18. David’s Return to Jerusalem (2 Samuel 19:9--20:26)
Our story reminds me of a ride to a missionary training camp in central India with more breath-taking turns than you think you can handle. David has sinned by committing adultery with Bathsheba and by having her husband killed (by none other than Joab, a central figure in our text). God has indicted David for his sin through Nathan the prophet, and David has repented. Nevertheless, there are certain consequences he will have to face. There was the rape of his daughter Tamar by her half-brother, Amnon. Then there was the murder of Amnon by his half-brother, Absalom. Absalom fled to Geshur, where he was given sanctuary by his grandfather, Talmai. Through the intervention and intrigue of Joab, David was pressured into allowing Absalom to return to Jerusalem. In time, Absalom succeeded in undermining the reign of his father, David, and precipitated a revolution which forced David, his family, and his supporters to flee to the wilderness. God spared David, gave his army victory over the rebel forces, and providentially removed Absalom through Joab, who killed Absalom in spite of David's specific orders not to harm him.
Now, David is about to return to Jerusalem to resume his reign over the nation Israel. To win the favor of the people (and perhaps to remove a thorn in his own flesh), David removes Joab as commander of his armed forces, replacing him with Amasa. It looks as though Joab is finished, and yet by the end of our text, it is Amasa who is finished, killed by Joab. Once again Joab is named as the commander of Israel's armed forces. Who could have imagined such a thing?
It doesn't stop here, however. David has been forced to flee Jerusalem due to the revolution instigated by Absalom. While he never abdicated his throne, Absalom acted as king for a few days, until he was defeated in battle and his life was ended by Joab. David is invited to return to Jerusalem to resume his rule over the nation Israel. But on the way there is strife between the men of Judah (David's tribe) and the men from the other tribes in Israel. Somewhere between the Jordan river and Jerusalem, a rebellion is instigated by Sheba, and the Israelites forsake David as their king, returning to their homes. Through a strange twist of fate (humanly speaking), Sheba is cornered in an Israelite fortified city. Through the intervention of a wise woman of that city, Sheba is put to death, the city is delivered, and the division of Israel is reversed. To sum up these events: (1) David is king; (2) David is not king; (3) David is invited to be king again; (4) David's kingdom is divided; (5) David's kingdom is united.
On top of all this is an incredible display of gore and violence. This story would most certainly receive an “R” rating for its violence. Joab “underhandedly” (pardon the pun) runs his sword through Amasa, spilling his intestines on the path; then the army of David stops to gawk at the sight of this man wallowing in his own blood. The grand finale is the beheading of Sheba, whose head is then tossed over the wall of the city to Joab and his army outside.
This fascinating story has all the makings of a movie. But it is not for this reason alone (not even for this reason primarily) that we should read it carefully. This is inspired religious history; it is history most likely penned by a prophet, so it is a story with a message for us to hear and to heed. Let us approach our study then with expectant hearts and minds, ready to hear and to heed what God has to say to each of us through it.
Finger Pointing in Israel
9 All the people were quarreling throughout all the tribes of Israel, saying, “The king delivered us from the hand of our enemies and saved us from the hand of the Philistines, but now he has fled out of the land from Absalom. 10 “However, Absalom, whom we anointed over us, has died in battle. Now then, why are you silent about bringing the king back?”
It is difficult for those of us who live in a democracy to understand the predicament in which the Israelites find themselves. When President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, in only a few hours Lyndon Johnson was sworn in as our new President, and he began to function in this capacity. Our constitution sets down a very clear process for succession. But when a monarch ceases to function as king, what does a nation do? A whole lot of arguing and finger pointing is going on in Israel. Everyone is blaming everyone else and demanding that someone (else) do something. David had been the king. Then he fled the country. The people anointed Absalom in David's place, but now he is dead. There seems to be a foregone conclusion that David will return and resume his role as Israel's king, but how is this going to happen? What should they do? What could they do? And who will do it? The arguing is all about these things.
One more fact contributes to making this such a sticky problem -- these are the same people who backed Absalom's rebellion. The people who are arguing are the people of Israel, those who remained in the land. They are not the supporters of David who accompanied him into the wilderness. These folks rejected David as their king, and now they know it is inevitable he will reign as king once more. Who would want to step forward to bring back the man they rejected, the one against whom they committed high treason? No wonder there is a leadership problem here.
David Makes it Easy for Israel by Taking the Initiative
11 Then King David sent to Zadok and Abiathar the priests, saying, “Speak to the elders of Judah, saying, 'Why are you the last to bring the king back to his house, since the word of all Israel has come to the king, even to his house? 12 'You are my brothers; you are my bone and my flesh. Why then should you be the last to bring back the king?' 13 “Say to Amasa, 'Are you not my bone and my flesh? May God do so to me, and more also, if you will not be commander of the army before me continually in place of Joab.”' 14 Thus he turned the hearts of all the men of Judah as one man, so that they sent word to the king, saying, “Return, you and all your servants.” 15 The king then returned and came as far as the Jordan. And Judah came to Gilgal in order to go to meet the king, to bring the king across the Jordan. NAB 2 Samuel 19:16 Then Shimei the son of Gera, the Benjamite who was from Bahurim, hurried and came down with the men of Judah to meet King David. 17 There were a thousand men of Benjamin with him, with Ziba the servant of the house of Saul, and his fifteen sons and his twenty servants with him; and they rushed to the Jordan before the king. 18 Then they kept crossing the ford to bring over the king's household, and to do what was good in his sight.
Word of all this reaches David’s ears while he is still residing in Mahanaim. He acts in a way that makes it easier for the Israelites to welcome him back. David sends word to Zadok and Abiathar (the priests who were in Jerusalem and had remained loyal to him), instructing them to speak to the elders of Judah. This is David's tribe, the tribe which first anointed David as their king when he was in Hebron. These are David's closest kinsmen. It is logical that they should take the lead in bringing David back to Jerusalem. David makes it even easier for the people of Judah by announcing that he is firing Joab as commander of his army and replacing him with Amasa. This action on David's part does the trick. Word comes from the elders of Judah, inviting him to return. David and all those with him make their way from Mahanaim to the banks of the River Jordan. The people of Judah assemble at Gilgal to assist David and those with him in crossing the river, and to welcome him back as their king. In addition to the people of Judah, a good-sized delegation of Israelites is present, representing the other tribes as well. Among these are Mephibosheth, Ziba (his servant, along with his sons and servants), and Shimei, accompanied by a thousand Benjamites.
Shimei Repents and is Forgiven
And Shimei the son of Gera fell down before the king as he was about to cross the Jordan. 19 So he said to the king, “Let not my lord consider me guilty, nor remember what your servant did wrong on the day when my lord the king came out from Jerusalem, so that the king would take it to heart. 20 “For your servant knows that I have sinned; therefore behold, I have come today, the first of all the house of Joseph to go down to meet my lord the king.” 21 But Abishai the son of Zeruiah said, “Should not Shimei be put to death for this, because he cursed the LORD'S anointed?” 22 David then said, “What have I to do with you, O sons of Zeruiah, that you should this day be an adversary to me? Should any man be put to death in Israel today? For do I not know that I am king over Israel today?” 23 The king said to Shimei, “You shall not die.” Thus the king swore to him.
Shimei is no stranger to us or to David. He is the descendant of Saul who harassed David and those ith him when they fled from Jerusalem (2 Samuel 16:5ff.). He hurled rocks, dirt, accusations, and insults at David. Abishai had wanted to shut this man's mouth permanently then, but David refused, assuming God was, in some way, rebuking him through this loudmouth. Now, on his return, David must pass through Bahurim, Shimei's home town. Shimei knows he is in serious trouble. David is once again the King of Israel, and he may reasonably view Shimei as a traitor who needs to be removed.
Shimei comes, apparently convicted of his folly and sin and eager to demonstrate his repentance to David as he seeks forgiveness. He brings 1,000 Benjamites with him, who also express their submission to David as their king. Shimei does not beat around the bush. He confesses his sin and folly and pleads for David's forgiveness. Once again, Abishai expresses his wish to execute this trouble-maker and be rid of him once for all. David refuses Abishai once again, rebuking not only him but his brother, Joab (who is obviously behind him in his intended execution -- note “O sons [plural] of Zeruiah” in verse 22). This is a day of reconciliation. There will be no executions, even though Shimei deserves to die because he has cursed a ruler of his people (see Exodus 22:28). David assures him, “You shall not die” (verse 23).88
David Deals with Mephibosheth and Ziba
24 Then Mephibosheth the son of Saul came down to meet the king; and he had neither cared for his feet, nor trimmed his mustache, nor washed his clothes, from the day the king departed until the day he came home in peace. 25 It was when he came from Jerusalem to meet the king, that the king said to him, “Why did you not go with me, Mephibosheth?” 26 So he answered, “O my lord, the king, my servant deceived me; for your servant said, 'I will saddle a donkey for myself that I may ride on it and go with the king,' because your servant is lame. 27 “Moreover, he has slandered your servant to my lord the king; but my lord the king is like the angel of God, therefore do what is good in your sight. 28 “For all my father's household was nothing but dead men before my lord the king; yet you set your servant among those who ate at your own table. What right do I have yet that I should complain anymore to the king?” 29 So the king said to him, “Why do you still speak of your affairs? I have decided, 'You and Ziba shall divide the land.”' 30 Mephibosheth said to the king, “Let him even take it all, since my lord the king has come safely to his own house.”
When David first became king of Israel he wanted to fulfill his covenant with Jonathan, and so he began to search for any descendants of Saul and Jonathan. He was told about Ziba, who was a servant of Saul until his death. Ziba was summoned to David, and this man told the king about one surviving son, Mephibosheth, who had been crippled since childhood. David sent for Mephibosheth, gave him all the properties that had belonged to Saul, as well as Ziba and his household as his servants. In addition, David had Mephibosheth sit at his table as a son. When David fled from Jerusalem, Ziba met him on the way with provisions for the trip. When David asked about Mephibosheth, Ziba told the king he had chosen to stay in Jerusalem, hoping he might gain the throne of his grandfather, Saul. At that time, David gave Ziba all of Mephibosheth's inheritance, which he had formerly given to this son of Jonathan.
Now, David is returning to Jerusalem and the throne. Ziba, his sons and servants, and Mephibosheth are there to greet David and help him on his journey through the Jordan and on to Jerusalem. While Ziba is somewhere around, the conversation here is between David and Mephibosheth. He is the one who appears to have forsaken David, while Mephibosheth seems to be in good standing. David asks Mephibosheth why he did not accompany him when he fled from Jerusalem.
Some of you may not know that I began my career as a school teacher. I taught for several years, and in that course of time, I heard a lot of poor excuses. (My wife and I are the parents of five daughters, and we have heard some bad excuses there too.) As hard as I try to understand what Mephibosheth is saying, it doesn't make sense to me. He does not admit wrongdoing and seeks to defend himself by telling David that he is deceived, because he said he would saddle a donkey for himself. Why doesn’t he then? If Ziba does not prevent him from saddling a donkey, why doesn’t Mephibosheth do what he says he intended to do? I don't understand. And then Mephibosheth adds that Ziba slandered him to David, no doubt by telling the king that he was staying in Jerusalem in hopes of gaining the throne.
I personally doubt there is any way to reconcile these two differing accounts of why Mephibosheth is absent when David fled Jerusalem. It does not seem that David figured it out either, because he does not find one man right and the other wrong. Instead, David declares that Mephibosheth's land (which David had given him earlier, and then given to Ziba) will be divided evenly between he and his servant Ziba. Once again, it is a day of rejoicing and reunion. David will give both men the benefit of the doubt and make a judgment which benefits both and might facilitate their reconciliation.
Mephibosheth certainly does not ask for anything. He acknowledges David's graciousness to him in the past, and also that he is unworthy and undeserving of any special consideration from David. He then seems to waive his rights to what David has given him, signing them over (as it were) to Ziba. Whether he actually did this or not is another matter. But the impression he seeks to give David is that he is more than happy to live in the king's presence, and that further benefits are unnecessary and unwanted.
31 Now Barzillai the Gileadite had come down from Rogelim; and he went on to the Jordan with the king to escort him over the Jordan. 32 Now Barzillai was very old, being eighty years old; and he had sustained the king while he stayed at Mahanaim, for he was a very great man. 33 The king said to Barzillai, “You cross over with me and I will sustain you in Jerusalem with me.” 34 But Barzillai said to the king, “How long have I yet to live, that I should go up with the king to Jerusalem? 35 “I am now eighty years old. Can I distinguish between good and bad? Or can your servant taste what I eat or what I drink? Or can I hear anymore the voice of singing men and women? Why then should your servant be an added burden to my lord the king? 36 “Your servant would merely cross over the Jordan with the king. Why should the king compensate me with this reward? 37 “Please let your servant return, that I may die in my own city near the grave of my father and my mother. However, here is your servant Chimham, let him cross over with my lord the king, and do for him what is good in your sight.” 38 The king answered, “Chimham shall cross over with me, and I will do for him what is good in your sight; and whatever you require of me, I will do for you.” 39 All the people crossed over the Jordan and the king crossed too. The king then kissed Barzillai and blessed him, and he returned to his place.
Barzillai is one of my favorite characters in this story. He is an elderly man, 80 years old to be precise. He is also a very wealthy man. He must have lived close to Mahanaim, for it was there that this generous old man provided for the needs of David and those with him while in exile. Now that David is going back to Jerusalem, Barzillai goes to great efforts to extend his friendship and hospitality to him on his return. It is some 20 to 25 miles (approximately -- we don't know exactly where Mahanaim was located) back to the Jordan where David will cross, and another 20 to 25 miles to Jerusalem. This old man accompanies David to the Jordan and beyond to Gilgal (not far from where ancient Jericho would have been), and now says good bye.
David wishes to show his gratitude to this old fellow and invites Barzillai to accompany him to Jerusalem, where the king promises to abundantly provide for him. Barzillai graciously declines David's offer. He is too old, he admits, to appreciate the difference between filet mignon and mush, or between the concert soprano voice of one of David's musicians and his own singing in the shower. David's delicacies would be wasted on him, and besides, he does not have all that much time left. He prefers to stay in his own home, near the place where his parents are buried, and where he, before long, will be buried as well.89
Barzillai does not wish to personally benefit from the generous offer David makes him, but he does propose an alternative. Barzillai commends a young man, Chimham, to the king, asking David if he will confer his blessings on this lad, as if upon him. From what we are told in 1 Kings 2:7, we know David intends not only to keep his promise to Barzillai in his lifetime but to continue it after his own death. David instructs Solomon to continue to be kind to Barzillai's sons (note the plural). I take it then that Chimham is a son of Barzillai, and that either at this time or later he is joined by another son or more. David generously provides for these men as Barzillai has cared for him.
Quarreling Over the King
40 Now the king went on to Gilgal, and Chimham went on with him; and all the people of Judah and also half the people of Israel accompanied the king. 41 And behold, all the men of Israel came to the king and said to the king, “Why had our brothers the men of Judah stolen you away, and brought the king and his household and all David's men with him over the Jordan?” 42 Then all the men of Judah answered the men of Israel, “Because the king is a close relative to us. Why then are you angry about this matter? Have we eaten at all at the king's expense, or has anything been taken for us?” 43 But the men of Israel answered the men of Judah and said, “We have ten parts in the king, therefore we also have more claim on David than you. Why then did you treat us with contempt? Was it not our advice first to bring back our king?” Yet the words of the men of Judah were harsher than the words of the men of Israel.
Their sandals are hardly dry from crossing the Jordan when the Israelites begin to grumble against each other. All of the men of Judah are accompanying David, and half of the people of Israel. This scene reminds me of driving in the car, and after a while a couple of the children begin to bicker and quibble with each other. Some of the Israelites begin to dwell on the fact that the men of Judah not only initiated David's return but are taking the lead in bringing him back. (No one seems to recall that just a few days earlier, these same folks were arguing with each other as to who should take the initiative in doing so -- and no one did, until the elders of Judah took the initiative.) Envy and jealousy begin to be aroused, and finally the Israelites begin to verbalize their anger and frustration: “How come the men of Judah are telling us what to do? Who appointed them to bring David back or to lead this parade?”
The men of Judah have a ready answer with which they rudely retaliate: “We are bringing the king back to Jerusalem because we are David's closest kin.” I can imagine it came across more like: “We're related to David, so just shut up!” The men of Judah continue to defend themselves by pointing out that even though they are closer kin to David, they have never personally benefited from this kinship in a way that was discriminatory. The men of Israel are not taken aback by the rebuttal of the men of Judah. Do the kinsmen of David think that merely being closer kin gives them priority? They have a very different way of viewing this matter. They represent ten tribes, while Judah is but one tribe. They should have ten times as much claim to David as the men of Judah.
The argument does not end here, but goes from bad to worse. Our author thought it best to leave his description of the debate at this point, with the added comment that the subsequent words of the men of Judah were harsher (“fiercer,” KJV, NKJV; “sharper,” Young's Literal Translation) than the words of the men of Israel (verse 43). I suspect the author does not want to record for posterity the foolish, angry words spoken beyond this point. Besides, we have gotten the point. Petty jealousy and strife prevail, so that the ten tribes become angry and embittered toward the men of Judah. Tensions are at an all-time high. Any precipitous action here could cause the situation to ignite.
The Great Divide
1 Now a worthless fellow happened to be there whose name was Sheba, the son of Bichri, a Benjamite; and he blew the trumpet and said, “We have no portion in David, Nor do we have inheritance in the son of Jesse; Every man to his tents, O Israel!” 2 So all the men of Israel withdrew from following David and followed Sheba the son of Bichri; but the men of Judah remained steadfast to their king, from the Jordan even to Jerusalem.
Something precipitous does happen. There just happens to be a man among the people of Israel whose name is Sheba. Our author informs us that he is a “worthless fellow” (the text literally reads, “son of belial”). Sheba is a no-good, who would not be taken seriously under normal circumstances. But in the heat of this argument, Sheba loses his temper (or sees the opportunity to assume leadership here), and blurts out, “We have no portion in David, Nor do we have inheritance in the son of Jesse; Every man to his tents, O Israel!” That is all it takes for his fellow-Israelites to turn on their heels and leave with him. And so this once joyful procession turns sour with a bitter debate and now a major schism. One moment these Israelites claim David as their leader; the next they are following Sheba, a worthless man. David has not even reached Jerusalem, and his kingdom is already a divided one. It looks as though he is starting all over again, as the king of the tribe of Judah.
Back to Business in Jerusalem
3 Then David came to his house at Jerusalem, and the king took the ten women, the concubines whom he had left to keep the house, and placed them under guard and provided them with sustenance, but did not go in to them. So they were shut up until the day of their death, living as widows.
4 Then the king said to Amasa, “Call out the men of Judah for me within three days, and be present here yourself.” 5 So Amasa went to call out the men of Judah, but he delayed longer than the set time which he had appointed him. 6 And David said to Abishai, “Now Sheba the son of Bichri will do us more harm than Absalom; take your lord's servants and pursue him, so that he does not find for himself fortified cities and escape from our sight.” 7 So Joab's men went out after him, along with the Cherethites and the Pelethites and all the mighty men; and they went out from Jerusalem to pursue Sheba the son of Bichri. 8 When they were at the large stone which is in Gibeon, Amasa came to meet them. Now Joab was dressed in his military attire, and over it was a belt with a sword in its sheath fastened at his waist; and as he went forward, it fell out. 9 Joab said to Amasa, “Is it well with you, my brother?” And Joab took Amasa by the beard with his right hand to kiss him. 10 But Amasa was not on guard against the sword which was in Joab's hand so he struck him in the belly with it and poured out his inward parts on the ground, and did not strike him again,90 and he died.
The first thing David does after arriving in Jerusalem is deal with the ten wives (or concubines) he left behind to keep the house. Absalom has slept with these women in public; there is no way David can go back to the way things were. He will never sleep with any of these women again. He appoints a place for them to stay and provides generously (I am sure) for them, but he does not sleep with them again. They have been defiled by Absalom.
The next item of business for David is the rebellion that is under way, led by Sheba. David knows speed is of the essence. He does not dare allow Sheba time to gather a following, organize his army, and find fortified cities in which to hide or from which to fight. The sooner David's army can overtake Sheba and deal with him, the better. And so David summons his new commander, Amasa91 and instructs him to go muster the military forces of Judah, and then pursue and subdue Sheba as quickly as possible.
For some unexplained reason Amasa does not assemble the armed forces of Judah in the three-day time frame David sets down. You can imagine how uneasy David must be, knowing that every hour Sheba is free, the threat to his kingdom increases. It must pain David greatly to finally admit Amasa is not coming, at least not for a while, and to call for Abishai, the brother of Joab and long-time pain-in-the-neck for David (see 1 Samuel 26:6-11; 2 Samuel 16:9-12; 19:21-22). David would not ask Joab to do the job, for it would appear to be an admission that he has erred in firing Joab and replacing him with Amasa. But when Abishai goes out from Jerusalem, leading David's select warriors (the Green Berets or Navy Seals of his day) in pursuit of Sheba, he is accompanied by Joab.
Joab and his men go out, along with David's royal guard, the Cherethites and the Pelethites and all the “mighty men of valor.” When they arrive at the large and well-known stone in Gibeon, Amasa comes out to meet them. I would expect Abishai to take the lead here. It is possible that the forces that left Jerusalem in search of Sheba divided into smaller groups, which fanned out to locate this traitor as quickly as possible. From this point on in the chapter, Abishai is only incidentally mentioned, while Joab is prominent. It may just be that Joab went out on his own with his own men, and providentially encountered Amasa. It is also possible that Joab believed he knew where Amasa could be found and decided to deal first with him. Is Amasa a bungler, who just couldn't do the job? Or is he a coward, afraid to try? We are given no clues, but his conduct is certainly an enigma. One way or the other, his actions providentially prepare the way for what is about to take place.
Joab and Amasa are approaching each other. Joab's greeting to Amasa seems warm and friendly (“my brother,” verse 9), so Amasa is hardly on guard. Joab is in military uniform, which includes a belt and a sheath, holding a sword. Somehow (it doesn't appear to be deliberate) as Joab moves forward, his spear falls out of its sheath. Joab bends down and picks up his sword in his left hand. Amasa does not seem to even notice the sword in Joab's hand as they draw near. It would seem at that very moment, Joab sizes up the situation and realizes how easy it would be for him to kill Amasa, and so he does, on what seems to be a spur-of-the-moment impulse. Joab seizes Amasa by the beard, which is apparently the usual way one would hold on to the man being kissed. As he grasps Amasa with his right hand, he runs him through with his left, probably twisting it about in his abdomen, causing his innards to spill out.
Almost immediately, it seems, Joab turns and walks away, along with his brother Abishai, to resume his pursuit of Sheba. From what the text tells us, I am not sure Joab intended anything more than to kill Amasa. We are not told that he sought to take control of the army of David; we are only told that he set out to continue his pursuit of Sheba.
Joab Takes Charge
Then Joab and Abishai his brother pursued Sheba the son of Bichri. 11 Now there stood by him one of Joab's young men, and said, “Whoever favors Joab and whoever is for David, let him follow Joab.” 12 But Amasa lay wallowing in his blood in the middle of the highway. And when the man saw that all the people stood still, he removed Amasa from the highway into the field and threw a garment over him when he saw that everyone who came by him stood still. 13 As soon as he was removed from the highway, all the men passed on after Joab to pursue Sheba the son of Bichri.
It does not seem to be at Joab's initiative that a certain soldier takes it upon himself to address the rest. He is “one of Joab's young men,” so we would expect him to be loyal to Joab and one of his supporters. Seeing Amasa lying there dead, it is obvious to him that there needs to be a new commander of the army. After all, someone needs to give the orders. It seems clear that next in the chain of command is Abishai. He is the oldest son (1 Chronicles 2:16), but most important of all, he is the one David sent to pursue Sheba when Amasa did not return. In spite of this, the young man urges the rest of his colleagues to acknowledge Joab as their new commander, and it seems this is precisely what happens. There is no mention of any protest, and Joab is spoken of as the leader from here on.
The soldiers are hesitant, but it has nothing to do with Joab being in charge. Their hesitation is due to the sight of Amasa, lying there in the road and wallowing in his own blood. Everybody stops to gawk at the body, rubbernecking as people do on the freeway as they pass by a gruesome auto accident. This same young man recognizes what is causing the men to hasten after Joab in pursuit of Sheba and deals with the problem. He removes the body from the middle of the road and takes it out into the field, where it is covered with a garment. Now all the men pass on with hardly a glance. The chase is on.
The Search For Sheba
14 Now he went through all the tribes of Israel to Abel, even Beth-maacah, and all the Berites; and they were gathered together and also went after him. 15 They came and besieged him in Abel Beth-maacah, and they cast up a siege ramp against the city, and it stood by the rampart; and all the people who were with Joab were wreaking destruction in order to topple the wall. 16 Then a wise woman called from the city, “Hear, hear! Please tell Joab, 'Come here that I may speak with you.”' 17 So he approached her, and the woman said, “Are you Joab?” And he answered, “I am.” Then she said to him, “Listen to the words of your maidservant.” And he answered, “I am listening.” 18 Then she spoke, saying, “Formerly they used to say, 'They will surely ask advice at Abel,' and thus they ended the dispute. 19 “I am of those who are peaceable and faithful in Israel. You are seeking to destroy a city, even a mother in Israel. Why would you swallow up the inheritance of the LORD?” 20 Joab replied, “Far be it, far be it from me that I should swallow up or destroy! 21 “Such is not the case. But a man from the hill country of Ephraim, Sheba the son of Bichri by name, has lifted up his hand against King David. Only hand him over, and I will depart from the city.” And the woman said to Joab, “Behold, his head will be thrown to you over the wall.” 22 Then the woman wisely came to all the people. And they cut off the head of Sheba the son of Bichri and threw it to Joab. So he blew the trumpet, and they were dispersed from the city, each to his tent. Joab also returned to the king at Jerusalem.
Joab, accompanied by his army, begins to make a sweep through the land of Israel in search of Sheba. Our author tells us that “he went through all the tribes of Israel to Abel . . .” (verse 14). This means that all Israel is aware that David is seeking Sheba. No doubt this is a very distressing thing to those who chose to heed Sheba's advice and go home. Are the Israelites upset that Judah takes the initiative in bringing David back to Jerusalem? They must be more than uneasy that Judah is now taking the initiative to eliminate Sheba and has no qualms about traveling throughout Israel with an armed force to do so.
Joab and his forces finally track down Sheba at Abel Beth-maacah. When they hear that Sheba has sought refuge in this fortified city, they put the city under siege. The people inside the city do not even know why their city is under attack,92 but they look on with fear as Joab and his men begin to dismantle the city piece by piece. It is only a matter of time before Joab breaks through into the city. At that point, not only will the city be destroyed, but many people will likely die in the confrontation.
A wise woman sizes up the situation and takes the initiative. She goes to the wall, calls down, and asks to speak to Joab. He comes near, and she recounts to him how this city has been highly esteemed as a source of wisdom and counsel. It is a place known for ending disputes. Why then would Joab want to destroy such a place? She goes on to tell Joab that she is among those in the city who are peaceable and faithful in Israel. They have done nothing to deserve what Joab is dishing out. This is a part of the “inheritance of the Lord.” Does Joab really wish to be responsible for destroying it?
Joab assures the woman that he does not wish to destroy the city. He then informs her why the city is being besieged. They are seeking but one person, Sheba the son of Bichri, who is guilty of rebellion against King David. If the woman will arrange to have this man handed over to them, they will go their way in peace. The woman assures Joab that Sheba's head will be thrown over the wall to him. The woman then convinces the people of the city to execute Sheba, and his head is thrown down to Joab and his army. With this, Joab blows the trumpet, indicating the cessation of hostilities. Joab then returns to Jerusalem and King David.
23 Now Joab was over the whole army of Israel, and Benaiah the son of Jehoiada was over the Cherethites and the Pelethites; 24 and Adoram was over the forced labor, and Jehoshaphat the son of Ahilud was the recorder; 25 and Sheva was scribe, and Zadok and Abiathar were priests; 26 and Ira the Jairite was also a priest to David.
I am sure there are things which could be said for all these men, but I will not attempt to do so. I wish to focus on only one man here, and that man is Joab. What irony! This fellow is like bad breath; you just can't seem to get rid of him. Think of it. Joab joined David while he was fleeing from Saul (see 1 Samuel 22:1-2; 26:6). It was Joab and Abner who faced off in some kind of he-man contest, which resulted in a number of deaths, including the death of his youngest brother, Asahel (2 Samuel 2). In retaliation against Abner, who killed his brother in battle, Joab deceitfully killed him. For this he was strongly rebuked by David (2 Samuel 3). It is doubtful that David would have ever chosen Joab as the commander of his army, but David offered this position to whoever would first attack the city of Jebus, and Joab took him up on this offer (1 Chronicles 11:4-6). It was Joab who manipulated David into bringing Absalom back to Israel and then giving him his freedom (2 Samuel 14). It was also Joab who put Absalom to death, in spite of David's command to the contrary (2 Samuel 18). One could hardly wonder why David replaced Joab with Amasa. The real wonder is that after Joab put Amasa to death, Joab remained commander of the army. We would never have expected chapter 20 to end as it does in the light of the way chapter 19 began (19:13).
In terms of the story of David's life, we should now have a strong sense of relief because David is once again in Jerusalem, reigning as King of Israel. It was a long, hard struggle for David as he waited for God to fulfill his promise that he would rule over Israel, in Saul's place. For years David had to hide from Saul, who sought to kill David as though he were an enemy. And once on the throne, there were a number of years of success, but this very success led to carelessness, and ultimately to David's fall. The outcome of that fall was a great deal of suffering and adversity, capped off by the rebellion of his son Absalom, and David's flight from Jerusalem. Now, Absalom is dead, the revolution has been crushed, and David has been brought back to Jerusalem. What a relief!
David's life is not a fairy tale. He does not live “happily ever after.” David's difficulties after his moral collapse were many, and they were extremely painful. Let all of us who look on learn from them. There are those who would say, “Well, David sinned, too.” By this, they often mean: “David sinned, but then he repented, and then he went on just as before.” That is not really true. He did sin, and he did repent, but things did not just go on as before. David's life was never the same after the fall. Let no one minimize the consequences of sin in David's life. Sin is never worth the price, and David's life illustrates that fact dramatically.
We should also recognize that all of these difficulties were ultimately for David's good, and for the good of God's people. His difficulties should teach us that sin does not pay. On the other hand, David's difficulties also served to humble David, and to make him more dependent upon God. Notice how these painful points in David's life produced a humility and graciousness in him that may not have been as evident earlier in his life. He graciously forgave Shimei for his sins against him. Was this not prompted, in part at least, by the forgiveness David had experienced from God for his sin? We see it also in David's response to Mephibosheth. David has learned to receive, as well as to give, from lovely friends like Barzillai.
The events of these two chapters in 2 Samuel underscore the reality of divine providence. There are times when God intervenes in the lives of men in a direct way. God very visibly and dramatically revealed Himself to the Egyptians and to the Israelites at the time of the exodus. There were times when God acted in conjunction with the faith and obedience of one (or more) of His saints. For example, David made it clear that the victory over Goliath would be the Lord's doing, and so it was. There are many other times when the hand of God is not apparent at all, at least to those who look on without the “eyes of faith.” God had promised David that he would reign as king, and that his kingdom would be an everlasting one. Through Nathan the prophet, God assured David that he would not die for his sin. At times it may have seemed that David's chances of survival were between “slim and none.” But God kept His promise, often by employing the most unlikely folks. He used Gentiles (a king of a nation with which David had waged war -- see 17:27) as well as Jews. He employed the actions that stemmed from faith and generosity, as well as those prompted by fleshly self-interest (as in the actions of Joab when he killed Absalom, against David's orders, and Amasa for now justifiable reason). No matter how “out of control” things may have looked, God was in complete control, using the most unlikely means to achieve what He had purposed and promised.
Think of the turning points in our text. David appoints Amasa commander in place of Joab, and by this wins the favor of the men of Judah. And yet, Amasa is late in returning to Jerusalem with the armed forces of Judah, which prompts David to send Abishai, Joab's brother, to search for Amasa. A dropped sword and an unsuspecting Amasa become the opportunity which Joab seizes to eliminate Amasa and to take his place. Two men, Sheba and an unknown soldier, urge the soldiers to act, and they do. A wise woman speaks out, convincing Joab that he need not make a war of Sheba's rebellion, and Joab agrees. This text enlightens our eyes so that we may “see” the unseen hand of God at work in the lives of His people.
There is a one very clear example of divine providence in our text, and that is God's providential preparation of the nation Israel for its future division. Observe the words spoken by Sheba in our text:
“We have no portion in David, Nor do we have inheritance in the son of Jesse; Every man to his tents, O Israel!” (2 Samuel 20:1b)
Compare the words spoken by Sheba in our text with these words, spoken by Israel after the death of Solomon:
When all Israel saw that the king did not listen to them, the people answered the king, saying, “What portion do we have in David? We have no inheritance in the son of Jesse; To your tents, O Israel! Now look after your own house, David!” So Israel departed to their tents (1 Kings 12:16).
It is almost as though Sheba's words become the motto of those who rebel in Israel. The roots of division between Judah and the other tribes of Israel run deep in Israel's history, but it is evident that Israel was a divided kingdom for a very short time in David's day. This division is never completely healed. It may lay dormant for the years of Solomon's reign, but it comes to life after his death. In all of this, God is preparing the nation for the division He purposes. The second time the nation divides, it will not reunite. The northern kingdom will fall to Assyria, as a lesson to Judah, a lesson which will not be heeded. And so the southern kingdom will also fall, this time to the Babylonians. God is providentially preparing the nation for their coming division in the events of our text.
Our text gives us insight into the spiritual condition of the nation at this time in their history. It is quite easy to see Israel's sinfulness in relationship to the divinely-appointed leadership of David. The nation has demanded a king, and God has given them one. When God replaces Saul with David, it is through him that the Davidic dynasty is initiated. David has refused to raise his hand against God's anointed, and yet the tribes of Israel find it easy to heed the advice of Sheba and forsake David as their king. They renounce David as their king, in spite of the fact that God has anointed him. They think of their king as someone they own, someone who is obliged to give them what they want, when they want it. And if he does not, then they feel free to reject him. Israel's rebellion against David is also rebellion against God.
But let us not make the mistake of assuming that because Israel sinned in rebelling against David, Judah is faithful to God in remaining loyal to him. When the people of Israel are arguing with the people of Judah, the Israelites argue that since they consist of ten tribes they have ten times the ownership of David, ten times the claim on him. In other words, David is ten times more obligated to them. But when the people of Judah speak of their relationship to David, their claim to him is that he is near kin. Neither the ten tribes of Israel nor the tribe of Judah speak of David as God's anointed king. Both tribes follow David for self-serving reasons. Thus, Judah is hardly better for following David than the men of Israel are for leaving him.
Is this not true of all mankind, throughout all the ages? When God created Adam and Eve, He placed them in the Garden of Eden. He gave them freedom to eat of every tree of that garden, except one, which He prohibited. Satan came along and convinced them that if their perception of their needs and how to meet them did not square with God's leadership, then they were free to act autonomously, independently of God. And so they did. And from that moment on, man has rebelled against God's leadership.
When the Lord Jesus Christ came to the earth, He was God's Messiah, God's Anointed One. He was God's King. At first, many followed our Lord, excited about the possibility of His kingdom. But when they learned that His kingdom did not square with what they hoped for, they renounced Him as their king, professing that their king was Caesar.
It is the same today. There is a great deal of discussion and debate about this issue of lordship, but it is difficult to deny that Jesus Christ does not just want us to trust in Him as our Savior, but to obey Him as our Lord. How slow and reticent we are to accept this. How quick we are to renounce His lordship in our lives. The Bible speaks clearly, commanding us to do certain things and to abstain from others. And yet when these commands conflict with what we want, we quickly and unashamedly turn from the lordship of Christ, setting aside His commands as culturally irrelevant (or some other equally weak excuse for rebellion and disobedience). When God's appointed leaders (husbands, parents, governing authorities, church leaders) ask us to do that which we disdain, we reject their leadership and seek some other leaders, who will “lead” us in the way we really wanted to go all along. How disinclined we are to submit to God's leadership.
Ultimately there is but one “Leader” that we must follow, and that is the person of our Lord Jesus Christ:
13 For He rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. 15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities -- all things have been created through Him and for Him. 17 He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. 18 He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything. 19 For it was the Father's good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him, 20 and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven (Colossians 1:13-20).
Those who reject Him do so to their own peril, and someday they will acknowledge Him as God's King:
5 Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, 6 who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. 8 Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus EVERY KNEE WILL BOW, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:5-11).
God gives men the opportunity to trust in Jesus Christ as God's Savior, God's sin-bearer, as well as to submit to Him as God's King. Those who submit to Him as Savior and king are granted the forgiveness of sins and a place in His kingdom. Those who reject Him will someday acknowledge Him as King, but they will forever be banished from His kingdom, suffering the penalty of eternal doom for their rebellion. He whom God has appointed as our Sovereign King is also He whom God sent as God's Suffering Servant, who bore the penalty for our sins, and who offers to us eternal life. Let us submit to Him as Savior and Lord, and let us live as His loyal subjects, for His glory and our eternal good.
89 I must make a confession here. When we were studying chapter 12, I made the point that David would not have had any comfort in the fact that he would be buried next to the son he had just lost, and that he had to be speaking of his hope of seeing that son in heaven. I have not forsaken that position, but I must point out that Barzillai does seem to find some comfort in being buried near his loved ones. Whether this is a great enough comfort to explain David’s change in attitude and behavior in chapter 12 is still open for discussion.
90 You will recall that Abishai, Joab’s brother, begged David to let him kill Saul, and that if he struck him once, he would not need to strike him again (1 Samuel 26:8). These two boys seemed to pride themselves in doing the job right the first time.