Abner and Joab

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Let me start by saying why you're going to have to work hard tonight.

With some parts of the Bible, you only have to read a few verses to get the message. This isn't one of them. We need to cover two chapters to get the message. With some parts of the Bible, you can explain a bit then apply it to life today, explain a bit more then apply it, and so on. This isn't one of them. We've got to get our heads round the whole lot before asking, 'So, what's God saying to us through this?' And then some parts of the Bible look immediately relevant – like a passage on anxiety when you're feeling worried. And, again, this isn't one of them. It's about political intrigues in the middle east 3,000 years ago – like an ancient episode of Game of Thrones. So you're going to have to work hard and be patient with a passage that doesn't give you a little lesson for life every two minutes. But if we are patient, it will give us some big lessons about God's sovereignty – ie, his ultimate control over everything that happens in our lives.

So would you find one of the Bibles in the seats, and turn to p255 which will get you to 2 Samuel chapter 2. And let's now pray:

Father God, you saw to it that this part of the Bible was written. So please would you now help us to see what you intended it to communicate about you. In Jesus' name. Amen

OK, let me remind you of the background.

Back in 1 Samuel, Saul was made the first king of God's Old Testament people, Israel. But he basically ignored God. So God rejected him and appointed David to replace him. So for the rest of 1 Samuel, David is king in waiting. But Saul is still king; and trying to kill David, whom he doesn't want to be king. So 1 Samuel becomes a deadly game of cat and mouse, where Saul's the cat and David's the mouse. But God has decided and promised that David will be king. So he protects David. And ultimately removes Saul, who dies in battle.

That gets you to 2 Samuel 1 where, as we saw two weeks back, David hears that Saul is dead. So the way is finally open for him to become king. And as we saw last week, he finally does become king, but of just one of the twelve tribes of Israel. So look back to chapter 2, v4:

And the men of Judah came, and there they anointed David king over the house of Judah.

But if you think David can just say to the rest of Israel, 'Here I am, give me the throne,' think again. Because there are other people playing Game of Thrones. So look back to chapter 2, v8:

But Abner the son of Ner, commander of Saul's army, took Ish-bosheth the son of Saul and brought him over to Mahanaim, and he made him king over Gilead and the Ashurites and Jezreel and Ephraim and Benjamin and all Israel.

So here's the state of play at the start of tonight's passage. David is king over Judah, and his army commander is Joab. While Ish-bosheth claims to be king over the rest of Israel, and his army commander is Abner. And what's clear from these two chapters is that Abner wants all the power he can get. Which brings us to…

Abner's Plan A: Beat David

And I'm just going to take you to key verses to give you the drift. So first off, Abner takes his army to challenge David. Because Plan A is to beat David and get power that way. But look on to chapter 2, v17: 

And the battle was very fierce that day. And Abner and the men of Israel were beaten before the servants of David.

So Plan A fails. Abner retreats. And Joab and his two brothers chase him. The fastest of them is Asahel. He catches up with Abner. And Abner doesn't want to fight him, but ends up killing Asahel in self-defence. So look at v23:

But [Asahel] refused to turn aside. Therefore Abner struck him in the stomach with the butt of his spear, so that the spear came out at his back. And he fell there and died…

So Joab and his remaining brother chase Abner even harder. But ultimately Abner persuades them to call off the fight, to avoid more Israelites being killed by fellow-Israelites. So that's chapter 2 – the opening fight. Which is a taste of things to come, because look at chapter 3, v1:

There was a long war between the house of Saul and the house of David. And David grew stronger and stronger, while the house of Saul became weaker and weaker.

And Abner must have seen that Ish-bosheth was going to lose, so he switches to:

Plan B: Join David

Look on to chapter 3, v6:

While there was war between the house of Saul and the house of David, Abner was making himself strong in the house of Saul. Now Saul had a concubine…

Which was not quite a wife, but a sexual partner alongside his wife – which, needless to say, wasn't God's will. Anyway, v7, her..

name was Rizpah, the daughter of Aiah. And Ish-bosheth said to Abner, "Why have you gone in to [ie, had sex with] my father's concubine?"

So remember Ish-bosheth's father, King Saul, was dead. And Abner helps himself to one of Saul's women. Which in those days was a way of saying, 'I'm laying claim to the dead king's position and property – I want the throne.' So Abner throws down the challenge to Ish-bosheth. And Ish-bosheth stands up to him, v7:

"Why have you gone in to my father's concubine?"

Read on, v8:

Then Abner was very angry over the words of Ish-bosheth and said, "Am I a dog's head of Judah? To this day I keep showing steadfast love to the house of Saul your father, to his brothers, and to his friends, and have not given you into the hand of David. And yet you charge me today with a fault concerning a woman.

Ie, 'I made you king and I've propped up your kingdom, and all the thanks I get is a dressing down about this woman. OK, in that case (v9),

God do so to Abner and more also, if I do not accomplish for David what the LORD has sworn to him, to transfer the kingdom from the house of Saul and set up the throne of David over Israel and over Judah, from Dan to Beersheba." And Ish-bosheth could not answer Abner another word, because he feared him.

So Abner probably staged the concubine incident not to try to take Ish-bosheth's throne, but as a pretext for joining David. Because by now he's thinking, 'David will be king, so, 'If you can't beat him, join him.'' So look on to v12:

And Abner sent messengers to David on his behalf, saying, "To whom does the land belong? Make your covenant with me, and behold, my hand shall be with you to bring over all Israel to you."

And David agrees. So Abner starts brokering a deal with the remaining tribes of Israel for a united kingdom under David – a bit like Mr Cameron trying to save the union in the Scottish referendum. So look on to v17:

And Abner conferred with the elders of Israel, saying, "For some time past you have been seeking David as king over you. Now then bring it about, for the LORD has promised David, saying, 'By the hand of my servant David I will save my people Israel from the hand of the Philistines, and from the hand of all their enemies.'"

So Abner can even quote the Bible. But he's not really motivated by wanting to see God's promises fulfilled – he's after power. And this has got 'ulterior motive' written all over it. Because, after all, if he does broker the united kingdom, then David will be very grateful; and in his debt; and might even think twice about Joab, and whether it's time for a new right hand man. Look on to v20:

When Abner came with twenty men to David at Hebron, David made a feast for Abner and the men who were with him. And Abner said to David, "I will arise and go and will gather all Israel to my lord the king, that they may make a covenant with you, and that you may reign over all that your heart desires." So David sent Abner away, and he went in peace.

So Plan B is going very nicely indeed for Abner. Until v23, when re-enter Joab stage left:

When Joab and all the army that was with him came, it was told Joab, "Abner the son of Ner came to the king, and he has let him go, and he has gone in peace." Then Joab went to the king and said, "What have you done? Behold, Abner came to you. Why is it that you have sent him away, so that he is gone? You know that Abner the son of Ner came to deceive you and to know your going out and your coming in, and to know all that you are doing."

But is he really concerned that Abner's plotting against David? Is that really his motive? Probably not. Partly he's thinking about his brother whom Abner killed. But more deeply, wouldn't he be thinking about his own position? Because, he also knows that if Abner successfully brokers the united kingdom, then David will be very grateful and in his debt and might even offer Abner a top job. So Joab has 'ulterior motive' written all over him, as well. Which leads to murder, v26:

When Joab came out from David's presence, he sent messengers after Abner, and they brought him back from the cistern of Sirah. But David did not know about it. And when Abner returned to Hebron, Joab took him aside into the midst of the gate to speak with him privately, and there he struck him in the stomach, so that he died, for the blood of Asahel his brother [and probably for deeper political motives as well].

So put yourself in David's shoes. Abner's just brokered the united kingdom. And your right hand man has just murdered Abner. And if the other eleven tribes think you had anything to do with it, the kingdom deal will be off. So David spends the rest of Chapter 3 making clear that he had nothing to do with Abner's death. So, v28:

Afterwards, when David heard of it, he said, "I and my kingdom are for ever guiltless before the LORD for the blood of Abner the son of Ner. May it fall upon the head of Joab…" 

And then David leads the mourning for Joab, so v37:

...all the people and all Israel understood that day that it had not been the king's will to put to death Abner the son of Ner.  And the king said to his servants, "Do you not know that a prince and a great man has fallen this day in Israel? And I was gentle today, though anointed king. These men, the sons of Zeruiah, are more severe than I [or you could translate that 'too strong for me']. The LORD repay the evildoer according to his wickedness!" 

So there's more than a hint there that David knows he should take action against Joab – but doesn't because of Joab's strength and the way he depends on him. So even David's motives are called into question. 

That's the whole lot, which you've got to get your head round first. So now we can ask, 'What's God saying to us through this?' And the way to answer that is not to go looking for little morals from the human characters in the story – like, 'Don't stab people.' The way to answer that is to remember that the main character in the story is God – and to ask, 'What is God doing here? And so what do we learn about him, and how we should respond?' And what God's doing here is: working out his plan to put David on the throne of a united Israel. And he's using the most unbelievable mixture of motives and decisions to do it.

So here's lesson 1:

1. God sovereignly uses all motives and decisions to bring about his plans

And Abner is Exhibit A. Because his Plan A is: beat David. His Plan B is: join David. And all with the ulterior motive of gaining power for himself. And the Lord sovereignly uses all that to bring about his plan to make David king of Israel. And you ultimately see that pattern again when Jesus is made king of everything, through his death, resurrection and return to heaven. Because how did his Father bring that about? By sovereignly using the motives and decisions of all the people who got Jesus crucified. 

The motives and decisions of Judas and the Jewish leadership and Pontius Pilate and the crowd and everyone else. Which is a massive reassurance. Because it means God sovereignly uses all the decisions that other people make about us. Decisions by examiners or university admissions tutors or sports team captains or committees or interviewers or managers writing reports or references or parents or someone deciding to ask you out or someone deciding to split up with you. All those decisions are imperfect. Some have mixed motives. Some have profoundly ulterior, even hostile, motives. But God sovereignly uses all of that to bring about his plans for you. So trust him in that.

And when decisions appear to go against you, wait on him to see what he had planned instead. Eg, a friend of mine applied for what looked like his dream job. But it went to someone else. And he struggled with disappointment until he bumped into the someone else, who said, 'It's a nightmare job – most of what they said at interview was false.' And meanwhile my friend had started a job which proved very good indeed. So God sovereignly uses all the decisions that other people make about you.

But he also sovereignly uses all the decisions you make – however imperfect, mixed or downright ulterior your motives. Which is not an excuse for bad motives and decisions in the future. But it's a reassurance about the past. Because who here doesn't look back on bad motives and decisions they regret? And yet we can trust that God used them to get us where he wanted us to be today. So for example, a friend of mine is in ordained ministry. And he told me that when he applied, his main motivation was that he'd seen so much bad ministry, he was convinced he could do far better. So he was full of pride. But God used that to get him where he wanted him – in ordained ministry. And then, as my friend says, God spent the next five years working on his pride.

So lesson 1 is: trust in God's sovereignty – his ultimate control over everyone and everything. Wait for him to bring about his plans for you. And don't take matters immorally into your own hands, to try to bring things about – like Abner and Joab did. And that's where David is our example. Because he knew God had decided and promised he would be king. But he didn't take it immorally into his own hands to bring that about.

So, in 1 Samuel he could have killed Saul on numerous occasions, but didn't. Because he knew you don't reach God's ends by godless means. So let me ask: are you being tempted right now to try to reach a good goal in an ungodly way? Because if so, learn from David and think again. For example, it's a classic mistake for Christians in the church and in the secular world to compromise sinfully to gain a position of influence – and then find they have no Christian influence, once they're there. Because as John Chapman used to say, 'If you lose God's glory on the journey, you can't have it when you arrive.' So that's lesson 1:

Lesson 2, finally, is this:

2. God's sovereignty doesn't mean we have no responsibility in the working out of his plans

And David is both a positive and negative example here. Let's take the positive first.

David knows it's God plan for him to be king – that's the 'God's sovereignty' side of the coin. But that doesn't mean David just goes into passive mode, waiting for God to make it happen without him playing any part. So, for example, when Abner comes to join him and says he thinks he can broker the united kingdom deal, David weighs it up, shrewdly makes a condition I didn't have time to mention, and commits to that course of action. Or, another example, after Abner is murdered, David realises the deal could be in jeopardy so he's very careful to do all he can to show that he had nothing to do with the murder. And that's the 'human responsibility' side of the coin.

The 'God's sovereignty' side says: God ultimately works to bring about his plans. But the 'human responsibility' side says that God uses the means of us working to bring about his plans. So, for example, when I was leading our university Christian Union there was a group of students from an ultra-Reformed church that stressed the sovereignty of God. And they criticised all our evangelistic events. Because they said, 'Look, God in his sovereignty will bring people to faith – he doesn't need you to try to do it for him.'But it's both sides of the coin. Yes, the 'God's sovereignty' side says he brings people to faith – and you and I can't ultimately do that for anyone. But the 'human responsibility' side says that God uses the means of us sharing the gospel in order to bring people to faith. It's both, and.

And the truth of God's sovereignty should never make us passive – never make us stop praying, stop sharing the gospel, stop working carefully at church growth. 

So let's look at the negative example, to end with. You remember Joab, David's right hand man, murders Abner. Well look back at chapter 3, v28:

Afterwards, when David heard of it, he said, "I and my kingdom are for ever guiltless before the LORD for the blood of Abner the son of Ner. May it fall upon the head of Joab and upon all his father's house, and may the house of Joab never be without one who has a discharge or who is leprous or who holds a spindle or who falls by the sword or who lacks bread!"

Ie, 'May God's judgement fall upon Joab.' Then look on to the very end of v39 and David says again,

'May the LORD repay the evildoer according to his wickedness!'

Which puts all the emphasis on God's sovereignty – that God can bring judgement on people in the present – as well as finally. But David, what about your responsibility for justice here? Aren't you king? And don't earlier parts of the Bible say the king of Israel is to uphold God's law? And isn't God's law pretty clear about murder? But as we saw, there's more than a hint there that David knows he should take action against Joab – but doesn't because of Joab's strength and the way he depends on him.

So he puts all the emphasis on God's sovereignty and remains passive. But it's both, and.

Maybe sometimes there is nothing we can do on the 'human responsibility' side except pray. But most of the time there's more for us to do. And we mustn't hide behind the truth of God's sovereignty to avoid it. So, for example, I was talking to someone the other day who was unconvinced about what I take to be the vital work of the Christian Institute in campaigning for Biblical values in public life and protecting our religious liberty. And he said, 'But won't God bring about justice on these issues?' To which of course the answer is, 'Yes.' But God uses human means – it's both, and.

So these two chapters are not just an episode of Game of Thrones from 1,000BC. If you've had the patience to stick with me, I hope you can now see they're a snapshot of God's sovereignty in action – his ultimate control over everyone and everything, down to the most ulterior of motives. And looking back, that's reassuring – because it says God has planned everything we've been though so far to get us where he wanted us to be today. And looking forward it calls us to work at what is our responsibility, while we trust him to do what only he can do in his sovereignty.

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