As we saw, in addressing himself to the task of establishing his throne in all Israel, David took no recourse to violence in dealing with his brethren. For he made God his expectation as he had been doing all along. Accordingly, the means which he employed in gathering them under his wing was a benediction invoked over the men of Jabesh and over his brethren in the north country.
But, as was stated, David’s overture of peace to his brethren in the north was ill-received. It was ill-received by Abner, the son of Ner, captain of Saul’s routed and dispersed host that with Abner and Ishbosheth had fled over the Jordan to escape the sword of the Philistines. Taking Ishbosheth, he brought him over to Nahanaim and made him king over all the tribes with the exception of Judah. This tribe had anointed David king and was following him.
Ishbosheth reigned but two years when he was slain by two of his servants—. The time that David was king in Hebron over the house of Judah was seven years and six months— Ishbosheth’s assassination preceded the expiration of David’s seven and a half years reign in Hebron. There is then, this question: In which two of these seven and a half years did Ishbosheth’s reign fall. The narrative does not make this clear. But there are three possibilities to be considered.
- If Ishbosheth’s elevation to the throne and David’s anointment as king of Judah took place at the same time ( ), Ishbosheth’s reign of two years ran parallel with the first two years of David’s reign in Hebron. And then David did not remove to Jerusalem until four and a half years after Ishbosheth’s death. This view raises the question why David should have waited so long a time before undertaking the capture of Jerusalem.
- If David’s capture of Jerusalem and his removal to that city took place shortly after Ishbosheth’s assassination, Ishbosheth’s reign coincided with the last two years of David’s reign in Hebron. But in this case Abner did not make Ishbosheth king until four years and a half after David’s elevation to the throne in Judah.
- Some maintain that the narrative binds us to the view that Ishbosheth was king over Israel during all the time that David reigned in Hebron. And they account for the notice that Ishbosheth reigned two years by supposing that after making him king in Mahanaim Abner only gradually extended his jurisdiction over all Israel by expelling the Philistines from the rest of Canaan. This conquering process must have taken five and a half years, so that Ishbosheth reigned over all Israel only two of his years as king. This, it is said, accounts for the statement that he reigned two years. As was pointed out, the weakness here is that the narrative makes no mention of wars with the Philistines carried out by Abner. The sequel reveals that the Philistines were subdued by David after his removal to Jerusalem.
Perhaps it is best to suppose that for reasons not revealed David did allow some five and a half years to go by after the assassination of Ishbosheth before undertaking the capture of Jerusalem. If this supposition is correct, Ishbosheth was made king shortly after the commencement of David’s reign in Hebron and in this case Ishbosheth’s brief reign ran parallel with the first two years of David’s reign in that city.
The narrative continues, “And Abner the son of Ner, and the servants of Ishbosheth the son of Saul, went out from Mahanaim to Gibeon.” Mahanaim, as was explained, was situated in Gilead east of the Jordan. Here Abner had established Ishbosheth as king. From Mahanaim Abner advanced with an army to Gibeon in the western part of Benjamin about forty miles northeast of Hebron, where dwelt David as king of Judah. The sequel of the narrative leaves no doubt that Abner’s purpose was warlike. He wanted to begin the conflict against David in order to subject Judah also to Ishbosheth. Doubtless his plan was to march southward from Gibeon on Hebron to attack David. This exonerated David. At no time and in no way had he planned to begin hostilities against Ishbosheth. He was forced into the war by Ishbosheth through Abner.
Abner’s whole doing raises a question concerning him. What kind of man was he in a spiritual-moral point of view? Is he to be numbered among the saints? or must he be classified with the unprincipled, godless men in Israel? What did David think of him? The question is pertinent in view of David’s reaction to Abner’s assassination by Joab. That was a foul deed. It was unadulterated murder. David did all he could to convince the people that he had no part in that crime and that all the guilt rested on Joab. He made a statement to that effect. He cursed Joab and his house. He commanded Joab and all the people to rend their clothes and gird them with sack cloth and mourn after Abner. He followed Abner’s bier and wept at his grave. And when the people came to cause him to eat meat while it was yet day, he binded himself by an oath to taste no bread or ought else till the sun be down, and he lamented over Abner and said, “Died Abner as a fool dieth? Thy hands were not bound, nor thy feet put into fetters: as a man falleth before wicked men so fellest thou.” And unto his servant he said, “Know ye not that there is a prince and a great man fallen this day in Israel?”
Did David here mean to bewail the fall of a man of true goodness? It would seem so, judging from the language of the lamentation. Especially significant is the lament, “Died Abner as a fool dieth,” and the question put to the servants, “Know ye not that there is a prince and a great man fallen in Israel?” Yet all that it may mean is that Abner was a mighty man of valor like Saul before his rejection. Also Saul’s fall drew forth from David the lament, “How are the mighty fallen!” Of Jonathan he said, “The lovely and the pleasant.” But he said this not of Saul.
But are we not driven to the conclusion that Abner was a godless rebel by his initial opposition to David? Already as general in Saul’s army he was always cooperating with his master in the attempt to capture David that he might be put to death. And when Saul was dead, he made Ishbosheth king over all Israel and, as we have just seen, took active steps to subject also Judah to his new master. Is not Abner in all these doings revealed as a godless upstart? Not necessarily. In passing judgment on the man and his doings the following must be taken into consideration. Saul in addition to being privately anointed by Samuel had been publicly chosen by lot at Mizpah. After the election Samuel, pointing to Saul who stood among the people higher than any of them from his shoulders and upward, said to the people, “See ye him whom the Lord has chosen.” David’s private anointing had not been followed by public election by lot in the presence of the tribes. And nowhere do we read of the seer making a public statement to the effect that the Lord had appointed David to rule in Saul’s stead.
No statement of the kind was ever made by the seer. Neither he nor the Lord wanted the people to know. This is plain. First, in communicating to Saul his sentence of rejection, the Lord refrained from naming the neighbor to whom he had given the kingdom. These were Samuel’s words, “The Lord hath rent the kingdom of Israel from thee this day, and hath given it to a neighbor of thine better than thou.” Second, having provided Him a king among Jesse’s sons, the Lord instructed the seer to go to Bethlehem that David might be anointed. But the seer was persuaded that, hearing of it, Saul would kill him. Saul would do just that. Accordingly, the Lord ordered His servant to shroud his mission in secrecy by taking a heifer and by saying to the Bethlehemites including Jesse and his sons, that he came to sacrifice to the Lord. Doubtless Jesse was the only one who witnessed the anointing. True, the statement does occur that “Samuel took a horn and anointed him in the midst of his brethren.” However, the expression in the midst of is not equivalent to in the presence of.
But though David’s private anointing was not followed by a public election by lot, though Samuel gave no publicity to the transaction in Bethlehem and to Saul’s previous rejection, it soon became plain to all who had eyes to see and hearts to understand that Saul was rejected of God and that the Lord had chosen David for the royal authority. The evidence was there right before the people’s eyes. The Spirit of God departed from Saul, ceased to qualify him for rule and theocratic warfare. An evil spirit of God troubled him and the result was that he lived out his days persecuting David; and he finally died a suicide in a war with the Philistines in which his whole army was routed and dispersed. As to David, having in private appointed him to the kingship, the Lord also immediately anointed him with His Spirit; the Lord raised him up by His Sprit. He endowed him with great courage by stirring up the gift of living faith that was in him. The Lord’s work in David soon bore the astonishing fruit of his slaying the Philistine Goliath. God’s work in David continued to bear fruit. While the decapitated, troubled and impenitent Saul sat in his house, hardening his heart, nursing his imaginary grievances, and devising always new ways and means for capturing David, whom he falsely accused of wanting to hurl him from his throne David as captain in Saul’s army was fighting Philistines with remarkable success. For the Lord worked for him. Later, to escape Saul’s wrath he fled to the wildernesses of Judah where with his band of four hundred he was a wall of defense to the shepherds of his fellow tribesmen who pastured their flocks in those regions. In this period he rescued Keilah against whom the Philistines were fighting and whose threshing floors they were robbing. His last great deed of valor prior to Saul’s suicide was his routing the Amalekite hordes who were plundering southern Judah.
What remarkable evidence that the Lord had chosen David and had rejected Saul! Who could do those works except the Lord be with him? Seeing, Jonathan believed. Renouncing his claims to Saul’s throne, he embraced David as his lord. Seeing, Abigail believed. For, in her own words, “My lord fighteth the battles of the Lord, and evil hath not been found in thee all thy days.” When Saul was dead, the belief that David must reign was general among David’s own tribesmen, Coming to Hebron, they anointed him king.
As appears from the sequel, the belief that David must reign was general among the other tribes. But Abner did not believe. Contrary to his better convictions, certainly, he clave to the house of Saul and made Ishbosheth king, using as his argument it must be that Saul and not David was chosen king by lot and that therefore the report of Saul’s rejection and of David’s anointing in Bethlehem must be a rumor without any basis in fact. His making Ishbosheth king was a high-handed act. It was his doing and not the people’s. Their wishes were ignored.
It must be assumed that at the time of Saul’s death and even before that time it was generally known that Saul had been rejected of God and that David had been anointed in Bethlehem. For Samuel would not fail to fully inform all those who came to him to hear the word of God. Abigail spake of the Lord’s doing to David in the near future according to all the good that he spake unto him, such as establishing him on the throne and building him a sure house. From where her knowledge of the things of God, if not directly or indirectly from Samuel? David’s success in arms in his wars with the heathen together with his integrity only and fully confirmed what she had heard of him.
Abner in his unbelief preindicated the unbelieving Jews of Christ’s day. No man had witnessed Christ’s anointing, His appointment to the office of Mediator of God’s covenant. For it was an event of eternity; it had taken place in the sacred counsels of the Most High. Yet, how evident from His works that He came from God. But the Jews were unbelieving. Accordingly they demanded signs and more signs of His sending. “By what authority doest thou these things”, they demanded to know over and over. And in their unbelief they ended with affixing Him to a cross.
Yet, however sinful, Abner’s opposition to David could not be held against him as a crime, as rebellion against duly instituted theocratic authority. No prophet of God in God’s name had publicly pronounced David king and commanded the nation to subject itself to his rule. David was not chosen by lot in the presence of the people. The tribe of Judah anointed him king but his authority still had to be established in the other tribes. Abner therefore was not a seditionist as was Absalom. He committed no treason in opposing David. If such had been his offence, David would have done wrong in covenanting with him; he would have been obliged to put him to death. In a word, Abner’s opposition to David was not immoral in the sense of its being criminal; but it was thoroughly unspiritual, yet essentially not more unspiritual than Isaac’s opposition to Jacob in the latter’s capacity of God-ordained heir to the covenant promise. Eating of Esau’s venison, Isaac loved Esau and would have bestowed upon him the blessing had the Lord through Jacob’s fraud not intervened. In opposing Jacob Isaac was opposing Christ, and likewise Abner in his opposition to David. For to David God had sworn truth. Yet in spite of his previous opposition to David, Abner might still be a true believer. The sole question is whether he truly repented.
As the narrative in the sequel reveals, the evidence that David was chosen of God to rule over His people continued to accumulate before Abner’s eyes. Hearing of the arrival in Gibeon of Ishbosheth’s army under Abner, David, having anticipated the attack and being therefore fully prepared, opposed a forceunder Joab. (Joab is here introduced for the first time. He was the son of David’s sister Zeruiah,—. Among the members of David’s band he, no doubt, had ranked high as a warrior and leader of men. Else he would not now appear as the leader of David’s forces). Going forth, Joab and his band met the hostile advancing company at the pool of Gibeon, where the two armies encamped opposite one another. Abner proposed to Joab that “the young men now arise, and play before us.” This was agreeable to Joab. What was contemplated was not a game of arms for entertainment but a serious battle-play, a combat to the death between a few warriors put up by both sides in order that the contest might be decided without war on a large scale. So there arose and went over to some intermediate point twelve of each side. Rushing upon one another they seized every man his fellow by the head and thrust his sword in his opponent’s side. It was a duel between individual warriors in which each two combatants fell together. “Wherefore that place was called helkath hazzurim, meaning, the field of the strong.” Others translate, “The field of knives or edges”.
As the single and bitter conflict had proved undecisive, there was a general and fierce battle between the two armies, which issued in the defeat and flight of Abner. In the language of the text, “And there was a very sore battle that day: and Abner was beaten, and the men of Israel, before the servants of David.” It was so much more evidence that David was the anointed of God and must reign over all Israel.
The scene that follows is one of pursuit in which the three nephews of David—Joab, and Abishai, and Asahel—are especially conspicuous. They were brothers, for the text describes them as sons of Zeruiah. Asahel was light of foot and is therefore compared to a roe. He pursued after Abner as purposed to slay him. He must have reasoned that opposition to David would die with Abner, he being the soul of it. Asahel pursued after Abner with remarkable singleness of purpose. “In going he turned not to the right hand nor to the left from following Abner.” Warned, no doubt, that he was being followed, Abner looked behind him and saw that he had almost been overtaken by one whom he recognized as Asahel. He put to him the question, “Art thou Asahel?” Asahel returned answer, “I am,” and in grim silence continued his pursuit. Abner tried to dissuade him, “Turn thee aside to thy right hand or to thy left, and lay thee hold on one of the young men, and take, thee his armour,” were his words to his pursuer. “Take his armour,” that is, after slaying him. The address was based, perhaps, on the supposition that Asahel was only anxious for the glory of making a prisoner. But Asahel was determined. Abner was just as determined to avoid, if possible, entering with Asahel into personal combat. For no doubt Asahel was unarmed with helmet and coat of mail. Besides, he was but a stripling as compared with Abner who was an experienced and seasoned warrior, and who must have been fully armed. Such a combat must needs issue in Asahel’s defeat and death. But Abner did not want to kill him. So he said again to him, “Turn thee aside from following me; wherefore should I smite thee to the ground? how then should I hold up my face to Joab thy brother?” He did not want to make an enemy of Joab with whom he stood in friendly relation. Asahel, however, would not desist from pressing on Abner. Compelled to defend himself, Abner smote him, not with the front part of the spear but with the hinder part in the abdomen so that it came out behind in his back, and he fell dead on the spot. Asahel being David’s nephew and brother to Joab, the death of the young hero caused a shock among all the people and besides a mourning among the servants of David. This is indicated by the phrase, “And it came to pass that as many as came to the place where Asahel fell down and died stood still.”
By the death of Asahel new fuel had been added to the fires of zeal that burned in the bosoms of David’s servants. It provided the pursuit with an additional motive—that of revenge. So the chase was continued with all the more violence. Joab and Abishai followed Abner until the setting of the sun, when they came to the hill of Ammah, where’ “the pursuit ended. The precise description of the locality of the hill testifies to the genuineness of the narrative. The text states that it lied before Giah by the way of the wilderness of Gibeon. This wilderness lay east of Gibeon in the tribe of Benjamin. As is indicated by the narrative throughout, the children of Benjamin took a prominent position among the followers of Ishbosheth. As the nearest tribesmen they were most interested for his kingdom. It was therefore the children of Benjamin who now gathered themselves together from the scattering that had resulted from their defeat and flight into one body after Abner on the hill, their purpose being the protection of Abner and themselves. But the defeated and harassed Abner has had enough of the conflict. He wanted it stopped. So he “called to Joab and said, Shall the sword devour ever?” Then he asked, “Knowest thou not that it will be bitterness. in the latter end?” The shame and tragedy of God’s covenant people who ought to cherish the kindest regard for one another destroying themselves by internal conflict and thereby playing into the hands of the adversary who even at that juncture was overrunning their land. But who had begun that unholy conflict! Abner’s third question is a demand that Joab suspend hostilities immediately. These are his words, “How long shall it be then, ere thou bid the people return from following their brethren?” Joab affirms with an oath his willingness to cease hostilities without a victory. These are his words, “As God liveth, unless thou hast spoken, surely then in the morning the people would have gone up every man from his brother.” (Such is the rendering in our English version. It agrees perfectly with the original text). There are two explanations of these words. 1. As the Lord liveth, hadst thou not spoken, that is, hadst thou not come with the proposition that the contest be decided by a duel between individual warriors, each man would have returned to his place already in the morning, we to Hebron and you to Mahanaim, and this war would not have ensued. According to this interpretation, Joab wanted Abner to understand that the blame of the war rested largely, if not exclusively, on him, and that therefore he was the one to whom he should be directing his rebukes and admonitions. It is undoubtedly true that Joab, being as he was under orders of David, would not have made the attack, had he not been provoked by Abner’s proposition. It must be assumed that David had instructed him merely to protect the territory of Judah.
Yet, it is not likely that this is the correct interpretation. It does not harmonize with Abner’s appeal, definitely with his third question, “How long shall it be then, ere thou bid the people return from after their brethren?” To which Joab replied, “Surely if hast not spoken …. the people had gone up from his brother in the morning”. The interpretation under consideration completely ignores the phrase from after their brethren and translates as if the text reads, “returned to his place”. There is also this question: How could Joab under an oath declare that the battle would not have occurred? But it did now lay in his power to put an end to the conflict in answer to Abner’s appeal.
The common interpretation is the better: 2) As God liveth, if thou hast not spoken about a truce, then surely in the morning the people would have gone up every man from his brother, that is, I did not intend to continue the battle indefinitely, but if you had not spoken, my purpose was to withdraw my troops not immediately but in the morning.
Joab kept him to his word. He blew “a trumpet, and all the people stood still, and pursued after Israel no more, neither fought they any more.” To avoid the heat of the day, Abner and his men walked all that night through the plain. Passing over Jordan, they went through all Bithron—not a city but a district—and finally came to Mahanaim. When Joab had assembled his forces for return, he held a muster in order to learn his loss. Only nineteen of David’s servants were lacking and Asahel. Doubtless the nineteen included the twelve that fell in the single conflict. Ishbosheth’s loss was much greater, “360 men dead”. Departing, Joab and his company took Asahel with them and buried him in the sepulchre of his father in Bethlehem.” They went the whole night thence and they came to Hebron at break of day.”
So did Abner come to his place, beaten, he and his army. To what is the failure of his venture to be ascribed? To this that “Joab had in his army only veteran servants of David, tried by many severe battles and privation, while Abner led into battle the remains of the army that was beaten by the Philistines at Gilboa?” The cause lies deeper. The consciences of Abner and his party were evil. They were spiritually devitalized by the awareness of the sinfulness of their way. God was against them and they knew it by His testimony in their hearts in connection with the clear and copious evidence that David was the Lord’s anointed and must reign over all Israel. Hence, they were defeated before they had set out on their ill-conceived venture.
Yet the war continued. “There was long war between the house of Saul and the house of David.” This does not mean that there were pitched battles. But it does mean that the house of Saul continued hostile. But, as had to be expected, in this war “David waxed stronger and stronger, and the house of Saul waxed weaker and weaker.” It lost prestige and consideration more and more. Its power diminished in its lack of courage and energy. Nothing was attempted against the Philistines, it must be assumed. Hence nothing was accomplished. Abner lost all interest He saw that he had championed a lost cause. The conviction became strong in him that he had set out on a wrong and forbidden course.
David’s prestige grew more and more. As appears from the text at verse 17 of chapter 3, the people in a ways increasing numbers were asking for him. They wanted him as their king.