The Murder of Ishbosheth

1.  This is a story that is in the news all the time.  It’s a constant theme in politics and power.  It’s about loyalty, political maneuvering, intrigue, and the normalization of dangerous behavior.

“When Ishbosheth son of Saul heard that Abner had died in Hebron, he lost courage, and all Israel became alarmed.”  So much is packed into that one simple phrase!

We know the background.  Saul’s general, Abner, had set up Ishbosheth as King of Israel as Saul and his two sons had been killed in a battle with the Philistines.  While David was anointed, Ishbosheth is merely appointed and we soon see what a difference it makes. Abner had killed the brother of David’s loyal but increasingly dangerous general, Joab, and, in turn, Joab kills Abner after Abner comes to make a deal with David to turn over the 11 tribes of Israel to him.  Everyone knows David is the rightful king and everyone around Ishbosheth is working on their own ways to betray him and align themselves with David.  Everyone loves a winner.

So, we read that Ishbosheth lost courage upon hearing of the death of Abner.  Some translations read, “his hands were weakened” and that is exactly what happened.  He lost his grip.  The Hebrew word for courage is “ametz” and it means just what you would think: being alert, strong, bold and determined.  It is the word we read over and over in the account of Joshua’s succeeding Moses.  “Be strong and courageous. Be strong and very courageous.”

But, ironically, there is a flip side to courage in Scripture.  The same word for courage is used for being hard hearted.  It is what happens when courage is not tempered by humility, wisdom and compassion.  At the same time the Lord says to Joshua “be ametz” he says to the people, “If there is a poor man among your brothers in any of the towns of the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard hearted (ametz) or tight-fisted toward your poor brother.”  Courage includes compassion.  More than that, it requires it.

While the first leader of the Israelites in the land is told to be ametz or courageous, it is Zedekiah, the last leader of Israel, who is destroyed by being ametz or hard-hearted.  One can easily become the other. What looks like courage can over time become a hardened heart.  Look at how Scripture describes the final king before they go into exile.  “He did evil in the eyes of the Lord his God and did not humble himself before Jeremiah the prophet, who spoke the word of the Lord.  He became stiff-necked and hardened his heart and would not turn to the Lord God of Israel.  Furthermore, all the leaders of the priests and people became more and more unfaithful.”  Courage had become corrupted and made the leaders of the people unfaithful.  What had once been boldness had eventually defiled the Temple.

Hundreds of years of history, the beginning and end of Israel, are contained in a single word.  What happens when we lose what God intends by courage – either by cowardice or by pride?  Kingdoms fall.  People are destroyed.

2.  And the people were alarmed.  The word for alarmed doesn’t mean frightened as much as it means they cried out and made noises about what was going on.  They might have demonstrated. They might have marched in the streets.  They may have signed petitions and asked for a referendum – even impeachment. They didn’t cower or silently accept the inevitable.  Just the opposite.  The word is used when the armies go out to war.  They shout and make loud noises.  When David writes, “Shout to the Lord” this is word he is using.  The people were raising their voices demanding that something be done.

3. What were Ishbosheth’s options?  What could he have done? What was Ishbosheth doing in response?  He chose his normal routine.  No change.  He went to sleep in the middle of the day.  He ignored the issue. He slept through the shouting.

Everyone has a different way of reacting to uncertainty and crisis.  It may be an individual, an organization or a community.

Some say pray and trust God.
Some go to sleep.
Some hunker down and are immobilized.
Some get sick with anxiety and fear.
Some focus on the little piece they can control.
Some start fires.
Some leave.
Some get excited by disruption and chaos.
Some kill the leader.

When you are the leader in a time of turbulence and uncertainty, you don’t go to your office and leave the receptionist to take care of things.  The Romans had a saying.  “Every soldier has a right to competent command.”

You don’t take a nap.  You might never wake up.

4.  Ishbosheth did not understand the nature of the environment he was in.  The historian Josephus wrote that Ishbosheth did not have a guard on duty and the woman sitting at the door to his chamber had fallen asleep from the heat.

It was not only far from business as usual but one that was soaked with intrigue, disloyalty, traitors, spies, assassinations and betrayal.  No one was safe.  It was precisely the wrong time to go to sleep.

You might read about his murder and think it was committed by two military commanders angry about their leader’s cowardice.  They expected more from him and turned on him.  In a rush of emotion they killed him.

That’s not what happened.  You can see this in the way he was killed.  While the newer translations of this passage read he was stabbed “in the stomach” the older versions say, “he was smote in the fifth rib.”  That was a particular way of killing someone.  It is used three times in 2 Samuel to describe a calculated style of killing a man.  It’s not a wild swing but a very precise and surgical method used by assassins and the equivalent of special forces.  It is a certain and quick death.  There is no struggle or chance of survival.  It is the exact place the heart meets the rib cage and required practice and skill.  These were not ordinary soldiers.  They were trained to kill someone efficiently. They were professionals.

You know the phrase, “The quickest way to a man’s heart is through his stomach”?  That’s what this means in the original.  It’s not so pleasant, is it?

This was the environment – not mindless violence or upheaval but calculated elimination of enemies.  There is a big difference and a leader has to respond to each one appropriately.  Regardless, you don’t take the nap option.

Compare this scene to what it was like to be around David.  No one fell asleep!  He was never, with one exception, by himself.  That one exception was disastrous when he seduced Bathsheba. Other than that time, his mighty men were never far from him.  Look at just three of them – and there were thirty.

Josheb raised his spear against eight hundred men, whom he killed in one encounter.

Eleazar stood with David against the Philistines and when the rest of the army retreated he stood his ground and “struck down the Philistines till his hand grew tired and froze to the sword.”

Shammah took his stand in the middle of a field and when Israel’s troops retreated he successfully defended the field against the Philistine army.

David surrounded himself with monomaniacs and heroes totally committed to him and while there were clearly some downsides and his men overdid it sometimes, there was never any doubt about his ability to attract the best because he was loyal to them. He inspired courage.

Ishbosheth never had a chance.

5.  But, every leader has to deal with overly zealous followers.  Even Jesus had to temper his disciples when they wanted to respond with violence toward those who threatened them.  They wanted to show their courage and flex their muscle.  When Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem and the Samaritans did not welcome him, the disciples asked, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven and destroy them?”  Remember Peter’s response to the arrest of Jesus in Gethsemane?  “When Jesus’ followers saw what was going to happen, they said, “Lord, should we strike with our swords?” And one of them struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his right ear.”  We all want to defend God with justified violence, don’t we?  All we need is his permission and we are ready to call down fire or pull out the sword.  What could make more sense?

We still have it today – extremists, violence, character assassination, and misrepresentation of our enemies.  All of this is done to prove our loyalty to a person, a party or a tribe.

I have gone back several times to the 1991 article in Life magazine where Lee Atwater apologizes for what he did to his political opponents – especially Michael Dukakis – by saying, “I will strip the bark off that little bastard and make Willie Horton his running mate.”  As he was dying of cancer he wrote:

My illness helped me to see that what was missing in society is what was missing in me: a little heart, a lot of brotherhood. The ’80s were about acquiring — acquiring wealth, power, prestige. I know. I acquired more wealth, power, and prestige than most. But you can acquire all you want and still feel empty. What power wouldn’t I trade for a little more time with my family? What price wouldn’t I pay for an evening with friends? It took a deadly illness to put me eye to eye with that truth, but it is a truth that the country, caught up in its ruthless ambitions and moral decay, can learn on my dime. I don’t know who will lead us through the ’90s, but they must be made to speak to this spiritual vacuum at the heart of American society, this tumor of the soul….I was wrong to follow the meanness of Conservatism. I should have been trying to help people instead of taking advantage of them. I don’t hate anyone anymore. For the first time in my life I don’t hate somebody. I have nothing but good feelings toward people. I’ve found Jesus Christ – It’s that simple. He’s made a difference.”

Today, one of our best examples of meanness and self-interested loyalty is Roger Stone who is proud of his dirty tricks and win at any cost practices.  In his book “Stone’s Rules” he lists his twelve rules of political success.  Here are a few:

“Unless you fake sincerity, you’ll get nowhere in this business.”
“Always praise ‘em before you ‘hit em.”
“Admit nothing, deny everything.”
“Attack, attack, attack, never defend.”
“When I hear the word culture, I reach for my gun.”
“Nothing is on the level.”

These are the rules for those working their way up and desiring to be greatest in the Kingdom.

The temptation to win in the ways of the world is hard to resist, isn’t it?  C.S. Lewis wrote about a group of Christians in Britain wanting to form a Christian Party that would attach itself to one of the major parties and therefore influence them to legislate Christian values.

“It is not reasonable to suppose that such a Christian Party will acquire new powers of leavening the infidel organization to which it is attached. Why should it? Whatever it calls itself, it will represent, not Christendom, but a part of Christendom. The principle which divides it from its brethren and unites it to its political allies will not be theological. It will have no authority to speak for Christianity; it will have no more power than the political skill of its members gives it to control the behaviour of its unbelieving allies. But there will be a real, and most disastrous novelty. It will be not simply a part of Christendom, but a part claiming to be the whole. By the mere act of calling itself the Christian Party it implicitly accuses all Christians who do not join it of apostasy and betrayal. It will be exposed, in an aggravated degree, to that temptation which the Devil spares none of us at any time — the temptation of claiming for our favourite opinions that kind and degree of certainty and authority which really belongs only to our Faith. The danger of mistaking our merely natural, though perhaps legitimate, enthusiasms for holy zeal, is always great. Can any more fatal expedient be devised for increasing it than that of dubbing a small band of Fascists, Communists, or Democrats `the Christian Party’? The demon inherent in every party is at all times ready enough to disguise himself as the Holy Ghost; the formation of a Christian Party means handing over to him the most efficient make-up we can find. And when once the disguise has succeeded, his commands will presently be taken to abrogate all moral laws and to justify whatever the unbelieving allies of the `Christian’ Party wish to do. If ever Christian men can be brought to think treachery and murder the lawful means of establishing the regime they desire, and faked trials, religious persecution and organized hooliganism the lawful means of maintaining it, it will, surely, be by just such a process as this. The history of the late medieval pseudo-Crusaders, of the On those who add `Thus said the Lord’ to their merely human utterances descends the doom of a conscience which seems clearer and clearer the more it is loaded with sin.”

So it was with the men who killed Ishbosheth.  They believed they were doing the will of God.  They were lining up with the right side and the right ruler. God was on their side.

This is why Christians are so out of step with the way things are done in the real world.  How can we compete with “love your enemy” and “do good to those who harm you” and “think of others more highly than yourselves.”  Jesus is for losers.  Jesus is for also rans.  Jesus is for weaklings.

6.  The “head of Ishbosheth is still seen as a ticket to the inner circle.  Often the same thing goes on in everyday life.  We send out signals to friends and family to bring us the head of the pastor, the President, the co-worker, headmaster, superintendent, Mayor, political candidate, Republican, Democrat, deacon…and people do it.  Sometimes, even if like David we do not send that message, they think it will please us or pay their way into the club.

Sometimes it’s one hair at a time but people think they know what we like to hear and they bring it to us.

Like David, we have to be clear with people.  Otherwise, like David, we don’t realize it until it is too late.  The end of the story would have been so much better for them had they understood the character of David – and for us when we understand the character of God.

Ishbosheth was killed by his own tribesmen and, like them, we do violence to those in the kingdom thinking that is pleasing to God.  And what does God say when we bring him the head of who we think is the enemy?

“As far as possible, live at peace with one another.”
“Put other people’s interests ahead of your own.”
“Be an example of the love of God.”

”What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions[a] are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”? But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” … Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.”

It’s hard.  No, it’s impossible…and that is the wonder of it all.

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