The Would-Be King, The Would-Be Advisors

The advice of Ahithophel, which he gave in those days, was as if one inquired of the word of God; so was all the advice of Ahithophel regarded by both David and Absalom. (2 Samuel 16:23 NASB)

This chapter, or even this entire account of David and Absalom, could be called, “Fooling Some Of The People Some Of The Time.”  The contrast continues between David, the king selected by God, and his son, Absalom who would be king by right of treachery.  Absalom has lied and burrowed his way into the hearts and minds of some of the people, the ‘men of Israel’, but David has true friends, true followers, and the true hearts and minds of the nation.  At the last section of this chapter, we look at the would-be king, and his would-be advisers.

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Famous For The Wrong Thing

When King David came to Bahurim, behold, there came out from there a man of the family of the house of Saul whose name was Shimei, the son of Gera; he came out cursing continually as he came.  He threw stones at David and at all the servants of King David; and all the people and all the mighty men were at his right hand and at his left (2 Samuel 16:5-6 NASB)

After Ziba, the conniving servant of Saul’s household, comes another related to Saul.  Only this guy does not bring donkey’s with supplies, but curses.  He pelts the travelers with rocks (including the mighty men – how stupid is that?), throws dust, and hurls insults at David.  At first I thought he had a death wish, but when I look at the details, that’s not quite true.  So, his motivation seems to be harbored resentment toward David that only now finds expression.  We’re never told what his problem actually is though.  Only that he calls David a ‘man of blood’.

So, what is going on here, why include it, and why is this so important it is revisited at least twice more (chapter 19, and 1 Kings 2)?  All I can find are possibilities, but one relies on the idea that part of David’s story is out of order.  So here are two possibilities:

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The Butler Did It

Then the king said, “And where is your master’s son?” And Ziba said to the king, “Behold, he is staying in Jerusalem, for he said, ‘Today the house of Israel will restore the kingdom of my father to me. ‘”  So the king said to Ziba, “Behold, all that belongs to Mephibosheth is yours.” And Ziba said, “I prostrate myself; let me find favor in your sight, O my lord, the king!” (2 Samuel 16:3-4 NASB)

Ziba is described as the servant of Saul’s household in 2 Samuel 9:2.  The details about Ziba given in the chapter bring a few things to light, and help understand what he does right here.  First, he is the servant to Saul’s household but only Mephibosheth, a cripple living across the Jordan with another family, is left or is he?  At first it looks like Ziba’s essentially been living off Saul’s household.  On the other hand, in chapter 21 they find seven other sons.  So David’s choice of Mephibosheth had more to do with Jonathan than Saul.

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A Warrior-King Runs Barefoot From A Fight?

Then a messenger came to David, saying, ” The hearts of the men of Israel are with Absalom.”  David said to all his servants who were with him at Jerusalem, ” Arise and let us flee, for otherwise none of us will escape from Absalom. Go in haste, or he will overtake us quickly and bring down calamity on us and strike the city with the edge of the sword.” (2 Samuel 15:13-14 NASB)

David is known for decisive victories against impossible odds.  He’s known for leading a small band of six hundred against thousands, fighting ridiculously long battles, and winning.  So, why, when he has a famously defensible city, and more than six hundred to fight with, does he decide to leave?  Why is this king leaving a fight?  In Scripture so far, running from a fight is not his normal ‘modus oparandi’.  Well, that is true with one glaring obvious exception: Saul.

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The Barefoot Exodus

And David went up the ascent of the Mount of Olives, and wept as he went, and his head was covered and he walked barefoot. Then all the people who were with him each covered his head and went up weeping as they went. (2 Samuel 15:30 NASB)

In contrast to a chariot and fifty men running before him, this king walks barefoot, head covered, and weeping.  Absalom sought to steal the hearts of people at the gate, but these people who knew the king best wept as he left the city of his name.  There is a very evident contrast between the two ‘royal’ figures.  And yet, there are similarities as well.

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Winning Friends And Influencing People

In this manner Absalom dealt with all Israel who came to the king for judgment; so Absalom stole away the hearts of the men of Israel. (2 Samuel 15:6 NASB)

Bringing Absalom back from Geshur where he lived in exile for two years set a process in motion leading to his eventual take over of Israel, at least for a few days.  It wasn’t immediate, but a measured, sequential process over about 8 or so years.  Absalom followed steps.

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Not Just A Pretty Face, But Also A Bad Example

Now in all Israel was no one as handsome as Absalom, so highly praised; from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head there was no defect in him. When he cut the hair of his head (and it was at the end of every year that he cut it, for it was heavy on him so he cut it), he weighed the hair of his head at 200 shekels by the king’s weight (2 Samuel 14:25-16 NASB)

Plots Within Plots

One character in Scripture who I never see put in a good light is Absalom.  He is often put in a ‘sympathetic’ light, but never held up as a good example of character.  And he isn’t.  In fact, I’m not so sure seeing him in a sympathetic light is really what was intended by the author here.  In the previous chapter, he tells his sister not to say anything about being raped, so she has no legal support from her father.  Absalom doesn’t say anything either.  This seems rather odd, except that the depraved brother is also the first-born, first in line for the throne.  So, in a very real sense, Tamar’s rape gives Absalom an angle to kill the person in front of him in line for the throne.

Beyond that, we see that he is brought back from exile, but never ‘repents’.  So he sees himself as above whatever law exists in Israel regarding what he did.  This isn’t a great situation for a would-be king to be in.  On top of that, we also get a glimpse of his character toward the end of chapter 14 which sets up the following chapter.  He is handsome, more than anyone else in Israel.  But he is very aware of this.  Who weighs his hair after cutting?  He cuts it because it’s ‘heavy on him’, and then weighs it to show off how much hair he has.  I’m thinking it would be lighter if he cleaned the anointing oil out of it from time to time, but again, that’s my opinion.

Absalom is living the good life.  He is back in Jerusalem, but not in court.  So he has a scheme for that.  It takes him two years to scheme against his depraved brother Amnon.  He waits another two years in exile, and now he waits two years to see his father.  Joab was instrumental in bringing him back, but ignores him once he’s back.  Absalom is not one to take being ignored, so he sets Joab’s field on fire.  Keep in mind, Joab is not above murder himself.  He’s not one to be trifled with, but Absalom is confident that no one can touch him.  He wants to see the king, and nothing will stand in his way.  But why?

I think that Absalom has been after the throne since before his sister is violated.  While his depraved brother Amnon is sick over his step sister, I believe Absalom is sick over how to get the throne.  Amnon unwittingly helps his brother when he ‘helps himself’ to his sister.  Absalom can kill Amnon and blame it on avenging Tamar.  And it really makes him look good in a way, like a kinsman-avenger.  But he still requires a few things to make a solid bid for the throne.  He needs legitimacy.  What I mean by legitimacy is that he must be perceived as the natural one to be next on the throne by everyone.  But the first step toward that is to be seen as legitimate within the court, but also with the king.

He has to have the king’s acceptance in order to be seen as really legitimate as an heir to the throne.  So, he comes home, but then must see the king.  He waits two years, and finally gets Joab’s attention by setting his field on fire.  It works, and Absalom is accepted by David.  Now Absalom can move on to stealing the hearts of the people.

Absalom is smart.  But he is also strategic, and patient.  He would be perfect in his diabolical pursuit if it weren’t for his one huge fault: Pride!  He really sees very little besides himself, and seems to truly believe that he is in pursuit of what is rightfully his to take.  He’s beautiful, he has heavy hair, he’s rich, he’s the kings eldest son (number 2 disappears, never to be heard from after being listed once).  What could possibly go wrong?  As long as he continues to be wise all should be well.  It really is interesting that he is so smart and patient at his age.  Most aren’t.  Amnon wasn’t.  Why is Absalom?

The Point of the Lesson of Absalom

We don’t know why Absalom is so cunning.  Scripture doesn’t tell us, and we’re left with the view that Absalom is just that smart.  And maybe he is.  That would make him very smart, very handsome, and with very little to slow down his inflated view of himself.  But there is a piece to this story that must not be lost.  Solomon must become king.

I’m not sure why, but Chronicles completely ignores these accounts of David.  There’s nothing about Bathsheba, nothing about Absalom, and from that account, we’re left wondering what happened to the eldest of David’s sons.  But this account seeks to solve a problem.  Keep in mind that of all David’s children, only Solomon is renamed by God, and this name is Jedidiah, a version of David’s own name but now it means ‘beloved of Yahweh’.

That happens as Solomon is a child, before he can ‘prove’ himself by his deeds, God sees something in him and approves of him already; before he can earn it.  The problem is that there are many brothers ahead of him.  And many of these brothers are dangerous, like Absalom.  So, in a sense, Absalom is a bad example, but what is also being shown here is that no amount of smarts, good looks, and strategic scheming will thwart the plans of the Almighty Creator.  This account explains what happened to some of those ahead of Solomon who assume the throne belonged to them.  But this account also supports God’s choice of Solomon.  Amnon wasn’t a good choice, he was depraved.  Absalom wasn’t a good choice, he was a conniving pretty-boy.  Adonijah is left to the final ascension of Solomon.


What I learn from Absalom, at least up through chapter 14, is that it’s not about how smart I am.  I already know I’m no looker, and I will never weigh my hair (nor let it get that long).  But I can become very impressed with my own ideas.  I can become very intoxicated with my particular view through a knothole.  This is partly (perhaps mostly) why I pursue this path of theology.  I need the reminder that there are other views, and mine is incomplete without the others.  I must not loose sight of the ‘game’, the Person and work of my Master.  He reveals Himself through Scripture, and I’m looking at Him, not myself.  There is real danger is looking myopically at the knothole itself and forgetting that the point lies in the view beyond.  God has a purpose in bringing Solomon to the throne.  This would have been true even if Amnon wasn’t depraved, Absalom wasn’t a conniving pretty-face, or anyone else thought they should have the throne.  God wanted Solomon on the throne, and that was what was going to happen.

What does God want for my neighborhood, my community, my church, may family?  Whatever it is, I better be on board with that and forget my own ‘plans’.  No amount of scheming, planning, conniving, or cleverness will change what He wants to what I want.  At least, that’s my view through the knothole.  What’s yours?

Not A “Nathan”

Now Joab the son of Zeruiah perceived that the king’s heart was inclined toward Absalom. So Joab sent to Tekoa and brought a wise woman from there and said to her, “Please pretend to be a mourner, and put on mourning garments now, and do not anoint yourself with oil, but be like a woman who has been mourning for the dead many days; then go to the king and speak to him in this manner.” So Joab put the words in her mouth. (2 Samuel 14:1-3 NASB)

In chapter 12, Nathan the Prophet (I think that was his last name actually) goes to David and confronts him about his sin with Bathsheba.  To do so, he tells the Shepherd-Warrior King a little story about two guys with sheep.  Using that story, he brings David face to face with what he has done, and David repents.  I believe Joab saw the effects of the story (since he was so involved with David’s sin), and thought Nathan was such a genius for it, he decided to copy it.  I’m not sure, the Scripture doesn’t say that Joab wanted to be, or thought he was, a genius too; I just suspect something of the sort was involved.

Playing the King…And Surviving

The story Joab puts in the mouth of this wise woman of Tekoa (where everyone finds wise women) isn’t on par with what God puts into the mouth of Nathan.  This story is made up of a lot of begging on the woman’s part, ‘They want to kill my only remaining son!’ ‘I’ll not let that happen.’ ‘Please help me, they’ll kill my son!’ ‘Send ‘them’ to me, I’ll not let that happen.’ ‘My son will DIE!’ ‘No, I won’t let that happen!’  I sort of think this should have been called, “How to annoy your king and live.”

One of the pieces to this story that irks me is the application to the king.  The supposedly wise woman applies the story of her son to the king by saying, “We’re all going to die because you won’t bring back your murdering spoiled brat Absalom!”  That had to be the words of Joab since this woman is supposed to be wise.  My only confusion is that, since she is so wise, why agree to such a preposterous story.  She probably could have come up with a better one herself.

It seems David thought so too, because he sees right through her as soon as she tries to apply the story to him.  Enter Joab, stage…well, actually he seems to be standing right there (as I said, he’s not actually a sociopolitical genius).  David relents to bring Absalom back, just not to see the king.  Why is that?

The Legal Problem

One of the problems with bringing Absalom back is that David, the king of Israel, is responsible to uphold the law.  As king he hears cases all day long (or it probably seems like it takes all day).  That’s why the woman was supposedly there, for the king’s judgment.  It would not look great for the king to break the law for his own family, although God had done so for him in his sin with Bathsheba.  So, what’s a father/king/judge to do with a son who has committed such a sin as murder?

There is a set of esoteric laws in the Hebrew Torah regarding a Gaal, pronounced with two syllables, ‘ga-al’, no long vowels…we think, there’s actually an unpronounceable consonant in between the two ‘a’s.  This family role is responsible for redeeming lost property back into the family (redeemer), carrying on the line of a dead relative (leverite), and sometimes avenging the death of a relative (avenger).  It was part of their legal system that families, particularly this Gaal, avenge murders or even accidental deaths.  They were to do so upon meeting the man-slayer, no trial needed.

Two texts regarding this are found in Numbers 35:6-8 and another in Deuteronomy 19:1-13, those are the two I found regarding the avenger role specifically.  Included in these legal records are also the rules for ‘Cities of Refuge’ where someone could go if they killed another accidentally.  They could remain there until the death of the high priest, and the avenger could not slay them.  But, it first had to be proved that they did, in fact, kill by accident, and rules are found in the text to differentiate between intentional ‘murder’ and unintentional ‘man-slaying’.  It sounds convoluted and complex, but it’s not that hard to understand, and it makes a certain beautiful sense.  The hardest part is the cultural gulf needed to be spanned between 21st Century America and Second Millennia BC cultures.

Since the circumstance of Absalom’s exile was that he avenged his sister’s rape, a case could be made that he was within his rights to do so.  On the other hand, the circumstances surrounding how he did it place him in the wrong of the intentional murderer rather than the family Gaal avenger.  It’s a case for the king to decide, but it would be between his two sons, one having killed the other.  Certainly a mess.

So, this wise woman from Tekoa is used by Joab to influence the king to restore Abasalom, partly because Joab sees David wants to.  Joab thinks he’s helping David get what he wants to do, but doesn’t see how to do.  I think Joab is wrong here.  I wasn’t there, I didn’t see David’s face and Joab does know David really well (see 2 Samuel 11:18-21, in the Greek text of this passage, David says exactly what Joab said he would).  But I think David was embroiled in a deeper dilemma than Joab knew.


In seeking the will and desire of my Master, I have a few things to hold on to.  First, I believe that my Master truly wants me to know what He wants.  But He wants me to know that as I grow closer to Him.  He wants that close, intimate relationship where it’s relatively easy for me to know what He wants.  The description in Scripture of God’s love and desire for His people is deeply intimate.  His practice of speaking with His people and directing them is often also very intimate.

Therefore I believe David was trying to discern the will of God for this circumstance with Absalom.  And he wasn’t getting the answer he wanted.  I don’t believe that David was comfortable doing what he wanted to do, which was bring Absalom back.  I think that is why he brings him back but won’t let him come into his presence.

One of the comments Joab puts into the woman’s mouth is that God always makes a way for the ones He banishes to come back to him.  In other words, we might see it as God always leaving a way for repentance.  I agree with this to a point.  My understanding of repentance is more than physically relocating.  In this account, Absalom never actually repents for what he does.  Instead, he consistently requires everyone else to simply accept what he does, including the king.  So, in receiving him back, the king has ‘rubber stamped’ the sin of murder, and in this case, without a trial, and without repentance.  He’s the king, and he can do that.  But as we see from what follows, this wasn’t God speaking to him to give him guidance.  It was Joab intervening to give the king what he thought he wanted.

I can be quick to jump on something that I think God is telling me because what I sense is exactly what I want. That’s probably where I need to be most cautious, the most hesitant, and the most unwilling to go.  My heart is not the heart of God, and as much as I would like to see myself as one, I don’t think I am truly a ‘man after God’s own heart’ as David was.  In my own personal circumstances God has revealed to me, just last night, that I am harboring a huge amount of resentment toward someone (or something, depending on how you look at it).  This resentment is causing me no end of problems.  It’s not hurting the one(s) I resent though.

The key application here is that my resentment and the resulting bad attitude at work was not my Master telling me to find another job.  If I did that I would simply be carrying my resentments along with me.  That would disastrous for the next job/employer that picked me up.  I think it’s very easy to believe, and we like to think that, our Creator guides us using our desires; usually misusing the verse that He gives us the desires of our heart.  Our hearts are deceitful and lie to us.  Why would the One having made our hearts, tell us how bad our hearts are, but then turn around and give us what our hearts desire?  Wouldn’t it make more sense that He would instead, plant new desires as He changes our hearts?

I realize that I need to send away my resentments before I can really understand the direction my Master has for me.  That’s my view through this particular knothole.  What’s yours?

The Sheer Number of Things Wrong

When she brought them to him to eat, he took hold of her and said to her, “Come, lie with me, my sister.” But she answered him, “No, my brother, do not violate me, for such a thing is not done in Israel; do not do this disgraceful thing! (2 Samuel 13:11-12 NASB)

There’s just something so creepy it’s shocking to pick up the sacred text of Scripture, the inspired word revealing the character of the God, Creator of the universe, and read therein, “Come, lie with me, my sister.”  It’s wrong on so many levels I’m not sure where to begin…but I’ll try.

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Evil For Dinner, Revenge For Dessert

Jonadab, the son of Shimeah, David’s brother, responded, “Do not let my lord suppose they have put to death all the young men, the king’s sons, for Amnon alone is dead; because by the intent of Absalom this has been determined since the day that he violated his sister Tamar. Now therefore, do not let my lord the king take the report to heart, namely, ‘all the king’s sons are dead, ‘ for only Amnon is dead.” (2 Samuel 13:32-33 NASB)

Chapter 13 of 2 Samuel begins the ‘Absalom’ narrative within David’s story.  It begins with the tragic character of Tamar and proceeds through her humiliation by her step brother Amnon, to the eventual revenge of her brother Absalom on Amnon.  What adds to the intrigue is the small details about the edges.

Amnon is the first-born, and therefore the ‘assumed’ successor to David.  He would make a disastrous king; he’s self-centered, arrogant, manipulative, with no regard for anyone.  The reader finds him repulsive very quickly in the account.  But he is the first-born.

Absalom is very near the top of the list of king’s sons who might inherit the throne, but not at the top; he’s third (second doesn’t appear anywhere but in a list in 2 Samuel 3, and under a different name in 1 Chronicles).  So the setting of this ‘revenge’ is set within the sons of the king, a king sitting on a throne; and therefore on an inheritance that only one can inherit.

David is the father who is suffering consequences for his sin with Bathsheba (see chapter 12).  In a sense he too is a victim, or I see him as such.  He ‘hears’ of an atrocity among his children, but not from them.  What does he do?  The penalty is death, but no one will talk about it (sound like a modern family?).

What does happen is that Absalom has told his sister to be quiet while he harbors hatred toward her attacker.  So Tamar is not only victimized in one of the most horrible fashions possible (even worse in their culture than ours), she’s not given justice nor the opportunity for justice.  She’s not even given an explanation of why this happened to her.

This situation goes on for two years, and then Absalom manipulates his father, the king, into allowing all the kings sons to dine with him somewhere north.  At the meal, Absalom has Amnon killed.  He escapes to grandpa Talmai (what happens to Tamar now?), and the rest of the princes flee home.  By any assessment, the situation is a disaster.

Why? Why is this even in this book?  It’s not in Chronicles.  It’s only here in the book of Samuel.  Why in the shuffle and tussle of spoiled princes of a warrior-king is the victim, Tamar, sidelined?  In fact the ‘backdrop’ for this, repeatedly pointed out by the author, is the degradation of David’s family indicated in incest and murder. The repetition of ‘her brother’ and ‘his sister’ is almost irritating until you get the point.

David tried his best to guide and direct his children.  He had them work in the shrine of the Ark of God.  He made them ‘ministers’ with duties in the administration of the kingdom.  He gave them wise counselors like Jonadab.  They knew the job, they knew what was involved, and they knew where David’s power came from, his God.  Yet it seems they saw the ‘chair’ as either deserved by right of birth, regardless of character (Amnon); or up for grabs by whoever could manipulate their way into it (Absalom).

David makes an easy target for us, but I doubt we truly appreciate the problems he faced in parenting.  Tamar is swept aside and remains a tragic figure, but only to setup what happens to Amnon by Absalom.  I think that only deepens her tragedy.  Amnon is a cruel and despicable person; a fool who needs to die rather than become king.  Absalom is a manipulative ambitious conniver who would even use his sister’s humiliation for his own ends.  Jonadab is said to be wise, but we can’t tell if he was manipulated or participating in Tamar’s humiliation, and then in Absalom’s revenge.

The character list is peopled with characters, but not a lot of moral fiber.  This isn’t a ‘success story’ or a ‘parenting bestseller’, it makes soap operas seem bright and cheery.  As I look through the ‘knothole’ I see it’s still a story about David, but of his woes.  I see it’s about his consequences on the one hand, but about his inability to control even his own children on the other (a theme common today).  I see it is about horrible incomprehensible evil being done to a victim, and the ineffective application of justice.

What I learn about God is that He permits tragedy, He permits monsters, He permits bad things happening to good people.  It’s a hard thing to see about God.  In a real sense it’s incomprehensible; but God is supposed to be incomprehensible.  In another sense it seems He has His hands completely off the situation, yet He predicts this very thing in his prophesy through Nathan.  He knows it’s coming and doesn’t stop it.  He doesn’t make life roses and song-birds for everyone.

And so I’m challenged to regard my own life, and not use my circumstances as the litmus test for my relationship with my Master.  Some bad things are consequences, and some are not.  Can I accept both from my Master and still be confident in His perfect love and perfect power?  David was able to, and he didn’t even point to Jesus as compensation.  Rather his faith was based on the other things he saw his Master do.  Will I learn to also rely on my faith based on what I have seen my Master do?  Or will I give into the view of here, now, the darkness I sense, and the hopelessness I think I face?

What about you? What do you see through the knothole?