Hushai’s advice to Absalom provides David with the opportunity to organize his troops. David has much practice in preparing for war. He divides the troops under his three commanders and announces that he will lead them out to battle.
We are not told who speaks up, but David’s men suggest that he stay behind. Their logic is sound. This is not a battle for territory, or David’s presence would make little difference. This is a battle for the throne and David’s death would end the battle. Once before David had stayed behind as the army went out to war. That decision did not turn out well for David or the kingdom. In this case, a different kind of disaster will occur.
David has great confidence in the competence of his military commanders. David instructs his commanders to save Absalom’s life and all the troops hear him. David watches as the army marches out.
I wonder if David was secretly anticipating a reunion with Absalom at the end of the day when Absalom’s forces are defeated, and Absalom is forced to come and beg for mercy. Unfortunately for David, the victory that comes will personally cost David more than he wanted to pay.
The battle takes place in the forest of Ephraim and results in great loss of life for the army of Israel. Absalom was probably one of a privileged few who had access to a mount, but that proved disastrous as his hair gets caught in a tree when his mule runs under it. There is Absalom, stuck hanging in a tree unable to free himself.
The first soldier to see him refuses to kill him. However, he does go and tell Joab that Absalom has been found. After chastising the soldier who followed David’s order, Joab ignores David’s command and grabs three spears and drives them through Absalom’s heart. While Joab recognized David’s authority, he had an overriding priority. Joab was “all in” on winning this war with as little loss of life as possible. Somehow, Absalom survives Joab’s attack and Joab’s armor-bearers come to finish the job.
Absalom is buried under a pile of stones. Members of the royal family usually have burial crypts within the city of Jerusalem, but Absalom is buried on the battlefield. He now has two monuments. The first is a pillar he created in Jerusalem in his own honor. The second is a pile of stones in the forest of Ephraim. He will not be forgotten, but he also will not receive the honor he expected.
The next part of the story seems insignificant to me but gets much attention. Runners are identified to communicate news from the battlefield back to command central. Ahimaaz wants to carry the news of Absalom’s death and the defeat of Israel back to David. Joab remembers well how this generally turns out. David has a habit of killing messengers who come with news they perceive as good, but that he perceives as bad. Joab tries to dissuade Ahimaaz, but he is determined to run. He is so determined that he finds a shortcut and gets to David before the foreigner that Joab chooses to convey the message.
When David is told by the second runner of Absalom’s death, he is so devastated that he retreats to his room and begins to weep. As he goes, he cries out for everyone to hear.
The king was shaken. He went up to the room over the gateway and wept. As he went, he said: “O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you– O Absalom, my son, my son!”(2 Samuel 18:33 NIV)
What about us?
One of the simple lessons of this story is to never ask a champion warrior to treat the enemy gently when going into battle. David knows Joab well. He asks Joab to command a third of his troops because he knows Joab will do anything necessary to win. The death of Absalom will end the battle. Cutting Absalom down from the tree and taking him captive may avoid breaking David’s heart but will prolong the battle and very possibly result in much greater loss of life for both sides.
I do not know anyone who likes war. War by its very nature is destructive. Lives lost in war can never be recovered. Property destroyed in war can be rebuilt or restored, but the cost is very high. History has shown us that winning a war requires total commitment to winning and decisive action. Joab is a terrible example on many levels, but he did understand war and what was required to win.
I believe that Joab and Jesus had something in common. They were both totally committed to the battle they were engaged in. The comparison ends there because their strategies were completely different. Joab won by using all the power at his disposal to survive and win. Jesus ultimately won by being willing to sacrifice all He had. I am certain that Satan thinks more like Joab and was certain that Jesus had lost when He went to the cross to give up His life. Jesus understood the battle He was fighting and knew that sacrificial love was the key to victory.
I am convinced that Jesus is not calling us to any form of violence to win the spiritual battles we face. I am just as convinced that we will not win those battles without the same level of sacrificial love that Jesus modeled for us on the cross. Jesus calls us to be all in for Him.
Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.(Matthew 10:38-39 NIV)
Jesus uses “all in” language often and we work hard to soften it in some way. Going “all in” has a high cost, but rarely does victory come to those who hold back.