In chapter 17 David’s friend, Hushai, managed to persuade Absalom to disregard Ahithophel’s advice, even though normally everyone listened to Ahithophel’s advice. And that gave David and his followers time to cross over the River Jordan and to reach safety. And Hushai was able to persuade Absalom to disregard Ahithophel’s advice, because the Lord — who controls all of his creatures and all of their actions — had determined to frustrate Ahithophel’s good advice in order to bring disaster on Absalom. It was the will of the Lord to bring disaster on Absalom, because hadn’t Absalom rebelled against David, who was the Lord’s Anointed King at that time? And it was the will of the Lord to bring disaster on Absalom, because what was going to happen to Absalom foreshadows what will happen to everyone who refuses to submit to God’s True Anointed King, who is Jesus Christ the Lord. The day is coming when Christ the King will come in glory and with power to judge the living and the dead and to condemn and to punish all those who refused to submit to him in this life. Everyone who did not believe in him, everyone who refused to yield to him, everyone who said ‘no’ to him will be condemned by him and will be sent away to be punished forever for all that they have done wrong in this life. He will bring disaster on them.
And that’s why the message of the church in every generation has been repent and believe. To sinners everywhere, the church proclaims that you must turn in repentance from your life of sin and unbelief; and you must believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the only Saviour of the world, who gave up his life to pay for our sins and who shed his blood to cleanse us. And whoever repents and believes in him is pardoned by God and has peace with God, so that when Christ the King comes again, he will not condemn them, but he will gather them together and they will live with him and they will reign with him forever and forever.
Verses 1 to 5
At the beginning of chapter 18, we read how David mustered his men and he began to prepare for the battle which he knew was coming against Absalom. He divided his army into three main divisions, with one division under the command of Joab; and one division under the command of A-bi-shai, who was Joab’s brother; and one division under this man It-tai, whom we read about in chapter 15. According to verse 2, David wanted to march out with his troops, but the men persuaded him to remain behind in a safe place so that his life would not be put at risk. And so, the king remained beside the gate of Ma-ha-na-im, and he watched his men march out to battle. And we’re told that all the troops heard David say to Joab and A-bi-shai and It-tai:
Be gentle with the young man Absalom for my sake.
Even though Absalom had killed his half-brother, and had conspired against his father to take the kingdom from him, and even though Absalom was now trying to kill his father, David still loved him and wanted his men to be gentle with him. So, there was no desire in David for revenge; there was no desire to get even with his son; there was no hatred or bitterness in him. David wanted his men to be gentle with Absalom. Well, we’ll come back to this later, because this is a key verse in this chapter.
Verses 6 to 8
And then the battle takes place. Now, we’ve been waiting for this battle since chapter 15 when we read about Absalom’s conspiracy and how he declared himself to be king. And then in chapter 16 we read how David fled from Jerusalem. And in chapter 17 we saw that Absalom was trying to decide whether or not to pursue David immediately. So, we’ve been waiting for this battle to happen since chapter 15. But the description of it when it happens takes up only three verses. David’s army marched out into the field to fight Israel and the battle took place in a forest. And there, in the forest, the army of Israel was defeated by David’s men. And the casualties were very great. The battle spread out over the countryside and — remarkably — the forest claimed more lives that day than the sword. That’s the battle. It takes only three verses.
Now, we’d love to know more about the forest, wouldn’t we? What does the narrator mean when he said the forest claimed more lives than the sword? What happened in the forest that day? How did the forest take the lives of Absalom’s men? Or perhaps more accurately, how did the Lord use the forest against Absalom’s men? We’d love to know more about that. But that’s all we’re told.
Except we’re told one more thing, aren’t we? We’re told in verse 9 what happened to Absalom. We’re told he happened to meet David’s men. Now, that sounds as if it happened by chance: they just happened to come across one another. But we know that nothing happens by chance, but that all things happen according to God’s holy and wise plan. And so, since God was determined to bring disaster on Absalom, he ensured that Absalom ran into David’s men. And presumably Absalom turned his mule around and began to flee from David’s men. And perhaps he looked back to see if they were still following him, because it seems Absalom wasn’t looking where he was going, and as the mule went under the branches of an oak tree, his head got caught in the tree. And you can picture it, can’t you? His neck is pressed between two branches and he’s dangling there, and he can’t free himself no matter how hard he squirms. Or perhaps his hair had got entangled? Do you remember his hair? Back in chapter 14 the narrator said Absalom was a handsome man with no blemish on him from top to toe. And he had all this hair, which he would cut from time to time and weigh and it weighed a lot because there was so much of it. So, perhaps his hair got caught in the branches. In any case, he couldn’t free himself.
Verses 10 to 18
One of David’s men saw him. And he told Joab: You’ll never guess what I’ve just seen. I’ve just seen Absalom hanging in an oak tree.
And Joab responded with anger: What! You saw him? And you didn’t kill him? What kind of soldier are you?
But the soldier had heard David’s request to be gentle with Absalom and to protect him. But Joab isn’t listening, because he’s on his way to the tree to do what the soldier would not do. He took three javelins with him and — without hesitating even for a moment — he plunged them into Absalom’s heart. Now, it’s possible that the javelins were not javelins, but rods or clubs. And so, it’s also possible that he didn’t plunge them into Absalom’s heart, but he struck Absalom with him. It’s not entirely clear how to translate the text at this point. And perhaps it’s more likely that he used rods and not javelins, because Absalom remained alive until some of Joab’s men came forward and finished Absalom off. And so, they struck him and killed him.
Then Joab sounded a trumpet as a signal that the battle was over and David’s men stopped pursuing Absalom’s men. They took Absalom’s body and threw it into a big pit and piled up a large heap of rocks over him. And his army fled to their homes.
And then we’re given this extra bit of information in verse 18 that during his life, Absalom had erected a pillar as a memorial monument to himself. Absalom was hoping that people would see that pillar and remember him, because he had no sons to carry on the memory of his name. Now, back in chapter 14 we were told that Absalom had a daughter and three sons. So, the commentators reckon his sons must had died. And so, he erected this memorial monument to himself. Well, he didn’t need a memorial monument for us to remember him, because everyone who reads the Bible has heard of Absalom. But he’s not remembered for being a good man or great man, but he’s remembered for being a wicked man, who set himself up against the true king.
And before we move on, let’s think about the significance of the way he died. He was hanging on a tree when he died. We know from Deuteronomy 21 that, in those days, a man hanged from a tree was cursed by God. In other words, the way Absalom died is a sign to us that he was under God’s curse and it was God’s will to bring disaster on him.
And then, after he died, he was buried under a heap of rocks. Well, back in Joshua 7 we read about Achan who sinned against the Lord after the Israelites destroyed Jericho, because he took from himself some of the things that should have been devoted to the Lord. And after he was found out, he was stoned to death. And we’re told that, after he died, the people heaped up on his body a large pile of rocks. Then, in Joshua 8, the king of Ai was killed and his body was buried under a pile of rocks. And in Joshua 10, five Amorite kings were killed and buried in a cave which was sealed with rocks. All of these men, who defied the Lord in one way or another, ended up being buried under a pile of rocks. And so, it was fitting for Absalom, who set himself up against the Lord’s Anointed King, to end up being buried under a pile of rocks as well. It’s another sign that he was under the curse of God; and it’s another reminder to those today who refuse to yield to Christ the King that the day is coming when they will face the wrath and curse of God; and he will bring disaster upon them, because of all that they have done wrong in this life in defiance of God. Right now, they think they will get away with it. There is no God, they think. There’s no life after death, they think. There is no judgment day to come, they think. But just as God’s judgment came on Absalom, so it will come on all who refuse to repent and believe in Christ the Saviour. And that’s why now is the time to repent and now is the time to believe. Turn to God in prayer. Confess your sins and disobedience. And ask him to pardon you for the sake of Christ who died for sinners, because all who believe in him will be pardoned and not condemned.
Verses 19 to 33
In the second half of chapter 18 the narrator records for us how Ahimaaz, the son of Zadok the priest, wanted to run and tell David the news. Joab is reluctant to send him, because Joab knows that David will not be pleased when he hears that Absalom is dead. And so, Joab sent another man instead. However, Ahimaaz insisted; and so eventually Joab relented and let him go. Ahimaaz took a faster route back to the city and he was the first to arrive and he told David the news that God has defeated Absalom’s army. ‘But what about Absalom?’ That’s all David wants to know. Ahimaaz says he doesn’t know. And that’s when the other messenger arrives. Good news, he says. The Lord has delivered you from your enemies today. ‘But what about Absalom?’ That’s all David wants to know. And when he hears from the messenger that Absalom has died, we’re told that David was shaken. Other English translations say he was deeply moved. Or he began to tremble. And we do tremble — don’t we? — whenever we hear shocking news. It shakes us to our core and we begin to tremble. And David went up to his room over the gateway into the city and he wept and wept and wept:
O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you.
Verses 1 to 9
And in the first part of chapter 19, we read that Joab was told that David was weeping. And look at verse 2: instead of it being a day of celebration for David’s men, because they had won a great victory, it became a day of mourning, because the king was grieving for his son. And so, instead of returning to the city in a victory parade, the men stole into the city as men who are ashamed. And instead of seeing the king’s smiling face, all they heard was David weeping for his son.
And so, Joab, David’s right hand man, went to him and told him that he has humiliated his men, who have just saved your life and the life of your family. And it seems to us that you love those who hate you; and you hate those who love you. You love your son who hated you and wanted to kill you. And you hate us who love you and risked our lives to save you. It seems to us that your men mean nothing to you. And it seems to us that you’d be pleased if Absalom were alive and we were dead. Well, we’ve known for some time that Joab was a man who knows how to use a sword with deadly effect. We didn’t know until now that he could use words like a sword, because these words must have struck David deeply, because we read that David got up and he took his seat in the gateway before his men to acknowledge their victory that day.
Let’s go back to verse 5 of chapter 18 where David told his men to be gentle with Absalom. The commentators discuss this verse and how Joab disregarded what David said.
Now, some commentators admire David for the way he was able to love his enemy; and they suggest that in this he was foreshadowing the Lord Jesus, who loved his enemies and prayed for those who crucified him.
Other commentators think David was too soft-hearted and he wasn’t really thinking straight. Absalom was his enemy and he wouldn’t stop until he was stopped. And therefore Joab was right to disregard David and he was right to kill Absalom, because Absalom had set himself up against the Lord’s Anointed King and he deserved to die.
And so, some of the commentators admire David and others criticise him. But it occurred to me that David was in a dilemma; and really there was no way out of the dilemma. On the one hand, Absalom deserved to die, because he had set himself up against the Lord’s Anointed King. He was a rebel and a traitor and he was also a murderer, because he had murdered his half-brother. He deserved to die. But on the other hand, David wanted to show him mercy and to treat him with gentleness and kindness.
And so, there’s this dilemma for David, because David couldn’t be just and merciful at the same time. Justice means that Absalom should die; mercy means that Absalom should live. David could only be one or the other: if he treated Absalom with justice, then Absalom would die. But what about mercy? And if he treated Absalom with mercy, then Absalom would live. But what about justice? David inclined towards mercy. Joab inclined towards justice. But neither of them could be both at the same time.
However, unlike David, God is able to uphold his justice and mercy at the same time. Think about God’s justice, first of all, and what it means for us. You and I deserve to be condemned by God. We deserve to be condemned by God for a lifetime of disobedience, because each one us is born into this world as a sinner and every day we disobey God in thought and word and deed. We do the things he forbids; and we fall short of doing what he commands. Unlike a human judge who may not know everything the accused has done wrong, God knows all about our guilt and shame and all that we have done wrong. And we cannot hide our sins from him, because he knows everything about us and he knows even our sinful thoughts and the things we do in secret. And so, we stand before him as guilty lawbreakers, because we have broken his laws. And we therefore deserve to be condemned by God and to suffer his wrath and curse. Justice means that we should be condemned and punished.
But think now about God’s mercy. God, who is rich in mercy, wanted to save his people from his wrath and curse. He wanted to spare his people from the punishment we deserve for our sins. He wanted to spare us and to pardon us and to give us everlasting life in his presence, instead of everlasting punishment in hell, which is what we deserve.
So, God’s perfect justice means that we should be punished for all that we have done wrong. But God’s perfect mercy means that his people should be spared and allowed to live. And unlike David, God is able to uphold his justice and mercy at the same time. We see how he does it in the Old Testament sacrificial system, because guilty sinners would come to the tabernacle or the temple to confess their guilt before the Lord. They knew they deserved to die, because they’d sinned and done wrong and the wages of sin is death. But God, who is merciful, was prepared to accept the death of a bull or a goat in their place. The bull or the goat died to pay for their sins and to satisfy the justice of God. And yet the sinner was spared and did not die.
And those Old Testament sacrifices were for the time being only and they were to make do until God the Son came into the world as one of us. And though he never did anything wrong, though he never ever sinned, though he always did what was right, so that he did not deserve to die, he was prepared to take our sin and guilt upon himself and to suffer in our place the punishment we deserve. He was willing to give up his life to pay for our sins and to satisfy the justice of God on our behalf. And because God is merciful and gracious, he was prepared to accept the death of Christ in our place, so that, through faith in him, we are spared and pardoned and accepted and receive the hope of everlasting life.
And all of this is displayed to us in the Lord’s Supper, because the bread we break and eat and the cup from which we drink speak to us of the suffering and death of our Saviour who died to satisfy the justice of God on our behalf. His body was broken and his blood was shed and he gave up his life to pay for our sins. And all who trust in Christ who died in the place of sinners are pardoned by God and can look forward to the day when we will come into the presence of God in glory to sit at his table in the life to come where we will rejoice forever in Christ our Saviour.
David wanted to show mercy to Absalom. But Joab wanted justice to be done. It had to be one or the other: justice or mercy. It could not be both. But praise be to the Lord our God who was able to uphold his justice and mercy at the same time when Christ gave up his life to pay for our sins in full.