II Samuel 20:1-13
1 Now a troublemaker named Sheba son of Bikri, a Benjamite, happened to be there. He sounded the trumpet and shouted, “We have no share in David, no part in Jesse’s son! Every man to his tent, Israel!” 2 So all the men of Israel deserted David to follow Sheba son of Bikri. But the men of Judah stayed by their king all the way from the Jordan to Jerusalem. 3 When David returned to his palace in Jerusalem, he took the ten concubines he had left to take care of the palace and put them in a house under guard. He provided for them but had no sexual relations with them. They were kept in confinement till the day of their death, living as widows. 4 Then the king said to Amasa, “Summon the men of Judah to come to me within three days, and be here yourself.” 5 But when Amasa went to summon Judah, he took longer than the time the king had set for him. 6 David said to Abishai, “Now Sheba son of Bikri will do us more harm than Absalom did. Take your master’s men and pursue him, or he will find fortified cities and escape from us.” 7 So Joab’s men and the Kerethites and Pelethites and all the mighty warriors went out under the command of Abishai. They marched out from Jerusalem to pursue Sheba son of Bikri. 8 While they were at the great rock in Gibeon, Amasa came to meet them. Joab was wearing his military tunic, and strapped over it at his waist was a belt with a dagger in its sheath. As he stepped forward, it dropped out of its sheath. 9 Joab said to Amasa, “How are you, my brother?” Then Joab took Amasa by the beard with his right hand to kiss him. 10 Amasa was not on his guard against the dagger in Joab’s hand, and Joab plunged it into his belly, and his intestines spilled out on the ground. Without being stabbed again, Amasa died. Then Joab and his brother Abishai pursued Sheba son of Bikri. 11 One of Joab’s men stood beside Amasa and said, “Whoever favors Joab, and whoever is for David, let him follow Joab!” 12 Amasa lay wallowing in his blood in the middle of the road, and the man saw that all the troops came to a halt there. When he realized that everyone who came up to Amasa stopped, he dragged him from the road into a field and threw a garment over him. 13 After Amasa had been removed from the road, everyone went on with Joab to pursue Sheba son of Bikri.
David, returned to Israel in triumph, but before he even arrived in Jerusalem, he experienced a major setback instigated by a troublemaker named Sheba. David appointed Amasa to gather and lead Israel’s troops as their new commander and Joab promptly killed him. And David set aside his defiled concubines. Does this look like a trouble-free return? In the Christian life and ministry a back and forth process of victory and defeat repeats itself many times. The Christian minister must learn how to deal with this and steadfastly march forward.
Jesus said in Mat 6:34, “Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” So we know each day we may have problems. We are not in heaven yet. And James tells us what to do when we have trouble and good times. “Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise.” (5:13) So we know what to do in both of those situations. If Christian leaders do this, won’t the followers of those Christian leaders be inclined to do it too?
1. Pubic Conflict and a Family Disgrace 1-3
David was a man after God’s own heart. You would think that the people of Israel would welcome him, not only with a ceremony, but also by the allegiance due to him. This rebellion tells us more about people in general, not just these people, than it does about David. David may have made a mistake not to have asserted more leadership and influence earlier when Israel and Judah were arguing about who should be the first to welcome the king. At that time Judah spoke with greater assertiveness than the people of Israel. The ten tribes needed to be assured of David’s interest. Sheba may have merely stepped into a leadership vacuum or what seemed to him a leadership opportunity. What ounce of prevention could have helped them avoid the need for a pound of cure? Verses 1-2 say, “Now a troublemaker named Sheba son of Bikri, a Benjamite, happened to be there. He sounded the trumpet and shouted, ‘We have no share in David, no part in Jesse’s son! Every man to his tent, Israel!’” Sheba could not have done this, would not have said that had he not seen an opportunity. We cannot overlook the situation which made Sheba feel he would have a following. He thought there was a leadership vacuum.
Nevertheless, it is sad to see David’s subjects following an agitator and rabble-rouser rather than the "man after God’s own heart.” That this happened so soon after crushing Absalom’s rebellion adds an even sadder dynamic to the narrative. It is not strange, while we are in this world, to have one trouble after another? Jesus said that in this world we would have trouble. He had trouble. Troubles drive us to our knees; they drive us to God. God wants to develop men and women who can experience peace in trouble. Jesus said in John 14:27, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” He also said, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Christian leader, be strong.
Absalom had failed and was dead. The people were returning in loyalty to their own king when suddenly they changed their minds. What was happening here? Was Sheba any better or more attractive than Absalom? Why did this happen so soon? The restoration of David was still developing; it had not matured. When a bone breaks, it takes time for it to heal. During that time, extra care must be given to allow it to become strong again. That time had not passed; the break needed tenderness and caution. Judah and Israel both spoke forcefully. “. . . the men of Judah pressed their claims even more forcefully than the men of Israel” (19:43c). Where was leadership? The problem was not entirely Sheba’s making.
Sheba was a Benjamite, of Saul’s tribe, (1) who lived in Mount Ephraim (20:21). It may be that the same grudge that Shimai carried was also in Sheba’s heart. But the reason for this division was the foolish quarrel of II Sam chapter 19. Both the elders of Judah and the elders of Israel wanted to bring the king back. Bringing him back was not a point of contention; who had the largest claim on him and who should get the most honor by bringing him back, who would be first? These were the immature types of questions being asked. Says Israel “We are more numerous.” Says Judah “We are next of kin.” “We are more.” “We are closer.” Can we not see some of the foolish arguments we observe today being made so important in this destructive, costly, and painful division?
They were arguing over who could be the closest to him, who had the best claim on him, who can honor him more appropriately? David should be happy. Ah! Perhaps he was! That may have been the problem. I do not say this as a fact, but I raise the possibility that David may have enjoyed them arguing to be closest to him when he should be taking great care to include those who seemed to be loosing this contest—the Israelites. That strife between the two factions caused another civil war!
The men of Israel complained to David about the perceived disregard the men of Judah had for the men of Israel. Could he not have commended their zeal, received their complaint and shown himself to be the king of all Israel? Was he being partial to Judah? If the men of Judah are so forceful in asserting their claim and the king himself seems to be enjoying that, then let them enjoy each other. 'Israel to our tents. We thought we had ten parts, but the men of Judah seem to think we have no part. Okay. We will have no part. We will go our own way.' Can we not see in this tragedy a need for acceptance, affirmation, encouragement, and the largess of heart to make others feel included? Even if it were only by his silence, can we see that David was not inclusive enough in his handling the men of Israel? Should he have more strongly asserted himself on the side of unity and inclusion?
Sheba may have been a prominent man, even though Scripture calls him a trouble-maker. Perhaps he had been in Absalom’s rebellion and correctly read the signs of the times. We cannot know these matters conclusively because Scripture is not conclusive here. We are trying to discover why, after so short a time after returning from Absalom’s rebellion—a half-day or a day—Israel should again revolt against David. If our line of thought is correct, then we conclude that leaders need to take special care to be inclusive towards those who are not of their own family, tribe or special group. Belong to everyone, not just your own special friends. When David heard the tribes of Israel making their case, could he not have fanned that flame a little with his own words of appreciation for them? Being partial can be harmful in families and in churches as well as in nations.
Almost all of chapter 20 of II Sam is devoted to the telling of the story of this civil war. The first lesson we draw from it is that the whole thing could have been avoided if people of influence had been more inclusive. A second lesson quickly follows and that is that small problems can become big ones if they are not handled correctly. Pr 17:14 says, “Starting a quarrel is like breaching a dam; so drop the matter before a dispute breaks out.” It would have been much better to listen more carefully and sympathetically to the men of Israel. If we despise their love we may later have to endure their hatred; hatred because they felt rejected.
On the other hand, when each faction declared their position-–“there are more of us and we are closer to him”—neither party was actually saying you have no part in this matter. Both sides erred in thinking that the other side wanted completely exclusive access to the king. Yet it does seem strange that one group should say we have more parts, greater claim, we have ten parts, then the next day say they have no part. How quickly the crowd that shouted Hosanna changed their minds and message and shouted crucify.
David’s concubines, through no fault or choice of their own, are sentenced to imprisonment for life. This was David’s own decision and treatment of them because they had been defiled by Absalom. Verse 3 says, “When David returned to his palace in Jerusalem, he took the ten concubines he had left to take care of the palace and put them in a house under guard. He provided for them but had no sexual relations with them. They were kept in confinement till the day of their death, living as widows.” Moses had made it clear that future kings should not multiply wives, yet David had. And his son Solomon did even worse.
If we assume that David enjoyed pleasure with his concubines, those joys now became cause for grief, embarrassment and shame. If he married them for political purposes—marriage was often the seal of an international peace agreement—then it is even more sad for those concubines to have been used, then misused, then abandoned. Those that David had loved, he is now obligated to loath. He put them away out of sight to relieve Israel of the constant reminder of Absalom’s pride and sin they could become, as though villainy could be obscured by privacy and obscurity. These women may have at one time taken great pride and delight to be one of David’s lovers, but now that was changed.
2. Amasa was Appointed by David and Killed by Joab 4-10
Amasa was one of David’s nephews and had been the general and commander-in-chief of Absalom’s army. But now that Absalom’s rebellion had been put down, it seemed wise to David to try to unite the country by making Amasa commander in Joab’s place. When Sheba rebelled, David followed through on the appointment he had made earlier when he contacted Judah about bringing him back to Jerusalem. II Sam 19:13 says, “And say to Amasa, ‘Are you not my own flesh and blood? May God deal with me, be it ever so severely, if you are not the commander of my army for life in place of Joab.’” But Joab’s envy stood in the way of Amasa’s military career advancement. We witness here Amasa’s fall just as he began to rise.
David told Amasa to raise forces to suppress Sheba’s rebellion, and is given a three-day time limit. Verse 4 says, “Then the king said to Amasa, ‘Summon the men of Judah to come to me within three days, and be here yourself.’” However, apparently, the men of Judah were not as eager to fight for David as they were to attend his welcome-home celebration. We do not know the details, but we do know that it took Amasa more time to raise this army than had been allotted. Though eager to attend the king’s triumphs, they hesitated enough to fight his battles. Otherwise they might have quickly eradicated Sheba’s dream by dismantling his army. Some love a commitment or a religion that is easy over ones that are difficult. So Amasa was unable to gather an army in the three days David had given him. This in spite of the fact that Amasa had recently led Absalom’s forces. Perhaps it was because that project failed so completely that they were all the more hesitant to try it, and him, again. Verse 5 says, “But when Amasa went to summon Judah, he took longer than the time the king had set for him.” So the problem of Sheba’s rebellion became greater.
Because of Amasa’s delay, David ordered Abishai, Joab’s brother, to take men and quickly pursue Sheba. We see this development in verses 6-7 which say, “David said to Abishai, ‘Now Sheba son of Bikri will do us more harm than Absalom did. Take your master’s men and pursue him, or he will find fortified cities and escape from us.’ So Joab’s men and the Kerethites and Pelethites and all the mighty warriors went out under the command of Abishai. They marched out from Jerusalem to pursue Sheba son of Bikri.”
David was in a difficult situation. Amasa was his choice for new leadership, but time was of the essence; they needed to pursue Sheba quickly. Abishai received the commission; not Joab though the text calls the men “Joab’s men.” Joab, uninvited, evidently goes along anyway though we do not know if he intended to help Abishai or kill Amasa. When did that thought enter his mind? We don’t know. Joab could not have been happy about loosing his position at the head of the army. Earthly positions easily change and Joab did not like this one. Only those who serve in God’s army have job security; our Commander-in-chief does not change his mind about our appointments in His service.
Joab met Amasa near Gibeon and promptly deceived and murdered him. Verses 8-10 say, “While they were at the great rock in Gibeon, Amasa came to meet them. Joab was wearing his military tunic, and strapped over it at his waist was a belt with a dagger in its sheath. As he stepped forward, it dropped out of its sheath. Joab said to Amasa, ‘How are you, my brother?’ Then Joab took Amasa by the beard with his right hand to kiss him. Amasa was not on his guard against the dagger in Joab’s hand, and Joab plunged it into his belly, and his intestines spilled out on the ground. Without being stabbed again, Amasa died. Then Joab and his brother Abishai pursued Sheba son of Bikri.”
Amasa had with him his newly raised troops, Abishai had with him the troops that Joab had led and Joab, probably consumed by anger and jealousy, was there without position or authority. Just as he had when he killed Abner, Joab pretended to be friendly causing his rival to be off-guard. Amasa and Abishai both had been commissioned by David. Joab put his coat around himself and placed the belt with a dagger in it around his coat. Maybe, because the dagger was smaller than the sword that belonged in that sheath, it fell out. Pretending to greet Amasa with a kiss—which was the custom of that time—he got near Amasa and stabbed him to death. This was premeditated murder. He called him “brother” but the envy, jealousy and rivalry that filled Joab’s heart had no thought of brotherhood. Taking Amasa’s beard in his hand he aimed to kiss him, but simultaneously aimed the dagger in his hand toward his abdomen to kill him. Like a gentleman, a soldier, a general? No. Rather like a villain and a coward. They were generals each more noble than himself. How did this happen? The first time we may excuse David, but the second murder of a second worthy general we must lay the blame at the feet of both David and Joab. Why?
When people do wrong we must also consider their training and their trainer. Who should have disciplined the guilty person? He killed Abner this way and so he did it again. This was done in plain sight, publicly, at the head of the troops, Joab was neither ashamed or hesitant. This man was so hardened by his military career that without a blush or hesitation he killed a noble faithful general with one stroke; one fatal push. In contempt and defiance of David’s commission of Amasa, Joab killed him, not for a sin or failure, but simply and only because Joab was jealous and hateful. As though to say, ‘Joab will be general regardless of whom you appoint, I will impose my will on you and all Israel. I will be the general.’
Often rivals will unite when they face a common enemy, but not this time. This could have brought, yes, almost brought division to the army—because until Amasa’s body was pulled aside and covered, the troops stoped at that spot. Joab was willing to sacrifice the success of the army, the king and the kingdom just so he could have the position he wanted. Joab had recently rebuked David and brought unity to the troops at Mahanaim, but now his evil negates all the good he did on that day. Joab was very small in character, indeed. There was no other reason for this than his jealousy.
3. Amasa’s Body was Removed and Joab Pursued Sheba 11-13
’If David will not commission me, I will commission myself.’ Joab immediately resumed his general’s place, and proceeded to lead the army in pursuit of Sheba. Maybe he thought a military success could cover over a moral failure, but he was wrong. Verse 11 says, “One of Joab’s men stood beside Amasa and said, ‘Whoever favors Joab, and whoever is for David, let him follow Joab!’” This was apparently the way Joab intended to assume command. He posted a man to declare those who are for David, let him follow Joab. Meanwhile, out of respect for Amasa many stopped right there. Verses 12-14 say, “Amasa lay wallowing in his blood in the middle of the road, and the man saw that all the troops came to a halt there. When he realized that everyone who came up to Amasa stopped, he dragged him from the road into a field and threw a garment over him. After Amasa had been removed from the road, everyone went on with Joab to pursue Sheba son of Bikri.” Joab possibly knew that his troops considered Amasa a traitor for having followed Absalom and that they would follow himself if they had a chance. He gave them that chance.
What man of Judah would not support his old king and general? On the other hand, how could a murderer pursue a traitor? When he saw the men hesitate to proceed, he removed the body and covered it. Removing the body from the road and covering it with a garment is easy; it is not so easy to remove a sin and cover it. Wicked men may think themselves safe in their wickedness if they can conceal it, but they are wrong. Covering the body can stop the eye of man, but it cannot blind God’s eye; nor can it silence the blood from crying out for justice.
What might David think when the news reached him of Joab’s deed? Perhaps he regretted that he had not fired Joab years ago when he killed Abner. Perhaps he was conscience struck for having used the sword of the Ammonites to kill Uriah when it seemed in his own interest to kill a fellow Israelite. Now Joab had murdered the second fine Israelite leader. Perhaps he regretted having appointed Amasa to such a dangerous position; not dangerous because the enemy may kill the general, but dangerous because Amasa’s predecessor, Joab, might kill him as he had done before.
It was wise to remove the body and prudent to pursue the war so we will leave those activities as they are under our favorable glance. But the bigger question for you and me to contemplate as we read this account and consider the behavior of the actors is to address the huge question that this story raises. Who is guilty when correction is not given? Who is guilty when sin, error, misbehavior and many other kinds of other evils occur that could and should have been avoided but were not because of lack of discipline?
Who is to blame? The parent? The boss? The senior pastor? The bishop? David is partly to blame for Amnon’s adultery, Absalom’s continued pride and repeated failures, Joab’s multiple murders and Adonijah’s ambition. When a child, an employee, an under-shepherd is properly trained and disciplined in a consistent and fair way, their success is their own and also partly due to the attention of the one who was responsible for the training and discipline of that person.
Joab did a horrible thing, but it would not have even been possible had David disciplined or demoted him long before this incident. It is a wonderful privilege to oversee someone’s career or spiritual development. Correcting them lovingly is a responsibility that accompanies that honor. On the other hand, when the responsible person does not give the needed reproof, correction or discipline he or she before God bears a certain liability.