Read 2 Samuel 3: 17-31 to start
This evening we’re going to be looking at an Old Testament character with a dark history. I could spend the entire time reading verses where he is mentioned and where his actions are described, both positive and seriously negative, but for the sake of time I’ll try to only read short sections as applicable.
The person I would like to look at is Joab. An Israelite general, specifically the commander of David’s army, and a competent, brave, and successful leader, we see Joab time and time again in the books of 1 Chronicles and 2 Samuel in particular. One of three sons of David’s sister Zeruiah, Joab was a valiant leader. He led the capture of Jerusalem from the Jebusites, and conducted a number of successful military campaigns against hostile foreign neighbours. He also provided good advice to David on a number of occasions, such as in dealing with Absalom, and in the census of the people in 2 Samuel chapter 24. But as we saw a moment ago, Joab was also a murderer, and it is that aspect of the man that I would like to consider this evening. There are four specific accounts of murders that Joab committed, with four different motives, and we are going to look at each of those this evening.
You might be wondering why preach a sermon about a murderer, and what sort of lesson can there be in that? After all, I’m pretty sure that no one here is guilty of murder, and it’s not likely that anyone here thinks that murder is okay. I hope I don’t have to remind anyone of that in particular. If you need to be told that murder is wrong, well, we’d best get Sunday school going again sooner rather than later, we have some basics to get back to.
But it’s not only about murder. In Matthew chapter 5, during the sermon on the mount, Christ spoke about murder. Reading from verse 21 Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: 22 But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire. 23 Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; 24 Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.
Just to be clear, Christ equated anger with murder. This passage is highly applicable to the story of Joab, and it connects it to our own experience, because while we may not be murders, who here does not get angry? we read a moment ago will tie in to his story, and I trust there will be a lesson in there for us all.
No, while we are hopefully not cold blooded killers here today, the reasons, the motives behind Joab’s murders should all be easy for us to understand. His deeds may have been extreme, and I would hope are far beyond what any of us would ever do, but his heart is not so different from yours and mine. That’s scary to think of, because who wants to believe that they have the heart of a murderer inside? What’s more, Joab’s reasoning, his self-justification for his wrong-doings, those may be all too familiar for each of us.
But let’s get to Joab’s story. To establish the scene we could have read 2 Samuel chapter 2, that chapter tells us how there was a civil war in Israel, with much of Israel following after Saul’s son Ishbosheth, and the tribe of Judah following David. There was a battle, and Abner, Ishbosheth’s war leader, killed Asahel, Joab’s brother. Despite the fact that this happened during battle, and Abner was only defending himself, Joab did not forgive nor forget. And so in the next chapter, which we read to start, we see how Joab, upon learning that Abner had fallen out with Ishbosheth and planned to turn the kingdom over to David, instead of being pleased that the civil war would end, instead found opportunity to murder Abner.
This was cold blooded revenge, plain and simple. Joab made up an excuse that Abner could not be trusted, but really, any reason to avenge his brother’s death would have been enough. And so he killed him, not by challenging him to a duel or anything, but by deception and surprise. Joab acted out of vengeance, pure and simple, because he felt that Abner had wronged him, and he took it upon himself to do something about it.
This is a basic human reaction, you hurt me so I’ll hurt you back. I’ll hurt you back as much or more. We’ve all felt it, we’ve likely all done it, just not to that level. You push me, so I push you. You call me a name, I call you a worse name. Does it make anything better? No, of course not. It only makes things worse.
In the passage we read, David effectively cursed Joab, his own nephew I’ll remind you, for his evil doing. At the end of the chapter, he reiterates that, I’ll read the last verse, 39 And I am this day weak, though anointed king; and these men the sons of Zeruiah be too hard for me: the LORD shall reward the doer of evil according to his wickedness.
Revenge is bad, but one can perhaps understand how Joab felt justified in his actions. It’s not an excuse, but it’s a reason. Sometimes we do questionable things because we think we have a good reason. Sometimes we do terrible things because we think we have a good reason. This brings us to the second murder that Joab committed, the murder of Uriah.
I won’t recount the entire sordid affair, but David desired to marry Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, and in order to do so, Uriah had to be out of the way. But as Uriah was one of David’s loyal soldiers, well, let’s read from 2 Samuel chapter 11, reading at verse 14 And it came to pass in the morning, that David wrote a letter to Joab, and sent it by the hand of Uriah. 15 And he wrote in the letter, saying, Set ye Uriah in the forefront of the hottest battle, and retire ye from him, that he may be smitten, and die. 16 And it came to pass, when Joab observed the city, that he assigned Uriah unto a place where he knew that valiant men were. 17 And the men of the city went out, and fought with Joab: and there fell some of the people of the servants of David; and Uriah the Hittite died also.
Let me be clear on this, King David is absolutely guilty of the death of Uriah the Hittite. He went so far as to have the man deliver his own death warrant, which is adding insult to injury. But Joab, who received this instruction to have Uriah die in battle, carried it out, and we have nothing to suggest that Joab even hesitated. The king wants Uriah to die in battle? Okey-dokey, let’s make that happen.
David told Joab to do something wrong. Joab complied. We have lots of other accounts where Joab questioned David, where he provided counsel, sometimes good, sometimes not as good, but he was often willing to stand up to the king, at least when it suited his own purposes. Here, Joab was party to murder with the excuse that the king told him to do it.
We don’t know if Joab knew the whole story behind David’s wickedness concerning Uriah and Bathsheba, or if he just went along with it and did the wrong thing. What matters to us is that he did the wrong thing. The fact that someone in authority told him to do it does not make it okay, does not make it any less a sin.
This is something that you likely have faced in your life already, and younger folks, if you haven’t, the day is coming. It may not be, in fact, it almost certainly won’t be, a king who tells you to commit a murder, but someone in a position of influence or authority will at some point instruct you to do something that you know is wrong. How do you react to that? What will your answer be?
It may not even be someone giving you an order. A friend, a sibling, a classmate, a co-worker, a customer, advising you to do this or that, look at this, listen to this, drink this, smoke this, watch this, whatever it happens to be, and it will be sinful and wrong. If you follow, if you comply, it will send you down a dark and dangerous path, one with much pain and difficulty and heartache, perhaps not all of it yours. The fact that someone else told you to do it won’t be much of a consolation. It won’t be murder, but wickedness of any stripe is harmful. Sin is sin, even if you claim that the devil made you do it, or society led you astray, or that you learned it from someone else.
Joab didn’t learn murder from David, certainly not. But he did follow David’s evil scheme that lead to a man’s death. That’s hardly the last murder we see Joab commit. In fact, this murder set up the next one.
In the wake of Uriah’s murder, David’s family life began to deteriorate. It’s sad, but it’s hardly surprising that someone who destroyed one family for his own selfish purposes saw his children turn against one another, and against him. In short, Absalom, David’s third son, murdered Amnon, David’s eldest, for reasons we won’t get into, other than to say that Amnon was hardly innocent. After a time in exile, Absalom returned and eventually led a rebellion against David. Those loyal to David fled with the king, and spent months assembling a force to prepare to meet Absalom in battle. When the time came, David remained in the city while his forces went out to fight, and we’ll join the story in 2 Samuel chapter 18, at verse 5 And the king commanded Joab and Abishai and Ittai, saying, Deal gently for my sake with the young man, even with Absalom. And all the people heard when the king gave all the captains charge concerning Absalom. 6 So the people went out into the field against Israel: and the battle was in the wood of Ephraim; 7 Where the people of Israel were slain before the servants of David, and there was there a great slaughter that day of twenty thousand men. 8 For the battle was there scattered over the face of all the country: and the wood devoured more people that day than the sword devoured. 9 And Absalom met the servants of David. And Absalom rode upon a mule, and the mule went under the thick boughs of a great oak, and his head caught hold of the oak, and he was taken up between the heaven and the earth; and the mule that was under him went away. 10 And a certain man saw it, and told Joab, and said, Behold, I saw Absalom hanged in an oak. 11 And Joab said unto the man that told him, And, behold, thou sawest him, and why didst thou not smite him there to the ground? and I would have given thee ten shekels of silver, and a girdle. 12 And the man said unto Joab, Though I should receive a thousand shekels of silver in mine hand, yet would I not put forth mine hand against the king’s son: for in our hearing the king charged thee and Abishai and Ittai, saying, Beware that none touch the young man Absalom. 13 Otherwise I should have wrought falsehood against mine own life: for there is no matter hid from the king, and thou thyself wouldest have set thyself against me. 14 Then said Joab, I may not tarry thus with thee. And he took three darts in his hand, and thrust them through the heart of Absalom, while he was yet alive in the midst of the oak.
Joab had been given clear instructions which he disregarded. Once he had listened to David and committed a murder, this time he ignored the king and committed murder. He slaughtered Absalom while he hung helpless in a tree. This was a crime of expedience, of convenience, because Absalom had caused much trouble, and as far as Joab was concerned, he needed to go away permanently. David’s explicit wishes to save Absalom alive were not heeded, because Joab decided that he knew what was best. And in this case, what he decided what was best was disobedience and murder.
Revenge is a basic human desire, one that we should not act on, but one that people often excuse. There is some small hint of justification. Doing a wrong thing because someone ordered you to do it, well, there is likewise some small hint of excuse there, even if it is self delusional. Prison guards in concentration camps did terrible things because the higher ups told them to, but both the guards and the commanders end up in front of war crimes tribunals. The commanders face harsher judgements.
Here Joab had no excuse, no matter how small, other than he decided this was best. Absalom was a problem, he had to go. And frankly, Absalom was a problem. Had Joab spared him, would he have turned on David again? It’s entirely possible. But he had been told to spare the king’s son, and here he was a ready prisoner, stuck in a tree and easily subdued, and instead of taking him captive, Joab killed him without hesitation. In his mind it was the right thing to do. It was the convenient thing to do. It was the easy thing to do. It was the simple thing to do. But it was the wrong thing to do.
Solomon, who was David’s son and would have been a child or a youth at the time of Absalom’s rebellion, wrote in the book of Proverbs, chapter 14, at verse 12 There is a way which seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death. Was he perhaps thinking of Joab when he penned that verse? We don’t know, but it is possible. We’ll get back to Solomon later, because he comes up at the end of Joab’s story, but it is something to think about. The way that seems right, when it runs contrary to God’s ways, leads to harm, destruction and death.
How often do we do something wrong because we think that it is easy or acceptable or convenient or that it will be a good idea? I don’t know how many times I’ve had to chastise my children for doing something because they thought it would be a good idea, often something that I had specifically told them not to do. When we do wrong, because we think it’s the best option, that does not make it any less wrong. We do not go and commit murder because we think that is the best course of action, but there are so many smaller things we do when we know we should not, we know that it goes against God’s law. Do we think that we know better than God? That’s arrogance in the extreme.
Joab must have thought that he knew better than David, because he ignored his master’s instructions. David did not ignore Joab’s actions though. He replaced Joab as commander of the army. He actually put Amasa, who was one of Joab’s cousins, and therefore another of David’s nephews, into that role.
If we had read through the entire story of Absalom’s rebellion we would have seen that Amasa was actually the commander of the rebel army, Absalom had installed him in that role when Joab and those most loyal to David had fled. Putting Amasa in that role was a bold move, because it showed to anyone who had rebelled that forgiveness was available. But it was also a questionable move, because Amasa’s forces had been defeated by David’s loyalists. Would he be an effective commander?
We’ll never know, because Joab killed him, too. After David returned to Jerusalem, a man named Sheba started a new revolt, and many of the people followed after him instead of returning to David. The tribe of Judah, David’s tribe, they remained loyal. We’ll join the story at verse 4 of chapter 20. 4 Then said the king to Amasa, Assemble me the men of Judah within three days, and be thou here present. 5 So Amasa went to assemble the men of Judah: but he tarried longer than the set time which he had appointed him. 6 And David said to Abishai, Now shall Sheba the son of Bichri 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. 7 And there went out after him Joab’s men, and the Cherethites, and the Pelethites, and all the mighty men: and they went out of Jerusalem, to pursue after Sheba the son of Bichri. 8 When they were at the great stone which is in Gibeon, Amasa went before them. 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. 9 And Joab said to Amasa, Art thou in health, my brother? And Joab took Amasa by the beard with the right hand to kiss him. 10 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. So Joab and Abishai his brother pursued after Sheba the son of Bichri. 11 And one of Joab’s men stood by him, and said, He that favoureth Joab, and he that is for David, let him go after Joab.
Another murder, and no doubt another excuse. Amasa was ineffective at meeting deadlines and gathering an army, and he could not be trusted to put down the rebellion, that was no doubt Joab’s rationale. Better kill him to get him out of the way. I’m glad things aren’t like that at my work when I miss a deadline. But this had little or nothing to do with Amasa’s competence. This was jealousy, plain and simple. Amasa had been given his old job, and Joab was not ready to let it go. What’s more, Joab had been successful as the commander, he had lead many campaigns and had done well. He had not been replaced because of incompetence. He had been replaced because of disobedience.
With Amasa out of the picture, the job of general fell into Joab’s lap. If we read the rest of the chapter we would see that Joab and his forces put down the rebellion with minimal loss of life and without fighting any pitched battles, and indeed, Joab was put back into his previous role. He killed his main rival, and everything seemed to work out for him. We don’t see any immediate criticism from David for this fourth murder, the least excusable of the lot. It appeared, at least for a time, that Joab was above the law.
Sometimes it does seem that we can get away with sin. There are no instant consequences, no sudden penalties, no comeuppance on the near horizon. We think that we have gotten away with it, and we forget that God is not mocked, He does not ignore or excuse wickedness. Only the blood of Christ pays the price for sin, trusting in His sacrifice to save you, and the necessary repentance and confession. Anything else merely staves it off for a little while.
And this brings us to the final chapter of Joab’s story. Turning over to the book of 1 Kings, in chapter 2 we read of David’s final words to his son Solomon. I’ll jump in at verse 5 Moreover thou knowest also what Joab the son of Zeruiah did to me, and what he did to the two captains of the hosts of Israel, unto Abner the son of Ner, and unto Amasa the son of Jether, whom he slew, and shed the blood of war in peace, and put the blood of war upon his girdle that was about his loins, and in his shoes that were on his feet. 6 Do therefore according to thy wisdom, and let not his hoar head go down to the grave in peace.
Solomon was not a perfect king, no more than David was. But he did pay heed to his father’s instructions. There were several items of housecleaning that David had left him, and Joab crimes were one of them. Joab, when he saw that Solomon had dealt with others who had been problematic, had the gall to flee to the tabernacle and to grab hold of the altar, as if being in a holy place would save him from the consequences of his wicked deeds. When you spend your life doing things your own way, following your own rules, disobeying your king and disobeying God’s laws, how brazen to turn at the end, when doom comes at last, and seek protection from the God you ignored!
29 And it was told king Solomon that Joab was fled unto the tabernacle of the LORD; and, behold, he is by the altar. Then Solomon sent Benaiah the son of Jehoiada, saying, Go, fall upon him. 30 And Benaiah came to the tabernacle of the LORD, and said unto him, Thus saith the king, Come forth. And he said, Nay; but I will die here. And Benaiah brought the king word again, saying, Thus said Joab, and thus he answered me. 31 And the king said unto him, Do as he hath said, and fall upon him, and bury him; that thou mayest take away the innocent blood, which Joab shed, from me, and from the house of my father.
Joab died a bloody and violent death, but he had lived a bloody and violent life. He may have made excuses for every one of his crimes; he may have felt that each was justifiable, that he was right to do wrong. But excusing sin does not remove sin. The consequences come sooner or later. The price must be paid.
For everyone listening this evening, I would remind you all that the price for sin has already been paid by the Lord Jesus Christ, and if you have accepted Him as your Saviour, then you will not perish as did Joab. But if you refuse to believe, refuse to repent, then perish you will. And I would caution you all that excusing sin, that justifying it, that thinking we know right, that we know better than God, that is no way for a believer to live. We should know better, and we should live better. We may not be murderers, but do we excuse the sins that we do commit? Do we come up with all manner of self-justifications for our own wrong doings? If so, we may be more similar to Joab than we care to admit.