II Samuel 2:18-32
18 The three sons of Zeruiah were there: Joab, Abishai and Asahel. Now Asahel was as fleet-footed as a wild gazelle. 19 He chased Abner, turning neither to the right nor to the left as he pursued him. 20 Abner looked behind him and asked, “Is that you, Asahel?” “It is,” he answered. 21 Then Abner said to him, “Turn aside to the right or to the left; take on one of the young men and strip him of his weapons.” But Asahel would not stop chasing him. 22 Again Abner warned Asahel, “Stop chasing me! Why should I strike you down? How could I look your brother Joab in the face?” 23 But Asahel refused to give up the pursuit; so Abner thrust the butt of his spear into Asahel’s stomach, and the spear came out through his back. He fell there and died on the spot. And every man stopped when he came to the place where Asahel had fallen and died. 24 But Joab and Abishai pursued Abner, and as the sun was setting, they came to the hill of Ammah, near Giah on the way to the wasteland of Gibeon. 25 Then the men of Benjamin rallied behind Abner. They formed themselves into a group and took their stand on top of a hill. 26 Abner called out to Joab, “Must the sword devour forever? Don’t you realize that this will end in bitterness? How long before you order your men to stop pursuing their fellow Israelites?” 27 Joab answered, “As surely as God lives, if you had not spoken, the men would have continued pursuing them until morning.” 28 So Joab blew the trumpet, and all the troops came to a halt; they no longer pursued Israel, nor did they fight anymore. 29 All that night Abner and his men marched through the Arabah. They crossed the Jordan, continued through the morning hours and came to Mahanaim. 30 Then Joab stopped pursuing Abner and assembled the whole army. Besides Asahel, nineteen of David’s men were found missing. 31 But David’s men had killed three hundred and sixty Benjamites who were with Abner. 32 They took Asahel and buried him in his father’s tomb at Bethlehem. Then Joab and his men marched all night and arrived at Hebron by daybreak.
1. Asahel Pursues Abner and Abner Kills Asahel 18-23
The escalation of this war began with a private contest between Abner and Asahel. Zeruiah, David’s sister, had three sons: Joab, Abishai and Asahel and these three brothers were David’s nephews. Asahel was one of the principal commanders of David’s forces and was famous for being able to run fast. According to II Sam. 2:18, “Asahel was as fleet-footed as a wild gazelle.” He obtained this reputation by swift pursuing, not swift flying. He was not, however, equal to Abner as a fighter or comparable to him as a skillful and experienced soldier. So he was rash in aiming to make Abner his prisoner. He pursued him, and no other. Perhaps it was because he was proud of his relation to David and Joab, his own swiftness, and the success of his party. These were all trophies of victory but they will not serve the young warrior well in his private contest with Abner. Perhaps he thought he could kill or bind Abner which he thought would put an end to the war and open the throne to his uncle. This unrealistic prize made him very eager in the pursuit of Abner and careless in overlooking the opportunities to kill others he might have met along the way.
Possibly there were others on his right and left he could have seized, but his eye was on Abner only. The design was brave, had he been equal to its accomplishment which he was not, so, as Jeremiah said: “let not the strong man boast of their strength,” or, in this case, the swift man boast in his swiftness. He should have been wiser. Eccl. 9:11 says, “The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.” There are other factors involved in winning or losing such as human limitations and even more significantly, God’s intention, sovereign plan, and eternal will and purpose. So Asahel perished in an attempt too vast for him. Romans 10:2 has a poignant warning for every zealous Christian warrior: “For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge.” Soldiers, be brave, but first be wise.
Abner was generous to give Asahel a reasonable warning advising him not to meddle to his own injury. This may remind us of another similar conversation between a later king of Israel and the king of Judah. Amaziah king of Judah went out to fight with Jehoash, king of Israel. Jehoash advised him, as is recorded in II Chron. 25:19, “You say to yourself that you have defeated Edom, and now you are arrogant and proud. But stay at home! Why ask for trouble and cause your own downfall and that of Judah also?” Amaziah should have listened to Jehoash. In this instance Abner suggested Asahel should be content with a lesser target: “Lay hold of one of the young men,” plunder him and make him your prisoner, meddle with your equal but do not pretend to be equal to someone so much superior.”
It is wisdom in all contests to compare our own strength with that of our adversaries, and to be careful not to inflate our opinions of ourselves in making the comparison. As is recorded in Luke 14:31, Jesus taught us to measure things carefully; to count the cost. He said, “Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Won’t he first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand?” Abner requested Asahel not to make it necessary for him to kill him in his own self-defense. He would have preferred not to kill Asahel, but would if he had to in order to preserve his own life.
We do not know if Abner loved Joab or feared him, but we do know that Abner did not want to arouse Joab’s displeasure, which he knew he would certainly do if he slew Asahel. “How could I look your brother Joab in the face” (v21)? As Abner, we too should know our enemy. Abner’s caution about how he would face Joab may hint to us that Abner really believed David would have the kingdom at last, according to the divine plan. If so, then, in opposing David, he acted against his own conscience. It would be seven and half years before Abner would eventually come to Hebron, visit David and propose to bring all of Israel to David.
Asahel’s rashness was fatal to him. He refused to turn aside, perhaps thinking that Abner only spoke courteously because he feared him; but what came of it? Abner, as soon as he came up to him, gave him his death wound with a back stroke. “Abner thrust the butt of his spear into Asahel’s stomach, and the spear came out through his back” (23). This was an action with which Asahel was not acquainted and against which he had not learned to be on his guard. Perhaps Abner had successfully used it before. We don’t know, but we do know that Asahel died immediately of the wound.
Injury often or perhaps even usually comes upon us by ways that we least suspect. Who would fear a flying enemy or the butt-end of a spear? Yet from these Asahel received his death wound. We are often betrayed by the accomplishments of which we are proud. Asahel’s swiftness, his advantage, was no true advantage; did him no kindness, but only forwarded his fate, and with it he ran to his death, not from it. Asahel’s fall was a temporary reprieve for Abner because every soldier who came to Asahel’s body stopped there. Only Joab and Abishai, instead of being disheartened, were exasperated by it and pursued Abner with so much the more fury overtaking him about sunset.
2. Abner Requests a Ceasefire and Joab Grants the Appeal 24-28
Abner, quite possibly realizing he was loosing the battle, begged for a ceasefire—a little breathing-time. He rallied the remains of his forces on the top of a hill as though he would have made a last stand, but actually became a nearly conquered supplicant to Joab. The one who was most ready to fight that morning was now the first who had had enough of it. He that made a jest—a game; a contest, a sport—of bloodshed is now shocked at its result, when he finds himself on the losing side. The sword he made so light of earlier now is a very serious matter. He asks, “Must the sword devour forever?” See how his note has changed. It had devoured for only one day, but it seemed like forever to him because it had gone against him. So he appealed to Joab knowing personally the dreaded consequences of a civil war.
He knew his history and was aware that during the time of the judges, not too many years earlier, the war between Benjamin, and the other eleven tribes had nearly destroyed his tribe. At that time, "The people went to Bethel, where they sat before God until evening, raising their voices and weeping bitterly" (Judges 21:2). Whenever people get in a civil war, the whole community is sure to lose. So now he begged Joab to sound a retreat, and pleaded that they were brethren, who should not be fighting and devouring one another. He, that very morning, had invited the men of Joab to fall upon their brethren, but now he asked them lay down their arms.
Oh, how easy it is for men to use reason when serves their purpose, but will not listen to it if it is used against them. If Abner had been the conqueror, would we be hearing him complain about the evils of the sword and the miseries of a civil war, or pleading that both sides were brethren? Yet, finding himself beaten, all these reasonings are brought forward and emphasized to secure his safe retreat and to save his scattered troops. How the results of things alter men’s minds. The same thing which looked so pleasant in the morning that night looked dismal. Those folks that are eager to enter into contention will soon repent of it before they are finished with it. Jesus said, as recorded in Matthew 5:25, “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison.” I had better leave it sooner than later.
Joab, now a conqueror, generously granted the request and sounded a retreat knowing his master’s mind and how much David opposed the shedding of blood. He acknowledged that Abner’s proposal for a ceasefire was a life-saving good idea. On the other hand, might Joab have laid the blame for the battle in the first place correctly at Abner’s feet? If it had not been that Abner proposed the contest and gave the orders to fight ,there would have been no contest and no battle.
Some translations suggest that Joab is saying that “if Abner had not spoken in the morning there would have been no battle.” If so, he does indeed justly correct Abner for his eagerness to fight, and lays the blame upon him that there had been so much bloodshed as there was. You complain that the sword devours, but who first unsheathed it? Who began? Now you want to have the people parted, but remember who started this fight. We would have walked away in the morning if you had not given the challenge. This line of thought might have served to excuse Joab had he pushed on in his victory, and made a full end of Abner’s forces, but it appears that maybe he pitied the mistake of his adversary and did not want to make either army pay for Abner’s mistake. Or perhaps he was tired. At any rate, he sounded the trumpet and called for a retreat. It is good stewardship to be cautious with the shedding of blood. He, no doubt in the back of his mind, observed the instructions of king David, who sought the welfare of all Israel and not the hurt of any.
3. Both Armies Retreat 29-32
The armies separated, and both retired to the places from which they came. Both marched in the night, Abner to Mahanaim, on the other side Jordan and Joab to Hebron, where David waited to hear the outcome. The number of deaths is recorded. On David’s side only nineteen men were missing, besides Asahel, who was worth more than all. On Abner’s side 360 died. “They took Asahel and buried him in his father’s tomb at Bethlehem. Then Joab and his men marched all night and arrived at Hebron by daybreak.”
In civil wars recorded earlier in the Bible, great slaughters had been made. For example, Judges 12:6 says, “they said, ‘All right, say “Shibboleth.’” If he said, “Sibboleth,” because he could not pronounce the word correctly, they seized him and killed him at the fords of the Jordan. Forty-two thousand Ephraimites were killed at that time.” And also Judges 20:44 says, “Eighteen thousand Benjamites fell, all of them valiant fighters.” So in comparison to those large numbers this was nothing. Asahel’s funeral is mentioned here; the bodies of the nineteen soldiers were buried in the field of battle, but Asahel’s body was carried to Bethlehem, and buried in the grave of his father. On earth the dust of some is treated differently than the dust of others; but in the resurrection a much greater and eternal difference will be made between the dead along a much different line that has nothing to do with dust—between the godly and ungodly, a distinction which will remain for ever.