The Tragedy of Ahithophel

[A couple weeks ago, Dr. William Varner, a professor at The Master’s College, posted on Facebook some brief, but very insightful thoughts from the life of David, particularly about a lesser-known figure named Ahithophel. I asked him if he had more to say about this man and he was so kind to send me this larger article.]

Following David’s awful sin of adultery with Bathsheba and the ensuing arranged murder of her husband, Uriah, he was confronted by Nathan the prophet. Among the consequences of his sins were that from his own household enemies would arise against him (2 Sam 12:10-11). Three of his sons – Amnon, Absalom, and Adonijah – each caused serious problems for him and his successor, Solomon (2 Sam 13; 14-17; 2 Kings 1-2). There was another person, whose name also began with an “A,” who rose up against him as a betrayer. This man, Ahithophel, had been a close advisor to David and could even have been called “the smartest man in the world.” “Now in those days the counsel that Ahithophel gave was as if one consulted the word of God; so was all the counsel of Ahithophel esteemed, both by David and by Absalom” (2Sam 16:23). He evidently came out of his own retirement and joined the revolt of Absalom as his trusted advisor (2 Sam 16:23).

What is often overlooked, however, is that Ahithophel evidently became part of David’s family by marriage. Two passages explain that Ahithophel was the grandfather of Bathsheba (cf 2 Sam 11:3 with 23:34). One need not speculate too much to see that when David “took” Bathsheba (2 Sam 11:4), Ahithophel must have left David’s service. Later, the crafty Absalom must have assumed (correctly) that Ahithophel would jump at the opportunity to get revenge against David so he asked him to come out of retirement – an offer that the old man simply could not refuse.

After David fled from Jerusalem, Ahithophel advised Absalom to strike David quickly and even offered to ride at the head of the column, so he could kill David himself (2 Sam 17:1-4). From a purely human viewpoint, it was good advice, because it would not give David time to gather his forces. God, however, had purposed to frustrate the advice of Ahithophel by the contrary advice of another advisor named Hushai, who was actually a spy who was loyal to David. Hushai appealed to Absalom’s pride by telling him he should consolidate his forces and then go out at the head of his army and personally kill David himself (2 Sam 17:5-13).  Absalom couldn’t resist the temptation to get all the glory and followed Hushai’s advice, thus allowing David time to organize his own scattered forces. The reader of 2 Sam 18:9-15 knows that Absalom’s attack on David led to his own ignominious death.

When Ahithophel saw that his advice was not followed and that because of this he was certain to be punished by the eventually victorious David, he retired to his own home again and committed suicide by hanging himself (2 Sam 17:23). What a tragic end for the smartest guy in the world!

Smart people can sometimes make really stupid choices. On the one hand we can appreciate and understand Ahithophel’s disappointment over what David had done to Bathsheba. I actually can understand why he might retire from David’s service. But Ahithophel then allowed his hurt and his pain to develop into bitterness and into a fierce desire for revenge. His bitterness clouded his normally clear vision when he sought the opportunity to get revenge on David.

Passages in two psalms may be about this brilliant but sad man (Psalms 41:9 and 55:12-14). Interestingly, these psalms also were mentioned by Jesus as finding “fulfillment” in a later traitor to the Son of David who also hanged himself when his own plans for Jesus’ destiny were not followed (Matt 26:23; John 13:18; Acts 1:16).

Years ago Jay Adams taught me that two wrong responses to someone’s wrong actions against you are either that you “blow up” or you “clam up.” When people “clam up” instead of dealing with their anger, the sad reality is that they eventually will “blow up” later.  Jay based his advice on Eph 4:26-32. Ahithophel clammed up when he left David’s service and then nurtured his own anger until he had the opportunity to blow up at David – with some tragic consequences for his own life!

What do you do when people fail you or hurt you in some way? You may not choose that person as your best friend, but allowing your emotional hurt or pain to develop into bitterness will poison your own soul and it will eventually explode into revenge at the right “opportunity.”

Learn a negative lesson from the smartest person in the world, whose bitterness eventually led to his own tragic end.

[Today’s post is written by Dr. William Varner, a professor at the The Master’s College.]

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