Before us this morning, is a large chunk of text that shows the end of the civil war in Israel. It covers two murders that are strangely similar. Both murders occur in secret, both involve deceit, both men die from being struck in the belly, and in both cases murder is carried out by brothers.And there witnessing all of this is David, the man soon to be the king. His actions reveal a man who is a mixed bag, both obedient and disobedient. As we go through this passage we’ll stop and pause to glean much from all involved in these incidents, but ultimately this passage is a powerful reminder that: a) this world is a messed up place full of messed up people, but also b) that despite all that may stand in its way God’s Kingdom will come and no man can stop it.
Incident 1: Abner Murdered & Mourned (3:22-39)
“Just then the servants of David arrived with Joab from a raid, bringing much spoil with them. But Abner was not with David at Hebron, for he had sent him away, and he had gone in peace. When Joab and all the army that was with him came, it was told Joab, “Abner the son of Ner came to the king, and he has let him go, and he has gone in peace.” Then Joab went to the king and said, “What have you done? Behold, Abner came to you. Why is it that you have sent him away, so that he is gone? You know that Abner the son of Ner came to deceive you and to know your going out and your coming in, and to know all that you are doing.” When Joab came out from David’s presence, he sent messengers after Abner, and they brought him back from the cistern of Sirah. But David did not know about it. And when Abner returned to Hebron, Joab took him aside into the midst of the gate to speak with him privately, and there he struck him in the stomach, so that he died, for the blood of Asahel his brother. Afterward, when David heard of it, he said, “I and my kingdom are forever guiltless before the LORD for the blood of Abner the son of Ner. May it fall upon the head of Joab and upon all his father’s house, and may the house of Joab never be without one who has a discharge or who is leprous or who holds a spindle or who falls by the sword or who lacks bread!” So Joab and Abishai his brother killed Abner, because he had put their brother Asahel to death in the battle at Gibeon.”
If you recall, or look back up in the verses before v22, David and Abner had come to terms, they were planning on uniting a divided Israel, and v21 as well as the end of v22 tells us Abner left in peace. Notice how v22 begins? “Just then…” Literally in Hebrew it’s “And behold!”In comes Joab, not only from a raid but victorious at that having much spoil with him. But is Joab satisfied? No. It seems an unnamed individual desiring to stir up trouble just so happened to come to him and tell him in v23 that Abner, the man who killed his bother, had come to David, feasted with David, and went away from David in peace. Joab doesn’t react very well to this news so he goes to David in v24-25. And as he walks into the kings presence he doesn’t come humbly but brashly, thinking he knows better than David, thinking he knows the real reason Abner came, and thinking David should have known this also.Joab’s demeanor here is horrid. He speaks to David as if he were the king and David were the servant.Seeing Joab’s visceral reaction makes me wonder…did David intentionally send Joab out to go make this raid at the precise time he knew Abner would be there to avoid the conflict he knew would occur?We don’t know for sure, but we do wonder. And surprisingly we don’t read of any response from David to Joab when he bursts in and questions David. The very next thing we get in v26 is Joab leaving David’s presence, but notice what is missing in v26? Three times so far we’ve been told, in v21-v22-v23, that Abner left David’s presence in peace. This is repeated three times because it’s astonishing. Abner and David had been at odds not just in argument but in war and they are now at peace and working together for peace. Contrast that to Joab. In he comes and out he goes without one mention of peace. Why? He doesn’t want peace. What does he want? We see it unfold in the next few verses.
In v26 Joab leaves David’s presence and sends for Abner to return without David knowing, in effect doing to David what he believed Abner did to David, deceiving him.Abner had left in peace so he’s got no reason to be suspicious and likely thinks David wants to speak with him again, so he turns around and comes back. Then in v27 Joab meets Abner at the city gate, strikes him in the stomach, and Abner dies. The reason we’re given in v27 and in v30 is that Joab and Abishai did this to avenge their brother Asahel. But examine that. Asahel was killed by Abner yes, but he killed him in war, and it was even after Abner had warned him. If Asahel was killed in an underhanded manner Joab would’ve had grounds for vengeance, but Asahel wasn’t so Joab doesn’t. What we know of Joab leads me to conclude Joab killed Abner because he was as concerned about Asahel as he was concerned about himself.He saw in Abner not only one who killed his brother but one who could very easily replace him as commander and reduce his importance in a united Israel.David may be on the throne of Judah but for Joab self-preservation reigned as king. Which gave way to all kinds of envy and anxiety which led to the justification of Abner’s murder. This isn’t all that surprising. We see the same thing in the disciples, debating about who is greatest among them while sitting at the Last Supper where Jesus previews how He will serve them on the cross. And we see the same thing in the mirror don’t we? We say Christ is King and yet our lives show that we’re far more concerned about having a place of prominence in His Kingdom.I think the way it often looks is like this: we want Christ to be glorified, greatly so (!), but we want Him to be glorified in a way that makes much of us too. We must remember how we’re called to forego the place of prominence, to take up our cross and follow Christ. We must be not only willing to be dishonored, disrespected, unacknowledged, and unpraised as long as Christ is glorified…we must be content to be dishonored, disrespected, unacknowledged, and unpraised as long as Christ is glorified! Can you imagine what we as a church would look like if we grew this content in Christ? Cares and concerns will still come and go, but they wouldn’t control us one bit. It would be glorious because the invisible gospel truths would become visible in us and through us.
How does David respond to this? In v28-29 we see his immediate response.It seems it took some time for David to hear about it but when he does David is disgusted. He knows he is innocent and Joab is guilty even though it looks awfully suspicious that the commander of David’s armies just killed one who is still largely seen as a rival. Even so, David pronounces a curse on Joab echoing what we’ve already seen. Joab, a man who didn’t want peace, will now personally and generationally experience a lack of peace in a vastly expanded measure.
v31-37 expand on David’s actions as he mourns Abner, “Then David said to Joab and to all the people who were with him, “Tear your clothes and put on sackcloth and mourn before Abner.” And King David followed the bier. They buried Abner at Hebron. And the king lifted up his voice and wept at the grave of Abner, and all the people wept. And the king lamented for Abner, saying, “Should Abner die as a fool dies? Your hands were not bound; your feet were not fettered; as one falls before the wicked you have fallen.” And all the people wept again over him. Then all the people came to persuade David to eat bread while it was yet day. But David swore, saying, “God do so to me and more also, if I taste bread or anything else till the sun goes down!” And all the people took notice of it, and it pleased them, as everything that the king did pleased all the people. So all the people and all Israel understood that day that it had not been the king’s will to put to death Abner the son of Ner.”
Church, do not miss this. The first time in the Bible David is called King David is here in v31, as he’s fasting and mourning Abner. What a king he is, honest and righteous and just! He even commands Joab and his men to march in the funeral procession as well. This was public humiliation, showing all the people that Abner was not David’s enemy. v31-37 repeats the phrase ‘all the people’ seven times, to make sure we get that all the people noticed these things.So the concern that Joab messed up the peace of the kingdom doesn’t come true, ironically Joab’s murder of Abner pushed the people more toward David’s side. Yet as chapter 3 ends we see King David’s weakness in v38-39, “And the king said to his servants, “Do you not know that a prince and a great man has fallen this day in Israel? And I was gentle today, though anointed king. These men, the sons of Zeruiah, are more severe than I. The LORD repay the evildoer according to his wickedness!” Yes the Lord will dole out justice in the end, perfectly so, David is right. But David is the king, and being the king he must not only be just in speech but just in action to. By not executing justice on Joab by killing him David shows great weakness.Lesson? The sons of Zeruiah were too much for David, thus true peace will only come through the true King still yet to come.
Incident one is now over, and we’re continuing on to incident two not only because it’s so similar, but because the second incident flows straight out of the first one and is a result of it.
Incident 2: Ish-bosheth Murdered & Avenged (4:1-12)
It begins in 4:1-4, “When Ish-bosheth, Saul’s son, heard that Abner had died at Hebron, his courage failed, and all Israel was dismayed. Now Saul’s son had two men who were captains of raiding bands; the name of the one was Baanah, and the name of the other Rechab, sons of Rimmon a man of Benjamin from Beeroth (for Beeroth also is counted part of Benjamin; the Beerothites fled to Gittaim and have been sojourners there to this day). Jonathan, the son of Saul, had a son who was crippled in his feet. He was five years old when the news about Saul and Jonathan came from Jezreel, and his nurse took him up and fled, and as she fled in her haste, he fell and became lame. And his name was Mephibosheth.”
In v1 we see the terror that Saul’s son Ish-bosheth, king in the north, felt when he heard of Abner’s death. His courage failed, he lost heart, he trembled greatly, why? Because it wasn’t Ish-bosheth who was the real power in the north. It was Abner. Abner had installed Ish-bosheth as king in the north, and therefore it was Abner who was the real strength in the north. But with him now dead the conclusion is clear: the north cannot stand. This is why his courage fails in v1. The question now is, ‘Who within or around Saul’s house would now know what to do?’ The king in v1 doesn’t. The only descendant left is a crippled man named Mephibosheth in v4, he doesn’t.Allow me to introduce two men who think they know what to do. They’re not from Saul’s family but they are from his tribe.They don’t have the most upright occupations, they’re leaders of raiding bands to be exact. Anywho, they’re names are Rechab and Baanah. Here’s what they do in v5-6, “Now the sons of Rimmon the Beerothite, Rechab and Baanah, set out, and about the heat of the day they came to the house of Ish-bosheth as he was taking his noonday rest. And they came into the midst of the house as if to get wheat, and they stabbed him in the stomach. Then Rechab and Baanah his brother escaped.”
That was quick. Saul and Jonathan are dead, Abner is dead, and now the last remaining obstacle blocking David from ruling over all Israel, Ish-bosheth, is dead. Thankfully the author gives us more detail about what just occurred in the verses that follow. v7-8, “When they came into the house, as he lay on his bed in his bedroom, they struck him and put him to death and beheaded him. They took his head and went by the way of the Arabah all night, and brought the head of Ish-bosheth to David at Hebron. And they said to the king, “Here is the head of Ish-bosheth, the son of Saul, your enemy, who sought your life. The LORD has avenged my lord the king this day on Saul and on his offspring.” Yikes. Here we find out not only that these two brothers killed Ish-bosheth, but that they cut his head off traveled all night to bring it to David, and when they brought it to David they came before him as those bringing glad tidings of great joy. The impression from this passage is that these guys think they’re something special, that they’re divine mercenaries sent from God to kill David’s enemies and bring him the kingdom. Their words to David show as much. One commentator put it like this, “They come with blood on their hands but theology on their lips, expecting that the latter will magically bleach the former.”What really happened? A murder wrapped in religious language. Now God can/does use the acts of the wicked the bring to pass His purposes in the world, but it’s simply out of bounds to present a wicked act as a gift from God. Theology rightly used is fuel for worship, these guys employ theology to cover up their sin and get prestige in David’s house.David wasn’t duped. In fact, David’s response was devastating for these brothers.
See it in v9-12, “But David answered Rechab and Baanah his brother, the sons of Rimmon the Beerothite, “As the LORD lives, who has redeemed my life out of every adversity…” See how David begins? David corrects them with proper theology. He reminds them that God alone is His redeemer who saves him out of every adversity, he doesn’t need any thugs. David continues, “…when one told me, ‘Behold, Saul is dead,’ and thought he was bringing good news, I seized him and killed him at Ziklag, which was the reward I gave him for his news. How much more, when wicked men have killed a righteous man in his own house on his bed, shall I not now require his blood at your hand and destroy you from the earth?” And David commanded his young men, and they killed them and cut off their hands and feet and hanged them beside the pool at Hebron. But they took the head of Ish-bosheth and buried it in the tomb of Abner at Hebron.”
A devastating outcome to a depraved action is what just happened. David was rightly concerned with what could become a scandal. Rumors might have already been spreading that he commanded Joab to kill Abner, and now that Ish-bosheth had been killed and that these guys brought David his head those rumors would’ve increased for sure. So David took steps to separate himself from these two displaying very publicly that he had no part in this.
In both texts, we see actions taken by those in the kingdom of God that aren’t always compatible with the King over the Kingdom. We do not evaluate the kingdom of David by looking to Joab, Rechab, or Baanah. No, we judge the kingdom by the king.And what is the king like? Throughout the whole big passage David is waiting on God, praying to God, trusting that God will bring him the kingdom in His timing. David is just, David is mournful over those who died, and conducts funerals all while dealing with a frenzy of sinful ambitious men all around him.David’s not perfect by any means. But he does prove to be a fitting preview of the One who is both His Son and Lord, the Lord Jesus Christ, the true King who brings with Him an everlasting kingdom filled to the brim with true peace.
For David the road to king wasn’t an straight and smooth road, it had major detours. Isn’t the same true with you as well? ‘Sometimes the bend in the river is the only way’ yet throughout it all God is there working to achieve His grand purposes!
Peter J. Leithart, A Son to Me: An Exposition of 1 & 2 Samuel(Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2003), 196.
John L. Mackay and J. Gary Millar, ESV Expository Commentary: 1 Samuel-2 Chronicles, ed. Iain M. Duguid, Hamilton Jr James M., and Jay Sklar (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2019), 307.
John Woodhouse, 2 Samuel: Your Kingdom Come, ed. R. Kent Hughes (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2015), 114.
Richard D. Phillips, 2 Samuel(Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P & R Publishing, 2018), 54.
P. Kyle McCarter Jr, II Samuel(Garden City, N.Y: Anchor Bible, 1984), 117.
Woodhouse, 2 Samuel, 117.
Dale Ralph Davis, 2 Samuel: Out of Every Adversity, Revised edition (Fearn, Ross-Shire Scotland: Christian Focus, 2013), 46–47.
C. F. Keil-F. Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament (Keil-Delitzsch) 10 Volume Set, Reprint edition (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1982), 306.
Davis, 2 Samuel, 47.
Some believe v28-29 to be a later addition intended to promote David’s innocence. Which implies that David truly did have a hand in Abner’s death. See A. A. Anderson, Word Biblical Commentary Vol. 11, 2 Samuel, First Edition (Waco, Tex: Thomas Nelson Inc, 1989), 61.
Woodhouse, 2 Samuel, 123.
Leithart, A Son to Me, 194.
Davis, 2 Samuel, footnote 14 on pg. 47.See also Mackay and Millar, 311 & 315.
Robert Alter, ed., The David Story: A Translation With Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel, Stated 1st Edition (New York: W. W. Norton & Co Inc, 1999), 218.
Davis, 2 Samuel, 49–50.
Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament (Keil-Delitzsch) 10 Volume Set, 311.
Leithart, A Son to Me, 198.
Woodhouse, 2 Samuel, 113–14.
Eugene Peterson, quoted in Leithart, A Son to Me, 198.