Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, by Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsh, [1857-78], at sacred-texts.com
2 Kings (2 Samuel) 18:1
Preparation for war. - Sa2 18:1-2. David mustered the people that were with him, and placed over them captains of thousands and hundreds, and divided them into three companies, under the generals Joab, Abishai, and Ittai the Gathite, who had given such decided proofs, according to Sa2 15:21-22, of his fidelity to David. בּיד שׁלּח, to leave to the hand of a person, i.e., to his power, is used here in the sense of placing under his direction. The people opposed in the most decided manner the wish of the king to go with them to the war, saying (Sa2 18:3), "Thou shalt not go out: for if we flee, they will take no heed of us (i.e., attach no importance to this); and if half of us die, they will take no heed of us: for thou art as ten thousand of us (we must evidently read אתּה for עתּה, and עתּה has merely got into the text in consequence of ועתּה following): and now it is good that thou be ready to give us help from the city" (the Chethib לעזיר, inf. Hiphil for להעזיר, is not to be disputed). David was to stay behind in the city with a reserve, that he might be able to come to their relief in case of need.
2 Kings (2 Samuel) 18:4
The king gave his consent to these proposals, and went to the side of the gate, whilst the people went out by hundreds and thousands; but in the hearing of all he commanded the principal generals, "Mildly for me (i.e., deal gently for my sake) with the boy Absalom." לאט is not the imperative of לאט, to cover over, which would not suit the connection, and could not be construed with ל, but an adverb from אט, as in Isa 8:6; Kg1 21:27; Job 15:11.
2 Kings (2 Samuel) 18:6
Battle in the wood of Ephraim, and death of Absalom. - Sa2 18:6, Sa2 18:7. When the people, i.e., David's army, had advanced into the field against Israel (those who followed Absalom), a battle was fought "in the wood of Ephraim," when Israel was smitten by David's warriors and sustained a loss of 20,000 men. The question, where the "wood of Ephraim" was situated, is a disputed one. But both the name and the fact that, according to Jos 17:15-16, the tribe-land of Ephraim abounded in forests, favour the idea that it was a wood in the inheritance of Ephraim, on this side of the Jordan; and this is in perfect harmony with the statement in Sa2 18:23, that Ahimaaz took the way of the Jordan valley to bring the news of the victory to David, who was staying behind in Mahanaim. Nevertheless the majority of commentators have supposed that the place alluded to was a woody region on the other side of the Jordan, which had received the name of "wood Ephraim" probably after the defeat of the Ephraimites in the time of Jephthah (Jdg 12:1-5). The reasons assigned are, first, that according to Sa2 17:26, Absalom had encamped in Gilead, and it is not stated that he had crossed the Jordan again; secondly, that Sa2 18:3 ("that thou succour us out of the city") presupposes that the battle took place in the neighbourhood of Mahanaim (Thenius); and thirdly, that after the victory the army returned to Mahanaim; whereas if the battle had been fought on this side of the Jordan, it would evidently have been much better for it to remain there and occupy Jerusalem (Ewald, Gesch. iii. p. 237). But neither of these reasons is decisive, and there is no force in the other arguments employed by Thenius. There was no necessity for an immediate occupation of Jerusalem by David's victorious army, since all Israel fled to their tents after the fall of Absalom and the defeat of his army (Sa2 18:17 and Sa2 19:9); that is to say, such of Absalom's followers as had not fallen in or after the battle, broke up and returned home, and therefore the revolution was at an end. Consequently there was nothing left for David's army to do but to return to its king at Mahanaim, and fetch him back to Jerusalem, and reinstate him in his kingdom. The other two reasons might have some force in them, if the history before us contained a complete account of the whole course of the war. But even Ewald admits that it is restricted to a notice of the principal battle, which completely crushed the rebellion. There can be no doubt, however, that this was preceded, if not by other battles, yet by such military operations as accompany every war. This is clearly indicated in Sa2 18:6, where it is stated that the army advanced into the field against Israel (Sa2 18:6), which evidently refers to such an advance on the part of David's army as might compel Absalom to draw back from Gilead across the Jordan, until at length a decisive battle was fought, which ended in the complete destruction of his army and his own death. Ewald observes still further, that "it seems impossible, at any rate so far as the name is concerned, to assume that the wood of Ephraim was on the other side of the Jordan, whilst according to Sa2 18:23, the messenger who reported the victory went from the field of battle towards the Jordan valley in order to get to David." But the way in which Ewald tries to set aside this important point, as bearing upon the conclusion that the battle took place on this side of the Jordan, - namely, by adopting this rendering of Sa2 18:23, "he ran after the manner of Kikkar, running, and therefore overtook Kushi," - is far too unnatural to meet with acceptance. Under all these circumstances, therefore, we decide in favour of the assumption that the wood of Ephraim is to be sought for in the tribe-territory of Ephraim.
The nature of the ground contributed a great deal to the utter defeat of Absalom.
2 Kings (2 Samuel) 18:8
The conflict extended over the surface of the whole land, i.e., the whole of that region (the Chethib נפצות is not the plural נפצות, which would be quite unsuitable, but is most probably a noun, נפצוּת ,nuon a, signifying bursting asunder, or wild flight; the Keri נפצת is a Niphal participle, fem. gen.); "and the wood devoured more of the people than the sword ate on the same day." The woody region was most likely full of ravines, precipices, and marches, into which the flying foe was pursued, and where so many perished.
2 Kings (2 Samuel) 18:9
"And Absalom was lighted upon (יקּרא = יקּרה) by the servants of David, riding upon the mule; and the mule had come under the thick branches of the great terebinth, and his head fastened itself (remained hanging) on the terebinth, so that he was held (hung) between heaven and earth, as the mule under him went away." The imperfects, ויּבא, ויּחזק, and ויּתּן, are only a combination of the circumstantial clause רכב ואבשׁ. With regard to the fact itself, it is not clearly stated in the words that Absalom hung only by his hair, but simply that his hair entangled him in the thick branches, and his head was fastened in the terebinth, namely, by being jammed between the strong boughs.
2 Kings (2 Samuel) 18:10
A man (one of David's men) saw him in this situation, and told Joab, Joab replied (Sa2 18:11), "Behold, thou hast seen it, and wherefore has thou not smitten him there to the ground? and it was for me to give thee ten silverlings and a girdle;" i.e., if thou hadst slain him, it would have been my duty to reward thee.
2 Kings (2 Samuel) 18:12
But the man replied, "And I ... not weighing a thousand shekels in my hand ... might not stretch out my hand to the king's son," i.e., I could not do it for a reward of a thousand shekels. This is the meaning of the Chethib ולא; the Masoretes, on the other hand, have substituted ולוּ, which is the reading adopted in most of the ancient versions, and the one preferred by the majority of expositors: "if I weighed ... I would not," etc. But there is no necessity for this alteration, as the Chethib is quite in accordance with the character of the words. "For before our ears the king commanded" (cf. Sa2 18:5): מי שׁמרוּ, "take care whoever (it be) of the boy Absalom." On this use of מי, see Ewald, 104, d., a. The Keri לי is merely a conjecture, notwithstanding the fact that all the versions follow it, and that one of the Codices in Kennicott has לי. "or," continued the man (Sa2 18:13), "should I have acted deceitfully towards his life (i.e., have slain him secretly, which he calls שׁקר, cheating, because it was opposed to the king's open command): and nothing remains hidden from the king; ... thou wouldst have set thyself in opposition to me," i.e., have risen up against me before the king. The middle clause is a circumstantial one, as the fact that וכל־דּבר is placed first clearly shows; so that it cannot be regarded as introducing the apodosis, which really follows in the clause commencing with ואתּה.
2 Kings (2 Samuel) 18:14
Joab replied, "Not so will I wait before thee," i.e., I will not leave the thing to thee. He then took three staffs in his hand, and thrust them into Absalom's heart. שׁבטים is rendered by the lxx and Vulgate, βέλη, lanceas; and Thenius would adopt שׁלחים accordingly, as an emendation of the text. But in the earlier Hebrew שׁלח only occurs in poetical writings in the sense of a missile or dart (Job 33:18; Job 36:12; Joe 2:8); and it is not till after the captivity that we find it used to denote a weapon generally. There is no necessity, however, for altering the text. Joab caught up in his hurry the first thing that he found, namely pointed staff, and pierced Absalom with them to the heart. This explains the reason for his taking three, whereas one javelin or dart would have been sufficient, and also the fact that Absalom was not slain, notwithstanding their being thrust at his heart. The last clause of the verse belongs to what follows: "Still living (i.e., as he was still alive) in the midst of the terebinth, ten young men, Joab's armour-bearers, surrounded him, and smote him to death."
2 Kings (2 Samuel) 18:16
Immediately afterwards Joab stopped any further pursuit, "for Joab spared the people," i.e., he wanted to spare them.
2 Kings (2 Samuel) 18:17
But Absalom they cast into a great pit in the wood, and threw up over him a very large heap of stones, as an ignominious monument, like those thrown up over Achan (Jos 7:26) and the king of Air (Jos 8:29). This was the end of Absalom and his rebellion. "All Israel (that had crowded round him) had fled, every one to his tent" (i.e., home: see at Deu 16:7).
2 Kings (2 Samuel) 18:18
Absalom had erected a monument to himself in the king's valley during his lifetime; "for he said, I have no son to preserve the remembrance of my name, and he called the monument by his own name; and so it was called hand (memorial) of Absalom unto this day." The לקח before ויּצּב is apparently pleonastic; but it belongs to the diffuse and circumstantial character of the antiquated Hebrew diction (as in Num 16:1). מצּבת, a memorial of stone; whether in the form of a column, or an obelisk, or a monolith, cannot be determined (vid., Gen 28:22; Gen 31:52). The king's valley, which received its name from the event narrated in Gen 14:17, was two stadia from Jerusalem according to Josephus (Ant. vii. 10, 3), and therefore not "close to the Dead Sea," or in regione transjordanensi (Ges. Thes. pp. 1045, 1377), or "in the Jordan valley in Ephraim" (Tuch and Winer). It was on the eastern side of Jerusalem, in the Kidron valley; though Absalom's pillar, which ecclesiastical tradition has transferred thither, a monument about forty feet in height and pointed like a pyramid, is not of early Hebrew, but of Grecian origin. On the words "I have no son," see at Sa2 14:27.
2 Kings (2 Samuel) 18:19
David is informed of the victory, and of the death of Absalom. - Sa2 18:19, Sa2 18:20. Ahimaaz, the son of Zadok, wanted to carry the news to David, that Jehovah had "procured the king justice out of the hand of his enemies" (שׁפט with מן is a pregnant expression signifying to procure justice and deliver out of); but Joab, knowing how David would receive the tidings of the death of Absalom, replied, "Thou art no man of good tidings to-day; thou shalt take the news on another day, not on this, even because (על־כּן כּי, see at Gen 18:5) the king's son is dead." The Keri על־כּן כּי is to be preferred to the Chethib כּי־על; and כּן has no doubt been dropt out merely because of בּן which follows. The Chethib does not give any suitable sense; for the absence of the article before מת is decisive against the explanation proposed by Maurer, viz., "for (tidings have to be carried) concerning the king's son dead." If מת were to be construed as an adverb with בּן־מלך, it would of necessity have the article.
2 Kings (2 Samuel) 18:21
Joab therefore entrusted the Cushite with the duty of conveying to David the announcement of what had occurred. It cannot be decided with certainty whether הכּוּשׁי or Cushi is the proper name of an Israelite, or whether it signifies the "Cushite," i.e., a descendant of Cush. The form of the name rather favours the latter view, in which case it would suggest the idea of a Moorish slave in the service of Joab.
2 Kings (2 Samuel) 18:22
As Ahimaaz still expressed a wish to hasten to the king, even after Cushi had been sent, and could not be induced to relinquish his purpose by the repeated expostulations of Joab, the latter at length permitted him to run. And he ran so fast, that he got before Cushi. מה ויהי: let whatever will happen. וּלכה is the pronoun "to thee," as in Gen 27:37, and not the imperative of הלך, "thou mayest go." The meaning is, "and there is no striking message for thee," no message that strikes the mark, or affects anything. We must supply "he said" in thought before Sa2 18:23. There was the less necessity to write it here (as in Sa1 1:20), since it is perfectly obvious from the repetition of מה ויהי that it is Ahimaaz who is speaking. Ahimaaz then ran by the way of the plain, i.e., the way which lies through or across the plain of the Jordan. Now he could not possibly have taken this road, if the battle had been fought in a wood on the eastern side of the Jordan, and he had wanted to hurry from the scene of battle to Mahanaim; for in that case he would have taken a circuitous route two or three times the distance of the straight road, so that it would have been utterly impossible for him to get there before the Cushite, however quickly he might run. This notice therefore furnishes a decisive proof that the battle was fought upon the mountains of Ephraim, in the land to the west of the Jordan, since the straight road thence to Mahanaim would lie through the valley of the Jordan.
2 Kings (2 Samuel) 18:24
David was sitting between the two gates of Mahanaim waiting for tidings of the result of the battle. The two gates are the outer and inner gate of the fortified city wall, between which there was a small court, where David was sitting. The watchman then went up to the roof of the gate by the wall, probably the outer gate in the city wall, and as he looked he saw a man running alone.
2 Kings (2 Samuel) 18:25
When he announced this to the king, he said, "If he (is or comes) alone, there is good news in his mouth," namely, because several runners would have shown themselves if it had been a flight. As the first messenger came nearer and nearer, the watchman saw another man running, and shouted this into the gate (השּׁער is wrongly pointed for השּׁער, according to the lxx, Syr., and Vulgate); whereupon the king replied, "This is also a good messenger."
2 Kings (2 Samuel) 18:27
When the watchman saw by the running of the first that it was Ahimaaz, recognising him probably by the swiftness of his running, and announced it to the king, he replied, "He is a good man, and cometh with good tidings," because Joab would not have selected him to bring any other than good news.
2 Kings (2 Samuel) 18:28
Ahimaaz then called out to the king, "Shalom," i.e., Hail! and fell down before him to greet him reverentially, and said, "Blessed be Jehovah thy God, who hath given up the men that lifted up their hand against my lord the king."
2 Kings (2 Samuel) 18:29
In answer to the king's inquiry, "Is it well with the young man Absalom?" Ahimaaz replied, "I saw the great tumult (that arose) when Joab sent off the king's servant, and thy servant, and know not what" (sc., had occurred). Ahimaaz spoke as if he had been sent off before Absalom's fate had been decided or could be known. "The king's servant" is the Cushite, whom Ahimaaz saw just approaching, so that he could point to him. Joab is the subject, which is sometimes written after the object in the case of an infinitive construction (vid., Gesenius, 133, 3 Anm.); and the expression "thy servant" is a conventional one for "me" (viz., Ahimaaz).
2 Kings (2 Samuel) 18:30
And the king said, "Turn, and stand here," that he might hear the further news from the Cushite, who had just arrived.
2 Kings (2 Samuel) 18:31
The Cushite said, "Let my lord the king receive good tidings, for Jehovah hath procured thee justice to-day out of the hand of all who have risen up against thee" (cf. Sa2 18:19).
2 Kings (2 Samuel) 18:32
When asked about the welfare of Absalom, the Cushite replied, "May it happen to the enemies of my lord the king, and all who have risen up against thee for evil (i.e., to do thee harm), as to the young man." The death of Absalom was indicated clearly enough in these words.
2 Kings (2 Samuel) 18:33
The king understood the meaning of the words. He was agitated, and went up to the balcony of the gate (the room above the entrance) and wept, and said, walking about, "My son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Oh that I had died for thee, Absalom, my son, my son!" To understand this passionate utterance of anguish, we must bear in mind not only the excessive tenderness, or rather weakness, of David's paternal affection towards his son, but also his anger that Joab and his generals should have paid so little regard to his command to deal gently with Absalom. With the king's excitable temperament, this entirely prevented him from taking a just and correct view of the crime of his rebel son, which merited death, and of the penal justice of God which had been manifested in his destruction.