2 Samuel 2-4
8th Sunday after Pentecost
When we see the way cleared for the will of God to be achieved, we usually expect that things will roll unimpeded in line with His sovereign guidance and at peak efficiency.
But that’s not always how things happen, right? Not only do we never have full knowledge of all that God’s will actually entails, we also never know how many competing agendas are at work at any given time—from godly people or ungodly, or even from those who understand the will and purpose of God a bit, but whose commitment to them, are mixed and inconsistent, faltering and frail. That’s most of us!
I remember being struck by the amazingly inefficient opening of Paul’s second missionary journey (Act.15-16). Talk about someone who knew the will of God for his life! The apostle Paul was saved by God on the Damascus Road in no small part to be sent as a gospel witness to the Gentiles. But his second missionary journey began with a sharp disagreement with his old partner, Barnabas, followed by an alliance with his new one, Silas. They headed north and predominantly west 6 … through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak a word in Asia. 7 And when they had come up to Mysia, they attempted to go to Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus didn’t allow them. 8 So, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas (Act.16:6-8), now more than 400 miles from where they started, and not yet having had a notable gospel encounter, apart from adding Timothy to the team in Lystra. And it was God Himself who’d been guiding them all along the way. His will and purpose are not always efficient!
I get an impression similar to this when I read the stories from 1 & 2 Samuel. By the time we arrive here at 2 Samuel 2, we’ve been waiting a long, long time for David to become king. Now, the final and largest single obstacle, Saul, has been removed, but still there are delays, and competing agendas, and layer upon layer of intrigue—just like in real life…, just like in our lives. Let’s walk through this story in summary fashion, then see if we can learn some things from it for today.
(2 Samuel 2 was read to the congregation immediately prior to this sermon.)
A Reminder of David’s Early Days as King in Israel – 2 Samuel 21-412
We’ve read that David went up to Hebron, in Judah (the same region where Abraham and Sarah had lived, and were buried [Gen.25:11-13]). And he was anointed king over the house of Judah (2:1-4a), tribal chief. He underscored his loyalty to Saul and clarified that he intended no retaliation or mistreatment of Saul’s family by blessing the men of Jabesh-gilead who buried him (2:4b-7). But even so, David didn’t rise to the throne over all Israel for another seven-and-a-half years! (2:11) Perhaps the last two of these years were the ones when Ish-bosheth, Saul’s son, was made king over much of the rest of Israel. Abner, the commander of Saul’s army, had seen to this (2:8-11), identifying him as the man of influence over the balance of the nation. It seems that Israel may have gone without a king for some five years following Saul’s death, suggesting that they were under the thumb of the Philistines during that time [Bergen 301] (cf. 1Sa.31:7). But when they were strong enough to install a king, Abner raised up Ish-bosheth, Saul’s son, proving himself an honorable man, not willing to seize the throne though clearly wielding the power.
Now, it’s not clear why 12 Abner… and the servants of Ish-bosheth… went out from Mahanaim to Gibeon. But it surely seems to have been perceived as some sort of aggressive move; why else wound 13 … Joab… and the servants of David (go) out and (meet) them there at the pool of Gibeon? But what Abner suggested (14) as they were sitting on opposite sides of the pool was more of a tournament than a battle (Baldwin 199). And it may have been aimed at discerning which administration was more suited to rule a unified Israel (Leithart 170). But whatever the motive or purpose, it turned deadly, with no clear outcome. 16 … Each caught his opponent by the head and thrust his sword in his opponent’s side, so they fell down together. …
As you might expect when a large number of soldiers witness an event like this, a fierce battle ensued that day (2:17). And Asahel, Joab’s brother, one of the three sons of Zeruiah (2:18), David’s sister (1Ch.2:16), made it his aim to take down Abner (2:19). But, as we read, it didn’t end well for Asahel. Ignoring warnings from Abner, it sounds like he ran full-force into the butt of (Abner’s) spear and died there (2:23). His brothers pursued Abner all the way to the unknown hill of Ammah where Abner finally talked them down and everyone went home (2:24-30). But 360 of Abner’s men died that day, and twenty of David’s (2:31-32)—bloody!
C.3 opens letting us know that 1 there was a long war between the house of Saul and the house of David. And David grew stronger and stronger while the house of Saul became weaker and weaker. That tells the big-picture story, but there were some key details that played into the final outcome. Now, all along here we must remember that we’ve known since David was young (1Sa.16) that he was God’s choice, God’s anointed by Samuel the prophet, to be Saul’s successor as king of Israel. But look at all that happened here! And look how long it took!
Apparently forgetting who he was talking to, Ish-bosheth accused aged and powerful Abner of (going) in to (his) father’s concubine, Rizpah (3:7). Now, if this happened—and I’m not sure it did—then it could’ve been seen as Abner laying claim to Saul’s throne himself. The reason I believe that’s not really what happened is that, if Abner had wanted to seize the throne he could’ve easily done so before, rather than raising up Ish-bosheth. He wouldn’t have needed to take the brazen, offensive route he’s accused of here. Plus, having been exposed here, why would he then go to David, has he does (3:12-21), and offer to unite the kingdom under his reign? No, I’ll grant that it is easy to get the wrong impression of Abner in these chapters, but I believe he was an honorable man.
And David believed so, too. Not only did he (send) Abner away… in peace (3:21, 22, and almost belabored point), and not only did Abner deliver on his promise to unify all Israel under David’s reign, but after Joab and Abishai (cf. 3:30) sent messengers… and… brought (Abner) back (3:26) and killed him for the blood of Asahel (their) brother (3:27), 28 …David… said, “I and my kingdom are forever guiltless before the Lord for the blood of Abner the son of Ner. Then he pronounced a curse on Joab and upon all his father’s house forever! (3:29) Finally, he led the (lament) for Abner, as he had for Jonathan and Saul (2:17-27). 333 … Should Abner die as a fool dies? 34 Your hands were not bound; your feet were not fettered; as one falls before the wicked you have fallen. That’s a clear assessment! 36 And all the people took notice of it, and it pleased them, as everything that the king did pleased all the people. 37 So all the people and all Israel understood that day that it had not been the king’s will to put to death Abner the son of Ner.
41 When Ish-bosheth, Saul’s son, heard that Abner had died at Hebron, his courage failed…. He knew Abner’s importance to the security of his reign! But he probably didn’t expect that a couple of his own captains, (brothers) again, would sneak into his bedroom (4:7) during his afternoon nap (4:5), (stab) him, again in the stomach (4:6, Asahel [2:23], Abner [3:27], now Ish-bosheth), cut off his head (4:7), and take it to David! (4:8) And I’m also sure those (brothers), Rechab and Baanah, didn’t expect the same response from David that the Amalekite got, who claimed he’d killed Saul (1:15); David had them executed (4:12), then took the head of Ish-bosheth and buried it in the tomb of Abner at Hebron (4:12).
What a messy story! And all this happened after Saul was out of the picture. We’d think the words we read at the start of c.5 would’ve appeared at the beginning of c.2. Look at them—the start of next week’s passage: 51 Then all the tribes of Israel came to David at Hebron and said, “Behold, we are your bone and flesh. 2 In times past, when Saul was king over us, it was you who led out and brought in Israel. And the Lord said to you, ‘You shall be shepherd of my people Israel, and you shall be prince over Israel.’” 3 So all the elders of Israel came to the king at Hebron, and King David made a covenant with them at Hebron before the Lord, and they anointed David king over Israel. Why in the world isn’t this the beginning of c.2, rather than that tournament that killed twenty-four young men, followed by the long war that that killed 380 on the first day, including a self-defense-slaying that led to a murder, then another murder, and a double execution? Why all of this when God’s will was known? Answer: David was the anointed of Yahweh, but Yahweh’s choice was mediated through the men of Judah and Israel (Leithart 166). The Lord works through human beings and that’s rarely an efficient process! His purpose(s) will be achieved in space and time, in real life. But we’ll also see abundant evidence of the sinful and competing wills of fallen human beings, because that is the stage on which the purpose of God is being achieved.
A Reminder of How God’s Will Unfolds in Real Time
This leads us on to point two this morning: a reminder of how God’s will unfolds in real time. It’s almost never efficient, even when we feel pretty confident we know where or how He’s leading. Some people, like Abner, who can seem to be working against God’s purpose, are actually shown in real time to be working for it. And others, like Joab and Abishai here, or like Rechab and Baanah, who can seem to be working for God’s purpose, are actually shown to be working against it. Competing wills and purposes happen all around us, and we just need to trust God in the midst of them and wait for Him to lead. He can do that. And He can do it clearly if we’ll wait for Him, like David did.
Clear, affirmative answers don’t always come right away in response to our completed Applications, for a school, or for a job. We don’t always know right away, and confidently whether we should start a relationship here or end one there. We don’t always know whether we should stay in IL or move to NY. And persuasive cases can be made for each option on any given day.
When God’s leading or enabling are needed, when you’re seeking them, trust that He’s able to answer you! And wait for Him to do so! And while you’re waiting, remember three things:
1) Human inefficiencies are not necessarily incompatible with God’s purpose being fulfilled.
2) Personal agendas (and power brokers) are not necessarily impedances to God’s purpose being fulfilled.
3) Intermediate steps are not necessarily interruptions of God’s purpose being fulfilled.
Hold on to Him in these times. Keep seeking Him. Trust Him. Hope in Him. Keep talking to His people, seeking wise counsel from those who know Him, and love Him, and know and love you. And wait for Him to lead (Psa.27:14). Don’t think that just because your greatest obstacle has been removed, like Saul for David, that means it’s time for you to take the wheel. Seek Him still, just like David did—Lord, shall I go up into the cities of Judah? To which shall I go up? Notice: Where do you want me to go? Not: Is it now my time to be king? God is in control of David’s life. And David is good with that. God had David anointed to be king when he was still young. But David, exhibiting that God-enabled humility and patience he expressed so vividly in Psalm 131, only asks: Do You want me to go home now? Psa.131 says: 1 O Lord, my heart is not lifted up; my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me. 2 But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me. 3 O Israel, hope in the Lord from this time forth and forevermore.
When we’re trusting God, waiting on God, like this, we never need to worry about whether we’ve missed an opportunity. And we won’t be inclined to force open a door that is better left closed, or to allow someone else to do it for us. Rather, we’ll say with David in Psalm 3114 I trust in you, O Lord; I say, “You are my God.” 15 My times are in your hand…. And we’ll know that’s also true for us—for our time and our eternity! We’ve seen that confidence here with David, when the throne of Israel was at stake. We’ve heard of that confidence from the Apostle Paul as he bore gospel witness to the intellectuals in Athens: The god unknown to them actually made the world and everything in it (Act.17:24). Act.1726 And he made from one man every nation of mankind (esv)… and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live (niv). So, our times are also in His hand! And not just our times, but our eternity, for the Father knows the very day and hour when our times here will come to an end (Mat.24:36).
So, when we see inefficiencies in the work of God among us, when we see competing wills and purposes that seem to prevail, whether in the big picture of what God is doing world-wide or in our nation, or whether in the smaller picture of our lives, our families, our careers, our Church, don’t fear, don’t fret, don’t scheme, don’t quit, don’t leave, don’t even complain, or argue, or accuse, or grow bitter. Rather, remember David! Rest in the Lord as he did. Trust the Lord to accomplish His will. Call out to Him for guidance regarding your part in it. But remember that (our) times are in (His) hand, (your) times are in (His) hand, and you need not occupy (yourself) with things to great or too marvelous for (you) (Psa.131:1). Remember that when you make certain assertions about (our) times, or about (your) times: there is really no way to be certain that your assertions are really true—when you say things like: This isn’t a good time for me, or I believe it’s time to move on, or It’s time for a change. These statements, or ones like them, may be true. But they may also just be an acceptable means of escape that we tend to use right at the toughest moments when the will and purpose and providence of God might actually shine forth most brightly, most boldly, most spectacularly, or even most miraculously, because He has purposed to work in us and through us best at the times we we’re feeling weakest, most incapable, most unworthy, most anxious, or most out-of-control, most over-our-head. Remember, Paul was dealing with his nagging thorn in the flesh when he heard the Lord say to him, 2Co.129 … My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in your weakness. And Paul’s response was: 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses…. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
And there, finally, is our greatest Example: great David’s greater Son, Jesus! He shows us more clearly than any the beautiful patience of waiting on God, and following closely. He did only what His Father commanded, just as He said again and again during His ministry on earth. How efficient is it for the second Person of the Trinity to be born as a baby, grow up in a Galilean household, preach and teach the gospel for three-plus years—knowing it was a lost cause apart from divine intervention—and then surrender Himself to death in order to secure eternal life for hopeless ones, who are saved only by God’s sovereign grace?
God’s plan could have been so much more efficient—just wipe out this world in judgment and create a new, sinless one. But, no, He purposed rather to show us His loving, redeeming, gracious and merciful glory in real-life, real-time—in the inefficient and complicated grind of day in and day out life in this fallen world. And when we receive His Son by faith, He will indeed lead us along through this troubled life toward our certain future with Him in His new heaven and new earth.