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2 Samuel ii. 12-32

The well-meant and earnest efforts of David to ward off strife and bring the people together in recognising him as king were frustrated, as we have seen, through the efforts of Abner. Unmoved by the solemn testimony of God, uttered again and again through Samuel, that He had rejected Saul and found as king a man after His own heart; unmoved by the sad proceedings at Endor, where, under such awful circumstances, the same announcement of the purpose of the Almighty had been repeated; unmoved by the doom of Saul and his three sons on Mount Gilboa, where such a striking proof of the reality of God's judgment on his house had been given; unmoved by the miserable state of the kingdom, overrun and humiliated by the Philistines and in the worst possible condition to bear the strain of a civil war,—this Abner insisted on setting up Ishbosheth and endeavouring to make good his claims by the sword. It was never seen more clearly how "one sinner destroyeth much good."

As to the immediate occasion of the war, David was quite innocent, and Abner alone was responsible; but to a feeling and patriotic heart like David's, the war itself must have been the occasion of bitter distress27 Did it ever occur to him to think that in a sense he was now brought, against his will, into the position which he had professed to King Achish to be willing to occupy, or that, placed as he now was in an attitude of opposition to a large section of his countrymen, he was undergoing a chastisement for what he was rash enough to say and to do then?

In the commencement of the war, the first step was taken by Abner. He went out from Mahanaim, descended the Jordan valley, and came to Gibeon, in the tribe of Benjamin, a place but a few miles distant from Gibeah, where Saul had reigned. His immediate object probably was to gain such an advantage over David in that quarter as would enable him to establish Ishbosheth at Gibeah, and thus bring to him all the prestige due to the son and successor of Saul. We must not forget that the Philistines had still great influence in the land, and very likely they were in possession of Gibeah, after having rifled Saul's palace and appropriated all his private property. With this powerful enemy to be dealt with ultimately, it was the interest of Abner to avoid a collision of the whole forces on either side, and spare the slaughter which such a contest would have involved. There is some obscurity in the narrative now before us, both at this point and at other places. But it would appear that, when the two armies were ranged on opposite sides of the "pool" or reservoir at Gibeon, Abner made the proposal to Joab that the contest should be decided by a limited number of young men on either side, whose encounter would form a sort of play or spectacle, that their brethren might look on, and, in a sense, enjoy. In the circumstances, it was a wise and humane proposal, although we get something of a shock from the frivolous28 spirit that could speak of such a deadly encounter as "play."

David was not present with his troops on this occasion, the management of them being entrusted to Joab, his sister's son. Here was another of the difficulties of David—a difficulty which embarrassed him for forty years. He was led to commit the management of his army to his warlike nephew, although he appears to have been a man very unlike himself. Joab is much more of the type of Saul than of David. He is rough, impetuous, worldly, manifesting no faith, no prayerfulness, no habit or spirit of communion with God. Yet from the beginning he threw in his lot with David; he remained faithful to him in the insurrection of Absalom; and sometimes he gave him advice which was more worthy to be followed than his own devices. But though Joab was a difficulty to David, he did not master him. The course of David's life and the character of his reign were determined mainly by those spiritual feelings with which Joab appears to have had no sympathy. It was unfortunate that the first stage of the war should have been in the hands of Joab; he conducted it in a way that must have been painful to David; he stained it with a crime that gave him bitter pain.

The practice of deciding public contests by a small and equal number of champions on either side, if not a common one in ancient times, was, at any rate, not very rare. Roman history furnishes some memorable instances of it: that of Romulus and Aruns, and that of the Horatii and the Curiatii; while the challenge of Goliath and the proposal to settle the strife between the Philistines and the Hebrews according to the result of the duel with him had taken place not many years29 before. The young men were accordingly chosen, twelve on either side; but they rushed against each other with such impetuosity that the whole of them fell together, and the contest remained undecided as before. Excited probably by what they had witnessed, the main forces on either side now rushed against each other; and when the shock of battle came, the victory fell to the side of David, and Abner and his troops were signally defeated. On David's side, there was not a very serious loss, the number of the slain amounting to twenty; but on the side of Abner the loss was three hundred and sixty. To account for so great an inequality we must remember that in Eastern warfare it was in the pursuit that by far the greatest amount of slaughter took place. That obstinate maintenance of their ground which is characteristic of modern armies seems to have been unknown in those times. The superiority of one of the hosts over the other appears usually to have made itself felt at the beginning of the engagement; the opposite force, seized with panic, fled in confusion, followed close by the conquerors, whose weapons, directed against the backs of the fugitive, were neither caught on shields, nor met by counter-volleys. Thus it was that Joab's loss was little more than the twelve who had fallen at first, while that of Abner was many times more.

Among those who had to save themselves by flight after the battle was Abner, the captain of the host. Hard in pursuit of him, and of him only, hastened Asahel, the brother of Joab. It is not easy to understand all the circumstances of this pursuit. We cannot but believe that Asahel was bent on killing Abner, but probably his hope was that he would get near enough to him to discharge an arrow at him, and that in doing30 so he would incur no personal danger. But Abner appears to have remarked him, and to have stopped his flight and faced round to meet him. Abner seems to have carried sword and spear; Asahel had probably nothing heavier than a bow. It was fair enough in Abner to propose that if they were to be opponents, Asahel should borrow armour, that they might fight on equal terms. But this was not Asahel's thought. He seems to have been determined to follow Abner, and take his opportunity for attacking him in his own way. This Abner would not permit; and, as Asahel would not desist from his pursuit, Abner, rushing at him, struck him with such violence with the hinder end of his spear that the weapon came out behind him. "And Asahel fell down there, and died in the same place; and it came to pass that as many as came to the place where Asahel fell down and died stood still." Asahel was a man of consequence, being brother of the commander of the army and nephew of the king. The death of such a man counted for much, and went far to restore the balance of loss between the two contending armies. It seems to have struck a horror into the hearts of his fellow-soldiers; it was an awful incident of the war. It was strange enough to see one who an hour ago was so young, so fresh and full of life, stretched on the ground a helpless lump of clay; but it was more appalling to remember his relation to the two greatest men of the nation—David and Joab. Certainly war is most indiscriminate in the selection of its victims; commanders and their brothers, kings and their nephews, being as open to its catastrophes as any one else. Surely it must have sent a thrill through Abner to see among the first victims of the strife which he had kindled one whose family stood so high, and whose31 death would exasperate against him so important a person as his brother Joab.

The pursuit of the defeated army was by-and-bye interrupted by nightfall. In the course of the evening the fugitives somewhat rallied, and concentrated on the top of a hill, in the wilderness of Gibeon. And here the two chiefs held parley together. The proceedings were begun by Abner, and begun by a question that was almost insolent. "Abner called to Joab and said, Shall the sword devour for ever? knowest thou not that it will be bitterness in the latter end? how long shall it be ere thou bid the people return from following their brethren?" It was an audacious attempt to throw on Joab and Joab's master the responsibility of the war. We get a new glimpse of Abner's character here. If there was a fact that might be held to be beyond the possibility of question, it was that Abner had begun the contest. Had not he, in opposition to the Divine King of the nation, set up Ishbosheth against the man called by Jehovah? Had not he gathered the army at Mahanaim, and moved towards Gibeon, on express purpose to exclude David, and secure for his nominee what might be counted in reality, and not in name only, the kingdom of Israel? Yet he insolently demanded of Joab, "Shall the sword devour for ever?" He audaciously applies to Joab a maxim that he had not thought of applying to himself in the morning—"Knowest thou not that it will be bitterness in the latter end?" This is a war that can be terminated only by the destruction of one half of the nation; it will be a bitter enough consummation, which half soever it may be. Have you no regard for your "brethren," against whom you are fighting, that you are holding on in this remorseless way?


It may be a marvellously clever thing, in this audacious manner, to throw upon an opponent all the blame which is obviously one's own. But no good man will do so. The audacity that ascribes its own sins to an opponent is surely the token of a very evil nature. We have no reason to form a very high opinion of Joab, but of his opponent in this strife our judgment must be far worse. An insincere man, Abner could have no high end before him. If David was not happy in his general, still less was Ishbosheth in his.

Joab's answer betrayed a measure of indignation. "As God liveth, unless thou hadst spoken, surely then in the morning the people had gone up every one from following his brother." There is some ambiguity in these words. The Revised Version renders, "If thou hadst not spoken, surely then in the morning the people had gone away, nor followed every one his brother." The meaning of Joab seems to be that, apart from any such ill-tempered appeal as Abner's, it was his full intention in the morning to recall his men from the pursuit, and let Abner and his people go home without further harm. Joab shows the indignation of one credited with a purpose he never had, and with an inhumanity and unbrotherliness of which he was innocent. Why Joab had resolved to give up further hostilities at that time, we are not told. One might have thought that had he struck another blow at Abner he might have so harassed his force as to ruin his cause, and thus secure at once the triumph of David. But Joab probably felt very keenly what Abner accused him of not feeling: that it was a miserable thing to destroy the lives of so many brethren. The idea of building up David's throne on the dead bodies of his subjects he must have known to be extremely distasteful to David33 himself. Civil war is such a horrible thing, that a general may well be excused who accepts any reason for stopping it. If Joab had known what was to follow, he might have taken a different course. If he had foreseen the "long war" that was to be between the house of Saul and the house of David, he might have tried on this occasion to strike a decisive blow, and pursued Abner's men until they were utterly broken. But that day's work had probably sickened him, as he knew it would sicken David; and leaving Abner and his people to make their way across the Jordan, he returned to bury his brother, and to report his proceedings to David at Hebron.

And David must have grieved exceedingly when he heard what had taken place. The slaughter of nearly four hundred of God's nation was a terrible thought; still more terrible it was to think that in a sense he had been the occasion of it—it was done to prevent him from occupying the throne. No doubt he had reason to be thankful that when fighting had to be done, the issue was eminently favourable to him and his cause. But he must have been grieved that there should be fighting at all. He must have felt somewhat as the Duke of Wellington felt when he made the observation that next to the calamity of losing a battle was that of gaining a victory. Was this what Samuel had meant when he came that morning to Bethlehem and anointed him in presence of his family? Was this what God designed when He was pleased to put him in the place of Saul? If this was a sample of what David was to bring to his beloved people, would it not have been better had he never been born? Very strange must God's ways have appeared to him. How different were his desires, how different his dreams of what34 should be done when he got the kingdom, from this day's work! Often he had thought how he would drive out the enemies of his people; how he would secure tranquillity and prosperity to every Hebrew homestead; how he would aim at their all living under their vine and under their fig-tree, none making them afraid. But now his reign had begun with bloodshed, and already desolation had been carried to hundreds of his people's homes. Was this the work, O God, for which Thou didst call me from the sheep-folds? Should I not have been better employed "following the ewes great with young," and protecting my flock from the lion and the bear, rather than sending forth men to stain the soil of the land with the blood of the people and carry to their habitations the voice of mourning and woe?

If David's mind was exercised in this way by the proceedings near the pool of Gibeon, all his trust and patience would be needed to wait for the time when God would vindicate His way. After all, was not his experience somewhat like that of Moses when he first set about the deliverance of his people? Did he not appear to do more harm than good? Instead of lightening the burdens of his people, did he not cause an increase of their weight? But has it not been the experience of most men who have girded themselves for great undertakings in the interest of their brethren? Nay, was it not the experience of our blessed Lord Himself? At His birth the angels sang, "Glory to God in the highest; on earth peace; goodwill to men!" And almost the next event was the massacre at Bethlehem, and Jesus Himself even in His lifetime found cause to say, "Think not that I am come to send peace on the earth; I am not come to send peace, but a sword." What a sad evidence of the moral disorder of the35 world! The very messengers of the God of peace are not allowed to deliver their messages in peace, but even as they advance toward men with smiles and benedictions, are fiercely assailed, and compelled to defend themselves by violence. Nevertheless the angels' song is true. Jesus did come to bless the world with peace. "Peace I leave with you; My peace I give unto you; not as the world giveth give I unto you." The resistance of His enemies was essentially a feeble resistance, and that stronger spirit of peace which Jesus brought in due time prevailed mightily in the earth. So with the bloodshed in David's reign. It did not hinder David from being a great benefactor to his kingdom in the end. It did not annul the promise of God. It did not neutralise the efficacy of the holy oil. This was just one of the many ways in which his faith and his patience were tried. It must have shown him even more impressively than anything that had yet happened the absolute necessity of Divine direction in all his ways. For it is far easier for a good man to bear suffering brought on himself by his actions, than to see suffering and death entailed on his brethren in connection with a course which has been taken by him.

In that audacious speech which Abner addressed to Joab, there occurs an expression worthy of being taken out of the connection in which it was used and of being viewed with wider reference. "Knowest thou not that it will be bitterness in the latter end?" Things are to be viewed by rational beings not merely in their present or immediate result, but in their final outcome, in their ultimate fruits. A very commonplace truth, I grant you, this is, but most wholesome, most necessary to be cherished. For how many of the36 miseries and how many of the worst sins of men come of forgetting the "bitterness in the latter end" which evil beginnings give rise to! It is one of the most wholesome rules of life never to do to-day what you shall repent of to-morrow. Yet how constantly is the rule disregarded! Youthful child of fortune, who are revelling to-day in wealth which is counted by hundreds of thousands, and which seems as if it could never be exhausted, remember how dangerous those gambling habits are into which you are falling; remember that the gambler's biography is usually a short, and often a tragic, one; and when you hear the sound of the pistol with which one like yourself has ended his miserable existence, remember it all began by disregarding the motto, written over the gambler's path, "Knowest thou not that it will be bitterness in the latter end?" You merry-hearted and amusing companion, to whom the flowing bowl, and the jovial company, and the merry jest and lively song are so attractive, the more you are tempted to go where they are found remember that rags and dishonour, dirt and degradation, form the last stage of the journey,—"the latter end bitterness" of the course you are now following. You who are wasting in idleness the hours of the morning, remember how you will repent of it when you have to make up your leeway by hard toil at night. I have said that things are to be viewed by rational beings in their relations to the future as well as the present. It is not the part of a rational being to accumulate disaster, distress, and shame for the future. Men that are rational will far rather suffer for the present if they may be free from suffering hereafter. Benefit societies, life insurance, annuity schemes—what are they all but the37 devices of sensible men desirous to ward off even the possibility of temporal "bitterness in the latter end"? And may not this wisdom, this good sense, be applied with far more purpose to the things that are unseen and eternal? Think of the "bitterness in the end" that must come of neglecting Christ, disregarding conscience, turning away from the Bible, the church, the Sabbath, grieving the Spirit, neglecting prayer! Will not many a foretaste of this bitterness visit you even while yet you are well, and all things are prospering with you? Will it not come on you with overpowering force while you lie on your death-bed? Will it not wrap your soul in indescribable anguish through all eternity?

Think then of this "bitterness in the latter end"! Now is the accepted time. In the deep consciousness of your weakness, let your prayer be that God would restrain you from the folly to which your hearts are so prone, that, by His Holy Spirit, He would work in you both to will and to do of His good pleasure.

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