Absalom’s Murder of Amnon

Absalom thought it wise to wait two full years be­fore avenging Tamar. That would make it appear that he had no intention of laying violent hands on Amnon. According to ver. 23, he had an establish­ment for the grazing and rearing of sheep in Baal-hazor adjoining Ephraim approximately eight miles from Jerusalem. It probably shows that all the sons of the king had landed possessions. It being the sea­son of sheep shearing, he planned a festival on his es­tate to which he invited all the king’s sons including Amnon. David, too, was asked to come. But the king refused. It would be too great an imposition on Ab­salom’s hospitality should they all attend his festival. And no amount of urging on his part could cause Da­vid to change his mind. Because he was planning to slay Amnon on the feast, he could not really have wanted his father to be present. That he neverthe­less pressed him is explained by the fact that he there­by thought to make it appear that his intentions were honorable and that he was not trying to create for himself an opportunity for slaying Amnon.

Thinking it safe to proceed, he now besought his father to consent to Amnon’s going with them. But the king was also unwilling that Amnon go with them. This is indicated by his question, “why should he go with thee?” He was aware of Absalom’s hatred to Am­non. But he continued to press David and so he final­ly yielded. In wanting to slay Amnon, Absalom was activated by a desire to maintain the honor of his sis­ter. But he may have had still another motive. Am­non was the firstborn and heir-apparent. With him out of the way, he would be one step nearer the throne. His ambition—and it was strong. For afterwards it led him into rebellion—must have welcomed this pre­text for slaying Amnon.

The plot had been well contrived. The actual slay­ing was to be done by the servants. When Amnon’s heart was merry with wine, Absalom would say, “’Smite Amnon!” That was to be the sign. And they were not to fear but to consider that it was he who had commanded them. And his parting words to them were, “Be courageous, and be valiant.”

The servants did as instructed. So was Amnon slain. Tidings came to David that Absalom had slain all the king’s sons to a man. David was overwhelmed. He tore his garments and lay on the earth and all his servants stood by with their clothes rent.

The same crafty and sharp-sighted Jonadab, who had advised Amnon regarding Tamar, seeing how the thing must be, corrected the report. His Lord must not suppose that they have slain all the king’s sons. Amnon alone is dead. Absalom had made up his mind two years ago to kill him. Soon the king’s sons ar­rive, and the assertion of Jonadab is confirmed.

David mourned for Amnon every day. As to Ab­salom, he fled to Geshur, where he remained for three years.

Absalom Recalled

Absalom then was fled to Geshur. “And David mourned for his son (that is, for Amnon) every day.” But when three years was gone by, he was comforted concerning his son that he was dead.” Time had heal­ed the wound that had been inflicted. And his heart cried for worthless Absalom, who was still a refugee in Geshur. His affection for this son was reassert­ing itself. Doubtless he would have recalled him at that moment, had he not been deterred by his sense of justice. For Absalom deserved banishment. He was a rebel, a usurper, in that, in slaying Amnon, he had taken the law in his own hands and this as inflamed by sheer malice and ambition. And so his crime was great, be it that Amnon had deserved to die.

Also David may have feared the possible reper­cussions of his inviting Absalom to return to Jerusa­lem. Doubtless his own family was against it, and the people at large might say that he was making light of Absalom’s crime. For Amnon’s vile deed may have been hushed up for Tamar’s sake, but not so Ab­salom’s fratricide. It had become generally known, it may be assumed, so that in the eyes of the people he stood condemned as one who had lifted up his hand against a brother without a cause.

But the text of the Scriptures is not explicit here. It does not reveal the inner workings of David’s mind. It is even a question among commentators how verse 39 (II Sam. 13:39) should be read. But the verse that follows it is clear. It reads, “Now Joab the son of Zeruiah perceived that the king’s heart was upon or towards Absalom.” There can be no doubt that here the text speaks of a kindly feeling of David toward Absalom, and not of a hostile feeling as does perhaps the preceding verse (II Sam. 13:39), which some translate, “And David the king held back from going forth af­ter Absalom, for he had consoled himself for Am­non, that he was dead.” But the objection to this ren­dering is that it reposes upon the unlikely assump­tion that David’s wrath had almost immediately sub­sided. What is more, the translation disagrees with the verse that follows (II Sam. 14:1), the sense of which is certainly that the heart of David was once more set upon Absalom in conscious paternal love.

Perceiving that David yearned for Absalom, Joab decided to move the king to recall the banished son. But that would not be easy, however strong David’s desire to have Absalom near him again. There pre­sents itself to Joab’s crafty mind a way out. David must be led to the desired resolution by the employ­ment of guile. But why should Joab be taking a hand in the matter? Perhaps he was activated by a genu­ine regard for David. But it is more likely that he thought to advance his own interests by ingratiating himself with them.

Joab’s scheme for moving David to lay aside his scruples against allowing Absalom to return was sin­gularly ingenious. It required for its execution a bold, shrewd and adroit woman, one gifted with a bright mind and capable by her fluency of speech to make an impression by words to be put into her mouth by Joab. She must also have a talent for acting the person and character of another.

Joab knew of such a woman, a resident of Tekoah, a place not far from Bethlehem. In the text she is called wise. Fetching her thence, he has her put on mourning apparel. She must also refrain from anoin­ting her head and thus assume the character of a wo­man who has long mourned for her dead. Thus attir­ed and with Joab’s word in her mouth she goes to the king. Doing obeisance by inclining with her face on the ground, she says, “Save O king”. “What is thy trouble,” he asks. The woman speaks her lines:

“Truly a widow am I. And dead is my husband. And thy handmaid had two sons, and they strove to­gether, the both of them, in the field. And there was none to deliver them, but the one smote the other and slew him. And behold, the whole family is risen a­gainst thy handmaid, and they say, Deliver him that smote his brother, that we may kill him for the life of his brother whom he slew; and they will destroy the heir also, so that they extinguish my coal that remaineth, in order not to place to my husband neither name nor remainder upon the face of the earth.”

The woman, of course, is dealing in fiction. There was not a word of truth in all that she said. No such calamity had befallen her. Her story was a sheer in­vention of Joab calculated to ensnare David. And therefore it was so constructed as to reflect the sad state or affairs in his own family, first the slaying of Amnon by Absalom and second that David was being pressed by his family to forbear recalling Absalom.

The king’s reply is somewhat indefinite. Says he to the woman, “Go to thy house and I will give com­mand concerning thee.” But what kind of command? Will he order an investigation and give a charge ac­cording to his findings? That must not happen. So she proceeds to prompt him still further. Says she to the king, “On me, my Lord the king be the iniquity and upon my father’s house and the king and his throne be innocent,” that is, if it be sinful of him to deliver her son out of the hand of the avenger of blood. Apparently the woman is poised on the brink of des­pair. The agony of soul she manages to feign is great. The king is moved. He says to her, “Whosoever saith aught against thee, bring him to me, and he shall touch thee no more.” This is somewhat clearer and more to the point. But the woman can be satisfied only with a definite promise confirmed by an oath. “I pray thee,” is now her entreaty, “let the king remember the Lord thy God,” that is, swear by the name of the Lord “that thou wouldest not suffer the avenger of blood to destroy any more, lest they destroy my son.” (Heb. Let the king remember the Lord thy God from the a­venger’s increasing to destroy. .  .). He speaks the oath for which she asks, “By the life of Jehovah if fall a hair of thy son to the ground.”

By the king’s oath the murderer is saved from death for his paternal inheritance. Has the king done right? Israel’s law provided for six cities of refuge, three on each side of the Jordan, to which a man kil­ling another by accident might flee from the vengeance of the kinsmen of the slain and be assured of a fair trial and a place where he might reside without fear of attack. But if the killing was premeditated the offender had to die. But in the hypothetical case that had been imagined by Joab the killing had been done in the heat of passion. It was not premeditated. So the woman said. But neither could it be called acci­dental. The law left it to the discretion of the jud­ges in Israel how to deal with all such cases. Deut. 19:1-13; Deut. 4:41-43; Num. 35:9-25. David’s error was that he rendered judgment without first having arran­ged for a trial,—a thing that the law required.

The woman’s purpose is to entrap the king It is the only object of her coming. From the favor already granted her she is sure of success. Having begged and received permission to speak just once more, she con­tinues her discourse. “Wherefore then,” she now says to the king, “hast thou thus contrived against the peo­ple of God? For the king doth speak this thing as one who is guilty in that the king does not fetch home again his banished,” meaning Absalom.

If it is right that her son be allowed to live—and her stand is that it is right—the king’s treatment of Absalom is a perversion of justice, an evil doing,, a crying shame and a sin against God’s people, a trav­esty on justice by which he disqualifies himself as king. According to the woman, he thus finds himself in a straight betwixt two. Either he must recall Ab­salom or pronounce his judgment regarding her case corrupt. Her reasoning is premised on the view that the two cases are the same and that on this account Absalom is entitled to the same gracious consideration that was given her son. The surprising boldness of the woman so to have ensnared the king. Doubtless she was sincere in this respect that she believed Ab­salom’s punishment unjust. As time would reveal there were many in Israel who shared this belief. Amnon’s cruelty had been great. And David had ta­ken no action. Absalom had taken the law in his own hand. That is true. But it also could be argued that he had simply done his duty by Tamar as her nearest kinsman. The unpopularity of Absalom’s exile may have been Joab’s reason for taking a hand in the mat­ter.

But the woman has more to say to the king.

“For surely we must die and are as water spilt on the ground, which cannot be gathered again; but God doth not take a soul; but he devised means (thinketh thoughts) that his banished one be not expelled from him.”

[“But God doth not take away a soul;” The Eng­lish—A.V. translates here, “Neither doth God respect any person.” But not so good. The other rendering agrees much better with the surrounding clauses of the verse.]

This is a remarkable statement. There seems to be wrapped up in it the essence of the whole Gospel of Christ.

There is this in the woman’s words: Dying we must die, that is, we must surely die. For we have transgressed. And once being dead, returned to the dust, we can no more be restored to this life than water spilt on the ground can be gathered. Banished are we through death from God’s sanctuary and from Canaan, the land of the living, God’s country. (Canaan was the heaven of the Old Testament church).

But God does not take away a life, leave His people, the elect of God, in the grave. But, however ill- deserving they may be, He has devised means, thought thoughts, for recalling him (them) His banished one (ones) from the prison house of this their death, that never again they be expelled from Him. And by His counsel He leads them during all the time of their earthly pilgrimage and thereupon takes them into glo­ry. And they shall ever be with the Lord.

Is this in substance what the woman says to the king? The form of her words allow us to say that it is.

But what to the woman’s mind has this all to say to David? Doubtless this: that he must show that the mind of God is in him by fetching his banished one home. Absalom must be recalled.

Doubtless she would have the king consider that the Lord has shown him this mercy in kind. Was not his sin great? And was it not forgiven him and his life spared?

But here the woman’s argument is exceptionally weak. God’s banished ones are the contrite of heart. And they are this because He fetches them home. But Absalom was hard and impenitent.

The woman now returns to her own case as though it were the real object of her coming from which for conscience sake she had strayed for a moment to point out to him his fault.

She explains what it is that has driven her to trouble the king with such a personal affair. Her kinsmen have frightened her by demanding her son. “Now therefore that I am come to speak of this matter unto my Lord the king is because the people have made me afraid.” In her extremity her thoughts had turned to the king. She must without fail appeal her case to him. Might she not prevail upon him to help her! “And thy handmaid said, I will by all means speak unto the king; it may be, that the king will perform the request of his handmaid.” And the firm confi­dence is hers that, now that he has heard her case, he will surely send deliverance. “For the king will hear, to deliver his handmaid out of the hand of the man that would destroy me and my son together out of the inheritance of God.” For she knows the king, is mindful of his virtues as king and judge. Even as an angel of God he is always determined to hear both sides of the case, and being gifted with uncommon wisdom and insight, his judgments are always impar­tial and true. And therefore she is certain that now, too, his word will be comforting (Heb.—will give rest). “Then thy handmaid said, The word of my lord the king shall now be comforting: for as an angel of God so is my lord the king to discern (Heb.—hear) good and bad.” This was her confidence when she was still in her place. And in this same confidence she now stands before him. She concludes her discourse with a blessing upon the king. Being a magistrate of such mental and spiritual excellencies, “the Lord thy God will be with thee.”

How much she esteemed him! Her flattery was purposeful. She had made it difficult for him to re­fuse to fulfill her request, seeing that she was expec­ting so much from his noble qualities. And her refer­ence was always to Absalom. It was his case that she was pleading under the cover of Joab’s literary fab­rication.

The king heard the woman out in silence. But he wondered. Her abrupt shift from her own affair to the case of Absalom struck him as strange. Taking her at her word she was on the brink of ruin. Her dis­quietude of soul was great. If so, could there at once be in her mind the inclination and the will to be oc­cupied with the troubles of another? It wasn’t nat­ural. And what amazing audacity for one of her sta­tion to be taking to task Israel’s king and regarding such an affair. And she a woman. It couldn’t sim­ply be. The woman must be a tool of some person of rank. That his thoughts turned to Joab was perhaps because all along he had been urging the king to recall Absalom. So the king says to her, “Do not by any means hide from me the thing that I—I, thy king—am now asking thee.” Respectfully she replies, “Pray, let my Lord the king speak.” And so he puts to her the question, “Is not the hand of Joab with thee in all this?”

There is no evidence in the text that the woman is frightened. She is far too intelligent not to have forseen this moment and prepare for it. To pacify his displeasure, she replies in the form of a compliment to his keenness of discernment. “As thy soul liveth my lord the king, if there is anything on the right or ‘the left from all that my lord the king speaketh,” meaning that as he has surmised, so it is precisely. “For thy servant Joab,” she continues, “bade me, and he put all these words in the mouth of thine handmaid.” This is proof from the woman’s own mouth that her whole story was fictitious and that she has been feign­ing. And for what purpose? In the woman’s own lan­guage, “to turn the face of the thing hath thy servant Joab done this thing.”

“To turn the face or form of the thing.” “The thing” is David’s attitude toward Absalom. In order to change this attitude by bringing about a reconcil­iation hath Joab done this, that is, sent the woman to David with these words.

[The English A.V. translates here, “to fetch about this form of speech has thy servant Joab done this thing.” But not correctly.]

The woman makes a final appeal to the king’s wis­dom in order that he may be moved to make a decision favorable for Absalom. “And my Lord is wise, ac­cording to the wisdom of an angel of God, to know all things that are in the earth.”

Joab s artifice has its desired effect. The king com­municates his decision to Joab in person and mandates him to “go, therefore, bring the young man Absalom back again.” Joab is elated. He bows himself with his face to the ground and thanks the king in these words, “Today thy servant knoweth that I have found grace in thy sight, my lord, O king, in that the king hath fulfilled the request of his servant.” What his reaction reveals is that he has often in the past re­quested the king to do that very thing. So was Ab­salom brought back to Jerusalem.

G.M. Ophoff