Now Joab the son of Zeruiah perceived that the king’s heart was toward Absalom.
And Joab sent to Tekoah, and fetched thence a wise woman, and said unto her, I pray thee, feign thyself to be a mourner, and put on now mourning apparel, and anoint not thyself with oil, but be as a woman that had a long time mourned for the dead:
And come to the king, and speak on this manner unto him, So Joab put the words in her mouth. . .
And the king said unto Joab, Rehold now, I have done this thing: go therefore, bring the young man Absalom again.
David fell short in a way only too common to the children of God. Like Eli and Samuel before him, he was not able to evaluate and discipline his own children. When it came to other people and to other people’s children, he was hardly to be excelled in this respect; but with his own he failed badly. The result of this was his gross mis-evaluation of his son Absalom.
Absalom had always been a much more dearly loved child to David than Amnon had ever been. Judging from what we know of Amnon he was probably always a crude and rough child, one who offended almost everyone he met, including even his own parents. Absalom was different. He had many characteristics that to this day would commend him. He was a child of rare and unusual beauty to begin with. But in addition, he had a quick and clever mind, a personal warmth that attracted people on all levels to him, he possessed a self-confidence about him that was contagious and attractive to many, besides the fact that he was willing to go to any extreme, even in dishonesty, to establish himself in the favor of any that he wished to impress. These characteristics David had detected from the child’s earliest years, so that he loved to have Absalom with him whenever he could. What he refused to take note of was that underneath Absalom was as hard and ruthless as Amnon, and even more so. But David loved the child and his heart went out to him as it did to hardly any other person.
It was Joab, keen and perceptive man that he was, who first detected the real situation and its importance. It was evident to all that the slaying of Amnon had thrown David into a fit of deep depression. This was a serious matter, particularly as Joab saw it. He realized full well that the tremendous successfulness of David as a leader and king was to be found in his radiant enthusiasm and spiritual warmth which attracted the best element in Israel and solidified them in a united nation behind David. To his mind it was a crisis of most serious proportions if David would not soon come out of this fit of dark depression that hung heavy about him and seemed to drain the strength from his royal life. Moreover, Joab understood also the real reason for David’s mental depression. It was not that he was mourning, as many might think, for his slain son and heir to the throne, Amnon. It wasn’t even that he felt so much the shame of this great scandal that had marred the reputation of his family. No doubt he felt these things too, but by far the overwhelming burden for him was the fact that his favorite son Absalom was gone from his presence and would in all likelihood never return. This was more than even David’s strength of character could bear.
It was not that it had been unnecessary for Absalom to have fled. It had been. David was too much a man of law and justice to have left such an outright act of murder to go unpunished even if it was his favorite son who had done this. Absalom himself had realized this and wisely had taken himself to his mother’s family in Geshur. But, at the same time, it was not that the feelings of David’s heart agreed with the verdict of his mind. He loved his son Absalom as he did no other, and he found it impossible to forget that this beloved child of his was gone away into exile and could not be returned. It was worse than if the child were dead, just to know that he was living and yet could not be regained. The whole of three years passed by and the sorrow of David was not abated.
It was Joab, always the man of action, who finally determined that something had to be done for the sake of the sanity of David and for the sake of the nation.
Carefully as always, and with as much attention as though he were planning a major military campaign, Joab laid his plan.
Well known to him in the city of Tekoah was a woman whom he summoned to help him in his scheme. She was an extremely clever woman, warm of personality and attractive, with a peculiar ability to tell a story in a most convincing way, a good actress we would say in our day. It was particularly this latter ability which Joab needed to bring across his plan. For the sake of the nation, he thought, he had to convince David that it was quite permissible to bypass his convictions of justice and merely listen to the longings of his heart If this could be done, David’s joy would return, and the strength of their nation would be retained.
Thus it was that on a certain day, having been thoroughly instructed by Joab, the wise woman of Tekoah presented herself in the court of the king. Evidently it was the custom in those days, that if there was any one in the kingdom who was in the need of judgment or redress for some wrong or protection from some enemy, he might enter the royal court on certain days and lay his case before the king. Thus this woman also came in the pretense of being a widow, the mother of two sons, and the case as she presented it was as follows. Approaching the throne of the king, she did the proper obeisance, and said, “Help, O king.” And the king said unto her. “What aileth thee?” and she answered, “I am indeed a widow woman, and mine husband is dead. And thy handmaid had two sons, and they two strove together in the field, and there was none to part them, but the one smote the other, and slew him. And, behold, the whole family is risen against thine handmaid, and they said, Deliver him that smote his brother, that we may kill him, for the life of his brother whom he slew; and we will destroy the heir also: and so they shall quench my coal which is left, and shall leave to my husband neither name nor remainder upon the earth.”
It was a difficult case which the woman presented; Joab had designed it so. Here again was a case, in all probability, of outright murder, although it was vaguely enough presented so as not to be necessarily and disgustingly so. Meanwhile, over against this was an appeal to one of the dearest principles in Israel, the need to maintain the name of every family in Israel as far as possible on into the future promise of the nation. But this was not the whole story: the appeal to the principle of inheritance in the future of Israel was only a bolstering point to maintain and strengthen the overwhelming factor in this case, the love of a parent for her child which simply could not let him go no matter what his sin.
Behind this, of course, was all of the calculating cleverness of Joab’s mind. He knew that what kept David from recalling Absalom was his utter dedication to justice regardless of personal consideration. So deep was this commitment that, if Joab would have gone to argue the pointy directly with David, he would have gotten nowhere. But Joab also knew that David as a man of strong intellect was one who abhorred all contradiction, particularly in his own life. Thus, if in a parallel case, Joab could get David to decree that justice. might be bypassed in consideration for the love of a mother and her dedication to the future of Israel, then he would have a point of leverage upon which he could argue that David, for the sake of consistency, ought to be willing to do the same in his own case.
Likewise, the fictitious case which the woman of Tekoah presented was cleverly designed. Its parallel to the case of David’s was there, although not too evidently so. As with David, this woman’s case concerned a son who had killed his brother in a manner demanding punishment; and as with David, there was an overwhelming flow of parental love which sought to have the punishment canceled. The difference was that in this instance the need for punishment was not quite so clearly established, while the love of the parent had more reason to demand consideration. It was like a clever debater’s trick, one only too often used to assault the principles of God’s law. If through the presentation of a most difficult case, it can be established that justice does not always rule, that by moving on step by step the importance of following justice can be destroyed completely.
David felt immediately upon hearing this case that there was a most difficult point involved. Accordingly, his first impulse was to go carefully and take time to think the matter over. So he answered the woman with an indefinite promise, “Go to thine house, and I will give charge concerning thee.”
It was here where all the cleverness of this woman from Tekoah was called upon. To allow David to ponder the case at length, and maybe even begin to investigate details, would ruin the purpose of Joab completely. She had to move the king on to a quick and final decision. Accordingly she replied to the king, “My lord, O king, the iniquity be on me, and on my father’s house: and the king and his throne be guiltless.” It was a daring thing to do, to argue with the command of the king; but this was a woman of courage and of confidence in her own appeal. But it was also effective. Drawn to the woman in sympathy, David gave in and said, “Whosoever saith ought unto thee, bring him to me, and he shall not touch thee any more.”
The point was now gained, and the courage of the woman was sufficient to be able to move in still further even to bringing the king’s own personal practice into question. Rather than turning to leave, she went on to say, “I pray thee, let the king remember the LORD thy God, that thou wouldest not suffer the revengers of blood to destroy any more, lest they destroy my son.” She was determined first to drive the point which she had established home; and she did, for David replied, “As the LORD liveth, there shall not one hair of thy son fall to the earth.” So she proceeded, “Let thine handmaid, I pray thee, speak one word unto my lord the king.” Again he answered, “Say on”, and she did, saying, “Wherefore then hast thou thought such a thing against the people of God? for the king doth speak this thing as one which is faulty, in that the king doth not fetch home again his banished. For we must needs die, and are as water spilt on the ground, which cannot be gathered up again; neither doth God respect any person: yet doth he devise means, that his banished be not expelled from him. Now therefore that I am come to speak of this thing unto my lord the king, it is because the people have made me afraid: and thy handmaid said, I will now speak unto the king; it may be that the king will perform the request of his handmaid. 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. Then thine handmaid said, The word of the lord the king shall now be comfortable: for as an angel of God, so is my lord the king to discern good and bad: therefore the LORD thy God will be with thee.”
At last David came to see through what it was that was happening. Quickly he said to the woman, “Hide not from me, I pray thee, the thing that I shall ask thee. Is not the hand of Joab with thee in all this?”
Again all the cleverness of this woman was called upon. Carefully she explained, “As thy soul liveth, my lord the king, none can turn to the right hand or to the left from ought that my lord the king hath spoken: for thy servant Joab, he bade me, and he put all these words in the mouth of thine handmaid: to fetch about this form of speech hath thy servant Joab done this thing: and my lord is wise, according to the wisdom of an angel of God, to know all things that are in the earth.”
If there was anger in David at the discovery of the fraud, it was overcome by the open frankness of the woman. Besides, David’s heart cried out for the conclusion to which Joab was trying to lead him. Calling his captain to him, he said, “Behold now, I have done this thing: go therefore, bring the young man Absalom again.” It was a decision that both David and Joab would live to severely regret.