Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
And David numbered the people that were with him, and set captains of thousands and captains of hundreds over them.Ch. 2 Samuel 18:1-8. The battle in the forest of Ephraim
1. And David, &c.] The events here recorded cannot have followed immediately on David’s arrival at Mahanaim. An interval of a few weeks must be assumed, during which the rival armies were mustered and organized. Cp. note on ch. 2 Samuel 17:24.
numbered] The word means not merely to count, but to muster and review.
captains of thousands and captains of hundreds] The usual military divisions (1 Samuel 22:7; Numbers 31:14; and see note on 1 Samuel 8:12); corresponding originally to the civil divisions instituted by Moses (Exodus 18:25). See note on 1 Samuel 10:19.
And David sent forth a third part of the people under the hand of Joab, and a third part under the hand of Abishai the son of Zeruiah, Joab's brother, and a third part under the hand of Ittai the Gittite. And the king said unto the people, I will surely go forth with you myself also.2. sent forth … under the hand of Joab] Better, put … into the hand of Joab, i.e. under his command. The army does not take the field until 2 Samuel 18:6. The division of an army into three bodies seems to have been a common practice. See Jdg 7:16; Jdg 9:43; 1 Samuel 11:11. David intended to take the chief command in person.
But the people answered, Thou shalt not go forth: for if we flee away, they will not care for us; neither if half of us die, will they care for us: but now thou art worth ten thousand of us: therefore now it is better that thou succour us out of the city.3. Thou shalt not go forth] Compare the protest of David’s followers on an earlier occasion (ch. 2 Samuel 21:17).
but now thou art worth ten thousand of us] As the Heb. text stands it must be rendered, and now there are ten thousand like us; but, it is implied, none besides like thee. But if we follow the Sept. and Vulg. in reading thou for now, the sense will be that given by the E. V., which seems best.
that thou succour us out of the city] By sending reinforcements, and securing their retreat in case of a defeat.
And the king said unto them, What seemeth you best I will do. And the king stood by the gate side, and all the people came out by hundreds and by thousands.
And the king commanded Joab and Abishai and Ittai, saying, Deal gently for my sake with the young man, even with Absalom. And all the people heard when the king gave all the captains charge concerning Absalom.5. all the people heard] Cp. “in our hearing” in 2 Samuel 18:12.
So the people went out into the field against Israel: and the battle was in the wood of Ephraim;6. in the wood of Ephraim] “The forest of Ephraim” might naturally be expected to mean the great forest covering the high lands of central Palestine in which the tribe of Ephraim settled (Joshua 17:15-18). But all the circumstances are in favour of supposing the battle to have been fought on the eastern side of the Jordan. (a) Absalom marched into Gilead and encamped there (ch. 2 Samuel 17:26); David was at Mahanaim; and there is not the slightest hint that either army crossed the Jordan. (b) It is implied beforehand that the battle would be in the neighbourhood of Mahanaim (ch. 2 Samuel 18:3). (c) The return of the army to Mahanaim on the same day (ch. 2 Samuel 19:2-5), would scarcely have been possible, had the battle been fought on the west of the Jordan. These considerations make it all but certain that “the wood of Ephraim” was some part of the great forests of Gilead. The origin of the name can only be conjectured. It may possibly have been derived from the connexion of Ephraim with the trans-Jordanic Manasseh, or from some incident such as the slaughter of the Ephraimites by Jephthah (Jdg 12:6).
Where the people of Israel were slain before the servants of David, and there was there a great slaughter that day of twenty thousand men.
For the battle was there scattered over the face of all the country: and the wood devoured more people that day than the sword devoured.8. the wood devoured more, &c.] The explanation generally given is that they perished in the pits and precipices and morasses of the forest: but this seems unlikely. More probably it means that owing to the nature of the ground more were slain in the pursuit through the forest, than in the actual battle.
And Absalom met the servants of David. And Absalom rode upon a mule, and the mule went under the thick boughs of a great oak, and his head caught hold of the oak, and he was taken up between the heaven and the earth; and the mule that was under him went away.9–18. Absalom’s Death
9. And Absalom, &c.] And Absalom happened to find himself in the presence of David’s servants: now Absalom was riding upon his mule, and the mule, &c. In the course of the flight, Absalom found himself among enemies: he turned to escape into the denser part of the forest. The mule which he rode—perhaps David’s own—was a mark of royalty (1 Kings 1:33; 1 Kings 1:38).
a great oak] The great terebinth; the article seems to shew that the tree was well known in after times. The Heb. êlah is generally said to denote the terebinth or turpentine tree, which is not unlike the oak in general appearance: but in the forests on the E. of Jordan, oaks are far more common than terebinths, and some kind of oak may be meant.
his head caught hold of the oak] His head was caught in the forked boughs of the tree, and he hung there, stunned and helpless. Perhaps his long thick hair got entangled, but there is nothing to support the common idea that he was suspended merely by his hair.
And a certain man saw it, and told Joab, and said, Behold, I saw Absalom hanged in an oak.
And Joab said unto the man that told him, And, behold, thou sawest him, and why didst thou not smite him there to the ground? and I would have given thee ten shekels of silver, and a girdle.11. ten shekels] Shekels is rightly supplied, as in 1 Kings 10:29, and elsewhere. The shekel weighed about half an ounce; but its real value at the time cannot be fixed.
a girdle] An essential article of Oriental dress, often of costly materials and highly ornamented. Cp. 1 Samuel 18:4.
And the man said unto Joab, Though I should receive a thousand shekels of silver in mine hand, yet would I not put forth mine hand against the king's son: for in our hearing the king charged thee and Abishai and Ittai, saying, Beware that none touch the young man Absalom.12. Beware that none touch] Or, Have a care, all of you, of the young man Absalom: lit. as in the margin, whosoever ye be. But the Sept. and Vulg. read for my sake, as in 2 Samuel 18:5, in place of whosoever.
Otherwise I should have wrought falsehood against mine own life: for there is no matter hid from the king, and thou thyself wouldest have set thyself against me.13. I should have wrought falsehood against mine own life] I should not only have disobeyed the king, but have been false to my own interest and forfeited my life. The Kthîbh reads his life, thus: Or if I had dealt deceitfully against his life, there is nothing hid, &c.: i.e., if I had treacherously slain him contrary to the king’s command, it would certainly have come to the king’s ears, and I should have been put to death. The Sept. has a different reading, connecting the first clause of 2 Samuel 18:13 with 2 Samuel 18:14, thus: “Take care of the young man Absalom for my sake, that ye do no harm against his life: and there is no matter hid,” &c.
wouldest have set thyself against me] Wouldest have taken part against me with the king. The man was well aware of Joab’s unscrupulous character.
Then said Joab, I may not tarry thus with thee. And he took three darts in his hand, and thrust them through the heart of Absalom, while he was yet alive in the midst of the oak.14. three darts] Since the word used means elsewhere rods or staves (Exodus 21:20; 2 Samuel 23:21), and the wounds inflicted were not at once mortal, it seems that Joab struck Absalom brutally with pointed wooden staves, the first weapons which came to hand, in fact in a kind of way impaled him as a traitor, and left his squires to give him the coup de grâce.
through the heart] Not literally through his heart, for the blows did not kill him outright; but into the midst of his body.
And ten young men that bare Joab's armour compassed about and smote Absalom, and slew him.15. slew him] Absalom’s death was unquestionably the speediest and surest means of putting an end to the rebellion; and Joab probably took credit to himself for serving his country while he satisfied his private revenge (ch. 2 Samuel 14:30).
And Joab blew the trumpet, and the people returned from pursuing after Israel: for Joab held back the people.16. blew the trumpet] Sounded the recall to stop further pursuit. Cp. ch. 2 Samuel 2:28, 2 Samuel 20:22.
And they took Absalom, and cast him into a great pit in the wood, and laid a very great heap of stones upon him: and all Israel fled every one to his tent.17. a very great heap of stones] A monument of shame over the rebel’s grave, as over that of Achan (Joshua 7:26), and the king of Ai (Joshua 8:29). Some think it was symbolic of the stoning which was the penalty of a rebel son (Deuteronomy 21:20-21). It is still a custom in the East for passers by to cast stones on the grave of a malefactor. See The Land and the Book, p. 490.
fled every one to his tent] To his home. The use of the word tent is a relic of primitive nomad life. Cp. ch. 2 Samuel 20:1; 2 Samuel 20:22.
Now Absalom in his lifetime had taken and reared up for himself a pillar, which is in the king's dale: for he said, I have no son to keep my name in remembrance: and he called the pillar after his own name: and it is called unto this day, Absalom's place.18. the king’s dale] In Genesis 14:17 “the king’s dale” is given as an alternative name for “the valley of Shaveh” in which the king of Sodom met Abram. But its situation is uncertain. Josephus (Antiq. VII. 10. 3) says that Absalom’s monument was two furlongs distant from Jerusalem, and in accordance with this statement the Tomb of Absalom is shewn in the valley of the Kidron. But this building is of Roman work; and it cannot even mark the site of Absalom’s monument, for the “king’s dale” was a broad open valley (Heb. êmek), not a narrow ravine like the Kidron (Heb. nachal).
I have no son] His three sons (ch. 2 Samuel 14:27) must have all died young.
Absalom’s place] Lit. Absalom’s hand, i.e. monument. Cp. 1 Samuel 15:12. The historian evidently intends to mark the contrast between this splendid cenotaph, and the heap of stones which marked the rebel’s grave in the forest of Ephraim.
Then said Ahimaaz the son of Zadok, Let me now run, and bear the king tidings, how that the LORD hath avenged him of his enemies.19–32. The news carried to David
19. hath avenged him of his enemies] Lit. judged him out of the hand of his enemies: pronounced a favourable verdict in his cause and delivered him. Cp. 1 Samuel 24:15; Psalm 43:1.
And Joab said unto him, Thou shalt not bear tidings this day, but thou shalt bear tidings another day: but this day thou shalt bear no tidings, because the king's son is dead.20. bear tidings] The word with rare exceptions means to bear good tidings, and this meaning should be retained here and in 2 Samuel 18:19. Joab would not let Ahimaaz have the thankless task of carrying news which to the king would be no good news.
Then said Joab to Cushi, Go tell the king what thou hast seen. And Cushi bowed himself unto Joab, and ran.21. Cushi] Rather, the Cushite, an Ethiopian slave in Joab’s service, who would have little to lose by the king’s displeasure.
Then said Ahimaaz the son of Zadok yet again to Joab, But howsoever, let me, I pray thee, also run after Cushi. And Joab said, Wherefore wilt thou run, my son, seeing that thou hast no tidings ready?22. thou hast no tidings ready] Probably, thou hast no good tidings to get a reward; cp. the Sept. “thou hast no good tidings for profit if thou goest:” and the Vulg. “thou wilt not be a bearer of good tidings.”
But howsoever, said he, let me run. And he said unto him, Run. Then Ahimaaz ran by the way of the plain, and overran Cushi.23. by the way of the plain] “The plain” (Heb. kikkar) is the technical term for the floor of the valley through which the Jordan runs. In our ignorance of the exact position of the battlefield, we cannot trace the routes taken by the rival runners with certainty. But in all probability what is meant is that Ahimaaz struck down into the Jordan valley, and ran by a longer but easier route to Mahanaim, while the Cushite took the direct but more difficult route over the hills.
And David sat between the two gates: and the watchman went up to the roof over the gate unto the wall, and lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold a man running alone.24. between the two gates] In the space between the inner and outer gates of the city gateway.
to the roof over the gate unto the wall] To that side of the flat roof of the gateway which was in the outer wall of the city.
And the watchman cried, and told the king. And the king said, If he be alone, there is tidings in his mouth. And he came apace, and drew near.25. If he be alone, &c.] If the army had been routed, a number of fugitives would have been seen coming together.
And the watchman saw another man running: and the watchman called unto the porter, and said, Behold another man running alone. And the king said, He also bringeth tidings.26. unto the porter] The Sept. reads “into the gate.” The difference is a question of vowel points only.
And the watchman said, Me thinketh the running of the foremost is like the running of Ahimaaz the son of Zadok. And the king said, He is a good man, and cometh with good tidings.27. He is a good man, &c.] The king rightly judged, that Joab would not choose a distinguished messenger like Ahimaaz to carry bad news (2 Samuel 18:20).
And Ahimaaz called, and said unto the king, All is well. And he fell down to the earth upon his face before the king, and said, Blessed be the LORD thy God, which hath delivered up the men that lifted up their hand against my lord the king.28. All is well] Lit. Peace! The usual word of greeting had special significance at such a time.
he fell down] An act of homage to the king. See note on ch. 2 Samuel 14:4, and cp. 1 Samuel 20:41; 1 Samuel 25:23.
delivered up] Lit. shut up: restrained and confined within bounds, instead of leaving them at large to work their will. Cp. 1 Samuel 17:46; Psalm 31:8, and the opposite expression in ch. 2 Samuel 22:20.
And the king said, Is the young man Absalom safe? And Ahimaaz answered, When Joab sent the king's servant, and me thy servant, I saw a great tumult, but I knew not what it was.29. Is the young man Absalom safe] Taking up the exclamation of Ahimaaz; Is it well with the young man Absalom? lit. Is there peace to the young man Absalom? Cp. 2 Kings 4:26. “Not only the question itself, but the very terms of it, breathe the tenderness of David’s feelings. Absalom is ‘the youth,’ as if his youth were a full excuse for his conduct.” Speaker’s Comm.
the king’s servant] The Cushite, to whom Ahimaaz points as he comes up. But it is not improbable that the king’s servant is an alternative reading for thy servant, originally written in the margin, and afterwards inserted in the text, so that we should read simply when Joab sent thy servant.
I knew not what it was] Ahimaaz was eager to be first with the good news, but deliberately concealed the bad. Can it be wondered at that his regard for truth had been weakened when we remember the business he had been engaged in at David’s command?
And the king said unto him, Turn aside, and stand here. And he turned aside, and stood still.
And, behold, Cushi came; and Cushi said, Tidings, my lord the king: for the LORD hath avenged thee this day of all them that rose up against thee.31. Tidings, &c.] The phrase is not so abrupt in the Heb., and more suitable in the slave’s mouth. Let my lord the king receive the good tidings, that, &c.
hath avenged] See note on 2 Samuel 18:19.
And the king said unto Cushi, Is the young man Absalom safe? And Cushi answered, The enemies of my lord the king, and all that rise against thee to do thee hurt, be as that young man is.
And the king was much moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept: and as he went, thus he said, O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!33. David’s mourning for Absalom
33. was much moved] Better perhaps, was sore troubled. Sept. ἐταράχθη is a good rendering. This passionate outburst of grief was due not only to the tenderness of affection, which was so striking a trait in David’s character, but to the bitterness of the thought that the rebel, the would-be parricide, was thus
“Cut off even in the blossoms of his sin,
No reckoning made, but sent to his account
With all his imperfections on his head;”
and that this terrible catastrophe was the fruit and the punishment of his own crimes. The heart-broken cry “Would God I had died for thee” was not only the utterance of self-sacrificing love, but the confession that he had himself deserved the punishment which fell upon another. Cp. ch. 2 Samuel 24:17.
would God, &c.] So Moses (Exodus 32:32), and so St Paul (Romans 9:3), would have sacrificed themselves, had it been possible, to save others.