ABSALOM IN THE WOOD: DAVID ON THE THRONE
II Samuel 17:24 to 20:26
THE land on the east of Jordan, where David found a refuge, was called Gilead, a word which means "high," because it is higher than the land opposite on the west of Jordan. There, in the city of Mahanaim, the rulers and the people were friendly to David. They brought food of all kinds and drink for David and those who were with him; for they said, "The people are hungry, and thirsty, and very tired, from their long journey through the wilderness."
And at this place David's friends gathered from all the tribes of Israel, until around him was an army. It was not so large as the army of Absalom, but in it were more of the brave old warriors who had fought under David in other years. David divided his army into three parts, and placed over the three parts Joab, his brother Abishai, and Ittai, who had followed him so faithfully.
David said to the chiefs of his army and to his men, "I will go out with you into the battle."
But the men said to David, "No, you must not go with us; for if half of us should lose our lives, no one will care; but you are worth ten thousand of us, and your life is too precious. You must stay here in the city, and be ready to help us if we need help."
So the king stood by the gate of Mahanaim while his men marched out by hundreds and by thousands. And as they went past the king the men heard him say to the three chiefs, Joab, and Abishai, and Ittai, "For my sake, deal gently with the young man, Absalom."
Even to the last David loved the son who had done to him such great wrong, and David would have them spare his life.
A great battle was fought on that day at a place called "The Wood of Ephraim," though it was not in the tribe of Ephraim, but of Gad, on the east of the Jordan. Absalom's army was under the command of a man named Amasa, who was a cousin of Joab; for his mother, Abigail, and Joab's mother, Zeruiah, were both sisters of David. So both the armies were led by nephews of King David. Absalom himself went into the battle, riding upon a mule, as was the custom of kings.
David's soldiers won a great victory, and killed thousands of Absalom's men. The armies were scattered in the woods, and many men were lost, so that it was said that the woods swallowed up more men than the sword. When Absalom saw that his cause was hopeless he rode away, hoping to escape. But as he was riding under the branches of an oak-tree, his head, with its great mass of long hair, was caught in the boughs of the tree. He struggled to free himself, but could not. His mule ran away, and Absalom was left hanging in the air by his head.
One of David's soldiers saw him, and said to Joab, "I saw Absalom hanging in an oak."
"Why did you not kill him?" asked Joab. "If you had killed him I would have given you ten pieces of silver and a girdle."
"If you should offer me a thousand pieces of silver," answered the soldier, "I would not touch the king's son; for I heard the king charge all the generals and the men, 'Let no one harm the young man Absalom.' And if I had slain him, you yourself would not have saved my life from the king's anger."
"I cannot stay to talk with you," said Joab; and with three darts in his hand he hastened to the place where Absalom was hanging. He thrust Absalom's heart through with the darts, and after that his followers, finding that Absalom was still living, pierced his body until they were sure that he was dead. Then they took down his body, and threw it into a deep hole in the forest, and heaped a great pile of stones upon it.
During his life Absalom had built for himself a monument in the valley of the Kidron, on the east of Jerusalem. There he had expected to be buried; but though the monument stood long afterward, and was called "Absalom's pillar," yet Absalom's body lay not there, but under a heap of stones in the wood of Ephraim.
After the battle Ahimaaz, the son of the priest Zadok, came to Joab. Ahimaaz was one of the two young men who brought news from Jerusalem to David at the river Jordan. He said to Joab, "Let me run to the king, and take to him the news of the battle."
But Joab knew that the message of Absalom's death would not be pleasing to King David, and he said, "Some other time you shall bear news, but not today, because the king's son is dead."
And Joab called a Cushite who was standing near, and said to him, "Go, and tell the king what you have seen."
The Cushite bowed to Joab, and ran. But after a time Ahimaaz, the son of Zadok, again said to Joab, "Let me also run after the Cushite, and take news."
"Why do you wish to go, my son?" said Joab; "the news will not bring you any reward."
"Anyhow, let me go," said the young man; and Joab gave him leave. Then Ahimaaz ran with all his might, and by a better road over the plain, though less direct than the road which the negro had taken over the mountains. Ahimaaz outran the Cushite , and came first in sight to the watchman who was standing on the wall, while King David was waiting below in the little room between the outer and inner gates, anxious for news of the battle, but more anxious for his son, Absalom.
The watchman on the wall called down to the king, and said, "I see a man running alone."
And the king said, "If he is alone, he is bringing a message." He knew that if men were running away after a defeat in battle there would be a crowd together. Then the watchman called again, "I see another man running alone."
And the king said, "He also is bringing some news."
The watchman spoke again, "The first runner is coming near, and he runs like Ahimaaz, the son of Zadok."
And David said, "He is a good man, and he comes with good news." Ahimaaz came near, and cried out as he ran, "All is well!"
The first words which the king spoke were, "Is it well with the young man Absalom?"
Ahimaaz was too wise to bring to the king the word of Absalom's death. He left that to the other messenger, and said, "When Joab sent me, there was a great noise over something that had taken place, but I did not stop to learn what it was."
A little later came the Cushite, crying, "News for my lord the king! This day the Lord has given you victory over your enemies!"
And David said again, "Is it well with the young man Absalom?"
Then the Cushite, who knew nothing of David's feelings, answered, "May all the enemies of my lord the king, and all that try to do him harm, be as that young man is!"
Then the king was deeply moved. His sorrow over Absalom made him forget the victory that had been won. Slowly he walked up the steps to the room in the tower over the gate, and as he walked he said, "O my son Absalom! my son, my son Absalom! I wish before God that I had died for you, O Absalom, my son, my son!"
The word soon went forth that the king, instead of rejoicing over the victory, was weeping over his son. The soldiers came stealing back to the city, not as conquerors, but as if they had been defeated. Every one felt sorry for the king, who sat in the room over the gate, with his face covered, and crying out, "O Absalom, my son! my son, my son Absalom!"
But Joab saw that such great sorrow as the king showed was not good for his cause. He came to David, and said to him, "You have put to shame this day all those who have fought for you and saved your life. You have shown that you love those who hate you, and that you hate those who love you. You have said by your actions that your princes and your servants, who have been true to you, are nothing to you; and that if Absalom had lived and we had all died, you would have been better pleased. Now rise up, and act like a man, and show regard for those who have fought for you. I swear to you in the name of the Lord, that unless you do this, not a man will stay on your side, and that will be worse for you than all the harm that has ever come upon you in all your life before this day!"
Then David rose up, and washed away his tears, and put on his robes, and took his seat in the gate as a king. After this he came from Mahanaim to the river Jordan, and there all the people met him, to bring him back to his throne in Jerusalem.
Among the first to come was Shimei, the man who had cursed David and thrown stones at him as he was fleeing from Absalom. He fell on his face, and confessed his crime, and begged for mercy. Abishai, Joab's brother, said, "Shall not Shimei be put to death, because he cursed the king, the Lord's anointed?"
But David said, "Not a man shall be put to death this day in Israel, for today I am king once more over Israel. You shall not be slain, Shimei; I pledge you the word of a king."
And Ziba, the servant of Mephibosheth, was there with his sons and his followers; and Mephibosheth was there also to meet the king. And Mephibosheth had not dressed his lame feet, nor trimmed his beard, nor washed his clothes, from the day when David had left Jerusalem until the day when he returned in peace. And David said to him, "Mephibosheth, why did you not offer to go with me?"
"My lord, O king," said Mephibosheth, "my servant deceived me. He said, 'You are lame, and cannot go; but I will go in your name with the king, and will help him.' And he has done me wrong with the king; but what matters it all, now that the king has come again?"
David said, "You and Ziba may divide the land and the property."
And Mephibosheth said, "Let him have it all, now that the king has come in peace to his own house!"
The army of Absalom had melted away, and was scattered throughout all Israel. David was still displeased with Joab, the chief of his army, because he had slain Absalom, contrary to David's orders. He sent a message to Amasa, who had been the commander of Absalom's army, and who was, like Joab and Abishai, David's own nephew. He said to Amasa, "You are of my own family, of my bone and my flesh, and you shall be the general in place of Joab."
Joab and his brother were strong men, not willing to submit to David's rule; and David thought that he would be safer on his throne if they did not hold so much power. Also, David thought that to make Amasa general would please not only those who had been friends to Absalom, but many more of the people, for many feared and hated Joab.
At the river Jordan almost the whole tribe of Judah were gathered to bring the king back to Jerusalem. But this did not please the men of the other tribes. They said to the men of Judah, "You act as though you were the only friends of the king in all the land! We, too, have some right to David."
The men of Judah said, "The king is of our own tribe, and is one of us. We come to meet him because we love him."
But the people of the other tribes were still offended, and many of them went to their homes in anger. The tribe of Ephraim, in the middle of the land, was very jealous of the tribe of Judah, and unwilling to come again under David's rule. One man in Ephraim, Sheba, the son of Bichri, began a new rebellion against David, which for a time threatened again to overthrow David's power.
Amasa, the new commander of the army, called out his men to put down Sheba's rebellion. But he was slow in gathering his army, and Joab, the old general, went forth with a band of his own followers. Joab met Amasa, pretending to be his friend, and killed him, and then took the command. He shut up Sheba in a city far in the north, and finally caused him to be slain. So at last every enemy was put down; and David sat again in peace upon his throne. But Joab, whom David feared and hated because of many evil deeds that he had done, was, as before, the commander of the army and in great power. Joab was faithful to David, and was a strong helper to David's throne. Without Joab's courage and skill in David's cause David might have failed in some of his wars, and especially in the war against Absalom's followers. But Joab was cruel and wicked; and he was so strong that David could not control him. David felt that he was not fully the king while Joab lived.
But few people knew how David felt toward Joab; and in appearance the throne of David was now as strong as it had ever been; and David's last years were years of peace and of power.