The Fatal Fight
2 Samuel 18:1-17
And David numbered the people that were with him, and set captains of thousands, and captains of hundreds over them.…

This chapter is a narrative of that fatal fight wherein Absalom the son, fought with David his father for the kingdom of Israel.


1. David mustered all his forces, which Josephus reckons but four thousand, yet Comestor computes them to be seven thousand (ver. 1), but 'tis probable they were many more from these cogent reasons.

(1) David's army must needs be greatly augmented by the two tribes and half beyond Jordan, who, living far distant from Absalom's court at Jerusalem, had not been corrupted with that usurper's flatteries, nor alienated in their affections to David, whom they knew to be a good king, and made now miserable only by an unnatural rebellious son, therefore out of compassion, as well as out of loyalty, they could not but flock to him in great numbers.

(2) Had they been so small a number as Josephus saith, David needed not to have been so exact in setting captains over them by hundreds, and by thousands, and in dividing them into three battalions, and committing them to the conduct of three generals, as it is expressly recorded in ver. 12, though the number be not, etc.

(3) That expression, "Thou art worth ten thousand of us" (ver. 4) doth imply that this number was but the one-half of the army, beside a fourth part of it left behind to garrison Mahanaim.

(4) 'Tis certain they were such a considerable army as therewith David durst venture to take the field, and rationally commit his righteous cause to the trial of a pitched battle.

(5) David's prospect of his victory, whereof he was so confident, that he giveth charge to his army not to kill Absalom, but only to take him prisoner. Though victory doth not, indeed, depend upon the multitude of armies, yet David knew well he ought not to tempt the Lord, and to expect a conquest by a miracle (which God had not promised), but by the use of probable means.

2. David's offering himself to hazard his royal person with his army in the field-battle (ver. 2.)

3. The armies' refusal of his royal offer (ver. 3), which they did not out of any contempt of the king to cross his kingly power and pleasure, but out of the highest veneration to his royal person, which made them so careful and conscientious for his personal preservation, and they grounded their laudable refusal of his offer upon solid reasons:(1) Thou art the main mark the rebels aim at, and should they know that thou art in the field they would bend all their forces against thee, as (1 Kings 22:31) the Syrians did.

(2) The slaughter of thee (whom only the rebels resolve to ruin) would rejoice them more than the slaughter of ten thousand of us thy subjects, for then have they their end, to set up Absalom in thy throne (2 Samuel 17:2.)(3) The dignity of thy person exalts thee above ten thousand of us, and therefore thy ruin by the rebels would do ten thousand times more damage to the state of Israel.

(4) But if thou be kept alive, though the rebels rout us, yet mayst thou recruit a new and another army, and so disappoint them still from accomplishing their design.

4. David's prudence to the people, and his indulgence to his rebellious son (ver. 4, 5.)(1) From his natural, affectionate disposition, always a fond father to his children, full of clemency, insomuch that be spared Saul his enemy when in his power once and again (1 Samuel 24, and 26.) No wonder, then, if he were for sparing his eldest son.

(2) He doth not call him my son, because that would have aggravated his crime, but Hebr. the boy, or young man, imputing his heinous rebellion to the heat of his youth, which makes men heady, high-minded, and inclinable to evil counsels and practices; but if he might be spared and live till he were older, age and experience would make him wiser.

(3) David was conscious to himself that he was the meritorious and procuring cause of this rebellion, and that Absalom was given up of God to punish David's sins (2 Samuel 12:11, 12), and therefore pitied him.

(4) This pious father would not have his impious son to die in his sin, without repentance, for then soul and body perish for ever.

(5) Peter Martyr makes David a type of Christ,, who prayed for his crucifiers, as David did here, for a rebel son against his father.


1. The place where the battle was fought, 'tis called the wood of Ephraim (ver. 6), though it was certainly beyond Jordan. so not in that tribe, but called so either because it was over against Ephraim, or because of forty thousand Ephramites lost their lives there (Judges 12:5, 6).

2. David's victory: (ver. 7) The battle was soon determined. Absalom's army (consisting of raw, inexperienced men in martial matters) stood not the first shock of David's old soldiers.

3. "The wood devoured more than the sword" (ver. 8.):Behold, here David's policy and Absalom's infatuation to fight in so fatal a place as the wood of Ephraim. which had been so fatal to Oreb and Zeeb in Gideon's time (Judges 7:25 and Judges 8:3), and to the Ephramites also (Judges 12:5, 6.) The routed rabble, running from death, ran to it while they ran into the wood to hide themselves; some fell upon stubs that did beat the breath out of their bodies when they had spent the most of it by their hasty running away; some for haste plunged themselves into pits and ditches which were in the wood (ver. 17), and which either they saw not (being covered with the rubbish of the wood), and so their violent flight hurried them in at unawares. So dreadful a thing it is to provoke the Lord of Hosts, who call arm all things to destroy us, etc.

4. Absalom was hanged by the neck upon the forked bough of an oak in this same wood (ver. 9).

(1) Absalom met David's soldiers, and they, according to David's command, spared him, and gave him an opportunity to escape, but Divine vengeance would not spare him.

(2) The great God directed the branch of the oak, as he rode under it, to catch hold of his long hair that was loosely dishevelled upon his shoulders, and there hangs him up by the neck betwixt heaven, and earth, as one rejected of both, and not fit to live in either of them.

(3) Some do wonder how Absalom came here among the thickets of the wood, where there was no way, especially for riders? Sanctius wittily observes that seeing it is said, "Absalom met David's servants by chance," it seems he rather peeped upon them (fighting in the battle) out of some safe and secret place than fought against them in the front of the fight; this was a chief leader and general likely to conquer. However, this is beyond doubt that when he saw his rabble were routed, a dreadful fright fell upon him, and fleeing, left the common road and rode among the thickets, till caught by his long locks (such as Samson had, Judges 16:13) in a crotch of the oak.

(4) He being held fast there by the hair of his head, "his mule that was under him went away," which might easily happen, because, being in flight, the mule passed along very swiftly. As this mule lurched, his master, so will worldly wealth lurch worldlings at their death, however: and so will false grounded hopes lurch hypocrites (Job 8:13 and Job 11:20), whereas a lively hope (1 Peter 1:3), a daughter of the faith of God's elect (Titus 1:1) rightly grounded on God's promises will not lurch us, no, not at death (Proverbs 14:32), but will do to us what Bucephalus, Alexander's great horse, did to him, which (as Aulus Gellius reporteth), though deeply wounded in both neck and sides in a battle, yet carried his master with great speed out of danger of the enemy, and when he had set his master down in safety then himself fell down and died: So true hope lands us in glory, then expectation dies into fruition, etc. This unnatural wretch was unworthy to be slain by the sword, but he must be hanged on a tree, and so die that cursed death (Deuteronomy 21:23, Galatians 3:13.) His haughty mind resolved to be on high, right or wrong, though he made his own too affectionate father's carcase a stepping-stone whereon to step up to the highest throne; and now is he hanged up on high, anti his ambitious head is in its proper exaltation. He is hanged by that very head wherewith he had been plotting the worst sort of high treason, against so good a father. His hair, wherein he had so much prided himself, God made an halter to hang him with: The instrument of his vainglory became the instrument of his death and ignominy. So perilous it is to pride ourselves in any habiliments either of nature or of fortune, seeing the matter of our pride may be the means of our ruin.

5. The dialogue between General Joab and the soldier that first saw Absalom hanged in an oak (ver. 10, 11, 12, 13.)(1) It seems Absalom did hang some time before he was seen, being in a by-path and blind place, this long and lasting colour was far more intolerable than had he been hanged outright m a halter.

(2) This soldier that first saw him durst not dispatch him, though Absalom might desire him to do it, to put him out of his pain, as Saul had desired his armour-bearer on the like account (1 Samuel 31:4.)(3) Joab, when he told him what he had seen, chides him for not doing it, and if he would still go back and do it he would give him a rich reward (ver. 11). Though Joab was desirous that such a public pest were slain, yet would he rather have it to be done by another hand than by his own, for fear of David's displeasure. Politicians, like the ape, pull nuts out of the fire with the paw of a eat.

(4) The soldier answers (ver. 12) I dare not do it for a thousand shekels, for the king commanded to the contrary (ver. 5), it would be as much as my life is worth, which is of more value to me than all thy thousand shekels, and belts and badges of valour. What mad men are many, that for a few paltry shillings play away their precious souls, which this soldier durst not do.

(5) Should I have done it, saith he, I should have been false to myself (ver. 13) in betraying myself to David's revenge, or should I do it now, and then deny it to save my life by a lie, the king is so wise he would soon discover it, and then inflict a double punishment upon me. not only for my foul fact in doing it, but also for my falsehood in denying it.

(6) And thou thyself (saith he) wouldst set thyself against me, that is, thou wouldst become my adversary, or satan, and wouldst be the first that would accuse me to the king's court, for doing that which thou now wouldst, draw me to do against the king's command. Thus the devil deals with tempted souls, as Joab would have dealt with this soldier, first he tempts them to sin, and then he accuses them for sin, as he is the accuser of the brethren (Revelation 12:10, Job 1:9.)

6. Joab's slaughter of Absalom (vers. 14, 15.)(1) Daring Joab, saith, as his vale or farewell to the soldier.

(2) Behold here the just judgment of God upon this vilely vicious, ambitious Absalom: He will needs be a new king before his time, and now hath here this oak for his throne, his twisted hair about the bough for his crown, three darts in his heart for his sceptre, his proud heart is darted through, and Joab's ten armour-bearers for his royal guard, for defiling David's ten concubines. Thus God writ his sin upon .his punishment, that little breath still left in him these ten did beat out of his body (ver. 15). So here's ten to ten in both cases.

(3) Joab's killing of Absalom contrary to the king's command some condemn, but others justify and commend it; Peter Martyr and Grotius do canvas this controversy pro and con, etc.

(C. Ness.)

Parallel Verses
KJV: And David numbered the people that were with him, and set captains of thousands and captains of hundreds over them.

WEB: David numbered the people who were with him, and set captains of thousands and captains of hundreds over them.

The Battle and its Issue
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