. 26). The frontrunner looked like Ahimaaz to the lookout, and the king interpreted that as good news (v. 27). Ahimaaz came and reported all was well (shalom), and that the king’s troops had prevailed (v. 28). “What about Absalom?”—and Ahimaaz falsely said that he didn’t know (v. 29). The king told him to stand aside (v. 30). Then the Cushite arrived with the news of victory (v. 31). What about Absalom?” The Cushite diplomatically told him that Absalom was dead (v. 32). At this news, the king came apart, and went up to the chamber above the gate, weeping for Absalom, his son (v. 33).
This battle in the wilderness was not one in which we find any supernatural events—butnature fights against the forces of Absalom. David had shrewdly picked good terrain for such a fight, and his three commanders pursued the troops of Absalom in the forest. They killed twenty thousand men—eight thousand more than the entire force that Ahithophel wanted to take out against David on the first night of the rebellion. And then it says that the wood of Ephraim devoured more than the sword devoured. Nature itself was fighting on David’s side. That nature also took Absalom prisoner, as he caught his head in the crook of a tree.
Incidentally, we should note from all this that the terrain there in biblical times was quite different than it is today.
This is a place where we can see that David’s priorities have plainly gotten out of whack—which will become even more plain to us in the next chapter. We don’t know how many men died fighting for David, but he clearly cared more for Absalom than for them. For David, peace of mind (shalom) is in this instance centered on his son. Ahimaaz comes as a courier and the first thing he says is shalom. This is the last part of Absalom’s name in Hebrew—’Avshalom. And these echoes are plain in David’s plaintive question, which he asks twice. Is it shalom with ’Avshalom? David is looking for peace in the wrong place.
Between Heaven and Earth
Absalom’s death is truly a striking one, and it is pointed out in a number of ways by the writer here. The unnamed soldier wouldn’t take a thousand pieces of silver in his palm, but Joab took three sticks (not darts) in his palm, and thrust them into Absalom’s heart. Then his ten armor-bearers finished him off. When David asked “who killed Absalom?, the response could now be “hard to say.” Joab pierced Absalom’s heart (v. 14), and in the Hebrew there is an untranslatable pun, because the ram’s horn that Joab blew in v. 16 made a piercing sound (same word). He ended the fighting by “stabbing” Absalom, and by “stabbing” the air with a blast of the horn. Absalom got his head caught in the tree (v. 9), and his head had been his vainglory (2 Sam. 14:26). He was pierced to the heart and he was caught in the heart of the tree (same word). The effect here is disturbing— Absalom’s heart was like a tangle of branches. A mule was in that day a royal mount (2 Sam. 13:29), and so Absalom’s royal seat passes on away from him, leaving him dangling between sky and earth. He is rejected by heaven, and rejected by earth. He was not to be a king, because God rules from Heaven.
An Antithetical Gospel
How unlike the Lord’s death! And yet there are striking similarities in that unlikeness. The Lord also was rejected by men, and forsaken by Heaven. He also was hanged on a tree, between sky and earth. But when that happened, Absalom’s followers all scattered for good. The Lord’s followers attempted to scatter, but God had a deeper purpose in mind (John 12:32). When Jesus was hanged on a tree, it was God’s purpose to gather all His followers.
Absalom was buried in a ravine, covered with multiple stones, there to remain. Jesus was buried in a cave, covered with one stone, that was to be rolled away. Absalom had entered Jerusalem in triumph just a few days before, presumably on a mule. Jesus entered Jerusalem just a few days before, seated on a donkey. The unnamed soldier here rejects silver to avoid betraying his king. Judas accepted silver to betray his king. Absalom was pierced by a soldier while he was hanging, and Jesus was pierced by a soldier while he was hanging.
Messengers ran from the death of Absalom with a message of shalom. We are messengers who run from the death and resurrection of Jesus with a message of everlasting shalom.