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Bible Commentaries
2 Samuel 2

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries



This chapter relates the beginning of David’s long struggle to become king over all Israel. Of course, true to the prophecy of God, he eventually succeeded. And what a success that actually was!

“David took an insignificant nation, and within a few years, built it into a mighty kingdom. In the southwest, the Egyptian world empire had declined, and over in the east, the Assyrian and Babylonian world empires had not yet appeared. Here in Israel, on the highway between, under David, the kingdom of Israel, almost overnight, became not a world empire, but perhaps the most powerful single kingdom on earth at that time.”(F1)

This speaks only of his ultimate success, a success which did not come at once, and which involved many bloody events before it was finally realized. If one should inquire “Why did not God grant David such wonderful success immediately upon Saul’s death, the answer is not far to seek. David himself was to blame. R. P. Smith has what we consider a perfectly reasonable explanation of this.

“If David had continued in Israel instead of moving to Gath and later to Ziklag as a vassal of the Philistine Achish, David might indeed have become king over all Israel at once. But he was too entangled with the Philistines and too much distrusted by the Northern Israel to be trusted by them.”(F2)

Had it not been for David’s foolish and sinful alliance with Achish, he and his six hundred faithful men could easily have rescued all of Northern Israel from the Philistines, who following Saul’s death, had quickly overrun all of the central districts of Northern Israel, and in fact, practically all of Palestine west of the Jordan river. This is indicated by the fact that Abner could find no place for Ishbosheth’s capital except east of the Jordan.

It is Smith’s opinion that had it not been for David’s involvement with the Philistines and the consequent distrust of many Israelites, David could quickly have achieved the unity and rescue of all Israel, pointing out that:

“Detachments from the tribes of Gad and Manasseh, instead of joining Saul at Mount Gilboa, went to David at Ziklag (1 Chronicles 12); also a very large company from Benjamin and Judah under the command of David’s nephew Amasa joined the forces of David. Thus, with all the disadvantages that David had brought upon himself through his Philistine involvement, his military strength continued to grow and became very great.”(F3)

The Scriptures report that, “From day to day men kept coming to David to help him, until there was a great army, like an army of God” (1 Chronicles 12:22).

Such events only stress how it might have been, but David’s position was very precarious, loaded with all kinds of dangers. Oh yes, this chapter relates that the men of Judah anointed him king over Judah, but it is evident that, “This was done with the consent of the Philistines and with David’s continued acceptance of his status as their vassal.”(F4)

If we should speculate on just why the Philistines allowed such an arrangement, we may suppose that they were happy indeed to see Israel divided into two hostile states with the inevitable civil war that was certain to develop.

In this very complicated and uncertain situation David did what every man of God should do; he consulted the will of the Lord, through the services of Abiathar and the Urim and Thummim.

Verses 1-4


“After this David inquired of the Lord, “Shall I go up into any of the cities of Judah”? And the Lord said to him, “Go up.” And David said, “To which shall I go up”? And he said, “To Hebron.” So David went up there, and his two wives also, Ahinoam of Jezreel, and Abigail the widow of Nabal of Carmel. And David brought up his men who were with him, every one with his household; and they dwelt in the towns of Hebron. And the men of Judah came, and there they anointed David king over the house of Judah.”

“After this David inquired of the Lord” It is not recorded that David inquired of the Lord prior to his making that foolish flight to Achish at Gath; and, therefore, we may interpret the words “after this” which are found here as meaning that, “after the dangerous and complicated situation in which David realized he had maneuvered himself by NOT inquiring of the Lord, he now decided to do so.”

“So David went up there (to Hebron)” This was an ideal place for the location of David’s capital at that time. High in he mountains, it was relatively safe from the power of the Philistines whose chariots were not very effective in mountainous terrain. Additionally, it was a productive and very fruitful area and one of the major cities of Judah. Besides, it was very rich in historical and traditional significance, being also one of the cities of refuge designated by Joshua.

“And they dwelt in the towns of Hebron” This is a reference to the suburbs of Hebron. All ancient villages were understood as including the settlements surrounding the central metropolis.

“There they anointed David king over the house of Judah” There were three anointings of David as king:

(1) His first anointing was by Samuel (1 Samuel 10:1) which indicated God’s secret purpose and ultimate intention.

(2) Here is the second anointing when the men of Judah elevated him over the house of Judah.

(3) His third and final anointing made him king “over all Israel” (1 Chronicles 14:8).

The delay between David’s anointing and his ultimate assumption of the throne correspond in some degree with the four-year time interval between the anointing of Christ in his baptism and reception of the Holy Spirit and his reception of His Kingdom upon the occasion of His Ascension into heaven, which correspondence, “Seems to be thus typified,”(F5) here.

Verses 5-7


“When they told David, “It was the men of Jabesh-gilead who buried Saul,” David sent messengers to the men of Jabesh-gilead, and said to them, “May you be blessed by the Lord, because you showed this loyalty to Saul your lord, and buried him. Now may the Lord show steadfast love and faithfulness to you! And I will do good to you because you have done this thing. Now therefore let your hands be strong, and be valiant; for your lord is dead, and the house of Judah has anointed me king over them.”

This paragraph relates David’s very first action after becoming King of Judah. The men of Jabesh-gilead were of Benjamin, the tribe of Saul; and David’s promise here to do good to them clearly signaled that David would not indulge in any vengeful recriminations against the people of Israel who had loved and supported Saul. Coupled with his royal compliment to those brave men for their valiant rescue of Saul’s body and their providing decent burial for his bones, this assurance of David must have been welcome indeed to the men of Jabesh-gilead. Without this, they might have feared vengeance from the Philistines because of their daring raid in rescuing Saul’s body. This diplomacy, tact, good will, and understanding on David’s part are examples of the qualities that eventually crowned him with such amazing success.

Verses 8-11


“Now Abner the son of Ner, commander of Saul’s army, had taken Ishbosheth the son of Saul, and brought him over to Mahanaim; and he made him king over Gilead and the Ashurites and Jezreel and Ephraim and Benjamin and all Israel. Ishbosheth, Saul’s son, was forty years old when he began to reign over Israel, and he reigned two years. But 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.”

“Abner… took… Saul’s son… brought him over to Mahanaim… made him king… over all Israel” Following the death of Saul, Abner was by far the most powerful man in Northern Israel, and it could have been nothing less than his sinful and disobedient heart that led him into this open defiance of what he certainly knew to be the will of God, namely, that David was God’s choice to succeed Saul, a fact which even Saul himself knew.

“Ishbosheth reigned two years” Some of the commentaries we have consulted are preoccupied with what is called difficulties in the chronology here. It is well known that David did not become king over all Israel until after the death of Ishbosheth, a full seven and one half years after his moving to Hebron. So why is it said that Ishbosheth reigned only two years?

We fail to see any problem. Abner was the only person in Northern Israel with any real power. He was probably an uncle of King Saul (1 Chronicles 8:33) and was in full command of Saul’s army following the king’s death. Ishboshesh (actually Eshbaal in 1 Chronicles 8:33) was evidently incompetent for some reason, because otherwise he would have perished fighting beside his father as did Jonathan. Jamieson believed that incompetence was due to “his imbecility.”(F6) Abner’s proclaiming him “king” was only a ploy on Abner’s part, who almost certainly intended to seize the kingship himself. The proof of this is his taking one of the concubines of Ishbosheth.

Therefore, when we read that “Ishbosheth reigned two years,” the only satisfactory explanation is that Abner took complete control after two years. Some of the older commentators understood this perfectly as, for example, did Adam Clarke. “Some think that Abner in effect reigned the last five years of Ishbosheth, who had only the name of king after the first two years.”(F7) Another possible explanation of this is that offered by Haley: “Ewald and Keil maintain that after Saul’s death, five years were spent in warfare against the Philistines, before Ishbosheth was anointed king over Israel.”(F8) This, of course, might very well have been true; however, we believe Clarke’s explanation is the better one.

“The time that David was king in Hebron… seven years and six months” “The length of David’s reign in Hebron as given here coincides with the data in 2 Samuel 5:5, and we have no reason to doubt its correctness.”(F9)

We have noted that the original name of Ishbosheth was Eshbaal. Young notes that, “Hebrew names were often compounded with `Baal,’ that of the old Canaanite god of fertility. But since the word was peculiarly associated with the low standards of Canaanite sex morality and baseness in worship, this practice was discontinued. Later copyists of the O.T. substituted the word [~bosheth], which means `shame’ in those names where `Baal’ had been used.”(F10)

R. P. Smith attempted to justify the use of “Baal” as a suitable compound for personal names in the times of Saul, stating that, “At that time, Baal was not the specific name of any idol, but meant simply “lord” or “master.”(F11) We do not accept that opinion as correct because of Numbers 25:1-5. which proves that even during the wilderness wanderings of Israel, Baal was indeed the name of a specific idol, namely, the one worshipped in Peor. There can be little doubt that “Baal” in the original name of Saul’s son Eshbaal was a reference to the Canaanite sex god, but that does not mean that Saul honored Baal instead of Jehovah. Keil gave the meaning of Eshbaal as “`The fire of Baal,’ which has the equivalent meaning of, `the destroyer of Baal.’“(F12)

Verses 12-17


“Abner the son of Ner, and the servants of Ishbosheth the son of Saul, went out from Mahanaim to Gibeon. And Joab the son of Zeruiah, and the servants of David, went out and met them at the pool of Gibeon; and they sat down, the one on the one side of the pool, and the other on the other side of the pool. And Abner said to Joab, “Let the young men arise and play before us.” And Joab said, “Let them arise.” Then they arose and passed over by number, twelve for Benjamin and Ishbosheth the son of Saul, and twelve for the servants of David. And each caught his opponent by the head, and thrust his sword in his opponent’s side; so they fell down together. Therefore that place was called Helkathhazzurim, which is at Gibeon. And the battle was very fierce that day; and Abner and the men of Israel were beaten before the servants of David.”

“And Abner… went out from Mahanaim to Gibeon” “The expression `went out’ as used here is a technical phrase for `going out to war.’“(F13) This war was of Abner’s own choice, giving ample proof of his unscrupulous and ambitious nature; and yet, when he actually confronted the opposing army of David, he did not have the nerve to begin hostilities, correctly guessing that some bloodshed in that so-called `playing’ of the young men would precipitate a full-scale encounter.

“Joab and the servants of David met them at the pool of Gibeon” “Gibeon is now known as El Jib; and in the excavations there since 1956 by Pritchard have uncovered and measured this ancient pool which existed as early as 1200 B.C. It measured 11.3 meters in diameter and was 10.8 meters deep.”(F14) Judged by the size of this pool and the fact of Abner and Joab’s conversation with each other, and also by the number of casualties on each side, it would seem that very large military forces were not involved in this battle.

“Let the young men rise and play before us” This brutal and unfeeling suggestion of bloody hand-to-hand combat unto death which Abner here proposed as “the young men playing” is an adequate measure of his wicked, bloody character. As Henry suggested, “Abner was apparently accustomed to using his men in such barbarous pastimes and had learned to make a jest of the wounds and death which went along with such scenes of blood. He is unworthy of the name of a man who can be thus prodigal of human blood.”(F15)

The great pity is that Joab did not have the good sense to prevent such a needless waste of life. This brutal game, as Abner called it, was nothing more than a mass suicide on the part of the contestants. They had not even shields with which to defend themselves. Otherwise they could not each one of them have taken his opponent by the head.

Verses 18-23


“And the three sons of Zeruiah were there, Joab, Abishai and Asahel. Now Asahel was as swift of foot as a wild gazelle; and Asahei pursued Abner, and as he went he turned neither to the right hand or to the left from following Abner. Then Abner looked behind him and said, “Is it you Asahel”? And he answered, “It is I” Abner said to him, “Turn aside to your right hand or to your left, and seize one of the young men, and take his spoil.” But Asahel would not turn aside from following him. And Abner said again to Asahel, “Turn aside from following me; why should I smite you to the ground? How then could I lift up my face to your brother Joab”? But he refused to turn aside; therefore Abner smote him in the belly with the butt of his spear, so that the spear came out at his back; and he fell there, and died where he was. And all who came to the place where Asahel had fallen and died, stood still.”

This encounter between Abner and Asahel is related here because of its importance, resulting, as it did, in the death of Abner, David’s principal opponent, and of David’s nephew, Asahel.

“The three sons of Zeruiah were Joab, Abishai and Asahel” “Zeruiah was a sister of King David; and her three sons, David’s nephews, all held important positions of trust in David’s army.”(F16) Joab commanded his army; Abishai was with David when they found Saul asleep and pleaded with David to allow him to kill Saul (1 Samuel 26:6-12); both he and Asahel were reckoned among David’s thirty mighty men (2 Samuel 23:8-38; 1 Chronicles 11:26 ff). Strangely enough, the father of these mighty men was never mentioned. This was probably due, as Barker thought, “Either to the widowhood of Zeruiah, or that, as David’s sister, she was more prominent than her spouse.”(F17)

“Asahel was as swift as a wild gazelle” Swiftness of foot was one of the most important abilities in ancient warfare. And, significantly, David in his ode to Saul and Jonathan in the previous chapter eulogized them both as “swift as eagles and as strong as lions.”

Abner’s forces proved to be no match for David’s hardened veterans of many conflicts. Perhaps most of Abner’s really able soldiers had been killed in the disastrous defeat by the Philistines in the mountains of Gilboa. Only Abner’s superior ability prevented him from being numbered among the slain. Asahel isolated the commanding general Abner, intending to take his armour as spoil. “To gain the general’s armour was deemed the grandest trophy”;(F18) and Asahel pursued Abner with the purpose of killing him and taking his armor. After repeated pleas by Abner for Asahel to turn aside, the skilled commander of Ishbosheth’s forces stopped suddenly, at the same time making a backward thrust with his spear, the butt of which had been sharpened in order for it to be stuck in the ground at Abner’s head at nights (1 Samuel 26:7). That fatal thrust through Asahel’s body ended the conflict.

“Why should I smite you to the ground? How then could I lift up my face to your brother Joab?” Abner’s reluctance to slay Asahel was doubtless due to his unwillingness to incur the hatred and certain vengeance of Joab, who, as the avenger of blood, would have the right to kill Abner, unless he remained inside of one of the cities of refuge.

“And all who came to the place where Asahel had fallen and died, stood still” We find no agreement possible with the critical nonsense that, “Such a standing still of the people is out of place”(F19) We find this remark an indelible identification by an eye-witness of what really happened. This writer was once called to a field where a dear friend had been suddenly killed; and that memory of how his body lay so still, so very still, is yet vivid after seventy five years! Others also stood there; they stood still and silent. That is exactly what happened here. When Asahel’s fellow soldiers came upon the slain body of `the Young Gazelle,’ how shocked and how conscious they were of our common mortality, because the silence and stillness of eternity had fallen upon one whom they loved. Porter was certainly correct in his comment that, “So tragic was Asahel’s fate and so great was the affection of David’s men for him, that all further pursuit of Abner’s defeated troops ceased; and all they that came up remained standing by his body.”(F20) After an interval, of course, Joab and Abishai rallied their men to resume the pursuit of Abner.

Verses 24-28


“But Joab and Abishai pursued Abner; and as the sun was going down they came to the hill of Armah, which lies before Giah on the way to the wilderness of Gibeon. And the Benjaminites gathered themselves behind Abner, and became one band, and took their stand on the top of a hill. Then Abner called to Joab, “Shall the sword devour forever? Do you not know that the end will be bitter? How long will it be before you bid your people turn from the pursuit of their brethren”? And Joab answered, “As God lives, if you had not spoken, surely the men would have given up the pursuit of their brethren in the morning,” So Joab blew the trumpet; and all the men stopped, and pursued Israel no more, nor did they fight anymore.”

“Joab and Abishai pursued Abner” The only thing which prevented Asahel’s brothers Joab and Abishai from killing Abner on this occasion was the timely rally of a group of Benjaminites behind him on the top of that hill. Abner’s army had been thoroughly whipped, and at this time, when it was evident that he had been defeated, Abner began to talk about the sword’s devouring and the pursuit of “their brethren.” No such thoughts entered the old hypocrite’s head when he suggested that 24 young men kill themselves in some kind of a war game; and “the brethren” meant nothing at all to him when he started that vicious civil war. But now, that his troops were defeated and with himself in the front of the charging men of David, he screams for a cessation of hostilities!

“If you had not spoken… the men would have given up pursuit… in the morning” This was only another way of saying, “We would have chased you all night”!

“So Joab blew the trumpet” We may only speculate as to why Joab did this, especially with a total destruction of Abner’s defeated troops a definite possibility if the hostilities had continued. In all probability, the need for a funeral for Asahel was the decisive factor in Joab’s mind.

“They did not fight any more” This does not mean that the war was over. As Willis noted, “This states only that the battle which began at the pool of Gibeon was terminated. The war went on for a long time (2 Samuel 3:1).”(F21)

Verses 29-32


“And Abner and his men went all that night through the Arabah; they crossed the Jordan, and marching the whole forenoon they came to Mahanaim. Joab returned from the pursuit of Abner; and when he had gathered all the people together, there were missing of David’s servants nineteen men besides Asahel. But the servants of David had slain of Benjamin three hundred and sixty of Abner’s men. And they took up Asahel, and buried him in the tomb of his father, which was at Bethlehem. And Joab and his men marched all night, and the day broke upon them at Hebron.”

“Abner and his men went all that night” It is of interest that the commanders of each of these opposing armies at once ordered an all-night march, Abner for the purpose of putting a safe distance between him and the victorious troops of Joab, and Joab for the purpose of overtaking Abner as soon as possible after the funeral for Asahel. There were two reasons for the march to Hebron following the burial of Asahel in Bethlehem. As one of the cities of refuge, Joab might have anticipated that Abner would go there; and, of course, that was David’s headquarters and capital, the center of authority for the king of Judah, where Joab was to report to the king. “Hebron lay about fourteen miles north of Bethlehem.”(F22)

As for the distance covered by those all-night marches, Smith stated that, “Each army had about twenty six miles to cover.”(F23)

“Through the Arabah” “This is the name given to the broad floor of the great valley through which there flows the Jordan river. The valley lies generally some three thousand feet below the mountains of Israel.”(F24)

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on 2 Samuel 2". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/2-samuel-2.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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