In 2 Samuel 17:1–4, Absalom had unambiguously claimed Israel’s throne for himself. Now the most pressing task became that of eliminating David, the only credible threat to Absalom’s newfound power. This second objective was more challenging than the first, for David was a man of incredible military skill and resourcefulness. No enemy had ever succeeded in capturing or killing David, in spite of repeated efforts. Nevertheless, Ahithophel had devised a plan that maximized the potential for success in this undertaking.
As in his previous plan, Ahithophel’s counsel for a military strategy against David was bold, simple, and likely to succeed. It incorporated three hallmarks of classic military strategy: use of overwhelming force, the element of surprise, and a narrowly focused objective.
The first aspect of Ahithophel’s plan was the use of overwhelming force: Absalom should assemble a force of “twelve thousand men” (2 Samuel 17:1). David’s forces probably consisted of no more than two thousand men and perhaps were considerably fewer in number than that (2 Samuel 15:18). Thus, Absalom would conservatively have at least five times as many men on the battlefield as David. The advantages of having such lopsided numerical superiority were considerable:
- First, it meant that Absalom’s forces could sustain greater casualties than David’s and still prevail.
- Second, it provided Absalom’s forces with a great psychological advantage because David’s forces would likely be struck “with panic” (2 Samuel 17:2) when they saw the size of the enemy arrayed against them.
- Third, overwhelming numbers of troops increased the likelihood that “all the people with” David “will flee,” choosing not to fight at all instead of going against such great numbers.
The second key aspect of Ahithophel’s strategy was the element of surprise. Although military maneuvers normally were limited to daylight hours, Ahithophel counseled Absalom to strike immediately—“tonight” (v. 1). By doing so, they could overtake David’s forces while they were still “weary and weak” (v. 2) from the hasty, disorganized flight from Jerusalem. Attacking David’s forces during this moment of extreme vulnerability virtually assured success for Absalom’s larger military force.
Finally, Ahithophel’s plan contained a narrowly defined purpose. The sole objective of the entire maneuver was to kill one man, David. After that one objective was achieved, then “all the people”—mostly innocent victims affected by the coup because of their connection with David—could be returned to Israel “unharmed” and spared the anguish of having to live as refugees. Ahithophel’s plan was brilliant, and Absalom seemed ready to act on it almost immediately.