David Mourning the Death of Absalom, Gustave Doré

David Mourning the Death of Absalom, Gustave Doré

with Tony W. Cartledge
2 Samuel 18:1-33

O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!” — 2 Samuel 18:33b

Teachers: Scroll down to find teaching resources and Tony’s video.

Paying the Price

There was a day when my late friend Johnny Brown persuaded me to ride around the pasture on a mule of his, “to keep him from getting too wild.” I agreed before realizing that Johnny had no saddle or bridle. He picked up a piece of baling twine and twisted it through the mule’s mouth, then ran a length of the twine along each side of the mule’s head and said “Here you go!”

And here I went – wherever the mule wanted to go. He paid no attention to the thin bridle, no matter how hard I pulled, and soon he had chewed through the twine, leaving me with nothing to do but hold onto his mane and try to stay aboard.

The mule broke for the barn at a gallop, which wouldn’t have been so bad except for a steel cable across the top of the gate, draped with an insecticide-soaked rag designed to treat the cows when they walked beneath it. The cable caught me right in the chest as the mule ran into the feedlot, and soon I was flat on my back, seeing shooting stars in broad daylight.

Agreeing to ride that mule was not one of my better decisions, but it was not as bad as Absalom’s choice to ride his royal mule into a most precarious place.

A one-sided war(vv. 1-8)

Our text recalls the sad story of how David’s son Absalom orchestrated a coup against his father, proclaimed himself king in Jerusalem, and died while trying to eliminate the former regime.

The conflict between David and his son had been a long time coming, and it culminated with a disaffected and power-hungry Absalom recruiting an army of supporters in an effort to topple his father from the throne. [For more, see “The Hardest Question” online.]

Absalom “stole the hearts of the men of Israel,” the narrator claims, and his rebellion garnered so much support that when he advanced on Jerusalem, David fled the city rather than subject it to war. Accompanied by his most ardent supporters and loyal soldiers, David traveled eastward, crossed the Jordan River, and set up camp in the city of Mahanaim, a day’s journey beyond.

Unsatisfied with his occupation of Jerusalem, Absalom armed his new recruits and went after David, hoping to remove his father from the political equation. As Absalom’s army advanced, David changed his course from retreat to attack, dividing his elite soldiers into three groups led by veteran commanders.

David volunteered to lead the army, but his men insisted that he stay behind, since the king’s safety was not only paramount, but also the entire point of the battle: If David died, the rebellion would have succeeded (18:1-4). Relegated to supporting his soldiers from behind, David reviewed the troops as they left Mahanaim, loudly ordering his commanders to “Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom” (18:5).

The account of the actual combat is so abbreviated that it seems like no battle at all. Absalom’s army of conscripts and recruits were numerous, but green. David’s forces were smaller but composed of seasoned professionals who had fought many battles for David. The king’s veteran soldiers flanked Absalom’s army on three sides and forced them into the dense forests of Ephraim, where the exultant narrator claims the forest “devoured” more victims than the soldiers (18:6-8).

An ill-considered death(vv. 9-15)

Absalom had made the poor decision to accompany his army into battle while riding on his mule, standard transportation for kings in those days. Perhaps the mule became spooked: As it ran beneath an oak tree, Absalom’s head got caught in the low-hanging branches while the mule kept running, leaving the would-be king swaying between heaven and earth (18:9).

When one of David’s soldiers spotted Absalom’s helpless state, he reported it to his commander Joab, who was incensed that the man had kept Absalom alive (18:10-13) and left him with a difficult decision. It would have been easy to capture the usurper and bring him to David unharmed, but Joab feared that if he did, David would do nothing more than put him under house arrest and Absalom would be free to continue making trouble.

Joab was a man of action who was guided by strategy rather than emotion. He was not bound to the royal scion by the same cords of love that clouded David’s judgment, and so Joab found it relatively easy to disobey his king for the sake of his country. He decided to kill Absalom (18:14-15).

A broken-hearted man(vv. 16-33)

After seeing to Absalom’s death, Joab restrained the troops, ordering horns to be sounded so that his men would cease pursuing their fellow Israelites. With Absalom dead, there was no need to continue killing those who had been caught up in his rebellion.

Joab likewise ordered his men to bury Absalom in a great pit in the forest so that David would not see what remained of his son. Strategically, he delayed the messengers who would deliver news of the victory, so that the deed was done before David ever knew (18:16-17).

As the reader wonders how David will take the news, the narrator builds suspense by spinning a tale of two messengers. Ahimaaz, a son of the high priest Zadok, had been chosen by David to carry secret messages before, and he wanted the job. Knowing how distraught David would be, Joab would not allow Ahimaaz to go, fearing that David might hurt him when he heard the news.

Joab ordered Ahimaaz to stand aside, and chose instead to send an unnamed Cushite with the message. The Cushite, probably a mercenary, was an African man in a Hebrew world. Not knowing the danger, perhaps, he ran to tell David the news.

Ahimaaz remained persistent, however, and Joab finally agreed to let him go, believing the Cushite had such a head start that things would have settled down by the time Ahimaaz got there. Ahimaaz took a short cut, however, and managed to get there before the Cushite. He told David that the victory had been won, but when he saw that David was concerned only with Absalom, he pretended that he didn’t know what happened and left it for the guileless Cushite to break the news that Absalom was dead.

David responded with the purest example of abject mourning to be found in scripture. Despite the victory won by his brave soldiers against his rebellious offspring, all David could do was to cry out “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would that I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!” (18:33).

Not-so-easy choices

What are we to do with this difficult text? What can we learn from this remarkable soap opera, from these “Days of Their Lives”? Perhaps we can gain something from examining the choices its characters made.

Absalom’s choices were consistently selfish and foolish. He had everything going for him. He was the best-looking man in the kingdom, and talented, too. But his head got too big for his shoulders. Absalom’s decision to rebel against his father’s kingdom led to his own early death.

David’s choices leading up to the battle were made on the basis of what it takes to survive with the least possible conflict. Unfortunately, that isn’t always possible. When conflict is present, it needs to be dealt with openly before it reaches the boiling point.

Joab was a pragmatic man. He chose to do what he believed should be done for the larger good, and to use whatever means were at his disposal to accomplish his goals. It was not the first time he had killed someone that David wanted alive, and it would not be the last. Joab’s violence overshadows all of his other choices.

The unnamed warrior chose to stay out of trouble. When he saw a difficult situation in which he could not win, he chose to avoid it. That soldier’s ability to recognize trouble ahead of time and the wisdom he demonstrated in avoiding it is worth remembering.

Ahimaaz wanted to be in the center of things. He was filled with excitement and wanted to tell the good news, but his fervor was greater than his courage, and he told only part of the story.

One thing all these decisions have in common is that God does not appear to be involved in any of them. In fact, God is wholly absent from this chapter except for two references, when Ahimaaz and the Cushite used the standard formula of praising God for the good news when they report it to the king. There is no evidence that God was consulted in the making of any of these decisions.

There are many areas of life in which God expects us to use our own minds and make good decisions based on the information we have and the love in our hearts, but always within the context of Jesus’ teaching. When we make our decisions without any reference to God’s will for our lives, we are asking for trouble.

All of us face hard choices in life, and sometimes the lines between good and evil, wisdom and folly, prudence and impudence are not at all clear. In those times, especially, talking things out with God and seeking divine direction are essential. There’s no guarantee we will always choose rightly, but a prayerful approach certainly increases our chances. BT

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Adult Teaching Resources

Download the PDF for August 9, 2015 teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide, Digging Deeper, and Hardest Question pages.

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Additional Links/Resources
Read Scripture online: 2 Samuel 18:1-33



Teacher Prep | Youth & This Session

“I can do it myself.” How many times have you heard your students utter this phrase? There are many times that we have audibly heard our students say this, but there are others times when they say it clearly through their actions. The students with whom we minister are all trying to discover who they are and who God has called them to be. They are trying to assert their independence while still trying to hold on the groups that have helped them to be who they are. Students want to show that they can do things for themselves, but we all know that we need community. One of the best ways to do this is to share our own stories of how community has helped us when we have tried to do something by ourselves.

Teaching Resources | Download

Download the PDF for youth teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide for this lesson.

Encourage youth to check out this video ahead of the lesson.

“Slammed by the Pipe” from Blue Crush

Additional Links/Resources
Read Scripture online: 2 Samuel 18:1-33