His Purpose Thwarted

2 Samuel 20

In previous chapters it has been pointed out that Joab was a man of a fierce and intractable spirit, and that be was ungodly and unscrupulous in principle. Once David had placed himself in his power (by making him his secret agent in the death of Uriah: 2 Sam. 11:14, 15), he thenceforth took matters more and more into his own hands, executing or disregarding the king’s orders as best suited himself, Imperious and ruthless to the last degree, Joab would brook no interference with his own policy. Devoid of natural feeling, fearing neither God nor man, he hesitated not to slay any who stood in his way. Fearfully does his arrogance, treachery and brutality appear in the incident which is to be before us. Feign would we pass by an episode so revolting, yet it is recorded in Holy Writ, and therefore it must contain some message that is needed by us.

We have also seen how that, at length, David made a determined effort to strip Joab of his power, by removing him from the head of the army. Accordingly Amasa was selected as the one to replace him. But the king’s design was thwarted, frustrated by one of the vilest deeds chronicled in the Scriptures. Under pretense of paying obeisance to the new general, Joab thrust him through with the sword. Such an atrocity staggers the thoughtful, making them to wonder why God suffers such outrages to be perpetrated. This is indeed one of the dark mysteries of divine providence—why the Lord permits such monsters of wickedness to walk the earth. Faith is assured that He must have some sufficient reason. Though often God giveth "no account of His matters" (Job 33:13), yet His Word does indicate, more or less clearly, the general principles which regulate His governmental dealings.

Much help is afforded upon the mystery of Providence when it is perceived that God makes "all things work together" (Rom. 8:28). When incidents are contemplated singly they naturally appear distorted, for they are viewed out of their proper perspective; but when we are able to examine them in relation to their antecedents and consequents, usually their significance is much more evident. The detached fragments of life are meaningless, bewildering, staggering; but put them together, and they manifest a design and purpose. Much in the present finds its explanation in that which preceded it in the past, while muck’ in the present will also become intelligible by the sequel in the future—"What I do thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter" (John 13:7). If these principles were more steadily borne in mind, we should be less nonplussed by startling occurrences.

Our present incident is a case in point. Viewed by itself apart, the brutal murder of Amasa is indeed overwhelming, as to why God should permit him to come to such a fearful end. But viewed in relation to other things, contemplated in connection with that inexorable but righteous principle of sowing and reaping, light is cast on that dark scene. if we take the trouble to go back from effect to cause, we shall find that God had a just reason for employing Joab to thwart David’s purpose, and that in meeting with such a death Amasa but received his just deserts. If this can be demonstrated, then we may perceive much more clearly why this revolting incident is recorded in Holy Writ; for since it is evident that God had a sufficient reason for suffering this tragedy to occur, we may rest the better assured that He has His own wise ends in things which often appear so puzzling and appalling to us in the world today.

There was a reason why God permitted Jacob to be so basely deceived about the fate of his beloved Joseph (Gen. 37:31-35): he was but reaping what he had sown in the deceiving of his father Isaac (Gen. 27). There was a reason why God permitted the Egyptians to treat the Hebrews with such cruelty and severity (Ex. 1 and 5): they were His instruments in punishing them for their idolatry and their refusal to heed the divine call to cast away the heathen abominations with which they had defiled themselves (Ezek. 20:7, 8). There was a reason why God permitted Doeg to brutally slay no less than eighty-five of the priestly family (1 Sam. 22: 18): it was the execution of the solemn judgment which He pronounced upon the house of Eli (1 Sam, 2:31-36; 3:12-16), the sins of the fathers king visited upon the children. There is a reason why God has permitted the Jews to be more hated and persecuted throughout this Christian era than any other people: the guilt of Christ’s crucifixion rests on them and their children (Matthew 27:25).

"The curse causeless shall not come" (Prov. 26:2). While God is absolute sovereign and exercises His justice or His mercy as and when He pleases, yet He acts not arbitrarily: He neither punishes the innocent, nor does He pardon the guilty without reparation—i.e. through a substitute. Hence, we may rest assured that when the divine curse falls upon a person, there is due cause for the same. But let not the reader misunderstand us: we do not wish to imply that any of us are capable of ascertaining the reason or reasons which lie behind any calamity that may overtake either ourselves or any of our fellows. On the contrary, it lies entirely outside of our province to explain the mysteries of divine providence, and it would be the height of presumption to say why an affliction has been sent upon another—the book of Job warns loudly against such a procedure.

No, what we have been seeking to do is to point out that the most mysterious of divine providences, the most appalling events in history—whether involving individuals only or nations—have a satisfactory explanation, that God has sufficient reason for all that He does or permits. And in His Word He has graciously made this evident, by revealing in instance after instance, the obvious connection between sowing and reaping. True, He has by no means done so in every case, for God has not written His Word either to vindicate His own character and conduct or to satisfy our curiosity. Sufficient is said in His Word to show that God is infinitely worthy of our utmost confidence, so that we should say with him whose faith was tried in a way and to an extent that few ever have been, "Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him."

We have followed out the present train of thought because some are so overwhelmed by the shocking things which take place in the world from time to time, that their faith is shaken. They know that so far from its affording any solution to the problem, to affirm that God has no connection with such things, is a serious error—denying His present government over and control of the wicked. Nay, it is because they recognize that God actually permits these outrages, that they find it so difficult to harmonize this with His revealed character. We have called attention to some outstanding eases because they are to be regarded as examples of a general principle. Retributive justice is one of the divine perfections, and though we are often far too short-sighted to perceive its workings, nevertheless, we may have implicit confidence in its operations, and as it is regulated by Omniscience, we know it makes no mistakes.

Resuming now at the point where we left off in our last: "When they were at the great stone which is in Gibeon, Amasa went before them" (2 Sam. 20:8). It will be remembered that in connection with David’s journey back to Jerusalem, upon his crossing of the Jordan, there had occurred a sharp controversy between the elders of Judah and the elders of Israel. The old spirit of rivalry and jealousy was stirred up, and an evil man, Sheba, who belonged to the tribe of Saul, sought to capitalize the situation, and called upon those belonging to Israel to abandon the cause of David. In this he was, for the moment, successful, for we are told, "So every man of Israel went up from after David, and followed Sheba the son of Birchri" (v. 2). This threatened the most serious consequences, and unless Sheba’s plans were nipped in the bud, David would be faced with another rebellion.

The king recognized the danger, and at once took measures to meet it. Now was the opportunity, he felt, to put into execution the plan which he had formed for the removing of Joab from the head of his forces. Calling Amasa to him, he said, "Assemble me the men of Judah within three days, and be thou here present." As we saw, there was some delay, so "David said to Abishai, Now shall Sheba the son of Birchri do us more harm than did Absalom: take thou thy lord’s servants, and pursue after him, lest he get him fenced cities, and escape us." Then we are told, "And there went out after him Joab’s men, and the Cherethites, the Pelethites, and all the mighty men: and they went out of Jerusalem, to pursue after Sheba." They had some distance to go, and apparently the great stone in Gibeon was to be the gathering point of David’s forces, for "when they were at the great stone which is in Gibeon, Amasa went before them." By this we understand that the men whom Amasa had gathered together came up with those led by Abishai, and that Amasa, according to David’s orders, now took charge of the entire expedition.

"And Joab’s garment that he had put on was girded unto him, and upon it a girdle with a sword fastened upon his loins in the sheath thereof; and as he went forth it fell out" (v. 8). It seems from this that Joab had accompanied the soldiers in a private capacity. He pretended to gladly submit to the new arrangement, and to be full of zeal for David’s cause, prepared to do his part in preventing another general uprising. But outward appearances are often deceptive. In reality, Joab was determined to avenge the dishonor done to him and assassinate the one who had been appointed to displace him. As he advanced to greet the new commander-in-chief, his sword fell out of its sheath, and to prevent its falling to the ground he caught it in his left hand. It looked as though the sword had become unsheathed by accident, but the sequel shows it was by design, and was but a subtle device to cloak his vile purpose.

"And Joab said to Amasa, Art thou in health, my brother? And Joab took Amasa by the beard with his right hand to kiss him. But Amasa took no heed to the sword that was in Joab’s hand: so he smote him therewith in the fifth rib, and shed out his bowels to the ground, and struck him not again; and he died" (vv. 9, 10). How the real character of Joab was here displayed! Treacherous, ruthless, blatant, utterly hardened. Amasa was his own cousin, yet ties of blood meant nothing to this callous wretch. Amasa had been definitely appointed by the king to lead his forces, but the royal authority counted for naught to Joab. Moreover, it was in front of all the troops that Joab committed his awful crime, caring not what they thought nor afraid of what they might do. Thoroughly lawless and defiant, he never hesitated to take matters into his own hands and crush whoever stood in his way.

Viewed as an isolated event, here was a most appalling crime. A man in the path of duty brutally murdered without a moment’s warning. And yet a holy God permitted it, for most certainly He could have prevented it had He so pleased. Why, then, did He suffer David’s purpose to be so rudely thwarted? and why was Joab allowed to slay Amasa? The two questions are quite distinct, and must be considered separately. Unspeakably solemn though the subject be, yet earlier events cast their light on this dark scene. After David’s murder of Uriah God had said, "the sword shall never depart from thine house" (2 Sam. 12:10), and Amasa was David’s own nephew: see 2 Samuel 17:25 and compare 1 Chronicles 2:13, 16. "Be sure your sin will find you out" (Num. 32:23). It found David out: in the death of Bathsheba’s child, in the raping of Tamar, in the murder of Amnon, in the death of Absalom, and now in the slaying of Amasa.

And what of Amasa himself? Ah, was he one who had served the king with unswerving loyalty? No indeed, far from it. And what of the stock from which he came? Were his parents pious, so that the blessing of the Lord might be expected upon their offspring? And again the answer is no. "And Absalom made Amasa captain of the host instead of Joab" (2 Sam. 17:25). Thus, Amasa had not only failed David at the most critical juncture, but he had taken an active and prominent part against him. And now he was slain, justly slain, by one who had fought for the king. 2 Samuel 17:25 also tells us, "Which Amasa was a man’s son, whose name was Ithra an Israelite, that went in to Abigail the daughter of Nahash, sister to Zeruiah, Joab’s mother" so that here again it was a case of the sins of the parent being visited upon the child. Thus, revolting though this episode be, we may see in it the righteous judgment of God.

"So Joab and Abishai his brother pursued after Sheba the son of Birchri. And one of Joab’s men stood by him, and said, He that favoreth Joab and be that is for David, let him go after Joab" (vv. 10, 11). This was playing politics with a vengeance, pretending that fealty to David demanded that the army should follow the leadership of Joab—how often the people are induced to follow a course which is evil under the impression that they are furthering a righteous cause! Why, these soldiers had just seen Joab slay the very man whom the king had called to head his forces: how, then, could they be for David if they followed this murderer? But few people think for themselves, and fewer still are regulated by moral principle. The great majority are easily imposed upon, accepting what any glib-tongued or forcible leader tells them.

"And Amasa wallowed in blood in the midst of the highway. And when the man saw that all the people stood still, he removed Amasa out of the highway into the field, and cast a cloth upon him, when he saw that every one that came by him stood still. When he was removed out of the highway, all the people went on after Joab, to pursue after Sheba the son of Birchri" (vv. 12, 13). Though none had raised a hand against the cold-blooded murderer, they had sufficient decency to stand their ground until the body of his victim was removed from the public highway and respectfully covered. This done, they unanimously followed Joab. He might be impetuous and imperious, still he was a valiant warrior, and in the eyes of these soldiers, that covered a multitude of sins. Moreover, was he not pursuing Sheba, the enemy of their king; there could not, then, be anything radically wrong with him. Such has often been the superficial logic of the multitude, as the testimony of history abundantly illustrates. Yet faith discerns One behind the scenes working all things after the counsel of His own will.

Sheba had meanwhile taken refuge in the "city," or fortified town of Abel. Thither came Joab and his forces to besiege it, battering upon the outer wall to throw it down. Whereupon a wise woman of the city expostulated with Joab, protesting against the needless destruction of the town and the slaying of its inhabitants, reminding him that by so doing he would "swallow up the heritage of the Lord" (v. 19). Joab at once made it known that all he was after was the capture of the arch-rebel against David, assuring the woman that as soon as that son of Belial was delivered up to him, he and his forces would withdraw. Accordingly, Sheba was executed and his head thrown over the wall. Thus perished one more of those who set themselves against the Lord’s anointed. "Evil shall hunt the violent man to overthrow him" (Ps. 140:1 1).

The readiness of Joab to heed the wise counsel of the woman of Abel is not to be taken as a redeeming feature on this occasion, still less as conflicting with what we have said above about his general character. Joab had no personal grievance against the inhabitants of that city: had that been the case, it had indeed gone hard with them. Moreover, to have made a wholesale slaughter of those innocent Israelites, would obviously have been against the interests of the kingdom at large, and Joab was too politic to be guilty of so grave a blunder. "And Joab returned unto Jerusalem unto the king" (v. 22). Unabashed at his crime, conscious of the guilty hold which he had over him, Joab feared not to face his royal master. Thus was David’s purpose thwarted, and as though to particularly emphasize the fact, the chapter closes by saying, "Now Joab was over all the hosts of Israel," etc. (v. 23).