A Toxic Civil War

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We see here in this passage that God is always sovereign, and His Word always comes to pass—regardless of who seems to be in power, and who seems to be powerless. Shrewd counsel is disregarded, and bad counsel followed, and why? Because God determines the movements of men.

The Text:
“Moreover Ahithophel said unto Absalom, Let me now choose out twelve thousand men, and I will arise and pursue after David this night . . .” (2 Sam. 17:1-29).

Summary of the Text:
Ahithophel advises immediate pursuit with 12,000 men, which would represent all of Israel (v. 1). They are vulnerable, they will all scatter, and David only will be struck (v. 2). The people will become Absalom’s and there will be peace (v. 3). Absalom and all the elders were pleased with this advice (v. 4). But Absalom wanted a second opinion and called for Hushai (v. 5). When Hushai arrived, Absalom summarized Ahithophel’s counsel, and asked Hushai what he thought (v. 6).

Hushai began diplomatically—Ahithophel’s counsel is not good this time (v. 7). Hushai then begins to undermine the revolt with bad counsel (v. 8). David’s men are chafed and David is shrewd (v. 9). He will be hidden, and so our first assault will not go well (v. 10). Rumor of disaster will spread and Absalom’s brave warriors will be rocked (v. 10). So Hushai advises him to take time to assemble a huge host, and to lead it himself (v. 11). We will come upon David in “some place” and fall on him like the dew (v. 12), killing everyone. If he retreats into “some city,” we will have enough troops to level that city (v. 13). And so Absalom and all the elders were persuaded by Hushai (v. 14)—because it was the Lord’s purpose to thwart the good counsel of Ahithophel.

David had left Zadok and Abiathar the priests behind, and Hushai told them what Ahithophel’s counsel had been, and what he had said (v. 15). He told them to send word to David to get across the Jordan (v. 16). Now two priests had been stationed at En-rogel, and a maidservant carried the message to them (v. 17). They were spotted, but got away to Bahurim (Shimei’s hometown), and a man there had a well in his court which they hid in (v. 18). And the housewife there spread a covering over the well, and spread grain over it (v. 19). When Absalom’s servants came, they were searching for Ahimaaz and Jonathan by name, and the woman said, “Thataway” (v. 20). When it was clear, the two men came out of the well, and went and warned David (v. 21). David heeded the warning, and everyone got over the Jordan (v. 22).

When Ahithophel saw what had happened, he went to his hometown, put his affairs in order, and hanged himself (v. 23). This is probably due as much to his foresight as to the fact that he had lost face. One of the principles of war is pursuit, and he knew that neglect of that principle here meant that the revolt would fail, and that he would be punished for his treachery. David came to Mahanaim, a walled city across the Jordan, and Absalom followed (v. 24). Amasa was made commander—he, like Joab, was David’s nephew, making him Joab’s first cousin (v. 25). This was a toxic civil war. Ahithophel was David’s grandfather-in-law, Absalom was his son, and the rival commanders were first cousins, nephews of David.

Absalom’s army pitched their camp in Gilead (v. 26). When David was holed up in Mahanaim, provisions were brought to him by the Ammonites (v. 27), and by Machir and Barzillai. You should remember Machir as the kind-hearted man who had been taking care of Jonathan’s son Mephibosheth (2 Sam. 9:4-5). These men brought all kinds of provisions (vv. 28-29), for David’s men were hungry, thirsty, and weary (v. 29).

Cloak and Dagger:
This section contains a great deal of high intrigue. Secret agents at court, high priests playing politics, a handmaiden carrying a message, priests on the run, and loyalists to the king hiding in a well.

All this serves to illustrate a point we have made before, but which needs to be made again with a passage like this one. Nothing is more obvious than that deception is a lawful weapon in time of war. As killing and murder are related, so also are deception and lying related. From Hushai’s valiant and courageous behavior in the court of the enemy to the behavior of the woman of Bahurim (let us call her Thataway Jane), we see that this is part of the arsenal of warfare. Contrary to the beliefs of some pietists, this is not simply “excused” behavior. Rahab was justified by her works when she sent out the spies another way than she said she did (Jas. 2:25).

Rightly understood, this does not undermine sola fide—the only point I am concerned to make here is that Rahab’s deception was a good work that needs to rightly related to her faith, not a bad work that her faith brought about forgiveness for.

Our Sovereign God:
The reason why Absalom and the elders believed Hushai can be answered on two different levels, and both of them are genuine. First, Hushai deceptively used both flattery and fear, and in addition he played to Absalom’s lust for blood. He flattered Ahithophel (“this time”) and Absalom (“you well know). He then played to Absalom’s fears, invoking David’s experience and military genius, the anger of his men, the way rumors fly through armies, and so on. And in contrast to Ahithophel, who counseled that they seek to take just David, Hushai’s strategy played up the potential for a bloodbath. So that was one reason he was believed. He knew his audience well, and played them that way.

The second reason he was believed is that the Lord had ordained or appointed evil for Absalom. Absalom would make all the decisions that would place his neck in the crook of that tree, and he would do so because God had willed it.

A New Rahab:
God’s people are called to prevail by means of faith. This is what Rahab did. She acted, certainly, but her actions were resting on the foundation of faith (Jas. 2:25). The woman in this story is another Rahab, delivering two spies just as Rahab had done—hiding them, and sending them out by another way. She also was a woman of faith, and was used by God to deliver a king. Rahab did it by becoming that king’s great great-grandmother. This unnamed woman did it by delivering that king from the schemes of his own son.

Contrasted with this faith we see in this passage the impotence of worldly wisdom. Ahithophel sees the situation very clearly, but he can’t steer it contrary to what God has settled. “The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord, as the rivers of water: He turneth it whithersoever he will” (Prov. 21:1).

A member of Christ’s council chamber was also too clever by half, and Judas went and hanged himself. And if the rulers of this age had know what all their scheming was going to result in—your salvation—they wouldn’t have done it (1 Cor. 2:8).

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8 years ago

” Nothing is more obvious than that deception is a lawful weapon in time of war. As killing and murder are related, so also are deception and lying related.”


I had never seen a biblical basis for this presented. Thank you for doing so.