Notes for teaching on 2 Samuel 18:1-18, 31-9:15, part of which is featured in Explore the Bible, Summer 2018, Session 6.
David regains the throne but loses his son in the process.
The passage is applicable today because it invites us to consider how David’s situation is played out in our lives today.
Notes on the Text
(Quotations taken from the NIV)
18:1 David mustered the men who were with him and appointed over them commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds. 2 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.”
3 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.”
4 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. 5 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.
In 2 Sam 18, the conflict between David and Absalom reaches its peak in a bloody battle. These first verses of the chapter detail David’s actions before the battle. We learn here that David:
- Divides his army into three sections under the command of Joab, Abishai, and Ittai.
- Plans to fight alongside his men.
- Ultimately agrees to his men’s request that he stay behind.
- Takes pains to ensure Absalom’s safety.
Regarding the first, we find that David has become a competent military commander. As Walter Brueggemann says, “David has come a very long way from his initial encounter with the Philistine! War has become for him a great and carefully planned enterprise.”
Looking to the second and third, David, whose sin regarding Bathsheba and Uriah was preceded by his failure to go to war (11:1), is ready now to fight alongside his men. It seems that the king has decided to take an active rather than passive role in this battle that is being fought for his sake. His army, though, disagrees with this decision, arguing that David is too valuable to go into the field. ETB takes this as cowardice on David’s part, but I’m not sure that we need to judge him so harshly. Because David’s reign is on the line, he is indeed valuable, and it would be a shame for his people to fight for him only for him to die on the battlefield. We might argue that David is wise in his decision to capitulate to his troops’ mood on this matter. In granting their desire, he ensures that their morale will be high as they march on the enemy. Whatever else comes, David will survive, which makes their sacrifices meaningful.
Moving to the fourth, we see that David is playing dual roles in this episode. As king and military commander, he dispatches his troops. As father, he worries for his son and orders that Absalom be treated “gently.” ETB notes appropriately that “This put a severe constraint on his troops and it may have caused needless casualties.” We need not go further with ETB in calling David “somewhat pathetic” in this scene, though. David is caught between a rock and a hard place. He is both against and for Absalom in this moment, and his orders show that he is doing his best to act as both king and father even though these roles are not readily compatible. While we may not agree with David’s order concerning Absalom, we can certainly sympathize with him. Just think of parents who are torn between taking a hard line against and overlooking the actions of a wayward child. Put children in the mix, and things get complicated!
6 David’s army marched out of the city to fight Israel, and the battle took place in the forest of Ephraim. 7 There Israel’s troops were routed by David’s men, and the casualties that day were great—twenty thousand men. 8 The battle spread out over the whole countryside, and the forest swallowed up more men that day than the sword.
Here we have a brief description of a pitched battle that took place in difficult terrain. David’s army routes the opposition, and 20,000 men die. These losses are heavy and in large part due to the terrain. This last piece prepares us for the coming scene in which Absalom is a victim of both the terrain and David’s warriors.
9 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.
10 When one of the men saw what had happened, he told Joab, “I just saw Absalom hanging in an oak tree.”
11 Joab said to the man who had told him this, “What! You saw him? Why didn’t you strike him to the ground right there? Then I would have had to give you ten shekels of silver and a warrior’s belt.”
12 But the man replied, “Even if a thousand shekels were weighed out into my hands, I would not lay a hand on the king’s son. In our hearing the king commanded you and Abishai and Ittai, ‘Protect the young man Absalom for my sake.’ 13 And if I had put my life in jeopardy—and nothing is hidden from the king—you would have kept your distance from me.”
14 Joab said, “I’m not going to wait like this for you.” So he took three javelins in his hand and plunged them into Absalom’s heart while Absalom was still alive in the oak tree. 15 And ten of Joab’s armor-bearers surrounded Absalom, struck him and killed him.
In looking at Absalom’s demise, it is important to remember the context of the battle. We have just been told that “the forest swallowed up more men that day than the sword.” Absalom, therefore, is not the victim of a freak accident that happened to no one else. Instead, he is one of the many who fell victim to the forest, which was apparently thick and difficult to traverse. Ironically, it is Absalom’s hair, a chief feature mentioned in 14:25-26’s description of Absalom’s handsome appearance, that is his undoing. Apparently, his thick and beautiful hair became entangled in branches in a confrontation between Absalom himself and several of David’s men. The idea here is that Absalom was moving quickly on his mount when his hair became entangled. His donkey kept moving, but his hair stayed in place, and Absalom was left hanging helplessly from the branches of an oak tree.
With Absalom now neutralized, it is left to David’s soldiers to decide his fate. Importantly, David’s order to deal “gently” with Absalom was heard by the entire army (18:5), thereby making his will easy to discern in the matter. Hence, “when one of the men saw what happened” he told Joab rather than killing Absalom to gain glory and reward for himself. Indeed, when Joab says that he would have rewarded the soldier for killing Absalom, the soldier says that he would not have struck the killing blow even for a reward one hundred times what Joab offered. Why? Because he knows that David would be displeased and that Joab wouldn’t stand up for him. Joab, however, has no such qualms and moves quickly to kill Absalom. In doing so, he probably thinks that he is doing the king a favor even though he is acting against the king’s wishes. In killing Absalom, Joab completely removes the competition. There will be no question as to who the king is when Joab is done.
16 Then Joab sounded the trumpet, and the troops stopped pursuing Israel, for Joab halted them. 17 They took Absalom, threw him into a big pit in the forest and piled up a large heap of rocks over him. Meanwhile, all the Israelites fled to their homes.
18 During his lifetime Absalom had taken a pillar and erected it in the King’s Valley as a monument to himself, for he thought, “I have no son to carry on the memory of my name.” He named the pillar after himself, and it is called Absalom’s Monument to this day.
With Absalom’s death the battle ends. Joab blows a trumpet, thereby signaling his troops (who are routing the enemy) to end their pursuit. Thus, Absalom’s remaining soldiers are spared and flee to their homes. The scene ends with Absalom being buried on the battlefield and his self-inspired monument left to stand despite the trouble he has caused.
32 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.”
33 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!”
We skip forward now to the moment when David learns of Absalom’s death. David has already heard of the victory, but he withholds any celebration until he hears of his son’s fate. Once again, we see David’s dual roles playing against one another. Ultimately, the father wins over the commander as David lets out a heartfelt cry of grief. Brueggemann has this to say about David’s grief in this scene: “We had watched David grieve over the deaths of Saul and Jonathan (1:17–27), and even his unnamed son (12:16–17). We have heard David grieve with eloquence, but his grief now is not an eloquent performance. It is too elemental and too desperate to be eloquent.” David is truly and utterly heartbroken.
19:1 Joab was told, “The king is weeping and mourning for Absalom.” 2 And for the whole army the victory that day was turned into mourning, because on that day the troops heard it said, “The king is grieving for his son.” 3 The men stole into the city that day as men steal in who are ashamed when they flee from battle. 4 The king covered his face and cried aloud, “O my son Absalom! O Absalom, my son, my son!”
Though the father wins out, the king and commander cannot be ignored, for David’s grief is more than that of a father. As king, his mood sets the tone for others, and his mourning effectively dampens any celebration by the soldiers who fought for him. Rather than returning as victorious heroes to a thankful liege, David’s men “stole into the city that day as men steal in who are ashamed when they flee from battle.” In his grief, David turns the jubilation of victory into the shame of cowardice. His men, who should hold their heads high, return with their tails between their legs.
5 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. 6 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. 7 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.”
8 So the king got up and took his seat in the gateway. When the men were told, “The king is sitting in the gateway,” they all came before him.
Meanwhile, the Israelites had fled to their homes.
Up to now, people have been subversive when they have confronted David. Nathan told a story, and Joab sent a wise woman to perform a similar task. Now, however, Joab throws subtlety to the wind as he challenges the king to his face. Indeed, his speech makes Joab seem to be personally offended by David’s actions. For Joab, there is no room for David the father in this moment. David the king must act to honor the troops “who have just saved your life.” By mourning for Absalom to the exclusion of honoring his men, David has alienated the latter. As Joab says, “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.” Conveying this meaning, of course, was not David’s intention. Thus, he acts on Joab’s rebuke by playing the king in the gateway.
Against ETB, the last piece about the Israelites going to their homes is not a description of David’s men going home due to low morale. Rather, the narrator is reminding us of what we were already told in 18:17. Absalom’s supporters, described here as “the Israelites,” have fled to their homes. Thus, David’s troops are being honored by the king, while Absalom’s troops have gone home.
9 Throughout the tribes of Israel, all the people were arguing among themselves, saying, “The king delivered us from the hand of our enemies; he is the one who rescued us from the hand of the Philistines. But now he has fled the country to escape from Absalom; 10 and Absalom, whom we anointed to rule over us, has died in battle. So why do you say nothing about bringing the king back?”
11 King David sent this message to Zadok and Abiathar, the priests: “Ask the elders of Judah, ‘Why should you be the last to bring the king back to his palace, since what is being said throughout Israel has reached the king at his quarters? 12 You are my relatives, my own flesh and blood. So why should you be the last to bring back the king?’ 13 And say to Amasa, ‘Are you not my own flesh and blood? May God deal with me, be it ever so severely, if you are not the commander of my army for life in place of Joab.’”
14 He won over the hearts of the men of Judah so that they were all of one mind. They sent word to the king, “Return, you and all your men.” 15 Then the king returned and went as far as the Jordan.
We expect for the conflict to be over now that Absalom is dead. This, however, is not the case. As Brueggemann explains:
The civil war was more than a son challenging a father. Absalom, attractive figure that he was, became a magnet who evoked and mobilized a variety of forces and parties hostile to or weary of David. The elimination of Absalom and the end of the fighting did not cause the hostility to melt easily away. David was left with the problem of how to reclaim the loyalty of those who had opposed him. This section deals with the aftermath of civil war.
Absalom stole the people’s hearts (15:6) before his coup, and David must now win back their loyalty. Interestingly, it is Judah, David’s own tribe, that drags its feet in reinstating David as king in Jerusalem. The mood of the wider Israelite community is that David should be king now that Absalom is dead. With Absalom out of the way, they are free to remember the David of old who did well for Israel (remember, he made Israel into a small empire), and they are ready to welcome him back.
David is nothing if not politically astute, and he notices the mood of the people. This bargaining chip in hand, he sends word to the elders of Judah reminding them of their shared heritage and promising Amasa, Absalom’s military commander, that he will take Joab’s place as the leader of David’s army. This last move seems drastic, as Joab has commanded David’s troops effectively for a long time. Indeed, as Brueggemann notes, Joab had just defeated Amasa in battle! Though it is not stated, I think that it is safe to say that David’s relationship with Joab is frayed due to Joab’s killing of Absalom. He may still listen to Joab’s rebuke, but David has no qualms with replacing his military commander. It seems that Joab has gone one bridge too far.
These actions on David’s part prove to cement his standing, and he is invited back to Jerusalem.
Notes for Teaching
Once again, David’s story sounds painfully true to life. Here we have a father who is being forced to deal with a rebellious son. The situation is not unlike a mother and father trying to deal with their grown son’s drug addiction. They are torn between taking a hard line and showing mercy. David is much in the same place, but his family drama is being played out on the national stage with many lives at stake.
Also true to life are David’s dueling roles. He is father, but he is also king, and David must be careful not to let one role eclipse the other. Indeed, when David allows his role as father to win out to the exclusion of his role as king, he destroys his army’s morale. While we aren’t kings and queens, many of us can relate to David’s dilemma. We all play multiple roles in our lives that at times compete for our attention. Like David, we have to be careful to play each of our roles appropriately. Think here of a working father or mother who needs to pay attention to both the job and the family. Or think of a busy church volunteer who is also responsible for a parent whose health is in decline. Wisdom is needed as we seek to play our different roles appropriately.
Because both David’s love for rebellious Absalom and his dual roles are true to life, I would play up these aspects of the story in the lesson. Doing so will humanize David and help students relate to a story that is otherwise quite foreign (how many of us have had to deal with a coup by our son?).
Moving to application, I think that these themes are worthy of discussion, although the story at hand does not offer solid answers on how to proceed in these situations. David must wrestle with love for a wayward child and competing roles even as we must sometimes do the same. The key here is not to come down with hard answers but instead to sit with one another in the difficulty of the questions.
A Possible Teaching Plan
- What do we remember about Absalom challenging David for the throne?
- What was David’s response to Absalom’s challenge?
Explain: Fill in blanks as needed. Also, let students know that today we will see the climax of the conflict between David and Absalom as the two go to war against one another.
Read 2 Sam 18:1-8
- What do you think about David’s decision to stay behind? Was it a good or bad move?
- Why does David tell his commanders to deal “gently” with Absalom? Is this a good or bad command?
- What was the outcome of the battle?
Read 2 Sam 18:9-16
- What exactly happened to Absalom?
- Why didn’t the man “who saw what happened” kill Absalom? Why wouldn’t he do it even for a large reward?
- Why would Joab move directly against the king’s order to deal gently with Absalom? Was he right to do so?
Explain: Explain that David’s army won and that we are now skipping to the point where he received word of the victory.
Read 2 Sam 18:31-33
- What is David’s reaction to news of his victory?
- What does David’s grief tell us about his attitude toward Absalom?
- Does David’s grief seem true to real life? How? Can you think of similar situations in the present day?
- How does our faith help us in times of grief?
- How can we help others in their times of grief?
Read 2 Sam 19:1-8
- How does David’s grief affect his soldiers? Why is this the case?
- Do you think that David meant to dampen his troops’ morale?
- If you had to summarize Joab’s rebuke to David, how would you do it?
- How is Joab’s rebuke different from previous rebukes that David has received.
- Do you think that Joab has a point?
- What does David’s quick response to Joab’s rebuke tell us about David?
Explain: Explain that David is caught between two roles: those of father and king/commander.
- Do we ever find ourselves with competing roles in our lives?
- How can we give appropriate attention to each role?
Read 2 Sam 19:9-15
- Why wasn’t David invited back to Jerusalem directly after the battle?
- How does David grease the wheels of his reappointment as king?
- What is the significance of David giving Amasa Joab’s position?
- In the end, how do you think David feels about his victory?
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