Do you remember a previous time when two brothers were “in the field” and one of them was killed? Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:8). Of course, Cain and Abel were actually brothers and not fictitious characters (2 Sam. 14:4-11) to change the king’s mind about his own son, Absalom (vv. 2-3, 12-17). The wise woman of Tekoa (v. 2) was looking to have David consider Yahweh’s response to Cain who slayed his brother. Yahweh protected Cain, though he didn’t deserve it, and threatened anyone who would take vengeance upon him (Gen. 4:13-15).
Why would Joab seek to have the woman of Tekoa help change David’s mind about Absalom? Our English translations usually read like David is longing for his son to return home (2 Sam. 13:39; 14:1). So why doesn’t Joab just ask the king to simply welcome Absalom back? Once Absalom returns home (2 Sam. 14:21), why is he barred from King David’s presence for two years (2 Sam. 14:24, 28))? These questions make a bit more sense if David was not hoping Absalom would come back, but was against his son because he murdered Amnon. What does the text say?
Looking back at 2 Samuel 13:39 we read, “And the spirit of the king longed to go out to Absalom, because he was comforted about Amnon, since he was dead.” The word translated “longed” means “complete” or “bring to an end” (HALOT, 477). The phrase “to go out to” can be used in a hostile manner, “come out against,” as in Deuteronomy 28:7, “Yahweh will cause your enemies who rise against you to be defeated before you. They shall come out against you one way and flee before you seven ways.” Was David longing for Absalom to come home, or wearied, brought to an end, from seeking to come out against him? The end of 2 Samuel 14:1, “Now Joab the son of Zeruiah knew that the king’s heart went out to Absalom” could be translated “the king’s heart was against Absalom.” This would explain some of the questions above. Then again, why would David be so grieved over the death of Absalom (2 Sam. 18:32-33) who murdered Amnon, David’s firstborn, and who was seeking to take David’s kingdom, and did in some measure? A good question, but it doesn’t change how the text can be read, and that should at least be taken into consideration.
Let’s now jump ahead to Absalom’s return to Jerusalem and the events that follow. Events like burning your neighbor’s field for not “returning your call” (vv. 29-31). This is sure to get your neighbors attention, it did Joab’s, but is less than honorable. The authors note on Absalom’s appearance seems to disrupt the flow that would continue along just fine from v. 24 to v. 28. Why do we hear about how handsome Absalom is here? To prepare us for what lies ahead.
Two thoughts, the first is to make a connection between Absalom and Saul. Second, the reference to his appearance connects Absalom to both Saul and David at a particular point in their lives. Let’s unpack both of these. Of Saul we read, “And he had a son whose name was Saul, a handsome young man. There was not a man among the people of Israel more handsome than he. From his shoulders upward he was taller than any of the people” (1 Sam. 9:2). Of Absalom, “Now in all Israel there was no one so much to be praised for his handsome appearance as Absalom. From the sole of his foot to the crown of his head there was no blemish in him” (2 Sam. 14:25). Here are two men praised for their good looks, all the people loved them, but as Dale Ralph Davis says, “physical presence before men without internal submission to God makes for leadership disaster” (2 Samuel Out of Every Adversity, 183-184). It already did once (1 Sam. 15). Almost happened a second time when Samuel thought Eliab was the next one to be anointed, but Yahweh points out where His eyes look, “on the heart” (1 Sam. 16:6-7). Are we in store for more leadership disaster? Absalom will soon be like Saul in trying to hunt down David and have him killed (2 Sam. 17:1-4).
To see the connections between Absalom and Saul is easy enough, but what does appearance have to do with Absalom, Saul, and David? Saul’s appearance was spoken well of, as seen above, and a chapter later he is anointed king of Israel (1 Samuel 10:1). When David comes in from the fields, the last of Jesse’s sons, we read, “Now he was ruddy and had beautiful eyes and was handsome” (1 Sam. 16:10). After this, Yahweh tells Samuel to anoint David and he does so. Is Absalom about to be anointed as king? For those on top of their reading, you see Absalom’s grab for the crown already playing out in the following chapters.
But before we get there, Absalom is still living apart from the king’s presence in Jerusalem for two years (v. 28). This is where fire is used to get Joab’s attention (vv. 30-31). Absalom gives David an ultimatum on welcoming him back into his presence or killing him. Absalom deserved justice for his hatred and murder of Amnon, who should have been treated with by David in the first place. David kisses Absalom as the chapter closes, thus restoring him as a son. Since he has come back under the king’s favor others can, more safely, come alongside him, which they do. Absalom’s goal is total takeover. As readers we should see this coming when everything focuses on Absalom’s appearance and nothing on godly character or wisdom. God is clear what is required of overseers/elders in the church, and it has almost everything to do with godliness over giftedness (2 Timothy 3), God help me.