2 Samuel 18:19–33 . . . Bible Study Summary with Videos and Questions
“Shaken David Mourns for Another Son”
Realizing Absalom's attitudes and behavior that the author reveals to his readers in the previous few chapters, you might have asked yourself this question: Did I want justice to have been fully dispensed to Absalom? Remember how he'd treated David, his father; he betrayed him, tricked him, and rebelled against him. That was wrong and Absalom needed to have been punished. Even though David had given his men strict orders not to hurt his rebellious son, when Joab took advantage of Absalom’s vulnerable position and killed him, was your reaction, Well, he deserved it!
The Bible isn’t a movie, of course; it’s real life. At the close of this chapter, when David learned of Absalom’s death, he cried out, “My son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you, Absalom, my son, my son!” With David's powerful lament for the death of yet another son, most of our "Give Absalom the justice he deserves!" demands have likely been extinguished; tears might have come into your eyes.
Absalom was David’s child: David had held him as a baby; he’d watched him grow up; he’d probably taught him to be the strong warrior he was; and though their story took a turn for the worse and reconciliation was needed, there was once a time when father and son ate meals together — they were family. This father-son story in chapter 18 is quite a tragedy. David never got to reconcile with Absalom. Neither did he get to give his life so Absalom could live. Though our own story with Father God today parallels Absalom’s, our story's ending turns in the opposite direction. Because of Christ, we're reconciled to our Father. Because of Christ, we have victory over death.
David Awaits News of the Battle's Outcome (2 Samuel 18:19–23)
Following Absalom's death, there was an argument about who should bring the good and bad news to David. Joab knew that David wouldn't take the news about his son's death well and might "kill the messenger." So Joab ordered a foreigner from Cush, south of Egypt, to be the messenger. Joab may have selected this man because he was a foreigner; he may have considered him more expendable than an Israelite. But one of the spy couriers, Ahimaaz, the priest's son and a friend of David, insisted that he be the one to carry the message to King David. Joab discouraged him, thinking that he'd also report that Absalom was dead. If that were to happen, David wouldn't have rewarded anyone for bringing such news; he'd have likely slain its bearer. Nevertheless, Joab eventually allowed both men to run to David with the news.
As it turned out, Ahimaaz wanted to be the first to tell David the news of his victory because messengers often received a reward for bringing good news. So he took a more direct route — the way of the plain of the Jordan — and outran the Cushite. But he told David only the good news, allowing the Cushite to bring the crucial news that Absalom had been slain; no details were mentioned. That was anything but "good news" to David.
Let's take this sensitive account into perspective. It was all over. Ahithophel, the well-known and respected counselor and advisor (highlighted in our summary of 2 Sam. 17:1–29, knew that if David were to be killed, all opposition to Absalom would be crushed. It works the same way in reverse. Here, many of Absalom's men were killed and his army suffered a massive defeat. But when Absalom himself died, the revolution itself died. And so it was that Absalom's forces fled the battle scene, heading toward their tents. Indeed, the battle had ended well! David's army had won! It was a great day of victory. At least it should have been.
It all started with the defeat of Absalom's army (18:6–8), followed by the death of Absalom (18:14–15). Now, in v. 19, Ahimaaz begs Joab to be the one who'll carry the “good news” to David. Joab knew that it wouldn't be “good news” for the king to hear, though it would have been for everyone else. For this reason, Joab forbade Ahimaaz to run to Mahanaim to speak with David. Instead, he sent a Cushite to run the message to the king. However, Ahimaaz persisted and Joab reluctantly let him be the second man to run to David with the news. Highly motivated (having been a good runner who'd chosen a faster route), Ahimaaz managed to arrive at Mahanaim before the Cushite. No matter, between the two message runners, David learned that his son Absalom has been killed. His grief was great indeed.
David Receives the News of Absalom’s Death (vv. 24–32)
The city gate's watchman saw a man running alone (v. 24). David seems to have concluded that a single runner bore good news. After all, if the army had suffered a defeat, numerous people would have been retreating to Mahanaim. We see in vv. 28–32 that David learned of Absalom's death from the Cushite, who arrived after Ahimaaz who may have lied about not knowing Absalom's fate (v. 29), though he may have been telling the truth. His greeting: "All is well!" (v. 28) was literally "Shalom" ("Peace"). The Cushite subsequently arrived with the additional news of Absalom's death (vv. 31–32).
The problem is that David wouldn't have been inclined to accept either man's report as good news. Notice that when each of the two messengers approached their king, they indicated to him that they had good news for him. David's follow-up question didn't ask about the battle's outcome, only about the well-being of his son: "Is the young man Absalom safe?" was David's only concern. He should have been more concerned for Israel as a nation than for his traitor son. At the same time, David's question is an example of the great bond of love between parent and child, and between Father God and His children.
Charles Spurgeon (an English Baptist preacher; 1834–1932) wrote of this account: "He might have said, 'Is the young man Absalom dead? For if he is out of the way there will be peace to my realm, and rest to my troubled life.' But no, he is a father, and he must love his own offspring. It is a father that speaks, and a father's love can survive the enmity of a son. . . Our children may plunge into the worst of sins, but they are our children still. They may scoff at our God; they may tear our heart to pieces with their wickedness; we cannot take complacency in them, but at the same time we cannot unchild them, nor erase their image from our hearts."
Compared to the Cushite, Ahimaaz was a better runner but a worse messenger because he didn't know his message. He answered David's question by saying only, “I saw great confusion just as Joab was about to send the king’s servant and me, your servant, but I don’t know what it was.” A message can be delivered beautifully, but a messenger's first responsibility must always be to get the full message straight and clearly transmit it, whether the news was good or bad.
"Good news," for David, would have been to learn that Absalom was still alive; "good news" for every other man involved in the war with Absalom and his men that day would have been that his army had been defeated, and the trouble-maker had ceased his rebellious efforts. So, when the Cushite arrived and said, “My lord the king, hear the good news! The Lord has vindicated you today by delivering you from the hand of all who rose up against you,” without saying it directly, he told David that Absalom was dead.
Joab knew his king well. He was certain that David wouldn't have taken the news of Absalom's death well. That's why he was reluctant to send Ahimaaz to David as the bearer of that news. That's also why Ahimaaz hedged his answer to David's specific question about Absalom's well-being. And so it was that, when the triumphant soldiers would return to Mahanaim, they wouldn't find their king at the gate to greet them and express his appreciation. Instead, they'd learn that their king was grieving excessively over the death of his son. Now, instead of feeling proud of what they'd done for their nation Israel, David's men felt ashamed.
David Mourns for the Loss of Absalom (v. 33)
David was deeply moved and devastated by the Cushite's news of Absalom's death! The Hebrew idea of "deeply moved" implies a violent trembling of the body. He'd felt completely undone at hearing the news of his son's death. In part, he was so deeply moved because he knew that he'd been the one who'd supplied the soil in which this tragedy had grown. The soil came from David's (1) permissive and tolerant parenting; (2) his sin with Bathsheba and murder of Uriah; and (3) his own sinful indulgence of his passions and smaller rebellions against God, in which sins and weaknesses were realized and harvested in his sons.
He'd gone up to his upstairs chamber and wept. Evidently, there was a room over the town gate, similar to the rooms that people built atop their houses. David retreated there to mourn after hearing the painful news of his son's death. He'd behaved as a parent rather than as a king, in this instance. His sorrow might reveal to those of us who are parents that it isn't enough that we train our children to be godly; we must first train ourselves in godliness and pursue that daily aim continually.
The king was shaken. He went up to the room over the gateway and wept. As he went, he said: “O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you — O Absalom, my son, my son!” (2 Sam. 18:33)
David mourned so much for Absalom because he was genuinely his son. He saw his own sins, his weaknesses, and his rebellion exaggerated in Absalom's life. Everything in the story leads up to, and culminates in, this wail of anguish over his dead son. Note that five times he repeated the words, 'my son.' This surely had a deeper note in it than that of a merely half-conscious repetition of words occasioned by personal grief. This father truly recognized how much he was responsible for this son. It's as though he'd said: He is indeed my son, his weaknesses are my weaknesses, his passions are my passions, and his sins are my sins.
When David wailed, "If only I had died instead of you," he wanted to die in place of his rebellious son. Thankfully, what David the father was unable to do, Father God did by dying in place of His rebellious sinners. So in the cry of David, we actually hear God's cry for His lost children: His desire is to restore the lost and forgive them.
David's mourning had likely been heard all over the city. It put a damper on what would normally have been a hearty time of rejoicing for Israel over a great and critical victory.
Intro Video: “The Second Book of Samuel”
† Watch this introductory video clip created by The Bible Project on bibleproject.com.
- Q. 1 How did you feel about the way that David reacted to the death of his rebellious son?
- Q. 2 Are you training yourself in godliness and pursuing that effort daily and continually?