This psalm gives us some context with its opening verse. “A song of David, when he fled from Absalom his son (Psalms 3:1).” It’s a reference back to the saga that we read about in the books of Samuel, when David, the poet/warrior/king of Israel suffered a rebellion at the hands of his own son. While he was on the run, this is a reflection of his feelings. “I will not fear ten thousands of people, who have set themselves against me all around (Psalms 3:7).” Even though David was fighting an army lead by the ultimate betrayer – his son – his faith in God remained steadfast enough to get him through. David is credited with writing many of the Psalms, so I’m sure we’ll encounter him a lot over the next 147 chapters!
God is angry at the people, and His reaction was to tell David to count the people. I’m not quite sure why one is a result of the other, but it’s clear throughout Tanakh that numbering the people is a huge deal for some reason. Regardless of the provocation, David complies, and sends Joab to take a census of the people. “And Joab said to the king, ‘May the Lord your God add to the people a hundredfold of whatsoever they may be, and the eyes of my lord, the king may see it; but my lord the king, why does he desire such a thing (Samuel II 24:3)?'” Joab, like me, clearly doesn’t get why he’s been given this task. But he goes along with it, and goes out to count the people.
We hear about Joab’s travels for a while. It takes him months to complete his task. “And Joab presented the sum of the number of the people to the king; And Israel consisted of eight hundred thousand valiant men that drew the sword; and the men of Judah were five hundred thousand men (Samuel II 24:9).” These are formidable numbers, showing that the Israelites were a strong fighting force. They were clearly a power within the region under the reign of David.
Things don’t go well though. David deeply regrets numbering the people, and says that he sinned before God in doing so. Again, I don’t know why. Is numbering hubris? Is it something that people aren’t supposed to know? Honestly, it just seems like a practical measure to take, so I have no idea why it’s so upsetting. David is freaking out though, and he goes to a prophet to intercede with God. David is given three choices. He can choose a famine, a pestilence, or war. He decides to take the punishment of three days of pestilence in the land. “So the Lord sent a pestilence upon Israel from the morning until the appointed time; And there died of the people from Dan to Beersheba seventy thousand men (Samuel II 24:15).” I guess the census is no longer relevant, because the people have definitely fallen in number since Joab’s count.
The angel that has brought the pestilence gets a little overzealous. He goes to destroy Jerusalem, but God regrets it. In order to end the chaos, David is instructed to build a new altar to God in Jerusalem – specifically, in the threshing floor of Aravnah the Jebusite. So David goes to this guy Aravnah, and he gives him his property. Well, he tries, but David insists on paying for it, so that no one will be able to say that he built his altar on a place that he got for nothing. So David builds an altar, and the plague leaves Israel.
With this, the books of Samuel are over. It’s always exciting to start a new part of Tanakh, and I have to savor these small achievements, because in a few months the books will each get super long and they won’t come along as regularly. I’m excited to get up to the stories of Solomon, and to see how they measure up to the versions that I learned growing up. Other than that, I’m not sure what exactly awaits in the two books of Kings, but I’m eager to find out. 642 chapters to go!
Just as Jacob and Moses gave long speeches as their final words, David also goes out with profound words. “And these are the last words of David; the saying of David the son of Jesse, and the saying of the man raised on high, the anointed of the God of Jacob, And the sweet singer of Israel (Samuel II 23:1).” Last words theoretically are the chance for a dying man to share his ultimate wisdom, the things that he wants to linger for the next generation. Therefore, a lot can be understood about a person’s beliefs and priorities by what they choose to say in these moments.
“The God of Israel said, concerning me spoke the Rock of Israel, ‘A ruler over men shall be the righteous, he that rules in the fear of God (Samuel II 23:3).'” Leadership can’t be corrupt if the ultimate authority remains God, rather than the ruler. David always bowed to God, keeping him from being an absolute ruler in a time when most kings felt that they had divine right.
David remembers the brave men that served him in battle and in leadership. It says a lot that even as he thinks about himself, he has a whole list of others to think about too. This, combined with his reliance on God, shows that he was humble, even until the end.
“And David spoke to the Lord the words of this song, on the day that the Lord delivered him from the hand of all his enemies, and from the hand of Saul (Samuel II 22:1).” Does this indicate that in the end, Saul was one of David’s enemies? Or is it not meant to equate the two, but rather to note all that David overcame, both with regards to Saul and his enemies? Either way, this is a song of David, something that I imagine I’ll be typing for months once we get to the psalms. David is a poet and a lyricist, so it’s obviously beautiful, but higher on flowery language than content.
David describes God as his rock and shield, which makes sense, as he’s thanking God for saving him from his enemies. “When I am in distress, I call upon the Lord, yes I call upon my God: and out of His abode He hears my voice, and my cry enters His ears (Samuel II 22:7).” This seems to speak to the very personal relationship that God and David has. David speaking to God is almost like calling a friend who you turn to when things get tough. It’s just that David’s friend has infinite power and the ability to both bless and curse.
God is greatly anthropomorphic in this chapter. David describes Him in humanized terms, which I guess makes sense, because it’s the only way that human beings can begin to relate to an unknown deity. “And He bent the heavens and He came down; and thick darkness was under His feet. And He rode upon a cherub and did fly; He was seen upon the wings of the wing (Samuel II 22:10-11).” God is, of course, everywhere, all the time. So what does it mean for Him to be in a specific place or doing a certain thing? Does this mean that His presence was concentrated there, and therefore that’s where it was felt, or most in evidence? Is David being literal, which would be beyond belief in many ways, or is all of this a metaphor for God’s strength?
“With a kind one, You show Yourself kind. With an upright mighty man, You show Yourself upright. With a pure one, You show Yourself pure; But with a perverse one, You deal crookedly (Samuel II 22:26-27).” This seems to say that God deals with all of us on our own terms. Just as a parent doesn’t parent each of their children the same way, our own behaviors are reflected in how God treats us. We get what we deserve from our relationships with Him. David, having been victorious, knows that he is worthy of his rewards, because God wouldn’t have saved him if he hadn’t been righteous. It must be very validating to have that kind of unshakable faith. I like it because it makes people responsible for their actions, because God’s treatment of us is based on what we do.
God has done a lot for David. “Therefore I will give thanks to You, O Lord, among the nations, and to Your name I will sing praises (Samuel II 22:50).”
Time passes. “And there was a famine in the days of David for three years, year after year. And David sought the face of the Lord. And the Lord said, ‘For Saul, and for his bloody house, because he put to death the Gibeonites (Samuel II 21:1).'” David wants to make amends with the Gibeonites in order to end the famine. He asks them what he can do in order to make things right. They don’t want gold though, or anything else of material value. What they want is much bloodier.
“And they said to the king, ‘The man who consumed us and who plotted [against] us that we be destroyed from remaining within any of Israel’s borders (Samuel II 21:5).'” Essentially, they want to kill Saul’s remaining descendants. David, who loved Saul, doesn’t protest at all, but delivers them. He only takes pity on Mephibosheth, because of his great love for Jonathan. But the rest of Saul’s blood, the sons of his concubine and his daughters, are hanged by the Gibeonites. Seven men in total are killed in order to make up for the slight to the Gibeonites.
Rizpah, who was Saul’s concubine, and the mother of two of the murdered men, attempts to protect the bodies of her sons. David sees this, and takes the bones of Saul and Jonathan and brings them to the site of these new deaths. Then, all the men of the family are finally buried together, near the home of Saul’s father. This whole story is crazy. I don’t fully recall what happened between Saul and the Gibeonites, but that David just hands over innocent men to die, and God seems to endorse it, is horrifying. It seems to work – the famine ends – but this only makes it worse. It shows that God wanted this kind of sacrifice, even though Jewish tradition teaches that God doesn’t want human sacrifices to please Him.
The Israel/Judah division continues. A man named Sheba, from the tribe of Benjamin, declared that Israel should go to the tents, rather than follow David. “And all the men of Israel went up from after David, following Sheba the son of Bichri, but the men of Judah cleaved to their king from the Jordan until Jerusalem (Samuel II 20:2).” David returns to Jerusalem, in spite of the divide amongst the people. He reunites with the wome that he left behind, his concubines. And then he calls for the men of Judah to rally to him. “And Amasa went to call together the men of Judah, but he tarried past the set time which he had appointed him (Samuel II 20:5).” David wanted the men quickly, but Amasa didn’t deliver. So David goes to Abishai, because he’s worried. He thinks that Sheba is more dangerous than Absalom was, so he sends Abishai to pursue him.
“And Joab’s men went after him with the archers and the slingers and all the warriors; and they went out of Jerusalem to pursue Sheba the son of Bichri (Samuel II 20:7).” Joab runs into Amasa while chasing Sheba, and greets him warmly. But Amasa doesn’t notice Joab’s sword, and ends up getting stabbed. Amasa bleeds, and Joab continues to pursue Sheba. This is all told with remarkably little emotion, even for this level of drama. Joab tracks Sheba to a city. A wise woman from within the city calls to him. “I am of that are peaceful and faithful to Israel; Do you seek to destroy a city and a mother in Israel? Why should you swallow up the inheritance of the Lord (Samuel II 20:19)?” Joab explains that he’s not there to destroy the city, he only wants Sheba. So the women of the city band together to behead Sheba and throw his head over the wall so that Joab will leave the city alone. Again, this is told matter of factly, when it’s an insane story. The people just behead him? How is this a thing? Sometimes Tanakh stories are truly bizarre, especially the ones that tended to get passed over when I was in school. I don’t know what to make of them. Why were they important enough to get canonized, but not to be explained or regularly taught?
David’s camp is a large one at this point, and he’s still on the run from Absalom. “And David sent forth the people, a third in the hands of Joab, a third in the hands of Abishai the son of Zeruiah, Joab’s brother, and a third under the hands of Ittai the Gittite. And the king said to the people, ‘I too will go forth with you (Samuel II 18:2).'” The people love David, though, and they tell David to stay behind so that no one will notice them and attack. So David stayed in the city while his people split up. Even though his son had declared rebellion against him, David still loved Absalom. “And the king commanded Joab and Abishai and Ittai saying, ‘Deal gently for me with the youth, with Absalom.’ And all the people heard when the king commanded all the captains regarding Absalom (samuel II 18:5).”
A battle finally takes place, with thousands dying in the civil war. Absalom is riding on a mule, and his long hair gets caught in the branches of a tree. “And a man saw it and told Joab. And he said, ‘Behold I saw Absalom hanging in a terebinth (Samuel II 18:10).'” Joab asks the man why he didn’t kill Absalom, in spite of David asking that they deal gently with his son. The man reminds him of this, but Joab doesn’t listen. He personally kills Absalom while he’s trapped in the tree, totally ignoring David’s orders. Joab and the people bury Absalom, and then the Israelites disperse.
It’s only left for David to find out about the death of his son. This is terrible news for any father to receive, even a father who had recently been warring with his child. David is left in the city, and sees a messenger coming with the news, which he hopes will be news of peace. But that’s not the news that he receives, and the chapter ends with David learning of the death of Absalom.
I have to start this post with a confession. Yesterday, for the first time since I started this project over a year ago, was the first day that I truly forgot to post. I haven’t missed a day until now, and I’m slightly disappointed to have broken that perfect record. It wasn’t a noteworthy day, just a busy one, and it was only when I woke up this morning that I realized that I hadn’t ready my chapter. So there’ll be two posts today, and hopefully this lapse won’t happen again. As I’ve written before, I’ve never stuck with a project for this long before, and don’t want to get into a habit of slacking off.
So, David is on the run from Absalom, and he has left Jerusalem. All of a sudden, he runs into Zibah, the servant of Mephibosheth, Jonathan’s son. He brings provisions to David, including food and wine. “And the king said to Zibah, ‘What for are these to you?’ And Zibah said, ‘the asses are for the king’s household to ride on; and the bread and the summer fruit for the young men to eat; and the wine for the faint to drink in the wilderness (Samuel II 16:2).'” David is touched by the gesture, and asks where Mephibosheth is. It turns out he’s in Jerusalem, waiting for the crown to be restored to his family now that David has fled. As a result, David gives Mephibosheth’s possessions to Zibah as a reward for his loyalty.
Now, David meets another man who has a connection to Saul: Shimei, who comes at him cursing. “And he threw stones at David, and at all King David’s servants and at all the people and at all the mighty men who were on his right and on his left hand (Samuel II 16:6).” Shimei curses David for taking the throne from Saul, calling him evil and deserving of Absalom’s betrayal. Abishai asks for permission to kill Shimei, but David says no. It seems like David actually believes that he might be cursed, based on everything that’s happening to him.
David continues on his journey, and now, Absalom comes to Jerusalem with his followers. “And it came to pass when Hushai the Archite, David’s friend, had come to Absalom, that Hushai said to Absalom, ‘live the king, live the king (Samuel II 16:16).'” Absalom is suspicious as to why David’s friend would be showing him loyalty, but Hushai explains that he’s changed positions. Absalom consults one of his advisers, Ahithopel. The advice that he is given is to lay with his father’s concubines, who he left behind. This solidifies Absalom’s claim to the throne, and once again, it seems like there are two kings in Israel.
Absalom and David have finally reunited. “And it came to pass after this, that Absalom made for himself a chariot and horses, and fifty men were running before him (Samuel II 15:1).” In addition, he would stand near the gates of the palace, and would intercept people who came to the king for judgment. He would tell them that the king’s judges were unavailable, and would offer them his own judgments. “And Absalom did likewise to all the Israelites that came to the king for judgment. And Absalom stole the hearts of the men of Israel (Samuel II 15:6).” The phrase stole the hearts is interesting here. Absalom didn’t necessarily make bad judgments, but he made them under false pretenses. The people who felt indebted to him only did so because of a false understanding of the reality of the situation.
After forty years, Absalom asked his father to go to Hebron, saying that he had made a vow to God to go serve Him. “And the king said to him, ‘Go in peace.’ And he arose and went to Hebron (Samuel II 15:9).” During his time in Hebron, Absalom sent spies throughout Israel. He began plotting to take the throne from his father. He began gathering followers, and David found out. David was in Jerusalem, and he took his household and fled the city. David doesn’t seem to be shocked about his son’s betrayal, and he doesn’t fight at first. He springs into action to leave, along with his wives and children. “And all the land wept with a loud voice, and all the people passed over; and the king passed over the brook Kidron, and all the people passed over toward the way of the wilderness (Samuel II 15:23).”
The Levites came along with David too, along with the ark. But David told Zadok, the high priest, to take it back to Jerusalem, because he believed that he would return to the city. So the priests returned to the city, and David cried.
Absalom has killed his brother Amnon, which would normally be an unforgivable crime. But the reason for his actions introduces a gray area. And to add to this, David misses his son. “And Joab the son of Zeruiah knew that the king’s heart [longed] for Absalom (Samuel II 14:1).” Joab comes up with a plan. He finds a wise woman and tells her to dress as a mourner and come to David, where he will tell her what to say. She tells a story about being a widow with two sons who fought, and one killed the other.
“And she said, ‘I beg you, let the king remember the Lord your God that the avenger of blood destroy not excessively so that they destroy not my son.’ And he said, ‘As the Lord lives, if one hair of your son shall fall to the earth (Samuel II 14:11).'” This continues in a complicated parable that is meant to soften David’s heart towards Absalom, and to let him know that it’s okay to bring him back from his exile. “And the king said to Joab, ‘Behold now, you have done this thing, now go bring back the young man Absalom (Samuel II 14:21).'” Joab’s plan worked, and he goes to bring Absalom to Jerusalem. However, despite the fact that David misses his son, he refuses to see him when he returns.
“Now like Absalom there was not a man in all Israel as beautiful, to be as praiseworthy; from the sole of his feet to the crown of his head, there was no blemish in him (Samuel II 14:25).” Absalom is vain about his beauty. His long hair is his crowning glory, because of its length and weight. We are also told that Absalom had three sons and a daughter, and that his daughter was named Tamar. In typically frustrating biblical fashion, there’s no reference made to his sister. Did he name his daughter after her because she died? Or to honor her? We have no idea, with the women once again remaining silent in the narrative.
For two years, Absalom is back in Jerusalem without seeing his father. He asks Joab repeatedly to send him before the king, but Joab ignores him. “And he said to his servants, ‘See, Joab’s field is near mine, and he has barley there; go and set it on fire.’ And Absalom’s servants set the field on fire (Samuel II 14:30).” This seems like a dramatic reaction, but it has the desired result. Joab gets Absalom his audience, and father and son reunite with kisses.