Passage: 2 Samuel 16:15–17:23
Have you ever found yourself caught in the middle of a power struggle? My first job out of college was working at the University of Arkansas, managing databases. It wasn’t nearly as exciting as it sounds. What made it worse was that my direct boss and my department boss didn’t see eye-to-eye on how things should be done, and since I was the low man on the totem pole, I was often caught in the middle. It wasn’t fun, but I’m sure my experience is not unique. If we went around the room today, there would probably be more than a few similar stories, whether from the workplace or even from a network of friends. Most of us have experienced a power struggle.
And that means we can relate, at least in part, to our passage this morning in 2 Samuel. As you heard in our reading, this passage is a power struggle between Ahithophel, who serves Absalom, and Hushai, who secretly remains loyal to David. Those two men vie for control, and in their struggle, the fate of the kingdom hangs in the balance. Whose counsel will win? Which man will prevail in the struggle for power?
And yet, at the same time, calling this passage a power struggle doesn’t tell the whole story. As we’ve often seen in 2 Samuel, there is a behind-the-scenes perspective that adds another layer to what’s going on. And that’s true here. On the one hand, yes, this is a power struggle between Absalom and David, manifested in the showdown between Ahithophel and Hushai. But on the other hand, that power struggle simply sets the stage for what we could call the ultimate power display. Here’s the theme of the passage. That power doesn’t come from Ahithophel or Hushai. It doesn’t even come from Absalom or David. No, the power on display in these verses is the power of God. That’s our theme. Behind the power struggle in David’s kingdom, there stands a sovereign God, and through these events, God displays his power in order to remind us that in all situations, he alone is sovereign.
The Sovereignty of God’s Word
So, with that theme in mind, let’s look now to the passage and see how Scripture develops this truth. I’d like us to see four aspects of God’s sovereign power this morning, with each one coming directly from the events of this passage. The first is found at the end of chapter 16, vv15-23. Here we see the Sovereignty of God’s Word. Ahithophel the Traitor is the main focus in these verses. Notice in v15 how he’s the only person mentioned by name with Absalom. Ahithophel will be the main focus, but before we get to him, we need to notice Hushai. You’ll remember that Hushai is David’s friend, but instead of taking Hushai along with him, David sent Hushai back to Jerusalem to serve as a double agent.
In vv16-19, Hushai brilliantly enacts David’s plan. With clever ambiguity, Hushai ingratiates himself to Absalom. Notice v16, where Hushai calls out “Long live the king!” Technically, Hushai doesn’t say who that king is. It very well could be David, at least in Hushai’s mind. Then notice his response to Absalom’s mocking question in v18 – “[F]or whom the LORD and this people and all the men of Israel have chosen, his will I be, and with him I will remain.” Again, it’s just ambiguous enough to make you wonder – whom has the Lord chosen? Isn’t it David? Even v19 carries on with this studied ambiguity. Notice that Hushai says he will serve the son of David, but he doesn’t say Absalom is that son. Hushai could just as easily be thinking of the true heir to the throne, the son who would rightfully succeed his father. You see, it’s subtle, but the strategy is brilliant. Hushai plays on Absalom’s pride. Absalom hears what he wants to hear. Absalom fancies himself as the king, the one whom God has chosen, and Hushai uses that pride to his advantage.
But for now, Hushai takes a backseat. The focus of this section is on Ahithophel, and in vv20-22, David’s former counselor enacts a plan of his own. And that’s the first thing you should notice about these verses – Ahithophel is a traitor. Many commentators call Ahithophel the Judas Iscariot of the OT, and that’s an apt description. Ahithophel was David’s friend, his counselor, but here, Ahithophel betrays David, seemingly without a second thought.
But that’s not all that should get your attention. Ahithophel may be a traitor, but he’s also wickedly effective at his job. Ahithophel is a royal advisor. Think of him as a political strategist but with more power. Absalom needs to act quickly to solidify his power, so in v20, he asks Ahithophel, “Give your counsel. What shall we do?” And Ahithophel’s plan is wickedly effective. V21 gives the details, and they are shameful – “Go in to your father’s concubines, whom he has left to keep the house, and all Israel will hear that you have made yourself a stench to your father, and the hands of all who are with you will be strengthened.” We don’t need to go into details here, either about the plan or the cultural background. It will be sufficient to note that in the ancient Near East, to take the king’s concubines was to take the king’s position.
So, you can see why we say Ahithophel’s counsel is wickedly effective. This is a vile and outrageous thing to do, but it will send exactly the message that Absalom wants to communicate. “My father is nothing,” Absalom will say. “He’s so weak, in fact, he cannot even protect those who belong to his house.”
And in v22, that’s exactly the message Absalom sends. Notice what the text says, and listen for the public nature of the act – “So they pitched a tent for Absalom on the roof. And Absalom went in to his father’s concubines in the sight of all Israel.” I know that is disturbing, and it should be. This is the peak of Absalom’s power. This is the pinnacle of his regime. For all intents and purposes, at this moment, Absalom rules the kingdom of Israel.
And yet, things are not hopeless, and the reason has to do with God’s Word. We’ve seen this point over the last several weeks, but we find it here again today. God is bringing to pass precisely what he said he would do. Chapter 12, vv11-12, in response to David’s sin with Bathsheba, God said, “Behold, I will raise up evil against you out of your own house…and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of the sun. For you did it secretly, but I will do this thing before all Israel and before the sun.” So, is Ahithophel’s counsel wicked? Yes. But does that wickedness overturn the word of God? Never.
Now, we’ve seen this same point the last several weeks, but there is a unique perspective here in chapter 16 that we shouldn’t miss. Please don’t let the repetition cloud the application. This is the highpoint of Absalom’s power. This is the pinnacle of his regime. But even still, Absalom cannot overturn the word of the Lord. Or to say it another way, Absalom may be powerful, but he is not sovereign.
Brothers and sisters, do you see the encouragement here? I know this is a hard scene, and I won’t pretend to scrub away all that’s hard about it. But I do hope to encourage us with this takeaway – The wicked of this world are never as powerful as they perceive themselves to be, and their position is never as secure as they presume it to be. At all times, God reigns sovereignly through his Word, and on the last day, this astonishing truth will be revealed – that even at their peak, the only thing the wicked accomplished was to further the purpose and plan of God.
Who knows what the future holds for the church? It may be that we have to live under an Absalom-like ruler someday, a ruler who opposes King Jesus and despises Christ’s church. That may be our future – only the Lord knows. But even if that is our future, hope is not lost, for as we see here with Absalom, the wicked can never overturn the sovereignty of God’s Word.
The Sovereignty of God’s Command
That brings us to the second aspect of God’s sovereign power, and it really flows right from the first. In vv1-14 of chapter 17, we see the Sovereignty of God’s Command. Ahithophel is still the focus here, at least for a few more verses. You’ll notice the last verse of chapter 16 described Ahithophel’s lofty reputation. Look there again, the end of chapter 16 – “Now in those days the counsel that Ahithophel gave was as if one consulted the word of God.” So, Ahithophel is revered almost like a prophet. When he speaks, people act as though God has spoken. Ahithophel’s reputation and insight are without compare. All of that to say, this doesn’t look good for David.
And indeed, as chapter 17 begins, Ahithophel lives up to his lofty reputation. He gives Absalom good counsel. Now, please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying Ahithophel’s counsel is morally good. It’s not; it’s wicked. But it is politically good. What Ahithophel advises Absalom to do is the correct military strategy. Vv1-4 give the details, but we can summarize it pretty quickly. Absalom should strike David right now, without delay. That is Ahithophel’s counsel, and he’s right. David will never be weaker than he is at this moment. Remember, David is at the Jordan River, exhausted from his 21-mile chaotic dash out of Jerusalem. He’s weary and discouraged. This is Absalom’s best chance. In fact, every second Absalom delays is another chance for David to escape and regroup. So, Ahithophel is right. If Absalom hopes to succeed in overthrowing his father, he needs to strike David right now.
But then something unexpected happens. Honestly, this is one of those turning points in biblical history that comes out of nowhere and catches you by surprise. V5 – Absalom asks for a second opinion, and the person he asks is none other than Hushai, David’s double agent. Think about that. Ahithophel gives counsel like the word of God, and yet, Absalom asks for a second opinion. Why? We’re not told, at least not yet. For now, we need to see that the door is open for Hushai, and with boldness, Hushai steps forward to undermine the esteemed Ahithophel. Vv7-13 give the details, and honestly, it’s a masterpiece of rhetoric. Notice with me, just briefly, how Hushai works.
First of all, Hushai introduces doubt. Look at v8 – Hushai suggests that Ahithophel has underestimated David. “Your father will be like an enraged mother bear, fighting for her cubs,” Hushai says to Absalom. You can’t risk crossing such a man. He’s dangerous. What’s more, David is an expert in strategy. He’s surely already hidden in safety. So, already, you can hear Hushai’s argument building. He’s sprinkled in enough of David’s history to introduce some doubt in Absalom’s mind.
But Hushai keeps going and warns of serious danger. Remember, back in v2, Ahithophel said the entire operation would be over in an instant. They would crash down on David’s camp, kill the king, and bring back the people. It all sounded so easy, no danger at all. But Hushai now turns that idea on its head. Notice vv9-10. Hushai warns Absalom of the worst-case scenario. What if you fail to kill David, some of your own men die in the battle, and word spreads that the rebellion has failed? Then what? If that happens, Hushai suggests, even Absalom’s bravest warriors will run in fear. Again, you can hear it. First, doubt, now danger – Hushai is making his case.
His final step is to propose a safer strategy. Vv11-13 recount the plan, and again, Hushai plays on Absalom’s pride. Notice specifically v11 – “But my counsel is that all Israel be gathered to you, from Dan to Beersheba, as the sand by the sea for multitude, and that you go to battle in person.” You’ll recall Ahithophel offered to lead the strike force himself, that very night. But Hushai subtly responds, “No, don’t let Ahithophel get the glory. You lead the army, Absalom. Yes, it will take longer to organize, but think about the sight – all of Israel, under your command.” You can almost see Absalom’s eyes getting wider at the thought, can’t you? It’s too much for the prideful man to resist.
And so, what was unthinkable just a few verses earlier now becomes a reality. Notice the first line of v14 – “And Absalom and all the men of Israel said, ‘The counsel of Hushai the Archite is better than the counsel of Ahithophel.” Unbelievable. How has this happened? Ahithophel’s words are like the word of God, so why did Absalom doubt him? Why did he even call for Hushai, let alone listen to him? This practically begs for an explanation.
And the last line of v14 provides it. This is the theological center of the passage, the turning point of Absalom’s rebellion. Notice what it says – “For the Lord had ordained to defeat the good counsel of Ahithophel, so that the Lord might bring harm upon Absalom.” To put it simply, all of this has happened because God ordained for it to happen. This was God’s command, God’s decree. That’s the sense of the word ordained in v14. In his sovereignty, God commanded these very things so that David would be spared and Absalom would be justly punished.
But I want you to see how God’s sovereign command has been carried out – not with advance notice, but in a way that was hidden from human perspective. In fact, we only know about God’s command because Scripture gives us this behind-the-scenes explanation. Hushai didn’t know ahead of time, and Absalom surely didn’t know. Instead, almost quietly, God’s sovereign command was carried out how? Through Hushai using his skill with words and taking the initiative in the situation, God placed him.
I hope you see the two truths that exist side-by-side in this passage. God sovereignly decrees what will be, and God’s decree is worked out through the willful, purposeful actions of human beings. Side-by-side, we have divine sovereignty and human responsibility, held together in a compatible, complementary balance. It is never biblical, then, to use one of these truths to undermine the other. You’ve probably heard people say before that the truth of God’s sovereignty makes human beings into robots who just mindlessly do what they’re programed to do. But 2 Samuel 17 is just one example among many of why those kinds of statements are untrue. Why did Absalom reject Ahithophel’s counsel? Because Hushai acted and made a compelling case. Why did Absalom reject Ahithophel’s counsel? Because God ordained that it would be so. Both are true, and to believe the Scriptures, we’ve got to hold them both together.
And listen, this is about more than philosophical arguments. Holding these truths together, in balance, is actually key to living the Christian life. Here’s what I mean. I want to live in light of God’s sovereignty, and I’m sure you do too. I don’t ever want to be found opposing what God has ordained. But in his wisdom, God has not given me a detailed list of all he ordains to do. I don’t see his sovereignty in the moment. So, where does that leave me? How can I live in light of God’s sovereignty if I don’t know the details? Quite simply, I do what Hushai does in this passage. I take the gifts God has given me, I embrace the place where God has put me, and walking by faith, I act. I love my neighbor as myself, trusting that God’s sovereign command will be done. I evangelize the lost, trusting that God will save those whom he has determined to save. I raise my kids in the fear of the Lord, trusting that God’s sovereign will for them is carried out through my daily work of training them. I love my wife, I do my job with integrity, I read the Scriptures and pray and serve the church. Do you see where I’m going? Holding these truths together – that God is sovereign and that I’m responsible – actually frees me to live most fully each day, doing what God has called me to do. Far from making me into a robot, understanding God’s sovereignty should compel me with the realization that this is how God accomplishes his will – through the faithful actions of his people.
Let’s be this kind of Christian, brothers and sisters. Let’s not simply affirm the doctrine of God’s sovereignty. Let’s display our delight in that doctrine by giving ourselves, fully and purposefully, to the things God has given us to do. The sovereignty of God’s command is absolute – praise God! And that should encourage us all the more to faithful action in the world.
The Sovereignty of God’s Providence
As we continue on, you’ll notice that after giving his counsel, Hushai takes no chances. Look at v15. Hushai immediately relays what he has learned to Abiathar and Zadok the priests. Apparently, Hushai was not involved in Absalom’s final decision. He doesn’t know yet what Absalom will decide. So, beginning in v15 and going until v22, there is this thrilling account of rushing to warn David, and it’s from this scene that we see the third aspect of God’s sovereignty – the Sovereignty of God’s Providence. Again, Hushai doesn’t know that his counsel has won the day. For all he knows, Absalom could agree with Ahithophel, which would mean certain disaster for David. So, Hushai alerts Abiathar and Zadok. The priest, in turn, send word to their sons. And their sons then head for David’s camp. So far, so good.
But that’s when the problem strikes. Notice v18. A man sees the priests’ sons, gets suspicious, and alerts Absalom. Now the race is on. The priests’ sons must get to David before Absalom gets to them. And what happens next is full of tension and excitement. The priests’ sons hurry into the town of Bahurim, v18, but Absalom’s men are hot on their heels. Suddenly, however, the sons meet a man of Bahurim. What’s the man’s name? We don’t know, but he has a well where the priests’ sons can hide. The man also has a quick-thinking wife, and she covers the well with a blanket and spreads some grain to make it look like just another threshing floor. What’s this woman’s name? Again, we don’t know, but her quick thinking wins the days. Absalom’s men can’t find the priests’ sons, and after some misdirection from the shrewd woman, Absalom’s cronies return to Jerusalem empty-handed.
And as a result, David escapes to safety. Notice vv21-22. The messengers reach David and tell him to cross the river. The Jordan will act as a natural barrier between Absalom and David. But even more importantly, crossing the Jordan gives David time to regroup and prepare for the battle that is soon to come. You see, Absalom has missed his chance. David has reached the safety of the eastern shore, and now it is only a matter of time until the King returns to his throne.
But how did it all happen? How did it go down? Through the sovereign providence of God. It’s really delightful, if you have eyes to see it. Think about it, just for a moment. Absalom has all the power of the kingdom behind him at this point. He has resources and informants and mercenaries at his disposal. This should be easy hunting for Absalom’s men! So, what does God do? He thwarts Absalom’s plan, but not with an army, not with a thunderous bolt of lightning from heaven, not with a miracle. No, God thwarts Absalom with two everyday, unnamed Israelites who hide David’s friends in a well. A well, of all places – a dark, damp, uncomfortable well.
But that’s just it, brothers and sisters. It’s there at the low point of hiding in a dark, damp well that God’s providence shines the brightest. It’s there in the well that we remember God’s providence is sovereign and governs all things for the good of his people. Things are not spiraling out of control. Absalom doesn’t have the upper hand. God’s not stressed over how this will turn out. The Lord knows precisely what he’s doing. In fact, he seems to delight in confounding the wicked with these simple but surprising acts of providence. You see, I’ll contend the author of 2 Samuel means for you to chuckle in v18. It’s almost as though the Lord says to us, “Watch how I stump Absalom with this one. I don’t need a whirlwind or a fortress or an army. I’ll use two no-name people and hide my servants in a well.”
And perhaps, this moment will then teach us not to discount the surprising, sometimes small ways God works in our lives today. That’s the takeaway for us here. God’s providence in your life may appear small. You may want an army or a fortress or a miracle, but God may give you only a dark, damp well. His providence may appear small. But make no mistake, brothers and sisters. That small providence comes from the hand of a sovereign God, and therefore, small though it may be, it will prove more than capable of meeting you in your need. His providence, brothers and sisters, is sovereign.
The Sovereignty of God’s Kingdom
And so, we come to the end, v23, where we’ll close with one final aspect of God’s sovereignty – the Sovereignty of God’s Kingdom. It’s fitting that the passage ends with Ahithophel. He’s the esteemed counselor whose words are counted like the word of God. But he’s also the one who has betrayed David, the Lord’s anointed. And so, like Judas Iscariot some centuries later, Ahithophel sees no way to escape his betrayal. Notice again v23 – “When Ahithophel saw that his counsel was not followed, he saddled his donkey and went off home to his own city. He set his house in order and hanged himself, and he died and was buried in the tomb of his father.”
Ahithophel takes his own life, and the text says it was because his counsel was not followed. What does that mean? It could mean that Ahithophel sees his plan falling apart. Perhaps his intention all along was to be the power behind the throne, the puppet master who pulled the strings in Absalom’s kingdom. That’s certainly a possibility.
But it’s also likely, and perhaps more so, that Ahithophel understands full well what the rejection of his counsel means. Remember, Ahithophel may be wicked, but he is insightful. He’s perceptive, and he can see where things are headed. Even now, David is regaining strength, and it is only a matter of time until David smashes Absalom’s rebellion and inflicts judgment on those who betrayed him. Ahithophel knows what’s coming, and rather than face the consequences, Ahithophel takes his own life. It’s either death now or death later, for you cannot oppose God’s kingdom and survive.
And so, this passage that began as a power struggle ends with an incredible power display. Ahithophel was a counselor without compare, and yet, he could not stand against the Lord and against his anointed. God, in his sovereignty, upholds his kingdom against all enemies.
And that puts this final question before us as we close. If God sovereignly upholds his kingdom forever, then where does your allegiance lie? Is it with the Lord and with his Anointed, whom Scripture tells us is none other than Jesus Christ? Do you know Christ by faith, and is your life devoted to his kingdom? Or, like Ahithophel, are you opposing God’s kingdom in hopes of building your own? That’s the most pressing question today. In his sovereignty, God upholds his kingdom forever, so where does your allegiance lie?
May God grant us grace to trust in Christ and to devote ourselves to his sovereign, unshakeable kingdom. Amen. Let’s pray.
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