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Matthew Henry's Commentary – Verses 22–39
Verses 22–39

We have here an account of the murder of Abner by Joab, and David’s deep resentment of it.

I. Joab very insolently fell foul upon David for treating with Abner. He happened to be abroad upon service when Abner was with David, pursuing a troop, either of Philistines or of Saul’s party; but, upon his return, he was informed that Abner was just gone (2 Sam. 3:22, 23), and that a great many kind things had passed between David and him. He had all the reason in the world to be satisfied of David’s prudence and to acquiesce in the measures he took, knowing him to be a wise and good man himself and under a divine conduct in all his affairs; and yet, as if he had the same sway in David’s cause that Abner had in Ish-bosheth’s, he chides David, and reproaches him to his face as impolitic (2 Sam. 3:24, 25): What hast thou done? As if David were accountable to him for what he did: “Why hast thou sent him away, when thou mightest have made him a prisoner? He came as a spy, and will certainly betray thee.” I know not whether to wonder more that Joab had impudence enough to give such an affront to his prince or that David had patience enough to take it. He does, in effect, call David a fool when he tells him he knew Abner came to deceive him and yet he trusted him. We find no answer that David gave him, not because he feared him, as Ish-bosheth did Abner (2 Sam. 3:11), but because he despised him, or because Joab had not so much good manners as to stay for an answer.

II. He very treacherously sent for Abner back, and, under colour of a private conference with him, barbarously killed him with his own hand. That he made use of David’s name, under pretence of giving him some further instructions, is intimated in that, but David knew it not, 2 Sam. 3:26. Abner, designing no harm, feared none, but very innocently returned to Hebron, and, when he found Joab waiting for him at the gate, turned aside with him to speak with him privately, forgetting what he himself had said when he slew Asahel, How shall I hold up my face to Joab thy brother? (2 Sam. 2:22), and there Joab murdered him (2 Sam. 3:27), and it is intimated (2 Sam. 3:30) that Abishai was privy to the design, and was aiding and abetting, and would have come in to his brother’s assistance if there had been occasion; he is therefore charged as an accessary: Joab and Abishai slew Abner, though perhaps he only knew it who is privy to the thoughts and intents of men’s hearts. Now in this, 1. It is certain that the Lord was righteous. Abner had maliciously, and against the convictions of his conscience, opposed David. He had now basely deserted Ish-bosheth, and betrayed him, under pretence of regard to God and Israel, but really from a principle of pride, and revenge, and impatience of control. God will not therefore use so bad a man, though David might, in so good a work as the uniting of Israel. Judgments are prepared for such scorners as Abner was. But, 2. It is as certain that Joab was unrighteous, and, in what he did, did wickedly. David was a man after God’s own heart, but could not have those about him, no, not in places of the greatest trust, after his own heart. Many a good prince, and a good master, has been forced to employ bad men. (1.) Even the pretence for doing this was very unjust. Abner had indeed slain his brother Asahel, and Joab and Abishai pretended herein to be the avengers of his blood (2 Sam. 3:27, 30); but Abner slew Asahel in an open war, wherein Abner indeed had given the challenge, but Joab himself had accepted it and had slain many of Abner’s friends. He did it likewise in his own defence, and not till he had given him fair warning (which he would not take), and he did it with reluctancy; but Joab here shed the blood of war in peace, 1 Kgs. 2:5. (2.) That which we have reason to think was at the bottom of Joab’s enmity to Abner made it much worse. Joab was now general of David’s forces; but, if Abner should come into his interest, he would possibly be preferred before him, being a senior officer, and more experienced in the art of war. This Joab was jealous of, and could better bear the guilt of blood than the thoughts of a rival. (3.) He did it treacherously, and under pretence of speaking peaceably to him, Deut. 27:24. Had he challenged him, he would have done like a soldier; but to assassinate him was done villainously and like a coward. His words were softer than oil, yet were they drawn swords, Ps. 55:21. T 347c hus he basely slew Amasa, 2 Sam. 20:9. (4.) The doing of it was a great affront and injury to David, who was now in treaty with Abner, as Joab knew. Abner was now actually in his master’s service, so that, through his side, he struck at David himself. (5.) It was a great aggravation of the murder that he did it in the gate, openly and avowedly, as one that was not ashamed, nor could blush. The gate was the place of judgment and the place of concourse, to that he did it in defiance of justice, both the just sentence of the magistrates and the just resentment of the crowd, as one that neither feared God nor regarded men, but thought himself above all control: and Hebron was a Levites’ city and a city of refuge.

III. David laid deeply to heart and in many ways expressed his detestation of this execrable villany.

1. He washed his hands from the guilt of Abner’s blood. Lest any should suspect that Joab had some secret intimation from David to do as he did (and the rather because he went so long unpunished), he here solemnly appeals to God concerning his innocency: I and my kingdom are guiltless (and my kingdom is so because I am so) before the Lord for ever, 2 Sam. 3:28. It is a comfort to be able to say, when any bad thing is done, that we had no hand in it. We have not shed this blood, Deut. 21:7. However we may be censured or suspected, our hearts shall not reproach us.

2. He entailed the curse for it upon Joab and his family (2 Sam. 3:29): “Let it rest on the head of Joab. Let the blood cry against him, and let divine vengeance follow him. Let the iniquity be visited upon his children and children’s children, in some hereditary disease or other. The longer the punishment is delayed, the longer let it last when it shall come. Let his posterity be stigmatized, blemished with an issue or a leprosy, which will shut them out from society; let them be beggars, or cripples, or come to some untimely end, that it may be said, He is one of Joab’s race.” This intimates that the guilt of blood brings a curse upon families; if men do not avenge it, God will, and will lay up the iniquity for the children. But methinks a resolute punishment of the murderer himself would better have become David than this passionate imprecation of God’s judgments upon his posterity.

3. He called upon all about him, even Joab himself, to lament the death of Abner (2 Sam. 3:31): Rend your clothes and mourn before Abner, that is, before the hearse of Abner, as Abraham is said to mourn before his dead (Gen. 23:2, 3), and he gives a reason why they should attend his funeral with sincere and solemn mourning (2 Sam. 3:38), because there is a prince and a great man fallen this day in Israel. His alliance to Saul, his place as general, his interest, and the great services he had formerly done, were enough to denominate him a prince and a great man. When he could not call him a saint or a good man, he said nothing of that, but what was true he gave him the praise of, though he had been his enemy, that he was a prince and a great man. “Such a man has fallen in Israel, and fallen this day, just when he was doing the best deed he ever did in his life, this day, when he was likely to be so serviceable to the public peace and welfare and could so ill be spared.” (1.) Let them all lament it. The humbling change death puts all men under is to be lamented, especially as affecting princes and great men. Alas! alas! (see Rev. 18:10) how mean, how little, are those made by death who made themselves the terror of the mighty in the land of the living! But we are especially obliged to lament the fall of useful men in the midst of their usefulness and when there is most need of them. A public loss must be every man’s grief, for every man shares in it. Thus David took care that honour should be done to the memory of a man of merit, to animate others. (2.) Let Joab, in a particular manner, lament it, which he has less heart but more reason to do than any of them. If he could be brought to do it sincerely, it would be an expression of repentance for his sin in slaying him. If he did it in show only, as it is likely he did, yet it was a sort of penance imposed upon him, and a present commutation of the punishment. If he do not as yet expiate the murder with his blood, let him do something towards it with tears. This, perhaps, Joab submitted to with no great reluctancy, now he had gained his point. Now that he is on the bier, no matter in what pomp he lies. Sit divus, modo non sit vivusLet him be canonized, so that he be but killed.

4. David himself followed the corpse as chief mourner, and made a funeral oration at the grave. He attended the bier (2 Sam. 3:31) and wept at the grave, 2 Sam. 3:32. Though Abner had been his enemy, and might possibly have proved no very firm friend, yet because he had been a man of bravery in the field, and might have done great service in the public counsels at this critical juncture, all former quarrels are forgotten and David is a true mourner for his fall. What he said over the grave fetched fresh floods of tears from the eyes of all that were present, when they thought they had already paid the debt in full (2 Sam. 3:33, 34): Died Abner as a fool dieth? (1.) He speaks as one vexed that Abner was fooled out of his life, that so great a man as he, so famed for conduct and courage, should be imposed upon by a colour of friendship, slain by surprise, and so die as a fool dies. The wisest and stoutest of men have no fence against treachery. To see Abner, who thought himself the main hinge on which the great affairs of Israel turned, so considerable as himself to be able to turn the scale of a trembling government, his head full of great projects and great prospects, to see him made a fool of by a base rival, and falling on a sudden a sacrifice to his ambition and jealousy—this stains the pride of all glory, and should put one out of conceit with worldly grandeur. Put not your trust in princes, Ps. 146:3, 4. And let us therefore make that sure which we cannot be fooled out of. A man may have his life, and all that is dear to him, taken from him, and not be able to prevent it with all his wisdom, care, and integrity; but there is that which no thief can break through to steal. See here how much more we are beholden to God’s providence than to our own prudence for the continuance of our lives and comforts. Were it not for the hold God has of the consciences of bad men, how soon would the weak and innocent become an easy prey to the strong and merciless and the wisest die as fools! Or, (2.) He speaks as one boasting that Abner did not fool himself out of his life: “Died Abner as a fool dies? No, he did not, not as a criminal, a traitor or felon, that forfeits his life into the hands of public justice; his hands were not pinioned, nor his feet fettered, as those of malefactors are: Abner falls not before just men, by a judicial sentence; but as a man, an innocent man, falleth before wicked men, thieves and robbers, so fellest thou.” Died Abner as Nabal died? so the LXX. reads it. Nabal died as he lived, like himself, like a sot; but Abner’s fate was such as might have been the fate of the wisest and best man in the world. Abner did not throw away his life as Asahel did, who wilfully ran upon the spear, after fair warning, but he was struck by surprise. Note, It is a sad thing to die like a fool, as those do that in any way shorten their own days, and much more those that make no provision for another world.

5. He fasted all that day, and would by no means be persuaded to eat any thing till night, 2 Sam. 3:35. It was then the custom of great mourners to refrain for the time from bodily refreshments, as 2 Sam. 1:12; 1 Sam. 31:13. How incongruous is it then to turn the house of mourning into a house of feasting! This respect which David paid to Abner was very pleasing to the people and satisfied them that he was not, in the least, accessory to the murder (2 Sam. 3:36, 37), of which he was solicitous to avoid the suspicion, lest Joab’s villany should make him odious, as that of Simeon and Levi did Jacob, Gen. 34:30. On this occasion it is said, Whatever the king did pleased all the people. This intimates, (1.) His good affection to them. He studied to please them in every thing and carefully avoided what might be disobliging. (2.) Their good opinion of him. They thought every thing he did well done. Such a mutual willingness to please, and easiness to be pleased, will make every relation comfortable.

6. He bewailed it that he could not with safety do justice on the murderers, 2 Sam. 3:30. He was weak, his kingdom was newly planted, and a little shake would overthrow it. Joab’s family had a great interest, were bold and daring, and to make them his enemies now might be of bad consequence. These sons of Zeruiah were too hard for him, too big for the law to take hold of; and therefore, though by man, by the magistrate, the blood of a murderer should be shed (Gen. 9:6), David bears the sword in vain, and contents himself, as a private person, to leave them to the judgment of God: The Lord shall reward the doer of evil according to his wickedness. Now this is a diminution, (1.) To David’s greatness. He is anointed king, and yet is kept in awe by his own subjects, and some of them are too hard for him. Who would be fond of power when a man may have the name of it, and must be accountable for it, and yet be hampered in the use of it? (2.) To David’s goodness. He ought to have done his duty, and trusted God with the issue. Fiat justitia, ruat coelumLet justice be done, though the heavens should fall asunder. If the law had had its course against Joab, perhaps the murder of Ishbosheth, Amnon, and others, would have been prevented. It was carnal policy and cruel pity that spared Joab. Righteousness supports the throne and will never shake it. Yet it was only a reprieve that David gave to Joab; on his death-bed he left it to Solomon (who could the better wield the sword of justice because he had no occasion to draw the sword of war) to avenge the blood of Abner. Evil pursues sinners, and will overtake them at last. David preferred Abner’s son Jaasiel, 1 Chron. 27:21.