II Samuel 3:22-39
22 Just then David’s men and Joab returned from a raid and brought with them a great deal of plunder. But Abner was no longer with David in Hebron, because David had sent him away, and he had gone in peace. 23 When Joab and all the soldiers with him arrived, he was told that Abner son of Ner had come to the king and that the king had sent him away and that he had gone in peace. 24 So Joab went to the king and said, “What have you done? Look, Abner came to you. Why did you let him go? Now he is gone! 25 You know Abner son of Ner; he came to deceive you and observe your movements and find out everything you are doing.” 26 Joab then left David and sent messengers after Abner, and they brought him back from the cistern at Sirah. But David did not know it. 27 Now when Abner returned to Hebron, Joab took him aside into an inner chamber, as if to speak with him privately. And there, to avenge the blood of his brother Asahel, Joab stabbed him in the stomach, and he died. 28 Later, when David heard about this, he said, “I and my kingdom are forever innocent before the Lord concerning the blood of Abner son of Ner. 29 May his blood fall on the head of Joab and on his whole family! May Joab’s family never be without someone who has a running sore or leprosy or who leans on a crutch or who falls by the sword or who lacks food.” 30 (Joab and his brother Abishai murdered Abner because he had killed their brother Asahel in the battle at Gibeon.) 31 Then David said to Joab and all the people with him, “Tear your clothes and put on sackcloth and walk in mourning in front of Abner.” King David himself walked behind the bier. 32 They buried Abner in Hebron, and the king wept aloud at Abner’s tomb. All the people wept also. 33 The king sang this lament for Abner: “Should Abner have died as the lawless die? 34 Your hands were not bound, your feet were not fettered. You fell as one falls before the wicked.” And all the people wept over him again. 35 Then they all came and urged David to eat something while it was still day; but David took an oath, saying, “May God deal with me, be it ever so severely, if I taste bread or anything else before the sun sets!” 36 All the people took note and were pleased; indeed, everything the king did pleased them. 37 So on that day all the people there and all Israel knew that the king had no part in the murder of Abner son of Ner. 38 Then the king said to his men, “Do you not realize that a commander and a great man has fallen in Israel this day? 39 And today, though I am the anointed king, I am weak, and these sons of Zeruiah are too strong for me. May the Lord repay the evildoer according to his evil deeds!”
1. Joab Returned and Unwisely Scolded David 22-25
We have here an account of the murder of Abner by Joab, and David’s deep resentment of it. Joab very unwisely complained to David for treating Abner well. He was out raiding, supposedly with David’s permission. They were in Judah’s territory, yet they raided, presumably outside of Judah’s boundary. “David’s men and Joab returned from a raid and brought with them a great deal of plunder.” The new king, his court and his men apparently lived by raiding. Joab was abroad doing this service when Abner was with David. He was pursuing a troop, either of Philistines or of Saul’s party, but when he returned, he was informed that Abner was just gone (22-23), and that David had entertained Abner with a great feast. Joab was not the king; he was a general and he had all the reason in the world to be satisfied with David’s diplomacy and entertainment of Abner and his guests. Joab knew David was a wise and good man who conducted his affairs with God’s leading and counsel. If Joab had had the same authority over David that Abner had over Ish-Bosheth, he could have freely expressed his reprimand and counsel. But He did not. He had no authority to question David. “What have you done? Look, Abner came to you. Why did you let him go? Now he is gone! You know Abner son of Ner; he came to deceive you and observe your movements and find out everything you are doing” (24-25).
Joab was not humble, submissive, cooperative nor a team-player. He did not recognize the limitations of his position. This was a great problem which led to an even bigger one. As the head of the army, he was second in command, but he was not satisfied with the limitation of his authority. David was not responsible to Joab; he was responsible to God. We don’t know whether to wonder more that Joab had chutzpah and impertinence enough to insult the king or that David had patience or weakness enough to take it. Joab does, in effect, call David a gullible fool when he told him he knew Abner came to deceive him and yet David trusted him. David did not defend himself, not because he feared Joab as Ish-Bosheth feared Abner, but more likely because he disagreed with his wrong advice; or perhaps because Joab did not have sufficient good manners to wait for David’s response. In any case, Joab, in this story, illustrated how a small sin can lead to a bigger sin; a wrong attitude—jealousy and greed—led to very seriously wrong behavior—murder.
2. Joab Even More Unwisely and Unmercifully Killed Abner 26-27
We do not have a detailed record in Scripture of the war, battles and hardships endured. We only know that it lasted about seven and half years and that it finally came to an end because of a disagreement between Abner and Ish-Bosheth. Abner broke with Ish-Bosheth, and deserted his partnership with him on the occasion of a little provocation which Ish-Bosheth unadvisedly gave him. God can serve his own purposes by the sins and follies of men. Ish-Bosheth accused Abner of no less a crime than immoral sexual conduct with one of his father’s concubines, Ish-Bosheth said to Abner, “Why did you sleep with my father’s concubine?” (2 Sam. 3:7).
The record does not say whether it was true or not or on what grounds Ish-Bosheth suspected Abner, but, in either case it would have been better for Ish-Bosheth if he had remained quiet. Abner was, after all Ish-Boshet’s best friend and hope. “This very day I am loyal to the house of your father Saul.” So Abner strongly resented the charge, “now you accuse me of an offense involving this woman! The fact that he does not expressly deny it may hint that he was, in fact, guilty, but he still let Ish-Bosheth know he would not receive correction from him. “Am I a dog’s head—on Judah’s side” (8)? Is this how you intend to repay me for my kindness? Abner emphasized his loyalty in rather self-righteous expressions suggesting he would help fulfill: “what the Lord promised him on oath and transfer the kingdom from the house of Saul and establish David’s throne over Israel.” If Abner thought the Lord wanted to give the kingdom to David, why did he wait seven and a half years to do it? For seven and a half years he had acted against his conscience.
And this is probably the reason. He would not have been so zealous for the house of Saul if it had not gratified his own ambition. Proud men do not like to be reproved and will soon seek to clear their names and seek revenge. Verses 9-10 say, “May God deal with Abner, be it ever so severely, if I do not do for David what the Lord promised him on oath and transfer the kingdom from the house of Saul and establish David’s throne over Israel and Judah from Dan to Beersheba.” Abner claims that as he had raised him up, so he could and would pull him down again. He knew that God had sworn to David to give him the kingdom, and yet opposed it with all his might from a principle of ambition; but now he complies with it from a principle of revenge.
He now pretended to highly regard the will of God, but it was a mere pretense. If we are slaves to our desire, we have many masters. Abner’s ambition made him zealous for Ish-Bosheth, and now his revenge made him as zealous for David. If he had sincerely regarded God’s promise to David, and acted single-mindedly, he would have been steady, uniform and consistent with himself. Abner is an example of the lack of integrity—he did not have consistency, integrity, between what he thought, said and did.
Yet, while Abner served his own lusts, God by him served his own purposes, made even his wrath and revenge to praise him, and ordained strength to David by it. Ish-Bosheth was thunder-struck by Abner’s insolence. 2 Sam. 3:11 says, “Ish-Bosheth did not dare to say another word to Abner, because he was afraid of him.” If Ish-Bosheth had had the heart of a noble leader, he might have pointed out Abner’s inconsistencies and stated that he would not be served by so base a man. “I can do well enough, even better, without you.” But he was aware of his own weakness and said nothing for fear of making bad worse. He now became as David had said of his enemies, “How long will you assault me? Would all of you throw me down—this leaning wall, this tottering fence?” If the king of the house of Saul was a leaning wall and tottering fence, how could there be unity in it? This house was divided against itself and was about to fall.
If you, my friend, as a Christian leader today, are a leaning wall and tottering fence, if you do not know how to define a clear boundary for those who follow you, if you cannot hold the line and require proper attitudes and behavior among your followers, if you lack backbone, you would resemble Ish-Bosheth; your leadership is weak and your house will deteriorate. Define your convictions clearly. What do you stand for? What do you approve or disapprove of? Do you have convictions? Do you enforce your convictions? What lines will you neither cross nor allow others to cross? Ish-Bosheth means “man of shame.” Are you or do you want to be a leader? Who will follow an Ish-Bosheth?
3. David Distanced Himself from Joab and the Deed 28-30
David expressed his detestation of this horrible crime in many ways. He washed his hands from the guilt of Abner’s blood. Lest any should suspect that Joab had some secret instruction from David to do as he did, he immediately and solemnly appealed to God concerning his innocency, “I and my kingdom are forever innocent before the Lord concerning the blood of Abner son of Ner” (28) It is some comfort when any bad thing is done, to be able to say, that we had no hand in it. Moses had provided a way for elders of a city or village who were representatives of the people to formally declare their ignorance and innocence regarding a sin involving an unsolved murder. The elders can make a declaration. Deut. 21:7, says, “and they shall declare: ‘Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done.’” Those elders might be criticized, but their hearts can remain pure before God. Joab could make no such claim.
David placed its curse on Joab and his family (2 Sam. 3:29): “May his blood fall on the head of Joab and on his whole family! May Joab’s family never be without someone who has a running sore or leprosy or who leans on a crutch or who falls by the sword or who lacks food.” Let the blood cry against him, and let divine vengeance follow him. Let the iniquity be visited upon his children and children’s children, in some hereditary disease or other. The longer the punishment is delayed, the longer let it last when it shall come. Let his posterity be stigmatized, blemished with an issue or a leprosy, which will shut them out from society; let them be beggars, or cripples, or come to some untimely end, that it may be said, He is one of Joab’s race.” This suggests that the guilt of blood brings a curse upon families; if men do not avenge it, God will, and will lay up the iniquity for the children. Such a principle is questionable. This curse placed upon Joab’s descendants was an expression of David’s sorry and anger, but this kind of thinking is not consistent with the teaching of the whole Bible, that the sins of the parent would not bring punishment upon the children or that we can wish such punishment when we should be forgiving and let God do the punishing. David is caught up in his own emotions and said some things very unlike his better self. Christian leaders will not want to follow this part of David’s example.
4. David Required All to Mourn for Abner 31-34
He called on everyone, even Joab himself, to lament the death of Abner, “Tear your clothes and put on sackcloth and walk in mourning in front of Abner. It must have been humiliating and embarrassing to Joab to do this. David gave a reason why they should attend his funeral with sincere and solemn mourning in verse 38. “Do you not realize that a commander and a great man has fallen in Israel this day? His former alliance with Saul, his place as general, his interest, and the great services he had formerly done, were enough to give him the reputation of a commander and a great man. Possibly David had fought along side of Abner in a previous period. Perhaps they were two generals conferring with each other during their service to Israel under Saul. David knew Abner. When he could not call him a saint or a good man, he said nothing of that, but what was true he commended, “he was a commander and a great men.” Such a man has fallen in Israel, and fallen “this day,” just when he was doing the best deed he ever did in his life, this day, when he was likely to be so serviceable to the public peace and welfare! and could have been so nobly used.” Let them all lament it. Death is so final. The humbling change death brings to all men is to be lamented, especially the death of great men. We are especially obliged to lament the fall of useful men in the midst of their usefulness and when there is most need of them. A public loss must be every man’s grief, for every man shares in it. David took care that honor should be given to the memory of a man of merit, to motivate others to do good.
Let Joab, in a particular manner, lament it, which he has less heart to do but more reason to do than any of them. If he could be brought to do it sincerely, it would be an expression of repentance for his sin in slaying Abner. If he did it in show only, as it is likely he did, yet it was a sort of punishment forced on him. It is not possible for us to know Joab’s thoughts as he walked in the funeral procession. Outwardly, he may have put on a sad face, but inwardly he may have been quite satisfied that his competition and the killer of his brother was dead. He may have thought, “Honor him all you want, I got what I wanted.”
David himself followed the corpse as chief mourner, and made a funeral oration at the grave. “King David himself walked behind the bier” (31). Though Abner had been his enemy, and might possibly have proved to be no firm friend, yet because he had been a man of bravery in the field, and might have done great service in the public counsels at this critical juncture, all former quarrels are forgotten and David is a true mourner for his fall. “They buried Abner in Hebron, and the king wept aloud at Abner’s tomb. All the people wept also” (32). What he said over the grave brought fresh floods of tears from the eyes of all that were present, when they thought they had already paid the debt in full. “Should Abner have died as the lawless die? Your hands were not bound, your feet were not fettered. You fell as one falls before the wicked.” (33,34) He spoke as one vexed that Abner, so great a man as he, so famed for conduct and courage, should die under the pretense of friendship, slain by surprise, and so die as a fool dies.
The wisest and stoutest of men have no defense against treachery. To see Abner, who thought himself the main hinge on which the great affairs of Israel turned, his head full of great projects and great prospects, to see him made a fool of by the morally inferior Joab reminds us of the truth expressed in Ps. 146:3-4; “Do not put your trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save. When their spirit departs, they return to the ground; on that very day their plans come to nothing.” If what is ours or appears to be ours on earth is certain to come to nothing, let us make that secure the one thing we cannot tricked out of. A man may have his life, and all that is dear to him, taken from him, and not be able to prevent it with all his wisdom, care, and integrity; but there is something which no thief can break through to steal.
Abner did not throw away his life as Asahel did. Asahel, in spite of fair warning, willfully pursued, then was struck by surprise and killed by Abner’s spear. Abner, by contrast, served his king, his nation and, though late in deciding to do so, was willing to serve the next king. It is a sad thing to die like a fool, as those do who in any way shorten their own days, but much more sad are those that make no provision for another world.
5. David Fasted and Bewailed the Sad Event and Circumstances 31-39
David fasted all that day, and would by no means be persuaded to eat anything until night. 2 Sam. 3:35 says, “Then they all came and urged David to eat something while it was still day; but David took an oath, saying, “May God deal with me, be it ever so severely, if I taste bread or anything else before the sun sets!” Today, many cultures approve of a feast after the funeral. But it was then the custom of mourners to fast, as people fasted to express their grief when Saul died. (2 Sam. 1:12; 1 Sam. 31:13.) The respect David paid to Abner was very pleasing to the people and satisfied them that he was not, in the least, accessory to the murder. David was eager that the sin of Joab would not be associated with himself. He did not want to be guilty by association. And David’s efforts succeeded. “All the people took note and were pleased; indeed, everything the king did pleased them. So on that day all the people there and all Israel knew that the king had no part in the murder of Abner son of Ner” (36-37).
Similarly, Jacob was afraid that the behavior of two of his sons would reflect negatively on himself as we see in Genesis 34:30, “Then Jacob said to Simeon and Levi, “You have brought trouble on me by making me obnoxious to the Canaanites and Perizzites, the people living in this land. We are few in number, and if they join forces against me and attack me, I and my household will be destroyed.” Having a good reputation is certainly an advantage and both Jacob and David were careful in this respect. “A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold” (Proverbs 22:1). “This hints to us of David’s good affection for them. He studied to please them in every thing and carefully avoided what might be offensive to them. Apparently David was successful in keeping a good name. Everything the king did pleased them. “And they thought everything he did well done.” Such a mutual willingness to please, and easiness to be pleased, will make every human relationship sweeter and more enduring.
David was sorry that he could not safety do justice to the murderer, 2 Sam. 3:30. On the one hand, David was weak, his kingdom was newly planted, and he felt that a little shake would overthrow it. Joab’s family had a great interest, were bold and daring, and to make them his enemies now might produce bad results like disunity or revenge. These sons of Zeruiah were too hard for him, too big for the law to take hold of; and therefore, though by man, by the magistrate, the blood of a murderer should be shed (Gen. 9:6), David carried the sword in vain. He contented himself, as a private person, to leave them to the judgment of God: The Lord shall reward the doer of evil according to his wickedness.
Observe with me that the combination of responsibility and authority needs to be pondered and clarified in the mind of every leader. If you have the authority of a position you must also have the responsibility to use it. If you do not have authority, neither can you be responsible. Who would be fond of power when a man may have it in name and must be accountable for it, and yet is hampered in the use of it? On the other hand, to have authority and not use it responsibly is to abdicate a responsibility. These are not easy questions or issues, but let every leader think and pray carefully about them. Know what is your responsibility and confirm that you have the authority that goes with it.
David may have made a mistake in sparing Joab. He ought to have done his duty, executed the murderer as he had recently executed the young man who claimed to have killed Saul, and trusted God with the issue. Let justice be done, though the heavens should fall asunder. If David had kept the law against Joab, perhaps the murder of Ish-Bosheth, Amnon, and others, would have been prevented. It was David’s weak public policy and cruel pity that spared Joab, not Joab’s strength. Righteousness supports the throne. However, it was only a temporary reprieve that David gave to Joab because on his death-bed he left it to Solomon to avenge the blood of Abner. Evil pursues sinners, and will overtake them at last. Interestingly, as an aside, David much later promoted Abner’s son Jaasiel, and appointed him as a leader of the tribe of Benjamin, as is clear from 1 Chron. 27:21. “. . . over Benjamin; Jaasiel son of Abner.” David did not visit the sins of Abner on Jaasiel.
I did not include the killing of Absalom in the paragraph above, because Absalom was not murdered; he was killed in battle by Joab. Absalom was leading a rebellion and was at war against Israel. To kill in a just battle is not murder. Lines of authority, responsibility, duty and accountability take time to define, but a wise church leader will take the time to clarify them so every team member knows what they can and cannot, should and should not do.