What comes to mind when you hear the word politics?Warm, fuzzy, and relaxing feelings right? I mean, isn’t it O’ so nice to come home from a busy day at work and settle down with a nice presidential debate? Would you be surprised that the Bible has an overwhelmingly positive view of politics? God encourages us to respect those in political office (Mk. 12:13-17), to honor those in political office (1 Pet. 2:13-17), to submit to those in political office (Rom. 13:1-7), and to pray for those in political office (1 Tim. 2:1-2). Why then are we so cynical about politics if the Bible has such a positive view of it? I submit that it is due to one thing: the humanity of it. It’s not just particular leaders, it’s all human leaders in view here. Just as you and I can be quite harmful with our lives personally, if or when we’re put into power politically we can be just as harmful nationally or globally. So, if we place our hope in a political party, cause, or candidate, eventually we’ll be severely let down. Do we then throw out politics? Of course not. Rather we must place our hope in the true King, in Christ the King, and in His true only Kingdom.
We’ll be reminded of this first hand today as we witness the frailty and folly and human political power.
Last week as we began 2 Samuel 2, for the first time in history God’s king over God’s people sat on the throne and began to rule. At this point the kingdom is small and seemingly weak because David is only king over Judah in the south, but he’s ruling nonetheless. This week, as we move ahead in the text tragic events begin to unfold because David has begun ruling. What tragic events? Civil war.
There are four scenes to our passage today let’s take them one at a time.
Scene 1: By the Pool (v12-17)
“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. And Abner said to Joab, “Let the young men arise and compete before us.” And Joab said, “Let them arise.” Then they arose and passed over by number, twelve for Benjamin and Ish-bosheth the son of Saul, and twelve of the servants of David. And each caught his opponent by the head and thrust his sword in his opponent’s side, so they fell down together. Therefore that place was called Helkath-hazzurim, which is at Gibeon. And the battle was very fierce that day. And Abner and the men of Israel were beaten before the servants of David.”
As the passage begins see that it’s Abner who makes the first move. In v12 it is Abner who gathers and leads his own troops out from their headquarters in Mahanaim in the north. Why did he do this? What prompted this? Well, it goes back to what we saw last week as we walked through 2:1-11. There we saw David extending a friendly hand to the men of Jabesh-gilead (a northern city) to recognize their bravery, to pray for them, and to invite them to identify him as king. This was David’s first act as king, and while we don’t know how they reacted to David it seems we do know Abner’s reaction to it. He likely viewed David’s attempt to bring the men of Jabesh-gilead under his reign as a direct challenge to his authority.So off he goes with his troops, toward David in the south.
Pause here and note what’s going on. This beginning colors how we see the whole civil war. The tragic battle that’s about to begin doesn’t start by mistake or a chance encounter between soldiers on opposing sides. No, the civil war begins with Abner’s deliberate decision to impose northern might on David’s southern kingdom.More so, after Abner heard about David’s attempt to get the men of Jabesh-gilead on his side, I think he desired to not only defeat David but by doing so he was going to try and get the whole of the southern kingdom on his own side.Which would give him authority over all Israel. This isn’t surprising at all really to see Abner doing this. In 2:1-11 Abner rejected David as king and set up his own puppet king in rebellion. He knew God had anointed David to be king but he could really care less about what God’s will was. Here we see his same rebellious spirit continuing as he and his army moves south. But along the path of Abner’s rebellion he and his troops are surprised. They only make it about 50 miles into their journey because they find something unexpected. Joab along with David’s men are already encamped at the city of Gibeon. Here in v13 we meet Joab and find that he is to David what Abner is to Ish-bosheth, the commander of David’s army.But ask, how did David and Joab know about Abner’s intentions? How did they know Abner was headed south with his army? Well, there’s a good chance they heard about it, and since Joab’s journey north to Gibeon was a lot shorter than Abner’s journey south, Joab went up to Gibeon to cut them off and defend the southern kingdom.
There they both are v12-13 say, in Gibeon beside a large pool. Some recent archeological excavations of the city of Gibeon have revealed a large water system present in the city. One part of this large system is large circular hole on the northern side of the city. It is 37 ft. wide and 82 ft. deep, with a staircase cut into the side that leads all the way to the bottom, where there was a pool. It’s likely this is the pool where these two armies met.So there they are. Abner and his army sitting on one side, and Joab and his army sitting on the other side. Abner thinks he and his men are justified in their cause, remaining true to Saul, the real king of Israel even though he has died. Joab also thinks he and his men are justified in their cause, defending the south from invaders who wish to remove David, the new king, God’s chosen king. The tension is so thick you could cut it with a knife. And no surprise, Abner again makes the first move suggesting in v14 that each side picks 12 young men to represent them and settle this dispute in a kind of gladiatorial contest.Joab agrees, and in v15-16 we see 24 young warriors fighting courageously but all dying near simultaneously leaving the whole ordeal without any kind of definitive outcome.What was the result? War soon erupted. And after naming the place where this sad youthful contest ended the author of 2 Samuel moves quickly in v17 simply telling us this fierce battle lasted the rest of that day but concluded in a clear victory for David and his men.
Scene 2: On the Run (v18-23)
While we do see a brief account of this battle in v17, we do find one incident explained further in the rest of our passage. In fact, this one incident is so volatile it will have consequences for years to come, and spoiler alert, ultimately these events will end with David ordering his son Solomon to execute Joab. That’s a long way off, but we do see the beginnings of it here.
“And the three sons of Zeruiah were there, Joab, Abishai, and Asahel. Now Asahel was as swift of foot as a wild gazelle. And Asahel pursued Abner, and as he went, he turned neither to the right hand nor to the left from following Abner. Then Abner looked behind him and said, “Is it you, Asahel?” And he answered, “It is I.” Abner said to him, “Turn aside to your right hand or to your left, and seize one of the young men and take his spoil.” But Asahel would not turn aside from following him. And Abner said again to Asahel, “Turn aside from following me. Why should I strike you to the ground? How then could I lift up my face to your brother Joab?” But he refused to turn aside. Therefore Abner struck him in the stomach with the butt of his spear, so that the spear came out at his back. And he fell there and died where he was. And all who came to the place where Asahel had fallen and died, stood still.”
As the second scene begins in v18 we meet the sons of Zeruiah. Joab we’ve just met, but we now see he has two other brothers: Abishai and Asahel. In the order these three are given to us Asahel is last on the list because he’s likely the youngest. But while he’s the youngest he isn’t inexperienced at all. We read he was as swift of foot as a wild gazelle. This is attested to in other places as well. The historian Josephus commented that Asahel was so fast he could outrun a horse.So clearly he was very fast, and as the scene at the pool degenerated into war after the 24 young warriors died, it seems Asahel in v19 set his sights on Abner and desired to use his speed to chase him down. Abner likely saw Asahel come after him and took off with some of his own men and the chase began.
In v20-22 the chase develops and it’s clear Abner doesn’t want it to go the way it’s going. He turns in v20 and asks if this chaser is indeed Asahel as he thinks it is and Asahel confirms. At first read it then seems Abner tries to get Asahel to go after someone other than him because he doesn’t want to die. But that’s not what is going on. Abner, being a well seasoned warrior, knows he would easily defeat the young Asahel. So he tells him as much, ‘Turn right or left, pick someone more of a match for you.’ He now adds a key phrase, “Why should I strike you to the ground? How then could I lift up my face to your brother Joab?” In other words, ‘I will easily kill you Asahel, and why should you force me to? I know your brother Joab, how fierce he is, killing you would hardly help the present situation.’Blinded by a prideful zeal and a seeming obsession to kill the greatest warrior in this battle, Asahel’s fate is confirmed as v23 says, “But he refused to turn aside.” The details of his death might be odd at first, simply because most don’t use the butt of a spear to strike someone, they use the tip of the spear. But remember how this scene is playing out. Abner, the wise warrior knows Asahel is just behind running very fast after him, and all he has to do was stop suddenly and thrust his spear backwards and allow the speed of Asahel to do the work.And it did. The end of his spear went straight through his gut and out his back. Asahel instantly died and fell in that very spot. This moment literally stopped everyone in their tracks. Everyone on both sides of this knew who Asahel was, they knew who his brothers were, how they have a history of preferring rash violent action to reason and restraint.They knew this battle just escalated to another level. There was no going back after this.
Not everyone stood still when Asahel died. Just as v19 mentions Asahel pursuing Abner, so too v24 begins similarly saying His brothers Joab and Abishai took up the pursuit after Abner in his place.
Scene 3: At the Hill (v24-28)
“But Joab and Abishai pursued Abner. And as the sun was going down they came to the hill of Ammah, which lies before Giah on the way to the wilderness of Gibeon. And the people of Benjamin gathered themselves together behind Abner and became one group and took their stand on the top of a hill. Then Abner called 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?” And Joab said, “As God lives, if you had not spoken, surely the men would not have given up the pursuit of their brothers until the morning.” So Joab blew the trumpet, and all the men stopped and pursued Israel no more, nor did they fight anymore.”
So the two remaining brothers continue on until they come to the hill of Ammah as the sun was going down. Once again there is a tense stand off. Abner with his army behind him on one side with Joab (and his army we presume) on the other. And no surprise, for the third time now it’s Abner who breaks the silence and makes the first move. He calls out to Joab with what is seemingly a noble speech in v26. ‘Should this be allowed to continue forever? Can’t you see the end will be bitter? How long before you tell your people to stop pursuing their brothers?’ I say this seems noble because it isn’t. Even though it was Abner who made the first move bringing his army south, even though it was Abner who called the 12 young men from each side to battle it out, and even though it was Abner who killed Asahel, here is Abner laying the blame of this conflict on Joab!This isn’t a noble speech about the value of brotherhood and the tragedy of war.No, it’s phony baloney that Joab sees through and speaks to in v27 saying, ‘If you hadn’t opened your mouth in the first place we wouldn’t be in this mess.’ Even so, Joab knew he was now outnumbered and couldn’t succeed so, wisely, he initiates a cease fire by blowing a trumpet and fighting stops for the day.
Scene 4: To the Towns (v29-32)
“And Abner and his men went all that night through the Arabah. They crossed the Jordan, and marching the whole morning, they came to Mahanaim. Joab returned from the pursuit of Abner. And when he had gathered all the people together, there were missing from David’s servants nineteen men besides Asahel. But the servants of David had struck down of Benjamin 360 of Abner’s men. And they took up Asahel and buried him in the tomb of his father, which was at Bethlehem. And Joab and his men marched all night, and the day broke upon them at Hebron.”
Here we see the end of the matter, for now. The day was hard fought and tragic. And though we could easily see a victory for David and his men, we must remember that in a civil war there are none victorious.
So we come back to politics. In this passage we not only see both Abner and Joab seeking to establish their own political kingdoms, we see both Abner and Joab fail to accomplish this. The first takeaway is from Abner. “Abner is not far from any of us. We share an Abner nature that harbors sin’s stupidity, perversity, and twistedness. Let Abner preach to you. Let him tell you that it is possible to know the truth but not embrace the truth, to quote the truth but not submit to the truth, to hold the truth and yet assault the truth.”He knew, and will soon be forced to admit, that David is God’s anointed king over Israel. But does that truth change the way he lives his life here? No. At the end of the day Abner does what Abner wants to do. Sadly many follow suit today and show it in their allergy to anyone or anything that would hold authority over them. And yet, in the gospel we see Christ, God incarnate, God in flesh, who tells us true freedom isn’t found in doing whatever you want to do, no Jesus calls that slavery. Ironically, Jesus teaches that true freedom is only found in bowing before and giving our hearts to Him by faith. Just because many political leaders throughout history have abused their authority doesn’t mean authority can never be good. Not at all. All that the heart of man yearns for isn’t found in man’s freedom, but in Christ and in His gracious and sovereign authority over all things.
But this isn’t all we see. The second and last takeaway here is in Asahel’s burial. Our text today is full of war and battle but it ends with a burial in Bethlehem. As Asahel enters the grave we’re reminded of Abner and Joab’s failure to establish their own kingdoms. But that Asahel went into the grave in Bethlehem ultimately pointing us far ahead to Bethlehem once again…where God would through Christ would do what none have been able to do so far…establish His Kingdom. How would God do this? Before Jesus would ascend to take His seat at the right hand of God, before Jesus would defeat the world, -the flesh – and the Devil in His resurrection, before Jesus would die the death we should’ve on the cross, before Jesus would live the perfect life we couldn’t, before all of these things, everything would change as the Son of God is born in Bethlehem. Sure it might have seemed small and insignificant in this humble beginning, but for those who have eyes to see…this Jesus and the Kingdom He was bringing into the world would change the world. And Church, His Kingdom is still growing, and it will continue to grow, heart by heart as young and old place their faith in Him and begin living for Him submissively and longing for Him to return powerfully. Do not despise authority, rest in the authority of Christ. He is truly…exalted over all.
John Woodhouse, 2 Samuel: Your Kingdom Come, ed. R. Kent Hughes (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2015), 85–87.
P. Kyle McCarter Jr, II Samuel(Garden City, N.Y: Anchor Bible, 1984), 97.
Dale Ralph Davis, 2 Samuel: Out of Every Adversity, Revised edition (Fearn, Ross-Shire Scotland: Christian Focus, 2013), 40.
Woodhouse, 2 Samuel, 89.
ESV Bibles by Crossway, ESV Study Bible(Wheaton, Ill: Crossway, 2008), 545.Jeremiah also mentions this large pool in Jer. 41:12
Jr, II Samuel, 97.
A. A. Anderson, Word Biblical Commentary Vol. 11, 2 Samuel, First Edition (Waco, Tex: Thomas Nelson Inc, 1989), 47.
Woodhouse, 2 Samuel, 92.
Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary(New York ; London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018), 206.
Jr, II Samuel, 99.
Woodhouse, 2 Samuel, 94.
Davis, 2 Samuel, 41.