2 Samuel 3:28–29

Then David said to Joab and to all the people who were with him, “Tear your clothes, gird yourselves with sackcloth, and mourn for Abner” (2 Sam. 3:31a).

David is quick to express detestation of Joab’s murder of Abner. Declaring that he and his kingdom are innocent in the matter, he places the guilt squarely on Joab and calls down curses upon him and his family. He asks that God will cause at least one man in each succeeding generation of Joab’s family line to have a bodily discharge, leprosy, lameness, poverty, or death by the sword. He is asking that divine vengeance will follow Joab and will be visited upon his children and children’s children in ways that cause shame. “The Lord shall repay the evildoer according to his wickedness,” David says (v. 39).

These are strong words, but why are there no strong actions from David? As king, he would be within his rights to take action against Joab rather than simply leaving the matter to God. Also, it is his duty to establish justice in the land, so he ought to punish Joab according to God’s Law. At the very least, it seems he could dissociate himself from Joab. Why this failure? Perhaps he cannot prove Joab’s guilt conclusively. Or he may actually fear to act against such violent men; as he says, Joab and Abishai are “too harsh for me” (v. 39). On the other hand, his inaction may simply be a pragmatic decision. Joab is a very capable military commander, and David may not want to lose him. In any case, his failure to punish Joab is wrong. Matthew Henry writes: “He ought to have done his duty, and trusted God with the issue.... It was carnal policy and cruel pity that spared Joab.”

David does command everyone at his court, including Joab, to mourn for Abner. He himself follows Abner's coffin to its burial site in Hebron, and he weeps at Abner’s grave. He also recites a lament of his own composition, bewailing the fact that an accomplished warrior such as Abner should be felled by treachery. In David’s view, Abner's was not a fitting end. Finally, the king fasts until sundown as a further demonstration of grief. His reason for all this is very simple: “A prince and a great man has fallen this day in Israel” (v. 38), leaving him weakened as king.

David’s mourning is noticed by the people, and they are pleased. (Indeed, everything David does pleases the people.) The murder of Abner does nothing to reduce esteem for David, for the people understand by his subsequent actions that he did not want Abner to die.

Coram Deo

David’s failure to respond to Joab’s killing of Abner was a serious oversight. In this case, David bears the sword in vain (Rom. 13:4). The role of government is to punish evil and reward good. All government officials are sinners, so justice is often perverted, but it should not be so. Pray that your government officials will establish justice.

For Further Study