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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible
2 Samuel 4

 

 

Introduction

SECTION 6. David is Initially Crowned King Of Judah And Then Of All Israel (2 Samuel 2:1 to 2 Samuel 5:5).

By now the all-conquering Philistines had swept into central Israel and at least up to the Jordan, and possibly beyond it, and had in the process occupied the main cities of central Israel (1 Samuel 31:7). The statement in 1 Samuel 31:7 about ‘those on the side of the Jordan’ may have been intended to indicate troops stationed beyond the Jordan, or alternatively it may simply have intended to indicate troops who had been stationed near the Jordan on the west side but to the rear of the battle, possibly in the hills around Gilgal and Jericho as in the times of Saul (compare 1 Samuel 13:6-7; 1 Samuel 13:11; 1 Samuel 14:11; 1 Samuel 14:22).

However, in view of the fact that it was not until five years later that Abner was able to set up Ish-bosheth as king over Israel in Mahanaim, (he reigned two years compared to David’s seven) it is probable that the Philistines certainly exercised some control in Transjordan, at least for a time. But the Philistines possibly came to recognise that in the end this was stretching their resources too far, for their major concern would no doubt have been to consolidate their empire west of Jordan, and they may thus have relaxed their grip on Transjordan, and even have allowed the appointment of Ish-bosheth as a vassal king. This may all be suggested by the extent of his rule.

This may also have been because the guerilla operations of the survivors of the Israelite army who had fled across the Jordan, and were now ably led by Abner, had been able to make life continually uncomfortable for them. The Philistines never liked hill fighting and guerilla warfare (compare the Syrians in 1 Kings 20:28), because in such circumstances they could not use their chariots, and they would also have recognised that they could not leave their own cities and farms unattended and unprotected for too long. They were simply not numerous enough to constantly occupy such a large area. Thus to appoint Ish-bosheth to rule for them might have been seen by them as a good way to ‘pacify the natives’, while at the same time allowing them to turn their attention elsewhere.

It is probable that their next move after defeating the Israelite army and occupying the Israelite cities would have been to occupy Judah to the south, but it would appear that this move was circumvented by David, who, after obtaining directions from YHWH, himself occupied Judah with his men (that would be how it appeared to the Philistines). The fact that the Philistines raised no objection to this suggests that they saw him as still their vassal and as having done this under the aegis of Achish, king of Gath. Indeed, they may well have admired the way in which, having been prevented from marching with the main army, he had demonstrated his initiative by himself ‘conquering’ that part of the land that they themselves had not invaded, for we must remember:

1). That Achish believed that David and the men of Judah were bitter enemies, and had no doubt told the other lords that it was so (1 Samuel 27:10-12).

2). That the remainder of the Philistine lords had only refused to allow him to accompany them lest he turn traitor in the midst of the battle, not because they were in general suspicious of his loyalty to Achish of Gath. They would thus have had no objection to his taking over Judah if, as they thought, he had done it in the name of Achish. We need not doubt that David meanwhile continued to use his gifts of diplomacy in his dealings with Achish.

The defeated and demoralised Israelites who had survived the battle, and had fled to places out of reach of the Philistines, would gradually over the next few months filter back, and if so were probably soon mobilised by Abner, Saul’s cousin and general, along with the men who were still with him, into a guerilla army. This is what we might have anticipated, for so demoralising had been their defeat that we would expect it to take a few years for them to stage a recovery. This would then explain why it took around five years before Abner was able to set up Ish-bosheth, Saul’s remaining son, as king in Mahanaim, east of Jordan. And as that rule was stated to have been over areas including the plain of Jezreel (unless this was a town or area in Transjordan, for there was also a Jezreel in Judah - Joshua 15:56), Benjamin and Ephraim in the central hill country, it is not likely that he could have achieved it without the consent of the Philistines. (Unless, of course, the descriptions were only theoretical). We are, however, left to guess all this, because it was not of interest to the writer whose main interest was first in describing how David became king over Judah, and then king over all Israel, in accordance with YHWH’s purpose.

Section Analysis.

a David is anointed as King over Judah and Ish-bosheth is set over Israel (2 Samuel 2:1-11).

b Abner and Israel seek to win the whole kingdom for Ish-bosheth by defeating Judah, but are soundly beaten. Abner personally slays Asahel, something which will finally result in his own death (2 Samuel 2:12-28).

c The aftermath of the invasion, the number of the slain, Judah mourn over Asahel (2 Samuel 2:29-32).

d David grows stronger in Hebron while Abner makes himself strong in the house of Saul in the midst of a weakening Israel (2 Samuel 3:1-6).

e Abner quarrels with Ish-bosheth and determines to betray him to David by advancing David’s claims in Israel (2 Samuel 3:7-16).

e Abner negotiates to advance David’s claims in Israel (2 Samuel 3:17-26).

d Joab makes himself strong by slaying Abner and obtaining blood revenge and the death of a rival (2 Samuel 3:27-30).

c The aftermath of Joab’s vengeance, description of the slain, Judah mourn over Abner (2 Samuel 3:31-39).

b The kingdom is taken from Ish-bosheth as a result of his assassination by two of his commanders, something which will finally result in their own death (2 Samuel 4:1-11).

a David becomes king over all Israel (2 Samuel 5:1-5).

Approaching these next chapters we need to pause and remember the words of the writer of Ecclesiastes 5:2, ‘God is in Heaven and you are on the earth, therefore let your words be few’, for they reveal a picture of the sovereign God enabling David to surmount all the temptations that came his way, while around him all were trying to lead him astray. For from that triumphant moment when he was anointed king over Judah, to his next moment of triumph when he was anointed king over all Israel, he was constantly beset by the temptation to use irregular methods for achieving God’s purposes, only to be kept from them either by YHWH or because of his own spiritual awareness (thus continuing YHWH’s perpetual watch over him portrayed in 1 Samuel 21-30).

In 2 Samuel 2, when his victorious army had swept an invading Israel before them there must have been the temptation for Judah to carry on the chase and take over the territory occupied by Ish-bosheth, a temptation brought under control by Abner’s wise words to Joab (2 Samuel 2:26), thus preventing a great deal of bitterness. In 2 Samuel 3 there was the temptation to enter into a league with Abner and stage a coup against Ish-bosheth, thus causing dissension in Israel, a temptation brought under control by the death of Abner at the hands of Joab, followed immediately by the temptation to take the way of Joab which his own spiritual morality protected him from. And in 2 Samuel 4 there was at least theoretically the temptation to accept the opportunity offered by the two commanders who had slain Ish-bosheth, by displaying the head of Ish-bosheth in order to demonstrate his own right to be king, from which he was again saved by his moral sensitivity. So in each case he was preserved, either by the activity of others whom YHWH used within His purposes (as with Abigail in 1 Samuel 25, and the Philistines in 1 Samuel 29:7), or more regularly because of his own innate spirituality and moral sensitivity (as so often in 1 Samuel). For in the end it was YHWH’s purpose that he receive the crown without arousing bitterness, by the public acclamation of all Israel. We can briefly sum up this section as follows:

After receiving and following the guidance of YHWH David is anointed king in Judah and we are given details of his reign (2 Samuel 2:1-11).

An invasion by Abner and Israel is thwarted and Asahel is slain (2 Samuel 2:13-32).

Abner comes to David with the offer of a coup against Ish-bosheth, something which is prevented when Abner is slain (2 Samuel 3:1-39).

Two of Ish-bosheth’s commanders bring to David the head of Ish-bosheth, only for them to be slain by David (2 Samuel 4:1-12).

David is acclaimed as king of all Israel and we are given details of his reign (2 Samuel 5:1-5).

Thus amidst all the battles, intrigues and murders that take place YHWH triumphantly bears David to the throne of Israel untainted by all that is going on.


Verses 1-11

Saul’s Legitimate Successors Are Rendered Incapable Of Kingship. Mephi-bosheth, Jonathan’s Son, Becomes Lame And Ish-bosheth, Saul’s Remaining Son, Is Assassinated By Two Of His Commanders Who Bring His Head To David Only For Them To Suffer A Similar Fate (2 Samuel 4:1-11).

In this passage we have described how the two remaining successors of Saul were removed by ‘circumstances’ from being able to be claimants to the throne of All Israel, the one through tender age and debilitating lameness, and the other through assassination. The two remaining obstacles to David’s becoming king over all Israel were thus removed. The need for this is a reminder that David had constantly honoured the house of Saul and had refused overall kingship while any claimants remained. Now, however, the way was open for him in all conscience to become king, for as the son-in-law of Saul he was the next obvious claimant to the throne. In the circumstances of the time an under-age boy who was also severely lame simply was not seen as suitable for kingship.

The news that Abner had been successfully negotiating a coup with David and had been slain must have caused huge repercussions in Israel. It would have totally undermined Ish-bosheth’s position, for not only did it foment the idea that Israel would be better off under David, but it also meant that he had lost the one man who had kept him in power and had kept the kingdom safe. Without Abner Israel was now vulnerable and Ish-bosheth no doubt feared that David might invade at any moment.

Meanwhile Abner’s treachery had also raised ideas in other people’s minds, causing them to recognise that Ish-bosheth’s future was so uncertain that it might well be a good idea to link up with David as soon as possible. The result was that two of Ish-bosheth’s commanders of raiding bands decided that they would hasten proceedings, and at the same time ingratiate themselves with David, by killing Ish-bosheth and taking his head to David (a head which would be the indication of David’s ascendancy. The head was taken by the victor - 1 Samuel 17:51; 1 Samuel 17:54; 1 Samuel 31:9).

But being men controlled only by their ambitions what they had not reckoned with was David’s reaction to the cold-blooded murder of a brother of Jonathan and a son of Saul, whom he had sworn to preserve once he was in the ascendancy (1 Samuel 20:15; 1 Samuel 20:42; 1 Samuel 24:21-22). And the result was that they were executed and their bodies used as a warning to others.

Analysis.

a And when Ish-bosheth, Saul’s son, heard that Abner was dead in Hebron, his hands became feeble, and all the Israelites were troubled (2 Samuel 4:1).

b And Ish-bosheth, Saul’s son, had two men who were captains of raiding bands, the name of the one was Baanah, and the name of the other Rechab, the sons of Rimmon the Beerothite, of the children of Benjamin (for Beeroth also is reckoned to Benjamin, and the Beerothites fled to Gittaim, and have been sojourners there until this day) (2 Samuel 4:2-3).

c Now Jonathan, Saul’s son, had a son who was lame of his feet. He was five years old when the tidings came of Saul and Jonathan out of Jezreel, and his nurse took him up, and fled, and it came about as she hastened to flee, that he fell, and became lame. And his name was Mephibosheth (2 Samuel 4:4).

d And the sons of Rimmon the Beerothite, Rechab and Baanah, went, and came about the heat of the day to the house of Ish-bosheth, as he took his rest at noon, and they came there into the midst of the house, as though they would have fetched wheat, and they smote him in the body, and Rechab and Baanah his brother escaped (2 Samuel 4:5-6).

e Now when they came into the house, as he lay on his bed in his bedchamber, they smote him, and slew him, and beheaded him, and took his head, and went by the way of the Arabah all night (2 Samuel 4:7).

d And they brought the head of Ish-bosheth to David to Hebron, and said to the king, “Look, the head of Ish-bosheth, the son of Saul, your enemy, who sought your life, and YHWH has avenged my lord the king this day of Saul, and of his seed” (2 Samuel 4:8).

c And David answered Rechab and Baanah his brother, the sons of Rimmon the Beerothite, and said to them, “As YHWH lives, who has 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 of him, and slew him in Ziklag, which was the reward I gave him for his tidings. How much more, when wicked men have slain a righteous person in his own house on his bed, shall I not now require his blood of your hand, and take you away from the earth?” (2 Samuel 4:9-11).

b And David commanded his young men, and they slew them, and cut off their hands and their feet, and hanged them up beside the pool in Hebron (2 Samuel 4:12 a).

a But they took the head of Ish-bosheth, and buried it in the grave of Abner in Hebron (2 Samuel 4:12 b).

Note that in ‘a’ Ish-bosheth became feeble, and in the parallel his head was buried next to the one who had enfeebled him in Hebron. In ‘b’ the two commanders of raiding bands are described, and in the parallel their death is described. In ‘c’ we learn why one of Saul’s two direct descendants will be unable to take the throne of All Israel, and in the parallel we learn why the other will not be able to do so. In ‘d’ the two men smote Ish-bosheth on his bed, and in the parallel they bore his head in triumph to Hebron. Centrally in ‘e’ we learn of how they slew Ish-bosheth, beheaded him, took his head, and made their way to Judah through the Arabah.

2 Samuel 4:1

And when Ish-bosheth, Saul’s son, heard that Abner was dead in Hebron, his hands became feeble, and all the Israelites were troubled.’

We do not know whether Ish-bosheth was aware of Abner’s activities on behalf of David, but the news that Abner had been put to death in Judah must have been shattering. And it was not only he who was concerned, for all the Israelites now realised that they had become defenceless. The one man who had kept them reasonably strong was dead, and they were thus left with an enfeebled king over an enfeebled country. All knew that something would have to be done.

2 Samuel 4:2-3

And Ish-bosheth, Saul’s son, had two men who were captains of raiding bands, the name of the one was Baanah, and the name of the other Rechab, the sons of Rimmon the Beerothite, of the children of Benjamin (for Beeroth also is reckoned to Benjamin, and the Beerothites fled to Gittaim, and have been sojourners there until this day).’

There were two men who decided to seize the opportunity of the moment. They believed that they knew what had to be done. They were captains of raiding bands (for the word compare 1 Samuel 30:8. It is a reminder that with all their weakness Israel still preyed on others) whose names were Baanah and Rechab. They were sons of Rimmon the Beerothite. Beeroth was near to the western border of the tribe of Benjamin (Joshua 9:17; Joshua 18:25). It was one of the cities of the Canaanites whose inhabitants succeeded in deceiving Israel, and in making a covenant with them (Joshua 9:17). They too had been treacherous.

It may have been because of the exploit described here that the Beerothites fled to Gittaim, where they became resident aliens, possibly after they learned what David had done to the two captains. They may well have feared blood revenge from Saul’s son-in-law. Alternately the reference may have been to the former residents of Beeroth who had surrendered to Joshua, suggesting that they had then fled to escape servitude. Gittaim may be identical with the Gittaim of Nehemiah 11:33, in which case it was occupied by Benjaminites after the exile. As they are here called resident aliens in Gittaim it is clear that at this stage it was not in Benjaminite territory (it may have become so precisely because Benjaminites had previously formed a good part of its population). More likely, however, the name may have some connection with Gath and its environs. As we know from the example of David Gath appears to have been seen as a suitable place of refuge for refugees fleeing from Israel.

2 Samuel 4:4

Now Jonathan, Saul’s son, had a son who was lame of his feet. He was five years old when the tidings came of Saul and Jonathan out of Jezreel, and his nurse took him up, and fled, and it came about as she hastened to flee, that he fell, and became lame. And his name was Mephibosheth.’

The insertion of this information here is vital for two reasons. First of all it explained why the two commanders were so confident that there would be no suitable replacement in Israel for Ish-bosheth. The only other possible claimant was hopelessly lame. It thus cleared the way for David as Saul’s son-in-law. It is pointing out that the only other direct male descendant of Saul was under-age and severely disabled, and thus totally unsuited to kingship in a turbulent age (at this stage the idea that the eldest son was the automatic heir was unknown in Israel. While the successor would preferably be a Saulide, the king would be determined by popular choice and had to be a war-leader). Secondly it explains why David could now see the way open to his becoming king without breaking his covenant with Jonathan. There was now no valid direct heir in the house of Saul.

This situation is a sad indication of the sorrows that had come down on the house of Saul as a result of his rejection by YHWH. His three eldest sons had died with him in battle. His fourth son had been weak and under Abner’s thumb and would shortly be assassinated. And now we learn that his grandson had been dropped by his nurse when she was fleeing from the Philistines so that he was totally disabled (compare 2 Samuel 19:24-26).

2 Samuel 4:5

And the sons of Rimmon the Beerothite, Rechab and Baanah, went, and came about the heat of the day to the house of Ish-bosheth, as he took his rest at noon.’

Meanwhile the two commanders who had determined on the assassination of Ish-bosheth set off for Ish-bosheth’s palace and arrived there around noon, at the time when Ish-bosheth was enjoying his siesta. That was when security would tend to be at a minimum. No one foresaw trouble in Mahanaim itself.

2 Samuel 4:6

And they came there into the midst of the house, as though they would have fetched wheat, and they smote him in the body, and Rechab and Baanah his brother escaped.’

The two men found no difficulty in getting past the guards into the palace because they simply gave the excuse that they had come in order to arrange for their men to receive their wheat rations. They would be well known to the guards as two of Ish-bosheth’s commanders, and nothing would be suspected. Indeed they had no doubt done it many times before. But once safely in the building they made straight for Ish-bosheth’s bed chamber and ‘smote him in the body’ before making their escape.

2 Samuel 4:7

Now when they came into the house, as he lay on his bed in his bedchamber, they smote him, and slew him, and beheaded him, and took his head, and went by the way of the Arabah all night.’

In typically Israelite fashion, having given the core of what happened, the writer then expanded on the detail, and explained that they found him in his bed chamber, and not only smote him but slew him and cut off his head. Then they took his head and made their escape, making for the Jordan Rift Valley (the Arabah), where they arrived around nightfall and continued on through the night in their haste to get out of Israelite territory and reach David safely. They clearly had no doubt about their welcome there.

(The kind of repetition seen in these two verses is typical of much ancient literature and does not necessarily indicate two sources. That was a mistake often made by earlier scholars. Its purpose was rather to ensure that when it was read out the hearers did not miss the crux of the matter).

2 Samuel 4:8

And they brought the head of Ish-bosheth to David to Hebron, and said to the king, “Look, the head of Ish-bosheth, the son of Saul, your enemy, who sought your life, and YHWH has avenged my lord the king this day of Saul, and of his seed.’

The two men brought the head of Ish-bosheth to David. It would be absolute proof of their claim to have slain Ish-bosheth, and would also (in their view) enable David to make clear to all that he was victor over Ish-bosheth (compare 1 Samuel 17:54; 1 Samuel 31:9). They never dreamed that David would see it in any other way.

They made what they had done worse by pretending that they had done it in YHWH’s name. ‘Look,’ they said, ‘here is the head of Ish-bosheth, the son of Saul your enemy, the one who sought your life. YHWH has avenged my lord the king this day of Saul, and of his seed.’ They were presumably not aware that Saul’s eldest son had been David’s bosom friend, and that David took YHWH’s Name seriously. To David the linking of such an assassination to YHWH’s name would have increased their guilt manyfold. (While it was true that Joab had assassinated Saul’s cousin, it was not in the same category. Joab had done it on the well founded basis of blood vengeance a right which even David could not deny).

2 Samuel 4:9-11

And David answered Rechab and Baanah his brother, the sons of Rimmon the Beerothite, and said to them, “As YHWH lives, who has 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 of him, and slew him in Ziklag, which was the reward I gave him for his tidings. How much more, when wicked men have slain a righteous person in his own house on his bed, shall I not now require his blood of your hand, and take you away from the earth?” ’

But to their astonishment, instead of being pleased and grateful, David looked at them with great severity and pointed out that ‘as YHWH lived who had redeemed his soul from adversity’ (something that he knew was very much true) when someone had come to him and had told him that Saul was dead, thinking it would be good news to him, he had had them put to death. As we know that was a slight understatement of the situation for the person he was speaking of had in fact tried to deceive him, and had claimed to have killed Saul, but the point was clear, the death of Saul had not been good news for him, even though Saul had not behaved well towards him. What then did they think he would do to those who informed him that they had slain Saul’s son, and had done it, not because he had asked them to do it because he was afraid of being killed by the Philistines, but simply when, as a righteous person who had done nothing especially wrong, he was lying on his bed enjoying a siesta? Did they not realise therefore that all that they could reasonably expect was to be put to death and removed from the earth as not fit to live?

By this they learned too late that David deeply respected the house of Saul, and loved them for Jonathan’s sake, and therefore could not forgive those who did harm to members of that house, especially when it was simply with a view to personal advancement.

2 Samuel 4:12

And David commanded his young men, and they slew them, and cut off their hands and their feet, and hanged them up beside the pool in Hebron. But they took the head of Ish-bosheth, and buried it in the grave of Abner in Hebron.’

David then commanded his young men to execute the two, after which their hands and feet were cut off and their bodies were hung up beside the pool at Hebron. This decapitation was presumably because their hands had done the evil deed, and their feet had sped to do the deed, and also possibly because their feet had then sped in order to receive what they had hoped would be their reward for murder. This severe treatment was as a warning to others of what would happen to those whose hands and feet were used for the purpose of doing evil.

Meanwhile the head of Ish-bosheth was treated with honour, and buried in the grave of Abner in Hebron. In death he and his mentor were united, and David’s honour was maintained.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on 2 Samuel 4:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/2-samuel-4.html. 2013.

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Thursday, October 17th, 2019
the Week of Proper 23 / Ordinary 28
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