Sermon preached on 2 Samuel 2:8-3:1 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 12/6/2015 in Novato, CA.
Due to technical difficulties, the majority of the audio recording was lost.
2 Samuel 2:8-3:1
“War Between the House of Saul and the House of David”
Conflicts and fighting in the church. Unfortunately, it is a reality. Sometimes the conflict is over a very important matter, like when Martin Luther stood up against the Pope over the biblical doctrine of justification. In a time like that, the conflict was necessary. Other times, conflict in the church can be over such superficial matters, like the color of the carpet, or as a result of different personalities clashing. It is especially sad and bad when the conflict is over trivial matters. And yet conflict in the church, even when it is over something important, still carries with it something that is sad and bad. We see that in our passage for today. Yes, on the one hand we could see that a conflict like this was coming. And for those who were supporting David to be the next king, we know their allegiance was in the right place. And yet that doesn’t change the reality that when we read this chapter what we see is in one sense sad and bad. God’s people are fighting against each other; killing each other! There was conflict in the visible church which was Israel back then. There was conflict between Saul’s house and David’s house. And as we study this today, we’ll seek to apply it to the church today. We’ll try to think of how the conflict in this Old Testament church here teaches us something for conflicts we’ll face in the New Testament church.
We begin then in our first point to see the background to the conflict in verses 8-11. Here Abner, Saul’s military commander, and also Saul’s cousin, makes Ishbosheth king. Ishbosheth was the last surviving son of King Saul, as Saul and his other sons died in that big battle between Israel and the Philistines. Now on the surface, this would have been expected. We could see how this normally would be an appropriate thing to do, at least from one vantage point. The king and his sons had died, so of course, ordinarily you would expect that his last remaining son would be made king. And since Abner was the military commander, which was a very powerful position, you could see why he might be the one to announce the last surviving son to be the next king. And surely this was in Abner’s best interest, say instead of supporting someone else to be the next king, because under Ishbosheth surely he stood the greatest chance of maintaining his position as commander of the army. And of course this makes sense in terms of family loyalty. Saul and Abner were family, so he would surely want to be loyal to his extended family. In fact, we see Abner reference this loyalty to Ishbosheth next chapter when they get into an argument. Abner tells the Ishbosheth in chapter 3, verse 8, that he has continued to show steadfast love to the house of Saul in all of these matters.
And so under ordinary circumstances, we might be able to understand Abner making Saul king. And yet these were not ordinary circumstances. And ultimately, this was the wrong thing for Abner to do. In order to make my point here, I might begin by noting what is not mentioned here. There is no reference to any inquiry of the Lord by Abner, or any concern about the Lord’s will in this matter. And that of course gets to the underlying issue. God has chosen David to be the next king. David has already been crowned by the tribe of Judah. David has also already begun to appeal to the rest of the tribes for him to lead them, at least to Jabesh Gilead, which we saw in the start of this chapter. This becomes ever more pointed when we see the time difference between Ishbosheth’s reign over the rest of Israel, versus David’s reign over Judah. Ishbosheth reigns just two years over Israel, but David reigns seven and a half years over Judah. Well, we will see that right after Ishbosheth loses the throne over Israel is when David becomes king over all Israel. So what that means for the math here is that there is difference of five and a half years between David’s reign over just Judah and Ishbosheth’s reign over the rest of the tribes. What was going on in that time? Why didn’t Abner make Ishbosheth king right away? What did Israel do for leadership all that time? Well, maybe Abner ruled them temporary, or maybe there was not much leadership while they recovered from the huge defeat from Israel. We don’t know for sure.
But what we do know is that David was already king over Judah and as the example shows with Jabesh Gilead, that he wanted to reign over all of Israel. But so far that hadn’t happened. And so when Abner makes the choice to king Ishbosheth, it means he was also making the choice to not support David as king. That’s the point. Abner’s choice to support Ishosheth as king was a choice to reject David as king. And that’s where Abner got it wrong. Because God had already made clear that he was removing the kingdom from Saul’s house and giving it to David. And lest you be thinking that maybe Abner didn’t know about God’s decision here, I point you to next chapter, verse 9-10. There Abner acknowledges to Ishbosheth that he knows that God has already sworn to David to transfer the kingdom from Saul’s house to David and to have David reign over both Judah and Israel. And in fact when you get to chapter 5, we see that this was actually common knowledge in all Israel that they knew God wanted David to reign over them. And so when thinking about who to blame for the conflict in this chapter, we really have to point the finger at people like Abner who put their support in the wrong person to be the next leader for God’s people.
So then, war breaks out between Saul’s house, and David’s house. This brings us now to our second point to observe this in our passage. To see the conflict between these two houses. We pick this up in verses 12-14. There, we find Abner and the army of Ishbosheth meet David’s army in Gibeon. David’s army is being headed up by Joab, who was the commander of David’s army, and also a nephew to David. In other words, Joab and Abner basically are in the same military role of commander over the two respective armies. And so when we come to verses 12-14, we see that the two armies face off in Gibeon, and Abner initiates things with a proposal. This is verse 14. Abner proposes that some of the young men from each side fight in front of them. In case this is unclear, let me explain. Basically, this seems like Abner suggesting that instead of a huge all out battle between the two forces, where lots of people would probably die, maybe they can settle this via a sort of contest between the two forces. Remember, this was similar to what the Philistines proposed with Goliath. They said instead of everyone fighting, just send one Israelite champion to fight their champion Goliath. Whoever wins that fight would win the whole war. Of course, the Philistines didn’t keep their end of the bargain when David killed Goliath, but that was the idea. At any rate, this might make somewhat sense here. Why have a big huge battle between fellow Israelites? So they do a smaller contest instead. Twelve young men, probably by being numbered off randomly per the language of verse 15, are selected from each side. And they fight. Unfortunately, there is no clear winner after this. All twenty four young men end up dead, killing each other at the same time, verse 16. How sad such brothers died like this.
So then in verse 17, fierce fighting evidently breaks out. Since that contest didn’t solve the matter, they get into a full on battle. And then interestingly we are told about one particular component of the battle. It’s what we read starting in verse 18 about Asahel. Asahel is a brother to Joab, and thus also a nephew to David. 1 Chronicles 11 lists Asahel as one of David’s mighty men. And here we see how quick footed he was too. And so our attention in this conflict draws us to see Asahel going full steam ahead after Abner. As Asahel pursues Abner, Abner realizes who it is that is chasing him, and he tried to talk him out of pursuing him. Abner seems very concerned to not want to have to kill this mighty man of Israel, and particularly afraid how it will affect his ability to interact with Joab. Verse 21 also says that Abner tried to get Asahel to turn aside and take the armor from one of the other young men, which some translators think is saying that Asahel didn’t have as good as weapons as Abner, and thus Abner is trying to warn him further to go get some better weapons before he comes after him. But nonetheless, Asahel doesn’t listen, and in great zeal pursues Abner, but ends up getting killed. Interestingly, Abner killed him with the blunt end of the spear, which may mean that Abner was trying to not kill him, but just act defensively, but nonetheless it proved a fatal blow. How sad that heroic Asahel died like that.
Well, the fighting continued on that day, and it started to get dark. Joab and his other surviving brother Abishai continue the pursuit of Abner. Abner and his remaining men gather and take up a defensive position on a hill, verse 25. (Quite a lot of action and suspense in all this!) Then Abner cries out to Joab in verse 26. He says, “Shall the sword devour forever? Do you not know that it will be bitter in the latter end? How long will it be then until you tell the people to return from pursuing their brethren?” Abner acknowledges how sad and bad this is that so many brothers are dying in this battle. So, Joab agrees to the cease fire, and they both retreat that day back to their capital cities.
Verses 30-31 tell us the outcome of this one battle. David’s force won by a huge margin: 18:1! So, God was surely with David’s forces and bringing about a fulfillment of what he has promised to do in taking the kingdom away from Saul and giving it to David. And then we read 3:1 and find out that the war continued from that point. That it was a “long war.” And that David’s position grew stronger and stronger while Saul’s house grew weaker and weaker. In other words, what happened in this battle seems to be representative of the rest of the war. We are not told anything more of any other battles in this war, but this chapter is surely a taste of them all. So, it’s wonderful to see God establishing David like this. But it is also sad to see all the men of Israel and Judah who died in the process.
And so I’d like to turn now to do some assessment and application of all this. To start let me say what I’ve been saying. In one sense, this was all very sad and bad. Yes, we can see the bigger picture of how God uses this all to bring about his promises with regard to David. But it is still sad to see all the conflict between brothers who are among God’s people in his visible church. It is still bad to see that there is such heated conflict that led to fellow Israelites killing each other. How sad and bad indeed.
It’s interesting when we look at this specific battle here, neither Ishbosheth or David are even mentioned as being in the battle. Presumably they are both back at their respective capitals. The focus here of leadership is between Abner and Joab. Though both Abner and Joab are extended family to their respective kings, neither of them are always in perfect agreement with their kings. Interestingly, next chapter we’ll see conflict between both Abner and Ishobosheth and between David and Joab. Abner will come to realize that he has chosen the wrong king. David will lament the harshness that Joab and his brothers sometimes show. Why do I mention this? Because God’s people can be divided not only over which leader they choose, but even when they seek to follow such a leader, they usually don’t follow that leader perfectly. They might do things in the name of their leader, claiming to be doing it in service to that leader, when the leader themselves may have done things differently. And so I would imagine the battle here may have gone a bit differently if both Ishbosheth and David were personally there leading their armies themselves. Particularly if David, the man after God’s own heart, was there.
And so what we see in this passage is that this conflict had lots of sad and bad results. We see this in verse 26 when Abner acknowledges the bitterness of the sword and how they are killing brothers. Or like in Asahel’s death here; not only did Abner not want to kill him, but look at verse 23. Whenever people came to the place where Asahel had fallen, they stood still. The loss of such a mighty hero struck everyone, from both sides of the conflict. And in 3:1, the reference to the long war makes us sad to see how long this went on, and sad to see as it says that Saul’s house only got weaker and weaker. We will continue to see David wanting to show kindness to Saul’s house, but these battles at this point prevented that. And so we see here such sad and bad results to the nation in this civil war. Yes, God would work through all of this his good plan, but the specific things like this are nonetheless horrible for the people to endure. But let’s not miss the fundamental issue here. Why did this internal conflict happen for Israel? What was the ultimate reason for the divide? Well, the foundational issue for them was this: “Will you follow the Lord’s anointed?” The conflict was over that issue. Who was the Christ at that time? It was David. Not everyone would accept that, and it caused this great divide. Obviously the ones who denied that David was the Christ, were in the wrong. But even those who did follow David didn’t necessarily follow David in all wisdom and with the right heart, and that surely contributed in some way to the issues we see here. But it all boils down to this: following the right Christ. And the right Christ is the one God has picked. And we then follow that Christ according to the leadership of the Christ, how he calls us to follow him.
And so we turn again to the ultimate and eternal Christ, our Lord and Savior, Jesus. This passage again points us forward to him. God established David as Christ in the Old Testament to ultimately establish Jesus, starting in the New Testament, as the Christ over an eternal kingdom. And when Jesus came to earth, these same tensions again came up. At that time, there were the religious leaders who would not accept Jesus as the Christ. They actively tried to keep people following them instead of Jesus. That divided the people then. And by the time it got to the book of Acts, it started turning bloody even; remember Stephen and James who are particularly mentioned as martyrs. With Jesus this is pretty similar with today’s passage. Just like in today’s passage you could see how ordinarily the people should have followed Ishbosheth as king, but divine revelation made known otherwise. So too with Jesus; ordinarily you would follow the religious leaders, but clearly something awesome was happening with Jesus, with divine revelation and supernatural miracles to confirm that Jesus was indeed the Christ and to be acknowledged as such. Jesus himself acknowledged the conflict and strife that he brought the people, saying in Matthew 10 that he did not come to bring peace but a sword, bringing division even among close family members. And again, the division was over whether people would follow the Lord’s anointed.
The conflict during Jesus’ day hit its height of being sad and bad when the religious leaders and the people went as far as to crucify Jesus. How sad and bad indeed. But again, praise the Lord, for in that, God all the more revealed to the world that Jesus really was his anointed one, and really was to be followed. God did this by raising up Jesus from the dead, and ascending him up into heaven, and seating him in the highest place. And of course in his death, God used this, even to provide a way of atonement for God’s people. That even in the midst of all our sinful conflicts with each other, and all the ways we sin ultimately against God, we can yet find redemption. It’s through the blood of the lamb. If Asahel seemed fool hearty here in his zeal of trying to kill Abner; if that caused everyone pause when they saw it; think of the zeal of Jesus Christ in going to the cross. He would not be deterred when people tried to talk him out of it. And Jesus knew with certainty it would cost his life. And when people looked him as he finally died on the cross, it surely struck them too (remember the centurion who saw how Jesus died). But Jesus did it to provide a way of salvation. So then, let us each follow King Jesus, the Lord’s anointed one.
I would love to say that the conflicts and divisions stopped at that point. I would love to think that once the visible church acknowledged Jesus as the Christ that we would never have any more internal problems in the church. Yet, that is not the case. In fact, such are recorded in the New Testament. There are many exhortations that we not quarrel amongst ourselves. And there are also many exhortations against those who would try to turn people in the church away from the biblical Christ to some other false Christ. Sometimes it is just improper factions among those who are looking to follow Jesus. One example that particularly comes to my mind is 1 Corinthians 1 when people are talking in that church of whom they follow. Some want to say the follow Paul, or Apollos, or Peter; or some simply say the follow Christ. And yet the irony is that all those Paul, Apollos, and Peter all were looking to follow Christ and point people to Christ.
And so similarly such conflicts still exist today in Christianity. And this is not just a problem when we look at Christianity broadly. Yes, obviously there are some serious differences between those Bible believe Protestant churches from Roman Catholicism or from the liberal churches that long ago have put the Bible and the biblical Christ aside. Clearly we are not in any fellowship with those and so I’m not talking about them. But this is an issue that is close to home. It’s true in bible-believing evangelical churches in general. But it’s also true in more specific reformed circles as well. People say I follow Machen, or I follow Van Til, or I follow RC Sproul, or I follow Calvin, or MacArthur, or Keller, or etc, etc. Us reformed Christians have conflicts and division over which particular leaders we particularly follow in the church. This is true for us in reformed circles, and its true in every wing of Christendom.
Now to be fair, those example leaders in our reformed circles are not necessarily looking to bring conflicts and fights into the church. In fact, there are ways we can benefit from such leadership; it’s not like we need to pick one. But it is also true that we can get into a party mentality and bring fighting and conflict in the church. Sometimes there are serious matters that need to be stood up for. Sometimes the fighting though is just sad and bad.
Now, I don’t have all the answers on this. There is a slogan that we need to pursue the peace, purity, and unity in the church. The difficulty is that it’s hard to get all three at the same time. For example, unity often comes at the expense of either peace or purity. And so I don’t have any easy answers to give us today, except to say this. The foundational conflict we mentioned in our passage today, is still the point we need today. God’s people must unite around the Lord’s anointed. Jesus is the Lord’s anointed. We must ultimately follow him. And that means that we must look to follow Jesus according to his Word where he tells us how to follow him. And so the good news is that all the names I mentioned about conflicts in the reformed circles state that they are trying to get people to follow Christ. Now yes, like Joab they surely in their leadership will not perfectly reflect Jesus’ qualities and teachings and leadership. And the same is true for me as pastor here. I endeavor from my heart to lead people here to Christ. I strive to do that. It’s not about me, it’s about Jesus. I want you to know Jesus more, and submit to him more, and serve him more, and rejoice in his salvation more. But on my best days, I fall short. And that’s true for all our human leaders in the church. We wish Christ were here right now in our presence to solve our disputes and lead us himself personally and bodily. But he’s not. So for now you are “stuck” with people like myself and the other ordained officers in the church. But that makes us yearn for Christ’s return (I know it does for me).
So that doesn’t give us any easy answers about how to solve the conflicts in the church. But there can be something comforting to acknowledge the challenge before us; and to be reminded that Christ is still reigning over his church, even though he does it spiritually right now, and even through flawed human leaders. And so then may we each humbly be directed back to Jesus Christ again today. May we be reminded today that it is his church; he is the Christ. May we remember our leaders who imperfectly seek to point you to him and keep them in prayer. Yes, our human failings surely mean that we will still struggle in the church with conflicts and fighting. May we seek peace, purity, and unity, even though it’s difficult. But may this make us long all the more for glory, when Christ himself will be present bodily to rule us and unite us in him. Amen.
Copyright © 2015 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.