Today we continue our study of 2 Samuel. In the first half of the book we saw David’s rise to power and his glory days as king (1:1-9:13). Then beginning at chapter 10 we began to see David’s fall and its consequences. The fall commenced with David’s adultery with Bathsheba, followed by the murder of her husband, Uriah (11:1-27). The consequences were severe. First, the son born of his adultery died (12:13-23). Second, David’s son Amnon raped his half-sister Tamar (13:1-22). And third, we saw Absalom’s murder of Amnon in revenge of Tamar’s rape (13:23-39. Thus the Lord’s predictions about David’s family clearly were coming true.
All right, we are ready to take up chapter 14. Verse one tells us that Joab perceived that David’s mind was on Absalom. And that led Joab to go to considerable lengths, first, to get Absalom back in Jerusalem; and then second, to work out a reconciliation between David and his son. Most commentators have interpreted verse one, I assume on the basis of the last verse of chapter 13, to mean that David was well disposed towards Absalom. But neither 13:39 nor 14:1 actually state that David thought well of him. Thus others argue that although David was ready to let Absalom return to Jerusalem (we learn that in verse 21), he was not ready to reconcile with the man. The fact that David refused to meet face to face with Absalom for two years after Absalom’s return indicates this rather clearly (v. 28).
So the question arises as to why Joab was so interested in getting Absalom back in the capital. Obviously we cannot get into Joab’s head to answer that question. But we can speculate a bit. One possible reason is that Joab liked Absalom, that he was personally attached to him. But the more likely reason is that Joab saw Absalom as the best person to succeed David on the throne of Israel in spite of Absalom’s murder of the original crown prince, Amnon.
At any rate, Joab arranged for a “wise” woman from Tekoa to learn a complex story with which to convince David to permit Absalom to return. The word “wise” here means in the sense of “crafty.” She was a woman who could act out a convincing story before an important person. And she did a really good job. At first David seems to be completely taken in by her fabricated case. She told him she was a widow in extended deep grief, not due to the loss of her husband who had died much earlier, but due to the more recent loss of a son.
The story was that her only two sons got into a fight in the field. There was no one there to separate them, and the one, in the passion of the moment, killed the other. That is, she was saying to David that the killing was not a premeditated murder, but an act of passion (vv. 5-6).
Her family wanted blood revenge. That is, they wanted her to deliver the remaining son to them that he might be killed as punishment for the murder of his brother (v. 7). From their perspective, that seemed the only just thing to do. But from the widow’s perspective, it would be robbing her, and her dead husband, of the only remaining family heir. The family would come to an end with his death.
Verse eight tells us that David ruled in her favor. The orders to be issued were orders to permit the boy to live. The woman’s reply in verse nine was intended to absolve David of any guilt should his decision to let the boy live lead to any wrong-doing in the future. The blame would be on her and her family, not on the king.
David replied to her that if anyone bothered her about this matter in the future, she should bring it to his attention (v. 10). In verse 11, the woman seems to have desired additional assurance from the king beyond what he already had given her. He generously gave her the added assurance by repeating it with an oath added.
The woman, who was quite bold, had not completed her mission. So in verses 12 and 13 she asked to speak once more. And after receiving permission to do so, she very bluntly accused David of having done something against God’s people. This reminds us of Nathan’s confrontation of David, though it is not the same by any stretch.
“This word,” or “this decision” as the NRSV translates it, in verse 13 refers to David’s decision to let the woman’s son live. And the woman is claiming that David convicted himself of something. In other words she was saying that the decision to let her son live was inconsistent with his decision not to permit the banished Absalom to come home.
It is quite a shock to the reader to see her suddenly say something like that. Presumably David also was shocked. While the king sat there trying to figure out how to react to her, the woman went on to explain. She reminded David of the brevity of human life and of the mercy of God (v. 14). “We all must die,” she reminded David, the idea being to remind him that he only had so many years before his opportunity for fellowship with his son would be gone.
But the kicker was her contrast of David’s action to that of the Lord. God, who is merciful, not only does not take away life, he seeks ways to forgive those who deserve banishment. Wow! But the woman still was not finished. In verses 15-17 she cleverly returned to the context of her story, suggesting that it was her personal situation that led her to speak as she had. She began to speak to David in flattering terms, describing him as a man of insight, “like the angel of God” (v. 17).
At this point in the conversation David began to catch on. He had had some time to process what was happening. And he began to realize that there was more to this woman’s story than he knew. And he suspected the hand of his uncle Joab. So he asked her straight out if Joab was behind it. And she admitted he was.
Joab must have been nearby following as carefully as he could the whole conversation, because David was able to call him in (v. 21). Then David rendered his decision to Joab, since Joab rather than the woman was the one who actually had been seeking it. He granted permission for Absalom to return, and gave Joab the responsibility of bringing him, which he immediately did (v. 21). But David, although he took the road of mercy, went down the road only part of the way. He refused to forgive Absalom, and would not allow the young man into his presence (v. 24).
In verses 25-27 the author appears to be setting up the future narrative. The author provides information that helps prepare readers for several things that are coming. One, Absalom’s physical handsomeness was greater than any other. Two, he cut his hair only once a year. And three, he had three sons and a daughter.
This information is not very extensive, but it still is helpful. First, it helps explain why Absalom was wildly popular in Jerusalem. He now was the eldest of the king’s sons, and his striking good looks along with his beautiful family would have made him attractive to the people as a successor to the throne. Particular mention is made of the beauty of the daughter, who was named after Absalom’s raped sister.
Second, Absalom’s good looks also would have fired his ego. As we shall see, Absalom thought highly of himself. Indeed his preoccupation with his hair was an indication of that. Absalom thought so much of himself he felt obliged to seek his father’s throne before David’s death, and without the Lord’s approval.
And third, mention of Absalom’s hair also prepares the reader for the story of Absalom’s death, which would end the revolution he started. You will remember that he died because his long hair caught in a tree branch and left him hanging helpless where Joab easily could kill him (18:9-15).
In the balance of the chapter (vv. 28-33), we see the restless and self-involved attitude of Absalom in action. After two years of putting up with the king’s decree that Absalom not enter David’s presence, Absalom had had enough. He twice sent word to Joab that he wanted to see the king. Obviously Absalom believed Joab could arrange it. But Joab ignored Absalom’s messages. So Absalom forced Joab’s hand by burning Joab’s barley field.
It worked. Joab quickly came to complain. The old adage “hit them in the pocketbook” may be older than we thought. When Joab came, Absalom demanded that Joab get him an audience with the king. Absalom bitterly complained that he would have been better off to have stayed in Geshur; and he insisted that David could kill him if he still found guilt in him. But he wanted that audience. And he got it.
When Absalom’s opportunity finally came, he prostrated himself before David, and David kissed him. His kiss was the sign of Absalom’s restoration to favor. But it didn’t really indicate forgiveness. The conversation evidently was brief and formal, with no real reconciliation between the two men. It certainly did not create any loyalty in Absalom.
When we ask what we learn from this chapter, one thing leaps out at me. It is the failure of David to fully forgive. Absalom had committed an horrendous crime. Perhaps justice required some sort of severe punishment for Absalom. But that didn’t happen.
If we ask what David’s options were, David could have put a price on Absalom’s head and made it clear he never was to come back to Israel on pain of death. At least that would have been clean. But David didn’t do that. It seems he didn’t do anything. Absalom was out of the country, and David just left things alone.
Then when Absalom put pressure on Joab to help him return, David once again was faced with a choice. He could have refused. But in his weakness he decided to restore Absalom without forgiving him.
Then two years later, during the moment when Absalom was on his face before David after so many years, David had another opportunity to offer him full forgiveness. But David didn’t do it. That was a crucial moment in both their lives. Instead of a genuine, personal reconciliation, there was only a formal acceptance. And that eventually led to Absalom’s attempt to grasp David’s throne illegally. It seems to me that David, once he decided to move along the way of forgiveness, should have gone all the way with it. It might have avoided Absalom’s revolution, which would have avoided a great deal of personal pain for David, including the death of Absalom. Let us learn from this example to forgive those from whom we may be estranged, and be reconciled.