In our last essay we studied 2 Samuel 2:12-3:21, which narrates the battle of Gibeon and Abner’s defection to David. In this essay we study 3:22-4:12, which is an account of two assassinations. First Joab assassinated Abner; and then second, two of Ishbaal’s (or Ishbosheth’s) captains assassinated Ishbaal.
Both deaths were treacherous. In the case of Abner, Joab killed him for reasons of personal revenge. And in the case of Ishbaal, the motive apparently was simple greed. In 2:22-30 we learn that Joab was out of town when Abner came to David with his 20 representatives. Joab had been away leading a military raid of some sort, which had been quite successful. He returned just after the Abner visit was completed (vv. 22-24). As soon as Joab learned about the meeting, he immediately went to David and charged that Abner was insincere and that he was spying on David. But David refused to believe that (v. 25)
So Joab took matters into his own hands. Without David’s knowledge, he sent messengers to Abner, who had not had time to get far away, asking him to return (v. 26). Abner, evidently thinking it was David who had summoned him, came back. When he did, Joab met him at the city gate, and taking him aside in private, Joab stabbed Abner to death in revenge for the death of his brother Asahel (v. 27). Notice in verse 30 that the other brother, Abishai, also had something to do with the assassination.
David’s reaction is very interesting. Normally he would have someone executed for such a deed; but obviously Joab was too powerful, or too useful, to punish harshly. So David contented himself with pronouncing a kind of curse of Joab’s house. He declared his own house forever innocent of Abner’s blood; and asked that Joab’s house always have serious diseases or experience hunger (vv. 28-29). In other words, David was asking God to punish Joab and his house, because David could not do it himself.
In verses 31-39 we see that since David wasn’t in a position to punish Joab, he did what he could otherwise. He ordered Joab and the others to put on sackcloth and ashes and mourn Abner. And then David himself walked behind Abner’s coffin, and wept publicly at the grave, giving him what amounted to a state funeral (vv. 31-32).
But that wasn’t all. David also composed a poem for Abner, which is quoted by our author in verses 33b-34. And then David fasted until sundown (v. 35). All of this convinced the people that David had nothing to do with Abner’s death. And they were pleased (vv. 36-37).
In verses 4:1-8 we see that the death of Abner caused everything to fall apart in the north. Ishbaal knew that Abner was the strength of his kingdom, so literally, “his hands slacked.” That is, he lost courage, as the NRSV suggests. In addition the people became confused, or as the NRSV puts it, they were “dismayed” (v. 1). This was due to the fact that they expected David to now take over the northern tribes; and they feared his vengeance after years of Saul’s persecution of David.
Next we see the story of the second assassination. Two of Ishbaal’s captains, Baanah and Rechab, betrayed him. They came to Ishbaal’s house on the pretext of getting wheat for their men; and they assassinated Ishbaal while he was taking his afternoon nap. Then they cut off Ishbaal’s head, and carried it to David in Hebron (vv. 5-8).
Now I must remind you of verse four. It has a definite purpose in the narrative. It illustrates vividly the fact that the death of Ishbaal brought Saul’s line to an end. The author was telling his readers in verse four that there was only one other living member of Saul’s family who might have a claim to the throne; and he didn’t really have a claim, because he was severely crippled. He was a son of Jonathan who had been crippled by an accident when he was five years old. His name was Mephibosheth. He will come into the account again when we study chapter nine.
In verses 9-12 we see the two captains of Ishbaal coming to David. I do not doubt that they came proudly. They undoubtedly believed that they would be rewarded richly for killing David’s enemy and bringing David his head. But they received the same surprise as the Amalekite who claimed he had killed Saul. Indeed David told them that story to help them understand what he was about to do. And then David ordered them killed.
It’s interesting that David described Ishbaal as a “righteous” (NRSV) or “innocent (NIV) man” (v. 11). We must suppose that David believed Ishbaal had committed no crime in permitting Abner to put him on Saul’s throne. But in any case David believed that the two men had no right to kill Ishbaal. So David ordered their execution for the crime of murder.
The punishment was more cruel than usual. David’s men cut off the hands and feet of the murderers and hung their bodies in a public place (v. 12). The idea was to make a spectacle of the whole matter. The hands with which they committed the crime, and the feet with which they had fled the scene to come to David for a reward, were cut off; and the their bodies were hung beside the pool in Hebron, as a deterrent. All who saw it would know that such crimes would not be tolerated under David.
David showed respect to Ishbaal by burying his head in the tomb of Abner there in Hebron. David’s actions in this case once again had symbolic value. As with the case of Abner’s assassination, David demonstrated that he had nothing to do with this one. David wanted all to know that he was innocent of both of these killings.
Now then, turning to application values in this section, the first that comes to mind is Joab’s revenge. As the apostle Paul says in Rom. 12:19, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, quoting Deut. 32:35, ‘Vengeance is mine. I will repay, says the Lord.’” Joab did not do that. Indeed he put his personal revenge ahead of the interests of state, which of course were King David’s interests. Thus Joab is a strong negative model for us. We must not act as Joab did.
A second application value in the passage is David’s manipulation of the public. David did all of the public things he could do to demonstrate that he had nothing to do with Abner’s death. We have seen our presidents in this century many times do the same kind of thing. And we know that they weren’t always sincere. Perhaps it is safe to assume that David was sincere, but sincere or not, he was manipulating the public in any case.
A third application value is the matter of assassination. On occasion, some in publications, and even some in our government have advocated the idea that the CIA ought to assassinate certain seemingly evil world figures. To my knowledge this has never been approved. And I pray it never is. David seems to have had a different view. He not only didn’t approve of the assignations that are recounted in these verses, he personally refused two opportunities to assassinate Saul.
The fourth and final application value that I would mention is the matter of capital punishment as a deterrent. David obviously believed in this. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that we should. I believe that a solid case can be made for the right of a state to exercise capital punishment, though this is not the place to make that argument. On the other hand, a strong case can be made against the state actually exercising that right.