2 Samuel 18:1-19:8
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"O Absalom My Son, My Son!"
Now at the city of Mahanaim (2 Samuel 17:27), David reviews his troops to assess the situation he and his followers face. Though only a small contingent originally left Jerusalem with him, we see here in the use of the term "thousands" (2 Samuel 18:1, 4) that many have soon rallied to his cause, to the point where he is able to divide his army into three companies (verse 2). Initially he is determined to lead this fighting force himself. But this is no ordinary national war. Instead, it is a conflict over David's kingship—in which the death of David would spell the end of the war. So his men convince him to remove himself from fighting so as not to jeopardize their cause.
David gives orders that his son Absalom not be harmed. Yet, in doing so, David is again showing partiality to his son rather than dealing with him as the situation demands. Absalom has raised his hand to destroy God's anointed king. When someone else claimed to have done this in regard to Saul, David ordered his execution (2 Samuel 1:14-15). Furthermore, the king in this case is Absalom's father. And the penalty the Law of Moses prescribes for striking or even cursing one's parents—and surely raising an armed rebellion to kill one's father—is death (Exodus 21:15, 17).
It is interesting to see Absalom's forces referred to as "Israel" and the "people of Israel" (2 Samuel 18:6-7). The appearance is one of a popular uprising—wherein this "army of the people" proves no match against David's experienced troops. The thick woods, rather than concealing and aiding their escape, "devoured more people that day than the sword devoured" (verse 8). Perhaps many died from forest-related injuries, exhaustion, entanglement, exposure, wild animals, etc. The verse could also mean that the forest hindered those fleeing from the field of battle so David's men could more easily catch them. Whatever the case, the observation concerning the part nature played in the outcome is significant—for nature falls within the providence of God.
Indeed, Absalom himself is trapped by a tree (verse 9). We are told that it is his head that becomes caught, but this must surely be due to his thick, long hair. We earlier read in 2 Samuel 14:25-26 of Absalom's good looks and thick hair. Because of these features and the praise he received for them, Absalom gave into vanity—as is clear from the fact that he liked to flaunt his hair by letting it grow long, cutting it only once a year, and then broadcasting the impressive weight of the shorn hair (about five pounds). His addiction to admiration and adulation ultimately contributed to his plot to usurp the throne of Israel. It is thus interesting poetic justice that his hair plays a key part in his ultimate demise.
While Absalom hangs in the tree, Joab kills him—apparently convinced he is doing the right thing. However, it should be pointed out that Joab has violated the king's direct command—which he has no right to do.
Hearing news of the victory of his own forces, David's immediate concern is, nevertheless, for Absalom. On learning of his death, David slumps into grief and mourning. The fact that he is inconsolable spreads through the troops. Joab marches in to David and tells him that such behavior is insulting to all his soldiers (19:5-6). Indeed, the victorious fighting men do not come back to Mahanaim with fanfare or a "ticker-tape parade." Rather, they sneak back into the city trying to escape notice. This is sadly pathetic, and Joab is right to point it out to David.
The king responds by taking his seat in the gate of the city—the place of civil government where judgment is typically rendered. The statement that "all the people came before the king" (verse 8) implies that David is following Joab's advice by expressing appreciation to them for their loyalty and help during the recent fighting.