Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Now there was long war between the house of Saul and the house of David: but David waxed stronger and stronger, and the house of Saul waxed weaker and weaker.(1) There was long war.—Not actual fighting of pitched battles, but a state of hostility, in which Ish-bosheth and David each claimed the allegiance of the whole nation, and this continued until the death of Ish-bosheth. During this time Ish-bosheth was too weak to carry on actual war, and David was content to abide the fulfilment of the promises of the Lord in His own good time.
Waxed stronger.—Time was working in David’s favour, partly, doubtless, on account of Ish-bosheth’s manifest incompetence, partly from a growing appreciation of the character and prowess of David, and a fuller realisation that he was the divinely appointed sovereign. In 1Chronicles 12:19-22 there is an account of an important accession to David from the tribe of Manasseh on the eve of Saul’s last battle, and a further mention of continued accessions to him “day by day.” As the necessary result of this constant transference of strength to David, “the house of Saul waxed weaker and weaker.”
And unto David were sons born in Hebron: and his firstborn was Amnon, of Ahinoam the Jezreelitess;(2-5) And unto David.—The list of David’s sons born during his seven and a half years’ reign in Hebron rather interrupts the continuity of the narrative, but is quite in accordance with the habit of the sacred historians to insert at the beginning or at some turning point in each reign statistics about the house or family of the king. (See 1Samuel 14:49-51; 2Samuel 5:13; 1Kings 3:1; 1Kings 14:21; 1Kings 15:2; 1Kings 15:9, &c.)
Amnon.—Written “Aminon” in 2Samuel 13:20. His great crime and miserable end are related in 2 Samuel 13.
Chileab.—Called “Daniel” in 1Chronicles 3:1. None of the attempts to explain these as two forms of the same name have been successful. Either, therefore, “Chileab” is an error of the scribe (all but the first letter being the same as the first three letters of the following word), or, more probably, Chileab had a double name. Nothing further is known of him, and as he does not appear in the subsequent troubles, it is supposed that he died early. These two sons were born of the wives whom David had taken while an outlaw.
Absalom.—His history, rebellion, and death are narrated in 2 Samuel 13-18. His mother was “the daughter of Talmai, king of Geshur,” a petty province north-east of Bashan. How David was brought into connection with him, and whether this alliance had any political object or not, we are not told, but the fact that Absalom in his exile naturally sought refuge with his maternal grandmother (2Samuel 13:37) may have had a connection with David’s subsequent campaigns in that region.
Adonijah.—After the death of his three elder brothers, Adonijah considered himself the rightful heir to the throne, and embittered the last days of his father by a rebellion (1 Kings 1). He was at last put to death by Solomon (1Kings 2:25).
Of the other two sons, Shephatiah and Ithream, and of the mothers of the last three, nothing is known, although there is an absurd Jewish tradition that “Eglah” was another name for “Michal.”
And it came to pass, while there was war between the house of Saul and the house of David, that Abner made himself strong for the house of Saul.(6) Abner made himself strong.—It has already been noticed that the fortunes of the house of Saul depended entirely upon Abner, but the fact of Ish-bosheth’s great obligation to him is again mentioned here in explanation of the following story.
And Saul had a concubine, whose name was Rizpah, the daughter of Aiah: and Ishbosheth said to Abner, Wherefore hast thou gone in unto my father's concubine?(7) Rizpah.—The name of this woman is associated with her strong and tender grief over the loss of her sons, recorded in 2Samuel 21:8-11.
Wherefore hast thou gone in?—The harem of an Eastern monarch was considered as the property of his successor, and therefore the taking of a woman belonging to it as the assertion of a claim to the throne. (See 2Samuel 12:8; 2Samuel 16:21; 1Kings 2:22.) It is not probable that Abner had any such design, since he was exerting himself to maintain Ish-bosheth on the throne. But the king appears to have so regarded the act, as it is this implied charge of treachery that so greatly rouses the anger of Abner. The name of Ish-bosheth has dropped out of the Hebrew text, but appears in a few MSS., and is rightly restored in all the versions.
Then was Abner very wroth for the words of Ishbosheth, and said, Am I a dog's head, which against Judah do shew kindness this day unto the house of Saul thy father, to his brethren, and to his friends, and have not delivered thee into the hand of David, that thou chargest me to day with a fault concerning this woman?(8) Am I a dog’s head?—The translation of this clause is taken from the Vulg., and is hardly possible; it should rather be, Am I a dog’s head belonging to Judah?
So do God to Abner, and more also, except, as the LORD hath sworn to David, even so I do to him;(9) So do God to Abner.—The anger of Abner culminates in a solemn oath to transfer the kingdom to David, “as the Lord hath sworn to him.” There is no record of a Divine oath to give the kingdom to David, but the prophetic declaration that God’s choice of him was unalterable (1Samuel 15:29) may well have been considered to have the force of an oath. Abner does not propose to do this in order to fulfil the Divine will, for his words show that he had been acting hitherto in conscious opposition to that will, but to revenge himself for the insult now offered him. He had doubtless also become satisfied of his master’s entire unfitness for the throne, and his power over Israel opened before him the prospect of high preferment from David.
To translate the kingdom from the house of Saul, and to set up the throne of David over Israel and over Judah, from Dan even to Beersheba.(10) To translate the kingdom.—This sudden expression of Abner’s resolve seems to imply that he had before had the matter under consideration, and shows that there was some ground for the reproach of Ish-bosheth. The following verse brings out clearly the utter weakness of Ish-bosheth.
And Abner sent messengers to David on his behalf, saying, Whose is the land? saying also, Make thy league with me, and, behold, my hand shall be with thee, to bring about all Israel unto thee.(12) Whose is the land?—These words in themselves may be understood in either of two senses: (1) “Is not the land thine by promise?” or (2) “Who has the power to bring the land into subjection to whom he will except myself?” Since the question is put forward as the basis for making a league with Abner, the latter is evidently the sense intended, and it is quite in accordance with the pride and haughtiness of Abner’s character. He proposes a league, that he may have a definite assurance of consideration for himself, and he makes this the price of exerting his influence on David’s behalf. The repetition of the word “saying” has occasioned some difficulty to the commentators, but this disappears when it is remembered that the two clauses are separate parts of Abner’s message. His messengers were charged first to represent the importance of Abner’s influence, and then afterwards to say that he would exert it for David for a satisfactory consideration.
And he said, Well; I will make a league with thee: but one thing I require of thee, that is, Thou shalt not see my face, except thou first bring Michal Saul's daughter, when thou comest to see my face.(13) Except thou first bring Michal.—David consents to negotiate with Abner only on condition of the previous restoration of his lawful wife. Besides the justice of this demand (Michal having been wrongfully taken from him by Saul), and besides all question of affection towards one who had loved him and saved his life (1Samuel 18:20; 1Samuel 19:11-17), there were political reasons of importance for the demand. The demand itself showed to all Israel that he bore no malice against the house of Saul, and the restoration would again constitute him Saul’s son-in-law, and thus further his claims to the throne; while it also showed publicly that he was in a condition to enforce his rights as against the house of Saul.
And David sent messengers to Ishbosheth Saul's son, saying, Deliver me my wife Michal, which I espoused to me for an hundred foreskins of the Philistines.(14) To Ish-bosheth.—The demand is made upon the de facto king that all may be done legally, and David may not appear to be reclaiming his wife by force. At the same time, Ish-bosheth is thus compelled to acknowledge the wrong done to David and his inability to refuse his demand. It appears from 2Samuel 3:16 that Abner was employed to execute the command, and, in fact, the whole matter was really determined by him, the king being merely the official and legal instrument.
An hundred foreskins.—David had actually delivered to Saul as her dowry two hundred, but only one hundred had been required (1Samuel 18:25; 1Samuel 18:27), and therefore only that number is mentioned.
And her husband went with her along weeping behind her to Bahurim. Then said Abner unto him, Go, return. And he returned.(16) Weeping behind her.—Phaltiel appears to have been sincerely attached to Michal, and it may be supposed that his affection was reciprocated. But it is to be remembered that she was not rightfully his wife, and that David’s claim was prior as well as better. According to 1Samuel 25:44, Phaltiel was of Gallim, a place thought, from the connection in which it is mentioned in Isaiah 10:30, to have been in Benjamin, and not far from Gibeah; but he had probably crossed the Jordan with the adherents of the house of Saul. Bahurim was on the road from the Mount of Olives to the Jordan valley, and hence on the way from Mahanaim to Hebron, and a long distance from the former. It was the residence of Shimei (2Samuel 16:5), and the place of concealment of David’s messengers, Jonathan and Ahimaaz (2Samuel 17:18).
And Abner had communication with the elders of Israel, saying, Ye sought for David in times past to be king over you:(17) Ye sought for David.—1Samuel 18:6-7; 1Samuel 18:16; 1Samuel 18:30; 1Chronicles 11:1-3 (comp. 2Samuel 3:36), sufficiently testify to the great popularity of David throughout the nation, and its confidence in his prowess and wisdom. It was the influence and activity of Abner that had hitherto prevented his general recognition as king.
Now then do it: for the LORD hath spoken of David, saying, By the hand of my servant David I will save my people Israel out of the hand of the Philistines, and out of the hand of all their enemies.(18) The Lord hath spoken.—The promise here quoted is not contained in so many words in the records which have come down to us. It may have been either an unrecorded utterance of one of the prophets (Samuel, Gad, or Nathan), or simply a reasonable inference from what had been promised, and from the Divine support of David in his career hitherto.
And Abner also spake in the ears of Benjamin: and Abner went also to speak in the ears of David in Hebron all that seemed good to Israel, and that seemed good to the whole house of Benjamin.(19) Spake in the ears of Benjamin.—Special and careful negotiations with the Benjamites were necessary, because they felt bound to their kinsmen of the house of Saul, and had hitherto enjoyed great advantages from their connection with their sovereign. Abner reported to David at Hebron the result of his negotiations both with Israel generally and with Benjamin in particular.
So Abner came to David to Hebron, and twenty men with him. And David made Abner and the men that were with him a feast.(20) Twenty men.—These were doubtless representative men, selected by Abner from Israel and Benjamin to accompany him and confirm his report. The feast which David made for them is not to be understood of mere conviviality, but of a solemn sacrificial feast, such as was customary in ancient times in connection with important negotiations. (See Genesis 26:30; Genesis 31:54; 1Kings 3:15.)
And, behold, the servants of David and Joab came from pursuing a troop, and brought in a great spoil with them: but Abner was not with David in Hebron; for he had sent him away, and he was gone in peace.(22) Joab came.—He had been either on some expedition against the Philistines, the Amalekites, or other enemies of Judah, or else engaged in repelling some attack from them. In either case, he returned elated with victory, and bringing great spoil; but Abner had concluded his interview and gone away before his return.
Then Joab came to the king, and said, What hast thou done? behold, Abner came unto thee; why is it that thou hast sent him away, and he is quite gone?(24) What hast thou done?—Joab’s somewhat rough remonstrance with David may have been supported by an honest suspicion of Abner, for which there was some ground in Abner’s long opposition to the known Divine will and his present revolt from Ish-bosheth; but there was also a personal enmity, due partly to the fear of being himself supplanted by an older and famous warrior, and partly to the desire to revenge the death of his brother Asahel. Joab seeks to poison David’s mind against Abner, that he may better carry out his revenge.
And when Joab was come out from David, he sent messengers after Abner, which brought him again from the well of Sirah: but David knew it not.(26) Sent messengers after Abner.—Whether this was done in his own or in David’s name (though without his knowledge) does not appear, but in either case Abner would readily suppose that the coming of Joab had made further conference desirable. His entire confidence in David is shown by his unsuspecting return.
The well of Sirah.—The only knowledge of this locality is from the testimony of Josephus (Antt. vii. 1, 5), that it was twenty stadia (two and a half miles) from Hebron; and there is still a spring and reservoir called Ain Sareh, rather more than a mile north of the town. If this is correct, Abner must have just left David when Joab arrived.
And when Abner was returned to Hebron, Joab took him aside in the gate to speak with him quietly, and smote him there under the fifth rib, that he died, for the blood of Asahel his brother.(27) Aside in the gate.—The gateway was a customary place of conference in the East, and Joab there awaited Abner’s return; he then took him “aside” to some place of privacy, as the LXX. reads, “by the side of the gate.” On the phrase “fifth rib,” see Note on 2Samuel 2:23. The reason for this cold-blooded and treacherous murder on the part of Joab is expressly said to be “for the blood of Asahel his brother;” but no doubt his revenge was quickened by jealousy.
And afterward when David heard it, he said, I and my kingdom are guiltless before the LORD for ever from the blood of Abner the son of Ner:(28) I and my kingdom are guiltless.—This was true. Joab’s act was entirely without David’s knowledge, and was not only against his will on moral grounds, but was in danger of proving disastrous to him politically; hence he takes the strongest means of showing his abhorrence of the deed.
Let it rest on the head of Joab, and on all his father's house; and let there not fail from the house of Joab one that hath an issue, or that is a leper, or that leaneth on a staff, or that falleth on the sword, or that lacketh bread.(29) Let it rest on the head of Joab.—The strong curse here pronounced by David shows that Joab’s act could not be justified as that of the “Goel,” or lawful avenger of his brother’s blood, for Abner had slain Asahel in battle, unwillingly and in self-defence. It is also to be remembered that Hebron was a city of refuge (Joshua 21:13), and that here not even the “Goel” might slay the murderer without a trial (Numbers 35:22-25). The curse falls “on his father’s house,” since Abishai also (2Samuel 3:30) had been concerned with him in the murder.
The phrase, “that leaneth on a staff,” has been understood by many as “holding a distaff,” i.e., a person unfit for war. The word has the sense of “distaff” in Proverbs 31:19, and is so rendered here by the Vulgate; but the sense given by the English—which is also that of the LXX. and Targum—is better, and more in accordance with the other particulars.
For “on the sword” read “by the sword,” there being no reference to the idea of suicide. On the violent end of Joab see 1Kings 2:31-34.
So Joab and Abishai his brother slew Abner, because he had slain their brother Asahel at Gibeon in the battle.(30) Slew . . . had slain.—The words are different in Hebrew, the former denoting violence. Translate the latter had put to death. By this strong disapproval of Joab’s act, David shows that it was done without his knowledge or consent. He still remains at fault, however, for continuing Joab in his high and responsible position; but this seems to have been the result of inability to inflict proper punishment upon so powerful a subject, an inability which David on his death-bed sought to remedy by his charge to Solomon. (See 2Samuel 3:39; 1Kings 2:5.)
And David said to Joab, and to all the people that were with him, Rend your clothes, and gird you with sackcloth, and mourn before Abner. And king David himself followed the bier.(31) Rend your clothes.—David commands a public mourning with the usual signs of rent clothes and sackcloth, and lays this command especially upon Joab, who is thus required, as it were, to do public penance for his act. David himself followed the bier as chief mourner.
And they buried Abner in Hebron: and the king lifted up his voice, and wept at the grave of Abner; and all the people wept.(32) In Hebron.—The family home, and therefore the natural burial-place, of Abner was at Gibeon (1Chronicles 8:29; 1Chronicles 8:33; 1Chronicles 9:33); but this may have been now under Ish-bosheth’s control, and, at all events, a burial in the royal city of Hebron was more honourable and a more marked testimony to the grief of David.
Thy hands were not bound, nor thy feet put into fetters: as a man falleth before wicked men, so fellest thou. And all the people wept again over him.(34) Thy hands were not bound.—The people were moved greatly by the sight of David’s sorrow, but still more by this brief elegy over Abner. The whole circumstances are summed up in a few pregnant words: Abner, so valiant in war, with his hands free for defence, with his feet unfettered, unsuspicious of evil, fell by the treacherous act of a wicked man.
And when all the people came to cause David to eat meat while it was yet day, David sware, saying, So do God to me, and more also, if I taste bread, or ought else, till the sun be down.(35) To eat meat.—The fasting of David in his grief had already attracted attention, so that the people came to urge him to take food; but he utterly refused “till the sun be down,” the usual time of ending a fast. David’s conduct had a good effect upon the people, and, indeed, they were generally disposed to look favourably upon whatever the king did.
And I am this day weak, though anointed king; and these men the sons of Zeruiah be too hard for me: the LORD shall reward the doer of evil according to his wickedness.(39) I am this day weak.—David’s high appreciation of the importance and value of Abner shows that Joab’s jealousy was not without ground, and there is a tone of deep sadness in his words, “these men the sons of Zeruiah be too hard for me.” He knew their ungoverned passions, their bold lawlessness, and at the same time their great power and popularity with the army, and he dared not punish them. He leaves their judgment to God.