The great and decisive question in life is not what we achieve, nor how good we become, and certainly not how much we acquire. It is, who is your king? It will do no good at all to be highly successful, seriously virtuous, and even ridiculously wealthy if you are on the wrong side of God at the judgement seat of Christ. Likewise, even if you achieve little, have a deeply flawed character, and lose everything, but have the right king, all will be well. This simple point is difficult for us to grasp because we hate the idea that we are weak, that we are sinners and that we are not masters of our own destinies. We love to pretend that we are in control. The truth is that we are utterly dependent on our King.
We need a king who is powerful for us, one who is able to save us from our enemies and one that can give us security. If we have such a king, all is well. If we do not, then our lives will ultimately end in failure. This does not mean that how we live is unimportant. On the contrary. But it does mean that what our King does is more important. The King of whom I speak is of course our Lord Jesus Christ. Those who belong to him know well that his powerful goodness is decisive. Of course, with Jesus as our King, how we live, what we do with our money and what we do with our life does matter. But it does not matter as much as having him as our King.
In the days of David, in the early chapters of 2 Samuel the way was being prepared for the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ by the establishment of a kingdom that not only foreshadowed his kingdom, but it was that kingdom in reality. As a shadow of the kingdom yet to come, David’s kingdom was both like and unlike the kingdom that will come with Jesus. In that respect it was a shadow but only a shadow, of that kingdom. The throne where David sat in Jerusalem, is the very same throne where our Lord Jesus Christ will sit – and in that respect, this is the very same Kingdom of God on earth. We learn much about that kingdom as we see the similarities and the differences between King David and King Jesus.
In these early chapters of 2 Samuel David’s kingdom was not immediately or universally acknowledged. In this respect it was like the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ. By his death our Lord Jesus Christ has defeated even the greatest enemy, and by his resurrection he has been declared to be God’s King. However, his kingdom is not yet universally acknowledged. Enemies oppose him, and rivals vie for power. And they will continue to be so, until the very end of his millennial reign (1 Corinthians 15:24-25). The great and decisive question in those days in Israel was, who will be Israel’s king?
The people of Judah had decided. David was their king, and as we learn in 2 Samuel 2 – he began his reign over them in Hebron (2 Samuel 2:3-4). However, up north, across the Jordan in Mahanaim, Abner had decided for the rest of the nation that Saul’s son Ishbosheth would be their king (2 Samuel 2:8-9). Abner, not public opinion, was the power behind Ishbosheth’s throne. The resolution of this situation was not going to be easy. Ishbosheth claimed (with some apparently reasonable grounds) to be the rightful inheritor of Saul’s kingdom. David was understood, at least by the people of Judah, to be the man God had chosen to rule the same kingdom.
Initial attempts at negotiation (if that is what it was at the pool of Gibeon) had resulted in bloodshed but no solution. Abner and his men were back in Mahanaim. Joab and his company had returned to Hebron. But, Israel still had two claimants to the throne.
Chapter 3 of 2 Samuel begins with a brief summary of David’s time as king in Hebron in verses 1-5. We then follow the story of how one key player in this drama changed sides, with historic consequences. It is a story of ambition, sex, and politics. But the big question was, who will be king?
We will notice as the narrative unfolds that a number of times the narrator seems quite deliberately to avoid mentioning Ish-bosheth. The alternative kingdoms were that of “David” or that of the late “Saul”. The advantage in this conflict continued as it had begun: “And David grew stronger and stronger, while the house of Saul became weaker and weaker”. There may well have been times when this was far from obvious to those in the thick of the struggle. Today God’s hand in bringing to fruition the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ is growing stronger and stronger, although many cannot see it. The Truth is that God is at work,sovereign over all human wickedness, foolishness, and weakness, and He will re-establish His kingdom and set up His King. God rules in the Kingdom of men. So it was in these early days of David’s kingdom.
The big-picture summary of David’s period in Hebron is followed by an account of a particular sequence of events that were a crucial part of David’s growing stronger. They started with a critical weakening of the house of Saul, but led to David becoming the unchallenged king of all Israel. The action began in Mahanaim.
Abner, the strong man who had made lshbosheth king, appeared to be having second thoughts. The house of Saul may have been becoming “weaker and weaker”, but one man in Mahanaim was becoming stronger. Rather, he was “making himself strong”. (2 Sam. 3:6). Abner was a man who made things happen. He had made Ishbosheth king in the first place. He was the one who initiated events on the terrible day that began with bringing his men to Gibeon and his proposal there to Joab. Ishbosheth, however, seems to have been a disappointment to him.
Was Abner manoeuvring himself into a position where he could usurp Saul’s son? Ishbosheth certainly thought so. It had to do with a woman (2 Sam 3:7). In a royal family, to have sexual relations with a concubine of the king was understood as an assault on the king’s position. A concubine of the late King Saul is introduced to us here by name (Rizpah) as is her otherwise unknown father (Aiah). At this stage in the story, however, Rizpahremains in the background of a devastating conversation that took place between Ishbosheth and Abner. This was no less than a bold public challenge to the throne. Ishbosheth did not ask whether Abner had done this. That was apparently not in dispute. He asked why. Abner’s response will confirm that the allegation was true and therefore that Abner had his eye on Ishbosheth’s throne.
However, for the proud Abner to be rebuked by this weakling whom he had come to despise was more than this strong man could bear. Abner was insulted. That’s putting it mildly. Who did Ishbosheth think he was addressing? (2 Sam 3:8) “After all I have done for you!” he shouted in effect. Abner was not one to be talked down to, even by the man he had made king. Indeed Abner immediately assumed the position of the superior in this exchange. He was the one who was constantly showing “steadfast love” – The word is Khesed - How dare Ishbosheth speak as he had to the man who was constantly showing khesed to everyone around him! Mind you, Abner did not go so far as to say that he had shown khesed to Ishbosheth himself. He was not going to give the man that dignity. He just expressed outrage that the man before him and trivialized the offence. The tirade from Abner reached its climax with an oath (2 Sam 3:9). Such strong words from the furious Abner would have been terrifying. Such fears were warranted. At this moment Abner abandoned his allegiance to Saul and committed himself to use his considerable power to the benefit of David and the detriment of the house of Saul. The surprise is that he expressed this in terms that acknowledged God’s promise to David. Abner was quite clear about what Yahweh had sworn to David: (2 Sam 3:10). These words are astonishing at several levels. Perhaps most striking of all, is the kind of arrogance that led Abner to swear that he would be the one who would “accomplish” what Yahweh had sworn? Abner continued to see himself as the man who made things happen. He considered himself to be the one in control of that which Yahweh had promised. Furthermore his words imply that he Abner would “set up the throne of David”- He overestimated his power (as we will see).
Abner’s change of allegiance was not exactly admirable. His motivation was a mixture of disillusionment with Ishbosheth and vindictiveness toward the man who had let him down and now dared to accuse him. Like many characters in Samuel, his words were better than either his motivations or his actions.
Abner’s heated words were no empty threat. Immediately he made contact with David. Abner, remember, was a man who made things happen. He had the sense to realize the danger of going to Hebron himself, so he sent messengers (2 Sam 3:12). Abner was making the suggestion (as his following words will make clear) that he was the one who had control of “the land”. Abner followed this question with a proposal that David should make a covenant with Abner. Again the high-handed approach is staggering. It is almost as though he were saying, “It would be in your interests, David, to deal with me.” Mind you, Abner maintained a stance of open generosity. He spoke of “your covenant”; that is, the terms were to be defined by David. The assumption, of course, is that Abner would be looked after in this arrangement. Abner, for his part, would give David his full support and cause the whole nation to come over to David. He did see himself as a man who made things happen! It would be fair to suggest that Abner was “playing God.”
Abner seemed to believe that the kingdom, the throne, the land, was in his hands. David’sresponse to the apparently arrogant offer of Abner is at first surprising. And he said, ‘Good; I will make a covenant with you’. Whether he consulted God in this decision, we are not told. However, the acceptance was very definitely on David’s terms. “I will make a covenant with you” - has a marked emphasis on the word “I.” (2 Sam 3:13). The return of Michal, would represent a change in the house of Saul’s attitude toward David. It would, we might say, be an expression of repentance. Michal’s return would be a token of the nation being transferred to David.
Both Ish- bosheth and Abner obeyed David. This was the beginning of something big.
The scene shifts from Michal, on her way south to Hebron, to Abner and his energetic activity, now on the side of of David and among “the elders of Israel. “And Abner conferred [or had conferred] with the elders of Israel, saying” - (2 Samuel 3:17-19) -This makes Abner sound like Samuel. He was preaching the good news of the kingdom of David. Abner the evangelist! Abner urged the elders to act now. “You know you want David as your king. Make him your king. Do it!” Abner provided the most powerful endorsement of the desire that he had attributed to them and the action he was proposing. These things were in accordance with Yahweh’s promise. They were right to want David as their king because he was the one God promised would deliver Israel from the Philistines and who had recently crushed them and indeed “all their enemies”.
Every indication is that Abner was self-serving. He turned to David only when it suited him to do so, and for his own purposes.However, it is difficult to fault the “gospel” he preached to the elders of Israel. Abner’s campaign was a success. The ready response of Israel, and particularly all of Benjamin, to Abner’s word suggests that the only reason they had not turned to David earlier was Abner. Once Abner had abandoned both his resistance to David and his rival scheme to keep the house of Saul in power, the people saw how “good” David was.
The greatest surprise in this surprising sequence of events is the welcome Abner received from David. A feast was prepared for him and his delegation. No recriminations. David received Abner not on the basis of his past (which was reprehensible), nor on the basis of his integrity (which even now was dubious). Despite, rather than because of, these things Abner found in David a generous, gracious welcome.
Abner was still the man who (in his own opinion) made things happen. His response to David’s welcome was to promise that he would now “accomplish for David what Yahweh has sworn to him”. Abner did still seem to think that David’s future depended on him. “So David sent Abner away, and he went in peace”. This is a glimpse of the nature of God’s king and his kingdom. Former rebels find peace. The history of Abner’s relationship with David could be described as “once . . . alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds”. Most recently he was the power behind the “war” with which this chapter began. He was “now reconciled,” and this depended not on any goodness in him, but on the goodness of David.
Of course, Abner had much to learn, and if he was going to be a servant of his new king, that would change him. For now the most important change for Abner was the change in who his lord and king was. Abner’s story had not yet run its course. As the last verses in the chapter show, it was shortly take a terrible turn.
But we are leaving the commentary here. At this point I want to urge you to see how the kingdom of David was a shadow of the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ.
We “who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present us Holy and blameless and above reproach before him” (Col. 1:21-22). Like Israel and the whole house of Benjamin so long ago, do you see the goodness of our King?
Mahatma Gandhi is reported to have said, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ”. We Christians are so unlike our Christ. We acknowledge this to our shame. We are so similar to Abner. We long and expect to becomemore like Christ, but in this life we know that whenever we are compared to him Gandhi’s words will have validity. To put it simply, Christian people are not as good as the Lord Jesus Christ. We who have been welcomed by our Saviour must strive to live in ways that please and honour him. Brothers and Sisters in Christ are sinners who have been forgiven and are being changed but who still have a long way to go. Those of us who are believers need to be reminded that we are not as good as Jesus Christ.