“Means & Ends”
2 Samuel 4
August 2, 2020
Faith Presbyterian Church – Evening Service
Well, it’s been five months away from Second Samuel. And it’s good to be back with it this evening.
To remember where we are in the story, Saul has died in battle with the Philistines. David has been anointed king of Judah. Ish-bosheth, the son of Saul has been appointed king of the rest of Israel by his commander Abner. After Ish-bosheth began to exhibit some of the same paranoid tendencies as Saul, Abner looked to defect to David and bring the kingdom with him. But then Joab murdered Abner.
Without Abner David was without a clear means to reunite Judah and Israel, and Ish-bosheth was without a real military leader in Israel.
And with that said, we come to Second Samuel, chapter four.
Please listen carefully, for this is God’s word for us this evening:
4:1 When Ish-bosheth, Saul’s son, heard that Abner had died at Hebron, his courage failed, and all Israel was dismayed. 2 Now Saul’s son had two men who were captains of raiding bands; the name of the one was Baanah, and the name of the other Rechab, sons of Rimmon a man of Benjamin from Beeroth (for Beeroth also is counted part of Benjamin; 3 the Beerothites fled to Gittaim and have been sojourners there to this day).
4 Jonathan, the son of Saul, had a son who was crippled in his feet. He was five years old when the news about Saul and Jonathan came from Jezreel, and his nurse took him up and fled, and as she fled in her haste, he fell and became lame. And his name was Mephibosheth.
5 Now the sons of Rimmon the Beerothite, Rechab and Baanah, set out, and about the heat of the day they came to the house of Ish-bosheth as he was taking his noonday rest. 6 And they came into the midst of the house as if to get wheat, and they stabbed him in the stomach. Then Rechab and Baanah his brother escaped. 7 When they came into the house, as he lay on his bed in his bedroom, they struck him and put him to death and beheaded him. They took his head and went by the way of the Arabah all night, 8 and brought the head of Ish-bosheth to David at Hebron. And they said to the king, “Here is the head of Ish-bosheth, the son of Saul, your enemy, who sought your life. Yahweh has avenged my lord the king this day on Saul and on his offspring.” 9 But David answered Rechab and Baanah his brother, the sons of Rimmon the Beerothite, “As Yahweh lives, who has redeemed my life out of every adversity, 10 when one told me, ‘Behold, Saul is dead,’ and thought he was bringing good news, I seized him and killed him at Ziklag, which was the reward I gave him for his news. 11 How much more, when wicked men have killed a righteous man in his own house on his bed, shall I not now require his blood at your hand and destroy you from the earth?” 12 And David commanded his young men, and they killed them and cut off their hands and feet and hanged them beside the pool at Hebron. But they took the head of Ish-bosheth and buried it in the tomb of Abner at Hebron.
This is the Word of the Lord. (Thanks be to God.)
Let’s pray …
Lord, as we come to your Word,
along with the psalmist we ask you to teach us the way of your statutes,
that we might keep it to the end.
Give us understanding, that we may follow your word
and observe it with our whole hearts.
Incline our hearts to your testimonies,
and not to our own selfish ends.
Turn our eyes and attention now from frivolous things,
and give us life through your word.
Grant this for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
[Based on Psalm 119:33-34, 36-37]
As we come to this point of the story, there had been a war for some time between Ish-bosheth, the king of Israel, and David, the king of Judah, all begun by the foolishness of Joab and his brothers, who were serving under David.
Abner had been the head of Ish-bosheth’s army. As we see in verse one, Abner’s murder by Joab brings distress to Ish-bosheth and to Israel underneath him.
Verses two and three then introduce Baanah and Rechab, who a few verses later will become the murderers of Ish-bosheth.
We are given a bit of background about Baanah and Rechab. They were captains of Ish-bosheth’s raiding bands. They may have been bodyguards of Ish-bosheth, and in fact that may have been how they were able to gain such easy access to him. [Firth, 357]
Baanah and Rechab were both from Beeroth. In Joshua 9:17 we learn that Beeroth was one of the cities of the Gibeonites, who had made a covenant with Joshua when the Israelites first came into the land, to dwell among them. We are also told in our text that these Gibeonites had to flee their hometown, and that they were associated with the tribe of Benjamin. This raises a couple things to consider.
One is a suggestion of a motive for Baanah and Rechab. In Second Samuel twenty-one we are told that Saul, when he was king, had made an unlawful attack on the Gibeonites. Some think that this may have been their motive for attacking Ish-bosheth, the son of Saul. [Leithart, 196-197; Firth, 356] That said, the motive is not mentioned here, and it is not certain how connected they were to Saul’s attack.
At the same time, the author also notes that Baanah and Rechab were technically considered part of the house of Benjamin. Which means they are of the same tribe as Saul and Ish-bosheth. It will be two Benjaminites, members of Saul’s tribe, who will bring an end to the rule of the house of Saul. [Alter, 217]
So, the characters are set on the stage in verses one through three.
But then we have this abrupt aside. Suddenly, for a verse, we are talking about Mephibosheth, the son of Jonathan, and then we veer right back into the story of Rechab, Baanah, and Ish-bosheth. Why the sudden change of subject?
Well, even as we prepare to hear of the end of Ish-bosheth, the author is letting us know what this will mean for the larger house of Saul. The mention of Mephibosheth is a reminder that the end of Ish-bosheth will not be the end of the house of Saul. Descendants of Saul will still remain, and David will be called on to deal with them and administer justice toward them in the chapters that follow.
But this verse also lets us know that after Ish-bosheth, the house of Saul will no longer pose a real political threat to David. While Mephibosheth is not the only living descendant of Saul, he is the only one mentioned, and being permanently disabled in his legs, he presents no military threat to David.
So, verse four reminds us that the house of Saul remains beyond Ish-bosheth, but there is no further political or military rival waiting in the wings. [Leithart, 197; Alter, 218; Firth, 356-357]
With that, we return to the main story in verse five.
Rechab and Baanah were in the house of Ish-bosheth. They either acted as if they were gathering wheat so as not to raise suspicions or they may have been gathering it when the opportunity came about. And when Ish-bosheth was resting in bed, they struck him, killing him by stabbing him in the stomach, and then cutting off his head to take it with them as proof that they had killed him.
As one commentator points out, the story is told in a way that echoes the story of Ehud and Eglon in Judges chapter three, where Ehud the deliverer of Egypt killed Eglon the oppressor by stabbing him in the stomach while meeting with him in his home. And we might suppose that this is exactly how Rechab and Baanah probably thought of themselves – not as traitors, opportunists, or murderers, but a servants of the Lord, serving the good of the people and the Lord’s Anointed king, David – new Ehuds who had defeated the Eglon of their day. That is, in many ways how they will present themselves to David. [Leithart, 195 n.17]
And it is to David that they go.
And when they come to David, they present him with yet another temptation to embrace unrighteous means towards a righteous end.
And this of course is not new. It’s the third time David has faced this challenge in just the last four chapters!
David is working towards the righteous end of serving as Israel’s king, which God anointed him for and called him to all the way back in First Samuel sixteen.
And since then, as one commentator puts it, “David has been continually offered mechanisms for seizing the kingdom, and the offers normally come with some theological garnish.” [Firth, 358]
On multiple occasions David had very obvious opportunities to kill Saul, and those around him urged him to do so, telling him that it was the right thing to do.
Most notably there was the cave in Engedi in First Samuel twenty-four and the hill of Hachilah in First Samuel twenty-six. Both times David had an opportunity to strike Saul. Both times David faced a temptation to pursue his righteous goal of the kingship through unrighteous means. Both times it was those closest to him and most trusted by him who urged him to strike. Both times he rightly resisted.
But he’s faced the same sort of issue in just the few chapters before this one. [Leithart, 195-196; Alter, 217] In chapter one an Amalekite came to David claiming to have killed Saul, expecting David to embrace his deed. In chapter three, Joab treacherously murdered Abner, which David could have embraced as progress for his side. Over and over it is those who claim to be on David’s side who are urging him to embrace those unrighteous means.
And now it happens again.
Rechab and Baanah come and tell David what they have done and clearly expect their work to be embraced and rewarded. They too give it a theological justification: “Yahweh has avenged my lord the king this day on Saul and on his offspring” they say in verse eight.
They urge David to rejoice and embrace this unrighteous deed towards a righteous goal, and we can imagine that many of those around David probably agreed. Perhaps the men around him let out a shout of joy when they heard that Ish-bosheth was dead – to them it probably seemed like the answer they were looking for in their long conflict.
And so once again David faces the temptation from those closest to him to embrace unrighteous deeds in pursuit of a righteous goal.
And we get David’s response in verses nine through twelve.
There we read:
9 But David answered Rechab and Baanah his brother, the sons of Rimmon the Beerothite, “As Yahweh lives, who has redeemed my life out of every adversity, 10 when one told me, ‘Behold, Saul is dead,’ and thought he was bringing good news, I seized him and killed him at Ziklag, which was the reward I gave him for his news. 11 How much more, when wicked men have killed a righteous man in his own house on his bed, shall I not now require his blood at your hand and destroy you from the earth?” 12 And David commanded his young men, and they killed them and cut off their hands and feet and hanged them beside the pool at Hebron. But they took the head of Ish-bosheth and buried it in the tomb of Abner at Hebron.
David refuses their temptation. David remembers once more that the means matter. He refuses to embrace unrighteous means towards a righteous end.
And we should note a few things about David’s response.
First, despite yet another temptation, David stuck to his commitment to use righteous means as he sought a righteous end.
David shows us that faithfulness is not a one-time thing – it is a repeated action that requires persistence and perseverance. And David persistently refuses to strike out sinfully to grasp power.
Second, David’s response was a judicial one.
David was not striking out in anger or making a political point when he ordered the deaths of Rechab an Baanah. And that is clear even in his language. The Hebrew verb translated in verse eleven as “destroy” is the one that is used in reference to capital punishment in the book of Deuteronomy, and the calling to “purge” the evil from among them. [e.g.: Deut. 13:5, 17:7; 17:12; 19:13; 19:19] [Leithart, 198]
Third, David declares and reaffirms that his hope is not in the craftiness of earthly power plays, but in the faithfulness of the Lord. He says to them: “As Yahweh lives, who has redeemed my life out of ever adversity.”
And this is key. In order to reject sinful means, David must not only embrace righteous means – he must place his trust not in earthly means at all, but in heavenly means. His trust that God will accomplish his purposes and remain faithful to his promises is what frees David up from relying on sinful means towards his goal.
Fourth, David points out that the way that Ish-bosheth was attacked was wrong.
The narrator of the events stresses Ish-bosheth’s defenselessness in how he tells the story, twice noting that Ish-bosheth was lying in bed. [Davis, 51-52] And then David picks up on the same thing in verse eleven.
Even if Rechab and Baanah had legitimate grievances against Ish-bosheth, the way justice is pursued matters. And Rechab and Baanah neither sought Ish-bosheth in battle nor pressed a legal issue with him, but they murdered him in bed. Even if their goal was righteous, the means they adopted was not.
Fifth, though David and Ish-bosheth were opponents in war, and David knew of many of Ish-bosheth’s flaws, David still referred to him as “a righteous man,” and one who did not deserve such a death.
And we should consider that. David is not just adopting our custom of speaking about the dead as if they were better than they really were. David can be honest in the case of the unrighteous who die, as he does with Nabal in First Samuel twenty-five.
David meant what he said here. We should note that in contrast to Saul, David does not refer to Ish-bosheth as Yahweh’s anointed, but he does refer to him as “a righteous man.” [Leithart, 198; Firth, 358]
And yet, David knew of his flaws. When Ish-bosheth lashed out irrationally at Abner, Abner came to David, and surely, he told David about what Ish-bosheth had done.
But even more than that, Ish-bosheth held the throne in Israel in defiance of David, and even maybe of God, even though his conversation with Abner tells us that he must have known about God’s promise to David. Even knowing that, Ish-bosheth still fought to keep the throne for himself.
Despite those facts, David refuses to exaggerate or overstate Ish-bosheth’s flaws. Contrary to what Rechab and Baanah may have supposed, David knows that Ish-bosheth was no Eglon. Instead he declares him to be “righteous.”
We might ask: How does David insistence on referring to his political, personal, and even spiritual opponent as righteous compare to how we speak of our political, personal, and spiritual opponents in this world?
Sixth, and finally, David’s response was linked in different ways to his actions in the previous three chapters.
And this is both positive and negative.
On the positive side, David himself reminds us that he responded in just the same way in chapter one with the Amalekite who claimed to have killed Saul. This shows David’s consistency.
But it is hard not to notice how this also parallels the killing of Abner by Joab, in which case it shows David’s inconsistency – even his hypocrisy.
As one commentator puts it: “The deaths of the members of Saul’s house and kingdom interweave with each other, and we cycle through a similar sequence of events three times, first with Saul, then Abner, now Ish-bosheth. In the first and last incidents, David executed the murderer, and this forcefully highlights his failure to deal with Joab. Why did Joab not end up like the Amalekite, Baanah, and Rechab? One reason, surely, was that Joab was David’s nephew, and David favored him because he was a kinsman.” [Leithart, 196]
David is committed to justice … but we see that commitment waiver when the person in question is closer to him.
Despite his faithfulness in chapters one and four, his faltering in chapter three is a shortcoming.
And it reminds us just how hard it is to consistently commit ourselves to doing what is right again and again – especially when those urging us to embrace sinful means are closer to us.
In both his successes and his failures, David reminds us that that we must use righteous means to pursue righteous goals – even when we are pressured by our allies to do otherwise.
And we face the temptation to adopt unrighteous means as we pursue righteous goals in all sorts of places.
We can see it in our marriages. Maybe we are tempted to mislead our spouse in order to get our way with something we think would be best for our family. Or maybe in the midst of a conflict we allow ourselves to sinfully attack our spouse with our words, because we tell ourselves that we are right, and our cause is just.
We can see it in how we treat our children, when it can be all too tempting to sinfully manipulate and shame our kids to get them to do what we want – disregarding the lack of love in our means by telling ourselves that it is for their good in the end.
Or maybe it comes up in our workplace or our business practices when healthy competition is replaced by backbiting and slander. And we justify it by telling ourselves that if we win then we will do more good with our new position than our opponent would, and so our behaviors now are excusable.
Or maybe it comes up in our cultural debates, with friends or family or people on social media. Maybe, unlike David with Ish-bosheth, we are all to happy to entertain slander against our cultural opponents and we would be loath to ever affirm that anything about them is righteous. And we tell ourselves that this approach is justified because what matters more than anything is winning the battle.
We can name these things, and we could go on with possible examples where we all too easily embrace sinful means towards what we think are righteous ends.
But I want to highlight one more important aspect of this in our text: the aspect of social pressure and temptation.
Because the fact is that our most difficult temptations are not the ones presented to us by our opponents, but the ones presented to us by our allies – by the people we trust who are around us – by members of our own cultural tribe who are aimed at the same goal as we are, and who tell us that certain sinful means are actually justified.
Remember, it was David’s allies, his biggest supporters, who shared his greatest goals, who encouraged him again and again to embrace sinful means in order to strike out at his rivals.
We can read those stories and feel as if it was easy for David to see and then do what was right, even as everyone around him urged him to do what was wrong. But acting as David did is far more difficult to do that than most of us appreciate.
A few months ago David French had an article on just that – not on the ethics of means versus ends, but on how difficult it is to stand up for what is right when the people around us in our cultural tribe are wrong.
The name of the article was “There’s a Question My Confederate Ancestors Taught Me to Ask”
I’m going to read a few longer sections from it.
French, writing this past April, begins like this – he writes:
Many readers may not know this, but today is a significant day in Civil War history. On April 26, 1865—17 days after Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox—Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston surrendered the Army of Tennessee at Greensboro, North Carolina. The last major Confederate combatant command stacked its arms.
I think of this day not merely because of its national historical significance but also because of its personal family importance. My ancestors fought for the Army of Tennessee.
And I must confess, the older I get, the more I’m haunted by their legacy.
I don’t mean that in a guilty way, as if I’m somehow responsible for the actions of men who took up arms for an unjust cause more than a century before I was born. Instead, I mean that I’ve often asked myself, “What would I have done?”
Slavery was a monstrous evil. Yet generations of Americans grew up in communities that accepted it, defended it, and even celebrated it. How many abolitionist arguments did a child of the antebellum South ever hear? If they heard abolitionist arguments, did they hear them portrayed fairly, accurately, and sympathetically?
Putting aside the power of argument, did the witness of their own eyes and ears—the brutality that was plainly before them—provide them with sufficient cause to say, “No. I shall not defend such evil”?
Let’s put the question differently. Looking realistically at human nature, at the tidal forces of tribe and history, and the immense fallibility of our own hearts, how would each of us answer this question: “If everyone around me is wrong, would I have the wisdom and courage to know and do what’s right?”
The tidal pull of tribalism should humble us all. For many of us, it renders our virtue an accident of history and birth. For others, it gives our sin and vice a terrible momentum that’s so very hard to reverse.
Time and again I go back to the triple admonitions of Micah 6:8—“He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” It’s a verse for all time, but it also seems especially appropriate at this time.
Seek justice, yes. In a polarized time, that’s the easy command. That’s the call to fight for what’s right. The next two commands, however, come much harder, but their imperative is easier to understand when we know the truth that our virtue is often accidental. Our vices are stubborn. I can be kind to men and women who are confronting their own history and circumstance. And I must be humble. I must. Even (and perhaps especially) when I feel most confident.
I’ve long pondered these remarkably honest words from Ta-Nehisi Coates, written almost nine years ago:
[The] basic extension of empathy is one of the great barriers in understanding race in this country. I do not mean a soft, flattering, hand-holding empathy. I mean a muscular empathy rooted in curiosity. If you really want to understand slaves, slave masters, poor black kids, poor white kids, rich people of colors, whoever, it is essential that you first come to grips with the disturbing facts of your own mediocrity. The first rule is this–You are not extraordinary. It’s all fine and good to declare that you would have freed your slaves. But it’s much more interesting to assume that you wouldn’t have and then ask, “Why?”
This is not an impossible task. But often we find that we have something invested in not asking “Why?” The fact that we — and I mean all of us, black and white — are, in our bones, no better than slave masters is chilling.
French goes on:
Coates’s words apply not only to race, of course. Though Coates is openly atheist, he’s discussing a truth that a Christian should embrace—that we are not noble. We are shot through with sin. When everyone around us is right, we deserve little credit for conforming. When everyone around us is wrong, we’re also likely to fail.
On this day, 155 years ago, the army of my ancestors folded its flags and stacked its arms. The tidal pull of tribalism carried away the men who gave me their name. Their legacy—and the legacy of every generation that has been caught up in the sweep of history in ways that harm us still today—should cause us all to pause.
When the crowd says yes, consider the option of no. When the crowd says go, discern whether we should stop. And through it all, pray for God’s grace—that we’re not too foolish to know the truth or too weak to do what’s right.
How do we do that?
Well, as French and Coates note, we are not very good at doing it on our own.
Thankfully, we have not been left to do it on our own.
Thankfully, we have a helper who understands our struggle, and can overcome it. Because he was tempted in the very same way.
Jesus Christ, our Lord, the greater David – the perfect David – faced the same temptation as David, to grasp at his goal through a sinful means. And like David did in his best moments, he too refused the temptation.
Jesus came to receive a kingdom and to rule on the earth. But for him, the way to the throne would be the way of the cross.
And then Satan came along in the desert, and offered to Jesus all the kingdoms of the world. [Matthew 3] That, after all, is what Jesus came for! All he had to do was bow down before Satan. He could skip the cross and receive the kingdom. He could forget about the means and grasp at the goal.
But Jesus refused. Jesus knew that the means mattered. He knew that he could not pursue the kingdom of God in ways that were contrary to the values of the kingdom of God. And so he went to the cross instead.
He went to the cross so he could forgive us when we succumb to the crowd and fail to pursue righteous means ourselves. But he also went to the cross so he could be our helper, and help us to do what he did. He resisted the temptation to sinful means so he could help us resist the temptation to sinful means. He resisted the pull of the crowd so he could help us resist the pull of the crowd.
Standing for what is right when everyone around us is embracing what is wrong is an incredibly difficult thing.
We flatter ourselves when we simply assume that that is what we do.
But if we see ourselves rightly, then we should be encouraged all the more to cling to Christ, and to ask him to make us more like him – to give us eyes to see what is right and what is wrong, and courage to embrace the good and refuse the bad – so that we can do for him what he has already done for us, pursuing a righteous kingdom in a righteous way.
This sermon draws on material from:
Alter, Robert. The David Story: A Translation with Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 1999.
Davis, Dale Ralph. 2 Samuel: Out of Every Adversity. Ross-shire, Great Britain: Christian Focus, 1999.
Firth, David G. 1 & 2 Samuel. Apollos Old Testament Commentary. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009.
French, David. “There’s a Question My Confederate Ancestors Taught Me to Ask.” The Dispatch. April 26, 2020. https://frenchpress.thedispatch.com/p/theres-a-question-my-confederate
Leithart, Peter J. A Son to Me: An Exposition of 1 & 2 Samuel. Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2003.
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