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Bible Commentaries

The Expositor's Bible Commentary

2 Samuel 4

Verses 1-12




2 Samuel 3:22-39; 2 Samuel 4:1-12

IT is quite possible that, in treating with Abner, David showed too complacent a temper, that he treated too lightly his appearance in arms against him at the pool of Gibeon, and that he neglected to demand an apology for the death of Asahel. Certainly it would have been wise had some measures been taken to soothe the ruffled temper of Joab and reconcile him to the new arrangement This, however, was not done. David was so happy in the thought that the civil war was to cease, and that all Israel were about to recognize him as their king, that he would not go back on the past, or make reprisals even for the death of Asahel. He was willing to let bygones be bygones. Perhaps, too, he thought that if Asahel met his death at the hand of Abner, it was his own rashness that was to blame for it. Anyhow he was greatly impressed with the value of Abner’s service on his behalf, and much interested in the project to which he was now going forth - gathering all Israel to the king, to make a league with him and bind themselves to his allegiance.

In these measures Joab had not been consulted. When Abner was at Hebron, Joab was absent on a military enterprise. In that enterprise he had been very successful, and he was able to appear at Hebron with the most popular evidence of success that a general could bring - a large amount of spoil. No doubt Joab was elated with his success, and was in that very temper when a man is most disposed to resent his being overlooked and to take more upon him than is meet. When he heard of David’s agreement with Abner, he was highly displeased. First he went to the king, and scolded him for his simplicity in believing Abner. It was but a stratagem of Abner’s to allow him to come to Hebron, ascertain the state of David’s affairs, and take his own steps more effectively in the interest of his opponent. Suspicion reigned in Joab’s heart; the generosity of David’s nature was not only not shared by him, but seemed silliness itself. His rudeness to David is highly offensive. He speaks to him in the tone of a master to a servant, or in the tone of those servants who rule their master. "What hast thou done? Behold, Abner came unto thee; why is it that thou hast sent him away, and he is quite gone? Thou knowest Abner the son of Ner, that he came to deceive thee, and to know thy going out and thy coming in, and to know all that thou doest." David is spoken to like one guilty of inexcusable folly, as if he were accountable to Joab, and not Joab to him. Of the king’s answer to Joab, nothing is recorded; but from David’s confession (2 Samuel 3:39) that the sons of Zeruiah were too strong for him, we may infer that it was not very firm or decided, and that Joab set it utterly at nought. For the very first thing that Joab did after seeing the king was to send a message to Abner, most likely in David’s name, but without David’s knowledge, asking him to return. Joab was at the gate ready for his treacherous business, and taking Abner aside as if for private conversation, he plunged his dagger in his breast, ostensibly in revenge for the death of his brother Asahel. There was something eminently mean and dastardly in the deed. Abner was now on the best of terms with Joab’s master, and he could not have apprehended danger from the servant. If assassination be mean among civilians, it is eminently mean among soldiers. The laws of hospitality were outraged when one who had just been David’s guest was assassinated in David’s city. The outrage was all the greater, as was also the injury to King David and to the whole kingdom, that the crime was committed when Abner was on the eve of an important and delicate negotiation with the other tribes of Israel, since the arrangement which he hoped to bring about was likely to be broken off by the news of his shameful death. At no moment are the feelings of men less to be trifled with than when, after long and fierce alienation, they are on the point of coming together. Abner had brought the tribes of Israel to that point, but now, like a flock of birds frightened by a shot, they were certain to fly asunder. All this danger Joab set at nought, the one thought of taking revenge for the death of his brother absorbing every other, and making him, like so many other men when excited by a guilty passion, utterly regardless of every consequence provided only his revenge was satisfied.

How did David act toward Joab? Most kings would at once have put him to death, and David’s subsequent action towards the murderers of Ishbosheth shows that, even in his judgment, this would have been the proper retribution on Joab for his bloody deed. But David did not feel himself strong enough to deal with Joab according to his deserts. It might have been better for him during the rest of his life if he had acted with more vigour now. But instead of making an example of Joab, he contented himself with pouring out on him a vial of indignation, publicly washing his hands of the nefarious transaction, and pronouncing on its author and his family a terrible malediction. We cannot but shrink from the way in which David brought in Joab’s family to share his curse; "Let there not fail from the house of Joab one that hath an issue, or that is a leper, or that leaneth on a staff, or that falleth on the sword, or that lacketh bread." Yet we must remember that according to the sentiment of those times a man and his house were so identified that the punishment due to the head was regarded as due to the whole. In our day we see a law in constant operation which visits iniquities of the parents upon the children with a terrible retribution. The drunkard’s children are woeful sufferers for their parent’s sin; the family of the felon carries a stigma forever. We recognize this as a law of Providence; but we do not act on it ourselves in inflicting punishment. In David’s time, however, and throughout the whole Old Testament period, punishments due to the fathers were formally shared by their families. When Joshua sentenced Achan to die for his crime in stealing from the spoils of Jericho a wedge of gold and a Babylonish garment, his wife and children were put to death along with him. In denouncing the curse on Joab’s family as well as himself, David therefore only recognized a law which was universally acted on in his day. The law may have been a hard one, but we are not to blame David for acting on a principle of retribution universally acknowledged. We are to remember, too, that David was now acting in a public capacity, and as the chief magistrate of the nation. If he had put Joab to death, his act would have involved his family in many a woe; in denouncing his deeds and calling for retribution on them generation after generation, he only carried out the same principle a little further. That Joab deserved to die for his dastardly crime, none could have denied; if David abstained from inflicting that punishment, it was only natural that he should be very emphatic in proclaiming what such a criminal might look for, in never-failing visitations on himself and his seed, when he was left to be dealt with by the God of justice.

Having thus disposed of Joab, David had next to dispose of the dead body of Abner. He determined that every circumstance connected with Abner’s funeral should manifest the sincerity of his grief at his untimely end. In the first place, he caused him to be buried at Hebron. We know of the tomb at Hebron where the bodies of the patriarchs lay; if it was at all legitimate to place others in that grave, we may believe that a place in it was found for Abner. In the second place, the mourning company attended the funeral with rent clothes and girdings of sackcloth, while the king himself followed the bier, and at the grave both king and people gave way to a burst of tears. In the third place, the king pronounced an elegy over him, short, but expressive of his sense of the unworthy death which had come to such a man:

"Should Abner die as a fool dieth?

Thy hands were not bound, nor thy feet put into fetters;

As a man falleth before the children of iniquity, so didst thou fall."

Had he died the death of one taken in battle, his bound hands and his feet in fetters would have denoted that after honourable conflict he had been defeated in the field, and that he died the death due to a public enemy. Instead of this, he had fallen before the children of iniquity, before men mean enough to betray him and murder him, while he was under the protection of the king. In the fourth place, he sternly refused to eat bread till that day, so full of darkness and infamy, should have passed away. The public manifestations of David’s grief showed very clearly how far he was from approving of the death of Abner. And they had the desired effect. The people were pleased with the evidence afforded of David’s feelings, and the event that had seemed likely to destroy his prospects turned out in this way in his favour. "The people took notice of this, and it pleased them, as whatsoever the king did pleased all the people." It was another evidence of the conquering power of goodness and forbearance. By his generous treatment of his foes, David secured a position in the hearts of his people, and established his kingdom on a basis of security which he could not have obtained by any amount of severity. For ages and ages, the two methods of dealing with a reluctant people, generosity and severity, have been pitted against each other, and always with the effect that severity fails and generosity succeeds. There were many who were indignant at the clemency shown by Lord Canning after the Indian mutiny. They would have had him inspire terror by acts of awful severity. But the peaceful career of our Indian empire and the absence of any attempt to renew the insurrection since that time show that the policy of clemency was the policy of wisdom and of success.

Still another step was taken by David that shows how painfully he was impressed by the death of Abner. To "his servants" - that is, his cabinet or his staff - he said in confidence; "Know ye not that there is a prince and a great man fallen this day in Israel?" He recognized in Abner one of those men of consummate ability who are born to rule, or at least to render the highest service to the actual ruler of a country by their great influence over men. It seems very probable that he looked to him as his own chief officer for the future. Rebel though he had been, he seemed quite cured of his rebellion, and now that he cordially acknowledged David’s right to the throne, he would probably have been his right-hand man. Abner, Saul’s cousin, was probably a much older man than Joab, who was David’s nephew, and who could not have been much older than David himself. The loss of Abner was a great personal loss especially as it threw him more into the hands of these sons of Zeruiah, Joab and Abishai, whose impetuous, lordly temper was too much for him. to restrain. The representation to his confidential servants, "I am weak, and these men, the sons of Zeruiah, are too strong for me," was an appeal to them for cordial help in the affairs of the kingdom, in order that Joab and his brother might not be able to carry everything their own way. David, like many another man, needed to say, Save me from my friends. We get a vivid glimpse of the perplexities of kings, and of the compensations of a humbler lot. Men in high places, worried by the difficulties of managing their affairs and servants, and by the endless annoyances to which their jealousies and their self-will give rise, may find much to envy in the simple, unembarrassed life of the humblest of the people.

From the assassination of Abner, the real source of the opposition that had been raised to David, the narrative proceeds to the assassination of Ishbosheth, the titular king. "When Saul’s son heard that Abner was dead in Hebron, his hands were feeble, and all the Israelites were troubled." The contrast is striking between his conduct under difficulty and that of David. In the history of the latter, faith often faltered in times of trouble, and the spirit of distrust found a footing in his soul. But these occasions occurred in the course of protracted and terrible struggles; they were exceptions to his usual bearing; faith commonly bore him up in his darkest trials. Ishbosheth, on the other hand, seems to have had no resource, no sustaining power whatever, under visible reverses. David’s slips were like the temporary falling back of the gallant soldier when surprised by a sudden onslaught, or when, fagged and weary, he is driven back by superior numbers; but as soon as he has recovered himself, he dashes back undaunted to the conflict. Ishbosheth was like the soldier who throws down his arms and rushes from the field as soon as he feels the bitter storm of battle. With all his falls, there was something in David that showed him to be cast in a different mould from ordinary men. He was habitually aiming at a higher standard, and upheld by the consciousness of a higher strength; he was ever and anon resorting to "the secret place of the Most High," taking hold of Him as his covenant God, and labouring to draw down from Him the inspiration and the strength of a nobler life than that of the mass of the children of men.

The godless course which Ishbosheth had followed in setting up a claim to the throne in opposition to the Divine call of David not only lost him the distinction he coveted, but cost him his life. He made himself a mark for treacherous and heartless men; and one day, while lying in his bed at noon, was dispatched by two of his servants. The two men that murdered him seem to have been among those whom Saul enriched with the spoil of the Gibeonites. They were brothers, men of Beeroth, which was formerly one of the cities of the Gibeonites, but was now reckoned to Benjamin.

Saul appears to have attacked the Beerothites, and given their property to his favourites (comp. 1 Samuel 22:7 and 2 Samuel 21:2). A curse went with the transaction; Ishbosheth, one of Saul’s sons, was murdered by two of those who were enriched by the unhallowed deed; and many years after, his bloody house had to yield up seven of his sons to justice, when a great famine showed that for this crime wrath rested on the land.

The murderers of Ishbosheth, Baanah and Rechab, mistaking the character of David as much as it had been mistaken by the Amalekite who pretended that he had slain Saul, hastened to Hebron, bearing with them the head of their victim, a ghastly evidence of the reality of the deed. This revolting trophy they carried all the way from Mahanaim to Hebron, a distance of some fifty miles. Mean and selfish themselves, they thought other men must be the same. They were among those poor creatures who are unable to rise above their own poor level in their conceptions of others. When they presented themselves before David, he showed all his former superiority to selfish, jealous feelings. He was roused indeed to the highest pitch of indignation. We can hardly conceive the astonishment and horror with which they would receive his answer, "As the Lord liveth, who hath redeemed my soul out of all adversity, when one told me saying. Behold, Saul is dead, thinking to have brought good tidings, I took hold on him and slew him in Ziklag, who thought that I would have given him a reward for his tidings. How much more when wicked men have slain a righteous person in his own house upon his bed! Shall I not therefore require his blood at your hand, and take you away from the earth?" Simple death was not judged a severe enough punishment for such guilt; as they had cut off the head of Ishbosheth after killing him, so after they were slain their hands and their feet were cut off; and thereafter they were hanged over the pool in Hebron - a token of the execration in which the crime was held. Here was another evidence that deeds of violence done to his rivals, so far from finding acceptance, were detestable in the eyes of David. And here was another fulfillment of the resolution which he had made when he took possession of the throne - "I will early destroy all the wicked of the land, that I may cut off all wicked doers from the city of the Lord."

These rapid, instantaneous executions by order of David have raised painful feelings in many. Granting that the retribution was justly deserved, and granting that the rapidity of the punishment was in accord with military law, ancient and modern, and that it was necessary in order to make a due impression on the people, still it may be asked. How could David, as a pious man, hurry these sinners into the presence of their Judge without giving them any exhortation to repentance or leaving them a moment in which to ask for mercy? The question is undoubtedly a difficult one. But the difficulty arises in a great degree from our ascribing to David and others the same knowledge of the future state and the same vivid impressions regarding it that we have ourselves. We often forget that to those who lived in the Old Testament the future life was wrapped in far greater obscurity than it is to us. That good men had no knowledge of it, we cannot allow; but certainly they knew vastly less about it than has been revealed to us. And the general effect of this was that the consciousness of a future life was much fainter even among good men then than now. They did not think about it; it was not present to their thoughts. There is no use trying to make David either a wiser or a better man than he was. There is no use trying to place him high above the level or the light of his age. If it be asked, How did David feel with reference to the future life of these men? the answer is, that probably it was not much, if at all, in his thoughts. That which was prominent in his thoughts was that they had sacrificed their lives by their atrocious wickedness, and the sooner they were punished the better. If he thought of their future, he would feel that they were in the hands of God, and that they would be judged by Him according to the tenor of their lives. It cannot be said that compassion for them mingled with David’s feelings. The one prominent feeling he had was that of their guilt; for that they must suffer. And David, like other soldiers who have shed much blood, was so accustomed to the sight of violent death, that the horror which it usually excites was no longer familiar to him.

It is the Gospel of Jesus Christ that has brought life and immortality to light. So far from the future life being a dim and shadowy revelation, it is now one of the clearest doctrines of the faith. It is one of the doctrines which every earnest preacher of the Gospel is profoundly earnest in dwelling on. That death ushers us into the presence of God, that after death Cometh the judgment, that every one of us is to give account of himself to God, that the final condition of men is to be one of misery or one of life, are among the clearest revelations of the Gospel. And this fact invests every man’s death with profound significance in the Christian’s view. That the condemned criminal may have time to prepare, our courts of law invariably interpose an interval between the sentence and the punishment. Would only that men were more consistent here! If we shudder at the thought of a dying sinner appearing in all the blackness of his guilt before God, let us think more how we may turn sinners from their wickedness while they live. Let us see the atrocious guilt of encouraging them in ways of sin that cannot but bring on them the retribution of a righteous God. O ye who, careless yourselves, laugh at the serious impressions and scruples of others; ye who teach those that would otherwise do better to drink and gamble and especially to scoff; ye who do your best to frustrate the prayers of tender-hearted fathers and mothers whose deepest desire is that their children may be saved; ye, in one word, who are missionaries of the devil and help to people hell - would that you pondered your awful guilt! For "whosoever shall cause any of the least of these to offend, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck and he were cast into the depths of the sea."

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Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on 2 Samuel 4". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary".