What do you call someone who switches sides in the middle of a war to join up with the enemy? I suppose that all depends on whether he’s joining your side or joining the other side. If someone leaves your enemy and joins up with your side, that’s not such a bad thing. But if someone leaves your side and joins up with the enemy, well, we have names for that – turncoat, traitor.
And the person who immediately comes to mind when we hear the word “traitor” is Benedict Arnold. In the Revolutionary War, Benedict Arnold was one of our finest generals. But he didn’t receive a promotion that he thought he deserved, he got into financial trouble and he ended up switching sides, sharing military intelligence with the British. And now, his name is synonymous with being a traitor.
I told you last week that we were going to learn today about someone who switched sides in the war between Israel and Judah. But first, let’s do a little bit of review.
King Saul was the first king of Israel. While he was reigning, the young man David was chosen by God to become the next king of Israel. But David spent about 15 years being chased by King Saul who wanted to kill him. Until, eventually, King Saul himself died in a battle with the Philistines and David was then anointed as king over the tribe of Judah. God intended for David to be king over all of Israel, but at the beginning, only one tribe was ready to receive him.
And we saw last week that, when Saul died, one of his sons, Ishbosheth, took the throne over all the rest of the tribes to the north. Ishbosheth’s forces were led by a man named Abner. And we need to remember that Abner was the one who actually put Ishbosheth on the throne. He’s the one who made that happen. So, at this point in the story, we have two kings – one anointed by God, and the other anointed by Abner.
Meanwhile, in Judah, David’s forces were led by a man named Joab. There was a civil war between the north and the south, the armies of Joab and Abner engaged in battle, and Joab’s army won an overwhelming victory. One of their few losses was the death of Joab’s brother, Asahel, whom Abner killed in self-defense.
In 2 Samuel 3:6, we read, “As the war between the house of Saul and the house of David went on, Abner became a powerful leader among those loyal to Saul.” (2 Samuel 3:6). Now, it seems apparent that Abner put Ishbosheth on the throne because he was a weak man that Abner could control, so that he could be the real power behind the throne. And it worked. As time went on, Abner grew in his strength and influence over the northern tribes.
Which would have been a good thing for Abner, except for one thing. We read this verse when we left off last week — “That was the beginning of a long war between those who were loyal to Saul and those loyal to David. As time passed David became stronger and stronger, while Saul’s dynasty became weaker and weaker.” (2 Samuel 3:1)
So, Abner was becoming more and more important in a kingdom that was becoming weaker and weaker. Rising to the top in a house that is going down is not a position anyone wants to be in.
At this point, we read about a major falling out between Abner and Ishbosheth. “One day Ishbosheth, Saul’s son, accused Abner of sleeping with one of his father’s concubines, a woman named Rizpah, daughter of Aiah.” (2 Samuel 3:7).
Let me explain just a little bit about concubines. Concubines were like wives, but with fewer rights. A concubine was sort of a cross between a wife and a servant. And it wasn’t uncommon for a king in that day to have many concubines who formed his royal harem. So, taking a royal concubine wasn’t just a matter of sexual immorality. It was an act of treason. Taking a former king’s concubine was a public way of laying claim to the throne.
Abner was the commander of the king’s army. But as he got more and more powerful, it’s obvious that Abner wanted to be the king. So, he made his move. He did something that took him one step closer to the throne. And when he did, Ishbosheth challenged him: “Why did you sleep with my father’s concubine?” (2 Samuel 3:7, NIV)
Abner was not a man who liked to be challenged, especially by Ishbosheth, who was a weak man who was completely dependent on Abner’s strength to keep him in power.
So, “Abner was furious. ‘Am I some Judean dog to be kicked around like this?’ he shouted. ‘After all I have done for your father, Saul, and his family and friends by not handing you over to David, is this my reward — that you find fault with me about this woman?” (2 Samuel 3:8)
Abner says, “How dare you question me! After all I’ve done for you. The only reason you’re the king is because I’m the one who put you there. I’m the one who put you on the throne. I could have turned you over to David, but no, I made you king. And now you want to tell me what I can or cannot do.”
And then he goes on to say, “If you’re going to treat me like that, fine, I’ll go join the other side.”
“May God strike me and even kill me if I don’t do everything I can to help David get what the Lord has promised him! I’m going to take Saul’s kingdom and give it to David. I will establish the throne of David over Israel as well as Judah, all the way from Dan in the north to Beersheba in the south.’” (2 Samuel 3:9-10)
Abner says, “I’m going to switch sides. I’m going to go join up with David, and then I’m going to take your kingdom and give it to him so that he can rule over all of it. And you’ll be left with absolutely nothing. Let’s see how you like that!”
After Abner finished ranting and raving, we read that, “Ishbosheth didn’t dare say another word because he was afraid of what Abner might do.” (2 Samuel 3:11), which I think tells you what a weak man Ishbosheth was, and what an intimidating man Abner was.
Now, I think Abner had been considering switching sides long before this. This just gave him a good excuse. Remember I said that Abner was getting stronger and stronger in a kingdom that was going down. What good would it be for him to become king in a kingdom whose days are numbered? Abner was the kind of guy who liked to be on the winning side, and it was obvious to him that David’s side was eventually going to win, especially since, as Abner noted, God had promised that .
So that what Abner does. He switches sides. In verse 12, “Then Abner sent messengers to David, saying, ‘Doesn’t the entire land belong to you? Make a solemn pact with me, and I will help turn over all of Israel to you.’” (2 Samuel 3:12)
Abner offers his support to David and pledges to bring all the tribes of Israel with him. He says, “You want to be king over all of Israel? That’s what God promised you. I’m the man who can make that happen. I can take your kingdom to the next level! Let’s work together and I’ll make you the king that you want to be.”
David didn’t accept his offer right away, but he didn’t reject him either. In verse 13, “‘All right,’ David replied, ‘but I will not negotiate with you unless you bring back my wife Michal, Saul’s daughter, when you come.’” (2 Samuel 3:13)
Michal was the daughter of King Saul, and, at one time, she was David’s wife. In fact, she was his first wife. But when David had to run away from Saul, Saul gave her to another man. That was a cruel thing for Saul to do, and David was determined to get her back.
It’s hard to say whether this was politically motivated, or whether David wanted her back because he loved her so much and missed her. I think it was probably the latter. This was David’s first love who had been taken away from him.
But Michal had been married to someone else for at least ten years. How cruel it was for David to tear that family apart just so he could have Michal back in his life.
And it’s hard to read this story without feeling sympathy for her second husband, Palti, who clearly loved Michal and was devastated when she was taken away. Verse 15, “So Ishbosheth took Michal away from her husband, Palti son of Laish. Palti followed along behind her as far as Bahurim, weeping as he went. Then Abner told him, ‘Go back home!’ So Palti returned.” (2 Samuel 3:15)
I can’t imagine the pain and the heartache that must have caused. But the scene quickly switches to Abner. Now that he had met David’s condition, it was time to get down to business. Abner had to make sure he could follow through on his promise that he could get all the northern tribes to switch sides.
“Meanwhile, Abner had consulted with the elders of Israel. ‘For some time now,’ he told them, ‘you have wanted to make David your king. Now is the time! For the Lord has said, “I have chosen David to save my people Israel from the hands of the Philistines and from all their other enemies.”’ Abner also spoke with the men of Benjamin.” (2 Samuel 3:17-19)
What’s interesting here is that apparently the leaders of these eleven tribes had been considering making David their king “for some time now.” So, who was it that stood in the way of God’s people being united? It was Abner! If it hadn’t been for him, Ishbosheth would never have been king, and it seems clear that most of the people in Israel wanted David as their king!
Charles Spurgeon was a prominent preacher in the late 1800’s. He preached a sermon on this text, and the title of the sermon was “Now Then, Do It”. And here was his premise.
He said, here you have the people of Israel for a long time thinking that they want to have David as their king, talking about having David as their king, maybe even planning one day to have David as their king, but they never actually take David as their king. They never crown him as their king.
And Spurgeon said, “In the same way, some of you have thought about making Jesus the King of your life, you’ve talked about making Jesus as the King of your life, you’ve done everything but actually make Jesus the King of your life. And what he said in that sermon was, “You need to just do it. Just do it.”
And then, of course, Nike came along and stole his slogan. But Spurgeon said it first. You’ve thought about making Jesus the king of your life. Just do it. What are you waiting for?
So, Abner talked to all these leaders about switching sides. And he especially spent time talking with the men of Benjamin. Because that was the tribe that King Saul was from. That’s where all his family and friends were. So, it would have taken a little more persuasion to get them to switch sides. But, eventually Abner was able to get everyone to agree, so he went down to Hebron to meet with David.
What I want you to see here is that Abner was always doing whatever was best for him. When it was in his best interest to make Ishbosheth king, he made Ishbosheth king. And when the tide was turning in the direction of David, Abner went over to David. Verse 19, “Then he went to Hebron to tell David that all the people of Israel and Benjamin had agreed to support him.” (2 Samuel 3:19)
And David received Abner with open arms. “When Abner and twenty of his men came to Hebron, David entertained them with a great feast.” (2 Samuel 3:20)
When Abner talked with David, he could have said something like: “David, I know that God has anointed you as king. And you know that I have been fighting against you. But today I repent of my actions, I lay down my sword, and I offer myself as your servant.” But that’s not the approach that Abner took.
“Then Abner said to David, ‘Let me go and call an assembly of all Israel to support my lord the king. They will make a covenant with you to make you their king, and you will rule over everything your heart desires.’” (2 Samuel 3:21)
Do you see what Abner is doing here? He’s saying, “I made Ishbosheth king, and I can make you the king over all that your heart desires. I’m the king maker, and I can do great things for you.” But there are a couple of problems with Abner’s offer.
1. Abner attempted to take God’s place
God is the one who promised to give the kingdom to David. So, when Abner says, “I will gather all Israel so that you may reign,” he’s trying to take God’s place! As if the throne of David depended on Abner putting him on it.
It’s hard for me not to think of the third temptation that Satan brought to Jesus in the wilderness, when he showed him all the kingdoms of the world and said, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me” (Matthew 4:9)?
Beware of anyone who promises to give you the desires of your heart. Because God is the only one who can give us what we truly need. And the reason you need to be careful of anyone who promises to give you what you really want is because they probably have some hidden motives.
2. Abner wanted to control David
Abner said to David, “Make a covenant with me. Connect yourself to me. I will be your path to success.” If Abner had gotten his way, he would have turned David into another Ishbosheth – a puppet king, under Abner’s control!
Abner promised to give David what his heart desired. But, the truth is, Abner wanted to control David. Beware of people who promise to give you what you really want because they probably have some hidden motives.
Now we see David’s response to Abner’s offer. He doesn’t reject it, but he doesn’t accept it either. It appears that David wanted to take +
some time to think it over, maybe even consult with God about what he should do. In verse 21, “So David sent Abner safely on his way.” (2 Samuel 3:21).
I wonder if David thought about what Abner said to him when he wrote Psalm 37 years later,
“Trust in the Lord, and do good…
Delight yourself in the Lord,
and he will give you the desires of your heart.” (Psalm 37:3-4)
Abner came to David and said, “I will give you all that your heart desires.” But David later says, “Here’s what I’ve found: If you will delight yourself in the Lord, he will give you the desires of your heart.”
So, David sent Abner on his way, and then we see what happens next..
Joab, the commander of David’s army, had been out on a raid when Abner came to visit. When Joab returned home and learned that David had received Abner with grace, he was furious. Joab went to the king and he said, “What have you done? What do you mean by letting Abner get away? You know perfectly well that he came to spy on you and find out everything you’re doing!” (2 Samuel 3:24-25).
Joab was convinced that Abner was a spy working for the enemy, so he decided to take things into his own hands. He sent messengers after Abner, probably in David’s name, calling on Abner to come back to Hebron. David knew nothing about this. Joab did it behind his back.
It’s obvious that Joab hated Abner, and I think there are several reasons. First of all, Abner killed his brother, Asahel. So, there’s a blood feud between hum. You killed my brother, you deserve to die.
Second, Abner is the rival commander. And Joab may be thinking, my job is at stake. I’m about to be replaced by someone who has far more experience than I do. Abner was not only Ishbosheth’s commander but he was Saul’s commander before that. And David was sort of groomed under him. They had a long relationship. So, maybe Joab’s thinking, I’m about to be replaced.
Or maybe, just knowing the character of Abner, Joab knew that he was up to no good. There’s no way he wants to do what’s right, so he’s got some trick up his sleeve and we’re not going to fall for that.
So, when Abner came back to Hebron, “Joab took him aside at the gateway as if to speak with him privately. But then he stabbed Abner in the stomach and killed him in revenge for killing his brother Asahel.” (2 Samuel 3:27).
This was a brutal revenge killing, a cold-blooded murder committed by the man who holds the highest position in the land – the commander of David’s armies!
Immediately, David made it clear in verse 29, “I vow by the Lord that I and my kingdom are forever innocent of this crime against Abner son of Ner. Joab and his family are the guilty ones.” (2 Samuel 3:29-30)
Then, David mourned the death of Abner. “They buried Abner in Hebron, and the king and all the people wept at his graveside.” (2 Samuel 3:32)
Abner had been a thorn in David’s side for years, but when he died this brutal death, David grieved for him. “So everyone in Judah and all Israel understood that David was not responsible for Abner’s murder.” (2 Samuel 3:37)
The only thing that David didn’t do that he should have done was to punish Joab. His failure to exercise justice was a decision that David 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 told him to follow the Lord and then he said, “You need to deal with Joab, because of what he did to Abner” (1 Kings 2:5-6, paraphrase). “I never dealt with that. I didn’t have the courage to do what needed to be done, and you need to do what’s right.
Why didn’t David execute justice? We aren’t told. Maybe 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’s no comparison.
Maybe David didn’t feel strong enough to deal with this difficult responsibility. Joab was a powerful ally. Maybe there was part of him that felt he couldn’t survive without having Joab by his side. 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 it remained on David’s conscience for the rest of his life.
But the application that I want to focus on this morning has to do with the shifting allegiance of Abner.
Abner had been loyal to King Saul, commanding his armies. Then, when King Saul died, Abner was loyal Saul’s son Ishbosheth. He put Ishbosheth on the throne and commanded his armies. But then when he had a falling out with Ishbosheth, Abner said, “I’m gonna change sides. I’m going to end this civil war and make David the king over all the kingdom.
Throughout Abner’s life, he seemed to change his allegiance. First it was Saul, then it was Ishbosheth, and then it was David. But, the reality is, Abner never really changed sides. As I said earlier, Abner was always doing whatever was best for him. When it was in his best interest to make Ishbosheth king, he made Ishbosheth king. And when the tide was turning in the direction of David, Abner went over to David. Abner even tried to pretend that he was on God’s side. “David, I know that this is what God has promised you. Let make it happen.”
Behind all those shifts, Abner’s real allegiance was to himself. He supported whatever king would benefit him the most. He used God’s promises when the promise was convenient and benefited him. Abner was amazingly consistent his entire life: his allegiance to himself never changed.
So, this morning I ask you to consider this question – where does your allegiance lie? Now I’m confident that if I were to go around the room and ask you, where is your allegiance?, just about all of you would say, “My allegiance is with God. God is my king and I serve him.”
But is it possible that our true allegiance is to ourselves? Do we serve God because we recognize he is the Sovereign Lord, or because we think it’s in our best interest? Are we always willing to do what God says because we have fully surrendered to him, or are there pieces of our lives that we hold back because there are times that I want to do what I want to do?
Years ago, I heard an illustration that went something like this. There was a farmer who asked his son to do four things for him. He said, “I want you to plant corn in field #1, plant wheat in field #2, potatoes in field #3, and beans in field #4.” So, the son went to work. He came to field #1 and said, “Dad said to plant corn here. That’s a good idea.” So, he planted corn.
He came to field #2 and he said, “Dad said to plant wheat here. That’s a good idea.” So, he planted wheat. He came to field #3 and said, “Dad said to plant potatoes here. That’s a good idea.” So, he planted potatoes.
But then he came to field #4 and he said, “I know Dad wanted beans in field #4, but I don’t think that’s such a good idea. I think watermelons would grow better here” So, he planted watermelons in field #4.
Now the question is this, how often did the son do what his father wanted him to do? It would seem like the answer is, “He obeyed his father 75% of the time, 3 out of 4.” But the correct answer is this – The son didn’t obey his father at all. The only reason he did what his father said the first three times is because he agreed with his father. Every single time the son did what he thought was best, not what his father told him to do.
The same thing can happen in our relationship with God. God says, “Don’t steal” and we think, “That seems like a good idea, so we don’t steal. God says, “Don’t murder”, and we think, “That seems like a good idea, so we don’t murder. God says, “Don’t commit adultery”, and we think, “That seems like a good idea, so we don’t commit adultery. Then God says, “Love your enemy and forgive him”, and we think, “I’m not going to do that.”
How much have we obeyed God? We may think we have obeyed God most of the time, but the truth is we didn’t obey him at all. We always did what we wanted to do. It just so happens that we agreed with God most of the time.
Where does your allegiance lie? When it comes down to choosing between what God tells you to do and what you want to do, which do you choose? To those whose allegiance is with God, the choice is already made. We will always do what God says, whether it’s easy or it’s hard, whether it benefits us or it seems to make life difficult. Because that’s what true allegiance is all about.