The story of Absalom’s death in 2 Samuel 18 contains a number of significant allusions to 2 Samuel 11-13 that suggest that the events in chapter 18 may be viewed as a kind of just retribution for both David and Absalom. Note that the author already prepares us for allusions to this part of 2 Samuel by alluding to 2 Sam 9 and 10 in the verses leading up to chapter 18: Machir, the son of Ammiel reminds us of David’s kindness to Mephibosheth in 2 Sam 9, just as Shobi, the son of Nahash reminds us of David’s kindness to Hanun, the son of Nahash in 2 Sam 10. These allusions to stories where David showed kindness to potential enemies serve as a fitting introduction to 2 Samuel 18 where David once again wants to show kindness to an enemy – who in this case is his own son.
Yet from the very beginning of chapter 18 things do not go the way David had planned. Though he wants to go out with his troops, the people will not let him and David must stay behind in Mahanaim. This reminds us of chapter 11 where David also did not go out with his troops but stayed behind in Jerusalem. What followed in that chapter was David’s sin with Bathsheba und his subsequent orders to Joab to ensure that her husband Uriah dies in battle. When Uriah is indeed killed, David is informed about it by a messenger sent by Joab. His reaction?
Then David said to the messenger, “Thus you shall say to Joab: ‘Do not let this thing displease you, for the sword devours one as well as another. Strengthen your attack against the city, and overthrow it.’ So encourage him.” (2 Sam 11:25)
Compare this to chapter 18. While it appears that David stayed in Jerusalem by his own free choice in chapter 11, he wants to go out with the troops in chapter 18, but is not allowed to do so. Instead of doing everything he can to get one particular (innocent) man killed in battle, David is now very intent on saving one particular (guilty) man’s life in battle, but is unable to do so. In both cases Joab receives orders from David and sends a messenger back to David with news of what happened. David’s reaction at the end of chapter 18?
Then the king was deeply moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept. And as he went, he said thus: “O my son Absalom — my son, my son Absalom — if only I had died in your place! O Absalom my son, my son!” (2 Sam 18:33)
The main reason why David reacts the way he does in chapter 18 is because Absalom is his son. Uriah on the other hand was “only” one of his soldiers. Yet through the death of his son Absalom in battle David now experiences what those who were close to Uriah (in particular Bathsheba) must have gone through in chapter 11. Just as Uriah’s relatives were powerless to save Uriah in chapter 11, so David is powerless to save Absalom in chapter 18. What he did to others is now done to him.
Interestingly, this also applies to Absalom in chapter 18. Note that the author informs us in 18:9 that Absalom was riding on a mule when he fled from the servants of David. The last time, the word “mule” occurred in 2 Samuel was in chapter 13, when the king’s sons fled on their mules after Absalom had Amnon killed (13:29). Now Absalom himself is fleeing on a mule. Yet in the end he is killed by Joab’s servants while helplessly hanging in a tree, just like Amnon was helpless to defend himself against the servants of Absalom. What Absalom did to others is now done to him.
Both David and Absalom had another man killed and both received just retribution. Yet in contrast to Absalom, David does not die. Why not? Would not David’s death have been the true just retribution? The answer is yes and David was aware of this when he sobbed “if only I had died in your place” (18:33). David knew that he should have hung on that tree. Yet his life was spared and Absalom’s was not and the reason is given back in chapter 12:
Then David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the LORD.” And Nathan said to David, “The LORD also has taken away your sin; you shall not die. However, because by this deed you have given occasion to the enemies of the LORD to blaspheme, the child also that is born to you shall surely die.” (2 Sam 12:13-14)
David repented and acknowledged his sin and as a result did not die although he should have. Instead, his son died. Absalom on the other hand never repented and thus died for his own sin. His death on a tree foreshadowed the death of another Son of David. In contrast to Absalom, however, this other Son would not stir up rebellion and try to take the kingdom by force. Instead, He would live a life of humility and service to others. And when He would die on a tree, He would do so, not because of His own sin and rebellion against His Father, but in perfect obedience to His Father in order to make atonement for sinners, so that David and all others who repent and believe in Him might not perish but have everlasting life in the kingdom that He did not take, but which was given to Him (Dan 7:14).
Which means that when Absalom died, David was not just able to experience the pain he had caused those who loved Uriah, but also got a glimpse of what God went through when His (completely innocent) Son died.
O my son…if only I had died in your place!