Absalom led a fierce rebellion against his father, David, but his coup attempt did not last long. He should have listened to his adviser Ahithophel, who proposed leading a small force to defeat David quickly (2 Sam. 17:1–4). The author of Samuel even calls Ahithophel’s counsel “good” (v. 14), not because it was godly advice but because it was wise from a human military perspective. Had Absalom listened to Ahithophel, David would have been dead and Absalom would have been on the throne. Instead, Absalom heeded the counsel of Hushai the Archite, who, unbeknownst to Absalom, was David’s man on the inside (15:32–37). Hushai advised Absalom to raise a much larger army and, playing on the prince’s vanity, told him to go into battle against David himself in order to increase Absalom’s fame (17:5–14).
Hushai’s advice was not good from a human military perspective because it would put Absalom in harm’s way and because mustering a larger army would give David time to escape. Yet, Absalom followed Hushai’s counsel, for “the LORD had ordained to defeat the good counsel of Ahithophel, so that the LORD might bring harm upon Absalom” (v. 14). As God so often does with His people, He would deliver David not through some miraculous intervention but through ordinary means—vanity and military counsel.
While Absalom gathered his army, David escaped to Mahanaim, about thirty miles northeast of Jerusalem. There, he received provisions from Shobi, Machir, and Barzillai, wealthy men whose assistance put them at risk in case Absalom won (9:4–5; 19:31–40). But they helped David because they knew he was God’s appointed king.
Although David’s force was outnumbered, the military advantage went to his troops because Absalom had to pass through a wilderness where he could easily be ambushed. On his way to the battle, Absalom got his head caught in the branches of an oak (18:1–9). Traditionally, commentators have said that Absalom got caught because his long, luxurious hair got tangled in the tree (14:25–27). This may have been the case, but the text does not state that explicitly.
Once Absalom was stuck, Joab did what David was unwilling to do and led the soldiers to put Absalom to death (18: 10–15). Absalom received an ignominious burial under a heap of stones after being cursed for hanging on a tree, for that is what this rebellious son deserved (vv. 16–18; see Deut. 21:23; Josh. 7:1–8:29; 10:1–27).