After this Absalom got himself a chariot and horses, and fifty men to run before him. And Absalom used to rise early and stand beside the way of the gate. And when any man had a dispute to come before the king for judgment, Absalom would call to him and say, “From what city are you?” And when he said, “Your servant is of such and such a tribe in Israel,” Absalom would say to him, “See, your claims are good and right, but there is no man designated by the king to hear you.” Then Absalom would say, “Oh that I were judge in the land! Then every man with a dispute or cause might come to me, and I would give him justice.” And whenever a man came near to pay homage to him, he would put out his hand and take hold of him and kiss him. Thus Absalom did to all of Israel who came to the king for judgment. So Absalom stole the hearts of the men of Israel. – 2 Samuel 15:1-6 ESV
There are many things we could say about Absalom – many of them negative. But he was anything but impatient. He had spent two full years plotting his revenge against Amnon. Then he had spent three years living in self-imposed exile in Geshur, waiting to see what his father would do in reaction to his murder of Amnon. When David finally agreed to allow Absalom to return, he waited another two years, confined to his home, because his father refused to either pardon or punish him. And as we will see in the next section of chapter 15, Absalom will bide his time for another four years, quietly and patiently plotting his next move. Yes, Absalom was patient. He was willing to wait. But all the while he waited, he used the time to his advantage and was far from idle.
After David had restored him to favor, Absalom got busy. He had become well aware of a flaw in his father’s leadership abilities. He had personally experienced David’s predilection to procrastination and inaction. He had also been the beneficiary of David’s reluctance to enact justice as God’s appointed judge of Israel. And as Absalom made his way around the capital of Jerusalem, interfacing with the people of Israel, he became more and more convinced that his father‘s weaknesses could be exploited to his own advantage. Absalom was an ambitious young man who had shown his willingness to take matters into his own hands. When David had done nothing to punish Amnon for his rape of Tamar, Absalom had stepped in. When Joab had refused to respond to his repeated requests for an audience with David, he got Joab’s attention by having his barley fields set on fire. Absalom was a doer. He was driven and determined. And when he saw the flaw in David’s armor, he determined to strike a blow.
But Absalom was also cunning and clever. He would have made a great politician. He didn’t personally attack David or expose his weaknesses to the press. He simply began a quiet campaign to win over the hearts of the people. He slowly and subtly created doubt and suspicion in their minds regarding David’s leadership over them and love for them. First of all, he began a carefully crafted publicity campaign. He had been out of sight for five years, so it was important that he establish an image with the people. And the first thing he did was come up with plan to portray himself as a leader. It didn’t hurt that he was good looking.
Now Absalom was praised as the most handsome man in all Israel. He was flawless from head to foot. – 2 Samuel 14:25 NLT
And he was a family man.
He had three sons and one daughter. His daughter’s name was Tamar, and she was very beautiful. – 2 Samuel 14:27 NLT
Now, all he needed was the trappings of success. So he bought himself some wheels.
Absalom bought a chariot and horses, and he hired fifty bodyguards to run ahead of him. – 2 Samuel 15:1 NLT
Next, he took his show on the road. And what a sight he made each morning when he arrived at the city gate. Nobody would have missed his arrival or wondered who he was. This was Absalom, son of the king. He was handsome, apparently successful and, on top of that, he was a man of the people. You see, Absalom knew that the key to successfully running the nation was to win over the hearts of the people. So he devised a plan to do just that. His strategy of going to the city gate each morning was brilliant. It was at the city gate that all business was conducted and justice dispensed. The people would come there to have their disputes mediated and complaints heard. David was to have his appointed judges and rulers ready to hear from his people and help with their problems. But evidently, David had been lax in providing the judgment and justice a growing city required. And the people were not happy. The crowds gathered each day, expecting justice, but walked away with their expectations unmet. So Absalom exploited the situation.
His arrival each day would not have gone unnoticed. And he went out of his way to ensure that the people saw him as not only a person of power and influence, but a man who cared about their needs. The text tells us, “When people brought a case to the king for judgment, Absalom would ask where in Israel they were from…” (2 Samuel 15:2 NLT). He would listen to their problem and then he would assure them, “You’ve really got a strong case here! It’s too bad the king doesn’t have anyone to hear it. I wish I were the judge. Then everyone could bring their cases to me for judgment, and I would give them justice!” (2 Samuel 15:3-4 NLT). Like the serpent in the garden, Absalom sowed seeds of doubt and led the people to question the care and concern of David for their needs. Without attacking David directly, Absalom undermined his father’s credibility with the people. After all, Absalom was there at the gate. He was talking and listening directly to the people. Where was David? Was he too busy to take care of his people? Was he too good to show up at the gate and listen to the problems facing the citizens of his kingdom?
Absalom was sly. He was crafty. And he was coldly calculating in all that he did. When the people began to see him as someone who cared and who might be willing to assist them with their needs, they would treat him with honor and respect, bowing down before him. But Absalom did the unthinkable and unexpected. Instead of allowing the people to honor him as some kind of dignitary, he would embrace them in his arms, treating them as his equal. And his ploy worked.
Absalom did this with everyone who came to the king for judgment, and so he stole the hearts of all the people of Israel. – 2 Samuel 15:6 NLT
An interesting side note in all of this is found in the book of Deuteronomy. There we find a somewhat obscure law regarding what to do with a rebellious son. And the fascinating thing about this law is where it was to be enacted: At the city gate.
“If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and, though they discipline him, will not listen to them, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gate of the place where he lives, and they shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This our son is stubborn and rebellious; he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones. So you shall purge the evil from your midst, and all Israel shall hear, and fear.” – Deuteronomy 21:18-21 ESV
So, here we have Absalom, the king’s son, who has already murdered his brother, now plotting the overthrow of his father’s kingdom. And where is he attempting sow the seeds of doubt that will later blossom into the fruit of rebellion? The city gate. The very place where Absalom should have been brought to have his crime against Amnon judged and his execution enacted, was where he would begin his rebellion against David.
Once again, we see David’s failure to act decisively coming back to haunt him. We must ask ourselves why it was so easy for Absalom to win over the hearts of the people. Had they become disgruntled and disenchanted with all of David’s well-publicized moral failings? There is little doubt that rumors regarding David’s affair with Bathsheba had gotten out. Most likely, the news of Uriah’s death had spread and the questions regarding the circumstances surrounding his death would have been many. The whole situation with Amnon and Tamar would not have gone unnoticed by the people of Jerusalem. The murder of the king’s son by his brother would have been headline news. And the very fact that Absalom had returned and seemed to be doing quite well for himself had not escaped the notice of the people. There is also the likelihood that David was too busy with affairs of state to effectively listen to and address the needs of his people. It was probably about this time that David was busying himself with the construction of his palace and a place to house the Ark of the Covenant. He was also making preparations and plans for the future construction of the temple. David was a busy man. But had he become too busy to care for his own people? This reminds us that David had been called by God to “shepherd My people Israel” (2 Samuel 5:2). But somewhere along the way, David had begun to lose the respect of his sheep. They had wandered and were easy prey for someone as crafty and cunning as Absalom. David had left a void and Absalom was more than willing to fill it. The sheep were hungry for justice and Absalom was prepared to feed them right from his hand and win their hearts.
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.