DAVID hadn't heard of the battle between the Philistines and the Israelites in the valley of Jezreel until a young Amalekite came to Ziklag with the news. David was greatly shocked by the report that the Israelites had been defeated and that Saul and his sons had been killed. (II Samuel 1:1-4.) He was even more startled when he was told by his informer that he, the man who stood before him, had witnessed the deaths of Saul's sons and had himself killed Saul. The truth, however, was that Saul had killed himself. (I Samuel 31:4.)
An Opportunist Without Scruples
"Explain what you mean by claiming that you killed Saul!" David snapped at the fellow as he moved menacingly toward him. "Let me tell you what happened!" the young man hastily exclaimed as he backed up and held up his hands. "As the Philistines were pressing in on us with their infantrymen and their chariots, I saw Saul, who seemed to be wounded, leaning on his spear for support. When he saw me, he beckoned me to him and asked who I was. I told him that I was an Amalekite who was fighting in the army of Israel. He informed me that he had been wounded mortally, and he commanded me to kill him before the Philistines could get to him. I did as he asked, and plunged my sword through him. He died immediately." "You are a stranger," David interrupted. "Do you expect me to believe you without some kind of proof?" "Indeed not," the Amalekite replied. "I knew that most anyone would doubt my story, so I took the liberty of removing one of Saul's armlets and the king's insignia that he wore on his helmet for identification." (II Samuel 1:5-10.) He reached into a bag he carried and produced a metal arm band and headpiece. David stared at them. He recognized them as the armlet and helmet insignia he had often seen Saul wear when he had been the ruler's armor bearer. He felt that the Amalekite wasn't being completely truthful, but he couldn't help but believe the report that the Israelite army had been defeated and that Saul and his sons were dead. It was more than enough to send David and the people of Ziklag into a state of mourning. As was the custom then, they tore their clothes, wept, moaned and didn't eat anything until after sundown. (II Samuel 1:11-12.) David continued the questioning of the Amalekite to learn more of the tragedy that had taken place in upper Canaan. "Tell me exactly who you are," David demanded. "I've already told you that I'm an Amalekite," the man replied. "I came from a family you wouldn't know about, living in the desert south of here. I was a captive brought into Canaan and put into the Israelite army." "Do you believe that the mighty God of Israel put Saul into the high office of king?" David asked. "Why — yes," was the reply. "Surely he couldn't have become king unless your God had allowed it." "Then aren't you fearful of what our God will do to you because you have removed from rulership a man whom God ordained as ruler?" "Why should I be fearful?" the Amalekite asked a little disdainfully. "I did what I was ordered to."
A Would-be Murderer's Reward
"Our God is to be obeyed before our king," David pointed out, "and we should fear our God more than our king. If you killed Saul, you did a very evil thing." David motioned to one of his soldiers, and the Amalekite looked up to see the man striding menacingly toward him with a hand on his sword hilt. "Execute this criminal who claims he killed Saul!" David commanded. "No! No!" the man gasped, leaping back. "What kind of thanks is this? I raced here to be first to tell you about Saul because I thought that you would be pleased to know that your enemy was killed! I thought that you were a fair man who would reward me for a favor!" This gentile Amalekite assumed that David hated Saul as Saul hated David. "If you even thought of killing the king, your heart is evil. And your reward is death!" After David's sentence, he then turned away as the Amalekite fell under a swift blow of the soldier's sword. (II Samuel 1:13-16.) The Bible doesn't disclose whether or not David further investigated the death of Saul. If he did, he had little reason to regret the Amalekite's death, inasmuch as the fellow told what he would have done if he had had the opportunity. The Amalekite had probably witnessed the scene between Saul and his armor bearer, and the notion had come to him to pose as Saul's slayer and try to collect a reward from a man he believed hated Saul. Although Saul died for rebelling against God and for seeking advice from a woman with a familiar spirit (I Chronicles 10:13-14), David knew it is wrong to rejoice over anyone's downfall. (Proverbs 24:17.) To express his respect for Israel's ruler and his love for Jonathan, David composed verses through which he lamented the passing of the two men. This song, titled "The Bow," became one of the national anthems of Israel. (II Samuel 1:17-27.) In the days that followed, David had to make some important decisions. He realized that he was to succeed Saul as king of Israel, and he looked to God, through Abiathar the priest, to show him what to do. God made it known that he and all his men should move their families from Ziklag to Hebron, the chief city of the tribe of Judah. David obediently made the move with his small army of 600 men from the tribes of Benjamin, Gad, Judah and Manasseh. (I Chronicles 12:1-22.) It was a relief to him to at last be able to travel freely in Israel without fear of attack.
David Becomes King of Judah
As soon as David had made Hebron his headquarters, the leading men of Judah met there to hold a solemn ceremony in which they joined with Abiathar the priest to anoint and proclaim David as the king of their tribe. (II Samuel 2:1-4.) When David learned that the men of Jabesh-gilead had rescued the bodies of Saul and his sons from the Philistines, he sent messengers to the men of that city to carry a letter of commendation for what had been done. David was careful not to give the impression that his praise was coming from one who considered himself as the future king of Israel, though he did make it known that he had been made king of the tribe of Judah. (II Samuel 2:5-7.) Although David was destined to become ruler of all Israel, the death of Saul didn't completely clear the way for the fulfillment of that event. Abner, commander-in-chief of Saul's former army, had escaped from the recent battle with the Philistines. Hoping to retain some measure of power in Israel, Abner convinced Ish-bosheth, another son of Saul who obviously had no part in the war, that it would be possible for him to become the next king of Israel if he would set up a place of operation in the town of Mahanaim on the northeastern border of the territory of Gad. The Philistines hadn't reached that area, and the Israelites there felt a special loyalty to Saul. They would naturally look to his son as his rightful successor. Although he had no authority from God to do so, Abner proclaimed Ish-bosheth king of Israel. All the tribes except Judah accepted Ishbosheth, and he assumed the rulership for the next two years. Meanwhile, in spite of the Philistines, thousands of whom were in their very midst, the Israelites continued to survive. (II Samuel 2:8-10.) Abner and Ish-bosheth were far from pleased that David and the tribe of Judah continued to remain apart from Ish-bosheth's leadership. Eventually Abner took a small army westward across the Jordan River and camped close to a large pool near Gibeon, a town about twenty-five miles north of Hebron, in the territory of Benjamin. When David heard about it he sent Joab, his captain of the military forces of Judah, with soldiers to oppose Abner's men if they should move farther south. Though David wished for peace, he knew many of the tribes of Israel were spoiling for a fight. So Joab and his troops boldly marched to the pool of Gibeon and set up a camp across the water from Abner's army. For a time the men of the two camps restrained themselves to merely exchanging curious and hostile stares. Then Abner, addressing himself to Joab, shouted across the pool. "Instead of just sitting here, why don't we amuse ourselves with a simple bit of competition between some of our men?" he asked. "What do you suggest?" Joab inquired. "How about twelve of your men against twelve of my men?" Abner asked. "If there are more of your men left when the scuffle is over, I'll take my men back to Mahanaim. If there are more of my men left, we want your word that you will take your men back to Hebron." "Agreed!" Joab shouted back. (II Samuel 2:12-14.) This was a rash agreement. Nevertheless, from those who volunteered, Joab chose twelve of his most athletic and capable young soldiers, who walked part way around the pool to confront the approaching twelve men Abner had selected. At an agreed signal the two sides rushed at each other, swords drawn, free hands extended and every man dodging and weaving to try to escape being seized by the beard or hair of his head. Tragically, all managed to obtain the desired hold, and all became victims of the cruel and bloody contest. (Verses 15-16.)
Asahel's Deadly Race
When the onlookers saw their champions go down, the two companies vengefully rushed together in fierce combat. Joab's men proved to be the superior fighters. (II Samuel 2:17.) Abner saw that it was useless to continue facing his opponents. He shouted to his remaining men to retreat to the north. Joab's men set off in pursuit, but Abner and his men turned out to be very able runners. Athletes with strong legs were greatly admired in those times. There was a man among Joab's soldiers who was especially fast on his feet. He was Asahel, a brother of Joab, well-trained in long-distance running. He set out after Abner, determined to overtake him. In the pursuit he passed some of the other fleeing soldiers, but he wasn't interested in them. When at last he was only a few feet behind Abner, the officer glanced back at him and seemed to be even more perturbed when he recognized who was chasing him. "Aren't you Asahel, Joab's brother?" Abner panted as he struggled to keep ahead. "I am!" Asahel gasped between breaths, "and I mean to take your armor back to Joab!" "You'd stand a better chance of getting the armor of one of my men you've already outrun!" Abner puffed. "Don't try to talk me out of this!" Asahel panted. "If you get too near me I'll have to use my spear on you!" Abner warned. "I know your brother Joab well, and I wouldn't be able to face him if I have to slay you!" "I'll take my chances!" Asahel grunted as he lunged forward to seize Abner. Little did Asahel realize the political intrigue that would come from that decision to overtake Abner. At that moment Abner jerked his spear backward with all the force he could muster. The partly pointed butt of the weapon rammed into Asahel's chest with such severity that it pierced the fellow's body and protruded from his back. Asahel fell dead and Abner continued his fatiguing flight. (II Samuel 2:18-23.) Joab and another brother, Abishai, along with the other victorious soldiers, were trying to catch up to Abner and his men. But Abner's retreat had started in the late afternoon and by the time the sun had set, the two groups were still hundreds of feet apart. The chase was still taking place in the territory of Benjamin. When nearby Benjamites heard what was happening, many men of that tribe joined Abner and his scattered troops on a rise being approached by Joab and his men. Thus encouraged, Abner stopped to face Joab and make a plea for peace. "Why must this killing continue?" Abner called down to Joab. "It will only lead to more misery later on! Now we are prepared with men of Benjamin to stand against you, but we hope that you'll decide now to command your men to cease pursuing their brothers!"
Uncertain Peace Breaks Out
"As surely as God lives," Joab shouted back, "if you had not asked for peace, we would not have stopped chasing you before morning." (II Samuel 2:24-27.) Joab impatiently motioned to his trumpeter to blow the sound to cease pursuit. The men obeyed and gradually joined him where he stood. When Abner saw that he wouldn't be troubled any more at that time by Joab, he led his men away and walked all that night to cross the Jordan River at dawn and head northward toward the town of Mahanaim beyond the Jabbok River. Meanwhile, Joab and his men walked back all night to return to Hebron at the break of day. They carried the dead Asahel with them later burying the body in the tomb of Asahel's father in Bethlehem. Including Asahel, Joab lost twenty of his men in the strife with Abner, whereas Abner lost three hundred and sixty soldiers. It was obvious that God wasn't helping Abner in his efforts to promote Ish bosheth as king of all Israel. (II Samuel 2:28-32.) For a time there were frequent small battles between David's forces and those of Ish-bosheth. These skirmishes didn't settle matters. Regard less of their outcome, respect for David steadily grew with all the people of Israel. (II Samuel 3:1.) Meanwhile, Abner took advantage of Ish bosheth's lack of ability as a leader, and worked to try to obtain more power for himself with the people who continued to remain loyal to Saul. Ish-bosheth and Abner came to a parting of the ways, however, when Ish-bosheth accused Abner of being too intimate with a woman named Rizpah, with whom Saul had lived without a marriage tie. The Bible doesn't relate whether Abner was guilty of what he was accused. In any event, he became very resentful. "Do you think that you are speaking to a dog?" Abner heatedly demanded as he confronted Saul's son. "If it hadn't been for me, you would long ago have been in David's hands. I have done much to keep you on the throne and the leadership of Israel in the hands of the ones your father would have chosen and yet you decide to belittle me and ruin my reputation by this ridiculous charge!" Ish-bosheth had nothing more to say against Abner because he knew that without Abner he couldn't remain in his questionable position. Very soon he realized that he had said too much for his own good. (II Samuel 3:6-11.) Abner's anger was so great that it led the military commander to decide to forsake Saul's son and try to join David, whom he realized was gradually coming into greater power. Shortly afterward David received messengers who informed him that Abner had decided against doing anything more to promote Ish-bosheth as the leader of Israel, and that he would willingly join David and work to bring all Israel together if it would please David to accept his services.
Abner's Political Switch
David was perplexed at this suggestion. He was certain that Abner was looking out for his own interests, but he had a certain admiration for the military leader because he seemed an honorable man and had such perseverance. He wasn't aware that Abner was angry because of Ishbosheth's accusation. "I'll welcome your help on one condition," David wrote in a message back to Abner. "Don't come to join me unless you bring Michal, Saul's daughter and my first wife. Saul took her from me a long time ago, but I still want her back." At the same time David sent messengers to Ish-bosheth, demanding that Michal be returned to him. Being without good relations with Abner, Ish-bosheth feared that if he didn't comply he would be at the mercy of David's soldiers. He ordered some of his men to go and take Michal from Phaltiel, the man to whom Saul had given her after David was forced to flee from his home. Michal was separated from her weeping common-law husband, who tried to follow her. Abner came on the scene in time to order Phaltiel back to his home and to decide when and how Michal should be returned to David. (II Samuel 3:12-16.) It was important to Abner that he should first contact the elders of Israel, diplomatically suggesting to them that they would be wise to choose David as their king instead of Ish-bosheth. Because Abner was respected in Israel, the opinions of thousands of people, starting with the Israelite leaders, were destined to be switched in favor of David. Later, Abner and twenty of his picked soldiers took Michal to Hebron. David was pleased, and perhaps even Michal was happy to be returned to her first husband, especially inasmuch as he was obviously about to become the king of all Israel.