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The Blue Letter Bible

David Guzik :: Study Guide for 2 Samuel 18

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The Defeat of Absalom

A. Absalom’s defeat and death.

1. (2 Samuel 18:1-4) David puts the army under three captains.

And David numbered the people who were with him, and set captains of thousands and captains of hundreds over them. Then David sent out one third of the people under the hand of Joab, one third under the hand of Abishai the son of Zeruiah, Joab’s brother, and one third under the hand of Ittai the Gittite. And the king said to the people, “I also will surely go out with you myself.” But the people answered, “You shall not go out! For if we flee away, they will not care about us; nor if half of us die, will they care about us. But you are worth ten thousand of us now. For you are now more help to us in the city.” Then the king said to them, “Whatever seems best to you I will do.” So the king stood beside the gate, and all the people went out by hundreds and by thousands.

a. David numbered the people who were with him, and set captains: David knew just what to do in organizing his army. He set them into three divisions under the leadership of Joab, Abishai and Ittai the Gittite.

b. I also will surely go out with you: David knew that the commander belonged out in the battle. He didn’t want to repeat his previous mistake of not going to battle when he should have (2 Samuel 11:1).

c. You shall not go out: The people surrounding David would not allow him to go out to battle with the rest of his army. There were three reasons why they insisted on this:

  • His life was more valuable (you are worth ten thousand of us).
  • He could bring reserves if needed (you are now more help to us in the city).
  • They understood that it would be hard for David to fight against his own son Absalom.

d. Whatever seems best to you I will do: David was not stubborn. He knew how to submit to the good advice of others. He did not give up leadership; he practiced good leadership by listening to the wise advice of the people around him.

e. So the king stood beside the gate, and all the people went out by hundreds and by thousands: They were willing to take on sacrifice and danger for the benefit of their king. Their devotion to David is an example of how the believer should be devoted to the King of Kings, Jesus Christ.

2. (2 Samuel 18:5) David’s command to the three captains.

Now the king had commanded Joab, Abishai, and Ittai, saying, “Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.” And all the people heard when the king gave all the captains orders concerning Absalom.

a. Now the king had commanded: David wanted it clearly known that Absalom was to be captured alive and should not be mistreated in any way.

b. All the people heard: David gave this commandment in the presence of all the people so that the captains would feel greater pressure to do what David commanded.

3. (2 Samuel 18:6-8) Absalom’s armies are defeated.

So the people went out into the field of battle against Israel. And the battle was in the woods of Ephraim. The people of Israel were overthrown there before the servants of David, and a great slaughter of twenty thousand took place there that day. For the battle there was scattered over the face of the whole countryside, and the woods devoured more people that day than the sword devoured.

a. So the people went out into the field of battle against Israel: Those loyal to David fought against Israel, because Israel was not loyal to David. Israel was seduced by Absalom’s charisma and power.

b. The people of Israel were overthrown there before the servants of David: The experienced leadership of David and his captains was probably the main reason for their overwhelming victory.

i. “David had arranged that the battle should take place in this terrain, where the experience and courage of each individual soldier counted more than sheer numbers.” (Baldwin)

c. The woods devoured more people that day than the sword devoured: This phrase implies that God fought for David in unusual ways. Soldiers loyal to Absalom seemed to be “swallowed up” by the woods.

i. “Perishing not only by the sword, but among the thick oaks and tangled briers of the wood, which concealed fearful precipices and great caverns, into which the rebels plunged in their wild fright when the rout set in.” (Spurgeon)

ii. “It is generally supposed that, when the army was broken, the betook themselves to the wood, fell into pits, swamps, and so forth, and being entangled, were hewn down by David’s men; but the Chaldee, Syriac, and Arabic, state that they were devoured by wild beasts in the wood.” (Clarke)

4. (2 Samuel 18:9-17) Joab kills Absalom.

Then Absalom met the servants of David. Absalom rode on a mule. The mule went under the thick boughs of a great terebinth tree, and his head caught in the terebinth; so he was left hanging between heaven and earth. And the mule which was under him went on. Now a certain man saw it and told Joab, and said, “I just saw Absalom hanging in a terebinth tree!” So Joab said to the man who told him, “You just saw him! And why did you not strike him there to the ground? I would have given you ten shekels of silver and a belt.” But the man said to Joab, “Though I were to receive a thousand shekels of silver in my hand, I would not raise my hand against the king’s son. For in our hearing the king commanded you and Abishai and Ittai, saying, ‘Beware lest anyone touch the young man Absalom!’ Otherwise I would have dealt falsely against my own life. For there is nothing hidden from the king, and you yourself would have set yourself against me.” Then Joab said, “I cannot linger with you.” And he took three spears in his hand and thrust them through Absalom’s heart, while he was still alive in the midst of the terebinth tree. And ten young men who bore Joab’s armor surrounded Absalom, and struck and killed him. So Joab blew the trumpet, and the people returned from pursuing Israel. For Joab held back the people. And they took Absalom and cast him into a large pit in the woods, and laid a very large heap of stones over him. Then all Israel fled, everyone to his tent.

a. Absalom rode on a mule: Absalom’s vanity put him in this battle, against the wise counsel of Ahithophel (2 Samuel 17:1-14). Absalom didn’t seem like a great general, riding a mule into battle.

b. His head caught in the terbinth; so he was left hanging between heaven and earth: Absalom was noted for his good looks and his luxurious hair (2 Samuel 14:25-26). What was his glory was now his curse — Absalom was literally caught by his own hair in the thick trees of the forest.

i. Adam Clarke is careful to point out that the text does not say that Absalom was caught by his hair — we assume that. It may be that he was caught by his neck. Nevertheless, the image remains of Absalom hanging in the tree: “So he hung between heaven and earth, as rejected of both.” (Trapp)

ii. “Absalom’s end was beset with terrors. When he was caught in the branches of the oak-tree, he was about to sever his hair with a sword stroke, but suddenly he saw hell yawning beneath him, and he preferred to hang in the tree to throwing himself into the abyss alive. Absalom’s crime was, indeed, of a nature to deserve the supreme torture, for which reason he is one of the few Jews who have no portion in the world to come.” (Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews)

c. I just saw Absalom hanging in a terebinth tree: When this was reported to Joab, the general wondered why the man did not immediately kill Absalom. The man replied that he did not do it out of obedience and faithfulness to David.

i. Joab insisted he would give both money and a promotion for the one who killed Absalom (I would have given you ten shekels of silver and a belt). Yet the man would not do it out of loyalty to David.

ii. “The military belt was the chief ornament of a soldier, and was highly prized in all ancient nations; it was also a rich present from one chieftain to another.” (Clarke)

d. He took three spears in his hand and thrust them through Absalom’s heart: Joab didn’t hesitate to strike Absalom, though he knew David commanded him not to. Joab was convinced that it was in David’s best interest and in Israel’s best interest to show Absalom justice, not mercy.

i. Absalom only received what he deserved. He was a murderer, a traitor, and a rapist. Joab knew that David was generally indulgent towards his children and would never punish Absalom. “He had seen David’s action toward his sons characterized by lack of discipline. In the highest interests of the kingdom his hand was raised to slay Absalom.” (Morgan)

ii. We might say that Joab was correct but not right. He was correct in understanding that it was better for David and for Israel that Absalom was dead. He was not right in disobeying King David, the God-appointed authority over him. By David’s dealings with King Saul, we see that God can deal with those in authority, and we don’t need to disobey them unless commanded to by Scripture or a clear conscience.

iii. “Long ago he should have died by the hand of justice; and now all his crimes are visited on him in his last act of rebellion. Yet, in the present circumstances, Joab’s act was base and disloyal, and a cowardly murder.” (Clarke)

iv. At the same time, there is an ironic twist in that the rebel Absalom had his life taken in a rebellious act by Joab. Absalom got what he deserved and Joab would be held accountable for what he did to Absalom, both by God and eventually by David (1 Kings 2:5-6).

e. Ten young men who bore Joab’s armor surrounded Absalom, and struck and killed him: Absalom was still not dead after three spears because heart is a general reference to the middle of the body instead of the specific internal organ.

i. “As he had defiled his father’s ten concubines, so by these ten youngsters he hath that little breath that was left in him beaten out of his body.” (Trapp)

f. They took Absalom and cast him into a large pit in the woods, and laid a very large heap of stones over him: Joab wanted to make sure that Absalom’s body was not memorialized as an inspiration to other followers or future rebels.

g. All Israel fled, everyone to his tent: This means Absalom’s army was in full retreat. David’s forces completely carried the day.

5. (2 Samuel 18:18) Absalom’s pillar.

Now Absalom in his lifetime had taken and set up a pillar for himself, which is in the King’s Valley. For he said, “I have no son to keep my name in remembrance.” He called the pillar after his own name. And to this day it is called Absalom’s Monument.

a. Absalom in his lifetime had taken and set up a pillar for himself: This is what we would expect from a self-centered, self-promoting man like Absalom. Joab made sure that Absalom did not have a memorial in death, but Absalom made himself a memorial in life.

b. I have no son to keep my name in remembrance: Absalom did have three sons (2 Samuel 14:27). From this statement we surmise that they died before their father did.

B. David hears of Absalom’s death.

1. (2 Samuel 18:19-27) Two runners are sent to tell David the outcome of the battle.

Then Ahimaaz the son of Zadok said, “Let me run now and take the news to the king, how the LORD has avenged him of his enemies.” And Joab said to him, “You shall not take the news this day, for you shall take the news another day. But today you shall take no news, because the king’s son is dead.” Then Joab said to the Cushite, “Go, tell the king what you have seen.” So the Cushite bowed himself to Joab and ran. And Ahimaaz the son of Zadok said again to Joab, “But whatever happens, please let me also run after the Cushite.” So Joab said, “Why will you run, my son, since you have no news ready?” “But whatever happens,” he said, “let me run.” So he said to him, “Run.” Then Ahimaaz ran by way of the plain, and outran the Cushite. Now David was sitting between the two gates. And the watchman went up to the roof over the gate, to the wall, lifted his eyes and looked, and there was a man, running alone. Then the watchman cried out and told the king. And the king said, “If he is alone, there is news in his mouth.” And he came rapidly and drew near. Then the watchman saw another man running, and the watchman called to the gatekeeper and said, “There is another man, running alone!” And the king said, “He also brings news.” So the watchman said, “I think the running of the first is like the running of Ahimaaz the son of Zadok.” And the king said, “He is a good man, and comes with good news.”

a. You shall not take the news this day: Ahimaaz wanted to take David the news of Israel’s victory and Absalom’s death. But Joab wanted to spare Ahimaaz the son of Zadok the burden of being the messenger of bad news.

b. Ahimaaz ran by way of the plain, and outran the Cushite: Ahimaaz was faster than the other runner. Since the messenger was someone David knew (Ahimaaz), he assumed it was good news (He is a good man, and comes with good news).

2. (2 Samuel 18:28-32) David learns of Absalom’s death from the Cushite, who arrives after Ahimaaz.

And Ahimaaz called out and said to the king, “All is well!” Then he bowed down with his face to the earth before the king, and said, “Blessed be the LORD your God, who has delivered up the men who raised their hand against my lord the king!” The king said, “Is the young man Absalom safe?” Ahimaaz answered, “When Joab sent the king’s servant and me your servant, I saw a great tumult, but I did not know what it was about.” And the king said, “Turn aside and stand here.” So he turned aside and stood still. Just then the Cushite came, and the Cushite said, “There is good news, my lord the king! For the LORD has avenged you this day of all those who rose against you.” And the king said to the Cushite, “Is the young man Absalom safe?” So the Cushite answered, “May the enemies of my lord the king, and all who rise against you to do harm, be like that young man!”

a. Is the young man Absalom safe: This was David’s only concern. He should have been more concerned for Israel as a nation than for his traitor son. At the same time, David’s question is an example of the great bond of love between parent and child, and between God our Father and His children.

i. “He might have said, ‘Is the young man Absalom dead? For if he is out of the way there will be peace to my realm, and rest to my troubled life.’ But no, he is a father, and he must love his own offspring. It is a father that speaks, and a father’s love can survive the enmity of a son.” (Spurgeon)

ii. “Our children may plunge into the worst of sins, but they are our children still. They may scoff at our God; they may tear our heart to pieces with their wickedness; we cannot take complacency in them, but at the same time we cannot unchild them, nor erase their image from our hearts.” (Spurgeon)

b. I saw a great tumult, but I did not know what it was about: Compared to the Cushite, Ahimaaz was a better runner but a worse messenger because he didn’t know his message. A message can be delivered beautifully, but the messenger’s first responsibility is to get the message correct.

c. May the enemies of my lord the king, and all who rise against you to do harm, be like that young man: Without saying it directly, the Cushite told David that Absalom was dead.

3. (2 Samuel 18:33) David’s great mourning.

Then the king was deeply moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept. And as he went, he said thus: “O my son Absalom — my son, my son Absalom — if only I had died in your place! O Absalom my son, my son!”

a. The king was deeply moved: The Hebrew idea of deeply moved implies a violent trembling of the body. David felt completely undone at hearing the news of Absalom’s death.

i. In part, David was so deeply moved because he knew that he supplied the soil this tragedy grew from.

  • The soil came from David’s indulgent parenting.
  • The soil came from David’s sin with Bathsheba and murder of Uriah, after which God promised David: The sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised Me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife... I will raise up adversity against you from your own house (2 Samuel 12:10-11).
  • The soil came from David’s own sinful indulgence of his passions and smaller rebellions against God, which sins and weaknesses were magnified in his sons.

ii. David’s sorrow shows us that it isn’t enough that parents train their children to be godly; they must first train themselves in godliness. “We cannot stand in the presence of that suffering without learning the solemn lesions of parental responsibility it has to teach, not merely in training our children, but in that earlier training of ourselves for their sakes.” (Morgan)

b. O my son Absalom; my son, my son Absalom: David mourned so much for Absalom because he really was his son. David saw his sins, his weaknesses, his rebellion exaggerated in Absalom.

i. “Everything in the story leads up to, and culminates in, this wail of anguish over his dead boy... Five times he repeated the words, ‘my son.’” (Morgan)

ii. “This surely had a deeper note in it than that of the merely half-conscious repetition of words occasioned by personal grief. The father recognized how much he was responsible for the son. It is as though he had said: He is indeed my son, his weaknesses are my weaknesses, his passions are my passions, his sins are my sins.” (Morgan)

c. If only I had died in your place: David wanted to die in the place of his rebellious son. What David could not do God did by dying in the place of rebellious sinners.

i. “So in the cry of David, we actually hear the cry of God, for His lost children. His desire to restore, His desire to forgive.” (Smith)

©2018 David Guzik — No distribution beyond personal use without permission


  1. Baldwin, Joyce G. "1 and 2 Samuel: An Introduction and Commentary" Volume 8 (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries) (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1988)
  2. Clarke, Adam "Clarke's Commentary: The Holy Bible Containing the Old and New Testaments with a Commentary and Critical Notes" Volume 2 (Joshua-Esther) (New York: Eaton and Mains, 1827)
  3. Ginzberg, Louis "The Legends of the Jews" Volumes 1-7 (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1968)
  4. Morgan, G. Campbell "An Exposition of the Whole Bible" (Old Tappan, New Jersey: Revell, 1959)
  5. Smith, R. Payne "2 Samuel: The Pulpit Commentary" Volume 4 (Ruth-2 Samuel) (McLean, Virginia: MacDonald Publishing, 1985)
  6. Spurgeon, Charles Haddon "The New Park Street Pulpit" Volumes 1-6 and "The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit" Volumes 7-63 (Pasadena, Texas: Pilgrim Publications, 1990)
  7. Trapp, John "A Commentary on the Old and New Testaments" Volume 1 (Genesis to 2 Chronicles) (Eureka, California: Tanski Publications, 1997)

Updated: August 2022

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