It Is Better for One to Die

2 Samuel

I. Sheba took advantage of a dispute to incite a new division.

A. Noting the argument and the unrelenting posturing of the men of Judah, Sheba called for a rejection of David. He was a descendant of one of the sons of Benjamin who still retained pride in Saul, a Benjaminite, as king. They had set up a quarrel and it appears, unlike the wise woman at the end of this text, that none had taken time to reason. Leviticus 19:17 said, “You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people.” It seems that none had the heart to do this, but Sheba had the cunning to take advantage of the quarrel in search of his own glory.

B. The men of Israel who had been so ready to re-unite with David now left and went home. They would not accompany him to Jerusalem or pledge their loyalty to him. Whereas they had been the first to call for David’s restoration and had claimed 10 parts in David, now Sheba effects their complete turn with the claim that “We have no portion in David.” One day the crowds sang “Hosanna to the Son of David,” and within the week they cried out “Crucify him.” Even in this pattern the Lord was the Son of David (Matthew 21:9 and 27:23).

C. The men of Judah continued with David and accompanied the king to Jerusalem.


II. David worked toward stability and amendment (Verses 3-7)

A. David quarantined the ten concubines (3). Against the law he had multiplied wives and he had taken concubines and they were used as a symbol of his ineffectiveness in rule. They had been the occasion for much grief and were an open sore of his shame. He must put them away as a symbol both of his regret and his repentance. Also, he had violated the provision of Leviticus 18:9 and 20:17 in not taking action against Amnon. Now Absalom has violated Leviticus 20:11. Though David could not undo any of these past sins, he could seek to make the present situation more consistent with the revealed will of God. The past sins and contorted lives of individuals should not make them give up on seeking to repair their lives according to God’s truth.

B. David organized the army for action against Sheba (4-7).

  1. As promised, he assigned this task to Amasa. He found it difficult, however, to meet the time designated, probably because some of these men had so recently followed him in a failed endeavor. They were not eager to engage again immediately in a war of rebellion, even if on the right side.
  2. Seeing that time was of the essence, David appointed Abishai, again by-passing Joab, to put a stop to Sheba’s attempted insurrection quickly. Note that the text says “Joab’s men went out after him,” showing that still the dominant personality in the army and the one who was by virtue of consistent courage and unrelenting quest for victory was Joab. The Cherethites and the Pelethites were mercenaries who had established a loyalty to David during his sojourn in the land of the Philistines.


III. Joab Took Vengeance into his own hands. (verses 8-12)

A. A well-executed deceit (8) – Did Joab intend this, or was it impulse based on a quick series of events?

  1. The complexity of Amasa’s presence. He was a cousin to Joab and a great nephew to David. He had been selected by Absalom to lead the army of the rebellion and Amasa had complied. Even with that, David preferred him over Joab for the future leadership of his own army.
  2. The history of Joab –
  • He was head of David’s army in the opposition of Ishbosheth to David’s claim of the throne. Abner led the Army of Ishbosheth (2 Samuel 2:8-32) and in the process killed Asahel, Joab’s brother. Joab ceased the pursuit when Abner reasoned with him on the basis of their being alike sons of Israel.
  • He killed Abner by deceit after Abner had made an agreement with David to reconcile Israel to his kingship. Joab rebuked David for such an arrangement and then went out to murder Abner (2 Samuel 3:26, 27). David uttered a sense of helplessness in relation to his nephews and proclaimed divine vengeance over Joab (2 Samuel 3:39).
  • Joab led a seemingly hopeless campaign against the Syrians and the Ammonites and won a resounding victory (2 Samuel 10:1-14).
  • Joab followed David’s orders in the exposure of Uriah to certain death (2 Samuel 11:16, 17)
  • Joab resisted the possibility of personal glory in taking the city of Rabbah by calling for David to complete the victory (2 Samuel 12:26-31).
  • He negotiated the return of Absalom from exile (even overlooking Absalom’s destruction of Joab’s property) after Absalom’s murder of Amnon (2 Samuel 14:22).
  • He led in the defeat of the rebellion of Absalom, following David into exile and putting all his energy into his restoration. He personally killed Absalom, the king’s son but also his deadly enemy, in what was clearly a necessary act to put a quick end to the rebellion (2 Samuel 18:14-17).
  • He reprimanded David when his mourning for Absalom put him in danger of losing his army and his throne as well (2 Samuel 19:5-8).
  • He opposed the census that David desired (2 Samuel 24:1-9). Perhaps Joab suspected some oppressive design in David’s mind in taking the census or perhaps he knew this was a violation of the law of the census in Exodus 30:11-13.
  • We see the complexity of Joab’s character: fiercely loyal, brave, vengeful, self-protective, jealous, and deceitful.

B. Feigned family affection (9) Joab addressed him as “Brother” and seemed to inquire with sincerity about his well-being. Joab took Amasa by the beard in a familiar and playful gesture to give him a kiss. This would make Amasa defenseless and unsuspecting of the radical treachery of the kiss. So we see a precursor to the kiss of Judas in the kiss of Joab.

C. Deadly naivete (10). It seems that Amasa was genuinely deceived by this movement of concern from his cousin. The whirlwind of events in changing from leader of a defeated rebel army, to leader of the army against which he only recently had fought, his apparent difficulty in convincing the men of Judah to arise and defend the throne of David could have Amasa reeling in a state of confusion. And now a cousin whose military experience and years of dealings with David approached him in a friendly manner to inquire about him. Perhaps he even took some degree of comfort in this apparent act of support and familial approval.

D. Traveling beyond treachery (11, 12). Joab now took control of the army, but while the writhing body of Amasa was in sight none would pass by it. An attendant of Joab, in order that rapid progress could be made for the capture of Sheba, removed the body and covered it.


IV. The siege of Abel Beth-Maacah

A. The number of men who followed Sheba surely disappointed him. He knew that his group could not defeat Joab and the mighty men of David, so he sought asylum in a fortified city of Judah whose history gave it prestige and perhaps some venerable status that would make Joab hesitant to attack it.

B. The army made a double assault on the city, not allowing its historic prestige as a place where people sought wisdom to make them shrink from the goal of executing a traitor. History presents us with many examples of the conflict between the necessities of immediate victory and the respect and preservation of historical monuments, reputation, and works of human culture. The Crusades, the Reformation, and the World Wars all provide striking examples of this tension. Jesus knew that even the great beauty of the temple would not be spared by the Romans when the Jews of Jerusalem rebelled in 70 AD (Mark 13:1, 2).

  1. They built a siege ramp, that is, they piled dirt up against the city wall in an angular ascent to provide a highway to send a large number of troops over the wall.
  2. They sought to deconstruct the wall through battering it, destroying the layers of stone with the intent of razing a portion of it to the ground for quick entry.
  3. The combination of these two ways of entry would diminish the danger of both points for entry to the city, bring about great confusion in the city, and divide any defensive forces they might have. The effort showed an absolute determination to allow no barrier to interrupt their purpose of arresting Sheba.

C. A wise woman of the city opened negotiations with Joab. Matthew Henry made this pertinent comment: “It seems, none of all the men of Abel, none of the elders or magistrates, offered to treat with Joab. … They were stupid and unconcerned for the public safety, … or they had not sense enough to manage the treaty. But this one woman with her wisdom saved the city. Souls know no difference of sexes. Though the man be the head, it does not therefore follow that he had the monopoly of the brains. … Many a masculine heart, and more than masculine, has been found in a female breast; nor is the treasure of wisdom the less valuable for being lodged in the weaker vessel.”

D. She promised Joab the head of Sheba and she arranged that delivery with the leaders of the city. The head of Sheba was thrown over the wall and the city spared the wrath of Joab. “It is better that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish” (Caiaphas in John 11:50).

E. This serves as a striking contra-type to Christ.

  1. In this case Sheba, the one man, was guilty and deserving of death and the entire city, Abel, was threatened with death for his guilt.
  2. In the case of Christ, the whole people of all the world was guilty, and the one man, Christ is threatened with death.
  3. In the one case, the guilty was sacrificed and the innocent spared.
  4. In the other, the innocent was sacrificed and the guilty spared. (“For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” 1 Peter 3:18).
Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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