The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
And there happened to be there a man of Belial, whose name was Sheba, the son of Bichri, a Benjamite: and he blew a trumpet, and said, We have no part in David, neither have we inheritance in the son of Jesse: every man to his tents, O Israel.2 Samuel 20
FROM the conclusion of the nineteenth chapter we learn that the tribe of Judah, being deeply moved by the course which David had pursued, and full of affection towards the king, had united generally in completing his restoration. The other tribes who had proposed to return to their allegiance probably had not had time to take part in the present action, or may indeed have been almost wholly ignorant of it, which gave Shimei, with his one thousand Benjamites and some others, an advantage, because they were living near. Adding to their number the tribes east of the Jordan, the probability is that about half the people of Israel were able to come together. When David halted at Gilgal the representatives of the tribes who had not had an opportunity of joining in the loyal movement came together, animated by intense wrath at the apparent neglect which had been shown towards them. Out of this internecine controversy there arose an opportunity for one or two turbulent spirits to attempt to renew the rebellion of Absalom. This brings us to the events recorded in the twentieth chapter. We are first introduced to Sheba, the son of Bichri, or, as it is read by recent commentators, the Bichrite,—that is, a member of the family of Becher, the second son of Benjamin. This man was, therefore, by so much related to the clan of Saul. It is difficult to get the old taint out of the blood. Sheba is a minimised Saul, full of hostility to David and all his interests. Even bad men have their opportunity in life. We have seen again and again how easy it is to do mischief. Sheba, a man who probably had no power to construct a positive fame by deeds of beneficence and the origination of statesmanlike policies, had it in his power to set fire to dangerous substances and bring into peril a movement which promised to consummate itself in the happiest results to Israel. The historical instance ought to be a continual lesson. The meanest man may pull down a wall, or set fire to a palace, or whisper a slander concerning the character of a king. The remarkable thing is that whilst society is well aware of all this possibility, it is willing to lend an ear to every wicked speaker who arises, insisting upon the old and detestable sophism that although the report may not be wholly and literally true, there yet must be some foundation for it. Wicked men seem to know how their statements will be taken by society, and consequently they may be said to obtain their daily livelihood by false pretences. The proverb is—"Throw mud enough, and some of it will be sure to stick," and again the proverbial expression is—"where there is smoke there is fire;" doctrines of this kind can only be deprived of popularity and influence by wise and righteous men persistently refusing to accept them and act upon them. Who has it not in his power to raise a cry of fire at midnight in the centre of a sleeping town? The evil messenger has but to cry out loudly enough, and then to conceal himself in the darkness, and he will be almost sure to gratify his malignity by the development of a panic. What help there is for this species of evil action can only be found in the strength and courage of the better quality of men. Such men must give plotters, schemers, adventurers, and slanderers to feel that their word is utterly discredited and that the more they asseverate the less will they be believed.
Sheba is described in the text as "a man of Belial," in other words, a child of the devil. A man's spiritual parentage is known by the deeds in which he delights. We have in the first verse a kind of double genealogy of Sheba; he is called "the son of Bichri, a Benjamite," and he is also described as "a man of Belial." It would seem as if in some cases men had a lineal physical descent, and had also a direct spiritual ancestry. Account for it as we may, there are practical differences in spirit and character which would seem almost to suggest two different grades or qualities of human nature. Whilst it is profoundly and sadly true that all men are apostates, and that there is none righteous, no, not one, it is also undeniable that there are chiefs in the army of evil, princes of sin, royal and dominating personages in the whole kingdom of wickedness. They are ingenious in the device of evil; their imagination is afire with the very spirit of perdition; they can invent new departures, striking policies, undreamed-of cruelties, unimaginable wanderings from the path of rectitude. It is most certain that many men simply "follow a multitude to do evil;" they have little or no invention of their own; they would never originate rebellions or lead insurrections, or devise plots involving great disasters; they are but followers, imitators, echoes not voices, persons who go by the bulk and not by detail, being only of consequence in proportion to their multitudinousness, having no independent spirit of their own when taken one by one. A horrible fame indeed to be known as a very prince of evil; this man Sheba, son of Bichri, son of Belial, suddenly springs up into a notoriety which is quickly turned into abiding and unpardonable infamy. Even Sheba, as we have seen, had it in his power to do evil, for all Israel followed him: whilst "the men of Judah clave unto their king, from Jordan even to Jerusalem" (2Samuel 20:2). Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth; a spark may set a forest ablaze.
David, being now impatient of the insolence of Joab, and willing to avail himself of an opportunity of superseding that able but arrogant captain, gave an appointment to Amasa, saying, "Assemble me the men of Judah within three days, and be thou here present" (2Samuel 20:4). The king feared more from Sheba the son of Bichri than he did from Absalom. As Amasa went forth he encountered an unexpected foe in the person of Joab. It is explained in the text how Joab by a peculiar arrangement of his dress—a girdle bound round his military coat—had contrived to conceal a dagger which would fall out as he advanced. The dagger falling out thus gave Joab an opportunity of naturally picking it up, as he wished to use it, without exciting the suspicion of Amasa. Thus even in so small a trick the depravity of Joab is made manifest. Taking Amasa by the beard with his right hand to kiss him, Joab smote him in the fifth rib, with but one blow, but that a fatal stroke. Joab would thus tolerate no rivals by whomsoever they might have been appointed. This desperateness of spirit was really part of the greatness of the man,—that is to say, apart from such desperateness he never could have brought to bear all his various faculties of statesman and soldier. Morality has often commented upon the circumstance that great talents should be turned to base uses. So it is the world over: the completer the education as a merely intellectual exercise, the more disastrous is the power to do evil, unless the education has been supported and chastened by adequate moral training. It is mere idolatry to admire greatness alone: when that greatness is held in check by enlightened consciousness, then its recognition really involves an act of worship to him who is the Spirit of Righteousness and the teacher of the world. It is but just, however, to say that we are not to judge Joab by the morality of a much later age. Every man is to be judged within the day which is distinctively his own, and is not to have To-morrow's morality set up as the standard of all his actions. Nor does this suggestion destroy what may be called the eternal distinction between right and wrong. Whilst that distinction is unquestionably eternal and unchangeable, its interpretation is not always given with equal vividness, nor does it embody itself at all times in equal positiveness and clearness of detail. Morality itself is part of an infinite but most beneficent evolution. Even a good cause may have bad supporters. The cause in which Joab was now engaged was unquestionably a good one, being nothing less than the restoration of David to his kingly position in Israel, and by so much the fulfilment of a divine covenant. Joab had a good cause, but he brought to its support a very questionable character. Is not this same instance repeating itself along the whole line of history? Is not the Church indebted to many a man whose heart is in the world and whose ambition is his only god? Are there not some men eloquent of tongue whose hearts are silent as to true worship? Is not good money often given by polluted hands? "Be ye clean that bear the vessels of the Lord." Who can expect perfection in imperfect men? Whilst this is impossible in the fullest sense of the term, we can at least be ruled by a supreme desire to be morally worthy of the great cause in whose consummation we take a public part.
Joab is now in full pursuit of Sheba. In the course of his progress he came into a place called Abel, at the extreme north of the land. The inhabitants of Beth-maachah and all the Berites were gathered together and went after Sheba. When they came to Abel, they cast up a bank against the city, and it stood in the trench; and all the people that were with Joab battered the wall, to throw it down (2Samuel 20:15). Here a very curious incident occurred. The wise woman of the city called unto Joab saying,
"Art thou Joab? And he answered, I am he. Then she said unto him, Hear the words of thine handmaid. And he answered, I do hear. Then she spake, saying, They were wont to speak in old time, saying, They shall surely ask counsel at Abel: and so they ended the matter. I am one of them that are peaceable and faithful in Israel: thou seekest to destroy a city and a mother in Israel: why wilt thou swallow up the inheritance of the Lord?" (2Samuel 20:17-19).
It has been supposed that the true interpretation of asking counsel at Abel is that Abel had become famous for its wisdom. In one of the Targums we read: "Remember now that which is written in the book of the law, to ask a city concerning peace at the first. Hast thou done so to ask of Abel if they will make peace? "No certain interpretation can be given of the words; but we are at liberty to remember that even superstition has sometimes played a useful part in history. Men have attached importance to times, places, emotions, and by so much have been checked in their impulses and subdued in their fiery ambitions. In conference with this wise woman, Joab reveals an aspect of his character which is deserving of note. He protests that he has no desire to ruin the city, if his object can be gained without the shedding of blood. He was not needlessly cruel, or a man, according to his own showing, who would perpetrate cruelty merely for the sake of enjoying the anguish which he was creating. Bold, resolute, desperate, revengeful, nothing would stand in his way that endangered the completion of his purpose: but if the purpose could be completed without bloodshed and devastation he was more than willing that such ruin and pain should be spared, Joab told the wise woman what he wanted, saying,
"A man of mount Ephraim [the range of hills so called because much of it lay in the tribe of Ephraim], Sheba the son of Bichri by name, hath lifted up his hand against the king, even against David: deliver him only, and I will depart from the city. And the woman said unto Joab, Behold, his head shall be thrown to thee over the wall. Then the woman went unto all the people in her wisdom. And they cut off the head of Sheba the son of Bichri, and cast it out to Joab" (2Samuel 20:21-22).
There is a protection that is honourable; and there is an asylum which ought not to be guaranteed at the cost of the interests of the whole people. It is the same with secrets which may have been entrusted to our keeping. There is a confidence which ought never to be violated, being sacred as life and solemn as an oath taken at the altar: but when the keeping of a secret will bring ruin upon innocent men, or when it is a secret which can only be held in defiance of the law and order of society, it ought to be given up, whatever consequence may fall upon the individual man. Even a priest has no right to hold secrets respecting murder, or secrets which prevent the due course of a just and impartial law. Sheba delivered himself into the custody of Abel, as many a secret has been delivered into the custody of pious men. It should be known everywhere that a higher law than any social ordinance or invented statute demands that certain sins should never be held in confidence but should be published whenever the interests of society require their publication. It is one thing to encourage a penitent, and another to conceal a murderer. Upon all these distinctions there can be but one true teacher, and that is an enlightened conscience. Keep the moral nature in a state of high sensitiveness, and it may be safely left to deal with any casuistries and problems of the passing day.