2 Samuel 18
Pulpit Commentary
And David numbered the people that were with him, and set captains of thousands and captains of hundreds over them.
Verse 1. - And David numbered. The verb really means that he organized his army, and arranged it in companies and divisions. As Absalom gathered all Israel to him, there would be some delay; and David, like a wise general, made use of it for training the brave but undisciplined men who had joined him, chiefly from Gilead. Besides these, he had with him numerous veterans, whose skill and experience would be invaluable in such service. The result was that when the rebels came to close quarters, they had a vast body of men, but David a disciplined force, which, under skilful generalship, scattered Absalom's raw levies with ease. The arrangement into thousands and hundreds was in accordance with the civil divisions (Exodus 18:25), both being, in fact, dictated by nature as multiples of our hands.
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.
Verse 2. - A third part. Armies are usually divided into three divisions: a centre and two wings when drawn up for battle; a van, the main body. and a rearguard when on the march. But the Israelites had no settled rule upon the point, and. when occasion required, Joab divided his army into two parts (2 Samuel 10:9, 10). The reason of the threefold division in this case was that Ittai had brought his clan, or taf, with him, and as these would certainly not have fought under an Israelite leader, nor the Israelites under Ittai, David placed all foreigners under his command, while he gave his own nephews the command of the native troops. He thus avoided all jealousies; and Ittai's men, honoured by being made a distinct portion of the army, would feel their reputation at stake, and would rival the Israelites in valour.
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.
Verse 3. - It is better that thou succour us out of the city. David thought it to be his duty to go out with the men who were risking their lives in his cause, but they felt not only how painful it would be for a father to fight against his son; but also that there would certainly be a picked body of men who would try to bring the battle to a rapid end by slaying David. But while they partly urge personal considerations, their chief argument is that David would be of more use if, posted with a body of troops at the city, he held himself in reserve to succour any division that might be in danger. And David, seeing how earnest their wish was, yielded to this representation, feeling that it would give steadiness to his men if they knew that so experienced a general was watching the fight, and was ready to succour them if they needed aid. As the people say that it would not matter "if half of us die," and that David "is worth ten thousand of us," Ewald draws the reasonable conclusion that their whole number was about twenty thousand men. The Hebrew literally is, "For now (attah) as us are ten thousand," which might mean, "There are ten thousand such as we are, but no one like thee." But the Septuagint and Vulgate read, "But thou (attah) art as ten thousand of us." The Syriac, however, like the Hebrew, reads "now."
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.
Verse 5. - All the people heard. The king spake so earnestly and strongly to the generals that the words ran from rank to rank as they marched forward. So in ver. 12 the man says to Joab, "In our hearing the king charged thee and Abishai," etc. It does not follow that each one heard the sound of the king's voice, but only that the command was given publicly again and again, and in the presence of the army.
So the people went out into the field against Israel: and the battle was in the wood of Ephraim;
Verse 6. - The wood of Ephraim. There is a diversity of opinion as to the locality thus described. It might mean the large forest tract in the highlands of Ephraim; but if so, the battle must have been fought on the west of the Jordan, whereas the general tenor of the narrative makes it plain that it took place on the eastern side, near Mahanaim. It is true that no wood of Ephraim is ever mentioned elsewhere in the Bible as situated in Gilead, and those who cannot believe in such a wood except within the borders of the tribe, argue that, after the three divisions had marched out to battle, there was long skirmishing, in which Absalom drew David's men across the Jordan, and there gave battle. But Absalom's army was evidently surprised, and as we are told that "he pitched in the land of Gilead" (2 Samuel 17:26), for him to have retired would have been a confession of weakness; and Joab, after seeing him cross the Jordan, would not have followed him, but let this retrograde movement have its effect upon his followers. Such a movement is absolutely incredible on the part of an army at least three times as numerous as those whom they attacked, and confident of victory. Moreover, armies in those days were not composed of men receiving pay, and bound to remain with their colours, but of yeomen unwilling to be kept long absent from their farms, and liable, therefore, rapidly to melt away. A quick decision was plainly necessary for Absalom, while David could afford to wait. But besides this, when his forces moved out of Mahanaim, David took his post at the gate with the reserves, and he was still there, sitting "between the two gates," when news was brought him of the victory (ver. 24). The only real argument in support of the view that the battle was fought on the west of the Jordan is that "Ahimaaz ran by the way of the plain" (ver. 23), Hebrew, the kikkar - a name specially given to the valley of the Jordan near Jericho. But then Cushi must also have run through the same valley, and it is evident that his route was in this very respect different from that taken by Ahimaaz. Really, kikkar, which in Hebrew means "circuit," may be used of the country round any city, and is applied in Nehemiah 12:28 to the environs of Jerusalem. Here the meaning probably is that, while the Cushite took the route back over the battlefield through the wood, Ahimaaz went to the left of it, over the more level ground, nearer the Jordan. And though the name is chiefly used of that part near Jericho, it was probably applied popularly to every stretch of level ground near the river. This argument, therefore, is inconclusive; while, on the other side, it is plain that David's army returned that same day to Mahanaim, that they knew at once of his distress, and that they were beginning to steal away home when Joab made David come forth to thank them, and encourage them to remain with him. The most probable explanation of the difficulty is that "the wood of Ephraim" was so called because it was the spot where Jephthah defeated the Ephraimites when they invaded Gilead to punish him for daring to go to war without their consent, they being then the dominant tribe, to whose arbitrament belonged all imperial matters (Judges 12:4-6).
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.
Verse 8. - The battle was there scattered. The word in the Hebrew is a noun, which the Massorites have changed into a participle. But the noun is right: "The battle became a scattering," that is, it was a series of disconnected encounters, in which David's three divisions attacked and routed Absalom's men, while still on the march, without giving them an opportunity of collecting and forming in order of battle. And the wood devoured more people that day thin the sword devoured. The woodland was difficult, full of gorges and begs and steep defiles leading down to the Jordan, and the fugitives easily lest their way in it, and wandered about till they were hopelessly entangled in thicket and morass.
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.
Verse 9. - Absalom met the servants of David. The verb means that he came upon them by chance. Evidently in the intricacies of the forest, Absalom. had lost his way, and, finding himself suddenly in damager of being captured by some of David's men, he urged his mule through a thicket, as the open ground was blocked by his pursuers. But in the attempt his head was jammed between the boughs of a great terebinth, and the mule, struggling onward, left him hanging in mid-air. Nothing is said about his hair having caused the accident, and apparently it was his neck which became fixed. Probably, too, he was half stunned by the blow, and choked by the pressure; and then his hair would make it very difficult for him to extricate himself. And so, after one or two efforts, in which he would be in danger of dislocating his neck, he would remain suspended to await his fate. Now, this adventure makes the whole affair perfectly plain. Absalom was riding his mule, evidently unprepared for battle. The chariot and horses, with fifty men as his body guard, used by him at Jerusalem (2 Samuel 15:l), are nowhere near him. Chariots, of course, would have been useless on such rough ground, but Absalom would have had a picked body of young men round him in the battle; and mules were only for use on the march, and were sent into the rear when the fighting began. But the last thing that Absalom expected was that he should be attacked on the march. He was advancing with an army infinitely more numerous than that of David, and assumed that David would wait at Mahanaim, and, if he fought at all, would fight under its walls. His defeat he regarded as certain, and then the vain glorious prince and all Israel would drag the city into the nearest ravine. In this over confidence he was riding in advance of his army, which was struggling on over most difficult ground. For "rising as the country does suddenly from the deep valley of the Jordan, it is naturally along its whole western border deeply furrowed by the many streams which drain the district; and our ride," says Canon Tristram, "was up and down concealed glens, which we only perceived when on their brink, and mounting from which on the other side, a short canter soon brought us to the edge of the next" (Tristram, p. 462). Struggling along over such ground, Absalom's men were not merely tired and weary, but had lost all order, and "become a scattering," and probably Absalom had cantered on in order to find some suitable spot for reforming them. Suddenly he sees at a little distance before him one of the three detachments of David's army, which had marched out a few miles from Mahanaim, and posted themselves on some fit spot to attack the rebels on their march. Apparently they caught no glimpse of him, but he immediately became aware of the tactics of the king's generals, and discerned the extreme danger of his position. Everything depended upon celerity. If he could warn his men, the foremost would halt until the others came up, and a sufficient force be gathered to resist Joab's onslaught. There was no cowardice on his part, but simply the discharge of his duty as a general. He turns his mule round, and dashes away in order to halt and form his men, keeping to the wood that he may not be seen. In his great haste he is not careful in picking his route, and possibly his mule was stubborn, and swerved; and so, in attempting to force his way through the thicket, he is stunned by a blow from a branch of a terebinth tree, and so entangled in its boughs that he cannot free himself; and as none of David's men had seen him, he might have hung there to be the prey of the vultures, and only his riderless mule have been left to bear witness to his having met with some disaster. Meanwhile his followers struggle on, until they come upon David's men, who put them to the sword. There is no battle, but the three divisions, advancing in order, make merciless slaughter of their opponents. For some time Absalom's forces, extended over many miles of march, do not even learn what is going on in their front, and twenty thousand men had fallen before, becoming aware of their defeat, they fly in wild confusion, to lose more men in their panic than had fallen in fighting. Their loss would even have been greater had not Joab stopped the pursuit upon Absalom's death. But where was Amasa, and what was he doing? He had led his troops miserably, had taken no precautions against surprise, and did nothing to rally them. Had Absalom got back in safety to the van, he might have saved his men from so disastrous a defeat; but Amasa, doubtless a brave soldier, proved himself quite incompetent to the duties of a commander-in-chief, and no match for the sagacious Joab.
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.
Verse 11. - A girdle. This was an important article of dress (Ezekiel 23:15), and was often richly embroidered. Absalom's death was well deserved, and there can be little doubt that, if he had gained the victory, he would have massacred David and all his family. The dishonour done to his father at Jerusalem was even intended by Ahithophel to render all reconciliation impossible. But Joab was disobeying the king's express orders, and as Absalom was incapable of making resistance, he ought to have taken him prisoner, and left it to David to decide what his punishment should be.
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.
Verse 12. - Though I should receive. The Hebrew text expresses the horror of the man at Joab's proposal much more vividly than the tame correction of the Massorites admitted into the Authorized Version: "And I, no! weighing in my palm a thousand of silver, I would not put forth my hand against the son of the king."
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.
Verse 13. - Against mine own life. Again the K'tib is better: "Or had I wrought perfidiously against his life - and nothing is hidden from the king - so wouldst thou have set thyself against me." Not only was the man faithful to the king, but he was perfectly aware of Joab's unscrupulous character. If only Absalom were put out of the way, Joab would have readily consented to the execution of the unimportant person who had been the means of gratifying his wish.
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.
Verse 14. - Three darts; Hebrew, three staves (see 2 Samuel 23:21). The weapons of the ancients were of a very inferior kind, and stakes sharpened at the end and hardened in the fire were used by the infantry, until the increasing cheapness of iron made it possible to supply them with pikes. Joab's act was not one of intentional cruelty, but, picking up the first weapons that came to hand, he hurried away to kill his victim. His thrusts with these pointed sticks were brutal, and inflicted mortal wounds; but as they were not immediately fatal, Joab's armour bearers, who had followed him, and who had with them Joab's own better weapons, were called upon to put an end to Absalom's sufferings. His heart does not mean that organ anatomically, but the middle of his body. So at the end of the verse, in the midst of the oak, is, in the Hebrew, in the heart of the terebinth.
And ten young men that bare Joab's armour compassed about and smote Absalom, and slew him.
And Joab blew the trumpet, and the people returned from pursuing after Israel: for Joab held back the people.
Verse 16. - Joab blew the trumpet. Stem and unscrupulous as he was, yet Joab is always statesmanlike. He had slain Absalom more for public than for private reasons, though he may have grimly remembered his own blazing barley field. But the rebellion being now crushed, further slaughter was impolitic, and would only cause sullen displeasure. The people, at the end of the verse, are those under Joab's command, and a translation proposed by some, "Joab wished to spare the people," is to be rejected.
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.
Verse 17. - A great pit; Hebrew, the great pit; as though there was some great hollow or well known depression in the wood, into which they cast Absalom's dead body, and raised a cairn over it. Such cairns were used as memorials of any event deemed worthy of lasting remembrance, but the similar cairn piled over the dead body of Achan (Joshua 7:26) makes it probable that the act was also intended as a sign of condemnation of Absalom's conduct. All Israel fled every one to his tent. The Israelites were still a pastoral people, with tents for their abodes, though houses were gradually taking their place. The cry, "To your tents, O Israel!" (1 Kings 12:16), meant, "Go away to your homes!" and not "Gather for war!" It is remarkable how constantly Absalom's followers are described as "Israel" while the loyal men are "David's servants." Absalom's was evidently the popular cause, and, besides Uriah's murder, there must have been political reasons for discontent at work to make David's government so distasteful.
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.
Verse 18. - Absalom... had taken and reared up for himself a pillar. In contrast with the heap of stones cast over his dishonoured body, the narrator calls attention to the costly memorial erected by Absalom in his lifetime. The three unnamed sons mentioned in 2 Samuel 14:27 seem to have died in their infancy, and probably also their mother; and Absalom, instead of taking other wives to bear him sons, which would have been in unison with the feelings of the time, manifested his grief by raising this monument. We have no reason for supposing that it was the result of vanity and ostentation. Ostentatious he was, and magnificent, but his not marrying again is a sign of genuine sorrow. The king's dale is "the Valley of Shaveh," mentioned in Genesis 14:17; but whether it was near Jerusalem, as Josephus asserts, or near Sodom, is uncertain. The pillar was probably an obelisk, or possibly a pyramid, and certainly was not the Ionic column of Roman workmanship shown in the Middle Ages and at the present time as "Absalom's grave." This is in the Kidron valley, about two furlongs from Jerusalem. Absalom's place; literally, Absalom's hand; that is, memorial (see note on 1 Samuel 15:12).
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.
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.
Then said Joab to Cushi, Go tell the king what thou hast seen. And Cushi bowed himself unto Joab, and ran.
Verse 21. - Cushi. This is not a proper name, but signifies that he was an Ethiopian in Joab's service. Joab was unwilling to expose Ahimaaz to me king's displeasure, and we gather from ver. 27 that the sending of a person of low rank would be understood to signify evil tidings. The bearer of good news received a present, and therefore the passing over all Joab's personal friends to send a slave was proof that the message was not expected to bring the bearer honour or reward. And Joab was quite right in supposing that David would be more displeased at his son's death than pleased at the victory.
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?
Verse 22. - Seeing... thou hast no tidings ready. This was not true; there were most important tidings ready. But it is the translation which is in fault. What Joab said is, "Seeing thou hast no tidings that find," that is, no message that will find for thee the king's favour and a reward.
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.
Verse 23. - Ahimaaz ran by the way of the plain; Hebrew, the kikkar, or Jordan valley. The battle, as we saw in ver. 6, was fought on the eastern side of the river, and Absalom's army, in their flight, would endeavour to reach the fords of the Jordan (comp. Judges 12:5); and probably Joab had pursued them for some distance before the man found in the thicket the body of the unfortunate Absalom. The large slaughter of twenty thousand men (ver. 7) proves that the defeated rebels were vigorously followed. In carrying the news he evidently went back by the route which the troops had followed; while Ahimaaz took a longer course to the west, but one that avoided the tangles and the deep defiles of the forest. Strictly, the Kikkar, as we have seen, was the name of the Jordan valley near Jericho; but it was probably applicable also to the same sort of formation further north. On approaching Mahanaim, Ahimaaz would strike inland, and the two routes would join one another; and one reason which made Ahimaaz go more to the west was that he did net wish the Cushite to know that he had a rival. He would thus go at a steady pace, picking his way through the forest, while Ahimaaz was using his utmost speed.
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.
Verse 24. - David sat between the two gates. The gateway was in a tower in the city walls, and David was sitting in the space between the inner and outer gates. Over this space was a chamber, mentioned in ver. 33, while the sentinel was posted upon the front wall over the outer gate.
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.
Verse 25. - If he be alone. In case of defeat there would have been a crowd of runaways in eager flight. And when soon afterwards a second courier is seen, as he also is alone, and comes by a different route, his appearance only suggests the idea of completer tidings. And quickly the foremost is recognized by his running as the son of the high priest, and David is then assured that all has gone well, because Joab would not have sent a man of such rank to be the bearer of bad news. The word good may also mean that Ahimaaz was too brave a man to have fled from the battle, and must, therefore, have come on an errand from Joab.
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.
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.
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.
Verse 28. - And said unto the king, All is well; Hebrew, Peace. This was the ordinary salutation among the Israelites, but its hurried exclamation on the part of the breathless runner was probably intended to convey the idea given in the Authorized Version. Hath delivered up the men, etc; Hebrew, hath hedged, or shut in (see upon this expression the note on 1 Samuel 17:46, and comp. Psalm 31:8). Both there and in 2 Samuel 22:20 prosperity is compared to the being in a broad place, where there is freedom to act (see also note on 2 Samuel 13:2).
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.
Verse 29. - Is the young man Absalom safe! literally, Is there peace to the lad Absalom? Was this mere love for the handsome but rebellious son, whose image comes back to the father as he was when just reaching manhood? Certainly not. David was thinking of the ominous words, "The sword shall never depart from thine house" (2 Samuel 12:10). The sword had devoured one son; was it now to claim another? And then? and then? Where would it stop? And Ahimaaz saw the king's distress, and gave an evasive answer. He understood now Joab's unwillingness to let him carry such painful tidings, and was glad that this part of the news had been entrusted to the Cushite. When Joab sent the king's servant, and (me) thy servant. This distinction is strange, and probably one of these phrases has crept in from the margin. But if the Ethiopian was technically "the king's slave," and Ahimaaz "thy slave" (by courtesy), we might imagine that the attendants already formed part of the state of kings. It was long afterwards that Ebedmelech was a Cushite in the service of Zedekiah (Jeremiah 38:7).
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.
Verse 31. - Tidings, etc. The literal meaning is more fit for the mouth of a slave. "Let my lord the king learn the tidings that Jehovah hath judged (and delivered) thee this day from the hand," etc., that is, God, sitting as Judge at the assize of battle; hath given sentence for thee, and pronounced thy acquittal. The same phrase occurs in ver. 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.
Verse 32. - Is the young man, etc.? Alarm for Absalom is the dominant feeling in David's mind; and as Cushi had been sent for the very purpose, he at once communicates the news to him in words that leave no doubt of his meaning.
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!
Verse 33. - The king was much moved. The Hebrew word properly refers to agitation of body. A violent trembling seized the king, and, rising, he went up to the guard chamber over the two gates, that he might give free course to his lamentation. The whole is told so vividly that we can scarcely doubt that we have here the words of one who was present at this pathetic scene, who saw the tremor which shook David's body, and watched him as he crept slowly up the stairs, uttering words of intense sorrow. And it was conscience which smote him; for his own "sin had found him out." In Psalm 38, and 40. he has made the confession that it was his own iniquity which was now surging over his head.

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