Then David said to Joab and to all the people who were with him, “Tear your clothes and put on sackcloth and mourn before Abner.” And King David followed the bier. They buried Abner at Hebron. And the king lifted up his voice and wept at the grave of Abner, and all the people wept. And the king lamented for Abner, saying,
“Should Abner die as a fool dies?
Your hands were not bound;
your feet were not fettered;
as one falls before the wicked
you have fallen.”
And all the people wept again over him. Then all the people came to persuade David to eat bread while it was yet day. But David swore, saying, “God do so to me and more also, if I taste bread or anything else till the sun goes down!” And all the people took notice of it, and it pleased them, as everything that the king did pleased all the people. So all the people and all Israel understood that day that it had not been the king’s will to put to death Abner the son of Ner. And the king said to his servants, “Do you not know that a prince and a great man has fallen this day in Israel? And I was gentle today, though anointed king. These men, the sons of Zeruiah, are more severe than I. The Lord repay the evildoer according to his wickedness!” – 2 Samuel 3:31-39 ESV
There is a lot going on in this passage. It is a convoluted and confusing mixture of different events that make it difficult to truly determine what is going on. Abner, the former commander-in-chief of Saul’s armies, has been killed by Joab, the general over David’s armies. This had been an act of vengeance for Abner having killed Joab’s brother, Asahel. Abner had just made an alliance with David, promising that he could bring the northern tribes of Israel under David’s rule. And he had also agreed to David’s demand to return Michal, David’s first wife, even though she had already remarried. And the apparent motivation behind Abner’s switching of sides from Ish-bosheth to David, was because Ish-bosheth had confronted him about having sexual relations with one of his concubines. Abner, who was the one who had made it possible for Ish-bosheth to be king over Israel in the first place, didn’t like Ish-bosheth’s tone. As a result, he decided to hand the kingdom of Ish-bosheth over to David. Abner was a self-seeking opportunist who, from the very beginning, was looking out for his own interests. He had no dedication to or devotion for David. He simply knew that he would be better off moving his allegiances to the winning side.
But Joab threw a wrench into Abner and David’s plans by pursuing and killing Abner for having murdered his brother. While this outcome caught David off guard, it shouldn’t have surprised him. He had just made a treaty with a man who was a known traitor and murderer. Not only that, he had done so without even consulting Joab or at least letting him know beforehand what he had done. Joab had been caught off guard and reacted with surprise, anger and retribution against Abner.
And yet, when David received the news of Abner’s death, he reacted with shock and sadness. He lashed out at Joab, even pronouncing horrific curses on he and his household, for generations to come. In essence, David publicly chastises Joab for his killing of Abner, declaring for everyone to hear that it was his desire that God make every descendant of Joab suffer from a plague, be crippled, die by the sword, become beggars or end their lives destitute. This sounds like a bit of an overreaction. What was the motivation behind David’s response? Why did he react so strongly to what Joab had done? The passage does not tell us. And there are many commentators who go out of their way to justify David’s actions as righteous and just, reflecting his godly heart. But there may be more going on here than meets the eye. David had made his allegiance with Abner in order to solidify his kingdom. Abner had promised to bring the tribe of Benjamin, as well as the other northern tribes, under David’s rule. Now that plan was in jeopardy. David most likely feared that when the people of Benjamin heard the Abner, a fellow tribesman and hero, had been killed, they might renege on their commitment. David’s hopes of a unified kingdom could evaporate right before his eyes. So, he launched an emergency PR campaign.
David publicly chastised Joab. Why? He could have done so in private, but he wanted everyone to know his displeasure with Joab’s actions. Not only that, David planned a very public display demonstrating his sadness over Abner’s death. David even commanded Joab to publicly mourn the man who had killed his own brother. “Tear your clothes and put on sackcloth and mourn before Abner” (2 Samuel 3:31 ESV). David also called for a national day of mourning and arranged for a well-attended, highly visible state funeral for Abner.
David, not done with his public demonstration of sadness over Abner’s death, refused to eat or drink anything all day, refusing the encouragement of the people to break his fast. The result? “And all the people took notice of it, and it pleased them, as everything that the king did pleased all the people” (2 Samuel 3:36 ESV). In other words, David’s actions accomplished exactly what he had intended. The passage goes on to tell us, “So all the people and all Israel understood that day that it had not been the king’s will to put to death Abner the son of Ner” (2 Samuel 3:37 ESV). One of the things that happens when we study a character like David, is that we come to the passage with preconceived ideas about his character that can influence our interpretation of the text. Because we know that David considered by God a man after his own heart, we automatically assume that his actions were always just. But a cursory look at David’s life reveals that this was not the case. David was a man, and like any man, he had a sin nature that sometimes dictated and determined his actions. There were times when David did the right thing. But there were just as many times when he did the wrong thing. I believe David’s actions surrounding Abner’s death reflect the latter. He was simply trying to save his kingdom. He was doing everything IN HIS POWER to do damage control. He desperately wanted a unified kingdom and he probably justified his actions as being well within God’s will. After all, he was just trying to bring about the very thing God had wanted all along: His ascension to the throne of ALL Israel.
But was all of this part of God’s will? Was this the way God wanted things done? Had David sought God’s will before he made his alliance with Abner? Just like the time David decided to seek refuge and safety in the land of the Philistines, God allowed him to do so, but David’s determination to do things his way would come back to haunt him. There are far too many times when we can convince ourselves that God somehow needs our help. In our attempt to assist God in accomplishing His will for our lives, we come up with self-made plans that end up doing more harm than good. Abraham, in an attempt to help God fulfill His promise to make of he and Sarah a great nation, suggested that God just allow him to make one of his household servants his heir. After all, Abraham was old and his wife was barren. God needed a plan B. And when God refused Abraham’s idea, Sarah came up with one of her own. She suggested that Abraham take her maidservant and impregnate her. Abraham eagerly agreed to his wife’s plan and, while Haggar did bear him a son, God refused to allow Ishmael to serve as Abraham’s substitute heir. God had other plans.
I believe David was attempting to help God out. After years of wandering and waiting, he was ready to establish his kingdom once and for all. Abner had provided him with a prime opportunity to speed up the process. Yet David conveniently overlooked the red flags that accompanied his alliance with Abner. He demanded and received his wife back, even though she had to be removed by force from her husband. In doing so, David violated the law of God. Then David had to overlook Abner’s guilt regarding the murder of Asahel. David even allowed him to escape to Hebron, a city of refuge, when Abner didn’t meet the necessary requirements as provided by the law. Out of political convenience, David had ignored the possible ramifications his decision would have on Joab, one of his most faithful companions and bravest military leaders. In an attempt to solidify and secure his kingdom, David had been willing to make some risky and unwise decisions.
And yet, as God is so prone to do, He would bless David in spite of David. God did not need David’s help. God had not commanded David to make an alliance with Abner. David’s decision had resulted in the death of Abner, his rash cursing of Joab and his family, and would ultimately result in the murder of Ish-bosheth by two assassins who thought they were doing David a favor. Decisions made by godly men, but without God’s help, never result in godly outcomes. They produce confusion, dissension, and difficulties of all kinds. And while God’s will always ends up being accomplished, our attempts to help Him out usually end up making the experience far more difficult than it needed to be.
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.