II Samuel 18

The Word Made Fresh

1David gathered his men and appointed officers over thousands and hundreds. 2He divided them into three armies led by Joab, Joab’s brother Abishai (they were sons of Zeruiah), and Ittai the Gittite. The king said he would march with them, 3but they told him not to come. “If we are forced to retreat,” they said, “they won’t pursue us, and if half of us are killed they won’t care. But there are ten thousand of us; you should stay in the city and direct us from here.”

4The king replied, “Very well. I’ll do whatever you think is best.” Then he stood by the gate while the troops marched out in groups of hundreds and thousands. 5He ordered Joab, Abishai, and Ittai, “Be kind to young Absalom for my sake,” and all the people heard the king say this to them.

6They engaged the army of Israel on the battlefield and fought them in the forests of Ephraim. 7David’s men defeated the army of Israel. Twenty thousand of them were killed. 8The battle raged over the countryside; the forests claimed more lives than the sword.

9Absalom encountered some of David’s men. He was riding his mule, and as the mule passed under a large oak tree, Absalom’s hair was snagged by a limb and the mule ran out from under him, leaving him hanging between heaven and earth.

10One of David’s men saw him there and reported it to Joab. 11Joab retorted, “You saw him? Why didn’t you cut him down? I would have given you ten silver coins and a belt.”

12“I wouldn’t raise my hand against the king’s son for a thousand pieces of silver,” the man responded. “I heard the king command you and Abishai and Ittai to spare Absalom for his sake. 13If I had killed him you would not have stood up for me to the king.”

14“I’m not wasting any more time with you,” said Joab. He threw three spears into Absalom’s chest while he hung in the tree, 15and ten of his assistants surrounded Absalom and struck him down from where he was hanging and made sure he was dead.

16Then Joab blew a trumpet blast to call the troops back from pursuing the army of Israel. 17They threw Absalom into a deep pit in the forest and buried him under a huge pile of rocks. Meanwhile, the Israelite army had fled the battlefield and returned to their homes.

(18When Absalom was living, he set up a pillar in the King’s Valley. He did this because he had no son to carry on his name. To this day the monolith is known as “Absalom’s Monument.”)

19Zadok’s son Ahimaaz said to Joab, “Let me run to take the word to the king that the LORD has delivered him from his enemies.”

20But Joab told him, “You’re not the one to take this report to the king. I’ll send you to carry the news another day, but not today, because the king’s son is dead.” 21Then he turned to another man, a Cushite, and ordered to take the news to the king. The man bowed to Joab and ran.

22Then Ahimaaz said to Joab, “Whatever happens, let me run also and follow the Cushite.”

“Why do you want to do that?” Joab asked. “There is nothing you can gain from taking such news to the king.”

23“Whatever happens, I want to run,” Ahimaaz insisted. So, Joab gave him leave and he ran along the Jordan plain and outran the Cushite.

24David was waiting at the city gates. A watchman on the roof near the gate saw a lone man running towards them. 25He called out to the king, and the king responded, “If he is alone, he is surely bringing news.” The man kept running, drawing closer. 26Then the watchman saw another man running, and called out to the gatekeeper, “Look! Here is another one coming!”

The king said, “He is also bringing a report.”

27The watchman called, “The first one is running like Ahimaaz son of Zadok.”

The king said, “He’s a good man. He’ll bring good news.”

28Ahimaaz arrived and said to the king, “All is well!” He bowed low before the king, face to the ground, and said, “Blessed be the LORD your God who has delivered up to you the people who attacked my lord the king.”

29“Is the young man Absalom safe?” the king asked.

Ahimaaz answered, “When Joab sent me, I saw a lot of scuffling going on, but I couldn’t tell what exactly was happening.”

30“Stand aside,” the king said, and Ahimaaz stepped away and waited.

31Then the Cushite arrived and called out, “Good news for my lord the king! Today the LORD has upheld you and rescued you from the power of your enemies!”

32“Is the young man Absalom safe?” the king asked.

The Cushite said, “May all your enemies, and all who ever seek to do you harm, suffer the same fate as that young man.”

33The king was badly shaken. He climbed to the anteroom above the gate and wept, crying out, “O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! I should have died instead of you, Absalom, my son, my son!”


1-5: David has a sizable force with him, and divides them into three parts, under Joab, Abishai, and Ittai. He offers to lead them, but is counseled to stay in the rear because they reason is that they can lose a number of soldiers, but if David is killed it’s all over. David orders them to deal gently with Absalom.

6-8: The battle rages, and David’s forces are victorious, killing many of Absalom’s soldiers; and even more are lost in the forest.

9-15: Absalom is fleeing on a mule when the mule runs under a tree and Absalom’s hair gets caught. He is left hanging helplessly. Someone tells Joab, who is furious that Absalom wasn’t killed in spite of David’s orders. Joab thrusts three spears into Absalom’s heart, and then ten of his “young men” surrounded the body and made sure Absalom was dead. “Young men,” it would seem, were particularly dangerous in those days. But if Absalom had gotten a haircut, he would still be alive today. Well, not today, of course, but you know what I mean.

16-18: Absalom’s body is buried in a pit in the forest and covered with a heap of stones while his army flees. It is explained that the monument to Absalom in the King’s Valley is not his tomb, but one he had erected to himself while he was alive because he had no son to carry on his name. He did have a daughter, though, named Tamar.

19-23: Ahimaaz wants to tell David, but Joab sends a Cushite (Egyptian) mercenary instead, remembering what sometimes happens to messengers who bring bad news to the king. Ahimaaz insists until Joab gives him leave, probably thinking the Cushite has a good head start. Ahimaaz takes a shortcut. At this point in the story, the listeners/readers all hold their breath to see if Ahimaaz arrives first, and survives his bad news.

24-27: The drama is extended as a sentinel sees someone coming. Who can it be? Then he spots another runner. Which is which? Finally, he identifies the first as Ahimaaz! David heightens the tension when he remarks that Ahimaaz is a good man, and therefore will surely bring good news.

28-30: Ahimaaz is no dummy. He does indeed bring good news. The king’s enemies have been defeated. When David asks about the fate of Absalom he pretends not to know what has happened to him.

31-33: The Cushite arrives also with good tidings that the battle is won, but when David asks about Absalom the Cushite tells him what he does not want to hear. And now, instead of responding in anger, David collapses in grief, and the messenger is spared.


“Violence begets violence,” goes the old saying. Joab is as ruthless and bloodthirsty as David has been; but while David ordered others to do most of his killing, Joab takes lives in his own hands. “Those who live by the sword die by the sword” is another old saying, derived from a comment Jesus made to his disciples (Matthew 26:52). Joab will get his due when he conspires against Solomon (1 Kings 2:34). Violence arises out of a desire for power over others. How God made sense out of this mess is what the Bible is all about.