The people of the region where David and his followers were now encamped were friendly. Knowing that he and his people must be in a condition of extreme want for the necessities of life, they came to him in Mahanaim with an abundance of provisions. The sacred writer names three of these benefactors. With obvious delight he describes in detail their generosity toward David.
And it came to pass when David was come to Mahanaim, that Shobi the son of Nahash, of Rabbah of the children of Ammon, and Machir the son of Ammiel of Lodabar, and Barzillai the Giliadite of Regelim, brought beds and basins and earthen vessels, and wheat and barley and flour and roasted, and beans and lentils and roasted, and honey and butter and sheep and cheese of kine, for David and the people that were with him to eat; for they said, The people (is got) hungry and weary and thirsty in the wilderness. 27-29.
[The other versions render the text here: “And brought… wheat and barley, and flour, and parched corn, and beans, and lentiles, and parched (roasted) pulse.” But the words “corn” and “pulse” do not appear in the Hebrew text. Nevertheless, their insertion may be warranted. If so, the thought that the Hebrew phrase was meant to convey is this: “And brought … wheat and barley, and flour, and roasted wheat and barley (grain), and beans, and lentils, and roasted beans and lentils (pulse).” The meaning then is that only a part of these foodstuffs were brought roasted and thus ready for immediate eating, and the rest as a store of provision. The sense of the Hebrew phrase is not clear.]
Doubtless the people had taken with them on the flight as many victuals as each could carry. But the store must have been exhausted or nearly so by the time that they had reached the plains of the wilderness. Though Mahanaim could not have been at too great a distance from the Jordan—it lay within the territory of Gad—how famished they must have been when finally they entered that place: and how weary after having been continuously under way since the moment they had left the holy city, particularly the women and the children. How welcome these provisions then. And what an abundance of everything. Surely, the Lord had not forsaken his ill-deserving servant.
The basins being of metal could be used for cooking. Just as needful were the earthen vessels (Heb. vessels formed). And how thoughtful of the givers to have included also beds. As to the wheat and the barley and the beans and the lentils, having been brought roasted, all was ready for immediate eating.
Hailing, as he did, from Rabbah, the capital of the Ammonites, Shobi was an Ammonite. If his father was the diseased Ammonite king Nahash, and there are no grounds for questioning this, then Shobi was the brother of the Hanun against whom David, as sorely provoked by his insult, had waged fiercest war some ten years previous (10:1 sqq.). He had succeeded his father in the throne and was reigning, as had his father before him, in Rabbah. Taking the city, David had dethroned him. Then he had gone ahead and put all the people of the city under saws and harrows of iron and axes of iron. So did David to all the cities of Ammon. Having by these strokes completely subdued the Ammonites, he rendered them tributary and included their country in his empire.
It may therefore awaken some surprise that among the friends administering to David’s necessities in his calamity was also this Ammonite—Shobi the brother Hanun. What may have happened is, that after the campaign was over, David appointed Shobi vicegerent over Ammon; thus displacing Hanun and binding Shobi to his person by ties of gratitude. And these ties may have been greatly strengthened by still other interests of a spiritual nature.
As moved by pity, Machir, the son of Ammiel, had received Mephibosheth into his home, so that he could not help but love David for his past kindness to this disabled son of Jonathan.
Barzillai is a most interesting character, who only appears on this and another occasion.
In Mahanaim, as was stated, David was encamped with his followers in the midst Of subjects who were friendly and who deeply sympathized with him in his plight. Besides supplying him and his people with bountiful provisions, they also enlisted in his service in such numbers that his followers, able to bear arms, could now be counted by the thousands. Mustering all his warriors, he divided them into bodies of thousands and hundreds, and assigned to each unite a captain. The whole army he organized into three grand divisions under Joab, Abishai and Ittai the Gittite.
And David mustered the people that were with him and set over them captains of thousands and captains of hundreds. And David gave the people, a third under the hand of Joab, and a third under the hand of Abishai the son of Zeruiah the brother of Joab, and a third under the hand of Ittai the Gittite. (1 and 2).
In those ancient times the king of the land went with his troops into battle and in the field he had the chief command of his army. David had always been true to that custom, and even now he was decided to go with his people. But they would not have it so. It must have been their love of him that accounts for it that in dissuading him, they talked to him as if they were his master from whom he was obliged to take orders. They said, “Not shalt thou go.” They explained why they did not want him to go forth. The adversary would not care if all of them fled or half of them died in battle. He was not interested in slaying Israelites. The object that he had in view was to rid the kingdom of David. Absalom’s whole army to a man would therefore be activated by the single purpose of capturing David. He was worth more to them than ten thousand of his own people. Should he then go with them? That would be suicidal. Let him abide in Mahanaim, the sight of his present encampment. He could be of help to them from out of this place. That would be well.
But they did not explain to him in just what way he could be of help to them. Some conjecture that what they had in mind was that David abide in his place with a part of the army with a view to bringing in reinforcements in the event the battle went against them. But the whole army went forth under its three generals. A part of it did not remain behind with David, as is evident from the way the text here reads. Let us take notice: “And David gave … a third … under the hand of Joab, and a third under the hand of Abishai, and a third under the hand of Ittai… “thus three thirds, in a word, the whole of the army. He did keep with him his body guard of a thousand men. But what could a body of warriors that small have availed, should the battle go against them? But the confidence must have been his and his people’s that this would not happen, that the arms to be blessed were those of David. And in that confidence he sent forth his people to do battle with the adversary.
So it is doubtful whether the people had any such idea in their minds as that, if need be, he could assist them by bringing in reinforcements, provided he remained in the camp. What they may have meant is simply that, if he wanted to be of real service to them, he should stay where he was, and not insist on appearing with them in the battle. And they may have had a reason for so advising in addition to the one that they mentioned. David was already advanced in years. The battle-field was no place for one of his age. So he hearkened to their entreaty that he abide in the camp.
And the king said to the people, Surely I will go forth, also I, with you. But said the people, Not shalt thou go forth: for if indeed we flee, not will they set upon us (their) heart; and if we die, the half of us, not will they set upon us (their) hearts: but now (thou art) as ten thousands of us. And now it is well that thou be to help us from out of the city. And said the king to them, That which is good in your eyes I will do. 3
Having attended to the business of organizing the army, and after yielding to their importunity, his thoughts reverted to Absalom. They must not be allowed to slay him, should he fall into their hands. Thus he spake in his heart. So he took his stand beside the gate, and while the army filed out in front of him, rank after rank, he gave his final command to the three generals—Joab, Abishai and Ittai—and the captains: “Deal gently for my sake with the young man, even with Absalom.” He could not hate Absalom. He could only love and pity him, despite all that had happened. In thus charging the leaders of the army he purposely raised his voice to a shout in order that all the people might hear. But he was only making matters worse for himself. What would he dare to do with Absalom but inflict upon him the punishment of death, should he be delivered into his hands alive!
And stood the king by the side of the gate, and all the people went forth by hundreds and thousands. And the king commanded Joab and Abishai and Ittai, saying, Show kindness for my sake to the young man, even to Absalom. And all the people heard when the king commanded all the captains concerning the matter of Absalom. 4, 5
As to Absalom and his people encamped between Mahanaim and the Jordan, the text makes it clear that the entire force was in the grip of a paralyzing fear and that its will to fight was gone.
First, though Absalom’s army may have been the larger, even by far perhaps, yet he failed to set his troops in motion against David. It was David’s people who took the offensive.
Second, as both armies were encamped on the east side of the Jordan, it was here that the conflict must have begun. Yet, according to the text, the battle occurred on the west of the Jordan in the wooded country of the tribe of Ephraim. This tells us what must have happened. The combat had scarcely begun, when the ranks of Absalom broke and scattered. With David’s people in hot pursuit, the entire mass of humans fled in terror across the Jordan and sought refuge in the dense forest of Ephraim.
God had risen, and his enemies were scattered, driven away as smoke is driven away.
But this was not the end of it. Twenty thousand of them perished in these forests. That the reference is to the adherents of Absalom follows from the statement that “the people of Israel were slain before the servants of David.” In their mad effort to escape their pursuers a great many of them collided with the trees or tangled with the low hanging branches and were killed by the force of the impact. More of them came to their end in this way than were slain by the sword. Thus even the trees of the forest fought for David. And why not, if all things are Christ’s, and if Christ is His people’s?
So did the wicked perish at the presence of God. Some hold that the forest of Ephraim of which the text here speaks was east of the Jordan, on the ground that nothing is said of a flight of Absalom and his people across the Jordan, and that, accordingly, it was here, on the east side of this river and not on the west, that the whole conflict took place. But the Old Testament Scriptures do not otherwise know of a forest of Ephraim east of the Jordan so that the name can rightly be taken as the designation only of the wooded mountain of Ephraim west of the Jordan, and it was here that the main conflict must be considered to have occurred.
And went forth the people into the field against Israel; and the battle was in the forest of Ephraim. 6.
And were slain there the people of Israel before the servants of David, and was there a great slaughter in that day, twenty thousand. And was there the battle scattered over the face of the whole land. And multiplied the forest to consume more people than the sword devoured in that day. 7, 8.
Making his way on his mule through this region of thick forest, mountain gorges and caves wag Absalom. He was alone, it seems. He must have counted himself fortunate still to be alive. And perhaps the prospect of his yet being able to save himself from the general carnage at no time seemed brighter, when he discovered that the direction in which he was going led straight into the presence of some of David’s servants. He must have heard and seen them without their having seen him. In getting away from the spot with all the speed of which his weary beast was still capable, he collided with a terebinth, and his head became solidly wedged between its low-hanging branches. His mule passed from under him and there between heaven and earth the accursed one hung, suspended from a tree.
One man—servant of David—who happened to be passing by the place, saw him and reported to Joab, perhaps the only general in the vicinity. If the man expected to be thanked, he was due for a disappointment. Joab was provoked with him. He couldn’t understand why he had allowed Absalom to go on living. “Behold!” he said to the man, “thou sawest, and why didst thou not smite him there to the ground?” To make the man feel what a dreadful mistake he had made, and also to cause him to regret his timidity, he told him that he would now be rewarding him handsomely, had he only shown more courage. He would be giving him ten shekels of silver, probably worth about six dollars, and a girdle.
But the man didn’t relish thus being taken to task by Joab. It almost sounded as though he were guilty of a criminal neglect and had thus committed a capital crime. One would think that Joab, to hear him, was completely ignorant of the king’s command regarding Absalom. The man’s wrath kindled. He gave Joab to understand that he wouldn’t stretch out his hand to the king’s son for a thousand shekels of silver. For in the hearing of all the people the king had commanded Joab—also Joab—Abishai and Ittai that every one, whosoever he be, have a care regarding the young man Absalom. And this meant everyone without exception.
But supposing he would have smitten Absalom, the man went on to say. As no matter could long remain hidden from the king, he would be certain to learn by whose hand his son had died. And what would then happen? Despite his present fury, Joab could be depended on to be the first to join the king in condemning him for the deed.
The man was probably right. That’s precisely what Joab might have done in order to satisfy David that he was entirely blameless of his son’s death.
There was a sting to the man’s words. That the man dared thus to lash Joab with his tongue, shows in what low esteem Joab was being held by the people. By common consent he was a great general, but they had no respect for him as a man.
And happened to stray Absalom in the presence of David’s servants riding (that is, Absalom was riding) on a mule. And came the mule under the thick branches of a great terebinth. And was made fast his head in the terebinth. And he was given up between heaven and the earth; and the mule that was under him passed on. 9.
And saw one man and told Joab; and he said, Behold, I saw Absalom hanging in a terebinth. 10.
And said Joab unto the man, the one that told him, And behold, thou sawest, and why didst thou not smite him there to the ground? And for my sake I would have given thee ten (shekels) of silver and a girdle. And the man said to Joab, Not if I should weigh upon my hand (that is, receive) a thousand (shekels) of silver, would I stretch forth my hand unto the son of the king. For in our hearing the king commanded thee, and Abishai and Ittai, saying, Have a care, whoever thou art, regarding the young man Absalom. But if I should have done against my life a falsehood (and there is no matter hid from the king), then thou wouldest set thyself against me. 12, 13.
What the man meant was that, had he slain Absalom, he would have offended against his own soul, put his life in jeopardy. For when the king, from whom no matter could long remain hidden, would have learned by whose hand his son had died, he would be wroth with the slayer. But another reading has “His,” that is, Absalom’s life. But this does not change materially the thought that “the man” desired to convey.
Also the repetition of the king’s command by “the man” does not quite agree with how the king is reported to have spoken it in, “Show kindness for my sake toward the young man Absalom.” Either in commanding the people David did not hold himself to the same form of the words, or “the man” overstated the truth to suit his purpose. The latter is doubtless the case, as it is not likely that David would thus have threatened the people. Doubtless if the man had followed his first impulse, he would indeed have made an end of Absalom right there and then. What restrained him, perhaps, was in part his deep affection for David and in part his consideration for himself. He was afraid that, if he disregarded the king’s command and smote Absalom, it might go hard with him. He may be taken as a fair representative in this respect of the rest of David’s adherents. But Joab was of a different mold. He was a hard man. Though loyal to David, he kept his own counsel and did much as he pleased. Hard, practical sense told him that if the rebellion was to be effectively squelched Absalom had to be gotten rid of. And this for him settled the matter.