Ish-bosheth, Saul’s son, was forty years old when he began to reign over Israel, and he reigned two years. But the house of Judah followed David. (2 Samuel 2:10)
We are following the remarkable story of how David brought people from the twelve tribes of Israel together and united them as one people. God had anointed David as king, but at the beginning there was only one tribe living under the blessing of his rule.
David’s first move was to reach out to the people least likely to receive him. The people of Jabesh-gilead hated David, but David did not hate them. He sent messengers and said to those who hated him, “I will do you good” (2 Sam. 2:6).
This points to our king, Jesus, who sends messengers of grace to people of every tribe and nation, including those who hate him the most. He sends us into this divided world with his message of grace, “I will do you good.”
We are going to see today that some of David’s strongest supporters were strangers who just didn’t get the grace that he offered. 2 Samuel 2 tells the sad story of a needless conflict that led to the loss of nearly four hundred lives in a single day. It is a story of hotheads and hardliners who deepened divisions among God’s people and hindered the reconciling work to which David was so deeply committed. It is the story of a tragic day in a divided kingdom.
At the center of this story is a man by the name of Abner. Abner was a man of action – always taking the initiative. He was Saul’s cousin (1 Sam. 14:50) and he was the commander of Saul’s army (2 Sam. 2:8). He had led the hunt for David during Saul’s lifetime, and so here was a man who, like the people of Jabesh-gilead, was deeply antagonistic to David and the least likely to be responsive to God’s anointed king.
Abner’s first move was to bring Ish-bosheth, one of Saul’s sons, to a place called Mahanaim, well to the north of Hebron where David had been crowned, and to crown him as king over “all Israel” (2 Sam. 2:9). So now there are two kings – one in the south who had been anointed by God, the other in the north who had been anointed by Abner.
Abner knew God had anointed David. We know this from 2 Samuel 3:9, when Abner says, “the Lord has sworn to him [David], to transfer the kingdom from the house of Saul and set up the throne of David over Israel and over Judah, from Dan to Beersheba” (2 Sam. 3:9-10).
Abner knew that God had anointed David, therefore, what he did in anointing Ish-bosheth was an act of defiance against God himself. Abner opposed God’s king. He wanted his own king, a king he could control, so he crowned Saul’s son, Ish-bosheth, in Mahanaim.
The name Ish-bosheth means “man of shame.” Imagine having “the man of shame” as your king! Ish-bosheth was a hapless figurehead. He was Abner’s puppet, and he only lasted for as long as he had Abner’s support. So here you have two kings – God’s anointed king in Hebron and man’s alternative in Mahanaim.
Abner, who appointed “the man of shame,” was responsible for “a day of shame” that cast a shadow over God’s people for years to come. The story divides into three scenes – tension, escalation and resolution.
We are going to see how a needless conflict spiraled out of control. As we follow this story, I want you to search your heart to see if there is an area of tension in your life that could escalate into a greater conflict.
Scene One: Tension
The King Opposed
Abner moved his army from Mahanaim to Gibeon. Now remember that David is at Hebron in the south. Ish-bosheth is at Mahanaim further north. Abner marches his army south, so this is a clear threat, a clear provocation to David in Hebron.
Now we meet a second main character in our story, a man by the name of Joab. Joab was the commander of David’s army. Joab would not allow Abner to march all the way to Hebron, so he marched the forces that were loyal to David north until the two armies met at Gibeon. Gibeon was the line in the sand.
“Abner the son of Ner, and the servants of Ish-bosheth the son of Saul, went out from Mahanaim to Gibeon. And Joab the son of Zeruiah and the servants of David went out and met them at the pool of Gibeon. And they sat down, the one on the one side of the pool, and the other on the other side of the pool” (2 Sam 2:12-13).
So here you have a stand-off between the two armies and the tension is high. Abner is the aggressor, but Joab has drawn a line in the sand, and he will not allow Abner to move further south.
Joab’s mission was to defend David, God’s anointed king. He had no interest in moving further north, and he had no commission to do so. David had no interest in sending armies to the north. He was sending messengers of grace! Joab is there in a defensive posture.
So the two armies sit on either side of the pool at Gibeon. It is a stalemate! And it’s Abner who takes the initiative: “Abner said to Joab, ‘Let the young men arise and compete before us’” (2 Sam. 2:14).
The idea was simple: Let’s have some sport and entertainment. Let’s have two teams compete – twelve-on-twelve. Joab agrees, and each side picks their twelve men for this competition.
Picture Abner’s twelve men in a huddle. One of them says, “Here’s what we’ll do: Grab your man around the neck and then stab him in the side.”
At the same time, Joab’s twelve men are in a huddle. One of them says, “Here’s what we’ll do: Grab your man around the neck and then stab him in the side.”
The two huddles break and you have two lines of twelve men, each one eyeing his opponent as they walk forward. “And each caught his opponent by the head and thrust his sword in his opponent’s side, so they fell down together” (2 Sam. 2:16).
24 men died that day in a senseless outbreak of violence in which both sides shared equal blame. And, of course, that was just the beginning,
Scene Two: Escalation
The King Misrepresented
And the three sons of Zeruiah were there, Joab, Abishai, and Asahel.
Now Asahel was as swift of foot as a wild gazelle (2 Samuel 2:18).
Zeruiah was David’s sister (1 Chr. 2:12-16). So that means Joab, Abishai and Asahel were the nephews of David. Family members who are eager to defend you are a blessing sometimes. But sometimes they can make matters worse! These nephews were hotheads and hardliners. They misrepresented the king they professed to serve. And for all of their good intentions, they were a thorn in David’s side.
Joab had set out on a mission to defend David. When Abner fled, Joab’s mission was accomplished! The threat was gone. It was time for the army to go home, and it was time to let David resume his mission of diplomacy. Send out more messengers of grace!
But after the carnage of the 12-on-12 (to which Joab had agreed, and for which he had equal responsibility), Joab lost sight of his mission. He chased after Abner’s men who were fleeing back to the north, and the result was a much greater loss of life.
When conflict breaks out, the original mission is easily forgotten. At the start it had been about defending David. “We’ve got to have a line in the sand. It will be in Gibeon and we can’t let them go any further south.” Now it was about destroying Abner and his forces, the very people King David was seeking to win.
For all their professed loyalty to David, the sons of Zeruiah were actually harming his cause. How can David’s mission of grace be accomplished if Joab wipes out all of the people that David is seeking to win?
The spotlight at this point in the story falls on the youngest of David’s three nephews, Asahel. He was a runner and he was fast (2 Sam. 2:18). After the chaos of the twelve-on-twelve, Asahel decided that he would go after Abner. “Asahel pursued Abner, and as he went, he turned neither to the right hand nor to the left from following Abner” (2 Sam. 2:19).
Why is Asahel pursuing Abner? The only function of this army is defensive. David wants to win Abner. But Asahel wants to destroy Abner. David’s mission was to bring the tribes together by reaching out with grace. But Asahel doesn’t get it. And in seeking to destroy Abner, Asahel completely misrepresented his king!
Asahel was a gifted runner: “as swift as a gazelle” (2 Sam. 2:18). He could catch Abner. But what would happen when he did? Abner was an experienced military commander. He knew what he was doing on the field of battle, and when he discovered that young Asahel was coming after him, he tried to put him off.
This was a long chase, so picture these two men, several hundred yards apart. They both stop for a breather, and Abner shouts back to Asahel, “Turn aside to your right hand or to your left, and seize one of the young men and take his spoil” (2 Sam. 2:21). In other words, “Go after someone else!” But Asahel would not turn aside from following him.
Sometime later, they must have stopped for another breather, “And Abner said again to Asahel, ‘Turn aside from following me. Why should I strike you to the ground?’” (2 Sam. 2:22). Please don’t put me in the position of having to kill you in self-defense. Don’t make me do something I don’t want to do! “But [Asahel] refused to turn aside” (2:23).
When Asahel finally caught up with Abner, the old warrior stopped in his tracks. He thrust his spear backwards, and Asahel ran onto the spear. It was the speed of his own running that killed him.
Asahel just couldn’t let Abner go. He felt he had to destroy him. Pursuing Abner became an obsession with him, and in his attempt to destroy Abner, Asahel destroyed himself. Those who become obsessed with destroying others end up destroying themselves.
“And [Asahel] fell there and died where he was. And all who came to the place where Asahel had fallen and died, stood still” (2 Sam. 2:23). What in the world happened? This is the king’s nephew!
Now the conflict had escalated to a whole new level. Before this day, David was making great progress in bringing people together. But for Joab and Abishai the loss of Asahel was personal. Now they had a vendetta that fueled their anger, and they set out after Abner (2 Sam 2:24). Where will this end?
Scene 3: Resolution
The King Needed
Abner’s forces had been on the run, but they re-grouped and took a stand together at the top of a hill called Ammah (2 Sam. 2:24). The sun was going down at the end of this tragic day of bloodshed. Abner called out to Joab: “Shall the sword devour forever? Do you not know that the end will be bitter? How long will it be before you tell your people to turn from the pursuit of their brothers?” (2 Sam. 2:26).
Abner was not a good man, but even bad people can sometimes do good things. That’s called “common grace,” the kindness of God by which bad people sometimes do good things. And Abner does a very good thing here.
Abner asks two questions – good questions to ask in any conflict:
1. Who am I fighting? “How long will it be before you tell your people to turn from the pursuit of their brothers?” (2 Sam. 2:26).
2. Where will this lead? “Do you not know that the end will be bitter?” (2:26).
“Do you not know that the end will be bitter?” Abner should have thought about this in the morning. If he had, he would not have suggested the twelve-on-twelve contest that led to such awful violence. But, to his credit, while he was foolish in the morning, he speaks with wisdom in the evening, even if it was in his own self-interest. And to Joab’s credit, he stopped to listen to Abner.
If someone has wounded you, or someone you love, you may feel that you have every reason to take them down. Joab would have said, “Abner is a hypocrite, a bully, and a manipulator. He is an enemy of King David. And he’s godless. How many reasons do you need?” All of that and more was true, but Abner says, “I am also your brother.” We both belong to the family that God has chosen to bless.
This speaks to the son or daughter who has a conflict with his or her mother or father, sister or brother. You may have a legitimate grievance. You may have good reason for the bitterness that you feel. But this is your own flesh. Scripture says, “Husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. No one ever hated his own flesh…” (Eph. 5:28, 29).
If you despise someone with whom God has made you one, you despise yourself. And, if you hate them, you hate yourself. If you hurt them, you hurt yourself. And, if you destroy them, you will destroy yourself. God made you one with your father, mother, sister, brother. God made you one with your brothers and sisters in Christ. We are one body in the Lord.
I fear for any Christian who tries to destroy another Christian on social media. This is your brother, your sister, and in attempting to destroy him or her, you will bring about your own destruction. That’s the lesson of the tragic day recorded in 2 Samuel 2.
Thankfully, Abner’s two questions brought an end to this day of senseless violence. Joab came to his senses. So Joab blew the trumpet, and all the men stopped and pursued Israel no more, nor did they fight anymore (2 Sam. 2:28). Thank God for the end of this awful day, this awful conflict.
It was a fragile peace and it did not last for long. What followed was “a long war between the house of Saul and the house of David” (2 Sam. 3:1). It was a war between two parties – one that opposed the King and the other who misrepresented him. It leaves you asking, “How does this ever get resolved?”
Where Is the King of Grace?
The person who is obviously missing from this entire story is David himself. Where is the king of grace who reaches out to people who hate him so that even the least likely might become part of his great kingdom? This chapter started with David reaching out to bring people together, but it ends with the hotheads and hardliners driving people apart!
What is so striking about this entire story is the absence of David! Consider how it’s all about Joab and Abner. It’s about hotheads and hardliners who don’t understand grace. It’s about what happens when God’s anointed king is opposed and misrepresented!
The story leaves you longing for the king! When will the king of grace come to deal with all who oppose him and all who misrepresent him? When will he come and do what the hotheads and hardliners can never do – bring his people from every tribe and nation together under the blessing of his rule?
The whole bible story is pointing us to the wonderful truth that this day will come! Christ will deal with all who oppose him and with all who misrepresent him. He said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Mat. 7:21). “On that day many will say… ‘Did we not… do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness’” (Mat. 7:22, 23). Lord Jesus, come quickly, and deal with those who oppose you and those who misrepresent you.
4 Brief Observations from This Story
1.) Never judge a king by the worst of his people.
The sons of Zeruiah misrepresented David. They were loyal to his cause but strangers to his grace. It would be a great mistake to judge David by looking at Joab, or Abishai or Asahel.
I do not doubt that many people who have professed to be Christians have done terrible things that misrepresented the Savior they claimed to serve. Jesus will deal with those who misrepresent him. What matters is that today, Jesus offers mercy and grace to those who come to him, including those who have opposed him, and to those who have misrepresented him. It would be a great mistake for any of us to judge Jesus by those who misrepresent him.
2.) Never forget the mission of our king.
The mission of our king is to win people by his grace. Joab sets out to defend his king, but he ends up misrepresenting him! How could anyone looking at Joab conclude that David was on a mission of grace? What are people going to figure out about Jesus by looking at you?
History is littered with the devastating effects of hotheads and hardliners like Joab who professed loyalty to Jesus. James and John wanted to call down fire on a Samaritan village that rejected Jesus. Peter lashed out with his sword in the garden of Gethsemane.
And, whatever their motivation, the Crusades were another tragic example of hotheads and hardliners destroying people Christ seeks to win by his grace. We are still living with the effects of these evils more than a thousand years later! That’s what happens when the church forgets what we are here to do.
3.) Always use your greatest gifts for the best purpose.
Asahel was a gifted runner! What a waste of a marvelous gift. Think what he could have done with that gift! He could have been the king’s swiftest messenger of grace. Wouldn’t that be a great way to use his gift? But he wasted his gift on his pointless pursuit of Abner!
Ask yourself today: Am I using my greatest gifts for the best purpose? Can you sell? Or teach? Can you lead? Can you build? Offer your best gifts to Christ and use them for his glory and for the highest purpose.
4.) Always live in the light of the coming of our king.
These chapters leave us longing for the day when God’s anointed king will show up on the scene. We are longing for the day when the anointed king will take his place in power and reign. Lord, hasten the day when no more ‘Abners’ will oppose you, when no more ‘Joabs’ will misrepresent you, when the long wars of human history will be over and people from every tribe and nation will live under the blessing of Christ’s rule.
Christ is already gathering a great multitude from every tribe and nation. And when you know this, Christian brother and sister, it will help you to reach across the bitterness and hatred that divides our country with grace that reflects our king. Lord Jesus, come quickly! And until that day, help us to live and serve as messengers of your grace!
© Colin S. Smith
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