While there was war between the house of Saul and the house of David,
Abner was making himself strong in the house of Saul. (2 Samuel 3:6)
We are continuing the remarkable story of how David brought people from the twelve tribes of Israel together and united them as one people. God had anointed David as king, but at the beginning, only one tribe was ready to receive him. So this is a story about leadership that brings people together, the kind of leadership our world desperately needs today.
Today, we take up the story in 2 Samuel 3, where Abner, the commander of Saul’s army, has set up Saul’s son, Ish-bosheth, as a rival king. At this point in the story, there are two kings – one anointed by God, and another anointed by Abner.
The problem for Abner was that as the long war continued between the house of David and the house of Saul, “David grew stronger and stronger, while the house of Saul grew weaker and weaker” (2 Samuel 3:1). So Abner was becoming more in a house that was becoming less. Rising to the top in a house that is going down is not a position anyone wants to be in.
At this point we are told about a major falling out between Abner and Ish-bosheth, the son of Saul, who he had anointed as king. “Saul had a concubine whose name was Rizpah” (2 Samuel 3:7), and Abner took her.
Taking a former king’s concubine in ancient culture was a very public way of laying claim to the throne. So when Abner did this, Ish-bosheth challenged him: “Why have you gone in to my father’s concubine” (2 Samuel 3:7)?
Abner was not a man who liked to be challenged, especially by Ish-bosheth, who depended entirely on Abner’s strength to keep him in power. Abner exploded with anger: “God do so to Abner and more also, if I do not accomplish for David what the LORD has sworn to him, to transfer the kingdom from the house of Saul and set up the throne of David over Israel and over Judah” (2 Samuel 3:9-10).
In other words, Abner was so angry that Ish-bosheth even dare to question him that he was ready to change sides. “Abner sent messengers to David… saying… ‘Make your covenant with me, and behold, my hand shall be with you to bring over all Israel to you’” (2 Samuel 3:12).
How would you have responded to an offer like that? Here is the commander of the army of the tribes David wants to win. He offers his hand to David and pledges to bring all the tribes of Israel to him!
Here is a man who says to David, “I can get your mission accomplished. I’m the man who can take your operation to the next level!” David might easily have said, “This is a man of influence! Think what he could do for us if he was on our team!” Let’s see how David responded.
David said, “Good; I will make a covenant with you. But one thing I require of you; that is, you shall not see my face unless you first bring Michal, Saul’s daughter, when you come to see my face” (2 Samuel 3:13).
Michal was the daughter of Saul, and she was David’s wife. When David had to flee from Saul who pursued him for years, Saul gave David’s wife to another man. It was a shameful act on the part of Saul, and David was determined to put it right.
You will see from the beginning of this chapter that in the years that followed, David acquired other wives. This was a clear contradiction of God’s pattern for marriage in Genesis 2, and a direct violation of Deuteronomy 17:17 where God explicitly commanded that Israel’s king should not acquire many wives as was the custom among other nations. Israel was to be different. But David did not obey this command.
Always remember that the Bible records sins and failings as well as triumphs and successes.
When the Bible tells us about David’s wives, it is recording a fact, not presenting an example.
You have to wonder how Michal felt about being wrenched away from her second husband. Was she being wrenched away from a man who really loved her in order to be restored to her first husband? Or was this a release and a deliverance for her?
Most people reading this story will feel some sympathy for Paltiel, who clearly loved Saul’s daughter and was distraught when she was taken away. “Ish-bosheth sent and took her from her husband Paltiel… but her husband went with her weeping after her…” (2 Sam. 3:15, 16). The relationship between Michal and Paltiel began in sin and it ended in sorrow.
So Abner fulfilled David’s condition, and then he got down to the serious business of negotiating with the elders of the tribes: “For some time past you have been seeking David as king over you. Now then bring it about, for the Lord has promised David saying, ‘By the hand of my servant David I will save my people Israel…’” (2 Samuel 3:17, 18).
Notice that the elders of these eleven tribes under Ish-bosheth had been seeking David as king “for some time.” So, who had been standing in the way of God’s people being one? Abner! If it had not been for him, Ish-bosheth would never have been king, and it is clear from this verse that the elders of Israel had been wanting David for some time!
Abner had always been about himself. When it suited him to promote Ish-bosheth, he promoted Ish-bosheth. And when he thought the wind was blowing in the direction of David, he went over to David.
Having built a consensus among the elders, and having fulfilled David’s condition, Abner arrived in Hebron with just 20 men, and David received him with the same grace he had shown to the people of Jabesh-gilead (2 Samuel 3:20). David put on a feast for Abner and he welcomed this man.
What should Abner have said when he was given an audience with the king? He should have said something like: “David, I know God has anointed you as king. And you know that I have been fighting against you. But today I lay down my sword, and offer myself as your servant.”
But Abner said something very different. And here we come to a challenge that sooner or later, every leader will face.
“I will… gather all Israel to my lord the king… that you may reign over all that your heart desires” (2 Samuel 3:21).
You see what Abner is saying… “I made Ish-bosheth king, and I can make you the king over all that your heart desires. I am the king maker, and I can do great things for you.”
At this point, you may be thinking to yourself, This is exactly what I need. I need someone to make me successful! I am looking for someone to come into my life and give me everything that my heart desires!
But there are three problems with Abner’s offer, and they are problems that you will face whenever someone offers you a path to success, or promises to give you all the desires of your heart.
God has promised to give the kingdom to David. So when Abner says, “I will gather all Israel so that you may reign,” he is attempting to take the place of God! As if the throne of David would rest on the foundation of Abner!
Abner says, “I will gather all Israel that you may reign over all that your heart desires.” Can you hear echoes there of the third temptation that Satan brought to Jesus, when the enemy showed the kingdoms of the world to our Lord and said, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me” (Matthew 4:9)?
Beware of any man or woman who promises what only God can give. Beware of looking to anyone or anything to do for you what only God can do. “I will make you successful. I will give you what your heart desires.” These are things that only God can do. Beware of looking to anything or to anyone to do what only God can do.
2. Abner wants control.
“Make a covenant with me. Tie yourself to me. I will be your path to success.” If Abner gets his way, he will turn David into another Ish-bosheth – a puppet, under the control of Abner!
The person who promises to give you what only God can give you will, in the end, try to take the place of God in your life. Abner offers a path to success. He promises to give you the desires of your heart. But Abner wants to control you. Beware of people who offer gifts because they want control.
Is there a job, a scheme, a passion, that promised to make you successful and to give you the desires of your heart, and now is controlling you? That is the seduction of Abner. Beware the seduction of Abner! The man or woman who says, “I can make you successful. I will give you the desires of your heart.”
We will see this in the next part of the story, but before we go there, notice how David responds to Abner. He does not despise Abner, but he does not put confidence in him either.
David simply listens to what he says, and lets him go in peace. “David sent Abner away, and he went in peace” (2 Samuel 3:21).
As I read 2 Samuel, I find it fascinating to see how the experiences of David are reflected in the psalms he wrote later. Surely David had the seduction of Abner in mind when, (years later ) he wrote these words in Psalm 37:
Trust in the Lord, and do good;
dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness.
Delight yourself in the Lord,
and he will give you the desires of your heart. (Psalm 37:3-4)
Abner came and Abner said, “I will give you all that your heart desires.” But David says, “Here is what I have found: Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” Never trust anyone or anything that would take the place of God in your life.
Later in the same psalm, David says,
I have seen a wicked, ruthless man…
But he passed away, and behold, he was no more. (Psalm 37:35, 36)
Well, that takes us to the next part of the story where David faces a second challenge that will come to every leader.
Joab, the hotheaded commander of David’s army, had been out on a raid when Abner came to visit David. When Joab returned and learned about that David had received Abner with grace, he was furious. Joab went to the king and said, “What have you done?” (2 Samuel 3:24).
Joab is convinced that Abner came as a spy, so he decides to take the law into his own hands. He sends messengers after Abner, presumably in David’s name, calling on Abner to come back to Hebron. David knew nothing about this. Joab did it behind his back (2 Samuel 3:26).
Abner has been shown grace in Hebron so he has no hesitation in returning, but when he does, we read: “Joab took him aside into the midst of the gate to speak with him privately, and there he struck him in the stomach, so that he died, for the blood of Asahel his brother” (2 Samuel 3:27).
This was a brutal revenge killing, a cold-blooded murder, a murder committed by the man who holds the highest position in the land – the commander of David’s own army! It was an outrageous scandal in David’s kingdom
How did David deal with the first scandal in his kingdom? There are three principles here that give wisdom for how leaders should deal with scandals today. In two of them, we learn from David’s example. In the third, we learn from what David failed to do.
When David heard of it, he said, “I and my kingdom are forever guiltless before the Lord for the blood of Abner… May it fall upon the head of Joab…” (2 Samuel 3:28-29)
David gives us a good example here. He states the truth clearly, openly and without evasion. Where there is a crime, a public scandal, the truth must be known.
The first two pieces of the armor of God are the belt of truth and the breastplate of righteousness. Only when you know what is true, can you discern what is right. You have to get at the truth.
There were two things people needed to know. The first was that this had nothing whatever to do with David. The second was that it was entirely on Joab who had taken the law into his own hands, motivated by a desire to avenge the death of his brother (2 Samuel 3:30).
There is a warning here about the danger of making false assumptions: Joab was David’s commander. Joab murdered Abner. It would be natural for people to assume that David had at least winked at this being done. But the truth was that David knew nothing about it.
The king lifted up his voice and wept at the grave of Abner, and all the people wept. (2 Samuel 3:32)
Telling the truth matters when there has been a crime or a public scandal, but words will ring hollow to the one who hears them if the one who speaks them does not feel the pain of what has happened.
Everyone could see the depth of David’s sorrow over what had happened. “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” (2 Samuel 3:31-32).
Abner had been a thorn in David’s side for years, but when he died this brutal death, David grieved for him. “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 Sam. 3:37).
The reason they knew this was not only that David told the truth, it was that David mourned deeply over what had happened to Abner. What the people heard in his words they saw in his heart.
David gives us a marvelous example of telling the truth, and mourning deeply, but acting with justice was something that David failed to do. “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 3:39).
Scholars have different opinions on David’s way of dealing with Joab. Was he wise and prudent in allowing Joab to continue commanding his army, or was this a failure of leadership? 
It seems to me that David’s words about trusting the Lord to repay Joab according to his wickedness would be appropriate if David were a private citizen. But David is not a private citizen. David is the king! And there has been a brutal murder in his city. Will there be justice in this kingdom?
When there was a brutal crime, there were words of truth, and there were heartfelt tears, but
Joab was never brought to justice. That left a stain on David’s kingdom. David’s failure to exercise justice was a decision that he came to regret, and it remained on his conscience for the rest of his life.
Years later, when David was about to die, he gave instructions to Solomon, his son. He tells him to follow the Lord and then he says, “You need to deal with Joab, because of what he did to Abner” (1 Kings 2:5-6, author paraphrase). “I never dealt with that. I did not have the courage to do what needed to be done, and the stain of the injustice remains.” So this failure to execute justice remained on David’s conscience till end of his life.
We are not told. Perhaps David thought, “I showed grace to Abner, so how can I bring justice to Joab?” But Abner killed Asahel in self-defense. Joab killed Abner in a brutal act of aggression. There was no comparison there.
Perhaps it was that David did not feel strong enough to deal with his commander. Joab was a powerful figure! Perhaps, having refused to rely on Abner, there was part of him that felt he could not survive without having Joab beside him. In the NIV translation, verse 39 says, “Though I am anointed king, I am weak, and these sons of Zeruiah are too strong for me.”
Whatever the reason, Joab’s murder of Abner left a stain on David’s kingdom. Justice was not done and this remained on David’s conscience for the rest of his life.
There are so many ways in which David points us wonderfully to our Lord Jesus Christ. We see in David a foreshadowing of the King who gathers people from every tribe and nation and makes them one by his grace.
But there are also times when David points to our need of a Savior, places where we see that we need a greater king than David. And I think this is one of them right here in 2 Samuel 3. The story makes us say, “We need a better king than David!”
David has been reaching out with grace to bring people together. But will there be justice in his kingdom? Sometimes! More for some than for others! No wonder Isaiah longed for the One who would sit on David’s throne and establish it with justice (Isaiah 9:7, see also Jeremiah 23:5).
How do you hold grace and justice together in the same kingdom? Is it even possible? You would not want to live in a kingdom where there is grace without justice, where men like Joab can commit a cruel murder without consequences. And you would not want to live in a kingdom where there is justice without grace. Where can we find grace and justice in the same kingdom? And how will the two be held together?
The answer is that you find grace and justice bound together as one in the kingdom of Jesus Christ. Here’s why… at the heart of Christ’s kingdom stands the cross. And the cross is the place where grace and justice meet. Grace comes to us, because justice fell on Jesus.
The New Testament makes clear the answer to this question: Why did Jesus have to die on the cross? “…so that he (God) might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:26).
It is not simply that God comes to those who believe and says, “I’ll just sweep your sins under the carpet.” No, God acts with justice when you come to faith in Jesus Christ, because justice is on Christ, so that in him grace and mercy, which reconciles you to God, may be released to you.
The stroke of justice fell on him. So that, in him, the gift of grace may come to us. Despite all the scandals and all the seductions, Christ will establish his kingdom with justice and with grace.
We worship at your feet where love and justice meet
and a guilty world was washed in love’s pure stream
For us He was made sin; O help us take it in
Deep wounds of love cry out, ‘Father forgive.’
We worship, we worship the Lamb who was slain.