Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
By the death of Saul, David was now left as the anointed king of Israel. This chapter narrates the first steps he took towards securing the throne, and the opposition made to him by the adherents of the house of Saul. At first thought it may seem surprising that no invitation to assume the vacant throne should have come to David from his countrymen, by whom he had been formerly so greatly beloved and admired; but it must be remembered that for several years he had been secluded from their observation, living among their hereditary foes on friendly terms, and that the last news of him probably was his marching with the Philistines to the disastrous battle of Gilboa. As yet he had had no opportunity to place these things in their true light before his people.
And it came to pass after this, that David inquired of the LORD, saying, Shall I go up into any of the cities of Judah? And the LORD said unto him, Go up. And David said, Whither shall I go up? And he said, Unto Hebron.(1) Enquired of the Lord.—At this important juncture of affairs, David’s first care is to know the Divine will. His inquiry was, doubtless, made through the high priest Abiathar, as in 1Samuel 23:9-10 (comp. 2Samuel 22:20; 2Samuel 23:1; 2Samuel 23:4). The answer definitely directed him to go up to Hebron.
Hebron is one of the most ancient cities of the world (built “seven years before Zoan in Egypt,” Numbers 13:22), long the residence of Abraham (Genesis 13:18), and the place where he and Sarah, Isaac and Jacob, were buried. Its original name was Kirjath-arba (Genesis 23:2; Joshua 14:15, &c). It is situated in a valley among the hills of Southern Judea, at a height of nearly 3,000 feet above the Mediterranean. It is about twenty miles S.S.W. from Jerusalem, somewhat more than this N.E. of Beersheba, and about fifteen miles E.S.E. of the Philistine town of Gath. From Ziklag, where David had been living, it was distant about thirty-eight miles. It has always been famous for its vineyards, and its grapes are still considered the finest in Southern Palestine. The valley in which it is situated is probably the “valley of Eshcol,” from which the spies brought the great “cluster of grapes” to Moses in the wilderness (Numbers 13:23). It was a priestly city (Joshua 21:10-11), and the most southerly of the cities of refuge (Joshua 20:7). Here was the home and the throne of David for the next seven and a half years (2Samuel 2:11; 2Samuel 5:5). The larger part of the land, since the recent defeat, was in the power of the Philistines; and Hebron, on account of its situation at the far south, and its strategical strength, as well as its sacred associations, was a peculiarly fitting place for the beginning of David’s reign.
So David went up thither, and his two wives also, Ahinoam the Jezreelitess, and Abigail Nabal's wife the Carmelite.(2) His two wives.—See 1Samuel 25:42-43.
And his men that were with him did David bring up, every man with his household: and they dwelt in the cities of Hebron.(3) Dwelt in the cities of Hebron.—David’s whole force of 600 men, with their families, accompanied him, and made their permanent settlement in the towns of the district to which Hebron gave its name
And the men of Judah came, and there they anointed David king over the house of Judah. And they told David, saying, That the men of Jabeshgilead were they that buried Saul.(4) They anointed David.—The first private anointing of David (1 Samuel 16) had been in token of his Divine commission; this was a sign of his recognition as king by the tribe of Judah; and there was still a third subsequent anointing (2Samuel 5:4), when he was accepted by all Israel. Comp. Saul’s anointing by Samuel privately (1Samuel 10:1), and his subsequent double recognition as king by the people (1Samuel 10:24; 1Samuel 11:15). The “men of Judah” were not only of David’s tribe, but were doubtless aware of his having been divinely selected for their future king, and, for the most part, had been on friendly terms with him during his long outlawry; they had also lately received presents from him in recognition of their kindness (1Samuel 30:26-31).
The men of Jabesh-gilead.—This town had been destroyed in the civil war against the tribe of Benjamin (Judges 21:9-12), and its 400 virgins given in marriage to the surviving Benjamites. There was therefore a special connection between Saul, who was of the tribe of Benjamin, and this city. It is altogether probable also that the remnants of Saul’s defeated army had sought refuge in Gilead.
And now the LORD shew kindness and truth unto you: and I also will requite you this kindness, because ye have done this thing.(6) I also will requite you.—David’s message of kindness and blessing is quite in accordance with his whole bearing towards Saul and his house, and. at the same time, was one of wise policy. The literal rendering is, I also show you this good, the Hebrew not conveying directly the idea of future recompense, as in the English. The thought is that David, as now the rightful king of Israel, appreciates the act, and wishes to show publicly his favour to the men of Jabesh-gilead. He then, in the following verse, suggests the propriety of their now recognising him as the successor of their lost monarch and friend.
But Abner the son of Ner, captain of Saul's host, took Ishbosheth the son of Saul, and brought him over to Mahanaim;(8) But Abner the son of Ner.—According to 1Chronicles 9:36, Ner was the brother of Kish, Saul’s father. Abner was therefore the cousin-german of Saul, and had been made by him the commander in chief of his army (1Samuel 14:51). He was thus, both by kindred and office, strongly attached to the house of Saul. He had been with Saul in his pursuit of David, and may have resented David’s address to him on that occasion (1Samuel 26:14-16). There is no statement of the time that had elapsed after the death of Saul before Ish-bosheth was set up as king by Abner, but it was probably four or five years, for the following reasons: Ish-bosheth reigned only two years (2Samuel 2:10), but David appears to have been acknowledged as king over all Israel soon after his death, and had then reigned over Judah alone seven and a half years. Again, at the death of Saul all the northern part of the country was under the control of the Philistines, and some time must have elapsed before the Israelites would have been in condition to make themselves a new king; and, finally, Ish-bosheth was the youngest of Saul’s sons, born apparently some time after he came to the throne, and he was now forty years old (2Samuel 2:10), Saul himself having reigned about forty years (Acts 13:21).
Ish-bosheth.—Called in 1Chronicles 8:33; 1Chronicles 9:39, “Eshbaal” (the fire of Baal), just as his nephew, Mephibosheth (2Samuel 4:4), is called in the same places Meribaal, and Gideon’s surname Jerubbaal (Judges 6:32; Judges 8:35) is changed to Jerubbesheth (2Samuel 11:21). These names compounded with Baal may have been originally given, as certainly was the case with Jerubbaal, in consequence of the manful opposition to idolatry of those who bore them, and have been subsequently changed to a compound with “bosheth” (shame), in view of the sequel of their histories; or, on the other hand, in the case of Saul’s family the compound with Baal may have been a later name, given in view of their opposition to the divinely appointed king, and to mark God’s utter rejection of the house of Saul.
Mahanaim, famous in the story of Jacob (Genesis 32:2), was on the east of the Jordan, and not far from the brook Jabbok. A Levitical city (Joshua 21:38), in comparative safety from the Philistines, was well chosen by Abner for the coronation and residence of his new king. Mahanaim afterwards became the place of refuge for David in his flight from Absalom (2Samuel 17:24). The expression “brought him over” refers to the crossing of the Jordan.
And made him king over Gilead, and over the Ashurites, and over Jezreel, and over Ephraim, and over Benjamin, and over all Israel.(9) The Ashurites, and over Jezreel.—This verse apparently expresses the gradual extension of Ishbosheth’s dominion as the country became freed from the Philistines. At first, his authority was established over Gilead—i.e., the country on the east of the Jordan; then “over the Ashurites.” No satisfactory explanation of this name as it stands has been found, but it is probably meant for Asherites, or the tribe of Asher, the reading of some MSS. and of the Chaldee Version; the name of this tribe standing for the whole region west of the Jordan, and north of the plain of Esdraelon; then southwards, “over Jezreel,”the wide plain between the mountains of Gilboa and the little Hermon; then “over Ephraim,” including the half-tribe of Manasseh; and, still southwards, “over Benjamin;” and finally, “over all Israel,” excepting, of course, Judah.
And Abner the son of Ner, and the servants of Ishbosheth the son of Saul, went out from Mahanaim to Gibeon.(12) To Gibeon.—Gibeon, in the territory of Benjamin, had become noted in the original conquest of the land as the only city which succeeded, though by craft, in making a league with the conquerors (Joshua 9). It was five and a half miles north-west from Jerusalem, and at a long distance both from Mahanaim and from Hebron. Here the generals of the rival monarchs met, possibly by design, but more likely each engaged in the effort to extend their respective masters’ sway over the tribe of Benjamin.
And Joab the son of Zeruiah, and the servants of David, went out, and met together by the pool of Gibeon: and they sat down, the one on the one side of the pool, and the other on the other side of the pool.(13) Joab the son of Zeruiah.—Zeruiah was David’s sister (1Chronicles 2:16), and Joab the most prominent of her three distinguished sons. Subsequently, by his successful leading of the forlorn hope in the siege of Jerusalem (1Chronicles 11:6; comp. 2Samuel 5:8), he became permanently established as commanaer-in-chief of David’s army. He was undoubtedly among “the brethren of David” who came down to him at the cave of Adullam (1Samuel 22:1), though he is not mentioned by name, like his brother Abishai (1Samuel 26:6-9), in the narrative of David’s outlawry.
The pool of Gibeon is a large reservoir or tank, arranged to store the overflow from a subterranean reservoir fed by a spring in the rocky hill-side. Its ruins still remain, about 120 feet long by 100 broad. The hostile forces halted in full sight of each other on the opposite sides of the pool.
And Abner said to Joab, Let the young men now arise, and play before us. And Joab said, Let them arise.(14) Let the young men.—To avoid unnecessary bloodshed between the tribes of a common parentage, and also, perhaps, to prevent the weakening of the nation in the face of their common Philistine foe, Abner proposes that the struggle should be decided by a combat between a few champions chosen on either side, and Joab immediately accepts the proposal. Hervey (Speaker’s Commentary) aptly compares this combat to that of the Horatii and Curiatii, under strikingly similar circumstances and with similar results, as described by Livy (I., 100 10:25).
And they caught every one his fellow by the head, and thrust his sword in his fellow's side; so they fell down together: wherefore that place was called Helkathhazzurim, which is in Gibeon.(16) Helkath – hazzurim is interpreted in the margin “the field of strong men,” but the etymology is very doubtful. Most modern expositors understand it as meaning “the field of sharp edges.”
And there was a very sore battle that day; and Abner was beaten, and the men of Israel, before the servants of David.(17) A very sore battle.—The combat of the twelve on each side having decided nothing, the two hosts joined battle. Abner and the Israelites were worsted. The numbers engaged were probably not large, as the whole number of the slain was nineteen on David’s side, and 360 on that of Israel (2Samuel 2:30-31). It was, however, a turning-point in the struggle.
And Asahel pursued after Abner; and in going he turned not to the right hand nor to the left from following Abner.(19) Asahel pursued after Abner.—Asahel, the youngest of the three nephews of David, took part in the battle with his elder brothers, and well knowing how completely the cause of Ish-bosheth depended upon Abner, pertinaciously sought him out in the pursuit. His great fleetness enabled him to overtake Abner and, coming behind him, endanger his life. Abner was unwilling to injure him, and only after remonstrating with him, and urging him to seek the spoil of some warrior more nearly his equal (2Samuel 2:20-22), did he unwillingly slay him “with the hinder end of his spear.” The spears were sharpened at the “hinder end” for the purpose of sticking them into the ground (1Samuel 26:7). Abner’s reluctance to kill Asahel may have been partly on account of his extreme youth, but was chiefly through dread of the vengeance of Joab (2Samuel 2:22). “The fifth rib” here, and wherever else it occurs (2Samuel 3:27; 2Samuel 4:6; 2Samuel 20:10), should be translated abdomen.
Joab also and Abishai pursued after Abner: and the sun went down when they were come to the hill of Ammah, that lieth before Giah by the way of the wilderness of Gibeon.(24) The hill of Ammah.—No identification of either Ammah or Giah has yet been made, but as it was “by the way of the wilderness of Gibeon,” it may be conjectured that it was not far from that town, and hence that the pursuit was not long.
And the children of Benjamin gathered themselves together after Abner, and became one troop, and stood on the top of an hill.(25) The children of Benjamin.—The rest of Abner’s force appears to have been hopelessly scattered in the flight, but he succeeded in rallying the Benjamites, his own and Saul’s kinsmen, in a strong position “on the top of an hill.”
Then Abner called to Joab, and said, Shall the sword devour for ever? knowest thou not that it will be bitterness in the latter end? how long shall it be then, ere thou bid the people return from following their brethren?(26) Abner called to Joab.—It may be that Abner was already considering the expediency of transferring his allegiance to the house of David, or, at least, had had enough experience of Ish-bosheth to see that it would be impossible to unite the tribes under his sway. At all events, his sense of the disastrous effects of civil war was doubtless quickened by his own defeat and present danger.
And Joab said, As God liveth, unless thou hadst spoken, surely then in the morning the people had gone up every one from following his brother.(27) Unless thou hadst spoken.—Joab’s reply to Abner admits of either of two interpretations: (1) Joab seeks to throw the whole blame of the conflict upon Abner, by saying that if he had not proposed the combat between the champions (2Samuel 2:14) there would have been no battle, but “the people” of both sides would have separated peaceably at Gibeon; or (2), as the phrase is more generally and more probably under. stood, that Joab had intended to keep up the pursuit only until the following morning, but as Abner already sued for mercy, he was content, and would stop now.
So Joab blew a trumpet, and all the people stood still, and pursued after Israel no more, neither fought they any more.(28) Neither fought they any more—i.e., in this present campaign. In 2Samuel 3:1, it is said that “there was a long war between the house of Saul and the house of David.”
And Abner and his men walked all that night through the plain, and passed over Jordan, and went through all Bithron, and they came to Mahanaim.(29) Through the plain (or the Arabah).—The wilderness of Gibeon lay to the east of the town, and Abner’s flight had thus carried him towards the Jordan. He now passed up the valley of the Jordan (which the word here used generally designates), and, crossing at a ford, went “through all Bithron to Mahanaim.” Bithron is evidently the name of a district on the east of the Jordan, but is not further known.
And Joab returned from following Abner: and when he had gathered all the people together, there lacked of David's servants nineteen men and Asahel.(30) Joab returned.—He cannot be supposed to have returned that day farther than to Gibeon, since it was already sunset (2Samuel 2:24) before the pursuit ended. There, doubtless, he mustered his forces, and counted and buried the slain.
Nineteen men.—It is uncertain whether these numbers include the twelve champion combatants on each side. The great disparity of numbers slain on the two sides is to be accounted for partly by the advantage given by bow and spear, the chief weapons of ancient warfare, to the pursuer over the pursued, and partly by the fact that Joab’s men had been long trained under David in hardship and deeds of valour, while Abner’s men were the remnants of Saul’s defeated army.
And they took up Asahel, and buried him in the sepulchre of his father, which was in Bethlehem. And Joab and his men went all night, and they came to Hebron at break of day.(32) They took up Asahel.—The bodies of the ordinary soldiers were probably buried on the spot, but on account of Asahel’s position and near relationship to David, his body was carried to Bethlehem, for burial “in the sepulchre of his father.” It thus appears that Zeruiah’s husband (of whom there is no other mention) was also of Bethlehem. The burial must have taken place on the next day (see Note on 2Samuel 2:30), and, with the previous march of ten miles, would have filled up that day. It was, therefore, twenty-four hours after the close of the battle before they were ready to start from Bethlehem. The night may have been chosen for the march to avoid the heat; and the distance from Bethlehem to Hebron was about thirteen miles.