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2 Samuel 18:33 The king was shaken. He went up to the room over the gateway and wept. As he went, he said: "O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you--O Absalom, my son, my son!"

Clearly, David was in deep mourning at the news of his son's death. He repeated the name "Absalom" and "my son" a few times in just one verse. Was his willingness to die in place of his son due to a moment of weakness or did he really mean it even afterward?

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  • David's image is presented as being that of someone capable of respecting (1 Samuel 26) and even mourning for his enemies; e.g., his song of lament for Saul (and Jonathan) in the very first chapter of Second Samuel; similarly for his (rebellious) son Absalom, in the book's eighteenth chapter.
    – Lucian
    Oct 11, 2020 at 15:54
  • @Lucian - this is a useful comment - I would have said something similar but you could expand it into an answer.
    – Dottard
    Oct 11, 2020 at 20:04

3 Answers 3

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While a great sinner (at times), David is presented as one of the most compassionate, empathetic, and kind people in the Bible. I am sure that this was one of the secrets to his great leadership as well. Note the following examples:

  • David deeply mourned his own mistakes and mistakes as recorded in Ps 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143, etc.
  • David's compassion even extended to his enemies, most notably, King Saul whose suicide was genuinely mourned by David, 2 Sam 1:11, 12, 17-27.
  • David's kindness to Mephibosheth, 2 Sam 9
  • David's compassionate and just anger at Joab's murder of Abner (David's enemy), 2 Sam 3:31-39
  • David's compassionate and just anger at Ish-bosheth's murder, 2 Sam 4.

Thus, it is entirely credible that the very empathetic David would have been willing to die in the place of his beloved but still stupid son, Absalom, as per 2 Sam 18:33.

However, I am also convinced that David's feelings of love for his rebellions son was compounded with the acute knowledge that David was partly responsible as Elliott observes:

(33) Was much moved.—David’s grief was not merely that of a father for his first-born son, but for that son slain in the very act of outrageous sin. His sorrow, too, may have gained poignancy from the thought—which must often have come to him during the progress of this rebellion—that all this sin and wrong took its occasion from his own great sin. Yet David was criminally weak at this crisis in allowing the feelings of the father completely to outweigh the duties of the monarch.

The Cambridge Commentary expresses this even more pointedly:

  1. was much moved] Better perhaps, was sore troubled. Sept. ἐταράχθη is a good rendering. This passionate outburst of grief was due not only to the tenderness of affection, which was so striking a trait in David’s character, but to the bitterness of the thought that the rebel, the would-be parricide, was thus

“Cut off even in the blossoms of his sin,

No reckoning made, but sent to his account

With all his imperfections on his head;”

and that this terrible catastrophe was the fruit and the punishment of his own crimes. The heart-broken cry “Would God I had died for thee” was not only the utterance of self-sacrificing love, but the confession that he had himself deserved the punishment which fell upon another. Cp. ch. 2 Samuel 24:17.

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  • Psalm 16 impresses me: "God gave him rest from all his enemies, and from Saul" Saul wasted an incredible amount of resources trying to kill him, and yet David describes Saul as the Lord's anointed and beloved. This is a completely different category from 'enemy'. Feb 27, 2023 at 17:17
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Joab thinks David is serious about dying himself instead of his son Absalom in 2 Samuel 18:33. It continues in the next chapter:

2 Samuel 19

5Then Joab went into the house and said to the king, “Today you have disgraced all your servants who have saved your life and the lives of your sons and daughters, of your wives, and of your concubines. 6You love those who hate you and hate those who love you! For you have made it clear today that the commanders and soldiers mean nothing to you. I know today that if Absalom were alive and all of us were dead, it would have pleased you!

7Now therefore get up! Go out and speak comfort to your servants, for I swear by the LORD that if you do not go out, not a man will remain with you tonight. This will be worse for you than all the adversity that has befallen you from your youth until now!”

Joab knows David very well. Joab even does a great favor for Absalom to bring Absalom back from exile. Joab is a smart guy. He thinks David is serious when he says, "If only I had died instead of you".

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Note David was sitting by then between the inner and outer gates (2 Sam 18:24). He was expecting a message about the fate of his son Absalom. He recalled the prophet Nathan announced to him the judgement of the Lord (2 Sam 12:11-14)

11 “This is what the Lord says: ‘Out of your own household I am going to bring calamity on you. Before your very eyes I will take your wives and give them to one who is close to you, and he will sleep with your wives in broad daylight.

12 You did it in secret, but I will do this thing in broad daylight before all Israel.’”

13 Then David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.” Nathan replied, “The Lord has taken away your sin. You are not going to die.

14 But because by doing this you have shown utter contempt for the Lord, the son born to you will die.”

David remembered on that night, his firstborn with Bathsheba died. Now verse 11 was seen to have happened with Absalom, and what would the judgement on Absalom? Surely David knew it happened because of his sin.

As many agree that David was a compassionate, empathetic, and kind people in the Bible (using Dottard words), I want to suggest further that his character was due to his fear of the Lord, that he would not take the life of his enemies as a precaution to save his own life, which meant he trusted the Lord would always protect him.

However, his compassion was not without bias. On his deadbed, David reminded Solomon to obey the Lord, and had to take the life of Joab and Shimei (1 Kings 2:1-9), whom David himself had pardoned their lives in the past.

So was David serious about dying himself instead of his son Absalom?

The answer is "Yes". His love to his son was real and it was consistent to his other sons, such as the dead of his firstborn Amnon, David mourned many days for his son (2 Sam 13:37). In addition, David knew it happened as a consequence of his sin, that he deeply regret but irrevocable. He tried to hide away his emotion in the chamber over the gate (2 Sam 18:33), indicate his feeling was real.

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