But Abner the son of Ner, commander of Saul’s army, took Ish-bosheth the son of Saul and brought him over to Mahanaim, and he made him king over Gilead and the Ashurites and Jezreel and Ephraim and Benjamin and all Israel. Ish-bosheth, Saul’s son, was forty years old when he began to reign over Israel, and he reigned two years. But the house of Judah followed David. And the time that David was king in Hebron over the house of Judah was seven years and six months.
Abner the son of Ner, and the servants of Ish-bosheth the son of Saul, went out from Mahanaim to Gibeon. And Joab the son of Zeruiah and the servants of David went out and met them at the pool of Gibeon. And they sat down, the one on the one side of the pool, and the other on the other side of the pool. And Abner said to Joab, “Let the young men arise and compete before us.” And Joab said, “Let them arise.” Then they arose and passed over by number, twelve for Benjamin and Ish-bosheth the son of Saul, and twelve of the servants of David. And each caught his opponent by the head and thrust his sword in his opponent’s side, so they fell down together. Therefore that place was called Helkath-hazzurim, which is at Gibeon. And the battle was very fierce that day. And Abner and the men of Israel were beaten before the servants of David. – 2 Samuel 2:8-17 ESV
The fact that verse 8 starts with with the word “but” should tell us something. The is something about to happen that is going to stand in direct contrast to the events of the first seven verses. David had received a warm welcome from the people of Judah, but that was to be expected, since he was of the tribe of Judah. David knew he was going to have a more difficult time winning over the rest of the tribes of Israel and convincing them to make him their king. That’s part of the reason behind his overtures to the men of Jabesh-gilead, because they were of the tribe of Gad. The nation of Israel, while having been united under the leadership of Saul, was still little more than a loose confederation of 12 tribes. Their relationships with each other were typically fractious and contentious. Now, David was attempting to unite them under his leadership and sovereignty as king.
But that’s not the only “but” in these verses. There was yet another facing David’s quest to become the king of Israel. It seems that not all of Saul’s sons died with him on the battlefield. There was one name left out: Ish-bosheth. He was the youngest of Saul’s four sons and would have been about 40-years old when his father and brothers fell at the battle of Gilboa. His given name was Eshbaal,which provides us with an interesting insight into King Saul. Baal was a Canaanite deity. And the name Eshbaal means “man of Baal”. So Saul names his youngest son after a false god. Interestingly enough, the Jews would not repeat the name of this pagan idol, so they substituted the word, “boshesh”, which meant shame of confusion. So, Eshbaal became known as Ish-bosheth. And the son Jonathan, who will appear later on in the story, was known as Mephibosheth.
But back to Ish-bosheth. It seems that this one son of Saul either survived the battle at Gilboa or was not even present. And Abner, the commander of Saul’s armies, decided to use this sole surviving son as a tool to keep David from ascending to the throne. Keep in mind that Saul was of the tribe of Benjamin, as was Abner, his uncle. So it seems that Abner was attempting to keep the crown within the ranks of the Benjaminites.
So, Saul “appointed him king over Gilead, the Geshurites, Jezreel, Ephraim, Benjamin, and all Israel” (2 Samuel 2:9 ESV). This would have been way out of Abner’s area of responsibility as Saul’s former commander in chief. It was not up to him to choose and appoint the king. The Israelites were to be a theocracy, ruled over by God Almighty. It was up to Him to choose their king, just as He had chosen Saul. Abner did not have authority or permission from God to do what he did. But he didn’t let that small detail stand in his way.
Lest we think this was small matter that was of little or no significance, notice that Ish-bosheth was made king over Geshur. That was an area within the territory belonging to the tribe of Manasseh. Jezreel was in the land belonging to the tribe of Issachar. And then the text goes on to include the tribes of Ephraim, Benjamin and “all Israel”. So effectively, Abner crowned Ish-bosheth as king over all Israel, even countering David’s claim to be king over Judah. And we’re told that Ish-bosheth reigned for two years. This was no short-lived, flash-in-the-pan event. Once again, David found himself with serious opposition and facing another enemy from within his own nation. Saul was dead, but his son was alive and so was Abner. And Abner had probably never forgotten the little lecture David had given him at Gibeah, after David had snuck into their camp and taken Saul’s spear and water jug as he slept.
“Well, Abner, you’re a great man, aren’t you?” David taunted. “Where in all Israel is there anyone as mighty? So why haven’t you guarded your master the king when someone came to kill him? This isn’t good at all! I swear by the Lord that you and your men deserve to die, because you failed to protect your master, the Lord’s anointed! Look around! Where are the king’s spear and the jug of water that were beside his head?” – 1 Samuel 26:15-16 NLT
Abner even led his troops into battle against David and his men, meeting them at the pool of Gibeon. The initial conflict was an agreed-upon battle between 24 men, 12 from each side. This mini-battle ended in a draw, with all 24 men dead. But that was not the end of the hostilities. It was followed by a pitched battle between the forces of these two opposing kings. Many would die that day. Like our own Civil War, this battle represented brother fighting against brother. It characterized the divided nature of the kingdom at that time. And this was the contentious atmosphere in which David was forced to begin his reign.
David’s path to the throne had been anything but easy, and it was not getting any smoother. He had been anointed by Samuel years earlier, but it had taken a long time before a crown was placed on his head. And even when it was, it represented the allegiance of a single tribe, his own. Winning over the other 11 tribes and solidifying his God-appointed position as King of Israel was going to be difficult and drawn out. There were still lessons for David to learn. And God was providentially shifting the mindset of the tribes of Israel from autonomous people groups living in isolation and under self-rule to that of a single nation united under one king. God was unifying what had been fractious. He was solidifying what had been disparate. He was making of the divided tribes of Israel a great nation that would be ruled by a great king who was a man after His own heart. The days ahead would be rocky. They would be filled with disappointment. Many would die. Others would loose loved ones as a result of the battles that followed. David’s fledgling kingdom would suffer before it ever experienced any success. But it was all part of God’s sovereign plan.
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.