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The Sordid Tale of Abner

Two weeks ago we began our study of 2 Samuel – which is really just a continuation of our study of 1 Samuel which we concluded back in 2021! So in a lot of ways, we’re jumping right into the middle of the story – a story that many of us either missed the first half or have forgotten how it all started. But don’t worry – even if you don’t remember part one of this story, I’ll do my best to remind us of the key details as we go along.

For now, probably the key thing you need to know is that the nation Israel is currently in a bit of a state of civil war. In our passage today, Israel is still a very young nation – it’s had only one king thus far in it’s history and that king has just died. So now Israel is at a crucial conjuction. Who will lead Israel next?

One of the twelve tribes of Israel (Judah) has chosen David to be their new King – while all the rest of Israel has pledged their loyalties to King’s Saul’s son, Ishbosheth.

However, our passage today doesn’t really revolve around either David or Ishbosheth – but rather around their respective army commanders – Joab (the commander of David’s army) & Abner (the commander of Ishbosheth’s army).

Now before we read today’s passage, let me just re-read the last verses we looked at last week. This is kinda the setup for today’s story. 2 Samuel chapter 2, verses 8-11.

8 But Abner son of Ner, the commander of Saul’s army, had already gone to Mahanaim with Saul’s son Ishbosheth. 9 There he proclaimed Ishbosheth king over Gilead, Jezreel, Ephraim, Benjamin, the land of the Ashurites, and all the rest of Israel.

10 Ishbosheth, Saul’s son, was forty years old when he became king, and he ruled from Mahanaim for two years. Meanwhile, the people of Judah remained loyal to David. 11 David made Hebron his capital, and he ruled as king of Judah for seven and a half years.

2 Samuel 2:8-11

So Saul’s army commander, Abner, has declared Saul’s son, Ishbosheth, to be king over Israel. And that’s not too surprising – since it was kinda expected in those days that the king’s son would rule after him. However, Abner’s deliberate rejection of David and instead establishing Ishbosheth as King, was certainly not just about maintaining tradition. If we look at Abner’s history – we find there is a lot more going on here than what meets the eye.

You may not have noticed him before, but Abner has been a significant character throughout the story of Saul & David. We actually first met him way back shortly after Saul became King. He’s first mentioned in 1 Samuel 14…

49 Saul’s sons included Jonathan, Ishbosheth, and Malkishua. He also had two daughters: Merab, who was older, and Michal. 50 Saul’s wife was Ahinoam, the daughter of Ahimaaz. The commander of Saul’s army was Abner, the son of Saul’s uncle Ner. 51 Saul’s father, Kish, and Abner’s father, Ner, were both sons of Abiel.  1 Samuel 14:49-51

This gives us some important information about Abner. Verse 50 tells us that Abner was Saul’s cousin – they were both grandsons of Abiel. This means that Abner was not just some random guy that became Saul’s army commander – but that he was a close blood relative – someone who potentially could become king if something should happen to the royal family.

This will most certainly come into play a little later on in our story – but it also gives us some extra insight and clarity into why Abner does what He does. He has a very vested interest in keeping Saul’s family in power! Of all the people in Israel, Abner was probably one of the people with the most to lose if David should become King!

And with that little bit of insight, it’s not surprise that Abner was all-too-eager to help Saul chase down and try to kill David for all those years! In fact, there are a couple of passages that suggest Abner may have been the driving force behind Saul’s suspicion of David.

Last week we read the story of how David spared Saul’s life in that cave and just cut off the hem of his robe…  Well, listen to what David says to Saul in the verses after that…

9 Then he shouted to Saul, “Why do you listen to the people who say I am trying to harm you? 10 This very day you can see with your own eyes it isn’t true.”

1 Samuel 24:9-10a

Evidently, Saul’s suspicion of David didn’t just come from Saul’s own mind – someone else was telling Saul that David was trying to harm him. Now of course, this passage doesn’t name names – but it had to be someone fairly close to Saul – someone that Saul would trust and believe. So here’s a thought: Could it be that that someone could have been Abner?

Well, hold that thought and let’s jump ahead another couple of chapters to a second time when David spared Saul’s life. In 1 Samuel 26, starting at verse 1, we read:

Now some men from Ziph came to Saul at Gibeah to tell him, “David is hiding on the hill of Hakilah, which overlooks Jeshimon.”

2 So Saul took 3,000 of Israel’s elite troops and went to hunt him down in the wilderness of Ziph. 3 Saul camped along the road beside the hill of Hakilah, near Jeshimon, where David was hiding. When David learned that Saul had come after him into the wilderness, 4 he sent out spies to verify the report of Saul’s arrival.

5 David slipped over to Saul’s camp one night to look around. Saul and Abner son of Ner, the commander of his army, were sleeping inside a ring formed by the slumbering warriors. 6 “Who will volunteer to go in there with me?” David asked Ahimelech the Hittite and Abishai son of Zeruiah, Joab’s brother.

“I’ll go with you,” Abishai replied. 7 So David and Abishai went right into Saul’s camp and found him asleep, with his spear stuck in the ground beside his head. Abner and the soldiers were lying asleep around him.

8 “God has surely handed your enemy over to you this time!” Abishai whispered to David. “Let me pin him to the ground with one thrust of the spear; I won’t need to strike twice!”

9 “No!” David said. “Don’t kill him. For who can remain innocent after attacking the Lord’s anointed one? 10 Surely the Lord will strike Saul down someday, or he will die of old age or in battle. 11 The Lord forbid that I should kill the one he has anointed! But take his spear and that jug of water beside his head, and then let’s get out of here!”

12 So David took the spear and jug of water that were near Saul’s head. Then he and Abishai got away without anyone seeing them or even waking up, because the Lord had put Saul’s men into a deep sleep.

13 David climbed the hill opposite the camp until he was at a safe distance. 14 Then he shouted down to the soldiers and to Abner son of Ner, “Wake up, Abner!”

“Who is it?” Abner demanded.

15 “Well, Abner, you’re a great man, aren’t you?” David taunted. “Where in all Israel is there anyone as mighty? So why haven’t you guarded your master the king when someone came to kill him? 16 This isn’t good at all! I swear by the Lord that you and your men deserve to die, because you failed to protect your master, the Lord’s anointed! Look around! Where are the king’s spear and the jug of water that were beside his head?”

17 Saul recognized David’s voice and called out, “Is that you, my son David?”

And David replied, “Yes, my lord the king. 18 Why are you chasing me? What have I done? What is my crime? 19 But now let my lord the king listen to his servant. If the Lord has stirred you up against me, then let him accept my offering. But if this is simply a human scheme, then may those involved be cursed by the Lord. For they have driven me from my home, so I can no longer live among the Lord’s people.

1 Samuel 26:1-19

Now there’s a lot of interesting things in this passage, but for our purposes today, notice how it almost seems a little bit out of character for David to so publicly and purposely humiliate Abner.  He says in verse 15…

15 “Well, Abner, you’re a great man, aren’t you?” David taunted. “Where in all Israel is there anyone as mighty? So why haven’t you guarded your master the king when someone came to kill him? 16 This isn’t good at all! I swear by the Lord that you and your men deserve to die, because you failed to protect your master, the Lord’s anointed!

1 Samuel 26:15-16a

Those are some pretty harsh word for Abner! Why would David say all that? Is it just because he’s feeling spiteful? If David’s beef is with Saul, why does he make such a big deal of Abner’s failure to protect Saul (especially since it was God who put them all into a deep sleep – so it was hardly Abner’s fault!)

My suspicion – and this is just my speculation – is that David knows that Abner has been goading Saul into chasing after him. That Abner is the one who has been telling the king that David is out to harm him. David says in verse 19…

If the Lord has stirred you up against me, then let him accept my offering. But if this is simply a human scheme, then may those involved be cursed by the Lord. 1 Samuel 26:19b

David seems to be suggesting that Saul’s hunt for David is part of a human scheme. A plot and plan by someone against David – trying to prevent him from ever becoming King. Could it be that one of those schemers was Abner? Now we’re not told that specifically – but it sure seems to fit with what we’ve read already – and certainly with we’re going to read in the chapters to come.

So now, with Saul dead, it’s no surprise that Abner would be quick to install Saul’s son Ishbosheth as King – not even so much for Isbosheth’s sake but for his own. That will become clear for us in the chapters ahead, as we will see Abner continue to manipulate the royal family for his own purposes. But that will come out in another sermon for another day.

But for now, the kingdom of Israel is divided in their loyalties and are functioning really as two separate  nations – one led by David and his commander Joab – the other led by Ishbosheth and his commander Abner.

And so we read in 2 Samuel 2:12…

12 One day Abner led Ishbosheth’s troops from Mahanaim to Gibeon. 13 About the same time, Joab son of Zeruiah led David’s troops out and met them at the pool of Gibeon. The two groups sat down there, facing each other from opposite sides of the pool.

14 Then Abner suggested to Joab, “Let’s have a few of our warriors fight hand to hand here in front of us.”

“All right,” Joab agreed. 15 So twelve men were chosen to fight from each side—twelve men of Benjamin representing Ishbosheth son of Saul, and twelve representing David. 16 Each one grabbed his opponent by the hair and thrust his sword into the other’s side so that all of them died. So this place at Gibeon has been known ever since as the Field of Swords.

17 A fierce battle followed that day, and Abner and the men of Israel were defeated by the forces of David.

2 Samuel 2:12-17

As Abner tries to solidify Ishbosheth’s position as King, he leads his troops down towards David’s territory. Joab, David’s commander, intercepts them with his troops at Gibeon. This leads to a face-off much like when Philistines & Goliath faced off against Saul and his armies – and a similar solution is proposed. But instead of David vs Goliath to determine the outcome, Abner suggests that 12 men from each side fight against each other in hand-to-hand combat. Joab agrees and and the resulting skirmish ends in a tie – with all 24 men killing each other!

It seems to be a pretty pointless endeavour and it really only serves to create greater animosity between the two sides! So at this point, not surprisingly, everyone jumps up and wades into a fierce battle.

In the end, Joab and his men defeat Abner and his men – quite soundly as we’ll see at the end of the chapter.

But it’s here that a little side story develops – one that will significantly impact the rest of David’s journey towards becoming king. We read in verse 18 now…

18 Joab, Abishai, and Asahel—the three sons of Zeruiah—were among David’s forces that day. Asahel could run like a gazelle, 19 and he began chasing Abner. He pursued him relentlessly, not stopping for anything. 20 When Abner looked back and saw him coming, he called out, “Is that you, Asahel?”

“Yes, it is,” he replied.

21 “Go fight someone else!” Abner warned. “Take on one of the younger men, and strip him of his weapons.” But Asahel kept right on chasing Abner.

22 Again Abner shouted to him, “Get away from here! I don’t want to kill you. How could I ever face your brother Joab again?”

2 Samuel 2:18-22

So it seems there’s a couple things going on here. First of all, it seems that Asahel is determined to fight (and hopefully kill) Abner! We’re not sure why he is so determined, but I wonder if he’s trying to prove himself as a great warrior. After all, his brothers Joab and Abishai had already achieved significant status. Joab was the commander of David’s army and Abishai was the guy who snuck down with David into Saul’s camp while everyone was sleeping. And so perhaps Asahel wanted to prove his own worth by taking out the commander of Saul’s army – that would certainly give him some status and credibility as a warrior. This might be why he rejected Abner’s advice to go chase some of the other young men and kill them! Sure, that would be a little notch on his belt, but nothing like killing the commander of the enemy army!

And as self-serving as it seems for Abner to tell Asahel to chase and kill someone else, it kinda seems like Abner really was trying to spare Asahel’s life! Abner was clearly a very skilled and able solider – having fought and won many battles throughout Saul’s reign – and he was pretty confident that he could defeat this young man chasing after him.

But to complicate things, this young man was the brother of Joab – the commander of David’s armies. It was one thing for Abner to kill one of Joab’s soldiers, but it was another thing to kill one of Joab’s brothers. And Abner didn’t want Joab to have a personal vendetta against him – which unfortunately was exactly what would happen. As we read on in verse 23, it says…

23 But Asahel refused to turn back, so Abner thrust the butt end of his spear through Asahel’s stomach, and the spear came out through his back. He stumbled to the ground and died there. And everyone who came by that spot stopped and stood still when they saw Asahel lying there.

24 When Joab and Abishai found out what had happened, they set out after Abner. The sun was just going down as they arrived at the hill of Ammah near Giah, along the road to the wilderness of Gibeon. 25 Abner’s troops from the tribe of Benjamin regrouped there at the top of the hill to take a stand.

2 Samuel 2:23-25

So things have not gone well for Abner. His men have had to retreat from the battle, and Joab and Abishia are hot on his trail to exact revenge for killing their brother. And so he gathers his remaining troops to take a final stand on the hill, but things are not looking good. And so he calls down to Joab in verse 26…

26 Abner shouted down to Joab, “Must we always be killing each other? Don’t you realize that bitterness is the only result? When will you call off your men from chasing their Israelite brothers?”

2 Samuel 2:26

It’s a little bit ironic that Abner now appeals to Joab for a ceasefire – reminding him that they are fellow Israelites – they’re all brothers! It almost seems like he’s blaming Joab for all the blood-shed – while it was he himself who started the fight in the first place!

None-the-less, Joab agrees to the ceasefire. 27 says..

27 Then Joab said, “God only knows what would have happened if you hadn’t spoken, for we would have chased you all night if necessary.” 28 So Joab blew the ram’s horn, and his men stopped chasing the troops of Israel.

29 All that night Abner and his men retreated through the Jordan Valley. They crossed the Jordan River, traveling all through the morning, and didn’t stop until they arrived at Mahanaim.

30 Meanwhile, Joab and his men also returned home. When Joab counted his casualties, he discovered that only 19 men were missing in addition to Asahel. 31 But 360 of Abner’s men had been killed, all from the tribe of Benjamin. 32 Joab and his men took Asahel’s body to Bethlehem and buried him there in his father’s tomb. Then they traveled all night and reached Hebron at daybreak.

That was the beginning of a long war between those who were loyal to Saul and those loyal to David.

2 Samuel 2:27-3:1a

And this is where we’ll stop for today – at the beginning of a long civil war within Israel between the house of David and the house of Saul.

And you know, we often think of the Kingdom of Israel splitting into two nations after the time of Solomon – but really, as we see here, that split began many, many years before. It began with Abner’s stubborn & selfish refusal to accept the Lord’s will – his refusal to accept David as King. 

I don’t know when it all started for Abner – maybe it was when David killed Goliath and kinda put Saul (and Abner) to shame… Maybe as Saul’s jealousy and resentment towards David started growing, so did Abner’s? We don’t really know.

But we do know that that resentment grew and grew until Abner got to the point where he would rather start a civil war than allow David to become King.

And it’s kinda crazy to think that had Abner been able to put his own personal agenda aside and trust that God knew what He was doing – how much war and how many deaths could have been avoided? How differently the whole history of Israel could have been!

And this is just such powerful reminder for us to see how our little choices and the minor attitudes that we have can grow and expand and impact more people than we could ever imagine!

Church splits never happen because of ‘that one big issue’ – they always start with a little disagreement or a little stubbornness or a little self-righteousness – that just grows and spreads.

Marriages don’t fall apart over ‘that one big issue’ – it starts with a little bit of selfishness or a bit of resentment or unforgiveness – that festers and grows and deepens over time.

That’s just the nature of sin! It always starts small – and almost appears harmless – but if left unchecked, it always grows and the roots deepen and the consequences become more and more severe.

It’s like the Veggies Tales episode of the Rumor Weed – what starts as this harmless little plant, quickly grows to become this monstrous, destructive creature! That’s sin in our lives!

As James warns us so clearly:

14 Temptation comes from our own desires, which entice us and drag us away. 15 These desires give birth to sinful actions. And when sin is allowed to grow, it gives birth to death.

James 1:14-15

And we certainly see that clearly in the life of Abner! What began as a little bit of selfish ambition, grew and spread into years of civil war.

And so this morning, I would just want to encourage you (and to remind myself) not to allow that sin to grow. Whether it’s a little bit of selfishness, some resentment, some unforgiveness, jealousy, or whatever it is – don’t allow it to grow. Cut it off while it’s still small – before it grows out of control.

And perhaps the best way to do that is through confession – confession to God and confession to one another. 1 John 1:8 says…

8 If we claim we have no sin, we are only fooling ourselves and not living in the truth. 9 But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness. 

1 John 1:8-9

Isn’t that such good news! And likewise, James tells us:

16 Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results. 

James 5:16

And that’s certainly true! Confession may feel like a difficult and sometimes painful thing to do – especially if we’ve let that sin grow and it’s become bigger and badder than we ever imagined!

But the surest way to stop it’s growth & it’s further destruction in our lives is through confession – both to God and to each other! And as the Scriptures assure us: If we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness. 

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