2 Samuel 15:13–37: David Flees
I won’t recap all of the recent story about Absalom, his sister Tamar, and his brother Amnon, but this passage precedes directly on from verses 1–12 in which Absalom began the process of declaring himself king. I mentioned that I wasn’t clear, by the end of that passage, whether Absalom had actually declared himself king or was just preparing for it, but either way, the word is getting around, because this passage starts thusly:
A messenger came and told David, “The hearts of the people of Israel are with Absalom.”
Then David said to all his officials who were with him in Jerusalem, “Come! We must flee, or none of us will escape from Absalom. We must leave immediately, or he will move quickly to overtake us and bring ruin on us and put the city to the sword.”
The king’s officials answered him, “Your servants are ready to do whatever our lord the king chooses.”
So David and his household flee the city, leaving behind only ten concubines to take care of the palace. (Foreshadowing!) When they get to the edge of the city David halts and lets his men march past him on the way out, in an act that seems like some kind of a ritual, but I don’t know what it means (and my usual study bible didn’t explain). Among the men marching past are 600 “Gittites,” who seem to be some kind of foreigners, though I’m not sure what their relationship is to David. But the text tells us that David suggests to their leader that they stay and serve Absalom; why wander around with David, when David doesn’t even know where he’s going at this point? The king of the Gittites, however, sticks with David.
We are told in verse 23 that the “whole countryside” is weeping aloud as David’s people march by, so it’s not true that the hearts of all of the Israelites are with Absalom. It could be that David jumped the gun in fleeing, or it could be that the “whole countryside” is a figure of speech but it’s only certain people, or a combination of both, but there are people who either still recognize David as the true king, or are mourning the loss of David as their king.
As David’s people have been passing out of the city the Levites have also been there with the Ark, and offering sacrifices, including two priests named Zadok and Abiathar, and their sons Ahimaaz and Jonathan. However, once everyone has left David instructs them to bring the Ark back into the city:
Then the king said to Zadok, “Take the ark of God back into the city. If I find favor in the LORD’s eyes, he will bring me back and let me see it and his dwelling place again. But if he says, ‘I am not pleased with you,’ then I am ready; let him do to me whatever seems good to him.” (verses 25–26)
Whatever else we might say about David, he is a man after God’s own heart, and he understands true repentance. He’s putting himself in God’s hands: God will bring David back to the city again if He wants to, and if He doesn’t He won’t.
Then there’s a section I don’t understand, and part of the reason I don’t understand is that the NIV and ESV translate it very differently. Here’s a few verses from the NIV, with some words highlighted:
The king also said to Zadok the priest, “Do you understand? Go back to the city with my blessing. Take your son Ahimaaz with you, and also Abiathar’s son Jonathan. You and Abiathar return with your two sons. I will wait at the fords in the wilderness until word comes from you to inform me.” So Zadok and Abiathar took the ark of God back to Jerusalem and stayed there. (verses 27–29, emphasis added)
And here’s those same verses from the ESV, also with my own highlights:
The king also said to Zadok the priest, “Are you not a seer? Go back to the city in peace, with your two sons, Ahimaaz your son, and Jonathan the son of Abiathar. See, I will wait at the fords of the wilderness until word comes from you to inform me.” So Zadok and Abiathar carried the ark of God back to Jerusalem, and they remained there. (verses 27–29, emphasis added)
In the NIV translation it seems like David is trying to subtly get a message across to Zadok—like he’s ostensibly sending Zadok back into the city for the reasons stated, but there’s also an underlying reason David is doing it—whereas in the ESV translation it seems like David is saying that Zadok is honoured enough that he won’t have trouble holding his post as a priest. (Otherwise, one might worry about Absalom slaughtering anyone who had previously been part of David’s household.) I checked the KJV and NKJV translations as well, and they’re more aligned with the ESV wording, “are you not a seer?”
Whatever the meaning of those verses, David is definitely open to trying to get an edge over Absalom, however. Word is brought to David that a man named Ahithophel is one of Absalom’s co-conspirators, which seems to greatly worry him. In verse 31, as soon as he hears the news, David prays that the LORD would turn Ahithophel’s counsel “into foolishness,” and then he comes across a man named Hushai, who is loyal to David and wants to come with him, but David hatches a plan: he’ll send Hushai back to Absalom, where Hushai will pretend to be loyal to Absalom, then he can frustrate Ahithophel’s advice. In this way David will neutralize the wise counsel of Ahithophel.
In fact, not only will David be able to counteract Ahithophel’s counsel, but he’ll also have a spy in Absalom’s inner circle: Hushai will be able to report details to the priests Zadok and Abiathar, whose sons Ahimaaz and Jonathan can report back to David.
In this passage David exhibits an interesting mix of:
- Trust in the LORD;
- Confidence that he really is the legitimate king of Israel rather than Absalom;
- But also willingness to submit to the LORD’s will if He decides to make Absalom king);
- The moral fortitude to not try to use the Ark as a means of holding onto power; but also
- A shrewdness to thwart Absalom’s wise counsel and to insert spies into Absalom’s inner circle.
In other words, his response is complex.
The Lead-Up to This Passage
I started off the post by saying that I wasn’t going to recap all of the backstory around Absalom (since I’ve been doing so over and over), but it is relevant to this passage. A theme that kept occuring to me in the previous passages was David’s poor parenting, and how it has led to some problems and/or exacerbated existing problems, and I think that trend has continued. The first few verses in this passage seem to escalate very quickly, to my eye: the words are barely out of the messenger’s mouth that “the hearts of the people are with Absalom,” and David is immediately telling people that they need to flee, now.
I don’t want to put too much weight on this, this text might be a summary of a longer conversation in which David came to his decision, but it feels like David isn’t surprised by Absalom’s actions at all. Like he was already primed for something like this to happen. Which, if true, means that David didn’t trust Absalom, thought his son would likely be attempting something like this, but still didn’t take steps to stop it. When it comes to disciplining his children—especially his sons—David seems to have a weak spot.
The Power of Wisdom
Coincidentally1, the night before I wrote this post I was listening to a sermon out of the book of Proverbs on the topic of wisdom, and this example of Ahithophel being a wise counselor was raised! A man who was so wise that it caused David a lot of worry to hear that Ahithophel was on his opponent’s side. More on this in a future passage…
That is, providentially. 🙂 ↩︎