I've Seen This One Before
Passage: 2 Samuel 20:1–26
I've Seen This One Before
In the opening chapter of Ecclesiastes, the wise Preacher makes this well-known statement – “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.” Of course, the Preacher of Ecclesiastes is talking about the monotony of life in this fallen world, but I couldn’t help thinking of that well-known statement as I prepared for this morning. When it comes to 2 Samuel 20, there is nothing new under the sun. What has been in David’s kingdom, it seems is what will be. If you’ve been with us over the last month or so, I’m sure you noticed the repetition of our passage. It’s honestly impossible not to notice it. Here we have another rebellion by a wicked opponent, another murder by ruthless Joab, and another moment of deliverance from a surprising source. It’s all very engaging – the action draws you in, and the details are certainly vivid. It’s all very engaging, but it’s not exactly new, is it? We’ve seen this pattern before. Like the Preacher said in Ecclesiastes, there’s nothing new under the sun.
And so, we ask the question that I asked myself a number of times this past week – why is this chapter here in 2 Samuel? We know that God is purposeful, and we know that every part of his Word is for our good. We remind ourselves of that every week after we read the text together. So, what is God’s good purpose for this passage? Why is this chapter here in 2 Samuel?
Well, there are two answers to that question. The first is what I mentioned at the outset. 2 Samuel 20 is the conclusion to the difficult days of David’s kingdom. Chapter 21, which we will get to in a few weeks, begins a new section in 2 Samuel, the final section actually. But chapter 20 is a definite breaking point. The downward spiral that primarily began in chapter 11 reaches its conclusion here. Now, how do we know that? Well, look at vv23-26. You’ll notice there a list of David’s royal officials. That list is like a literary road sign. It’s the author’s way of telling you – “I’m wrapping up this section with this formal list.”
And that leads into the second and more important answer to our question. 2 Samuel 20 is a summation, a reminder of the truths that the Holy Spirit has carefully and deliberately revealed through David’s difficult days as king. The Holy Spirit is a master teacher, which means he understands the value and needs for repetition. You and I may think we learn the Bible’s truths after hearing them just once, but deep down, we both know that’s not the case. If we’re honest, we know it takes time for the truth to sink down deep in our hearts, and the Spirit knows that as well. And so, in God’s kindness, he gives us this summarizing chapter, this final reminder of the truths we should take away from the difficult days of David’s kingdom. It may sound familiar, but that doesn’t make it any less important and life-giving.
So, that’s how we’ll structure our time together today. I’d like to draw your attention to three reminders from 2 Samuel 20. These truths will likely sound familiar, but that repetition is part of the Lord’s purpose. We are prone to forget, aren’t we? So before we skip ahead thinking we’ve got this covered, let’s pause here in chapter 20 and listen again to what God would have us hear. Let’s humble ourselves with the willingness to be reminded.
God’s King Continues to face opposition
The first reminder comes in vv1-2 – God’s King continues to face opposition. You’ll remember that chapter 19 ended with the northern tribes of Israel at odds with the tribe of Judah. The northern tribes believed they were being treated unjustly in David’s return to power, but the tribe of Judah wouldn’t budge. Their words were fiercer, and therefore, Judah won the argument.
Well, in the midst of that conflict, we meet another man in the mold of Absalom – a man named Sheba. Vv1-2 give a decent amount of detail about this latest troublemaker, and there are two things about him that deserve our attention.
First of all, Sheba is a skilled troublemaker. Notice the short but powerful proclamation Sheba issues in v1 – “We have no portion in David, and we have no inheritance in the son of Jesse; every man to his tents, O Israel!” Those words play in the division already at work in Israel. Sheba stirs the pot, so to speak. He aggravates the anger the northern tribes already feel toward Judah, and he does so skillfully. Make no mistake, Sheba’s words are meant to divide. He’s clearly and purposefully calling the northern tribes to break away from David. Think about that. David is the Lord’s chosen king, and the people have pledged their lives to David in covenant faithfulness. But all of that goes out the window with Sheba. He knows the northern tribes are hurt, and he sees the opportunity to gain power for himself. So, that’s what he does. Sheba purposefully stirs up the division. He’s a troublemaker.
But worst of all, Sheba is a man of wickedness. Notice the first description of Sheba in v1. Even before we learn his name, we learn that he is a worthless man. Wicked, evil, lawless – that’s the idea here. You may remember that Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phineas, were also called worthless men. Remember how they stole from the people’s sacrifices and committed immorality in the tabernacle. They were worthless, wicked men. And you may remember Nabal was also called a worthless man. Nabal, the fool, insulted David and refused to show hospitality. He too was a worthless man. Those are Sheba’s compatriots at this point. Those are his peers – two immoral priests and a selfish fool.
But here’s the key point about Sheba. Do you remember what happened to those earlier worthless men? What happened to Hophni and Phineas? The Lord destroyed them in judgment. What happened to Nabal? The Lord struck him down for his foolishness. Now, make the application to this worthless fellow Sheba who opposes the Lord’s anointed. What will happen to Sheba? Like Hophni and Phineas, Sheba will be struck down. Like Nabal, Sheba will fall by his own wickedness.
That is the point of this repetitive rebellion. God is reminding his people of two realities we will continue to face in this fallen world. One, there will always be opposition to God’s chosen king. But two, that opposition will always end in the same place – destruction. Time after time, the wicked rise up in opposition to David, and time after time, the Lord delivers his king.
Brothers and sisters, this should be an encouragement to us as believers in the Lord Jesus Christ. We know that David is not the Messiah – we’ve certainly seen clear evidence of that. David is not the Messiah, but David’s life does foreshadow the Messiah who is to come. As the Lord’s chosen King, David is a type of the greater King, Jesus Christ. And therefore, God’s work in David’s life does reveal the pattern of how God will work in the life of the Messiah. Think of the relationship between a tree and its shadow. The shadow doesn’t give you the full, detailed picture, but it does show you the shape and contour of the tree. Well, so it is here with David. David’s life is the shadow that reveals the shape of the Messiah to come. Of course, like any shadow, the shape is not perfect or complete, but still, it’s enough to give you an idea.
And that’s where we find the encouragement. As we watch God deliver King David time and time again, we’re encouraged to know that truly, nothing will stand against the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus wasn’t declaring a new truth when he said the gates of hell will not prevail against his church. No, Jesus was applying an old truth to his new covenant people. Nothing – not Absalom, not Sheba, not the gates of hell – nothing will stand against God’s chosen king.
So, the next time it seems to you, brothers and sisters, that the world is rising up in opposition to Christ, remember Sheba. Remember Absalom. Remember Saul and Goliath and all the Philistines. Those aren’t neat, little Bible stories. This is the shape of God’s work in the world. This is why you should know and cherish redemptive history – because in remembering God’s work in the past, we find courage to trust God to work in the present. Rebels will continue to rise, but we’ve seen this before. And therefore, we know where it will end.
God’s Discipline Continues to Take Effect
The second reminder comes in v3 – God’s Discipline continues to take effect. Now, v3 is difficult – not in terms of interpretation; it’s pretty straightforward. It’s difficult because of what it recounts. But the author apparently wants us to pay attention since he puts it here at the outset of the chapter. V3 interrupts Sheba’s rebellion, so this is more than an afterthought to the author. But still, it’s difficult. Notice again what happens.
David returns to Jerusalem to officially reclaim his throne, but his first act upon arriving is to isolate the ten concubines he left to care for the royal palace. Now, you probably remember what Absalom did with these concubines back in chapter 16. It was too shocking to forget. Absalom slept with them on the roof of the palace, under a tent but out in the public view, before the eyes of Israel. That was Absalom’s manner of staking his claim to the throne. It was his wicked way of demonstrating his superior power over his father.
But what that means is that David cannot have anything to do with these women. That would be shameful. These women are connected with Absalom, almost in the sense of being bound to him. What’s more, because of the royal connections, David also cannot allow them to be married to another man. That would be cause for trouble as well. So, the king does what he believes to be best – he provides for the ten concubines but requires that they live in isolation for the rest of their lives.
Now, what accounts for this dismal scene? Well, we have to say David’s sin, don’t we? Think about it. There is a line from David’s sin with Bathsheba all the way down to this dismal scene. David committed adultery with Bathsheba, and in response, God declared he would raise up evil against David from within his own house. Specifically, God declared that an adversary would arise who would take David’s wives just as David had taken another man’s wife. And that’s how we end up in this dismal scene in v3. David sinned, the Lord brought discipline, and now David’s household is left to deal with sin’s devastation.
We’ve said it before, but it bears repeating here. David’s life, especially these hard bits like v3, is a sobering reminder that sin has horrible consequences. We would do well to remember this in our day. We rightly praise God for the repentance and restoration that has occurred in David’s life, and we are overjoyed that a sinner like David will not face eternal destruction because of his sin. We rejoice over those truths because they remind us that there is good news for sinners like us.
But at the same time, we must also bear in mind the reminder we see here – that sin still has consequences, and those consequences are often bitter. I’ll contend this is part of what it means to live every day in the fear of the Lord. It’s to recognize that sin’s promise is always deceptive. In that moment of temptation, sin is lying to you, telling you that if you’ll just give in, you’ll find pleasure and happiness and everything you’ve wanted. That’s what sin said to David on the rooftop with Bathsheba, and that’s what sin says to you and me – “Just give in, and you’ll be satisfied.”
But that sinful promise is deceptive. Learn the lesson of David’s fall. Behind every moment of sinful pleasure stands a world of painful consequences that we would never choose for ourselves. On some level, that’s what all this heartache in David’s life is saying to us – “Look where sin goes! Don’t give in. The heartache and devastation are never worth it!”
Listen, I won’t stand here and pretend that remembering this truth is the silver bullet to resisting sin. There is no silver bullet; there are other strategies, even more important ones. But at a minimum, remembering the consequences in David’s life can be a means of grace to resist sin in our own. God’s discipline continues to take effect, and Lord willing, this should spur us on toward holiness in our lives as well.
God’s People Continue to Need Discernment
That brings us to the third reminder from 2 Samuel 20 – God’s people continue to need discernment. At this point, we need to focus on two characters – Joab and the wise woman of Abel. Both are instrumental in defeating Sheba’s rebellion, but as has often been the case in 2 Samuel, both characters challenge us to think carefully and to exercise discernment. That’s what I want us to wrestle with at this point. It’s true that both Joab and the woman of Abel help bring this problem to a resolution, but are their methods commendable? That’s why I saw this final reminder is about discernment – because both of these characters make us think.
So, let’s focus on Joab for just a moment. You’ll remember that David replaced Joab with Amasa as commander of the army. So, in keeping with that decision, David sends Amasa out in v4 to gather the army together. David is clearly concerned about Sheba’s rebellion, so he tells Amasa to be back in three days. But three days pass with no word from Amasa. Again, David is worried, so this time, he sends Abishai, Joab’s brother, to hunt down Sheba himself. V7 describes Abishai’s band of men, but there’s a fascinating note at the outset of the verse. Look again at v7 – “And there went out after him Joab’s men.” Joab may have been replaced, but these are still his men. V7 is a small hint that Joab is not going to take his demotion in stride.
And indeed, he doesn’t. Notice v8. The army arrives in Gibeon, where they find the lost Amasa. Why is Amasa in Gibeon? It’s puzzling. Gibeon is part of Benjamin’s territory. Sheba, you’ll remember from v1, is also from Benjamin, and now the lost Amasa shows up in Benjamin’s territory. What is he doing there? We don’t know, but we do know what Joab is doing in Gibeon. He’s there to take back his position.
And in typical Joab fashion, he does it with cunning ruthlessness. Notice v9. Joab extends his right hand to embrace Amasa for a friendly kiss. Understand, the right hand was the hand you fought with, so by extending his right hand, Joab is saying, “I come in peace, my brother.” But it’s the left hand that holds Joab’s true intention. V8 told us Joab’s dagger slipped out as he walked, but v9 tells us that slip was perhaps more cunning than coincidence. With one brutal stroke, Joab stabs Amasa in the stomach with one brutal blow. That should sound familiar. It’s how Joab killed Abner too, back in chapter 3. This time, it’s Amasa who falls. Another name is added to Joab’s list – Abner, Absalom, and now Amasa. Joab is ruthless.
Now, if that’s not brutal enough, notice what happens in vv10-13. Amasa is lying in the road, in the midst of his death throes. The text says he is wallowing in his blood, which you can imagine creates quite the scene. And that’s the problem. The men need to keep moving. There’s no time to have pity on Amasa as he dies. So, one of Joab’s men simply tosses Amasa into the field and covers his body with a blanket. Out of sight, out of mind, it seems. Amasa is eliminated.
And that means the path is clear for Joab to take back what he most wants – power. But, here’s where it gets tricky. How is Joab planning to use that power? To serve David’s best interests. The situation is complicated. Joab is not a rebel, at least not like Absalom or Sheba. Joab is the one hunting rebels! What’s more, Joab is very effective when he’s in charge. He gets things done. He advances the royal agenda. And yet, at the same time, Joab is a problem, isn’t he? David demoted Joab, but Joab refuses to obey David’s decision. It’s not clear-cut. Joab is ruthless, but he’s also effective. What are we to make of a person like that?
Well, before we answer that question, let’s consider the other character that deserves our attention – the woman who lives in the city of Abel. V14 tells us that Sheba escaped to Abel, a city in northern Israel. It doesn’t appear Sheba has garnered much support along the way either. Only members of his clan are with him, and they’ve had to go to the northernmost extent of Israel to find refuge. So already, we see Sheba’s rebellion is crumbling.
But Joab has no time for analysis or negotiation. V15, he besieges the city straight away. It’s an all-out assault – siege ramps, battering rams – Joab means business. And that’s when we meet this woman who lives in Abel. V16 describes her as a wise woman. Now, that description should get your attention. In 2 Samuel, wisdom is simply the ability to successfully accomplish your goal. The presence of wisdom doesn’t necessarily mean a person will use it for good. He or she might just as easily use it for evil. For example, think about Jonadab back in chapter 13. He was described as crafty, but it’s the same word that we find here with this woman. How did Jonadab use his crafty wisdom? For evil. He concocted a plan for Amnon to violate his sister. Yes, the woman is wise, but the verdict is to still out, so to speak. The issue is not the presence of wisdom but the application of it. How will this woman use her skill?
Well, fortunately, we don’t have to wait long to witness the effect of the woman’s wisdom. Vv17-22 tell the story, and it’s a compelling example of wisdom preventing greater devastation. You can see the details there in the text. V19, the woman asks Joab why he seeks to destroy a city as valuable and noteworthy as Abel. What’s more, the woman rebukes Joab for seeking to harm God’s people. Notice that phrase the heritage of the LORD in v19. The Lord’s heritage, according to the OT, is his people. Well, who will be harmed by Joab’s siege? The Lord’s people! The woman uses her wisdom to rebuke Joab’s ruthless strategy.
Of course, that’s not how Joab sees things. V21, he claims that he’s only seeking one man – Sheba. If they will give Sheba up, then Joab will call off the attack. The woman claims she can deliver what Joab wants, and in v22, her boast proves true. Sheba’s head is thrown over the wall, and the rebellion is over. In v1, Sheba blew his trumpet in rebellion, but now in v22, Joab blows his trumpet in victory. The wise woman of Abel has saved the people of her city, and she has defeated Sheba the Rebel in the process.
So, is this woman’s wisdom to be commended? Well, in this situation, it seems so. In fact, the overall point of these verses appears to be that the woman’s wisdom counteracted Joab’s ruthlessness. Joab is bent on one thing – killing Sheba – and he’ll stop at nothing to make that happen. But the woman of Abel wisely keeps a bad situation from becoming worse.
Brothers and sisters, what I want us to take away from these verses is how vital it is for God’s people to have discernment. There are countless numbers of people in the world who operate like Joab – they crave power, and they may even use their power for good things, but that doesn’t make them good. There are also people like the woman of Abel – people who are “wise,” people who know how to successfully accomplish a goal. But success itself is not the main criteria for determining if something is good. I like how one OT scholar has put it – “Wisdom that is not mixed with sanctification is lethal.” Yes, that’s what I’m urging us to see, and I can’t say it any better. “Wisdom that is not mixed with sanctification is lethal.” All of these tricky situations in 2 Samuel – and we’ve seen a lot – all of these situations are reminding us of two things: 1) Character matters more than results, and 2) Discernment remains as necessary for us as it was for King David.
So, I’ll ask you, brothers and sisters – are you easily impressed by things that simply get results? Or are you cultivating a discerning mind that carefully evaluates life in this world? We need discernment. The world around us is swimming in results-based, pragmatic, do-what-you-gotta-do-to-get-ahead culture. So, let’s swim against that current. Let’s cultivate discernment. And the only way to do that is to be taking in God’s Word, so that Scripture shapes our minds, reforms our hearts, and informs our decisions. May God make us a Word-driven people – not so we can show off how much Bible we know, but so we can live with discernment in this often-tricky world.
So, there’s nothing new under the sun, is there? Much of what we’ve seen in 2 Samuel 20 is familiar because we’ve seen this before. And yet, brothers and sisters, this is part of humbling ourselves under God’s Word. We listen, and then we listen again, for surely God knows best what his people need to hear. Amen.
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