His Son’s Death

2 Samuel 18

"The triumphing of the wicked is short, and the joy of the hypocrite but for a moment" (Job 20:5)—often so even when measured by human and temporal standards: how much more so in the light of eternity! Alas, that our hearts are so little affected by that unspeakably solemn consideration—a never-ending future: enjoyed under the blissful approbation of God, or endured beneath His frightful curse. What are the smiles and honors of men worth, if their sequel be the everlasting frown of the Almighty? The pleasures of sin are but "For a season" (Heb. 11:25), whereas the pleasures which are at God’s right hand are "for evermore" (Ps. 16: 11). Then what shall it profit a man if he should gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? Yet how many, like Esau of old, place more value upon a mess of pottage than the blessings of heaven. How many, like Ahab, will sell themselves to do evil in order for a brief moment of pleasure or fame.

"The triumphing of the wicked is short." Yes, and so it proved with David’s wretched son. Absalom had laid his plans carefully, executed them zealously, and bad carried them out without any compunction (2 Sam. 15:1, 2, 5). He had taken a mean advantage of his father’s indisposition and had stolen the hearts of many of his subjects from the king. He aspired to the kingdom, and now determined to seize the throne for himself (15:10). He had assembled his forces at Jerusalem, and had the powerful Ahithophel to counsel him. He had ruthlessly determined that his father’s life must be sacrificed to his ambition, and had now gone forth at the head of the army to accomplish his death (17:24). His triumph seemed to be assured, but unknown and unsuspected by himself, he was going forth to meet his own tragic but fully merited doom.

"And David numbered the people that were with him, and set captains of thousands and captains of hundreds over them" (2 Sam. 18:1). As Ahithophel had foreseen, the delay of Absalom had afforded David the opportunity to greatly augment his forces. Though considerable numbers had joined the rebel, yet there must have been many scattered throughout Israel who still remained loyal to David, and as the news of the insurrection spread abroad, no doubt hundreds of them took up arms and went forth to assist their fugitive king. That his army had, by this time, been greatly strengthened, is clear from the terms of this verse. David now proceeded to muster and marshal his reinforcements so that they might be used to the best advantage. He girded on the sword with some of the animation of early days, and the light of trustful valor once more shone in his eyes.

It seems quite clear that, by this time, David had no fear of what the outcome would be of the coming conflict. He had committed his cause to God, and looked forward with confidence to the issue of the impending battle. The striking answer which God had given to his prayer that the counsel of Ahithophel might be turned to foolishness, must have greatly strengthened his faith. His language at the close of Psalms 42 and 43 (composed at this period) witness to his hope in the living God. Yet let it be duly noted that strong faith did not produce either sloth or carelessness, David acted with diligence and wisdom: marshalling his forces, putting them in good order, dividing them to best advantage, and placing them under the command of his most experienced generals. In order to insure success, our responsibility is to employ all lawful and prudent means. Declining to do so is presumption, and not faith.

"And David sent forth a third part of the people under the hand of Joab, and a third part under the hand of Abishai the son of Zeruiah, Joab’s brother, and a third part under the hand of Ittai the Gittite" (v. 2). How true it is that there is nothing new under the sun. Military tactics were conducted along the same lines then as they are now: David disposed his forces into a central army, with right and left protecting flanks. "And the king said unto the people, I will surely go forth with you myself also" (v. 2). David was not lacking in courage, and was ready and willing to share any danger with his men. Yet we believe there was something more than bravery evidenced by these words: was he not anxious to be on the spot when the crisis arrived, so that he could protect his wayward son from the fury of his soldiers! Yes, we see here the father’s heart, as well as the king’s nobility.

"And the king said unto the people, I will surely go forth with you myself also." His desire was still upon Absalom, judging that his presence might help to shield him, for he was of too soft a heart to disown the feelings of a father, even toward one who had risen up in rebellion against him. Yet it seems to us that there was something of a deeper character which prompted David at this time. He would feign go forth himself because he realized that it was his sin which had brought all this trouble upon the land, and he was far too noble minded to let the risks of battle find any in the foreground but himself. Let not the reader forget what we pointed out several times in the preceding chapters, namely, that it is as the humble renitent David is to be viewed throughout this connection: this it is which supplies the key to various details in these incidents,

"But the people answered, Thou shalt not go forth: for if we flee away, they will not care for us; neither if half of us die, will they care for us: but now thou art worth ten thousand of us, therefore now it is better that thou succour us out of the city" (v. 3). This is indeed beautiful. David had shown his affection for his faithful followers, and now they evidence theirs for him. They would not hear of their beloved king adventuring himself into the place of danger. How highly they esteemed him! and justly so: he was not only possessed of qualities which could well command, but of those which held the hearts of those who knew him best. The deep veneration in which he was held comes out again at a later date, when he was hazarding his life in battle with the Philistines: his men sware to him saying, "Thou shalt go no more out with us to battle, that thou quench not the light of Israel" (21:17). He was their "light": their leader, their inspirer, their joy, the honored and loved one, in favor with God and man.

"And the king said unto them, What seemeth you best I will do. And the king stood by the gate side, and all the people came out by hundreds and by thousands" (v. 4). "He might be more serviceable to them by tarrying in the city, with a reserve of his forces there, whence he might send them recruits—that may be a position of real service, which yet is not a position of danger. The king acquiesced in their reasons, and changed his purpose. It is no piece of wisdom to be stiff in our resolutions, but to be willing to hear reason, even from our inferiors, and to be overruled by their advice, when it appears to be for our own good. Whether the people’s prudence hid an eye to it or no, God’s providence wisely ordered it, that David should not be in the field of battle; for then his tenderness had certainly interposed to save Absalom’s life, whom God had determined to destroy (Matthew Henry).

Personally, we regard the king’s acquiescence as another indication of his chastened heart. There is nothing that more humbles and meekens the soul than a spirit of genuine repentance, as nothing more tends to harden and swell with self-importance than the absence of it. He who is blind to his own faults and failings, is unprepared to listen to the counsels of others: an unbroken will is self-assertive and impervious to either the feelings or wishes of his fellows. But David was sorrowing over his past sins, and that made him tractable and in a condition to yield to the desire of his men. As he stood at the gate, watching his army go forth to the battle of the wood of Ephraim, victory or defeat would be much the same to him. Whatever the outcome, the cause must be traced back to his own wrong doing. He must have stood there with a sad remembrance of that other battle, in which a devoted servant had fallen, as one murdered by his own hand (2 Sam. 11:24).

"And the king commanded Joab and Abishai and Ittai, saying, Deal gently for my sake with the young man, even with Absalom. And all the people heard when the king gave all the captains charge concerning Absalom" (v. 5). So great was David’s love for his wayward son that, even now, he sought to deliver him from the stroke of death. He knew that Absalom was an excuseless rebel, who sought his life and throne, who had proven himself to be the very incarnation of iniquitous ingratitude, of unfeeling cruelty, of unadulterated wickedness, of Satanic ambition. He was guilty of treason of the vilest sort, and his life by every law of justice was entirely forfeited; yet in spite of all, the heart of David remained steadfast unto him. There is nothing recorded in Holy Writ which exhibits so vividly the depth and power of human affection, nothing which displays so touchingly love for the utterly unworthy. Therefore, is it not designed to turn our thoughts unto a higher and purer Love!

Yes, see this aged parent, driven from his home, humiliated before his subjects, stricken to the very depths of his heart by the murderous hatred of the son whom he had forgiven and honored, loving this worthless and devil-driven youth with an unchanged devotion, that sought to save him from his just and impending doom. Yet wonderful as this was, it provides only a faint shadow of the amazing love of Christ, which moved Him to set His heart upon "His own," even while they were totally depraved, utterly corrupt, dead in trespasses and sins. God commended His love toward us by the death of His Son (Rom. 5:8), and it was for the rebellious and the ungodly that He was crucified. Nor can anything ever separate us from that love: no, "Having loved His own which were in the world, He loved them unto the end" (John 13:1). Verily, such love "passeth knowledge."

"So the people went out into the field against Israel: and the battle was in the wood of Ephraim" (v. 6). This statement has presented quite a problem to the commentators, some going so far as to (irreverently) say there was a slip of the historian’s pen. As we have seen, both David and Absalom had crossed the Jordan and were now "in the land of Gilead" (17:22, 26), which was on the eastward side of the river; whereas their territory lay wholly on the west of it. How, then, ask the skeptics, could this battle be said to have taken place in "the wood of Ephraim"? Did the narrator err in his geography? Certainly not: it is the critics who display their ignorance of sacred history.

We do not have to go outside of the Scriptures in order to discover the solution to this "serious difficulty." If we turn back to Judges 12, we discover that an attack was made by "Ephraimites" upon Jephthah in the land of Gilead, under pretense of a wrong being done them when they were not invited by the latter to take part in his successful invasion of Ammon. Jephthah sought to soothe his angry assailants, but in vain. A battle was fought near "the passages of the Jordan" (Judges 12:5), and Ephraim met with fearful slaughter: in all forty-two thousand of their men being put to death. Now an event so fearful was not likely to pass away without some memorial, and what more natural than to name their grave, the Aceldama of their tribe, by this name "the wood of Ephraim" in the land of Gilead!

For a short while the battle was furious, but the issue was not long left in doubt: the rebels suffering a heavy defeat: "The people of Israel were slain before the servants of David, and there was there a great slaughter that day of twenty thousand men, For the battle was here scattered over the face of all the country: and the wood devoured more people that day than the sword devoured" (vv. 7, 8). "Now they smarted justly for their treason against their lawful prince, their uneasiness under so good a government, and their base ingratitude to so good a governor; and found what it was to take up arms for an usurper, who with his kisses and caresses had wheedled them into their own ruin. Now where are the rewards, the preferment’s, the golden days, they promise themselves from him? Now they see what it is to take counsel against the Lord and His anointed, and to think of breaking His bands asunder" (Matthew Henry).

Most evident was it on which side the Lord was. All was confusion and destruction in the ranks of the apostate. The anointed eye may discern the hand of God as manifest here as, on a former occasion, it has been at Gideon: as there the "hailstones," so here the "wood" devoured more than the sword. No details are given so it is useless to conjecture whether it was pits and bogs or the wild beasts that infested those forests: sufficient that it was God Himself who fought against them—conquering them by a much smaller force than their own, and then, their being pursued by His destructive providences when they sought to escape the sword. Nevertheless, such wholesale slaughter of Israel—in view of their surrounding enemies—was a serious calamity for David’s kingdom.

And meanwhile, what of the arch-traitor himself? Ah, he is dealt with separately, and that, in a manner which still more conspicuously displayed God’s hand: he was "made a show of openly." "And Absalom rode upon a mule, and the mule went under the thick boughs of a great oak, and his head caught hold of the oak, and he was taken up between the heaven and the earth; and the mule that was under him went away" (v. 9). Those boughs, like the hands of a giant, gripped him, holding him fast either by his neck or by his luxuriant hair (2 Sam. 14:26). His beast continued its progress, leaving him there, as though glad to be rid of such a burden. There he was suspended, between heaven and earth, to intimate he was fit for neither. Behold the striking providence of this: "Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree" (Gal. 3:13)! There he hung as an object of shame, filled with terror, incapable of delivering himself, unable to either fight or flee. He remained in this direful situation for some considerable time, awaiting with horror his merited doom.

Full opportunity was now afforded him to meditate upon his crimes and make his peace with God. But, alas, so far as the sacred record informs us, there was no contrition on his part, nothing to intimate that he now felt unfit to either live or die. As God declared of Jezebel "I gave her space to repent of her fornication, and she repented not" (Rev. 2:21), so the life of Absalom was spared a few more hours, but no hint is given us that he confessed his fearful sins to God before being summoned into His holy presence. No, God had no place in his thoughts; as he had lived, so he died—defiant and impenitent. His father’s love, tears and prayers were wasted on him. Absalom’s ease presents to us one of the darkest pictures of fallen human nature to be met with in the whole of God’s Word.

A more melancholy and tragic spectacle can scarcely be imagined than Absalom dangling from the boughs of that tree. Deserted by his fellows, for they had one and all left him to his fate; abandoned by God, now that the cup of his iniquity was filled; a prey to remorse, for though utterly heartless and conscienceless, his thoughts now must have been of the gloomiest nature. Quite unable to free himself, he was compelled to wait, hour after hour, until someone came and put an end to his wretched life. What an unspeakably solemn object lesson is this for the young people of our day! how clearly the fearful end of Absalom demonstrates the Lord’s abhorrence of rebellion against parents! God’s Word tells us that it is the fool who "despiseth his father’s instruction" (Prov. 15:5), and that "whoso curseth his Father or his mother, his lamp shall be put out in obscure darkness" (Prov. 20:20); and again, "The eye that mocketh at his father, and despiseth to obey his mother, the ravens of the valley shall pick it out, and the young eagles shall eat it" (Prov. 30:17).

The sands of his hour glass had now almost run out. "And a certain man saw it, and told Joab, and said, Beheld, I saw Absalom hanged in an oak" (v. 10). This man had beheld Absalom’s tragic plight, but had made no effort to extricate him: instead, he went and reported it to the general. "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. 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" (vv. 11, 12). And here we must stop. Amidst so much that is revolting, it is a welcome contrast to behold the obedience of this man to his royal master.