EVEN AFTER THE DEATH OF King Saul, David did not immediately become king of Israel. At first David is anointed king over Judah (2 Sam. 2:1–7), and only Judah: even Benjamin, which remained with Judah following the division between “Israel” and “Judah” after the death of Solomon, at this point was allied with the other tribes (2 Sam. 2:9).
Abner, the commander of what was left of Saul’s army, installed Ish-Bosheth, Saul’s surviving son, as king of Israel (2 Sam. 2:8–9). Skirmishes multiplied between David’s troops and those of Ish-Bosheth. Many battles in those days brought the opposing troops together in a fierce clash, followed by a running fight: one side ran away, and the other chased it. In one such clash, one of the three sons of Zeruiah—Asahel, from David’s forces—is killed by Abner (2 Sam. 2:17–23). The killing was “clean,” i.e., within the rules of warfare and not a murder. Nevertheless, this death precipitates some of the most important actions in 2 Samuel 3.
Bringing the different parts of the country together into united allegiance under David was a messy and sometimes ignoble business—a reminder that God sometimes uses the folly and evil of people to bring about his good purposes. Abner sleeps with one of Saul’s former concubines (2 Sam. 3:6–7). This was not only a breach of moral law, but in the symbolism of the time Abner was claiming the right of royalty for himself. It was a major insult and reproach to Ish-Bosheth. Thus Abner’s reasons for taking the eleven tribes over to David seem to have less to do with integrity and a desire to recognize God’s calling than out of frustration with Ish-Bosheth and some lust for power himself. Then Abner is murdered by Joab and his men (2 Sam. 3:22–27), Joab being one of Asahel’s brothers. But this really is murder, and a defiance of David’s safe-conduct.
How David handles this crisis reflects both his great strengths and one of his greatest weaknesses—strengths and weaknesses that will show up again. Politically, David is very astute. He distances himself utterly from Joab’s action, and insists that Joab and other leaders become part of the official mourning party of the slain Abner. “All the people took note and were pleased; indeed, everything the king did pleased them” (2 Sam. 3:36). On the other hand, David does not bring Joab to account, fobbing off his responsibility by protesting that “these sons of Zeruiah are too strong for me” (2 Sam. 3:39). In other words, he shirked his responsibility—as he would do later with his son Amnon (2 Sam. 13), the consequences of which triggered Absalom’s revolt and almost cost David his throne. It is never God’s way to abdicate biblically mandated responsibility.