2 Samuel 18:19–19:8: David Mourns
In the last passage David’s men defeated the Israelites who had been following Absalom, maintaining the throne for David. Joab and his men also killed Absalom, even though David had asked them to be “gentle” with him.
Now, in the immediate aftermath, Ahimaaz asks Joab for permission to be the messenger who brings the news to King David. Joab, however, knows David well enough to know that he’s going to focus on the loss of his son more than he’s going to focus on his victory, so, to protect the boy1, he decides to send a non-Israelite to give the king the message, instead of Ahimaaz.
But when the man leaves Ahimaaz won’t stop pestering Joab about it: can he run after the man? Joab tries to reason with the boy: “My son, why do you want to go? You don’t have any news that will bring you a reward” (verse 18:22). But Ahimaaz says he wants to go anyway, so Joab finally gives him permission.
Joab was probably thinking it didn’t matter because the other messenger would get there first, but Ahimaaz takes a different route and gets to David before the “official” messenger. David has been eagerly anticipating news, so he’s in a weird state of mind:
While David was sitting between the inner and outer gates, the watchman went up to the roof of the gateway by the wall. As he looked out, he saw a man running alone. The watchman called out to the king and reported it.
The king said, “If he is alone, he must have good news.” And the runner came closer and closer.
Then the watchman saw another runner, and he called down to the gatekeeper, “Look, another man running alone!”
The king said, “He must be bringing good news, too.”
The watchman said, “It seems to me that the first one runs like Ahimaaz son of Zadok.”
“He’s a good man,” the king said. “He comes with good news.”
There is no way, in this state of mind, that David is going to be ready to accept bad news!
But Ahimaaz comes to David, and delivers… part of the news: David’s men have won the battle! David doesn’t even seem to acknowledge this, however, because he’s immediately asking what he really cares about: what about Absalom? Is he safe? And now, having fought for his right to be here to deliver this news to his king, Ahimaaz… chickens out.
Ahimaaz answered, “I saw great confusion just as Joab was about to send the king’s servant and me, your servant, but I don’t know what it was.” (verse 18:29b)
In case it’s not obvious, we should remember that this is a flat-out lie. Ahimaaz knows that Absalom is dead, but now that the moment has come to tell David he can’t bring himself to do it.
So David tells Ahimaaz to stand to the side; there’s another messenger coming, after all. And the scene begins the same way: the man delivers the news that David’s men have won, David seems to pay no heed to it and immediately asks about Absalom, but this time the man does his job and informs the king that Absalom is dead.
As Joab had originally expected, David doesn’t take the news well:
The king was shaken. He went up to the room over the gateway and wept. As he went, he said: “O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you—O Absalom, my son, my son!” (verse 18:33)
Joab hears that David is weeping and mourning for Absalom, and the king’s grief is now ruining the victory for the entire army, which goes into mourning because the king is grieving for his son. We’re told in verse 19:3 that, “The men stole into the city that day as men steal in who are ashamed when they flee from battle.”
But Joab finally arrives and talks some sense into David:
Then Joab went into the house to the king and said, “Today you have humiliated all your men, who have just saved your life and the lives of your sons and daughters and the lives of your wives and concubines. You love those who hate you and hate those who love you. You have made it clear today that the commanders and their men mean nothing to you. I see that you would be pleased if Absalom were alive today and all of us were dead. Now go out and encourage your men. I swear by the LORD that if you don’t go out, not a man will be left with you by nightfall. This will be worse for you than all the calamities that have come on you from your youth till now.” (verses 19:5–7)
So David takes his place in the gateway and, I presume, takes back up his kingly duties.
The obvious heart of this passage is David’s focus on the death of his son rather than his brave men who fought for him and won a victory for him. When David’s men go out and win the battle for him, and he responds with, “If only I had died instead of the son my men killed,” how are his men supposed to respond to that? It was clear before the battle that David’s heart wasn’t in it, and his response to the conclusion proves it. One might wonder what David had hoped would happen, but I don’t think he’s being that rational; once Absalom started his rebellion, David’s mind seems to have stopped processing anything other than his grief for the turn of events.
The text of this and previous passages focuses on David in a way that makes it clear that the LORD is on David’s side, which means that David isn’t just forgetting about his men, he’s forgetting about his God. Remembering God is usually David’s core strength, so it’s clear how much things get confused in David’s mind (and heart) when it comes to his [male] children.
I didn’t mention it above because it was more of an aside, but the passage ends with another mention that “the Israelites”—that is, the ones who’d been fighting on behalf of Absalom—have fled to their homes. David’s men have won the battle against Absalom’s men, but there is still some politics involved. Knowing that so much of the country sided against him with Absalom, David can’t just saunter back into Jerusalem and say, “I’m back—did you miss me?”
The Language Used
It should be noted that I’m very much paraphrasing the messages that were delivered to King David. Instead of telling David “your men won,” Ahimaaz says in verse 18:28, “Praise be to the LORD your God! He has delivered up those who lifted their hands against my lord the king,” and the other messenger says in verse 18:31 “The LORD has vindicated you today by delivering you from the hand of all who rose up against you.” Then, instead of telling David that Absalom is dead, the other messenger says in verse 18:32, “May the enemies of my lord the king and all who rise up to harm you be like that young man.”
We’ve seen Ahimaaz before: he’s the son of Zadok (one of the priests), and had been one of the guys tasked with bringing news out of Absalom’s side back to David. I’m getting the impression from this passage that he must be young; the sense of adventure of being a spy must have appealed to him, but he seems not to fully grasp that news of his son’s death isn’t going to be welcome by David.
But then, when he finally gets there… he lies, and avoids giving David the bad part of the news at all! “Good news,” he says, “you won!” To which David immediately replies, “But what about Absalom?” And then, realizing that that’s all David cares about, Ahimaaz suddenly gets amnesia: “Uh… I… uh… was looking the other way. Yeah, that’s it. Let the Cushite tell you the rest…”
Maybe Ahimaaz had fully intended to give David the entire message before he realized how distraught David was about his son, or maybe he simply hadn’t thought things through and his desire to bring the message was rash.
I don’t think the author actually tells us Ahimaaz’ age, unless it’s stated in a previous passage. (I don’t remember reading it.) But he’s presented here as being young—at least, that’s the impression I get. ↩︎