Here is, I. A rivalship between two kings—David, whom God made king, and Ishbosheth, whom Abner made king. One would have thought, when Saul was slain, and all his sons that had sense and spirit enough to take the field with him, David would come to the throne without any opposition, since all Israel knew, not only how he had signalized himself, but how manifestly God had designated him to it; but such a spirit of contradiction is there, in the devices of men, to the counsels of God, that such a weak and silly thing as Ishbosheth, who was not thought fit to go with his father to the battle, shall yet be thought fit to succeed him in the government, rather than David shall come peaceably to it. Herein David’s kingdom was typical of the Messiah’s, against which the heathens rage and the rulers take counsel, Ps. 2:1, 2. 1. Abner was the person who set up Ishbosheth in competition with David, perhaps in his zeal for the lineal succession (since they must have a king like the nations, in this they must be like them, that the crown must descend from father to son), or rather in his affection to his own family and relations (for he was Saul’s uncle), and because he had no other way to secure to himself the post of honour he was in, as captain of the host. See how much mischief the pride and ambition of one man may be the occasion of. Ishbosheth would never have set up himself if Abner had not set him up, and made a tool of him to serve his own purposes. 2. Mahanaim, the place where he first made his claim, was on the other side Jordan, where it was thought David had the least interest, and being at a distance from his forces they might have time to strengthen themselves. But having set up his standard there, the unthinking people of all the tribes of Israel (that is, the generality of them) submitted to him (2 Sam. 2:9), and Judah only was entirely for David. This was a further trial of the faith of David in the promise of God, and of his patience, whether he could wait God’s time for the performance of that promise. 3. Some difficulty there is about the time of the continuance of this competition. David reigned about seven years over Judah only (2 Sam. 2:11), and yet (2 Sam. 2:10) Ishbosheth reigned over Israel but two years: before those two years, or after, or both, it was in general for the house of Saul (2 Sam. 3:6), and not any particular person of that house, that Abner declared. Or these two years he reigned before the war broke out (2 Sam. 2:12), which continued long, even the remaining five years, 2 Sam. 3:1.
II. An encounter between their two armies.
1. It does not appear that either side brought their whole force into the field, for the slaughter was but small, 2 Sam. 2:30. We may wonder, (1.) That the men of Judah did not appear and act more vigorously for David, to reduce all the nation into obedience to him; but, it is likely, David would not suffer them to act offensively, choosing rather to wait till the thing would do itself or rather till God would do it for him, without the effusion of Israelitish blood; for to him, as a type of Christ, that was very precious, Ps. 72:14. Even those that were his adversaries he looked upon as his subjects, and would treat them accordingly. (2.) That the men of Israel could in a manner stand neuter, and sit down tamely under Ishbosheth, for so many years, especially considering what characters many of the tribes displayed at this time (as we find, 1 Chron. 12:23): Wise men, mighty men, men of valour, expert in war, and not of double heart, and yet for seven years together, for aught that appears, most of them seemed indifferent in whose hand the public administration was. Divine Providence serves its own purposes by the stupidity of men at some times and the activity of the same persons at other times; they are unlike themselves, and yet the motions of Providence are uniform.
2. In this battle Abner was the aggressor. David sat still to see how the matter would fall, but the house of Saul, and Abner at the head of it, gave the challenge, and they went by the worst. Therefore go not forth hastily to strive, nor be forward to begin quarrels, lest thou know not what to do in the end thereof, Prov. 25:8. A fool’s lips and hands enter into contention.
3. The seat of the war was Gibeon. Abner chose it because it was in the lot of Benjamin, where Saul had the most friends; yet, since he offered battle, Joab, David’s general, would not decline it, but there joined issue with him, and met him by the pool of Gibeon, 2 Sam. 2:13. David’s cause, being built upon God’s promise, feared not the disadvantages of the ground. The pool between them gave both sides time to deliberate.
4. The engagement was at first proposed by Abner, and accepted by Joab, to be between twelve and twelve of a side. (1.) It should seem this trial of skill began in sport. Abner made the motion (2 Sam. 2:14): Let the young men arise and play before us, as gladiators. Perhaps Saul had used his men to these barbarous pastimes, like a tyrant indeed, and Abner had learnt of him to make a jest of wounds and death and divert himself with the scenes of blood and horror. He meant, “Let them fight before us,” when he said, “Let them play before us.” Fools thus make a mock at sin. but he is unworthy the name of a man that can be thus prodigal of human blood, that can thus throw about firebrands, arrows, and death, and say, Amos not I in sport? Prov. 26:18, 19. Joab, having been bred up under David, had so much wisdom as not to make such a proposal, yet had not resolution enough to resist and gainsay it when another made it; for he stood upon a point of honour, and thought it a blemish to his reputation to refuse a challenge, and therefore said, Let them arise; not that he was fond of the sport, or expected that the duels would be decisive, but he would not be hectored by his antagonist. How many precious lives have thus been sacrificed to the caprices of proud men! Twelve of each side were accordingly called out as champions to enter the lists, a double jury of life and death, not of others’, but their own; and the champions on Abner’s side seem to have been most forward, for they took the field first (2 Sam. 2:15), having perhaps been bred up in a foolish ambition thus to serve the humour of their commander-in-chief. But, (2.) However it began, it ended in blood (2 Sam. 2:16): They thrust every man his sword into his fellow’s side (spurred on by honour, not by enmity); so they fell down together, that is, all the twenty-four were slain, such an equal match were they for one another, and so resolute, that neither side would either beg or give quarter; they did as it were by agreement (says Josephus) dispatch one another with mutual wounds. Those that strike at other men’s lives often throw away their own and death only conquers and rides in triumph. The wonderful obstinacy of both sides was remembered in the name given to the place: Helkath-hazzurim—the field of rocky men, men that were not only strong in body, but of firm and unshaken constancy, that stirred not at the sight of death. Yet the stout-hearted were spoiled, and slept their sleep, Ps. 76:5. Poor honour for men to purchase at so vast an expense! Those that lose their lives for Christ shall find them.
5. The whole army at length engaged, and Abner’s forces were routed, 2 Sam. 2:17. The former was a drawn battle, in which all were killed on both sides, and therefore they must put it upon another trial, in which (as it often happens) those that gave the challenge went away with loss. David had God on his side; his side therefore was victorious.