2 Samuel 20
There had been not a little to offset David’s grief over the revolt and death of Absalom. As we have seen, his journey back to Jerusalem was marked by several incidents which must have brought satisfaction and joy to the kings heart. The radical change in the attitude of Shimei toward him, the discovery that after all the heart of Mephibosheth beat true to him, the affectionate homage of the aged Barzillai, and the welcome from the elders and men of Judah, were all calculated to cheer and encourage the returning exile. Things seemed to have taken a decided turn for the better, and the sun shone out of a clear sky. Yes, but the clouds have a habit of returning even after a heavy rain. And so it was here. A dark cloud suddenly appeared on David’s horizon which must have caused him considerable uneasiness, presaging as it did the gathering of another storm.
The leaders of the Ten Tribes had met David at Gilgal, and a dispute at once ensued between them and the men of Judah. This was the fly in the ointment. A foolish quarrel broke out between the two factions over the matter of bringing back the king. "It was a point of honour which was being disputed between them, which had most interest in David. ‘We are more numerous’ say the elders of Israel. ‘We are nearer akin to him’ say the elders of Judah. Now one would think David very safe and happy when his subjects are striving which should love him best, and be most forward to show him respect; yet even that strife proved the occasion for a rebellion" (Matthew Henry). No sooner was one of David’s trials over than another arises, as it were, out of the ashes of the former.
Ah, my reader, we must not expect to journey far in this world without encountering trouble in some form or other; no, not even when the providence of God appears to be smiling upon us. It will not be long before we receive some rude reminder that "this is not your rest." It was thus in the present experiences of our hero: in the very midst of his triumphs he was forced to witness a disturbance among his leading subjects, which soon threatened the overthrow of his kingdom. There is nothing stable down here, and we only court certain disappointment if we build our hopes on anything earthly or think to find satisfaction in the creature. Under the sun is but "vanity and vexation of spirit." But how slow we are to really believe that melancholy truth; yet in the end we find it is true.
We closed our last chapter with a quotation which called attention to the typical significance of the incidents recorded in 2 Samuel 19; the opening verses of chapter 20 may be contemplated as bearing out the same line of thought. Christ’s visible kingdom on earth is entered by profession, hence there are tares in it as well as wheat, bad fish as well as good, foolish virgins as well as wise (Matthew 13 and 25). This will be made unmistakably manifest in the Day to come, but even in this world God sometimes so orders things that profession is tested and that which is false is exposed. Such is the dispensational significance of the episode we are now to consider. The Israelites had appeared to be loyal and devoted to David, yea, so much so that they were hurt when the men of Judah had, without consulting them, taken the lead in bringing back the king.
But how quickly the real state of their hearts was made apparent. What a little thing it took to cause their affection for David not only to cool off but to evaporate completely. No sooner did an enemy cry "to your tents, O Israel," than they promptly responded, renouncing their professed allegiance. There was no reality to their protestations of fealty, and when the choice was set before them they preferred a "man of Belial" rather than the man after God’s own heart. How solemnly this reminds us of the multitudes of Israel at a later date: first crying out "Hosanna to the Son of David, Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord" (Mart. 21:9) and a short time after, when the issue was drawn, preferring Barabbas to Christ. And how often since then, especially in times of trial and persecution, have thousands of those who made a loud profession of Christianity preferred the world or their own carnal safety.
"And there happened to be there a man of Belial, whose name was Sheba, the son of Birchri, a Benjamite: and he blew a trumpet, and said, We have no part in David, neither have we inheritance in the son of Jesse; every man to his tents, O Israel" (2 Sam. 20:1). Alas! how often it appears that in a happy concourse of those who come together to greet and do homage to David there is "a son of Belial" ready to sound the trumpet of contention. Satan knows full well that few things are better calculated to further his own base designs than by causing divisions among the people of God. Sad it is that we are not more upon our guard, for we are not ignorant of his devices. And to be on our guard means to be constantly mortifying pride and jealousy. Those were the evil roots from which this trouble issued, as is clear from the "that our advice should nor first be had in bringing back our king" (19:43).
"And the words of the men of Judah were fiercer than the words of the men of Israel" (19:43). This was only adding fuel to the fire. "A soft answer turneth away wrath, but grievous words stir up anger" (Prov. 15:1). If the spirit of jealousy prevailed among the leaders of Israel, pride was certainly at work in the hearts of the elders of Judah, and when those two evils clashed, anger and strife quickly followed. It is solemn to observe that God Himself took notice of and recorded in His Word the fierceness of the words of the men of Judah—a plain intimation that He now registers against us that language which is not pleasing unto Him. How we need to pray that God would set a watch before our mouths, that the door of our lips may be kept from allowing evil to pass out.
"And there happened to be there a man of Belial, whose name was Sheba, the son of Birchri, a Benjamite; and he blew a trumpet, and said, We have no part in David, neither have we inheritance in the son of Jesse." Sheba belonged to the tribe of Saul, which had bitterly begrudged the honor done to Judah, when the son of Jesse was elected king. The Benjamites never really submitted to the divine ordination. The deeper significance of this is not hard to perceive: there is a perpetual enmity in the serpent’s seed against the antitypical David. How remarkably was this mysterious yet prominent feature of Christ’s kingdom adumbrated in the continued opposition of the house of Saul against David: first in Saul himself, then in Ishbosheth (2 Sam. 2:8, 9; 3:1, etc.), and now Sheba. But just as surely as David prevailed over all his enemies, so shall Christ vanquish all His foes.
"And he blew a trumpet, and said, We have no part in David, neither have we inheritance in the son of Jesse: every man to his tents, O Israel." See how ready is an evil mind to place a false construction upon things, and how easily this can be accomplished when determined so to do. The men of Judah had said "the king is near of kin to us" (19:42), but this son of Belial now perverted their words and made them to signify "We have no part in David" whereas they intended no such thing. Then let us not be surprised when those who secretly hate us give an entirely false meaning to what we have said or written. History abounds in incidents where the most innocent statements have been grossly wrested to become the means of strife and bloodshed. It was so with the Lord Jesus Himself: see John 2:19-21 and compare Matthew 27, 26:61, 62—sufficient then for the disciple to be as his Master. But let the Christian diligently see to it that he does not let himself (or herself) be used as a tool of Satan in this vile work.
"Every man to his tents, O Israel." This call put them to the proof testing their loyalty and love to David. The sequel at once evidenced how fickle and false they were. "So every man of Israel went up from after David, and followed Sheba the son of Birchri" (v. 2). Hardly had they returned to their allegiance, than they forsook it. How utterly unreliable human nature is, and how foolish are they who put their trust in man. What creatures of extremes we be: now welcoming Moses as a deliverer, and next reviling him because the deliverance came not as easily and quickly as was expected; how glad to escape from the drudgery of Egypt, and a little later anxious to return thither. What grace is needed to anchor such unstable and unreliable creatures.
"So every man of Israel went up from after David, and followed Sheba the son of Birchri" (v. 2). Nothing is told us as to whether or not David himself had taken any part in the debate between the elders of Israel and of Judah, or whether he had made any attempt to pour oil on the troubled waters. If he did, it appears that he quite failed to convince the former, for they now not only refused to attend him any further on his return to Jerusalem, but refused to own him as their king at all. Nay more, they were determined to set up a rival king of their own. Thus the very foundations of his kingdom were again threatened. Scarcely had God delivered David from the revolt of Absalom. than he was now faced with this insurrection from Sheba. And is it not thus in the experience of David’s spiritual seed? No sooner do they succeed in subduing one lust or sin, than another raises its ugly head against them.
"But the men of Judah clave unto their king, from Jordan even to Jerusalem" (v. 2). It is blessed to find there were some who remained loyal to David, refusing to forsake him even when the majority of his subjects turned away from him. Thus, though the test exposed the false, it also revealed the true. So it ever is. And who were the ones that remained steadfast to the king? Why, the men of his own tribe, those who were related to him by blood. The typical significance of this is obvious. Though in the day of testing there are multitudes who forsake the royal banner of the anti-typical David, there is always a remnant which Satan himself cannot induce to apostatize, namely, those who are Christ’s brethren spiritually. How beautifully was that here illustrated.
"And David came to his house at Jerusalem: and the king took the ten women his concubines, whom he had left to keep the house, and put them in ward, and fed them, hut went not in unto them. So they were shut up unto the day of their death, living in widowhood" (v. 3). Here we see one of the gains resulting from the severe chastening that David had undergone. As we have seen in earlier chapters, David had multiplied wives and concubines unto himself contrary to the law of God, and they had proved a grief and a shame to him (15:16; 16:21, 22). God often has to take severe measures with us ere we are willing to forsake our idols. It is good to note that from this point onwards we read nothing more of concubines in connection with David. But how solemn to discover, later, that this evil example, which he had set before his family, was followed by his son Solomon—to the drawing away of his heart from the Lord. O that parents gave more heed to the divine threat that their sins shall surely be visited upon their descendants.
"Then said the king to Amasa, Assemble me the men of Judah within three days, and be thou here present" (v. 4). Though the men of Judah had not followed the evil example of the Ten Tribes in their revolt against the king, yet it appears from this verse that many of them were no longer in attendance upon David, having no doubt returned unto their own homes. Considering the circumstances, it seems that they put their own comfort and safety first, at a time when their master’s regime was seriously threatened. "Though Forward enough to attend the king’s triumphs, they were backward enough not to fight his battles. Most love a loyalty, as well as a religion, that is cheap and easy. Many boast of their being akin to Christ that yet are very loath to venture for Him" (Matthew Henry). On the other hand let it not be forgotten that it is not without reason the Lord’s people are called "sheep"—one of the most timid of all animals.
"Then said the king to Amasa, Assemble me the men of Judah within three days, and be thou here present." This shows the uneasiness of David at Sheba’s rebellion and his determination to take strong and prompt measures to quell it. Amasa, it may be pointed out, had been the "captain of the host for Absalom against David (17:25), yet he was near akin unto the king. He was the one whom David had intended should replace Joab as the commander of his armies (19:13), and the rebellion of Sheba now supplied the opportunity for the carrying out of this purpose. Having received a previous notification of the king’s design may have been the main reason why Amasa, though an Israelite, did not join forces with the insurrectionists. He saw an opportunity to better his position and acquire greater military honor. But, as we shall see, in accepting this new commission, he only signed his own death-warrant—so insecure are the honors of this world.
It is very much to be doubted whether David’s choice was either a wise or a popular one. Since Amasa had filled a prominent position under Absalom, it could scarcely be expected that the man who Joab had successfully commanded would now relish being placed on subjection to the man who so recently had been the enemy of their king. It is this which, most probably, accounts for the delay, or rather Amasa’s lack of success in carrying out the king’s orders, for we are told "So Amasa went to assemble the men of Judah: but he tarried longer than the set time which he had appointed him" (v. 5). As Scott says, "The men of Judah seemed to have been more eager in disputing about their king, than to engage in battle under Amasa." This supplied a solemn warning for Amasa, but in the pride of his heart he heeded it not.
"And 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" (v. 6). It had already been clearly demonstrated that Sheba was a man who possessed considerable influence over the men of Israel, and therefore David had good reason to Fear that if he were allowed to mature his plans, the most serious trouble would be sure to follow. His order to Amasa shows that he was determined to frustrate the insurrectionists by nipping their plans while they were still in the bud, by sending a powerful force against them. Chafing at the delay occasioned by Amasa’s lack of success in promptly collecting an army, David now gave orders to Abishai to take command of the regular troops, for he was determined to degrade Joab.
"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 Birchri" (v. 7). This, we take it, defines "thy lord’s servants" of the previous verse, namely, the seasoned warriors which Joab had formerly commanded. Though he had no intention of employing Joab himself on this occasion, David gladly availed himself of his trained men Abishai was a proved and powerful officer, being in fact brother to Joab. All seemed to be now set for the carrying out of David’s design, but once more it was to be shown that though man proposes it is God who disposes. Even great men, yea, kings themselves, are often thwarted in their plans, and discover they are subordinate to the will of Him who is the King of kings. How thankful we should be that this is so, that the Lord in His infinite wisdom ruleth over all.
"When they were at the great stone which is in Gibeon, Amasa went before them" (v. 8). It seems this was the appointed meeting-place for the concentrated forces of David. Amasa now arrived on the scene at the head of the men which he had mustered, and promptly placed himself in command of the army. But brief indeed was the moment of his military glory, for no sooner did he reach the pinnacle of his ambition than he was brutally dashed therefrom, to lay weltering in his own blood. "Vain are earthly distinctions and preferments, which excite so much envy and enmity, without affording any additional security to mans uncertain life: may we then be ambitious of that honour which cometh from God only" (Thomas Scott).