Some of you may remember, in 1982, when Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands, a British colony off their coast. The British responded with a naval assault which resulted in a 10-week war between Great Britain and Argentina, a conflict we now know as the Falklands War. After the war, someone asked a member of parliament what caused the conflict and his answer was this — “It was a fight between two bald men over a comb.” Which is an ancient proverb that refers to two people fighting over something neither one of them really wants or needs.
As we saw in our study of James on Wednesday night, James asked the question, “Why do you fight and argue with each other?” And then he answered that question by saying, “Isn’t it because you are full of selfish desires?” (James 4:1, CEV)
This morning, we’re going to see how that plays out in our text as we continue in our study of King David.
But first, let’s review briefly what we looked at last week. We saw how David was just a kid when the prophet Samuel came to his father’s house. David was out tending the sheep, taking care of the farm.
When the prophet Samuel came to Jesse’s house, he had seven of his boys line up to see who would be the next king of Israel, but of course, God didn’t choose any of them. Eventually, David was brought in, and he was anointed as the next king even though there was already a king in place at that time named Saul.
David was probably about 15 years old when he was anointed. But it would be another 15 years before he would actually become a king.
As we saw last week, when King Saul died in a battle with the Philistines, David began to reign over the tribe of Judah at the age of 30. And then it would be 7 more years before David would reign as king over all of Israel, over all 12 tribes.
So, God called David when he was a young man, and he was anointed. But David didn’t actually take that position for over two decades. Which is a long time to wait. As we saw last week, we all need to wait on the Lord. Wait for his timing. And David was willing to do that. He waited for the kingdom, waited for the right time. He didn’t rush things. He didn’t push. He didn’t take Saul down when he could have. He didn’t rejoice when Saul died. David waited for God to tell him that the time was right.
And we left off last week with David being anointed as king over the tribe of Judah. But there quickly developed a conflict between the descendants of Saul in the north and David and his family in the south.
Beginning in 2 Samuel chapter 2, verse 8 we meet some of the key characters in this conflict. “But Abner son of Ner, the commander of Saul’s army, had already gone to Mahanaim with Saul’s son Ishbosheth. There he proclaimed Ishbosheth king over Gilead, Jezreel, Ephraim, Benjamin, the land of the Ashurites, and all the rest of Israel. Ishbosheth, Saul’s son, was forty years old when he became king, and he ruled from Mahanaim for two years.” (I Samuel 2:8-10, NLT)
“Meanwhile, the people of Judah remained loyal to David. David made Hebron his capital, and he ruled as king of Judah for seven and a half years.” (I Samuel 2:11, NLT)
So, we have David ruling over the tribe of Judah to the south, and now we have Saul’s son, Ishbosheth, reigning over all the rest of Israel to the north.
Now, you may be thinking, wait a minute. Didn’t we read last week that Saul and his sons were killed on Mount Gilboa? Yes, King Saul was killed and three of his sons also died on Mount Gilboa in that battle with the Philistines. Ishbosheth was son number 4. He’s next in line. And he either escaped during battle, or perhaps he never went to battle in the first place. But, either way, he survived.
And the rule for who gets to be king in almost every country that has a king is this – when the king dies, his oldest living son gets to be the next king. And, in this case, that was Ishbosheth. The problem was, Israel wasn’t just any kingdom. It was God’s kingdom, and that meant that God is the one who gets to decide who gets to be king next.
But, while David is appointed as king in the southern tribe of Judah, Ishbosheth lays claim to the throne in the northern tribes, and so now we have a civil war between the north and the south, which is sad. Because the kingdom of Israel was united under King Saul. And it will later be united under King David, but there is this brief period of time when there is a civil war between the north and the south.
So, the next person we want to talk about is Abner, the one who appointed Ishbosheth to be the king of Israel. Abner had been the commander-in-chief or the chief general for the army of King Saul. And now that Saul is dead, Abner is the commander over Ishbosheth’s forces.
If we look back to I Samuel 14, we learn that Abner was not only Saul’s general, but he was also Saul’s uncle. And throughout I Samuel, we find Abner in a lot of different scenes. He was there when David killed Goliath (he actually brought David to Saul after David’s victory). In I Samuel 20, he was eating at the king’s table with Saul and Jonathan and David..
And on that occasion when David snuck in and stole the king’s water jar and spear, but he didn’t take Saul’s life, Abner was there in the camp, sleeping next to Saul, In I Samuel 26, we read, “‘Well, Abner, you’re a great man, aren’t you?” David taunted. ‘Where in all Israel is there anyone as mighty? So why haven’t you guarded your master the king when someone came to kill him? This isn’t good at all! I swear by the Lord that you and your men deserve to die, because you failed to protect your master, the Lord’s anointed! (I Samuel 26:15-16)
So, Abner shared in some David’s victories. But he had also been shamed by David. And so, when Abner heard that David was anointed as the king of Judah, he immediately set up one of Saul’s surviving sons as the true successor to the throne of Israel.
But, notice that God isn’t mentioned here. It wasn’t God who raised up Ishbosheth. It was Abner. And, in the end, Ishbosheth only reigned for two years.
Now there’s one more key character. Ishbosheth had a commanding general over his soldiers, and so did David. David’s commander-in-chief or chief general was a guy by the name of Joab, and it didn’t take long for Abner and his forces to clash with Joab and his forces.
Verse 12, “One day Abner led Ishbosheth’s troops from Mahanaim to Gibeon. About the same time, Joab son of Zeruiah led David’s troops out and met them at the pool of Gibeon. The two groups sat down there, facing each other from opposite sides of the pool.” (2 Samuel 2:12-13)
As you can see on this map, the Pool of Gibeon was right on the border between Ishbosheth’s kingdom to the north and David’s kingdom to the south. This was like their version of a DMZ. Abner’s troops sat on the north side of this pool and Joab and his troops sat on the south side of the pool and they shouted back and forth to each other.
“Then Abner suggested to Joab, ‘Let’s have a few of our warriors fight hand to hand here in front of us.’ ‘All right,’ Joab agreed.” (2 Samuel 2:14)
Abner says, “Let’s not make this a bloody war with hundreds of soldiers dying on both sides. How about if you take 12 of your best men and we’ll choose 12 of our best men, and we’ll let those 24 men fight each other, and then, winner takes all. We’ll declare the winning side the winner of this war.
Which seems like a strange way to fight a war. I can’t imagine Vladmir Putin saying, “This war has gone on long enough. You give us your 12 best Ukrainian fighters, we’ll put forth our 12 best Russian fighters, and whichever side wins that battle will be declared the winner, and the war will be over”. That just seems really odd.
But apparently, that was a common way of doing things back then. Remember, that’s what happened with Goliath. The Philistines said, “Here’s our best man. You give us your best man. They can fight one-on-one, and whoever comes out on top, that side wins the war.”
So, that’s what Abner says to Joab here – you give us your best men, we’ll put forth our best men, and we’ll settle this thing in a hurry. And Joab says, “Let’s get it on.”
Verse 15, “So twelve men were chosen to fight from each side — twelve men of Benjamin representing Ishbosheth son of Saul, and twelve representing David. Each one grabbed his opponent by the hair and thrust his sword into the other’s side so that all of them died.” (2 Samuel 2:15-16)
Well, that certainly didn’t work out very well! They met head-to-head and each soldier grabbed the soldier on the other side and stabbed him, all at the same time. So, now we have 24 men dead and no resolution. So, in verse 17, “A fierce battle followed that day, and Abner and the men of Israel were defeated by the forces of David.” (2 Samuel 2:17)
All right, it’s time to add in a few more names. Verse 18, “Joab, Abishai, and Asahel — the three sons of Zeruiah — were among David’s forces that day.” (2 Samuel 2:18).
Let me tell you about Zeruiah. Zeruiah is not the name of a man. It’s the name of a woman. She happened to be David’s sister. And she had three sons – Joab (that we’ve already talked about) and his two brothers, Abishai and Asahel. It’s interesting that Zeruiah is mentioned 26 times in the Bible, but she’s always mentioned alone, never with a husband.
We don’t know why. Maybe he died at a young age, which would often be the case in those days. Or maybe it was because she was such a notable woman. After all, she raised three warriors, three mighty warriors, known as the sons of Zeruiah.
One of them happened to be a good runner – “Asahel could run like a gazelle.” (2 Samuel 2:18). Josephus was a Jewish historian, and he once wrote that Asahel was so fast he could outrun a horse, which was probably a bit of an exaggeration, but this guy was fast.
So, when Joab’s forces started winning the battle, Abner and his forces started running away. And this guy Asahel, an Olympic-style runner, started chasing Abner. Verse 19, “He began chasing Abner. He pursued him relentlessly, not stopping for anything. When Abner looked back and saw him coming, he called out, ‘Is that you, Asahel?’ ‘Yes, it is,’ he replied. ‘Go fight someone else!’ Abner warned. ‘Take on one of the younger men, and strip him of his weapons.’ But Asahel kept right on chasing Abner.” (2 Samuel 2:19-21).
It sounds like Abner was afraid of getting killed, but as we see in the next verse, that wasn’t the case at all. Verse 22, “Again Abner shouted to him, ‘Get away from here! I don’t want to kill you. How could I ever face your brother Joab again?’”
Abner’s got a good point. His point is this – if I kill you, that could start a blood feud that will last for generations. In those days, blood feuds were quite common. The avenger of blood was the official title in a family for the person who was designated to go chase down that person who killed somebody in your family.
But then if you killed somebody in that family, then that family would choose its own avenger of blood and go after somebody in your family. And then somebody in your family will get somebody else to go after somebody in their family. And that would go on for generations. That’s the point that Abner was making – I don’t want to start a blood feud with your family.
So, instead of chasing me down, why don’t you go find one of my soldiers and kill him and take his armor and weapons. That would still be quite an accomplishment for you. But Asahel wouldn’t do it. He had his sights set on Abner, the commander.
“But Asahel refused to turn back, so Abner thrust the butt end of his spear through Asahel’s stomach, and the spear came out through his back. He stumbled to the ground and died there. And everyone who came by that spot stopped and stood still when they saw Asahel lying there.” (2 Samuel 2:23)
I can just imagine Abner saying, “I’m sorry, I didn’t want to kill you, but you gave me no choice.”
Verse 24, “When Joab and Abishai found out what had happened, they set out after Abner.” (2 Samuel 2:24)
Abner was right in his prediction of what was going to happen. When Asahel’s brothers found out what happened to him, they were on a mission – this guy is going to die for what he did to our family!
Verse 24, “The sun was just going down as they arrived at the hill of Ammah near Giah, along the road to the wilderness of Gibeon. Abner’s troops from the tribe of Benjamin regrouped there at the top of the hill to take a stand.” (2 Samuel 2:24-25)
The top of a hill was a good place to stop and defend yourself.
Verse 26, “Abner shouted down to Joab, ‘Must we always be killing each other? Don’t you realize that bitterness is the only result? When will you call off your men from chasing their Israelite brothers?’” (2 Samuel 2:26)
Now, I will grant you that Abner would have said anything to save his own neck. And I am confident that, if the tables were turned and Abner had the upper hand, he would not have hesitated to kill Joab and his men. But there is a great deal of truth in two things that Abner said.
First of all, he said, “If we keep fighting each other, it’s just going to produce a lot of bitterness. Our lives are going to be consumed with anger, resentment, hostility.” And that’s exactly what happens any time two people or two groups fuss and fight with each other. It just causes a lot of bitterness. It can happen in a marriage. It can happen with friends. It can happen in the church.
Someone has said that whenever we get bitter, it’s for one of three reasons — because of what someone has said about us, because of what someone has done to us, or because of what someone has taken away from us. And once we allow bitterness to get a foothold in our hearts, it can grow and grow and lead to all sorts of conflict.
That’s why the Hebrew writer said, “Don’t let anyone become bitter and cause trouble for the rest of you.” (Hebrews 12:15, CEV). It’s why the apostle Paul said, “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.” (Ephesians 4:31, NIV).
Abner was right. Whenever we fuss and fight, bitterness is the result.
Then, the second thing Abner said was this, “Do you realize that you want to kill your Israelite brothers?” I think what he was saying is this, “We’re not the enemy. God told us to kill the Canaanites and the Philistines and the Amalekites. Those guys are the enemy. We’re not the enemy, we’re your brothers.” And he was right about that.
How sad it is in the church when we forget who the enemy is. Another Christian does something that we don’t like, or they say something to us that hurts our feelings, and we want to do something to get back at them. We fuss and we fight. And I think there are times when God needs to say to us, “Have you forgotten who the enemy is? The enemy is Satan and he and his forces are attacking from all sides, while you’re in here fighting with each other.”
In the military, it’s called “friendly fire”, when soldiers accidentally injure or kill soldiers from their own side. It’s a tragedy when it happens during a war, but it’s even more tragic when it happens in the church because it’s usually not accidental; it’s intentional. And when we hurt one another in the church, it is especially painful. The church is supposed to be place of healing and acceptance, but when we wound one another, those wounds can take years to heal, if they ever do at all.
That’s why James said, “Do not speak evil against one another, brothers.” (James 4:11). It’s why the apostle Paul rebuked the church in Corinth for their quarreling, their anger, their hostility, and the shameful way they were treating each other. He made it clear – there’s no place for that in the Lord’s church.
Abner was right. We should never treat our brothers and sisters that way.
Now, as I said, I think Abner was just trying to save his own neck. But he was right. And when Joab heard him say that, he realized that he was right.
Verse 27, “Then Joab said, ‘God only knows what would have happened if you hadn’t spoken, for we would have chased you all night if necessary.’ So Joab blew the ram’s horn, and his men stopped chasing the troops of Israel.” (2 Samuel 2:27-28)
For now, the battle was over.
“All that night Abner and his men retreated through the Jordan Valley. They crossed the Jordan River, traveling all through the morning, and didn’t stop until they arrived at Mahanaim. Meanwhile, Joab and his men also returned home.” (2 Samuel 2:29-30)
In verse 30, we see just how much of a victory this was for David’s side. “When Joab counted his casualties, he discovered that only 19 men were missing in addition to Asahel. But 360 of Abner’s men had been killed, all from the tribe of Benjamin.” (2 Samuel 2:30-31)
We would call this a lop-sided victory. Then the first verse of the third chapter tells us, “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)
And so, we have a divided kingdom. The split comes about because of two men who led two competing armies – Abner and Joab. Each side felt obligated to prove itself, and Abner’s proposal of a contest seemed to provide the perfect opportunity. But it didn’t prove a thing. It just resulted in more and more fussing and fighting, eventually ending in a full-scale war which cost precious lives.
They demonstrated what Solomon said in Proverbs 17:14 (NIV), “Starting a quarrel is like breaching a dam; so drop the matter before a dispute breaks out.”
It can happen today just as well. Divisions occur in marriages because husbands and wives are more concerned with their ego than they are with serving their mates. It starts with a little disagreement that quickly escalates to full-scale war.
Men and women come into the church wanting to further their own interests, build their own empire, gathering a following. And then, when there’s a disagreement, they force people to choose sides, and engage in the battles that follow. And the result is always a lot of casualties. As Paul made it clear to the church in Corinth, it shouldn’t be that way!
James asked the question in James 4:1, “Why do you fight and argue with each other?” If someone asks us, “Why are you fussing and fighting?”, what we usually do is point to whatever it was that provoked the quarrel. I’m fussing because the kids aren’t listening. I’m fussing because my wife is being disrespectful. I’m fussing because my husband is being sensitive. I’m fussing what of what somebody said about me, or what somebody did to me, or what somebody took away from me.”
And James says, “No, that’s not really why you’re fighting. You’re fighting because of what’s in here. There’s something you want and you can’t have it, so you fight and you argue.”
Wednesday night, we were discussing this topic in our Bible class, and Joey made the statement that the problem comes when our focus isn’t on God. And I think that really is the answer.
But as long as we are driven by the desire to have things our own way, there will always be conflict. And it will ultimately destroy us. More than that, it will destroy the work that we’re trying to do.
Churches need to understand that what is ultimately at stake is the reputation of Christ. If Jesus is the head of the body, then the body’s behavior reflects on him. Jesus said, “By this shall all men know you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). It’s also true that when Christians fight and argue, the world is likely to reject our message about Jesus. If you tell someone what church you’re a part of and their response is, “Oh, I know about you guys. You’re the ones who fight all the time.” What more can you say? Nobody likes being around a family that fights.
We owe it to ourselves and we owe it to the world around us to resolve our disagreements in a godly manner. And whenever we disagree, the question should never be, “How can I fight and win and get what I want?”, but rather, “How can I please and honor God?”
If Abner and Joab and Ishbosheth had all said, “What does God want?”, things would have had a very different outcome. If they had all said, “What can I do that will give God the most glory? What can I do that would most please my God?”, there would have been a much happier ending to this story.
Next week, we will pick up in our story of King David, and we’re going to have a major plot twist – one of the key characters we’ve talked about this morning is going to switch sides. How do you suppose that’s going to go over with everyone? Come back next week to find out!