Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
And David numbered the people that were with him, and set captains of thousands and captains of hundreds over them.XVIII.
(1) Numbered the people.—The word means rather mustered. David was some time at Mahanaim, organising the forces which continually gathered to him there.
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) Ittai the Gittite.—Comp. note on Judges 15:19. The arrangement of the army in three divisions was common both among the Israelites (Judges 7:16; Judg. 11:43; 1Samuel 11:11) and their enemies (1Samuel 13:17). Comp. also 2Kings 11:5-6; David proposed 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) Now thou art worth ten thousand of us.—The Hebrew text reads now, but without thou, and as it stands must be translated, now there are ten thousand like us; but the change of a single letter alters the word now into thou, and this change should unquestionably be made in accordance with the LXX. and Vulg., followed by the English. The people urge truly that David is the very centre of their whole cause, and suggest that, even while avoiding unnecessary exposure, he may yet be equally helpful by keeping a reserve in the city to help them in case of need.
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.(4) What seemeth you best.—David was nothing loth to avoid the personal encounter with his son, and readily yielded, He, however, encouraged the troops by reviewing them as they passed out, and improved the opportunity to give his generals special and public charge concerning Absalom. He speaks of him tenderly as “the young man” (2Samuel 18:5; comp. 2Samuel 18:29; 2Samuel 18:32), to imply that his sin was a youthful indiscretion.
So the people went out into the field against Israel: and the battle was in the wood of Ephraim;(6) The wood of Ephraim.—No wood of Ephraim on the eastern side of the Jordan happens to be elsewhere mentioned in Scripture. Yet it is plain that the battle must have been on that side of the river for the following reasons: (1) both armies were on that side beforehand, and there is no mention of their crossing; (2) David remained in Mahanaim (2Samuel 18:3-4) with the reserves, for the purpose of succouring the army in case of need; (3) he there received the news of Absalom’s death (2Samuel 18:24-33); (4) the army returned thither after the battle (2Samuel 19:3); and (5) David was obliged to cross the Jordan on his final return to Jerusalem, and was met at the crossing by the tribes (2Samuel 18:15, &c.). There is really no difficulty but such as arises from our ignorance of local names. The narrative clearly implies that there was a “wood of Ephraim,” otherwise unknown, on the east of the Jordan.
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.(7) Twenty Thousand.—This number seems large, but we really know nothing of the size of the forces engaged on either side; and if the phrase “that day” be taken, as often, with sufficient latitude to include the whole campaign of which this battle was the culmination, there is nothing surprising in the destruction of 20,000 men. Of the human causes of the victory nothing is told. We may assume that the advantage of thorough military organisation and generalship was on David’s side; but, in addition to this, was the vast power of the right, the prestige of law and authority.
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.—The battle and the pursuit covered a wide range of country; more were slain in the pursuit through the wood, both by accident and by the sword, than in the actual battle itself.
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) His head caught hold of the oak.—Absalom in his flight found himself among his enemies, and sought to escape into the denser parts of the forest. As he did so his head caught between the branches of a tree, his mule went from under him, and he hung there helpless. There is nothing said to support the common idea (which seems to have originated with Josephus), that he hung by his long hair, though this may doubtless have helped to entangle his head.
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) Against mine own life.—The English, like the Vulg., here follows the margin of the Hebrew; the LXX., in most MSS., following the text, has against his life. Either makes a good sense, but the English is preferable. In this parley Joab thoroughly exposes his unscrupulous and self-willed character, and the man shows that he understood it.
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) I may not tarry thus.—Joab evidently feels the home-thrusts made by the man in the argument, but, determined on his deed of violence, he sees that it is worse than useless to delay. His act was simply murder. In a lawless age it was defensible as the one act which terminated the rebellion and made a renewal of it impossible, and destroyed a traitor and would-be parricide who was likely otherwise to escape punishment; but it was a distinct disobedience of express orders, and Joab’s taking the execution into his own hands was wilful and deliberate murder.
Three darts.—The word means a rod or staff. Also the word heart is the same as the following word midst, and is not therefore to be taken too literally. Joab seized such sticks as were at hand in the wood and thrust them into Absalom, giving him most painful and probably mortal wounds, but not instantly killing him. Then (2Samuel 18:15) the ten men who had Joab’s armour and weapons came up and finally killed Absalom.
And Joab blew the trumpet, and the people returned from pursuing after Israel: for Joab held back the people.(16) Blew the trumpet.—Comp. 2Samuel 2:28; 2Samuel 20:22. With the death of Absalom the rebellion was at an end, and Joab would stop further slaughter.
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) Every one to his tent.—An expression derived from the life in the wilderness, and meaning every one to his home. (Comp. Deuteronomy 16:7; Joshua 22:4-8; 1Samuel 13:2; 2Samuel 19:8; 2Samuel 20:1; 2Samuel 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.—Called also in Genesis 14:17 “the valley of Shaveh.” Its site has not been identified, and writers differ as to whether it was near Jerusalem, in the valley of the Kidron, which seems probable, or was near the site of Sodom. On Absalom’s statement that he had no son, see note on 14:27.
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) Thou shalt bear no tidings.—Ahimaaz appears to have been in favour both with David (comp. 2Samuel 18:27) and with Joab. Joab, therefore, well knowing how painful to David would be the news of the death of Absalom, refused to let Ahimaaz bear it. The word is used, with rare exceptions, of good tidings.
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, probably an Ethiopian slave in Joab’s service, for whose falling under the king’s displeasure he had little care.
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) No tidings ready.—The phrase is a difficult one, and is translated by the LXX. “no tidings leading to profit,” and by the Vulg. “thou wilt not be a bearer of good tidings.” The simplest and most probable sense is “no tidings sufficient” for a special messenger; the Cushite had already carried the news.
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 word used here is generally applied to the valley of the Jordan and hence it has been argued that the battle could not have been fought on the eastern side of the river, since, in that case, Ahimaaz could not have reached Mahanaim by the Jordan valley except by a long and tedious detour. But the word simply means circuit, or surrounding country, and is used in Nehemiah 12:28 for the country about Jerusalem. Here it means that Ahimaaz ran “by the way of the circuit,” i.e., in all probability, by a longer but smoother road than that taken by the Cushite, so that he was able to outrun him.
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.—Literally, Peace, as in the margin. This is the cry with which Ahimaaz greets the king in his eager haste, as soon as he comes within hearing. He then approaches and falls down reverentially, with a distinct announcement of the victory.
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 . . . Absalom safe?—The king’s whole interest is centred in Absalom, and he cares for no other tidings. Ahimaaz skilfully, though untruthfully, evades the question. He had just been trained to untruthfulness in David’s service.
The king’s servant.—This can only refer to the Cushite; but by omitting the single letter which forms the conjunction in Hebrew, the phrase becomes “When Joab, the king’s servant, sent thy servant,” and so the Vulg. reads.
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.(32) Absalom.—To the Cushite’s tidings David replies with the same question as before; but this messenger does not appreciate the state of the king’s feelings, and answers with sufficient plainness, though in courteous phrase, that Absalom is dead.
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) Was much moved.—David’s grief was not merely that of a father for his first-born son, but for that son slain in the very act of outrageous sin. His sorrow, too, may have gained poignancy from the thought—which must often have come to him during the progress of this rebellion—that all this sin and wrong took its occasion from his own great sin. Yet David was criminally weak at this crisis in allowing the feelings of the father completely to outweigh the duties of the monarch.