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Abner’s Quest for Power and Control

When we last left off, David was just beginning to establish his rule over Israel. In fact, at this point, he was king over just one tribe of Israel – the tribe of Judah. The rest of Israel had chosen to follow King Saul’s son, Ishbosheth. However, it wasn’t really Ishbosheth that was calling the shots. Abner, the commander of Saul’s army (who also happened to be Saul’s cousin) had established Ishbosheth as King after Saul’s death. And while Ishbosheth had the title of king, as we’re going to see today, Abner was really the one in charge. But we’ll talk more about that in a minute.

So at this point, there is a civil war within Israel: The house of Saul – led by Saul’s son Ishbosheth is at war the house of David to determine who will be the rightful king of Israel. But the story doesn’t really revolve around David or Ishbosheth as much as it revolves around their army commanders.

As I’ve already mentioned, Abner was the commander of Ishbosheth’s army and Joab was the commander of David’s army.

To make this all a bit more complicated, we read in 2 Samuel chapter 2 that Abner had killed Joab’s brother in battle! Of course, this was very much in self-defence – Abner even told Joab’s brother to go fight someone else, but he refused and so – in the end, Abner was forced to defend himself and Joab’s brother was killed! 

So Joab now holds a grudge and is seeking revenge against Abner for killing his brother. And as you might imagine, this grudge-match between these two army commanders had grown into a full blown civil war! The first verse of chapter 3 sums this up by saying:

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

2 Samuel 3:1a

That’s certainly not the kind of succession plan any kingdom wants to have! The transition from King Saul to King David was not going smoothly – and sadly, as we pointed out in our last message, Abner really was the driving force behind all this conflict. Had he accepted God’s choice of David to be King – this entire civil war could probably have been avoided! But as it was, Abner’s selfish ambition plunged the nation into a needless war that resulted in great bloodshed, and as we will see next week, ultimately his own demise.

So we’ll pick up today where we left off last time. Chapter 3, verse 1.

That was the beginning of a long war between those who were loyal to Saul and those loyal to David. As time passed David became stronger and stronger, while Saul’s dynasty became weaker and weaker. 2 Samuel 3:1

Even though Ishbosheth and Abner had the support of 11 tribes of Israel, and David only had the 1 tribe of Judah behind him – over time it became clear who was the stronger leader. Whether it was David’s leadership or his military skill or perhaps it was just the people’s opinion and support of their respective leaders – whatever it was (perhaps a combination of all those factors) David became stronger and stronger, and the house of Saul become weaker and weaker.

But interestingly, even while the house of Saul grew weaker and weaker compared to David, Abner’s position within Saul’s house, grew stronger and stronger. If you jump down to verse 6, we read:

As the war between the house of Saul and the house of David went on, Abner became a powerful leader among those loyal to Saul.

2 Samuel 3:6

Now to be clear, this wasn’t just Abner gaining popularity among those he lead – but rather, this was Abner intentionally positioning himself to become more and more powerful. I think the New Living Translation kinda fails to capture that idea – but the NIV makes it more clear:

6 During the war between the house of Saul and the house of David, Abner had been strengthening his own position in the house of Saul. 

2 Samuel 3:6 NIV

Abner was intentionally doing things to put himself in a position of more and more power & influence.

 As we noted even back when Abner was helping Saul chase down David through the wilderness for all those years – Abner’s primary interest was his own welfare – not the welfare of the kingdom or the welfare of Saul – but his own welfare. And that will become even more clear in the verses ahead.

But before we get there, let me jump back to verses 2 through 5 – which we skipped over for a moment. These verses don’t really contribute much specifically to our story today, but they certainly contribute to the story of David in general – and so I just want to touch on them briefly. Verse 2

2 These are the sons who were born to David in Hebron:

The oldest was Amnon, whose mother was Ahinoam from Jezreel.

3 The second was Daniel, whose mother was Abigail, the widow of Nabal from Carmel.
The third was Absalom, whose mother was Maacah, the daughter of Talmai, king of Geshur.

4 The fourth was Adonijah, whose mother was Haggith.
The fifth was Shephatiah, whose mother was Abital.

5 The sixth was Ithream, whose mother was Eglah, David’s wife.

These sons were all born to David in Hebron.

2 Samuel 3:2-5

Now as I just glance at these verses, it seems to me that the writer of 2 Samuel is deliberately pointing out how David’s sons all came from different women. And this isn’t even all of them. We will read about his first wife, Michal, later in this chapter – and Bathsheba will come on the scene much later on.

And of course, this was never God’s design! The Bible is clear that God designed for marriage and  family to work best with one man and one woman for life. Anything outside of that leads to strife and suffering. This becomes very evident in David’s family – and we’ll read some specific stories about this later on.  We’ll read how Amnon rapes his half-sister Tamar. And how Absalom later kills Amnon in revenge for what he did to Tamar – and all that eventually leads to Absalom leading a revolt against his father, King David, and getting himself killed. We’ll also read about Adonijah’s attempt to steal the kingdom from his brother Solomon after David passes on.

It’s just an enormous mess caused by David’s failure to live according to God’s design. And if there’s one lesson for us in all this mess, it’s this: When we choose to live in any way outside of God’s plan and design for our lives – we will experience pain and sorrow. And that’s not even taking into account God’s discipline and how he tries to correct us – that’s just the natural consequences of rebelling against the design of God!

It’s like trying to defy gravity! You can choose to step off the roof of your house if you like – but if you do, you’re going to experience the natural and painful consequences!

Same principle applies here: If you choose to disobey God’s instructions regarding marriage (for example), you can expect some natural and painful consequences because of that choice. If you choose to disregard God’s instructions regarding being honest and truthful, well, you can also expect some consequences because of that choice.

Anytime we choose to act against God’s design and plan for our lives – we will reap the natural, painful consequences of that choice.

Galatians 6:7 tells us…

7 Don’t be misled—you cannot mock the justice of God. You will always harvest what you plant. 8 Those who live only to satisfy their own sinful nature will harvest decay and death from that sinful nature. But those who live to please the Spirit will harvest everlasting life from the Spirit. 9 So let’s not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up.

Galatians 6:7-9

Just like how when we understand and follow the laws of nature – like gravity or momentum – we can stay safe and even use those things to our advantage. In a similar way, when we understand and follow the laws of God – we will avoid a lot of pain and suffering in our lives – and we can live the kind of lives that God designed us to live – full of joy and peace and satisfaction!

God’s way and God’s design for our lives really is best! He knows that He’s talking about! He doesn’t give us a bunch of rules just to make our lives miserable – He’s actually just trying to tell us how life works best!

So I guess my encouragement to you is to listen to Him. Trust that God knows what He’s doing. If he says in His Word to do something or to not doing something – it really is to your advantage to obey!

Anyway – that’s a bit of a rabbit trail, but I hope you put some thought into that! We need to learn to trust that God’s way truly is best! 

But to get back to our passage, we continue reading in verse 6…

6 As the war between the house of Saul and the house of David went on, Abner became a powerful leader among those loyal to Saul.

Or as the NIV puts it “Abner had been strengthening his own position in the house of Saul.”

 7 One day Ishbosheth, Saul’s son, accused Abner of sleeping with one of his father’s concubines, a woman named Rizpah, daughter of Aiah.

8 Abner was furious. “Am I some Judean dog to be kicked around like this?” he shouted. “After all I have done for your father, Saul, and his family and friends by not handing you over to David, is this my reward—that you find fault with me about this woman? 9 May God strike me and even kill me if I don’t do everything I can to help David get what the Lord has promised him! 10 I’m going to take Saul’s kingdom and give it to David. I will establish the throne of David over Israel as well as Judah, all the way from Dan in the north to Beersheba in the south.” 11 Ishbosheth didn’t dare say another word because he was afraid of what Abner might do.

2 Samuel 3:6-11

Now there are a few things that we need to point out in this passage. First of all, this is a very serious accusation that Ishbosheth makes against Abner. This was not just about sexual promiscuity or anything like that. To sleep with a former king’s concubines was paramount to declaring yourself to be king. This is actually exactly what Absalom does later when he tries to steal the kingdom from his father, David. Absalom sets up a tent on the roof of the palace so all of Jerusalem can see what he’s doing and he goes in and he sleeps with David’s concubines so that everyone knows he intends to be king!

And so when Ishbosheth accuses Abner of sleeping with one of King’s Saul’s concubines, he’s really accusing him of treason – of declaring himself to be king!

But what’s interesting here, is that we’re never actually told if Abner did this or not. Ishbosheth accuses him of doing this – but we’re never told if the accusation is true. And there are arguments that could be made for both cases.

Based on the previous verse saying how Abner had been strengthening his own position in the house of Saul – it certainly wouldn’t be unexpected or out of character for Abner to make a bid for the throne. He knows that Ishbosheth is a weak leader – very much a puppet king controlled by Abner anyway – and so perhaps Abner did make this strategic move to take over the kingdom. And of course, as you read the passage, Abner never actually denies the accusation either! He just gets really mad!

But even that can be interpreted two ways. Obviously, Abner is furious and declares that he is going to do everything he can to hand the kingdom over to David! So that might be evidence that this is a false accusation… Perhaps Abner is so indignant and hurt that Ishbosheth would make this false accusation against him, after all that Abner had done for Saul and his family. That would certainly make sense.

But then again, maybe this angry reaction isn’t about Abner’s hurt feelings by a false accusation… Perhaps it’s more of a reaction to Ishbosheth’s questioning of Abner – in essence standing up to Abner. Perhaps that’s what made Abner so mad! Perhaps Abner was upset that his puppet king dare question the puppet master!

But then we have to ask the question: Well, then why would Abner vow to hand the kingdom over to David? Wouldn’t that be defeating his own purposes of one day becoming King if that was his intent?

Perhaps – but again, remember what we read in verse 1 – even though Abner was growing more powerful in the house of Saul – the house of Saul itself was growing weaker and weaker in it’s fight against David.

So at this point, Abner probably realizes that it’s only a matter of time until David gets control of the entire kingdom of Israel anyway. So where does that leave Abner?

Well, that depends. If Abner can be the guy to hand the kingdom over to David – perhaps David would look favourably upon him and even reward him in some way? Perhaps he’d become the new commander of David’s army?

And so really, this could be a winning strategy for Abner either way. Whether he can take over as king and then negotiate peace with David as equals – or whether he can be the guy to somehow just hand the kingdom over to David under Ishbosheth’s nose – either way, he has a good chance of coming out on top.

And so we read in verse 12.

12 Then Abner sent messengers on his behalf to say to David, “Whose land is it? Make an agreement with me, and I will help you bring all Israel over to you.”

13 “Good,” said David. “I will make an agreement with you. But I demand one thing of you: Do not come into my presence unless you bring Michal daughter of Saul when you come to see me.” 14 Then David sent messengers to Ish-Bosheth son of Saul, demanding, “Give me my wife Michal, whom I betrothed to myself for the price of a hundred Philistine foreskins.”

2 Samuel 3:12-14

And just to refresh your memory – back when Saul was still pretending to like David in his younger days, he offered his daughter Michal to David in marriage if David would kill 100 Philistines. Of course, Saul was hoping that David would be killed by the Philistines in the process,  but in the end, David killed 200 Philistines and Saul was obligated to give his daughter to David in marriage.

However, when Saul began to openly try to kill David, David had to flee from his home – leaving Michal behind. And so while David was on the run from Saul, Saul gave Michal in marriage to another man named Paltiel.

But now, David demands that his wife be returned to him. Quite often in those days, two warring nations that were coming together for peace would arrange some sort of marriage between the ruling families – where the king or king’s son of one nation would marry the daughter or of the king of the other nation. This would symbolize and hopefully guarantee future peaceful relations between those nations. 

And so this is perhaps what David is doing here. At least partly. I imagine that David still loved Michal dearly – we have no reason to believe otherwise. And since Michal was the daughter of Saul (and David was already married to her anyway) – this would be a clear, symbolic gesture for the whole nation to see that David was eager to pursue peace with Saul’s family. So this would be a win-win for David for sure!

And Ishbosheth seems to think this was a good idea as well.  Verse 15 says…

15 So Ish-Bosheth gave orders and had her taken away from her husband Paltiel son of Laish. 16 Her husband, however, went with her, weeping behind her all the way to Bahurim. Then Abner said to him, “Go back home!” So he went back. 2 Samuel 3:15-16

Again, this is just another little reminder of what we talked about earlier – it was never God’s design for multiple wives or multiple husbands. God knows that this would only lead to great hurt and families being torn apart. That’s why God tells us so clearly in Mark 10:7…

7 ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, 8 and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9 Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” Mark 10:7-9 NIV

God doesn’t define the boundaries of marriage as one man and one woman for life for no good reason! He gives us this command because He knows that if we try to live otherwise, we’re inviting all kinds of hurt and sorrow into our lives! Paltiel was certainly experiencing that – as I’m sure David and Michal had earlier when they were torn apart.

Now, to be clear, God is certainly eager to forgive us and to redeem the choices that we’ve made! God’s just amazing like that! He can take the biggest, most painful mess that we’ve made for ourselves – and he can redeem that to bring about so much good! I mean, that’s really the heart of the Gospel!

16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 

John 3:16-17 NIV

The whole reason Christ came to the earth and died on the cross and rose again was to save us from the consequences of our own sin! He came to redeem us and to give us a second chance at life!

So no matter how badly we’ve messed up or how much pain we’ve cause ourselves and others – God can forgive and redeem all that!

But of course, all that being said, it’s so much better for us if we can follow God’s design for our lives in the first place – and avoid all that pain and mess!

That’s one reason why it’s so important to teach our kids to know and to trust what God says in his Word when they are young! If they can learn to trust God early in life, they will save themselves from so much sorrow as they grow up!

But again, I digress. Let me get back to our story – but I do urge you to teach your kids to trust the Lord while they are young! 

So anyway, after David is reunited with his wife Michal, Abner continues to make good on his promise to hand the kingdom over to David. We read in verse 17…

17 Meanwhile, Abner had consulted with the elders of Israel. “For some time now,” he told them, “you have wanted to make David your king. 18 Now is the time! For the Lord has said, ‘I have chosen David to save my people Israel from the hands of the Philistines and from all their other enemies.’” 19 Abner also spoke with the men of Benjamin. Then he went to Hebron to tell David that all the people of Israel and Benjamin had agreed to support him. 2 Samuel 3:17-19

Now I find this rather interesting. First of all, Abner acknowledges that the elders of Israel have wanted to make David their king for some time now! He also acknowledges that the Lord had chosen David to be King over Israel! But yet, who was it that stood in the way of both of those things!? It was him, Abner! He was the one who established Ishbosheth as King – and he was the one who led Israel’s armies against the armies of David! He’s the reason Israel had been thrown into civil war. And now, he presents himself as the solution to the problem – as if he wasn’t he problem in the first place! Can you believe this guy? But that’s not all. Let’s read on – verse 20.

20 When Abner and twenty of his men came to Hebron, David entertained them with a great feast. 21 Then Abner said to David, “Let me go and call an assembly of all Israel to support my lord the king. They will make a covenant with you to make you their king, and you will rule over everything your heart desires.” So David sent Abner safely on his way.

2 Samuel 3:20-21

Now for the sake of time, I’m going to stop here for today. There’s a lot more to this story and so we’ll take at least one more Sunday to work through it, but I do want to point out one last thing.

I find it interesting that again, Abner presents himself as the solution to the problem! In his mind, he is the king-maker! He is the one who has the power to give David everything his heart desires! That was the same approach he had with Ishbosheth earlier – He was the one to give Ishbosheth the Kingdom – and he was the one who could take it away!

From what I’ve read in these chapters, I’d say that Abner really had an over-inflated sense of power and control – which is sadly ironic because, as we’re going to read next week, before this day was through, he wouldn’t even be alive any more. In reality, he had absolutely no power or control.

Which is really the case for all of us! As humans, we continually strive to have power and control over our own lives! We try to manipulate and control the people around us, we work hard to make sure things work out in our favour (be it in our relationships, or our job, or whatever it is) – and we invest so much time and energy into trying to control our own lives. In reality, we have no real power or control. 

The Bible is clear that power and control ultimately belong only to God.

As Job so eloquently put it (in the Old King James Version)

Naked came I out of my mother’s womb,
and naked shall I return thither:
the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away;
blessed be the name of the Lord.

Job 1:21

I think Job understood – much more so than Abner – that all power and authority originates with God. God is the one who establishes kingdom and dynasties – and it’s God who brings them down.

The Lord giveth – and the Lord taketh away!

And that’s true in all realms of our life – whether it’s our job, or our families, or our relationships, or our health – and ultimate even our very lives – the Lord giveth – and the Lord can take away. 

And really, I think understanding that can be a great relief for us. I mean, who else would we want to have control over our lives –  a good, all-knowing, all-loving, all-powerful God who loves us so much that He was willing to die for us? Or ourselves – prone to foolish, selfish, and sinful choices?

I think we can have a great sense of peace knowing that it’s our God who has all the control, power, and authority over all these things. We need not fight against him for control of our lives – or even fight against anyone else for that matter! We can simply trust our God – and trust His goodness – to work all things together for good.

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