The affairs of state are flowing in David’s direction but, as any leader can tell you, there’s always something. As soon as the division between Saul and David is healed, the division between David and Joab appears.
“Now there was long war between the house of Saul and the house of David: but David waxed stronger and stronger, and the house of Saul waxed weaker and weaker . . .” (2 Sam. 3:1-39).
Summary of the Text
In the extended civil war between the house of Saul and the house of David, things went badly for Saul (v. 1). In the next verses, we are given the names of the six sons born to David in Hebron (vv. 2-5). At the same time David was growing stronger in all Israel, Abner was growing stronger in the house of Saul (v. 6). Ish-bosheth made the bad move of accusing Abner of taking Rizpah, a concubine of Saul, for himself (v. 7). This was the last straw for Abner (v. 8), who then swears to give the whole kingdom to David (vv. 9-11).
Abner is true to his word (v. 12), and yet David is ready for him with a demand for Michal (v. 13). David then makes the demand of Ish-bosheth, whose compliance reveals him as a spent force (v. 14-16). Abner then meets with the elders of Israel and persuades them to give their allegiance to David (vv. 17-18). The tribe of Benjamin was obviously a special case (v. 19), which Abner has to give additional attention to. So Abner comes to Hebron with 20 men, and is received with a feast (v. 20). The deal is closed (v. 21).
Joab comes in from the field, and Abner was gone (v. 22). He finds out what had happened, and registers a strong protest with David (vv. 23-25). Without David’s knowledge, Joab then sent messengers after Abner (v. 26), and when he returned, he stabbed him in the city gate (v. 27). When David heard about it, he disclaims all responsibility and curses the house of Joab (vv. 28-30). David forces Joab to lament the death of Abner (v. 31). David mourned the loss of Abner, and composed an elegy for him (vv. 32-34). He mourned in a high profile way (v. 35). The people were pleased with David’s response and knew he had not had Abner killed (v. 36-37). And David praises Abner again, confesses his own weakness, and the hardness of his nephews (vv. 38-39).
Too Many Princes
We have yet another biblical sampling here of what a bad idea polygamy is. With multiple woman, a man is easily able to beget more children than he can be a father to. Some men are even able to do that with one woman. Amnon, the first born, later raped his half-sister, Tamar. For that, her full brother took his revenge (2 Sam. 13:28-29). Absalom is the grandson of a king, and a Gentile king at that. Chileab, with a name that combines Caleb and Abigail (also called Daniel, see 1 Chron. 3:1), is not heard from, perhaps because he was given the estate of Nabal, and perhaps because he had such a shrewd mother. Adonijah made an ill-fated play for the throne when David was on his death-bed, and was later killed by Solomon (1 Kings 1:5-53). Shephatiah and Ithream were not major players, and other sons are born later in Jerusalem (2 Sam. 5:13-16).
Conquest and Concubines
Saul was paranoid, and Ish-bosheth was a little that way himself. He accuses Abner, and Abner’s anger shows his innocence. If Abner really were making a play for the throne, there would be no sense in denying the relationship with Saul’s concubine. It should be noted that while politics and sex were both involved, the political element is foremost. A concubine was a slave wife, or a second-tier wife. At the same time, concubines were influential enough that to claim the concubine of a king was to claim the prerogatives of royalty. We see this with how David inherited Saul’s concubines (2 Sam. 12:8), with Absalom’s treatment of David’s concubines (2 Sam. 16:21-22), and with Adonijah’s request for Abishag (1 Kings 1:21-22). Ishbosheth accused Abner in a slanderous (not to mention idiotic) way.
A World Class Curse
Joab killed Abner ostensibly because Abner had killed his brother (v. 30), but don’t forget that in a united Israel, Abner would have been a formidable rival to Joab. At the same time, Joab had enough “societal cover” for his actions to make them “debatable.” But they were not debatable among righteous men—Abner had killed Asahel in honest battle, after repeatedly trying to avoid doing it. Moreover, even when it was a case of true manslaughter, a man could take refuge in one of the cities of refuge. Hebron was one such city, and Joab murdered Abner in the very gate of that city.
This means that while David could not bring a murder charge, he could identify Joab as a wicked man, which he plainly does. He does this through the curse he pronounces, and through his lament for Abner. The curse is bad enough on the surface—may every man in Joab’s house have a running discharge, or be a leper, or have to work with a spindle, or fall in battle, or have to go without bread. Note that the first two would exclude such a person from approaching the Lord in worship. He also laments that Abner fell the way he ought not to have—in the hands of the wicked (v. 34).
The Peril of Passivity
At the very moment when David is coming into his kingdom, we see some ominous signs. Through the course of his life, David’s great failures were sins of omission. He failed to deal with Joab at the beginning of his consolidation of power, and he has to charge Solomon to finish that particular business for him. He failed to go to war with the army, which provided him with the temptation to adultery with Bathsheba. And he failed to be the kind of father he needed to be, and he soon had a palace full of princes who were themselves full of a sense of entitlement.
But the Lord who was with him on the field of battle so many times could have been with him in the realm of domestic politics. The hard things close to home are often the hardest things of all. Instead of trusting God the most there, we often trust Him the least.