2 Samuel: 2-3 David, Abner and Joab

We need a bit of context before jumping into the text.

At the end of 1st Samuel Israel is at war again with the Philistines.

David, thinking the only safe place to escape Saul’s determination to kill him was with the Philistines, left Israel and lived with one of the Philistine tribes. He would have gone into battle with them against Saul and Israel but the Philistines armies did not trust him. During the final battle, three of Saul’s four sons are killed. Saul is wounded but to avoid being abused by the Philistines he kills himself. When the Philistines find his body he is beheaded and stripped of his armor. The Philistines put his armor in the temple and fastened his body to the wall of the city of Beth Shan. They wanted to not only defeat the Israelites but to humiliate them- especially Saul and his family.

The second book of Samuel begins with David being anointed the king of one tribe – Judah – and Saul’s military commander, Abner, making Saul’s only remaining son, Ishbosheth, the king of the other eleven tribes. As we’ll see, being anointed and being appointed are very, very different.

Even while he has been Saul’s commander, Abner has always known that David is the rightful king and, ultimately, will be the king over all the tribes. From the beginning he wanted a settlement. He knows Ishbosheth is weak but he cannot simply surrender. So, he proposes a small battle (or sport as he calls it) between 12 young men of Judah and 12 young men of Israel, knowing Judah will win but the toll will be limited. He’s right. They kill each other but in the process Israel loses 360 men while Judah loses only 20. It should have ended there as Abner planned but history can turn on a dime.

While retreating, Abner is pursued by the brother of Joab, David’s military commander, and the brother is killed accidentally by Abner. From that moment on, Joab is determined to take Abner’s life – which he does later in revenge. However, before Abner is killed by Joab, he is accused by Ishbosheth of wanting to be king himself and even though that is likely true Abner is furious and sends a message to David. “Make an agreement with me, and I will help you bring all Israel over to you.” David agrees but Joab is furious with David calling him naive and kills Abner without David’s knowledge.

Ishbosheth realizes Abner is dead and he panics. When two of his leaders saw how weak he is they killed him while he was resting, cut off his head, and took it to David. Instead of rewarding them, David cut off their hands and feet and hung their bodies by a pool.

At that point, all the tribes of Israel came to David and said, “We are your own flesh and blood. In the past, while Saul was king over us, you were the one who led Israel on their military campaigns. And the Lord said to you, “You will shepherd my people Israel, and you will become their ruler.” When all the elders of Israel had come to King David at Hebron, the king made a compact with them at Hebron before the Lord, and they anointed David king over Israel. David was thirty years old when he became king, and he reigned forty years. In Hebron he reigned over Judah seven years and six months, and in Jerusalem he reigned over all Israel and Judah thirty-three years.”

And we think politics today is full of intrigue, corruption and people turning on each other! The themes are the same but, at least for now, we have a process that makes for better transitions of power.

I’d like to look at it as a story of three people who are enmeshed in a larger story that seems to be out of control.

It is a story of one who lived in the middle of the tension and conflict.

It is the story of one who had no capacity for ambiguity and tension.

It is the story of one who sees beyond the conflict and the circumstances.

Abner is more of a deal maker than a commander in chief. On the one hand he is loyal to Saul but along with everyone else early on recognizes that it is David who will one day be king. As soon as he witnesses David killing Goliath he knows there is something special about this young man and he introduces him to Saul.

After Saul’s death he appoints his only remaining but weak son as king but recognizes that without David they can never defeat the Philistines. A divided country is vulnerable to stronger powers. So, he proposes a solution that will cost the least amount of lives…and it almost works except for Joab’s brother not recognizing the ploy and chasing after him. Even then, he has no intention of killing him because he hits him in the stomach with the blunt end of the spear. Who could know?

Abner is the well-intentioned man in the middle – trying to be loyal to a person who does not inspire loyalty. He is Saul’s cousin and has a family obligation. But, he is practical and even while he makes Ishbosheth the king he knows Israel will never be secure with him as king.

Years ago, Ross Perot ran for President and he picked a friend of mine, Tom Luce, to be his campaign manager. Tom knew Perot had no chance and was perceived as a loose cannon in the country but Tom did it because his friend asked. Tom risked his reputation in doing it but the friendship and the responsibility of it mattered more to him than his reputation. His obligation to Ross was more important than how he was perceived by the press and many of his friends. Ross lost but, ironically, it only made Tom’s reputation for integrity and honoring relationships even stronger.

Many people live with the same tensions. They are part of organizations whose leaders are seriously flawed and the culture of the organization is toxic. The tensions of working there are never resolved and there are no easy answers. They have families to support or they live in hope that things will eventually change. But, they are everyday heroes who know there is little they can do and yet they keep working in spite of the conditions and forces beyond their control. They love the company or the ministry. They are committed to their friends around them and falling on their swords or making a deal with another organization is not an option.

Joab is the superior military leader but incapable of living with the tension of unresolved insults and grievances. He is brilliant in combat and yet he jeopardizes David’s whole future out of his irrational desire to get revenge for the death of his brother. He is driven by a personal vendetta that is stronger than his loyalty to David and the nation itself.

It is often the case that the angriest and most dangerous traitors are often disappointed supporters and followers. President Garfield was shot by a supporter seeking a job in the government and thought he had been wrongfully turned down. Gandhi was killed by a disillusioned disciple. Egyptian President Sadat was killed by a group that had once supported him. Jesus was betrayed by a disciple. Loyalty is a fragile thing. There are some people will risk the fate of a nation for their own personal revenge and grievances.

For Joab, it was arrogance masked as loyalty. It is pride and anger that makes him question David’s confidence in Abner’s ability to deliver Israel to him. He is David’s Steve Bannon and, in the end, pays dearly for his actions. On David’s deathbed he says to Solomon, “Now you yourself know what Joab…did to me – what he did to the two commanders of Israel’’s armies, Abner son of Ner and Amasa son of Jether. He killed them, shedding their blood in peacetime as if in battle, and with that blood stained the belt around his waist and the sandals on his feet. Deal with him according to your wisdom, but do not let his gray hair go down to the grave in peace.” And that is exactly what Solomon did. He had him killed and replaced.

But, it is also the story of David and an illustration of how extraordinary he was in these circumstances.

Even though he knew he was the anointed one destined to be the leader of a combined Israel and Judah, he was content to wait. For seven and a half years he lived in Hebron with his family when he could have easily been king of Israel and Judah alike. But, just like he refused to kill Saul when he had the chance and a legitimate reason, he waited.

David was focused on unity and not ambition. He knew what it would mean to the nation to force himself on Israel and the insult it would be to Saul’s house as well. He knew he could wait.

When the time came and Abner offered their surrender to him he was not willing to shame them or make them grovel. Instead, he honored Abner in the same way Ulysses Grant showed respect and honor to Robert E. Lee. It reminded me of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address:

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

He was not distrustful of Abner or demeaning to Ishbosheth. He had nothing to prove and, again, his main focus was not on the defeat of his opponents but the unity of the nation.

As well, he had the confidence of an anointing. He had not been appointed, elected or made king by anyone. He was king by God’s choice and with that he could wait, he could be gracious and kind, he could be confident and not threatened by others.

For David, it was the same confidence that Paul describes in Romans 8. “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” When Saul was quivering in his tent in fear of Goliath and the army was doing nothing but yelling at the enemy from a safe distance, David as a young man asked the men standing around him, “Who is this Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?” And when he confronted Goliath he said, “You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day the Lord will hand you over to me, and I’ll strike you down and cut off your head…All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the Lord saves; for the battle is the Lord’s, and he will give all of you into our hands.”

What we see is a demoralized army led by an incompetent coward and bully but that is not what David sees. He sees the army of the living God and, in time, they see themselves that way as well.

David had the capacity to see what people could be and that is why he attracted strong people around him. Many of them had great flaws and inconsistencies but David inspired them to go far beyond what they would have considered possible. He made impossible demands but everyone wanted to follow him.

David is not merely a dreamer. What makes him a leader here is that he can see beyond the conflict and the division. Even those who were divided wanted in their hearts to see what was so clear to him. The situation appeared to be insoluble with all the intrigue, treason, changing sides, vendettas, and confusion but David saw beyond all that.

I love what Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “I would not give you a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity but I would give everything I have for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” That is what David saw through.

Many of us spend our lives seeing all the deep differences and the things that divide us, where we disagree and yelling at each other, and we lose heart. We lose our confidence in God. We only see incompetence, greed, intrigue and fear.

But David saw the Kingdom as a whole. It was not watered down compromise but a righteous people created for a purpose by a loving God. That’s the ultimate in leadership.

That’s why he was a man after God’s own heart…and it is how we can be after God’s heart.

Not the righters of all the wrongs in the world. Not those who get even for personal offenses and risk the greater good. Not those looking for the slightest infractions and missteps of others. Not those who have been disillusioned by what Charles Krauthammer called the “crooked timber of our communal lives”. Not people who are fearful and mistrusting but people confident in God and his faithfulness. People who can wait.

Psalm 89

”Once you spoke in a vision,
to your faithful people you said:
“I have bestowed strength on a warrior;
I have raised up a young man from among the people.
I have found David my servant;
with my sacred oil I have anointed him.
My hand will sustain him;
surely my arm will strengthen him.
The enemy will not get the better of him;
the wicked will not oppress him.
I will crush his foes before him
and strike down his adversaries.
My faithful love will be with him,
and through my name his horn will be exalted.
I will set his hand over the sea,
his right hand over the rivers.
He will call out to me, ‘You are my Father,
my God, the Rock my Savior.’
And I will appoint him to be my firstborn,
the most exalted of the kings of the earth.
I will maintain my love to him forever,
and my covenant with him will never fail.
I will establish his line forever,
his throne as long as the heavens endure.”

In a world of dealmakers and thugs, I am waiting in hope for a leader.

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