King David of Israel
The Story of Israel's most famous king
12. High Treason
Two years had passed since Absalom returned from Geshur. He was now reconciled to David and so far as the king was concerned the past was forgotten. At Joab's instigation, Absalom had appeared before the king, received full forgiveness and allowed to resume his former place at court. It is almost certain that David looked upon Absalom as the one to follow him as king. Solomon would be about eight years of age but it is not likely that David was at this time thinking of him as his successor. The original promise retailed to him by Nathan (2.Sam.7.12-15) was that one of his sons would build the Temple after his own death without stipulating which one it would be. It was only towards the close of his reign that Solomon's name became coupled with the promise. So at the moment it would seem that David was resting content in the feeling that the succession was assured in the person of Absalom. He, at fifty-eight years of age, could look forward to a reasonable term of years of peace and tranquillity as king over the nation before his time should come. But there was to be no peace and tranquillity for David.
Absalom, at twenty-seven years of age, was not taking kindly to the idea of waiting perhaps another twenty years before succeeding to the throne. His history to date shows him to be headstrong, assertive and ruthless. He was only half Israelite. His Amorite blood through his mother had evidently infused something of the warlike qualities of the invincible Geshurites into his nature and he was thirsting for action. Maybe David had looked speculatively at the young boy, Solomon, son of his beloved Bathsheba, and Absalom had intercepted the glance. He had already disposed of one rival for the throne, Amnon; he was not going to risk the appearance of another as this lad grew up to maturity. So once again there was scheming and plotting in the political sphere of David's kingdom.
The conspiracy was carefully planned and very circumspect at first. Absalom surrounded himself with a retinue of chariots and men, calculated to impress the people with his importance and splendour. He probably spent some time driving around Jerusalem and the adjacent countryside until the people became thoroughly accustomed to him and knew him better than any other of the king's sons. Then he formed the habit of stationing himself by the outer entrance to the royal court at the times appointed for litigants and complainants to seek audience of the king for the redress of their wrongs, and intercept them, as they passed in, to ascertain the nature of their troubles. Irrespective of the apparent justice or otherwise of the man's case, Absalom would say sympathetically "See, your matters are good and right, but there is no one deputed of the king to hear you." Then, he would lift his eyes to heaven and remark piously "O that I were made judge in Israel, that every man that has any suit or cause might come unto me, and I would do him justice". Thus did he foster the impression that he was much more concerned with the welfare of the populace than was his father, and in consequence, says the historian, "Absalom stole the hearts of the men of Israel.
It might well be that there was some substance in Absalom's claim. David could well have been losing interest in the day-to-day affairs of his people, and the administration of justice in petty affairs becoming increasingly neglected or delegated to negligent minor officials. David was always more a man of war than a man of peace and his almost continual pre-occupation with military affairs, added to his own domestic troubles, might have led him to relegate other matters to the background. The eventual outcome of this particular series of events shows that he had lost much of the earlier enthusiastic allegiance of the people. Absalom may well have judged rightly that this was the time to act and so he commenced by ingratiating himself with the people at large.
So passed four years during which Absalom insinuated himself into the hearts of Israel (2 Sam.15.7). The A.V. says "forty years" but this is a palpable error; forty years from this point would have set the event in the middle of the reign of Solomon. The Syriac, Arabic and Josephus all give four but the Septuagint has forty so the error must be of very old standing in the Hebrew manuscripts. It is likely that the original text was arba, four, a singular noun, and that by mistake a copyist changed this to the plural form, arbaim, which means forty. Most modern translations now give four. It would seem that Absalom was in no hurry: he intended the groundwork to be well and truly laid. David, apparently, was quite unsuspecting, and feeling that his reconciliation with his son had cleared the way for the future, with no more wars in prospect, he probably congratulated himself that life would from then on be serene and peaceful.
At the end of the four years Absalom made his bid. He first went to his father with a plausible tale of a vow he had made while exiled in Geshur to the effect that if the Lord brought him back to Jerusalem he would serve the Lord and would ratify his vow in Hebron. This was sacred as the burial place of Abraham and the patriarchs, and where the kingdom of David was first instituted. Now he wanted permission to go to Hebron and there make formal acknowledgement of his conversion before the Lord.
David was, apparently, pleased. It would seem that Absalom had not heretofore made any profession of allegiance to the God of Israel; his alien descent was probably partly accountable for this but there does seem to have been some lack on David's part in the early training of his sons. But he now assented, very readily, and Absalom went out from his presence well satisfied with progress so far. David was blissfully unaware that he was being grossly deceived for the second time by his turbulent son.
The conspiracy had been well organized. Whilst Absalom was on his way to Hebron twenty miles away, messengers were speeding to the northern ten tribes telling them to accept and declare Absalom as king in place of his father, so soon as they heard the trumpets sound. It is plain that he had supporters posted in every part of the country waiting. Directly he arrived in Hebron the trumpeters there sounded their trumpets and the peal was taken up by one and another until it reached the most northerly bounds of the kingdom. The bulk of support for Absalom was clearly among the ten tribes, previously supporters of Saul. The cleavage between the ten tribes and the two, Judah and Benjamin, which became a reality at the death of Solomon, fifty years later, was already in evidence now during the latter part of David's reign. His hold on the people was not so strong as is often supposed. Now a considerable proportion of the population was prepared to follow Absalom; "the conspiracy was strong; for the people increased continually with Absalom" (15. 12.).
Too late, David found out what was going on and realised that he had lost the allegiance of his people. It must have been a bitter moment. All that he had suffered and endured and achieved since his youth was gone as it were in a moment. In the past his enemies had been aliens of other races and he had gone out against them with the sword, and with the sword he had conquered them and slain them. Now his enemy was his own son; he could not lift his sword against his own son.
Absalom, he knew, would soon be coming to Jerusalem to assert his rulership, and the people in large measure were behind him. There was only one course open if he was to avoid open conflict; an ignominious flight out of the country without delay, thus leaving the field clear for the usurper.
The pitiful journey of David with his principal officers of State, his palace retinue and a considerable body of loyal warriors is strangely out of accord with the known martial character and strategic skill of Israel's most famous warrior king. They crossed the Jordan and went on sixty miles to Mahanaim in Gilead, where he would be out of the immediate reach of his rebellious son. This part of the narrative, as told in 2 Samuel 15-17, has all the signs of panic in the face of an overpowering threat. There is an anxious desire to get away from the enemy at any cost irrespective of the consequences for those left behind. This is the first occasion in David's reign when he is depicted retreating before the enemy. The contrast is so great that one is compelled to look below the surface of the account to discern the underlying motive. It could not be cowardice; it could not be lack of confidence in his own ability to hold his own and gain the victory if it came to a fight; David's whole past history militates against that conclusion. David's flight to Mahanaim must have been dictated by some other vital consideration.
Did his mind, at this crisis in his career, go back to the early days of his flight from Saul, and his rigid refusal to accept the opportunities he had to encompass Saul's death, insisting that the Lord would give him the kingdom in his own due time? Did he feel that the battle was not his, but the Lord's, and he would do well to remove himself out of the land in peace and wait for the Lord to intervene in His own way? As he left the city behind him on his way to the Jordan he did say to Zadok the priest (15.25). "If I shall find favour in the eyes of the Lord he will bring me again, and show me both it (the city) and his habitation". It does look as though David left the city, not through fear, but in faith that the Lord would direct the issue and shape his future. It might well be that David was now accepting these successive disasters in his life as just retribution for his crime of the past and was saying, as did Joab some years before him, "May the Lord do what seems good to him". He must have reflected, grimly, as he entered the little town of Mahanaim in Gilead, where he and his were to find refuge, that this was the place where Saul's son Ish-bosheth had set up court to keep out of the reach of David some thirty years before. Now it was David who was the fugitive, awaiting his Lord's good pleasure. In the meantime Absalom had entered Jerusalem and declared himself king, accompanied by Ahithophel the Gilonite. On the surface this seems strange. Ahithophel was David's chief counsellor, a sort of "Prime Minister" to the nation, high in office and highly esteemed. One would have thought that he, like all the other Ministers of State, would have accompanied David into exile, but here, without explanation, he is revealed as siding with Absalom. A comparison of various scattered texts in Samuel and Chronicles yields the clue. Ahithophel was the grandfather of Bathsheba. His son, Eliam, her father, was one of the stalwarts who had endured the wilderness hardships with David, as had Uriah, in the days of Saul's enmity. It looks very much as though Ahithophel ended his friendship with David over the affair with his granddaughter and espoused the cause of Absalom. As the narrative unfolds it is clear that he intended the death of David. It is indicated in 16.23 that his advice, both in the days of David and now of Absalom was so highly regarded that it was "as if a man had enquired at the oracle of God". Absalom was probably congratulating himself upon obtaining such a useful adherent to his cause.
There was another apparent convert, Hushai the Archite, another close friend of David, who suddenly appeared at Jerusalem, professing allegiance. "God save the king; God save the king" he exclaimed as he came before him. Absalom was more than a little suspicious of this one; he had not the same excuse for breaking with David as had Ahithophel, and he too had been high in honour and a close adviser of the king. "Is this your loyalty to your friend?" he queried. "Why did you not go with your friend?" "No" responded Hushai "but the one whom the Lord and this people and all the Israelites have chosen, his I will be and with him remain…Just as I have served your father, so I will serve you.". Absalom was satisfied; he would not have been so satisfied had he known that Hushai was professing allegiance in order to acquire details of Absalom's intentions and movements so that he could pass them on to David.
So far, so good. Absalom was in possession of the palace at Jerusalem and surrounded by an appreciable company of supporters. But an element of uncertainty seems to have pervaded the assembly. He, and they, were not quite sure what to do next. The would-be king was dubious as to his next move. He appealed to Ahithophel for advice, and that worthy, an experienced politician thirsting for personal revenge, knew just what the first move ought to be so that an irreparable breach between Absalom and his father might be created. He knew that in his flight, David had left behind his ten concubines to "keep the house", and here they were in the palace. "Go in to your father's concubines, the ones he has left to look after the house, and all Israel will hear that you have made yourself odious to your father; and the hands of all that are with you will be strengthened". So they erected an open pavilion on the roof of the palace in the sight of all Israel, and David, when he heard of the deed, must have remembered the prediction of Nathan in 12.11 and realised that the judgments of the Lord were not finished yet.
But this was only part of Ahithophel's revenge. He now had the ear of Absalom and outlined the scheme he had formulated to give himself the satisfaction of slaying David. "Let me choose and take twelve thousand men" he suggested "and I will pursue after David tonight and come upon him when he is weary and weak. 1 will smite the king only and bring back all the people who are with him so that your kingship may be established without loss of any other life". What fiendish plot he had devised to get access to David and assassinate him before anyone could interfere no one knows, but he evidently felt he could do it and so satisfy his personal enmity over the matter of Bath‑sheba.
The plot won general approval, but Absalom was still irresolute. The plan seemed too simple to be workable. He knew his father; he was not at all sure that it would succeed. "Call Hushai the Archite" he ordered "and let us hear what he has to say". So Hushai came in and listened impassively while the plan was outlined. He pretended to be thinking deeply, while all present waited in silence. At last, with a friendly glance at Ahithophel, he spoke. "The counsel that Ahithophel has given is not good at this time". What he meant by the last few words was that while Ahithophel's advice was normally wise and beyond reproach, in this particular instance his judgment was at fault; he had not given due weight to several important considerations. "You know your father and his men" he said to Absalom "that they are mighty in battle, and furious at being exiled out of their land. As soon as there is a conflict some of your men will be slain and immediately the word will go round that there is a slaughter among the men that follow Absalom. With the people's knowledge of your father's prowess there will be a weakening of their loyalty to you". He paused and looked round the circle of faces, listening intently. He resumed "My advice is that you do not act precipitately, but that you gather together all the fighting men in Israel, from Dan to Beer‑sheba, an invincible host, and that you then lead the army in your own person. So you will overwhelm him and his followers by sheer force of numbers, and of him and all the men that are with him there shall not be left so much as one".
Hushai looked around him again and saw in the eyes of his hearers what he wanted to see and expected to see. He knew that the supporters of Absalom were mainly from the ten tribes of the north while those who had accompanied David in his flight were principally of his own tribe, Judah. These men surrounding Absalom were not at all keen upon an outcome that would bring men of Judah back to Jerusalem to compete for places of favour around the new king's person. Much better to adopt Hushai's suggestion of eliminating them and ending the Judean influence in the royal court. The antipathy even then existing between the Ten Tribes and the Two rendered the idea of a massive showdown an appealing one. Hushai's plan was vociferously endorsed by Absalom and his supporters as the better of the two. Then Hushai turned aside that no one might perceive the gleam of triumph in his eyes. He knew, none better, that there could be only one end to a battle led on one side by the hardened campaigner, David, and on the other by an untried fledgling like Absalom.
Ahithophel knew that also. The narrative (17.23) says that when he saw that his advice was not to be followed, he saddled his ass, went home to his own town, put his affairs in order, and hanged himself. He was not going to be there when David returned in triumph. His ploy had failed, and he knew it.
Hushai left the palace so soon as he could without arousing suspicion, for there was much to be done. David and his company had not yet crossed the Jordan on their way to Mahanaim. For the present they were safe while Absalom sent to collect all the fighting men of Israel; that much had been attained by Hushai in effecting the acceptance of his suggestion, but David now had to be advised of progress. Hushai went to Zadok and Abiathar, the twin High Priests, who, themselves loyal to David, had remained in the city under cover of discharging their sacred office. They passed the message to their young sons, and they in turn set out to find David and tell him the outcome of Hushai's work and what to expect from Absalom. By the following morning David and his forces were across Jordan and well on the way to Mahanaim, which they must have reached after two or three days' journeying. Upon arrival he immediately began to dispense his men for the ensuing battle. It would seem that his apparent former willingness to leave the outcome in the Lord's hands had rather quickly evaporated when faced with his enemies. Quite likely his commander-in-chief Joab pressed him into it. Joab knew only one language, the language of armed combat, and as a man of Judah himself, he was David's nephew, he was not going to allow men of Israel to gain the ascendancy.
Absalom and his army crossed Jordan into Gilead and before long battle was joined. The issue was not long in doubt. David's hardened veterans made short work of their northern countrymen and it was not long before the latter were in full flight. David had foreseen the outcome and he had ordered Joab and his other leaders to take care that Absalom himself should come to no harm. Despite his son's treason and designs against his own life, he still loved him and was in the mood to forgive him all that he had done. But Absalom, riding a mule in frantic flight to get away, was caught in some way by his head, or perhaps by his luxurious long hair, in the boughs of a great tree in the forest, and hung there, unable to free himself. Joab, 7 apprised of the fact, and in crass defiance of the king's wishes, took some of his men and killed Absalom as he hung there helpless. He had no intention of risking David's soft-heartedness paving the way for perhaps a second rebellion of this nature and what he did was probably dictated by self-interest as much as anything else. Absalom had appointed Joab's cousin Amasa to command the army in his place and he was not going to risk the loss of that position when all was over.
It now remained to acquaint David with the result of the battle and of the death of his son. David had remained at Mahanaim with one section of the force to defend the city; Joab and his men were in the plains of Gilead near Jordan twenty miles away. Two runners were sent to convey the news. The first gave his message "Blessed be the Lord your God, who has delivered up the men who raised up their hand against my lord, the king". David received the welcome news with equanimity but with one overpowering anxiety. He leaned forward. "Is the young man Absalom safe?" The runner gave an evasive reply; he knew not how to tell the king the truth, and then the second runner arrived. 'Good tidings for my lord the King, for the Lord has vindicated you this day delivering you from the power of all who rose up against you". With increasing apprehension came the question again "Is it well with the young man Absalom?" The runner looked round at the circle of strained faces, then again at the king, and replied in a lower tone of voice "May the enemies of my lord the king and all who rise to do you harm be like that young man".
At those words the king broke down. Rising from his seat, he made his way blindly through the throng towards his own room and as he went they heard his voice rising high in lamentation "O my son, Absalom, my son, my son, Absalom. Would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!"
(To be continued) AOH