2 Samuel 18:1–18 . . . Bible Study Summary with Videos and Questions

“Absalom’s Death”

We've come to the end of Absalom's life. The narrative of his death can be segmented as follows: the strategies (18:1–5); the battle (vv. 6–8); his execution (vv. 9–15); his burial (vv. 16–18); battle reports (vv. 19–33); and the responses (19:1–8). It's interesting that the writer constructed each of these sections with two prominent components: two strategies (18:1–5), two armies (18:6–8), two options (18:9–15), two memorials (18:16–18), two messengers (18:19–33), and two responses (19:1–8). In each case, there's a tension or conflict between each element, which enhances the overall conflict in the whole passage; it's the conflict that David faced, choosing between acting on his feelings as a father and doing his duty as a king. The entire story is about David's troubled (conflicted) soul.

Two Proposed Battle Strategies (2 Samuel 18:1–5)

The opening verse prepares its readers for an upcoming battle: "David mustered the men who were with him and appointed over them commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds." We're not told how many men went to battle for David, but the number was in the thousands because the text tells us that his men were in groups that had commanders of thousands and hundreds. He divided his army into three divisions: Joab and Abishai led two of the divisions while Ittai the Gittite led the third division. David assured his men that he'd go with them (v. 3), but the people insisted that he stay behind in Mahanaim. If they had to flee, that wouldn't have mattered to Absalom. However, if David had been among them, Absalom's soldiers wouldn't have stopped until they'd captured and killed him. Over all, it was better for David, his people, and his soldiers that he be somewhere else during the battle. So he agreed to stay behind (v. 4).

As David's troops were about to go to war on behalf of their king, David had a few final words to speak to them. It wasn't a usual pep talk that would focus on victory. Neither was it like Joab's words that he uttered just before the attack that he waged on the Syrians and the Ammonites that's accounted for in 10:11–12. David's command to his military commanders was quite unique: “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 (v. 5). Everyone heard his command. How different it was from the earlier advice of Ahithophel who intended to kill David alone while allowing the rest of the people to live. Here in David's command, he allowed his men to kill any other Israelite, but not his son, the revolt's leader. He commanded those who risked their lives for him to fight, but not to fight so hard as to win. It must have been a pathetic situation for the king.

In the NIV, the author refers to David as "the king," no less than five times in this opening section, leaving no doubt as to who was the legitimate ruler and who was really in charge. "The king" occurs thirty times in this war-related narrative; it's a constant reminder that David, the LORD's anointed, had the responsibility to act like a king, not a parent. Perhaps he instructed his three commanders to deal gently with Absalom, not only because he was his son, but because God had dealt gently with David regarding his sins.

Looking closely at vv. 1–5, it's clear that David acted as a father, not as a king; it was as if he and Absalom had had some minor domestic quarrel that could be resolved by an apology and a handshake. He failed to see Absalom as a traitor and a rebel, whose actions had caused great harm to the stability and welfare of the kingdom, to say nothing of the great loss of life in the civil war (v. 7). Yet every parent will feel a good deal of sympathy with David's viewpoint.

David’s and Absalom’s Armies Engage in Battle (vv. 6–8)

Despite David's appeal for mercy on Absalom's behalf, the army fought courageously for David, causing Absalom's forces to suffer a significant defeat, not only at the hand of David's men, but from the forest of Ephraim in which they battled (v. 6). Absalom's men weren't cut out for that kind of warfare. A total of 20,000 men died in this slaughter, which had spread over the whole countryside; Absalom's men began to turn and run for their lives. It was a powerful victory for David and a devastating defeat for Absalom.

The Forest of Ephraim can't be located today. It was probably in Gilead. As early as the Judges period, so many Ephraimites had settled in Gilead that the western Ephraimites called the Gileadites "fugitives of Ephraim." How the forest devoured more of Absalom's men than David's soldiers did (v. 8) isn't clear from the text. However, a large army would have had an advantage in the open, not in heavily wooded terrain, which would have been advantageous to a smaller force. David's experienced warriors, skilled in guerrilla warfare, took full advantage. In thick woods, Absalom's soldiers likely lost all sense of direction, wandered aimlessly, and got hopelessly lost. Separated from the main force, they were extremely vulnerable to David's warriors who knew to hide in the forest, awaiting the enemy's arrival. The text suggests that Yahweh might have assisted David's men by using the forest to somehow enable him to gain a victory.

Absalom’s Execution (vv. 9–15)

Chief among those claimed by the forest is Absalom himself. Verse 9 reveals that Absalom rode on his mule during this engagement. By losing his mule, he'd lost his kingdom. According to that verse's text, Absalom's head of hair became caught between overhanging oak branches. Josephus interpreted this, perhaps in view of 14:26, when he wrote: "He entangled his hair greatly in the large boughs of a knotty tree that spread a great way, and there he hung." It's probably ironic that Absalom's pride and glory, namely his hair, brought about his humiliation and death.

In this case, God used a piece of nature — a tree — to snare His prey. Inanimate as it was, that tree proved more than a match for the pride of Absalom. When we reread 14:26, we'll probably visualize Absalom's hair in connection with his entanglement . . . and easily contrast his promise and pride in that verse, and humiliation and doom in this passage.

The author doesn't state whether Absalom was running for his life or not; he seems to have been alone when his mule ran beneath the lower branches of a huge oak tree, somehow causing Absalom's head of hair to become wedged among the branches. None of Absalom's men seem to have been close enough to him to have attempted his rescue; they might have been fleeing for their lives. However, one of Joab's men came upon Absalom and then mentioned that to his commander who was incensed that this young soldier hadn't killed Absalom on the spot — would he not have been rewarded for doing so? The young man wasn't taken aback by Joab's rebuke. He reminded Joab that David, their commander-in-chief, had specifically forbidden anyone to harm his son, Absalom. No matter what Joab may have promised to do for him, this soldier knew that when David learned that he'd killed his son, there'd be no protection for him. He also knew that while Joab seemingly talked tough, when David's wrath would be directed toward him for having killed Absalom, Joab would quietly stand by and let the soldier take all the blame. There was no way that this fellow could be directed to disobey the king's orders by killing the king's son.

From what the author tells us, Joab had had just about enough of that fellow's submission to the king's orders. Joab would take care of the matter personally. So he went and found Absalom just where and how the young man had accounted. He took three spears in his hands and thrust them through Absalom's chest. His armor bearers followed suit, finishing off Absalom (vv. 14–15). David's enemy was dead.

It's important to note that the soldier who found Absalom had wisely obeyed David's orders. There are many evidences throughout the "David" saga that he had an excellent communications network. The soldier's parenthetic comment, "And nothing is hidden from the king" (v. 13), is one such evidence of this. However, despite David's well-communicated instructions, Joab wounded Absalom on the spot (v. 14), probably mortally. Perhaps Joab feared that David would have pardoned Absalom's sin, thus giving him another opportunity to revolt. Today, we must be careful to conduct our hearty spiritual warfare according to our King's instructions; we shouldn't take matters into our own hands, as Joab had done.

Absalom Gets Buried without a Memorial (vv. 16–18)

Then Joab sounded the trumpet to stop pursuing Israel's army. Without Absalom, they were no longer a threat to David. They fled to their homes. "They took Absalom, threw him into a big pit in the forest and piled up a large heap of rocks over him" (v. 17). This mound of rough stones was Absalom's final monument; it wasn't the pillar that he erected for himself near Jerusalem (v. 18).

Mosaic Law prescribed "stoning to death" for a rebellious son (Deuteronomy 21:20–21). God cut off Absalom because he'd rebelled against the LORD's anointed, rather than blessing him because he was David's eldest son. This was the third son that David had lost as a result of his sins against Bathsheba and Uriah. Instead of having a line of kings succeed him, all Absalom left behind was a stone monument (a stele, "marble pillar") that he'd erected to himself (v. 18). His three sons (2 Sam. 14:27) may have died prematurely (v. 18). Note: In that verse, the King's Valley was the Kidron Valley.

In the ancient world, when a father who was famous died, a son normally erected a memorial to him. Moreover, people also expected the son to imitate his father and thus become a living memorial to his father's name. Absalom failed to receive either form of honor. Absalom lived like Eli's sons and Saul; he died as they died.

From the start, Absalom's coup was doomed to fail because he was rebelling against God's will: Solomon was God's choice to succeed David (1 Chronicles 22:9–10; 1 Kings 1:13, 17, 30). Absalom was David's third son (after Amnon and Chileab). He sought to perpetuate traditional succession. As Israel's true Sovereign, God had the right to select whomever He wished to lead His nation. Amnon and Absalom both were willful, cunning, obstinate, and immoral men who followed counsel and experienced violent deaths. Amnon, however, repeated David's passionate sexual sin and was self-indulgent, whereas Absalom repeated David's cold-blooded murder and was militarily and politically ambitious.

Today's closing text adds something of an epitaph to the account of Absalom's death. The author informs us that, at one time, Absalom had no sons; fearing that he'd be forgotten, he built a pillar for himself in the Valley of the Kings. By this, he thought, he'd preserve his name. As it turned out, he did have sons, but in his desire to possess his father's throne, he was able to be king for only a few days. He'd now be remembered as the traitor who died, hanging from a tree, the most ignoble kind of death. His pillar in the Valley of the Kings would never erase the memory of his folly and death.

As we see that Absalom's attempt to usurp David's throne, disobedience to God's covenant (His Mosaic Law), resulted in Israel's lack of fertility (blessing). Every attempt by the enemies of the LORD's anointed would always fail. Because of Absalom's sins, he died without honor. Because of David's sin, he had to flee Jerusalem and experienced much heartache; nevertheless, God restored him to power through God's elective calling of him and his heart for God. In retrospect, God had promised to punish David for his disregard of the Mosaic Covenant and the LORD's plan. Still, he didn't say that he'd cut him off the same way that he'd cut Saul off (2 Sam. 12:10–12). Passages in the following chapters (18:19–19:43) record Yahweh's restoration of His anointed, after He'd disciplined him.

Intro Video: “The Second Book of Samuel”

 Watch this introductory video clip created by The Bible Project on bibleproject.com.

It Makes You Wonder . . .
  • Q. 1  Why would Joab so blatantly disobey King David's explicit command?
  • Q. 2  Because Absalom had sought to kill the Lord's anointed and deserved to die, was it right for Joab to have slain Absalom, against orders?
  • Q. 3  As pawns sacrifice for their king in chess, and as David's men did for him, what will you do to tangibly demonstrate your belief in the unsurpassed worth of Christ your King?
  • Q. 4  Recently, what have your tried to hide from God, but the Holy Spirit told you, "Nothing is hidden from the King"? What brought the hidden truth to light?

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