THE ARMY of Absalom and the smaller army of David had rushed together in battle on the high plains east of the Jordan River. (II Samuel 18:1-6.) Absalom, mounted on a mule, found himself surrounded by his dead and dying men, but he hadn't even been attacked. Then Absalom became aware that his father's well-trained soldiers, even though smaller in number than those of their Israelite enemies, had begun to rout Absalom's quickly mobilized and ill-trained army. His men were running for their lives in all directions, furiously pursued by David's experienced troops.
There was nothing for the shocked Absalom to do but follow his men. Most of them tried to escape in a nearby forest known as the Wood of Ephraim, though it wasn't in the territory of Ephraim. This forest may have been the spot where Jehpthah's army had defeated the army of Ephraim many years previously. (Judges 12:1-6.) Riding under an oak tree with low-spreading boughs, Absalom was either caught by the head in a forked branch or got his hair tangled in the branches. The original Hebrew in this instance is not specific. The mule raced on, leaving its rider dangling with his feet off the ground. He struggled to release himself, but he was only half-conscious because of the blow to his head when caught in the crotch of the branch. He couldn't force or wriggle himself loose. (II Samuel 18:6-9.) One of David's men saw Absalom hanging from the oak limb, and reported it to Joab, who demanded to know why he hadn't walked up to the helpless man and killed him. "If you had brought him to me dead, I would have given you a fancy armor belt and ten pieces of silver," Joab stated. "But everyone knows that David wants his son brought back unharmed," the man countered. "I wouldn't have done anything to Absalom for a thousand pieces of silver. Why should you want me to go against the king's wishes?" "I don't have time to discuss the matter," Joab said impatiently. "Just show me where Absalom is." Joab was more concerned about David's safety and the unity of the nation than he was about David's love for his rebellious son. Joab was also a murderer at heart. When Joab and ten of his men found David's son still hanging by his head from a tree limb, Absalom was barely moving. Contrary to David's order, Joab threw three heavy, metal darts into Absalom's chest. Joab's ten men then yanked him down from the tree and made certain, by use of their swords, that his life was ended. (II Samuel 18:10-15.) Absalom might have died even though Joab and his ten men hadn't attacked him. But Joab had disobeyed David. Absalom's body was thrown into a pit in the forest and covered with a heap of stones. Fairly close to Jerusalem Absalom had already caused a monument to be erected to his memory in the event he didn't have a son to carry on his name. Instead of being buried there, he ended up in a hole in the Wood of Ephraim. Joab instructed the trumpeters to sound a signal that the battle was over and that this needless bloodshed should be stopped. About twenty thousand men died that day. Almost all of them were from Absalom's army. More than half that number lost their lives by trying to escape into the forest, where they died from injuries, by fatigue, from being trapped by their pursuers and even by the attacks of wild beasts. (II Samuel 18: 16-18.) Ahimaaz, son of Zadok the priest and one of the two young men who had taken a message from Jerusalem to David days previously, was present at the battle site. Being an athletic young man with a desire to be helpful, he hoped that he could be the one to run with the news of battle back to David. He was so anxious for this opportunity that he boldly suggested it to Joab.
Eager to Report Violence
"This isn't a very good time for you to be a messenger," is a happier one for the king. Surely you wouldn't want to be the one to tell him that his son is dead." Ahimaaz was disappointed, especially after Joab sent a young Ethiopian runner off for Mahanaim to tell David that the battle had been won. Joab intended that the runner should give only news of the battle's outcome, but without telling anything about Absalom. "Let me be a second runner," Ahimaaz suggested to Joab. "Even though I arrive later, I would very much like the opportunity to take news to the king." "I don't understand you," Joab frowned. "There would be no reward coming to you for bringing news that somebody else already has brought. But go ahead and run if it means so much to you." Ahimaaz eagerly set off in pursuit of the Ethiopian. At a certain point he turned off on a different route, through level country, which he knew would help him reach Mahanaim sooner, even though the distance was greater. By the time he wearily neared the city, the other runner was behind him. A watchman on the wall saw Ahimaaz approaching and called down to David, who was waiting in a high enclosure near the main gate, to tell him that there was a man running toward the city. (II Samuel 18:19-24.) "If he is alone, then probably he is bringing a message," David observed concernedly. "Now I see another man running behind him," the watchman called down. "Another runner could be bringing even more news," David said. By that time the watchman recognized Ahimaaz by the way he ran. He told David, who was certain that the priest's son would be bringing only a good report. (II Samuel 18:25-27.) "I have good news!" Ahimaaz breathlessly called out as he neared the gate. He looked up to see the king, and crouched down with his forehead to the ground in a gesture of respect. He was happy that David was there to personally receive his message. "Today the great God has saved you from your enemies!" Ahimaaz excitedly shouted up to the king. "Your men have won the battle!" "I am thankful to God," David answered. "You say my men have won the battle, but if my son's army has been defeated, what has become of my son?" "When Joab sent me, there was much excitement about some matter," Ahimaaz carefully replied. "I started out before I could learn what it was all about." "Stay here while I talk to the other messenger who is coming behind you," David told Ahimaaz. "Probably he can tell me more" (II Samuel 18:28-30.) David anxiously awaited the next message. As the tired Ethiopian neared the gate he shouted between gasps that he had been sent to tell the king that God had destroyed David's enemies by giving a complete victory to his army. "Is my son Absalom safe?" David anxiously called down to the messenger. "May all your enemies die as your son did," the Ethiopian blurted out, not realizing how blunt his answer was to the king.
The Criminal Pitied
Shocked and sick at heart, David went to his living quarters. On the way he couldn't help weeping, muttering Absalom's name repeatedly, and wishing aloud that he could have died in Absalom's stead. So great was David's affection for his son that he seemed to forget all the evil and even murderous intentions Absalom had harbored toward him. (II Samuel 18:31-33.) A report rapidly spread to David's army that the king was almost ill with grief because of Absalom's death. From there the news was carried to other areas, soon plunging much of the nation into a state of mourning, whereas people who were faithful to the king should have been pleased and happy because David's army had won. But King David's excessive grief for Absalom and his seeming lack of concern of his faithful subjects quickly gave them a feeling of despair. They felt that their devotion to David had been rejected. Instead of returning to Mahanaim with triumphant jubilance, the men of David's army silently skulked back as though they had committed some kind of crime. Soon they began to feel resentful. (II Samuel 19:1-4.) The gloomy attitude of David in spite of his offense to so many people angered Joab. Without any effort to be respectful to his superior, Joab rudely told David what he thought. "Your attitude has made the people feel dejected," Joab declared in a tone of irritation. "Instead of being thankful to your army for saving your life and the lives of your family, you have caused the men to feel ashamed. You act as though you care more for your enemies than you do for your friends. Would it have pleased you if Absalom had lived and your troops would have died? Only you can bring your subjects out of the gloom that is over the nation. It's up to you to come out of your solitude and go out and show your good will and gratitude. If you don't, your army and your followers will forsake you before this night is over, and you'll run into far more trouble than you've had all your life!" In spite of this emphatic, even insolent talk, David didn't command Joab to cease speaking, although the king thought much less of his army commander from then on. He realized that the blunt Joab was right about showing gratitude to the army and his friends. Shortly David appeared in public to greet the people and dispel their gloom with cheerful words of thanks and friendliness. Within a few days many Israelites were in a more pleasant mood. (II Samuel 19:5-8.) At the same time there was growing unrest in many parts of the land. The civil war had all but torn the nation apart. There were still many who wished that Absalom had become king. Others were displeased because David didn't return to Jerusalem after the victory over Absalom's military forces. (II Samuel 19:9-10.) But the people of the tribe of Judah, who made up a large part of Absalom's following, weren't anxious for David to return. Because Jerusalem was at the border of the territory of Judah, the attitude of the people there naturally gave David a reason for concern. "Remind the leaders of Judah that I am of their tribe and that I am looking to them for their support and confidence," David declared in a message to Zadok and Abiather, the priests at Jerusalem. "Tell Amasa that I am going to remove Joab as commander of my army, and that I wish to replace him with Amasa, the commander of my son's defeated army."
Welcome to Dissension
When news of this intended change went throughout Judah, the people were pleased because Amasa was also of the tribe of Judah and Joab was disliked by so many in that tribe. David was aware of that. His strategy was wise for more than one reason. Amasa went through Judah persuading the tribal elders to support King David. Soon the inhabitants of Judah began to be friendly toward David. They even sent a delegation of leaders to him to inform him that he was welcome back to Jerusalem as king of the nation. When the people of that tribe heard that David was about to leave Mahanaim, thousands of them swarmed down to Gilgal, and from there eastward to the Jordan River. (II Samuel 19:11-15.) By the time David, his family and many of his followers appeared on the east side of the Jordan, a special ferry had been built for bringing the king across the river. As David stepped off on the west bank, a roar of welcome went up from the throats of the great crowd. Among the first to come to greet David was Shimei, the Benjamite who had angrily thrown stones at David when the king was previously fleeing from Jerusalem. With him were a thousand other Benjamites to help Shimei impress King David. All of them bowed toward. David as he came across the river. Ahead of them Shimei threw himself on the ground before the king. "I am the one who cursed you and threw stones at you when you were escaping from Absalom," Shimei despairingly confessed. "Because I know how wrong I was at the time, I was the first here today so that I might ask you to forgive me and forget my foolish and disrespectful conduct." (II Samuel 19:16-20.) There was an awkward silence while David gazed at the prostrate man. Abishai, Joab's brother, gave a signal to some of his soldiers, who strode forward and roughly jerked Shimei to his feet. "Any man who curses our leader, who was chosen by God, deserves only death!" Abishai growled. "Is that not right, my king?" "As king of Israel, it is my responsibility to make such decisions," David spoke out with subdued anger. "I don't understand why you should choose to make them for me, particularly when I don't approve of them, and I am not in favor of this man or any other man being put to death on this day!" His face red with embarrassment, Abishai barked at his men to release Shimei, who fell trembling to the ground again. "I shall pardon the things you regret doing to me," David told the Benjamite. "You shall not die. Return to your home in peace." (II Samuel 19:21-23.) As the procession started toward the west, David noticed the familiar figure of Mephibosheth, Saul's crippled grandson. When David had been on his way out of Jerusalem because of Absalom threatening to take the city, Mephibosheth's servant, Ziba, had told the king that his master had expected to become king. David was so disappointed by Mephibosheth's attitude that he had decreed that Ziba should take over Mephibosheth's possessions. (II Samuel 16:1-4.) "I regretted to hear from Ziba that you were hopeful of becoming king when I left Jerusalem," David told Mephibosheth. "I had thought you to be loyal to me." (II Samuel 19:24-25.) "I never had the idea of becoming king, and I have always been loyal to you," Mephibosheth declared staunchly. "Ziba lied to you about me. Because of that, I lost everything I owned. But why should I cry about that when you have already done so much for my family?" David could tell that the man was speaking the truth. He looked at Ziba, who was standing uncomfortably off to one side, trying to hide his expression of guilt. "I told you before that you could have your master's possessions," David said to Ziba. "Now that I find that you didn't tell me the truth, I want you to give Mephibosheth's property back to him and divide the produce of the land as before." "He is welcome to all of it," Mephibosheth said. "All that matters to me now is that my king is returning to his home to rule." (II Samuel 19:26-30.) Barzillai, the Manassite who had been David's foremost host in Mahanaim, also accompanied King David across the Jordan. David invited Barzillai to accompany him to Jerusalem so the king could honor him for all he had done for David at Mahanaim. Being an aged man, Barzillai insisted upon returning home. But he allowed his son Chimham to go with King David. (II Samuel 19:31-40; I Kings 2:7.) Apparently King David gave this young man a share of his own family's inheritance at Bethlehem. (Jeremiah 41:17.)
After parting with Barzillai and the people of Mahanaim who had become close friends to him, David later went on to Gilgal and from there to Jerusalem. But while this trip was taking place, the leaders of the various tribes began to argue about the manner in which the king was conducted back to the capital. There was much ill will among the other tribes because the people of Judah had taken over the ceremonies that had to do with David's return. Feeling ran higher and higher in this matter. (II Samuel 19:41-43.) This mounting envy was the start of strife that would promptly divide the nation of Israel. A Benjamite named Sheba, a scheming and ambitious man of much influence and means, realized that the time could be right, even during David's triumphant return to Jerusalem, for ten of the tribes to form an army with which Judah could be controlled or even overpowered. "We don't have enough voice in the government in Judah," Sheba declared to the people. "We should band together to build our own power!" Men from every tribe except Judah flocked to Sheba. But the tribe of Judah escorted David safely to Jerusalem. (II Samuel 20:1-2.) When David found out that an army was being recruited to be used against Judah, he told Amasa, his new army commander, to assemble an army within three days. In his desire to be more obedient, David put away the ten concubines he had left to take care of his home, and never had anything more to do with them than to see that they were cared for the rest of their lives. (II Samuel 20:3-4.) Amasa failed to get a fighting force together in three days. David turned to Abishai, Joab's brother and an experienced military leader, and ordered him to pursue Sheba with the troops who were with David in Jerusalem. Abishai started northward. With Abishai was his brother Joab, ambitious to regain command of the army.