And the king 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 fallest thou. And all the people wept again over him.
For David the making of peace with Abner was a matter of unmitigated joy. Not only had he always had the highest regard for Abner as his own former captain under Saul, but Abner had brought to him again his first wife Michal, and there was now the promise of bringing all of Israel together under his rule without any further bloodshed or war. With all sincerity David had greeted Abner in Hebron, had feasted him and his companions with a royal feast, and had sent them again upon their way in peace. The only thing that David had failed to consider was Joab, the captain of his own army in the field.
At the time that all of these negotiations had been going on between Abner and David, Joab had indeed been out in the fields pursuing the troops of Israel’s enemies. It had been a highly successful foray, and Joab had returned with high spirits and a great amount of spoil. But then he was told about Abner. With shocked incredulity, he could hardly believe it when it was said to him, “Abner the son of Ner came to the king and he hath sent him away, and he is gone in peace.”
Joab was a man of quite different cut than was David. Although both of them were great soldiers and men of war, that was the extent of their similarities. Beyond that there was only difference.
Joab was by every measure the professional soldier, and cold, calculated logic was the strength upon which he thrived. To him everything stood out in clear contrast, white against black, good against bad, friend against enemy: there was no in between. To him life was a very simple matter of determining who the enemy was and moving against him with all of the strength that one could muster. It was the singular code of his existence, and it made him extremely effective as a warrior and a general. Once he had marked a man or a force as his enemy, he set out to destroy him or them with cool precision, unhampered by any personal feelings or reservations. Emotional hesitancy or indecision had no place in his way of thinking.
In a person of this kind, there was something that moved David to a feeling of awe and admiration, and this was true especially in Joab. It was, perhaps, because in the final analysis he could not himself always be so coolly calculated and logical, with the result that he often felt himself to be less decisive and effective. It was not, of course, that on the battlefield he could not be fully as courageous as a man like Joab and as effective a tactician. There the enemy was clearly drawn and David could not be excelled. Neither was it that, when David stood before an instance of moral wrong and wickedness, he could not be completely final and unwavering in his judgment. It was just that besides this all and through this all, he, David, always remained so completely a man, warm in all of his feelings and kind in all of his sympathies. This was true so especially when it came to his brethren after the flesh, his fellow members in their chosen nation. In their sorrows, he grieved with them; in their burdens, he longed to help them; in their weaknesses and temptations and guilts, he could not forget that he was a sinner like them. One thing in life was finally always much more compelling to David than personal conquest and victory, that was the deep spiritual desire to show in his life the spiritual virtues of kindness, love and forgiveness. To him always more important than any other consideration was the glory of his God and the welfare of God’s people. It was because of this that David was finally a much greater person and much more really a leader than a man like Joab ever could be. And yet, in the tenderness of his sympathy and understanding, David oft times found himself hesitant and indecisive. Those were the days when he found himself looking upon the cool, decisive logic of Joab with a feeling of almost jealous admiration.
This all formed the reason, therefore, that when Abner came to David offering to forget the past and work together with David in the future, David was more than willing to receive him. For him the practice of forgiveness was a very real possibility, especially when it could serve to heal that deep wound that cut through the nation of Israel without further bloodshed or battle. But when Joab heard of it, it was something quite different. To him, Abner was simply and finally the enemy, and that was all there was to it. He was the man who had fought against David and also led others to do it; for this there could be no forgive ness, only judgment. Moreover, Joab was able to see something in Abner that David was quite incapable of understanding—he saw in Abner a man cool and calculating, just like he was himself, who never did anything out of mere goodness but only because he was sure that in the end it would work out to his own advantage. And besides, Joab could not forget that Abner was the one who had killed his younger brother, Asahel. But more than anything else, Joab realized that there simply was not room for both himself and Abner in the presence of David. They were too much the same cut and fiber, men who each in his own way had to dominate. And the likelihood was that, if Abner was ever allowed to take a place in the court of David, he would press his advantage of age and of having once been David’s own commander until gradually Joab would be supplanted by him as the head of the real power of Israel, the army. It all made the whole situation intolerable. The moment Joab heard what had happened, he was aroused to a pitch of furious indignation. Plunging into the presence of the king, and without gesture of respect or introduction, he demanded, “What hast thou done? behold, Abner came unto thee; why is it that thou hast sent him away, and he is quite gone ? Thou knowest Abner the son of Ner, that he came to deceive thee, and to know thy going out and thy coming in, and to know all that thou doest.”
The approach of Joab was surely crude and rude and an inexcusable affront to the dignity of a king; but David knew his captain, he had fought often with him by his side and they had slept together in the caves of the earth. He really had not hope, nor even any real desire that Joab would ever greet him with anything but the intimacy of old friends. It only made him feel badly that Joab could never conceive of the possibility that a former enemy might repent and be received again as a friend, particularly when that person was one like Abner who had fought so long and so valiantly for the cause of Israel. Moreover, neither could he, David, consider himself entirely without guilt in the whole matter, for had not he taken his men out of the land of Israel and made friends with Israel’s most bitter enemies, the Philistines? Might it not be that this long hesitancy of Abner to recognize David as Israel’s true king was merely a reflection on the depth of this, his own offense? But this kind of thinking he knew was foreign to Joab; he would never understand. The best that David could try to do was to assure Joab things would all work out for the best in the end.
Joab, however, was not a man to be put off with such vague hopes and promises. He was a man of action; and, leaving the presence of David, he knew there was no time to be lost. Quickly he called his swiftest and most trusted messenger to hurry after Abner and call him back to Hebron.
No doubt it was an inconvenience, if not an irritation for Abner to be called such a long way back to Hebron. Nevertheless, he knew that for the success of his plans it would be necessary for him to humor, at least for the time being, this young captain of David’s army, Joab. Coming back to the city, he found not only Joab but also his brother Abishai waiting for him at the gate. If the appearance of the two young men standing together reminded him at all of that still younger brother, Asahel, whom he had been forced to dispense with at Gibeon, it was only for a passing moment. Abner was a man of greatest self-confidence, used to being in charge of every situation, and little did he realize how completely this young man Joab was of the same determination. When, therefore, Joab motioned him aside into the privacy of the shadows beside the gate, he had no hesitancy in going. Thus it was that there in the shadows, Joab drew his sword, thrust out, and Abner lay dead beside him.
The shock with which the news of what had happened came to David was almost unbelievable. Here when at long last it seemed that the whole of Israel was going to be brought smoothly and without trouble under his dominion, the whole thing came crashing down about him. Abner, after all, was known to be the leading power in all of the tribes outside of Judah, and here he was dead, slain by the captain of David’s own army. How could anyone help blaming David himself for having done it. But, even more than that, there was the utter repugnance of the manner in which this had been brought about by Joab, his captain. Here was falsehood, here was the lie, here was betrayed confidence, here was nothing less than murder and assassination. David’s whole nature reacted against it with moral indignation. But what was he to do about it? Justice, of course, demanded that life should be paid for with life and Joab’s life should have been required of him. But this was Joab, David’s right-hand man, the one who had fought by his side through so many battles, the man who had risked his life in David’s behalf repeatedly, David’s companion and friend. He simply couldn’t do it.
For David there was only one alternative, that was to renounce all personal responsibility for what had happened completely; and so he did. There, publicly in the court, he spoke for all to hear and said, “I and my kingdom are guiltless before the LORD for ever for the blood of Abner the son of Ner: let it rest on the head of Joab, and on all his father’s house; and let there not fail from the house of Joab one that hath an issue, or that is a leper, or that leaneth on a staff, or that falleth on the sword, or that lacketh bread.”
Even this was not enough, however; it was necessary that Joab should not go without punishment; and there was one thing that would be almost as severe to him as death itself—that was, the demand of public humiliation and repentance. And so it was this that David required. Calling Joab to him in the presence of all the people, he commanded him together with the people, “Rend your clothes, and gird you with sackcloth, and mourn before Abner.” And this time Joab knew there could be no argument. Faithful soldier that he was, he obeyed the king’s commandment as contrary as it was to his whole nature.
But even that was not enough. David would also show the personal regard which he had for Abner. Personally he followed the bier of Abner to its grave, and as he went he wept saying, “Died Abner as a fool dieth? Thy hands were not bound, nor thy feet put into fetters: as a man, so fellest thou.” Neither would he all of that day be comforted, but when they urged food upon him answered, “So do God to me, and more also, if I taste bread, or ought else, till the sun be down”
The sincerity of David was beyond question: and the message it brought to the people was as effective as anything Abner could have done for him in life. All of the people united behind him as one person; for it was in his tears more than in his strength that they saw the proof of a true king.
But David himself had begun to feel his great weakness, his helplessness before Joab the son of Zeruiah. It was when he returned to the privacy of his own home to his personal servants that night that he admitted it. To them he said, “Know ye not that there is a prince and a great man fallen this day in Israel?” but then he went on to say in addition, “And I am this day weak, though anointed king; and these men the sons of Zeruiah be too hard for me: the LORD shall reward the doer of evil according to his wickedness.”