Read 2 Samuel 15 here
Read 2 Samuel 16 here
Read 2 Samuel 17 here
Read 2 Samuel 18 here
Read 2 Samuel 19 here
Read 2 Samuel 20 here
David and Absalom Pt. II (15:13 – 19)
- David Goes into Exile beyond the Jordan River (15:13–17:29)
- David’s Forces Quell Absalom’s Revolt (18:1–19:8)
- David Returns to Jerusalem (19:9–43)
Following reports of Absalom’s growing conspiracy:
David’s flight (15:13—16:14)
- David flees with his officials and all his men
- David tells Ittai the Gittite to stay behind as he is not in danger from Absalom. Ittai refuses.
- David tells Zadok to take the ark back to Jerusalem.
- David is told that Ahithophel was with Absalom. David prays that his counsel will be turned against Absalom.
- David tells Hushai the Arkite to go to Absalom and pretend to serve Absalom.
- David and Ziba (16:1-4)
- David meets up with Ziba, a steward of Mephibosheth (son of Jonathan, grandson of Saul – ch. 9).
- Ziba tells David that Mephibosheth is hoping to take back Saul’s kingdom (because of Absalom?)
- David gives “all that belonged to Mephibosheth” to Ziba for this information. Shimei curses David (16:5-14)
- Shimei, a man from the same clan as Saul’s family, curses David.
- Abishai wants to kill this man. But David says to leave him alone – let him curse.
The Advice of Ahithophel and Hushai (16:15-17:23)
- Hushai (sent by David) pledges allegiance to Absalom.
- Ahithophel advises Absalom to sleep with David’s concubines (whom David had left behind) in order to reinforce (to the people) Absalom’s division with David.
- Ahithophel advises Absalom to pursue David.
- Absalom also asks for Hushai’s advice. Hushai advises against this as David and his men are fierce warriors. Instead, he advises that Absalom gather his armies from all over Israel.
- Absalom agrees with Hushai.
- Hushai sends warning to David, telling them to escape.
- V. 17 onward… unnecessary to the story?
Absalom’s death (17:24-18:18)
- Absalom’s army and David’s army gather.
- Absalom goes out to meet David’s men. His hair got caught in the branches of a tree and he was left hanging.
- Joab hears of Absalom’s plight. He gets angry at his men (who saw this) who did not kill Absalom. Absalom’s man replies “I would not lay a hand on the king’s son.” (David had earlier asked Joab to “be gentle with the young man Absalom for my sake” (v. 5).
- Joab took three javelins and plunged them into Absalom’s heart. Ten of Joab’s men then “struck him and killed him.”
David Mourns (18:19-19:8)
- Sequence describing who will tell David the news.
- David finds out that Absalom has been killed and mourns.
- Joab tells David that his mourning is discouraging his men.
David Returns to Jerusalem (19:9-43)
Sheba Rebels Against David (20:1-22)
Last week, we began the discussion of David’s decline following his sin against Bathsheba and Uriah. Again, we are going through these chapters extremely quickly so apologies in advance for skipping or glossing over so much. And I don’t want to revisit last week’s story too much, so suffice it to say that at the end of the chapters we looked at, David’s son Absalom had himself declared king in Hebron and was gathering a rebellion against his father.
The chapters that we’re looking at today begin at 15:13 through the end of chapter 20. And as last week, there is an awful lot going on in these chapters and we could spend a lot of time on each chapter (or section). But for the sake of trying to understand the narrative, we’re going to again go through all of it in very broad strokes.
So, in short, this entire section involves the progress of Absalom’s rebellion. And what we see is David’s exit (or exile) from Jerusalem, which entails a number of personal encounters between David and others. Then we see essentially an account of the conflict between Absalom’s armies and David’s armies, which results in Absalom’s death. Next, we read about David’s return to Jerusalem which involves another set of personal encounters. Finally, in chapter 20, we read about another rebellion, this time formed by Sheba, a Benjamite.
So if we look at this entire narrative block, following the analysis by Dale Ralph Davis, we might say that it looks something like this:
- Rebellion (Absalom’s)
- David’s exile from Jerusalem
- Absalom’s Advisors
- David’s spies
- Absalom’s death
- Absalom’s Advisors
- David’s return to Jerusalem
- David’s exile from Jerusalem
- Rebellion (Sheba’s)
Now we’re not going to examine this structure further – I point it out simply to note how the entire passage seems to hang together. And it may help to focus our attention on the person of David, whom we’ve been following as the main character of the book(s) of Samuel.
In last week’s sermon, I may have given the impression that Absalom was a sympathetic character. I tried to point out that he likely shouldn’t be seen as such – mostly, I wanted to point out how the entire episode is a consequence of David’s failures. Here, it appears that the narrative block is focussed on, or organized around, David’s journey – away from and back to Jerusalem. Absalom much more clearly becomes or is revealed as the antagonist of the story. And so what we may be seeing (once again, as we have throughout Samuel) the extent and nature of David’s faith, even in this latest terrible circumstance.
Again, we are going through this passage extremely quickly. But I want to touch on a few points to hopefully help us see David’s character. However, because we are going through this so quickly, I want to be careful about saying things that are too broadly-sweeping.
Firstly, I want to take a look at three vignettes that are part of David’s exit from Jerusalem. When David finds out that Absalom is raising a rebellion against him, he gathers together his household to leave Jerusalem. And the narrative describes several encounters that David has with others as he descends out of Jerusalem (the corresponding return to Jerusalem (ch. 19) mirrors this).
The first encounter that I want to talk about occurs at chapter 15:19-22. David encounters a Philistine (‘Gittite’ in the text – i.e. from Gath), Ittai, who had become loyal to David. Presumably, after David’s defeat of the Philistines, many of them accepted David as their king (the text tells us that many Gittites were part of David’s retinue). David tells Ittai that he should stay in Jerusalem, with Absalom, but Ittai refuses saying that his loyalty is to David.
As we noted in last week’s chapters, here again the narrator doesn’t provide any commentary or other insight into the story. But the loyalty displayed here by Ittai, a Philistine, historically the enemies of Israel, seems to stand in stark contrast to the rebellion of Absalom and his Israelite followers. Ittai recognizes that David is the rightful king of Israel and therefore, his loyalty will remain with him.
The second episode during David’s descent from Jerusalem that I want to talk about has to do with the priests and the ark of the covenant. David tells the priests to take the ark back to Jerusalem – that he does not want to bring the ark with him. This seems surprising because, as we’ve discussed, the ark of the Lord represents the presence of the Lord. Historically, when the ark was present with the Israelites in battle, they would gain victory. But perhaps this is precisely the point. We’ve seen earlier in Samuel that when the Israelites sought to ‘make use’ of the ark, making use of God instead of being subject to God, they were defeated by the Philistines and the ark taken captive.
And so, Eugene Peterson supposes that what David is doing here is subjecting himself to God’s judgement. He knows, presumably, that everything that is happening is a consequence of his sin against Bathsheba and Uriah. David knows that God has warned that his unfaithfulness would lead to the breaking of his household. And so, refusing to ‘make use’ of God, David commands that the ark remain in Jerusalem, and submits himself to God’s judgement.
This idea of David subjecting himself to God’s judgement appears to be affirmed as David’s descent out of Jerusalem continues. We’re skipping some verses here, but in chapter 16:5-14, David encounters Shimei, someone from the same clan as Saul. Shimei curses David because of what he has done to Saul’s household and proclaims that David’s losing the kingdom is a result of his sin (though Shimei has in mind David’s conflict with Saul and his household).
David’s men want to kill Shimei for cursing David, but David refuses. Instead, David says:
11 David then said to Abishai and all his officials, “My son, my own flesh and blood, is trying to kill me. How much more, then, this Benjamite! Leave him alone; let him curse, for the LORD has told him to.12 It may be that the LORD will look upon my misery and restore to me his covenant blessing instead of his curse today.”2 Samuel 16: 11-12
So David seems to explicitly accept what is happening to him as judgement from God – Judgement that he is willing to accept.
It’s this idea that God’s judgement has to be worked out that we seem to see throughout this entire episode. Following David’s descent out of Jerusalem, beginning at chapter 16:15, we read about Absalom’s strategizing against David. Absalom had an advisor, Ahithophel, whom he trusted as one who hears from God. But during David’s descent (and we skipped this vignette), David sent one of his men, Hushai, to Absalom to pretend to be loyal to Absalom. David wanted Hushai to “frustrate” Ahithophel’s advice to Absalom. And without getting into detail, this is precisely what happens. Absalom seeks advice about how to pursue and defeat David, first from Ahithophel and then from Hushai. Absalom decides to take Hushai’s advice over Ahithophel. But Hushai is secretly working for David, not Absalom. And his advice would essentially would give David enough time to mount a proper defense. And in a rare commentary for this part of the text, the narrator tells us that Absalom’s taking Hushai’s advice was from God: “17:14b For the LORD had determined to frustrate the good advice of Ahithophel in order to bring disaster on Absalom.” So again, through this entire narrative of David’s decline, there’s almost no commentary by the narrator. But here, the narrator confirms that what’s going on is God’s will and plan. And I think we can safely take this commentary into the next vignette.
Beginning at chapter 18, we get the account of the battle between David’s forces and Absalom’s. Again, I won’t go into detail about this passage. But in short, Absalom dies – but it’s not because of military might or superior strategy on David’s part. Rather, Absalom’s death comes about as a result of a tragic, almost comic, accident followed by treachery. Absalom is riding a mule and gets caught up in the branches of a tree. Hanging there, David’s men don’t want to kill him because he is David’s son. But Joab, David’s commander, decides otherwise and thrusts three javelins into Absalom and kills him. So, in short, God’s purposes to “bring disaster on Absalom” is fulfilled.
Now at this point, it’s worth saying something about the character of Joab who plays a prominent part throughout this entire narrative. We’ve just said that Absalom’s death can (should?) be interpreted as a fulfillment of God’s purposes. However, it cannot at the same time be said that Joab’s actions were righteous. Earlier in chapter 18, we read that David commanded his men to show mercy to Absalom for his sake. Joab’s murder of Absalom is seen as a direct disregarding of David’s command. Moreover, the manner in which Joab kills Absalom – hanging defenseless from a tree – can hardly be seen as honourable.
After David finds out about Absalom’s death, understandably, he mourns the death of his son. But Joab rebukes David saying that his mourning Absalom’s death is discouraging the troops. After all, they were sent to do battle with Absalom. Joab tells David that his mourning their enemy is effectively a condemnation of his own men.
Now as a quick aside, on David’s return to Jerusalem, we read that he appoints Amasa, who was Absalom’s commander, as commander over his own armies instead of Joab. Then, in chapter 20, when a new rebellion arises, Joab murders Amasa treacherously and takes command back of the armies of David.
Now my apologies for going over all of that so quickly, and even somewhat disjointedly. The point that I want to raise is that Joab here may function very much as a foil to David. Throughout the book of Samuel, we might say that Joab is very loyal to David and to David’s kingdom. However, what we also see is that Joab’s methods – his means – are often if not always antithetical to the values of the kingdom. Joab is very much a “the ends justify the means” kind of character. Joab’s first instinct always seems to be violence, power, and scheming. (incidentally, this may shed light on the Tekoan woman incident).
Now returning to the chronology, this comparison between Joab and David may be brought into sharper relief when we read about David’s return to Jerusalem following Absalom’s death and defeat. And, mirroring what we read about David’s exit or descent out of Jerusalem, as David returns to Jerusalem, we read about several different encounters.
Earlier, I briefly mentioned Amasa who had been commander of Absalom’s armies. At the beginning of David’s return, we read that David appoints Amasa as commander of his armies. Again, the text doesn’t say anything, but there is speculation that David knew or found out that Joab was the one who killed his son, Absalom. From this point of view, David’s replacement of Joab with Amasa might be seen as judgement or punishment. However, an alternate view is that David saw the importance of unifying Absalom’s armies and followers with his own – to get past the fighting. And this would be the first step in that.
We then read that David again encounters Shimei, who had previously cursed David. Here, Shimei begs David’s forgiveness. And contrary to his men’s repeated desire to kill Shimei for his previous insult, David chooses to forgive him.
David’s next encounter in his rise to Jerusalem is with Mephibosheth. Now we skipped the corresponding encounter when talking about David’s descent. But in short, when David was exiting Jerusalem, Ziba, Mephibosheth’s servant, had told David that Mephibosheth had abandoned David. In return, David granted Ziba all of Mephibosheth’s property. Here, Mephibosheth says that Ziba was lying – that he had remained loyal all the while. The text doesn’t tell us who is telling the truth. But what David does is to divide the property between Ziba and Mephibosheth. Perhaps this is an example – once again, almost parable-like – of the importance of reconciliation?
So while we don’t want to be reductive, if we think about the characters of Joab and David in this narrative of rebellion, we can see a pretty stark difference. One – the person of Joab – who is determined to do whatever he can, by whatever means are at his disposal, in order to get what he wants (even if what he seems to want is to support David’s kingdom). The other – David – seems to display those characteristics of the kingdom that Jesus speaks about in the sermon on the mount (blessed are the peacemakers, for example). So while this entire narrative results from the sin of David, and outlines the consequences for that sin, we can still say that David, imperfect David, is at least trying to be a man after God’s own heart.
So to sum up what we’ve talked about today, we’ve identified three main motifs. Firstly, in David’s descent or exit from Jerusalem, we see a man who seems to be willing and committed to accepting the judgement and discipline of God. Secondly, we noted that even in the judgement rendered against David – which is manifested in the rebellion of Absalom – God is still working out his purposes to build His kingdom through David – that is, it is by God’s purposes that Absalom is defeated. Lastly, we note that in David’s restoration, his return to Jerusalem, the emphasis is on reconciliation, on bringing the broken parts of Israel back together.
And this brings us to the final part of our passage today – chapter 20. In chapter 20, we read about yet another rebellion that rises up against David. This time, Sheba (a Benjamite) rallies the people of Israel against David and the tribe of Judah. (It’s during this episode that David sends his new commander, Amasa, to deal with the rebellion and Joab winds up killing Amasa.)
Now I don’t want to say too much about this second rebellion. But it may be disheartening after everything that we’ve just read, and about David’s efforts to reconcile the nation and people of Israel, to end the story with yet another rebellion. But perhaps a couple of thoughts/reflections might be useful to you.
Firstly, it’s worth mentioning again that this wraps up our section today (15:13-20) in rebellion. Structurally, this is interesting, of course. But it also says something about this part of David’s story – the story of the decline of David’s kingdom. And I want to say yet again that all of this is part of the judgement for David’s sin. We can’t lose sight of that, even in spite of David’s return to power.
Secondly, I want to reiterate what we’ve said before – that, though people put David’s kingdom on a pedestal (so to speak), David’s kingdom was not the final fulfillment of God’s promise. David, a sinner like the rest of us, saw the consequences of his sin – and we’re just seeing the beginnings of it here. As Sheba rallies the tribes of Israel against David and the tribe of Judah, we will see this division of the kingdom continue and worsen in Israel’s later history.
But thirdly and finally, what we see in the story today is that God is continuing to do his work, continuing to make straight the way for Jesus, and continuing to bring about the redemption of His people, even through the sinfulness and brokenness of the world. It strikes me that throughout this entire episode – and here I’m referring to everything from chapter 13 to the end of chapter 20, nobody really acts righteously. And I do want to recognize that David tries, but we need to remember that all of this is because of David’s sin. But Amnon, Absalom, Joab, and the rest are all pretty shady characters. Is this the kingdom of David that is supposed to be a model and the promise for future Israel? Everyone seems to be after their own good, their own benefit. Everyone seems to be seeking power, pleasure, revenge, or wealth. Who is seeking God?
Well, in fact, there seems to be one person. At the end of David’s return to Israel, we read about his encounter with Barzillai. And we read that Barzillai had provided for David and his men when they were escaping Jerusalem. But in the midst of all the people gathering to win David’s favour, to beg for forgiveness, to seek rewards, Barzillai wants nothing. David wanted to honour him, but Barzillai refuses. The only reason he seems to be there is to honour David. The only reason he came is to honour his king.
And yet, even though perhaps only Barzillai demonstrates a glimmer of the kind of kingdom that God is working towards, in the midst of all this conflict, sin, and treachery, God still desires to bring restoration, bring reconciliation, to bring forgiveness to a broken and fallen world.
I don’t know who you might relate to most in this story. I don’t know if you think you’re more David or Joab; Absalom or Amasa; perhaps you see within yourself a shadow of Shimei, or perhaps even Barzillai. Perhaps you think you, like David, deserve judgement. Maybe you think you deserve reward. Maybe you think you’ve been as faithful as possible to God’s plan and purpose. Maybe you know you haven’t, seeking your own instead.
The remarkable thing about the gospel – the good news of God – is that His redemption is not subject to the whims of human beings. It is not dependent on our foibles and failures, or even our victories and successes. Was God’s intention that David sin? Certainly not. But David’s shortcomings did not undermine God’s work. And when we talk about David being a man after God’s own heart, this is at least part of what David knew. David knew that the kingdom was God’s. David knew that there was only one king. David knew that the restoration of Israel, the redemption of God’s people, was not dependent on him, but purely on Him who loves us more than we can possibly comprehend.
In many ways, David’s story ends in disaster; it ends in disappointment. But as we’ve said many times before, this is not the end of the story. And our stories are not yet over – they are not yet completed. And He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.