Our study for today is 2 Samuel 17:24-18:18, which reports Absalom’s defeat and death during his civil war against David. Verses 17:24-29 set the position of David’s and Absalom’s forces prior to the decisive battle. The city of Mahanaim was located on the other side of the Jordan in Gilead near the River Jabbok. By the time of this major battle, David had raised a large army. Absalom also had recruited a large force; and he already had taken it across the Jordan to engage David’s army. Absalom’s army was under the command of a man named Amasa, who was a distant cousin of Joab’s. They camped at an unspecified place in Gilead.
Now I believe we need to realize at this point that the battle to be described in chapter 18 was not the only battle of the war. It was the climactic battle, the decisive battle. But there would have been other, lesser battles. Moreover it is important to recognize that a considerable amount of time would have passed since the events of 17:15-23. It would have taken David and Absalom a long time to gather and organize the large armies described here.
By the time of this battle, David had gathered support from many citizens. Indeed the situation in Mahanaim illustrates that. Some of the wealthier citizens of Mahanaim provided David and his troops with much needed food and other supplies as they prepared for the battle.
At the beginning of chapter 18 we see the final preparations by David for the coming battle. David divided his troops into three companies, each under the command of a general. His original plan was to lead the army himself, as commander in chief. But the three generals, Joab, Abishai, and Ittai the Gittite talked him out of that notion. They argued that it was too risky. A dead David would be the end of everything. A living David was worth 10,000 of any one of them.
That wasn’t much of an exaggeration. David was a fairly popular king. Only he had sufficient power with the people to command the kind of support that was needed to obtain a victory. If David had been killed, his army would have melted away in a flash; and Absalom would have been on the throne.
So the generals recommended that David remain behind in the city in command of the reserve troops, ready to send help if needed. He agreed, and they followed that plan. Therefore, as the army moved out to go to war, David stood in the city gate and reviewed the troops as they passed by.
There are two additional interesting aspects to this paragraph. First is the placement of Ittai the Gittite as a commander over a third of his army. We learned about Ittai back in chapter 15 (vv. 19-23). He was a foreigner who had come into David’s employ so recently that David offered to let him return to Jerusalem rather than risk his life and the lives of his men in David’s war against Absalom.
Now we see David giving Ittai the huge responsibility of commanding a third of his army. The king must have been greatly impressed with Ittai’s skills and loyalty. Undoubtedly David knew much more about him than we are told in the text. The fact that David made Ittai a general also suggests to me that the 600 Gittites mentioned in 15:18 were Ittai’s men, rather than old companions of David’s.
The second additional interesting aspect of this paragraph is David’s statement about his son Absalom to his commanders as they leave: “Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.” And don’t miss the fact that other troops, in addition to the generals, heard David say that. That becomes important later.
“Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.” There didn’t seem to be any doubt in David’s mind that his army would win the battle that day, and thus the war. He was concerned not about the outcome of the battle, but about his son. He was saying, in essence, “Go easy on my boy.” “Go easy on my boy to please me.”
Verses 6-8 give a very brief account of the battle. The place given as the location of the battle has created quite a debate among scholars. “The forest of Ephraim” is a phrase that normally would be associated with the territory settled by the tribe of Ephraim. But that territory is located north of Jerusalem on the western side of the Jordan River, and we have been told that the armies were in Gilead on the eastern side of the river.
Most scholars are convinced that the battle took place in Gilead rather than in traditional Ephraim. There is no known explanation for the name. Gilead is not a forested area today, but it could have been in the days of David. The Turks denuded much of the area of forests during their years of rule.
Gilead was a good place from David’s perspective. It was a region that was loyal to him, as we saw in 17:27-29, where the inhabitants supplied David and his men with food and other equipment. It seems that his men knew the terrain better, because as verse eight says of Absolom’s army, “the forest claimed more victims that day than the sword.” Apparently Absalom’s men tended to get lost in the woods; and many of them perished in one way or another during their wanderings. But David’s men knew how to survive in that area.
Next, in verses 9-15, comes the death of Absalom. Absalom supplies a perfect illustration of how the forest could devour a person. When Absalom saw certain of David’s men, he panicked, or simply made too quick a turn, or something; and the result was that his head got caught in the branches of a great oak tree. And it happened in such a way that he couldn’t free himself. His long hair, of which he was so proud, may have had something to do with it; but it was his head that was caught (v. 9).
Thus he was captured without a fight. There he was, hanging helpless from the tree; and any of David’s men who were present easily could have killed him. But they had heard David ask his generals to deal gently with Absalom. So one of them went to tell Joab who must have been near by, because he arrived on the scene fairly quickly (v.10). I suspect the soldier was surprised at Joab’s reaction. Joab wanted to know why the man hadn’t killed Absalom. Indeed Joab would have rewarded him had he done it (v. 11).
The man told Joab that he wouldn’t kill the king’s son for a thousand pieces of silver, because he took the king’s request that Absalom be protected as a command. And he reminded Joab that had he killed the king, Joab himself easily could become a witness against him (vv. 12-13). Joab quickly lost patience with the man, who in Joab’s view apparently had too much integrity for the situation (v. 14a). By this time Joab was at the scene where Absalom still hung from the tree. He wasted no time, but struck Absalom in the heart with three pointed staffs. However that didn’t kill Absalom, so Joab’s ten armor-bearers finished the job (vv. 14b-15).
There is an interesting side issue here. You may recall that Joab was the one who took the initiative to bring Absalom back to Jerusalem (back in chapter 14). Personally I believe that decision was strictly political; and so was this one. That is, at the time Joab arranged for Absalom to be restored at court, he believed that was the best thing for David and the country. Now things were totally different. Now in Joab’s view, the best thing for David and the country was for Absalom to be dead. So he killed him in spite of David’s request.
In verses 16-18 we see that Joab stopped the pursuit at that point in order to end the killing. Absalom was dead, which meant the war was over. There was no need to destroy any more fellow Hebrews. Then they buried Absalom’s body under a huge pile of stones. The author concluded the section by reminding his readers that Absalom earlier had erected a monument to himself that was still standing as he was writing the book. According to 2 Sam. 14:27, Absalom had three sons, so the statement that he had no son to keep his name in remembrance is a bit peculiar. Perhaps none of his sons lived to adulthood.
Turning to application, it seems to me that the great lesson to be seen in this passage is in David’s relationship to Absalom. Chapter 18, verse 5, is the key verse: “Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.” In a way I find it quite touching that David wanted his generals to go easy on his son. David still loved Absalom in spite of all Absalom had done.
But another part of me wants to cry out, “Why didn’t you show him love? Why didn’t you love him enough to discipline him and the other boys when they were younger? When you permitted him to return to Jerusalem after his murder of Amnon, and gave him official restoration at court, why didn’t you go all the way and forgive him when you had the chance? What good was your love of your sons to anyone, including them? You spoiled them, but never gave yourself to them. You gave them money, but never played with them. You grieved over their sins, but never told them you loved them.