II Samuel 2:1-16
2 In the course of time, David inquired of the Lord. “Shall I go up to one of the towns of Judah?” he asked. The Lord said, “Go up.” David asked, “Where shall I go?” “To Hebron,” the Lord answered. 2 So David went up there with his two wives, Ahinoam of Jezreel and Abigail, the widow of Nabal of Carmel. 3 David also took the men who were with him, each with his family, and they settled in Hebron and its towns. 4 Then the men of Judah came to Hebron, and there they anointed David king over the tribe of Judah. When David was told that it was the men from Jabesh Gilead who had buried Saul, 5 he sent messengers to them to say to them, “The Lord bless you for showing this kindness to Saul your master by burying him. 6 May the Lord now show you kindness and faithfulness, and I too will show you the same favor because you have done this. 7 Now then, be strong and brave, for Saul your master is dead, and the people of Judah have anointed me king over them.” 8 Meanwhile, Abner son of Ner, the commander of Saul’s army, had taken Ish-Bosheth son of Saul and brought him over to Mahanaim. 9 He made him king over Gilead, Ashuri and Jezreel, and also over Ephraim, Benjamin and all Israel. 10 Ish-Bosheth son of Saul was forty years old when he became king over Israel, and he reigned two years. The tribe of Judah, however, remained loyal to David. 11 The length of time David was king in Hebron over Judah was seven years and six months. 12 Abner son of Ner, together with the men of Ish-Bosheth son of Saul, left Mahanaim and went to Gibeon. 13 Joab son of Zeruiah and David’s men went out and met them at the pool of Gibeon. One group sat down on one side of the pool and one group on the other side. 14 Then Abner said to Joab, “Let’s have some of the young men get up and fight hand to hand in front of us.” “All right, let them do it,” Joab said. 15 So they stood up and were counted off—twelve men for Benjamin and Ish-Bosheth son of Saul, and twelve for David. 16 Then each man grabbed his opponent by the head and thrust his dagger into his opponent’s side, and they fell down together. So that place in Gibeon was called Helkath Hazzurim. 17 The battle that day was very fierce, and Abner and the Israelites were defeated by David’s men.
1. David moves to Hebron 1-4a
When Saul and Jonathan were dead, though David knew he had been anointed to be king and now saw his way forward very clear, yet he did not immediately send messengers through all the coasts of Israel to summon all people to come in and swear allegiance to him. Just as he had waited in Ziklag for news of the Battle at Jezreel, so now he again proceeded leisurely. Because of his faith and confidence he could move slowly with dignity. He that believes in God and His plan does not need to hurry, but waits for God’s time for the accomplishment of God’s promises. From Chronicles we know that many had come to his assistance from several tribes while he continued at Ziklag. So he could have entered Judah with force; he might have come in by conquest. But David was not Saul, he will rule with meekness and did not need to rise with violence.
At this important juncture, even though he knew he would be successful, he still wanted to go about each step wisely. So he asked for and received direction from God. Just because God had promised him the crown did not mean that David would do nothing. Assurance of hope in God’s promise does not excuse either cowardly hesitancy or laziness, rather it will quicken saintly, godly and reverent endeavors. If I be elected to the crown of life, it does not follow, that then I will do nothing; No, then I will do all that He directs me, and follow the guidance of Him who chose me. Elected, chosen, yes, and active—a model for all whom God has chosen.
He acknowledged God and inquired of God. He may have used the breast-plate of judgment, or the ephod, which Abiathar could have easily brought to him. We should ask God, not only when we are in distress, but even when we simply want to know the next step He wants us to take. Even though Ziklag may still be in ruins, he will not leave it without direction from God. “Shall I go up?” “Go up.” “Where shall I go up?” “To Hebron.” It sounds so easy, but even if it takes hours of prayer and intercession to gain it, the direction we can receive from God is, oh!, so valuable! David showed his prudence by addressing, not all of Israel, but only the cities of Judah, where he would find most of the people friendly towards him, and his modesty since Judah was his own tribe. In all our motions, moving, staying, waiting or returning it is empowering and encouraging to see God going before us. And we may have this assurance if by faith and prayer we set Him front and center before ourselves and focus on Him.
So God directed him to a priestly city, a city of refuge, so it was to David, and an intimation that God himself would be to him a sanctuary. The graves of the patriarchs, still there in our modern day, adjoining Hebron, could and would remind him of the ancient promise, on which God had caused him to hope. God did not send him to Bethlehem, his own city. Micah 5:2 says, “But you Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” The son of David would come from Bethlehem, but David would return from exile to Judah by going to Hebron where Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Leah were buried.
David, the responsible leader, took care of his family and friends in his move to Hebron. He took his wives with him, since they had been partners with him in tribulation, they might be companions in the kingdom. We do not know if either of them had had children by then. We know, however, that his first son was born in Hebron. (II Sam. 3:2-5) And he took his friends and followers with him. They had accompanied him in his wanderings, and therefore, when he had a better opportunity, they settled with him in Hebron and its towns.
Do you see a similarity with the New Testament promise in II Tim. 2:12 that “if we endure, we will also reign with him?” Christ does more for his good soldiers than David could do for his; David found lodging for them—“they settled in Hebron and its towns,” but to those who continue with Christ in His temptations, in Luke 22:29-30 He promised, “And I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.’
The men of Judah reciprocate in that they anointed David king of the house of Judah. This was the honor given to him by the men of Judah. The tribe of Judah had often stood by itself more than any other of the tribes. In Saul’s time it was numbered by itself as a distinct body (I Sam. 15:4) and those of this tribe had been accustomed to act separately. They anointed David king for themselves—for Judah—only and did not pretend to anoint him king over all Israel. The other tribes might do as they wanted, but, as for Judah, they would be ruled by him whom God had chosen. As an aside, David’s reigning at first only over the house of Judah could have been a gentle comfort to the later kings of Judah. Only David and Solomon reigned over all of Israel. When the ten northern tribes rebelled against David’s grandson they reduced the size of their kingdom back to what David had experienced for his first seven and a half years.
2. David honors the men of Jabesh Gilead 4b-7
Even though David had already sent a respectful message to the men of Jabesh-Gilead, to express his thanks for their kindness to Saul, still he intentionally planed a way to honor the memory of his predecessor to show that he was far from aiming at the crown from just personal ambition or enmity to Saul, but for a more noble reason—because he was called of God to it. When he heard that the men of Jabesh-Gilead buried Saul, far from being displeased at this honor given to Saul, he commended them for it. He said, “The Lord bless you for showing this kindness to Saul your master by burying him.” He mentioned that Saul was their master, and therefore you did well to show him this kindness and do him this honor. He asked God to bless them for it, and to reward them for it: Blessed are you, and blessed may you be of the Lord, but hoping for God’s blessings for the men of Jabesh Gilead was not enough. David himself would also reward them. He said, “I too will show you the same favor because you have done this.” He said, “I too will reward you.” He does not turn them over to God for compensation and benefit that he may excuse himself from rewarding them. Good wishes are good things, and instances of gratitude, but they are too easy to give when there is ability or the opportunity to do more.
3. A Rivalry Develops Between Ish-Bosheth and David 8-11
The rivalry was between David, whom God made king, and Ish-Bosheth, whom Abner made king. One would have thought, that when Saul and his sons were slain, everyone would have had sense and spirit enough to do at least a part of what Jonathan would have done, that is to recognize David. Surely they all knew that David would come to the throne. Had Jonathan lived, this would have happened easily without any opposition, since all Israel knew, not only how David had distinguished himself, but also how clearly God had designated him. To our amazement, in the devices of men and in opposition to the counsels of God, such a weak and silly man as Ish-bosheth, who was not fit to go with his father to battle, shall yet be thought fit to succeed him in government. For the good of the kingdom, rather that David should come peaceably to it.
So we find in this part of the story of David’s kingdom, something similar to the kingdom of the Messiah’s. Psalm 2:1-3 says, “Why do the nations conspire and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the Lord and against his anointed, saying, ‘Let us break their chains and throw off their shackles.’” Those who opposed David whom God had chosen were defeated just as those who will oppose David’s son will be destroyed.
Abner, Saul’s uncle, was the person who set Ish-Bosheth against David. This may have been due to his zeal for the lineal succession, and since they must have a king like the nations, in this they must be like them, that the crown must descend from father to son. Perhaps he used his blood relationship to Saul to influence his own family, other relatives and countrymen because he had no other way to secure the post of honor he sought as captain of the host. What a problem is pride and ambition. Ish-Bosheth would never have set up himself if Abner had not set him up. Ish-Bosheth was made to be a tool of Abner to serve Abner’s purposes. Later in the story a rift will develop between Ish-Bosheth and Abner having to do with Ish-Bosheth’s criticism of Abner over Abner’s sleeping with a concubine of Saul’s. The house was divided against itself, but the details of that drama will have to wait for a later chapter.
4. War begins with a Contest 12-17
A brief geography lesson will help us understand the next part of this drama. Mahanaim means “two camps” and is near the Jabbok river on the far side of the Jordan river. It is where Jacob wrestled with the angel. Gibeon was the hill of the sun, famous for its springs, a Canaanite and Israelite city northwest of Jerusalem. Being far removed from central Israel it may have been thought that David would not be interested in the far flung city in the east, and being at a distance from his forces they might have time to strengthen themselves. But having set up Ish-Bosheth and Abner’s standard there, the unthinking people of all the tribes of Israel submitted to Ish-Bosheth leaving only Judah for David. This was a further trial of the faith in the promise of God for David and of his patience, whether he could wait for God’s time for the performance of that promise. Just how the seven and one-half years of David’s reign at Hebron coincides with Ish-Bosheth’s two-year reign in Mahanaim east of the Jordan in Gilead is not known. For our purposes in understanding the contest that precipitated the first battle between the armies of Ish-Bosheth and David we only need to know that Abner’s army came from the northeast and David’s men met them at a pool in Gibeon just north and west of Jerusalem in central Israel.
It appears that neither side brought their whole force into the field, for the slaughter was but relatively few in number. We may wonder that the men of Judah did not appear and act more vigorously for David, to bring all the nation into quicker obedience to him. But we must remember David’s character. It is likely David would not allow them to act offensively, choosing rather to wait until the change of governments would occur naturally or rather until God would effect the change for him, without the shedding of Israeli blood. Great leader of men and king that he was, David knew that “he will rescue them from oppression and violence, for precious is their blood in his sight.” Lives are valuable and we don’t kill or spend them unnecessarily. Even those that were his adversaries he looked upon as his subjects, and would treat them accordingly. And on Ish-Bosheth’s side . . .
Do not be so surprised that the men of Israel could wait patiently, and sit down tamely under Ish-Bosheth, for so many years. Consider their character as described in I Chron. 12:23, “These are the numbers of the men armed for battle who came to David at Hebron to turn Saul’s kingdom over to him, as the Lord had said.” They were not of double heart, and yet for seven years together most of them remained neutral in their actions if not in their hearts, preferring to wait and choosing not to argue or fight over whose hand was on the public administration. Perhaps they were waiting for the right time since they “understood the times and knew what Israel ought to do.”
In this battle, Abner was the aggressor while David sat still to see how the matter would turn out. But the house of Saul, with Abner at the head, gave the challenge, and they all suffered for it. It is better to move slowly when dealing with contentious issues. Proverbs 25: 8 says, “do not bring hastily to court, for what will you do in the end if your neighbor puts you to shame?” Don’t hurry to bring a quarrel. A fool’s lips and hands enter into sometimes needless contention.
The seat of the contest, the beginning of the war was Gibeon. Abner chose it because it was in the lot of Benjamin, where Saul had the most friends. Though Abner proposed the battle, Joab, David’s general, would not decline it, but joined the contest with him, and met him by the pool of Gibeon. David’s cause, being built on God’s promise, did not fear any disadvantages of the ground. The pool between them gave both sides time to deliberate.
The contest was at first proposed by Abner, and accepted by Joab, to be between twelve soldiers from each side. It seems this tournament of skill began in sport. Abner made the motion, “Then Abner said to Joab, ‘Let’s have some of the young men get up and fight hand to hand in front of us.’ 'All right, let them do it,’ Joab said.” Perhaps Saul had used his men as pastimes, like a tyrant indeed, and Abner had learned from him to make a game of wounds and death and divert himself with the scenes of blood and horror. He meant, “Let them fight hand to hand,” when he said, “Let them do it.” Apparently they thought of it as a sport; a game. Fools mock at sin, but he is unworthy the name of a man that can play with blood and lives of men. Proverbs 26:18-19 says, “Like a maniac shooting flaming arrows of death is one who deceives their neighbor and says, “I was only joking!” But Joab, having been trained and influenced somewhat by David, had so much wisdom as not to make such a proposal, yet had not resolution enough to resist it when another made it. He stood on his honor as a soldier, and thought it would be a blemish on his reputation to refuse a challenge, and therefore said, “All right let them do it,” not that he was fond of the sport, or expected that the duels would be decisive, but he would not be intimidated by Abner. How many precious lives have been sacrificed to the whims of proud men!
Twelve of each side were accordingly called out as champions to enter the lists, a double jury of life and death, not of others’, but their own. However it began, it ended in blood: “Then each man grabbed his opponent by the head and thrust his dagger into his opponent’s side, and they fell down together.” They did not need to fight. Their lives were not in danger. They were not defending their families or city. They were spurred on by honor, not by enmity. All twenty-four were slain, such an equal match were they for one another, and so resolute, that neither side would either beg or surrender. Those that strike at other men’s lives often throw away their own.
The balance and equality of the strength and will to fight on both sides was remembered in the name given to the place: Helkath-hazzurim—either the field of rocky men, men that were not only strong in body, but of firm and unshaken constitution, that stirred not at the sight of death—or it may mean field of daggers or field of hostilities. Psalm 76:5 says, “The valiant lie plundered, they sleep their last sleep; not one of the warriors can lift his hands.” That happened here. Poor honor for men to gain at so great an expense! Many more would die in the next seven and a half years before this rivalry was over. However, unlike that battle, the Christian has hope because in ours those that lose their lives for Christ shall find them.
After the contest that resulted in twenty-four soldiers laying dead by the pool, more—whole armies—were engaged, and Abner’s forces were routed, the contest between the twenty-four was a draw, in which all were killed on both sides, “they fell down together,” and so the contest expanded greatly. Abner and his army that originally gave the challenge went away with loss. David had God on his side and his side was victorious.
But no one wins in a battle, or a war or even in an argument within a Christian organization of men and women. Jesus prayed that “all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you” (John 17:23). One side may say they won if they got their way, but do they still have the love and respect of the other side? The best way to win is when we all win together and the Holy Spirit can give us the wisdom to make that happen.