2 Samuel 19:9–43: David Returns to Jerusalem
David’s men have now defeated Absalom for him, but he hasn’t yet returned back to Jerusalem as king. This passage gives a fascinating glimpse into the politics of this situation: the text has been making it seem like God was always on David’s side but the majority of the people in Israel backed Absalom, not David. Now that Absalom has been defeated, how do they go back to serving the man they rejected? If David just strolls back into Jerusalem and says, “I’m king again, people, deal with it!” there’s every chance another rebellion will soon be in the works. (Though he can’t avoid that anyway… foreshadowing!)
So this isn’t just David’s problem, it’s also the people’s problem: how do they go back to serving David? The first couple of verses indicate that they’re not sure how to proceed:
Throughout the tribes of Israel, all the people were arguing among themselves, saying, “The king delivered us from the hand of our enemies; he is the one who rescued us from the hand of the Philistines. But now he has fled the country to escape from Absalom; and Absalom, whom we anointed to rule over us, has died in battle. So why do you say nothing about bringing the king back?” (verses 9–10)
What confuses me in those verses, however, is that I don’t know who the “you” refers to. It doesn’t say “the people asked their leaders, ‘why do you say nothing of bringing him back?’” It says they were arguing among themselves. So I guess they were asking each other: “Why aren’t you talking about bringing him back?” “I don’t know, why aren’t you talking about bringing him back?”
For his part, David still has Zadok and Abiathar in Jerusalem, the priests who’ve been secretly working for him all along. So he sends word to the elders of the tribe of Judah, via Zadok and Abiathar, and says that, since the tribe of Judah is his own flesh and blood, they should be the ones to take the lead by bringing him back.
And then David does something which has always surprised me: as part of his message to the people of Judah, he sends a specific message to Amasa, the man who’d been leading Absalom’s army, and promises to put him in charge of David’s army in place of Joab.
This is all pretty good reasoning for the Judeans, who decide to bring David back. So he comes back as far as the Jordan, whereupon he meets Shimei. This is the man who, in 16:1–14, was cursing David and his people as they fled Jerusalem, but he seems to have had a change in heart now that David is king again:
Shimei son of Gera, the Benjamite from Bahurim, hurried down with the men of Judah to meet King David. With him were a thousand Benjamites, along with Ziba, the steward of Saul’s household, and his fifteen sons and twenty servants. They rushed to the Jordan, where the king was. They crossed at the ford to take the king’s household over and to do whatever he wished.
When Shimei son of Gera crossed the Jordan, he fell prostrate before the king and said to him, “May my lord not hold me guilty. Do not remember how your servant did wrong on the day my lord the king left Jerusalem. May the king put it out of his mind. For I your servant know that I have sinned, but today I have come here as the first from the tribes of Joseph to come down and meet my lord the king.”
Then Abishai son of Zeruiah said, “Shouldn’t Shimei be put to death for this? He cursed the LORD’s anointed.”
David replied, “What does this have to do with you, you sons of Zeruiah? What right do you have to interfere? Should anyone be put to death in Israel today? Don’t I know that today I am king over Israel?” So the king said to Shimei, “You shall not die.” And the king promised him on oath.
Then, in verses 24–30 there’s an interesting interaction between David and Mephibosheth. Earlier, in that same 16:1–14 passage, David had been told by Mephibosheth’s servant Ziba that Mephibosheth was staying behind with Absalom, hoping to get his kingdom back. (Remember that Mephibosheth is Saul’s grandson.) Which… doesn’t sound plausible to me: how is serving the new king going to make Mephibosheth king again? However, David seemed to find it plausible because he rewarded Ziba with all of the land that had formerly been Mephibosheth’s. But now Mephibosheth approaches David and tells him that Ziba was lying; Ziba abandoned Mephibosheth back in Jerusalem—remember that Mephibosheth is crippled and can’t get around as freely as others:
He said, “My lord the king, since I your servant am lame, I said, ‘I will have my donkey saddled and will ride on it, so I can go with the king.’ But Ziba my servant betrayed me. And he has slandered your servant to my lord the king. My lord the king is like an angel of God; so do whatever you wish. All my grandfather’s descendants deserved nothing but death from my lord the king, but you gave your servant a place among those who eat at your table. So what right do I have to make any more appeals to the king?” (verses 26–28)
So David’s decision is for Mephibosheth and Ziba to divide the land, but Mephibosheth responds that Ziba can have it all.
But David also has debts to repay; in 17:24–18:18, as he was fleeing Jerusalem, it was mentioned that food and bedding were brought to him and his people. I didn’t mention the helpers by name (whoops), but one of them was a man named Barzillai, from Gilead. Now that David is returning to Jerusalem Barzillai comes to “send him on his way,” and David wants to thank him for all of his help. In verses 31–40 there’s an exchange in which David offers to have Barzillai come live in Jerusalem with him, but Barzillai says no, he’s too old to enjoy everything David would provide, but maybe David could bring a man named Kimham instead1? (I’m assuming Kimham is Barzillai’s son.)
It’s not long, however, before the rest of the Israelites are accusing the Judeans of “stealing” the king from them.
Soon all the men of Israel were coming to the king and saying to him, “Why did our brothers, the men of Judah, steal the king away and bring him and his household across the Jordan, together with all his men?”
All the men of Judah answered the men of Israel, “We did this because the king is closely related to us. Why are you angry about it? Have we eaten any of the king’s provisions? Have we taken anything for ourselves?”
Then the men of Israel answered the men of Judah, “We have ten shares in the king; so we have a greater claim on David than you have. Why then do you treat us with contempt? Weren’t we the first to speak of bringing back our king?”
But the men of Judah pressed their claims even more forcefully than the men of Israel.
David isn’t even back in Jerusalem, yet, and trouble his already brewing! It will spill over in the next passage.
This is a very politically-oriented passage. As mentioned at the beginning, David is returning to Jerusalem as king but he has to do it very carefully to reunite a divided country.
Why the Judeans?
One thing I’ve often wondered, when reading this passage, is why David specifically chose the Judeans to bring him back—his own tribe—since it would look like it was just nepotism and favouritism. I’m now wondering if I got this backwards. Or rather, if I got it right, but didn’t think it through far enough.
I’m not getting this from any commentaries so I might be way off on this—and politics aren’t my strong suit, let alone ancient politics—but it might work to the nation’s advantage if the rest of the tribes can say to themselves, “the tribe of Judah is just bringing David back because he’s one of their own,” because then they can follow that thought with, “but oh well, he’s back now, we should serve him again.” Having the tribe of Judah do it, which people could justify in their minds (whether rightly or wrongly) was at least an impetus to do it, breaking the stalemate of no group in the nation wanting to be the first to bring David back.
But does it work out that way? (Foreshadowing: Nope!)
Joab (and Abishai)
I said that David replacing Joab always surprised me, but that’s a bit of an overstatement. It did and it didn’t.
Joab has always been a loyal (and effective) commander of David’s army—he can be directly credited with many of David’s victories—but David has had negative feelings toward him and his brother Abishai ever since they murdered a man named Abner, back in 3:22–39. From that point on David continually refers to them as “sons of Zeruiah,” in such a way that you can practically hear David scoffing through the text. (And in such a way that David seems to feel that it’s an insult to call them “sons of Zeruiah,” but from what I can tell the Scriptures never tell us anything about Zeruiah except that he’s the father of Joab and his brothers.)
Even in this passage, where Joab is hardly mentioned, when his brother Abishai suggests that Shimei should be punished David almost can’t help himself: he can’t just say, “no, this is a joyous occasion, nobody will be put to death,” he has to preface it with scornfully calling Abishai a “son of Zeruiah” and taking another opportunity to treat him disdainfully. In fact, in the earlier 16:1–14 passage there’s a very similar situation whereby Abishai wants to put Shimei to death and David prevents him—and scornfully calls him one of the “sons of Zeruiah” again!
Frankly, David’s relationship with Joab has always seemed to me to be another example of David’s weakness when it comes to interpersonal relationships: from back in Chapter 3 and Abner’s murder it seemed to me like David would have gotten rid of Joab if he could have, but he was afraid to be without Joab’s skills as a warrior. (Maybe he was even afraid of having Joab as an enemy.) It seems like the majority of his interactions with Joab and his brothers involve David scorning them, and yet… they’re still there! Serving him! Effectively!
But now that Joab has killed his son, it’s the last straw for David, so he’ll do without Joab.
Except that… no he won’t. Spoiler alert: as soon as the very next passage Joab will be back in command of David’s army. (If he ever actually stopped.)
I’m freely going to admit that there are likely some cultural things going on here that I don’t understand, and maybe even some details of the interactions between David, Ziba, and Mephibosheth that aren’t recorded in the Scriptures.
To me, reading the passage thousands of years later (translated into English), it always seemed like Mephibosheth’s story was more plausible than Ziba’s, but this is clearly not David’s take: when he hears Ziba’s story he immediately rewards Ziba with all of Mephibosheth’s former land, and when he hears Mephibosheth’s side of the story he doesn’t change his mind and revert it back, he has them split it (which seems unjust regardless of who’s lying). Whether it’s something about the tone of each man’s voice, David’s knowledge of both men’s character, or some other facts that don’t come through in the text, it seems to me like David still believes Ziba more than he believes Mephibosheth.
In my younger days I wondered if David couldn’t make a decision, and so he just hedged his bets by letting them both have some land. As I’m reading it now, however, I’m thinking that this is another political decision: that despite my reading of the men’s words David still fully believes Ziba, but is letting Mephibosheth have some land anyway as a way of keeping the peace as he cements his new/renewed kingship.
And the cultural part I mentioned also comes into play (probably): there are numerous times in the Old Testament when people negotiate with each other in a way that doesn’t seem familiar to me, and I wonder if that’s happening here, too. Mephibosheth presents his case, David awards him half his land back, and Mephibosheth says no, Ziba can keep it all. Is this some kind of admission of guilt while still trying to save face?
Wait… isn’t God in control?
As we read a passage like this, where David is doing everything he can to ensure that the kingdom comes back together and heals as a nation, it might be tempted to wonder: where is God in all of this? The text never seems to call in question the fact that David is God’s anointed king, there’s never any hint that maybe God was on Absalom’s side—or that God stood off to the side, to see who would win—and yet David is now having to be so careful in how he returns to Jerusalem.
And that shouldn’t surprise us. The Bible is full of these kinds of seeming contradictions: God is in control—totally and fully—but we are responsible for our own actions—totally and fully. God is in control of all of the events of our lives, and yet He also gives us the book of Proverbs and other wisdom literature in the Scriptures, so that we can strive to make wise decisions.
It is never in question that David is God’s anointed king; God has promised that David and his descendents will rule forever. And yet it’s still up to David to behave as wisely as he can, and carefully maneuver his way through some very tricky politics.
And I should take the same lesson. It was up to Jesus Christ to save me from my sins, He did all of the work, and because of that work I’ll be with Him forever. Yet, at the same time, it’s up to me to strive for wisdom in all of my decisions, it’s up to me to strive to be as good and righteous in my behaviour and actions as I can, it’s up to me to avoid sin.
Of course… even when I do manage to do the right thing (and avoid the wrong thing), I still do it in His power!
I’ve noticed that a lot of people in the West tend to prefer simple, straightforward answers to their questions. We want a philosophy where God is in control—period. (And therefore our actions don’t matter, because He’s in control.) Or, conversely, we want a philosophy where we are in control—period. (And therefore God is essentially just an outside observer who likes to give advice, because we’re in control.) But the Bible doesn’t let us get away with these oversimplifications; things are more complicated than that, and the Bible forces Christians to confront those complications.
It’s actually a passage I’ve always enjoyed reading: “But Barzillai answered the king, ‘How many more years will I live, that I should go up to Jerusalem with the king? I am now eighty years old. Can I tell the difference between what is enjoyable and what is not? Can your servant taste what he eats and drinks? Can I still hear the voices of male and female singers? Why should your servant be an added burden to my lord the king? Your servant will cross over the Jordan with the king for a short distance, but why should the king reward me in this way? Let your servant return, that I may die in my own town near the tomb of my father and mother. But here is your servant Kimham. Let him cross over with my lord the king. Do for him whatever you wish.’” (verses 34–37) I hope I’m as wise when I get to be Barzillai’s age. ↩︎