And Abner sent messengers to David on his behalf, saying, Whose is the land? saying also, Make thy league with me, and, behold, my hand shall be with thee, to bring about all Israel unto thee.
There was something within him that would not allow David to try to bring all of Israel under his own rule by the use of force. Even after the decisive victory of his men over Abner’s Gibeon, David would not press his advantage. Those of the people who remained with Ishbosheth were also Israelites, and he could not attack his own brethren. The result was that years passed by with nothing more than small but frequent skirmishes that could not in themselves turn the tide one way or the other. Nevertheless, through it all one thing was becoming evident. David was becoming stronger and stronger at the expense of the side of Abner and Ishbosheth.
To no one was this latter state of affairs more evident than to Abner, the power behind the throne of Ishbosheth. His whole plan of approach had been built in the anticipation that he gradually would be able to solidify the loyalty of Israel behind him until finally he would be able to overcome David and then dispose of Ishbosheth. But Abner was no fool, and when it became evident that, he was gradually losing out, he recognized that fact. It was only Ishboseth who did not. Weak in mind as he was in body, Ishbosheth continued to act not only as though he were sure to win out against David in the end but as though he were himself self-sufficient in his rule over Israel without any real need of Abner.
Abner had been quite conscious of the weakness and folly of Ishbosheth, of course, from the very first; but as long as he had been able to believe that someday he would be able to dispose of Ishbosheth and take over himself, he was able to endure it. Now, however, it was becoming evident that it was David who was growing in strength and influence, and not he himself. In the realization of his failure, the blundering presumptions of Ishbosheth were more than he could endure. Within him there began to grow a bitter resentment that wanted to expose the hopeless, helpless weakness of this man for what it was. He wanted to hurt him and thereby bring their now futile relationship to a head.
What Abner finally did hit at was one of the most tender, sensitive areas of royal life. He entered into what remained of the harem of king Saul, and taking one of Saul’s former concubines, Rizpah by name, he lay with her. It was a cruel, mean, humiliating blow which could not but strike Saul’s son Ishbosheth to the quick. In that day there was no higher symbol of royalty in all of its greatness than in the harem which only a king was able to possess. The larger the harem and the more highly born its members the greater was the reputation of the king; it was the highest and most prized symbol of his office. Thus, when a king died, what happened to his harem was one of the most telling indications of the respect with which his memory was maintained. If the harem was kept intact and unviolated, it was an indication of highest respect for a deceased king by his successor. If, in turn, a king’s successor would take his harem to himself and use it at will, it was a way of saying that he was greater and more powerful than his predecessor. While again, if a king’s harem was allowed to be broken up and used at will by men of lesser position and status, it was an open mockery scorning the reputation of that king and his memory in the land which once he ruled. There was no more cutting blow at the reputation of a fallen king that could be given. Thus when Abner openly entered and violated the harem of king Saul, it was no mere act of thoughtless lust, it was an open ridicule of the fallen king and of the inability of his son to protect and keep the reputation of his father.
There was something plaintive about the response of Ishbosheth to this stinging action on the part of Abner. If he were king indeed and in his own right, there was no question about what he should do. Such an offense demanded the penalty of death. But Ishbosheth was helpless before the power of Abner and he knew it. The most he could muster the courage to do was to approach the offending captain with a sort of plaintive rebuke in his voice as he said, “Wherefore hast thou gone in unto my father’s concubine’?”
It was, however, all that Abner wanted. As weak as the rebuke was in its coming, he felt that it was sufficient occasion for him to shout back as though in righteous indignation, “Am I a dog’s head, which against Judah do show kindness this day unto the house of Saul thy father, to his brethren, and to his friends, and have not delivered thee into the hand of David, that thou chargest me today with a fault concerning this woman? So do God to Abner, and more also, except as the LORD hath sworn to David, even so I do to him; to translate the kingdom from the house of Saul, and to set up the throne of David over Israel and over Judah, from Dan even to Beersheba.” As an argument what Abner said was quite spurious; but to him it didn’t matter. He was looking for an excuse to free himself from this futile alliance, and this was .enough. Because Ishbosheth had dared to rebuke him, he was now free to practice treachery, or at least, so his conscience would allow him to think.
Before the onrush of Abner’s shouting, Ishbosheth was stunned into silence. Cowering he retreated and never dared speak to Abner a word of reproof again. Being the coward that he was, he could only stand by and observe all that was soon to follow in anguished silence.
But as far as Abner was concerned, he now felt himself free. Quickly he called a messenger to him and sent him off to David with this message, “Whose is the land? Make thy league with me, and, behold, my hand shall be with thee, to bring about all Israel unto thee.”
There was one thing about David from which he could not seem to escape, that was, a feeling of deep respect for all those whom he had always looked up to as his elders. Abner was one of these. He had already been an important man in Saul’s army when David had first come to be a part of it at the battle of the valley of Elah, even though he was not then yet as all-powerful as he had come to be later on. From that day on, David had come to look upon him with a feeling of utmost respect. When now, therefore, there came to him a message from Abner offering to join forces with him and work together, David was unable to discern the dubious motive that was behind it, and he saw no reason to refuse what Abner offered.
Nevertheless, there was one reservation which David held deep in his soul before any resolution could be arrived at. David too realized the great symbolic importance which a king’s harem held for him in that day. In fact, he had himself begun to multiply unto himself many more wives than was good for him or his kingdom or his family. Surely David should have known both from his knowledge of the law of God and of the history of Israel that a multiplicity of wives had never brought less than misery to those who took them. But David was a man of his age with all of the weaknesses of a man. Already he had begun to multiply unto himself many more wives than was good, and so he would continue to do so in the future. He only was bowing to the values of his age which marked many wives as a sign of power and prestige. Moreover, there was one great humiliation in regard to his wives which he could never forget. Michal, his first wife and the daughter of Saul, had been taken after he fled from the royal palace and given to another man. It had been Saul’s way of belittling him, and it had hurt. Now before he would consider any peace with Abner and Ishbosheth, this would have to be corrected. Thus he answered Abner, “Well, I will make a league with thee: but one thing I require of thee, that is, Thou shalt not see my face, except thou first bring Michal Saul’s daughter, when thou comest to see my face.” In fact, he even went further and sent another messenger to Ishbosheth with this message, “Deliver me my wife Michal, which I espoused to me for an hundred foreskins of the Philistines.”
For Abner, of course, there was nothing to be lost by taking Michal from her present husband and restoring her to David. Quickly he sent the command that she should be brought to him. Meanwhile, he called together all of the elders of Israel and said to them, “Ye sought for David in times past to be king over you: now then do it: for the LORD hath spoken of David, saying, By the hand of my servant David I will save my people Israel out of the hand of the Philistines, and out of the hand of all their enemies.” Abner was a clever man and a shrewd manipulator of people. Even as before he had been effective in convincing the people that they should remain with Ishbosheth instead of joining with David, now he was equally effective in telling them to do what had evidently been their first desire. In fact, even the tribe of Benjamin, the tribe from which Saul had come and naturally the most loyal to his family, he convinced that it would be best to join him in uniting with David.
It was a small but impressive company of twenty men that finally accompanied Abner to Hebron where David was. They were a cross section of the kingdom of Israel and representative of how effective Abner could be in gathering the people behind him. Only one thing marred their journey as they went on their way. With them Abner was bringing Michal just as David had demanded; but her second husband was too attached to her to let her go. He followed behind the company weeping and would not desist until Abner himself turned to threaten his life.
Even more impressive than this, however, was the welcome with which David received them. To them was given a reception with a great feast as though they had always been the greatest of friends. David could not look upon a fellow member of the nation of Israel as anything but a brother regardless of how they had treated him in the past. Even though Abner had been the center of Saul’s plot to pursue him and destroy him among the hills of Judea, this same man he was willing to receive with the highest honor a man could receive, sharing a feast at the table of the king.
Abner was overjoyed with the reception he received, for he could see visions of himself becoming as important in the kingdom of David as he had been in the kingdom of Saul, only now the kingdom and the honor would be even greater than it had ever been under Saul. Confident and joyful, he stood before David and spoke, “I will arise and go, and will gather all Israel unto my lord the king, that they may make a league with thee, and that thou mayest reign over all that thine heart desireth.”
Returning without a word of reproach from a man whom he had persecuted relentlessly, it looked as though once again all things were working in Abner’s direction. What he hadn’t figured, however, was the ways of a man as clever as himself, David’s captain Joab.