King David’s son, Absalom, had killed his brother Amnon for raping his sister Tamar. Then he led a rebellion against the king and drove him out of Jerusalem. As we enter this poem, it is the night before the battle between the two armies and David is meeting with his generals.
The battle council sat around
The midnight fire upon the Mound
Of Ephraim above the plain
Of Gilead. Beneath the pain
On David’s face the duty of
A king took charge. “The God above
These bloody fields will guide the spear
And sword tomorrow. Do not fear.
If we find favor in his sight,
It will be well, and morning light
Will bring success.” Before him sat
His three commanders, Ittai, at
The head of foreign troops, and then
Brave Abishai and Joab, men
Whose fierce and cruel strength had shed
More blood than David ever said
Now David looked into
The eyes of Joab: “Friend, to you
I owe my life. You are a man
Of war. How often has the plan
Of battle triumphed better far
Than we had ever thought. You are
A mighty man. But there have been
Conspiracies in which your twin-
Edged sword, I fear, has brought more death
Than good, and silenced noble breath.
The blood of Abner was not shed
In righteousness. But he is dead.”
Joab had heard these things before,
And did not blink. “In love and war,”
He said, “things are not clean. I kill
To save my king, and I fulfill
The single focus that I see—
The duty God has given me:
Protect the king at any cost,
And die before the crown is lost.
Your enemy is mine, and should
I have one breath to breathe, I would
Breathe death to him, or anything
That threatens God’s anointed king.”
“I thank God for your loyalty,
Joab,” the king replied, “You see
Things through a solitary lens.
Such is the price of many men’s
Success. To play one role alone,
And be the best. You’re like a stone,
Joab, a smooth hard stone—so good
For bringing giants down, but would
Not work to build a home.”
Men stood in silence looking through
The smoke across the muddy plains
Of Gilead. The fleeting gains
Of Absalom and his desires
Stretched South and West in dying fires
As far as one could see, the sheep
Of Israel, all now asleep,
Awaiting slaughter at the break
Of day. The boy-king cannot make
A match for Joab’s might. Before
The slumber David said, “He’s more
To me than you can know, Joab.
For you, like picking at a scab,
Would be his death. For me, my life
Is bound up in this boy. A knife
To my own throat would be the news
That he is dead. Joab, don’t bruise
My son. Deal gently with him for
Before the sun was more
Than half way up the morning sky,
Or Absalom could question why,
Full twenty-thousand of his men
Were dead, the army routed. Then
The rebel son fled on his mule,
Alone. And (to the end a fool)
He flew with haste among the oaks
Of Ephraim. And there the jokes
Of hard and callous men were made:
His hair became a deadly braid,
And caught him in the branches of
A terebinth. He hung above
The ground unable to undo
His famous hair. And thus he flew
Where there was no one else to blame.
His boast became his final shame.
And then a man told Joab, “I
Have seen the king’s son hanging by
His hair entangled in the trees
Of Ephraim.” “And did you seize
Him there?” Joab inquired. “Or was
He dead?” “He was not dead, nor does
Your servant disobey the king’s
Command.” “You fool, such mutterings
As these will save the enemy
And kill the king. Come now, and we
Will see how this insurgent swings,
And dies like all pretender kings.”
When Absalom perceived the sound
Of horses coming from around
The tree, he gained his consciousness
And grabbed once more the twisted tress
Still tangled in the branches of
The terebinth, and reached above
His head with fading strength to free
Himself—to no avail. “So we
Now meet again young traitor to
Your father’s throne. I see that you
Forgot to cut your hair before
The battle, Absalom. Ignore
The basics, boy, in love and war
And you will hang. It takes much more
Than flawless face and gorgeous hair
And kisses in the gate to tear
The crown from off the head of my
Anointed king. If you would try,
I think you better wear a band
Around your head, though not so grand—
A rope, perhaps, to hold the hair
In place, and leave the crown just where
It is, upon your father’s head.”
Then Joab took his spear, as dread
Filled Absalom. And as he took
This spiked and splintered lance, his look
Was merciless. And when he hurled
That spear, it was as if the world,
For one split second, in the mind
Of Absalom, had stopped, confined
Within the space between the hand
Of Joab and the brilliant band
Around his swinging breast. And in
That instant all that might have been
He saw, and wished, though but a trace,
That he could see his father’s face.
The spear smashed through his chest and came
Out on the other side. “The name
On that one, Absalom, is this:
Your brother Amnon, slain. Your kiss
A cover for your kill, the first
Born of the king was dead, and cursed
Be Absalom who thought to take
His place.” Then Joab said, “Now make
Room for a second spear. This lance
Has twenty thousand names. Come glance
Now if you can across the plain
Of Gilead! Behold the vain
Attempt of Absalom to be
The king: as far as one can see,
The dead, with wives still waiting in
Jerusalem.” And then the twin
Spear sank beside the first. “One more,
Fine-looking Absalom. My store
Of rage will be complete. He drew
His mighty arm again and threw
A third spear in the bloody chest
Of Absalom, and said, “O blest
And honored is my king and lord.
May all his foes have this reward.”
The word that Absalom was dead
Reached David as the crimson red
Horizon faded into night.
He stood, and as he took the flight
Of steps that led up to his room
Above the gate, he wept. Thick gloom
Now gathered over all the town
And all could hear his wail come down
Like shame upon the victory
That Joab won beneath the tree
My son, my son, if you would come
Back from the dead, would I not take
Your place! O Absalom, awake,
My son, Awake! Would I had died
Instead of you.”
The order for the king to be
Alone, and did not bend the knee
When he approached. “My lord, do you
Not see what you are doing? Two
More hours of this, and not a man
Of war will stay. You shame the plan
And sacrifice that on this day
Was made in fierce and bloody fray
To save your crown and wives and seed.
Why show such love to those who speed
Your fall, and heap such shame on these,
Risked their lives and left their ease
And shed their blood for you? And now
You weep for Absalom! I vow,
My lord, if you lift not this shame
From off this triumph for your name,
There will not be a man beside
Your throne at dawn.”
The king replied,
“You killed my son.”
“I saved your life,
And gave you back your throne. This knife
You feel from Absalom’s demise,
Would you prefer it waken cries
From our defeat, and pierce the souls
Of widows waiting in their holes
Which they have dug, and where they wait
And pray that God would vindicate
The king, and bring their husbands back
And break the enemy’s attack.
Are these the ones you hate and smite?
I’ll see you in the gate. Good night.”
So David sat a long time in
The dark—alone, he thought.
Here listening.” The tender sound
Of Tamar startled him. “I found
The other door. My mother said
It’s true—that Absalom is dead.
I thought that I would come and share
Your grief. Joab does less than fair
At comforting the king. He sees
Things through a single lens. At trees
He looks and sees the wood for spears.
At fields of grain, and what appears?
A battleground. He looks at men
At work and play, and sees again
The troops of war. One single thing
Compels this man: protect the king.
Is Joab not a gift from God?
A sinner like ourselves, and flawed
From head to toe. I am not numb.
I loved my brother, Absalom,
More deeply than you know. But I
Have seen and felt, my lord, how high
The price of vengeance is. I dread
This curse. Two brothers now are dead.
Two sons. And I now dwell alone.
And Joab is a useful stone.
I heard the wounded anger in
Your voice tonight. Perhaps it’s been
There simmering like Absalom’s.
But you can see that nothing comes
Of it but death. Revenge is not
What makes a noble king. Your lot,
As the anointed of the Lord,
Is now to lead your people toward
Their God, and sing for them a psalm,
And show them there’s a healing balm
Upon the plains of Gilead
Where twenty thousand men lie dead.
The burden of a king is great.
Tonight your place is in the gate.
Come flame and fire from candle two.
Consume revenge. We look to you,
Faint flicker of another Light
That once burned here. And O how bright
And pure it shone! Betrayed, denied,
But blameless, just, and crucified.
When he was struck, he did not strike
Again. And when the deadly spike
Was driven through his hands, he cried,
“Forgive them, Father.” Then he died,
And carried all your rage and hate.
The burden of a king is great.