Beyond the Lectionary Text: 2 Samuel 15:1-22
by Erin M. Stout
David’s sudden and dramatic turn from king to fugitive did not come out of the blue. A whole series of consequences from David’s actions – and inactions – now come to a terrible convergence.
Perhaps it started with David’s sin against Bathsheba and Uriah. David had known that Bathsheba was married, but he wanted her anyway. So while Uriah was away, in an abuse of his royal power, David sent for her, took her, and slept with her. When he learned that Bathsheba was pregnant, David attempted to cover up his crime – but when his plan was frustrated, he had Uriah killed. The prophet, Nathan, foretold the consequences:
‘You struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and took his wife to be your own. . . . Now, therefore, the sword will never depart from your house, because you despised me and took the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your own.’ This is what the LORD says: ‘Out of your own household I am going to bring calamity upon you. Before your very eyes I will take your wives and give them to one who is close to you, and he will lie with your wives in broad daylight. You did it in secret, but I will do this thing in broad daylight before all Israel.’ (2 Sam. 12:9-12)
The ominous words about violence in David’s household came true; and David’s response had more consequences. “In the course of time, Amnon son of David fell in love with Tamar, the beautiful sister of Absalom son of David” (2 Sam 13:1). With lust for his sister reminiscent of David’s lust for Bathsheba, Amnon devised a scheme to be alone with his sister. David, blind to Amnon’s intentions, became party to this happening: Amnon requested his sister, and David sent her (2 Sam 13:7). Amnon took Tamar, overpowered her, and raped her. When David learned about this he was upset. But he did nothing.
Because of David’s inaction and failure to execute justice, Absalom took matters into his own hands. After plotting vengeance for two years, Absalom prepared to have his brother murdered. David, blind to Absalom’s intentions, became party to this, too: Absalom requested Amnon’s presence, and David sent him (2 Sam 13:26-27). When the time was opportune, Absalom ordered his brother’s death and fled. David mourned for Amnon and longed for Absalom; but he did nothing either to execute justice, nor to reconcile with Absalom.
The consequences keep snowballing. After three years of estrangement, the relational distance between David and Absalom widened. When David finally called Absalom back home to Jerusalem, it is only because he had been manipulated into it (2 Sam. 14:1-21). Yet when Absalom returned, David refused to see him. “The king said, ‘He must go to his own house; he must not see my face.’ So Absalom went to his own house and did not see the face of the king. . . . Absalom lived two years in Jerusalem without seeing his father’s face” (2 Sam 14:24, 28). For a total of five years, David refused to see the face of his son. And it led to a further breakdown of the relationship. When David and Absalom finally did reunite, the narrator tells us that “the king kissed Absalom” (14:33). Did David intend for this kiss to be a sign of reconciliation, or was it the formal gesture of a king toward his subject? Either way, David’s relationship with Absalom is anything but mended.
And that brings us to our passage. All of that background – all the consequences of David’s actions and inactions – begin to converge right here. David’s distant relationship with his embittered son provides the perfect conditions for Absalom to act.
Right under his father’s nose, Absalom patiently sets up a conspiracy. “Absalom provided himself with a chariot and horses and with fifty men to run ahead of him” (15:1) – the trappings of royalty. While King David is preoccupied with other matters, Absalom gets up early and stations himself outside the city gate to meet those who are seeking justice from the king. With charisma, bitterness over his father’s lack of justice when his sister needed it, and feigned interest in the people’s concerns, Absalom laments, “Look, your claims are valid and proper, but there is no representative of the king to hear you. . . . If only I were appointed judge in the land! Then everyone who has a complaint or case could come to me, and I would see that he gets justice” (15:3, 4). And, reminiscent of his father’s kingly kiss when he himself once bowed before him, “Absalom would reach out his hand, take hold of [that person], and kiss him. . . . And so he stole the hearts of the people of Israel” (vv. 5, 6).
After four years of this, Absalom is ready to make his decisive move. He asks the king’s permission to offer a sacrifice to the LORD in Hebron, the king’s former capital city. David, unaware of Absalom’s intentions, tells him to go in peace. Once there, Absalom gathers and mobilizes his supporters (including Ahithophel – David’s advisor, and likely Bathsheba’s grandfather). “And so the conspiracy gained strength, and Absalom’s following kept on increasing” (v. 12).
When David receives word of what Absalom is doing, he knows that his kingship – which the people had once gifted him (5:1-3) – is being taken from him. He understands that his life is in jeopardy and that, if he remains in Jerusalem, the city is in danger of devastation. So David gathers his household and his bodyguards and flees.
As his bodyguards pass in front of him, David stops Ittai the Gittite, the commander of his mercenary group. David knows that Ittai is an exile from his homeland, and has only recently joined David’s company. He “has nothing to gain and everything to lose by remaining with David, and David knows it. He urges Ittai, “Go back and stay with King Absalom. . . . You came only yesterday. And today shall I make you wander about with us, when I do not know where I am going? Go back, and take your people with you. May the LORD show you kindness and faithfulness” (v.20).
But in remarkable contrast to Absalom’s treachery, Ittai proves his loyalty. To the man whose own decisions have brought him to this place, Ittai makes the most solemn of vows: “As surely as the LORD lives, and as my lord the king lives, wherever my lord the king may be, whether it means life or death, there may your servant be” (v.21). Ittai casts his lot with the LORD’s chosen king, even though it means laying his own life on the line.
In Ittai’s faithfulness to David (even in spite of David’s many faults), we are given a picture of the kindness and faithfulness of God. Though David was loved by many, he was a sinful man; and those closest to him bore the brunt of his errors. And yet, the LORD provides David with faithful leaders like Ittai, who would rather die than abandon him.
Through Ittai’s willingness to put his life on the line for David, God gives us a glimpse of Christ. “Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:6-8).
1. Youngblood, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 3
Several scholars have pointed out that Ittai’s name bears remarkable similarity to the Hebrew preposition, ‘iti, meaning “with me.” Ittai’s name reflects his relationship to the king: he is determined to stay with him, even if it means risking his life. Notably, throughout this passage the narrator continually repeats Ittai’s preposition, ‘it, even when he could have used its synonym, ‘im. The narrator is calling for us to pay attention to this: God has supplied support to be with David in his time of trouble.
“Absalom, Absalom” by singer-songwriter, Pierce Pettis, is a heartbreaking and haunting song about David’s relationship with Absalom. Written from David’s perspective after Absalom’s death, Pettis captures both David’s abiding love for his son, and his grief over his failure to be an honorable example. The song closes with these words:
You were the laughing boy who bounced upon my knee
You learned to play the harp and use the shepherd’s sling
Always watching, my impressionable son
Oh Absalom, what have I done?
You were watching when I took a good man’s wife
And gave the orders for his murder, just to cover up the crime
All the vanity, cruel arrogance, and greed
Oh Absalom, you learned it all from me.
Rev. Erin (Marshalek) Stout is associate pastor at Grace Valley Christian Reformed Church in German Valley, IL.