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In this chapter, we have assassination, intrigue, execution, dismemberment, and so on. Let us see what we can do to make an edifying sermon out of it. The fact that we might even think there could be trouble with it is testimony to how we have reinterpreted what it means to be “spiritual.”
“And when Saul’s son heard that Abner was dead in Hebron, his hands were feeble, and all the Israelites were troubled . . .” (2 Sam. 4:1-12).
Summary of the Text
When news of Abner’s death came to Ish-bosheth, his hands became feeble. We would say he lost his grip (v. 1). There were two brothers, captains of raiding parties, named Baanah and Rechab, who were naturalized Benjaminites (vv. 2-3). We are then introduced to Mephibosheth, Jonathan’s son. He was twelve at this point, and being lame, it is made plain that he was not a contender for the throne (v. 4). These two brothers came to the house of Ish-bosheth during the heat of the day, stabbed him, beheaded him, and then got away (vv. 5-7). They brought Ish-bosheth’s head to David, and proclaimed it as the vengeance of God (v. 8). David answered the two with an oath (“as the Lord liveth”), and appealed to God as the one who had delivered him from all adversity (v. 9). He pointed to what had happened to the Amalekite who had lied about killing Saul, thinking to ingratiate himself with David (v. 10). How much more would he execute men who had killed a righteous man in his own bed (v. 11)? So he gave the order, and the two assassins were executed. Their hands and feet were cut off for display (v. 12), and Ish-bosheth’s head was buried in Abner’s tomb.
There is one manuscript issue here to note – the Septuagint mentions a woman at the doorway of Ish-bosheth’s house, who had fallen asleep. In the Hebrew text, there is something of an ambiguity at that point.
Both Saul and his son died as the result of a wound to the belly, and both were beheaded (1 Sam. 31:4,9; 2 Sam. 4:6-7). David receives the report of their respective deaths in a similar way, by executing the messengers, messengers who were expecting a reward. The executions are carried out by David’s “young men” (2 Sam. 1:15; 2 Sa. 4:12). David himself notes some of the parallels.
Ish-bosheth and Abner die in similar ways too. They both die from stabbing, both as the result of deception, and brothers were the perpetrators (2 Sam 3:30; 2 Sam. 4:2).
The deaths of Saul, Abner, and Ish-bosheth all have eerie similarities. The narrative flows straight past all three. David wreaks immediate and hard vengeance for the first and third one, and this means his failure to do anything about Joab stands out in high relief. What is different in this picture?
David’s failure to deal rigorously with Joab is book-ended with two incidents that show David doing just the opposite. This failure will haunt David in years to come.
Vengeance that Wasn’t, Vengeance that Was
At the same time, David does what is right in this instance. Baanah and Rechab took what they claimed was vengeance. They were saying, in effect, that they were the hand of God on Ish-bosheth, and that what they did to him was a just recompense for harm done to David. But David refers to Ish-bosheth as a righteous man—this is a fallen world, and there will be times when there are noble men on the opposite side. So these two assassins claimed to be bringers of vengeance . . . but they were not.
On the other hand, what David did to them was true vengeance. He was the anointed king of all Israel, and he made a determination to deal righteously with the murderers of a righteous man—who condemned themselves with their own confession, and by the fact that they had Ish-bosheth’s head with them.
Vengeance is the Lord’s
The Bible does not teach that vengeance is bad, but rather that vengeance is the Lord’s. There are many Christians who misunderstand this, in two different directions. Some think that vengeance is good, and that anybody can execute it. Some think that it is necessarily bad, and that no one can, including God.
The first problem is why God gave Israel the lex talionis, eye for eye, and tooth for tooth. The magistrate was to enforce strict justice so that the people would not be tempted into vigilantism. Without strict justice from the magistrate, it soon becomes a life for an eye, a life for a tooth.
The second problem is why pacifism will ultimately result in universalism. The unfortunate thing about this perspective is that it collides, quite heavily, with what the Bible actually teaches.
The Bible teaches that vengeance is good, and righteous, and holy, and that it belongs to God, and to those that He grants it to. This is why the souls of martyrs, slain for their testimony, can cry out from under the altar of God in Heaven . . . for vengeance (Rev. 6:9-10). There is no holier place than that, and so this is no unholy prayer.
Look again at the transition between Romans 12 and Romans 13. The tail end of Romans 12 sounds very much like the Sermon on the Mount (Rom. 12: 14-21), and the spirit is very much like what some of our more pacifistic brethren might like. Peace out, man.
God is the one who takes wrath and vengeance, and it turns out that He does not just do this in some distant eschatological future. He does it when somebody calls the cops. The magistrate is God’s agent of wrath. The “cops” in this instance were part of the pagan Roman state, what John the apostle identified as the great beast in the book of Revelation. So our approach here is not simplistic, or perfectionistic.
Again, Read the Story
Read the story you are in, and try to do it better than Baanah and Rechab did. They appointed themselves as the hand of God, declared and executed a judgment in His name, went to David full of confidence—despite what David had already done to the Amalekite—and were brought up short. When we read our stories wrong, we are not usually killed or dismembered as they were, but this is given as a warning for us. It is not given so that we might disclaim any resemblance.