Series Introduction: This is a series of articles based on the some of the minor characters in the books of 1 & 2 Samuel in the Bible. On one hand, they are margins in the footnotes of history. On the other hand, these are real people who lived real lives that are too easily passed over.
In the middle of David’s reign, his son Absolom seizes power and usurps the throne. Events here are pivotal. Absolom has the backing of the Judahite stronghold Hebron, the support of the common people and power in Jerusalem. A wise decision would help him retain the Davidic throne.
From nowhere, a central player enters the field.
“Now in those days the counsel that Ahithophel gave was as if one consulted the word of God.”
- 2 Samuel 16:23.
What are remarkable testament! A man who is considered as wise as God. Absolom summons him to court, and he comes (2 Sam 15:12). Things look dire for David.
It is a curious fact about biblical narrative that outside of the core narratives such as Abraham or David, we are given precious little in the way of backstory. Characters such as Ahithophel or Melchizedek enter and exist without satisfying the curiosities of the modern reader.
Who is Ahithophel?
We know precious little. He is from the town of Giloh, which is marked in the territory of Judah (Jos 15:51). He is a counsellor or advisor to David (2 Sam 15:12; 1 Chr 27:33). In David’s time, it seems as if this role is filled by one person at a time (1 Chr 27:32, 34), although in later times one might have many advisors (Proverbs 11:14; 24:6). Irregardless, it was a privileged position in David’s court, and people listened carefully to Ahithopel’s counsel.
Although we know little of his backstory, we know much more of his motivations for supporting Absolom over David. Scripture tells us he has a son, Eliam, who is counted one of David’s mighty men (2 Sam 23:34). Another of David’s mighty men is Uriah the Hittite (2 Sam 23:39) who was married to Eliam’s daughter, Bathsheba (2 Sam 11:3).
The destructive power of sin often has cascading ramifications. David’s sin is first and foremost against God (Ps 51:4). But Ahithophel’s son-in-law is murdered, and his granddaughter is taken from her rightful husband as the king’s own. Ahithophel can feel rightfully aggrieved by this turn of events.
When news of Ahithophel’s defection reaches David, he is rightfully concerned — all he can do in the moment is pray (2 Sam 15:31). He values Ahithophel’s counsel as much as Absolom does (2 Sam 16:23), and is wise to be concerned about his counsel to Absolom (2 Sam 17:21). The issue is foremost in David’s mind when another member of the court, Hushai, arrives (2 Sam 15:32). Hushai is immediately deployed to directly counter the threat of Ahithophel.
Given how David, Absolom and the narrator all value Ahithophel’s counsel, one wonders what would have happened if Ahithophel’s advice had been followed to the letter. His first piece of advice publicly establishes his power in Jerusalem, for only the king sleeps with the king’s concubines (2 Samuel 16:21–22).
His second seems just as sensible. He has in mind a literal coup d’etat, killing only David and causing minimal destruction and disruption of the kingdom, and bringing peace (2 Sam 17:2–3). Absolom, true born son of the king, might well have been acknowledged king unopposed.
God, however, had other plans. There are not many instances recorded in Samuel of God’s direct intervention but this is one. Hushai, acting under orders, advises Absolom to do the opposite to what Ahithophel’s advises. In this, God answer’s David’s prayers (2 Sam 15:31) and ‘defeats the good counsel of Ahithophel’ (2 Sam 17:14). God is pleased with David and not with Absolom.
There are two outcomes to tale. The first is that Absolom does not nip David’s rebel force in the bud; rather David is able to summon his loyalists, and in pitched battle, defeats Absolom and his army.
The second is this:
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.
2 Samuel 17:23.
Even in death, there is a subtle hint about Ahithophel’s character here. A foolish person would simply fall on his sword. A wise person puts their affairs in order.
Why does he hang himself? You could read this as a hissy fit: Ahithophel has a tantrum about being ignored. But that is at odds with setting his affairs in order.
But perhaps he is wise enough in the way of kings and palace intrigue to see how Hushai’s advice will play out, even if Absolom can’t. Absolom’s hold on power is still delicate, and David still has many supporters amongst the tribe of Israel. If he is cunning enough to see how the subsequent days and weeks will play out, he also know what awaits an unfaithful servant who supported a false king. Then, as now, the punishment for treason is death.
So dies Ahithophel. One wonders if it is any comfort that his great-grandson Solomon will sit on the throne of David. He too will have legendary wisdom, wisdom that does not guarantee a righteous end.