As was said, at the time of the expiration of the events narrated in chapter 1 and in I Samuel 31, David and his company were still dwelling in Keilah, a city in Philistia, given him of Achish to whom he had fled to escape Saul’s wrath. Saul being now dead, David returned to his own people, to his tribesmen in Judah. In accordance with the directions of God, for which he had prayed, he settled with his company in Hebron, a place in the most mountainous district of Judah and abounding in venerable associations. No sooner was he returned than the men of Judah came and there they anointed him king over Judah. So did the Lord deal graciously with His servant. Could there be among the psalms one that voices his heart’s response to these tokens of the Lord’s mercy? As was said, internal evidence points to the hundred and first psalm. Its sentences of praise and thanksgiving and the vows contained in it are such as could be expected to rise from the heart of David at this juncture. He stood on the threshold of his career of theocratic king. The psalm reads,
“I will sing of mercy and judgment:
Unto thee, O Lord, will I sing.
I will behave myself wisely in a perfect way.
O when wilt thou come unto me?
O will walk within my house
With a perfect heart.
I will set no wicked thing
Before my eyes:
I hate the work of them
That turn aside;
It shall not cleave to me.
A froward heart shall depart from me:
I will not know a wicked person.
Whoso privily slandereth his neighbor,
Him will I cut off:
Him that hath a high look and a proud heart will not I suffer.
Mine eyes shall be upon the faithful of the land that they may dwell with me:
He that walketh in a perfect way, he shall minister unto me.
He that worketh deceit shall not dwell within my house;
He that speaketh falsehood shall not be established before mine eyes.
Morning by morning will I destroy all the wicked of the land;
To cut off all the workers of iniquity from the city of the Lord.”
If the expression “city of God” indicates Jerusalem—and doubtless it does—the psalm was written after the capture and dedication of that city. Yet the sentiments of which the psalm is the expression must have already begun reverberating in David’s soul at the time of his accession to the throne in Hebron. There is no reason why Hebron may not have been called “the city of God” at the time.
The text in II Samuel 2 continues, “And they told David, saying, The men of Jabesh-Gilead are they that buried Saul.” Whether David’s informants were these same men of Judah or some others, the text does not make clear. David at once dispatched a message to the men of Jabesh to the following effect, “Blessed be ye of the Lord that ye have showed this kindness unto your Lord, to Saul, and have buried him.” They had shown this kindness unto Saul as their lord, implying that despite his rejection, Saul had continued to obtain to the nation the relation of king. This is plainly the view to which David had been holding all along. Twice the Lord delivered Saul into his hand. To David’s men it was the certain indication that Saul must be slain. But David was not of that conviction. “Destroy him not: for who can stretch forth his hand against the Lord’s anointed, and be guiltless. … A curse be upon me should I stretch forth my hand against the Lord’s anointed.” Such had been his reaction on both occasions. In his eyes Saul was still the Lord’s anointed, Israel’s king and lord. And so he was actually. It must not be supposed that David was in error. The rule was still Saul’s.
Yet there can be no doubt as to whether the Lord had rejected Saul from being king over His people. Samuel had spoken plainly, “For thou hast rejected the word of the Lord, and the Lord hath rejected thee from being king over Israel.” Accordingly, Samuel broke with Saul that very day. God’s Spirit departed from him; and the word of the Lord came to him no more. Shortly thereafter David was anointed. But we should not fail to take notice of the following: Samuel did not make known to the people that the Lord had rejected Saul. Nor did he in the name of God forbid Saul authority over Israel by demanding that he immediately step down from his throne. Or, what would have amounted to the same thing, Samuel did not release the people of their oath of allegiance as Saul’s subjects. The meaning of these acts of omission on God’s part is clear. Though forsaken of the Spirit and in this respect rejected of God at once, Saul’s appointment to the office of theocratic king remained binding on the nation the rest of his days, and the people on this account continued under the necessity of honoring and obeying him as their lord and king, as the anointed of the Lord. David, therefore, would have been cursed indeed should he have stretched forth his hand against Saul. Truly, then, * despite his ungodliness and misrule, his self-will and rebellions in which he walked to the end of his days, and by which he was gathering for himself and his people treasures of wrath unto the day of wrath, Saul remained Israel’s king nevertheless; and he had to be received and honored as such the rest of his days. And the righteous in Israel did so for God’s sake. Humbling themselves under God’s hand in the awareness that the nation deserved that kind of king on account of its abominations, they continued honoring Saul as their lord in their deep regard not of Saul as such but of Saul in his capacity of the Lord’s anointed. Thus they honored him for God’s sake as constrained by God’s love of them as shed abroad in their hearts. How they continued tc revere Saul to the end on that account! They spared his life, when they had opportunity to slay him. They lamented over him when he was fallen and slain. Taking down his decapitated corpse from the wall of their conquered city, they gave it a burial such as became their king. This was the work of the men of Jabesh. Well might David say to these men, to the righteous among them, “Blessed be ye of the Lord, that ye have shewed kindness unto your lord, to Saul, and have buried him.”
It is plain how we are to understand Samuel’s words to Saul, “Therefore the Lord hath rejected thee from being king over Israel.” A distinction must be drawn between Saul’s rejection as consisting in his being forsaken of the Spirit that had been qualifying him for the duties of his office, and the rejection of God according to which Saul was removed from office, hurled from the throne. The former took place almost on the day that the seer pronounced sentence over Saul. The latter became an accomplished fact through Saul’s suicide in Israel’s war with the Philistines. In the meantime the righteous in Israel had to honor Saul as king for the Lord’s sake, and patiently endure his mal-administrations.
There was more to David’s message to the men of Jabesh. Said he to them, “And now the Lord shew kindness and truth unto you: and I also will requite you this kindness, because ye have done this thing.” The original text here reads, “And I also will do you this good. …” The meaning of these words evidently is, “As the servant and follower of the Lord, I, too, will show thee kindness and truth.” The Hebrew Chesedt, which the translators rendered kindness, is rich in meaning. It is holy desire, ardour, zeal, kindness, love, mercy and pity all in one. The men of Jabesh and all Israel especially the northern tribes, had great need of the Lord’s showing them mercy. For the days were exceptionally evil. The Philistines had set as their goal nothing short of the conquest of the entire land of Canaan. And their victory over Saul and his host had brought them astonishing success in that direction. By that military achievement, they had extended their jurisdiction over the whole of the west-Jordan land with the exception of Judah. They could now join hands over the Jordan with their old allies, the Ammonites. (The narrative is against the conjecture that Judah, too, was tributary to the Philistines and that David was their vassal-king during his residence in Hebron. The lords of the Philistines had plainly shown that they distrusted David. And the men of Judah had anointed him king of their own accord).
As studied in connection with the nation’s plight, David’s message to the men of Jabesh takes on meaning. The Philistines must be ejected from God’s country. May the Lord show His people this mercy. May He deliver them from the cruel dominion of the adversary and crown them with glory that the nations of the earth may again see that they are called by the name of the Lord. And may He sanctify these evidences of His favor toward them to their hearts so that they may know and believe that they are loved and forgiven of Him and that He is their God. And may He show them truth, keep covenant trust with thorn according to His promise. And that the Lord will do without fail. He will save His people for His name’s sake and for David’s sake to whom He swore truth. And David, too, will do them this good instrumentally as the Lord’s anointed and with God fighting for them. “Therefore now,” so he continues in his message to them, “let your hands be strengthened and Be ye valiant” ‘in the confidence’, he means to say, ‘that the victory is ours in the Lord’.” “For,” so he concludes, “your master Saul is dead, and also the house of Judah have anointed me king over them,” meaning to say that they need not remain kingless in that he is their king for the choosing.
In addressing himself to the task of establishing his; throne over 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. He was blessed therefore; with the meek in Israel he inherited the kingdom.
(One has reasons to wonder whether the critics themselves know what they mean by statements such as the following, “There can be no doubt that David was moved by considerations of policy as well as by more disinterested motives in sending this message and offering this prayer for the men of Jabesh-Gilead, Indeed, in the close of his message he invites them to declare for him, and follow the example of the men of Judah, who have made him king.” What are “considerations of polity” in contradistinction to “disinterested motives” but selfishness, sinful egotism, considerations that aim at the advancement of one’s own cause by means fair or foul? Must David be held guilty of such carnality here? Could not his wanting them to declare for him stem from the love of God and His cause just as well as any other work? It could and it did. But this, of course, is not a denying that he was a sinful man.)
However, David’s overture of peace to his brethren in the north countries 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 Mahanaim; and made him king for Gilead, and for the Ashurites, and for Jezreel and over Benjamin, and over all Israel with the exception of Judah. This was Abner’s reply to David’s benediction.
We must not fail to take notice of the change of propositions, three times “for” (Hebrew, el) and three times “over” (al). Does the preposition “for” indicate those regions over which Abner had gradually to extend Ishbosheth’s authority, being obliged to wrest them from the Philistines by continual wars; and accordingly does the preposition over (al) indicate the regions (Ephraim and Benjamin) over which the Philistines had not been able to extend their authority? It is doubtful whether the change of prepositions has that significance. For it would mean that the Philistines pursued the fleeing Israelites across the Jordan and established their supremacy in the whole of the cast-Jordan land. But this is too unlikely. It is in conflict with the notice that Abner carried Ishbosheth over to Nahanaim and that he there made him king. This city was situated in Gilead; it lay on the border between the tribe of Dan and the half-tribe of Manasseh.
Ishbosheth was forty years old when he began to reign over Israel. Two years he reigned, says the text. As to David, the notice is to the effect that the time he was king in Hebron over the house of Judah was seven years and six months. Now Ishbosheth’s elevation to the throne and David’s anointment over Judah happened at the same time (chap. 2:7, 8, 9); and Ishbosheth occupied the throne as long as David was king over Judah which, as we have seen, was seven years and a half. Yet at verse 10 the text states that Ishbosheth reigned but two years. The apparent discrepancy is obvious. But Abner could not make Ishbosheth king over all Israel until after he had cleared of Philistines the districts mentioned in verse 9. It may be supposed that the conquering process took five and a half years. This is the explanation of some. Its weakness is that the narrative makes no mention of wars with the Philistines carried on by Abner during these years. The sequel reveals that the Philistines were not gradually expelled by Abner. This was a task the accompaniment of which had to wait until the establishment of David’s throne in all Israel. But the conclusion is unescapable that Abner did make the attempt. But his measure of success must have been too small to allow us to suppose that after three years and a half Ishbosheth was reigning in fact over all Israel, and that this is the reason the sacred narrative limits his reign to two years.
Others take the passage from “but the house of Judah. . . to the end of verse 11 as a parenthesis and thus render: and when he—Ishbosheth—had reigned two years (only the house of Judah followed David, and the time that David was king in Hebron over the house of Judah was seven years and six months), then went Abner. . . . and the servants of Ishbosheth out from Mahanaim to Gibeon. But this does violence to the syntax and therefore does not commend itself.
There is still a third solution. It may not have been until the fourth year of David’s reign in Hebron that Abner brought Ishbosheth over to Mahanaim, and that he reigned simply as a vassal of the Philistines over all Israel.