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2 Samuel 15 Part 4 – Absalom’s case

March 15, 2011 Leave a comment

Why did people listen to Absalom? What led to the conflict between David and Absalom? Did Absalom have grounds for his claim? A brief overview of the background will follow based on the text of 2 Samuel 13-14.

The background to these charges of Absalom lies in the failure of the king to bring about justice for his own daughter, Tamar, who is Absalom’s sister.[1] Absalom’s confidence in his own ability to make a righteous judgment is manifested in the drama of 2 Samuel 13. After Amnon’s rape, it is Absalom who comforts his sister, Tamar, and who waits two full years during which time King David did nothing (13:20-23). In Absalom’s judgment, justice demanded the death of Amnon, David’s firstborn son. King David judged otherwise or at least he took no action, so it was Absalom who took justice into his own hands. The narrative of 2 Samuel 13 takes great lengths to indicate that Absalom’s action is directed only against Amnon and that not one of the other king’s sons is harmed (13:30-33). In other words, there are good grounds for arguing the case that Absalom’s action is not a random and ruthless lust for power, but a calculated and courageous stance for righteousness (13:28). The cost of that stance for Absalom is his exile to Geshur (13:34-39). 2 Samuel 14 relates Joab’s intervention which results in the return of Absalom to Jerusalem.

If a primary role of the king of Israel is to judge his people, then Absalom’s claim stems from his personal dissatisfaction with the king’s judgment of his own actions. Absalom spent three years in exile and then another two years unable to draw near the king’s presence (2 Sam 13:37, 14:28). At the end of that long delay, he virtually demanded, via Joab, for judgment of his actions:     

‘let me go into the presence of the king, and if there is guilt in me, let him put me to death.’ (14:32).[2]

2 Samuel 14 closes with the restoration of the once exiled and alienated son, Absalom, to the king’s presence. Absalom is duly acquitted as indicated by the king’s kiss of the son who had prostrated himself before the king. But, by this decision, the king’s position as judge has been undermined since Absalom has placed his demand to see the king in justice terms: ‘if there is any guilt in me’ (14:28). This is not a plea for mercy, but a claim to be innocent, that is, to have made the right judgment.[3]

From Absalom’s viewpoint, the king’s kiss vindicates his own judgment in murdering Amnon for his rape of Tamar. But it took two long years after a three year self-imposed exile, before a judicial decision was made by the king about the matter. That only occurred through the son’s forceful dealings with Joab, barley field and all, and Absalom’s determination to lay his life on the line if there was any wrongdoing on his part (14:28-33). And the final verdict was acquittal. A similar period of ‘two full years’ passed without any delivery of justice from David for Tamar – the very cause of Absalom’s own exile (13:23).[4] Little wonder that Absalom felt frustrated at his father’s judicial process. The narrative accentuates Absalom’s personal grievance by drawing attention to the homage and kissing of the men who draw near to Absalom which parodies his own treatment by the king in 14:33.[5] Absalom knows all too well the discontent associated with an inefficient judicial system, and his campaign picks up on the delay and discontent of those awaiting justice (15:3).[6] Absalom identifies with and appeals to the frustration the men of Israel have with delays in justice and by so doing he is able to win their loyalty. Already disenchanted by their own matter of perceived injustice, they quickly identify with Absalom’s cry and decide that he is a man who can be trusted, a man who is on their side. Absalom’s conspiracy plot against the king is fuelled by the perceived failure of the present judicial system, and by this strategy Absalom is able to commit the theft of the very hearts[7] of the men of Israel (15:6). The success of Absalom’s stealth is an indicator of the crumbling of David’s authority to judge Israel.


[1] 2 Samuel 13.  It was Absalom who defended Tamar and delivered his own justice through the murder of the king’s first-born son, Amnon, who perpetrated the rape. Tamar’s namesake in Genesis 38 is closely associated with the issue of righteousness as Judah painfully discovered (Gen 38:26).

[2] It will be Joab who later kills Absalom, so it is to be noted that this is spoken to Joab and not to the king.

[3] The phrase echoes that used by David himself who protested his innocence in 1 Samuel 20:8.

[4] The phrase translated ‘two full years’ in 13:23 is echoed in 14:28. The phrase is not used frequently and elsewhere emphasizes the drawn out nature of the waiting period. This is particularly the case in Gen 41:1 as Joseph languishes in prison. Compare too Ps 90:10 and Eccles 6:3. The use in Jeremiah 28:3,11 does seek to convey a short period of time, however, that usage is by the false prophet, Hananiah, who is condemned for precisely that interpretation. It is interesting that Acts 28:30-31 has a similar time reference as the book’s closure point as Paul proclaims the message of the kingdom of God in the city of Rome. The author of Acts may be hinting at the vindication of the apostolic message, namely the destruction of Jerusalem, would soon follow.

[5] 2 Sam 15:3 focusses the issue on the delay in justice being given and Absalom blames the king for this time lapse. It is this delay in justice which is the initial basis for hostility between the father and the son.

[6] The ‘delay in justice’ theme is often connected to a widow’s plight and is directly associated with the coming of the Son of Man and the presence of faith in Luke 18:1-8. See also footnote 9. The Lukan parable and its conclusion expresses one of the fundamental challenges to faith throughout Scripture, namely, does the hearer believe that God is a righteous Judge who will bring justice on the earth? This time theme comes to prominence with the appearance of Hushai the Arkite and the later commentary on 15:34 proposes that this delay theme provides insight into understanding why the son does not have the Father’s knowledge of time (Matthew 24:36).

[7] The phrase ‘stole the hearts’ (15:6) is used to refer to Jacob’s departure from Laban in Genesis 31:20, 26,27. ‘And Jacob stole the heart of Laban the Aramean, by not telling him that he intended to flee.’ (ESV footnote). This allusion to the Jacob-Laban episode is developed elsewhere in the narrative especially at Absalom’s death (18:17-18). The Genesis account is significant for interpreting that death.

2 Samuel 15 Part 3

The Conspiracy of Absalom 15:1-12

The chapter divides into two sections, the conspiracy of Absalom and the flight of David.[1] It follows the reconciliation of David and Absalom in chapter 14, depicted here in this painting by Rembrandt.

This opening section of 2 Samuel 15 portrays the swift and sweeping manner in which Absalom undermines David’s hold over the kingdom (15:1-12). Absalom’s prestige and position quickly move from chariot and horses to the acquisition of the hearts of the men of Israel. There is no delay in Absalom’s seeking for right judgment for Israel. In the space of a few verses, the theft is recounted and the thief’s escape to Hebron is made possible by the king’s own permit. Absalom’s move to Hebron provides the occasion, opportunity and location from which he will launch his conspiracy. The very brevity of the narrative is a sign that this unfolding drama is not about Absalom or any other successor of the king, but about David and his right to be king over Israel. David, the man who was unjustly accused of conspiring against King Saul (1 Sam 22:8,13), now finds his own kingship under attack from a genuine conspiratorial uprising.

            The conspiracy of Absalom against David derives from a dispute about the notion of justice – mishpat. Absalom’s contention with David centres upon the ability to make right judgments (15:1-6). The delivery of justice is the mark of the one who makes the attack upon the king:

    ‘Oh that I were judge (sapat) in the land! Then every man with a dispute or cause (mishpat) might come to me, and I would give him justice (sedeq).’ (15:4).

 

Absalom asserts that the people’s claims are valid, but the current magisterial system of David’s reign is woefully inadequate (15:3). Israel’s plea prior to the monarchy was to end the wickedness of the sons of Samuel (1 Sam 8:1-3), and Absalom’s outcry directs attention to the parallel with Israel’s present situation under Davidic rule. From the people’s perspective, justice is the king’s raison d’etre.[2] It was the perversion of mishpat which motivated the elders to go to Samuel and seek for the first king of Israel (1 Sam 8:3-4). ‘Give us a king to judge (sapat) us’ was the cry then, and the same verb for judging, sapat, is used in Absalom’s cry to be able to fulfil this role of the king of Israel (15:4). Just as Samuel’s sons failed as judges over Israel, now Absalom’s action implies that it is the king of Israel himself who is perverting justice. What good is it for the men of Israel to have such a ruler? The implication is that David has failed in this matter of justice, mishpat. Having drawn attention to the current regime’s inadequacy, Absalom declares his longing to satisfy the needs of the people and his self-belief that he can do just that.


[1] Arnold prefers to extend the second section through until 16:14. Arnold, 573.

[2] Compare also, for example, 1 Kings 3:28. Proverbs 16:10-13 and Isaiah 32:1 expound upon this principle.

2 Samuel 15 Part 1 – A Chariot and Horses

Introduction               Chariot and horses – the mark of the king?

‘After this Absalom got himself a chariot and horses…’ (2 Samuel 15:1)

2 Samuel 15 opens with Absalom, the king’s son, who was restored to his father’s favour in the previous chapter, acquiring ‘a chariot and horses’. It is no small matter for Absalom to have fifty men running before him and his new acquisitions, for it is the very action of the king of Israel as prophesied by Samuel when Israel first sought for a king.[1]  While Absalom has gained the accoutrements of his era indicative of royalty, the drive and direction of the rest of 2 Samuel 15 will be to describe the loss and absence of any such symbols of royal prerogative for his father, King David. The chariot and horses serve not only to indicate Absalom’s power but are suggestive of where Absalom’s trust lies. By contrast, they also allude to a key question implicit through the chapter, namely, where does David place his confidence? There are no chariots or horses for David when he flees from Jerusalem, indeed his ascent up the Mount of Olives is not only on foot, his feet are bare (15:30). He has no royal trappings in which to find security. The flight from Jerusalem exposes his complete lack of any material comfort or tangible support. The Absalom crisis poses most starkly the predicament for David as to where – in what or in whom – he might place his trust. Many possibilities lie open before David as he receives the news of his son’s conspiracy. What is he to do now? The king’s wisdom, or lack thereof, is revealed in the judgments he makes during this period of turmoil which threatens total calamity for him and the future of his reign.

The crisis has its roots in the complaint of Absalom who challenges and questions the reliability of the king as a judge for the men of Israel (15:1-6). The news of the son’s rebellion brings an intensely personal significance for the king in his judgment capabilities (15:13-14). From this moment, every judgment of the king is a decision affecting his own well-being and salvation. In addition, those who choose to remain loyal to King David despite the circumstances also find that their own security is intimately connected to the king’s judgments. A decision to remain with David is an expression not only of loyalty but also of confidence in David’s wisdom and in his ability to make the right call. Their choice intensifies for David the question of whether their confidence is well-founded, for choosing to remain a friend of the king in this precarious time involves huge personal sacrifice. Is it a wise option to remain loyal to David at this time? Most critical of all is the penetrating analysis the crisis demands of David himself and the foundations of his throne. In what has David placed his trust? What security is there for the future of the Davidic reign?

The dramatic news of the Absalom conspiracy forces David to make decisive judgments even as his own faith is being tested to the utmost limit. Does this king of Israel have a secure foundation, anything trustworthy and reliable, which can stand up to the assault of the one who comes against him trusting in chariots and horses? In this respect, the purpose of 2 Samuel 15 is to expose the fact that David’s confidence lies in nothing which is material or even visible. David does not seek refuge in the instruments of might and power of his age, nor is his security found in turning to the royal treasures or valued currencies of his day. Without such tangible and visible security, how then can David be assured of his capacity to make correct judgments? David only knows that complete assurance after his judgment calls are made. Despite this, the narrative reveals that his faith is expressed by a certitude which is entirely consistent with such  an assurance. This reflects the fact that David’s confidence in his capacity to judge rests on the faithfulness of the Lord to make the right judgment of his plight. In this way 2 Samuel 15 develops the theme that the ability to make right judgments has an integral connection with the location of one’s faith.


[1] ‘So Samuel told all the words of the LORD…He said, ‘These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: ‘he will take your sons and appoint them…to run before his chariots.’ ” (1 Sam 8:10-11).