November 15, 2020
For David, Abner’s death was a cause not for celebration but for mourning. In his grief, David paid tribute to Abner and led his funeral, while Joab, having murdered Abner out of revenge, was met with a curse rather than a commendation. Joab’s experience is a warning to us, says Alistair Begg, when we’re tempted to advance God’s kingdom in a manner that is incompatible with our gentle, humble King.
Well, we have been working our way—and I realize that suddenly our pace has slowed up. I haven’t done that deliberately. We just find ourselves in it. And I constantly find myself going back, and I encourage you to do the same and to make sure that we have our bearings. What is happening here as we come to just this, what, twenty-second verse, is it, of the third chapter? I’d already turned the page, so it’s not even there. No, it’s really from the twenty-eighth verse, isn’t it? From the twenty-eighth verse.
Well, we know this: Saul died. That’s how 2 Samuel has begun. Saul is dead. David is anointed. He’s no sooner anointed than he is immediately opposed, and Ish-bosheth is set up as king in the North, and Abner is his man. As a result of that, there is a war, which we’ve seen has been going on for some considerable time between the house of Saul and the house of David. The interference or the involvement of Abner in first of all convincing the elders of the North and then coming and speaking to David has created this opportunity for consolidation. And just when it would appear that everything was about to be streamlined towards a conclusion, we have come on this most dreadful and heinous act and this murder, so that the crucial moment was followed by, as we said this morning, a cruel murder. And I found myself just writing in my notes, “Hear the call of the kingdom: ‘Lift your eyes to the King!’” Because when we take our eyes away from the king and we look at some of the other characters involved and sadly see ourselves mirrored in them, then we can become dreadfully disconsolate.
So, from verse 28, I searched in vain for two other words that began with C and M, and I couldn’t do it at all. Maybe somebody will come up with one and I could use it on another occasion. But we had this crucial moment and this cruel murder, and then, from 28 to the end, the focus is on David, and particularly on this: he declares his innocence, he pronounces a curse, he leads the funeral, he pays tribute to Abner, and he explains his approach. That’s five points, and it’s 6:48, and there are boys here, and girls too. So, here we go. If I have to, I’ll come back to it again and do it in more detail.
But first of all, you will notice that upon news of the murder, he immediately declares his innocence. We’ve already been told in verse 26 that “David did not know about it.” He did not know about it. It is only afterward, when he learns about it, that he makes this declaration: “Guiltless before God, I and my kingdom forever.” And as we said this morning—and it bears only the briefest of repetitions—he had had many opportunities in order to take matters into his own hands, and he had chosen not to do so.
Abigail, who became his wife—remember, she was Nabal’s wife—Abigail had said to him, “You know, I know that it is the Lord who has restrained you and prevented you from doing what you did.” It is a wonderful indication, isn’t it, of the way in which God often intervenes to circumvent our own sinful desires? And many of the testimonies that we can give to the ongoing grace of God in our lives have to do not only with the wonder of his provision making things possible but the wonder of his intervention in restraining us from ourselves. And you will remember in one of the final encounters between Saul and David, David says to Saul, you know, “The Lord will reward righteousness and faithfulness.” And so, as we come to the end of this chapter, we see not only that David is righteous and he is faithful, but he is also gentle.
So, that is his declaration of innocence. And then that is immediately followed by the pronouncing of a curse. The pronouncing of a curse.
When you read this, it is quite horrifying, isn’t it? “May the blood of Abner,” he says, “come down on the head of Joab and all of his family, because they are the guilty ones.” And what David has been standing against all the way through this story is blood-guiltiness. He has said, “I will not take the blood of the king. I will not do this. It is wrong to do this.” And now he is confronted by this situation, and it is impossible for us to stand back, as it were, even at this distance, to miss the horror of what is actually being said.
You know, Abner was brought back to Hebron by the deceitful plan of Joab, and interestingly, Hebron was one of the cities of refuge that God established—a place of refuge, so that somebody who might be imposed upon or maybe on the wrong end of something would be able in that place of refuge to find security. And the horrific nature of this murder is that Joab didn’t even care about the fact that Hebron was a place of refuge, and he went ahead and did what he did.
Now, the details of this curse I don’t think we need to turn into twentieth-century language. If we were to turn it into twentieth-century language, it would be something along the lines of “And may his whole family get cancer,” and so on and so on. That’s the nature of what is being said. And the outworking of this we will see as we continue in the story.
I think it’s legitimate as well just to acknowledge that David is just David. Right? I mean, he is the anointed king of God, but he’s just a man. And therefore, he reacts as a man to this situation. So I don’t think we need to commend David for calling down this horrendous curse. We just need to acknowledge that he did, and that there was no justification for the murder of Abner, but that there is justification for the curse, albeit as dreadful as it is.
Now, once he has done that, we’re told in verse 30 by way of summary that “Joab and Abishai his brother killed Abner.” In other words, they were both in it together—Joab the one who put the dagger in, but that was probably just because he got to it first. And you will perhaps have remembered on a previous occasion when Abishai had said to David, “Why don’t you let me just drive a stake into this guy? And I’ll only have to do it once.” That’s the spirit of these characters. And that’s the reason why Abner was dead in Hebron.
Now, there’s a little paragraph break, isn’t there, in your text? And I think it’s helpful that it’s there, because it gives us pause for just a moment. And in my text, there is a heading: “David Mourns Abner.” In fact, the story that we’ve been considering both morning and evening is essentially that, in those two headings: “Joab Murders Abner” and “David Mourns Abner.” It’s quite a switch, isn’t it? Having called down a curse upon the family of Joab, he now leads the funeral celebrations: “David said to Joab and to all the people who were with him, ‘Tear your clothes and put on sackcloth.’”
Don’t let’s miss what that must have meant for Joab. Joab is responsible for the murder, and now David says, “I want you to be involved right up front in the funeral for the man you have murdered. Tear your clothes, put on sackcloth, and lead the way.” Can you imagine the humiliation for him as he joins in this funeral procession?
Now, what is happening, of course, is that all the people, as we see again and again—and the phrase “all the people” keeps coming—all the people were learning from this that Abner was not David’s enemy, and at the same time that Joab’s deed was not something that was done on behalf of David. It’s very straightforward, but it is important: that Abner was not the enemy of David and that the action of Joab was his own action and not attributable to the king.
David, you can see, takes his place: “David followed the bier.” I stumbled over that word this morning, because I think Americans pronounce it “the beer.” Do you? Do you pronounce b-i-e-r “beer”? Yeah. Well, why do you do that? It’s b-i-e-r, bi-er. How’d it come out as “beer”? That’s why I struggled with it this morning. I shouldn’t have mentioned it now. Sounds rude, doesn’t it? But I don’t mean it to be.
Anyway, you know what it was. He was following the corpse. He was following the corpse. And as Abner is buried, he lifts up his voice. We’ve seen this before, that David understands the tragedy of death and the significance of loss. And he could not be persuaded to interrupt his mourning, you will see, by having something to eat. No, he wanted to make it absolutely clear. And so, in a way that is briefer, obviously, than the lament for Saul, he has another of his poems.
And essentially, what this little lament says is this: Abner should not have died as he did. That’s the rhetorical question, really, isn’t it? “Should Abner die as a fool dies?” Like somebody who dies as a result of a couple of scoundrels that attack him in the middle of the night, a couple of hired assassins take him out. That shouldn’t have happened. “You weren’t a prisoner. Your hands weren’t bound. Your feet weren’t fettered. No! You fell as one falls before the wicked.” Now, the people would put two and two together, and they’d know exactly what David is saying. In other words, who are the wicked? Abner and Abishai. “You have fallen before the wicked.”
And once again, we read, verse , “And all the people wept again over him.” “Wept again over him.” Then they try to cheer him up, as I say. And he says, “No, I’m not gonna have a feast now. This is not the time for feasting. I’m not going to taste bread or anything else till the sun goes down.” And this had an impact on the people: “All the people took notice of it, and it pleased them, as everything that the king did pleased all the people.”
Now, again, the point that the narrator is making is straightforward. Any suspicion—any suspicion—that David might have been involved in Abner’s murder is laid to rest by his obvious goodness. You either have to assume that somehow or another he likes funerals and is able to create the impression that he’s mournful when he’s not, or you have to accept exactly what the text declares: that David actually, in this instance, was a good man. He was a good man.
Like Barnabas, remember, in Acts chapter 11: “for [Barnabas] was a good man.” I don’t think we ought to ever underestimate the impact of goodness. Surely, it’s part of the fruit of the Spirit, isn’t it? “All the people.” Verse 37: “All the people and all Israel.” So in other words, all the people that were there in that group. And then it spreads throughout all of Israel, so that they all “understood that day that it had not been the king’s will to put to death Abner the son of Ner.”
And then, penultimately, David pays tribute to Abner. In contemporary terms, he tweeted. This is a perfect size, I think, for a tweet. And I have never tweeted once in my life. I am a twit, but I haven’t tweeted. “And the king said to his servants, ‘Do you not know that a prince and a great man has fallen this day in Israel?’” In other words, what he does is he gives a brief, genuine expression that is meant for wide circulation so that everyone will know that this is not fake news—a brief expression of genuine sadness for wide distribution so that everyone in the kingdom will know. “Do you realize,” he says, “that today in Israel there has fallen a leader—a prince, a leader, and a great man?”
You see the stature of David in this? Now, we could say simply that greatness recognizes greatness. And I suppose that would be true. After all, Abner was a significant leader, as is David. But what we realize is that he is willing and able to recognize the positive attributes and qualities of one who publicly could be regarded as his enemy. But in his death and in the tragedy of it, he does not seize the opportunity to magnify the distance that existed between them. He doesn’t seize the opportunity to say, “You know, when Abner came to me with that plan,” and so on. He does none of that at all! He simply says, “You should know that a great leader has fallen today in Israel.”
Now, loved ones, that kind of magnanimity is seldom found in the leaders of our world. And when we find it, we pause before it. Last week, in Great Britain, Jonathan Sacks—Lord Sacks—was laid to rest. You say, “Well, I don’t know who he is or was.” Well, he was the Chief Rabbi in Britain. He was a rabbi. He was a Jewish man. And in his funeral, which was attended sparingly because of COVID, various statements were made, including this statement concerning the man who had fallen: “His … voice spoke to our greatest challenges with unfailing insight and boundless compassion. His wise counsel was sought and appreciated by those of all faiths and none, and he will be missed.” Now, the person who said that was a gentile, a professing Christian. He didn’t decide, “This is a good opportunity for us to explain the distinction between Judaism and Christianity.” That is understood. There is a time to be silent; there is a time to speak.
And David is a wonderful illustration to us here, as I say, of the kind of magnanimity that recognizes this. The closest we’ve come to it, I think, in terms of political leadership in our country is probably the ability of Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill to be friends with one another despite the fact that they stood on totally different ends of the political spectrum. Someone has written, “The power of David’s speech … is characteristic of a great political or military leader who is able to transcend competition or resistance and to acknowledge greatness, even if it happens not to be part of his own party.”
And the final observation is his statement of, if you like, his general disposition. Having acknowledged what has happened in the death of Abner, he says, “And I was gentle today, though anointed king.” And then he goes, “But the sons of Zeruiah, they’re a little too strong for my taste.” This is his point of distinction.
Now, some commentators say that what he’s saying here is “I was weak today,” suggesting that when he didn’t really take care of Joab when he had his outburst, it was a sign of weakness. Well, it’s there to be pondered, isn’t it? I think it’s better to see his statement as an expression of strength, if you like, under control—the strength that is necessary to prevent oneself from taking judgment into one’s own hands, expressing judgment, or doling out retribution, or making much of our own authority. Actually, he gives us a little sight of Jesus, insofar as he is committing, if you like, his cause to the one who judges justly. He’s committing vengeance into the hands of God.
Now, let me finish by suggesting to us that Joab actually stands as a warning to each of us—a warning to each of us when we’re tempted to engage in the King’s business in a manner that is incompatible with our gentle, humble King. Oh, it must have been a good feeling to stick that dagger right in the gut of the guy who had killed his brother! He must have come away from that and said, “That took care of it. If there’s any question about David being on the throne, I took care of it today.” You don’t advance the kingdom of God in such a fashion. And therefore, the warning remains.
It’s not uncommon, is it? So many of us, when we view the scene in the garden of Gethsemane, have to acknowledge that if we had been present, we would have cheered when Simon Peter pulled out his sword: “Hey, that’s it! Take him out, Peter! That’s it! We don’t want Jesus dying! We don’t want anything to be like that. We want it to be triumph. We want it to be the destruction of the Romans. We want it to be our place in our way with our stuff, all put together nicely. Good job, Simon!” And what did Jesus say? “Put it back in your sheath, Simon. And by the way, let me put this guy’s ear back on while I’m at it.” You can read it for homework in John 18.
Now, with that said, it is quite wonderful, isn’t it, to be able to go and to listen to the words of Peter when he then writes—the same Peter, Peter “the sword” Peter, the Peter the “You can count on me” Peter, the “I’ve got you covered, Jesus. These fellows may go down, but, you know, I’m your man. You can look for me.” That same Peter, when he writes in his letter: “Beloved, [loved ones,] I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul.” Really? Yeah! “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation. Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution…” “Don’t be taking your sword out and trying to chop people’s ears off the way I did it.” (That’s not in the text, I’m just filling in.) “… whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good”—or who ask you to wear a mask! “For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.” That’s Peter.
Isn’t that wonderful? Isn’t it wonderful that Jesus put Peter all back together again? I mean, what a deal that must have been when Peter comes on that scene and Jesus is making the breakfast. Jesus is making the breakfast! Peter said, “Goodness, I wouldn’t even help with washing the feet.” And so he says to him, “You know, Peter, we should just have a walk and talk. Do you love me?” “Yeah.” Three times, remember? Giving him the opportunity to flip the thing. Three times they said to him… And three times he said, “I don’t know the guy.” And do you remember what he said? “[Now] feed my sheep.”
How gentle is that King? How gentle is Jesus? How unbelievably phenomenal is it that when you and I sit down and survey our lives and view our failings, and our fallings, and our foolishness, and our rebellions, and our lack of trust—and we can go through the whole list—to remind ourselves that just as God in David’s day was at work through imperfect people and in less-than-ideal circumstances, so he’s at work in our day?
And the inference from that and the application of that… The wrong application is to say, “Yeah, well, he uses flawed people, and I’m gonna show everybody how flawed I am.” That’s the wrong approach. No. The flawed conduct that we see in the text and find displayed in our lives is not there in order to validate or to excuse our foolishness but to remind us of the setting in which the grace of God is so unbelievably palpable for us—to remind us that only by the grace of God does the kingdom of God advance. Because Jesus is the humble King. And most of us aren’t that humble. And therefore, we need to come to him and say, “Oh, lay me down again at your feet. Show me how much you value humility.”
Individually, familially, as a church, we will come out of this. How will we come out of it?
 1 Samuel 25:26 (paraphrased).
 1 Samuel 26:23 (paraphrased).
 1 Samuel 26:8 (paraphrased).
 Acts 11:24 (ESV).
 Charles, Prince of Wales (@ClarenceHouse), “A message from The Prince of Wales on the passing of Rabbi Lord Sacks,” Twitter, November 8, 2020, 5:20 a.m., https://twitter.com/ClarenceHouse/status/1325382692247105537.
 See Ecclesiastes 3:7.
 Walter Brueggemann, First and Second Samuel (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2012), 231.
 See 1 Peter 2:23.
 See John 18:10–11. See also Matthew 26:51–52; Mark 14:47; Luke 22:50–51.
 1 Peter 2:11–17 (ESV).
 See John 21:9–17.
 John 21:17 (ESV).
 Brenton Brown, “Humble King” (2008). Lyrics lightly altered.
Copyright © 2020, 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.