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Bible Commentaries
2 Samuel 20

The Biblical IllustratorThe Biblical Illustrator

Verses 1-5

2 Samuel 20:1-5

And there happened to be there a man of Belial.

Rebellion of Sheba

This chapter is a relation of Sheba’s rebellion.

1. The trumpet of this new rebellion was a son of Belial, Sheba the son of Bichri, whom God by His providence ordered to be present when this paroxism or hot fit of contention happened betwixt the tribe of Judah and the tribes of Israel as before. The Devil (who loves to fish in troubled waters) strikes in with this opportunity, as a fit hour of temptation for him, and excites this Belialist to blow a trumpet and to sound a retreat in the ears of those Israelites, saying [Seeing the men of Judah say that we have no part in David, but they do monopolize him to themselves] let them have him, and let us choose another for ourselves, hoping that they would choose him, because he was a Benjamite akin to Saul, and supposed to be the chiefest captain under Amasa to Absalom (2 Samuel 20:1.)

2. This Belialist (so-called) was for casting off the yoke of David (as the Hebrew word Belial signifies) and being grieved that the kingdom was translated from Saul’s house to David, he bespatters David, calling him the son of Jesse, a private person, so the crown could not descend upon David by inheritance, and therefore (saith he) we are at liberty to choose a new king. This opprobrious title that Sheba gave David here did savour of Saul (who had oft called him so in contempt) and of the old enmity: and possibly Sheba might aggravate to those Israelites, that David had sent Zadock and Abiathar to the men of Judah that they might be persuaded to fetch back the King, but he sent them not to our elders; therefore seeing he hath so slighted us, let us look to our own concerns, and let him look to his (2 Samuel 20:1.)

3. Behold how great a flame of fire a little spark doth kindle (James 3:5) when God gives way thereunto, Sheba’s presence and influence upon those Israelites, though casual in itself, and as to men, yet was it ordered so by the providence of God, who permitted the devil to blow up this blast of rebellion for several reasons: as

(1) first, For a further exercise of David’s faith and patience;

(2) secondly, To purge out of David’s kingdom all factious and seditious spirits;

(3) thirdly, To punish Sheba the ringleader of those rebels;

(4) fourthly, To animadvert David to his betraying Uriah, and of his spearing Shimei, and (as some add) of his unjust dealing with his dear Mephibosheth, &c., for these and other sins of David God was pleased to correct him again with this new affliction, before he was well got out of the old. (C. Ness.)

Revolt and pursuit of Sheba. -

1. We are first introduced to Sheba, the son of Bichri, or, as it is read by recent commentators, the Bichrite--that is, a member of the family of Becher, the second son of Benjamin. This man was, therefore, by so much related to the clan of Saul. It is difficult to get the old taint out of the blood. Sheba is a minimised Saul, full of hostility to David and all his interests. Even bad men have their opportunity in life. We have seen again and again how easy it is to do mischief. Sheba, a man who probably had no power to construct a positive fame by deeds of beneficence and the origination of statesmanlike policies, had it in his power to set fire to dangerous substances and bring into peril a movement which promised to consummate itself in the happiest results to Israel. The historical instance ought to be a continual lesson. The meanest man may pull down a wall, or set fire to a palace, or whisper a slander concerning the character of a king. The remarkable thing is that whilst society is well aware of all this possibility, it is willing to lend an ear to every wicked speaker Who arises, insisting upon the old and detestable sophism flint although the report may not be wholly and literally true, there yet must be some foundation for it.

2. Sheba is described in the text as “a man of Belial,” in other words, a child of the devil. A man’s spiriutal parentage is known by the deeds in which he delights. We have in the first verse a kind of double genealogy of Sheba; he is called “the son of Bichri, a Benjamite,” and he is also described as “a man of Belial.” It would seem as if in some cases men had a lineal physical descent, and had also a direct spiritual ancestry. Account for it as we may, there are practical differences in spirit and character which would seem almost to suggest two different grades or qualities of human nature. Whilst it is profoundly and sadly true that all men are apostates, and that there is none righteous, no, not one, it is also undeniable that there are chiefs in the army of evil, princes of sin, royal and dominating personages in the whole kingdom of wickedness. They are ingenious in the device of evil; their imagination is afire with the very spirit of perdition; they can invent new departures, striking policies, undreamed-of cruelties, unimaginable wanderings from the path of rectitude. It is most certain that many men simply “follow a multitude to do evil”; they have little or no invention of their own; they would never originate rebellions or lead insurrections, or devise plots involving great disasters; they are but followers, imitators, echoes not voices, persons who go by the bulk and not by detail, being only of consequence in proportion to their multiudinousness, having no independent spirit of their own when taken one by one.

3. David, being now impatient of the insolence of Joab, and willing to avail himself of an opportunity of superseding that able but arrogant captain, gave an appointment to Amasa. As Amasa went forth he encountered an unexpected foe in the person of Joab. It is explained in the text how Joab by a peculiar arrangement of his dress--a girdle bound round his military coat--had contrived to conceal a dagger which would fall out as lie advanced. The dagger falling out thus gave Joab an opportunity of naturally picking it up, as he wished to use it, without exciting the suspicion of Amasa. Thus even in so small a trick the depravity of Joab is made manifest. Taking Amasa by the beard with his right hand to kiss him, Joab smote him in the fifth rib, with but one blow; but that a fatal stroke. Joab would thus tolerate no rivals by whomsoever they might have been appointed. This desperateness of spirit was really part of the greatness of the man,--that is to say, apart from such desperateness he never could have brought to bear all his various faculties of statesman and soldier. Morality has often commented upon the circumstance that great talents should be turned to base uses. So it is the world over: the completer the education as a merely intellectual exercise, the more disastrous is the power to do evil, unless the education has been supported and chastened by adequate moral training. It is mere idolatry to admire greatness alone: when that greatness is held in check by enlightened consciousness, then its recognition really involves an act of worship to him who is the Spirit of Righteousness and the teacher of the world. It is but lust, however, to say that we are not to judge Joab by the morality of a much later age. Morality itself is part of an infinite but most beneficent evolution. Even a good cause may have bad supporters. The cause in which Joab was now engaged was unquestionably a good one, being nothing less than the restoration of David to his kingly position in Israel, and by so much the fulfilment of a divine covenant. Joab had a good cause, but he brought to its support a very questionable character. Is not this same instance repeating itself along the whole line of history? Is not the Church indebted to many a man whose heart is in the world and whose ambition is his only god? Are there not some men eloquent of tongue whose hearts are silent as to true worship? Is not good money often given by polluted hands? (J. Parker, D. D.)

Disunion the devil’s policy.

“Cyrus, in Herodotus, going to fight against Scythia, coming to a broad river, and not being able to pass over it, cut and divided it into divers arms and sluices, and so made it passable for all his army. This is the devil’s policy; he laboureth to divide the people of God, and separate us into divers sects and factions, that so he may easily overcome us.” This needs no comment. What is needed is that by a spirit of brotherly love we promote the unity of all the churches, and the peace and concord of that to which we belong. May the peace of the church be “as a river.” Unity is strength. “Divide and conquer” is Satan’s watchword to his myrmidons. (C. H. Spurgeon.)

When the South Carolina convention broke up with a declaration of secession from the north, and the Civil War was thereby proclaimed, there were great jubilations. Bells were rung, cannon saluted, and the street,s were filled with the noise and display of great parades. But what a drama of blood it led to, and what a tragedy of disastrous defeat was its end! (H. O. Mackey.)

Verse 9

2 Samuel 20:9

Art thou in health, my brother?

The Soul’s Health

The sickness of the soul is the evil of all evils, and one in comparison with which mere bodily pain is nothing. Whether sin be regarded as a disease, or as guilt, or as both combined, there is only one Physician, even God Himself, who can help us. The medicine and the skill are His, and he alone can effectually and permanently heal. He has no pleasure in the sickness or death of His creatures; indeed, so far from this he desires that all should be in health and be happy.

We suppose ourselves in a hospital occupied by those who are spiritually diseased, and the symptoms must be inquired into and noted.

1. First, then, as to the condition of the pulse. Does it beat strongly and vigorously, indicating a proper circulation? or is it slow, languid, and irregular? Has joy departed? and has zeal ceased to inspire your soul for the discharge of high and holy duties?

2. Next, let me ask concerning your memory. Are past trials forgotten? Have you ceased to think of god’s many mercies with gratitude? There are bitter mercies as well as sweet ones, and the Great Physician administers to us some of His healing remedies in wine, and others in wormwood.

3. The condition of your appetite. Does it relish wholesome fare? Do you find pleasure in the reading of good books; and above all, in the study of god’s word? Is plain gospel preaching the nutriment which suits you best; or is there a constant craving after highly-seasoned and stimulating rhapsodies, which constitute so large a proportion of the popular preaching of the day? Mere flowers of rhetoric are like the blue and red blossoms in cornfields--pleasing to those who come for amusement, but prejudicial to those who would reap the grain.

4. The condition of your strength. Is your ability to do God’s will, to work for Him, and to endure pains and sacrifices, up to the highest standard which you have ever reached? or is such spiritual strength perceptibly on the decline? How many forget that it is impossible robe good without self-denial and effort, and that in order to such exertion we must have strength. The soul will always be feeble and sickly so long as this is lacking.

Let us go on, then, to describe some timely remedies.

1. Avoid everything which disagrees with your soul’s health. Many dangerous diseases are infectious, and hence, evil companions, and unlawful pleasures, cannot be too carefully shunned. “lord, I trust thou hast pardoned the bad examples I have set before others,” said old Thomas Fuller in his prayer, “be pleased also to pardon me the sins which they have committed by my bad examples.” The Nazarites whose strict vows allowed them to drink no wine, also forbade them to cut grapes from which wine is made. And so, they who would enjoy spiritual health, must not only avoid sin in itself, but also the companionship and associations which lead to it.

2. Retirement. The Great Physician should be sought often, that we may be alone with Him. Virtue always goeth out of Him to heal those who thus manifest a desire for His saving help. Especially, during the holy season of Lent, let us thus seek to be alone with the Saviour. “Depart from the highway,” says St. Chrysostom, “and transplant thyself in some enclosed ground, for it is hard for a tree that stands by the wayside to keep her fruit till it be ripe.”

3. We must be willing to take freely of the balm of Gilead, the doctrine of God’s unchangeable love; and also of bitter herbs, such as meditations on the shipwrecks and apostasies of unfaithful Christians.

4. Take plenty of exercise. Attend diligently on all means of grace, public and private prayer, the Lord’s Supper, and labour with cheerfulness in the Master’s vineyard. Again, therefore, I ask the question of the text: “Art thou in health, my brother?” If honesty obliges you to answer no, then let me implore you to lose no time in seeking for the Good Physician. Cry aloud, this day, to the Good Physician: “Have mercy on us, O Lord, Thou Son of David!” The virtue which goes forth from Him is no mere temporary palliative. Jesus not only comforts, but He cures. Wilt thou be made whole? Look to Christ Jesus to do it for you. (J. N. Norton.)

Health of body in moral state

The lesson of this close interaction of mind and body is that we should put the whole treatment of the body on a moral basis. De Quincey closes the section dealing with health of his treatise on casuistry with some strong words, which have added weight from his own mistakes in dealing with himself: “Casuistry, justly and without infringing any truth of Christianity, urges the care of health as the basis of all moral action, because, in fact, of all voluntary action. Every impulse of bad health jars or untunes some string in the fine harp of human volition, and, because a man cannot be a moral being but in proportion of his free agency, therefore it is clear that no man can be in a high sense moral, except in so far as through health he commands his bodily powers, and is not commanded by them.” (Hugh Black, M. A.)

Wanton abuse of health

Health is the sum of money in the bank which will support you, economically spent. But you spend foolishly and draw on the principal. This diminishes the income, and you draw the oftener and the larger drafts until you become bankrupt. Overeating, overworking, every imprudence is a draft on life which health cashes and changes at a thousand per cent and interest. Every abuse of health hastens death. (F. G. Welch, M. D.)

Verse 12

2 Samuel 20:12

And when the man maw that all the people stood still.

Horror at sight of a slaughtered man

What unutterable, illimitable pity it seems that our horror at the corpse of a slaughtered man should not have been made just so much stronger as to render war impossible! It looks as if human nature has been within half an inch of escaping that Upas tree of all evils (Chas. Buxton.)

Verses 16-22

2 Samuel 20:16-22

Then cried a wise woman out of the city.

Abel’s oracle; or prudence and peaceableness

The people in Abel of Bethmaachah are on the verge of ruin, for Joab is battering away at the walls. Soon his soldiers will be pouring into the city, and the sword will devour and destroy. Now if a man could do wrong and suffer alone it would be more tolerable. No man can, how, ever, suffer alone. We always suffer in greater or less degree by any sin committed by our fellows. We are all so co-related, interwoven. We may even, as one has said, “sin in the persons of other men,” for those who received an evil influence from us may go on sinning through that influence, and so suffer through their own sin and ours. Even when we have passed from this stage of existence our influence will still live. “Being dead we speak,” either for evil or for good. It is so hard to check evil once committed, much more to stop it altogether. Every day we meet with instances of similar suffering. A father has forged a cheque, and his children must suffer, although it is not their fault that they are his children. A mother is fretful and gloomy, and the whole household is made wretched. A brother defrauds another; or over-speculates with money entrusted to him, and his sisters are ruined; or a marriage just about to take place is checked, and the sister’s hopes blighted. Sin is terrible. Its near and remote consequences are beyond our power of conception. The deed of folly and sin soaks into the lives of others, and breaks out or flows on in channels undreamt of. We can do nothing that shall have an end in ourselves. “One sinner destroyeth much good.” The rough, unskilled hand touching a picture, or attempting to repair the delicate mechanism of a watch, may do much greater damage than can be conceived. So one Sheba can imperil a city. So one hidden sin can endanger salvation--can ruin a soul.

But we see, on the other hand, that the power of an individual to bless may balance the evil wrought by the careless and selfish. While Joab’s soldiers are battering the walls, above the din is heard the voice of a woman--“Hear! listen! listen, I pray you!” “Deliver him up, and I will depart from the city.” This was the concession the wise woman wanted, and soon Sheba’s head was thrown over the wall. Then Joab blew the trumpet of recall, and his soldiers dropped their arms and refrained from further attack. The city was saved.

1. We may learn that as no city is safe with a traitor in it, so no heart is safe where a single sin is cherished. We must pluck out or cut off the sin that besets or absorbs us.

2. We should in all circumstances seek to act in a commonsense manner. Wisdom is not merely extraordinary knowledge, but perception.

3. There was no sacrifice of principle in the action of the woman or of the citizens. Caiaphas in after ages suggested that it was better that Christ should die than that the whole nation should perish. Caiaphas cared not that Christ was innocent. Christ had not brought the evil Sheba had. It was better for a nation to suffer than to permit an innocent man to be condemned.

4. The wise woman chose a suitable time for ending the strife. Some good projects are marred through being inopportune, but it was not so in this ease. The woman had done all she could to save the city. Conclusion. In the matter of our salvation, we would say, let not the traitor of pride and procrastination be permitted to remain within the soul. Cast away self-will and pride, and seek peace. Law is terrible, so long as we are not in harmony with it, not when our sin is forgiven. Christ has come to make peace. He is our peace. He saw our danger. At the right moment he interposed. He allowed Himself to bear contumely and crucifixion that we might be delivered. He took, as it were, the place of Sheba. He was made sin for us, and permitted Himself to be case out, that we might be saved. He died in our place, for sin-enslaved, defiant, rebellious souls. He did it unasked. He did it from pure love. He saw not one man, but a whole world perishing, and He said, “Better that I should die than that all these should perish.” (F. Hastings.)

Verse 18

2 Samuel 20:18

They shall surely ask counsel at Abel.

An old-time custom

It will have to come to that again. Things cannot be settled really and lastingly except by counsel, wisdom, consent. The sword has had its day; it is a fool’s argument. What is the idea of the text that is translatable into the practice of all places and all ages? Whether there was an oracle at Abel, whether there was a counsel of referees there, whether this one wise woman had in her own hand, as it were, the decision of important controversies, we can never determine: suffice it to know that there was a time, holy, sabbatic time, when men said, Let us go to the little town of Abel and talk this matter out: and so they ended the matter. The point to which we should direct attention is that there comes a moment when things must be settled by authority. Blessed are they who consent to the constitution of that authority; then it is no longer despotism or tyranny, it is settlement by consent. In old time men were wont to take counsel at Abel; and so they ended the matter. They discussed it, canvassed it, threshed it out, and went into it through and through, saw what it was made of, and then, having done so, they put out hand to hand, and were men and brothers once more. This same principle is amongst us like a ghost. Sometimes we get it in a concrete form and work it into the very practice of life, yet it is ever amongst us as a kind of spectre, some being more or less afraid of it, some offering it hospitality, all acknowledging that if it really could be brought into play on a large and just basis it would settle everything.

The Abel of experience. There is an Abel, a venerable city, called Experience; why not go down to the Abel of experience, take counsel there: and so settle the matter? Experience ought to go for something. Experience is man’s account of life. He tells you where he has been, what he has done, how he has conducted himself, and what results have accrued from the policies and the processes which he has adopted. We ought to hear that man. We always think there is a shorter cut than he took. Every age think it could work the programme better than Solomon worked it. For a long period this must go on, but the day will come when experience will go for something, when grey hairs will be taken as the symbols of philosophy, when the wrinkled face will itself be a title to be heard on all the practical questions and issues of life.

The Abel of time. Why not go to another aspect of this same experience, another corner of this same Abel, and consult Time? Why not admit Time to our counsels? Why leap at new theories? Why bristle up when the unpronouncable name of some lager-beer drinker is associated with some new mare’s nest in the realm of letters and theology? How many theories have come and gone! Where are they? Gone with the lager-beer! When men come to you with new theories, you should say, We must test these, or see them tested by long time. The Cross--the weird, grim, ghastly Cross--is nineteen centuries old, and it lifts itself up to-day the symbol of universal life. As for these theories and inventions of yours, it is only right that we should see how they bear the stress and the sifting of time. In old time our fathers were wont to come to the Abel of the Bible; venerable men would say, To the law and to the testimony! Perhaps they had too narrow a way of referring to the scriptures; they might make too much of a chapter and a verse, they might not sufficiently compare Scripture with Scripture and get their souls into the very genius of Divine revelation as to speak Biblically rather than textually: but their principle was right. They said, We know nothing of God but what is revealed, we know nothing of the future but what is written in the Book, we know nothing about sin and about redemption except what we are told by the revelation of God, as we believe it to be: therefore let us go to:

the Abel of the Bible, take counsel, and so end the matter. I am here to say in my own name, as the result of my own searching and experience, that I can get no answers to the greatest problems of mind and time equal in largeness, in precision, in hopefulness, to the answers that are given in the Bible. There are other answers, but I have found none that can stretch themselves with ease and dignity over the whole space of necessity. (J. Parker, D. D.)

Asking counsel at Abel

It has been supposed that the true interpretation of asking counsel at Abel is that Abel had become famous for its wisdom. In one of the Targums we read: “Remember now that which is written in the book of the law, to ask a city concerning peace at the first. Hast thou done so to ask of Abel if they will make peace.” No certain interpretation can be given to the words; but we are at liberty to remember that even superstition has sometimes played a useful part in history. Men have attached importance to times, places, emotions, and by so much have been checked in their impulses and subdued in their fiery ambitions. (J. Parker, D. D.)


Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "2 Samuel 20". The Biblical Illustrator. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/tbi/2-samuel-20.html. 1905-1909. New York.
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