His Son’s Death


2 Samuel 18

In our last we left Absalom caught in an oak, suspended in the air, unable to free himself. His predicament was indeed a desperate one, for all his followers had forsaken him. What was to be the sequel? David had given express instructions to his generals, "Deal gently for my sake with the young man, even with Absalom" (2 Sam. 18:5). In that charge we see expressed the weakness of a doting father, rather than the uncompromising faithfulness of a monarch. It was not for the interests of his kingdom that such an insurrectionist should be spared, for none could tell how soon he would occasion further trouble. Sentiment ought never to override the requirements of righteousness, yet often it is far from easy to perform the latter when they come into conflict with the yearnings of the former. By yielding to his paternal feelings and giving such counsel to his men, David created a difficulty which should never have been raised.

"And a certain man saw it, and told Joab, and said, Behold, I saw Absalom hanged in an oak" (2 Sam. 18:10). The commentators differ considerably in their estimations of what is recorded in this verse and those which immediately follow. Some criticize this man for his timidity in refusing to take matters into his own hands and rid the earth of such a wretch; others go to an opposite extreme and blame him as a sneak for revealing the situation to Joab, knowing that he would have no scruples against killing Absalom. Personally, we consider he did the right thing in taking this middle course. It was not for him, as a private person, to fly in the face of the king’s charge, and act as public executioner; nor was it the thing for him to conceal from the general-in-charge the helpless position in which the archenemy of David was now placed: all of which illustrates what was said at the close of the preceding paragraph.

"And Joab said unto the man that told him, And, behold, thou sawest him, and why didst thou not smite him there to the ground? and I would have given thee ten shekels of silver, and a girdle" (v. 11). Those words were evidently uttered rashly on the spur of the moment, for when Joab had listened to the man’s reply, he did not further upbraid him. Joab failed to realize the quandary in which David’s command had placed this man, or perhaps he was constitutionally incapable of appreciating the conscientious scruples which regulated others—which seems the more likely in the light of what follows. What a coarse and mercenary spirit his words betrayed! As though a monetary reward should have been sufficient inducement for anyone to have slain Absalom in cold blood. One cannot expect such a gross materialist to value the finer sensibilities of others.

"And the man said unto Joab, Though I should receive a thousand shekels of silver in mine hand, yet would I not put forth mine hand against the king’s son: for in our hearing the king charged thee and Abishai and Ittai, saying, Beware that none touch the young man Absalom. Otherwise I should have wrought falsehood against mine own life: for there is no matter hid from the king, and thou thyself wouldest have set thyself against me" (vv. 12, 13). This unnamed man was not to be intimidated by the fierce Joab, but boldly stood his ground and frankly avowed the principles which had regulated his conduct. Though it was not a lawful command which the king had imposed upon his subjects, yet this one respected the authority of his royal master. Moreover, as he shrewdly pointed out, what advantage would he receive from the largest reward if the penalty for his action were the forfeiting of his own life? That was an argument which admitted no answer, acknowledged by Joab’s abruptly terminating the conversation under the plea of haste.

"Then said Joab, I may not tarry thus with thee. And he took three darts in his hand, and thrust them through the heart of Absalom, while he was yet alive in the midst of the oak" (v. 14). Joab will come before us again in the chapters that follow, but this seems as good a place as any to offer some remarks upon his character, it has been rightly said that "Among the followers and closest adherents of David, Joab was one. He was early found with David in the cave. Whilst Jonathan tarried in the court of Saul, Joab was sharing the hardships and dangers of David in the wilderness. Throughout all his subsequent dangers, he stood like a lion at his side, and if extent of outward service were regarded, David perhaps had no such servant as he. Yet in order to serve David aright, it was necessary to have respect not to his office merely, but also to appreciate the character of him who bore that office; to love him for his own as well as for his office sake, and above all, to remember that no real service could be rendered to David, except God were reverently regarded and reverently obeyed" (B. W. Newton).

It is possible for one to serve, because of the dignity of his office, one whose excellency as an individual we have no regard for. In such an event, our service, no matter however energetic, will probably have its springs in self-interest, and its course will be marked by self-will and pride. Such indeed was the case with Joab: he was zealous in maintaining the support of David’s throne, yet he was ever alive to the maintenance of his own personal interests. He deemed it best that the crown should rest on David’s brow, because by so doing his own fortunes were furthered. No matter how definitely or plaintively David might express his desires, Joab never hesitated, when the opportunity arose, to outrage the king’s feelings or defy his will if he could thereby gain his own ends without at the same time compromising the stability of the throne. In such a course, Joab regarded neither David nor God.

No one can read carefully the sacred narrative without perceiving that in the latter years of his reign David was little more than a nominal king. He seems to have come thoroughly under the power of Joab, the captain of his armies: on the one hand he was too suspicious to trust him, and on the other too weak to dismiss him. It is both interesting and instructive to trace out the occasion and cause whereby Joab established such a despotic control over his royal master. Nor is this by any means a complicated task: "David wrote a letter to Joab, and sent it by the hand of Uriah. And he wrote in the letter, saying, Set ye Uriah in the forefront of the hottest battle, and retire ye from him, that he may be smitten, and die" (2 Sam. 11:14, 15). By making Joab the partner and secret agent of his guilty plot concerning Uriah, David sold himself into his hands; in that fatal letter he forfeited his liberty, surrendering it to this unscrupulous accomplice.

By temperament Joab was a daring and energetic man: a bold fighter in lawless times. The faction of Saul’s house was so strong that at the beginning of his reign David could scarcely call the throne his own, or choose his servants according to his own pleasure. Joab was an able warrior, and though he sometimes avenged his own private quarrels at the expense of his sovereign’s honor, thereby vexing him at heart, yet he was too strongly entrenched to be displaced. Nevertheless, at that time David was not afraid to open his mouth and rebuke him for his slaying of Abner. Nay, be openly asserted his authority by compelling Joab to rend his clothes, put on sackcloth, and mourn before this very Abner (2 Sam. 3 :28-31)—a most humiliating experience for one of his own proud heart, and which made it unmistakably manifest that David was as yet supreme in his own dominions.

Circumstances might still constrain David to employ this renowned warrior, and he had not—short as had then been his reign—yielded himself up to this imperious subject. On the contrary, as his own cause waxed stronger and stronger, and the remnant of Saul’s party dispersed, he became king of Israel in fact as well as in name, so that his throne was established not only by law, but by public opinion too, for we are told that "whatsoever the king did, pleased all the people" (2 Sam. 3:36). Consequently, he was now in the condition to rule for himself, and this he did, for a little later we find him appointing this officer to be the commander of his army by his own decision, and that simply because Joab was the one who won that rank, when it was promised by David as the reward to any individual in his host who should be the first to get up to the gutter and smite Jebusites at the storming of Zion (2 Sam. 5:8).

We have only to read carefully through 2 Samuel 8 and 10, in which are narrated the bold achievements of David at this bright period of his life, his prowess abroad and his strong policy at home, the energy he instilled into the national character, and the respect he commanded for it throughout all the surrounding countries, to perceive that he reigned without restraint and without a rival. But then came his fearful fall, that evil sowing from which he reaped so bitter a harvest, From that point onwards we may discern how Joab usurped by degrees an authority which he had not before. More and more he took matters into his own hands, executing or disregarding David’s orders as suited his own designs; until finally, we shall see he dared to conspire against his very throne and the rightful successor of his line.

An incident recorded in 2 Samuel 14 well illustrates what we have pointed out above. There we see the hands of David tied, his efforts to free himself from this oppressor both feeble and ineffectual, and his punishment of Absalom successfully resisted, for it was Joab, through the widow of Tekoah, who clamored for the recall of Absalom from his banishment. The suspicions of the king were aroused, for he asked, "Is not the hand of Joab with thee in all this?" (14:19), nevertheless, he yielded to his will. It seems that this move on Joab’s part was without any other design than to embarrass the king and force him to do that which could only lower him in the estimation of his subjects. Certainly he had no love for Absalom as the sequel clearly shows.

During Absalom’s rebellion, Joab, as might have been expected, was loyal to the cause of David, for he had no desire to see his government overthrown and one of another order take its place. Joab knew full well what was in the heart of Absalom, and therefore he was prepared to resist him with all his might. He wished to have the present government of Israel continued, and that in David’s own person, yet it was out of no love for David that he now fought against Absalom. This is evident from his open defiance of the express charge which the king had given his generals: "Deal gently for my sake with Absalom." But Joab heeded not, for he had lost all respect for David’s commands. Nothing could he more deliberate than his infraction of this one—probably the most imperious which had ever been laid upon him. It was not in the fury of the fight that he forgot his commission of mercy, but in cold blood he deliberately went to the place where Absalom was hanging helpless and slew him.

No, if Joab had loved David and regarded him as his friend, he had never recklessly despised the anguish of David’s heart and made him cry, "Would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!" Whatever may be said about his conferring a public benefit by the removal of this reprobate ringleader, the fact remains that Joab no longer cared anything for a king whose guilty secret he shared. He thrust Absalom through the heart with his three darts, and then made his way, with countenance unabashed, into the chamber of his royal master, where David was lamenting the death of his son. As we shall see, the sequel is a piece with what preceded: Joab imperious and heartless; David, once so regnant, abject in spirit and tame to the lash. How had the mighty fallen! Into what public humiliation as well as personal sorrows had his deed of lust and blood now sunk him down?

"And they took Absalom, and cast him into a great pit in the wood, and laid a very great heap of stones upon him: and all Israel fled every one to his tent" (2 Sam. 18:17). What in ending is this! Hanged in a tree, abandoned by his followers, dispatched by Joab, and now his body treated with the utmost contempt. Instead of receiving the honorable burial of a king’s son, he was ignominiously dealt with as a criminal: the casting of him into a great pit intimated their valuation of his carcass, while their laying upon him a great heap of stones signified that he ought to have been stoned to death as a rebellious son (Deut. 21:18, 21).

"Now Absalom in his lifetime had taken and reared up for himself a pillar, which is in the king’s dale: for he said, I have no son to keep my name in remembrance: and he called the pillar after his own name: and it is called unto this day, Absalom’s place" (v. 18). What a striking and solemn contrast do these two verses present, and what a forcible illustration do they supply of that principle "whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased" (Luke 14:11); so it was in the history of Haman and of Nebuchadnezzar, and such was the case here. Absalom had three Sons (2 Sam. 14:27), but they had predeceased their father, and therefore he sought to perpetuate his memory by setting up this pillar to honor his name, by the side of which he doubtless intended that his body should be interred. Alas, how vain are some men to attract the note of future generations, who are at no pains to seek the approbation of God. But even in death Absalom was thwarted: "a great heap of stones as a monument to his villainy was all that marked his resting-place.

"Then said Ahimaaz the son of Zadok, Let me now run, and bear the king tidings, how that the Lord hath avenged him of his enemies" (v. 19). Ahimaaz was the son of Zadok the priest (2 Sam. 15:27), who was deeply devoted to David. He was one of the two men who had endangered their lives in the king’s service by bringing him tidings of Absalom’s plans (17:17-21). That he was a godly soul is intimated by the language which he used on this occasion, for instead of flattering Joab, by congratulating him for his bringing the conflict to a triumphant issue, he ascribes the success to the Lord. How often God is forgotten in the flush of victory, and instead of exclaiming "His right hand, and His holy arm, hath gotten Him the victory" (Ps. 98:1), proud man attributes the defeating of his enemies to his own strength, vigilance or skill. In such an hour it is for the servant of God to lift up his voice and make known the truth that the glory belongs to God alone.

"And Joab said unto him, Thou shalt not bear tidings this day, but thou shalt bear tidings another day: but this day thou shalt bear no tidings, because the king’s sons is dead" (v. 20). In the light of what follows it is not easy to determine what it was that influenced Joab to refuse the request of Ahimaaz, for immediately afterward he bids another man go and tell the king what he had seen, and when Ahimaaz renewed his request, after a slight demur Joab granted it. It is possible that Joab feared for the life of Ahimaaz and considered he was too valuable a man to he thrown away, for the name of the selected messenger ("Cushi") suggested that he was an Ethiopian—probably an African slave. Joab knew that David was an impulsive and quick-tempered man, and remembered the fate which overtook the one who bore to him the tidings of Saul’s death (2 Sam. 1:15), and therefore he probably thought that a similar vengeance might be visited upon the one who should inform him of Absalom’s death.

"Then said Ahimaaz the son of Zadok yet again to Joab. But howsoever, let me, I pray thee, also run after Cushi. And Joab said, Wherefore wilt thou run, my son, seeing that thou hast no tidings ready?" (v. 22). The marginal renderings of this verse seem to decidedly confirm what we have just said above. The words of Ahimaaz "But howsoever" are literally "be what may": Whatever be the risk of incurring the king’s fury, I am quite willing to face it. Joab’s "Wherefore wilt thou, my son," indicates that he held Ahimaaz in some esteem, and his "thou hast no tidings ready" is really "no tidings convenient," which intimates he sought to discourage him from being the bearer of news which would be so unwelcomed to David. And why, it may be asked, was Ahimaaz anxious to serve as messenger on this fateful occasion? We believe it was because he was so devoted to the king that he wished, so far as possible, to tactfully lighten the blow. This he did, for instead of bluntly blurting out that Absalom had been slain he simply said, "Blessed be the Lord thy God, which hath delivered up the men that lifted up their hand against my lord the King" (v. 28).