Expositor's Bible Commentary
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.CHAPTER IV.
CONCLUSION OF THE CIVIL WAR.
2 Samuel 3:1-21.
THE victory at the pool of Gibeon was far from ending the opposition to David. In vain, for many a day, weary eyes looked out for the dove with the olive leaf. "There was long war between the house of Saul and the house of David." The war does not seem to have been carried on by pitched battles, but rather by a long series of those fretting and worrying little skirmishes which a state of civil war breeds, even when the volcano is comparatively quiet. But the drift of things was manifest. "David waxed stronger and stronger; but the house of Saul waxed weaker and weaker." The cause of the house of Saul was weak in its invisible support because God was against it; it was weak in its champion Ishbosheth, a feeble man, with little or no power to attract people to his standard; its only element of strength was Abner, and even he could not make head against such odds. Good and evil so often seem to balance each other, existing side by side in a kind of feeble stagnation, and giving rise to such a dull feeling on the part of onlookers, that we cannot but think with something like envy of the followers of David even under the pain of a civil war, cheered as they were by constant proofs that their cause was advancing to victory.
And now we get a glimpse of David's domestic mode of life, which, indeed, is far from satisfactory. His wives were now six in number; of some of them we know nothing; of the rest what we do know is not always in their favour. The earliest of all was "Ahinoam, the Jezreelitess." Her native place, or the home of her family, was Jezreel, that part of the plain of Esdraelon where the Philistines encamped before Saul was defeated (1 Samuel 26:12), and afterwards, in the days of Ahab, a royal residence of the kings of Israel (1 Kings 18:46) and the abode of Naboth, who refused to part with his vineyard in Jezreel to the king (l Kings 21.). Of Ahinoam we find absolutely no mention in the history; if her son Amnon, the oldest of David's family, reflected her character, we have no reason to regret the silence (2 Samuel 13:1-39.). The next of his wives was Abigail, the widow of Nabal the Carmelite, of whose smartness and excellent management we have a full account in a former part of the history. Her son is called Chileab, but in the parallel passage in Chronicles Daniel; we can only guess the reason of the change; but whether it was another name for the same son, or the name of another son, the history is silent concerning him, and the most probable conjecture is that he died early. His third wife was Maachah, the daughter of Talmai the Geshurite. This was not, as some have rather foolishly supposed, a member of those Geshurites in the south against whom David led his troop (1 Samuel 27:8), for it is expressly stated that of that tribe "he left neither man nor woman alive." It was of Geshur in Syria that Talmai was king (2 Samuel 15:8); it formed one of several little principalities lying between Mount Hermon and Damascus: but we cannot commend the alliance; for these kingdoms were idolatrous, and unless Maachah was an exception, she must have introduced idolatrous practices into David's house. Of the other three wives we have no information. And in regard to the household which he thus established at Hebron, we can only regret that the king of Israel did not imitate the example that had been set there by Abraham, and followed in the same neighbourhood by Isaac. What a different complexion would have been given to David's character and history if he had shown the self-control in this matter that he showed in his treatment of Saul! Of how many grievous sins and sorrows did he sow the seed when he thus multiplied wives to himself! How many a man, from his own day down to the days of Mormonism, did he silently encourage in licentious conduct, and furnish with a respectable example and a plausible excuse for it! How difficult did he make it for many who cannot but acknowledge the bright aspect of his spiritual life to believe that even in that it was all good and genuine! We do not hesitate to ascribe to the life of David an influence on successive generations on the whole pure and elevating; but it is impossible not to own that by many, a justification of relaxed principle and unchaste living has been drawn from his example.
We have already said that polygamy was not imputed to David as a sin in the sense that it deprived him of the favour of God. But we cannot allow that this permission was of the nature of a boon. We cannot but feel how much better it would have been if the seventh commandment had been read by David with the same absolute, unbending limitation with which it is read by us. It would have been better for him and better for his house. Puritan strictness of morals is, after all, a right wholesome and most blessed thing. Who shall say that the sum of a man's enjoyment is not far greatest in the end of life when he has kept with unflinching steadfastness his early vow of faithfulness, and, as his reward, has never lost the freshness and the flavour of his first love, nor ceased to find in his ever-faithful partner that which fills and satisfies his heart? Compared to this, the life of him who has flitted from one attachment to another, heedless of the soured feelings or, it may be, the broken hearts he has left behind, and whose children, instead of breathing the sweet spirit of brotherly and sisterly love, scowl at one another with the bitter feelings of envy, jealousy, and hatred, is like an existence of wild fever compared to the pure tranquil life of a child.
In such a household as David's, occasions of estrangement must have been perpetually arising among the various branches, and it would require all his wisdom and gentleness to keep these quarrels within moderate bounds. In his own breast, that sense of delicacy, that instinct of purity, which exercises such an influence on a godly family, could not have existed; the necessity of reining in his inclinations in that respect was not acknowledged; and it is remarkable that in the confessions of the fifty-first Psalm, while he specifies the sins of blood-guiltiness and seems to have been overwhelmed by a sense of his meanness, injustice, and selfishness, there is no special allusion to the sin of adultery, and no indication of that sin pressing very heavily upon his conscience.
Whether it be by design or not, it is an instructive circumstance that it is immediately after this glimpse of David's domestic life that we meet with a sample of the kind of evils which the system of royal harems is ever apt to produce. Saul too had had his harem; and it was a rule of succession in the East that the harem went with the throne. To take possession of the one was regarded as equivalent to setting up a claim to the other. When therefore Ishbosheth heard that Abner had taken one of his father's concubines, he looked on it as a proof that Abner had an eye to the throne for himself. He accordingly demanded an explanation from Abner, but instead of explanation or apology, he received a volley of rudeness and defiance. Abner knew well that without him Ishbosheth was but a figure-head, and he was enraged by treatment that seemed to overlook all the service he had rendered him and to treat him as if he were some second or third- rate officer of a firm and settled kingdom. Perhaps Abner had begun to see that the cause of Ishbosheth was hopeless, and was even glad in his secret heart of an excuse for abandoning an undertaking which could bring neither success nor honour. "Am I a dog's head, which against Judah do show 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? So do God to Abner, and more also, except, as the Lord hath sworn to David, even so I do to him, 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."
The proverb says, "When rogues fall out, honest men get their own." How utterly unprincipled the effort of Abner and Ishbosheth was is evident from the confession of the former that God had sworn to David to establish his throne over the whole land. Their enterprise therefore bore impiety on its very face; and we can only account for their setting their hands to it on the principle that keen thirst for worldly advantage will drive ungodly men into virtual atheism, as if God were no factor in the affairs of men, as if it mattered not that He was against them, and that it is only when their schemes show signs of coming to ruin that they awake to the consciousness that there is a God after all! And how often we see that godless men banded together have no firm bond of union; the very passions which they are united to gratify begin to rage against one another; they fall into the pit which they digged for others; they are hanged on the gallows which they erected for their foes.
The next step in the narrative brings us to Abner's offer to David to make a league with him for the undisputed possession of the throne. Things had changed now very materially from that day when, in the wilderness of Judah, David reproached Abner for his careless custody of the king's person (1 Samuel 26:14). What a picture of feebleness David had seemed then, while Saul commanded the whole resources of the kingdom! Yet in that day of weakness David had done a noble deed, a deed made nobler by his very weakness, and he had thereby shown to any that had eyes to see which party it was that had God on its side. And now this truth concerning him, against which Abner had kicked and struggled in vain, was asserting itself in a way not to be resisted. Yet even now there is no trace of humility in the language of Abner. He plays the great man still. "Behold, my hand shall be with thee, to bring about all Israel to thee." He approaches King David, not as one who has done him a great wrong, but as one who offers to do him a great favour. There is no word of regret for his having opposed what he knew to be God's purpose and promise, no apology for the disturbance he had wrought in Israel, no excuse for all the distress which he had caused to David by keeping the kingdom and the people at war. He does not come as a rebel to his sovereign, but as one independent man to another. Make a league with me. Secure me from punishment; promise me a reward. For this he simply offers to place at David's disposal that powerful hand of his that had been so mighty for evil. If he expected that David would leap into his arms at the mention of such an offer, he was mistaken. This was not the way for a rebel to come to his king. David was too much dissatisfied with his past conduct, and saw too clearly that it was only stress of weather that was driving him into harbour now, to show any great enthusiasm about his offer. On the contrary, he laid down a stiff preliminary condition; and with the air of one who knew his place and his power, he let Abner know that if that condition were not complied with, he should not see his face. We cannot but admire the firmness shown in this mode of meeting Abner's advances; but we are somewhat disappointed when we find what the condition was - that Michai, Saul's daughter, whom he had espoused for a hundred foreskins of the Philistines, should be restored to him as his wife. The demand was no doubt a righteous one, and it was reasonable that David should be vindicated from the great slur cast on him when his wife was given to another; moreover, it was fitted to test the genuineness of Abner's advances, to show whether he really meant to acknowledge the royal rights of David; but we wonder that, with six wives already about him, he should be so eager for another, and we shrink from the reason given for the restoration - not that the marriage tie was inviolable, but that he had paid for her a very extraordinary dowry. And most readers, too, will feel some sympathy with the second husband, who seems to have had a strong affection for Michal, and who followed her weeping, until the stern military voice of Abner compelled him to return. All we can say about him is, that his sin lay in receiving another man's wife and treating her as his own; the beginning of the connection was unlawful, although the manner of its ending on his part was creditable. Connections formed in sin must sooner or later end in suffering; and the tears of Phaltiel would not have flowed now if that unfortunate man had acted firmly and honourably when Michal was taken from David.
But it is not likely that in this demand for the restoration of Michal David acted on purely personal considerations. He does not seem to have been above the prevalent feeling of the East which measured the authority and dignity of the monarch by the rank and connections of his wives. Moreover, as David laid stress on the way in which he got Michal as his wife, it is likely that he desired to recall attention to his early exploits against the Philistines. He had probably found that his recent alliance with King Achish had brought him into suspicion; he wished to remind the people therefore of his ancient services against those bitter and implacable enemies of Israel, and to encourage the expectation of similar exploits in the future. The purpose which he thus seems to have had in view was successful. For when Abner soon after made a representation to the elders of Israel in favour of King David and reminded them of the promise which God had made regarding him, it was to this effect: "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." It seems to have been a great step towards David's recognition by the whole nation that they came to have confidence in him in leading them against the Philistines. Thus he received a fresh proof of the folly of his distrustful conclusion, "There is nothing better for me than that I should escape into the land of the Philistines." It became more and more apparent that nothing could have been worse.
One is tempted to wonder if David ever sat down to consider what would probably have happened if, instead of going over to the Philistines, he had continued to abide in the wilderness of Judah, braving the dangers of the place and trusting in the protection of his God. Some sixteen months after, the terrible invasion of the Philistines took place, and Saul, overwhelmed with terror and despair, was at his wits' end for help. How natural it would have been for him in that hour of despair to send for David if he had been still in the country and ask his aid! How much more in his own place would David have appeared bravely fronting the Philistines in battle, than hovering in the rear of Achish and pretending to feel himself treated ill because the Philistine lords had required him to be sent away! Might he not have been the instrument of saving his country from defeat and disgrace? And if Saul and Jonathan had fallen in the battle, would not the whole nation have turned as one man to him, and would not that long and cruel civil war have been entirely averted? It is needless to go back on the past and think how much better we could have acted if unavailing regret is to be the only result of the process; but it is a salutary and blessed exercise if it tends to fix in our minds - what we doubt not it fixed in David's - how infinitely better for us it is to follow the course marked out for us by our heavenly Father, with all its difficulties and dangers, than to walk in the light of our own fire and in the sparks of our own kindling.
It appears that Abner set himself with great vigour to fulfill the promise made by him in his league with David. First, he held communication with the representatives of the whole nation, "the elders of Israel," and showed to them, as we have seen - no doubt to his own confusion and self-condemnation - how God had designated David as the king through whom deliverance would be granted to Israel from the Philistines and all their other enemies. Next, remembering that Saul was a member of the tribe of Benjamin, and believing that the feeling in favour of his family would be eminently strong in that tribe, he took special pains to attach them to David, and as he was himself likewise a Benjamite, he must have been eminently useful in this service. Thirdly, he went in person to Hebron, David's seat, to speak in the ears of David all that seemed good to Israel and to the whole house of Benjamin." Finally, after being entertained by David at a great feast, he set out to bring about a meeting of the whole congregation of Israel, that they might solemnly ratify the appointment of David as king, in the same way as, in the early days of Saul, Samuel had convened the representatives of the nation at Gilgal (1 Samuel 11:15). That in all this Abner was rendering a great service both to David and the nation cannot be doubted. He was doing what no other man in Israel could have done at the time for establishing the throne of David and ending the civil war. Having once made overtures to David, he showed an honourable promptitude in fulfilling the promise under which he had come. No man can atone for past sin by doing his duty at a future time; but if anything could have blotted out from David's memory the remembrance of Abner's great injury to him and to the nation, it was the zeal with which he exerted himself now to establish David's claims over all the country, and especially where his cause was feeblest - in the tribe of Benjamin.
It must have been a happy day in David's history when Abner set out from Hebron to convene the assembly of the tribes that was to call him with one voice to the throne. It was the day long looked for come at last. The dove had at length come with the olive leaf, and peace would now reign among all the tribes of Israel. And we may readily conceive him, with this prospect so near, expressing his feelings, if not in the very words of the thirty-seventh Psalm, at any rate in language of similar import:
"Fret not thyself because of evil-doers,
Neither be thou envious against them that work unrighteousness
For they shall soon be cut down like the grass,
And wither as the green herb.
Trust in the Lord and do good;
Dwell in the land, and follow after faithfulness.
Delight thyself also in the Lord,
And He shall give thee the desires of thine heart
Commit thy way unto the Lord,
Trust also in Him, and He shall bring it to pass.
And He shall make thy righteousness to go forth as the light,
And thy judgment as the noonday.
Rest in the Lord and wait patiently for Him;
Fret not thyself because of him that prospereth in his way.
Because of the man who bringeth wicked devices to pass.
For evil-doers shall be cut of;
But those that wait on the Lord, they shall inherit the land."
But a crime was now on the eve of being perpetrated destined for the time to scatter all King David's pleasing expectations and plunge him anew into the depths of distress.
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.CHAPTER V.
ASSASSINATION OF ABNER AND ISHBOSHETH.
2 Samuel 3:22-39; 2 Samuel 4:1-12IT is quite possible that, in treating with Abner, David showed too complacent a temper, that he treated too lightly his appearance in arms against him at the pool of Gibeon, and that he neglected to demand an apology for the death of Asahel. Certainly it would have been wise had some measures been taken to soothe the ruffled temper of Joab and reconcile him to the new arrangement This, however, was not done. David was so happy in the thought that the civil war was to cease, and that all Israel were about to recognize him as their king, that he would not go back on the past, or make reprisals even for the death of Asahel. He was willing to let bygones be bygones. Perhaps, too, he thought that if Asahel met his death at the hand of Abner, it was his own rashness that was to blame for it. Anyhow he was greatly impressed with the value of Abner's service on his behalf, and much interested in the project to which he was now going forth - gathering all Israel to the king, to make a league with him and bind themselves to his allegiance.
In these measures Joab had not been consulted. When Abner was at Hebron, Joab was absent on a military enterprise. In that enterprise he had been very successful, and he was able to appear at Hebron with the most popular evidence of success that a general could bring - a large amount of spoil. No doubt Joab was elated with his success, and was in that very temper when a man is most disposed to resent his being overlooked and to take more upon him than is meet. When he heard of David's agreement with Abner, he was highly displeased. First he went to the king, and scolded him for his simplicity in believing Abner. It was but a stratagem of Abner's to allow him to come to Hebron, ascertain the state of David's affairs, and take his own steps more effectively in the interest of his opponent. Suspicion reigned in Joab's heart; the generosity of David's nature was not only not shared by him, but seemed silliness itself. His rudeness to David is highly offensive. He speaks to him in the tone of a master to a servant, or in the tone of those servants who rule their master. "What hast thou done? Behold, Abner came unto thee; why is it that thou hast sent him away, and he is quite gone? Thou knowest Abner the son of Ner, that he came to deceive thee, and to know thy going out and thy coming in, and to know all that thou doest." David is spoken to like one guilty of inexcusable folly, as if he were accountable to Joab, and not Joab to him. Of the king's answer to Joab, nothing is recorded; but from David's confession (2 Samuel 3:39) that the sons of Zeruiah were too strong for him, we may infer that it was not very firm or decided, and that Joab set it utterly at nought. For the very first thing that Joab did after seeing the king was to send a message to Abner, most likely in David's name, but without David's knowledge, asking him to return. Joab was at the gate ready for his treacherous business, and taking Abner aside as if for private conversation, he plunged his dagger in his breast, ostensibly in revenge for the death of his brother Asahel. There was something eminently mean and dastardly in the deed. Abner was now on the best of terms with Joab's master, and he could not have apprehended danger from the servant. If assassination be mean among civilians, it is eminently mean among soldiers. The laws of hospitality were outraged when one who had just been David's guest was assassinated in David's city. The outrage was all the greater, as was also the injury to King David and to the whole kingdom, that the crime was committed when Abner was on the eve of an important and delicate negotiation with the other tribes of Israel, since the arrangement which he hoped to bring about was likely to be broken off by the news of his shameful death. At no moment are the feelings of men less to be trifled with than when, after long and fierce alienation, they are on the point of coming together. Abner had brought the tribes of Israel to that point, but now, like a flock of birds frightened by a shot, they were certain to fly asunder. All this danger Joab set at nought, the one thought of taking revenge for the death of his brother absorbing every other, and making him, like so many other men when excited by a guilty passion, utterly regardless of every consequence provided only his revenge was satisfied.
How did David act toward Joab? Most kings would at once have put him to death, and David's subsequent action towards the murderers of Ishbosheth shows that, even in his judgment, this would have been the proper retribution on Joab for his bloody deed. But David did not feel himself strong enough to deal with Joab according to his deserts. It might have been better for him during the rest of his life if he had acted with more vigour now. But instead of making an example of Joab, he contented himself with pouring out on him a vial of indignation, publicly washing his hands of the nefarious transaction, and pronouncing on its author and his family a terrible malediction. We cannot but shrink from the way in which David brought in Joab's family to share his curse; "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." Yet we must remember that according to the sentiment of those times a man and his house were so identified that the punishment due to the head was regarded as due to the whole. In our day we see a law in constant operation which visits iniquities of the parents upon the children with a terrible retribution. The drunkard's children are woeful sufferers for their parent's sin; the family of the felon carries a stigma forever. We recognize this as a law of Providence; but we do not act on it ourselves in inflicting punishment. In David's time, however, and throughout the whole Old Testament period, punishments due to the fathers were formally shared by their families. When Joshua sentenced Achan to die for his crime in stealing from the spoils of Jericho a wedge of gold and a Babylonish garment, his wife and children were put to death along with him. In denouncing the curse on Joab's family as well as himself, David therefore only recognized a law which was universally acted on in his day. The law may have been a hard one, but we are not to blame David for acting on a principle of retribution universally acknowledged. We are to remember, too, that David was now acting in a public capacity, and as the chief magistrate of the nation. If he had put Joab to death, his act would have involved his family in many a woe; in denouncing his deeds and calling for retribution on them generation after generation, he only carried out the same principle a little further. That Joab deserved to die for his dastardly crime, none could have denied; if David abstained from inflicting that punishment, it was only natural that he should be very emphatic in proclaiming what such a criminal might look for, in never-failing visitations on himself and his seed, when he was left to be dealt with by the God of justice.
Having thus disposed of Joab, David had next to dispose of the dead body of Abner. He determined that every circumstance connected with Abner's funeral should manifest the sincerity of his grief at his untimely end. In the first place, he caused him to be buried at Hebron. We know of the tomb at Hebron where the bodies of the patriarchs lay; if it was at all legitimate to place others in that grave, we may believe that a place in it was found for Abner. In the second place, the mourning company attended the funeral with rent clothes and girdings of sackcloth, while the king himself followed the bier, and at the grave both king and people gave way to a burst of tears. In the third place, the king pronounced an elegy over him, short, but expressive of his sense of the unworthy death which had come to such a man:
"Should Abner die as a fool dieth?
Thy hands were not bound, nor thy feet put into fetters;
As a man falleth before the children of iniquity, so didst thou fall."
Had he died the death of one taken in battle, his bound hands and his feet in fetters would have denoted that after honourable conflict he had been defeated in the field, and that he died the death due to a public enemy. Instead of this, he had fallen before the children of iniquity, before men mean enough to betray him and murder him, while he was under the protection of the king. In the fourth place, he sternly refused to eat bread till that day, so full of darkness and infamy, should have passed away. The public manifestations of David's grief showed very clearly how far he was from approving of the death of Abner. And they had the desired effect. The people were pleased with the evidence afforded of David's feelings, and the event that had seemed likely to destroy his prospects turned out in this way in his favour. "The people took notice of this, and it pleased them, as whatsoever the king did pleased all the people." It was another evidence of the conquering power of goodness and forbearance. By his generous treatment of his foes, David secured a position in the hearts of his people, and established his kingdom on a basis of security which he could not have obtained by any amount of severity. For ages and ages, the two methods of dealing with a reluctant people, generosity and severity, have been pitted against each other, and always with the effect that severity fails and generosity succeeds. There were many who were indignant at the clemency shown by Lord Canning after the Indian mutiny. They would have had him inspire terror by acts of awful severity. But the peaceful career of our Indian empire and the absence of any attempt to renew the insurrection since that time show that the policy of clemency was the policy of wisdom and of success.
Still another step was taken by David that shows how painfully he was impressed by the death of Abner. To "his servants" - that is, his cabinet or his staff - he said in confidence; "Know ye not that there is a prince and a great man fallen this day in Israel?" He recognized in Abner one of those men of consummate ability who are born to rule, or at least to render the highest service to the actual ruler of a country by their great influence over men. It seems very probable that he looked to him as his own chief officer for the future. Rebel though he had been, he seemed quite cured of his rebellion, and now that he cordially acknowledged David's right to the throne, he would probably have been his right-hand man. Abner, Saul's cousin, was probably a much older man than Joab, who was David's nephew, and who could not have been much older than David himself. The loss of Abner was a great personal loss especially as it threw him more into the hands of these sons of Zeruiah, Joab and Abishai, whose impetuous, lordly temper was too much for him. to restrain. The representation to his confidential servants, "I am weak, and these men, the sons of Zeruiah, are too strong for me," was an appeal to them for cordial help in the affairs of the kingdom, in order that Joab and his brother might not be able to carry everything their own way. David, like many another man, needed to say, Save me from my friends. We get a vivid glimpse of the perplexities of kings, and of the compensations of a humbler lot. Men in high places, worried by the difficulties of managing their affairs and servants, and by the endless annoyances to which their jealousies and their self-will give rise, may find much to envy in the simple, unembarrassed life of the humblest of the people.
From the assassination of Abner, the real source of the opposition that had been raised to David, the narrative proceeds to the assassination of Ishbosheth, the titular king. "When Saul's son heard that Abner was dead in Hebron, his hands were feeble, and all the Israelites were troubled." The contrast is striking between his conduct under difficulty and that of David. In the history of the latter, faith often faltered in times of trouble, and the spirit of distrust found a footing in his soul. But these occasions occurred in the course of protracted and terrible struggles; they were exceptions to his usual bearing; faith commonly bore him up in his darkest trials. Ishbosheth, on the other hand, seems to have had no resource, no sustaining power whatever, under visible reverses. David's slips were like the temporary falling back of the gallant soldier when surprised by a sudden onslaught, or when, fagged and weary, he is driven back by superior numbers; but as soon as he has recovered himself, he dashes back undaunted to the conflict. Ishbosheth was like the soldier who throws down his arms and rushes from the field as soon as he feels the bitter storm of battle. With all his falls, there was something in David that showed him to be cast in a different mould from ordinary men. He was habitually aiming at a higher standard, and upheld by the consciousness of a higher strength; he was ever and anon resorting to "the secret place of the Most High," taking hold of Him as his covenant God, and labouring to draw down from Him the inspiration and the strength of a nobler life than that of the mass of the children of men.
The godless course which Ishbosheth had followed in setting up a claim to the throne in opposition to the Divine call of David not only lost him the distinction he coveted, but cost him his life. He made himself a mark for treacherous and heartless men; and one day, while lying in his bed at noon, was dispatched by two of his servants. The two men that murdered him seem to have been among those whom Saul enriched with the spoil of the Gibeonites. They were brothers, men of Beeroth, which was formerly one of the cities of the Gibeonites, but was now reckoned to Benjamin.
Saul appears to have attacked the Beerothites, and given their property to his favourites (comp. 1 Samuel 22:7 and 2 Samuel 21:2). A curse went with the transaction; Ishbosheth, one of Saul's sons, was murdered by two of those who were enriched by the unhallowed deed; and many years after, his bloody house had to yield up seven of his sons to justice, when a great famine showed that for this crime wrath rested on the land.
The murderers of Ishbosheth, Baanah and Rechab, mistaking the character of David as much as it had been mistaken by the Amalekite who pretended that he had slain Saul, hastened to Hebron, bearing with them the head of their victim, a ghastly evidence of the reality of the deed. This revolting trophy they carried all the way from Mahanaim to Hebron, a distance of some fifty miles. Mean and selfish themselves, they thought other men must be the same. They were among those poor creatures who are unable to rise above their own poor level in their conceptions of others. When they presented themselves before David, he showed all his former superiority to selfish, jealous feelings. He was roused indeed to the highest pitch of indignation. We can hardly conceive the astonishment and horror with which they would receive his answer, "As the Lord liveth, who hath redeemed my soul out of all adversity, when one told me saying. Behold, Saul is dead, thinking to have brought good tidings, I took hold on him and slew him in Ziklag, who thought that I would have given him a reward for his tidings. How much more when wicked men have slain a righteous person in his own house upon his bed! Shall I not therefore require his blood at your hand, and take you away from the earth?" Simple death was not judged a severe enough punishment for such guilt; as they had cut off the head of Ishbosheth after killing him, so after they were slain their hands and their feet were cut off; and thereafter they were hanged over the pool in Hebron - a token of the execration in which the crime was held. Here was another evidence that deeds of violence done to his rivals, so far from finding acceptance, were detestable in the eyes of David. And here was another fulfillment of the resolution which he had made when he took possession of the throne - "I will early destroy all the wicked of the land, that I may cut off all wicked doers from the city of the Lord."
These rapid, instantaneous executions by order of David have raised painful feelings in many. Granting that the retribution was justly deserved, and granting that the rapidity of the punishment was in accord with military law, ancient and modern, and that it was necessary in order to make a due impression on the people, still it may be asked. How could David, as a pious man, hurry these sinners into the presence of their Judge without giving them any exhortation to repentance or leaving them a moment in which to ask for mercy? The question is undoubtedly a difficult one. But the difficulty arises in a great degree from our ascribing to David and others the same knowledge of the future state and the same vivid impressions regarding it that we have ourselves. We often forget that to those who lived in the Old Testament the future life was wrapped in far greater obscurity than it is to us. That good men had no knowledge of it, we cannot allow; but certainly they knew vastly less about it than has been revealed to us. And the general effect of this was that the consciousness of a future life was much fainter even among good men then than now. They did not think about it; it was not present to their thoughts. There is no use trying to make David either a wiser or a better man than he was. There is no use trying to place him high above the level or the light of his age. If it be asked, How did David feel with reference to the future life of these men? the answer is, that probably it was not much, if at all, in his thoughts. That which was prominent in his thoughts was that they had sacrificed their lives by their atrocious wickedness, and the sooner they were punished the better. If he thought of their future, he would feel that they were in the hands of God, and that they would be judged by Him according to the tenor of their lives. It cannot be said that compassion for them mingled with David's feelings. The one prominent feeling he had was that of their guilt; for that they must suffer. And David, like other soldiers who have shed much blood, was so accustomed to the sight of violent death, that the horror which it usually excites was no longer familiar to him.
It is the Gospel of Jesus Christ that has brought life and immortality to light. So far from the future life being a dim and shadowy revelation, it is now one of the clearest doctrines of the faith. It is one of the doctrines which every earnest preacher of the Gospel is profoundly earnest in dwelling on. That death ushers us into the presence of God, that after death Cometh the judgment, that every one of us is to give account of himself to God, that the final condition of men is to be one of misery or one of life, are among the clearest revelations of the Gospel. And this fact invests every man's death with profound significance in the Christian's view. That the condemned criminal may have time to prepare, our courts of law invariably interpose an interval between the sentence and the punishment. Would only that men were more consistent here! If we shudder at the thought of a dying sinner appearing in all the blackness of his guilt before God, let us think more how we may turn sinners from their wickedness while they live. Let us see the atrocious guilt of encouraging them in ways of sin that cannot but bring on them the retribution of a righteous God. O ye who, careless yourselves, laugh at the serious impressions and scruples of others; ye who teach those that would otherwise do better to drink and gamble and especially to scoff; ye who do your best to frustrate the prayers of tender-hearted fathers and mothers whose deepest desire is that their children may be saved; ye, in one word, who are missionaries of the devil and help to people hell - would that you pondered your awful guilt! For "whosoever shall cause any of the least of these to offend, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck and he were cast into the depths of the sea."