David and Abner – 2 Samuel 3

Read the Passage: 2 Samuel 3

Abner’s Alliance (3:1–21)

Upon Saul’s death, his cousin Abner, commander of the army, did not follow David, but installed Saul’s son Ishbosheth on the throne. It is unclear why Abner did this, especially since all of Israel knew God had anointed David to be king at 1 Sam 16:1–13 (cf. 2 Sam. 3:9–10, 17–18). These events led to a two-year tension between Ishbosheth, who reigned over Israel from Gilead, and David, who reigned over Judah from Hebron. Via conflicts over time, there was a gradual transition of power from Ishbosheth to David. 2 Sam. 2:18–23 reports the death of Joab’s brother at the reluctant hands of Abner—an event that becomes important later in this narrative. In 2 Sam. 3:2–5 we read of six sons who were born to David at Hebron. In a later passage, eleven additional sons are listed whom were born after David had relocated to Jerusalem (cf. 2 Sam. 5:13–16). David’s polygamy raises many questions.

Although Saul’s son Ishbosheth was on the throne of Israel, the narrative makes it clear that Abner was really the one with power. Indeed, as is reported at 2 Sam. 2:8–9, it is Abner who made Ishbosheth king. At 2 Sam. 3:7 it is recorded that Ishbosheth accused Abner of sleeping with his father’s concubine, Rizpah. Given we’re told that “Abner was strengthening his hold on the house of Saul” (2 Sam. 3:6), this charge was probably true. By sleeping with Rizpah, the previous king’s concubine, Abner was likely making a claim toward the throne (cf. 2 Sam. 16:21–22). This was not unusual or unfathomable, for Abner was Saul’s cousin and the commander of the army. Regardless of Abner’s motivation, in 2 Sam. 3:8–11 is it clear he was offended by Ishbosheth’s accusation—or, at least he feigned offense. Consequently, Abner resolved to withdraw support from Ishbosheth and to ally himself with David.

In 2 Sam. 3:12 Abner sent a message to David, offering to unite the kingdom of Israel under David’s rule. It seems likely that Abner’s motive for contacting David was either spite for Ishbosheth or a desire to be seen as the one who unified Israel. 2 Sam. 3:13–16 records that David agreed to meet Abner if his first wife, Michal, was returned to him. Given that David already had several wives, and that Michal had already remarried (cf. 1 Sam. 25:44), David’s request seems suspicious, at best. However, it can be noted that Michal did love David (cf. 1 Sam. 18:20), that she had been illegally re-married off by her father Saul, and that she did not seem to have objected to being brought back to David. At 2 Sam. 3:17–19 Abner informed Israel, especially the tribe of Benjamin, which was Saul’s tribe, of his intent to unify Israel. It is reported that David agreed to this plan at 2 Sam. 3:20–21.

Joab’s Revenge (3:22–30)

In 2 Sam. 3:22–30 we read that Joab, the commander of the army of Judah, was incensed when he learned that David had met with Abner and allowed him to depart in peace. It is ironic that Joab accused Abner of deception (cf. 2 Sam. 3:25), for Joab then deceived David in not telling him about calling Abner back to meet him at Hebron (cf. 2 Sam. 3:26). Furthermore, Joab then deceived Abner by pulling him aside privately, ostensibly to speak with him, but only to murder him. Note that it is not coincidental that Joab “stabbed Abner in the stomach, so that he died” (2 Sam. 3:27), for Joab’s brother Asahel had been killed in a similar manner by Abner (cf. 2 Sam. 2:19–23). An important difference, however, is that Asahel was killed in battle, because of his own arrogance, while Abner was murdered in a time of peace, out of vengeance (cf. 2 Sam. 3:27).

David’s Mourning (3:31–39)

In 2 Sam. 3:31, David commanded Joab and all of the people to mourn for Abner. Further, David buried Abner in Hebron, wept, refused nourishment, and wrote a lament. These actions were genuine and had the effect of not only demonstrating David’s innocence in the murder of Abner, but also of drawing the nation to him. It may seem curious that David did not have Joab executed for his murder of Abner, but David later explains this, saying, “I am weak today, though anointed king; and these men, the sons of Zeruiah are too harsh for me” (2 Sam. 3:39). In writing that he was weak, David was indicating that he lacked the political power needed in order to execute Joab, the commander of the army. The sons of Zeruiah were Joab, Abishi, and the late Asahel. Note that Joab would eventually be killed for his sins, although not until years later by David’s son Solomon (cf. 1 Ki. 2:5–6, 28–34).

Application Questions:

  1. After Saul was killed in the battle with the Philistines, why did Israel not make David king over the entire nation, especially if the people knew God had anointed David?
  2. Why did David engage in polygamy? Why is David not judged by God for polygamy? Was polygamy common in biblical times?
  3. What is the difference between power and authority? Why would Ishbosheth accuse Abner, knowing that Abner was commander of the army?
  4. What are the important contextual and personal differences between Abner’s killing of Asahel, and Joab’s killing of Abner?
  5. Why did David not have Joab executed for his murder of Abner? Do you think David was exaggerating in calling Abner a great man (cf. 2 Sam. 3:38)?