The Lord’s ways are undeniably mysterious. Even so, they are sure, and He accomplishes all He sets out to do. As King Saul’s dynasty waned, Abner, once David’s enemy, negotiated and consulted to shift his allegiance to the rising king. Behind it all, though, God continued to work out His plan through imperfect people in less-than-ideal circumstances. Alistair Begg examines 2 Samuel 3, pointing out that David’s grace toward this unsavory character prefigures the peace offered to us through Christ Jesus.
Sermon Transcript: Print
I invite you to turn with me to 2 Samuel and to chapter 3. My plan this morning, at least, as I set out in the day, was that we would get all the way to verse 21. Those of you who were present this morning know that that was a goal that I was unable to meet, and so we’re going to continue from verse 12 tonight. But in order that we have a sense of the context—at least the preceding context—we’ll read the 21 verses again. At least I will, as you follow along. So:
“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.
“And sons were born to David at Hebron: his firstborn was Amnon, of Ahinoam of Jezreel; and his second, Chileab, of Abigail the widow of Nabal of Carmel; and the third, Absalom the son of Maacah the daughter of Talmai king of Geshur; and the fourth, Adonijah the son of Haggith; and the fifth, Shephatiah the son of Abital; and the sixth, Ithream, of Eglah, David’s wife. These were born to David in Hebron.
“While there was war between the house of Saul and the house of David, Abner was making himself strong in the house of Saul. Now Saul had a concubine whose name was Rizpah, the daughter of Aiah. And Ish-bosheth said to Abner, ‘Why have you gone in to my father’s concubine?’ Then Abner was very angry over the words of Ish-bosheth and said, ‘Am I a dog’s head of Judah? To this day I keep showing steadfast love to the house of Saul your father, to his brothers, and to his friends, and have not given you into the hand of David. And yet you charge me today with a fault concerning a woman. God do so to Abner and more also, if I do not accomplish for David what the Lord has sworn to him, to transfer the kingdom from the house of Saul and set up the throne of David over Israel and over Judah, from Dan to Beersheba.’ And Ish-bosheth could not answer Abner another word, because he feared him.
“And Abner sent messengers to David on his behalf, saying, ‘To whom does the land belong? Make your covenant with me, and behold, my hand shall be with you to bring over all Israel to you.’ And he said, ‘Good; I will make a covenant with you. But one thing I require of you; that is, you shall not see my face unless you first bring Michal, Saul’s daughter, when you come to see my face.’ Then David sent messengers to Ish-bosheth, Saul’s son, saying, ‘Give me my wife Michal, for whom I paid the bridal price of a hundred foreskins of the Philistines.’ And Ish-bosheth sent and took her from her husband Paltiel the son of Laish. But her husband went with her, weeping after her all the way to Bahurim. Then Abner said to him, ‘Go, return.’ And he returned.
“And Abner conferred with the elders of Israel, saying, ‘For some time past you have been seeking David as king over you. Now then bring it about, for the Lord has promised David, saying, “By the hand of my servant David I will save my people Israel from the hand of the Philistines, and from the hand of all their enemies.”’ Abner also spoke to Benjamin. And then Abner went to tell David at Hebron all that Israel and the whole house of Benjamin thought good to do.
“When Abner came with twenty men to David at Hebron, David made a feast for Abner and the men who were with him. And Abner said to David, ‘I will arise and go and will gather all Israel to my lord the king, that they may make a covenant with you, and that you may reign over all that your heart desires.’ So David sent Abner away, and he went in peace.”
Thanks be to God for his Word.
Father, as we turn once again to the Bible now, our humble cry is that you will speak to us through your Word, beyond the voice of a mere man, that we might have an encounter, a living encounter, with you, the author of this book, and that you will set forward your purposes in each of our lives in accordance with your truth. For we pray in Christ’s name. Amen.
Well, we resume essentially at the point where we departed in the morning hour. We saw that David had become strong, that he had become the father of a number of sons as a result of the wives that he took to himself, including one of the wives who was not even an Israelite herself. We then saw that as David was growing strong and the house of Saul was growing weak, that in that weak environment, this character Abner was growing very strong himself. And we sought to follow that line all the way through, and it wouldn’t be fair for those who were present this morning for me to work my way back through that.
What we did discover, though, was that Abner regarded himself essentially as a kingmaker, that he was the man of the moment, that he was the man who was able to make things happen. And the extent of his arrogance reaches to the point where he’s able to suggest that the key to accomplishing all that will mean for David to be established on the throne all the way, as you see in the text, “from Dan to Beersheba”—from the top, if you like, to the bottom of the kingdom—all of that may be owed to Abner himself.
Now, the thing that is important for us to recognize, or one of the aspects that is important, is that we should not imagine that Abner’s shift of allegiance—which he has announced, you will remember, in verses 6–11—his shift of allegiance is not on account of a theological discovery. His shift in allegiance has to do, if you like, with a political strategy. The Ish-bosheth plan, which he had begun to work—namely, setting him up as the king in the north and perhaps seeking to establish the rule throughout the entire area, including Judah—that has proved to be an unworkable plan. And so Abner sees possibilities in moving, as it were, to the other side of the fence. He is consumed with power and with position, and that is what matters to him. And the rather sad and sorry state of Ish-bosheth himself is there just in the sentence that concludes verse 11: “And Ish-bosheth could not answer Abner another word, because he feared him.” And you have this rather impotent character, his impotence being confirmed by his silence—a silence that is born of fear.
Now, it is at that point that Abner then begins his negotiations. And the negotiation—at least part one—is recorded for us beginning in verse 12, and we can follow it through to verse 16. You will notice that Abner does not immediately appear to David himself, but he sends messengers to David on his behalf. He was powerful, and he was able to order people around, as we’ve seen, and he is seeking to make things happen by taking the initiative.
And it’s an interesting opening gambit that he puts on the lips of these messengers. He sent the messengers to say, or to ask the question, “To whom does the land belong?” “To whom does the land belong?” And since he didn’t have the advantage of knowing the lyrics of Woody Guthrie’s famous folk song—in which case he would have been able to sing, “This land is your land, this land is my land”—since he was unaware of that, the question that he puts on the lips of the messengers is tantalizingly ambiguous. Is this, in a sense, a deference to David? Or is it, on his part, an attempt to actually say, “You know, if the land belongs to anyone in this equation, then it belongs to me”?
I think it is fair to assume that, because you will notice that he then goes on to say, “My hand shall be with you to bring over all Israel to you.” “I can make this happen,” he says. “I’m sending the messengers so that you might have a solid grasp of this. My hand shall be with you.” How proud. How dangerous a position. And how unlike David himself! David, as we said this morning, knew himself to be where he was as a result of the intervention of God. It wasn’t because he was the biggest, the tallest, the fittest, the finest. In fact, he’d been picked out essentially as the runt of the litter. He had come at the end of the line, when everyone else who stood forward as a possibility had been set aside by Samuel. And even when he goes against Goliath, he goes to say to Goliath, “This day the Lord will deliver you into my hand, and I will strike you down.”
That, you see, is the missing element in Abner. Abner immediately says, “My hand will do this for you.” David says, “It is the Lord’s hand that matters. And when the Lord exercises his prerogative, then it will be my humble privilege,” he essentially says, “to do for you, Goliath, what needs to be done—namely, to strike you down and use your own sword to cut off your head.” There’s not a modicum of arrogance in David in that statement. Because he’s going against a giant with five stones in his sling. And unless the hand of the Lord shows up for him, there’s no saying what’s going to happen to him. But now the messengers come from Abner. And he said, “If you would be happy with this, then we could establish a covenant together.”
Now, when you’re reading this, you’re expecting that David is going to say, “You’ve got to be kidding!” And here it is surprising to me: “And he said, ‘Good; I will make a covenant with you.’” But he makes a covenant on his own terms, so that although in the negotiations here the initiative has rested with Abner, very skillfully David, in accepting what he is suggesting, turns it around, at least in some measure, to put Abner now on the back foot by saying, “But I have a condition for this covenant being established.” And so, David now is the one to send messengers. And he has told the messengers that unless they bring to him, unless Abner himself brings his wife to them, Michal, then the whole deal is off.
And then, interestingly, we read that “David sent messengers to Ish-bosheth.” It’s kind of like he understands the protocol. He knows that Abner was a kingmaker. He knows that Abner really fancies his chances. He knows that Abner is pulling the strings behind Ish-bosheth. But Ish-bosheth is still Saul’s son, and Michal is Ish-bosheth’s sister. And so he sends his word “to Ish-bosheth, Saul’s son, saying, ‘Give me my wife Michal, for whom I paid the bridal price of a hundred foreskins of the Philistines.’”
You remember when we studied that evening, we said we often say to one another, “It would be wonderful if we had a video of these kind of things,” and yet when we came to this we said, “Thank goodness we don’t have a video of this kind of thing!” And you remember that David exceeded the expectations by a hundred percent on that occasion. And he very humbly here says, “I met the requirement”—but actually, he more than met the requirement—“and I would like my wife back.” That’s what he’s saying.
Now, let’s just go back. If you have your Bible open, let’s just go back and remind ourselves of what’s going on. Now, you can go back to chapter 18 of 1 Samuel. And you remember this interchange between Saul and David: “Here is my elder daughter Merab,” and then “David said to Saul, ‘Who am I, … who are my relatives, my father’s clan in Israel, that I should be son-in-law to the king?’” And then, “At [that] time when Merab, Saul’s daughter, should have been given to David, she was given to Adriel the Meholathite for a wife.” No explanation for this, but there’s a switch.
And then we read here in verse 20: “Now Saul’s daughter Michal loved David. And they told Saul, and the thing pleased him.” So, he’s the father, and he has his daughter. And the word comes that “there’s a fellow here, David, and he actually loves your daughter.” Well, every father wants to make sure that if he’s giving his daughter away, he’s going to give her away to someone who really, really loves her. And so it would appear that that’s the case. But no: “Saul thought, ‘Let me give her to him, that she may be a snare for him and that the hand of the Philistines may be against him.’”
Now, it’s important that we remind ourselves of this. “You shall now be my son-in-law,” and then he says to his servants,
“Speak to David in private and say, ‘Behold, the king has delight in you, and all his servants love you. Now then become the king’s son-in-law.’” And Saul’s servants spoke those words in the ears of David. And David said [again], “Does it seem to you a little thing to become the king’s son-in-law [and so on], since I am a poor man …?”
And you follow the story all the way down. You must read it for yourself. “But when Saul saw and knew that the Lord was with David, and that Michal, Saul’s daughter, loved him,” “Saul gave him his daughter Michal for a wife.” “For a wife.”
Now, here he says he would like Michal back. He already, remember, has married Ahinoam, he’s married Abigail, and he’s just added six others to the list. But he wants Michal back.
Now, the commentators all say this is clearly an attempt on his part to consolidate his kingdom. And it may well be the case. After all, she is Saul’s daughter. It was a dreadful embarrassment when Saul had removed her when he was out fighting on behalf of Saul. We remember, he had gone to fight on behalf of Saul, and Saul took her and gave her to Paltiel. That’s not a very nice thing to do! And that’s a hard thing to deal with. That’s humiliating. And now, after all this time has elapsed and he is about to ascend to the throne, he says, “And I’d like the daughter of Saul, please, back again.” And so they say you can see that it’s just consolidation. And that may be. But the romantic in me does not want to believe that that is all it is. And the romantic in you will not either.
I imagine David, you know, in this strange mechanism that works in my mind, that you can play songs, even though the songs weren’t there. But you know who the first lady of song was: Ella Fitzgerald. So I imagine him, and he’s playing in the background:
Do I love you, do I?
Doesn’t one and one make two?
Do I love you, do I?
Does July need a [day] of blue?
Would I miss you, would I,
If you ever should go away?
If the sun should desert the day,
What would life be?
Do I love you, do I?
Oh, my dear, it’s so easy to see
Don’t you know I do?
Don’t I show you I do,
Just as you love me?
“He who finds a wife finds what is good and receives favor from the Lord.” I refuse to accept the idea that this is simply a political move on the part of David, but rather that he would love to have her back. And he makes it a commitment on the part of Abner if there’s going to be any kind of covenant. But I think it’s fair to acknowledge that he is a shrewd character. And if he gets her back again, then it will make his move for the throne even stronger.
But then we’re forced to ask the question: Is David, then, simply doing what Saul did? Because what did he do? He used his daughter as a pawn in his political strategy. And now, if we remove the romance, David has descended to the same sorry spot, to be prepared to take this lady who loved him. You say, “Well, you’re gonna have to do better than that.” Well, I don’t have to justify my position. It’s merely an observation. But you will notice that later on, when we get further on, he actually responds to Michal in a very unhusbandly way, in a very bad way. And in just a sentence it says, “And Michal had no children all of her life.” So, it is complex. It is complex.
And what about our man here, Paltiel? Spare a thought for this character! How did this happen? Saul takes Michal away from David’s jurisdiction, and he gives her to Paltiel. What was Paltiel doing? Was he out working in the field? Was he having a coffee? And somebody came and rang the doorbell and said, “I’m here on behalf of Saul—you know, King Saul. This is his daughter Michal, and Saul would like you to have her.” Paltiel says, “Well, okay. That sounds like a deal to me.” And so they set off. Well, now he’s singing: “Would I miss you, would I, if ever you should go away?”
Look at this picture. Her husband went with her. Some big soldier comes to the house and says, “Hey, excuse me. Michal? We’re going over to Hebron.”
“Why, what do you mean?”
“Well, I’m taking you back to David.”
“Well, what about Paltiel?”
“Don’t you worry about Paltiel. He’ll take care of himself.”
And you view the picture as he goes down the street, walking, trailing behind, until eventually Abner—who’s obviously involved in this process, because he’s going to be the one who comes to David—and Abner says to him, “Go, return.” And he returned.
And all of this, my friends—all of this—set in motion by Saul’s fearful jealousy. Because he could not stand the fact that the people in the streets were singing the praise of David in a way that they did not sing his praise. And that jealousy consumed him to the point that he was prepared to turn his own daughter into a pawn and send her away in order that she might become a snare, first as a married person, as a snare, and then finally as a pawn in the moment.
Let’s not kid ourselves. We said this morning the story that we’re dealing with here is the story of God working out his plan in history through imperfect people and in circumstances that are less than ideal—through imperfect people and in less than ideal circumstances. Don’t kid yourself that decisions that you’ve made in your past that were bad decisions will not have ramifications for your family in the future. God forgives. God forgets. We don’t forget. And the implications are there. And so the justification for it is nowhere to be found. And the warning is everywhere to be heard.
You see, the fact that we’re able to look at this and say, “You know, God works in a mess,” is not in order that we might be able to say, “Oh, good! I’ll just get it as messy as I possibly can!”—along the lines of, you know, “Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound?” And Paul says, “God forbid! That would be ridiculous.” So God works in a mess, with imperfect people and in less-than-ideal circumstances. We say, “Well, good. Because my circumstances are less than ideal, and I am an imperfect person. And it’s okay, because I read 1 and 2 Samuel.” No, we’ve got it absolutely wrong. The fact that God works in this way is not to induce us to tolerate the chaos that we create in our own lives but is to recognize the grace of God in the midst of the chaos that has ensued in our lives.
And Paltiel, trudging down the street, is the picture of many a man whose wife, for whatever reason, has been taken from him, as if somehow or another it can all be cleared up in the court of law, it can all be ratified with a new covenant, it can all be changed. Spare a thought for Paltiel as he went behind her, weeping all the way to Bahurim.
You see, my friends, this is how we must read these stories. This is a real event in real time involving real people with real emotions.
Those are the negotiations, in 12–16.
And then, in 17–19, you have, essentially, the negotiations part two—or, if you like, the consultation that Abner then has with the elders.
Now, if we assume, incidentally, that Abner was accompanied by Michal when he met David face-to-face, which is coming up, then verses 17, 18, and 19 describe the work that he had to do in order to get things to the position where he was able to take Michal to meet David face-to-face. And he’s consummate in this, isn’t he? He’s quite remarkable, Mr. Make-It-Happen. Those of you who follow the negotiations as we move towards December with the European Union and Britain and Brexit and everything that goes along with it, you will see this man Michel Barnier, who represents the entire European Union in these negotiations, and all that goes on day by day and week by week, and the consummate skill of being able to consult in such a way and to negotiate in such a way and so on. Abner is very, very good.
And notice how good he is: “Abner conferred with the elders of Israel, saying…” Number one: “Now, listen, fellows. All along you have been looking for David to be your king, haven’t you?” So, he introduces the notion. And, of course, there is truth to that. The fact that they were now under the kingship of Ish-bosheth, that they had been serving with Saul, is set within a wider context where the word that was out into the streets concerned David. So he says, “I’m not here to introduce something new to you. I’m not here to give you a new idea. No, for some time you’ve been seeking David as your king. Now, I suggest to you,” he says, “that we bring it about. Because after all, this is the will of God.” You see how clever this is? “For the Lord has promised David, saying…” And then he quotes this.
Now, don’t you think somebody in the group would at least have put up their hand and said, “Excuse me? What about Ish-bosheth? Is anybody giving any thought… I mean, we got this guy here that… I mean, fifteen minutes ago, Abner, you were really big on Ish-bosheth. I mean, you were going to take him and see if you couldn’t take over Judah at the same time. What happened to Ish-bosheth?” You can imagine Abner saying, “Don’t you worry about Ish-bosheth. My name is Mr. Make-It-Happen. He’ll be fine. Don’t you worry.”
And so, with consummate ease, as someone who clearly has read The Art of the Deal, he manages to secure, through consultation, the preparation of these individuals for what is about to ensue. And with great skill, you will notice, it says, “And he also spoke to the whole house of Benjamin.” He “spoke to Benjamin,” verse 19. And you don’t need me to go back on that: “There was a man of Benjamin,” all the way back to 1 Samuel 9. Remember when we came to that, the excitement that at least I felt in it: “There was a man of Benjamin … and he had a son.” Dum-da-dum-dum-da! All the future that was before them. So, Benjamin is Saul’s tribe. So he says, “I’m gonna square it away with Benjamin as well, and then we’ll proceed.”
Now, one final point, and then we’ll be through. But notice, there is a lot of Abner in this. There is a lot of Abner in it, isn’t there? There’s not even a hint from his lips that he acknowledges his equivocation. And this is a certain kind of personality, who’s able to bluster their way through things, to bypass things. He invokes the will of God only as it suits him. Or as Dale Ralph Davis says in just a sentence, “Abner only quotes Scripture when it supports a pro-Abner move.” That’s good. That really drives it home, doesn’t it? So with all of his ducks in a row, he heads to Hebron with a small company of twenty men who, as it will turn out, did not prove to be a very competent security detail.
Now we come, then, to this final section, where David made a feast and Abner made a promise. Verse 20: “When Abner came with twenty men to David at Hebron, David made a feast.”
David’s quite a remarkable character, isn’t he? First, that he would even be interested in this covenant. And incidentally, where’s Michal? She doesn’t even get a mention. Hm. So maybe he’s not the romantic I want him to be. And he “made a feast for Abner and [all] the men who were with him.” David, who wrote the poem of the one who “prepare[s] a table before me in the presence of my enemies,” now essentially does the same thing. He displays royal hospitality. And he displays hospitality for one who by any standard is undeserving.
And he then is on the receiving end of a generosity that is quite unparalleled. And you would think that perhaps, given such a generous expression of grace and kindness, if we might put it that way, he would have just sat quietly at the table for a wee while. But oh, no, no. No, no. No, he uses it as an opportunity to blow his trumpet again. He’s the kingmaker. Verse 21: “And Abner said to David, ‘I will arise and go and … gather all Israel to my lord the king, that they may make a covenant with you, and that you may reign over all that your heart desires.’” Sounds fantastic, doesn’t it?
Well, he’s gonna get his own comeuppance here in a moment or two—not this evening, but it will be there for us next Sunday, all being well. “I will go. I will gather. I will make it possible for you to be the king. I’m the kingmaker! I’m the sixteenth Earl of Warwick, you know, in the Wars of the Roses. I’m the one who was on this side with Lancaster and switched to this side to be with York. I was with Ish-bosheth ’cause it suited me, and I’m now with David because it suits me. And if you just let me go, I can take care of the whole thing for you.”
And then, just in a sentence: “So David sent Abner away.” I like that, actually, because I think, once again, although Abner thinks that he’s in the, you know, the driving seat… You know, he wants the covenant. On David’s terms, there will be a covenant. He says, “I’m gonna do this, and that, and the next thing.” And it doesn’t say, “So Abner left.” No, it says, “So David sent Abner away.” “Well, thank you very much, Abner. Why don’t you slip off?” But he doesn’t say it in unkindness, does he? Notice that he “sent Abner away, and he went in peace.”
And when we come back next time, if we’re spared to come back next time, we will discover that this shalom—this genuine shalom on the part of David towards this character, who is an unsavory character on his best day, actually—his shalom towards him is so magnanimous, it is so magnificent, that when Joab, his commander-in-chief, shows up and hears about it, he can’t believe that David would do this.
Isn’t that what people say? They say, “You mean to tell me that Jesus died for all my sins? That Jesus will speak peace into my life? The peace that comes through the shedding of his blood on the cross?” Yes! “But I can’t believe it. That shouldn’t happen. He should have took his head off instead of sending him away in peace.” But that’s what the king does. And if you squeeze your eyes together tightly enough, you will find that all of this is pointing to the King who is “gentle and lowly in heart” and in whom one will find rest, peace, shalom, for their souls.
“Just then the servants of David arrived with Joab.” I’m Alistair Begg, for Dateline.
The Lord’s ways—the Lord’s ways—are undeniably odd. But they’re sure. And he accomplishes all that he sets out to do. Nothing takes him by surprise. Nothing. Well, how wonderful is that?
You know, I was thinking this morning, actually, when I walked away, as we sang in the morning hour about, you know, “I cannot tell why he, whom angels worship, should set his love,” and then “I cannot tell how he will win the nations, how he will [win] his earthly heritage.” And you know, when you read this thing here, you say to yourself, “I don’t know how David is going to actually win the nation.” But he does. Because although God’s ways are undeniably odd, they are absolutely sure. He can be trusted with all of the mess, all of the details, all the disruption. And what a wonder it is that this very same God is able to restore even the years that have eaten into our lives like locusts. How magnificent is the gospel! And it is this gospel that we are to take as a whole church to the whole world. And tomorrow is the beginning of the rest of our lives.
So, let us pause to pray, and then stand to sing:
Lord our God and King, we thank you for the story that we read here that points us unrelentingly to the Lord Jesus Christ, the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords. We thank you that he does not treat us in the way that we might anticipate, but his love is an amazing love. How deep your love, Father, for us, that you would give your Son. How good is this news. How unlike anything else in the whole world—not a story about “Clean yourself up and see if God will like you,” but “Come as you are, with all your righteous rags and all the stuff that’s a mess, and cast yourself unreservedly on his grace. And then, on your feet, and take this message to the world.”
Well, help us, Lord, in the time that we have, the time that you leave to us, however short or long, to recognize that the task is yet unfinished. And we pray in Christ’s name. Amen.
 Woody Guthrie, “This Land Is Your Land” (1945).
 See 1 Samuel 16:6–13.
 1 Samuel 17:46 (ESV).
 1 Samuel 18:17–19 (ESV).
 1 Samuel 18:21–23.
 1 Samuel 18:28, 27.
 See 1 Samuel 25:44.
 Cole Porter, “Do I Love You?” (1939).
 Proverbs 18:22 (NIV).
 2 Samuel 6:23 (paraphrased).
 Romans 6:1 (KJV).
 Romans 6:2 (paraphrased).
 1 Samuel 9:1–2 (ESV).
 Dale Ralph Davis, 2 Samuel: Out of Every Adversity (Fearn: Christian Focus, 1999), 37.
 Psalm 23:5 (ESV).
 Matthew 11:29 (ESV).
 2 Samuel 3:22 (ESV).
 William Young Fullerton, “I Cannot Tell Why He, Whom Angels Worship” (c. 1920).
 See Joel 2:25.
Copyright © 2022, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.