A Bittersweet Victory – 2 Samuel 17:24 – 19:8

After crossing the Jordan, David finds shelter in the town of Mahanaim. This is the same place where Ish-Bosheth, Saul’s remaining heir, found a safe haven from David after the death of his father and brothers on the battlefield. And now David was looking at the same town to provide him refuge against his own son. Absalom was himself crossing the Jordan in pursuit of his father and his men. He had taken over the throne at Jerusalem and appointed Amasa (cousin of Joab) as commander of his troops. He desperately wanted to annihilate David and his men to cement his claim to the throne with virtually no opposers. Absalom and the Israelite army had taken camp in Gilead and the forest of Ephraim would be where the battleline would be drawn.

At Mahanaim, David was given a warm welcome with Shobi, Makirand Barzillai bringing beddings, utensils and sustenance for his men. David and his men were on the run again but this time they were being helped by foreigners. That is truly remarkable that these people who were not even part of David’s kingdom chose to remain loyal to a fallen king. They helped support the troop and perhaps were a boost to the morale at camp David. Perhaps they believed that David would return to the throne one day and it would not be unwise to have the king of Israel on their side. Or perhaps they were returning the favour that the king had shown them in the past.

A Skirmish in the Forest

David sent out his troops, a third under the command of Joab, a third under Joab’s brother Abishai son of Zeruiah, and a third under Ittai the Gittite. The king told the troops, “I myself will surely march out with you.”
But the men said, “You must not go out; if we are forced to flee, they won’t care about us. Even if half of us die, they won’t care; but you are worth ten thousand of us. It would be better now for you to give us support from the city.”
The king answered, “I will do whatever seems best to you.”
So the king stood beside the gate while all his men marched out in units of hundreds and of thousands.

2 Samuel 18:2-4 (NIV)

As the deposed king of Israel, Absalom needed to capture and kill his father to secure his throne. He had already won the hearts of his countrymen but by killing off the other candidate they would have no choice but to offer their loyalty to him. So it made sense for David’s men to be protective of their leader as his capture would make their sacrifices futile.

The king commanded Joab, Abishai and Ittai, “Be gentle with the young man Absalom for my sake.” And all the troops heard the king giving orders concerning Absalom to each of the commanders.

2 Samuel 18:5 (NIV)

David asks his men to be gentle with his son just when they were heading out to battle. This a weird request to make when your men are going to the battlefield to fight a war for you. David wants to have his cake and eat it as well as he wants both his kingdom and his son back. He foolishly thinks that he can change the heart of Absalom not knowing that it is only God who can change someone. This leads to another war, an internal war within him is taking place making him even more indecisive, not something that the soldiers need to see in their leader right as they are heading out to the battlefield.

Now Absalom happened to meet David’s men. He was riding his mule, and as the mule went under the thick branches of a large oak, Absalom’s hair got caught in the tree. He was left hanging in midair, while the mule he was riding kept on going.
When one of the men saw what had happened, he told Joab, “I just saw Absalom hanging in an oak tree.”

2 Samuel 18:9-10 (NIV)

Though others would have been reluctant to lay their hands on the king’s son, Joab did not even second guess his decision to thrust three javelins into the black heart of Absalom. His armour-bearers followed suit and struck Absalom and killed him. surrounded Absalom, struck him and killed him. Then Joab sounded the trumpet, and the troops stopped pursuing the troops of Absalom and Amasa.

Joab defied the direct orders of the king and killed Absalom with his own hands. This was not the first time that Joab had gone against the king’s wishes but this time he had laid on the king’s heir apparent. It was Joab who had helped clear the air between the king and his son when he brought Absalom back to Jerusalem from his exile. Joab was perhaps fed up with the indecisive nature of the king and his hypocrisy when dealing with the transgressions of his own family members.

Even when David wanted to kill one of Joab’s most loyal men (Uriah) just to hide his shame, Joab obliged but he would not put his own family in danger by letting the rebel who started the uprising return to Jerusalem. He was loyal to David and respected his throne but he could not take the risk of letting Absalom live and having his loved one get killed. He had already lost his brother Asahel because of David’s indecisiveness.

A Bittersweet Victory

Now Ahimaaz son of Zadok said, “Let me run and take the news to the king that the LORD has vindicated him by delivering him from the hand of his enemies. ”
“You are not the one to take the news today,” Joab told him. “You may take the news another time, but you must not do so today, because the king’s son is dead.”
Then Joab said to a Cushite, “Go, tell the king what you have seen.” The Cushite bowed down before Joab and ran off.

2 Samuel 18:19-21 (NIV)

Ahimaaz was the son of Zadok the priest, and one of the spies whom David had planted in Jerusalem. His task was to watch over Absalom’s every move and report back to David. He was the key reason for the failed attempt of Absalom and Amasa to capture David as he had risked his life that night to bring the news of their plan of attack to David’s ears. In that sense, he feels that it is his duty to report back to David the good news of his men having won the war.

However, Joab was closest to David’s heart and knew that the news of Absalom’s death would not merit any reward for the informant and wisely sent a Cushite instead. But Ahimaaz was adamant and ran faster than the Cushite to deliver the good news before the messenger could inform the king of his son’s death.

While David was sitting between the inner and outer gates, the watchman went up to the roof of the gateway by the wall. As he looked out, he saw a man running alone.
The watchman called out to the king and reported it.
The king said, “If he is alone, he must have good news.” And the runner came closer and closer.
Then the watchman saw another runner, and he called down to the gatekeeper, “Look, another man running alone!”
The king said, “He must be bringing good news, too.”

2 Samuel 18:24-26 (NIV)

David wanted peace with his son and was ready to be ignorant about the ground reality. He would have known that the chances of survival of both his men and Absalom were slim but he still was contemplating the best-case scenario in his head. Sometimes we want to believe our own version of reality and restructure the event in our life to fit our narrative. When things do not go our way, we are in constant denial and don’t want to accept the ground reality.

The king asked, “Is the young man Absalom safe?” Ahimaaz answered, “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.”

2 Samuel 18:29 (NIV)

Ahimaaz straight out lied to the king as he wanted to deliver only the good news. He saw the gleam in the king’s eye when asking about his son and could not break his heart along with his bones by delivering the news of Absalom’s death. It is similar to when Mangers want to call only the employees who have been promoted to deliver the good news and let the others who have not made the cut find out on Monday morning when the mass communication is sent out.

Then 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.”
The king asked the Cushite, “Is the young man Absalom safe?”
The Cushite replied, “May the enemies of my lord the king and all who rise up to harm you be like that young man.”
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 Samuel 18:31-33 (NIV)

David crying for his son who had no qualms about putting his father to death is surprising. David and his men had been put through an ordeal and now that they had won the war David could not even enjoy the victory. David still loved his son and had hoped for a family reunion followed by a happily ever after end to their story. He was also aware that it was his son that led to the rift and now he had lost three sons.

Joab Confronts David

Then Joab went into the house to the king and said, “Today you have humiliated all your men, who have just saved your life and the lives of your sons and daughters and the lives of your wives and concubines. You love those who hate you and hate those who love you. You have made it clear today that the commanders and their men mean nothing to you. I see that you would be pleased if Absalom were alive today and all of us were dead. Now go out and encourage your men. I swear by the LORD that if you don’t go out, not a man will be left with you by nightfall. This will be worse for you than all the calamities that have come on you from your youth till now.”

2 Samuel 19:5-7 (NIV)

Joab delivered a passionate speech to David and vents his recent frustration with his ally of decades old. He was the only one who could speak to the king in this way and if the king responded in an unfavourable manner Joab had enough clout to stage a coup against David and assume the throne of Israel. David heard the words of Joab and got up from his mourning and sat at the gateway of the city to meet the troops. He had already lost his son and he did not want to lose his troops on the same day.

Discussion Questions

  • Why would foreigners help David and his men?
  • Why is David’s life more precious than that of his soldiers?
  • What does David expect his men to do when they encounter Absalom?
  • Why did Joab disobey David and kill Absalom?
  • Why does Ahimaaz want to deliver the news to David?
  • Why even after seeing two separate runners David is choosing to believe that the news is good?
  • Why mourn for the son who given the opportunity would not hesitate to kill his father?
  • Why did David finally listen to Joab and come out to meet the troops?


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