It was a time of civil war in Israel. King Saul and his oldest son, Jonathan, had died in battle. The people of David’s native tribe of Judah had proclaimed him the new king. The prophet Samuel had anointed David years earlier and had let it be known that God had rejected Saul. But those who were loyal to Saul had rallied around Saul’s son Ishbosheth and proclaimed him as king.
The rivalries were deeply seated. Those on David’s side, including his military captain, Joab, were convinced they were on the right side. They had been unjustly persecuted by Saul and his army for years. And now, they felt, justice was finally on their side. Now it was time for David, the slayer of his tens of thousands of Israel’s enemies, to take the throne.
But those on Ishbosheth’s side were just as convinced that they were in the right. Ishbosheth, they thought, as the son of God’s duly anointed and appointed king, Saul, was the legitimate heir to the throne. David’s army was nothing but an upstart band of renegades and rebels. His support base was centered in his home tribe of Judah and was not as widespread as that of Ishbosheth, who commanded the loyalty of the majority of the rest of the other eleven tribes.
There didn’t appear to be any sign of peace and reconciliation on the horizon. In a winner-take-all challenge match between twelve leading warriors of each army, they all ended up as losers, with each pair of warriors simultaneously killing each other. And then, Joab’s young, fleet-footed brother Asahel chased after Abner with the intent to kill him. But the older and wiser Abner, after pleading with Asahel to desist, ended up killing him instead, in self-defense.
It was in this scenario of escalating violence and resentment that Abner shouted out to Joab, “Must we always be killing each other? Don’t you realize that bitterness is the only result? When will you call off your men from chasing their Israelite brothers?” (2 Samuel 2:26 NLT)
For a brief moment, Abner appeared to have gotten through to Joab, and he agreed to a short-lived truce. But before long, both sides were back at it, and the long, bitter war once again raged on.
After some dicey personal matters came to light and words of disagreement were exchanged between him and Ishbosheth, though, Abner came to his senses and finally decided that enough was enough. He humbled himself, came to David, and offered terms of peace. He agreed to use his influence to convince all Israel to lay down their arms and support David as king. Finally, it appeared, there was a real opportunity for peace in the land.
But Joab would have none of it. He secretly connived and laid a trap for Abner, and while his guard was down and he was not expecting it, he ruthlessly murdered him in revenge for his brother Asahel.
Joab convinced himself he was acting out of loyalty to David. But David was profoundly heartbroken and disappointed with Joab. “Don’t you realize that a great commander has fallen today in Israel?” he told Joab and the rest of his troops. “Tear your clothes and put on burlap. Mourn for Abner.”
There were still many twists and turns in the plot-line to be told before we come to the end of this sordid story, but David’s bitter wound stayed with him until the day he died. While giving his parting admonition to his son Solomon shortly before he died, David made a special point to include the following words:
“And there is something else. You know what Joab son of Zeruiah did to me when he murdered my two army commanders, Abner son of Ner and Amasa son of Jether. He pretended that it was an act of war, but it was done in a time of peace, staining his belt and sandals with innocent blood. Do with him what you think best, but don’t let him grow old and go to his grave in peace.” (1 Kings 2:5–6 NLT)
Though perhaps some might find the illustration a bit extreme, I believe there are some interesting parallels between several elements of this story (which you can read about more fully in 2 Samuel 2–3) and the current atmosphere in the SBC—and to some extent in the broader evangelical world.
We also live in a time of combat and combatants. We have culture warriors. We have social justice warriors. And we have many on every side who claim to just be soldiers of the cross.
Everyone thinks they are on the right side. Just like Abner was convinced he was on the right side, and Joab was convinced he was on the right side, most of the warriors in our wars are sincerely convinced they are on the right side as well.
And don’t get me wrong. It is important to be on the right side. It is not a matter of indifference. Ultimately, from the perspective of redemption history, we learn that David and those who supported him were on the right side, and Saul and Ishbosheth and those who supported them were on the wrong side.
It is good to have convictions. We are not called as soldiers of the cross to be wishy-washy in our convictions. Just as Paul told the Roman Christians who were grappling with divisive issues among them, “Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.” (Romans 14:5 ESV)
But even though Abner was ultimately on the wrong side, and even though he was not without his own flaws, in this situation he had the right spirit. He was able to recognize the writing on the wall. And he was able to lay down his own impetuosity and stubbornness. But Joab, who was ultimately on the right side, had the wrong spirit—a petty, vindictive spirit. He was more dedicated to a cause and loyal to the human champions of that cause than he was to God and the ultimate welfare of His people Israel.
Hear me out well now. I am not saying that in the current discussions and conflict in the SBC (and American Evangelicalism at large) one side is Abner and the other side is Joab. I indeed have my own views on various of the issues up for discussion, and will almost certainly continue to defend these views here and there, but that is not what this post is about. I am not calling for anyone to compromise on their heartfelt convictions. What I am saying is that we may well be on the right side of a particular issue, but approach it with a Joab spirit. And a Joab spirit is not something that God can bless. It is poison. It is destructive. It is satanic.
What I am attempting to do here is to echo and apply the words of Abner in our current context and hope that maybe, just maybe, it will get through to someone who needs to hear it: “Must we always be killing each other? Don’t you realize that bitterness is the only result? When will you call off your men from chasing their Israelite brothers?”