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These men the sons of Zeruiah be too hard for me: the Lord shall reward the doer of evil according to his wickedness.

II Samuel 3:39b

King David earnestly sought the unity of the church of Israel. The nation had been divided; the church…split. A full eighty percent of Israel still followed a king from the line of Saul. With a heart after God’s own heart, King David waited—while yearning for the joining of twelve tribes under the one true God and His anointed king.

But there were great obstacles to this unification. General Abner’s devious politicking had delayed it for seven and a half years. After Saul’s death, this self-seeking officebearer led Israel to resist submission to the anointed one and duped the ten tribes into serving his puppet-king, Ishbosheth. Most of the sheep, as sadly often happens, feared, favored, and followed man instead of God. In His time, God providentially raised personal conflict between Abner and Ishbosheth, which resulted in the culpable captain flip-flopping to David’s side. With Abner’s defection from the line of Saul, all Israel would finally gather under the anointed one.

However, another threat arose that almost terminated the union of the King’s church. Enter Captain Joab of David’s army, a man not unlike Abner. Crafty and ambitious, this hothead was irate when he caught wind of David’s peaceful reception of the manipulative Abner. God’s anointed one had demonstrated a wise forbearance with Abner out of love for the fragile kingdom-church, but proud Joab judged such dealings as soft and foolish. The lying Abner had to be rooted out—now! And to this son of Zeruiah, the manner did not matter.

Thus Joab colluded with Abishai. They shared a mother, a brother, and blood thicker than water. Their mother Zeruiah was the king’s half-sister, making them David’s nephews. Uncle David was familiar with the character of his sister, a woman whose forceful influence upon her children, David seemed to think, overruled her husband’s. Thus David regularly referred to these brutal boys not as sons of their father, but as “the sons of Zeruiah.”1

When David received Abner peaceably, their mother’s blood boiled within these brothers. Not only were they suspicious of Abner, and not only did they view him as a threat to the church and crown, but these sons of Zeruiah had a personal vendetta—Abner was a mighty rival to their positions in the church, and Abner had slain like a dog their own brother Asahel in battle.

And so, for these members of the church militant, the ends would justify the means. “Let us take matters in our own hands,” they thought. “Forego the courts of the king’s government. They have all been deceived by Abner anyway. Desperate times call for desperate measures. Call Abner in the name of the king. Hide the truth slightly. Feign friendship. Then thrust him through under the fifth rib.” Overcome evil with… evil.

The murder of Abner recorded in II Samuel 3 is not an anomalous one-time act of these sons of Zeruiah. Rather, it reveals their cruel character. This was the judgment of the King: “These men the sons of Zeruiah be too hard for me” (II Sam. 3:39). Remember that David had himself fiercely and faithfully shed the blood of ten-thousands of God’s enemies. He did not oppose zealous warfare, but he did detest ruthless severity. The warrior-king righteously declares these sons of Zeruiah too harsh for him.

In spite of David’s public censure, their character did not change. We find Abishai later on, in response to the cursing Shimei, bellowing, “Why should this dead dog curse my lord the king? Let me go over, I pray thee, and take off his head” (II Sam. 16:9b). We find Joab shouting at his faithful soldiers who reported that Absalom was helplessly hanging by his hair, “Why didst thou not smite him there to the ground? And I would have given thee ten shekels of silver, and a girdle” (II Sam. 18:11b). Then standing before David’s son, Joab savagely thrust three darts through Absalom’s heart. Later, again, we find Joab embracing Amasa: “‘Art thou in health, my brother?’ and Joab took Amasa by the beard with the right hand to kiss him. But Amasa took no heed to the sword that was in Joab’s hand: so he smote him therewith in the fifth rib, and shed out his bowels to the ground, and struck him not again; and he died” (II Sam. 20:9-10).

These sons of Zeruiah represent the militant members and officebearers of the visible church of Jesus Christ. Inasmuch as they fought in the manner of King David, they were exemplary. God’s people must not lose their identity as church militant, valiant in the fight! The sins of Zeruiah’s sons ought not deter us from the Davidic defense of the truth and from a sharp attack against false doctrine. “Ye should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 3). “Fight the good fight of faith” (I Tim. 6:12). “Thou therefore endure hardness, as a good soldier of Jesus Christ” (II Tim. 2:3). Scripture honors the mighty men of David who courageously battled against the enemies of God and the church (see II Sam. 23 and I Chron. 11).

Significantly, the sons of Zeruiah were correct in many of their opinions. Their suspicions of wicked Abner were grounded upon accurate information. It is even proper to acknowledge that God providentially used their ruthless dispatch of men for the benefit of the church. Abner, Shimei, and Absalom were all indeed a danger to Israel. Just as false doctrine and impenitent sin trouble the church, these men threatened Israel. The sons of Zeruiah were exactly right in their evaluation that these men had to be eliminated. Sons of Zeruiah today are often correct—they can be conservative, and even Reformed in doctrine.

And yet God’s anointed one cursed these sons of Zeruiah. Not only for their evil motivations but particularly for their harshness, David said “the Lord shall reward the doer of evil according to his wickedness” (II Sam. 3:39). He cursed them, not for their correct opinions nor for their valiant fighting but for their severe manner of battling. David explains further that they “shed the blood of war in peace” (I Kings 2:5). That is, in a time when the king commanded patience and forbearance for the peace of the church, they surged forth with brash bloodshed.

While the sons of Zeruiah may have fancied themselves staunch defenders of the king, David called them his enemies: “What have I to do with you, ye sons of Zeruiah, that ye should this day be adversaries unto me?” (II Sam. 19:22). Let members of the church militant beware lest their hardness and impatience in the fight for truth be adversarial to the cause of Christ.

While the soldier in the Lord’s army must fight the good fight, “the servant of the Lord must not strive; but be gentle unto all men, apt to teach, patient” (II Tim. 2:24). Indeed, we must not compromise the truth, yet “if it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men” (Rom. 12:18). “Strength of Youth,” the title of this rubric, refers not only to courage in the fight but also to forbearance as we fight. As we engage in spiritual warfare, we must not forget to resist the old man of sin—a son of Zeruiah—within our own souls.

With the Spirit of David’s Son working in us, we must learn forbearance. As we witness to those outside the church, we must speak the truth in love, meekness, and godly fear (see Eph. 4:15 and II Pet. 3:15). Especially among those who are fellow members of the church, we must be “striving together for the faith of the gospel” (Phil. 1:27b). As correct as we feel we might be in our suspicions of Abners in the church, we must learn how to wait upon the Lord. Patience with each other is not compromise; it is the godly character of King Jesus and King David, in contrast to Zeruiah and her hard sons.2

What does the Spirit of the Anointed One say to the churches? What does He say to you who might quickly point at someone else as a son of Zeruiah? What does He say to you who might quickly deflect and disregard this call to self-examination? Does the King say to us all, “These men, the sons of the PRC be too hard for me”? If so, may the conquering King have mercy—the kind that pierces our pride, breaks us in true repentance, and forgives us our bloodshed…because of the shedding of His own blood.

 


1 There are other possible explanations, but the stronger influence of Zeruiah over her husband’s is probable. See the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (https://www.internationalstandardbible. com/Z/zeruiah.html).

2 For a thorough explanation of the proper manner of fighting for the truth, see Professor Barry Gritters’ excellent articles in the Standard Bearer entitled “Polemics: Fighting Words.” Search the archive at https://sb.rfpa.org/.