The message this morning is the first of a 2-part exhortation which outlines Israel’s first official civil war. It is the 14th sermon in “The United Church - A Study of Ancient Israel” series. Looking ahead, I project there will be about 28 or so lessons in this series altogether which means that we are just about halfway through it. I trust that you are enjoying this study so far, and learning some new things that will help you grow in your faith.
The fledgling nation of Israel is just barely over 40 years old. It’s first ruler, King Saul, has died tragically in battle along with 3 of his sons on the slopes of Mt. Gilboa. David, whom God chose and Samuel anointed to replace Saul as king, has fled to Ziklag and been serving the Philistines for almost 2 years - he isn’t even living in Israel anymore. The military is in disarray after their recent loss and the government itself is in shambles due to the neglectful and misguided leadership of King Saul for the past several years. As uncertainty abounds Israel must undergo its first transition of power from one king to the next.
The period that we will discuss today and next week was a brief but turbulent time in Israel’s history. Following Saul’s death, the nation struggled to unite under its new king. David did not immediately rise to the throne. His ascendancy was fraught with trouble. The people’s division ultimately led to hostility and civil war. For 7 long and difficult years Israel was separated into opposing factions.
In the message this morning, we will learn that 2 different men were named as king simultaneously and discover how Israel’s allegiance was divided between them. We will also discuss the first battle between these 2 leaders.
I. DAVID - KING OF JUDAH (2 Samuel 2:1-7)
After learning that King Saul had been killed, David turned to the LORD and asked whether He should return to Judah. At the time David was still living in Ziklag and serving the Philistines, but his heart remained devoted to Israel. God answered by instructing David to return to his homeland, specifically to the city of Hebron. This was one of several cities in Judah where David had sent surplus spoil from his victory over the Amalekites. So David, his family, and all of his mighty men moved to Hebron and the people of Judah joyfully anointed him as king.
The people informed David that the men of Jabesh-gilead had recovered and buried the body of King Saul. David was moved by their courageous actions. He sent messengers to commend these men for the kindness and honor they’d shown to the fallen king. David prayed that God would shower them in lovingkindness for the good deed that they’d done. David also told the people of Jabesh-gilead that he’d been named king over Judah, and further promised to treat them well.
Following the occupation of the Promised Land during the days of Joshua, the tribe of Judah was given a larger inheritance than any of the other tribes. The territory of Judah by itself covered approximately ⅓ of Israel. The combined area of all of the other tribes, not including the locations east of the Jordan River, was roughly twice the size as Judah. Thus, when David was made king over Judah he reigned over the entire southern region of Israel.
II. ISH-BOSHETH - KING OF ISRAEL (2 Samuel 2:8-11)
Abner was King Saul’s relative, long-time friend, and military commander. Apparently he had somehow survived the recent battle with the Philistines. When he discovered that the king had been killed, Abner feared that a new monarch - especially someone like David - might replace him. Therefore, he acted quickly to secure his place of power. Abner declared Saul’s only surviving son Ish-bosheth as king over Israel. Ish-bosheth appears to have been a cowardly man, as evidenced by his noteworthy absence from the Philistine battle alongside his brothers, whom Abner believed could be easily influenced and intimidated.
Ish-bosheth ruled over the northern and transJordan portions of Israel for 2 short years. However, he was never recognized as king by the entire nation. Meanwhile David reigned from the city Hebron over the people of Judah for 7 ½ years. Thus, for a brief time, Israel was divided with 2 men serving as king simultaneously. This situation was unsustainable and soon erupted into civil war.
III. THE BATTLE AT GIBEON (2 Samuel 2:12-32)
The dueling kings' forces met at Gibeon. The armies of Israel were led by Abner while the men of Judah were led by Joab. Rather than engaging in a full-on military conflict, the opposing generals first agreed to a contest. Both sides chose 12 warriors to fight against each other. This small battle was to determine the outcome of the larger conflict. However, when the competition began all 24 of the men killed each other so that none remained alive. Neither side had prevailed and the contest was a draw. Thus, the armies proceeded into battle as usual, and the David’s men won.
Abner and the Israeli soldiers fled from the battlefield. Asahel, a captain in Judah’s army and Joab’s brother, pursued Abner relentlessly. Abner urged Asahel to call off the chase and encouraged him to be satisfied with the spoils of victory, but Asahel doggedly continued the pursuit. Seizing an opportunity, Abner suddenly turned back from his flight and confronted Asahel, killing him with the butt of his spear. Then Abner quickly resumed his retreat as Joab and others continued to give chase.
As the sun was setting, David’s forces arrived at the hill of Ammah. Abner and his men had gathered atop the hill. Abner called down to Joab and pleaded with him to relent, arguing that the men of Israel and Judah were all brothers from the line of Jacob and should not devour each other. After hearing his appeal, Joab called off the pursuit and Abner’s army departed in defeat.
The Battle of Gibeon had been a convincing victory for David’s military. Judah had only lost 19 men, not including Asahel. Though their overall losses were few, Asahel’s death was significant. On the other hand, Israel’s army (which consisted primarily of men from the tribe of Benjamin) suffered 360 casualties. Joab’s troops took Asahel’s body to Bethlehem and buried it there before returning victoriously to Hebron.
There were 2 men serving as king over parts of Israel - David in the south and Ish-bosheth in the north - but only one of these men was the legitimate leader. The other’s kingship was spurious. David had been chosen by God, anointed by Samuel, and accepted by the people of Judah. On the contrary, Ish-bosheth had not been chosen by God or by the consent of his people, but rather was hurriedly installed to power by the decree of Abner. His efforts to reign over Israel led to nothing but misery and strife.
We can see in this ancient scenario an image of our world today. Jesus Christ has been given all authority in heaven and on earth. He is the true and only Ruler over God’s creation - the King of kings and Lord of lords. However, for a time, God has allowed Satan to exercise some limited authority over this world. The Devil is described in scripture as a prince and a ruler who aspires to reign in God’s place. He heads up the kingdom of darkness, which wars against the kingdom of Light, in fierce conflict over the souls of men. While it might not be described as a civil war in its truest sense, there is a spiritual war going on nonetheless...
Millions of people have fallen victim to their sin and been lost in the throws of battle. But the Rightful and Righteous King still offers redemption, deliverance, and forgiveness to any who will accept it. Those who place their faith in Jesus Christ, the divine Son of God, declare their allegiance and commitment to Him as the true Lord of Creation. Don’t follow after an illegitimate ruler or waiver back and forth between 2 opposing sides. Give your life to Jesus and receive the gift of salvation and the promise of eternal life!