The Wages of Sin: The Death of Absalom
This lesson is entitled "Grief" in the LifeWay curriculum
Sunday School Lesson for August 4, 2002
Background Passage: 2 Samuel 18:1-19:8
*Focal Teaching Passages: 2 Samuel 18:1-18; 19:1-8
*The Death of Absalom (18:1-18)
As the threat of all out war between David and Absalom became a reality, David "mustered the men who were with him" and strategically organized them into three divisions (vv. 1-2). A general was appointed to command each section—Joab, Abishai, and Ittai the Gittite—while David himself intended to lead the mass of troops into the forest to face Absalom—"I myself will surely march out with you." It is clear from the language of this section that, though he was exiled from Jerusalem, David still maintained a sizeable force of loyal men who would gladly put their lives on the line for him.
As the men readied for battle, David’s commanders rejected his plan to accompany them into the conflict—"You must not go out" (v. 3). Their reasoning was that, since David himself was the principle target of the enemy, he would better serve the men by giving them leadership and support "from the city" (v. 3). David agreed to this wise and timely counsel—"I will do whatever seems best to you"—and stood at the gate of the city as "all the men marched out in units of hundreds and thousands" (v. 4).
As David’s army departed the city of Mahanaim, final orders were given to the three generals in the full hearing of "all the troops." The king commanded his men to "Be gentle with the young man Absalom for my sake." This executive order revealed David’s continual, though at times suppressed, affection for his wayward son, and his inner hope for some form of reconciliation despite his earlier actions toward Absalom. The fact that he referred to him as "the young man" is also indicative of his "paternal affection" [Youngblood, 1018].
The army of David engaged Absalom and his men "in the forest of Ephraim," a site located to the northwest of Mahanaim. Baldwin suggests that David had "arranged that the battle should take place in this terrain, where the experience and courage of each individual soldier counted more than sheer numbers" . This strategy worked precisely as David had hoped with approximately "twenty thousand" of Absalom’s men being slain in the conflict (v. 7). The Hebrew word translated "defeated" in verse 7 is, according to Youngblood, "used more often of plague or disease than in battle contexts and thus highlights not only the total devastation that has befallen Absalom’s troops but also the key role played by the Lord in their overthrow" . Verse 8 adds that most of the fatalities resulted from the forested terrain rather than from the actual combat itself. This may mean that the area where the battle took place was fraught with natural dangers easily hidden from view by the dense forestation. In addition, it would have been quite likely that inexperienced troops would have gotten lost and disoriented in such an area, leaving Absalom’s forces "at a disadvantage against David’s more skilled private army, with its considerable experience of guerrilla warfare" [Youngblood, 1019].
The dangers of the forest are dramatically illustrated in this section as the narrative details the events leading to the death of Absalom. As the battle raged, the long, flowing hair of Absalom "got caught in a tree" as he rode his mule through the thickly forested area, leaving him helplessly suspended above the ground "in midair" (v. 9). Bergen notes that the word translated as "hanging" in verse 9 is found in only one other place in the Torah (Duet.21: 23) where it serves to pronounce the divine curse upon anyone who was hung on a tree. This is deeply significant in light of his violation of Yahweh’s word "by rebelling against this father (cf. Exod. 20:12; Deut. 5:16; 21:18-21) and sleeping with the members of David’s harem (Lev. 20:11) . . . . Absalom could not escape God’s judgment" . Eventually, Joab himself received word that Absalom had been found in the tree alive (v.10).
When the report of Absalom’s predicament reached Joab, he became angry that the men who discovered the king’s son had not executed him on the spot—"What! You saw him? Why did you not strike him to the ground right there?" (v. 11). Apparently, Joab believed that the surest way to end the bloody civil war was to kill Absalom. However, among the soldiers who found him was one who remembered the explicit command of the king who, in the hearing of his entire army, had commanded the safe capture of his son. Therefore, he determined that he would not be party to such an act of defiance against the king’s word—"I would not lift my hand against the king’s son" (v. 12). Additionally, the unnamed soldier expressed his reluctance to trust Joab his commander, especially in the event that he had killed Absalom—"you would have kept your distance from me" (v. 13). As Bergen reminds us, "anyone who would betray a king would surely betray a nameless underling" . Verse 14 records that Joab summarily dismissed the protests of the man and "took three javelins" and "plunged them into Absalom’s heart" as he hung in the tree. Immediately, ten of Joab’s personal armor-bearers also attacked and ultimately killed the defenseless son of David (v. 15).
With the death of Absalom, the war effectively ended and Joab called off the pursuit of Absalom’s men with the blast of "trumpet." The body of Absalom was removed from the tree and thrown into a large "pit in the forest" and buried under a "large heap of rocks." Bergen comments that such a form of burial "denied Absalom the honor of being laid to rest in the family tomb" . He continues:
The act was also laden with symbolic value: first, it caused Absalom to be excluded from the Promised Land, since the burial site was east of the Jordan River. Absalom’s rebellion had caused King David to remain outside the Promised Land for a time; now the rebellion would cause King Absalom to remain outside the Promised Land forever. Second, it identified Absalom with Achan (cf. Josh. 7:26), an Israelite whose earlier rebellion against the Lord’s word had brought trouble to Israel; third, it identified him with the Canaanite king of Ai (cf. Josh. 8:29), implying that King Absalom, like this previous king, was an enemy to the Lord’s people. Finally, it fulfilled the Torah’s demand that a rebellious son be stoned (Deut. 21:21).
We learn here that Absalom had previously erected a "monument to himself" in the "Kings’ Valley," somewhere outside the city walls of Jerusalem. It is stated that this was done in order to "carry on the memory" of his name since no son was available to do so. This implies that the three sons whom he fathered had each died much earlier, presumably in their infancy. Sadly, the stone monument that "memorialized Absalom’s sterile kingship" and his ignominious demise was joined by one that "memorialized his sterile fatherhood" [Bergen, 422].
The Grief of David (18:19-33)
This section provides the details of how David came to learn of his son’s death. In the final analysis, David heard from the lips of the Cushite messenger that Absalom had been killed in battle (v. 33). Verse 33 notes that, upon hearing the tragic news, David "was shaken" and immediately departed to his private chambers "over the gateway" and "wept." This reaction confirms Baldwin’s analysis that David was "one degree removed from reality if he imagined that he could have saved both the throne and the life of his son" .
The chapter comes to a bitter conclusion with the painful record of David’s haunting cry, "O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom!" One cannot but help recall David’s similar experience of the death of his child by Bathsheba. It is certainly not the first time the king had wept over the loss of someone close (see 2 Sam. 1:11-12; 3:32; 13:33-36) [Youngblood, 1027].
*The Counsel of Joab (19:1-8)
News of the king’s fragile emotional state spread quickly throughout David’s army. Their resounding victory over Absalom "was tuned into mourning" when they heard that he was publicly "grieving for his son." When Joab discovered that David had become so consumed with the death of Absalom that he neglected to properly recognize and honor his loyal troops, he personally confronted David with a number of serious charges (vv. 5-6). The most disturbing infraction, as far as Joab was concerned, was that David, by his actions, had "made it clear" that he would be pleased "if Absalom were alive today and all of [his men] were dead" (v. 6).
The stern counsel to David continues with Joab’s outright command to the king, "Now go out and encourage your men" (v. 7). David’s actions made no sense at all. It was almost impossible to accept the fact that "the king had no word of appreciation for their valour in battle" [Baldwin, 273]. Thus, Joab is "suitably brutal in order to shake David into acknowledging the situation" [ibid]. If David refused to respond positively to Joab’s counsel, it would all but guarantee that the very ones who had just restored his power as king would abandon him—"not a man will be left with you by nightfall" (v. 7). Verse 8 concludes this section by informing us that David did indeed respond favorably to Joab’s stinging words—"So the king got up and took his seat in the gateway."
Major Themes for Reflection and Discussion
One: The law of the harvest—The Scripture teaches us (Gal. 6:7) that we reap what we sow. In what specific ways has this spiritual truth been realized in the lives of David and his son Absalom?
Two: The wages of sin—Note the following: Absalom zealously desired power, a name, recognition, and a kingdom. Yet, what did he receive in return for his selfish desires? If you were to describe Absalom’s actions in terms of one sin, what would it be?
Three: The consequences of choices—Throughout this section (chapters 11-19) we have repeatedly observed what we have referred to as the "domino effect" of sinful choices. That is, one sin, un-confessed and ignored, inevitably leads to greater sin(s) and evil choices. What is it that keeps us from recognizing this clear pattern and preventing its occurrence in our lives?
Four: The pain of sin and loss—From Joab’s direct, yet justified counsel to David we learn that grief does not release us from our responsibilities. Every period of grief has an appropriate termination point. In other words, there comes a time when one must face the facts and move on with life’s duties. Do you agree or disagree? A related question: does forgiveness remove the consequences and pain of sin?