An Unstable Kingdom
2 SAMUEL 20
THERE IS INSTABILITY in all human organizations, institutions, communities, and nations. That is, the structures we create to support, protect, and enrich human life are not safe. They can collapse and cause much suffering. This is true of everything we build—from roads, bridges, and buildings to economic, legal, and administrative systems.
Ultimately this instability is a consequence of human sinfulness. Sometimes that is obvious. Human greed can cause the failure of an economic system despite the “sound” theory on which it was built. Human hatred can lead to violence and war, despite the best efforts of a body like the United Nations. Human hard-heartedness can allow the vulnerable to suffer unnecessarily, despite the hard work of charitable organizations or governments. Human carelessness can result in the collapse of a building despite the existence of building codes. It is not difficult to cite numerous contemporary examples of such things even in the so-called “stable democracies” in which many of us live. In many less secure parts of the world instability dominates life.
The Bible tells us that this is not how life is meant to be. God is stable. A little later in 2 Samuel we will hear David sing:
The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge,
my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold and my refuge, my saviour; you save me from violence. (22:2, 3)
David knew that God never collapses; he does not let us down or fail us. The hope of the world is the kingdom of God, in which God’s perfect will will be done. The Bible’s remarkable message is thal God has promised to establish his kingdom forever. The gospel of Jesus Christ is a call to come to the hope of that kingdom.
As we have been following the Bible’s account of the kingdom of David, 1,000 years before Jesus Christ, we have seen two aspects to David’s kingdom. On the one hand God chose David and made him king of his Old Testament people, Israel. God’s promise to establish his kingdom forever was clearly and explicitly made to David. The king in God’s promised kingdom would be a son of David (see 7:12-16). David’s own kingdom displayed something of the character of God’s promised kingdom. “David reigned over all Israel and did justice and righteousness for all his people” (8:15 at). At its best David’s kingdom was astonishing. It provided a glimpse of the promised kingdom of God.
On the other hand David’s kingdom was not the promised kingdom. David himself was deeply flawed (like all of us). His failings made his kingdom unstable. He was not wise, powerful, or good enough to establish a permanent kingdom of goodness, love, and justice. His kingdom eventually displayed the weakness of all human communities.
As we come to the end of the story of David’s kingdom in the books of Samuel (there is an important epilogue to the story in 2 Samuel 21—24, but 2 Samuel 20 concludes the account of David’s rise, fall, and restoration), we see this second aspect of his kingdom displayed. At the end of the story, what we see in David’s restored kingdom is:
(1) Rebellion again (vv. 1,2).
(2) Sadness confirmed (v. 3).
(3) The futile search for stability (vv. 4—22).
(4) An unstable kingdom (vv. 23-26).
Rebellion Again (vv. 1, 2)
Now there happened to be there a worthless man, whose name was Sheba, the son of Bichri, a Benjaminite. And he blew the trumpet and said, "We have no portion in David, and we have no inheritance in the son of Jesse; every man to his tents, O Israel!" (v. 1)
Despite the chapter division the scene has not shifted. A man from Saul’s own tribe of Benjamin (like Shimei, 19:16) was “there” (20:1), that is, in the vicinity of Gilgal where the dispute of 19:41-43 had taken place. He was “a worthless man” (v. 1). This vivid description (“man of belial”) has been applied to a number of characters in the books of Samuel. The Hebrew word belial is harsh and is associated with death, wickedness, and rebellion. Hannah had insisted that she was not a “daughter of belial” (1 Samuel 1:16). The sons of Eli definitely were “sons of belial” (1 Samuel 2:12). Certain “sons of belial” despised King Saul (1 Samuel 10:27). Nabal was another “son of belial” (1 Samuel 25:17, 25). Some of David’s own followers were “men of belial” (1 Samuel 30:22). Most recently Shimei had cursed David as “a man of belial” (16:7).
This man’s name was Sheba, and he was “the son of Bichri” (v. 1). This character is mentioned eight times in the Hebrew of 2 Samuel 20; each time he is called “Sheba the son of Bichri.” Bichri may have been the name of Sheba’s father or of a clan to which he belonged (suggested by the ESV in verse 14, “the Bichrites”).
This troublemaker attempted to lead the discontented people of Israel (the northern tribes) to secede from David. Absalom’s rebellion had sought to remove David as king. This was a call to the nation to withdraw from his sway.
The basis for Sheba’s call was the opposite of what the men of Israel had claimed in 19:43 (not to mention 5:1). “We have no portion in David” (20:1) means “we have no share in his kingdom.” The claim was that there was nothing in David’s kingdom for them. “We have no inheritance” (v. 1) elevates the protest, because “inheritance” is a word for God’s gift to Israel (specifically the land, see Deuteronomy 4:21,38) and also for Israel as God’s own people (Deuteronomy 4:20; 9:26).
Sheba’s message was that the people of Israel would not find that which was rightly theirs (as God’s gift) in connection with “the son of Jesse” (2 Samuel 20:1). As it had been on the lips of Saul, “son of Jesse” was a disparaging way of referring to David (1 Samuel 20:27, 30, 31; 22:7, 8, 13). Sheba was calling “Israel” to leave David (“every man to his tents,” 2 Samuel 20:1), effectively seceding from David’s kingdom.
Sheba’s call was heeded by those who heard it. “So all the men of Israel withdrew from David and followed Sheba the son of Bichri” (v. 2a). The people of Judah were galvanized by the departure of the northerners. “But the men of Judah followed their king steadfastly from the Jordan to Jerusalem” (v. 2b). They clung to their king as he at last returned to Jerusalem.
The fragility of David's kingdom is seen in the initial response to Sheba’s call. David returned to Jerusalem with only a small part of his kingdom intact. The situation was as in the early chapters of 2 Samuel, where only Judah acknowledged David's kingship and the potential for ongoing conflict with the north was ever present. David’s restored kingdom was far from stable.
Sadness Confirmed (v. 3)
David’s return to Jerusalem was not a happy occasion in other ways too. When he came to his house he discovered (if he had not heard previously) what Absalom had done to his ten concubines whom he had left in Jerusalem “to keep the house” (see 15:16; 16:21, 22). David knew that this terrible event had in fact been a consequence of his own wickedness (12:11, 12). The sadness of it all is deeply moving.
And David came to his house at Jerusalem. And the king took the ten concubines whom he had left to care for the house and put them in a house under guard and provided for them, but did not go in to them. So they were shut up until the day of their death, living as if in widowhood, (v. 3). We will not discuss again here the matter of David having concubines (see our discussions of 3:7; 5:13). David put these women, who had been violated by Absalom, “in a house under guard” (20:3). This was probably to protect them rather than to imprison them. David saw that they were adequately provided for. He did not, therefore, cast them out. He maintained his responsibility for their welfare. However, he had no further sexual relations with them. Was this David’s way of trying to distance himself from his earlier practice of having concubines? If so, we notice how sinful behavior (if we may so characterize the practice in the light of Deuteronomy 17:17) does harm, even in the undoing of it. The sadness of the last sentence of verse 3 is immense. These women were “shut up” (or “restricted”) for the rest of their lives, probably referring to their situation of “widowhood of one still living.”
These sad women represent something important about David’s kingdom now. It was a kingdom that suffered the consequences of sinful men. David himself was responsible for the sadness of these women. So was Absalom. David was not the kind of king who could wipe away their tears.
The Futile Search for Stability (vv. 4-22)
First Attempt: Amasa (vv. 4, 5)
We return to the problem of Sheba’s rebellion. David called his nephew Amasa, the man Absalom had appointed as overall commander of the army (17:25), whom David had promised to keep on in place of Joab (19:13). “Then the king said to Amasa, “Call the men of Judah together to me within three days, and be here yourself” (v. 4). David’s unstated intention was (as we will soon see) to take urgent military action against Sheba. Amasa obeyed David’s command, but did not manage to meet the timetable. “So Amasa went to summon Judah, but he delayed beyond the set time that had been appointed him” (v. 5). The reasons for Amasa’s delay are not important (he may have met resistance among the men of Judah, possibly because, as Absalom’s former commander they did not trust him or simply because the time frame was so short). The urgency of the task at hand forced David to seek an alternative.
Second Attempt: Abishai (vv. 6,7)
David did not turn to Joab, his other nephew, who (as far as we know) had not yet been formally replaced as overall commander of the army and in any case was presumably still the commander of his division (18:2). It is likely that the king’s relationship with Joab was frosty (since by now Joab had certainly heard of David’s intention to replace him in the top job, and David had surely heard about Joab’s role in Absalom’s death).
David chose to entrust the mission to Joab’s brother (therefore another nephew of David), Abishai.
And David said to Abishai, “Now Sheba the son of Bichri will do us more harm than Absalom. Take your lord’s servants and pursue him, lest he get himself to fortified cities and escape from us.” And there went out after him Joab’s men and the Cherethites and the Pelethites, and all the mighty men.
They went out from Jerusalem to pursue Sheba the son of Bichri. (vv. 6, 7)
Sheba’s rebellion was, in David’s mind, a sequel to Absalom’s. If successful, the permanent harm to David’s kingdom would be greater than that done by Absalom’s failed but nonetheless damaging uprising. The urgency of the mission for David had to do with reaching Sheba before he found a secure hiding place, under the protection of a well-fortified city. Abishai’s task was to “pursue him” (v. 6) to prevent such an escape, seeing the possibility of further trouble from Sheba in the future.
Abishai led out a force made up of the Cherethites and the Pelethites (see 8:18; 15:18) and “all the mighty men” (v. 7; see 10:7; 16:6; 17:8). The surprise is that the troops who went out with Abishai included a contingent called “Joab’s men” (v. 7). This would be the division under Joab’s command
(18:2). Why did “Joab’s men” go out with Abishai rather than “Abishai’s men”? And where was Joab himself?
In a moment we will see that Joab, true to character, had no intention of allowing himself to be sidelined, even by his king. Abishai went out as the king commanded, but it was Joab’s division that he took, and Joab was with them (as we will see). Abishai did not obstruct his brother, but seems to have allowed him, as was his way, to take the lead. It is a fair guess that the involvement of Joab and his men was Joab’s idea and unknown to David.
This substantial force, ostensibly under the command of Abishai, “went out from Jerusalem to pursue Sheba the son of Bichri” (v. 7).
The “Success” of Joab (vv. 8—22)
It soon becomes clear that the man in charge was in fact Joab. Joab, as always, had his own way of securing David’s kingdom. It was not David’s way. Joab had executed Abner when David wanted to make peace with him (3:26— 39). He had killed Absalom when David wanted his son spared (18:9-15). He had no patience with David’s grief over Absalom’s death (19:5, 6). Joab always wanted to secure David’s kingdom by means of muscle and sword. He knew no other way. He now did it again. Unknown to David, it was Joab who went out with Abishai and the troops to do more than find Sheba.
Joab Killed Amasa (vv. 8-13)
The men under Joab / Abishai’s command came to Gibeon, about five miles northwest of Jerusalem. Gibeon was the site of the early confrontation between the northern tribes who had made Ishbosheth their king and the servants of King David led by Joab (2:12-32). On that occasion initial attempts at diplomacy had led to a bloody battle in which Joab’s brother Asahel had been killed. It was a place with bitter memories, particularly for Joab.
“When they were at the great stone that is in Gibeon, Amasa came to meet them” (v. 8a). “The great stone” was probably a landmark well-known to the historian and his early readers, although it is no longer identifiable. The Hebrew does not suggest (as the English could) that Amasa deliberately came to “the great stone... in Gibeon” in order to meet with “them” (v. 8). Literally it simply says, “Amasa came before them.” We do not know whether the meeting was prearranged somehow or accidental or even a deliberate interception of one party by the other.
The crucial thing is who was there. For the first time the narrator tells us explicitly that Joab was there and provides an unusually detailed description of his uniform. “Now Joab was wearing a soldier’s garment, and over it was a belt with a sword in its sheath fastened on his thigh, and as he went forward it fell out” (v. 8b). The belt was a status symbol (see 2 Samuel 18:11; 1 Kings 2:5). Joab was present with “Joab’s men,” and he was in charge, he was armed, and he was dangerous. “As he went forward it fell out” (v. 8) probably refers to a swift movement by which Joab’s “sword” (probably a dagger) swiftly “fell” from its scabbard into Joab’s hand.
Joab pretended warm friendliness, even affection, toward his cousin. “And Joab said to Amasa, ‘Is it well with you, my brother?’ And Joab took Amasa by the beard with his right hand to kiss him” (v. 9). “Is it well... ?” represents the Hebrew word shalom (“peace”). We have heard this word before in connection with the work of Joab. It had been a key word leading up to Joab’s murder of Abner (3:21-23). David had used the word in his treacherous dealing with Uriah (11:7) that led to Uriah’s death at Joab’s hand. Once again Joab’s intentions were anything but “peace” for Amasa.
As Joab’s right hand feigned an expression of love, its real work was to distract Amasa from Joab’s other hand.
But Amasa did not observe the sword that was in Joab’s hand. So Joab struck him with it in the stomach and spilled his entrails to the ground without striking a second blow, and he died. (v. 10a)
Joab was an efficient killer. Abner (3:27), Uriah (11:16, 17), Absalom (18:14, 15), and now Amasa had been violently killed directly or indirectly by Joab’s hand. For the second time he had now taken out the commander of Israel’s army who had made “peace” with King David. This was not forgotten. In years to come David will instruct his son Solomon to ensure that “peace” is taken from Joab for these two acts (see 1 Kings 2:5, 6).
For the time being, however, the prospect of Joab’s being replaced by Amasa was averted. David’s sidelining of Joab was effectively frustrated. Joab was in charge again. The ruthlessness of Joab’s murder of Amasa is chilling. The pursuit of Sheba resumed (now clearly under Joab’s command) as if nothing had happened. “Then Joab and Abishai his brother pursued Sheba the son of Bichri” (v. 10b).
Actually it was not quite as simple as that. The brutal killing of Amasa stunned everyone. The king’s goodwill toward Amasa was no secret. His intention to replace Joab with Amasa had been announced (19:13). How would the troops, who were after all David’s men, react to Joab’s astonishing insubordination? One of Joab’s lads (on Joab’s instruction, no doubt) stood beside the bloody corpse of Amasa and declared that there was no conflict of loyalty. “And one of Joab’s young men took his stand by Amasa and said, ‘Whoever favours Joab, and whoever is for David, let him follow Joab’” (v. 11). To “favour” Joab is to be “for David" and vice versa. If you belong to David, you will “follow Joab.” By this audacious proclamation Joab was insisting that what he had done was in the service of David. That, no doubt, was his judgment. The king had been foolish to entrust the command of the army to Amasa “in place of Joab” (19:13). Joab knew better and had put things right. As always, no matter how much he departed from David’s will and David’s ways, Joab was sure that he was serving David and his kingdom.
This time it was not easy to persuade the troops. The sight of Amasa’s bleeding body stopped people in their tracks. “And Amasa lay wallowing in his blood in the highway. And anyone who came by, seeing him, stopped” (v. 12a). The solution was simple, if gruesome: “And when the man saw that all the people stopped, he carried Amasa out of the highway into the field and threw a garment over him” (v. 12b). That did the trick. The idea that following Joab was the same thing as following David was easier to believe when Amasa’s slaughtered body was out of sight. And so “when he was taken out of the highway, all the people went on after Joab to pursue Sheba the son of Bichri” (v. 13).
Joab Defeated Sheba (vv. 14-22a)
The scene shifts, and we follow Sheba, briefly filling in what had happened since verse 2a: “And Sheba passed through all the tribes of Israel to Abel of Beth-maacah, and all the Bichrites assembled and followed him in” (v. 14).
It seems that Sheba had not been highly successful. He had initially persuaded “all the men of Israel” to withdraw from David (v. 2a), but by the time he reached the city of Abel to the far north, only the family clan of this “son of Bichri” (“all the Bichrites”) was following him (v. 14).
Abel Beth-maacah was 100 miles or so north from the locations in the story so far (Gilgal, Jerusalem, and Gibeon) and twenty-five miles north of the Sea of Galilee. Sheba had taken himself as far as he could from King David’s reach. This was not, however, beyond the reach of the determined Joab, who was now firmly in charge of the pursuit. By some means they found out where Sheba was. “And all the men who were with Joab came and besieged him in Abel of Beth-maacah. They cast up a mound against the city, and it stood against the rampart, and they were battering the wall to throw it down” (v. 15).
Joab was once again doing things his way. He had experience with besieging cities (11:1; 12:26). If he had to destroy the city of Abel to remove the threat of Sheba (who by now was not much of a threat), then so be it. The power of the battering ram was Joab’s way.
However, things unfolded differently. Ironically it was a woman who, in effect, took charge. “Then a wise woman called from the city, ‘Listen! Listen! Tell Joab, “Come here, that I may speak to you’”” (v. 16). Earlier Joab had used a “wise woman” in his attempt to reconcile David to Absalom (see 14:2). Now another “wise woman” took the initiative to save her city from the destructive forces of Joab. The negotiation, probably from the top of the city wall, is described in unusual detail, and we are left in no doubt that the woman’s skills justified her reputation as “wise.”
The assault on the city paused as Joab responded to the woman’s call. “And he came near her, and the woman said, ‘Are you Joab?’ He answered, ‘I am.' Then she said to him, ‘Listen to the words of your servant.’ And he answered, I am listening’” (v. 17). She was careful and respectful (“your servant,” v. 17). Joab’s response is surprising. “I am listening” (v. 17) almost means “I am ready to obey you.”
The woman presented her case. First she pointed out the reputation of her city. “Then she said, ‘They used to say in former times, “Let them but ask counsel at Abel,” and so they settled a matter’”” (v. 18). The woman may have played a leading role in the counseling services for which Abel had long been famous. Was Joab aware of the high regard in which this city was held as he pounded the walls with his weapons?
Second, she went on, “I am one of those who are peaceable and faithful in Israel” (v. 19a). “I” is emphatic, but she was speaking (as the plurals suggest) as a representative of the inhabitants of the city. They were not troublemakers, but “peaceable and faithful.”
Third, in contrast, “You seek to destroy a city that is a mother in Israel” (v. 19b). “You” is emphatic. How could it be right for Joab, whose name means “the Lord is Father,” to bring death (as the Hebrew for “destroy” suggests) to a city who means so much to Israel that she is a “mother”?
Fourth, “Why will you swallow up the heritage of the Lord?” (v. 19c). “The heritage of the Lord” means the people of Israel as the Lord’s inalienable possession (see 1 Samuel 10:1; 26:19; 2 Samuel 21:3). Joab’s assault on this city, the woman implied, was an attack against the Lord himself.
The woman’s forthright speech found its mark. The powerful Joab was forced to back down from his assault on the city. “Joab answered, ‘Far be it from me, far be it, that I should swallow up or destroy!”’ (v. 20). This, of course, is the same Joab who had never hesitated to “swallow up or destroy” when that was what he considered necessary. Violence was a means he readily employed to accomplish his ends. His words sound hollow, especially as only moments earlier he had his forces battering the city wall to throw it down.
Remarkably, however, the wise woman’s words brought Joab to a more proportionate action. He continued, “That is not true [referring to the woman’s accusing words]. But a man of the hill country of Ephraim, called Sheba the son of Bichri, has lifted up his hand against King David. Give up him alone, and I will withdraw from the city” (v. 21a). Joab still saw himself as serving the interests of King David. The irony is palpable. If Sheba had “lifted up his hand against King David” (v. 21), what had Joab just done in slaughtering the man David had chosen to command his army?
To save her city the woman was pleased to satisfy Joab’s requirement. “And the woman said to Joab, ‘Behold, his head shall be thrown to you over the wall’” (v. 21).
She proved true to her word. “Then the woman went to all the people in her wisdom. And they cut off the head of Sheba the son of Bichri and threw it out to Joab” (v. 22a). It seems that we were right to suppose that she was a leader in the city. “Her wisdom”—that is her practical counsel for the situation—was accepted by “all the people,” who proceeded to arrange the beheading of the unfortunate Sheba and the delivery of his head to Joab (v. 22).
Joab Won (v. 22b)
Joab had prevailed. Again. By force of personality and arms he had taken control. All was well again, as far as Joab was concerned. “So he blew the trumpet, and they dispersed from the city, every man to his home. And Joab returned to Jerusalem to the king” (v. 22b).
I am not at all sure how pleased David would have been to see him. David’s kingdom was secure again, in a manner of speaking. It was secure on Joab’s terms, not David’s. Against the king’s will Absalom and Amasa were dead. Contrary to David’s declared intention, Joab was in command of the army. If David’s kingdom depended on Joab’s ways, how secure was it?
An Unstable Kingdom (vv. 23-26)
The chapter, and the account of the restoration of the kingdom, concludes with a list of office-bearers in David’s kingdom. The paragraph is very similar to 8:15-18. The differences, however, are striking. It is worth setting out the two paragraphs side by side to highlight these.
Notice three striking points of comparison. First, there is nothing corresponding to 8:15 in 2 Samuel 20. David was now struggling to reign over “all Israel,” but it was far from clear that “justice and equity” (or “justice and righteousness”) prevailed in David's kingdom. The words of 8:15 no longer described David’s kingdom.
Second, Joab was still over the army. That may have seemed right in 2 Samuel 8, but now it was a sign of the compromise of David’s kingdom. Joab was in command despite the intention of King David. Furthermore Joab’s power is emphasized with “the army” (8:16) expanded to “all the army of Israel” (20:23).
Third, David now had someone named Adoram (elsewhere called Adoni-ram) “in charge of the forced labour.” This was a new development, and hardly a positive one. “The forced labour” (v. 24) was some kind of slavery, probably working on building projects (cp. Deuteronomy 20:11). In due course forced labour included Israelites and contributed to the eventual division of the kingdom (see 1 Kings 4:6; 5:14; 12:4, 18).
Other differences between the two paragraphs are of less consequence. Sheva had replaced Seraiah as secretary (or were these two versions of the same name?). Abiathar is mentioned in the place where his son Ahimelech stood in 8:17. Both father and son seem to have served as priests. Corresponding to the perplexing reference to David’s sons as priests (8:18), we find that “Ira the Jairite was also David’s priest” (20:26). Ira was probably a descendant of Jair, the son of Manasseh, who took certain villages on the east side of the Jordan (Numbers 32:41; Deuteronomy 3:14; Joshua 13:30). He was not, therefore, a Levite. We know no more about his role as “David’s priest.”
The list of officials that in 2 Samuel 8 had been testimony to the order, justice, and righteousness of David’s kingdom is in 2 Samuel 20 merely a description of the externals that had been recovered. It was no longer the remarkable kingdom it had been. The consequences of David’s sin had undermined the goodness of his kingdom, and Joab’s brutal force could not retrieve it. David’s kingdom had become too like the kingdoms of this world, held together by the likes of Joab. This is a somber moment in Biblical history. David’s kingdom will, in fact, never recover until he comes whose right it is.
The hope of the world is the promise that God made to David. The gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ announces the day when “the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever” (Revelation 11:15). We who have come to Jesus Christ are “to receive a kingdom that cannot be shaken” (Hebrews 12:28). In this kingdom, to which we belong and for which we are waiting, there is no place for underhanded ways like the ways of Joab. This kingdom cannot be built by cunning, deceit, or brute force (see 2 Corinthians 4:2). Church politicians, take note! This kingdom is a matter of “righteousness and peace and joy” (Romans 14:17).