2 Samuel 16:15–17:23: The Advice of Ahithophel and Hushai
At this point David has fled Jerusalem because his son Absalom is claiming kingship, and, for whatever reason, David feels he either can’t or won’t stand up to his son. Then, a couple of passages ago in 15:13–37, there was brief mention of a man named Ahithophel who is serving as Absalom’s advisor; a man who is so wise that David is nervous about him advising his enemy. So David has sent a name named Hushai back to Absalom, partially to serve as a spy but also to specifically negate any advice Ahithophel gives Absalom.
In this passage Hushai reaches Jerusalem and greets Absalom as king. But Absalom asks a very pertinent question:
Absalom said to Hushai, “So this is the love you show your friend? If he’s your friend, why didn’t you go with him?” (16:17)
But Hushai answers that he chooses to serve the one who was chosen by the LORD and chosen by the people. And also, really, who should he serve? Shouldn’t he serve the son? Therefore, just as he served the father, he’ll now serve the son.
Absalom doesn’t seem to think any more deeply about it than that. We’re next told that he turns to Ahithophel to ask what he should do next, and the advice Ahithophel gives is… strange, to modern ears:
Ahithophel answered, “Sleep with your father’s concubines whom he left to take care of the palace. Then all Israel will hear that you have made yourself obnoxious to your father, and the hands of everyone with you will be more resolute.” So they pitched a tent for Absalom on the roof, and he slept with his father’s concubines in the sight of all Israel. (16:21–22)
And it’s no wonder that Absalom takes this advice, given verse 16:23:
Now in those days the advice Ahithophel gave was like that of one who inquires of God. That was how both David and Absalom regarded all of Ahithophel’s advice.
And so, as we go into Chapter 17, it’s time for Hushai to start trying to undercut that advice. When Ahithophel instructs Absalom what he should do next:
Ahithophel said to Absalom, “I would choose twelve thousand men and set out tonight in pursuit of David. I would attack him while he is weary and weak. I would strike him with terror, and then all the people with him will flee. I would strike down only the king and bring all the people back to you. The death of the man you seek will mean the return of all; all the people will be unharmed.” (17:1–3)
Being king isn’t all parades and public debauchery; if Absalom wants to cement his kingship he needs to go after David right now, while he’s still weak and in confusion, and strike a decisive blow. And it sounds like a good idea to Absalom and all of his elders as well.
But… he also decides to bring in Hushai for a second opinion, and unsurprisingly (to the reader), Hushai disagrees. He says that Ahithophel’s advice, in this case, isn’t good, and lays out a number of reasons why:
- David and his men are fierce fighters.
- They’re also experienced. Right at this very moment they could be hiding in a cave or something, just waiting for Absalom’s men to come by, so that they can attack.
- If David does attack first, everyone’s going to be talking about how David slaughtered Absalom’s men, and all of Absalom’s men will melt in fear1.
So, instead, Hushai recommends that Absalom wait until he can gather more men, so that he can fight a more decisive battle against David.
Absalom decides that Hushai’s advice is better, and the author of Samuel tells us why: “For the LORD had determined to frustrate the good advice of Ahithophel in order to bring disaster on Absalom” (verse 17:14).
We might recall from 15:13–37 that Hushai isn’t the only plant from David in Absalom’s court; there are also the priests Zadok and Abiathar, and their sons Jonathan and Ahimaaz. Whenever Hushai wants to get a word back to David he can tell Zadok and Abiathar and they’ll send their sons with the message. So Hushai immediately goes to find Zadok and Abiathar and tell them what’s happened: Ahithophel gave one piece of advice but Hushai has given another, so now David needs to keep moving, before Absalom gathers enough men and goes after his father.
As with any spy story, there is some suspense in the narrative: in verses 17:17–21 Jonathan and Ahimaaz almost get caught but are hidden in a well by some people who are loyal to King David. But they get the message across and David hurries up the process of getting all of his people out of the area, safe from Absalom.
And as for Ahithophel, he continues to be wise. When he sees that Absalom has followed Hushai’s advice, instead of his own, he goes home to put his house in order, and then commit suicide.
Maybe I was hindered by a sermon I’d heard too recently that mentioned this passage (I spoke of it in the 15:13–37 post), but I can’t read this passage without thinking about wisdom the entire way through. That Ahithophel was so wise of a counselor that he had to be taken out of the picture, otherwise David feared that this one man’s advice would be enough to lead Absalom to victory.
Think for a moment about how important a wise advisor is, that David is so nervous about Absalom getting advice from such a man! Which actually shows a certain amount of wisdom on the part of David himself, taking it so seriously.
And in this passage, Ahithophel does seem to be giving Absalom good advice. (Ruthless, but good: having Absalom sleep with his father’s concubines isn’t what one would call “godly,” but it clearly sent the message that Ahithophel and Absalom wanted to send.) We should note, however, that just because Ahithophel is wise, doesn’t mean he’s infallible. After all, part of Hushai’s response to Absalom is actually correct: whom should they be serving? They should be serving the one the LORD has chosen! Ahithophel is giving sound2 advice, but he’s giving it to the wrong man.
It doesn’t necessarily mean that Ahithophel was sinful when he started serving Absalom; maybe just incorrect. Like I say, being wise isn’t the same as being infallible. When he first started serving as Absalom’s counselor, perhaps he really thought the LORD had chosen Absalom. I’m sure I’ve read more than one commentary stating that Ahithophel’s suicide at the end of this passage isn’t so much because he is being ignored, or that he feels that Absalom is going to lose, but that Ahithophel sees the hand of the LORD in this—that as soon as he sees Absalom listening to Hushai’s advice it all becomes clear that Ahithophel has been working against God’s anointed, David, and takes his own life for that reason.
“Whom should I serve?”
Absalom is right to question Hushai’s motives. I don’t see any indication that he thinks Hushai is a spy, but if Hushai is so ready to betray the father, his friend, why wouldn’t he betray the son as well?
I might be reading into it too much, but Hushai’s response, trying to convince Absalom, is interesting:
|Hushai’s Words||Deeper Meaning?|
|No, the one chosen by the LORD…||This could be considered a valid response: If the LORD has chosen a new king, then that’s the king that Hushai should be following|
|…by these people, and by all the men of Israel—his I will be, and I will remain with him.||I wonder, however, if Hushai is playing up to Absalom’s vanity at this point. It seems like Absalom might care about being chosen by the people even more than he cares about being chosen by God.|
|Furthermore, whom should I serve? Should I not serve the son? Just as I served your father, so I will serve you.||And here, again—and I very well might be reaching—is Hushai perhaps appealing to Absalom’s vanity of youth? “David is old, and you’re young and strong, so I’ll serve you” is the kind of thing that Absalom might like to hear.|
Modern readers probably won’t be comfortable with this idea of Absalom sleeping with his father’s concubines in this manner, using them as political pawns simply to make a point. And we shouldn’t be comfortable with the idea! Whether or not it was a “normal” thing to do in that day and age, it doesn’t mean it was good or right or ethical or godly. But it would definitely meet Ahithophel’s (and Absalom’s) goals:
- Yes, it would show all of the nation of Israel that Absalom had made himself “obnoxious” to his father
- Yes, it would make the hands of his followers more “resolute,” because it’s the kind of thing you can’t take back. Anyone who’d been following Absalom half-heartedly, maybe wondering in the back of their minds if this was a temporary thing and he’d patch things up with his father, now realized that no, this was a do or die situation—quite literally.
- Although the passage doesn’t make mention of it, this is the type of advice Absalom would want to take! It’s a show of virility, and, in his mind, strength. “All that the king had is now mine!” he’s claiming. “Even his women!” Sexist and patriarchal, but Absalom lived in a sexist and patriarchal time, so he’d be comfortable sending a message like that to the world.
Some things from the Old Testament translate well and some don’t, but the phrase “melt in fear” is a phrase that definitely continues to resonate. Such a perfect way to phrase it! ↩︎
I originally wrote “good advice,” but then didn’t want to mix up the concept of advice being “sound” and advice being “moral.” Advising Absalom to sleep with his father’s concubines is [arguably] “sound,” but it’s not “moral” or “good.” ↩︎