This morning we looked at the characters of Joab and Abner, ‘helping’ David to become king (see 2 Samuel 2 & 3). This story shows us much about how NOT to do things, since neither man was prepared to seek God and wait for His timing, learning to do things His way, and motivation counts for a lot in God’s eyes.

David is at this point in the story king of Judah. He has come a long way since being anointed king by Samuel in 1 Samuel 16 and has experienced the highs of victory (defeating the Philistine giant Goliath in 1 Samuel 17) and the lows of persecution (forced to flee from Saul’s jealousy and violence and live in the caves of En-Gedi and Adullam, even seeking refuge with the Philistines to save his life at one point.) Now he faces the challenge of putting into practice all he has learned in the wilderness. Will he continue to rely on God and do things God’s way or will he succumb to the temptations and pressures of living the world’s way?

Joab, his nephew, was, apparently, loyal to David and was a leader in the southern part of the kingdom, in Judah. Abner was the son of Ner and was the commander of Saul’s army (2 Sam 2:9), based in the northern part of the kingdom. Abner, loyal to Saul, had taken his son Ish-Bosheth and set him up as king of the northern tribes (2 Sam 2:8). There were thus two kings and two kingdoms and, predictably, as a result, there were divided loyalties. Not for nothing will Jesus later teach His disciples that “Any kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and a house divided against itself will fall.” (Luke 11:17)

The two clash in 2 Samuel 2:12-17, resulting in a battle where men are senselessly killed, including the death of Joab’s brother, Asahel, killed by Abner (2 Sam 3:23). Violence begets more violence and the seeds of future problems between Joab and Abner are sown here. In the next chapter (2 Sam 3), we see how Abner is offended by Ish-Bosheth, who questions him as to why he has slept with Saul’s concubine, and how he decides that David is the better bet to back. Effectively, he defects to David’s side. In terms of gaining a fierce strategist and an opportunistic schemer, David has definitely won. But if we analyse the characters of Joab and Abner a little more closely, we can see that there is little to rejoice over from God’s point of view.

Abner may use pious language to defend his decision to Ish-Bosheth and other leaders, invoking God as he does, but the clue to what motivates him is in the phrase “if I do not do for David what the Lord promised him on oath.” (2 Sam 3:9) Similarly, Joab’s fury at David’s forgiveness towards Abner, resulting in his murder of Abner, may be defended by him on strategic grounds, but the real motivation is given in 2 Samuel 3:27: “And there, to avenge the blood of his brother Asahel, Joab stabbed him in the stomach, and he died.” Selfish motives, personal pride, unforgiveness and resentment are often the real reasons behind our actions. As T.S. Eliot acknowledged in his play ‘Murder in the Cathedral’: ‘The last temptation is the greatest treason/ To do the right deed for the wrong reason.’

Both Joab and Abner believed that they were doing God’s will; they believed they were helping David to fulfil his kingly destiny. But we have to be aware that motivation counts for as much in God’s kingdom as action: the ends never justify the means. The means these two men employed were not God’s means, for God acts always out of love. The difference between Joab and Abner and David was not that David never sinned: we know assuredly that he did, for the Bible is nothing if not brutally honest! But David learned to wait on God; he had a spirit of forgiveness and knew how to cry to God for mercy. The psalms reveal David’s heart to us (Ps 27:14; Ps 37:1-6) and show us he has learned to trust God, the faithful one, to give him the desires of his heart.

The ways God wants us to learn include laying down our lives and our weapons in order to find victory. We cannot understand this with reason but need the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit to learn more about how death ultimately is the way to life (John 12:24-25, 1 Cor 2:14). Then we will have the courage to believe that waiting and trusting are not irrelevant lessons in our modern society and to learn daily to trust and wait on God.