With Pastor Tim Rupp’s permission, I am posting his message which he shared yesterday at Old Faithful Christian Ranch.
Bitter to the End
2 Samuel 2
March 1, 2015
(OFCR Men’s Retreat)
Purpose statement: Bitterness will kill you.
Background: I was a bitter man. I’d like to tell you my story. You call it a “testimony.” It’s a story of God working in my life. I was a soldier in the army of Israel, serving under Israel’s greatest king, King David. I’d seen combat, in fact I’d seen plenty of combat. Men’s lives had been shed on my blade. I was good at my job, in fact I was the best. There was no one better than I at strategy and military tactics.
My specialty was my ability to read men.
Sometimes a soldier must strike quickly; sometimes he must wait. I could read men, I knew their strengths and their weaknesses. As a soldier I knew when to strike. I knew how to bide my time. To be patient and wait when the time was right. I didn’t always fight fair—but I always fought to win. In warfare winning is the only option.
But my passion for winning spilled over into every aspect of my life. For me winning was everything. I didn’t just win, I crushed my enemies. A dead enemy was a harmless enemy, in war or in everyday life. For me there were two types of people in life, winners and losers. I wasn’t a loser. When those close to me would suggest I had an unhealthy obsession with winning, I’d laugh it off and tell them I was just driven.
Yes, I used to think of myself as driven, or perhaps determined or maybe even ambitious. But never obsessed. Obsession suggests I’m not in control. But driven, determined, and ambitious are positive words! They suggest I’m in control of my own destiny. Obsessed! Are you kidding me!
Let me share a little of my family and background before the army.
- Before the Army
Ever since I was a young boy I dreamed of growing up and being a soldier like my famous uncle. My name is Joab. My story is recorded in three OT books, 2 Samuel, 1 Kings, and 1 Chronicles. I am one of three boys; my brothers are Abishai [abby-shy] and Asahel [asa-el], our mother is Zeruiah, my dad is Suri. We were from the little village of Bethlehem. Yes, that Bethlehem, where a thousand years after my day Jesus would be born.
My family’s genealogy is given in 1 Chronicles 2, go there. You might note my father’s name isn’t given, only my mother’s. This is because mom comes from a really important family. Mom had several brothers and a sister, her father, my maternal grandfather, is Jesse.
I don’t like to brag, well, maybe I do, take a look, 1 Chron. 2:13-16, “Jesse [that’s my grandfather] fathered Eliab his firstborn, Abinadab the second, Shimea the third, Nethanel the fourth, Raddai the fifth, Ozem the sixth, David [that’s King David] the seventh. And their sisters were Zeruiah [that’s mom, David’s sister] and Abigail. The sons of Zeruiah: Abishai, Joab [that’s me], and Asahel, three.”
So there I am listed with my two brothers, Abishai and Asahel along with Grandpa Jesse and Uncle David. But also note the one cousin listed, Amasa, 2:17, “Abigail bore Amasa, and the father of Amasa was Jether the Ishmaelite.” Amasa will figure an important part later in my life.
I remember with fondness my early childhood, we three boys were inseparable. Being so close in age, we were always horse-playing, which often led to fighting. But that seems to be common with brothers. The passion for soldiering was shared among my brothers. Coming from a shepherding family we found lots of time to hone our weaponry skills while tending sheep.
Because our Uncle David wasn’t much older than we were, we always regarded him as an older brother more than an uncle. In fact, we tended sheep with him before he became famous after killing Goliath. It was David that began to teach us the skills of weaponry, as you might have guessed, David was partial to the sling. David was amazing with the sling, I recall when he took out a lion one fall and in the spring he knocked down a bear; both with his sling! But the most amazing thing about David was that he had a quiet confidence about him that I envied. David was able to detach himself from the violence that seemed to follow him wherever he went. Whereas, I wasn’t able to separate myself from the violence.
Often I’d catch David quietly meditating or writing. “Come on, David, let’s practice sword fighting!” I’d say to him. “In a little bit,” he’d reply, “I’m busy now.” I just couldn’t figure my uncle out. He was so unassuming. If I hadn’t personally witnessed his skill and courage, I’d have thought he was some harp playin’, poetry lovin’ sissy. But David was different. Unlike me, he had compassion and a forgiving spirit. I forgave no man, you cross me—you will pay.
Shortly after killing Goliath David left to serve Saul, Israel’s king. Saul was our first king and the first to raise a standing army for Israel. As a nation we’d had our share of war, but since conquering the land under the leadership of Joshua, Israel never had a standing national army. Under King Saul the army mustered some 3,000 men, but it quickly dwindled down to only 600. I was afraid there’d be nothing left by the time I was old enough to join the army. But, that turned out not to be true at all.
After David left, my brothers and I were left to carry on without him. But he became our inspiration. We couldn’t wait to grow up and join the army, serving with David.
We’d have contests using our handmade bows, spears, and wooden swords and daggers, and of course the sling. My brothers were every bit as competitive as I; the result was we all became very skilled with our weapons. My favorite was the dagger [display dagger]. I liked close combat. Often a fight would break out after one of our “friendly” competitions and Abishai and Asahel would gang up on me. Knowing their weaknesses, I was always able to take the two of them—separately or together. I discovered I had a mental edge over them. It was then that I realized how important the mind was in battle. My brothers had skill, but I had just the little edge needed that put me over the top. I knew what they were thinking. I knew their weaknesses. When they hesitated, I struck.
Before I knew it, we had grown into strong, competent, and skilled young men. Our desire for war never faltered. To be honest, I’d put my brothers up against any man I knew. But in close, hand-to-hand combat, I could still take either one or both. Unless, of course, Abishai used his spear. I hate to admit it, but my brothers did regularly beat me in two areas in which they specialized, and would become famous for. Abishai could use a spear like no man I’d seen.
It was like he became one with the spear. I swear Abishai could split a hair at twenty paces! Not only that, he learned to use it to wield off attacks using both the sharp and the blunt end. When Abishai drew his spear, I’d not get near him. You may think I’m exaggerating about Abishai’s skill, but consider what is recorded of him in the Bible. In 1 Chronicles 11 is a list of mighty warriors who severed under King David. Look at what is said of Abishai, 1 Chron. 11:20, “Now Abishai, the brother of Joab, was chief of the thirty. And he wielded his spear against 300 men and killed them and won a name beside the three.” I told you he was good!
Asahel’s specialty was speed. He could run like the wind, a great advantage in our day when most men fought afoot. Asahel had endurance and never seemed to be winded. Although the least skilled fighter, he was by far the fastest of us three, again the Bible records his skill, 2 Sam. 2:18, “And the three sons of Zeruiah were there, Joab, Abishai, and Asahel. Now Asahel was as swift of foot as a wild gazelle.”
So, there we were all grown up when the most unexpected thing happened, David deserted the army.
- Joining David’s Army
After going into the army David quickly made a name for himself, became a captain, and married one of Saul’s daughters. David and Jonathan (Saul’s eldest son), another war hero, became best of friends. Everything was set for my brothers and me to join the army when things went awry.
Seems Saul had it in for Uncle David and attempted to kill him. But with the help of Jonathan, David escaped and fled into the wilderness with Saul and his army in pursuit. This is when my brothers and I joined with David. I didn’t want to go against my king, but I knew my uncle’s heart. David wouldn’t have fled without good reason. I figured if I were on David’s side, I’d be on the side of right. That turned out to be a good call.
It was during this time, under the command of David that I learned the art of war. I learned how to outsmart the enemy, how to use the terrain to gain an advantage, and how to beat a superior numbered force. But most what I learned from David was how he trusted God for victory. It seemed David had not stopped his habit of meditating or writing. Nor did he lack that quiet confidence I found in him. But, I was no David. David may have trusted God for victory, but I was much more pragmatic. Or, so I believed—I trusted me.
While there’s no doubt David was a brave warrior he was also a man with a gentle and quiet spirit. I was not. I was a man of violence and I used violent means to achieve an end.
I recall one night, after everyone had turned in I found David sitting next to a dwindling camp fire, writing. “What are you writing, David, strategic plans of attack?” I asked. He smiled, shook his head and said, “No, I’m writing a song.” “A song! Are you kidding me! Saul’s army is encamped just on the other side of those rocks and you’re writing lyrics to a song!” I exclaimed.
David looked up from his work and smiled, “Yes, Joab, I am.” “Okay, I’m game. Read me what you have so far.” As David looked into the fire I could see the flames dancing in his eyes as he contemplated, “Well, I was thinking about all this fighting and how scary it gets at times when death is so close it feels like a shadow covering you. Then the Lord called to mind the time when we used to tend sheep. Remember those days, Joab?” I nodded my recollection. “Well, here’s what I’ve written:”
1The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
3 He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil, for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
“Well good luck with that David!” I smirked; “I’m going to get some shuteye.” Again a sincere smile came across David’s face, “Goodnight, Joab.”
That’s the difference between David and me; while the Lord is his Shepherd, I follow no one. When wronged, I take action. When wronged, I make things right. When wronged, I go for the kill. So, there you have it. David took matters to the Lord, I took matters in my own hands, let me give you an example, it comes from the first battle after David was crowned king over Judah.
As you know, America’s bloodiest war was its Civil War. Civil war is the worst kind. Brother against brother, father against son, families split, and victory doesn’t feel like victory when your brother receives the business end of your weapon.
The decisive battle in your American Civil War took place at Gettysburg, it was a victory for the Union. The first battle the Bible records of my involvement was also the decisive battle of our first civil war, it was fought at the pool of Gibeon, half-way between where the two kings had set up their thrones. The story is recorded in 2 Samuel 2. Remember, Saul was king and had been pursing David. At the same time Saul was also at war against the Philistines. My brothers and I were with David and a band of about 600 warriors loyal to David—fighting men all. While Israel was at war with the Philistines our little army had been engaged in secret guerilla warfare against the Philistines. But even with our help things went bad for Israel. King Saul and three of his sons, including Jonathan, were killed in battle against the Philistines leaving no king on the throne.
David, having been anointed by Samuel years before to succeed Saul as king over Israel, inquired of the Lord if he should go to Judah, which is in southern Israel. The Lord told him to go, so David led the whole clan, some 600 men, and our families, to Judah. When we arrived at the towns around Hebron the people crowned him king over Judah. This wasn’t a big surprise, this was the area where we grew up; our hometown of Bethlehem was only about ten miles north of Hebron, where David set up headquarters.
Judah was the largest of the tribes; but, mind you, not all of Israel was ready to forsake Saul’s family. In an effort to maintain his power, Abner, the commander of Saul’s army, established Ishbosheth, a son of Saul by a mistress, as king over the remaining tribes of Israel, causing an immediate split, 2 Sam. 2:8-10,“8 But Abner the son of Ner, commander of Saul’s army, took Ish-bosheth the son of Saul and brought him over to Mahanaim, 9 and he made him king over Gilead and the Ashurites and Jezreel and Ephraim and Benjamin and all Israel. 10 Ish-bosheth, Saul’s son, was forty years old when he began to reign over Israel, and he reigned two years. But the house of Judah followed David.”
As you might have imagined, things were tense. Like America split North and South with two presidents, Lincoln and Davis. We too were split North and South with two kings, Ishbosheth and David.
The years under David proved that not only was I competent in military tactics, I was also a leader. I was a leader men would follow into combat. And David could find no one more loyal than me. I was loyal to my king and my country. David had several competent soldiers, but I was the one he chose to be his commanding general.
After months of posturing and small skirmishes the two armies met. On that fateful day Abner brought his army south and I led mine north. The two armies came face-to-face at a small pool located at a place called Gibeon, 2:12-13, “12 Abner the son of Ner, and the servants of Ish-bosheth the son of Saul, went out from Mahanaim to Gibeon. 13 And Joab the son of Zeruiah and the servants of David went out and met them at the pool of Gibeon. And they sat down, the one on the one side of the pool, and the other on the other side of the pool.”
So there we were, in a face-off. Neither side making a move. I had been discussing strategy with my brothers and was about to call for an attack when Abner proposed a compromise. He suggested each side select 12 men to represent the two armies. The 24 men would engage in battle and the winner would decide the victory. Well, that suited me just fine, I agreed to the challenge, here’s how it’s recorded, 2:14-15, “14 And Abner said to Joab, ‘Let the young men arise and compete before us.’ And Joab said, ‘Let them arise.’ 15 Then they arose and passed over by number, twelve for Benjamin and Ish-bosheth the son of Saul, and twelve of the servants of David.”
The 24 men fought bravely, each fighting for his king and country, but it ended with no one victorious, and no one left alive, 2:16, “And each caught his opponent by the head and thrust his sword in his opponent’s side, so they fell down together. Therefore that place was called Helkath-hazzurim, which is at Gibeon.” Helkath-hazzurim—the field of daggers!
As soon as the last of the men fell I signaled for an attack, Abner was caught off guard and we scored a decisive victory, 2:17, “And the battle was very fierce that day. And Abner and the men of Israel were beaten before the servants of David.” It’s a day that I will never forget, not because we won the battle; but because of the great loss I suffered.
Abner realized he couldn’t take us and fled, making a beeline north attempting to save what he could of his men. But my brothers and I weren’t about to let him escape unscathed, Abishai and I glanced at Asahel. No words needed to be exchanged, we three were of one spirit. Asahel met our look, gave us a smile of conformation and bolted like a wild gazelle after Abner who was running for all he’s worth, 2:18-19, “18 And the three sons of Zeruiah were there, Joab, Abishai, and Asahel. Now Asahel was as swift of foot as a wild gazelle. 19 And Asahel pursued Abner, and as he went, he turned neither to the right hand nor to the left from following Abner.”
Abner didn’t get far when Asahel started closing in on him, 2:20, “Then Abner looked behind him and said, ‘Is it you, Asahel?’ And he answered, ‘It is I.’” Looking back, I have to admit, Abner did give Asahel warning. Asahel was faster and stronger, but Abner was the more seasoned soldier. In many ways Abner and I were alike, we could read people. We knew their weaknesses and would strike when they least expected it. But, this time Abner warned Asahel twice.
Abner wasn’t warning Asahel out of mercy, he knew if something happened to Asahel he’d have me to deal with, 2:21-22, “21 Abner said to him, ‘Turn aside to your right hand or to your left, and seize one of the young men and take his spoil.’ But Asahel would not turn aside from following him. 22 And Abner said again to Asahel, ‘Turn aside from following me. Why should I strike you to the ground? How then could I lift up my face to your brother Joab?’”
Asahel was a son of Zeruiah. We were cut from the same cloth. Concede victory? No way. It was all or nothing, we cower to no man, 2:23, “But he refused to turn aside. Therefore Abner struck him in the stomach with the butt of his spear, so that the spear came out at his back. And he fell there and died where he was. And all who came to the place where Asahel had fallen and died, stood still.”
Asahel’s death brought our army to a screeching halt. As the men came upon my brother’s lifeless body, they stopped. The sight of Asahel lying dead, with his insides poured out on the ground caused the men to stop and think. They realized Abner was luring them into a trap. Abner was gaining the high ground placing his army at a tactical advantage. My men stopped their pursuit. By now it was getting late. Abner was assembling his troops and preparing to redeploy them. My men were right to stop. I didn’t.
When we caught up to the men gathered around Asahel’s body Abishai and I continued on right to the front of our army. It wasn’t good tactics, a sense of duty, or loyalty to the king that was driving us. It was bitter anger, 2:24, “But Joab and Abishai pursued Abner. And as the sun was going down they came to the hill of Ammah, which lies before Giah on the way to the wilderness of Gibeon.” The men, loyal soldiers all, had fallen in behind and continued the pursuit, foolish as it was.
That’s when Abner stopped; he had gained the upper hand, 2:25, “And the people of Benjamin gathered themselves together behind Abner and became one group and took their stand on the top of a hill.”
Abishai and I stopped at the bottom of the hill and looked up at Abner and his army. It would have been nothing short of suicide to attempt further pursuit. Abner knew it and we knew it.
Then Abner spoke some words of wisdom. In the midst of battle he kept his wits about him, for that I must respect him. Here’s what he said, 2:26, “Then Abner called to Joab, ‘Shall the sword devour forever? Do you not know that the end will be bitter? How long will it be before you tell your people to turn from the pursuit of their brothers?’”
He asked three rhetorical questions; all that cut to the heart of the matter. This is the wisdom of a counselor. Rather than telling me what to do he asked me questions. Asking questions is much less threatening to me. It makes me think, it gives me a choice, and makes me defend my position. Look again at what he said, his first question was, “Shall the sword devour forever?” This war had been going on for a long time. When would it end? In conflict that pits brother against brother the only winner is death, symbolized by the sword. It may not always be physical death, it may be the death of a relationship. But death is the only winner.
His second question was, “Do you not know that the end will be bitter?” Nothing good comes from a power struggle within a family. When there’s a winner, there must be a loser. No matter who prevails there will remain a bitterness between the parties.
His third question was, “How long will it be before you tell your people to turn from the pursuit of their brothers?” In other words, “The ball’s in your court, you can stop this right now.” Still seething with anger I realized Abner’s words hit a cord with my men and resentfully, I told him as much, 2:27, “And Joab said, ‘As God lives, if you had not spoken, surely the men would not have given up the pursuit of their brothers until the morning.’”
I’d like to say I listened to Abner’s wisdom, but I didn’t. This moment was a turning point in my life. Had I listened, my life would have taken a very different direction. But, I didn’t listen; I was controlled by bitterness. Rather than believing he was being honest, I suspected Abner realized eventually I’d prevail…I mean we’d prevail, David’s army would…this wasn’t about me; was it? Maybe it was. Maybe my life was all about me.
Nevertheless, I realized charging up that hill would be suicide for me and my men. This day’s battle was over; I sounded retreat, 2:28, “So Joab blew the trumpet, and all the men stopped and pursued Israel no more, nor did they fight anymore.”
IV. Joab commits murder
As the war dredged on David became more powerful and Ishbosheth weaker. It became abundantly clear that soon all of Israel would recognize David as king. Abner was no fool, he could see what was coming. Although Ishbosheth was king, Abner was the one with the real power in Israel and he sent a message to David seeking a truce. David took the bait and welcomed Abner with open arms, even making a big feast for him. After negotiations Abner departed in peace.
I knew nothing of this until I returned to Hebron from a campaign, 2 Sam. 3:22-23, “22 Just then the servants of David arrived with Joab from a raid, bringing much spoil with them. But Abner was not with David at Hebron, for he had sent him away, and he had gone in peace. 23 When Joab and all the army that was with him came, it was told Joab, ‘Abner the son of Ner came to the king, and he has let him go, and he has gone in peace.’”
I couldn’t believe it! Was David getting soft? Was he losing his edge, didn’t he realize what Abner was up to? Abner came to spy out David’s resources, not to make peace—or at least that’s the way I saw it! I had a private word with the King, 3:24-25, “24 Then Joab went to the king and said, ‘What have you done? Behold, Abner came to you. Why is it that you have sent him away, so that he is gone? 25 You know that Abner the son of Ner came to deceive you and to know your going out and your coming in, and to know all that you are doing.’”
David wouldn’t listen. He figured Abner was being straight. David told me it was done and he had sent Abner away in peace, I was told to leave it alone. Well I wasn’t. This wasn’t about peace between Israel and Judah, this was about what Abner did to my brother. I wasn’t about to let it go.
As soon as I left I sent men to entice Abner back to the city, 3:26, “When Joab came out from David’s presence, he sent messengers after Abner, and they brought him back from the cistern of Sirah. But David did not know about it.” If David wasn’t going to take care of matters, I would.
I went to the city gate and waited. It wasn’t long before Abner and his entourage crested the horizon and made their way back to the city gate. Abner greeted me with a smile and a customary bow. I returned the gestures and asked him inside the gate’s guardroom, “I have a special message for you, my friend,” I told him, 3:27, “And when Abner returned to Hebron, Joab took him aside into the midst of the gate to speak with him privately, and there he struck him in the stomach, so that he died, for the blood of Asahel his brother.”
As his life was draining from his body Abner looked into my eyes, his lips struggling to form words. Slowly I removed my dagger from his gut and I heard a gurgled whisper, “Do you not know that the end will be bitter?”
How did he know bitterness would mark my life? I served David as commander of his army my whole life. Success? I had it. Position? I had it. Wealth, I had it. But all was wrapped in bitterness.
Abner was right. I died a bitter man. In another fit of rage I murdered a second time; this time it was my own cousin, Amasa. David chose Amasa to replace me as commander after I killed Absalom against David’s wishes. I held my position under David as commander to the bitter end. And that’s what it was, a bitter end.
After David died I sided with his son Adonijah to replace him as king, even though I knew David’s wish was for Solomon to take the throne. From his deathbed David warned Solomon about me, 1 Kings 2:5-6 “5 ‘Moreover, you also know what Joab the son of Zeruiah did to me, how he dealt with the two commanders of the armies of Israel, Abner the son of Ner, and Amasa the son of Jether, whom he killed, avenging in time of peace for blood that had been shed in war, and putting the blood of war on the belt around his waist and on the sandals on his feet. 6 Act therefore according to your wisdom, but do not let his gray head go down to Sheol in peace.’” As Abner, David too was prophetic. I wouldn’t go to the grave in peace.
Solomon became king and upon learning I had sided against him, he ordered my death. I fled to the tabernacle and took hold of the altar; 2:28, “When the news came to Joab—for Joab had supported Adonijah although he had not supported Absalom—Joab fled to the tent of the Lord and caught hold of the horns of the altar.”
As I knelt there my bloodstained hands on the altar I thought about my life. It had been all about me. When someone crossed me, I’d eliminate them. I had no use for anyone that didn’t see things my way. The words David wrote came to mind, “He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” Why didn’t I follow that path? Because it had always been about me and what I wanted. For me life was a never ending war. I was at war with everyone, my king, my wife, my children, and even my God.
Would anyone mourn my passing? How would I be remembered? I prayed my children would not be like their father. Again Abner’s words came to mind, “Do you not know that the end will be bitter?”
Solomon was given word as to my whereabouts; I knew the end was near, 2:29-32, “29 And when it was told King Solomon, ‘Joab has fled to the tent of the Lord, and behold, he is beside the altar,’ Solomon sent Benaiah the son of Jehoiada, saying, ‘Go, strike him down.’ 30 So Benaiah came to the tent of the Lord and said to him, ‘The king commands, ‘Come out.’’ But he said, ‘No, I will die here.’” My last recorded words were words of defiance, life was about me; so was my death.
“Then Benaiah brought the king word again, saying, ‘Thus said Joab, and thus he answered me.’ 31 The king replied to him, ‘Do as he has said, strike him down and bury him, and thus take away from me and from my father’s house the guilt for the blood that Joab shed without cause. 32 The Lord will bring back his bloody deeds on his own head, because, without the knowledge of my father David, he attacked and killed with the sword two men more righteous and better than himself, Abner the son of Ner, commander of the army of Israel, and Amasa the son of Jether, commander of the army of Judah.’”
Conclusion: Today’s story capsulized Joab’s life. Joab lived with a “root of bitterness.” Bitterness spouts when a person fails to obtain God’s grace, Heb. 12:15, “See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no ‘root of bitterness’ springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled.”
The life of David stands in stark contrast to Joab’s life. Cleary David not only obtained God’s grace he extended grace to others.
Recall Abner’s advice through his rhetorical questions? “Shall the sword devour forever?” The conflict had been going on for a long time. When would it end? In conflict that pits brother against brother the only winner is death. It may not always be physical death, it may be the death of a relationship.
His second question was, “Do you not know that the end will be bitter?” Nothing good comes from a power struggle within a family. When there’s a winner, there must be a loser. No matter who prevails there will remain a bitterness between the parties.
His third question was, “How long will it be before you tell your people to turn from the pursuit of their brothers?” In other words, “The ball’s in your court, you can stop this right now.”
Joab had come to a turning point in his life. He was in a position to put a stop to the conflict, but he chose not to. Even after peace was made Joab refused to submit his stubborn will.
Is there conflict in your life? Are you at odds with someone in your family? Someone you work with? A friend? A brother or sister at church? “Do you not know that the end will be bitter?” Let’s pray.
 (See Josephus, Ant. 7.1.3)