But Abner the son of Ner, captain of Saul’s host, took Ishbosheth the son of Saul, and brought him over to Mahanaim;
And made him king over Gilead, and over the Ashurites, and over Jezreel, and over Ephraim, and over Benjamin, and over all Israel.
During the extended period of Saul’s spiritual disintegration, he had gradually gathered about him a group of wicked and ruthless men. In fact there had always, been such about Saul, such as Doeg the Edomite, for Saul had never been one to reject a man just for his lack of spiritual concern. It was, however, after David had been driven from the palace that the power and influence of these men began to mount. Those who were spiritual children of God within the palace could no longer endure the hatred and wickedness of Saul and either defected to David or returned to their own homes. Even Jonathan, Saul’s oldest son and the heir apparent to the throne, began to fall more and more into the background. Valiant soldier that he was, he would not and could not be trusted to take part in the campaigns against David, so that the only time he came to stand beside his father was when they went forth to fight with the heathen nations about them. Those who rose in Saul’s esteem were those of ruthless nature who were perfectly willing to set themselves against David just as they did against any other enemy. Moreover, as time went on, there was one especially that rose to preeminence: that was Saul’s own cousin Abner. His character was much the same as Saul’s except that he was much less emotional and much more cunning in his ways. It was exactly as Jonathan fell more and more into the background that he stepped in to take his place until gradually he attained to the position as captain of the whole army of Israel. It was a position to which he was well adapted and of which he was ready to take full advantage. In fact, after the deaths of Saul and his two sons in the battle of Gilboah, he was left the only man in Israel with the power and ability to act.
Being the man that he was, Abner felt immediately the, need for a quick response to the results of Saul’s death. The situation was critical and the danger very real that he should soon lose all of the position and power which he had built for himself through the years. Should a vacuum of power be left in Israel for even the. shortest duration of time, David was sure to step in to fill it; that would leave him out completely. As yet there was only one thing that might hinder David in this goal—that was, the mistrust of the people because of David’s defection to the land of the Philistines. Although many could perhaps see why he had done it, they still could not look upon it as anything less than a sort of treachery; and now while Israel was still hurting so sorely from the invasion of the Philistines through the heart of their country, feelings were still running high and were sensitive. David was going to have to do some careful, political fence mending before the people would receive him wholeheartedly as king, and Abner knew that for his own good this had to be prevented.
Very cunningly, Abner knew better than to try to place himself directly in the way of David. His own claims were no stronger than David’s, and he lacked the popular appeal that David had. Instead, he took Ishbosheth, the fourth and most ineffectual son of Saul, brought him to Mahanaim on the east side of Jordan and there had him proclaimed king. Ishbosheth was exactly the kind of man he needed, or, at least, so it appeared to Abner at the moment. He was a weak and incompetent man to the point that he was incapable of taking care of himself, much less to rule over a nation. It meant that he would be completely dependent upon Abner—a figurehead, while Abner did the actual ruling. And, for a time at least, Abner’s conniving did work. Ishbosheth was accepted as the successor of Saul by all except the tribe of Judah, and he was able to do what he wanted through him.
In this all,—moreover, Abner held one great advantage, the unwillingness of David to fight against his fellow Israelites, and thus his unwillingness to do anything that would interfere with the maneuverings of Abner. From his very first awareness that he was appointed by God to be the ruler of Israel, David had been very determined that he was not going to try to take the throne by his own power; it would have to be given him by God. For this he Chad waited all of these years, and for this he was going to continue to wait still. They had received him willingly as king in Hebron, and he was willing to reign there too; but, if as yet the rest of Israel was not ready to receive him to be their ruler, he would wait until they were. It was this that more than anything else left Abner free to do as he chose.
Nevertheless, it was not as though Abner’s way was now easy. The fact of the matter was that, although Ishbosheth was in name the king of Israel, there was very little of a kingdom over which he actually ruled. The Philistines in the battle of Gilboa had won a devastating victory. They had not only invaded but had actually taken over the heart of the nation of Israel from their own border to the river Jordan. Together with the land of Judah over which David ruled, it left him very little indeed besides the comparatively poor east bank of the river. For Abner it meant that, if all of his efforts were to come to anything, he was left with no choice but to drive the Philistines back out of the territory that they had taken.
It was a hard and difficult task. The forces of the Philistines were strong and deeply entrenched while the army of Abner had been broken. But the land belonged to Israel and the inhabitants were with them. Slowly mile by mile and town by town, they did manage to push the Philistines back until finally, after five and one half years, it could be said that Ishbosheth was king not just in name but over all of Israel. For Abner it was the first step in his overall plan. Next he would have to dispose of David; after that he could do away with Ishbosheth and then he would have the throne of Israel for his own.
Even for Abner, however, it was not an easy thing to try to bring force against another part of the nation of Israel. Perhaps it was the memory of the massacre of Benjamin that left too much of an impression upon the nation; but whatever it was, it was not an easy thing to obtain the cooperation of an Israelite against his own brethren. Thus almost two years passed by in which Abner tried to obtain for himself some decisive advantage; but all that took place was a number of minor skirmishes of which only one reached very large proportions.
It appears as though this particular incident was fairly early in the reign of David, at least it was prior to the two year period when Ishbosheth reigned over all Israel. Nevertheless, it was also after Abner had restored a great part of the western bank of the Jordan to his power, for the incident took place in Gibeon, just north of the city of Jerusalem. Abner had come from Mahanaim across the river with the expressed purpose of doing what he could to make inroads in the land of Judah. He had not traveled far within Judah’s border, however, before Joab was there with David’s, army to meet them. It was a tense time for those two armies as each was within itself between the desire to fight and the fear of going against their own brethren. How long this stand off continued we do not know, but the end result seems to have been that Abner and’ Joab went down together to the pool of Gibeon which stood between the two armies to talk over the situation.
The plan which they finally hit upon was one quite commonly used in that day. To us it might appear as a rather strange plan, and in fact it was workable only because of the psychology of battle that prevailed in that day. To them a war between nations was not a matter of months and years; their confidence and hopes were pinned upon the outcome of one decisive battle. Even more, that one battle was not expected to be extended, but everything was considered to be determined by the outcome of the first conflict. As soon after a battle started as it became evident which side was winning, the losers would turn in flight and the winners would pursue to kill as many as possible and to loot the fallen. Thus it was that at times, through an interplay which we find hard to understand, it was thought that, rather than expose the whole of two armies to the dangers of the original conflict, this original confrontation was confined to a small representative group from each side. This is the way it had happened with David and Goliath, and once the original conflict was decided eat h group reacted as was expected, much to the advantage at least of, the winning side. So Abner and Joab decided, too, to limit the original conflict to, a representative group of twelve from each army. This time, though, it did not work out that well. So evenly matched were these two groups of choice soldiers that, when the dust had cleared from their conflict, all twenty four of them were dead. Nevertheless, it was enough to stir up both armies to action, and, forgetting their inhibitions, they closed in upon each other. Soon, however, it became apparent that the Lord was with the army of David, so that Abner’s army turned to flee.
But that was not the end of the important events of the day, for the very flight itself had a strange aftereffect that would have deep results in the future. It so happened that one of the participants in the battle was Joab’s younger brother, Asahel. Perhaps, it was his first battle, with the result that he was excited to an enthusiasm that approached folly. As the army of Israel turned to flight, he set his eye upon Abner and determined that he was going to obtain the real victory, for his people by pursuing Israel’s captain to the end. Being young and not inexperienced in running, it was not difficult for him to stay close behind the fleeing captain. But neither, for that matter, did Abner try particularly to escape him. He was a hardened fighter while this was evidently little more than a child. Even more than this, looking upon him, he thought he recognized his features, so that he asked in a not unfriendly manner, “Art thou Asahel?” And when the answer was affirmative, he gave him some kind advice, “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.” What he was saying in effect was that, if Asahel wished a trophy for his first battle, it were wiser for him to take it from someone of his own age and experience rather than to set his goals upon as seasoned a soldier as he. But Asahel was determined and Abner’s condescension only made him more so.
Perplexed and irritated, Abner turned to him again and tried to reason, “Turn thee aside from following me:” he said, “Wherefore should I smite thee to the ground? how then should I hold up my face to Joab thy brother?” But Asahel would not listen until finally, more in irritation than in anger, Abner took the blunt end of his spear to push the boy away with it. But Abner was strong and the spear not carefully directed. It struck Asahel in the soft of his abdomen piercing him through completely so that he died.
Hearing of what had happened, Joab and his older brother, Abishai, took up the pursuit in hot anger until evening stopped them at the foot of a hill at Ammah upon which Abner and a great company of his men had taken up camp for the evening. Even here, though, the cunning of Abner did not depart him. In the night he sent a message to Joab with exactly the right appeal. He said, “Shall the sword devour for ever? knowest thou not that it will be bitterness in the latter end? how long shall it be then, ere thou bid the people return from following their brethren?”
Here was an appeal that a true Israelite could not reject, an appeal for mercy upon the members of his own nation. Not as though Joab did not understand the duplicity of Abner. Bitterly he replied, “As God liveth, unless thou hadst spoken (that is, if you had not challenged us) surely then in the morning the people had gone up every one from following his brother.” It had’ been Abner who had started the whole conflict in the first place. But still the appeal was there and. had to be heeded. Lifting his trumpet to his lips Joab called back the pursuing forces leaving Abner to return to his plots and plans in Israel.