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Bible Commentaries
2 Samuel 20

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-26




2 Samuel 19:41-43; 2 Samuel 20:1-26.

DAVID was now virtually restored to his kingdom; but he had not even left Gilgal when fresh troubles began. The jealousy between Judah and Israel broke out in spite of him. The cause of complaint was on the part of the ten tribes; they were offended at not having been waited for to take part in escorting the king to Jerusalem. First, the men of Israel, in harsh language, accused the men of Judah of having stolen the king away, because they had transported him over the Jordan. To this the men of Judah replied that the king was of their kin; therefore they had taken the lead, but they had received no special reward or honour in consequence. The men of Israel, however, had an argument in reply to this: they were ten tribes, and therefore had so much more right to the king; and Judah had treated them with contempt in not consulting or co-operating with them in bringing him back. It is added that the words of the men of Judah were fiercer than the words of the men of Israel.

It is in a poor and paltry light that both sides appear in this inglorious dispute. There was no solid grievance whatever, nothing that might not have been easily settled if the soft answer that turneth away wrath had been resorted to instead of fierce and exasperating words. Alas I that miserable tendency of our nature to take offence when we think we have been overlooked, - what mischief and misery has it bred in the world! The men of Israel were foolish to take offence; but the men of Judah were neither magnanimous nor forbearing in dealing with their unreasonable humour. The noble spirit of clemency that David had shown awakened but little permanent response. The men of Judah, who were foremost in Absalom’s rebellion, were like the man in the parable that had been forgiven ten thousand talents, but had not the generosity to forgive the trifling offence committed against them, as they thought, by their brethren of Israel. So they seized their fellow-servant by the throat and demanded that he should pay them the uttermost farthing. Judah played false to his national character; for he was not "he whom his brethren should praise."

What was the result? Any one acquainted with human nature might have foretold it with tolerable certainty. Given on one side a proneness to take offence, a readiness to think that one has been overlooked, and on the other a want of forbearance, a readiness to retaliate, - it is easy to see that the result will be a serious breach. It is just what we witness so often in children. One is apt to be dissatisfied, and complains of ill-treatment; another has no forbearance, and retorts angrily: the result is a quarrel, with this difference, that while the quarrels of children pass quickly away, the quarrels of nations or of factions last miserably long.

Much inflammable material being thus provided, a casual spark speedily set it on fire, Sheba, an artful Benjamite, raised the standard of revolt against David, and the excited ten tribes, smarting with the fierce words of the men of Judah, flocked to his standard. Most miserable proceeding! The quarrel had begun about a mere point of etiquette, and now they cast off God’s anointed king, and that, too, after the most signal token of God’s anger had fallen on Absalom and his rebellious crew. There are many wretched enough slaveries in this world, but the slavery of pride is perhaps the most mischievous and humiliating of all.

And here it cannot be amiss to call attention to the very great neglect of the rules and spirit of Christianity that is apt, even at the present day, to show itself among professing Christians in connection with their disputes. This is so very apparent that one is apt to think that the settlement of quarrels is the very last matter to which Christ’s followers learn to apply the example and instructions of their Master. When men begin in earnest to follow Christ, they usually pay considerable attention to certain of His precepts; they turn away from scandalous sins, they observe prayer, they show some interest in Christian objects, and they abandon some of the more frivolous ways of the world. But alas! when they fall into differences, they are prone in dealing with them to leave all Christ’s precepts behind them. See in what an unlovely and unloving spirit the controversies of Christians have usually been conducted; how much of bitterness and personal animosity they show, how little forbearance and generosity; how readily they seem to abandon themselves to the impulses of their own hearts. Controversy rouses temper, and temper creates a tempest through which you cannot see clearly. And how many are the quarrels in Churches or congregations that are carried on with all the heat and bitterness of unsanctified men! How much offence is taken at trifling neglects or mistakes! Who remembers, even in its spirit, the precept in the Sermon on the Mount, "If any man smite thee on the right cheek, turn to him the other also"? Who remembers the beatitude, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God"? Who bears in mind the Apostle’s horror at the unseemly spectacle of saints carrying their quarrels to heathen tribunals, instead of settling them as Christians quietly among themselves? Who weighs the earnest counsel, "Endeavour to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace"? Who prizes our gracious Lord’s most blessed legacy, ’’Peace I leave with you, My peace I give unto you; not as the world giveth give I unto you"? Do not all such texts show that it is incumbent on Christians to be most careful and watchful, when any difference arises, to guard against carnal feeling of every kind, and strive to the very utmost to manifest the spirit of Christ? Yet is it not at such times that they are most apt to leave all their Christianity behind them, and engage in unseemly wrangles with one another? Does not the devil very often get it all his own way, whoever may be in the right, and whoever in the wrong? And is not frequent occasion given thereby to the enemy to blaspheme, and, in the very circumstances that should bring out in clear and strong light the true spirit of Christianity, is there not often, in place of that, an exhibition of rudeness and bitterness that makes the world ask, What better are Christians than other men?

But let us return to King David and his people. The author of the insurrection was "a man of Belial, whose name was Sheba." He is called "the son of Bichri, a Benjamite." Benjamin had a son whose name was Becher, and the adjective formed from that would be Bichrite; some have thought that Bichri denotes not his father, but his family. Saul appears to have been of the same family (see Speaker’s Commentary in loco). It is thus quite possible that Sheba was a relation of Saul, and that he had always cherished a grudge against David for taking the throne which he had filled. Here, we may remark in passing, would have been a real temptation to Mephibosheth to join an insurrection, for if this had succeeded he was the man who would naturally have become king. But there is no reason to believe that Mephibosheth favoured Sheba, and therefore no reason to doubt the truth of the account he gave of himself to David. The war-cry of Sheba was an artful one - "We have no part in David, neither have we inheritance in the son of Jesse." It was a scornful and exaggerated mockery of the claim that Judah had asserted as being of the same tribe with the king, whereas the other tribes stood in no such relation to him. "Very well," was virtually the cry of Sheba - "if we have no part in David, neither any inheritance in the son of Jesse, let us get home as fast as possible, and leave his friends, the tribe of Judah, to make of him what they can." It was not so much a setting up of a new rebellion as a scornful repudiation of all interest in the existing king. Instead of going with David from Gilgal to Jerusalem, they went up every man to his tent or to his home. It is not said that they intended actively to oppose David, and from this part of the narrative we should suppose that all that they intended was to make a public protest against the unworthy treatment which they held that they had received. It must have greatly disturbed the pleasure of David’s return to Jerusalem that this unseemly secession occurred by the way. A chill must have fallen upon his heart just as it was beginning to recover its elasticity. And much anxiety must have haunted him as to the issue - whether or not the movement would go on to another insurrection like Absalom’s; or whether, having discharged their dissatisfied feeling, the people of Israel would return sullenly to their allegiance.

Nor could the feelings of King David be much soothed when he re-entered his home. The greater part of his family had been with him in his exile, and when he returned his house was occupied by the ten women whom he had left to keep it, and with whom Absalom had behaved dishonourably. And here was another trouble resulting from the rebellion that could not be adjusted in a satisfactory way. The only way of disposing of them was to put them in ward, to shut them up in confinement, to wear out the rest of their lives in a dreary, joyless widowhood. All joy and brightness was thus taken out of their lives, and personal freedom was denied them. They were doomed, for no fault of theirs, to the weary lot of captives, cursing the day, probably, when their beauty had brought them to the palace, and wishing that they could exchange lots with the humblest of their sisters that breathed the air of freedom. Strange that, with all his spiritual instincts, David could not see that a system which led to such miserable results must lie under the curse of God!

As events proceeded, it appeared that active mischief was likely to arise from Sheba’s movement. He was accompanied by a body of followers, and the king was afraid lest he should get into some fenced city, and escape the correction which his wickedness deserved. He accordingly sent Amasa to assemble the men of Judah, and return within three days. This was Amasa’s first commission after his being appointed general of the troops. Whether he found the people unwilling to go out again immediately to war, or whether they were unwilling to accept him as their general, we are not told, but certainly he tarried longer than the time appointed. Thereupon the king, who was evidently alarmed at the serious dimensions which the insurrection of Sheba was assuming, sent for Abishai, Joab’s brother, and ordered him to take what troops were ready and start immediately to punish Sheba. Abishai took "Joab’s men, and the Cherethites and the Pelethites, and all the mighty men." With these he went out from Jerusalem to pursue after Sheba. How Joab conducted himself on this occasion is a strange but characteristic chapter of his history. It does not appear that he had any dealings with David, or that David had any dealings with him. He simply went out with his brother, and, being a man of the strongest will and greatest daring, he seems to have resolved on some fit occasion to resume his command in spite of all the king’s arrangements.

They had not gone farther from Jerusalem than the Pool of Gibeon when they were overtaken by Amasa, followed doubtless by his troops. When Joab and Amasa met, Joab, actuated by jealousy towards him as having superseded him in the command of the army, treacherously slew him, leaving his dead body on the ground, and, along with Abishai, prepared to give pursuit after Sheba. An officer of Joab’s was stationed beside Amasa’s dead body, to call on the soldiers, when they saw that their chief was dead, to follow Joab as the friend of David. But the sight of the dead body of Amasa only made them stand still - horrified, most probably, at the crime of Joab, and unwilling to place themselves under one who had been guilty of such a crime. The body of Amasa was accordingly removed from the highway into the field, and his soldiers were then ready enough to follow Joab. Joab was now in undisturbed command of the whole force, having set aside all David’s arrangements as completely as if they had never been made. Little did David thus gain by superseding Joab and appointing Amasa in his room. The son of Zeruiah proved himself again too strong for him. The hideous crime by which he got rid of his rival was nothing to him. How he could reconcile all this with his duty to his king we are unable to see. No doubt he trusted to the principle that "success succeeds," and believed firmly that if he were able entirely to suppress Sheba’s insurrection and return to Jerusalem with the news that every trace of the movement was obliterated, David would say nothing of the past, and silently restore the general who, with all his faults, did so well in the field.

Sheba was quite unable to offer opposition to the force that was thus led against him. He retreated northwards from station to station, passing in succession through the different tribes, until he came to the extreme northern border of the land. There, in a town called Abel-beth-Maachah, he took refuge, till Joab and his forces, accompanied by the Berites, a people of whom we know nothing, having overtaken him at Abel, besieged the town. Works were raised for the purpose of capturing Abel, and an assault was made on the wall for the purpose of throwing it down. Then a woman, gifted with the wisdom for which the place was proverbial, came to Joab to remonstrate against the siege. The ground of her remonstrance was that the people of Abel had done nothing on account of which their city should be destroyed. Joab, she said, was trying to destroy "a city and a mother in Israel," and thereby to swallow up the inheritance of the Lord. In what sense was Joab seeking to destroy a mother in Israel? The word seems to be used to denote a mother-city or district capital, on which other places were depending. What you are trying to destroy is not a mere city of Israel, but a city which has its family of dependent villages, all of which must share in the ruin if we are destroyed. But Joab assured the woman that he had no such desire. All that he wished was to get at Sheba, who had taken refuge within the city. If that be all, said the woman, I will engage to throw his head to thee over the wall. It was the interest of the people of the city to get rid of the man who was bringing them into so serious a danger. It was not difficult for them to get Sheba decapitated, and to throw his head over the wall to Joab. By this means the conspiracy was ended. As in Absalom’s case, the death of the leader was the ruin of the cause. No further stand was made by any one. Indeed, it is probable that the great body of Sheba’s followers had fallen away from him in the course of his northern flight, and that only a handful were with him in Abel. So "Joab blew a trumpet, and they retired from the city, every man to his tent. And Joab returned unto Jerusalem, to the king."

Thus, once again, the land had rest from war. At the close of the chapter we have a list of the chief officers of the kingdom, similar to that given in chapter 8 at the close of David’s foreign wars. It would appear that, peace being again restored, pains were taken by the king to improve and perfect the arrangements for the administration of the kingdom. The changes on the former list are not very numerous. Joab was again at the head of the army; Benaiah, as before, commanded the Cherethites and the Pelethites; Jehoshaphat was still recorder; Sheva (same as Seraiah) was scribe; and Zadok and Abiathar were priests. In two cases there was a change. A new office had been instituted - "Adoram was over the tribute;" the subjugation of so many foreign states which had to pay a yearly tribute to David called for this change. In the earlier list it is said that the king’s sons were chief rulers. No mention is made of king’s sons now; the chief ruler is Ira the Jairite. On the whole, there was little change; at the close of this war the kingdom was administered in the same manner and almost by the same men as before.

There is nothing to indicate that the kingdom was weakened in its external relations by the two insurrections that had taken place against David. It is to be observed that both of them were of very short duration. Between Absalom’s proclamation of himself at Hebron and his death in the wood of Ephraim there must have been a very short interval, not more than a fortnight. The insurrection of Sheba was probably all over in a week. Foreign powers could scarcely have heard of the beginning of the revolts before they heard of the close of them. There would be nothing therefore to give them any encouragement to rebel against David, and they do not appear to have made any such attempt. But in another and higher sense these revolts left painful consequences behind them. The chastening to which David was exposed in connection with them was very humbling. His glory as king was seriously impaired. It was humiliating that he should have had to fly from before his own son. It was hardly less humiliating that he was seen to lie so much at the mercy of Joab. He is unable to depose Joab, and when he tries to do so, Joab not only kills his successor, but takes possession by his own authority of the vacant place. And David can say nothing. In this relation of David to Joab we have a sample of the trials of kings. Nominally supreme, they are often the servants of their ministers and officers. Certainly David was not always his own master. Joab was really above him; frustrated, doubtless, some excellent plans; did great service by his rough patriotism and ready valour, but injured the good name of David and the reputation of his government by his daring crimes. The retrospect of this period of his reign could have given little satisfaction to the king, since he had to trace it, with all its calamities and sorrows, to his own evil conduct. And yet what David suffered, and what the nation suffered, was not, strictly speaking, the punishment of his sin. God had forgiven him his sin. David had sung, "Blessed is the man whose iniquity is forgiven, whose sin is covered." What he now suffered was not the visitation of God’s wrath, but a fatherly chastening, designed to deepen his contrition and quicken his vigilance. And surely we may say. If the fatherly chastening was so severe, what would the Divine retribution have been? If these things were done in the green tree, what would have been done in the dry? If David, even though forgiven, could not but shudder at all the terrible results of that course of sin which began with his allowing himself to lust after Bathsheba, what must be the feeling of many a lost soul, in the world of woe, recalling its first step in open rebellion against God, and thinking of all the woes, innumerable and unutterable, that have sprung therefrom? Oh, sin, how terrible a curse thou bringest! What serpents spring up from the dragon’s teeth! And how awful the fate of those who awake all too late to a sense of what thou art! Grant, O God, of Thine infinite mercy, that we all may be wise in time; that we may ponder the solemn truth, that "the wages of sin is death"; and that, without a day’s delay, we may flee for refuge to lay hold of the hope set before us, and find peace in believing on Him who came to take sin away by the sacrifice of Himself!

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on 2 Samuel 20". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/2-samuel-20.html.
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