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The Blue Letter Bible

David Guzik :: Study Guide for 2 Samuel 2

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David and the War with Ishbosheth

A. Two kings over the people of God.

1. (2 Samuel 2:1-4a) David, king of Judah.

It happened after this that David inquired of the LORD, saying, “Shall I go up to any of the cities of Judah?” And the LORD said to him, “Go up.” David said, “Where shall I go up?” And He said, “To Hebron.” So David went up there, and his two wives also, Ahinoam the Jezreelitess, and Abigail the widow of Nabal the Carmelite. And David brought up the men who were with him, every man with his household. So they dwelt in the cities of Hebron. Then the men of Judah came, and there they anointed David king over the house of Judah.

a. David inquired of the LORD: Certainly, this was a key to success in David’s life. With rare exceptions, he constantly inquired of the LORD. David wanted more than God’s blessing on his plans; he wanted to be right in the middle of God’s plan.

b. Shall I go up to any of the cities of Judah: At this time David was still in Ziklag, in the territory of the Philistines. Out of great discouragement and despair, he left the land of Israel and lived almost as a Philistine among the Philistines. Now that David was restored to the LORD, he wondered if it was time for him to go back to his homeland.

i. It isn’t as simple a question as we might think. David didn’t want to appear opportunistic, as if he only came back to Israel because Saul was dead. While not being overly concerned with appearances before man, he was not unconcerned with appearances either.

c. And the LORD said to him: God was faithful to answer when David inquired. Since David just came out of a period of spiritual decline, God could have put him on “probation” and refused to speak to him for a while. Instead, the LORD spoke to David and gave him guidance.

i. Some 15 to 20 years before this, David was anointed king over Israel (1 Samuel 16:12-13). As the promise seems almost fulfilled, David didn’t rush in blindly and seize it. Instead, he carefully sought the LORD. David knew the promise was from God, so he knew God could fulfill it without any manipulation from David.

d. There they anointed David king: This shows that David did not seize the throne. The elders of Judah approached him. David knew that it was better to let God lift you up through others than to strive to advance yourself. We should strive to advance God’s Kingdom and leave the advancement of self in His hands.

i. This also shows that there is a sense in which the first anointing wasn’t enough. We need a fresh anointing from God and ongoing experience with the Holy Spirit.

ii. This anointing couldn’t come when David still lived among the Philistines virtually as a Philistine. He had to get things right in his own walk before this fresh anointing.

2. (2 Samuel 2:4b-7) David thanks the men of Jabesh Gilead.

And they told David, saying, “The men of Jabesh Gilead were the ones who buried Saul.” So David sent messengers to the men of Jabesh Gilead, and said to them, “You are blessed of the LORD, for you have shown this kindness to your lord, to Saul, and have buried him. And now may the LORD show kindness and truth to you. I also will repay you this kindness, because you have done this thing. Now therefore, let your hands be strengthened, and be valiant; for your master Saul is dead, and also the house of Judah has anointed me king over them.”

a. You have shown this kindness to your lord, to Saul, and have buried him: David showed appropriate gratitude to the men who risked their lives to honor the memory of Saul and Jonathan (1 Samuel 31:11-13).

b. Let your hands be strengthened, and be valiant: David knew that he needed brave men like these to secure and advance his kingdom, especially in the turmoil sure to surround his ascension to the throne.

3. (2 Samuel 2:8-11) Abner sets up Ishbosheth as king over Israel.

But Abner the son of Ner, commander of Saul’s army, took Ishbosheth the son of Saul and brought him over to Mahanaim; and he made him king over Gilead, over the Ashurites, over Jezreel, over Ephraim, over Benjamin, and over all Israel. Ishbosheth, Saul’s son, was forty years old when he began to reign over Israel, and he reigned two years. Only the house of Judah followed David. And the time that David was king in Hebron over the house of Judah was seven years and six months.

a. Abner the son of Ner: Abner was Saul’s cousin (1 Samuel 14:50) and the commander of Saul’s armies for many years. He first met David when David was a young man (1 Samuel 17:55-57). David once challenged Abner when he had the opportunity to kill Saul but did not. David pointed out that Abner failed to protect his king.

b. Ishbosheth the Son of Saul: Saul had three sons who died with him in battle (1 Samuel 31:6). There is no previous mention of Ishbosheth among the sons of Saul, so it is possible that he was an illegitimate son or the son of a concubine.

i. We shouldn’t forget that David was also a son of Saul by marriage. David married Michal, the daughter of Saul (1 Samuel 18:17-30).

c. He made him king: Abner made Ishbosheth king, probably so that he could be the real power behind the throne of a weak king.

d. He reigned two years: For two years David allowed Ishbosheth to reign over most of Israel. These two years showed remarkable patience, longsuffering, and trust in God on David’s part. Ishbosheth was not the LORD’s anointed like Saul — David seemed to have every right to crush this man who stood in the way of his calling. Yet out of trust in the LORD and respect for Saul’s memory, David waited.

i. It seems strange that many of the tribes preferred Ishbosheth to David. Yet since the Philistines had overrun many of the other tribes of Israel, they were even more hesitant to come out-and-out for David. “We’ll just make the Philistines mad,” they thought. In the same way, if you will come out-and-out for the Son of David, you have to be ready for the disapproval of the Philistines.

e. Seven years and six months: This describes the period of time David had his headquarters in Hebron. For the first two years of this time, he ruled over Judah alone and Ishbosheth (propped up by Abner) ruled the rest of Israel.

i. David refused to force his reign on his subjects — and neither will the Son of David. Like David, Jesus will battle against pretenders to the throne, but He will not force His reign on mankind — yet.

B. War between the tribe of Judah and the other tribes of Israel.

1. (2 Samuel 2:12-17) Abner’s troops and Joab’s troops square off and fiercely battle.

Now Abner the son of Ner, and the servants of Ishbosheth the son of Saul, went out from Mahanaim to Gibeon. And Joab the son of Zeruiah, and the servants of David, went out and met them by the pool of Gibeon. So they sat down, one on one side of the pool and the other on the other side of the pool. Then Abner said to Joab, “Let the young men now arise and compete before us.” And Joab said, “Let them arise.” So they arose and went over by number, twelve from Benjamin, followers of Ishbosheth the son of Saul, and twelve from the servants of David. And each one grasped his opponent by the head and thrust his sword in his opponent’s side; so they fell down together. Therefore that place was called the Field of Sharp Swords, which is in Gibeon. So there was a very fierce battle that day, and Abner and the men of Israel were beaten before the servants of David.

a. Joab the son of Zeruiah: Joab was apparently one of the 400 men who joined David at Adullam Cave (1 Samuel 22:1-2), or he joined with David during this general period.

  • Joab had two notable brothers: Abishai and Asahel.
  • Joab, Abishai, and Asahel were David’s nephews, the sons of David’s sister Zeruiah (1 Chronicles 2:16).
  • Joab had a long and checkered career as David’s chief general.

b. Abner said to Joab: This was a fascinating confrontation between two similar men. Abner and Joab were each tough, mean, military men who were completely devoted to their cause.

c. Let the young men now arise and compete before us: Abner suggested some kind of contest or duel between a select group of his men and Joab’s men. When the two groups of 12 met, it quickly degenerated into a mutual bloodbath (each one grasped his opponent by the head and thrust his sword in his opponent’s side; so they fell down together). Yet David’s men under the command of Joab prevailed in the very fierce battle that followed this bloodbath at the Field of Sharp Swords.

i. “This was diabolical play, where each man thrust his sword into the body of the other, so that the twenty-four (twelve on each side) fell down dead together!” (Clarke)

2. (2 Samuel 2:18-23) Abner kills Asahel.

Now the three sons of Zeruiah were there: Joab and Abishai and Asahel. And Asahel was as fleet of foot as a wild gazelle. So Asahel pursued Abner, and in going he did not turn to the right hand or to the left from following Abner. Then Abner looked behind him and said, “Are you Asahel?” He answered, “I am.” And Abner said to him, “Turn aside to your right hand or to your left, and lay hold on one of the young men and take his armor for yourself.” But Asahel would not turn aside from following him. So Abner said again to Asahel, “Turn aside from following me. Why should I strike you to the ground? How then could I face your brother Joab?” However, he refused to turn aside. Therefore Abner struck him in the stomach with the blunt end of the spear, so that the spear came out of his back; and he fell down there and died on the spot. So it was that as many as came to the place where Asahel fell down and died, stood still.

a. The three sons of Zeruiah: Zeruiah was David’s sister (1 Chronicles 2:16). Joab and Abishai and Asahel were the nephews of David, but since David was the youngest of eight sons, they may have been about the same age or older than David.

b. Asahel pursued Abner: In the pressure and confusion of battle, Asahel got close enough to Abner, the commander of Ishbosheth’s armies. It came down to a simple chase, and if Asahel caught up to Abner, he would surely kill him.

c. Lay hold of one of the young men and take his armor for yourself: It seems that Asahel pursued Abner in part for the glory of killing the commander of Ishbosheth’s army and taking his armor as a trophy.

d. Why should I strike you to the ground? How then could I face your brother Joab: Abner first asked Asahel to turn back out of concern for his own safety. This didn’t make much sense to Asahel because it seemed that Abner was at the disadvantage. Abner also appealed to Asahel on the ground of military honor — that officers should not strike down officers, especially when it might lead to ugly retribution and the danger of leaderless armies.

i. Yet, Asahel refused to turn aside. Abner’s plea didn’t work — though perhaps it should have. Asahel was too single-minded in his determination to kill Abner and crush the armies opposing David.

e. Therefore Abner struck him in the stomach... he fell down there and died on the spot: Clearly, Abner killed Asahel in self-defense — it was the only thing he could do. Yet his concern (How then could I face your brother Joab) was entirely justified, and Joab will make it his passion to avenge his brother’s death.

3. (2 Samuel 2:24-28) A cease-fire called.

Joab and Abishai also pursued Abner. And the sun was going down when they came to the hill of Ammah, which is before Giah by the road to the Wilderness of Gibeon. Now the children of Benjamin gathered together behind Abner and became a unit, and took their stand on top of a hill. Then Abner called to Joab and said, “Shall the sword devour forever? Do you not know that it will be bitter in the latter end? How long will it be then until you tell the people to return from pursuing their brethren?” And Joab said, “As God lives, unless you had spoken, surely then by morning all the people would have given up pursuing their brethren.” So Joab blew a trumpet; and all the people stood still and did not pursue Israel anymore, nor did they fight anymore.

a. Joab and Abishai also pursued Abner: Now more than the cause of David motivated them. They wanted to avenge the killing of their brother Asahel.

b. Shall the sword devour forever: When his armies were in full retreat and ready for a final do-or-die stand — and when two angry brothers wanted blood revenge — Joab found it easy to make the plea for peace. It was certainly to his advantage to give peace a chance.

c. Joab blew a trumpet; and all the people stood still: Joab agreed to this cease-fire, probably to both rest his exhausted army and to of avoid a long, bloody civil war.

4. (1 Samuel 2:29-3:1) A great victory for David’s army.

Then Abner and his men went on all that night through the plain, crossed over the Jordan, and went through all Bithron; and they came to Mahanaim. So Joab returned from pursuing Abner. And when he had gathered all the people together, there were missing of David’s servants nineteen men and Asahel. But the servants of David had struck down, of Benjamin and Abner’s men, three hundred and sixty men who died. Then they took up Asahel and buried him in his father’s tomb, which was in Bethlehem. And Joab and his men went all night, and they came to Hebron at daybreak. Now there was a long war between the house of Saul and the house of David. But David grew stronger and stronger, and the house of Saul grew weaker and weaker.

a. There were missing of David’s servants nineteen men and Asahel: 2 Samuel 2:17 told us Abner and the men of Israel were beaten before the servants of David, but this passage shows us just how badly they were beaten. Abner and the army of Ishbosheth lost 360 men to 20 in the army of David.

b. There was a long war between the house of Saul and the house of David: This shows how wrong it was for Joab to accept Abner’s appeal for a cease-fire at the battle of The Field of Sharp Swords. The fact was that they couldn’t just get along, and that there could be no peace between the rightful king David and the pretender to the throne, Ishbosheth. The cease-fire seemed to make things better, but in reality, it only made things worse and it led to the long war.

i. When we try to make peace between King Jesus and King Self within us, the result is a long, bitter war. It is so much better to simply surrender and submit to the reign of Jesus.

ii. “In the lives of many Christian people today there is raging, literally, a civil war. The flesh — the kingdom of Saul, struggles with the spirit — the kingdom of David, and the conflict is bitter. We do everything we possibly can to hold up the tottering kingdom of self, so that it might exist just a bit longer. If only we could preserve some rights; if only we could have at least part of our own way; if only we could keep this or that at any cost! We feel we must bolster up this kingdom of self, that we cannot let ourselves be crucified with Christ.” (Redpath)

c. David grew stronger and stronger: The increasing strength of David and increasing weakness of Saul’s house did not begin when Saul died. It began when God first chose David and withdrew His Spirit from Saul (1 Samuel 16:13-14).

©2018 David Guzik — No distribution beyond personal use without permission


  1. Clarke, Adam "Clarke's Commentary: The Holy Bible Containing the Old and New Testaments with a Commentary and Critical Notes" Volume 2 (Joshua-Esther) (New York: Eaton and Mains, 1827)
  2. Redpath, Alan "The Making of a Man of God: Studies in the Life of David" (Old Tappan, New Jersey: Revell, 1962)

Updated: August 2022

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