2 Samuel 3:1–21 . . . Bible Study Summary with Videos and Questions
“Abner’s Defection and Political Cunning”
Chapters 1 through 5 trace the "road to dominion." David began his reign as king only over the tribe of Judah; it wasn't until seven years later that he was crowned king over all twelve tribes of Judah and Israel. The five chapters open with the death of Saul, a man of the flesh. When he died, David was free to be king over the land. At first he was king over only his own tribe, Judah. For seven years he dwelt in the city of Hebron. But while he was king only over Judah, there was a fierce struggle going on between the rights of David and the house of Saul. In other words, the flesh apparently needed to die hard because it wouldn’t give up its reign easily. A fierce battle ensued. In the end, the author informs us that David came to the place where he was acknowledged king over all twelve tribes. He'd then become free to assume his God-given royal prerogatives over the all of the land.
War Between the Houses of Saul and David (2 Samuel 3:1–5)
3 1The war between the house of Saul and the house of David lasted a long time. David grew stronger and stronger, while the house of Saul grew weaker and weaker (2 Samuel 3:1).
We begin the chapter's opening verse with the end in mind. From there, the writer unfolds the schemes and details of kingdom intrigue for us. There are birth announcements, power moves, peace agreements made and broken, deceptions, murders, people wanting the right thing but going about it the wrong way. And in the middle of the bloodthirsty ambition surrounding him, David was becoming a leader. While he's not without shame, we get to witness David’s growth as a man and king. Rather than take part in the foolish mischief of those who'd woo him toward calculated misdeeds to secure the throne, we see that David engaged in the practices of honor and justice, poetic lament, and respect. It's those things that honor his God and serve to build loyalty in his people; it's the right things, for the right reasons.
The first verse in this chapter summarizes last week's summary of 2 Sam. 2:8–32. The point of the remaining verses is that during the seven and one-half years that David ruled Judah, he grew stronger because God had continued to bless him. Verses 2–5 reveal that sons were born to David during his seven-year reign in Hebron; his six different wives gave birth to six sons. This shows that David was wrong to have had more than one wife. His having many wives went against God's command to kings (Deuteronomy 17:17) and against God's heart for marriage (Genesis 2:24 and Matthew 19:4–6). Adding many wives was one of the ways that great men — especially kings — expressed their power and status.
The site of Geshur (v. 3) was northeast of the Sea of Chinnereth (Galilee) and north of Jabesh, Gilead. The Israelites were to make no covenants with the inhabitants of the Promised Land Exodus 23:31–33; 34:11–12), which was where the king of Geshur lived. Perhaps if David had relied less on foreign alliances, which his marriage to the daughter of this king signals, he wouldn't have had to fight as many battles with his neighbors. Unfortunately he spent a large portion of his total kingly reign fighting battles (cf. 1 Chronicles 22:8).
God used and blessed David, despite his many wives. Yet his family life and the listed sons were obviously not blessed. Bible commentator John Trapp wrote this about David's wives and offspring: "By his six wives he had but only six sons. Clearly, God was not pleased with David's polygamy." Here are the sons' less-than-God-honoring profiles:
i. Amnon raped his half-sister and was murdered by his half-brother.
ii. Kileab was also known as "Daniel" in 1 Chron. 3:1. The few mentions of this son indicate that perhaps he died young or that he was an ungodly, unworthy man.
iii. Absalom murdered his half-brother, Amnon, then led a civil war against his father David, attempting to murder him.
iv. Adonijah tried to seize the throne from David and David's appointed successor; then he tried to take one of David's concubines and was executed for his arrogance.
v. Shephatiah and Ithream, we can fairly assume, died young or were ungodly men, mentioned only once again in the Scriptures in a generic listing of David's sons (1 Chron. 3:1–4).
Impropriety on a Royal Level? (vv. 6–7)
The author introduces political drama into this chapter. Saul's son — the current king of Israel, Ish-Bosheth — has accused Abner of impropriety with a royal concubine (v. 7). We learn that Abner was strengthening his hold on the house of Saul, seemingly supporting a weak king like Ish-Bosheth so he himself could become the power behind the throne. As time went on, Abner increased his strength and influence on the house of Saul.
Abner was a hearty man in Israel; King Ish-Bosheth was simply a figurehead (v. 11). Abner's loyalty to the house of Saul is clear from his actions so far. However there was conflict between Ish-Bosheth and Abner. In the ancient Near East, a king's concubines were his means for raising up heirs if the queen might have been unable to bear children. Ish-Bosheth regarded Abner's act as a sign of disloyalty by trying to have an heir by a royal concubine who could have, according to custom, become king one day. We don't know whether this was Abner's plan or not. He implied denial of that motive but not the act. In any case, this incident resulted in Abner shifting his support from Ish-Bosheth to David. Perhaps it was the last straw for Abner, who'd recently suffered a devastating defeat by David's men, and who must have seen that he could never win.
Ish-Bosheth accused Abner of a serious crime when he asked him, "Why did you sleep with my father’s concubine?" Such an action was regarded not only as sexual immorality but as high treason. To take the wife or concubine of the late monarch was to appropriate his property while making a bid for the throne.
Abner Responds Harshly (vv. 8–11)
Abner was very angry because of what Ish-Bosheth said. So he answered, “Am I a dog’s head — on Judah’s side?" A dog's head" (v. 8) seems to mean a worthless dog. We aren't specifically told, but Abner's response suggests that the king's accusation was false. It's possible that, as the weak king was strengthening his hold on the house of Saul, Abner took the concubine as an expression of the king's imagined power and dominance. However, it's more likely that, because of Abner's increasing power, King Ish-Bosheth felt it necessary to invent this accusation to hopefully get rid of him.
Add to that, Abner's powerful retort in vv. 9–10: "May God deal with Abner, be it ever so severely, if I do not do for David what the Lord promised him on oath and transfer the kingdom from the house of Saul and establish David’s throne over Israel and Judah from Dan to Beersheba.” Abner told Ish-Bosheth that he'd now support David and help him fulfill what the LORD promised: to transfer the kingdom from the house of Saul and set up the throne of David. Abner did the right thing in joining David's side, but he did it for the wrong reason. Instead of joining David in response to Ish-Bosheth offending him personally, he should have joined David because he knew well that God had chosen David to be king.
Do you wonder why David wasn't anointed king of all Israel? Abner was the answer. As Saul's cousin and commander of the armed forces of Israel (2 Sam. 2:8–11), his actions could hardly be justified. He knew that God had designated David to become the next king of Israel; so did the people (3:8–10, 17–19). Abner was either attempting to avoid or delay David's reign in place of Saul (and his descendants), having installed Ish-Bosheth as King Saul's replacement. Few would argue the point with Abner, a man who was personally intimidating, not to mention that he had the armed forces under his authority. Who'd dare oppose Abner?
David didn't oppose either man, not because he was afraid of them or was unable to do so. He refused to oppose them out of principle, since Ish-Bosheth was a descendant of Saul. Abner seems to have been pursuing his own interests in appointing Ish-Bosheth king. Nevertheless, David granted the fact that Ish-Bosheth was the king. Thus, it was God who'd ultimately put that man in a kingly position of power and authority. David wouldn't resist the king, even to become king. Furthermore, he'd made a promise to Saul not to cut off his descendants and not to destroy the name of Saul's household. He wouldn't remove Ish-Bosheth because he had to keep his word to Saul. David was a man of principle, a man who'd wait seven more years to keep his word as he waited on the Lord.
“Let’s Make a Deal!” (vv. 12–21)
Abner, who'd just sworn in his anger to establish David on the throne, will now send a delegation to David to work out terms to transfer the kingdom to him. Abner has had enough of Ish-Bosheth!
12Then Abner sent messengers on his behalf to say to David, “Whose land is it? Make an agreement with me, and I will help you bring all Israel over to you.”
13“Good,” said David. “I will make an agreement with you. But I demand one thing of you: Do not come into my presence unless you bring Michal daughter of Saul when you come to see me.” 14Then David sent messengers to Ish-Bosheth, son of Saul, demanding, “Give me my wife Michal, whom I betrothed to myself for the price of a hundred Philistine foreskins” (2 Sam. 3:12–14).
David received Michal in marriage (1 Sam. 17:26–28), but Saul took her away to spite David. The fact that Michal was Saul's daughter was clearly part of the reason David requested her (v. 13). Reunion with her would have tied David in to Saul's house and made him more acceptable to the northern tribes. By making her his queen, he'd divide the loyalties of citizens in the north, thereby enabling David to weaken his opponent without killing a single Israelite soldier and without causing anyone's resentment.
It was contrary to God's will for David to remarry Michal (Deut. 24:1–4). However, God graciously blessed David, in spite of his disobedience (vv. 2–5, 12–16), but this sin undoubtedly weakened David.
Why did David demand this of Abner (v. 14): "Give me my wife, Michal"? Did he really need another wife? He insisted on retrieving Michal as his wife for a few possible reasons: (1) David insisted that Michal was his wife by both love and right, and that King Saul took her away as part of a deliberate strategy to attack and destroy David, so he wanted her back; (2) David wanted to show that he harbored no bitterness towards Saul's house; he'd demonstrate that through his good treatment of Saul's daughter; (3) David wanted to give himself a greater claim to Saul's throne as his son-in-law. [Note: However distressing it was to take Michal from her husband, Paltiel, who loved her most tenderly, it was prudent for him to strengthen his own interest in the kingdom as much as possible.]
Abner actively worked to negotiate peace. Now that both David and Ish-Bosheth were in agreement, Abner needed to convince the elders of Israel and the leaders of the tribe of Benjamin (Saul's tribe). A covenant was made: Abner's messengers made a proposal to David who agreed to receive Abner, so long as he'd bring Michal with him.
17Abner conferred with the elders of Israel and said, “For some time you have wanted to make David your king. 18Now do it! For the Lord promised David, ‘By my servant David I will rescue my people Israel from the hand of the Philistines and from the hand of all their enemies’” (2 Sam. 3:17–18).
It's significant that the author starts v. 17 by saying, "Abner conferred with the elders of Israel." He'd lobbied with Israel's leading men, for David, on the basis that they'd previously favored him. Perhaps Abner and Ish-Bosheth had blocked their efforts. He also did so because David was the Lord's anointed king (v. 18). The Benjamites needed special courting since Saul was a Benjamite. It's possible, too, that Abner may have expected an appointment in David's administration for having made this recent effort.
Abner's "Now do it!" command was a natural following for one who surrenders to God's will. Because of what the Lord had promised of David (v. 18), and because it was so right to do, it had to be done "now." The fact that Abner — a general, not a Bible scholar — knew these prophecies and the fact that he could ask the leaders of Israel to consider them means that these prophecies about David were widely known. Sadly, they weren't widely obeyed: Most of Israel was lukewarm and unenthusiastic in their embrace of David as king.
With all the stakeholders in agreement to make David king, Abner traveled to Hebron to seal the agreement with David, face to face. As many covenant agreements are made with the breaking of bread, Abner and David's agreement was made during a feast. Abner and twenty of his men went to Hebron to meet with David who provided a feast for Abner and his men. Then Abner said to David, "Let me go at once and assemble all Israel for my lord the king, so that they may make a covenant with you, and that you may rule over all that your heart desires." Inviting David to "reign over all that your heart desires," Abner, the king-maker, wanted David's reign to be fully realized over God's people.
Choosing to provide a feast for Abner and his men, David was wise and generous towards a former adversary. A lesser man would have never forgiven Abner for leading an army against God's king. But David was a great, wise, and generous man. He then sent Abner away invoking their own peace treaty.
Intro Video: “The Second Book of Samuel”
† Watch this introductory video clip created by The Bible Project on bibleproject.com.
- Q. 1 If Abner had known all along that God promised to make David king (vv. 9, 18), why has he opposed him up until now?
- Q. 2 David experienced from Saul the pain of broken promises, yet trusted in God's promised kingdom. How trusting are you of others' promises?
- Q. 3 How trusting are you of God's promises?