Abner was a corrupt, ambitious politician. But not even a man who gained control of an entire nation through dirty politics can stop God from working. And it turns out that all that selfish evil work was turned into God’s work. We can trust God’s good intentions and his ability to fulfill them, no matter what appearances say.
2 SAMUEL PART 3. CHAPTERS 2-5
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Chapters two through five of second Samuel describe the years after David was made king of Judah, but before he became king of all Israel. There is some natural confusion about the time period involved, because the text puts it like this:
Abner son of Ner, commander of Saul’s army, took Saul’s son Ish-bosheth and moved him to Mahanaim. He made him king over Gilead, Asher, Jezreel, Ephraim, Benjamin — over all Israel. Saul’s son Ish-bosheth was 40 years old when he began his reign over Israel; he ruled for two years. The house of Judah, however, followed David. The length of time that David was king in Hebron over the house of Judah was seven years and six months. (2Sam 2:8-11, HCSB)
We are going to go into the political history of all this for moment. 3000 year old politics might seem confusing, irrelevant and boring to you. But please bear with me, for a short time, because I think once we understand the politics, we will actually understand better what the Lord wants to say to us today.
Ish-bosheth (try to say that name quickly!) was clearly not king for the entire time of David’s reign over Judah alone. To put it another way, for five of the years that David was king over Judah, the rest of Israel had no king at all. Those five years may have been split between a time before Ish-bosheth’s rule and after. Or they might have come all before-hand, or all after. There is no way to tell for sure, but here is my guess:
After Saul’s death there was a great deal of confusion among the northern tribes of Israel. Many Israelites were now living in subservience to the Philistines, who had conquered a good portion of the country. The others had no leader or central organization to turn to for national identity. Remember, Saul was the very first king of Israel, and just a generation or so before him, the people had no king, no single leader. So when Saul died, and three of his four sons with him, the tribes reverted back to how they had lived before-hand – as a federation of tribes, loosely connected, but without a strong national identity. Some of them may have recalled Samuel’s warnings about having a king – and they had seen that Saul didn’t work out so well. So I suspect that there were several years immediately following Saul’s death without any strong desire or impetus to get another king.
In the meantime, the writer of the book of Samuel says that there was a war between Saul’s family and David’s. The text says that Abner became more and powerful in the family of Saul (3:6). Abner was Saul’s nephew or cousin, depending on how you read the Hebrew. He had also been Saul’s chief war-leader. It looks as though it was mainly Abner and his ambitions who opposed David’s kingship over all Israel. It took him some time to pull all his plans together. David was king for probably five years, while Abner blocked his every attempt to lead the whole nation. Meanwhile Abner himself was making connections, re-establishing a national identity, and finally setting up Saul’s son as the new king, but with himself as the real power-holder.
I think there are several understandable (but not justifiable) reasons for Abner’s actions. As Saul’s chief general, he had been the second most powerful man in Israel. With Saul dead and everything in confusion, all that went away. I think Abner wanted to go back to the way it was. I think he loved the power and position and wealth, and he was trying to regain it. In addition, Abner had been Saul’s right-hand man since the beginning. He was already there when David killed Goliath. So I imagine he had completely internalized Saul’s attitude toward David. Along with that, he may have felt that David was just like him – a great warrior, to be sure, but not a king. They had served Saul together for a short time – who was David to now pretend he was a king? Why did David think he was better than everyone else? He was a warrior, just like Abner, not a king. Finally, remember when Saul was hunting David, and David and his nephew Abishai stole Saul’s spear and water-bottle? Afterwards, they mocked Abner in front of Saul and his men. So there may have been some personal animosity there also, fueling Abner’s ambitions.
At some point, Abner was finally able to get the other Israelites to declare Ish-bosheth king over “all Israel.” But I think realistically, we have to assume that Ish-bosheth was more or less just a figurehead. The real driving force behind the civil war and behind Ish-bosheth’s monarchy, was Abner. In fact, we see this reflected when Ish-bosheth was afraid to argue with Abner (3:11), and because once Abner dies, the whole thing comes apart.
Now, I want to pause for a moment to consider this. It seems to me that Abner was not a very admirable man. Later on, we’ll see that he was completely willing to switch his allegiance to David when he realized that David was going to win. Abner was an unscrupulous political hatchet-man looking only for his own gain and ambition. We have plenty of people like that today. Sometimes modern-day politics drives me crazy, because the people in power seem to get there, and hold onto their power, through blatant dishonesty and corruption and scheming. Sometimes it helps to calm me down to realize that this has been going on for at least three-thousand years, since Abner lived that long ago.
But there is more than that here for us. Abner was a scoundrel. For five years, he carried out his schemes successfully. For two more years, it seemed that he had achieved his ambition. For seven years total, it seemed that he had thwarted David and thwarted God. And yet all the work that Abner did for himself and his selfish ambitions, ended up serving God’s purposes and plans for David.
You see, the nation was fractured after the death of Saul. It was Abner who reunited them. It was he who encouraged them to return to a sense of national identity. It was Abner who got Israel to commit once more to having one king over the whole nation. And once that was done, God handed that united kingdom over to his chosen servant David.
If David had become king right after Saul, he would have inherited a kingdom that was disorganized, disheartened and fractured. He would have had to do the work of rallying the tribes and unifying them. But instead, he simply watched while his enemy did the work for him, and watched while God turned it over to him.
This is incredibly encouraging for me. There are long periods of time in my life where I think that God’s will is being thwarted, or that evil is prevailing, and unscrupulous people are successful. But God knows what he is doing. He will use it all, sooner or later, to accomplish his purposes. Not even a man who gained control of an entire nation through dirty politics can stop God from working. And it turns out that all that selfish evil work was turned into God’s work.
Let’s continue on with the historical events. After Ish-bosheth became king, there was a significant battle between his men and David’s. The location of this battle, and of Ish-bosheth’s headquarters, is telling. The battle took place in the heart of the territory belonging to tribe of Benjamin – the tribe of Saul, Ish-bosheth and Abner. Ish-bosheth’s headquarters were located far to the east, across the Jordan valley. This means that by this point, David’s kingdom of Judah was starting to dominate the surrounding areas.
The rest of chapter 2 describes the battle, beginning with the tragic death of twelve young men from each side. If your response is “that’s horrible,” then you got the message. After the twenty-four young men killed each other, the men of Judah fell upon Abner’s men and crushed them. Abner and his forces flat out ran away.
During the chase David’s nephew Ashael fixes upon Abner. Ashael is the brother of Joab and Abishai, the sons of David’s sister Zeruiah. He probably knows that Abner personally is the main source of this war, and he seems determined to kill him, maybe thinking that he could end the war once for all.
Now, we come to the curious sense of honor that often restrained the brutality of war in those days. Abner saw Ashael pursuing him. He knew who Ashael was, and he warned him off.
Abner said to him, “Turn to your right or left, seize one of the young soldiers, and take whatever you can get from him.” But Asahel would not stop chasing him. Once again, Abner warned Asahel, “Stop chasing me. Why should I strike you to the ground? How could I ever look your brother Joab in the face? ”
Nowadays we think in terms of total war. But war in those days was a curious mixture of unimaginable brutality combined with strangely restraining rules of honor. Abner and Joab have just been commanding their men to kill each other in hand to hand combat – the most brutal, personal kind of war there is. And yet, Abner now is extremely reluctant to kill one of the chief leaders of the enemy. However, Ashael would not stop. So finally Abner did. The language seems to indicate that Abner stopped with his spear sticking out, butt-first behind him. His intent was probably to knock the wind out of Ashael, and bruise him to the point where he would stop pursuing him. But Ashael was running so fast that blunt end of the spear pierced him through the body and killed him.
The pursuit continued until Abner rallied his men on a hilltop. He called to Joab to stop, and again, following those curious rules of war, Joab agreed to let them go.
Not long after, Abner had a falling-out with king Ish-bosheth. I think he could see the writing on the wall, and he knew that David was going to prevail. The argument with Ish-bosheth was the final breaking point, and Abner decided to change his allegiance, to gain power in David’s new kingdom. He openly promises Ish-bosheth that he will turn the whole kingdom over to David. Chapter 3, verse 11 shows us that Ish-bosheth was indeed merely a figurehead, while Abner held the real power:
Ish-bosheth could not answer Abner because he was afraid of him. (2Sam 3:11, HCSB)
After this, Abner opened negotiations with David. He came to visit David in Hebron, and he left just before David’s nephew and war-leader, Joab, got back from a trip. Remember, Ashael, whom Abner recently killed in the battle, was Joab’s younger brother. Unknown to David, Joab sent messengers to Abner to bring him back. Abner believed he was there under the agreement of truce and safe passage that David had made with him. So he was taken by surprise when Joab pulled him aside and stabbed him, killing him.
David’s reaction to Abner’s death was just like his reaction to Saul’s death. I don’t think David had any illusions about what kind of man Abner was. He had known him for a long time, and Abner had been trying as hard as Saul to put an end to David. Even so, David refused to treat him like an enemy. Instead, he deplored the actions of Joab. David immediately declared that what Joab had done was wrong, and he prayed for God to repay him for it. He made Joab tear his clothes and mourn for Abner, the man who had killed his brother. He publicly praised Abner, and publicly condemned Joab.
Not long after this, with no Abner there to hold it together, Ish-bosheth was betrayed and killed. The murderers brought David his head, believing that David would be pleased to have his rival dead. But David treated them just as he had the Amalekite who claimed to have killed Saul – he has them executed.
This makes three times in five chapters that David punished people who claimed to have killed his enemies. I think we need to pay attention to it. Saul was clearly David’s enemy – he tried to kill him numerous times. Abner was clearly David’s enemy – he too tried to kill David by way of helping Saul. Later, as we see in these chapters, his own ambitions put him opposed to David. Ish-Bosheth, if not David’s enemy, was clearly opposed to David, and to David’s kingship over Israel.
And yet David mourned each of these men. He reacted strongly and negatively to those who caused their deaths. He was not pleased when they died, and he was not pleased with those who killed them. We have seen that David is man with many faults and failings. But we have also seen that however imperfect, he was a man with a real and living faith in the real and living God.
I think what this tells us is two things about David. First, he had perspective. He could look beyond personal rivalry, jealousy and even personal attacks. In the end, David was never willing to consider another Israelite – one of God’s chosen people – to be his enemy. In fact, when we read these chapters carefully, we find that David himself never participated in these battles against other Israelites. David wasn’t stupid. He knew ambition and fear and hatred when he saw it. But he never took it personally, and he didn’t consider the people themselves to be his enemies.
I think there is another lesson here for us. Sometimes we get caught up in personality conflicts and humans who frustrate or oppose us. But the real enemy are the demonic forces that only use and influence other humans (Ephesians 6:12). Other human beings are not the enemy. Particularly, if we follow the example of David, other Christians may often be misled and used by the devil, but they are never our real enemies.
Second, David always returned to trusting God. I would have been very concerned about Abner and his schemes. I would have been upset that for seven years, Abner succeeded. But David simply trusted God and waited. The ultimate result is that his enemy Abner did a lot of hard work on David’s behalf, and David got to reap the benefits – all for God’s glory.
One final thought. Abner, and to some degree the other Israelites, either resisted or passively ignored God’s choice for king. Ultimately, David still became the king, and it was the best possible thing – even for all the people who did not want him at first. Sometimes we resist God’s Lordship in our lives. It would be better for us than us running things ourselves, but we fight it anyway. It is better for us in the long run to let God have his way.