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.
The first thing Absalom did was get passed the whole ‘murder’ image, but becoming fully accepted by David. This he did in the previous chapter using Joab. He basically got a message to his father, King David to say that either he should be killed as a murder or accepted (which was true). As he expected, Absalom was accepted by David. He was pretty well assured of this because he hadn’t been killed in two years, so it wasn’t likely to happen now. So, it was a rather safe move, not the risky challenge of an innocent like it was supposed to sound. But David bought it.
Absalom couldn’t pursue the throne with the stigma of the murder of Amnon, his older brother about his head. That he had done so to get the throne would have been way too obvious. It had to appear like a legitimate kinsman-avenger move; where he was avenging the rape of his sister, Tamar, by his older brother, Amnon. If the king accepted him, then the legal position of ‘kinsman-avenger’ was assured, and Absalom is legitimate in the eyes of the people.
In fact, it was possible that he could have been seen as even more law-abiding than his father since Absalom punished the wrong-doer after his father hadn’t. It probably wasn’t common knowledge that he prevented the issue from being brought to the king. Otherwise it would have been obvious for what it was, a ploy to use his sister’s rape to get to the throne through the premeditated murder of Amnon. Absalom hid his shameless maneuvering behind a legal quandary, and relied on his father’s love to wipe away the label and punishment he so clearly deserved.
Get Out There
Next Absalom gets a chariot, and fifty men to run in front of it. This is precisely what the prophet-judge Samuel warns the people of when they ask for a king(1 Samuel 8:11). David never does it, and we’re never told Solomon ever does. But two failure-to-launch would-be-kings and sons of David both do. From the words of Samuel it would seem that this isn’t unheard of in other nations around Israel, but certainly unheard of in Israel.
Absalom had to get out in front of the people in a big way. He had to be on their minds, and in such a way that he was equated with pomp and importance. He had to appear ‘kingly’ not just ‘princely’. He was already vain, and made a big show about cutting his very fashionable hair every year and weighing it. He was already known for his appearance, now he had to push that popularity beyond good looks into status. He had to live and look like he was already king.
The actual work of a king was as a judge. He wasn’t just a military leader, he also heard ‘cases’ brought on any range of issues from family to inter-clan and inter-tribal problems. He had to decide on how to apply the law, so had to know the law. Absalom seems to have known the law, not in that he quoted it, but in that he knew how to manipulate how it was applied to him to legitimize his position in Israel. But he needed to be seen as a valid option for this work of the king to be able to swing popular opinion to him. People had to believe it was in their best interest for him to be king. But how does one accomplish this?
Absalom uses a few very calculated but very clever methods to connect himself to the people, and connect to them as a sympathetic judge:
A Diligent Judge
Absalom rises early. He’s out there as as one of them, rising early, ready to work. He doesn’t appear lazy, getting to the gate late, but as they do in the early morning. He’s one of them in his approach to work. He has to offset his appearance as a flashy prince/king in an unapproachable chariot with fifty guys. This almost makes it sound like the chariot and men weren’t his idea at all. That he really wants to be among the people, not separate. He’s an early riser, not a spoiled prince.
A Sympathetic Judge
“There is no one to hear you on the part of the king.” The warning of Absalom is that, while the case the people bring are valid issues, no one listens to them, and gets them brought before the king. The sense given is that King David doesn’t actually care that much, or if he did, he’s too insulated from the people to be hear their pleas. This sounds plausible, or if not plausible, any such hurdle to get to see the king would at least be interpreted through Absalom’s freely provided prejudice.
“Oh that someone would appoint me as judge.” Not actually king. He’s not being treasonous as such, just holding himself out there as a more sympathetic judge than his father. If he had the influence to get people before the king or to hear cases himself, then the people would be judged fairly. The implication is that this is not how things are right now.
This positions Absalom as a judge in the mind of the people. It’s important that he didn’t say ‘king’, but ‘judge’. There were judges in Israel that heard small cases, and if satisfaction wasn’t reached through the elders of cities, clans, or tribes, then they were appealed to the king. So, that Absalom uses the term ‘judge’ isn’t treasonous as such, but he’s now in the minds of the people as one who would do the job as king better than the current one.
A Judge Of The People
Lastly, Absalom had to be recognized as one of the people. He had a few hurdles here. First, he was not 100% Israelite. He had spent two-years in Geshur, and could have appeared as much of that nation as of Israel. Second, his ploy with the chariot and fifty runners served to elevate himself in the eyes of the people, but that also isolates him from their ‘hearts’. People won’t follow a sympathetic judge in a chariot unless they believe that this person also cares for them.
Absalom’s father David was known for his compassion, even to his enemies. He elevated Mephibosheth a son of Jonathan, son of Saul, David’s enemy. David was a shepherd, a brave warrior for Israel. He was a hero, and from the common people. Absalom had only known wealth and prestige of being a prince his whole life, and everyone knew it. He had to get passed that to the hearts of the people.
So, Absalom as he has set himself up, had people come and bow to him. When they did, he raised them up and kissed them. Now, he’s approachable, he’s caring, he doesn’t see himself as above the people, but appears to love them. It’s a masterful move on his part. And the people notice.
And in this way, Absalom stole the hearts of the people away from David, or at least he seemed to. He’s not on the throne yet. He has a few more steps. I want to hit on two more here.
Next Absalom uses a pretense of faithfulness to God to explain a trip to Hebron. David started at Hebron, and it remained the seat of his legitimacy as king. Judah had always been the favored Tribe since David was of the Tribe of Judah. Now Absalom has to remove the very support of David, the foundational support of the most powerful tribe.
On his way, Absalom send ‘spies’ (literally ‘ones who run on foot’) to the various tribes so he has people there to shout that “Absalom is king in Hebron” once they hear the signal. Once people everywhere hear it, they will believe it, at least for a while. After all, they already like or love Absalom, so he hopes it will be a ‘dream-come-true’ for many of them; enough of them to sweep him into the throne as a legitimate king.
Absalom also takes 200 people who know nothing of the plot in order to mask his intent. Two hundred people loyal to the king, so the king doesn’t suspect? The presence of the sons of the king didn’t slow Absalom down in killing Amnon, so it shouldn’t have been that much of a ‘smoke screen’. In fact, the role of these two hundred people is somewhat a mystery. But the next thing Absalom does isn’t.
Next Absalom summons Ahithophel, counselor to the king. In some biblical scholarly circles, Ahithophel is thought to be the true mastermind behind Absalom’s revolt. I think the assumption is that Absalom is too young and inexperienced to pull off such a perfectly orchestrated revolt. That, and Absalom also seems to make poor choices later, so clearly he’s not that smart. On the other hand, Absalom doesn’t listen to Ahithophel later which would mean he’s not as influential as a ‘mastermind’ would be. It’s hard to say, and this far removed from the writings and events, we’ll never really know. But the move does solidify Absalom as a serious contender.
Absalom establishes his position in Hebron and people continue to flock to him and his movement. As it is reported to David, the hearts of the people do seem to be with Absalom at this point. In my next entry, I will argue that Absalom’s popularity is not what it seems, but for now it seems well established. But it also is clearly shallow, tied to a shallow conniving vain prince. He’s smart, and he’s wise. And the people love him, or so it seems.
I think this happens today. Only in my country, this popularity is all that’s needed. Truth becomes a consensus, and often has little to do with reality. Perception replaces knowledge, and the fight is for what people think rather than what they know. It’s sad really, but it sets my nation up for repetitions of this sort of usurpation of valid governance. It happens way too often, and even in retrospect we seem incapable of seeing where we went wrong. At least in Scripture, it works out for David in a way. Unfortunately, not so in my country. Although the available valid alternatives are in short supply. Where are the ‘David’s’ to lead my people?
That’s my view, specifically of Absalom, through this particular knothole. What do you see that I missed? Clearly I need perspective, don’t you think?