Notes for teaching on 2 Samuel 15:1-18, 24-37, part of which is featured in Explore the Bible, Summer 2018, Session 6.
David flees Jerusalem as Absalom makes a play for the throne.
The passage is applicable today because it invites us to consider how we should react when our worlds are turned upside down.
(Quotes taken from the NIV)
To better understand Absalom’s challenge for the throne, it is helpful to first get an overview of his relationship with his father, David. Here’s a quick rundown of key verses:
- 13:23-29: Absalom takes matters into his own hands after David fails to give Tamar justice. (See last week’s notes for more on this episode.)
- 13:37-38: Absalom escapes punishment for murdering Amnon by fleeing and living in exile for three years.
- 13:39: David longs to bring Absalom back but does not act on these feelings.
- 14:1-22: Joab tricks David into bringing Absalom back to Jerusalem. (While Joab is duplicitous here, he is acting to get David to do what David already wants to do.)
- 14:23-24, 28: Absalom return to Jerusalem, but David refuses to meet him face to face for two years.
- 14:29-33: Absalom demands an audience with the king, which David grants. Absalom bows in David’s presence; David welcomes him with a kiss.
In all this, we see a strained relationship between a son and father. The son makes up for the father’s lack (though he does so through murder), the father longs for his son but doesn’t call for him, the son demands to see his father, the father welcomes him.
Had this been the end to the Absalom story, we might have rejoiced. It appears that David and Absalom are finally again on good terms. It is not long, however, before Absalom begins maneuvering for the throne. That is the focus of chapter 15. Before moving there, though, we should first hear the narrator’s description of Absalom in 14:25-26:
25 In all Israel there was not a man so highly praised for his handsome appearance as Absalom. From the top of his head to the sole of his foot there was no blemish in him. 26 Whenever he cut the hair of his head—he used to cut his hair once a year because it became too heavy for him—he would weigh it, and its weight was two hundred shekels by the royal standard.
When we deal with Absalom, we should understand that we are dealing with the Robert Redford, Brad Pitt, or Chris Hemsworth of his day. Like his father, Absalom is handsome, and his looks surely play a role in his usurpation of the throne.
Notes on the Text
(Quotations taken from the NIV)
1 In the course of time, Absalom provided himself with a chariot and horses and with fifty men to run ahead of him. 2 He would get up early and stand by the side of the road leading to the city gate. Whenever anyone came with a complaint to be placed before the king for a decision, Absalom would call out to him, “What town are you from?” He would answer, “Your servant is from one of the tribes of Israel.” 3 Then Absalom would say to him, “Look, your claims are valid and proper, but there is no representative of the king to hear you.” 4 And Absalom would add, “If only I were appointed judge in the land! Then everyone who has a complaint or case could come to me and I would see that they receive justice.”
5 Also, whenever anyone approached him to bow down before him, Absalom would reach out his hand, take hold of him and kiss him. 6 Absalom behaved in this way toward all the Israelites who came to the king asking for justice, and so he stole the hearts of the people of Israel.
Absalom begins his move on the throne by paying attention to optics. As Brueggemann explains, “He develops an entourage of chariots, horses, and runners, so that his every movement seems a royal procession.” The handsome man who is admired by all Israel is now taking pains to look like a king.
Beyond the implicit challenge to David’s authority found in his processions, Absalom goes a step further to explicitly challenge his father on matters of justice. The people of Judah would come to the king in Jerusalem to have matters of justice decided. Now Absalom gets up early every day to catch these justice-seekers as they arrive. His message to these people basically goes like this: Your concerns are valid. My father won’t hear you, but I will. Wouldn’t it be better if I were king? David has apparently become lax in a central role of his kingship: the dispensing of justice. As Goldingay explains, “Absalom could hardly win support by making such an offer if David was still fulfilling that aspect of a king’s responsibilities.” Beyond this, I think that it is also important to see that the complaint about people not getting justice applies just as well to Tamar. It appears that the failure of the king to bring justice to his family in the previous episode is now being played out (at least on some level) in the kingdom as a whole. As he did in regard to Tamar’s justice, we now see Absalom taking matters into his own hands.
Absalom further pays attention to optics by lifting up, hugging, and kissing these justice-seekers when they bow before him. Not only will he bring justice to the people, but he is also a man of the people! In all of this we see that Absalom, like his father, is a shrewd political operator. Before he ever makes a move on the throne, he steals the hearts of the people of Israel.
7 At the end of four years, Absalom said to the king, “Let me go to Hebron and fulfill a vow I made to the Lord. 8 While your servant was living at Geshur in Aram, I made this vow: ‘If the Lord takes me back to Jerusalem, I will worship the Lord in Hebron.’ ”
9 The king said to him, “Go in peace.” So he went to Hebron.
10 Then Absalom sent secret messengers throughout the tribes of Israel to say, “As soon as you hear the sound of the trumpets, then say, ‘Absalom is king in Hebron.’ ” 11 Two hundred men from Jerusalem had accompanied Absalom. They had been invited as guests and went quite innocently, knowing nothing about the matter. 12 While Absalom was offering sacrifices, he also sent for Ahithophel the Gilonite, David’s counselor, to come from Giloh, his hometown. And so the conspiracy gained strength, and Absalom’s following kept on increasing.
We learn now that four years have gone by since Absalom’s reinstatement to the family. In all, that is nine years from his murder of Amnon (three years in exile, two in Jerusalem out of the king’s favor, and now four since his reinstatement). At this juncture, he tricks David into letting him go to Hebron. Remember that it was in Hebron that David claimed the kingship and challenged Ishbosheth, Saul’s son, for the throne. Absalom will now do the same. A further boon to Absalom is the defection of Ahitophel, one of his father’s counselors.
Once again Absalom pays attention to optics by having people throughout all Israel declare, “Absalom is king in Hebron,” at the same moment. Through an amazing piece of planning, all Israel knows that Absalom is making a play for the throne, and this before modern communication! It is important here to note that Absalom is announcing his rivalry for the throne rather than simply acting as if he has become king instead of David. Note that the announcement that is that Absalom is king in Hebron, which leaves David as king in Jerusalem, the capital city. Against ETB p. 85, something substantial has happened. Absalom has named himself as a rival claimant to the throne. The man who stole the hearts of the nation is now announcing to the nation his intentions to overthrow his father.
13 A messenger came and told David, “The hearts of the people of Israel are with Absalom.”
14 Then David said to all his officials who were with him in Jerusalem, “Come! We must flee, or none of us will escape from Absalom. We must leave immediately, or he will move quickly to overtake us and bring ruin on us and put the city to the sword.”
15 The king’s officials answered him, “Your servants are ready to do whatever our lord the king chooses.”
16 The king set out, with his entire household following him; but he left ten concubines to take care of the palace. 17 So the king set out, with all the people following him, and they halted at the edge of the city. 18 All his men marched past him, along with all the Kerethites and Pelethites; and all the six hundred Gittites who had accompanied him from Gath marched before the king.
Word now comes to David that the tide has turned against him, and he chooses to flee Jerusalem. Note that David is once again an active force in the story. He was passive when he heard about Tamar’s rape; he was passive when he wanted Absalom to come home; he was passive as Absalom stole the hearts of the people (how could he not have known of Absalom’s activities?) Now, though, David is every bit the David of old as he takes quick, decisive action.
23 The whole countryside wept aloud as all the people passed by. The king also crossed the Kidron Valley, and all the people moved on toward the wilderness.
24 Zadok was there, too, and all the Levites who were with him were carrying the ark of the covenant of God. They set down the ark of God, and Abiathar offered sacrifices until all the people had finished leaving the city.
25 Then the king said to Zadok, “Take the ark of God back into the city. If I find favor in the Lord’s eyes, he will bring me back and let me see it and his dwelling place again. 26 But if he says, ‘I am not pleased with you,’ then I am ready; let him do to me whatever seems good to him.”
27 The king also said to Zadok the priest, “Do you understand? Go back to the city with my blessing. Take your son Ahimaaz with you, and also Abiathar’s son Jonathan. You and Abiathar return with your two sons. 28 I will wait at the fords in the wilderness until word comes from you to inform me.” 29 So Zadok and Abiathar took the ark of God back to Jerusalem and stayed there.
Here we see an extraordinary act of faith on David’s part. Two priests of high standing, Zadok and Abiathar, have taken part in the king’s flight from Jerusalem along with the Levites, and the ark of the covenant. It is now in David’s power to keep the religious establishment and the chief religious symbol, the ark of the covenant, on his side. Doing this would by saying in effect: Absalom may have Jerusalem, but God is on my side! David, however, chooses not to make God a pawn in this political power struggle. Rather than keeping the priests and the arc with him, David sends them back to Jerusalem where they are normally housed. As he does so, David makes a public profession of his acquiescence to the divine will. Rather than using God for his purposes, David will submit to God’s will.
32 When David arrived at the summit, where people used to worship God, Hushai the Arkite was there to meet him, his robe torn and dust on his head. 33 David said to him, “If you go with me, you will be a burden to me. 34 But if you return to the city and say to Absalom, ‘Your Majesty, I will be your servant; I was your father’s servant in the past, but now I will be your servant,’ then you can help me by frustrating Ahithophel’s advice. 35 Won’t the priests Zadok and Abiathar be there with you? Tell them anything you hear in the king’s palace. 36 Their two sons, Ahimaaz son of Zadok and Jonathan son of Abiathar, are there with them. Send them to me with anything you hear.”
37 So Hushai, David’s confidant, arrived at Jerusalem as Absalom was entering the city.
While David is submissive to God’s will, that does not mean that he passively waits for it. Instead, he takes concrete steps to both infiltrate and undermine Absalom’s royal court. He sends Hushai, a loyal advisor, to spy on Absalom and give bad advice to counter Ahithophel’s good counsel. Moreover, we now find that the priests also have a role to play in David’s spy network. In the previous account, David sent Zadok, Abiathar, and their sons back to Jerusalem with the ark with the expectation that he will wait for them to “inform” him. We now find that the exact “information” that David wants them to send is Hushai’s notes. Their sons will act as emissaries.
Notes for Teaching
We have already seen low points in David’s family life. Now, a new family low also marks a low in David’s kingship. David’s son challenges him in open rebellion.
As with much of the David story, much of David’s relationship with Absalom seems true to life. Theirs is a troubled relationship marred by Absalom’s challenges and David’s passivity. This in mind, dwelling for a few minutes on this troubled relationship might go a long way in bringing the story to life for students.
Regarding application, I think that David is exemplary in his reaction to Absalom’s rebellion. As he flees Jerusalem, he (1) respects and submits to God’s will and (2) takes concrete steps to bolster his position. For many of us, these two actions might seem at odds with one another. Shouldn’t David wait passively for God to move if he is truly submissive to God’s will? This logic falls into a faulty line of thinking that assume that things are either all up to God or all up to us. Either God moves and we don’t, or we move and in doing so are dismissive of God. In reality, God very often works through the actions of his people. It is not an either/or proposition. Instead, it is much more often both/and.
David’s submission to God is not found in passivity. Indeed, we are glad to see him finally wake up after chapters of little to no movement. Instead, David’s submission to God is found in his refusal to use God for his own ends. He will not take the ark with him, thereby making the sign of God’s presence a pawn in the political struggle. He will work to secure his position, but he will ultimately submit to God’s will when it becomes apparent. In part, this means that he will respect God in the present, even as he works for his own security.
To put this succinctly: When David’s world comes down on his head, he both submits and respects God and takes initiative to move forward well. This can be a hard line to walk, but David shows wisdom in modeling it.
A further point of application might be how Absalom could have addressed his father’s lacks more appropriately. Justice, it seems, really is a problem under David’s reign at this point in his kingship. Absalom therefore can be seen to have a valid complaint. Rather than taking initiative that is not his to take, he might have approached David personally. If that didn’t work, he could have gone through someone respected like Nathan. For all his faults, one thing we can say for David is that he was able to repent of and if possible reverse his wrong actions. What will we do when we find ourselves in Absalom’s place? How will we address the problems with leaders and systems that are failing?
A Possible Teaching Plan
- What do we know about Absalom?
- What was the relationship between David and Absalom like?
Explain: Fill in blanks as needed.
Absalom’s Play for the Throne
Read 2 Sam 14:25-26
- What is the narrator telling us about Absalom?
- Who might we compare Absalom to in our culture today?
Read 2 Sam 15:1-6
- What is the significance of Absalom providing himself with a chariot and horses and fifty men to run ahead of him?
- What is Absalom doing by getting up early and going to the city gate?
- Do you think that Absalom has a valid gripe?
- Why is it important that Absalom extends his hand and then kisses the justice seekers?
- What is the result of Absalom’s actions?
- Why do you think David failed to reprimand Absalom for these actions?
Explain: Fill in blanks as needed.
Read 2 Sam 15:7-12
- Why is it significant for Absalom to go to Hebron?
- How easy or hard was it for Absalom to get the word out that he was making a play for the throne? What does this tell us about Absalom?
- Why does Ahithophel matter in the story?
- What is the significance of the proclamation, “Absalom is king in Hebron!”?
Explain: Explain that this is the second time that Absalom has challenged his father on matters of justice. He did so personally with Tamar by taking matters into his own hands and does so publicly now by making a play for the throne.
- What do you think Absalom’s motivations were as he maneuvered for the throne? Was he noble or simply power hungry?
- If Absalom’s gripes against David were valid, what would have been a better course of action than planning a coup?
- What should we do when we have valid gripes against leaders or faulty systems?
Read 2 Sam 15:23-29
- Why might it have been important for David to take the priests and the ark with him?
- What does it tell us about David that he doesn’t?
Read 2 Sam15:32-37
- What is David’s purpose in sending Hushai back to Jerusalem?
- What do we now learn about the role of the priests in David’s plan?
- How does this activity square with David’s submission to God’s will in the previous section?
- Is David right or wrong to make these arrangements?
Explain: Explain that as David’s world comes down on his head, he (1) respects and submits to God and (2) takes action to secure his position.
- How do God’s will and human action go together?
- What can we learn from David for when our own worlds come down on our heads?
Walter Brueggemann’s 1 and 2 Samuel in the Interpretation commentary series
John Goldingay’s 1 and 2 Samuel for Everyone
Explore the Bible curriculum
 Goldingay, J. (2011). 1 and 2 Samuel for Everyone: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (p. 157). Louisville, KY; London: Westminster John Knox Press; Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.