God’s providence is often fulfilled in unexpected ways and with seemingly insignificant people. Looking to 2 Samuel 17, Alistair Begg explains how the actions of two spies and a quick-thinking woman at a well helped save David’s kingdom. Strange as it may seem, God used their bravery as well as their deception—and even the suicide of the defector Ahithophel—to fulfill His plan for King David. As believers in Christ, we can rest on the promise that nothing, not even our sin, can thwart God’s purposes for those He loves.
Sermon Transcript: Print
I invite you to turn to 2 Samuel 17. We’re going to continue from where we left off this morning. And so, let me read from verse 15 so that we have it fresh in our minds:
“Then Hushai said to Zadok and Abiathar the priests, ‘Thus and so did Ahithophel counsel Absalom and the elders of Israel, and thus and so have I counseled. Now therefore send quickly and tell David, “Do not stay tonight at the fords of the wilderness, but by all means pass over, lest the king and all the people who are with him be swallowed up.”’ Now Jonathan and Ahimaaz were waiting at En-rogel. A female servant was to go and tell them, and they were to go and tell King David, for they were not to be seen entering the city. But a young man saw them and told Absalom. So both of them went away quickly and came to the house of a man at Bahurim, who had a well in his courtyard. And they went down into it. And the woman took and spread a covering over the well’s mouth and scattered grain on it, and nothing was known of it. When Absalom’s servants came to the woman at the house, they said, ‘Where are Ahimaaz and Jonathan?’ And the woman said to them, ‘They have gone over the brook of water.’ And when they had sought and could not find them, they returned to Jerusalem.
“After they had gone, the men came up out of the well, and went and told King David. They said to David, ‘Arise, and go quickly over the water, for thus and so has Ahithophel counseled against you.’ Then David arose, and all the people who were with him, and they crossed the Jordan. By daybreak not one was left who had not crossed the Jordan.
“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.
“Then David came to Mahanaim. And Absalom crossed the Jordan with all the men of Israel. Now Absalom had set Amasa over the army instead of Joab. Amasa was the son of a man named Ithra the Ishmaelite, who had married Abigal the daughter of Nahash, sister of Zeruiah, Joab’s mother. And Israel and Absalom encamped in the land of Gilead.
“When David came to Mahanaim, Shobi the son of Nahash from Rabbah of the Ammonites, and Machir the son of Ammiel from Lo-debar, and Barzillai the Gileadite from Rogelim, brought beds, basins, and earthen vessels, wheat, barley, flour, parched grain, beans and lentils, honey and curds and sheep and cheese from the herd, for David and the people with him to eat, for they said, ‘The people are hungry and weary and thirsty in the wilderness.’”
It was hard reading it the first time, and it wasn’t any easier the second time!
Father, we turn now to the Word. We pray for the enabling of the Spirit of God to guard and guide my words, our thoughts, our understanding, and our trust and confidence in you, a sovereign God who works all things according to the eternal counsel of your will. And we pray in Christ’s name. Amen.
Well, we ended by noticing where we began, actually, this morning, in the second half of verse 14, that “the Lord had ordained to defeat the good counsel of Ahithophel, so that the Lord might bring harm upon Absalom.” And we said this morning that those 14 words in Hebrew were the key words, more significant than the 42 words of Ahithophel’s counsel or the 129 words of the counsel of Hushai. And it is in light of that pivotal statement in the heart of the chapter that we then continue to follow the story line. We follow it in the awareness that all that is unfolding is unfolding according to God’s plan—according to God’s plan, because it is God’s plan that matters, and it is God’s plan that is the only plan that actually matters.
I remember when I was first introduced to American Christians and they taught me how to share my faith with Campus Crusade. And my opening line to people was “Do you know that God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life?” And it is quite a statement. It is quite a question. And we discover here that God is working according to his plan—that we seek first the kingdom of God, his righteousness, and all the other things then follow.
Now, we’re not in any doubt of what God’s plan is in this context: it is to establish David’s kingdom. And because he has determined that he will establish his kingdom, no one that stands against that kingdom will be able to prosper, in much the same way that when we come finally to King David’s greater Son—namely, to Jesus—the gates of hell will not be able to prevail against God’s plan in God’s Son.
Now, we know that, but we’ve been let into a secret, because we’re reading this story. And what we need to understand is that we know what the actors in the story themselves don’t know. Hushai doesn’t actually know what’s going on beyond the parts that he knows about what’s going on. So he’s actually unaware of the way in which the matter is going to be resolved. At this point in the record, he doesn’t even know whether Absalom is going to go with the Ahithophel plan or whether he is going to go with his plan. And it’s important to keep that in mind, and the way in which the narrative is provided for us is in order that we might then follow the story and that we might get under the burden of it and we might be held in suspense by it.
Now, I didn’t find it very easy to diagram this or give it an outline that is particularly easy to follow, but I just wrote a number of things down in my own notes. I just decided to write down, “Down by the riverside.” “Down by the riverside.” Because what has happened between verse 14 and verse 15 is a change of scene. It has moved now to this context where David and his group have been hanging around, if you like, and waiting. You say, “Well, how do we know that?” Well, because we already learned that. If you turn back a page in your Bible to 15:28, the word was given to Zadok the priest, and to Jonathan as well, “Make sure”—to Jonathan the son of Abiathar—“I will wait at the fords of the wilderness until word comes from you to inform me.”
And remember, I said this morning that these events are happening within a very short period of time. They’re happening within twenty-four hours. So when you go back to 15, it may seem like a long time ago, but it wasn’t, actually. He says earlier on, “I’m gonna wait at the fords.” If you go to verse 35, we learn there that “Zadok and Abiathar the priests” are “with you there,” he tells Hushai, and he says, “So whatever you hear from the king’s house, [you] tell it to Zadok and Abiathar the priests.”
Now, that’s the background. You come back to verse 15, and here we are with the process unfolding: “Then Hushai said to Zadok and Abiathar the priests, ‘This is what Ahithophel said, and this is what I have said.’” And so, we have two competing plans. And again, Hushai was unable to be sure that Absalom was going to heed his advice. And at this point, he doesn’t know. Therefore, he recognizes that time is of the essence. And indeed, it unfolds in the anticipation that the plan of Ahithophel will actually be executed. You see that as you read on in the text. And so, because time is of the essence, he wants to make sure that everything takes place “quickly.” “Quickly”: “Therefore send quickly and tell David…” And as you allow your eye to go down through the text, you will see that “quickly” is a recurring adverb, and importantly so.
It’s clear to us as we read on that the protracted speech of Hushai, the 129 Hebrew words, is not exactly, I would say, drawn out, but the way in which he unfolds it clearly has been a mechanism in part to buy time. To buy time. Because remember, Ahithophel said, “We’ll get on this tonight.” That was Ahithophel’s advice: “I’ll go down there. I’ll take him out. We’ll leave the rest. They’ll come and join you. Let’s do it tonight. You’re up on the roof. I’ll be on the battlefield. I’ll take care of it. I’ll be back.” “Let’s see what Hushai has to say.” Then Hushai starts; it’s like he’s speaking rather slowly: “Well, of course, and…” “Why are you speaking so slowly?” “Well, I’m buying some time”—because of what he seeks to achieve.
Now, the priests’ sons, Jonathan and Ahimaaz, were charged with the responsibility of getting the news to David. Right? That’s verse 17: “Jonathan and Ahimaaz were waiting at En-rogel.” What the name means is actually possibly “the well of the spy.” “The well of the spy.” It would be quite fitting if that were the case.
Now, they were located—that place was located—about a quarter of a mile south of the city itself. And it was very important that they were not obvious in what they were doing. That’s the balance of the verse there. You will see towards the end of verse 17: “They were not to be seen entering the city.” Well, how are they gonna handle it? If they’ve gotta get the information from the city and get it to David but they don’t go into the city… Well, here’s the answer: “A female servant was to go and tell them.” A no-name female servant is given the responsibility of bringing the messages to them so that they will not be seen entering the city.
Despite the undercover approach in relationship to this, we’re told that “a young man saw them and told Absalom. So both of them went away quickly.” Here’s our second “quickly,” two of three. They went away quickly, and they “came to the house of a man at Bahurim.” Now, Bahurim we saw before; that’s where Shimei hangs out. Remember the fellow that was cursing all the time and throwing stones? And if we thought for a moment that Bahurim was just simply filled with people who were opposed to King David, at least we know that there were sympathizers to King David, and one of them is this man here, who has a house at Bahurim.
But pause for a moment and say to yourself, “Now, listen, what is happening here? Is this chain of communication going to be broken? Is the plan about to come crashing to a halt as a result of the very humanity of the way in which it is seeking to be completed?” Because as Robert Burns, the Scottish poet, informed us in the eighteenth century, “The best laid [plans] o’ Mice an’ Men / Gang aft agley.” Steinbeck stole that for his novel, but it is Scottish in its origin. The poem—I’m sure you have all memorized it at school—is a poem written “To a Mouse,” by Robert Burns. Because Burns is plowing. And as he plows, he realizes that he has turned up the nest of a mouse. And he says, “Wee, sleeket, cowran, … beastie, / O, what a panic’s in thy breastie! Thou should na [wander off] sae [quickly].” And as it goes on, you eventually get the line:
But Mousie, thou art no thy-lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o’ Mice and Men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!
Burns did not believe in the sovereignty of God. Burns’s most famous diatribe against Scottish Presbyterian Calvinism is a poem called “Holy Willie’s Prayer,” which is a straightforward assault on the very notion that a sovereign God works everything according to his will. I pause for that reason because Steinbeck picked up on that. And in that novella, it is equally clear that Steinbeck was embracing the notion of a random universe where the characters involved were working desperately, as best they could, against a merciless fate.
How different is this? And how could we ever be assured that the plan of God would prevail? And the answer is, because it’s God’s plan. It’s so human, isn’t it? It’s so ordinary. They “went away quickly,” and they “came to the house of a man at Bahurim.” Presumably, they knew that he was a sympathizer. They must have known, perhaps, that he “had a well in his courtyard.” And “they went down into it.”
Wait a minute, here! We’re talking about the kingdom of God, for goodness’ sake. We’re talking about this vast unfolding drama, and we’ve got these two fellows who are supposed to be doing their best, getting the message from the female servant to get it to King David, and as far as we can tell, right now, the whole thing has come to a crashing halt, because the two of them are hiding down a well.
Well, is it over? It’s actually not very impressive, is it? “The kingdom of God is unfolding.” “Where?” “Well, at the moment, it’s at a guy’s house in Bahurim. He has a well, and they’re down the well.” I sat and thought about it quite a bit this afternoon. It made me think of a New Testament scene. I wonder, does it come to your mind as well? In Acts, do you remember how Paul gets out of Damascus? Yeah! They let him out through a hole in the wall and lowered him down in a basket. The kingdom of God is unfolding from Damascus and on with a funny little man in a basket!
Are you surprised that God would use you, you funny little man, you unknown lady? No, it is all according to his plan. And not only do we have that lady and that man, but we have the woman at the well. For there she is. Who is she? She’s the woman of the house. What did she do? She covered the top of the well with a piece of fabric. And because she was skillful, she covered the fabric, then, with grain to make it look as though in the routine of life, the grain was simply being dried in the sun. The people who came searching on behalf of Absalom clearly weren’t doing a very good job, and she lied to them that the men had gone over the brook. They seemed to pay scant attention to that, and eventually, “they returned,” verse 20, “to Jerusalem.”
Did it matter what she’d done? It was absolutely vital. But didn’t she tell lies? Yes, she did. Does that mean that the Bible then condones the telling of lies? No, it doesn’t. But what it does remind us of is simply this: that in all things, God works for the good of those who love him. It reminds us that God controls evil, but he does not create evil. And when you consider the unfolding of the providence of God—whether it’s in the life of Joseph, whether it’s in the life of Esther and so on, or certainly here in this chapter—you realize the wonder of it all.
But let’s just notice before we move into this final section—because it is a wonderful illustration of George Eliot in Middlemarch. I haven’t been able to quote this for a long time, and I used to quote it regularly to the point of ad nauseam in some people, I think. But it is such an amazing quote. I corrupt it a little bit. But remember, Eliot writes, “The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts,” upon the impact of those “who [live] faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” The faithfulness of those who live a hidden life and rest in unvisited tombs. “You mean the hidden life of a little girl from Israel, this morning, in the story of Naaman? You mean a female servant who doesn’t have a name? You mean a man who had a house with a well? You mean a woman who was brave enough to do what she did?” Yes and yes.
So what happens? Well, the men, when they had gone—the group, the searchers, leave, and “the men came up out of the well.” And then they went and did what they were supposed to do in the first place, and that is they told King David. And no surprise but they said to him, “[You should get up] and go quickly over the water, for thus and so has Ahithophel counseled against you.” In other words, “The Ahithophel plan may well unfold, and if it unfolds, it’s vital that you get out of here. And it would be better that you left now rather than later on.”
And so, what you actually have in that little incident is, from a human perspective, what is actually a rather narrow escape. But it is all proceeding according to plan—including the tragedy that is contained in verse 23. What are we to do with Ahithophel? Here is a picture. It is a tragedy. It is marked by a measure of dignity. It establishes unequivocally his memory. We’re told that when Ahithophel realized that his counsel had not been followed, that things had not gone according to his plan—when he realized that, if you like, for him, the writing was on the wall, because if David was going to triumph, as he inevitably would, then there is little chance and hope for him, because he had been a dreadful traitor to the cause of David (he knew how that would work)—his life was essentially over. There was no future for him at all. And so, in a methodical, clinical, organized fashion, he went off, riding on his donkey, back to his own city, “set his house in order … hanged himself, … died and was buried in the tomb of his father.”
Well, of course, we’ve been comparing him all the time to the later traitor, Judas himself, who also, you will remember, hanged himself. But by comparison with Judas, there is actually much to commend Ahithophel. I thought that I would write in my notes, “A tragic end to a good man.” You say, “Well, he wasn’t really a good man.” Well, yes, but he wasn’t actually a particularly wicked man either, was he? He’s not presented to us in the text as a wicked man. He’s presented to us in the text as a wise counselor. Indeed, his counsel “was as if one consulted the word of God.” That’s this man. That’s this gentleman. He was a wise counselor, and his advice was good counsel, 14b: “For the Lord had ordained to defeat the good counsel of Ahithophel.”
Well, you see, if our understanding of what drove his defection is accurate—i.e., that as the grandfather of Bathsheba, responding to the heinous nature of the crime of David not only in the rape of Bathsheba but in the destruction and the death that follows from it—then why would we be surprised? Why would we be annoyed that he was enraged by that? He should be enraged by that. And so should we. Because in actual fact, if you go back in the text, you will discover that that was exactly the reaction of God to what took place. So in this strange scenario, Ahithophel in this respect is on the side of God. Therefore, I think we should respect Ahithophel for despising David’s crimes.
Woodhouse, I think, puts his finger on it when he suggests that Ahithophel’s big failure was his failure “to accept the grace of God that was extended to David”—he couldn’t handle that—and his failure to accept that the purpose of God was to establish a kingdom through somebody like David. God did not prefer David over Absalom because David was better than Absalom. God preferred David because God preferred David. Remember: “I did not love you because you were brighter, larger, more significant than any other people. I loved you because I loved you.” Oh, it is a mystery, isn’t it? And God, according to plan, works it out.
Ahithophel’s plans were doomed to failure, because he was on the wrong side of history, because God had chosen—chosen David, promised David that his kingdom would endure. And so, actually, Ahithophel’s suicide is not just the account of a government official who is embarrassed by the fact that his plans have been rejected and he’s lost face and he’s lost honor and he’s lost hope and he’s lost purpose. It’s not that at all. His suicide is the record of the adversary of God’s chosen king—and therefore, identifying him as the adversary of Yahweh and his kingdom.
If we had time, we could go back—and we won’t, but a homework assignment—read again, you know, Psalm 2:
Now therefore, O kings, be wise;
be warned, O rulers of the earth.
Serve the Lord with fear,
… rejoice with trembling.
Kiss the Son,
lest he be angry, and you perish in the way,
for his wrath is quickly kindled.
[But] blessed are all who take refuge in him.
Well, in many ways the story ends there, because in verse 23, with his suicide, the chapter is essentially closed. “Well,” you say, “it’s not, because you’ve got from verses 24 to 29—all those difficult names to read.” Well, what this is actually building towards is this great battle, as we will find, those of us who have patience to get into chapter 18. The negotiation time is over, the preparation time is essentially over, and the confrontation is about to begin.
And so, what you have there in those names is the record of the assembling of the forces, first of all of Absalom, and then of the forces of David himself. These individuals are going to line up on one side or the other as a kind of “Choose you this day whom you will serve” moment. And when the teams are put together, the personnel, the friends of David, bring all of these provisions in order that the progress might unfold.
And I find it quite interesting that the final sentence of the chapter as we have it affirms part of Ahithophel’s counsel. Because remember, if you look back up the passage: “You can go and get him while he’s weary and discouraged.” And Hushai comes and he says, “You know, Ahithophel’s counsel’s not good. You shouldn’t think of him as being weary and discouraged. You should think of him as enraged. You should think of him as being like a bear seeking to go for the creature that has invaded the cubs.”
Well, who was right? I think Ahithophel was right. ’Cause here’s what it tells us: there they were, “hungry and weary and thirsty in the wilderness.” So he was right about that. But in the end, he was foolish. Because he should never have defected. He should never have deserted the king.
You wouldn’t defect, would you? It’s not unusual in pastoral ministry to come across someone who has defected, someone who has deserted, someone who once marched alongside the others. And when you press, you may find yourself in a circumstance not dissimilar to Ahithophel’s. When you press, you find that there was some moral degeneracy, something that happened in the family along the path, something that enraged and disappointed and confused and sidelined the individual, and they’ve lost out, because they can’t believe that God would forgive that person; they can’t believe that God would continue to use her or to use him. It’s the same problem. It’s the same issue.
Woodhouse is right: Ahithophel got to where he was because he couldn’t believe that God would forgive somebody who did that, and he found it hard to believe that God would build his kingdom through somebody like him. Let’s make sure tonight that we deal with the issues that may tempt us to defection or to desertion. And don’t sit on your high horse, for let those of us who think we stand take heed, lest we fall. Take your side on the King’s side. Do not be foolish. Trust the counsel of God. Rest entirely in his providence. In the end, all will be well. The bits and pieces that we can’t fix are under his sovereign control. And whether we’ve got a name like Barzillai or Shobi or Machir—whether we’re a name, as it were, in the unfolding story of God’s purposes, as limited as we might understand it to be—or whether in eternity we will just find that it was fine for us to be the female servant, it was fine for us to be the man who had a house with a well, it was fine for us to be a young boy from Cleveland, to be a little girl from Israel…
I have a Maker.
He formed my heart.
Before even time began,
My life was in his hands.
He knows my name,
He knows my every thought,
He knows each tear that falls,
And he hears me when I call.
I forget people’s names. He never forgets a name—and sweeps the good, the bad, and the ugly into the vast, panoramic drama of his purpose from all of eternity to put together “a people that are his very own,” who are the utterly undeserving beneficiaries of his relentless love and his amazing grace. And so the story of the kingdom continues.
So whether you’re down a well this week or crossing a ford—or driving a Ford, for that matter—perhaps it will do you well to remember that when you’re just about to press for the buttons on the TV thing and press Mute and go into one of your mini tirades about “I don’t know what’s going to happen to the future of this place. I can’t believe what will happen to my grandchildren. If this thing continues the way it’s going to continue, we might as well all just ship out and move on and be done with it…” Say, “Hey! Wait a minute! Don’t you believe there’s ‘a higher throne than all this world has known’?” I hope so.
Father, thank you for the stories of the Bible. Thank you for the great story: that you loved the world so much that you gave your only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him would not perish but have everlasting life. Lord, we acknowledge tonight that our times are in your hands. Forgive us, Lord, for setting out on an average day as if it was all up to us. Help us, we pray, as students of your Word and as servants of Christ, to encourage each other along the journey. For we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
 See Matthew 6:33.
 1 Samuel 17:1–5 (paraphrased).
 See 2 Samuel 16:5–14.
 Robert Burns, “To a Mouse” (1785), lines 39–40.
 Burns, lines 1–3.
 Burns, lines 37–42.
 See Acts 9:25.
 See Romans 8:28.
 George Eliot, “Finale,” in Middlemarch (1871–72).
 2 Samuel 16:23 (ESV).
 John Woodhouse, 2 Samuel: Your Kingdom Come, Preaching the Word, ed. R. Kent Hughes (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015), 432.
 Deuteronomy 7:7 (paraphrased).
 Psalm 2:10–12 (ESV).
 Joshua 24:15 (paraphrased).
 2 Samuel 17:2 (paraphrased).
 2 Samuel 17:7–8 (paraphrased).
 1 Corinthians 10:12 (paraphrased).
 Tommy Walker, “I Have a Maker” (1996).
 Titus 2:14 (NIV).
 Keith Getty and Kristyn Getty, “There Is a Higher Throne” (2003).
 See John 3:16.
Copyright © 2022, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.