Despite the many problems that exist in the United States, the nation continues to be lauded for its long history of peaceful transfers of power. When the president from one political party ends his term and is replaced by a newly elected president from another political party, there is usually a transition that occurs without any bloodshed. This phenomenon is unique in human history. Historically, violence has often attended the transfer of power from one regime to another.
The throne of ancient Israel did not pass from Saul to David without murder and treachery. Today’s passage describes the violent end of Abner, Saul’s general who appointed Saul’s son Ish-bosheth king after Saul died (2 Sam. 2:8–11). In 2 Samuel 3, we see Abner for who he truly was, a man bent on turning things to his own advantage. First, he had taken one of Saul’s concubines, which Ish-bosheth rightly saw as Abner making a play for the throne. Abner responded by going off to negotiate with David for the loyalty of the tribes of Israel that were not yet in submission to him as the king (3:1–19). Abner was driven not by loyalty to Saul or by a theological conviction that David was God’s choice for the monarchy. He only wanted to make sure he had a high position in whichever regime prevailed.
David’s peace with Abner did not please Joab, David’s general and brother of Asahel, whom Abner had killed (vv. 22–25; see 2:18–23). Three times we read that Abner had gone away “in peace” (3:21–23), which most likely refers to a promise of safe conduct granted by David. This makes what Joab did to Abner base treachery—he violated a royal promise and brought the king’s name into potential disrepute. In Hebron, Joab took the unsuspecting Abner aside and killed him. On one level, we can understand why Joab would have wanted to get revenge on Abner for killing Asahel. However, commentators note that Joab had no legitimate ground for his act. Asahel was not murdered; he was killed only after Abner repeatedly warned Asahel to leave him alone. Abner did not kill Asahel with ill intent, so Abner should have been afforded the protection offered in the Mosaic law to those guilty of manslaughter (Num. 35:9–34).
David mourned the illegal killing of Abner, confirming yet again that he would be a righteous king concerned for the law of God (2 Sam. 3:31–39). It was not his fault that Abner died, and he would not be held responsible for Joab’s craven act.