II Samuel 15:7 – Forty Years or Four Years?

“And it came to pass after forty years, that Absalom said unto the king, I pray thee, let me go and pay my vow, which I have vowed unto the LORD, in Hebron.”
II Samuel 15:7 (KJV)

“At the end of four years, Absalom said to the king, ‘Let me go to Hebron and fulfill a vow I made to the LORD.'”

II Samuel 15:7 (NIV)

On Biblehub.com you will find 38 different translations of the Bible that can easily be compared to one another. 22 of these have forty years. This is not just a KJV issue as some portray it.

The division boils down to whether or not the Hebrew text stands on it own. I would not count myself an expert in ancient texts and languages by any stretch, but from those that give an honest take on this verse it appears the ancient Hebrew supports the reading of forty years. When referring to textual evidence supporting the reading of four years, much of the emphasis is placed on the writings of Josephus (late first century A.D.) or the Peshitta translation (maybe second century A.D.). Even the most studious critics seem to be unable to find textual evidence or variance in the ancient Hebrew manuscripts or text. One could argue that the error that has been passed down is not textual but interpretational.

The common argument made for four years is that it must have been an early copyist’s mistake. After all, they will argue, there is little difference between four and forty in Hebrew (compare Strong’s H702 and H705. The evidence they give is other scholars or translations that follow their own reasoning.

Let me say that I feel it is a dangerous precedent to simply assume the text must contain an error because it does not appear to make sense. It is purely subjective and places the authority not on God’s Word but in the mind of its human interpreter.

Since the entire argument for four years is based on the supposition that forty years does not make sense, I would like to propose that a reasonable argument made in the defense of forty has more weight since it has the authority of the Hebrew text behind it.

How Can Forty Years Be Explained?

There are a few different arguments that can be found in support of forty years. Let me list some that I have seen:

  • Absalom was forty years old. This is unlikely since he was born at Hebron after David was made king of Judah (II Samuel 3:3). Even it true, it would then place his rebellion in the final days of David’s forty-year reign (II Samuel 5:4), which does not fit in the scope of the Biblical account of that time.
  • It was the fortieth year of David’s reign. Again, this would place the revolt in a different time than the text places it and making it fit the chronology of David’s last years is practically impossible.
  • It was forty years since David had been anointed king by Samuel. This one is plausible according to the timeline in Reese’s Chronological Bible. The problem with it is tying the significance of David’s anointed in I Samuel 16:13 and Absalom’s rebellion.
  • It was forty years since David fought the Geshurites. This one is interesting and requires some imagination into Absalom’s motives. David’s attack on the Geshurites is briefly mentioned in I Samuel 27:8-9. Absalom’s mother Maacah was a Geshurite (II Samuel 3:3). So the theory goes that Absalom’s rebellion was a retaliation against David’s earlier attack against his mother’s people. However, we see little or no evidence in Absalom’s actions to suggest this to be the case. I don’t see it holding up chronologically since that attack would have come shortly before he was made king over Judah and thus falling into the same time issues as previous suggestions.
  • It was forty years since Israel requested a king. Since Saul reigned for forty years (Acts 13:21) that does not allow for enough time for this to be true.
  • It was just an “era of reckoning”. John Gill records this suggestion, basically that forty years just means a vague epoch. It would be odd to find such a singular occurrence here.
  • It was forty years since Saul slew the priests at Nob. Another suggestion recorded by John Gill. The chronology might work but once again there is no clear connection between this event and Absalom’s rebellion.
  • It is forty days and not forty years. The changing of the Hebrew words in this case seems to be less plausible than a change from forty to four as the the words for day and year are not closely related.

A More Reasonable Interpretation

I think context is the key most often neglected in situations like this, and I believe it provides a very plausible reason for forty years being correct.

In II Samuel 15:1-6, we see Absalom playing the part of a politician in winning over the people of Israel. He was visible with an entourage of chariots and men, he poured out superfluous compliments, he planted the suggestion that he should be in charge. What was the end result?

“…so Absalom stole the hearts of the men of Israel.” – II Samuel 15:6

Israel’s heart had turned from their present king (David) to a popular young rival (Absalom).

Let me point out that the phrase above directly precedes the verse we have been focusing on. Absalom had worked until he had Israel’s heart (vs. 6) then he puts his plan for a coup into action (vs. 7).

Here is my reasonable explanation for forty years being correct: Absalom had stolen the hearts of Israel which David had possessed for forty years. This is the bookend to David’s popular beginning as seen in I Samuel 18:16 – “But all Israel and Judah loved David… “

This holds up chronologically. Reese’s Chronological Bible (which has a footnote preferring four years) gives evidence for this alternative. He assigns Absalom’s actions in II Samuel 15 to 1026 B.C. He assigns David’s popularity after slaying Goliath (as seen in I Samuel 18:16) to 1067 B.C. That is a difference of forty-one years – well within a scope of reasonable probablity.

It fits thematically. Israel’s heart had once turned from their current king (Saul) to a popular young rival (David). That parallels what happens in II Samuel 15. In a sense we have Absalom as the anti-David. David did not seek the throne but Absalom greedily campaigned for it. David would not raise his hand against Saul, but Absalom will stop at nothing to reach his goal.

I also think there is a connection to the judgment against him after his sin with Bathsheba (II Samuel 12:1-14). David’s family and kingdom were never the same after that sin. Losing the hearts of the people may have been part of that judgment.

Concluding Thoughts

I like simplicity and I prefer simple solutions over complex ones. I do not think the theory holds up that some scribe wrote the wrong word down, that it was not caught, and that is came to dominate the Hebrew manuscripts available today. I prefer to assume that the words presented are the words God wants us to have. To me that is a matter of simple faith. When we come across an oddity, such as the one we have examined here, I think we would do well to trust in the Scriptures themselves. Men are fallible, God is not. Scholars may fail and even our own interpretations may fail, but God never fails.