Ramblings on II Samuel 17

For my weekly quiet time this Sabbath, I studied II Samuel 17. Things didn’t come together as neatly as they did for last week’s quiet time (on II Samuel 16). But I’ll give you my thoughts, and maybe you can benefit from them or offer your feedback.

The story is this: David’s son, Absalom, is revolting against King David, and Absalom has just taken Jerusalem. He has most of Israel on his side, including David’s wise advisor, Ahithophel, who’s quite possibly the grandfather of Bathsheba (II Samuel 11:3; 23:34). David is worried that Ahithophel will give Absalom good advice on how to defeat him, so he asks God to turn Ahithophel’s counsel into foolishness.

David sends a spy into Absalom’s camp, his friend Hushai. The priests Abiathar and Zadok are also on David’s side, yet they stay behind in Jerusalem to monitor the situation. Their sons are outside of Jerusalem so they can receive messages and relay them to David.

Ahithophel gives Absalom advice: Ahithophel offers to take 12,000 men and kill David, while David and his men are tired and discouraged. Then, David’s supporters will turn to Absalom, all Israel will be united, and there will be peace.

Hushai then offers counter-advice: Hushai says that David’s mighty men are not flippant, so they won’t ditch David when the going gets tough. Rather, despite their small number, they’re tough, resourceful, and fierce, like a bear robbed of her cubs. According to Hushai, David’s not even in a salient location, for he’s hiding in a cave. Hushai says that David and his men can use fly-by-night tactics against Absalom’s soldiers, kill some of them, and demoralize Absalom’s entire force. Hushai suggests that Absalom organize a surge, by bringing together all of the tribes of Israel from Dan to Beersheba so he can lead them against David. Then, there will be so many of Absalom’s men surrounding David, that even David’s insurgent tactics will prove ineffective and he’ll have to fold. And, if David runs to a city to hide, Hushai says, Absalom’s men can simply pull down the city and drown it in the river. David will try to run, but he won’t be able to hide!

Absalom goes with Hushai’s advice, so Ahithophel goes to his house and kills himself. Hushai tells Zadok and Abiathar what Absalom plans to do so they can get the message to David. David and his men are in a desert by the Jordan river. They are tired, hungry, exposed, and vulnerable. Hushai’s message is “Get out of there!” David and his men have time to do so because Absalom is busy trying to organize a bunch of Israelites from Dan to Beersheba to follow him, in accordance with Hushai’s advice. II Samuel 7:14 says that God was behind Absalom accepting Hushai’s recommendations rather than the “good” advice of Ahithophel, since God wanted to thwart Ahithophel and bring ruin to Absalom.

A servant-girl goes outside of Jerusalem to Jonathan son of Abiathar and Ahimaaz son of Zadok, and she gives them Hushai’s message so they can deliver it to David. A boy sees this whole interaction and tells Absalom, who sends men after them. In their flight, Ahimaaz and Jonathan arrive in Bahurim, in Benjamin, the town of Shimei, the relative of Saul who threw stones at David and cursed him (II Samuel 16:5). A man there graciously allows them to hide in his well, and the man’s wife lies to Absalom’s servants, saying Ahimaaz and Jonathan had already crossed the brook. Absalom’s servants then look for them, give up, and return to Jerusalem.

Hushai’s message gets to David, and David and his men cross the Jordan and end up in Mahanaim, in Gilead. Mahanaim was once the headquarters of David’s competitor for the throne of Israel, Ish-bosheth, the son of Saul (II Samuel 2:8, 12). Some characters then bring food and beds to David and his men, realizing that they’re tired and hungry. One of these generous people is Shobi the son of Nahash, from Ammon. David has recently defeated his rude brother in a war against the Ammonites (II Samuel 10-11). Another of them is Machir from Lo-Debar, who housed Jonathan’s son Mephibosheth before David invited Mephibosheth to the palace (II Samuel 9:5). The other generous man is Barzillai of Gilead.

Meanwhile, in pursuit of David, Absalom is crossing the Jordan accompanied by (in the words of the text) “every man of Israel” (II Samuel 17:24). The head of Absalom’s army is Amasa, a relative of David and Joab.

So what are some lessons that I get out of this chapter? Here are some:

1. I notice that David has friends in territories that were heavily in favor of Saul, to the point that he’s able to set up a base in one of them (Gilead) and get support from its inhabitants. Moreover, messengers of David receive shelter in a Benjamite town that’s inhabited by a bitter Saulite, Shimei, and it’s logical that he lives there because Benjamin was Saul’s tribe. David also receives support from a member of the Ammonite royal family, whose people he had recently defeated.

Why are they helping David? Do they have a political motivation, a desire to suck up to a powerful figure? Maybe, but I doubt it, for, if that were their motive, why wouldn’t they favor Absalom, who had loads of supporters and a clear shot at the throne? I think they were supporting David because of his integrity. Machir may at one point have been a staunch partisan for Saul’s family in its opposition to David, and he gave the Saulite Mephibosheth a place to stay when he was especially vulnerable. But Machir observed David’s integrity and kindness when David welcomed Mephibosheth into the palace, out of his faithfulness to Jonathan. So Machir helped David when David was in dire straits.

Proverbs 16:7 states that, when a man’s ways please the LORD, even his enemies are at peace with him. I’d like to think that walking in integrity can influence even our enemies to take notice and to help us out. Do I regard this as an absolute? No. But there’s always a chance that our enemies can come to respect our integrity, and that motivates me to walk therein.

2. Commentators have pointed out certain psychological factors in this chapter. Ahithophel doesn’t think David’s men will remain loyal to David once he’s attacked, for Ahithophel wasn’t loyal to David. Yet, to Ahithophel’s credit, he at least appeals to something positive in his counsel: the dream that the nation will be at peace. Hushai, however, appeals to the base aspects of Absalom’s personality. He speaks to Absalom’s pride when he paints a picture of all Israel following Absalom into battle–Absalom, not Ahithophel, who proposed to take David down himself. Hushai also encourages Absalom to utterly destroy any city where David may be hiding. Ahithophel projects his own character flaws onto others, but at least he wants peace in Israel. But Hushai speaks to the “destroy, destroy, destroy” impulse within Absalom, which values power above all else.

Ahithophel commits suicide. Some say this is because he realized Absalom would lose for not following his advice. He foresaw that David would have an opportunity to regroup if Absalom didn’t let him attack David quickly, when David was especially vulnerable. Then, David would regain the throne, and what would happen to Ahithophel? According to one view, Ahithophel (like Saul in I Samuel 31:4) wanted to spare himself humiliation at the hands of his foes, so he killed himself.

Others say that Ahithophel felt useless when his advice wasn’t followed. He wrapped his identity in being a wise man whose advice was valued by elites, so Absalom’s rejection of his advice put him into a tailspin. So he killed himself.

Commentators like to make a big deal about Ahithophel being the grandfather of Bathsheba. They think that Ahithophel joined Absalom out of a grudge against David for how he treated his granddaughter and her husband, Uriah. That’s why Ahithophel wanted to take David down himself. The ultimate fruit of his lack of forgiveness was death. Ahithophel’s grievance may have been legitimate, but I wonder if certain characteristics are naturally found together: pride, an obsessive desire for applause, dependance on others for one’s self-worth, an ego that’s easily wounded, a lack of forgiveness. I know that I have all of these characteristics, and, in some sense, they feed off one another.

3. The text is pretty honest about all Israel siding with Absalom. Although Hushai seeks to help David out when he advises Absalom to gather together all Israel, giving David time to escape, not all that Hushai said was wrong. David had loyal people on his side, and Absalom could gather the support of numerous Israelites. At the same time, David had some friends, even in unlikely places. So maybe the situation that we perceive as dire may not be as bad as we think. And, even if it is, God can work miracles on our behalf, even when everyone else appears to be against us. What was the chance that Jonathan and Ahimaaz would find a family in Benjamin that would be willing to help them as they tried to get a message to David, against the opposition of the ever-popular Absalom? It could have been a crap-shoot! But God’s in the business of doing the unlikely.

4. Why did David and his men have to flee? Couldn’t they have defeated any number of men whom Absalom sent against them, even if they were tired and hungry? Didn’t God promise that one man would chase a thousand (Leviticus 26:8; Joshua 23:10)? Couldn’t God blind the men Absalom sent, or send his angels to kill them, as he did to Israel’s enemies in other battles (II Kings 6:18; 19:35)?

The lesson here may be that sometimes God wants us to take practical steps, rather than expecting him to do miracles. He likes for us to do our part. And that was a good thing in this chapter, for David’s men had an opportunity to draw closer together, to think of someone other than themselves, and even to receive the generosity of others, from unlikely sources.

At the same time, I wonder if David’s faith could have been bigger. I’m in no place to judge, mind you, since David handled his flight from Absalom with a lot more faith than I have in the midst of my little problems. But David asked God to turn Ahithophel’s counsel into foolishness, and that’s what God did (II Samuel 15:31). God answered David’s prayers according to his level of expectation, which excluded the dramatically miraculous. Didn’t Jesus reward people according to their faith (Matthew 9:29)?

I’m a little iffy on this, though. Joel Osteen criticizes those who have a “barely get by mentality,” saying we should see God as someone who wants to richly bless us, rather than acting as if God is stingy. Personally, years of disappointments have tended to dull my expectations, such that I approach God with a “barely get by mentality.” But Joel teaches other virtues as well, such as praising God where we are, even if it’s the wilderness, and having faith about the future, even if our breakthrough is not immediate. I aim to do that, rather than expecting God to dump a bunch of goodies onto my lap immediately, on demand.

In any case, those are my thoughts for the day!

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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