Two Bald Men, Fighting Over a Comb (2 Samuel 2:1--3:39)
Several years ago, I attended a meeting for Christian leaders in Dallas, where Luis Palau, a gifted evangelist and teacher, spoke. It was not long after the Falkland Island war between Argentina and England. Luis had conducted evangelistic campaigns in Argentina and Great Britain not long before the war broke out, so he likely ministered to some of those fighting on both sides. Mr. Palau was puzzled about how such a war had come about. When the opportunity arose for him to meet with a Member of Parliament, Luis asked the official to explain the reasons for this conflict and received this concise summary statement: “Two bald men, fighting over a comb.”
As I read these two chapters of 2 Samuel, this man’s diagnosis seems to aptly fit the conflict which arises between the army of David, at least partly led by Joab, and the army of Ish-bosheth, led by Abner. While the conflict is trivial in its origins, its outcome is far from trivial as we shall see. The events of our text are not nearly as “long ago and far away” as we might think; indeed, they are very relevant to Christians and the church today as we shall pursue in this message.
You (and I) may be eager to see David enthroned over all Israel, but it is not yet to be. That will come in chapter 5. Until then, we must tend to our text and its lessons. Our text has much to say about David, and we will consider this dimension of these chapters in our next lesson. We should note that these two chapters focus primarily upon two men, Abner and Joab. These two military men greatly impact David’s life and reign as king and the history of the nation Israel. Their lives converge in chapters 2 and 3. Our text spells the end of Abner’s life and the commencement of Joab’s leadership under king David.
In this lesson, we will attempt to step back and take a look at the lives of both of these men to see the events of our text from the larger context of their lives. Each man has something to teach us. Their individual lives, as well as their relationship with each other and with Israel’s kings, also have much to say to us, so let us begin with a biographical sketch of the life of each man, Abner and Joab.
All About Abner: A Brief Biographical Sketch
When some of the donkeys belonging to Saul’s father run off, Saul is sent to find them and bring them back, with the help of a servant (9:3ff.). During their search for the donkeys Saul and the servant encounter Samuel, who secretly anoints Saul, designating him as Israel’s first king. When Saul and his servant return home, Saul’s unnamed uncle is there to meet them and to probe Saul with questions:
14 Now Saul's uncle said to him and his servant, “Where did you go?” And he said, “To look for the donkeys. When we saw that they could not be found, we went to Samuel.” 15 Saul's uncle said, “Please tell me what Samuel said to you.” 16 So Saul said to his uncle, “He told us plainly that the donkeys had been found.” But he did not tell him about the matter of the kingdom which Samuel had mentioned (1 Samuel 10:14-16).
There is a good chance this “uncle” is Ner, the brother of Kish, Saul’s father. It is easy to see why uncle Ner might be interested in Saul’s encounter with Samuel. Israel has demanded a king like the rest of the nations, and God has granted this request through Samuel (1 Samuel 8). Samuel is the one who will designate him, and this had not yet happened. Ner would not take any encounter between his nephew Saul and Samuel lightly. Saul’s success (by becoming king) will likely spell success for the “family” as well. It is likely his son, Abner, Saul’s cousin, who becomes commander of Saul’s armed forces.
Abner does not appear until David’s encounter with Goliath, as recorded in 1 Samuel 17. If we expect Saul to stand up to Goliath, which he did not, surely the next man in line to take on this giant will be the commander of all of Saul’s army. But Abner is sitting on the sidelines with Saul, apparently watching the battle from a safe distance:
55 Now when Saul saw David going out against the Philistine, he said to Abner the commander of the army, “Abner, whose son is this young man?” And Abner said, “By your life, O king, I do not know.” 56 The king said, “You inquire whose son the youth is.” 57 So when David returned from killing the Philistine, Abner took him and brought him before Saul with the Philistine's head in his hand (1 Samuel 17:55-57).
Though it may seem unduly harsh, I understand the text to say that cousin Abner, commander of Israel’s military, is just as frightened by Goliath as the rest of his men, and Saul:
When Saul and all Israel heard these words of the Philistine, they were dismayed and greatly afraid (1 Samuel 17:11).
When all the men of Israel saw the man, they fled from him and were greatly afraid (1 Samuel 17:24).
Cowardice in the ranks suggests cowardice in the upper levels of command as well.
David and Abner must know each other fairly well. Abner is the commander of Israel’s army, and David is a war hero who has been appointed commander of a thousand (1 Samuel 18:13). Through his military victories, David has won the respect of his fellow-commanders (18:30). Furthermore, Abner (like David) is a regular guest at Saul’s table (20:25).
Abner certainly does not know David well at first, but this quickly changes after David’s victory over Goliath. David is promoted to captain of a thousand (1 Samuel 18:13), which could not have escaped Abner’s attention. When Saul turns against David, Abner supports his cousin-king. And since Saul employs his army to search for David to kill him, the commander of the army must be involved (see 1 Samuel 26:3-5, 13-16). Abner may have been more involved in David’s life than we would like to know:
3 Saul camped in the hill of Hachilah, which is before Jeshimon, beside the road, and David was staying in the wilderness. When he saw that Saul came after him into the wilderness, 4 David sent out spies, and he knew that Saul was definitely coming. 5 David then arose and came to the place where Saul had camped. And David saw the place where Saul lay, and Abner the son of Ner, the commander of his army; and Saul was lying in the circle of the camp, and the people were camped around him. . . . 13 Then David crossed over to the other side and stood on top of the mountain at a distance with a large area between them. 14 David called to the people and to Abner the son of Ner, saying, “Will you not answer, Abner?” Then Abner replied, “Who are you who calls to the king?” 15 So David said to Abner, “Are you not a man? And who is like you in Israel? Why then have you not guarded your lord the king? For one of the people came to destroy the king your lord. 16 “This thing that you have done is not good. As the LORD lives, all of you must surely die, because you did not guard your lord, the LORD'S anointed. And now, see where the king's spear is and the jug of water that was at his head.” 17 Then Saul recognized David's voice and said, “Is this your voice, my son David?” And David said, “It is my voice, my lord the king.” 18 He also said, “Why then is my lord pursuing his servant? For what have I done? Or what evil is in my hand? 19 “Now therefore, please let my lord the king listen to the words of his servant. If the LORD has stirred you up against me, let Him accept an offering; but if it is men, cursed are they before the LORD, for they have driven me out today so that I would have no attachment with the inheritance of the LORD, saying, 'Go, serve other gods.' 20 “Now then, do not let my blood fall to the ground away from the presence of the LORD; for the king of Israel has come out to search for a single flea, just as one hunts a partridge in the mountains” (1 Samuel 26:3-5, 13-20).
Abner is not only the commander of Saul’s army, but also Saul’s chief of security. When pursuing David with his best troops, Saul slept in the center of his troops, with Abner right beside him. If anyone attempted to harm Saul, they had to get past all of the troops surrounding Saul, and then Abner, stationed beside him. We know that on this occasion Saul and his men are divinely anesthetized (26:12). Nevertheless, having obtained Saul’s spear and water jug, David specifically calls out Abner and accuses him of dereliction of duty, and thus worthy of death (26:14-16). David’s words certainly must publicly humiliate Abner.
It goes even beyond Abner’s performance on the job. After all, Abner is not really guilty of failing to carry out his duties. If God put the army to sleep, how could Abner not have slept? What does David have against Abner in particular? What has Abner specifically and personally done wrong? The answer to this question is suggested in verse 9,11 where David asks Saul why he is pursuing him. Has God instructed him to do so, or has he somehow been incited by someone close to him, someone who has access and a listening ear? David then pronounces a curse on anyone who may be misleading the king and causing him to wrongly view David as a threat to his throne. This is consistent with David’s earlier words in chapter 24:
8 Now afterward David arose and went out of the cave and called after Saul, saying, “My lord the king!” And when Saul looked behind him, David bowed with his face to the ground and prostrated himself. 9 David said to Saul, “Why do you listen to the words of men, saying, 'Behold, David seeks to harm you'? 10 “Behold, this day your eyes have seen that the LORD had given you today into my hand in the cave, and some said to kill you, but my eye had pity on you; and I said, 'I will not stretch out my hand against my lord, for he is the LORD'S anointed'“ (1 Samuel 24:8-10, emphasis mine).
As we put all of these elements together, we see that Abner is guilty for failing to protect his king, and thus worthy of death. His failure is divinely caused (by God putting all of them to sleep), thus making Saul vulnerable to Abishai, who wants to kill him but is prevented from doing so by David. David is shown to be a protector of Saul’s life, more effective than Abner. David then pronounces a curse on the one who may be turning Saul against him. Who comes out looking most guilty in all of this? Is it not Abner?
David says that someone is poisoning Saul’s mind against him, portraying David as his enemy who is out to harm the king. Who has the most to lose? If David is the best warrior and military leader in Israel, who should be the commander of Saul’s forces? Who has more intimate contact with and better access to the king than Abner? Abner is the commander of his army, but even more than this, he is Saul’s cousin. As Abner has much to gain from Saul’s appointment as Israel’s king, he also has much to lose if Saul is removed. Abner knows that David is the one Samuel anointed as Saul’s replacement. Once Saul is dead, Abner is the one who actively resists David’s appointment as king in Saul’s place. It would not be surprising at all if Abner feeds Saul false information, information which makes David look like an adversary who must be hunted down and put to death. Abner is no friend of David’s, nor even a good friend to his cousin Saul.
One wonders why Abner is not mentioned from 1 Samuel 26 to 2 Samuel 2, because, after all, he is the commander of the forces of Israel. Where is Abner when the Israelites fight the Philistines in the intervening chapters? Where is Abner when the Israelites suffer a massive defeat, and many flee for their lives (31:7)? Where is Abner, the man always at Saul’s right hand, when Saul’s sons are slain and Saul and his armor bearer kill themselves? One wonders where Abner is when the going gets tough. (It looks a little like Abner’s motto is: “When the going gets tough, it’s time for me to get going – the other way.”) When the dust settles, Abner is still alive and so is Ish-bosheth, one of Saul’s sons. Our text takes up here just after David mourns the death of Saul and Jonathan. We shall first look at the life of Joab, and then consider the outcome of the clash between Joab and Abner in our text.
Joab is first mentioned in 1 Samuel 26:6. This passage is actually about Joab’s older brother, Abishai, who goes with David into Saul’s camp (where Abner is sleeping beside him to protect him). Abishai volunteers to accompany David on what appears to be a suicide mission – two men trying to get to Saul by going past 3,000 of Saul’s select troops (26:2). Abishai fully intends to put Saul to death, with just one blow (26:8). Every indication is that he will kill Saul if not forbidden by David, and he will probably throw Abner in for good measure! The point here, however, is that Abishai, the oldest brother (it seems – see 1 Chronicles 2:16), is referred to as “Joab’s brother” (1 Samuel 26:6). This seems to suggest that Joab is the better known of the two.12
Joab is not in the limelight until he appears once again in our text (2 Samuel 2:13f.), which is not to say that Joab and David first meet in our text. Joab and David are related to each other. Joab’s mother, Zeruiah, is David’s sister, and Abigail is the other sister, who happens to be the mother of Amasa (1 Chronicles 2:12-17). Amasa appears a little later in the story (2 Samuel 19-20). We know Asahel is buried in the tomb of his father in Bethlehem (2 Samuel 2:32). Abishai, Joab, and Asahel have been with David since they joined him at the cave of Adullam:
So David departed from there and escaped to the cave of Adullam; and when his brothers and all his father's household heard of it, they went down there to him. 2 Everyone who was in distress, and everyone who was in debt, and everyone who was discontented gathered to him; and he became captain over them. Now there were about four hundred men with him (1 Samuel 22:1-2).
I take it that once Saul’s feelings toward David (and any who support him – see 22:6-19) are known, Abishai, Joab, and Asahel all flee from Bethlehem, accompanied by the rest of David’s family, knowing (or at least fearing) that Saul might take out his anger on them. These family members are joined by others, who are also out of favor with Saul. Many in this group became a part of David’s fighting band, with Abishai and Joab becoming prominent as warriors and leaders because of their courage and abilities.
Initially, David is the commander of his small band of men. This is the case during the years he flees from Saul and up to the time he leaves Ziklag for Hebron (see 1 Samuel 30:8, 10, 17-25). Joab serves as one of David’s commanders before he becomes king of all Israel. Not until after David becomes king over all Israel and Judah does Joab become the commander of Israel’s army. He wins this spot by taking the challenge to go up against Jebus (Jerusalem) and attack it (1 Chronicles 11:6).13
We will momentarily pass by the events of 2 Samuel 2 and 3 to look at the later events in Joab’s life. Overall, we can say that Joab is a great and courageous military leader. This can be seen in the battle he wages against the Ammonites, the Syrians, and others in 2 Samuel 10 (note especially verses 9-14). He is not only a great warrior and military leader, but a man with some remarkable qualities. When Joab virtually defeats the Ammonite royal city of Rabbah, rather than take credit for this victory personally, he urges David to come and get the glory for himself (2 Samuel 12:26-31). When David foolishly orders Joab to number the people of Israel, Joab strongly protests, but to no avail (2 Samuel 24:2-4).
Joab also shows great discernment and strength of character in his dealings with David and Absalom. It is Joab who serves as the mediator between David and his exiled son, Absalom. Joab recognizes that David wants to be reunited with Absalom (13:39) and arranges for a wise woman from Tekoa to come to David with a story (14:2ff.). When David passes judgment, the woman urges David to deal in the same manner with his son, Absalom. David gets the message and also discerns that Joab must be behind this charade (14:19), but Joab’s plan does not seem to be self-serving. It is intended to reconcile David with his son. Joab is trying to get David to deal with his son in the same way he would deal with anyone else. Joab seems genuinely grateful and happy David responds as he does (14:22). After Absalom rebels against his father and seeks to take over the throne, Joab deals much more severely with Absalom, while David seems to be soft-hearted and soft-headed. David instructs his soldiers to go easy on Absalom, which is certainly foolish. When given the opportunity, Joab personally puts Absalom to death, assisted by some of his men (2 Samuel 18:14-15). When David shames the people by his response to Absalom's death, Joab strongly rebukes him (19:5f), and then David follows Joab’s advice on this matter (19:8).
In spite of all these commendable points, Joab is also a violent man who sometimes acts foolishly, and these actions are rightly condemned. When David commits adultery with Bathsheba and seeks to be rid of her husband, Uriah the Hittite, he finds in Joab a willing accomplice (see 2 Samuel 11:6). He seems to raise no objections to David’s request, but simply obeys. 14 When Absalom temporarily takes over David's kingdom, he replaces Joab with Amasa.15 Later, when Absalom is defeated and David returns to his throne, he appoints Amasa commander of his army in place of Joab (2 Samuel 19:13). When Sheba, another Benjamite (like Saul, Ish-bosheth, and Abner), rebels against David, Amasa is ordered by David to muster the forces of Judah. When Amasa does not appear within the appointed time, David orders Abishai (Joab’s older brother) to go out and capture Sheba (2 Samuel 20:4-7).16 This Abishai sets out to do, along with Joab and his men. When Joab meets Amasa on his way, he kills him in much the same way that he kills Abner (2 Samuel 20:8-10). Joab and Abishai then pursue Sheba (20:10). After the head of Sheba is thrown over the wall of Abel to Joab, he gives up pursuit, and he again becomes commander of the whole army (20:23).
When David is old and becomes unable to rule effectively, he delays in designating and installing Solomon as his successor. Adonijah seeks to take advantage of David’s delay, setting out to beat Solomon to the punch by proclaiming himself to be king (1 Kings 1:5f.). He is a very handsome man, born after Absalom’s death (1:6), and apparently never is told “No” by David (1:6). Joab and Abiathar, the priest, join with Adonijah in his conspiracy. David is finally persuaded by Bathsheba and Nathan the prophet to publicly appoint Solomon as his successor to the throne. When Solomon takes the throne of his father, he allows Adonijah to live (for a time), but he is finally put to death when he seeks once again to oust Solomon and assume the throne over Israel (by being given Abishag, David’s concubine). Joab too is put to death, not only for his part in the conspiracy against Solomon, but also because he murders Abner and Amasa (see 1 Kings 2:5-6, 28-35).
“My Three Sons. . . and Abner”
This message is by no means an exposition of these two chapters. I have one more sermon to try to put all the pieces of this passage together. Here, my goal is to focus on a very few incidents in which Joab and Abner confront one another. I will try to concentrate on the events leading up to the war between the men of Judah and the men of Israel, and the consequences of that conflict.
David seeks divine guidance and is divinely directed to go up to the city of Hebron. After David, his wives, and the rest of his followers arrive at Hebron with their families, the men of Judah anoint David as their king, the king of Judah (2:1-4a). David’s graciousness toward the men of Jabesh-gilead (2:4b-7) gives the people of Israel an excellent opportunity to make David their king as well. It seems from Abner’s words in 3:17-19 that the men of Israel not only know David has been designated as Saul’s replacement, but that they want this. The problem is Abner. This cousin of Saul opposes David’s reign in Saul’s place and orchestrates events so that Ish-bosheth, a surviving son of Saul, becomes king over the rest of Israel. This delays David’s reign over all Israel for several more years (2:8-11).
Gangs are one of the major problems in our cities today. Gangs offer a sense of identity and belonging, a kind of fellowship, and a distorted, rather false, sense of security. Drive-by shootings are becoming more and more frequent, and when they occur, one of the first thoughts is that there may be some kind of gang connection. When the member of one gang is killed by a member of the other, more bloodshed is sure to follow in retaliation. A gang will kill the member of another gang just to increase the “status” of their gang (“We’re so tough we can kill anyone we want, any time we want!”). Gangs do not make sense to us, but to those who think as gang members do, it all seems very logical, if not right.
We think gangs are a twentieth century phenomenon. Yet when we read of this “contest” between 12 members of the servants of Ish-bosheth and 12 members of the servants of David, we look upon this as some kind of ancient tribal dispute, quite unrelated to our times. I suggest there is very little difference between the gang disputes of our day and the “contest” we read about in 2 Samuel 2:12-17. Tribal rivalry and gang rivalry are almost the same thing.
Think about this ancient contest in twentieth century terms for a moment. The two gangs are the Benjies and the Judes. Their leaders are Abner (Benjamites/Israelites) and Joab (Judah). Word is circulated that there will be a rumble between these two rival gangs. A place and a time to meet are set. The Benjies sit in one place, the Judes in another, facing each other. Abner and Joab begin to flex their muscles and put down their opponent. Finally, they agree there should be a contest, which will show the best gang. Twelve fighters are selected to represent each side. The side that wins has the best gang. The problem is that the men on each side are intent on killing their opponent, so when the contest begins, each man grabs his opponent by the hair and thrust’s his switch blade into his chest. All 24 men die, which immediately leads to all out fighting between the two sides, so that many others die in the conflict.
The contest is needless and fruitless. It can accomplish nothing more than intensifying the already existing sense of rivalry and competition between the tribe of Judah and the other tribes of Israel, especially that of Benjamin (the tribe of Abner, Saul, and Ish-bosheth). While Joab is quick to accept the challenge, it is Abner who seems to orchestrate this ill-fated event (is this his purpose?). Had one side won the contest, it would only make the other side more eager for another contest to save face by winning it. The result of the contest is a momentary victory for David's servants and an initial loss for the servants of Ish-bosheth. The latter are able to regroup, however, and to continue carrying on a war with the servants of David (see 2:25; 3:1, 6).
The contest that goes sour has more personal consequences for Joab. In the initial rout, Joab's men prevail over the servants of Abner and Ish-bosheth. Abner retreats, along with his men, and Asahel is in hot pursuit. Asahel seems to be the youngest brother of the three sons, intent on overcoming Abner. He is right behind Abner, who confirms Asahel is indeed hot on his heels. Is this Asahel's opportunity to prove himself a man, a worthy fighter like his two older brothers? It could be so. Abner knows it is either Asahel or himself. He urges Asahel to back off and pursue some other Israelite warrior, if need be. He seems to know that the only other way to stop Asahel is to kill him, and this he is more than able to do. He is not willing to do so, because he knows he will then have to face Joab, his older brother (not to mention Abishai). When Asahel refuses to give up his pursuit, Abner runs him through, not with the point of his spear but with the butt of his spear. This must take incredible strength and ability, and Abner is fully up to it, as he seems to know.
Joab and his older brother, Abishai, are not about to let the death of their brother pass without what they consider the only appropriate response -- killing Abner, who kill Asahel. If they kill Abner in the context of war, it will not be viewed as a murder but a necessary part of war (see 3:28-34; 1 Kings 2:30-33). The problem seems to be that while there is an initial victory for the men of Judah, the servants of David, Abner, and his men are able to reconnoiter, and in a position to be able to successfully defend themselves from atop a hill (2 Samuel 2:25). When Abner recommends that they call a cease fire, Joab agrees, stating that it is inevitable anyway (2:26-28).
There is still a state of war between the men of Judah and the other Israelites (3:1). If Joab or Abishai can get their hands on Abner, they can legitimately kill him. What Joab does not realize is that his opportunity to legitimately kill Abner is about to end. Abner has been taking advantage of the state of war between Israel and Judah (3:6). One can see how this could be true for the commander of the army of Israel. It has been true throughout history that some wars are prompted, or prolonged, because of those who profit from them. Two things happen in chapter 3 that cause Abner to change not only his mind, but his allegiance.
First, while Abner's strength within Israel is growing, the house of Saul is losing ground to the house of David. Abner is gaining a bigger piece of the pie, but the pie itself is shrinking. Second, Abner has become bold in his actions, taking Rizpah, one of Saul's concubines, for himself. This is not a simple act of love or passion, nor even an attempt at marriage. It is a symbolic act, which publicly declares Abner's right to rule in Saul's place (see 2 Samuel 16:20-23; 1 Kings 2:19-25). Abner personally installs Ish-bosheth as king, and it now appears intends to brush aside all pretense and become king himself. Ish-bosheth is distressed by Abner's actions and asks for an explanation. Abner is furious. How dare Ish-bosheth, Abner's puppet-king, question Abner's actions. Abner reminds Ish-bosheth that he has made him king and has protected him from David. How can Ish-bosheth dare question anything Abner does? Ish-bosheth keeps quiet, because he knows enough to be afraid of this man. For all intents and purposes, Abner is now in control in Israel.
What has been a true but unstated fact of life is now crystal clear: Abner is in control, not Ish-bosheth. This abdication of Ish-bosheth is just what Abner has been waiting for. Now he can negotiate an agreement with David, one that will allow him a bigger piece of an ever-growing pie. Abner is about to change sides. He knows it is God's will for David to reign as king over all Israel. He knows it is inevitable. But he is the one who will be the kingmaker; he is about to make it happen. And so Abner approaches David with the offer to make him king over all Israel. With one condition, David accepts Abner's offer (3:13). Abner then goes to the leaders of both sides and negotiates an agreement. David, it seems, is about to become king of all Israel at last.
I must pause to smile at Abner's offer to make David king because it reminds me of something which happened to me a few months ago. I was trying to repair the muffler on my daughter’s car and decided the best way to fix it was to weld the muffler to the exhaust pipe. The problem was that I did not have the right kind of gas welding rod. I knew a local welder who would probably know what I needed and could sell me the small amount of rod required. But his business was closed for the day. On the way home, I passed by a muffler shop that was open. In addition to fixing mufflers, this business also repaired transmissions. I went into the waiting area, where several customers were doing just that. I did not see anyone at work. I went out to the shop area, and this fellow told me I was in the “transmission repair” area, and that I would need to go to the other side of the building to the “muffler repair” area. I did so and found no one there to help me. Eventually, a man came from the back, dressed in clothing that led me to believe he worked there. Going over to him, I told him I was doing a small repair job and needed a short length of gas welding rod to be used on an exhaust system. Bending down, he picked up a short piece of rod that had been left lying on the floor. “Is this what you need?”, he asked. “Yes,” I replied, “how much do I owe you for it?” “I don’t know,” he said, “why don’t you just take it; I don’t work here anyway.”
Eventually I ended up going into the executive offices, where I negotiated a $1 price and left, my conscience intact. The point of this story is that a man offered to give me something that wasn’t really his in the first place. Here in our text Abner “gives” the kingdom of Israel to Ish-bosheth, one of Saul’s surviving sons. It is not really his to give, and it is David who is to be the king, not Ish-bosheth. Then, to make matters worse, when a rift occurs between Abner and Ish-bosheth, Abner offers to “give” the kingship over to David. Once again, it is not his to give. Abner reminds me a bit of Satan, who offers to “give” our Lord His kingdom (see Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-12).
Imagine Joab's amazement and distress when he returns from a raid17 only to be told that David has just entertained Abner and his delegation, and that they have been allowed to leave in peace (3:22-23). While Joab is out making war, David has been at home, making peace. I take it that this twice-found expression “in peace” is employed to indicate that the war is over.
This is not good news for Joab or for his brother, Abishai. The war is not over for them until Abner is dead. Joab virtually rebukes David for letting Abner go, insisting that his intentions cannot be noble (3:24-25). Apparently, Joab's words do not find a ready listener in David, who allows his decision to stand. It is hopeless for Joab to change David's mind. So, instead, Joab secretly orders some of his trusted messengers to bring Abner back to Hebron, under some pretense it seems. Then, when Joab is able to get Abner in private, he kills him (3:27). Since this is now officially a time of peace, and not war, the killing of Abner is murder. David is quick to indicate that he has had no part in it, and that he does not approve of it (3:28ff.).
What Can We Learn From Abner and Joab?
(1) We can learn something about men from our text. I have always been a kind of “black hat, white hat” sort of guy. I'm sure I developed this trait during my childhood when I used to watch cowboy (western) movies. It was always easy to tell the bad guys from the good guys -- the good guys always wore white hats; the bad guys wore black hats (at least that's the way I remember it). I've always looked upon people as wearing a white hat or a black hat. I just don't find that happens much in the Bible. David wears a “white hat” much of the time, but there are a number of “black hat” days for him as well. The same can be said for almost any of our Bible heroes.
When I come to a character like Joab, I find my “white hat,” “black hat” standard fails. Joab is a very violent man. He murders two men in cold blood, and we have every reason to suppose he killed many others in war. We know, for example, that his brother Abishai killed 300 men single-handedly in one battle (2 Samuel 23:18-19), and he is more than willing to kill King Saul (1 Samuel 26:6-12). But in addition to Joab's murders, the Bible speaks of many commendable qualities and actions on the part of Joab. The bottom line of it all is that men like Joab are neither a “white hat” or a “black hat” person; Joab is a little of each.
When I stop to think about it, this is true for most all of us. The simple fact is that there is only one “white hat” person who has ever lived without sin -- our Lord Jesus Christ. He alone is without sin, and we may thank God for this, because this is what makes His death on the cross of Calvary of benefit to us. His death was not for His sins, but for ours. He bore the punishment for our sins on the cross of Calvary. He gives us His righteousness in place of our unrighteousness. And all this is by simply acknowledging our sin and our need for salvation, and trusting in the work Jesus Christ has done at Calvary on our behalf.
If indeed only one “white hat” man has ever lived, then we must acknowledge that God usually accomplishes His purposes through less then perfect people. God is not limited in terms of those whom He is able to use. He can use us in our sin and rebellion to accomplish His ends, as He did with Joseph's brothers (Genesis 50:20) or with Pharaoh himself (Romans 9:17-18), or as He will do with every unbeliever (Romans 9:19-24). What an encouraging thought. Nothing we can ever do will undermine God's sovereign plans and purposes. He can use our rebellion and disobedience to achieve His purposes as easily as He can use our obedience. We will be used of God to bring about His glory, and even our own good, one way or the other. God's sovereignty means that He can and does use less than perfect people to achieve His purposes and to fulfill His promises. Thank God for that.
But let us beware of saying or suggesting that if we do not live up to some standard, if we do not live out our lives on the highest spiritual plane, God cannot and will not use us. He will use us, one way or the other. This must not be an excuse for sin or sloppy living. Rather, it should motivate us to give ourselves wholeheartedly to serving God, knowing that even when we fail to be and to do what we should, God's purposes and promises are sure.
Let us beware of idolizing men, as though some really do live sinless, spectacular lives. These men may want us to think they are a cut or two above the norm, they are more pious, more spiritual, and thus more successful. The longer I live, and the more Christian leaders I have come to know, the more I realize that God uses cracked pots, imperfect instruments, to accomplish His purposes. I should be careful to idolize others, to put too much trust, too much confidence in them. Men will fail. Only God faileth not. Let us keep our eyes on Him, and not on men. In this way, men will not disillusion us when they fail, as though God has somehow failed. Only God is above failure.
(2) We learn something about murder from our text. The Old Testament law clearly distinguished between what we might call killing in war, manslaughter, and murder. In our text, Abner is not considered at fault for killing Asahel, nor would Asahel have been guilty of murder had he killed Abner. Joab would not have been guilty of murder either had he killed Abner in war. But the killing of Abner in peace, along with the underhanded killing of Amasa later on, are clear cases of murder. Murder is rather carefully defined, and so it is clearly evident, as it is to David and all Israel when Joab murders Abner.
If it is murder for a man like Joab to kill Abner, even though Abner has killed his brother, surely it must be wrong for a mother to kill the unborn child in her womb. That child (with very few exceptions) does not threaten her life (in which case an abortion may be justified), but only her freedom. If God took the murder of Abner seriously (a violent and self-serving man), than how much more seriously does God take the killing of a helpless child, who looks to its mother to protect its life, not to end it?
Several years ago in a presidential election debate, George Bush was asked whether he thought abortion was murder. His answer was tentative and weak. I believe that question should be answered this way: “Abortion is the taking of a human life. It is not always murder to take the life of another. Sometimes it is an accident. Sometimes it is in self-defense. But when it is the pursuit of self-interest, at the expense of the unborn child, then it is murder.” Until we see the abortion of the unborn child as the taking of human life, the debate is over before it has started. The Bible justifies the taking of a human life in a few, restricted circumstances, and condemns the taking of life in other circumstances as murder. Let’s call things what they are: the unborn fetus is a person, a human life. The “termination” of the fetus is the taking of a human life. And an abortion, for the reasons it is most frequently practiced today, is murder. If David is righteous in his indignation concerning the death of Abner, how much more indignant should we be at the killing of the innocent in the womb.
(3) The ancient Israelites who first read the writing of Samuel, as well as the contemporary reader, should learn from this text how divisions come about. What does God want the first readers of this book18 to understand from our text? What is its message to them? We do not know for certain who the human author of this book is, nor do we know the exact date of its writing. It is likely that 1 and 2 Samuel were written shortly after the United Kingdom (of Israel, under Saul, David, then Solomon) ended in division under Rehoboam and Jeroboam (see 1 Kings 12).
Those first readers must have asked themselves, “How is it that we were once one nation, and are now two nations?” While the story of the division of the kingdom under Rehoboam must have been well known, the roots of this division go back some time. Indeed, they go back to the time of David and to the very text we are studying in 2 Samuel. Unwittingly, Abner paves the way for a divided kingdom by setting up Ish-bosheth as king of Israel, in Saul's place. Both Abner and Joab pave the way for a future division by agreeing to a contest between the two sides. And when this contest turns into a long-standing war, the rift between the two sides becomes even greater. One might say our text describes the origin of a “crack” in the foundation of the united nation of Israel, and that this crack will develop over time into a gaping chasm, one which seems almost impossible to bridge.
The divided kingdom comes about quickly and easily, because the dividing lines are already drawn, the crack in the foundation is already there. It does not take that much to turn the crack into a virtual chasm. But how does this crack come about in the first place? Our text tells us. The crack comes about because of two men who lead two competing armies. Abner and Joab both have their own agendas, and neither of them are commendable. It is like these two men are both trying to prove how macho they can be. The setting is such that each side feels obliged to prove itself, and the proposal of a contest seems to provide the opportunity. It does not prove a thing. It only sets a full-scale war into motion, which costs precious lives, results in a murder, and delays David's reign over all Israel.
I suggest that the contest, and its resulting conflict and division, is a kind of paradigm for much of the division and strife we see today in the home, in the world, and in the church. Before we consider this, let us look at the New Testament church of Corinth. Do we not see a parallel between our text and its division and strife and the church at Corinth? Are the Corinthians not followers of men, rather than of Christ, just as men in our text are followers of Abner and Joab. There is rivalry and strife, based upon which group you belong to. And the leaders of the divisions are men who seek to build their own empires by using others to do so. As a result, God's appointed leadership is rejected by many. I don't want to press this analogy too far, but I wish you to see that there truly is “nothing new under the sun” (see Ecclesiastes 1:9).
So it is in our day as well. Divisions occur in marriages because husbands and wives are more concerned with their ego than with serving their mates. Little “contests” arise in the marriage, and these only escalate to full-scale war. Men and women come into the church intent on furthering their own interests, in building their own empires, in gaining (and impressing) their own following. This appears to force people to choose sides, and then to engage in the battles that ensue.
Almost always, these divisions and conflicts start small, with what appears to be friendly competition (which, we all know, is accepted and promoted these days, even in the church). People do not necessarily intend for a major division to arise, or for many to be hurt. It's just “good, clean fun,” or so we tell ourselves. So two teenagers, each boasting in their souped up hot rods, look at each other at a red light. Each revs up his engine to impress the other driver (and very likely the young lady beside him). When the light turns green, both drivers “go for it.” Nobody means any harm. It's just good, clean fun. But neither driver is willing to stay within the speed limit. Neither is willing to give way and lose face, and so they go faster and faster, until they reach another red light, but neither driver is willing, or able, to stop. And then comes the young mother, with three young children in the back, going through a light which is green, for her. . . . No one meant for anyone to get hurt, but when our ego reigns and contests begin, trouble is not far away.
How many relationships are shattered because of ego and competition? How many marriages are ruined? How many churches split? We may think that because it is all in fun, all good-natured, all is well. Most sin starts out in things that appear harmless, even innocent. That is the way sin starts, with a little ego, a little competition, a little joke. . . . A couple of proverbs bear on this:
“Catch the foxes for us,
The little foxes that are ruining the vineyards,
While our vineyards are in blossom” (Song of Solomon 2:15).
So is the man who deceives his neighbor,
And says, “Was I not joking?” (Proverbs 26:19)
The “little foxes” spoil the grapes, we say. It is a common proverb which we hear today. It is not the big things which destroy us, but the little things, which become big. Eating a piece of fruit seems pretty insignificant; disobeying a direct command of God is something else. What harm can a “little contest” do? We know, don't we?
I have observed that we often joke about things we know are inappropriate in another context. I know there are clean jokes, but I believe dirty jokes are told because somehow the fact that the words we speak are a part of a joke makes it different -- almost acceptable -- somehow. I think men and women in the workplace joke with one another, because it is a way of speaking about forbidden topics which are accepted. I think we often joke about something to test the waters, to see what the response might be. If the response is negative, we can say, “It was only a joke. . . .” If it is positive, we pursue the subject in a more serious vein. Let us beware of the “little things” which lead the way to major sins.
One more word on “little things.” Often the little things cause the cracks in our relationship with God too. Our concern for the lost and our zeal to see them saved begins to wane. It seems like a little thing, so little that we do not even recognize it is happening. Our prayer life declines, almost imperceptibly. Our time in the Word of God decreases, or the amount we read diminishes. It is just a little thing. Suddenly a crack is there. It may not show up for months, even years. But when a time of stress arises, the crack becomes a break, a division. Let us beware of the cracks which appear because of neglect and decline.
I have been talking mainly to Christians, who by faith in Jesus Christ have a relationship with God. Cracks can occur, which weaken that relationship. They do not weaken the reality of salvation from sin or the security of the saint in Christ. But they can weaken the intimacy and fellowship of the relationship. But it is also possible that you are not a Christian. You may never have personally acknowledged your sin and your need of forgiveness from your sins. You may not have the certainty of knowing that your sins are forgiven, and you are destined to live through all eternity in the presence of God. If so, your problem is not a crack, it is a chasm -- a chasm which your sins have created between you and God. Jesus Christ came to the earth as the sinless Son of God -- fully God and fully man -- to reveal God to men, and to die on the cross of Calvary, to bear the punishment for your sins. He came to remove the divider between men and God. All you need to do is to acknowledge your sin, your need of forgiveness, and then trust in the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ at Calvary on your behalf. It is in Jesus Christ's life, death, and resurrection that God has made salvation available to you. It is by trusting in Jesus Christ for salvation that you receive it. If you have never trusted in Him, I pray that you might do so now.
12 First Chronicles 2:16 seems to inform us that Abishai is the oldest, followed by Joab, and then Asahel as the youngest of the trio. I am tempted to call them “my three sons” (for those old enough to remember this television program of a bygone day).
13 Since this is after Joab has killed Abner, I doubt David would have appointed him commander, but David had made the general promise that whoever went up first against Jebus would be commander, and Joab was the first to seize the opportunity (1 Chronicles 11:6).
14 What is really interesting about the death of Uriah is the hypocrisy of it all. Think about it. Joab sinned by killing Abner, but not in war. Abner did not sin, because he killed Asahel in a time of war. But when David has Uriah killed, it appears to be legitimate. Uriah is not seen (at least at first) as the victim of a murder, but as a casualty of war.