Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Now Joab the son of Zeruiah perceived that the king's heart was toward Absalom.XIV.
(1) Was toward Absalom.—This, like the last verse of the previous chapter, may be understood in either of two opposite senses: either David’s heart yearned for Absalom (as the Authorised Version, Vulg., LXX., Syr.), or it was hostile to him. The Hebrew preposition is used in both senses, though more frequently in the latter, and unquestionably expresses hostility in the only other place (Daniel 11:28) in which this form of the phrase occurs. The verse would then be translated, “And Joab the son of Zeruiah knew that the king’s heart was against Absalom.” Hence his stratagem to obtain his recall, which would otherwise have been quite unnecessary.
And Joab sent to Tekoah, and fetched thence a wise woman, and said unto her, I pray thee, feign thyself to be a mourner, and put on now mourning apparel, and anoint not thyself with oil, but be as a woman that had a long time mourned for the dead:(2) Tekoah.—A village on a high hill five miles south of Bethlehem, the home of the prophet Amos. It was also the native place of Ira, one of David’s thirty heroes (2Samuel 23:26), and was near enough to Bethlehem, the home of Joab, for him to have had personal knowledge of this “wise woman.” There is no ground whatever for suspecting her of being a “witch,” or in any way disreputable.
The parable that follows was contrived by Joab, yet also required skill and address on the part of the woman. It is purposely made not too closely parallel to the case of Absalom, lest it should defeat its own object. In general it needs no comment.
And when the woman of Tekoah spake to the king, she fell on her face to the ground, and did obeisance, and said, Help, O king.(4) Spake to the king.—Many MSS. and the LXX., Vulg., and Syriac have came to the king. The difference is immaterial.
And thy handmaid had two sons, and they two strove together in the field, and there was none to part them, but the one smote the other, and slew him.(6) They two strove together.—The woman represents the fratricide as unpremeditated and without malice. This really made the case essentially different from that of Absalom; but at this point of the story the object is to dispose the king favourably towards the culprit, while by the time the application is reached, this point will have passed out of mind.
And, behold, the whole family is risen against thine handmaid, and they said, Deliver him that smote his brother, that we may kill him, for the life of his brother whom he slew; and we will destroy the heir also: and so they shall quench my coal which is left, and shall not leave to my husband neither name nor remainder upon the earth.(7) We will destroy the heir also.—The woman puts this into the mouth of the family, because this would be the result of what they proposed. The effect of the parable is greatly heightened by this, and there is no doubt intended a covert allusion to Absalom as the heir of David.
And the woman of Tekoah said unto the king, My lord, O king, the iniquity be on me, and on my father's house: and the king and his throne be guiltless.(9) The iniquity be on me—i.e., if there be any wrong in thus condoning blood-guiltiness, let the responsibility rest on me. Although the king has granted her request, the woman seeks to prolong the interview that she may lead him to commit himself more completely.
Then said she, I pray thee, let the king remember the LORD thy God, that thou wouldest not suffer the revengers of blood to destroy any more, lest they destroy my son. And he said, As the LORD liveth, there shall not one hair of thy son fall to the earth.(11) Let the king remember the Lord.—Having thus far succeeded, the crafty woman still further leads on the king to bind himself with the solemnity of an oath.
And the woman said, Wherefore then hast thou thought such a thing against the people of God? for the king doth speak this thing as one which is faulty, in that the king doth not fetch home again his banished.(13) Against the people of God.—This phrase, according to constant usage, can only mean Israel. The woman finds that the time has come when she must show the king that he stands condemned for his conduct towards Absalom by his own decision. She does this cautiously, and her language is therefore somewhat obscure; she rather hints at than plainly expresses what she wants to say. Her first point is that the king is in some way wronging the people, and then that he does this in opposition to the spirit of the decision he has just given, by leaving Absalom (whom she does not name) in banishment.
The king doth speak . . .—A more literal translation would be, from the king’s speaking this word he is as one guilty.
For we must needs die, and are as water spilt on the ground, which cannot be gathered up again; neither doth God respect any person: yet doth he devise means, that his banished be not expelled from him.(14) We must needs die.—The woman now goes on to a further argument from the uncertainty of life. Whether she would suggest the possibility of Absalom’s dying in banishment (as some think), or of David’s death before he has been reconciled to his son (as others hold) does not matter. She craftily withdraws attention from the real point—the question of right and justice—and, assuming that the thing ought to be done, suggests that delay is unsafe since life is uncertain. Still another explanation of her argument may be given: “Amnon is dead, and it is useless to grieve longer for him; God does not respect persons, Absalom too must die, and you yourself must die; improve the time and the blessings yet left while there is opportunity.”
Neither doth God respect any person.—The Hebrew is difficult, but the English is certainly wrong. The literal translation is “And God doth not take away the soul, but thinketh thoughts that He may not banish the banished one;” and the meaning is that God in wrath remembers mercy, and does not press punishment to extremes.
Now therefore that I am come to speak of this thing unto my lord the king, it is because the people have made me afraid: and thy handmaid said, I will now speak unto the king; it may be that the king will perform the request of his handmaid.(15) Because the people have made me afraid.—The woman here seeks to excuse her boldness in addressing the king by the pressure brought to bear upon her from without; but whether she means this in regard to what she has said of Absalom, or of her own. affairs, is very doubtful. In the former case the people would mean the nation generally; in the latter, her own family connections. Certainly in the next verse she returns to her own affairs to keep up the pretence of reality; but here there seems to be an intentional and studied ambiguity.
Then thine handmaid said, The word of my lord the king shall now be comfortable: for as an angel of God, so is my lord the king to discern good and bad: therefore the LORD thy God will be with thee.(17) An angel of God.—Comp. 2Samuel 14:20; 2Samuel 19:27; 1Samuel 29:9.
And the king said, Is not the hand of Joab with thee in all this? And the woman answered and said, As thy soul liveth, my lord the king, none can turn to the right hand or to the left from ought that my lord the king hath spoken: for thy servant Joab, he bade me, and he put all these words in the mouth of thine handmaid:(19) The hand of Joab.—The king at once penetrates the woman’s disguise, and sees the stratagem. He knew Joab as “wily and politic and unscrupulous,” but we do not know why he suspected him of this especial interest in Absalom. Perhaps it was only the prosperous courtier’s interest in the heir-apparent, but probably Joab had made the same request before, so that the king recognised its source.
And the king said unto Joab, Behold now, I have done this thing: go therefore, bring the young man Absalom again.(21) I have done.—This is the Hebrew text; the margin has thou hast done. The former is simply a form of granting Joab’s request; the latter would convey an implied censure on Joab’s stratagem, although in the next clause there is a compliance with his wish.
And the king said, Let him turn to his own house, and let him not see my face. So Absalom returned to his own house, and saw not the king's face.(24) Let him not see my face.—David allowed Absalom’s return, but forbade him his presence. The former had been done in weakness, the latter through a sense of justice. The effect of this half measure was unfortunate; Absalom was irritated, and yet placed in a favourable position to carry out his plots. It is probable that Absalom was confined to his own house.
And when he polled his head, (for it was at every year's end that he polled it: because the hair was heavy on him, therefore he polled it:) he weighed the hair of his head at two hundred shekels after the king's weight.(26) Two hundred shekels.—The value of the shekel “after the king’s weight” is unknown. If it was the same with the shekel of the sanctuary, the weight mentioned would be about six pounds; if only half as much, the weight would still be very extraordinary. Some clerical error has probably arisen in copying the number in the MSS.
And unto Absalom there were born three sons, and one daughter, whose name was Tamar: she was a woman of a fair countenance.(27) Three sons.—Their names are not given, from which it might be supposed that they died in infancy, and this is made sure by 2Samuel 18:18, where Absalom is reported as saying, “I have no son to keep my name in remembrance.”
One daughter.—This daughter bore the name of Absalom’s sister, Tamar, and shared her beauty. The LXX. here inserts the statement that she “became the wife of Roboam, the son of Solomon, and bore him a son, Abia.” But this is evidently a confused gloss, founded upon 1Kings 15:2; 2Chronicles 11:20-22. We are there told that Rehoboam’s favourite wife was Maachah, the daughter of Absalom, and mother of Abijah; but this must mean that Maachah was his granddaughter through Tamar, since in 2Chronicles 13:2 Abijah is called the son of Michaiah, the daughter of Uriel. Tamar then married Uriel, and her daughter became the mother of a line of kings.
Therefore Absalom sent for Joab, to have sent him to the king; but he would not come to him: and when he sent again the second time, he would not come.(29) He would not come.—Joab felt that he had already gone far enough in procuring Absalom’s return, and, as he still continued under the displeasure of the king, he was not disposed to do anything more. Possibly also he thought Absalom should have shown some sign of penitence for his great crime.
Therefore he said unto his servants, See, Joab's field is near mine, and he hath barley there; go and set it on fire. And Absalom's servants set the field on fire.(30) Set it on fire.—Absalom’s stratagem for obtaining an interview with Joab was perfectly successful, but would only have been resorted to by a lawless and unscrupulous character.
And Absalom answered Joab, Behold, I sent unto thee, saying, Come hither, that I may send thee to the king, to say, Wherefore am I come from Geshur? it had been good for me to have been there still: now therefore let me see the king's face; and if there be any iniquity in me, let him kill me.(32) If there be any iniquity.—Absalom makes no acknowledgment of having done wrong, but simply says that this state of half-reconciliation is intolerable. He must either be punished or fully pardoned. Joab’s intercession accomplishes its purpose; the king receives Absalom, and kisses him in token of complete reconciliation. In this David showed great weakness, for which he afterwards suffered severely.