The David Saga, Episode 11 – Absalom’s Defeat

For this week, please read 2 Samuel 17:15-19:43. In our episode this week, Absalom’s Rebellion is put down and David is reconciled to those who fought against him. 


In episode 10, Absalom openly rebels against his father, King David. He is anointed king in Hebron (as David had been decades prior), and Ahithophel, David’s closest advisor, joins him. David immediately flees Jerusalem west across the Kidron Valley and up and over the Mount of Olives resting only when he reaches the bank of the Jordan River. On his flight out of town, a Benjamite named Shimei insults and taunts the king. David, however, is not without assets. David’s Philistine mercenaries under Ittai the Gittite go with him. David also has the loyalty of the two priests in Jerusalem, Abiathar and Zadok. Finally, David plants his other close advisor, Hushai, into Absalom’s court. Hushai is not only tasked with providing David information but is also directed to mislead Absalom. Absalom takes Jerusalem without a fight. Ahithophel tells Absalom to immediately pursue David while he is disorganized and discouraged, while Hushai counsels delay until Absalom can build up his forces. Absalom takes the advice of David’s spy Hushai.


In this week’s episode, David and Absalom’s forces meet in the Forest of Ephraim, east of the Jordan River. Absalom is killed after having his hair caught in an oak tree. David mourns Absalom’s death until Joab tells him that his mourning is an insult to his troops. In the remainder of the episode, we see David refusing to exact vengeance against those who supported Absalom and reconciling himself to his people. Just as David was the archetype penitent after Nathan’s rebuke regarding Bathsheba and Uriah, so now David is the archetype victor bestowing forgiveness and reconciliation.

Hushai’s Intelligence: (Ch. 17:15-22) 

Our story begins with David on the run. He has made it to the Jordan River where he now contemplates his next move. At the same time, Absalom is contemplating whether to immediately pursue David as counseled by Ahithophel or to wait until he has a larger army as recommended by Hushai. After giving his advice, Hushai immediately goes to the priests, Zadok and Abiathar, to use their network to tell David that he is in immediate danger should Absalom take Ahithophel’s advice, and that David should immediately cross the Jordan River.

The problem is how to get the intelligence out of the city to David. Anyone seen coming and going from Jerusalem would immediately be suspected of being a spy. The solution was that the priests’ sons, Jonathan and Ahimaaz, would hide near the springs of En-Rogel located just outside of the gates of Jerusalem. The priests would then send a maidservant to go get water at the springs. There, she would pass the intelligence onto the sons, and they would run to tell David.

A problem arises. While the sons are speaking with the maidservant, a boy spots the conversation taking place and reports his observations back to Absalom. Absalom immediately sends out a search party for the two men. Being chased, Jonathan and Ahimaaz enter a nearby country home. This owner’s wife hides Jonathan and Ahimaaz in the well located in their courtyard. She immediately spreads a covering over the well and scatters grain upon it. As soon as she completes her concealment, Absalom’s servants enter the home. They search the home and the courtyard, but cannot find the young men. The woman tells Absolom’s servants that she had seen the two men run away and that they were no longer here. She points them away from the Jordan.

Jonathan and Ahimaaz climb out of the well and continue to sprint towards David’s location. It is near dark. They tell David that he is in immediate danger. David spends the rest of the night moving his forces and his family across the Jordan. When the sun rises, David’s escape is complete.

City of Mahanaim: (Ch. 17:24-29)

David escapes to the walled city of Mahanaim. The city is located on the Jabbok River (a tributary of the Jordan) approximately ten miles from the Jordan near the border with Ammon. The name means “Two Camps or Companies” for it was here that Jacob’s army shared a camp with God’s angels on his way to reconcile with his brother Esau. (Gen. 32:2). Mahanaim is an unexpected place for David to go. It was here that Abner established Ishbosheth’s kingdom after the death of Saul. And therefore, the resistance to David’s rule was first based here. However, it was also from here that Machir, a close friend of Mephibosheth whom David had shown great kindness, lived. Mahanaim was also close to the Ammonite border and therefore they would be appreciative of David’s army having had kept the Ammonites away.

Before approaching the city, we can see David sending out scouts to determine how he would be received. Would the elders of the city fight him, turn him away, or help him? It is the latter. The elders of Mahanaim welcome David with open-arms and supply David with all of the provisions his army and his family require. David has now found rest and protection. He can now begin the process of organizing and encouraging his men.

Amasa: (Ch. 17:25)

Back in Jerusalem, Absalom appoints Amasa over his army. Amasa is the son of Abigail, who is the sister of David and Zeruiah, Joab’s mother. This is always a family affair. The coming battle will pit father vs. son and cousin vs. cousin.

Battle Preparations: (Ch 18:1-5)

Absalom had taken Hushai’s advice and has gathered a large army to go against David. However, Absalom’s delay allows David to organize his army. David divides his army into thirds: one-third each under Joab, Abishai, and Ittai the Gittite (the Philistine mercenary from Gath). David then declares that he will lead the army. His men, however, realize that David cannot put himself in danger and that he will be safer in the City. Once more, David listens. He tells his men that he will do whatever they wish. David stays in Mahanaim with a reserve army. David’s only order to his men is to deal with Absalom gently. Despite Absalom’s actions, David does not want to lose another son. We can see the regret that David has in driving his son to rebellion.

The Battle of the Ephraim Forest: (Ch. 18:6-18)

The battle between the Israelite forces under Absalom and David’s men takes place in the Forest of Ephraim. The forest is located in rugged rocky terrain east of the Jordan River. The terrain minimizes the numerical advantage of Absalom’s forces and plays into the experience of David’s commanders. Scripture tells us that “the forest devoured more people that day than the sword.” (v.8). It is almost as if nature itself comes to David’s aid. Picture Absalom’s forces going into battle against David’s men, and nature intervenes. The trees and rocks and the hills come alive to fight for David. Roots and vines cause men to stumble, the ground swallows up others, and still more get lost and separate from their comrades.

As the battle rages, David’s forces begin to have the upper hand. Absalom is riding on his mule between battle points when his beautiful head of hair (14:26) becomes entrapped in the branches of an oak tree leaving him hanging in the air. It is almost as if the oak itself had caught David’s rebellious son. Picture the military leader of the rebellion hanging from a giant oak, with his legs unable to touch the ground and no one around to assist.

Absalom’s situation is reported back to Joab. Joab reprimands the man for not killing the rebel Absalom when he had the chance. The man defends himself saying that he heard David give the order to not harm Absalom. Joab does not care. He himself takes three darts and thrusts them into Absalom’s heart. He then orders his guards continue to strike at Absalom until bleeds out and dies. As Joab watches, the men pull Absalom out of the tree and toss his body into a pit in the forest. The rebel leader is dead; rebellion has ended. Joab blows the trumpet to recall his men from pursuing Absalom’s forces and to return triumphantly to Mahanaim. Those who fought for Absalom run home to hide their shame.

David’s Grief : (Ch. 18:19-19:8a)

News of the victory and of Absalom’s death has not yet reached David back in Mahanaim. Two men volunteer to bring the news to David – Ahimaaz, the son of Zadok the priest, and a Cushite soldier. David has watchman on the walls of Mahanaim eagerly waiting for word. The watchman sees first Ahimaaz and then the Cushite running towards the city. A single man or two always means good news whereas a group of men usually means they are fleeing in defeat. Ahimaaz reaches David first and tells him of the victory. Despite being asked directly by David about Absalom’s fate, Ahimaaz demurs. He knows David’s wish that Absalom be left alive and he is too afraid to tell his king the truth. The Cushite then shows up and directly tells David that his estranged son Absalom is dead. David cries out “O my son Absalom, my dear, dear son Absalom! Why not me rather than you, my death and not yours, O Absalom, my dear, dear son!” (18:33).

David is in grief. A day of victory is turned into a day of mourning. Instead of marching triumphantly into the city in victory, David’s men steal into the city as if it was they that had lost. Joab, the killer of Absalom, goes to straighten David out. Joab forcefully tells David that he has shamed the same men who just saved his life and the lives of his family and his servants. Joab wants David to tell him “would it have been better that all of these be slaughtered, including David, and Absalom be now in possession of Mahanaim?” To make his rebuke crystal clear, Joab tells David that unless he addresses his troops as a victorious king and not as a grieving father, that all of them will immediately abandon David for good. Once more David listens to others and does the right thing. He comes out of his house and sits by the gate of Mahanaim congratulating his men on a job well done.

Winning the Peace: (Ch.19:8b-40)

Winston Churchill opens his book “History of the Second World War” with the adage: “In War, Resolution; In Defeat, Defiance; In Victory, Magnanimity; and in Peace, Good Will.” David’s subsequent conduct displays his magnanimity in victory and his goodwill in peace. David’s aim is to become a king of all of Israel, not only those that fought for him, but also for those that fought against him.

Think about those that supported Absalom. David has a history of great violence. As a young outlaw and later king, David had no qualms about killing everyone and everything in any town that opposed him. The stories of his genocidal campaigns against the Amalekites and the Philistines are legendary. And as we see in David’s capture of Rabbah (12:26-31), those opponents that he did not kill, he enslaved. What moves do those on the wrong side of the rebellion now make?  

Judean Elders: Absalom’s rebellion began when the elders of Judah anointed Absalom king in Hebron. David has the priests Zadok and Abiathar to go and speak to the elders telling them to welcome David back. Certainly, these men expected David’s vengeance. Instead, he only requires their apology. If they will but invite David back as their king, he will accept and put aside his vengeance.

Amasa: Amasa is his nephew and leader of Absalom’s forces. He commanded the rebel army. David invites him to now be the commander of his army. This act has a two-fold purpose. First, David is demonstrating to the rank-and-file soldiers in the rebellion that he bears no ill will towards them. Most soldiers were not paid professionals, but ordinary men called up to service. David is telling them that they are welcome home. David’s act also punishes Joab. Joab personally killed Absalom in direct violation of David’s direct order. This is David’s punishment for his commander disobedience.

Shimei: Recall that as David fled Jerusalem, Shimei, a family member of Saul, pelted David with curses and stones. As David now makes his way back to Jerusalem victorious, Shimei appears before David and asks for his forgiveness. We can see him prostrate at David’s feet confessing his prior acts. As before, Abishai (Joab’s brother and one of David’s commanders) tells David that Shimei must be put to death for insulting God’s messiah. David responds indigently to Abishai saying: “What is it with you sons of Zeruiah? Why do you insist on being so contentious? Nobody is going to be killed today. I am again king over Israel!” And to Shimei, he simply responds: “You have my oath, you shall not be killed.”

Mephibosheth: Recall Mephibosheth is Jonathan’s son whom David brought into his household and to whom he returned all of Saul (his grandfather)’s lands. Mephibosheth answered David’s kindness by staying in Jerusalem during the rebellion to assert his claim to the throne David vacated. David thereafter gave his lands to Ziba, his servant, who materially supported David during the rebellion. Mephibosheth comes before David and says that he did not leave Jerusalem because he was unable to because he was lame and that his servants had misled him as the political circumstances surrounding David’s departure. Everyone knows that Mephibosheth is being less than honest since his chief servant Ziba did join David. Nonetheless, David forgives Mephibosheth and returns one-half of his lands to him, reserving the other half to Ziba.

Barzillai the Gileadite: Barzillai was one of the wealthy men who gave David provisions after he escaped across the Jordan River. (17:27). He now escorts David back across the Jordan towards Jerusalem. David wants to reward the man who helped save his kingship. Barzillai refuses to personally accept any reward stating that he is happy where he is. However, Barzillai does ask that his reward be disposed upon his son Chimham. Therefore, Chimham accompanies David back to Jerusalem.

Judean/Israelite split: (Ch. 19:41-43)

After Saul’s death, the tribes split between the southern tribe of Judea and the ten northern tribes. (2 Sam. 2) (Levi being the priestly tribe had no land nor allegiance.) This division once more arises. The northern tribes are jealous that Judah led David back into Jerusalem. David reconciles all of Israel to himself, but he cannot reconcile all of Israel to each other.


The writer of Samuel organized his book based upon individual stories, which is how we have been reading through the story. In 2 Samuel 20-24, the writer wraps up loose ends in the story and throws in other exploits of David that did not fit in with the other stories we have read. Therefore, next week we will read about those other miscellaneous things that happened during David’s reign from a rebellion, plague, and war.


In David’s victory, we see Christ both on the cross and at the second coming. Despite his own son’s rebellion, David wants no harm to come to Absalom. We see this in Jesus on the cross when he prays for the forgiveness of those presently persecuting him. (Luke 23:34). And, as we are promised, every knee will joyfully bow and every tongue will joyfully confess that Jesus is Lord. (Phil. 2:10). For just as David reconciled all of Israel to himself, both rebel and loyalist, so too does God through Christ reconcile the entire world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them. (2 Cor. 5:19)

Now I know that the Lord gives victory to his anointed; *
   he will answer him out of his holy heaven, with the victorious strength of his right hand.

Some put their trust in chariots and some in horses, *
   but we will call upon the Name of the Lord our God.

They collapse and fall down, *
   but we will arise and stand upright.

O Lord, give victory to the king *
   and answer us when we call.

Psalm 20:6-9

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