Unity among the twelve tribes of Israel was hard to achieve from the beginning of the nation’s history. Most of us know the story of Joseph, which among other things shows that there was a lack of unity among the patriarchs of the twelve tribes, as Joseph’s brothers sought to get rid of him (Gen. 37). Later, disunity was the order of the day throughout the era of the judges. The people were not unified but faced threats as individual tribes or as confederacies of a few tribes. Only severe trouble in Israel brought the tribes together, and then it was eleven tribes against the one tribe of Benjamin because of what happened to a Levite’s concubine (Judg. 19–21). The nation achieved unity only during the reigns of David and Solomon, and then only because both men were strong leaders who could hold the tribal coalition together. Given such struggles, it is no wonder that David exclaimed, “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!” (Ps. 133:1).
Not long after Absalom was defeated, another threat to Israel’s unity arose when “Sheba, the son of Bichri, a Benjaminite” attempted to throw off David’s authority and rally the Israelites to his side (2 Sam. 20:1). Ultimately, Sheba would gain little support. He was defeated at Abel of Bethmaacah, a city far to the north in the promised land, about twenty-five miles north of the Sea of Galilee (vv. 14–22). Only the Bichrites, Sheba’s own clan, joined him there, and the fact that he went so far north indicates that Sheba traveled across the land without getting much support from the people.
Nevertheless, Sheba presented a true threat to Israel’s unity, so King David commissioned Amasa, the man he had appointed general after Absalom’s rebellion (19:13), to gather the tribe of Judah to quell the rebellion. But when Amasa was late in assembling the army, David sent out forces under the lead of Abishai. This gave his former general Joab the chance to confront Amasa and murder him in cold blood, resulting in Joab’s restoration to leadership (20:4–10, 23–26).
Sheba was defeated (v. 22), which should give us hope. Despite the conflict and treachery, God’s kingdom through David was preserved, so we can have hope that God’s kingdom through David’s greater Son, Jesus Christ, will persevere as well despite the threats it faces. Moreover, the continuing problems with Sheba, Joab, and others reveal that David could not be the one to rule forever over the kingdom of God. A better king was needed: the Lord Jesus Christ.